Book Review: Distant Stars

Distant Stars
by Kassandra Garrison

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Christian romance

After aging out of the foster system, a time during which brothers Will and Kane Rutledge ran away as often as they could, they decide to continue to stick together. And they decide that they need a fresh start, and that the best way to get it is to kidnap Hannah Cole, daughter of a wealthy man, and get a nice payday. But things start to go wrong from the first moment of this kidnapping, and the worst flaw in the plan is that Will didn’t expect himself to be so drawn to their victim.

The premise of this story is what drew me to it—a romance that begins as a kidnapping is intriguing to me, even while being a bit of a stretch in believably. But I knew it could be done and be a romance I would enjoy, especially under the banner of Christian fiction. The Christianity, though, is quite light and mostly involved with Hannah being angry at God for a fairly recent loss. Will has some early religious roots too, but I would have liked to see all of that drawn out a lot more, especially given the plot. Add to that the romance being mostly about physical looks (and smells…what does sunshine smell like, anyway?) for a while, and I didn’t really get into the romance aspect of the story much at all. Plus, I didn’t really buy Will’s softy act, for various reasons.

When I read a self-published book, it is my intention not to let things that a professional editor would help with affect my view too much. I’m not saying that there is no burden of responsibility here, but it’s harder for self-published authors. So while it did not affect my rating, I will at least mention that there were punctuation errors throughout this book, as well as other issues or confusions an editor would/should have caught. It can detract from the book for some, so let that be a warning.

On the positive side, the descriptions of the setting(s) made me feel like I was there, probably helped a bit by my own memory of a recent trip to a beach in the Dominican Republic, and I really like the depth to backstories the author came up with for the main characters. The story has a lot going for it, and I think that with some polishing and less tropes in the plot, it could be a sweet, enjoyable read. Given the way that others have responded to this book, it’s possible I’m simply not the right audience for it, so please check out other reviews at the link below if the book sounds interesting to you.

I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.

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Book Review: The Apostle’s Sister

The Apostle’s Sister
Jerusalem Road #4
by Angela Hunt

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Biblical fiction

Though Aya, daughter of Zebulon of Tarsus, is only marrying the man chosen by her parents out of duty, she enjoys being a wife, and later, a mother, more than she expected. Though she’d like to use the talent for singing given to her by God in some way, she’s contented herself with following His will, however he chooses to use her. But when her brother, a Pharisee and member of the powerful Sanhedrin, surprises everyone by converting to following the Nazarene who was crucified a few years past, Aya and her family face some persecution from their fellow Jews in Jerusalem, and Aya is not sure how to reconcile her love for her brilliant brother with her family’s long-time religious traditions.

I think I’ll be in the minority with this book, like I was with the previous in the series. Not that I didn’t like it, but I didn’t like it as much as most seem to. Aya frustrated me early on, as I think she lets her desire to sing for people define her too much. I also don’t think there needed to be such a focus on the newlywed activities. It felt like the story didn’t really get going until both siblings were married, like it was something we had to get through first, but I didn’t really understand why it was all so important.

I think the other reason that the story didn’t work as well for me is that I couldn’t really connect very well to one of the two main characters. The perspective alternates between Aya and her older brother, Sha’ul (the apostle Paul). But once Sha’ul had converted to Christianity, his perspective is barely shown. When it is, it’s mostly just to tell us about events that we can read about in the book of Acts. Overall, it seemed shallow to me. Not much happened that I couldn’t have predicted, and I didn’t connect to the characters much as we sped through months and years of time.

The idea of what the family of the man who wrote many books of the Bible went through when he went against the tradition of the day to follow Jesus is an interesting premise. I felt it could have been explored more deeply, but I do think that many other fans of Biblical fiction will enjoy it more than I did.

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

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Book Review: Legend of the Desert Bigfoot

Legend of the Desert Bigfoot
Last Chance Detectives #2
by Jake Thoene & Luke Thoene

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

Is there a legendary monster wreaking havoc in the desert of Ambrosia? Mike, Spence, Winnie, and Ben, who call themselves the Last Chance Detectives, are on the case!

This was another solid addition to the short-lived series from the 90s. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the ones before and after it in the series, but that may have been as much due to the fact that the mystery seemed pretty obvious to me the whole time. I blame the book cover, which has a huge spoiler on it. There was an element I didn’t see coming, and the fast-paced excitement of the climax was classic Last Chance Detectives. I’d recommend this book, along with the rest of the series, for kids around 10-14.

