Book Review: John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress

John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress
as retold by Gary D. Schmidt

My rating: 2 / 5
Genre: Christian allegory

I have long felt that I should read The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. I even started to once, but only made it a page before putting it down. So when I found this retelling, putting the story into contemporary language, I knew it was my chance to at least see what the book was all about. So understand going into my review that this is in no way a comparison of this retelling to the original. And my comments are specific to this version, because I can’t say what might be different from the original. With that being said, I do think that some of what I didn’t like about this story would extend back to the original source.

After I finished reading this, as I tried to analyze what I’d read and did some research to understand others’ views on the allegory, I flashed right back to high school. After reading The Great Gatsby, I wrote that I didn’t understand why my teacher would have us read a book that so glorified the drinking and partying in the book. She wrote back about her disappointment that I thought she’d promote those things, and that perhaps I didn’t really understand the book. That it’s the type of book one might have to read multiple times to grasp. That’s kind of how I feel about this book.

My first apparent misunderstanding is that it seemed to me that Christian had to essentially earn his salvation. He struggled with his burden on the way to the cross, after coming to an understanding that he had this burden and needed external help to release it. Others say that he was actually saved when entering through the gate that started this journey, and releasing his burden at the cross was simply an illustration about how we don’t often let go of our guilt upon salvation and have to still come to that understanding that Jesus wants to relieve us of that guilt. However, it was at the cross, after losing his burden, that Christian was handed the Roll, which seemed to be needed in order to enter the Celestial City. I took this as a symbol of his salvation, but then, when he was audacious enough to rest a little too long, he lost the Roll and later had to go back and look for it.

I won’t go into any other details, but for whatever this book might mean to some people, at least the people who “get it,” to me it looks like a book that could send the wrong message to new Christians or curious unbelievers, especially those who, like me, aren’t so great at understanding allegory. From start to finish, it makes me feel like a Christian walk is nothing but trial and tribulation. Constant struggling to stay on the right path, to stay good. Yes, some of that is true to a degree, because it can feel like a constant struggle to avoid temptation to sin, but where’s the other side? Why do we not see much of the joy and peace that can come, in this life, from following Christ? For that matter, why is God so completely absent until Christian reaches the Celestial City? If I were to write an allegory about a Christian journey, it would include God interacting with the pilgrim in a much more tangible way (or at all…).

I seem to be pretty hit-or-miss in my enjoyment of much-loved older books and classics, and this is another for my pile of misses. I’m glad I read it, though. Originally I thought it might end up being a stepping stone to going on and reading the original. I’ve decided to leave it right here, at this simplified version, and just be one of the few who’ve never read the original.

Find out more about this Pilgrim’s Progress retelling and its source material, The Pilgrim’s Progress

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Book Review: From This Moment

From This Moment
by Kim Vogel Sawyer

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Christian fiction

Jase is a new youth minister at a small church in an even smaller town in Kansas. Recently moved from San Antonio after his fiancee died, he’s struggling with anger and doubt in his Christian walk. Kenzie is ten years removed from her Amish heritage, leaving the community when she learned how the grace of Christ could free her from the rules and regulations of her family’s religion. She’s been thinking more and more about her family, though, and the darkness they’re still lost in. Lori is a young woman who was emotionally and verbally abused by her father as a teenager. She uses food as a coping mechanism when she feels lonely or inadequate, despite knowing that it’s pointless and wishing she could stop. Jase, Kenzie, and Lori are each searching for answers from God, and when Jase moves to Kansas, he’s welcomed into the friendship that Kenzi and Lori already have. With each other’s help, the three just might find their answers.

Through the first half of this book, I didn’t really understand what it was meant to be about. Part of that is because the official synopsis is atrociously inaccurate and misleading. But it’s also because it really took a while for things to get going. And actually, in the end, it turns out the book really was about what I saw in that first half– these characters each struggling with their doubts, uncertainties, and questions about God and their faith. There were parts of the story that I liked, that I thought came together well in the end, and parts that fell flat for me, or that I questioned why they were included. Overall, it was a decent read, but not a stand-out for me.

