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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Book Review: A Love to Cherish

A Love to Cherish
Glory, Montana #2, The Preacher’s Daughters
by Linda Ford

My rating: 2 / 5
Genre: Historical Christian romance

When Reese first sees Victoria, he’s convinced that she’s the missing daughter of a wealthy man from Chicago, where he used to live. But why is the woman living under an assumed name and claiming to be the adopted daughter of the local preacher and his wife? What Reese doesn’t know is that Victoria doesn’t remember anything about her life before 4 years ago when she was the sole survivor of a terrible accident. As Reese tries to untangle the truth, he grows closer to Victoria and begins to wonder if the truth might do more harm than good.

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this story very much. I did not care for the main male character, starting right from the beginning when Reese makes a big deal (in the narration) about valuing trust so highly, and then he misleads a storekeeper into thinking he was asking questions about Victoria because he was interested in her as a possible suitor. And then he proceeds to hide his suspicions from Victoria, under the guise of protecting her. The fact that this story is a romance, and thus the male and female leads have to end up together, doesn’t excuse the author from such contradictory characterization, or the fact that there’s no real consequence for this deception.

The book is short, maybe novella length, and yet, there is a lot of repetition. The story is shallow, mostly focusing on the difficulties Victoria faces not knowing her past and Reese’s vow to always find the truth, after being spurned by a deceitful woman. What added to the shallow feeling of the story is the author’s way of showing how the characters are feeling. Generally, they either shuddered or shivered if they were worried, nervous, unhappy, scared, maybe even confused. That’s it…shuddering or shivering (which, it can be argued, are practically the same thing anyway) are all they, especially Victoria, seem to be able to do to show those feelings.

I liked the first story in this series, but I don’t think I’ll continue on after reading this one. It felt rushed and hollow. As is common with books that I don’t care for, though, most of the other reviews for it are positive, so please check them out if the story interests you.

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Book Review: Hill 568

Hill 568
Echo Company
#2

by Ellen Emerson White (as Zack Emerson)

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: YA historical fiction

Spoiler notice: The following review will contain some spoilers for the first book in the series, Welcome to Vietnam.

Now that Michael Jennings has been in Vietnam for a whole whopping not-quite two weeks, the sergeant asks him to walk point, the most dangerous job in the squad. To make things worse, the entire battalion is grouping up for a full-scale assault of a fortified hill. Fighting sleep deprivation, jungle rot, grief over their recent loss, and pure terror, Michael and the other guys from his squad will do what they have to, because what other choice to they have?

Even after reading the first book in the series recently, which I did like, I was still surprised at how much this series stuck with me since I read it as a teenager. But after reading this second book, I understand more of what I saw in it back then. The characters really begin to come into their own in this story—not just Michael, but also his friends and even at least one guy that pretty much hates Michael (the feeling is mutual). I really loved Michael and Snoopy reading Michael’s letter from his mom together—and then re-reading it. Michael, who almost prides himself on being antagonistic, especially to authority figures, just can’t seem to suppress his good principles, and it makes for some really touching scenes. Even the stilted narration is growing on me—it seems to add to the atmosphere of terror and uncertainty.

The book is still very dark; it’s written for teens, but certainly doesn’t pull many punches regarding the horrors of war—this war in particular. As with the previous book, there is definitely some language in it, but probably still not as much as adult books about the same subject would have. I’m highly anticipating continuing this series now.

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Book Review: Welcome to Vietnam

Welcome to Vietnam
Echo Company
#1

by Ellen Emerson White (as Zack Emerson)

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: YA historical fiction

I read this book about an 18-year-old drafted to fight in the Vietnam War when I was a teenager, which was many years ago. I recently remembered the series and recalled being surprised by how much I liked it, so I tracked it down to read again. It really was far outside of the type of books I read back then and is still quite different from my normal preference today. And just like when I was younger, I really liked this book.

The story opens with the MC, Michael Jennings, newly arrived in Vietnam after basic training in the States. He’s shuttled through various bases until he ends up with the people with whom he’ll be spending most of his time. That’s where the story, and series, really begins, as he meets those who have already been near the DMZ for some time and have developed different ways to cope. Michael earns the nickname “Meat” (as in Fresh Meat), which sticks through the rest of the book. I kinda rolled my eyes, though, because it’s a trope that annoys me a little that this one new guy out of all the new guys they have gotten happens to keep the new-guy nickname.