For whatever reason, they’ve started putting out new books in this series, over 20 years after the series was first created, and while my childhood memories of the franchise are from one of the movies from the 90s, I like that there will be new stories added to it. I have now read all of the books from the original print series (out of order, but it doesn’t really make a difference), as well as 1 new one that came out last year, and look forward to seeing how the series continues and if Mike ever gets any answers about his dad.

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Book Review: The Bride of Ivy Green

The Bride of Ivy Green
Tales from Ivy Hill #3
by Julie Klassen

My rating: 4.5 / 5
Genre: Historical Christian fiction

In this culmination of the trilogy, the women who have been in focus so far are joined by another—a mysterious, new, possibly French dressmaker. More secrets will come to light as some old relationships are mended and others are just beginning.

In a way, this trilogy reminds me of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, in that it sometimes seems to meander through daily life, weaving a story of a small group of characters, rather than having a focused plot. However, by the time you get to this third book, it’s clear that all of that meandering was deliberately wending its way toward this final book. Even with the wrapping up that happened here, new plots were introduced. I’ll admit I didn’t care much about the dressmaker, probably because adding a brand new character, after so many pages of being engrossed in the lives of others already, made that new character’s life seem shallow by comparison.

I was quite happy with how things turned out, and the way they got there (though the “near misses” started to wear on me), for each of the main characters save one. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I really wish Mercy’s story had gone differently. I sometimes write down my thoughts as I read—when I want to make sure I remember something for the review or simply when I feel strongly about something. In this case, I wrote down a couple of predictions (or, rather, hopes and wishes) for Mercy, even though I had good reason to believe they would not happen. My reason for assuming that, though, was simply due to the nature of the romance (especially Christian romance) genre. And while I was correct in my assumption that what I hoped for Mercy would not happen, the conclusion of her story did include an offer that I did not predict and was pleased to see happen.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Ivy Hill—so much so that after I finished this book, I immediately re-read the follow-up Christmas novella, An Ivy Hill Christmas, in the hopes of “catching up” with the main characters in this trilogy, even though I knew the focus had moved on. I don’t think this is the kind of series I will decide to re-read some day, but I am all the more excited to read more books by Julie Klassen.

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Book Review: The Last Sin Eater

The Last Sin Eater
by Francine Rivers

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Historical Christian fiction

Appalachia, 1850s – Cadi Forbes is a 10-year-old member of a clan of Irish immigrants who have resurrected a tradition of their ancestors. Upon the death of a clan member, a ritual is performed to summon the sin eater, who will eat the sins of that person so that the deceased can go to heaven. The sin eater, being a man himself, takes the sins of hundreds, sacrificing his own soul to save the souls of others. Weighed down with the guilt of her own sin, Cadi seeks out the sin eater in the hopes that he can eat her sin now and give her some rest.

Let me start by saying that the setting in this book is top-notch. The way the characters talk took a little getting used to, but that adds to the immersion. Though that makes it all the more strange when a new character shows up partway through the book and talks like a KJV Bible. And stranger still that the other characters seem to have no trouble understanding him.

The story that revolves more directly around Cadi and the sin eater is what I liked most about the book. Her quest to be absolved of her sins and his desire to better understand his role are heartbreaking, yet allow for maximum hopefulness as the story unfolds. I’ll admit I didn’t care for the way the preacher’s storyline plays out though. The book overall feels really allegorical, with a character that is clearly not “real” in the strictest sense of the word and the instantaneous way that the characters know entire passages of the Bible by heart. Not that I’m against an allegory, but there was one particular element in the story that it would have been really nice to get even a partial explanation for that was completely left unaddressed. Overall, though, this was an engaging read, and I think most fans of historical Christian fiction, especially those with a missions-type storyline, would like it.

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Book Review: Islands and Enemies

Islands and Enemies
The Imagination Station #28
by Marianne Hering

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Historical children’s fiction, Christian

After cousins Beth and Patrick have an argument about loyalty and betrayal, Whit sends them on an adventure in the Imagination Station. They arrive in 1521 and become part of Magellan’s expedition to circumnavigate the globe for a few days and along the way learn a little something about loyalty and betrayal.

I like the idea of the Imagination Station so much more when it’s more like a holodeck adventure. Since it’s apparently meant to be actual time travel in this series, some of the things that happen are just a bit too unbelievable to me. Still, I like the way it brings moments of history to life for young readers, and this one was no exception. Some of the details shared by Beth (who may know more than makes sense for her age, even after having just done a report about one of Magellan’s ships) were interesting to learn about.