The storyline I related to the most was Lori’s over-indulging in times of extreme emotion, good or bad. I haven’t had an abusive past like hers, but over-indulgence is an issue I have struggled with in the past, though not to the degree that she does it. I really liked the way Kenzie’s story shaped up too, after wondering what it had to do with anything for a while near the beginning. Jase’s storyline is the one that I was least connected to, partly because I’ve not experienced loss like that, but also partly because the decisions he made really bugged me. There is a 4th perspective in this story too, which I felt was wholly unnecessary. I couldn’t help but compare it to the previous book I read by this author, which also included 4 perspectives. But where it worked in that one, it just seemed pointless in this one. I’m not sure what the pastor’s perspective added, nor did I feel like it was particularly resolved.

If there was one cohesive lesson this story seemed to bring out, it was the benefit of allowing others to share your burdens. Each of these four people was originally struggling alone and seemed to only see a turning point when they opened up to a fellow Christian about their trouble. Actually, that’s not really true for one of them (I won’t say who), but perhaps it’s just that I wished he/she had let others help him/her along the way. And on a related note, Kenzie really drove me crazy at some points. How can you say “God will provide” and then refuse all of God’s ways of providing? If a really specific incident hadn’t happened, she absolutely would have stayed in the same place, spinning her wheels, still waiting and hoping for God’s providence. (You ever heard the one about the guy sitting on the roof of his flooded house, refusing to get in the boat or helicopter because he knew God would save him? Yeah, she’s kind of like that.)

So in the end, this is not a book I would choose to read again. However, I think that my issues with it will likely not be shared by most others. If you are looking for a Christian book where romance isn’t the main plot and where the author ties multiple storylines together into one story where God’s hand can be seen, this might be a good book for you.

Thank you to Netgalley and WaterBrook & Multnomah for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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Book Review: The Secret of The Desert Stone

The Secret of The Desert Stone
The Cooper Kids Adventure Series book #5
by Frank Peretti
read by the author

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Children’s Christian adventure

Dr. Cooper is summoned to a country in Africa to investigate a giant stone that appeared overnight, separating the country’s new dictator and his army from other parts of the population. The stone is miles high and wide, so the big question is, who put it there? When Dr. Cooper and his teenage kids, Jay and Lila, end up stranded on the other side of the stone, will the locals be welcoming or try to harm them? Will they discover the secret of the stone before the dictator loses his patience with them?

This installment of the series didn’t have quite the excitement of previous books, but it still had its moments. I think the best thing about the story is that it sort of brings Romans 1:20 to life. (“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”) I may have already said too much, in regards to avoiding spoilers, but I really appreciated the simple faith and thirst for more understanding about God exhibited by “primitive” people in the story.

I think one of the things that bothers readers most about these books is the unrealistic nature of things that happen. I like that Peretti isn’t afraid to explore what could happen, even while we know things like this don’t really happen much in modern times. Still, he paints an interesting and entertaining picture.

One final note–I listened to the audiobook specifically so that I could hear it read by the author. I love how he did roles like Mr. Henry and even his small role in the movie Hangman’s Curse, and I figured the book would be that much better in his own voice. It did not disappoint! I will most likely listen to the rest of the series this way too.

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Book Review: Trapped at the Bottom of the Sea

Trapped at the Bottom of the Sea
The Cooper Kids Adventure Series book #4
by Frank Peretti

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

Frustrated by her father’s lack of willingness to discuss her late mother, teenager Lila insists on leaving Japan, where Dr. Cooper is teaching about his work, and going back to the States. But on the way, her plane is hijacked and crashes over the ocean. While she is trapped at the bottom of the sea in an air-tight weapons pod, Lila’s dad and brother try to find her before it’s too late.

This book was quite a departure from what the series has been up to this point. Instead of uncovering secrets in Dr. Cooper’s capacity as biblical archaeologist, it’s more a straight race against time to find and save Lila. I liked it, though, maybe more than the one before it that had been my favorite so far. I liked the adventure and excitement, the ways that Lila tried to keep herself from panicking in the pod and tried to save herself, and the descriptions of the tiny islands in the South Pacific.

