Book Review: before i knew you

before i knew you
Choices Matter #1
by Beth Steury

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: YA Christian romantic drama

When high school juniors Preston and Maggie meet, they’re both planning for abstinence until marriage. But where Maggie has always had that plan, for Preston, it’s a result of a period of bad decisions with girls that he wants to come back from. Though he knows it’s a bad idea, he keeps his past a secret from his new girlfriend. Unfortunately, the truth has a way of coming out. Can their relationship survive when Preston’s past comes back to complicate his life?

For about the first half of this book, I felt like there wasn’t much of a story. It was a fairly standard building of a relationship between two high schoolers. But the second half of the book contained all of the story, and I found that it was interesting enough to redeem the first half.

During the first half of the book, I grew increasingly uncomfortable as the story only seemed to be a progression of Preston and Maggie going further and further in their physical relationship. Lots of kissing, touching, making out, etc. I was, quite frankly, relieved when things started to get awkward between them for various reasons. For a book that is meant to help teenagers make good choices in their relationships, it certainly is steamy, and it seems to me that it might just make hormonal young people more desirous. That is my biggest issue with the book.

Outside of that, and especially after that was over, the story had more plot. And I was able to answer the question I had during the first half, which was whether the characters were actually Christians or not, as it was only vaguely discussed during that part (seems to be a commentary on how God doesn’t really enter into the picture when one is giving in to desires of the flesh, but I don’t know if that was intentional or not). I also found it strange that Preston says his parents are involved, in regards to keeping their relationship in check, but I didn’t see that at all. As someone who had strict restrictions about how alone I could be with a guy in high school, the parents in this book were downright lax by comparison, especially for Christian parents.

The difficulties that come up due to Preston’s past experiences, as well as for other teens that the two MCs know, help to give an understanding about why saving yourself for a future spouse is the best way to go–not just as a Christian to avoid sinning, but because of so many undesirable consequences that can happen, even beyond the obvious like teen pregnancy.

Though I give the book 3.5 stars, I don’t know that I could recommend it for the audience it’s intended, due to what I said above about the intense way the ramping-up is described. But I don’t know that I’d recommend it to adults either, because they’re not necessarily the audience that really needs it. Maybe the best set of people to read this book is parents of teens, or future teens, to help them understand better the minefield that is teenage romance.

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Book Review: Jubilee Manor

Jubilee Manor
Landry Park
#2
by Bethany Hagen

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Dystopian romance

Spoiler notice: The following review may contain some spoilers for the previous book, Landry Park.

As Madeline, her family, and the estate deal with the actions at the end of Landry Park, one of Madeline’s fellow gentry heirs is murdered. Madeline suspects a particularly hateful Rootless man, which puts her at odds with her uncle and cousin, as well as with David Dana. A second murder only serves to escalate the threat of violence between the Rootless and the gentry, as Madeline feels caught in the middle, hoping to make a difference, but unsure of who will listen.

This short book series has a difficult-to-define quality to it that gives it a charm and depth that I really enjoyed. Several surprises came up in this book, and though a few threads were still left hanging, overall, it was a nice conclusion to the short series.

Most of the things that bothered me in the first book were gone in this one. The relationship between Madeline and David deepened in a way that did still cause a lot of drama for Madeline, but it was based on a real conflict, rather than the immature-feeling jealousy in the first book. They argued a lot over Madeline’s insistence that the murderer was a Rootless man, though, and there were several things about that whole situation that bothered me–probably the biggest detraction in the entire book for me.

The mystery wasn’t very deep or intriguing, but it was a good catalyst for the plot. I wouldn’t go as far as to put this book into the mystery genre, but I think fans of romance and dystopian worlds, especially those who also like books set in the Victorian or Regency eras should give this 2-book series a try.

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Book Review: Anne of Windy Poplars

Anne of Windy Poplars
Book #4
by L.M. Montgomery

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Children’s/YA classic, coming of age

See my review for book #1, Anne of Green Gables.

This book felt like a way station on the way to the rest of Anne’s life. Maybe that was intentional, but I didn’t feel very present with the story or the characters. And much of the book felt very repetitive, both to itself and to the rest of the series so far, like a rinse and repeat with only the names and locations changed.

I really liked Anne’s home for these three years–Windy Poplars, and the three women that came with it. Rebecca Dew was so much fun, especially in regards to poor Dusty Miller. And the situation with the poor, neglected Elizabeth was just about the sweetest, most heart-warming conclusion to a terrible story arc ever.

