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: The Reptile Room

The Reptile Room
A Series of Unfortunate Events #2
by Lemony Snicket
read by Tim Curry

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Children’s fiction

The three Baudelaire orphans have been set up with a new guardian, Uncle Monty. He’s interesting, fun, and kind, and the kids are looking forward to going to Peru with him to study reptiles. But oh, this is a Lemony Snicket book, so we’re informed up front that their happiness won’t last. And indeed, it doesn’t.

I suppose I liked this book a little more than the previous. Even though I knew from early on that Uncle Monty wouldn’t signal the beginning of a happy life, I was still glad for the kids that they got a little bit of time with him. I think Count Olaf’s attempt at getting at their money was a lot more half-baked this time, but on the other hand, the way the kids got out of his snare was a little more clever this time. I did enjoy the “friendship” between Sunny and the Incredibly Deadly Viper, and even thought it was pretty great that she…oh, I guess that would be a spoiler.

But just like with the previous book, the highlight of the whole thing, for me, was that it was read by Tim Curry. One whole star of my rating is based on that, because that’s how much I love listening to his voice. We’ll see how it goes from here on.

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Book Review: Love Burning Bright

Love Burning Bright
Cassie Perkins
#6

by Angela Elwell Hunt

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: YA Christian drama

Spoiler notice: The following review may contain some spoilers for the previous books in the series, which starts with No More Broken Promises.

Cassie and her brothers are sent to camp for a week so their parents can have some time to themselves. At first, Cassie is lonely. Then she meets Ethan, a wild, reckless, older boy who flirts with all the girls and treats her little brother badly. Cassie knows he’s a terrible person, but when he turns his attention to her, she can’t help but be attracted to him.

Cassie has finally moved on from family drama, and now her focus turns to something a little more common to girls her age: a crush on a boy. She seems to have to learn everything the hard way, as here she fells into a trap that might be familiar to some of us—getting into a relationship thinking she can fix the other person. She’s certain God wants her to help Ethan, and maybe he does, but she’s still pretty immature herself and goes about it in the wrong ways. Even as the message being focused on throughout the week is about finding God’s will, including in love, Cassie keeps mis-applying it to herself and making another common mistake of assuming Ethan needs this truth more than she does.

It was nice to see Cassie move beyond her selfish whininess in the past books to a new type of problem. And the story didn’t go the way I assumed it would, so that was nice. I’ve enjoyed this series so much, even with my small complains about Cassie’s selfishness, and hope to be able to recommend them to my daughter when she’s a little older (they’re not easy to find). The next story in the series is the one I remember the most from when I was a teenager, and I’m looking forward to continuing!

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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: The Much-Adored Sandy Shore

The Much-Adored Sandy Shore
Cassie Perkins
#5

by Angela Elwell Hunt

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: YA Christian drama

Spoiler notice: The following review may contain some spoilers for the previous books in the series, which starts with No More Broken Promises.

Cassie’s mom and step-dad think she’s completely self-centered, so she sets out to prove them wrong by helping a social outcast at her school change her image. What really happens, though, is that Cassie learns to be more grateful for her own blessings.

If I thought Cassie was childish and annoying in the last book, she really hits new heights in this one. She is just downright mean (of course, this is from the perspective of a parent, which is probably different than the perspective of a teenager who might read this book). I can’t even say that plenty of teenagers in her situation wouldn’t act the same way, but it does get a bit difficult to read. Fortunately, this book puts an end to all of that. And here’s where I begin to feel like this series is basically a series of after-school specials for Christian teens (not in a bad way). Parents getting divorced and remarried, a classmate with AIDS, and now the serious topic brought up in this book. I won’t say more, because it’d be a spoiler for the climax. Though I did suspect it earlier in the book, I don’t think as many younger readers would. Then again, these days, teens have seen a lot more than they had in my day, whether in real life or on TV.

The story about Cassie helping Sandy Shore didn’t go the way I expected it to at all, which is a good thing. And Cassie definitely saw her own life in a new light by the end, which explains why the next few books finally get her away from the drama of her home life and into whole new messes. Though it looks like she won’t be at school as much in the rest of the series, I really hope we get a chance to catch up with Sandy Shore before the end.

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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: A Dream to Cherish

A Dream to Cherish
Cassie Perkins
#4

by Angela Elwell Hunt

My rating: 4.5 / 5
Genre: YA Christian drama

Spoiler notice: The following review may contain some spoilers for the previous books in the series, which starts with No More Broken Promises.