Though the heavier supernatural elements that came about in the previous books weren’t here so much, it was still clear God was involved in the story from start to finish. This book has led me to realize that the series is basically a modern-day parallel to certain biblical accounts and truths. It’s as if Peretti started each of these books by asking himself, “How would these certain verses of the Bible look if they happened today?” This one, for example, has shades of the story of Jonah (not subtly so either). It’s a solid addition to this middle-grade series.

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Book Review: The Orchard House

The Orchard House
by Heidi Chiavaroli

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Christian drama

After a difficult childhood, Taylor is adopted by her best friend’s parents. But sisterhood is not all it’s cracked up to be, and Taylor ends up leaving home at 21 with the determination to never see her family again. However, when informed 18 years later that her adopted mother is going through treatment for cancer, she returns home. But what starts as a brief visit turns into something more as old wounds are re-opened and this make-shift family struggles to make sense of present struggles. That’s when Taylor and her sister stumble across a story that captivates them and helps distract from real life. In the 1860s, the death of a soldier sparked a friendship between the soldier’s sister, Johanna, and Little Women author Louisa May Alcott. This friendship, and the life and marriage of Johanna, were hidden away for 150 years, to be discovered by Taylor and Victoria just when the story could most affect their lives.

I spent the first half of this book uncertain about a lot of it. Two different storylines had to be established–both the past and the present–and the present one covered several years in a few chapters. Even when the story slowed down and started unfolding in the present day, I struggled to get into it. Taylor’s adolescence had turned her into a confused, broken woman, and she essentially second-guessed her decisions, thoughts, emotions, and reactions every step of the way. And I questioned often what the past storyline had to do with the present one. It was a slow build, to be sure. It did pick up in the second half, but for a while, all I could think about was how terrible each of the characters seemed to be, in one way or the other.

The main thing that I really liked about the story was the way the Christian message was presented. While some reviewers found it “too religious,” I spent at least half the book wondering how on earth this had been labeled as Christian. But the slow build I mentioned earlier can also be applied to the way the main characters learned to first believe in and then trust in Someone bigger than themselves. Though in the end, I felt the “conversions” and overall Christian message were a little light, I still liked the way they shaped up.

There were some things in the book that confused me, and I re-read some passages more than once trying to understand. As an example, Louisa was said to have 2 sisters, but over the course of time 3 were mentioned–Anna, Nan, and Amy. However, Anna and Nan were the same person, and while the author did seem to realize we needed that explanation (I certainly did), it didn’t come until after the sister was referred to by both names at least once. There are other things that confused me too, but fortunately there was less of this in the second half too.

I think that people who love Louisa May Alcott’s books, or at least have read one or more of them, might enjoy this book. Though Louisa herself is only a small part of the story, her books and lasting effect on future fans are prevalent themes. I’ll admit to having a different view of a particular aspect of Little Women than the author (or at least than the main character), but as fiction, it’s certainly open to interpretation. If you’re looking for a light Christian read, this is not it. It’s full of drama and covers some dark topics such as abandonment, abuse (both physical and emotional), and betrayal. If you like time-split novels and stories about finding “home” or families trying to piece themselves back together, you might enjoy this book.

Thank you to Netgalley and Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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Book Review: When Twilight Breaks

When Twilight Breaks
by Sarah Sundin

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Christian historical romance

Americans living in Germany in the late 1930s had front-row seats as the country sped toward war. Evelyn Brand is a foreign war correspondent living in Munich, her hands tied as a woman in a man’s world. Or maybe there’s more than just her gender causing her boss to edit her stories to death. Peter Lang is a graduate student working on his dissertation and teaching American students how to speak the German language more fluently. He sees the benefits of the current German regime, as he values the order it brings to a country once chaotic and destitute. But he soon learns the price that this order demands.

I really wanted to give this book 5 stars while I was reading it. For the story alone, it’s worth 5–the characters are engaging, the romance well-done, and the suspense is pulse-pounding. I sped through the book compared to my normal speed, wanting to see what the outcome would be. And the ending did not disappoint, wrapping up all storylines satisfactorily. But I had a few issues while reading it, and I felt they were worth a point detraction and that others should know about some of them.

