Disclaimer: The Crescent Stone, by Matt Mikalatos, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
Madeline Oliver has never wanted for anything, but now she would give everything just to breathe. Jason Wu skates through life on jokes, but when a tragedy leaves him guilt stricken, he promises to tell only the truth, no matter the price. When a mysterious stranger named Hanali appears to Madeline and offers to heal her in exchange for one year of service to his people, Madeline and Jason are swept into a strange land where they don’t know the rules and where their decisions carry consequences that reach farther than they could ever guess.
My rating: 3/5
The Crescent Stone is a decent fantasy novel of the Narnia subtype: two people find themselves entering a mysterious new world, where there’s magic, strange new people, and a battle to fight. Along the way, they discover things aren’t what they seem. The worldbuilding is good in terms of lore; there are all sorts of things in the appendix to help establish that. I wasn’t swept away in wonder, but I found the fantasy world interesting, for the most part.
Less good is the heavy-handed way that Mikalatos incorporates his cultural relevancy. Two of the characters are delivered a sermon about their perceived ignorance, and the fantasy world itself hinges on Mikalatos’s interpretation of the way the real world works. Except, while the magical aspect is fine, taking it and applying it to reality falls flat on its face. See, Mikalatos’s magic system is a zero-sum game: make something big, something else becomes small. But applying that to the real world, which is what he wants the reader to do, makes little sense. Money is not a zero-sum game; me getting $50 does not stop someone else from getting $50. My use of electricity does not prevent someone else from using electricity. There’s truth in some of what he says, but it’s hidden by the exaggerated magical message.
Other things that fell flat for me: the made-up books that Mikalatos includes to inspire the characters and create in them that longing for a fantasy world. The dialogue of those books is laughably cheesy, made even more so when the characters start quoting lines to each other. The heavy-handedness/preachiness is something I’ve already mentioned. Mikalatos sticks to rigid tropes and stereotypes, which is ironic considering the message he’s trying to get across. Towards the end, MacGuffins abound, and the plot points get muddled and confusing.
For a Christian fantasy, The Crescent Stone is pretty good in terms of worldbuilding, something that oftentimes can slip between the cracks in favor of message. But Mikalatos’s message stretches the bounds of reality—it makes sense in a fantasy world, but start applying it to the real one and it falls flat. A much more subtle approach would have gone over much better, with less preaching, absurd scenarios, or unbelievable concepts to clutter up the good message of compassion and equality.
The Great Brain Does It Again, by John D. Fitzgerald, was published in 1975 by Dial.
Here he goes again! Tom, a.k.a. the Great Brain, comes up with many more schemes, most of them concerned with earning money.
I really don’t know how Fitzgerald keeps coming up with original stories for this series. The Great Brain Does it Again is a familiar mix of Tom the Exasperating and Tom the Helper incidents, with the Great Brain being praised just as much as he is criticized for his antics. Though there are new stories, the core of the book is the same as the others, and Tom is equal parts frustrating and brilliant, as always.
One of the best moments in this book doesn’t revolve around the Great Brain. The story of Frankie and his missing rocking horse is heartwarming and a great lesson of sacrifice and sharing. Too bad Tom makes it worse at the end, but the contrast is striking and highlights just how crass Tom can be at times. Of course, we can’t have a bad!Tom story without having a good!Tom story, like how he catches the people swindling the Indians because he does have some good morals underneath all that greed.
I do feel as if Tom gets in trouble a little more in this book than in others. His schemes rightly get called out by his father and he rightly gets punished for them. And then, there’s the great chapter at the end that details J.D.’s horror that Tom might actually be growing up and putting his swindling ways behind him, perhaps even starting to—gasp!—date girls. It’s a good reminder that the reader, in a way, is like J.D.—hating Tom’s swindles, yet thinking life is boring without them. The thought of a normal Great Brain is as strange to us as it is to J.D.
There’s only one more book in the series, and I’m looking forward to it, not only because I think it will be a little more different now that Tom is hard at work doing more responsible things, but also because it is the end of a series that has gotten a little tiring.
Everyone knew that Tom Fitzgerald, alias the Great Brain, would get into trouble when he went off to school at the strict Catholic Academy for Boys in Salt Lake City. But no one—including Tom—knew just how much. His tongue got him into fifteen demerits’ worth of difficulty the very first day, but his great brain refused to be defeated as Tom set out to outwit the eighth grade, the superintendent, and finally the bishop of the state of Utah. Whether it’s running an illegal candy store or earning a reputation as the fastest potato peeler in the world or introducing the newfangled sport of basketball at the academy, Tom’s great brain never falters. And his money-making schemes rise to new heights—or depths—faced with the challenge of rigorous boarding-school life.
The Great Brain at the Academy is the first time we see Tom without the filter or perspective of John, the narrator. John is still narrating (and is dramatic as ever, bless him), but it’s more of a “here’s what happened to Tom at school,” so most of the book is really third-person from Tom’s point of view. And boy, without that filter, it’s a little hard to handle Tom in all his Great Brain glory.
