Disclaimer: Hearts Entwined was provided by Bethany House. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
My rating: 3/5
Hearts Entwined is a collection of four short stories/novellas by four different authors—hence why there’s no blurb or authors up top like usual. The four stories are all from each author’s “universes,” as it were, and I was familiar with two of the four. For this review, I’m going to tackle each story separately and give a little mini-review of each, starting with the story I liked the most and ending with the one I liked the least.
To be honest, I think I liked this one and “Tied and True” about equally, but “Bound and Determined” had camels in it, which is wacky and memorable and probably my favorite part of the story. Bradley Willis—the brother of the protagonist of Holding the Fort—has to escort a retired officer, his daughter, and his herd of camels to Texas. I wish the romance had been less love at first sight (I am so sick of that trope in these historical romances), but the addition of the camels was great and I liked that I was familiar with the setting and some of the characters already.
“Tied and True” is part of the Teaville Moral Society series, of which I’ve read two books, so, just like with Jennings’s story, the familiarity of the characters and the setting helped me enjoy the story more (this story actually takes place during A Love So True). I really enjoy the “I love you, but I can’t pursue you” trope, probably because it’s a refreshing trope to read after all the usual, same-old same-old romances (like the one in “Bound and Determined”). It’s a bit too moralizing in places, and Marianne is the wrong type of naively perfect, the kind that makes you turn your head and go, “Would that really have worked out for you?”, but the story is enjoyable and it’s a nice addition to the Teaville series if you’re invested in those.
“The Love Knot” was a bit of an odd one. It uses the other overused trope common to these historical romances, the “we broke up a long time ago and now we meet again, reminisce, and then almost immediately get back together” trope. The setting is interesting, and so is the plot device that brings Claire and Pieter back together, but my unfamiliarity with the characters and the series led to lots of confusing moments for me. There’s also a lot of soul-searching and moralizing that could have been done more subtly, in my opinion.
This was my least favorite story, and not just because I think the title is terrible. Connealy is found of writing in sentence fragments, which is one of my biggest writing pet peeves. The plot also was incredibly chaotic—it utilizes the same sort of trope as Witemeyer’s, but the plot ping-pongs between romance and some sort of doctor procedural story, with a whole bunch of girl power preaching thrown in at the end. Connealy is definitely the weakest writer of the four, in my opinion, and it showed in her fragment-laden story and her melodramatic dialogue.
When Alcatraz and Grandpa Smedry make a pilgrimage to the Free Kingdom city of Crystallia, the Smedry home base, Alcatraz is shocked to see that he is a legend. When he was a baby, he was stolen by the Evil Librarians—and his mother, a Librarian herself, was behind it. Now, with his estranged father, who is acting strange; his best friend, Bastille, who has been stripped of her armor just when they need a good knight; and Grandpa Smedry, who is, as always, late to everything, Alcatraz tries to save a city under siege. From whom? Why, the Librarians, of course! And, in particular, an especially evil Evil Librarian who has followed the Smedrys to Crystallia in hopes of shattering the city: Alcatraz’s very own mother!
Alcatraz versus the Knights of Crystallia is as fun-filled and crazy as the first two books. Sanderson continues to build up the mystery and suspense by revealing things in small increments and hinting at bigger mysteries to come. Knowing Sanderson, everything will come to a whiz-bang finish and all the foreshadowing will make sense—after things get worse, as Alcatraz-the-narrator states in the book.
Overarching-plot-wise, I don’t really have too much negative to say. Sanderson is clearly setting things up in this book, introducing new faces and new mysteries for our heroes to solve. I know some of what is coming, so I can also tell he’s weaving in lots of foreshadowing and clues.
However, while I don’t have much to say about his plot technique, I do have quite a bit to say about the way he chose to develop it. Frankly, I found Knights of Crystallia too short of a book—the main conflict began and ended quickly, the pace was all over the place, and after reading it, I set it down and thought, “Wow, I feel like this was a waste of a book.” Even with all the plot building he’s doing in this book, it still feels like it is twenty pages long rather than almost two hundred, or at least, it feels as if the important parts only encompass twenty pages.