The book made me a little uncomfortable or caused me to blush a few times in the second half with descriptions of physical or visual contact between the main characters. Nothing graphic by normal standards, really just skirting the line of what I am okay with in a Christian book, but I think there are some who would prefer to be aware of this in advance. The romance was overall well done and while certainly a big part of the story, not so in-your-face like most with the tag of romance. I liked it, but it was just a little descriptive here and there.

There were a few issues with perspective–in a book like this that has established the alternating perspectives between two characters, only changing when there is a scene or chapter break, a couple of times the perspective changed from one to the other mid-scene, which was jarring. Also, characters were speaking German, while we were reading it in English, yet the author continually sprinkled German phrases into the dialog. They were never more than I could understand from my years of German in high school and a little in college (except a few times that were also basically translated for us), but they were unnecessary given the context. Maybe they were just supposed to remind us that the characters were speaking German without having to constantly state it in the narration, but I personally would have preferred the simple reminder now and then.

Back to the positives, because I so loved the characters and story, I found Peter’s starting viewpoint about the Nazi regime enlightening, as it shows how it’s possible for intelligent, moral people to be pulled in by a bad ideology. His history, both personal and as it relates to Germany, as well as his position in the country at this time, allow him to see the positives…at least for a while. I also loved some of the side characters, the way the Americans’ lives overlapped with the Germans’, and the fact that the bad guys weren’t only the Germans.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Even with the few issues that I noted, I kept coming back to it in the last half, unable to put it down more than necessary. I’d previously read the Sunrise at Normandy trilogy by Sarah Sundin and loved it, so I’d say Sundin is effectively on my instant-read list. I definitely recommend this book to anyone who likes historical fiction from this time period in the Christian romance genre.

Thank you to Netgalley and Revell for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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Book Review: The Haunting at Bonaventure Circus

The Haunting at Bonaventure Circus
by Jaime Jo Wright

My rating: 2 / 5
Genre: Historical suspense

Pippa, 1928 – Daughter of circus workers, abandoned and raised by the owner’s family, Pippa is now considered “circus royalty,” above the grit and grime of the circus, yet still feels like she belongs down in the community. Pippa has felt a presence nearby all of her life, watching her, protecting her, calling to her. When The Watchman, as she calls him, begins to step out of the shadows, Pippa will have to decide who to trust.
Chandler, present day – Niece of the new owner of the old circus train depot, Chandler is tasked with determining if the building is a candidate for renovation or if it should simply be demolished.
When the ghosts of the circus’s dark and foreboding past threaten Chandler in the present, she finds herself digging into the story of a serial killer who preyed on the circus in the past. But even in the present day, there’s a very real danger that leads Chandler to be uncertain of who she can turn to.

I had a very difficult time reviewing this book. The idea of an old-fashioned circus as the setting/backdrop, solving a bit of a mystery in the past that connects to the present, it all sounded really intriguing. And though the title certainly doesn’t scream Christian fiction, it’s billed as such. However, there is so much about this book that I struggled with, and in the end, I just don’t understand how it was released like this. I’m going to try to sort out my thoughts in sections below, to at least attempt to keep this review coherent.

Story – The past storyline on its own was decent, if a little muddled. The question of who The Watchman was and what he wanted from Pippa definitely kept me going throughout the book. There was not nearly as much exploration of circus life as I expected, as much of the story takes place in Pippa’s family’s house or in the elephant house, where Pippa is helping to care for an injured baby elephant. But that story on its own was pretty good, from beginning to end.

However, I found the present-day storyline completely pointless. I thought that, as the reader, some of the answers of the past mystery wouldn’t be revealed there in the past, but would come to light when discoveries were made almost 100 years later. I was wrong. It was basically an entire story in itself, with the past storyline a somewhat unnecessary background. And I didn’t like the present-day storyline at all. Seriously, Chandler just needed to put surveillance cameras in the buildings and that would’ve solved an awful lot of her trouble.

