Book Review: Chapter and Curse

Chapter and Curse
The Cambridge Bookshop Series #1
by Elizabeth Penney

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Cozy mystery

When American Molly Kimball and her recently widowed British mother move to Cambridge to take over the running of a bookstore that’s been in their family for generations, the last thing they expect is to get caught up in a murder investigation. But within days of their arrival, someone dies near the bookstore, and Molly’s great aunt, who invited them to England, is the prime suspect. Now, amidst trying to help the bookstore get back on its feet, learning about and meeting members of her previously estranged family, and getting to know the good-looking guy who works next door, Molly is determined to clear her aunt’s name.

Overall, the book was decent. The plot drags in some places, and the mystery seems a little watered-down to me, which is certainly not what you want in a book from this genre. I liked most of the characters, though Molly herself is sort of “meh,” in my opinion. The bookstore and the community around it were a lot of fun to read about. Aunt Violet’s friends are a little on the bizarre side, and I had a difficult time pinning down what age anyone was supposed to be. I can figure it out with some math, but a lot of the characters act similarly to each other, so it was difficult to imagine age differences between some who I assume should have been in different generations.

I don’t go into a cozy mystery expecting to figure out whodunit by the end, though that doesn’t stop me from speculating. I have a tendency to take things at face value and get too caught up in the red herrings. The resolution to this mystery wasn’t a total surprise to me, though, even while I didn’t expect it to go that way simply because it felt so bland. The resolution to the mystery and motivation behind it seemed weak, like much more effort went into setting up this location and cast of characters for future stories than into making the mystery interesting. That’s my opinion, however, and it’s not enough to keep me from being interested in the continuation of this new series, due to how much I liked the setting and characters.

Thank you to Netgalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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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: Lead Me

Lead Me
by Matt Hammitt

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Christian living, memoir

Former Sanctus Real lead singer Matt Hammitt talks about the difficulties he faced for many years trying to balance life on the road with life at home. With a wife and eventually 4 kids, he wanted to be the husband and father they needed while also following God’s calling on his life and providing for his family. In this book, he lays bare the doubts, anxieties, even depression he went through while his wife was at home simply wanting him to lead the family the way he was meant to.

This book really hit home to me in so many ways. My husband and I are at a good point in our 21-year marriage right now, but it hasn’t always been so, and I know it won’t always be so. When Sanctus Real’s song “Lead Me” came out, it spoke to me every time I heard it, and I used the lyrics to explain to my husband where I felt our relationship was lacking at the time. I’m sure the song spoke to countless others as well, just as I’m sure this book will speak to many hearts. Hammitt’s insights into what it means to be present in a marriage, even if you can’t be physically present (though that certainly helps) come from a place of experience, all of which he shares in this book. That his marriage survived some of what he describes is a testament to what can happen if two people refuse to take the easy way out and instead determine to do life together, even when it gets rough (really rough, from the sound of it).

I also found some insight into an issue my extended family is dealing with right now, and highlighted some quotes that apply to that situation. Though we all have our own stories that we’re writing as we go through life, we can certainly learn from each other along the way, even if circumstances don’t match up perfectly. And though I can’t fully connect with what Hammitt and his wife went through during and after the birth of their first son, my heart broke to read about the pain and uncertainty they went through.

My favorite thing about the book is that he points back to the Bible with every uncertainty he has, with every lesson he learns. It’s all right there for us to discover, and Hammitt lays some of it out in a way that could be beneficial to so many people who are struggling with their own families, marriages, or other relationships, whether their issue is trying to balance work and home or a plethora of other possible things that can cause a divide. Also, fans of Matt Hammitt and/or Sanctus Real might appreciate this peek into his life and why he left the band in 2015. I highly recommend this book to anyone who has interest for any reason. (Plus, any book that mentions Psalty the Singing Songbook, not once but twice, is a winner in my book!)

Thank you to Netgalley and WaterBrook & Multnomah 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: 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: Fan Fiction

Fan Fiction
by Brent Spiner

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Autobiographical fiction, thriller

After a few seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Brent Spiner (Data on the show) and his fellow cast members are enjoying the success of a hit series. However, being a celebrity poses its own set of challenges, and Spiner finds himself the target of a deranged fan or two who don’t seem to be able to separate reality from fiction.

