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: Behind the Lights

Behind the Lights
by Helen Smallbone

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Memoir

Helen Smallbone is the mother of seven children who are all adults now, three of which are well-known in Christian music—Rebecca St. James and brothers Joel and Luke of for KING & COUNTRY. In this book, she shares the story of her family, from moving from Australia to the US where everyone pitched in to keep them all afloat, to working together to put on Rebecca St. James’s shows once she got into the music industry, and to how for KING & COUNTRY got started.

One of the things I liked about this book was that way it was so conversational, like she’s telling her story in person. And she’s not afraid to talk about the mistakes made by her or anyone else in her family. I appreciate the way she ties every lesson learned into God and the Bible. Though very little of her incredible life is very relatable to me, I was still quite immersed in the book and was carried along with the ups and downs.

I’ve seen hints of at least Joel & Luke’s involvement in Rebecca St. James’s concerts, but the overall story of the entire family working at their oldest sister’s concerts and growing into their roles was the most interesting to me. It gives a lot of insight into what I’ve said since pretty much the first time I saw fK&C in concert—they put on some of the best live shows I’ve ever been to. And now I can see how their talent as performers had early roots. I’m really glad I read this book, and think that fans of Rebecca St. James and/or for KING & COUNTRY will enjoy it, as well as people interested in the behind the scenes of the Christian music industry (though I was fairly disappointed by some of what I read about that).

Thank you to Netgalley and K-LOVE Books for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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Publication date: April 12, 2022

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Book Review: In Search of a Prince

In Search of a Prince
by Toni Shiloh

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Christian romance

Content as a 25-year-old middle school teacher in New York City, Brielle Bayo never planned to move to an island off the coast of Africa and rule a nation. But that’s just what she’s asked to do when her mother informs her that she’s heir to a throne, and that the king, her grandfather, doesn’t have long to live. Uncertain about whether she can be a queen, or even wants to, she is then also faced with a requirement to marry before her grandfather dies, in order to be legally allowed to reign. It’s too much to handle alone, but maybe it’s a chance for Bri to learn to let God be in control.

This story shows that finding out you’re a princess isn’t always the fairy tale little girls might dream it to be. But it can be a blessing, especially if you can see God’s hand at work throughout. Though it takes Brielle a while to fully trust that “God’s got this,” it’s one of the biggest themes in the book. I’ll admit, it was a little disheartening to see the main character be reminded of God’s sovereignty often, and continue to be stressed and question whether she’s made the right decision. I also feel that she puts way too much stock in the world’s definition and view of love, which is more about passion, attraction, and the feeling of “falling in love,” even when she’s reminded that that’s not what love really is, especially from a biblical standpoint. Fortunately, another character was a lot more grounded overall, but I’m not sure it ever fully rubs off on Brielle.

I think the title of the book does an injustice to the story, as it focuses on Bri’s requirement to marry, and the romance side of the story, when there’s really so much more to it than that. Or at least, it seemed like there was trying to be more to it than that. Bri’s desire to help the people of her ancestral home, the fictional island of Ọlọrọ Ilé, to bring them into modern times, and to be the ruler God designed her to be, is the primary plot, with the romance a large side plot. And I liked that part of the story overall. The love interest (only not mentioning his name in case it’s a spoiler to anyone) was almost too good to be true, with only perceived faults that the reader can see aren’t really true. However, he was still one of my favorite characters.

Contemporary romance books are often less enjoyable for me, due in part to me feeling fairly detached from the modern world, and this was no exception, as dialog was very modern and full of slang (even from some of the Olorans). My bigger frustration with the writing, though, was the tendency for the main character and one major side character to talk almost solely in murmurs to each other for a good chunk earlier in the book. For one thing, it was a gross overuse of a single verb in a small space (seems like it should have been caught by editors), but for another…well, how often do people really murmur in normal conversation? It made me feel like there was just a lot of mumbling going on for a while, and was peppered here and there later in the book too. This is more personal preference, though; overall, the story was good, and I think most fans of contemporary Christian romance will enjoy this book.

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

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Book Review: Until Leaves Fall in Paris

Until Leaves Fall in Paris
by Sarah Sundin

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Christian historical romance

Lucie Girard, American ballerina living in Paris, decides to quit ballet and buy the English-language bookstore run by her Jewish friends, allowing them to escape to America before Hitler’s noose closes around them. While she struggles to keep the store running with so many English speakers fleeing France or being interned, she discovers that members of the local resistance are using her store to pass messages, and she wants to help. Meanwhile, Paul Aubrey, widower with a very creative 4-year-old daughter named Josie, runs a factory that produces trucks for civilian use. Because he sells those trucks to the Germans, he’s seen as a collaborator by all of his friends, who shun him and his daughter. He can’t tell them about the work he’s doing to help the US military, especially after it grows into other work for the local resistance. When the time comes for American’s to flee or be interned as well, Paul and Lucie will have to trust each other in order to get themselves and little Josie to safety.

This book was beautiful and touching, heartbreaking and uplifting, and I don’t think I can say enough about how much I loved it. The symbolism of leaves and the color green is woven throughout the entire book in a way I enjoyed—not always subtly, but I still appreciated how the author built a theme around it all. I adored Josie and the relationship between her and Lucie, as well as Paul’s attempts to understand his daughter better. Josie and Feenee are a major highlight of the book.

It seems like it’s been a while since I’ve given a fiction book 5 stars, but this one deserves it. The two main characters are both likeable and interesting. The ballet angle was a new one for me, and while it’s not something I know much about, I really enjoyed reading about it. Paul’s integrity, even in the face of undeserved hatred, and the way he relies on God to help him through it, is wonderful. The relationship between the two builds in a believable way, without much angst, and it’s not the only focus of the book, all of which I appreciate. The first meet between these two is one of the best I’ve ever read.

Tension builds as the war ramps up, and the last third or so of the book is filled with pulse-pounding, tear-jerking scenes. I loved everything about it, and know without a doubt I will re-read this book in the future. My only real complaint is that Lucie and Josie’s names are similar enough in style and appearance that a few times I was confused about what was going on in a scene or who was talking. But other than that, this book has cemented Sarah Sundin as one of my favorite authors (a distinction I don’t assign easily). And though it doesn’t appear to be part of any series, it is clearly connected to Sundin’s previous release, When Twilight Breaks, as the two MCs from that book appear briefly in this one. And it appears that her next book, which I’m excited to read, will be connected as well! In case it’s not clear, I definitely recommend this book to anyone who likes historical fiction from this time period in the Christian romance genre.

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

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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: 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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