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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Book Review: Hollow City

Hollow City
Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children #2
by Ransom Riggs

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: YA historical fantasy

Spoiler notice: The following review will contain some spoilers for the first book in the trilogy, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

On the run from monsters bent on killing them, or worse, Jacob and the other 9 peculiar children who escaped Miss Peregrine’s loop head for London in 1940, hoping to find safety and a way to help Miss Peregrine, who’s stuck in bird shape. They know the danger will only be higher in London, but they don’t have a lot of options. In a world where everything is already not as it seems, these (not exactly) children will have to decide who to trust while avoiding the further threat posed by the ongoing war.

I have been enjoying this series so much more than I expected. I find the overall story of the peculiar world inventive and fascinating. And in this book, what was set up in the first one really came alive. Rather than being completely lost and trying to understand, Jacob is…well, he’s still a bit confused, but there’s a lot to learn about, after all. As he begins to use his peculiarity with purpose, though, he gets to more involved in the mission. The other children have more of a chance to shine as well, both in personality and in ability. Though none of them is explored particularly deeply, with 10 characters going through most of the book together, I’m not very surprised or bothered.

I am fascinated by this story that is the ultimate example of using visual prompts to come up with ideas for a story. It’s a common exercise for aspiring writers, especially when they’re trying to come up with something to write about, and Ransom Riggs shows how well it can turn out. I still think he might over-describe the pictures sometimes, which makes those moments in the story feel a little forced, but I liked that he got away from every picture being an actual photo the characters looked at in the story, and many were just used to show us an illustration of a scene or a character.

The plot was definitely the highlight for me, as well as the world-building. I still think the actual writing could be better. I also don’t understand why just about every adult they run into immediately treats them with anger and hatred. There’s a scene at a train station that just seemed ridiculously unlikely to me. And I really could not care less about the relationship between Jacob and Emma—partly because she’s actually a lot older than him, even if she does look like a teenager, and partly because she was in love with Jacob’s grandfather. Both of these things just make it weird, in my opinion.

This book is full of “one step forward, two steps back,” to the point where it feels like the characters (and, by extension, we the readers) will never be able to stop and catch their breath or have good news that doesn’t turn bad. But then I got to the end, and wow! Though I’m usually not a fan of cliffhangers at the ends of books, I’m totally okay with this one! (Granted, it helps that I don’t have to wait for the next book to come out.) For now, though, I’ll stick with the recommendation I made for the first book: If you’re thinking of reading this series because you’re looking for a creepy story to go along with the creepy pictures, you may be disappointed. If you’re looking for an interesting speculative fiction world with kids with super-hero-type powers that first have to save themselves, and then quite possibly the world, this might be worth reading.

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Book Review: A Gilded Lady

A Gilded Lady
Hope & Glory #2
by Elizabeth Camden

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Historical Christian romance

Spoiler notice: The following review will contain some spoilers for the first book in the trilogy, The Spice King.

Caroline Delacroix’s job isn’t an easy one, as secretary to a difficult first lady, but it’s an important one. Being at Ida McKinley’s beck and call is the least Caroline can do if it means she might be able to secure a presidential pardon for her twin brother. Luke is in prison in Cuba, charged with treason, and Caroline will do anything she can to help him. Unfortunately, this puts her at odds with the newly appointed head of security for the president, Nathaniel Trask. Though he’s taken by Caroline’s wit and beauty, he can’t trust the sister of a traitor to the country.

I liked both of the main characters in this book, and I really liked reading the fictionalized history of President and Mrs. McKinley at this time of his presidency. It was interesting to go along on their cross-country train tour. I also enjoyed the continuation of the story of Luke in prison in Cuba that began in the first book in this series. The story overall was good, but I didn’t find it as engaging as the first book in the series. I also had some issues along the way that brought the rating down for me.

The first thing that bothered me was that certain events in this story didn’t seem to match up well with the previous book. There’s some overlap in time, though it’s a bit difficult to follow, because time passes in jumps now and then in this book. Still, there’s a scene in the previous book that involves both MCs in this book, and the timing of how things are discovered in this book just don’t mesh with that scene. I kept trying to figure out how the two stories lined up, timing-wise, and it was distracting. I also noticed some inconsistencies in Luke’s behavior later in the book that I can’t explain without spoiling things.

The dialog continues to be fairly modern in this series, but I’m not personally bothered by it. After reading the first book, I thought the story of Luke that began there would encompass the entire series, the third then focusing on him, but just from the synopsis of the third book, one can see that’s not the case. My initial desire to read this entire trilogy is a little diminished by the way his story arc played out in this book, but I still want to read his story. This book may have been a little bit of a let-down to me after how much I loved the first one, but I have a feeling most of it is personal preference and that other fans of Christian or historical romance will still enjoy it.

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Book Review: The Road Home

The Road Home
Echo Company
#5

by Ellen Emerson White (as Zack Emerson)

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: YA historical fiction

Spoiler notice: The following review may contain some spoilers for a previous book in the series, ‘Tis the Season.

