Book Review: The Reptile Room

The Reptile Room
A Series of Unfortunate Events #2
by Lemony Snicket
read by Tim Curry

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Children’s fiction

The three Baudelaire orphans have been set up with a new guardian, Uncle Monty. He’s interesting, fun, and kind, and the kids are looking forward to going to Peru with him to study reptiles. But oh, this is a Lemony Snicket book, so we’re informed up front that their happiness won’t last. And indeed, it doesn’t.

I suppose I liked this book a little more than the previous. Even though I knew from early on that Uncle Monty wouldn’t signal the beginning of a happy life, I was still glad for the kids that they got a little bit of time with him. I think Count Olaf’s attempt at getting at their money was a lot more half-baked this time, but on the other hand, the way the kids got out of his snare was a little more clever this time. I did enjoy the “friendship” between Sunny and the Incredibly Deadly Viper, and even thought it was pretty great that she…oh, I guess that would be a spoiler.

But just like with the previous book, the highlight of the whole thing, for me, was that it was read by Tim Curry. One whole star of my rating is based on that, because that’s how much I love listening to his voice. We’ll see how it goes from here on.

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Book Review: The Bad Beginning

The Bad Beginning
A Series of Unfortunate Events #1
by Lemony Snicket
read by Tim Curry

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Children’s fiction

When the Baudelaire children are orphaned and sent to live with a very odd relative they’ve never heard of, their misfortune is only beginning. Their new guardian, Count Olaf, has designs on the fortune their parents left behind, and will stop at nothing to get his hands on it.

I’ve never read any of these books, nor have I seen any of the adaptations. It always seemed a little dark and strange for my tastes. And I would have continued in ignorance without any qualms had I not discovered that Tim Curry narrated the audiobooks for the series. I love Tim Curry, and I especially love his voice. And yes, he brought my rating up an entire star all by himself. Because overall, the book was only okay, maybe even less than okay. I wasn’t even entirely sure what genre (other than children’s fiction) to put this in, because it seems like it’s supposed to be funny, but I didn’t find it all that humorous. And I guess there’s supposed to be a mystery, and I was actually looking forward to seeing what clever way the kids got out of Count Olaf’s snare, only for it to be a really simple, boring solution. Really, it was a little dark for children’s fiction, and Count Olaf’s and his friends were ridiculously and unnecessarily over-the-top mean.

I did like the way the kids stuck together and didn’t give up when things were bleak. I didn’t even mind the way the narrator inserted definitions for some possibly difficult words for kids, though to be honest, I don’t know that it wouldn’t have annoyed me if it wasn’t Tim Curry giving me those definitions. I’ve seen some reviews that say it gets better after the first book, so for Tim Curry’s sake, I’ll keep going for now.

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Book Review: Mayday at Two Thousand Five Hundred

Mayday at Two Thousand Five Hundred
The Cooper Kids Adventure Series book #8
by Frank Peretti
read by the author

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Children’s Christian suspense

While enjoying a ride in his Uncle Rex’s small aircraft, a near-miss in the air leads to injury for both Jay Cooper and his uncle. Uncle Rex is knocked unconscious, and a head injury leaves Jay without sight. The plane is still flying, but with no pilot and a dwindling supply of fuel, how long will it stay aloft? And will they be able to land safely?

Like book #4 in the series (Trapped at the Bottom of the Sea), this book involved no archaeology or supernatural elements—this one didn’t even have any kind of mystery—and was simply a race against time to save one of the Cooper kids from catastrophe. This book was also quite suspenseful, as Jay had to learn not to rely on what he felt and instead rely on what he was being told by those who were more knowledgeable than he, and more importantly, had more information. While typing that last sentence, I literally just realized the parallel to our lives in that situation. Sometimes sensations Jay felt made him think the plane was turning a lot more than it was, and he couldn’t see to verify those feelings. Various other people at different times were outside of the aircraft, could see more clearly what it was doing, and relayed that information to Jay. He had to trust them to be correct, in order to help save his own life, rather than rely on instincts and feelings. What a parallel to how we live our lives paying attention to our own instincts and feelings, when we are much better off relying on God, who knows infinitely more than we do and knows what’s best for our lives (and the lives of those around us)! And indeed, the biblical theme of trusting God, even to the point of submitting to Him if He chooses not to save one’s life, is strong in the story.

