Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Light from Heaven (Mitford Years)

Title: Light from Heaven

Series: Mitford Years (#9)

Year: 2006

Author: Jan Karon

Summary: Father Tim Kavanagh has been asked to "come up higher" more than once. But he's never been asked to do the impossible-until now. The retired Episcopal priest takes on the revival of a mountain church that's been closed for forty years. Meanwhile, in Mitford, he's sent on a hunt for hidden treasure, and two beloved friends are called to come up higher. As Father Tim finds, there are still plenty of heartfelt surprises, dear friends old and new, and the most important lesson of all: It's never too late. (from Goodreads)

Main Characters:
~ Father Timothy Kavanagh
~ Agnes
~ Cynthia Kavanagh

Review: I’ll admit straight up: I haven’t read any other book by this author before. Meaning, I haven’t read any of the previous eight books in this series. I think that was both good and bad for me. How so?

Bad because I was jumping into the conclusion of a story I hadn’t followed since the beginning. Many characters appeared briefly, apparently having larger parts earlier in the series, but I didn’t connect with them emotionally since I didn’t follow their adventures and trials. Honestly, I really didn’t care about them. And that’s what happens when you jump into a series at the very end.

Good, however, because every time a character from the past showed up, the author summed up the backstory. So in the end, I got the information I needed to put the character in context. In a way, this book was almost strong enough to stand on its own without the need for any of the previous books. Which… I think there’s a little bit of a problem if a book can stand alone without its series. If it can do that, you can do what I did here: read the last book and still get the whole story.

Anywho, onto the plot itself.

Father Timothy Kavanagh is a small-town priest who, with his wife, is currently farm-sitting “in the sticks.” Although he has people and errands and animals to keep him busy, he feels that he’s not doing anything with his life. That is, until he receives a new commission from his bishop: revive a closed church and get it thriving again.

When I read the synopsis for this book before I cracked the cover, I was expecting a long tale chronicling the trials Timothy would have to go through to get this church to thriving again. As a pastor’s daughter myself, I’ve seen the struggles that ministry presents – particularly those in reviving a church. However, Timothy seemed to have no problem getting the job done. He finds the church in a well-kept state, with everything it needs already stocked and ready for use. The mysterious caretaker is a kind, religious woman and her son, both of whom are eager to see the church come back. Timothy wonders at first who will attend the church, but on their first Sunday, he counts seven people. Second Sunday, they’ve doubled to fourteen; after that, there’s no mention of him having trouble with attendance. They need a piano – and someone gives them one. Everything goes right for them. Maybe it was just a really good, religious location, but from my experience, it was pretty unrealistic. Sorry.

The whole book felt like a romanticized Hallmark movie with a little bit of the good ladies of Cranford thrown in. The plot and multiple subplots were semi-cheesy and predictable. I think the only plot twist I didn’t see coming was the wind storm that knocked the chimney down – but even that didn’t seem to be a bad thing. Timothy’s wife was only inconvenienced by the mess in the house and the workmen mending the chimney. I’m almost ashamed to admit my favorite parts were identifying what lunch J.C.’s wife packed for him every day. Unfortunately, the author stopped giving us those details after a few lunches. 

Advisory: A woman confesses to having a child out of wedlock, but the matter is handled discretely. A few deaths are mentioned; some characters talk about past murders, but nothing is described graphically. 

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Friday, February 23, 2018

Cinder Ellie (Faraway Castle)

Title: Cinder Ellie

Series: Faraway Castle (Book #0.5)

Year: 2018

Author: J.M. Stengl

Summary: Trained by an enchantress but obliged to work summers for her living, fifteen-year-old Ellie Calmer serves as a maid at a world-famous mountain resort. Her lowly rank keeps her always at a distance from the powerful, beautiful guests who spend their summers at Faraway Castle, yet Ellie dares to dream of one day exchanging even just a few words with shy Prince Omar of Khenifra. 