The book is clearly a bridge between plot points, a way to have the characters advance in knowledge without revealing too much at once. It’s too short, yet oddly long for what little happens. It’s stuffed with filler, even more filler than what the Alcatraz series is known for. There’s also no satisfying moment to make the book seem worthwhile. And the annoyance is that the book has to be read to understand some plot points; it’s not skippable, yet it begs to be skipped.
The Knights of Crystallia is basically a paradox. Too short, yet too long. Too important, yet not important enough. The whole novel is a plot device to bring the characters to a certain point, something that would take too long to do if entwined with more plot. I love Sanderson, but this book was difficult to get through.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
“So…what does this have to do with me?” I asked.
“Everything, lad, everything!” Grandpa Smedry pointed at me. “We’re Smedrys. When we gave up our kingdom, we took an oath to watch over all of the Free Kingdoms. We’re the guardians of civilization!”
“But wouldn’t it be good I the kings make peace with the Librarians?”
Sing looked pained. “Alcatraz, to do so, they would give up Mokia, my homeland!”
Ivan is an easygoing gorilla. Living in a shopping mall, he has grown accustomed to humans watching him through the glass walls of his domain. He rarely misses his life in the jungle. In fact, he hardly ever thinks about it at all. Instead, Ivan thinks about TV shows he’s seen his friends Stella and Bob, and painting. Then he meets Ruby, a baby elephant taken from her family, and she makes Ivan see their home—and his own art—through new eyes. When Ruby arrives, change comes with her, and it’s up to Ivan to make it a change for the better.
The One and Only Ivan is apparently based on a true story. The real Ivan, like the one in the story, was in a circus-themed mall for twenty-seven years before enough information circulated about it that he was transferred to Zoo Atlanta. As an animal fantasy, The One and Only Ivan crawls into the head of book-Ivan and explores a similar story from the perspective of the gorilla.
It’s a very sentimental story, and it would be especially heartwarming if you really loved animals and don’t mind good zoos. For me, I found the whole thing a little bit too sentimental for my tastes. I also had a hard time accepting the point of view of a gorilla. I get it, it’s an animal fantasy, but it still rang false in my view.
That’s not to say the story isn’t good. Applegate does raise awareness of inappropriate and unsafe conditions for animals, and she does emphasize that good zoos are beneficial for animal welfare. The story, as a story, is lovely and heartwarming and has a good happy ending. It has a good lesson about treating animals correctly. But, at times, its sappiness sours the story. I’m glad it’s not all gloom and doom like some Newbery Medals, but the overt sentimentality of this book is almost as bad, in my opinion.
The One and Only Ivan is a good story, perfect for children who love animals, and has some good things to say about taking care of animals, but I found it to be too sentimental throughout. I’m not calling for Newbery Medals to be full of darkness and sorrow, but I would prefer a balance, and this book, though it has some sorrow in it, goes too far in the sappiness category for me to really like it.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Genre: Children’s, Fantasy, Realistic
When the Big Top Mall was first built, it smelled of new paint and fresh hay, and humans came to visit from morning till night. They drifted past my domain like logs on a lazy river.
Lately, a day might go by without a single visitor. Mack says he’s worried. He says I’m not cute anymore. He says, “Ivan, you’ve lost your magic, old guy. You used to be a hit.”
It’s true that some of my visitors don’t linger the way they used to. They stare through the glass, they cluck their tongues, they frown while I watch my TV.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, was published in 2003 by Doubleday.