Early in the book, I wasn’t sure I’d want to continue the series. The narration is often choppy, but it’s purposely so. Now and then the author will write a sentence or paragraph as Michael’s train of thought, including stopping mid-thought to switch to another one, sometimes several times. It feels very real and is how I think and even talk sometimes, but reading it can be a little frustrating. However, by halfway or so, Michael had really grown on me. Though the book is dark (what book about war, particularly this war, isn’t?), it’s also a poignant glimpse at a war that isn’t written about as much, fought by teenagers who didn’t really understand why they were there, and written for teenagers. For those who are wondering, though there is some language in it, it’s not nearly as much as I’d imagine adult books about the same subject would have. I don’t remember being bothered by that when I was a teenager, even though I was never one to use that kind of language myself. I’m not sure how much of the series I read as a teen, but I’m looking forward to continuing it now.

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Book Review: The Widows of Champagne

The Widows of Champagne
by Renee Ryan

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Historical Christian drama

With the German army on France’s doorstep, the 3 widows who live at Chateau Fouche-Leblanc, a premier champagne house, are not prepared for what the Nazis will bring to their home. Gabrielle, who does most of the running of the vineyard these days, hides some of the most valuable champagne in the hopes of rebuilding the family’s wealth after the war. Her mother Hélène is more interested in fashion than wine, but she will have her own part to play in the coming days. And finally Josephine, Gabrielle’s grandmother, though she struggles to keep her thoughts focused on the present, manages her own quiet resistance to the invading forces.

I’m sad to say that I didn’t love this book like I’d hoped. It was only okay. The characters are all very…not shallow, necessarily, but I’m not sure how to explain it. They are just so separate. So alone. It made the story slow and depressing, which may very well have been the point. But the way these women related to each other, and the way each of their late husbands hung over them like a dark cloud, despite each of them having died no less than 5 years in the past, made me sad, and the story became boring. I also didn’t connect with any of the characters at all.

As far as the plot goes, it was interesting to see the way each of these women, again, individually, did what they could or what they had to in order to keep the rest of the family safe. But I often felt like I was missing something, because so much seemed to happen “off screen” and was hinted at in the narration. Josephine, in particular, seemed to be involved in various things, but we only hear about her writing these things down. On the other hand, I could have been misunderstanding a lot of that, because every section from her POV was a little confusing. This was definitely intentional, because she was suffering from early dementia. I think the author did well in showing that, but maybe she should have gone back to Josephine less often.

The book is listed as Christian, and it does have some Christian tones to it. However, I would have liked to see more resolution for the two women who didn’t really believe God cared about them at the beginning of the story. It seems like mentions of God and faith were just thrown in to be able to publish it as Christian. It is a basically clean read, though, with only allusions to a physical relationship with two of the characters that was more out of necessity than desire (at least for one of them). I can already tell from other reviews I’m seeing about this book that I’ll likely be in the minority of thinking the book is only okay. It’s more pure drama than I generally prefer, but I will say I was really interested in the details about champagne and wine making and, though less involved, the information about France’s capitulation and later liberation. I do think fans of historical drama and complex family dynamics will like this book.

Thank you to Netgalley and HARLEQUIN – Romance (U.S. & Canada) for providing me a copy of this book to review.
Publication date: July 27, 2021

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Book Review: Redeeming Grace

Redeeming Grace: Ruth’s Story
by Jill Eileen Smith

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Biblical fiction

I’m going to skip the synopsis in my own words this time, because if you don’t have at least a basic understanding of the story of Ruth from the Bible, you probably won’t be paying much attention to this review anyway. Overall, I didn’t like this book nearly as much as I’d hoped. Some of that I’m sure is personal preference, since Ruth is my favorite book in the Bible and the account of Ruth and Boaz has long held a kind of romance for me. Even outside of that, though, I think there were some issues with how the author handled this retelling.