But when rare magical creatures show up in Faraway Castle’s gardens, Ellie’s life is suddenly complicated. Cinder sprites are causing fires and potentially endangering the beautiful resort. The resort director has sent for an exterminator to deal with these so-called pests. Can Ellie find a way to use her humble magic to save the cinder sprites and Faraway Castle before disaster strikes? (from Goodreads)

Main Characters:
~ Ellie

Review: This short story was just what it promised to be. It's a little bit of fun, fluff, and magic leading up to a new novel. To be honest, I liked it more than I thought I would. Ellie is a fun heroine, and you can't help but want to see her succeed. 

I really liked the interesting magical creatures popping up. Immediately in chapter one, we're introduced to a brownie as Ellie performs her maid's duties, and you know this isn't going to be any typical Cinderella story. There are pixies, sprites, lake serpents, and more, and they're just fun to follow. Very fairy-tale-ish. If you're looking for something sweet to read real quick between heavier novels, I'd recommend this one. 

Ellie's crush on Prince Omar bothered me a little bit. She has seen him interact kindly with his siblings and thinks well of him based on that, but I felt that the crush sometimes was almost unrealistic. More forced than anything else just because there needed to be a love interest somewhere in this story. Honestly, I think that this whole novella could have flowed a lot more smoothly without Omar getting in the way. I will add to that statement by stating that I realize this book is to set up the adventure and romance in J.M. Stengl's upcoming novel, Ellie and the Prince, and I'd be interested in reading that to see how the relationship progresses. Because right now, I'm rolling my eyes every time Ellie swoons. 

No spoilers, but I am very interested in what's going on with the lake serpent. *cough* J.M. Stengl set something big up and never answered. That had better be in the full-length novel! 

Advisory: This is definitely a magical story. It's full of magical creatures, and Ellie and other characters have various magical abilities. The whole fairy-tale feeling of this story didn't bother me too much with the magic, but it's hard to say definitely just from this small sampling of Ellie's world. Ellie is a human (or so I believe) with the ability to sweet-talk people, but this came across as more of a talent rather than something she learned through magic training. She also works with magical potions. For people wondering about magic in stories, know that the magic is definitely present in this one, but it didn't feel out of the fairy-tale box for me. At least not yet. Again, this is something difficult to discern just from a prequel novella. 

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Monday, February 12, 2018

A Faraway Island (A Faraway Island)

Title: A Faraway Island 

Series: A Faraway Island (Book #1)

Year: 2009

Author: Annika Thor

Summary: It's the summer of 1939. Two Jewish sisters from Vienna—12-year-old Stephie Steiner and 8-year-old Nellie—are sent to Sweden to escape the Nazis. They expect to stay there six months, until their parents can flee to Amsterdam; then all four will go to America. But as the world war intensifies, the girls remain, each with her own host family, on a rugged island off the western coast of Sweden.

Nellie quickly settles in to her new surroundings. She’s happy with her foster family and soon favors the Swedish language over her native German. Not so for Stephie, who finds it hard to adapt; she feels stranded at the end of the world, with a foster mother who’s as cold and unforgiving as the island itself. Her main worry, though, is her parents—and whether she will ever see them again. (from Goodreads)

Main Characters:
~ Stephie
~ Nellie
~ Aunt Marta
~ Vera

Review: Anyone who knows me knows I love all things Swedish, and when I saw this book -- well, I knew I had to read it. And as far as Swedish expectations go, it did not disappoint. I loved the settings and descriptions, the character names. I mean, take a look at the author's name -- Annika Thor. How more Scandinavian can you get than that?? (Confession: I also have a biased attraction to the name Annika right now, so that was also a big part of my picking up this book.)

Anyway, this tale reminded me in many ways of stories like Pollyanna, The Secret Garden, Emily of New Moon, and the like. Young girls flung out of everything they're familiar with to go and live in a strange, new place. Stephie and Nellie are Jewish sisters who leave the dangers of German-controlled Austria to seek safety in Sweden. When they first set out, they believe that they're going together to a nice hotel with sandy beaches and a grand piano, but upon arriving at a faraway island, they discover nothing of the sort. Stephie and Nellie are to reside with two different families, and Stephie thinks she got the worst end of the deal. Aunt Marta is strict about rules and chores, and Stephie struggles with trying to fit in. 