Christopher John Francis Boone knows all the countries of the world and their capitals and every prime number up to 7,057. He relates well to animals but has no understanding of human emotions. He cannot stand to be touched. Although gifted with a superbly logical brain, Christopher is autistic. Everyday interactions and admonishments have little meaning for him. Routine, order, and predictability shelter him from the messy wider world. Then, at fifteen, Christopher’s carefully constructed world falls apart when he finds his neighbor’s dog, Wellington, impaled on a garden fork, and he is initially blamed for the killing. Christopher decides that he will track down the real killer and turns to his favorite fictional character, the impeccably logical Sherlock Holmes, for inspiration. But the investigation leads him down some unexpected paths and ultimately brings him face to face with the dissolution of his parents’ marriage. As he tries to deal with the crisis within his own family, we are drawn into the workings of Christopher’s mind.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is a superbly written book that shines a light on the inner workings of an autistic mind. Despite the fact that Christopher cannot comprehend human emotion, the reader can, and so the reader experiences the emotions that Christopher struggles with—the desperation of his father, the annoyance of the police, the at-times-rude-but-at-times-caring strangers.
Haddon’s style of writing perfectly matches Christopher’s personality. We get the matter-of-fact, the confusion, and the excitement communicated through sentence structure and style. It’s rather fabulous, really.
Basically, the book is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, The mystery is well-done and realistic, Christopher’s confusion and desperation at the end of the novel are incredibly well communicated, as are the emotions of his father, and it’s hard to put this book down. My only squabble with the book is that I could have done with less swearing and I thoroughly disagreed with Christopher on many things.
Recommended Age Range: 14+
Genre: Young Adult
He said, “I have spoken to your father and he says that you didn’t mean to hit the policeman.”
I didn’t say anything because this wasn’t a question.
He said, “Did you mean to hit the policeman?”
I said, “Yes.”
He squeezed his face and said, “But you didn’t mean to hurt the policeman?”
I thought about this and said, “No. I didn’t mean to hurt the policeman. I just wanted him to stop touching me.”
Disclaimer: Love Thy Body, by Nancy Pearcey, was provided by Baker Books. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
In Love Thy Body, Nancy R. Pearcey goes beyond politically correct slogans with a riveting exposé of the dehumanizing worldview behind [transgenderism, homosexuality, abortion] and other watershed moral issues. Pearcey turns the tables on the media boilerplate that portrays Christianity as harsh and hateful. A former agnostic, she makes a surprising case that Christianity sustains the dignity of the body and accords with science and biology. Throughout, she entrances readers with compassionate stories of people wrestling with hard questions in their own lives—their pain, their struggles, their triumphs.
My rating: 5/5
Love Thy Body is an extremely relevant, incredibly important look at the dominating cultural idea of the body and how society, while claiming to uplift it, has actually denigrated it to nothing more than matter: expendable, disposable, useless matter. Pearcey covers abortion, euthanasia, the hook-up culture, transgenderism, homosexuality, and marriage, and how this Gnostic view of the body is engrained in each of those topics.
The book is replete with personal stories, statistics, studies, defenders, opponents—basically, the research done was tremendous, and incredibly in-depth and detailed. Pearcey also interweaves Christian messages and doctrine and Scripture into each topic to serve as application at the end of each chapter—and it’s much needed, as the hope of those sections balance out the heavy feeling of despair that covering these topics may induce in the reader (and definitely induced in me!). Pearcey is not just pointing a finger and saying “This is what this idea means; this is what it will lead to,” but she’s also saying, “Here’s how we can help combat this idea, and here’s how we can defend and preserve a view that’s uplifting and holistic.”
This book is vitally important in understanding just how some of the views being touted in society are actually dehumanizing. At the same time, Pearcey cautions against falling back into a way of thinking that is rigidly stereotypical and constrained. She’s not afraid to criticize some of the things Christians have (over)emphasized in order to combat culture (which in turn has led to problems of its own), which shows a presence of fairness and objectivity that is important in a book that’s tackling such heavy issues as these. If you want to understand more about some of the most important cultural issues of today, and especially if you want to know the worldview behind these issues, Love Thy Body is exactly the book you need to read.
Walk on Earth a Stranger, by Rae Carson, was published in 2015 by Greenwillow.