Characters – There’s an interesting dynamic between the two main characters. Chandler is fiercely independent, and Pippa is fiercely subordinate to all of the men in her life, even the one in the shadows, obeying his every secretive whim. And this is something the book did mostly well with, as both of these women found their way to a more neutral stance, allowing themselves to breathe a bit and have a bit more freedom. Overall, though, Chandler just drove me crazy. She had some issues that weren’t necessarily unrealistic, but man was she hard to like. In some ways, I felt like the only reason the author included her part of the story at all was so that she could create Chandler, who was perhaps a reflection of the author herself.

One glaring coincidence that I’m surprised more people aren’t bothered by is that both storylines have practically the exact same male romantic interest. They were both large, well-muscled, gruff, brooding men with long hair/beard, and even had the same basic goal driving them. Their names were even similar (Jake & Hank). The author even set up a really easy explanation for this coincidence, but then quickly shoved it aside and let it be just that–pure coincidence.

Writing – I don’t know who edited this book, but it needed a little more work. There were some strange inconsistencies here and there. For example, right from the first chapter, I got the feeling that Pippa was already accepted within the circus and its workers. It mentioned her dear friends in the circus, even listed them by name. Then we proceed through the story to find that most of these people she barely knows. Barely has met. Some of them barely acknowledge her or don’t like her (she’s “above” them, after all). If this was simply meant to show us that Pippa is delusional, imagining these people as her friends because she’s lonely, that never came across to me. Instead, I found myself wondering if the story was written out of order.

Additionally, Linda Pike is said to have disappeared when she was 12. Then later it says she went missing at 18. And I noticed an observation that Pippa made about Jake regarding how good he looked smoking a cigar that was then repeated, almost word-for-word, a few chapters later. There are others, and these aren’t tiny typos, but fairly noticeable mistakes, so many that it took me out of the story quite a bit.

Genre – Now for the thing that bothered me the most throughout the book. It’s listed as Christian fiction, and I’m not sure who decided that was a good idea. I get that for Christian authors, it can be difficult to find a good middle ground sometimes. You don’t necessarily always want to write a book where there’s a solid Christian message, but if you include any Christian talk, it’s deemed too religious to be secular. But wow, the characters were so incredibly confused about their own faith that it could easily leave a reader confused too. I think that if you’re going to write a book where there’s a hint that ghosts and hauntings might be real, and call it Christian, you should definitely come down on one side or the other about whether or not it was a real haunting. At least that way Christians who read the book can agree or disagree. But the “supernatural” events in the present day were really never explained, more just “hand-waved” away at the end. I was left feeling incredibly unsettled (not because it spooked me, but because it was so unpleasant), and I don’t think I’ll read another book by this author.

I don’t read only Christian books, and I don’t necessarily expect every book by a Christian author or in the Christian genre to have a solid Christian lesson or message. But to call it Christian and have one of your main characters this confused over what the Bible even says about what’s going on, or whether or not she should let a psychic contact the spirit world on her behalf, because maybe the psychic was sent by God and Chandler was wasting the opportunity because of a Sunday school lesson (wow!)…to me, this is not a good message anyone should be reading.

Thank you to Netgalley and Bethany House for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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Book Review: A Noble Masquerade

A Noble Masquerade
Hawthorne House #1
by Erica Vetsch

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Historical Christian romance

Lady Miranda Hawthorne has never appreciated the “lady lessons” her mother has forced upon her since childhood. She copes with these frustrations by journaling in the guise of letters written to her elder brother’s school chum, a man whose antics, as told by her brother, make her think he’d be of a similar mind to her. She never mails the letters, keeping them locked up in a trunk. But when her brother’s new valet accidentally mails one and Miranda receives a reply from the Duke of Marshington, it sets off an unlikely, if tenuous, friendship. There’s just one problem–no one has seen the duke in 9 years…but on the other hand, maybe he’s actually right there at Hawthorne House.

So for the first half of this book, things were good. Maybe not 5-star good, but still good. Though Ryland (the duke) is a little manipulative, it really did start out innocent, and I think his motivations were sincere, if a bit flawed. But then around the halfway point, things went downhill for me. Miranda goes a bit batty, scenes are really confusing and plodding, and the whole angle of the duke as a spy is sort of shoved in the background, while also sort of being a big part of what’s happening.