The backdrop of WWII felt very real, even though this is only a children's novel. Multiple times, we're treated to one of Stephie's flashbacks as she remembers life before in Vienna or life when the Nazis came in. The horrors the Jewish people were exposed to are only mentioned in passing and in a tone appropriate for younger children, but they still felt very real. You spend the whole novel wondering and worrying about Stephie and Nellie's parents -- because they're still in Austria and you have no idea if they're even going to get out. *sadness* 

Stephie was an interesting character to follow, but she frustrated me sometimes. In her emotional moments, she'd fight with her younger sister, say stupid things, and clam up whenever someone tried to comfort her. More than once, I felt like she just needed to break down and have a good cry and let someone know what she was feeling. But, emotions aside, how she reacted made sense. As much as I'm not a fan of moody/broody people, I'd probably clam up too in her situation. 

This story was actually originally written in Swedish (too cool, huh?), and then translated into English. A fact that brings up two last things: First, I'm not sure if it's just how the translation worked, or if Annika Thor wrote the story this way, but it's all in present tense. That threw me off a little bit at the beginning, but it flowed fairly smoothly all the way through. Second, the author wrote a total of four books (read it: FOUR [4] BOOKS) in this series following Nellie and Stephie's Swedish adventures, and only two of theses books (read it: TWO [2] BOOKS) have been translated into English. *le sigh* Add it to my list of reasons why I need to learn the Swedish language. 

Advisory: Some violence as Stephie remembers the Nazi takeover, but not very graphic in the way of explanation. Stephie also encounters bullying at school. 

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Last of the Mohicans (The Leatherstocking Tales)

Title: The Last of the Mohicans

Series: The Leatherstocking Tales (Book #2)

Year: 1826

Author: James Fenimore Cooper

Summary: The wild rush of action in this classic frontier adventure story has made The Last of the Mohicans the most popular of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. Deep in the forests of upper New York State, the brave woodsman Hawkeye (Natty Bumppo) and his loyal Mohican friends Chingachgook and Uncas become embroiled in the bloody battles of the French and Indian War. The abduction of the beautiful Munro sisters by hostile savages, the treachery of the renegade brave Magua, the ambush of innocent settlers, and the thrilling events that lead to the final tragic confrontation between rival war parties create an unforgettable, spine-tingling picture of life on the frontier. And as the idyllic wilderness gives way to the forces of civilization, the novel presents a moving portrayal of a vanishing race and the end of its way of life in the great American forests. (from Goodreads)

Main Characters:
~ Hawkeye (Natty Bumppo)
~ Chingachgook
~ Uncas
~ Cora Munro
~ Duncan Heyward
~ Alice Munro
~ David Gamut
~ Magua

Review: This was my first time ever reading a Cooper novel. I'm really not sure why I haven't picked up one of the Leatherstocking Tales until now, but my appetite has been awoken. Now I want to read all of Natty's adventures. 

Honestly, I feel like the summary this classic novel gets from Goodreads and Amazon and pretty much anywhere else is super boring. The blurb on the back of the book I read wasn't even accurate to the story's contents. Fail right there, folks. This novel deserves a lot more praise from its summary writers. I mean, c'mon -- it's a classic! It's been an American favorite since it was published in the 1800s! There's a reason it's lasted this long, so give it a little extra effort to help us to a satisfying summary. 

Okay, sorry. Rant over. Yes, I loved this book. Once you found your way through the sometimes long and confusing passages of the American frontier, it was easy to get hooked on the story. Cora and Alice certainly have picked the wrong time to travel. It's the third year of the French and Indian War, and getting to their father's fort means that they have to somehow survive the Indian wilderness en route. Accompanying them is the faithful, romantic soldier Duncan Heyward (whom I feel like involuntarily becomes one of the main focuses of the story, even though he's not even the hero), the mysterious Indian guide Magua, and the lovable but clumsy singer David Gamut. 