Cassie thought that going back to school with her friends would be great, but life seemed to have moved on without her while she was gone. Her best friend spends a lot of time with a guy she likes, Cassie’s sort-of boyfriend is busy with a new after-school job, and life isn’t much better at home. It seems like Cassie’s whole family is…well, a family, except her. So when a popular, accomplished older girl at school befriends Cassie and gives her an excuse to be away from home more, Cassie jumps at the chance.

At this point in the series, I still really like the overall story, but Cassie is starting to grate on my nerves. I do get that a lot has happened, and that the adults in her life are frankly not doing a lot to help her with the transitions, but every time I hope something has happened to change her perspective, it’s not quite enough to keep her from complaining about everything.

On the other hand, the main story that unfolds in this book is pretty amazing, and the way Cassie handles all of that is a lot better than how she’s handling the changes in her home life. Well, eventually, it is. She definitely takes some time to adjust, but I think it’s pretty safe to say her reactions are realistic. The story really touched me and hit home, because (and this will be a bit of a spoiler if you know who I’m referring to or look it up) Ryan White was from a town not far from where I live. I remember hearing about him when I was in elementary school, though I don’t know if it was because of legislation that passed or if I’m remembering hearing he’d died, since I’d have been 8 at the time. This book probably got some inspiration from his story, and knowing how real it is makes it all the more heartbreaking.

I think what I loved most about the story was the message about having hope in the face possible death for those who have accepted Christ. Though the Christian message has always been a bit light in this series, since Cassie herself is a new Christian who still needs to learn a lot about following God, this book has a great lesson and some wonderful quotes. “On the day of victory, no one is tired…When you win, you’ll forget about all this.”

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Book Review: Princess in the Spotlight

Princess in the Spotlight
The Princess Diaries #2
by Meg Cabot
read by Anne Hathaway

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: YA contemporary fiction

Mia Thermopolis really just wants to be a normal NYC high school student. But as the crown princess of a small European country, she has to deal with primetime interviews and princess lessons instead. Then her mother drops a bombshell on her, and Mia begins receiving letters from a secret admirer. Will it all be too much to handle?

Boy, Mia sure does like to complain. I mean, I get that she has a lot going on, but it seems like every diary entry starts with her exclaiming about how something terrible has happened. And yet, I still enjoyed the book. It did get a little much when she made such a huge deal out a really low temperature when she got sick, and I couldn’t tell if she was exaggerating or if she/the author really thinks that a 100-degree temperature is really a big deal.

I think what keeps all of this from making the story annoying is the writing style. Things move quickly, the writing is easy to read (or in my case, listen to), and Anne Hathaway does a great job with the narration (I mean, she basically is Mia anyway). I can’t say I love the way Mia seems to treat her best friend, considering that she almost never shares any big news with Lily, leaving her to find out some other way. Lily gives as good as she gets, though; it’s a wonder these two are friends. Lest this review sound like a negative one, though, the book is fun and feels like a real diary from a teenager around the beginning of the millennium.

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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: The Bad Beginning

The Bad Beginning
A Series of Unfortunate Events #1
by Lemony Snicket
read by Tim Curry

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Children’s fiction

When the Baudelaire children are orphaned and sent to live with a very odd relative they’ve never heard of, their misfortune is only beginning. Their new guardian, Count Olaf, has designs on the fortune their parents left behind, and will stop at nothing to get his hands on it.

I’ve never read any of these books, nor have I seen any of the adaptations. It always seemed a little dark and strange for my tastes. And I would have continued in ignorance without any qualms had I not discovered that Tim Curry narrated the audiobooks for the series. I love Tim Curry, and I especially love his voice. And yes, he brought my rating up an entire star all by himself. Because overall, the book was only okay, maybe even less than okay. I wasn’t even entirely sure what genre (other than children’s fiction) to put this in, because it seems like it’s supposed to be funny, but I didn’t find it all that humorous. And I guess there’s supposed to be a mystery, and I was actually looking forward to seeing what clever way the kids got out of Count Olaf’s snare, only for it to be a really simple, boring solution. Really, it was a little dark for children’s fiction, and Count Olaf’s and his friends were ridiculously and unnecessarily over-the-top mean.

I did like the way the kids stuck together and didn’t give up when things were bleak. I didn’t even mind the way the narrator inserted definitions for some possibly difficult words for kids, though to be honest, I don’t know that it wouldn’t have annoyed me if it wasn’t Tim Curry giving me those definitions. I’ve seen some reviews that say it gets better after the first book, so for Tim Curry’s sake, I’ll keep going for now.

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