Book Review: Remembering Christmas

Remembering Christmas
by Dan Walsh

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Christian, Christmas fiction

Rick Denton likes his life as a high-powered accountant, living how he wants, with very few responsibilities. But when his step-father, who he never much cared for, has a stroke on Thanksgiving weekend, his mother asks him to come to Florida and help out at the bookstore the couple own and run together. Rick agrees out of obligation, not expecting to stay more than a few days…which stretches on past what he expected. Rick isn’t sure he can handle much more of the people who frequent the store, and worse yet, they always seem to have great things to say about his step-father, who Rick always saw as an interloper. Is it possible there’s more going on here than he would have thought?

I kicked off my Christmas-season reading a little late this year, but this was a great book to start it off. The story was a little predictable, as Christmas stories tend to be (especially those that involve romance, which this one does), but it was still sweet. I teared up during a particularly emotional scene with Rick’s mom (Leanne) and step-dad (Art) at the hospital, because it reminded me of being in my dad’s hospital room after his heart attack, while we were waiting for them to be able to do surgery on him. And at other times, I couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like if I were in Leanne’s place, where my husband was the one in the bed. It was well written, with Leanne’s perspective showing what a loving, long-term relationship can look like.

By the end of the book, I had a few issues, the most glaring being the incredible amount of typos and grammatical errors. I can’t believe this book was ever published by a traditional publishing house, as it seems to need a lot of polishing. There was also one moment that made me cringe a little, and later, I was surprised that no one in the story seemed to feel that Rick was trying to buy some of the characters’ love. But those things aside, I enjoyed reading this book; it’s a sweet, warm Christmas read.

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Book Review: Shadows of Swanford Abbey

Shadows of Swanford Abbey
by Julie Klassen

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Historical Christian mystery, romance

Tasked by her brother to present his manuscript to a well-known author, Rebecca Lane takes a room in the monastery-turned-hotel Swanford Abbey, where the author is also staying. And so is Frederick Wilford, an older man Rebecca once had a huge crush on. When the famous writer is murdered, Frederick, as local magistrate, is determined to find the guilty party, even if the investigation shines a light on secrets Rebecca is hiding.

As a Regency-era romance, the story here is pretty good. As a mystery, it’s only okay. My biggest issue is that it takes quite a while to really get going; so much of the first half is spent describing the abbey, hinting at things from the past that affect the present (which we won’t know more about until much later), and setting up the mystery around the murder, which doesn’t even occur until over halfway through the book. I don’t mind a mystery taking so long to get started if I spend that time trying to figure out who the victim might end up being, along with who the murderer will be, but in this case, the synopsis tells us who the victim will be. All of this led the book to feel slow for a while.

I mostly liked the characters. Rebecca had her issues in the story, mostly stemming from the task her brother insists she help him with, but this seems to lead her to not care at all about the societal conventions of her time or about her reputation. That leaves Frederick to be the most understanding man ever. He ends up having to help her in a lot of different ways, more times than I might normally prefer in a story like this, but it didn’t bother me this time, I think because it didn’t seem as contrived as it could have.

I raised my eyebrows during part of a scene that seemed to be straight out of North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, and found out while reading the author’s note at the end of the book that I was correct. She also mentioned other classics that she took some direct inspiration from, though those others I either haven’t read or don’t know well enough to have recognized the way she used that inspiration. Overall, I enjoyed the book and the characters and recommend it to fans of historical romance. Fans of mystery books may like it, too, if they’re not bothered by what I described above.

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

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Book Review: Elinor

Elinor
by Shannon McNear

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Historical Christian fiction

Elinor Dare arrived in the New World pregnant and full of hope for the future. She, along with her husband, her father, and the other settlers who’d made the voyage, are ready for a new start, even with the difficulties that come from being dropped off in the wrong location. The island of Roanoke will be their home, at least for a time, but as history tell us, that colony did not fare well in that location. Though its true fate is still a mystery, in this book, Shannon McNear offers a possible glimpse into the colonists’ fate.