So that's where the story begins. From there, it's a spiral straight into betrayals, Indian attacks, chases, hideouts, battles, kidnappings, and so much more.

As much as I loved following Hawkeye's perspective, I enjoyed getting into Duncan's head, too. Hawkeye is very much a bridge between the white man and the Indian, being a pure-blooded white man himself, but living with the Indians has helped him understand their culture and traditions. Duncan, however, jumps into the action with the perspective of a solider -- brave, but completely out of his element when it comes to trekking through the wilderness. But he learns a lot and so you can't help but root for him (and his lady). I think I gave a little cheer when he correctly identified the sound of the horse in the night when Hawkeye and Chingachgook couldn't.

David Gamut is downright hilarious. Although, like some of the Indians, I'm not completely convinced he's wholly sane. Even though he is an idiot, it was fun to watch his character develop.

I don't know that I could write this review without saying something about Uncas. Because he IS the last of the Mohicans. This once-amazing bloodline has come down to him and his father, Chingachgook. I wish Cooper had let us seen a bit more of Uncas, because I felt like he spent the first half of the book barely there. He was super important, as he was the best tracker when it came to finding the girls or the Indians, but it was almost as if Cooper suddenly remembered he was there and went, "Oh, yeah, I gotta include him, too." Uncas really stood out in the last few chapters AND I CAN'T TELL YOU BECAUSE SPOILERS EVEN THOUGH IT'S A CLASSIC. Just know, the full meaning of the book's title hit me smack dab in the face and it hurt. SO MUCH.

Magua is despicable. I don't know that I've ever hated a book's villain with such enjoyment as I've hated him. I will end the rant before I begin it. 

Advisory: Lots of blood and violence. We are talking about the middle of war here, people. Indians scalp/maim/kill/torture/etc. Please expect some blood and death. 

Also, please note that this book has a lot of racial content. I think it's important to read it within the context of which it was written: 1800s when differences between Indians and Caucasians/Europeans were naturally accepted by all. Cooper, I believe, did not intend for this novel to be a word on the racial differences we see today, but he merely portrayed the differences as he saw them played out in his time. For most of the characters and the plot itself, race plays a big part. 

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Exiles (Ilyon Chronicles)

Title: Exiles

Series: Ilyon Chronicles (Book #4)

Year: 2017

Author: Jaye L. Knight

Summary: Exiled after their defeat in Samara, the Resistance struggles to find allies in their quest to restore King Balen to his throne and put an end to the emperor’s tyranny. When the crete people refuse to lend their aid, Balen leads a group to Dorland to reason with them and win their support. However, enemies prove to be everywhere, and they find themselves in a fight to keep Dorland from becoming Daican’s latest conquest. 

Back in Landale, the arrival of a new enemy forces Trask and Anne to tread more carefully than ever. Tensions are rising, and the enemy is determined to test Anne’s loyalty and root out the location of Trask and the Resistance once and for all. 

Feeling trapped within the walls of Valcré, Prince Daniel must contend with an ever-eroding relationship with his father. As their clashes escalate, the situation becomes potentially life threatening when his loyalty is called into question. His sister seems bent on branding him a traitor and actively seeking to condemn him to the fate of those put to death in their father’s new arena. Daniel is certain his father would never execute his only son and heir, but with other forces at work, it might not be that simple. 

One small misstep could prove fatal for all. (from Goodreads)

Main Characters:
~ Kyrin
~ Jace
~ Daniel
~ Anne

Review: First off, this book came out on my birthday. How. Cool. Is. That. Of course, I had to buy it for myself as a birthday gift. 

This series just keeps getting better. I think book #2 may be my favorite overall, but this one definitely almost topped that one! I loved getting to follow Kyrin, Jace, and their friends all over the map -- in an effort to get allies against Daican, they visit the cretes and Dorlanders. Personally, I really enjoyed getting to see the different cultures. There are familiar aspects to each one, but they are all so unique. And the new culture -- *jaw drops* Ilyon fans, rejoice. Saul and his band are everything we wanted them to be. 