However, we get a lot of the same two basic storylines: A) Someone(s) is/are grumpy, unhappy, crabby, etc., whether in general or to Anne specifically. In some due course of time (either quickly or longer-term), Anne basically turns them happier or nicer, simply by being herself. B) Anne meets a woman who is a busybody or simply very chatty, who dominates all conversation for several pages, and something may or may not actually come of the entire situation. Any of these things on their own would not have been bad, and a few of these situations I liked more than the rest. But I feel like there could have been a lot more variety in the overall book and the three years Anne spent at Windy Poplars.

Most of the book is written in epistolary form, letters from Anne to Gilbert as they spend these 3 years apart. I’m not sure there was much reason for that, though, and even though some was written in normal 3rd-person narration, we barely got to see much of Anne’s time back at home. This meant missing out on seeing much of the characters we got to know earlier in the series. But we did see enough to see poor Dora slighted even further. Seriously, Montgomery seems to only have created Dora to give young Davy a target for his mischievousness, and she’s just this after-thought even now, 2 books later.

The series has lost a little of its charm for me, but I think this book was a bit of a departure from the rest of the series. I know it was written after books #5 & 6, so perhaps Montgomery was boxed-in, knowing she couldn’t change the later books, so not much could happen? But it just felt dry compared to the rest of the series so far. Here’s hoping that the next book regains the lovely Anne charm.

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Book Review: Time and Again

Time and Again
History Mystery #1
by Deborah Heal

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: YA Christian sci-fi

Abby takes a volunteer job as a live-in summer tutor for an eleven-year-old named Meredith and moves into their large, old house in a once-thriving railroad town. After spending some time trying to bring the unhappy, spoiled Meredith around to the idea of studying, and exploring the neighborhood a bit, Abby and Meredith discover a strange secret on the brand new computer Abby’s estranged dad bought her–they can follow their house back in time and watch the lives of people who lived there in the past.

The first thing I want to say is don’t get too hung up on the categorization of this book as “time travel.” It’s not what almost anyone would really consider time travel. Abby and Meredith can watch the past, and even in some nebulous way “hear thoughts” from at least one person they’re watching, but there is no traveling in time. They call it time surfing. And while I did have some issues with this book, by the end, I realized I had mostly enjoyed it, and plan to continue with the series.

It takes a long time for anything to really happen. We get to know Abby and Meredith as the former gets settled in and the latter balks against all forms of learning. I found Abby to be not a terribly nice person, kind of even haughty sometimes. And Meredith is just a spoiled brat, plain and simple. She acts older than her age at first too, especially when she’s acting out. I also had to wonder if college-student Abby had ever interacted with a boy before when she meets John Roberts and acts like a middle-schooler.

When the time surfing really got going, I found myself a lot more wrapped up in both of the storylines. Meredith began to be less bratty, probably as much because she’s got someone spending time with her and showing real interest (make no mistake–divorce and single parent-ship can be really hard on a child). And the story of Charlotte, the young woman who lived in the house in and around the Civil War, was interesting.

There are a few things that really took me out of the story, which are likely a result of the book being self-published. A jarring lack of scene transitions, for example. And, for a book so focused on history, I was seriously shocked to see Abby say that in pre-Civil War times, Illinois (the state they’re in) bordered the slave state of Ohio. Not only has Illinois never bordered Ohio (Indiana is in between), but Ohio was not a slave state.

The book is novella-length and not a difficult read by any means. I’m definitely curious to see where the series goes from here. I would recommend this book for readers of Christian fiction, especially those who like history.

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Book Review: Sadie

Sadie
by Courtney Summers

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: YA suspense, drama

Sadie’s life was already an unhappy one, her main bright spot being her little sister Mattie, whom she practically raised. But then Mattie dies, and some time later, Sadie decides to do what the police can’t–track down Mattie’s killer. This leads Sadie on a road trip to find the man she knows is responsible. Three months later, a radio personality is asked by Sadie’s surrogate grandmother to find the missing Sadie. He follows her trail and turns the investigation into a podcast.

It was really difficult to rate this book in the end, because it was dark and disturbing, but also unique and interesting. Sadie’s perspective is shown in first-person, present tense as she travels from town to town looking for her sister’s killer. The podcast is shown in a script format–West McCray (the radio personality) explaining to us what he finds, and also interviewing people along the way.

Before I get any further with my review, I feel a content warning is in order. There are certain things that are treated very carefully–pedophilia, drug abuse, and murder. There is also a lot of language. I started out listening to the audiobook, because it was highly recommended, given that the podcast sections are presented like a real podcast. However, I had to switch to a format where I read Sadie’s portions myself and listened to the “podcast” parts, because Sadie’s portions are so heavy with language, I couldn’t stand listening to it. I can handle it in text better, because apparently I tend to mentally bleep out those words. But I also didn’t care for the person who read Sadie’s part, because she sounded angry all the time, no matter what she said. Simply describing a room, she was angry. It was a bit much. So the joint format worked well for me.