The author spent so much time on some things and not enough time on others, in my opinion. For example, not to be too flippant about it, but the story doesn’t really get going until Naomi’s husband and sons have all died. This is covered in 5 verses of the 4 total chapters of Ruth in the Bible, but by 130 of the 350 pages of the book. Some of that time was spent introducing Ruth’s character, but a lot of her personality and loyalty can easily be seen in her actions later in the story. Some of those pages were given to Boaz, too, during which he had a wife of more than 10 years. If you’re like me and would have thrown the book across the room if this account had made Ruth a 2nd wife to Boaz (while the 1st wife was alive, a common practice in those days), don’t worry. I still don’t care for how it all worked out, romance-wise, but at least it wasn’t that.

What I wish the author had spent more time on was showing and explaining some of the customs that might seem strange to us modern folks, like why Ruth uncovered Boaz’s feet on the threshing floor. And this leads to my other main issue with the story, the blending of the fictional with what is directly out of the Bible. Though Smith does do a decent job of making the dialog seem like something from back then most of the time, when the characters say words that are taken directly from Scripture, the difference is a bit jolting to me. And I believe that Boaz’s first marriage in this story is likely a way of explaining why he is an older man, yet unmarried, but Boaz in the Bible speaks about God as if he fully trusts in Him and believes in His goodness. Yet here we have a Boaz who is broken and questioning God, even for a while feeling a bit numb to Him, yet still speaks those same trustful words to Ruth at the necessary time from the biblical account…it just doesn’t mesh.

What I did love, however, is Ruth herself and how she’s portrayed in this book. I think the author did right by the biblical account in that respect, and I really liked Ruth’s conversion and how she always wanted to know more about Naomi’s God and the Israelite customs. I also appreciated the completely fictional side-story of Hamul, Elimelech’s brother’s son, both in its own respect and in how it showed Boaz following not only the letter of the law, but also the spirit of it.

I do wonder if I should cease attempts to find a fictionalized version of this account, because it may be impossible to find one to my liking. I think, though, that what bothers me most is when the author feels the need to come up with modern-mindset reasons for things from the historical account, even though we all know how different cultures were back then. Also, this is another Christian book where a newly married couple’s first night together is described a bit further than I would prefer. Not graphic by any means, but enough to make me start to feel uncomfortable before we moved on. If you’re interested in reading this book, however, don’t let me dissuade you. Many other people thought it was great, and you can check out their reviews at the link below.

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Book Review: Poppy Redfern and the Fatal Flyers

Poppy Redfern and the Fatal Flyers
A Woman of WWII Mystery #2
by Tessa Arlen

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Historical cozy mystery

Poppy Redfern’s writing has gotten noticed, and she’s been made a scriptwriter for the London Crown Film Unit to help showcase British civilians who are heroes in some way to the war effort. Through this job she meets women pilots from the Air Transport Auxiliary, whose job it is to fly new and repaired planes to military airfields throughout the country. While working on the script for the film about these ladies, one of them dies in a spectacular crash that is attributed to pilot error. But Poppy is not so sure it was an accident and starts asking questions that don’t exactly relate to the script she’s writing.

I really liked this book, though not quite as much as the first one in the series. The world-building and atmosphere were just as good, but the characters were just a little weaker. And the mystery plot was mostly done well, but I was left scratching my head a little at the end. There was a clue given near the beginning of the story that was never actually used in any way, unless I simply missed it. Still, the story played out well.

I love the history that this series brings to life, and learning about the ATA and Attagirls was the best part of the book. The American fighter pilot Poppy grows close to in the previous book, Griff, is in this one as well. Readers hoping to see their relationship ramp up may be disappointed, but I personally don’t mind the struggles they’re going through, only partly related to the differences between their cultures. Poppy comes to realize during this book that she may be offering Griff more than just “British reserve” due to her own past, but Griff shows that he can handle it. I wonder if we’re seeing shades of the author’s relationship with her husband, she being British and he being American. Either way, it’s a much more realistic-feeling “romance” than most you find in books, and I like it.

Poppy’s continued inner voice of the main character of the novels she’s still writing is a quirk that doesn’t detract from the novel at all, in my opinion. Like the previous book, I enjoyed the experience this book provided and would recommend you give it a try if either of the genres interest you. I may have to wait half a year for the next book to come out, but I’ll definitely be watching for it.