However, we're not just with Kyrin and Co. Anne and Trask, I felt, played a bigger role in this book as they fight the battle at Landale. Not a real fight, mind you, because Anne still has to keep up her family's facade and Trask has to keep the whole camp a secret. Goler was despicable, as always. Charles was the best. I thought this book opened a new perspective on Anne; she became more real as I got to see further into her life and struggles. The sensibility she showed in putting others' needs above her own really stood out to me. Plus, she and Trask are just absolutely adorable. Just sayin'. 

My favorite character of the whole series is quickly becoming Prince Daniel. I loved getting to start his story in the last few books, but this one took him to a whole new level. And at the end -- PLOT TWIST -- Can't say I saw that one coming! Jaye is keeping all of us on our toes and I need book #5 ASAP. I hate Davira with an intense, passionate hate. More than I hated her father. That's all I can say. 

Shout-out to Kaden and some epic dragon action. That would probably be the one thing lacking in this book. Not enough of Kaden and dragons. It was fun getting to see more of Kyrin's other brother, Michael, though. 

Overall, this was an amazing continuation of the Ilyon Chronicles. I have been recommending this series to basically everybody since I read the first book, and I haven't stopped yet. 

Advisory: Violence/blood/fighting, but all in Jaye's usual style. Characters almost drown/are threatened to lose fingers/get beaten/get executed/etc. Because most of the book centers on battles/fights, I would recommend this book for readers over 12. 

Another portion of the book focuses on the ryriks and their wild tendency towards abusing women (i.e. rape). The subject is broached in the book as characters come into contact with the ryriks, but it is well-handled and not explicit. 

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Silent Songbird (Hagenheim)

Title: The Silent Songbird

Series: Hagenheim (Book #7)

Year: 2016

Author: Melanie Dickerson

Summary: Evangeline longs to be free, to live in the world outside the castle walls. But freedom comes at a cost.

Evangeline is the ward and cousin of King Richard II, and yet she dreams of a life outside of Berkhamsted Castle, where she might be free to marry for love and not politics. But the young king betroths her to his closest advisor, Lord Shiveley, a man twice as old as Evangeline. Desperate to escape a life married to a man she finds revolting, Evangeline runs away from the king and joins a small band of servants on their way back to their home village.

To keep her identity a secret, Evangeline pretends to be mute. Evangeline soon regrets the charade as she gets to know Wesley, the handsome young leader of the servants, whom she later discovers is the son of a wealthy lord. But she cannot reveal her true identity for fear she will be forced to return to King Richard and her arranged marriage.

Wesley le Wyse is intrigued by the beautiful new servant girl. When he learns that she lost her voice from a beating by a cruel former master, he is outraged. But his anger is soon redirected when he learns she has been lying to him. Not only is she not mute, but she isn't even a servant.

Weighed down by remorse for deceiving Wesley, Evangeline fears no one will ever love her. But her future is not the only thing at stake, as she finds herself embroiled in a tangled web that threatens England's monarchy. Should she give herself up to save the only person who cares about her? If she does, who will save the king from a plot to steal his throne? (from Goodreads)

Main Characters: 
~ Evangeline
~ Wesley le Wyse

Review: This book honestly surprised me. It thoroughly reawakened my interest in Melanie Dickerson retellings. Yes, I very much enjoy her stories, but some of them were getting to the point where they felt bitterly cliche. However, this one had some new life to it. For those of you who know me, you know I love fairy tale retellings. But there haven't been very many good, *clean* Little Mermaid retellings that I can get my hands on. So, when I saw that Melanie Dickerson was working on a story inspired by the Little Mermaid, I actually got a little bit excited. And so when I could get a copy, I read it. 

In about a day.

It's not perfect, granted. But it was exactly what I was hoping for in a Little Mermaid retelling by this author.

Evangeline is the king's ward, and while that entitles her to a fine life, she hates it. Along with being noble and rich comes imprisonment. But she's able to content herself with singing out the window (hence the title of Songbird) and watching life go by without her. That is, until the king informs her that he's betrothed her to an older and somewhat dangerous man. Evangeline fears this marriage, and thus makes the decision to flee the castle. Because her voice is so remarkable and recognizable, she pretends to be mute. 

