Book Review: Millstone of Doubt

Millstone of Doubt
Thorndike & Swann Regency Mysteries #2
by Erica Vetsch

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Christian historical mystery

Both fledgling agents for the crown, Lady Juliette Thorndike and Bow Street runner Daniel Swann individually need to figure out their roles and places in the spy network as well as their “normal” lives. When Juliette’s best friend’s father is killed, Juliette is told to stay out of the investigation, but Daniel plunges headlong into it. Meanwhile, Juliette is still in the middle of her debut season, and Daniel’s lifelong patronage by a mysterious benefactor will soon be coming to an end, leaving him in an unknown position. How will they navigate these difficult situations and deal with their growing feelings for each other?

I may have rated this book a star less than the previous book in the series, but I still really enjoyed it. The overall world that Vetsch has set up in this series and the one it’s connected to, Serendipity & Secrets, is one I really hope I don’t have to leave any time soon. Juliette learning to become a spy, using her training in real-world settings while trying to get over her weaknesses, but still having to act the role of a debutante, is a fun mixture. Daniel’s combining of his police work with spycraft isn’t as much of a stretch, but it still allows for some panic moments as he tries to keep his secret. There was also a great moment when Daniel’s friend and co-worker Ed gives him a little speech about the goodness of God, even when we don’t see it in our lives, that I really liked.

The mystery was overall good. I liked the different paths they went down trying to solve it; mystery is a favorite genre of mine, and this one was enjoyable. I did guess who the killer was pretty early on, but wasn’t 100% sure I was right until a while later (but before it was revealed). There was another mysterious aspect unrelated to the murder that I also figured out early on, but I still liked the way it played out. The story slowed down enough in the middle that I detracted a star, but overall, I really liked this book. I highly recommend it for fans of this genre and time period, whether you like romance or not, though that aspect is more in focus in this book than the previous.

I received a free review copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest unedited feedback.

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Book Review: The Mummy Case

The Mummy Case
Amelia Peabody #3
by Elizabeth Peters
read by Barbara Rosenblat

My rating: 2 / 5
Genre: Historical mystery

Spoiler notice: The following review will contain some spoilers for the first book in the series, Crocodile on the Sandbank.

After some time away, the Emersons are returning to Egypt for a dig, this time taking their young son Ramses along. When Amelia suspects that a suicide might actually be foul play, her husband doesn’t agree. Then strange things begin to happen in the area around their not-so-exciting dig site, and Amelia sees connections where Emerson just sees random misfortune. First Amelia has to convince him that something is afoot, and then they have to solve the mystery before anyone else gets hurt.

My synopsis probably doesn’t do the story justice, but I found myself equal parts lost and bored while listening to this installment in the series. And I think the reason I got lost at times was due to my mind wandering, because the story simply didn’t capture my attention as the books before it did. I’m not completely sure why, either; maybe I’ve already grown tired of the formula of this series? But I also think it’s partly because the mystery was super slow in getting going. After the death that Amelia suspects is a murder, it’s mostly just them getting on with their dig and meeting lots of new people for quite a while. Little things that keep the mystery in mind happen, but nothing all that exciting.

I think part of my issue is with Ramses, though. He’s an amusing character, but only to a point. I don’t honestly know how old he’s supposed to be in this book, but I’m guessing around 7. And he’s super smart, can translate ancient languages, solves much of the mystery alongside (or ahead of) his parents, and speaks with a speech impediment. And he always obeys his parents, but finds loopholes in what they tell him to do (or, more accurately, in what they neglect to say he can’t do). I also grew quite weary of Emerson’s (and Amelia’s, to a lesser degree) disdain for Christianity and Christian missionaries. There were a few humorous moments in the book, but not as many as I remember in the first two. Since much of my dislike of this book was personal preference, and it’s clear that many others enjoyed it, if you’re a fan of cozy mysteries or Egyptology, you might want to check this book out. If you’re considering listening to the audiobook, I highly suggest finding Barbara Rosenblat’s version, if you can.

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Book Review: The Debutante’s Code

The Debutante’s Code
Thorndike & Swann Regency Mysteries #1
by Erica Vetsch

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Christian historical mystery

Returning to London after years away for school and just in time for her debut season, the last thing Lady Juliette Thorndike expected was to learn that her parents had been called away and that she’d have to face her debutante ball alone. On second thought, the absolute last thing she expected was to discover that her parents are spies for the British government, as is her uncle, and all of her family before them. But as she’s thrust right into the middle of a dangerous game of espionage, Bow Street runner Daniel Swann is put on the case of a stolen painting that soon becomes a murder investigation. And the supposedly untouchable aristocracy of England, especially Juliette and her family, are right at the center of it.