Miranda, who is described in the synopsis as acting “every inch the lady” is never really shown to be acting like a lady. She’s always bucking against that role, barely able to keep her mother from chastising her, or doing whatever she wants when her mother isn’t there. But in the second half of the book, she throws all pretenses of being a lady out the window, threatening or attacking men in anger, sneaking out of the house to visit an unmarried man, and a host of bad decisions that only seem to be okay because they’re helping her to go against her mother’s lessons. I didn’t have an issue with her internal struggle with the slot she’s being forced into, but it did get a little ridiculous in that second half.

There is a purportedly tense game of whist played at one point that was just a long, confusing, pointless scene for me, because apparently a lot of unspoken communication hinges on the way the game is played, and…well, how many of us modern people know anything about the game of whist? Then Miranda’s family rehashes the game on the ride home and boy is Miranda’s brother shocked…but I have no idea why, nor what the implications are. Less time should have been spent on that and other less plot-driving endeavors, and more time on showing us both of the MCs’ anxieties about their places in life. Because they each had realizations near the end about how their life is better than they think it is or something, but both of these anxieties were not particularly founded in the earlier parts of the book.

The romance was clearly the driving force of the plot, which is certainly allowed in a romance story, but I prefer those where the rest of the plot, even without the culmination of the romance, stands on its own as a good story. This isn’t one of those. In fact, in the end, I’m not even completely certain if the suggested head “bad guy” was actually a bad guy, because that whole storyline was left behind in the build up to the climax, which, no, wasn’t even from the main plot.

This is the 2nd Regency romance I’ve read in less than a month where the male MC is a duke who is also a spy for England. I really liked the angle of the letters that Miranda had never meant to send being the catalyst to a relationship. Again, I liked the first half or so, though the more I think about it, the more I wish Ryland had been more sensitive to Miranda’s trust issues instead of using them against her. But back to the letters, I did love the culmination of that plot thread in the epilogue, though I won’t explain more due to spoilers. I just wish the rest of the book had held up to the good parts. It’s definitely not high on my list of favorite Regency romances, and I likely won’t read it again. I did like the novella that starts off this series, and the male MC in the next book intrigued me in this one, so I plan to go on to book #2 and see how that one goes.

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Book Review: All Through the Night

All Through the Night
by Tara Johnson

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Christian historical romance

When war between the states breaks out, Cadence Piper wants to help in some way, thereby also helping her family regain some of the honor brought on by her brother who ran away after their mother died. But she’s not allowed to be a nurse, because she’s young, pretty, and unmarried. Her beautiful voice, though, opens doors when the wounded soldiers begin to ask for her songs. In the hospital, she meets Dr. Joshua Ivy, a surgeon, who knows Cadence doesn’t belong there and kicks her out. But when Cadence stumbles onto his clandestine activities, the two eventually become linked in ways neither would have wanted or expected.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. I had some ups and downs, especially as the story went on for a little while. But I did like the characters and several of the different plots presented. Both Cadence and Joshua were quite spirited, and it definitely caused some issues. But it also has a lot to do with how they got into the situations they got into. I liked the time period and the realism involved in Joshua’s work with the soldiers (heartbreaking, but real), as well as his “other” work.

Most of what bothered me about the book came in the second half or later. I think the story has a little too much packed into it, and that with some trimming, it might have been a 5-star read for me. Don’t get me wrong, 4 stars is still great! Still, there is one arc that never goes anywhere, and another arc that is resolved far too easily for my taste. Both of these probably could have been cut out. There are also a few things that happen that really bug me and make characters seem incompetent or insensitive, when they aren’t otherwise shown to be that way, but I can’t go into detail due to spoilers.

I did like the cameo by Fanny Crosby, which made this Psalty-loving girl really happy. In the end, I liked the book quite a bit, and I would recommend it to fans of Christian historical romance.

Thank you to Netgalley and Tyndale House Publishers for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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Publication date: January 5, 2020

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Book Review: Joy to the World

Joy to the World
by Carolyn Miller, Amanda Barratt, & Erica Vetsch

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Christmas-themed short stories, Christian historical romance

Joy to the World contains three novellas from three different authors, each in the genre of Regency romance, perfect for the Christmas season. My overall rating for the book is an average of my ratings for each story, shown below. Below the ratings are brief (as much as possible) reviews for each story.