Lee Westfall has a strong, loving family. She has a home she loves and a loyal steed. She has a best friend—who might want to be something more. She also has a secret. Lee can sense gold in the world around her. Veins deep in the earth. Small nuggets in a stream. Even gold dust caught underneath a fingernail. She has kept her family safe and able to buy provisions, even through the harshest winters. But what would someone do to control a girl with that kind of power? A person might murder for it. When everything Lee holds dear is ripped away, she flees west to California—where gold has just been discovered. Perhaps this will be the one place a magical girl can be herself. If she survives the journey.
Some of my least favorite tropes (and probably everyone else’s favorite tropes) are present in Walk on Earth a Stranger: a girl who dresses up as a boy, a girl who doesn’t follow historical/traditional female roles, and enough modern-day social justice to satisfy the people who want modern thought imposed on their historical fiction.
Leah is not my favorite type of protagonist, but Carson is a good enough writer that I didn’t immediately dislike her despite the presence of tropes I dislike. I did find her overbearing, patronizing, and at times almost narrow-minded. Someone so compassionate about slaves while growing up in the South is also completely dispassionate in terms of religion and traditional female roles. The former could have to do with Carson’s portrayal of Reverend Lowrey, which was almost laughable in its extremes and stereotypes. As for the latter, well, Leah herself seemed to hold contradicting points: at one point, she decried anything that would make her beholden to a man and then the next minute, she was thinking about her relationship with Jefferson and wanting to marry him.
But perhaps I’m being too harsh. I did enjoy the book, though I can’t imagine how Carson is going to make a trilogy out of it. In my mind, the book could have been a stand-alone (with some slight changes, of course). I suppose there’s a little bit to explore in sequels: the mystery of Leah’s parents’ past and the presence of Uncle Hiram. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a trilogy without a love triangle, so I’m fully expecting some new character to come in and sweep Leah off her feet before she realizes in the third book that Jefferson is The One.
I do love Oregon Trail stories, though, and this one is a good one—lots of danger, realistic scenarios, and compelling enough characters to carry the plot through when it could have slowed down.
Walk on Earth a Stranger is full of tropes I don’t like, but despite all that, I ended up enjoying this Oregon Trail/Gold Rush adventure. I’m hoping Carson doesn’t fall prey to more overused tropes in the next two books, and also that Leah becomes a character that I can actually relate to, but at least I’m intrigued enough to see what happens next.
Recommended Age Range: 14+
Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Young Adult
“I have a gold half eagle in one hand. Which is it?” There’s a twinkle in his eye that reminds me so much of Daddy that my chest hurts.
The coin sings to me clear as spring runoff from his left fist. I point to the right.
He smiles. “You can’t keep secrets from me, Leah.”
I sigh and point to the left.
“That’s my girl.” He opens his fist, and there it is, shining yellow-bright.
The war is over and Marly’s father is home—but he’s not the same. Something inside him seems as cold and dead as the winter world outside. But when the family moves to Grandma’s old house on Maple Hill, miracles begin to happen. The sap in the trees begins to rise, the leaves start to turn, and maybe, just maybe, Marly’s father will begin to bloom again, like the world around them.
Miracles on Maple Hill is one of those books that really makes me want to move to someplace woodsy and snowy, and the cover gives me that sort of 1950s-wistful feel, because I love the 1950s and love books set in that time period. After I finished reading this book, I thought about how amazing it would be to live in Pennsylvania with all the hills and woods and snow.
So, definitely the atmosphere of this book I enjoyed immensely. The other parts of it—the important bits, like the plot and things—were all right. I didn’t quite enjoy the plot as much as I enjoyed the setting, and all the jumping around in time at the beginning was a little confusing for me. I can see, a little, why this book won a Newbery Medal, but at the same time, I wonder how. The book is slow in the middle, and there’s really not a whole lot of the sort of deep storyline you expect from a Newbery. However, I suppose they all can’t be tragic stories of parental loss—some have to be lighthearted and whimsical, like this one.
Miracles on Maple Hill is very lighthearted, thanks in part to Sorensen only lightly hinting in areas, such as Marly’s father’s PTSD. The darkest moment of the book is at the end, and has nothing to do with Marly’s father at all, as one might expect from the blurb. And the book still doesn’t go as dark as some Newbery Medals have gone—the title is Miracles on Maple Hill, and Sorensen means it.