Tom continues to swindle/trick/outsmart his peers out of their money in this installment, and though there’s some moments of maturity, for the most part Tom continues to be as arrogant as ever about his shrewdness. I do like how Fitzgerald has never portrayed the adults as inept or foolish, and how even when Tom pulls the wool over their eyes, there’s always a moment when he goes too far and the adults step in and prove why Tom’s still a kid. That happens here, too, kinda, though it’s shrouded by Tom pretty much saving his school with some quick thinking and clever wordplay.
This is one of the Great Brain books I remember the most, though after this read, I’m not sure I like it as much as I remember. Tom is just a little too much for me to handle by himself, and there’s also a point in the novel where I realized that Fitzgerald had made several mistakes—like placing Rory, the eighth-grader, in the seventh-grade dormitory. There’s also a bit too much of Tom being smug and not enough of him being (rightly) scolded for his actions, though at least he gets caught enough times that it evens out slightly in the end. I like these books, but I can only take so much of Tom’s antics.
The Great Brain at the Academy is a good look at what sort of things Tom would get up to at school, though without the usual narrator to be alongside of him, Tom seems even more smug than usual. There’s a good balance of tricks that work versus tricks that don’t, and some glimmers of maturity showing themselves in Tom, though some of his biggest tricks are never found out. I do like how Fitzgerald points out the difference between Tom using his great brain to help people and using it to help get him money, since that distinction is even clearer in this story. Tom is at his best when he’s being selfless, and at his most annoying when he’s not—a good message, perhaps, but it sometimes doesn’t make for a very enjoyable, or evenly paced, read.
J. D. idolizes his older brother Tom, a.k.a. the Great Brain, a silver-tongued con man who can turn even the most unlikely situation in to a profitable one. When Papa is the first in town to install indoor plumbing, Tom thinks of a way to make money off of it. When the Jenkins boys get lost in a cave, Tom saves the day—and lines his pockets in the bargain. And when the new teacher paddles him for not being a tattletale, the Great Brain comes up with an ingenious scheme to get rid of the paddle and the teacher.
Quick note: This may very well be the last Series Week I ever do. I’m more used to now just reviewing each book in a series as I read it, rather than waiting and publishing them all at once. Plus, these are quite difficult to do and post.
Perhaps it won’t surprise you to hear that I read The Great Brain and its sequels over and over again as a child. I’ve said that many times before about many different books. However, this may be the first book series I’ve reviewed where the reason I read the books in the first place is not because I liked the cover or the subject, but because I wanted to read whatever my brothers were reading.
My brother was the one who had three Great Brain books, and that’s how I got started on this series. I’m not sure how many times I’ve read them, to be honest—at least three, but probably closer to five or six. Like Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, these were “easy reads” for me; books I would pick up that I knew I could read fairly quickly, for the times when I was bored and had an hour to kill and didn’t know what else to do.
The Great Brain is perhaps a stronger type of historical fiction than most; I mean that in the sense that it really shows how different things were in 1896 (you’d think this would be obvious, but there is a bit of culture shock that goes on). Perhaps I noticed this because the book is so male-focused and much of the historical fiction I read is female-focused, so it was more jarring to me than some other things I’ve read.
I like the entire premise of the story: the conniving older brother who fools the kids and adults around him. Tom is an interesting character in that you both love and hate him; you love him when he does great things with his brain like saving the Jenkins’ boys and helping Andy cope with his peg leg, but you hate him when he swindles his friends and his brothers into giving him what he wants. Tom is manipulative, and J.D.’s innocence makes him an easy target, so J.D. is constantly being tricked by his brother.
Fitzgerald also manages to sneak in some sort of important theme in almost every chapter. The most sobering one is, perhaps, the chapter about Abie Glassman, which is basically a repudiation of antisemitism. It also features, however, one of the more annoying conversations J.D. has with Tom, where Tom pretty much says “everyone’s at fault except for me; he died because of people like you, J.D.” Although, knowing Tom, he may very well have been saying that to alleviate his own guilt. Who knows? The kid’s only about ten years old, after all. Kids do dumb things at age ten.
The Great Brain was a fun read, and an enjoyable reminder of me going into my brother’s room and grabbing the book from the shelf. Tom takes a little getting used to, as does the setting, but the messages are good and the story-telling itself is very strong.
Disclaimer: 12 Faithful Men: Portraits of Courageous Endurance in Pastoral Ministry, by Collin Hansen and Jeff Robinson, 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.
When I got 12 Faithful Men, I thought it would be twelve stories of famous Christian people who courageously endured, as the title implies, through trials and suffering. And I was right, in a sense, but I wasn’t expecting the pastoral audience the book is clearly aimed for. This was a book written by pastors, for pastors, and so the “portraits” weren’t as detailed or as lengthy as I would have liked.
That being said, I did enjoy the stories of these 12 men. I ended up skipping a lot of the application and simply read about the 12 men, so it was a pretty quick read. Most of the people that Hansen and Robinson wrote about I had already known about, such as Paul, Jonathan Edwards, and John Newton, but some I had never heard about. I especially enjoyed the chapters on Janani Luwum, a Ugandan pastor, and Wang Ming-Dao, a Chinese pastor, because it gave me some insight into the trouble that brewed, and is possibly still brewing in Uganda (and Africa in general) and in China. I knew about Mao, but I didn’t know about Idi Amin, the “African Hitler,” who slaughtered thousands of his own people in his quest for power.