“Heaven and Nature Sing” by Carolyn Miller2 / 5
“Far as the Curse Is Found” by Amanda Barratt5 / 5
“Wonders of His Love” by Erica Vetsch5 / 5

“Heaven and Nature Sing” is the tale of 2 people who were close to engagement a year past, but are now estranged and are thrust together during the holidays, which certainly allows for a romance to develop in a short time period. There’s history there. But strangely, the only way the author seemed to be able to inject romance was related to kissing. Everything was about finding ways to put them under a kissing ball (mistletoe) or thrust them into some other awkward situation with physical closeness, before they’d even had a chance to try to work out their issues from the past.

Other things happened that made me dislike the characters or made me scratch my head, like Edith (female lead) allowing the other young adults to set George (male lead) up to mock propose to her, and then Edith actually blaming George for the situation! She also spends at least half of the story thinking about George and then mentally berating herself for doing that…and then she gets angry at him for saving her from a falling tree branch. I also noted a bit of dialog in which George asks Edith if she wants him to “kiss it better” in a story filled with flowery, old-fashioned language both in the dialog and surrounding it. Sadly, this story did not go over well with me. 

“Far as the Curse is Found” is the tale of two very broken people, albeit in different ways, who help each other out of the darkness. The connection between them is fast, but not in an unbelievable way. I think that Jenny’s background and brokenness are dealt with less than Dwight’s, and if the story had been longer, I would have liked to see more of how she had to overcome the trauma she’d gone through. It’s not treated frivolously, though, and she’s shown to be a strong character throughout.

Dwight undergoes the largest transformation, and I really like him every step of the way. Again, things may be a bit too quick, but it was explored well in the space the author had. The curse angle is a really nice glue for the story and ties into the story’s title and the book’s theme very well. Other reviewers have compared this story to Beauty and the Beast, which I can’t comment on, never having seen any version of it, but I can see some possible allusions. That aside, in case it’s not obvious, I loved this story! 

“Wonders of His Love” is the tale of a Scottish portrait painter trying to make a name for himself in England and the picture-perfect young widow that feels as displaced as he does. Cilla had married the future Duke of Haverly, who then died before he inherited the title. She’s left in limbo, having practically become a servant to her very demanding and prissy mother-in-law. She reminds me a lot of me–defaulting to a spot in the background, wondering if this will be her entire life. Even when she starts to make strides forward, she still falls back on old, “easy” habits. If the story had been novel-length, there would have been a lot more room to explore that, I think, but on the other hand, it might have started to get tiring, too.

Hamish is a different kind of character than I’ve read in this genre in the past (not that I have a very long history reading Regency romance), and I really liked that. I liked him in a lot of different ways, including the fact that the author didn’t dwell so much on him being tall and ridiculously handsome as every romantic hero seems to be. His talent and compulsion for sketching scenes, coupled with his ability to bring out the truth of  a subject, were all really interesting facets to his character. That’s a lot of why I would have loved to see a particular sketch Hamish had made come to fruition, and I’m not sure if the author simply ran out of space or forgot about it.

This third story was my favorite of the three by a very slim margin. I’ll admit right now, though, that what pushed it over the top was most likely the inclusion of characters from two of Erica Vetsch’s other novels. As soon as I realized who the female lead in this story was, I was so excited. And sure enough, both the Haverlys from The Gentleman Spy and the Whitelocks from The Lost Lieutenant were in the story (the Haverlys moreso, which makes sense, given that Cilla is the duke’s sister-in-law). Both of these books I read just recently and loved, but if you haven’t read them, don’t let that put you off from reading this story. You don’t need to know their stories to still follow and enjoy this novella.

Final thoughts on the whole book: Overall, it’s a wonderful collection of Christmas-related Regency romance stories. I do think plenty of others will like the first story, based on large differences in personal preferences, and I recommend the entire book to fans of the genres mentioned above, or even those looking for good Christian romance in general. I have a feeling I’ll re-read this during a future Christmas season and will even give the first story another chance.

Thank you to Netgalley and Kregel Publications for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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