The time travel aspect and historical characters aside, the actual characters of Beth and Patrick took a hit in this story, in my opinion. While it certainly makes sense that they wouldn’t be perfect kids and would even sometimes get into fights with each other, Beth did not know when to keep her mouth shut, and Patrick was just a little jerk at times. Overall, though, it’s a fun look at historical accounts, written for kids, from a Christian viewpoint.

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: April 5, 2022

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Book Review: The Mayflower Bride

The Mayflower Bride
by Kimberley Woodhouse

My rating: 2 / 5
Genre: Historical Christian romance

Mary Elizabeth Chapman, along with her father, younger brother, and other Separatists, prepare to sail to the New World aboard the Speedwell, companion ship to the Mayflower. On the latter ship, William Lytton is a carpenter looking for a new life in the New World, but before departure, he’s hired to keep an eye on the colonists and report back to the company that is financing the journey. When the two ships are funneled onto one, Mary Elizabeth and William have a chance to get to know each other, but the trip across the ocean will be long and difficult. And reaching the New World is just the beginning.

There was a lot going on in this book that never quite seemed to mesh into a coherent, interesting story. The main female character got on my nerves right away because even though her dad and brother, as well as her best friend and family, were going on the journey as well, she was unhappy and lonely. She’d somewhat recently lost her mother, which I get would affect her, but it was leaned into a little too much, given what she did have, and she spends a lot of time moping. Plus, later in the story, she made some stupid decisions that I really doubt a woman in her position would have made given the circumstances. Then when we meet the main male character, his story starts off ambiguously. The whole side plot about him “spying” for the Company was weak, and that was clear from the moment it started. I don’t understand the inclusion of that arc at all, nor the fact that the POV switched to a “villain” now and then that was part of that arc. The POV also switched to Mary Elizabeth’s little brother a few times, which also seemed unnecessary to me.

While the historical details of the voyage were interesting, most of the plot involving the trip to the New World and attempts to find a place to start their colony seemed fairly shallow. They were often viewed through the lens of the budding relationship between the two MCs, which I felt was portrayed in a way that was not likely very accurate to how it would have been for two people in their time period, especially with one of them being part of a religious congregation like Mary Elizabeth was. Personally, I don’t need the author to interject unlikely physical contact to add to the romance; for me, the mental aspect of a developing romance is much more important anyway. But their initial attraction was mostly physical, considering they were both instantly drawn to one another after an interaction that involved no real conversation.

As the book that kicks off a series of historical romance novels set in different time periods, I had hoped for a stronger start. This book, unfortunately, did not whet my appetite for the rest of the series. However, since the series has various authors, I still plan to continue on to see what the next one holds.

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Book Review: Swept into the Sea

Swept into the Sea
The Imagination Station #26
by Chris Brack & Sheila Seifert

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Biblical children’s fiction

In this second of a 3-part story arc, cousins Beth and Patrick are tasked with finding a mystery liquid for the Imagination Station as they’re thrown onto a ship during a storm at sea. The ship is carrying the apostle Paul, as he’s on his way to stand trial in Rome. Besides the storm, the cousins will have to face angry sailors and Roman soldiers if they hope to get back to their time.

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. This is my least favorite of the 3 books in this trilogy of stories. All 3 show some snapshot of history, but this is the only one that is an account from the Bible. While the authors added some fictional characters for the two (also fictional) main characters to interact with, and I assume some of that was meant to provide extra excitement and human connection, overall, I felt like they added little to the story. All of these books are quite short, but this is the only one that felt so light and shallow. I didn’t feel any kind of connection to the story or characters.

On its own, I don’t know that I could recommend this book to readers, though kids 12 and younger, the age group that it’s meant for, might enjoy it more than I did. The other books in the series I’ve read so far were good, but I honestly don’t think much would be missed by skipping this one.

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Book Review: Canyon Quest

Canyon Quest
Last Chance Detectives prequel
by Jim Ware

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

Mike Fowler hates Ambrosia, Arizona. It’s hot and dry, there’s no snow, he has no friends, and worst of all, his dad isn’t there. Even though his dad disappeared while flying a plane in the Gulf War, Mike is certain the answer to his whereabouts is still out there somewhere. And when he makes some new discoveries shortly after his twelfth birthday, he realizes the clues he needs might be out in the desert around Ambrosia.