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Book Review: Tidewater Bride

Tidewater Bride
by Laura Frantz

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Historical Christian romance

1634 Virginia is a dangerous place, but the colonists in James Towne are determined to make a life in the New World. Selah Hopewell and her family work as merchants, providing goods for those in and around the town. Though she is well past the marrying age, she has preferred to help her father, rather than take a husband. Alexander Renick is a widow who has strong ties to the nearby Powhatan people, his late wife being a Powhatan princess. He is also the wealthiest tobacco baron in the colony and quite married to his work. As Selah and Xander, separately and together, deal with the treachery of both man and nature, they begin to feel a pull toward each other.

There are some books that are billed as romance and that’s clearly all the story is meant to be about. And then there are some books that are billed as romance, but have so much more depth to the story than just how the two main characters end up together. I much prefer the latter, and fortunately, this is just that type of story. Yes, the romance is there, and it’s sweet and innocent, just how I like it. But it’s not the main focus of the book, and even the main climax of the book doesn’t revolve around it. There’s so much more going on–the tenuous peace between the colonists and the Powhatans, the duplicity of some of the less-than-moral colonists, and the turmoil that both Selah’s and Xander’s families are in at different times during the story. And during all of that, a blooming relationship.

The other side to this, though, is that I’m not sure there was a very solid, clear main plot throughout the book. Even now that I’ve finished the story, the only real main thread I can identify is the question of what, if anything, is the shady Helion Laurent up to? It’s not that the story is lacking in conflict–far from it. But no main conflict rises to the surface until at least halfway through the story (unless I just missed it). This doesn’t mean the story was bad by any means, but it does lend to the narrative feeling a bit slow for a while, I think. Fortunately, the characters and the different things that are going on are interesting enough that “slow” never became “plodding” or “boring.” I really appreciated the way that Selah recognized her shortcomings, not because someone pointed them out to her, but because a timely Bible verse shed light on her inner being, and she repented of those things, providing inspirational character growth.

This was a departure from me, a time and location in history I’ve not read much about, and the description of life in the early Virginia colony was fascinating. In the author’s note, Frantz admitted to a few things she bent timelines on, but I’m definitely ignorant enough that I would never have known the difference. I looked up a few words that I wasn’t certain I was understanding from context, but for the most part, the story was easy to read and really took me back in time. I recommend this book for all fans of Christian historical fiction, whether or not you would specifically seek out the addition of romance.

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

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Book Review: Refugees on the Run

Refugees on the Run
The Imagination Station #27
by Chris Brack & Sheila Seifert

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

In this final of a 3-part story arc, cousins Beth and Patrick find themselves in Lithuania sometime in the mid 1940s. A crowd of Jewish families are trying to get into the Japanese consulate building, in the hopes that they can find the means of escaping from the approaching Nazis. Beth and Patrick find themselves in the middle of the battle, as Beth tries to help a Lithuanian Jewish family and Patrick does his best to assist the Japanese consul.

I really enjoyed this story and the way it presents a difficult time in history to kids in a way that doesn’t completely gloss over the danger, but doesn’t go into detail either. I really appreciated that it introduced me, and thus will introduce kids, to a man who helped rescue many Jews, but isn’t nearly as well-known as others. It’s incredibly coincidental that I read this directly after reading Schindler’s List (seriously, it was not on purpose) and really liked seeing the parallels there.

I didn’t know much about this book or the series it’s part of when I started reading. I also hadn’t read the previous 2 books in the in-series arc, but the beginning of the story did a good job of telling me what I needed to know (which wasn’t much). The slight mystery/puzzle angle to the story, that the kids were trying to find some kind of liquid needed by the Imagination Station, allowed another layer to be added to the story. And though a couple of times throughout the story I thought about how unrealistic certain things would have been, especially the inclusion of children in consulate matters, it’s not too hard to remind myself that Imagination Station adventures are meant to put kids right into the middle of things, and these are programmed virtual adventures, not a real trip back in time. (I have enough experience with Adventures in Odyssey overall to be familiar with the Imagination Station.)

I do recommend this book for kids up to 12 years old, but AiO overall is fairly timeless, so the age limit is a soft one. I already have recommended it to my 11-year-old daughter, who has decided to start at the beginning of the series. As for me, I was left with a strong desire to read the earlier 2 books in this 3-story arc and then eventually will probably go back to the beginning of the series too.

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: June 8, 2021

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