The fifth and final book in the Echo Company series takes us back to the base hospital where Lieutenant Rebecca Phillips is serving out her tour. Before long, most of the people she knew in-country have gone home one way or another, and then…it’s her turn. The prospect of returning to normal life is more daunting than the idea of staying in Vietnam for another year, but Rebecca does what she has to do. Arriving in the United States, being back home with her family, none of that is really what it should be—she’s just too messed up. And she’s not sure that will ever change.

The overall idea that war destroys more than the actual soldiers is strongly presented in this book. Granted, Rebecca did more than just stay on her base and deal with the casualties that came in as other nurses would have done. The tragic encounter that left her injured in book #3 was certainly closer to the experiences of a soldier than those of a nurse. However, that only made her more broken. The book makes it clear that seeing everything she did in the hospital was enough to make “normal life” very difficult.

I struggled a little with having the constant perspective of someone who never tells the full truth (almost never). I’m not saying it feels unrealistic though. Apparently even before the war, Rebecca tended to tell half-truths, at least to her parents. Their relationship has been strained since before she left—that’s a lot of why she left. However, from a fiction POV standpoint, for me, at least, it got a little frustrating to know she was holding back so very much, and I don’t mean just the stuff that it makes a lot of sense for her to not want to tell them.

It was also a little frustrating to see her get good advice from wise and kind people and basically just ignore it. Again, it might be completely realistic for real-life people suffering from such high levels of PTSD to act this way, but it did start to make me wonder what the point of the book was. If it was just to show us the depressing side of life after war, it wasn’t going to turn out to be my favorite at all. Things did end on a somewhat lighter note, though, and I do wish I could see some kind of follow-up for these characters. On the other hand, the realistic follow-up might not be something I’d want to see.

In the first part of the book, I found myself hanging on to everything written about Michael, the main character during most of the rest of the series. Apparently his change in personality in the last book didn’t bother me enough to make me dislike him. I’m still surprised that I picked up the first book in this series when I was a teenager, because it’s really not my norm. I didn’t read them all back then, I think just 1 and 2, but I’m really glad I went through it all now. Here, at the end of the series, I think I would still recommend it for readers who might be interested. There is some language and in the last book a decent amount of sexual references (nothing remotely graphic).

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Book Review: Murder at the Manor

Murder at the Manor
Tommy & Evelyn Christie #1
by Catherine Coles

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Historical cozy mystery

Tommy and Evelyn Christie are spending the weekend at Tommy’s family home, a large estate belonging to his uncle, the Earl of Northmoor. Evelyn, who is not initially from such high-society, is mostly expecting to just grin and bear it. But when the Earl dies and murder is suspected, it’s clear the weekend will be anything but boring. Tommy and Evelyn, who both worked for the police in some capacity in the past, can’t help but perform their own investigation into the plethora of family, acquaintances, and staff who were at the estate for the weekend.

The first in a series of cozy mysteries, I had some ups and downs with this book. The mystery was a little light, not that I knew for sure who had done it, but more that the motive behind it was mundane and easily suspected. The setting was interesting, though the dialog didn’t always feel true to the time period. I didn’t care for the way that pretty much every character except for the 2 MCs and most of the staff is hiding some kind of deplorable secret. Just about every married person is having an affair or had one in the past. Maybe this is completely normal for the setting, I don’t know, but I didn’t care for it.

The weirdest thing, to me, is that the investigating, in particular the interviews the MCs would perform with suspects, felt like something right out of a mystery video game. I’ve played a lot of Nancy Drew games in the past, and it seemed a lot like that. It just didn’t feel natural.

Overall, it was mostly an okay book, nothing to stand out in either direction. It’s fairly short, which I’m sure contributes to it feeling somewhat shallow, but it’s really not bad either. Just not my overall preference for a story. I thought it might be a new series for me to get into, with the 4th book being released a few months ago, but I will most likely pass on this series. However, I think plenty of fans of cozy mysteries and fiction from this time in history (1920s England) are likely to enjoy the book, so if that describes you, consider looking it up.

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Book Review: The Cryptographer’s Dilemma

The Cryptographer’s Dilemma
Heroines of WWII series
by Johnnie Alexander

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Historical Christian romance

Eloise Marshall has a head for numbers, so when the navy recruits her as a cryptographer, she shines in her new role. So much so that the FBI enlists her to help with two potentially coded messages that appear to be innocuous letters about doll collecting. Her reluctant partner is Phillip Clayton, who was recently rejected by the Air Force due to being color blind. As the pair travel across the country trying to find the identity of a potential traitor, can they keep their relationship professional for the sake of their country?

I liked this story a lot while I was reading it, even though a lot of it is pretty unlikely. Then Eloise starts making some pretty reckless decisions for reasons that weren’t too bright, always either to avoid being left behind when she could see her part in the investigation being over or simply because she didn’t trust the FBI to help Phillip. These things aren’t necessarily against her character, but then again, her character is a bit contradictory in itself. On the one hand, she proves herself to be a risk taker (and to have quite a bit of gall in an early interaction between Phillip and his uncle, which I really liked), but at the same time quickly regrets leaving her world of numbers to enter into one of danger. This is not meant to be a complaint about the book, though, as it never left me feeling like it was bad characterization; it shows that she has some depth to her, really. But she still made me smack my head a few times.