One of my favorite things about the book, which I started out thinking would make it boring or repetitive, was McCray’s follow-up on things we’d already seen Sadie do. Because he trailed her 3 months later, we were able to see the aftermath of some of her actions. And the way McCray got caught up in her story added a comforting human element the rest of the story seemed to be lacking–not because other characters were heartless or didn’t care, but because the circumstances just didn’t lend to them being very kind, compassionate, etc.

The book being YA leads me to warn that if you’re thinking of allowing your teenager to read it, read it first. The language alone may put off a lot of people. However, I do think the book is worth reading–I just know I wouldn’t let my daughter read it as a teenager.

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Book Review: The Maze Runner

The Maze Runner
Book #1
by James Dashner

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: YA dystopian

I’ve not read any of the big-name YA dystopian series that have been popular over the years, so this is my first foray into those books. I liked this story–both the plot in this book, and the larger story that it sets up. While there were some things that I felt could have been done better, they were not enough to detract from my overall enjoyment.

I found the immediate world-building–the Glade and maze around it–interesting and fun to explore (if “fun” is the right word, given the situation). It felt a lot like a community a bunch of teenage boys would create. And Thomas himself I found to be an engaging main character. Others have seen him as a Gary Stu-type (too good at everything), I didn’t see it that way at all. Yes, he had his areas of innate ability, but I didn’t find it to be overly done, and there were legitimate reasons for all of it.

One thing that bugged me the most was the fake cussing. I get the reason Dashner included it (or at least, my assumption of his reason), but in the context of the story, it really didn’t make sense. The boys remembered the world overall, just had no personal memories, so why did they feel the need to make up their own swear words? And speaking of those memories, the progression of life as we know it to the dystopian world these people inhabit seems a little off in conjunction with the things they remember. Especially adding in some other factors that would be a spoiler to mention.

While there were plenty of predictable things that happened, the danger was real, and it kept me moving quickly through the entire book. My husband started listening to the audiobook at the same time, which is not something we’ve ever done before. I’m also looking forward to continuing the series, and hope we’ll do so together.

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Book Review: Time Benders: The Machine

Time Benders: The Machine
Time Benders #1
by J.B. Yanni

My rating: 2 / 5
Genre: YA science fiction, Christian

Time Benders

When the four Fitzgerald children are orphaned, their aunt sends them off to boarding school. There, the four siblings grow closer than they had ever been before, as they rely on each other in their grieving and new, sudden situation. As the kids settle into life at the school, eldest sibling Ken begins to investigate the circumstances surrounding their aunt taking custody of the kids and excluding them from the will reading. Meanwhile, his brother Joe, a math and science whiz, finds a fascinating math problem, coupled with a machine. When he discovers that the calculation might just be the secret to time travel, the kids have to decide whether or not they should go back and prevent their parents’ death, and how they would even do that.

I have to say that this book was really not for me. There were two main areas that brought the story down the most for me, and sadly one of them was the plot itself. The other area was the writing style. I’ll explain a little:

Time travel plots can be difficult to do well, and since they always require suspension of disbelief, for some people, it doesn’t pay to be too picky about what you’re expecting from one. However, the assumptions the kids make in this book about how time travel would work for them and anyone who didn’t come along one the trip make no logical sense to me. And even when they see evidence that it doesn’t work that way, I don’t see them re-thinking their ideas. Also, they decide to go back and change a major point in history (won’t say what it is due to spoilers), because they feel that it will stop the beginning of a long progression of events that led to their parents death. And yet, they say more than once that they’re sure changing this major point won’t affect their friends’ families and lives. Even after saying that this event will potentially change another event in history, which affected millions of lives. It just makes no sense to me. And it’s not because they’re kids, since they’re generally shown to be smart (the oldest, who isn’t even one of the professed brains in the family, is going to Harvard). Oh, and I almost forgot that as the kids debate whether they even should go back to stop their parents’ deaths or not, their arguments actually make it seem like they’re against doing it…even as they decide to do it.

The writing itself seemed like it needed some more work. From the very beginning the dialog just felt stilted, and I realized that the kids don’t use contractions as much as an average person in America would. A lot of the story is told in a way that feels very zoomed out, rather than up close to the action. Conversations are told to the reader, rather than shown. For example, “she told him she wanted to go to the store, and he said he thought that was a good idea,” rather than seeing the actual conversations taking place. Coupled with these zoomed-out conversations having little to no explanation of what anyone was doing while talking, they felt shallow. A lot of the time, the story felt more like an outline (though granted, a really detailed outline) than a final draft.