I really liked how immersive the story is, in regards to those flying the planes, the air traffic controllers, and other related things. In a way, it seems like Jay does very little, other than follow instructions from others, but I think his mental struggle and what he does from inside the plane while unable to see were still a good part of the story. I might have liked something a little more closely related to the overall theme of the series as the final book, but it was a good book on its own. I’m really glad I listened to the audiobooks read by Peretti himself for the 2nd half of the series—he certainly adds drama and excitement in his reading. This book, and the overall series, are good for the age group (pre-teen through teens).

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Book Review: Emily of New Moon

Emily of New Moon
Book #1
by L.M. Montgomery
read by Susan O’Malley

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Children’s classic, coming of age

When Emily’s only remaining parent, the father she is very close to, dies, she is taken in by 2 aunts on her mother’s side. Aunt Elizabeth doesn’t really want her and only takes her because the lot fell to her. Aunt Laura is at least kind to Emily, but overall, her mother’s side of the family are proud, snobby people who strongly disliked Emily’s father and disdain their niece. Emily’s new classmates also treat her badly because of her proud family. Emily learns to cope with her difficulties by writing to her late father, pouring out her sadness and frustrations.

After reading the Anne of Green Gables books by the same author, this book is considerably darker, sadder, even somewhat depressing. For all the times I was surprised to see how terribly some of the people of this time period acted, especially older women, in the Anne books, a few of the characters in this book made my jaw drop. There is some charm to the story, and Emily herself is quite deep and introspective. She also can be brash and quick-tempered. I liked the way she was able to get past certain injustices or clashes with other people by simply writing about them. Though she bordered on mean when she described people in her writing at times.

There are some bright spots in her life–friends she made, for instance. I think Perry was my favorite, because though he is uncouth, he is also super kind and protective of Emily, who, frankly, could use a protector. He may have taken it a step too far now and then, but that seems to describe a lot of the characters in this book. One thing I really liked was that Emily was so terribly upset over what she was told Ilse’s mother had done, considering that that kind of thing seems so commonplace now. I’d love to go back to a time when it’s seen as a terrible, even unlikely thing. The outcome to that story arc, though, was…bizarre, is all I can really say.

I kind of get the feeling that I might like this series more as it goes, which would be completely the opposite of the Anne series, where I started to like each book less after the first one. However, I’m not completely sure if I’ll continue the series.

Extra note for the audiobook version I listened to: Overall she made the main voices distinct enough from each other, but there were times when she read the letters Emily wrote to her father where she would simply neglect to put any real emotion or inflection into parts. It could have been better.

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Book Review: Refugees on the Run

Refugees on the Run
The Imagination Station #27
by Chris Brack & Sheila Seifert

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Historical children’s fiction, Christian

In this final of a 3-part story arc, cousins Beth and Patrick find themselves in Lithuania sometime in the mid 1940s. A crowd of Jewish families are trying to get into the Japanese consulate building, in the hopes that they can find the means of escaping from the approaching Nazis. Beth and Patrick find themselves in the middle of the battle, as Beth tries to help a Lithuanian Jewish family and Patrick does his best to assist the Japanese consul.

I really enjoyed this story and the way it presents a difficult time in history to kids in a way that doesn’t completely gloss over the danger, but doesn’t go into detail either. I really appreciated that it introduced me, and thus will introduce kids, to a man who helped rescue many Jews, but isn’t nearly as well-known as others. It’s incredibly coincidental that I read this directly after reading Schindler’s List (seriously, it was not on purpose) and really liked seeing the parallels there.