The idea of exploring what might have happened to the lost colony of Roanoke was really intriguing to me. And it’s clear, both from the book itself and from authors’ notes before and after the book, that McNear did her research. The atmosphere she painted really took me back to that time. However, the plot moved very slowly for the first half of the book, and I really struggled to get through it. I was confused about the title focusing on Elinor, when it seemed to be about so much more than her—her father’s and husband’s points of view were shown about as often as hers, and then sometimes a Native American from an opposing tribe. I was really uncertain about what the true plot was for a while.

Then just after the halfway point, a major event happened, and the story hurtled forward. It was a plot point I fully expected, but it came much later than I expected or would have preferred, considering the synopsis and that one of the genres the book is listed as is romance. I almost put the book down then, because I knew where the book was going, and I really didn’t want to go through it. But I kept going, and the 2nd half of the book came through for me better than I expected.

One of the things that I liked most about the book was the spiritual journey that Sees Far, the Native American I mentioned earlier, went through. I would have liked to see that fleshed out more in the second half, and the first half pared down. I like McNear’s writing in the couple of books of hers I’ve read so far, but this time, for me, the story just got bogged down by the history. However, I do think a lot of fans of history and Christian fiction will like this book.

Thank you to Netgalley and Barbour Publishing, Inc. for providing me a copy of this book to review.
Publication date: December 1, 2021

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Book Review: Poison at the Pump

Poison at the Pump
The Imagination Station #25
by Chris Brack & Sheila Seifert

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Historical children’s fiction, Christian

In this first of a 3-part story arc, cousins Beth and Patrick are tasked with finding a mystery liquid in London during the cholera epidemic of 1854. They are separated at first and meet historical figures like Dr. John Snow and Curate Henry Whitehead who played important roles in history. But when Patrick learns that he drank water from the contaminated pump, he’s not certain he’ll be able to make it back from 1854 alive.

I actually read part 3 of this story arc (which, in turn, is part of a much larger series) first, then decided to go back and read the preceding stories. I did not like this one quite as much as the third in the arc, which might have been due to the respective subject matters as much as anything. I did still like it, though, and appreciate the way these stories bring somewhat lesser-known pockets of history to life for children. The doctor who first posited that cholera was spread by contaminated water, rather than through the air, for example, is certainly not one that kids this age are likely to have heard about. For that matter, I didn’t know about him either, though I can’t guarantee I didn’t read about him in passing during a history class in school and simply forgot about him. But that’s all the more reason this story is a nice way of making historical events and figures more memorable.

I’m a little confused about the premise for the series, the Imagination Station, and how it works. That’s likely due to not having read the rest of the series, but I did think I knew enough about the Imagination Station from Adventures in Odyssey as a whole to know that it’s…well…all in the imagination. And yet, this story made it seem like the kids were actually sent back in time. So I’m not sure if I misread the book/it was just confusing in that area, or if they’ve changed the way the Imagination Station works (though then the name wouldn’t really make sense either). That confusion aside, I think the book is a great read for kids up to age 12.

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Book Review: Lost in Darkness

Lost in Darkness
by Michelle Griep

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Historical Christian romance

When Amelia Balfour’s father dies, it puts a halt to her plans to travel to Cairo for her travel-writing career. She was never close to her father, but his death means that she is responsible to help her estranged brother through a surgery meant to cure a disorder that has caused him to grow to giant proportions. The surgery is experimental and risky, and even the surgeon’s new partner, Graham Lambert, has doubts about whether or not it is worth the danger to the patient.

If I could break this story down into parts, the plot would get at least 4 stars, but characters would get maybe 2-3. The writing would get 4-5 stars, but relationship development would get maybe 3. As you can imagine, it was difficult for me to put a single rating on this book, with which I had my ups and down. In the end, I did like the plot, which was mostly dark with a light of hope shining through. It was inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and not subtly, considering that the author herself has a small role in the book. There is a bit of a mystery in the book that I didn’t see the purpose of, but all in all, the story was good.

My biggest issues were with the characters and the relationships that developed between them. Graham is inconsistent in a way that frustrated me, at times attributing hope and sovereignty to God, but at other times saying he’s not a religious man and that God likely wants nothing to do with him. He’s also so often shown to be a man with a short temper and violent tendencies, though Amelia describes him as normally cool and calm. The relationship between the male and female MCs developed about like one would expect from a romance, but the one that bothered me was the friendship between Graham and Amelia’s brother, Colin. We really don’t see much development there, and then suddenly Graham thinks of him like a brother. I would have loved to see that progression.