Oh, goodness. Coming off a month of mediocre reads, this book really had my heart soaring, and not just because of the connection to Vetsch’s previous series (more on that later). There’s so much I loved about it, like the relationship Juliette had with parents she hadn’t seen in 7 years. Through their letters, she still felt connected to them, and was receiving early spycraft instruction unawares. The way Juliette discovered the big family secret was perfect, especially since I was expecting a simple eavesdrop for her to hear the truth (it’s so much better than that!). The more she gets into the family business, the more she questions the ethics and morals of lying for a “good cause,” echoing my own thoughts exactly. And I appreciate that there are no easy answers, either for her or for the male MC, Daniel Swann.

He doesn’t get much of a mention in the synopsis, but he’s an equal part in this story, and I really enjoyed his character and backstory, his drive to figure out the truth and tenacity despite some fairly crappy odds. His personal life is a bit too much to into in the synopsis and is clearly going to stretch on to the next book in the series, and I’m really glad for that. While most books of this type, even those in a series, tend to be more stand-alone, I’m looking forward to a continuing series with the same characters, diving into the spy world of Regency England, and seeing what develops between Thorndike and Swann.

Now let me talk about how excited I was to realize that this series is taking place in the same world as Vetsch’s previous series, Serendipity & Secrets. I loved that series, and one character in particular was my favorite. Now to find him in this book as well? I can’t even express my joy! I don’t want to say too much, though if you know the other series, you can probably guess what the connection here would be. To be honest, I do believe I should have anticipated this, given the similarity of a certain aspect of both series. But I didn’t, and that made it all the more exciting when he appeared here.

Though the mystery in this book was not super hard to crack (for the reader), that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t completely off in some of my theories. I did guess some things right, but also had a few surprises near the end, one of which actually made me a little giddy (and I’m not normally a particularly emotional reader; me using that word is a testament to how much I loved this book). I confess I was pretty confused about the actual events that led to the spy work Juliette and her uncle were doing, I think due to the way certain terms were used during the explanation, but I had it (mostly) all sorted by the end. And I find myself frustrated by the official synopsis for this book (not the first time this has happened with one of this author’s works), considering that Swann’s suspicion of Juliette doesn’t actually come until more than 3/4 of the way through the book. Still, I highly recommend this book for fans of this genre and time period, whether you like romance or not, because there is some, but it’s not the focus of the book. But I would also really recommend checking out Serendipity & Secrets, and maybe even consider reading that trilogy first. You won’t be sorry.

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Book Review: Freedom’s Song

Freedom’s Song
by Kim Vogel Sawyer

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Christian historical romance

When an escaped indentured riverboat singer and a widowed homesteader with a young child to care for meet, they seem to have just what each other needs—she a place to stay and earn some money for a trip to her family in New York and he someone to care for his toddler so he can work. But will it be that simple, especially when a sinister force are lurking out there somewhere?

That synopsis doesn’t cover everything going on in this book, but it is the bulk of it. There are also the escaped slaves that Fanny travels with for a time, but since they are gone by around 30% of the way through the story and don’t have much of a conclusion, their part in the story feels a bit like it’s disconnected from the rest. In the end, I can’t help but wonder exactly why Sawyer chose to include them. I guess to add to the theme of “freedom” throughout the story, but it seems a bit heavy-handed at that point. None of that is bad, necessarily, and it does give the reader some early insight into Fanny’s character, so at least there’s that.

As for the main characters, Fanny and Walter, both of them seemed a little too “good.” Neither of them really had any faults that were brought out in the story, aside from the faux faults perceived only by themselves, that anyone with a more objective view would easily tell them they were silly for considering a fault. Walter was a little less confident than he’d once been, and I suppose Fanny doesn’t know how to be a homesteader, but it’s more endearing than anything. Both of them drove me nuts with the periodic mental berating over mistakes and bad choices that they thought must mean that God wouldn’t want to hear from them anymore.

There was also a 3rd perspective in this story, that of the riverboat owner who had indentured Fanny, as he tries to track down a singer to replace her. I don’t think his story really added to the book, and it culminated in a climax that was far too easily resolved. And speaking of Fanny’s indentured state, I think maybe the author should have spent some time going over some of the less-known and less-quoted parts of the Bible, like the book of Philemon.

Kim Vogel Sawyer does write very well, and I really enjoyed the glimpses at different parts of life and parts of the country in 1860 that were presented in this book. However, various parts of this book just didn’t sit right with me, though I’m sure that many other readers of Christian historical romance will be less bothered by what stuck out to me and will enjoy this book.

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

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Book Review: The Pirate Bride

The Pirate Bride
The Daughters of the Mayflower
#2

by Kathleen Y’Barbo

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Historical Christian romance

Twelve-year-old Maribel Cordova, daughter of a Spaniard with a questionable background, is brought by her father on a voyage across the ocean. When their ship is accosted by a privateer ship helmed by the infamous captain Jean Beaumont, Maribel decides she wants to be a privateer too. But Beaumont’s ship is not destined to remain unhindered, and Maribel is left with only her memories of her time on the ship until years later, when a series of events lead to a chance encounter between Maribel and the captain.

