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: Skylark

Skylark
Sarah, Plain and Tall
#2

by Patricia MacLachlan

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

While Sarah settles into her new home, the looming drought makes her miss her home in Maine more and more. The children, especially little Caleb, worry that this means Sarah won’t be happy with them. The drought eventually poses enough danger, not just due to lack of water, but also due to fire outbreaks and thirsty coyotes, that Jacob sends his new wife and 2 children to Sarah’s family in Maine while he stays to try to take care of the land.

After how much we both enjoyed the first book and subsequent movie-watching, my daughter and I both listened to the audiobook for the 2nd installment in the series, since it was narrated by Glenn Close, who played Sarah in the movies. I liked the second book as much as the first—it’s sweet and emotional, and I’m surprised how attached I can get to characters in such a short story. The author’s style of short, simple sentences makes the reading even quicker, but I never felt like it was lacking.

Caleb remains an incredibly curious and insightful little kid, as shown through the POV of his big sister. And I loved the juxtaposition of the Midwest and New England area, seen a little through Sarah’s explanations in the first book, but shown more fully in this one. My daughter (age 11) and I really enjoyed listening to this book and look forward to watching the movie.

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Book Review: Once Upon a Wardrobe

Once Upon a Wardrobe
by Patti Callahan

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Historical fiction

The year is 1950 and 8-year-old George Devonshire has just read a book that captivated his imagination entirely: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. He’s terminally ill and doesn’t leave his house except for trips to the hospital, but he longs to know where Narnia came from. Fortunately, his sister Megs is a student at Oxford, where author C.S. Lewis works. Unable to refuse the request of the little brother she loves so much, Megs attempts to find the answer to his question, even if Mr. Lewis isn’t keen to give a simple answer.

Normally I save recommendations for a book for the end, but I think it’s appropriate this time to start with that. I think that people who are great fans of C.S. Lewis, especially, but not necessarily limited to, the Narnia books, will appreciate this book more than I did. I didn’t dislike it, but I don’t think I’m quite the right audience for this book about how stories and myths affect our lives. Patti Callahan writes beautifully, but that is also lost on me, frankly. I do know that there are many out there who will get caught up in the prose though.

The book mostly revolves around George and Megs, but dips into fictionalized biographical vignettes of C.S. Lewis’s life (or Jack, as he preferred to be called and as he is most often referred to in this book). It made sense to me that he shares with George, through Megs, shows how inspiration for a story can be found all through one’s life, though it takes Megs the entire book to come to that understanding. This is apparently because she is a numbers person—math and physics are her life. She is too caught up in logic and a desire to turn everything into an equation to let imagination have a part. I’m a numbers and logic person too—not quite to the degree that she is, but enough that it was strange to me that she was so against imagination. I thought there was going to be a much deeper reason for why she was confused and questioning things so much, but it didn’t come to that like I expected it to. The story on its own is sweet, but a bit more drama-filled and with a bit less of a clear conflict than I apparently prefer in my stories. There was a moment near the end, though, that was emotional and made me mentally cheer, and I love moments like that.

Overall, I think I just didn’t really connect with Megs, who is the main character in the story. She’s also the main narrator, which leads me to bring up my frustration with the format the author used throughout this book. Megs’s POV was first person, present tense (I don’t generally care for present tense books, but that’s just personal preference). When Megs tells George stories from Jack’s life, it switches to George’s POV for a few paragraphs as he slips into the story. Those sections are third person, present tense. And then the actual stories about Jack’s life are third person, past tense. All of this gets to be a bit jarring/muddling and sometimes just weird. I think these differences in perspectives could have been handled a lot more smoothly.

Since I’ve already mentioned my recommendations for this book above, I’ll close by explaining that I have read very little of C.S. Lewis’s works. My experience extends to my very first reading of, so far, the first 2 Chronicles of Narnia books earlier this year. I can’t honestly say for sure that how much Lewis one has read would make a difference in enjoying this book, but I do believe it would.

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

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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: All That Is Secret

All That Is Secret
by Patricia Raybon

My rating: 2 / 5
Genre: Christian historical mystery

One year after her somewhat-estranged father’s maybe-not-accidental death, Annalee Spain leaves her home and job in Chicago to travel back to Denver and seek answers. But the truth won’t be easy to find, even for an admirer of Sherlock Holmes, and even the trip to Denver provides danger and intrigue, as well as a new companion in the form of a young orphan searching for his father.

I’m a fan of mysteries and really liked the idea of a Christian mystery story set in the 1920s. And the prologue was great, ending with such a bang, I was excited to keep going! Sadly, the rest of the book didn’t really hold up to the thrilling start. One of the biggest issues I had was with the protagonist herself. A young, black woman in a nation dominated by white men, Annalee had all the makings of a smart, compassionate, innovative sleuth. Except she told herself, while trying to solve the crime, to stop trying to solve it and let it solve itself…which is exactly what you want from the main character in a murder mystery.

There’s a romance sub-plot in this book, too, which fell pretty flat for me. For one thing, there was mention about falling in love after Annalee and Jack only knew each other for a day or two. There was also a cliched contrivance to push the romance forward, which seemed unnecessary. And I think they weren’t nearly as concerned about perceived propriety as they should have been for multiple reasons, not the least of which is the fact that he’s a pastor, living in the church’s parsonage.