I found the question of whether or not there was something sinister in the way Aunt Alicia handled the estate and kids she was charged with after her sister’s death more interesting than the time travel part of the story, which is sad, because it kind of fizzled out. The rest of the plot involved everyday life for the kids–they had classes, holidays away from school, got boyfriends/girlfriends, at least one lost a boyfriend/girlfriend, etc. I think far too much of that was shown, considering how little it affected the plot, but it probably wouldn’t have bothered me too much without the other issues I’ve mentioned, or if it would have at least served to show the kids’ personalities more. But there wasn’t much there.

I found this book when I saw the author was putting out the 2nd in the series, and wanted to see if it would be a good series to get into. Even though the first book ends on a huge cliffhanger, I don’t think it hooked me enough to put money into reading the next one. There may be an audience out there for this book, and it might just be the teenage audience that it’s meant for, though I personally wouldn’t recommend it to the YA group either. The book is in at least 1 Christian category on Amazon, and I could see where some of that was trying to come out. It might be brought out more in the next installment, but I can only speculate. I applaud the author for the work she’s put into this book, truly, but I think it needs quite a bit more work to be the great book it could be.

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Book Review: 4 Years Trapped in My Mind Palace

4 Years Trapped in My Mind Palace
by Johann Twiss

My rating: 4.5 / 5
Genre: YA historical fiction, fantasy

4 Years

Fourteen-year-old Aaron spends two years paralyzed, but still aware of his surroundings. He’s believed to be brain dead, though, and left to his own thoughts during that time. After two years with only his imagination to sustain him, inside of which he created a world he calls his Mind Palace, he gets a new roommate–Solomon, a dementia patient with a colorful history. The next few years are the best of Aaron’s life, so far. An unlikely friendship is forged, and neither Aaron nor Solomon will ever be the same.

This is a book that I worry I’m going to have a difficult time reviewing. I really liked it, but it’s hard to explain why without giving anything away. There were moments that made me laugh, moments that made me cheer, and even moments that made me tear up. It was an interesting conglomeration of historical fiction and fantasy, and I really liked the characters.

Before Solomon moved in, Aaron had to find ways to cope, and he became a bit snarky and sarcastic (in his mind). This led to some humorous observations. And his paralysis led to a similar situation to someone who’s lost a sense, and the way their other senses compensate for that loss. As such, each other character that ever entered Aaron’s room was associated with a specific scent, which carried on throughout the book. I really appreciated this small touch.

The book takes place in the late 80s, and we get to experience some specific points in history, thanks to Solomon. 1920s NYC, the Chicago jazz scene of the 40s, and a night during WWII, amongst other things. Not to mention the first-hand experience of the 1989 earthquake in California.

Considering the name of the book, I thought the Mind Palace was fairly under-represented. In the end, I think it could have been written out of the book and it wouldn’t have made much difference. Partly because of this, and partly because of some comments made in the second half of the book, I expected a vastly different ending. I did like the ending, but was waiting for something more that never happened. That is my only real negative comment.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of this book, and would highly recommend it for everyone who enjoys historical fiction, as the fantasy aspect is not a detraction whatsoever, and for readers of all ages.

I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.

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Book Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Book #7
by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: YA fantasy

HP 7

Continuing with my first ever reading of the Harry Potter books, I’ve just finished the final book. As a reminder, my reviews will likely contain spoilers, as I’m not too worried about avoiding that, with as long as these have been out, and as well known as they are.

This is the hardest review yet, for me. I was so caught up in the book by the last half that I was excited to give it 5 stars. But then I thought back over the entire thing, and looked at the notes I’d written earlier on, and realized that there were some disappointing things that really were worth an entire star detraction. Rather than try to organize my thoughts in a way that flows well, I’m going to do bullet points for this review.