I didn’t know much about this book or the series it’s part of when I started reading. I also hadn’t read the previous 2 books in the in-series arc, but the beginning of the story did a good job of telling me what I needed to know (which wasn’t much). The slight mystery/puzzle angle to the story, that the kids were trying to find some kind of liquid needed by the Imagination Station, allowed another layer to be added to the story. And though a couple of times throughout the story I thought about how unrealistic certain things would have been, especially the inclusion of children in consulate matters, it’s not too hard to remind myself that Imagination Station adventures are meant to put kids right into the middle of things, and these are programmed virtual adventures, not a real trip back in time. (I have enough experience with Adventures in Odyssey overall to be familiar with the Imagination Station.)

I do recommend this book for kids up to 12 years old, but AiO overall is fairly timeless, so the age limit is a soft one. I already have recommended it to my 11-year-old daughter, who has decided to start at the beginning of the series. As for me, I was left with a strong desire to read the earlier 2 books in this 3-story arc and then eventually will probably go back to the beginning of the series too.

Thank you to Netgalley and Tyndale House Publishers/Focus on the Family for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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Publication date: June 8, 2021

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Book Review: The Legend of Annie Murphy

The Legend of Annie Murphy
The Cooper Kids Adventure Series book #7
by Frank Peretti
read by the author

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Children’s Christian adventure, mystery (with some sci-fi)

When investigating tales of a ghost sighting, the Cooper family–dad Jacob and teens Jay and Lila–find themselves caught up in a mystery 100 years in the making. A woman who’d been accused of killing her husband out of greed 100 years in the past was killed while escaping her punishment, and now her ghost is being seen around the ruins of the long-abandoned town.

I spent the first third or so of this book completely flabbergasted. The beginning of the story was such a departure from the previous books in the series, I was certain it was going to turn out that something else was going on. But when it became clear that Jacob’s friend Mac’s theory about a gravity vortex causing time and space to go wonky was actually what was going on, I struggled to accept it and move on. Eventually, I reminded myself that it’s not necessarily against the theme of this series of books. Sometimes there’s not much suspension of disbelief to swallow, while other times, God-attributed supernatural events occur.

With that understanding in mind, I can view this book a little differently than I did while listening to a lot of it. The story, then, with the vehicle of time travel in place, becomes about solving the mystery of the legend, finding out what really happened 100 years ago. And that itself is a good story. The kids follow along as the story is told in the past, while their dad and his friend try to sort it out in the present time, and it’s interesting how it all plays out. I won’t say there isn’t some predictability to it, at least to an adult reader, but I think the age group its meant for won’t have read as many mysteries or seen as many TV shows or movies as adults have, making it more fresh for them. I again enjoyed listening to the audiobook and would say that, though it may seem outlandish at first, it’s a good story overall and worth reading if you’re interested.

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Book Review: Crocodile Meatloaf

Crocodile Meatloaf
Alex series books #12
by Nancy Simpson Levene

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Children, Christian

Alex meets the new girl in class, Rachel, who is deaf, and feels protective of her when the obnoxious boys torment her. Alex learns that God has a plan for her life and wonders if that plan could start now, even though she’s a kid, and if it might just be related to Rachel.

Though Alex is a little older now than in the books I remember from my childhood, she’s still learning about all that God has to offer, even to a kid. What I miss, though, from her younger days are the situations she’d get herself into as she tried to correct some kind of mistake she made. This book is more about external problems than internal ones, which doesn’t make it bad. Just different. I still like the way Alex tries her best to help or to fix things (whether her own mistakes or someone else’s). I’m not sure how realistic the turn-around is near the end, but overall, it’s a good book with solid lessons. If you have an opportunity to pick up any of the Alex series books, I recommend them. They’re short, quick reads that children will be able to connect to.

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Book Review: Sarah, Plain and Tall

Sarah, Plain and Tall
by Patricia MacLachlan

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Children’s classic

Anna and Caleb have had no mother for 6 years, as theirs died the day after Caleb was born. When their father decides to place an advertisement for a wife and mother, Sarah Wheaton answers it, coming from her home in Maine to visit the Whittings in Kansas to see if they’re a good fit.