I really like the Last Chance Detectives. I watched The Mystery Lights of Navajo Mesa so many times when I was younger that when I read that book for the first time recently, several of the lines from the book I could hear perfectly from the actor/actress’s mouth from the movie. This prequel is a chance to see Mike and the others before their detective club formed, even before the four of them became friends. For that, I appreciated the book. And considering how frustrated I was about Winnie’s utter lack of a personality or really any shown contribution to the group in the other 3 books I’d read before this, I really liked her as a character in this one (though it seemed like she had a crush on Mike, something I don’t recall coming up in the books that take place later).

The author made some strange choices with the story, though. From everything I could tell, and I went back to make sure I hadn’t misremembered, Mike’s dad has been considered MIA for 6 years. I don’t know how long he and his mom have lived in Ambrosia at the start of the story, though. It seems like it hasn’t been that long, since the book starts with him counting the money he’s saved up to buy a bus ticket so that he can travel back home and stay with the best friend he left behind. But wording elsewhere makes it sound like they moved to Ambrosia shortly after his dad disappeared. Either way, his dad has been gone for six years after remains of his F-16 had been discovered somewhere in the Middle East, yet Mike is absolutely certain throughout parts of this book that clues to his dad’s current whereabouts can be found in the desert in Arizona. Uh…what? It’s difficult to allow the excuse of “he’s a grieving kid” after this many years have gone by, but even still, it’s an idea with absolutely no merit. Add to that his surly attitude and how he lets his unhappiness lead him to be rude to the kids that are becoming his friends, and it wasn’t as fun to read as the other books in the series.

While I still think the main books in the series are great for kids around age 10-14, I would say there is unfortunately little benefit to reading this prequel. For those interested, though, especially for anyone who’s a big fan of the book series, movies, or radio dramas, by all means, check it out.

*Note: The entire group of 4 kids that make up the Last Chance Detectives come together in this book. This is a departure from the original edition of the first book in the series, The Mystery Lights of Navajo Mesa (which takes place after this prequel), in which Spence was introduced to the other 3 for the first time. However, in the recent re-release of that book, it’s changed to show Spence as already one of the group.

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Book Review: In Search of a Prince

In Search of a Prince
by Toni Shiloh

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Christian romance

Content as a 25-year-old middle school teacher in New York City, Brielle Bayo never planned to move to an island off the coast of Africa and rule a nation. But that’s just what she’s asked to do when her mother informs her that she’s heir to a throne, and that the king, her grandfather, doesn’t have long to live. Uncertain about whether she can be a queen, or even wants to, she is then also faced with a requirement to marry before her grandfather dies, in order to be legally allowed to reign. It’s too much to handle alone, but maybe it’s a chance for Bri to learn to let God be in control.

This story shows that finding out you’re a princess isn’t always the fairy tale little girls might dream it to be. But it can be a blessing, especially if you can see God’s hand at work throughout. Though it takes Brielle a while to fully trust that “God’s got this,” it’s one of the biggest themes in the book. I’ll admit, it was a little disheartening to see the main character be reminded of God’s sovereignty often, and continue to be stressed and question whether she’s made the right decision. I also feel that she puts way too much stock in the world’s definition and view of love, which is more about passion, attraction, and the feeling of “falling in love,” even when she’s reminded that that’s not what love really is, especially from a biblical standpoint. Fortunately, another character was a lot more grounded overall, but I’m not sure it ever fully rubs off on Brielle.

I think the title of the book does an injustice to the story, as it focuses on Bri’s requirement to marry, and the romance side of the story, when there’s really so much more to it than that. Or at least, it seemed like there was trying to be more to it than that. Bri’s desire to help the people of her ancestral home, the fictional island of Ọlọrọ Ilé, to bring them into modern times, and to be the ruler God designed her to be, is the primary plot, with the romance a large side plot. And I liked that part of the story overall. The love interest (only not mentioning his name in case it’s a spoiler to anyone) was almost too good to be true, with only perceived faults that the reader can see aren’t really true. However, he was still one of my favorite characters.

Contemporary romance books are often less enjoyable for me, due in part to me feeling fairly detached from the modern world, and this was no exception, as dialog was very modern and full of slang (even from some of the Olorans). My bigger frustration with the writing, though, was the tendency for the main character and one major side character to talk almost solely in murmurs to each other for a good chunk earlier in the book. For one thing, it was a gross overuse of a single verb in a small space (seems like it should have been caught by editors), but for another…well, how often do people really murmur in normal conversation? It made me feel like there was just a lot of mumbling going on for a while, and was peppered here and there later in the book too. This is more personal preference, though; overall, the story was good, and I think most fans of contemporary Christian romance will enjoy this book.

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

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