What I liked/loved

  • Dudley’s appreciation of Harry, which is touching, yet not overdone or out of character for him
  • 7 Harrys
  • Luna in general, but esp that she could see through Harry’s disguise at the wedding
  • Godric Hollow’s wizards’ monument to the Potters and the graffiti on the sign
  • Ron’s chance to save the day
  • The fruition of the DA was better than I could have hoped for
  • Harry getting to see his parents again, and 3 out of 4 of the Marauders (Sirius was one of my favorites before he died, after all)
  • Neville’s triumph
  • The final defeat of Voldemort, of course, and the knowledge that these people are finally free from his destruction
  • I felt the epilogue was pointless at first, but after a few days to let it rest, I appreciate being able to see how the characters moved on, that Hogwarts was restored, and that Neville was a teacher there

What I disliked

  • The middle really dragged with all of the moving around to camp, and a few little things happened that really didn’t advance the plot much, if at all
  • The Deathly Hallows seemed so out of place, like a tack-on to another otherwise solid-feeling plot, and ended up barely having any point (despite me liking Harry’s use of the stone, as I mentioned above)
    • It’s really hard for me to buy that the invisibility cloak is infallible…except where it needed to not be for the plots of past books (especially since, from my recollections, none of the times I can think of that someone did, or seemed to, see through it were necessary to the plot)
  • Lupin’s and Tonks’s deaths should really have been “on-screen.” I know everyone loves Dobby, but I think they were at least as important to the series and should have been given a bigger send-off.
  • The Battle of Hogwarts and most of the climaxes and falling action that occurred between them were exciting, except for one thing–there was just so much talking during all of it! After the battle we get pages of exposition about Snape, then an entire chapter of Dumbledore explaining things to Harry (some of which we already know or could easily have deduced from previous information). Then there’s rising action to the final stand-off with Voldemort…during which they talk…a lot. I wish Rowling had figured out a way to include more of this much sooner than during/between the epic battle and final stand-off.

Overall, I did like the book a LOT more than I didn’t, and probably a lot more than it looks like here. But it generally takes more words to explain a problem I had than to share the things I liked. I do think the book was longer than it needed to be, and wonder if that was on purpose–the previous books had gotten so long, Rowling and/or the publishers felt she couldn’t go back at this point. I don’t know. But as this is the final book in the series, I can say now that I do understand why it is so loved. I am already looking forward to starting back at the first book some day and reading through the series again with an understanding of how things play out, to find those things that I missed the first time around.

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Book Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Book #6
by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: YA fantasy

HP 6

 

Continuing with my first ever reading of the Harry Potter books, I’ve just finished #6. As a reminder, my reviews will likely contain spoilers, as I’m not too worried about avoiding that, with as long as these have been out, and as well known as they are.

Well…I don’t even know where to start with my review of this book. Normally, I take a few notes while reading–just things I want to make sure I remember when I’m writing the review–things I really liked or things I didn’t like. I didn’t write any notes for half of this book, because I was just so caught up in the ride. So suffice it to say: I liked it.

I enjoyed seeing Harry as team captain, really liked the luck potion fake-out, and even liked that the Gryffindor team was able to win without Harry (because of the common Harry-is-best-at-everything complaint some people have with this series). The romance with Ginny was expected, but I think that’s only because of spoilers I’ve seen over the last few years. Harry suddenly being jealous of her relationship with Dean and daydreaming about her being with him, with no indication that he liked her that way before, was actually pretty abrupt. I’m curious, though I’ll never know, about how I would have felt if I hadn’t been anticipating it, because it came out of left field in this book.

The formula throughout this series of Harry suspecting something and not being able to get anyone (except maybe his friends, but not even them this time) to believe him is getting a little tiring. It’s even worse if he turns out to have been correct about everything, so it leaves little mystery for us.

The ending was a bit unpleasant, not just because of the obvious, but because of the realization of how very different the next book is going to be. After 6 books that covered a year of school (with more and more shown of the summer each year), knowing we won’t be going back to Hogwarts was as sad for me as it was for the characters. I also felt really let-down by the explanation of the Half-Blood Prince, which was fairly anticlimactic.

The one biggest issue I had was not a fault of the book’s. Back when this book first came out, my husband showed me the video of some guy driving by a bookstore yelling, “Snape kills Dumbledore!” at a crowd of people waiting in line to buy the new book, or walking way after buying it. Even though my memory isn’t what it used to be, this has stayed in my mind for 14 years, even when I never had any plans to read the book. So it’s also tainted my thoughts, expectations, and theories as I’ve read the entire series. Because of that, and who Snape has been shown to be up until and through this book, I did truly expect there to be more to it than there was when it actually happened. But there wasn’t.

In my reading and book blogging over the last 10 months, I am making sure to continue with series at a decent pace, but have never read 2 books from one series back-to-back. However, when I finished this book, I just knew I had to keep going. So I’ve already started on book #7. That’s probably as much of a testament to how much this series has sucked me in as anything. In a similar fashion to how a lot of questions and mysteries are tied up at the end of each HP book, I’m expecting a lot of tying-up of things left a mystery (or misunderstood, etc.) throughout the rest of the series, at the end of Deathly Hallows.

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