I remember watching the movies with Christopher Walken and Glen Close when I was younger and liking them. I was surprised to see how short the book is, and I wondered how much depth it could really have. When my daughter read it recently and pushed me to read it too, so we could then watch the movie together, I was really glad I did. For being so short, it’s very charming and sweet. Because it’s so short, there is little in the way of character development, but I still felt like I got a good enough feel for them.

As the kids grew more and more attached to Sarah, Anna worried that she wouldn’t stay, and Caleb kept looking for clues that she would. I loved how he’d say things like, “Sarah said ‘later.’ That means she’ll stay.” The worry about her missing the sea too much to stay, and the culmination of that along with Caleb hoping she’d bring the sea with her from Maine, made for a great ending to the book. I loved it and look forward to reading the next book.

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Book Review: The Deadly Curse of Toco-Rey

The Deadly Curse of Toco-Rey
The Cooper Kids Adventure Series book #6
by Frank Peretti
read by the author

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Children’s Christian adventure

Dr. Cooper is asked to solve the mystery of some treasure hunters who disappeared in the jungles of Central America, and if he happens to find the treasure himself, all the better for those who brought him in. The stories of a curse on the treasure may seem ridiculous at first, but there’s no denying the fact that the treasure hunters who disappeared all have either died or gone crazy. Soon enough, Dr. Cooper and his two kids are in danger themselves and have precious little time to solve the mystery and save lives.

This book had a lot of excitement and even some moments that could be a little scary for kids (not in a bad way). All 3 of the members of the Cooper family are on their own at some point, and all 3 are in peril at some point, upping stakes from previous books. I like the pure reliance on God, turning so quickly to him for help in desperate situations. The curse and other aspects that went along with it were, in the end, an interesting concoction and pretty scary menace.

Though I didn’t quite enjoy this story as much as I did others in the series that I gave 4 stars, I still think it was a solid addition. I listened again to the audiobook, and I’ve decided that I love hearing Peretti read his own books. There are 2 books left in this series, and I’m looking forward to listening to both of them.

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Book Review: Mr. Lemoncello and the Titanium Ticket

Mr. Lemoncello and the Titanium Ticket
Mr. Lemoncello’s Library book #5
by Chris Grabenstein

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Children’s adventure

Mr. Lemoncello’s game-making factory is in Hudson Hills, NY, and recently a new, top-secret building was added to the grounds. Now it’s time for another game, for the first time taking place outside of Ohio, with competitors from Hudson Hills. The playing field is inside that new building, and the prize is a titanium ticket, one of multiple that will eventually be awarded. But the real prize, what the ticket gives its holder a chance at, is the biggest one yet!

Each book after the first in this series got a little less exciting for me. A little less interesting, a little less fresh. In this fifth book, all of the excitement from the first one came rushing back. It’s different and fun again. Not that some of the formula the series has developed isn’t there, but it feels new again. It helps a lot that we step away from the Ohio kids and meet some brand new ones. Kyle makes an appearance, but he’s just a side character. And the new MC, Simon, is different in a lot of ways.

There are several things that happen in the story that caused me to mentally cheer. I so wish I could expand on that at all, but I’ll just say that there were some great moments. I love the friendship that’s formed in the story and the way that whole thing turns out. And I really love how Simon’s personal story came to fruition.

The titanium ticket angle was a little predictable, and it’s a little frustrating to have another Charles Chiltington-type character, though this new one (Jack) is different in many ways too. I suppose some of that might just be the genre and intended age group. But those very minor issues aren’t even worth a partial-point detraction for me, and I am happy to highly recommend this book to kids around 8-12 years old, as well as others who are interested in this type of book. While I did feel the last few books in the series weren’t quite as good, I would suggest reading it all up to this point. And based on the ending, it’s clear that this series isn’t over yet.

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