In some ways, this felt very much like Little Mermaid. I was skeptical at first how some of those elements would fit into the story - I mean, come on. This didn't have mermaids; it didn't have a sea witch; it didn't even have an ocean! But Melanie pulled it off quite nicely. True, she had to chop out those mermaid-y things, but even so - I was impressed. There are still several distinct nods to the fairy tale. Even some almost-subtle hints toward the original fairy tale - NOT the Disney version. Imagine that, folks. But I will refrain from spoilers.

Anywho, lots of action, good characters, etc. so I'll let the high praise stop there. If you're looking for a non-sea, non-fish Little Mermaid retelling, put this on your list. 

Advisory: Some violence, but typical of this author's stories. 

Also, romance. Evageline, true to her original character inspiration, thinks a lot about kissing the guy. There were some scenes when I'm fairly sure I could hear Sebastian singing in the background. It got on my nerves a little, just because it came up so much. However, I can read that as a nod to the original, given the infamous kiss the little mermaid has to obtain to stay human. As far as actual kisses go, there weren't many that I could remember, but obviously a few to take note of. 

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Monday, October 2, 2017

Theodora's Children (Tales of Hope)

Title: Theodora's Children

Series: Tales of Hope (Book #2)

Year: 2016

Author: Rick Nau

Summary: Gretchen is her name. She’s the heroine of the story. Some people call her Gretch the Wretch. Not a very nice thing to say about someone, especially if they suffer from a loneliness so intense it could blow the roof off the sky. Certainly she’s not the only person in the world who’s felt this way. You might have felt this way yourself. Or you might feel this way at this very moment, just as Gretchen felt at the beginning of her story. This isn’t to say she’s not a wonderful person. If you get to know her, you’ll find out how wonderful she is. If you don’t, you’ll never know. (from Goodreads)

Main Characters:
~ Gretchen

Review: This book, honestly, is very hard to describe. In some ways it felt like a fairy tale; in others, an allegory. It was a family story; it was a Christmas story. It was a story about loneliness; it was a story about companionship. 

The beginning for me started a little rough. We're introduced to an older gentleman who loves to tell his grandchildren stories - and that's the whole book. Him telling the two grandkids a story. I was a bit skeptical how that would work for an entire novel, seeing as the entire content was dialogue, but I think once you got used to the idea, it wasn't bad. In fact, I kinda forgot he was still speaking as I got caught up in different parts of the story. 

The story he tells is of a young girl named Gretchen. She's really not Gretch the Wretch because she's got everything she could ever want - a fancy house, a big room, books, candies, a pony, toys, yada, yada, yada. Anything a child would ever dream to ask for, Gretchen already has. Except the one thing she's always wanted: a brother. She even asks for a brother for her birthday. And, even though she's not a drama queen, she dissolves into tears when a brother doesn't appear in all of her birthday gifts.

When she finally comes to terms about not getting a brother, she decides to make one up. And that's where the main portion of her adventures start. There's a definite Christmas feel as a big portion of this novel takes place in the snow and involves the dreams of little children.

The ending, though I won't reveal any spoilers, was not expected. Realistically, it took me by surprise, but it was truthfully right in the tone of the book. This is a fantasy world of sorts. I will say that I loved the final big moment at the end when everything culminated into a wonderful boil. *grins* Read it and find out.

One thing that I would complain about was the author's style. While definitely story-teller-like and fun, I thought it was often too wordy. When three sentences would suffice, the author used three paragraphs and sometimes three pages to give an explanation. A few places also were awkwardly worded with multiple adverbs.

Overall, I'd recommend this book to families, kids, and anyone looking for a quick but sweet read. I think I finished the entire book in one evening and enjoyed it. But I also think that it's definitely something you'd opt to read-aloud to story-hungry kids. 

Advisory: Some violence directed towards children; nothing graphic, but basically child abuse. Some scary situations. 

Rating: 4 stars

*Please note: I received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for my honest review.*