What tipped the scale to the rating I gave is that some things happened in the story that didn’t really make a lot of sense and weren’t explained. One character shows up somewhere in a fairly bizarre scene, and for a while, I suspected she might simply be a figment of Annalee’s imagination. It’s partially explained, but not nearly enough, in my opinion. This looks to be the beginning of a series of books with this MC, and I really wanted to be right there at the start of it. However, while I’m sure many who enjoy mysteries and Christian fiction will like this book, it definitely isn’t for me.

Thank you to Netgalley and Tyndale House Publishers for providing me a copy of this book to review.
Publication date: October 5, 2021

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Book Review: The Innkeeper of Ivy Hill

The Innkeeper of Ivy Hill
Tales from Ivy Hill #1
by Julie Klassen

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Historical Christian fiction

It’s been a year since Jane Bell’s husband died and left her his coaching inn, but Jane isn’t any more prepared to end her mourning period than she was a year ago. The inn has gone on without her direct involvement during that year, but she’s finding out that it hasn’t necessarily gone on well. A large loan from the bank is about to come due, but the inn isn’t nearly as prosperous as it used to be, and now it’s in danger of being taken away. Jane’s mother-in-law, Thora, will do anything she can to help save her family’s inn, even while feeling displaced by the new mistress of The Bell. There are others who might be able to help as well, but Jane isn’t completely sure how to proceed…or who to trust.

This is the type of book where the story may focus on one main character for now, but this first book also introduces several other characters who will have more of a spotlight in future books, and gives us a decent set-up to those future stories. So a good amount of characters overall were introduced, but it didn’t take me long to get invested in their lives. I thought the set-up was giving us more of a mystery than there turned out to be, and I seriously anticipated the revelation of a conspiracy that never happened. But that was my own fault, not necessarily the book’s. I think I read more into certain people’s behavior than was intended (or maybe the author did want us to suspect that person).

Jane was a very dynamic character, in that she changed fairly drastically from the beginning of the book, where she spent her days languishing in her small home and ignoring the inn, to the end of the book, by which point she’d at least attempted to take the reigns of the inn firmly in hand. I liked the way the story and characters come together by the end, and that there is no sudden, miraculous save. Hard work and diligence are required, and a perfect ending is not guaranteed.

In some places this book is billed as a romance, and there is some romance involved. However, it is nowhere near a focal point, and (spoiler alert) the main character doesn’t end up with a beau by the end of the book. I believe that is another storyline that will continue on throughout the trilogy, and I’m quite okay with that. If you’re a fan of historical Christian fiction, keep that in mind when considering this book. I do recommend it, and am looking forward to continuing the series.

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Book Review: The Eagle and the Lamb

The Eagle and the Lamb
by Darlene Mindrup

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Historical Christian romance

Sarah, a young Jewish woman, is made the slave/companion to a young, ailing woman named Diana by Diana’s brother, Antonius, a tribune of Rome. Diana wonders about the peace that Sara has, even as a slave, and Sara can’t help but talk about her faith in Jesus Christ. Antonius, however, doesn’t wants Christianity poisoning his sister, even while he has to admit to being unable to stop thinking about Sara and how different she is from Roman women. What began as a terrible situation for Sara and her family when they became indebted to the Roman might just turn out to be part of God’s will for the lives of everyone involved.

I am so glad I found this book and read it again! When I was in high school, my family went to visit my grandparents in Arizona (I live in the midwest), and I remember them having a library full of paperback romance novels (probably mostly Christian, if not wholly, since they lived at a church). I read several of those books during our stay there, but this is the only one I remembered well enough to track it down again, which took me a long time and a lot of digging. It’s a sweet romance, but also a tale of early Christians during the time of Roman persecution around 62 A.D. and the difficulties they had to face just to be able to practice their faith. Sara is a great example of a Christ-follower spreading His love and message to everyone she spends time with. Secondary characters add to the enjoyment of this book, especially a fellow slave and Christian who some readers likely see as a serious contender for Sara’s heart.

Antonius may be harsh through much of the book, but he’s a well-written, realistic character. He’s a Roman soldier, taught to believe that Rome is the center of the universe and that the rest of the world should fall at his feet. Even with his culture and training, he’s actually set apart from others of his type, which is clearly shown in the story. And let’s not forget that he actually saved Sara and her parents from being sold into much harsher slavery near the beginning of the book. When he treats her badly, she stands her ground. When he insists she not speak to Diana about God, she weighs the obedience of her slave master against the obedience of her one true master, God.

The book’s title is an apt description of the contrast between these two characters, and I think that contrast is why I love the story so much. I read the book to reminisce about the first time I read it, and didn’t expect to find much of substance, but it’s really quite a lovely story. It’s pretty short, but I didn’t feel that detracted at all—in fact, that kept the story from dragging out like some romance books can do. I also didn’t think I’d care about the series this book is the beginning of, but now that I know the next book is about Decimus, the fellow slave I mentioned above, I’d love to see his story.

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