Miracles on Maple Hill is lighthearted fare compared to other Newbery Medals. It struggles a bit in the middle, and to be honest the whole book blurred together a bit for me, but the setting called to all the snow-loving, tree-loving, 1950s-loving bones in my body. I wish it had been a bit more memorable, but its lack of any real dark or sensitive content makes it ideal for a cheerful children’s book.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction
It had to be the right place. All outdoors. With miracles. Not crowded and people being cross and mean. Daddy not tired all the time anymore. Mother not worried. But it looked little and old to be all that. She was afraid, now that she was actually here, that it wasn’t. She wished that they were still on the way. Sometimes even Christmas wasn’t as much fun as getting ready for it. Maybe thinking about Maple Hill would turn out to be better than Maple Hill itself.
The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy, was first published in 1905.
In the midst of the French Revolution, a cunning masked hero rescues would-be victims of the guillotine, but his identity remains a mystery. His friends and foes known him only as the Scarlet Pimpernel. But government agent Paul Chauvelin is determined to find out who this man really is and to put an end to his defiance of the French government.
When I finished reading The Scarlet Pimpernel, I had a huge smile on my face. Full of spies, intrigue, drama, tension, romance, and some fiendishly clever disguises, The Scarlet Pimpernel is a delight through and through. Baroness Orczy weaves a fantastic story taking place during the French Revolution and starring a mysterious hero who rescues French aristocrats right out from under the noses of the people looking to kill them.
The book does start out a little slowly, but starts picking almost immediately after the point of view switches to Marguerite Blakeney. I thought she was a great protagonist, filled with just the right amount of courage, fear, and cleverness. She doesn’t sit back helplessly, but she also isn’t out there wrestling men to the ground, either. She’s basically a normal woman, which is really quite refreshing after reading a lot of female protagonists who are unrelatable and/or male caricatures.
There’s a prominent romance plot tied in with the overall Scarlet Pimpernel plot, but it’s done very well and fairly realistically. It’s quite a sweet romance, and it lends itself well in both explaining Marguerite’s motives as well as making sure everything turns out happily. But the most interesting plot is, of course, the one involving the Scarlet Pimpernel. Orczy really does some fantastic work in it. The secret of the Scarlet Pimpernel may be a little obvious, but the true gem is the complex, fascinating “heist” that takes up the last third of the book. I call it a heist if only because I can’t think of another word to call it. “Mission” could work, I suppose. I figured everything out quite early on, but it was still a delight to watch everything unfold.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Scarlet Pimpernel and it has become one of my new favorite books. I had it read to me when I was little, so I went into the book knowing the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel, and guessed almost everything else correctly, but it was still engaging and a delightful read.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Classic, Historical Fiction
“The Scarlet Pimpernel works in the dark, and his identity is only known under the solemn oath of secrecy to his immediate followers.”
“The Scarlet Pimpernel!” said Suzanne, with a merry laugh. “Why! what a droll name! What is the Scarlet Pimpernel, Monsieur?”
… “The Scarlet Pimpernel, Mademoiselle,” [Sir Andrew] said at last “is the name of a humble English wayside flower; but it is also the name chosen to hide the identity of the best and bravest man in all the world, so that he may better succeed in accomplishing the noble task he has set himself to do.”