The inability to separate reality from fiction is exactly what this book does to its readers, as it’s not always clear what is autobiographical and what is invented. I tend to think that details about Spiner’s own life, from his childhood to his time on TNG, are real, whereas the plot about the crazed fan is mostly fiction. Again, this is just my guess. Unfortunately, as a mystery or thriller story, the plot about the crazed fan is only okay. In fact, I think it’s a stretch calling it a thriller. Multiple suspects are dangled in front of us, but in the end, there’s no real surprise about who the stalker turns out to be. I take that back—I was surprised, but only in that the reveal was pretty anticlimactic. I kept expecting a twist that never came. I take that back too—there was a little twist at the end of the climax. It was bizarre, though, and really never explained satisfactorily.

As for the rest of the book, which is a good amount in itself, the possibly fictionalized view of Spiner’s past and present life was a lot more interesting to me. The book is meant to be funny, but I think it’s a kind of humor I don’t really get (and not the first time that’s been the case). Not that I never got a chuckle, but mostly I felt fascinated and sometimes even sad at the author/narrator’s reminiscences. I actually think I wouldn’t mind giving this book another try, but the audiobook this time. I think that knowing how the mystery part of the story is going to go might give me more of a chance to enjoy the rest of it, especially when read by Spiner himself and including contributions by most of the main cast of TNG at the time that the story takes place.

As for whether or not you will like the story, I would say that if it sounds like something you’d be interested in, give it a try! If you’re a fan of TNG, you might enjoy it for that reason alone. As for me, it mostly gave me the urge to watch the whole series again.

Thank you to Netgalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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Book Review: Terror from Outer Space

Terror from Outer Space
Last Chance Detectives #4
by Robert Vernon

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Children’s Christian mystery, adventure

Have aliens landed in the desert? Though the report may be unbelievable, Sheriff Smitty can’t deny that something strange is going on, especially when he has his own frightening encounter. It’s up to Mike, Winnie, Spence, and Ben, the Last Chance Detectives, to investigate, but they won’t like what they find.

Overall, this was another solid addition to the series, with some exciting scenes and a hard, but important, lesson of faith learned by Mike. The mystery was predictable to me, but younger readers will be much less likely to guess what’s going on. If I’d been in Winnie’s shoes in this story, I probably would have passed out, or at least been found curled up on the floor crying.

Speaking of Winnie, it’s much more obvious in this book that she’s not as well developed as her three friends. The other three have a line or two explaining what they bring to the group at the beginning of the story. Mike’s confidence makes him a natural leader, Spence is clever and inventive, even Ben is said to provide fun and out-of-the-box thinking. There’s literally nothing, not even a minor attempt, made to show Winnie’s contribution to the group, and thinking about the 3 books in this series I’ve read in the last few days, I couldn’t tell you what it was either. She’s just…there.

This is the first new story to come out in a series from the 90s, and while I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the 2 originals that I recently read, I do still recommend this book for those around age 10-14.

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: October 5, 2021

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Book Review: Escape from Fire Lake

Escape from Fire Lake
Last Chance Detectives #3
by Robert Vernon

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Children’s Christian adventure

When Mike Fowler stumbles across bank robbers making a getaway, he becomes an accidental hostage. Unwilling to let him point the finger at them, the thieves leave him for dead in the middle of the desert. Can Mike make it to civilization before succumbing to the sun in Fire Lake?

Wow! For a short book meant for kids, this was quite an intense ride! Unlike the first book in the series, this one was completely new to me, and it really sucked me in. Mike’s trek through the desert, trying not to give in to the sun or his own worries, was really suspenseful and kept me hooked all throughout. At the same time, the other Last Chance Detectives are looking for him, and that part is interesting too. Whereas children’s books can sometimes venture away from reality, in that the kids in the story do things that kids wouldn’t really be able to do in real life, I felt like all of it was quite plausible in this case.

Though there wasn’t any kind of mystery in this story, at least not to the reader, it was still full of adventure and great lessons about relying on God and letting Him give you peace in scary situations. Again the danger is very real, but it doesn’t get to be what I’d consider too scary for kids, and I highly recommend this book for those around 10-14.

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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**Note: This book has been out since 1996, but a new, slightly updated edition will be released on October 5, 2020.

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