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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Book Review: The Last Sin Eater

The Last Sin Eater
by Francine Rivers

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Historical Christian fiction

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

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

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

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Book Review: Islands and Enemies

Islands and Enemies
The Imagination Station #28
by Marianne Hering

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

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

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

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

Thank you to Netgalley and Tyndale House Publishers/Focus on the Family for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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Publication date: April 5, 2022

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Book Review: The Mayflower Bride

The Mayflower Bride
by Kimberley Woodhouse

My rating: 2 / 5
Genre: Historical Christian romance

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: Crocodile on the Sandbank (take 2)

Crocodile on the Sandbank
Amelia Peabody #1
by Elizabeth Peters
read by Barbara Rosenblat

My rating: 4.5 / 5
Genre: Historical cozy mystery

As a female during the Victorian era in England, Amelia Peabody is ahead of her time. Unmarried and independently wealthy, she has no need for a man or most of societal conventions. With a passion for Egyptology and a thirst for adventure, she decides to journey to less-traveled parts of Egypt, taking into her company along the way a young woman whose reputation has been tarnished. Amelia gets the adventure she’s looking for, and more, when a missing mummy begins to terrorize the women.

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). My sister, who recommended the book in the first place, convinced me to try again with a different narrator, and it really did make a huge difference. Things that irritated me about the main character weren’t nearly as pronounced, and I think that’s simply due to the sound of the two different narrators’ voices. Yes, Amelia is still arrogant and aggressive, and Rosenblat certainly did put that into her inflection, but it didn’t seem as over the top this time. It might have helped, too, that Rosenblat’s Amelia actually had a British accent. Even Amelia’s companion, Evelyn, I realized while listening this time, felt less breathy and weak in this version. I hadn’t even realized how much that had bothered me with the other version. Emerson was the one character I liked the first time around, and I was more able to enjoy the humor he and his interactions with Amelia bring to the book on this second listen. Also, Rosenblat’s voice for Lucas, Evelyn’s cousin who follows her to Egypt, is perfect.

Overall, I was able to enjoy the story more, and frankly, I think I paid closer attention, as I remember my attention wandering more the first time around. Now that I’ve given it another chance, I’m looking forward to continuing on to the next book with this narrator. I’m also glad to be able to recommend this book to people who like cozy mysteries or Egyptology. 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: Swept into the Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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