I wished Amelia would have come to see how idolatrous her superstitions were a lot sooner, but overall I liked the Christian message presented in the book, especially Mrs. Bap and her total reliance on God and her comment that death for a believer is the ultimate healing. In the end, I’m glad I read it, and think most fans of Christian romances of the Regency era will enjoy this book, especially if they’re okay with a little darkness in the story.

Thank you to Netgalley and Barbour Publishing, Inc. for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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Book Review: Nightmare Academy

Nightmare Academy
Veritas Project #2

by Frank Peretti

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: YA Christian thriller

The Springfields are a family of investigators—Dad, Mom, and twin siblings Elijah and Elisha—for the Veritas Project, which seeks to find the truth behind strange mysteries and crimes when others are unable or unwilling to see past the surface. When a teenage boy shows up on a highway in Idaho with no idea who he is or why he’s there and can only answer questions with “I don’t know,” the Springfields are brought in to investigate. Elijah and Elisha go undercover and are soon enough caught up in a world with no absolutes and no way to escape.

For as much as I liked the previous book in this series, I like this one even more. I always have, I’m pretty sure, since I read these several times soon after they came out in the early 2000s. While the warning presented within this book might seem extreme to some, I think it’s an insightful look at what happens to society when truth is left up to the individual. When one rejects God and the Bible, upon what foundations can “right” and “wrong” be based? Only one’s own feelings, beliefs, assumptions, desires, etc. And when that person’s version of right and wrong clashes with someone else’s, who wins? That is what this book examines in a somewhat true-to-life setting. Though some of the mechanics involved in the book are certainly beyond what technology can do these days, the study of “what if” is again the focus in this book, like it was in the previous.

If you read this book and don’t see any parallels to what is going on in real life, you might not be paying very close attention. I know this approach isn’t for everyone, but I do truly believe that the only truth that can really be known is found in the Bible, and the more we get away from that, the more dangerous it can be. Peretti has a way of cutting to the heart of things that I have always loved, and I really wish he had written more in this series. I highly recommend this book to all fans of Christian thrillers, whether you’re a teenager or adult.

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Book Review: Night Song

Night Song
World War II Liberator series #1 or 2
by Tricia Goyer

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Christian historical fiction

Almost-engaged American Nick and Austrian Evie are separated when Evie’s family has to go back to Austria. Then Nick receives his draft notice and only hopes that he’ll find himself somewhere near Evie when he is sent overseas. Meanwhile, Jakub’s family is torn apart when German mistreatment of Jews in Czechoslovakia ramps up. Taken to a ghetto, then to a work camp, Jakub watches those he loves die or get shipped off somewhere worse. Goyer weaves a tale of survival and compassion as seemingly unrelated storylines join together for the final scenes.

This book was an interesting take on historical fiction set during the Holocaust. Only a little of the focus is on a Jewish family, though what Jakub, his brother, and his mother go through is bad enough. Evie provides a different point of view, and (along with Nick) there’s even a 4th perspective, that being of an SS soldier who’s certain there’s some kind of supernatural power involved in the Nazi party, and he wants some of it for himself. (This is not the first time I’ve read a book with a character like that in it.) The 4 stories mostly advance separately, with Nick’s and Evie’s being the most connected for obvious reasons. Overall, the individual stories were interesting in their own ways, though the SS soldier’s was the one where I most wished to know why I should care about what was going on with him.

It was fairly obvious throughout the book, and because of the series name, how the storylines would all come together. Most of it felt pretty natural, though Nick being there seemed the most randomly coincidental. The official synopsis focuses a lot on the prisoners’ orchestra at Mauthausen that played while fellow prisoners walked to and from their work for the day. It’s a little strange, because this doesn’t come into the story until pretty far into it. There’s a whole lot more to it than that, but the overall theme of music being important even during really tough times does come through. Depending on where you look, this book is first or second in a series focusing on camp liberations during WWII, most likely each a stand alone. As far as this book goes, I think many people who appreciate historical fiction centered around this time period, especially with a Christian angle, would enjoy this book.