Disclaimer: Under a Cloudless Sky, by Chris Fabry, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
1933. In the mining town of Beulah Mountain, West Virginia, two young girls form an unbreakable bond against the lush Appalachian landscape, coal dust and old hymns filling their lungs and hearts. Despite the polarizing forces of their fathers—one a mine owner, one a disgruntled miner—Ruby and Bean thrive under the tender care of Bean’s mama, blissfully unaware of the rising conflict in town and the coming tragedy that will tear them apart forever. 2004. Hollis Beasley is taking his last stand. Neighbors up and down the hollow have sold their land to Coleman Coal and Energy, but Hollis is determined to hold on to his family legacy on Beulah Mountain. In his way is Buddy Coleman, an upstart mining executive who hopes to revitalize the dying town by increasing coal production and opening the Company Store Museum. He’ll pay homage to the past—even the massacre of 1933—while positioning the company for growth at all costs. What surprises them all is how their stories will intersect with a feisty octogenarian living hundreds of miles away. When Ruby Handley Freeman’s grown children threaten her independence, she takes a stand of her own and disappears, beginning a journey to face a decades-old secret that will change everything for her and those she meets.
Under a Cloudless Sky is a mesmerizing, gripping read, telling the story of Hollis Beasley and his efforts to preserve his land, and the story of Ruby Freeman, who’s faced with struggles from various angles. It’s also the story of Ruby’s daughter, Frances, and Hollis’s granddaughter, Charlotte, and those stories are intermingled with the 1933 story as we learn about young Ruby and her friend Bean in the days leading up to a significant tragedy.
Fabry is a fantastic storyteller, weaving together the various points-of-view and the two different time periods effortlessly. I never felt jarred or bothered by the back-and-forth, and the switching was done effectively, creating just the right amount of tension and curiosity. His characterization is amazing, as well; even the characters that are focused on for only a small amount of time are fleshed out and interesting, with the exception of Buddy Coleman.
I did figure out a majority of the plot before it was revealed in the book, but it was such an exciting moment for me when I did figure it out that it can hardly be considered a negative. I could hardly wait for the characters to confirm what I had discovered.
The voice of the characters was great; the mechanics and the storytelling itself were gripping and artfully delivered; the entire book was difficult to put down. There were a few things here and there that I thought were amiss (the whole kidnapping bit in the middle of the book was odd and seemed to exist solely to flesh out Frances as a character), but overall, Under a Cloudless Sky was a worthwhile, thrilling read that made me excited for more of Fabry’s works.
Love Thy Neighbor: The Tory Diary of Prudence Emerson, by Ann Turner, was published in 2003 by Scholastic.
In Greenmarsh, Massachusetts, in 1774, thirteen-year-old Prudence keeps a diary of the troubles she and her family face as Tories surrounded by American patriots at the start of the American Revolution.
Love Thy Neighbor retells the tension between the colonies and England leading up to the outbreak of the Revolutionary War—from the point of view of a Tory family. It’s a little bit like recounting the Civil War from a Confederate standpoint—it’s not something you see often and it takes a little getting used to.
The book, like many other of the Dear America books, has more substance as a narrative historical account than as a story with a plot. There’s a bit of one, but mostly Turner is concerned with showing the tension between Tory and Patriot as neighbor turns against neighbor rather than developing her characters. Prudence is definitely merely an onlooker, a vehicle to show certain attitudes, and nothing more.
One thing I appreciate about this book is that I had forgotten about Christmas being outlawed by the Puritans, and this book reminded me of that. That ideology takes centerstage in the novel, as Prudence and her family secretly decorate for and celebrate Christmas and get attacked as “papist.” It’s something that I don’t think a lot of people know—or a lot of people would like to forget, maybe—and in the research I did afterward, it really wasn’t until the 19th century that Christmas really took hold in America.
Love Thy Neighbor seems weak to me, not only because of the lack of a strong character presence, but also because it seemed to me that Turner didn’t have as much research to lean on as some other D.A. books do. I understand that this is a children’s book and footnotes or endnotes are not really things that appear in those, but I really would have liked to have seen some of her research on some of the things she mentioned in the historical/author’s note at the end. It’s probably my least favorite Dear America book I’ve read so far.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s
In school today, Abigail did not even return my greeting. When we left Mrs. Hall’s house, I asked if I had done anything to offend her. She choked out, “Papa says we Patriots must stick together,” and ran away. Again.
I would not cry. I took a deep breath, grabbed Verity’s hand, and marched home to tell Mama. She was very kind and made strong cups of tea to cheer us.