As for Phillip…well, he’s a bit contradictory too. He’s shaken up by his part as an FBI agent in some German saboteurs being executed, while counting the minutes until he can join a military branch that won’t mind his color-blindedness, so he can go overseas and essentially execute people personally. However, even with him, I can imagine that he just hasn’t thought of it that way, because he’s too busy feeling guilty that he hasn’t joined his fellow countrymen in the fight, especially when so many people who see a healthy young man not in uniform treat him like a coward. I would fully expect the weight of what he’s joined up to do to not hit him full force until he gets over there.

Overall, the story moved at a good pace. Don’t expect much of a mystery, though, in regards to them finding the identity of the traitor. I would call it pretty light on the suspense, too. The romance isn’t too in-your-face, which I was glad for, though for some, it may be too subtle. And there was one whole element, a sort of side-villain, that wasn’t fleshed out at all and felt incredibly contrived as a way to add some danger for the main characters near the end. These are a few small gripes, though, in an overall good story, which I would recommend for fans of historical Christian romance, especially in the WWII era.

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

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Book Review: Stand Down

Stand Down
Echo Company
#4

by Ellen Emerson White (as Zack Emerson)

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: YA historical fiction

Spoiler notice: The following review may contain some spoilers for the previous book in the series, ‘Tis the Season.

Michael and his squad are mostly going about business as usual, with the exception that Michael’s a little distracted thinking about the female lieutenant that they’d found wandering injured in the jungle. They also have a few new people in their squad, including a new squad commander. But Michael really liked the old squad commander. Then they get the word. Stand down. That means heading to the rear and out of combat. For Michael, that means the hoped-for chance to see the lieutenant again.

I was glad to go back to Michael and his squad, and for the first half of the book, I was really enjoying it. The most stoic character in the books became my new favorite in an amazing scene between him and Michael. We finally learn something about Michael’s ex, and boy is she a piece of work. And we get a glimpse of who Michael really is when he joins in with some hazing of a new guy in their squad. But even there, he recognizes that he’s acting that way because he’s upset and feels at least a little bad about it.

Then they get out of the jungle and onto a much safer base for their stand down, and things changed for me a little bit. It’s not like I can only enjoy the story when the characters are in peril—I did like reading about Rebecca’s time in the hospital during the previous book, despite being thrown because she was unexpectedly the MC of the book. My issue comes with the way Michael acts during this time. He gets pushy in a way that makes me feel really bad for Rebecca, and even worse, we find out that apparently happy, relaxed Michael is kind of a jerk and bully. I think if I’d read about him before he was drafted, I might not have liked the books as much. Still, I did like the way the author showed that after 2 months (or so) of combat, Michael already had the beginnings of some serious PTSD. It’s so real and so heart-wrenching to know that going home some day won’t necessarily be all safe and happy for him.

Overall, the story had some really good moments and was a good read. I’m not as sad as I thought I’d be that the main part of the series has come to an end, though, because I don’t know that I could have handled Michael after this. There is one book left that is about Rebecca and seems to have originally been published as a stand-alone. It’ll definitely be the first time I’ve ever read that (I read at least the first couple of books in this series when I was a teenager), so I’m looking forward to seeing if it stands up to the incredible hype.

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Book Review: ‘Tis the Season

‘Tis the Season
Echo Company
#3

by Ellen Emerson White (as Zack Emerson)

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: YA historical fiction

Focus turns from Michael and his squad to Rebecca, a nurse working at a hospital in Vietnam where the casualties are sent. While life is difficult enough for her, not to mention the work she has to do, she can’t imagine what it’s like out in the jungle. In the combat zone. Until she ends up out there, all by herself, just trying to survive.

I was really confused as I read this book, because the official synopsis makes it sound like the story still centers around the guys in Michael’s squad. They’re barely in it, and the entire thing is from Rebecca’s perspective. This might not have bothered me so much if I knew to expect it. Lots of readers seem to have already read the last book in the series, The Road Home, which was apparently originally marketed as a complete stand alone and wasn’t connected to the series until years later. That book seems to be solely about Rebecca as well. So, then, leaving aside my disappointment at not seeing the guys much, the book was good in its own right.

Rebecca was a strange mix of different than Michael, and yet similar. She shares at least a mild belligerence toward authority to him, but she’s really upbeat and whimsical. Plus, she volunteered to go to Vietnam. She’s got such a heart to help, it makes her the kind of person who could so easily be too emotionally invested in all of the injured people who come through the emergency room. While it’s difficult for those of us who have never been in this kind of situation to understand just how dangerous that can be, I can understand enough to feel for her.

Also because of the official synopsis, which talked about the guys finding Rebecca in the jungle, I was a little frustrated when it took so long for that whole scenario to start. And there was a scene out in the jungle that went on a lot longer than I understood. Honestly, I think we were supposed to get something out of it that I just didn’t. But overall, it’s still a decent book, and I tried not to let the disappointment caused by the official synopsis affect my rating (much).

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