There was a lot going on in this book, which proved to be its downfall. I was really into the first part. Maribel reminded me of Anne from Anne of Green Gables, and I appreciated the friendships she so quickly cultivated. Several of the smaller side characters I really liked all the way through the story. However, it was difficult to see the captain in a sort of fatherly capacity to her, knowing that this is a romance story, and that based on the (just utterly terrible and confusing) synopsis of the book, this 12-year-old girl and the 20-something captain are going to end up falling in love by the end of the book.

Still, the captain was interesting, and I was curious to see how it would all play out. But then in part 2, we have developments in the captain’s life and developments in Maribel’s life that sort of coincide, but not really, and that end up bloating the story far too much. I think the book would have been better overall if the captain’s side of things was the focus. Add to that the lackluster development of romantic feelings between the two main characters, and the feeling I was left with at the end of this book was…”meh.” I did like it more than the previous one in the series, but I’m still hoping for better in the books to come.

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Book Review: Caleb’s Story

Caleb’s Story
Sarah, Plain and Tall
#3

by Patricia MacLachlan

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Children’s historical classic

Anna has grown up and passed the story on to her little brother Caleb. From his perspective, we watch a family drama play out when a mysterious stranger appears and upsets Caleb’s dad Jacob. For me, this book lost some of the charm of the originals. For one thing, Caleb sounds too much like his older sister for me to really feel like it’s someone else telling the story. But I was also very invested in watching this little family come together, and now we’re moving on to new things. That doesn’t make it bad, by any means, just not quite as enjoyable for me.

I originally hadn’t planned to continue this series past the 1st book, but discovering that the audiobooks were narrated by Glenn Close, who played Sarah in the movies, made me decide to continue. However, her narrating a story by a young boy isn’t quite as good as narrating a story by a pre-teen to teenage girl (Anna in the first 2 books). I don’t plan to continue the series, but I do highly recommend the first two.

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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: The Curse of the Pharaohs (take 2)

The Curse of the Pharaohs
Amelia Peabody #2
by Elizabeth Peters
read by Barbara Rosenblat

My rating: 4.5 / 5
Genre: Historical mystery

Spoiler notice: The following review will contain some spoilers for the first book in the series, Crocodile on the Sandbank.

When Amelia’s husband is invited by the effervescent Lady Baskerville to finish an excavation that her late husband was unable to, Amelia goes with him to Egypt. She’s certain Lord Baskerville was murdered, so while she helps Emerson with the work, she also formulates theories about the various people around her. Before Amelia can point to a culprit, though, there is another death and more than one accident that threatens Emerson’s safety. Can she solve the crime before her husband is the next victim?

I listened to this book a year ago with a different narrator and did not care for it (see original review here, which I will refer to as I compare the two versions in this review). However, I went back to the first book in the series, read by a different narrator, and found that I liked the different voice a lot more. So I’m continuing on with a do-over on this 2nd book too, which was as far as I got in the series before. And like with the first book, I enjoyed this one more with the different narrator. I still felt that there were some elements that were too similar to the first one and wished it had been more of a departure. However, I was able to better appreciate the repartee between Amelia and Emerson, their gruff-but-obvious adoration of their far-too-brilliant son, and the contributions from the cat Bastet.

I’m looking forward to continuing on in the series for the first time, now that I’ve found a narrator I like. I do hope that every book won’t include a beautiful woman that all of the male characters (except Emerson) wants to marry and manifestations of a curse that scares the local work force. Still, people who like cozy mysteries or Egyptology might want to check this book out. But if you’re considering listening to the audiobook, I highly suggest finding Barbara Rosenblat’s version, if you can.

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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: Number the Stars

Number the Stars
by Lois Lowry

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Classic children’s historical fiction

Annemarie Johansen doesn’t really understand why she has to pretend that her friend Ellen is her sister. Or why Ellen’s parents have to leave without her. But when Annemarie’s parents and uncle try to help Ellen’s family and some other Jewish people in Denmark flee to a safer country, Annemarie knows it’s important and will do anything she can to help, even if it’s dangerous.

I really appreciate that in so few pages and in language kids can understand and get into, Lowry not only paints a vivid picture of the danger and fear that those who lived in Nazi-occupied countries dealt with, but also touches on the resistance offered by non-Jews living in Denmark. I also liked seeing the love and loyalty the Danes had for their king, which is something most American’s can fully understand, and the way the scientific community pulled together to help save lives.

Many of us remember reading this book for school, though I didn’t remember it nearly as well as I thought (or maybe I was thinking about a different book the whole time, though if so, I can’t pin down what it was). Required reading or not, this is a good book to introduce young readers to the darkness that many in Europe faced during WWII.

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