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Book Review: Terror from Outer Space

Terror from Outer Space
Last Chance Detectives #4
by Robert Vernon

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

Have aliens landed in the desert? Though the report may be unbelievable, Sheriff Smitty can’t deny that something strange is going on, especially when he has his own frightening encounter. It’s up to Mike, Winnie, Spence, and Ben, the Last Chance Detectives, to investigate, but they won’t like what they find.

Overall, this was another solid addition to the series, with some exciting scenes and a hard, but important, lesson of faith learned by Mike. The mystery was predictable to me, but younger readers will be much less likely to guess what’s going on. If I’d been in Winnie’s shoes in this story, I probably would have passed out, or at least been found curled up on the floor crying.

Speaking of Winnie, it’s much more obvious in this book that she’s not as well developed as her three friends. The other three have a line or two explaining what they bring to the group at the beginning of the story. Mike’s confidence makes him a natural leader, Spence is clever and inventive, even Ben is said to provide fun and out-of-the-box thinking. There’s literally nothing, not even a minor attempt, made to show Winnie’s contribution to the group, and thinking about the 3 books in this series I’ve read in the last few days, I couldn’t tell you what it was either. She’s just…there.

This is the first new story to come out in a series from the 90s, and while I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the 2 originals that I recently read, I do still recommend this book for those around age 10-14.

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: October 5, 2021

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Book Review: Escape from Fire Lake

Escape from Fire Lake
Last Chance Detectives #3
by Robert Vernon

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

When Mike Fowler stumbles across bank robbers making a getaway, he becomes an accidental hostage. Unwilling to let him point the finger at them, the thieves leave him for dead in the middle of the desert. Can Mike make it to civilization before succumbing to the sun in Fire Lake?

Wow! For a short book meant for kids, this was quite an intense ride! Unlike the first book in the series, this one was completely new to me, and it really sucked me in. Mike’s trek through the desert, trying not to give in to the sun or his own worries, was really suspenseful and kept me hooked all throughout. At the same time, the other Last Chance Detectives are looking for him, and that part is interesting too. Whereas children’s books can sometimes venture away from reality, in that the kids in the story do things that kids wouldn’t really be able to do in real life, I felt like all of it was quite plausible in this case.

Though there wasn’t any kind of mystery in this story, at least not to the reader, it was still full of adventure and great lessons about relying on God and letting Him give you peace in scary situations. Again the danger is very real, but it doesn’t get to be what I’d consider too scary for kids, and I highly recommend this book for those around 10-14.

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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**Note: This book has been out since 1996, but a new, slightly updated edition will be released on October 5, 2020.

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Book Review: Mystery Lights Of Navajo Mesa

Mystery Lights Of Navajo Mesa
Last Chance Detectives #1
by Jake & Luke Thoene

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Children’s Christian mystery, adventure

It started with a cryptic radio transmission that led to Ben seeing some green lights in the desert. But his friends, the other Last Chance Detectives, Mike, Winnie, and Spence, aren’t sure his story of UFOs in the desert is believable. Still, there’s obviously something going on out there, so it’s time to investigate!

This was a fast-paced adventure with a realistic feel to it. The kids are friends but still have arguments, one of which led to the adventure in the first place. I liked the small-town setting that goes even further into a feeling of remoteness due to being surrounded by vast desert. Though I wasn’t as baffled as Ben was when the sheriff didn’t corroborate what he saw, readers of the age group for which the book is intended will likely get swept up into the adventure and intrigue. The stakes are high and the danger is real, but nothing too intense for kids around 10-14, for whom I highly recommend this book.

I watched the movie many times in my teenage years (we only owned this one, though, so I’ve never seen/read any others in the series). I didn’t expect to remember as much as I did when I read the book. A few lines I could even hear the characters saying in my head. It was a really fun way to re-visit my childhood, and I’m looking forward to watching the movie again too (and reading/watching the rest of the series)!

Clarification: I didn’t read the version shown in the picture above, which is the original based on the movie that came out in 1994. I own the older book and had intended to read it soon, but hadn’t yet when I saw that it was being re-released, along with at least 1 other in the series and 2 new ones that I can see. For this review, I read the new release version, which does have some differences from the original.

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

Find out more about Mystery Lights Of Navajo Mesa
**Note: This book has been out since 1994, but a new, slightly updated edition will be released on October 5, 2020.

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