I really wasn’t expecting 12 Faithful Men to be as devotional as it was, so it was a little disappointing, but I did find the lives of the people inside interesting. I could also think of a few other people that the authors didn’t highlight that would have fit right in with the theme of the book, so I think there’s something to be said about endurance in suffering in religion in general, and Christianity in particular. There were some good things said about suffering and faith, too, though I did end up skimming a majority of that part when the authors directed it specifically towards pastors. The book really didn’t fulfill what I thought it would, but I did learn some things nevertheless.
Disclaimer: River to Redemption, by Ann H. Gabhart, was provided by Revell. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
Orphaned in the cholera epidemic of 1833, Adria Starr was cared for by a slave named Louis, a man who passed up the opportunity to escape his bondage and instead tended to the sick and buried the dead. A man who, twelve years later, is being sold by his owners despite his heroic actions. Now nineteen, Adria has never forgotten what Louis did for her. She’s determined to find a way to buy Louis’s freedom. But in 1840s Kentucky, she’ll need all of the courage and strength she possesses—and more.
My rating: 3/5
River to Redemption is a refreshing, non-romance-centric (of sorts) novel based on a true story. While too character-driven for my tastes, and thus slow and meandering with little happening to pick up the pace, I enjoyed the break from the normal historical romance that this book gave me.
It’s really interesting to me to see Christian fiction tackle the Civil War era, as each author seems to want to emphasize something different each time. I thought Gabhart did a good job of integrating the societal feeling of the time while also maintaining the Christian aspect of it. It seems jarring to us, in the modern age, to read a book like this and wonder why the Christians in the novel aren’t all abolitionists. But the character Ruth points out something important towards the end of the novel: that the culture that these people grew up in has influenced them too much in seeing slaves as invisible, and that it took the compassion of Louis for them to see humanity in all the people around them. I think people too often dismiss the power of culture in the minds of individuals. The behavior and thoughts exhibited by some of the people in the novel should be rightly criticized, but maintaining historical accuracy is important, too.
Now, I did say this was “non-romance-centric,” though that’s not exactly true. There is a romance in this book, but since I considered Adria the main character, I didn’t really consider it important enough for a “romance-centric” tag. The romance does take up a lot of the plot—maybe too much, considering the glacial pace of the book—and it is quite predictable and all that jazz, but it was nice for the main character to realize that there are things more important in life than pursuing relationships immediately.
If there had been a bit more action or something to make the pace go more quickly, River to Redemption would have elevated itself significantly in my mind. As it stands, it’s a good book, but too slow for my liking. Many people prefer character-driven books, so this would be a good fit for them. It also handles the “Christianese” and the setting in a good way, integrating them nicely and not leaving too much to complain or rage about in terms of accuracy or portrayal.
Beauty knows the Beast’s forest in her bones—and in her blood. She knows that the forest holds secrets and that her father is the only hunter who’s ever come close to discovering them. But Yeva’s grown up far from her father’s old lodge, raised to be part of the city’s highest caste of aristocrats. Still, she’s never forgotten the feel of a bow in her hands, and she’s spent a lifetime longing for the freedom of the hunt. So when her father loses his fortune and moves Yeva and her sisters back to the outskirts of town, Yeva is secretly relieved. Out in the wilderness, there’s no pressure to make idle chatter with vapid baronessas…or to submit to marrying a wealthy gentleman. But Yeva’s father’s misfortunes may have cost him his mind, and when he goes missing in the woods, Yeva sets her sights on one prey: the creature he’d been obsessively tracking just before his disappearance. Deaf to her sisters’ protests, Yeva hunts this strange Beast back into his own territory—a cursed valley, a ruined castle, and a world of creatures that Yeva’s heard about only in fairy tales. A world that can bring her ruin—or salvation. Who will survive: the Beauty, or the Beast?
It’s nice to have some fodder for my Fairy Tale Fridays again! Hunted is a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” set in Russia, complete with Russian fairytales. Yeva, the daughter of a merchant who recently lost his wealth, has to go after her father when he doesn’t return from hunting one day. In the woods she encounters a Beast who takes her back to his ruined castle when she becomes injured.
Hunted plays out very much like the familiar Beauty and the Beast fairytale, though there is some added lore with the Russian fairytales, and hunting is a predominant theme. Spooner really amps up the idea that Yeva/Beauty is the one saving the Beast, but it’s not as annoying as this sort of reversed trope can be. The added lore helps flesh out the retelling, though it does get confusing at the end, and adds even more magic to the original. My favorite “Beauty and the Beast” retelling will always and forever be Robin McKinley’s (for nostalgia purposes, mainly), but Hunted is, in my opinion, quite unique in the way it transforms and adds to the original.
I had to chuckle at the nod to Stockholm Syndrome that Spooner makes in this book. It’s a great moment because Spooner herself has to avoid the same complaints people make about “Beauty and the Beast” while retelling the fairytale. I actually don’t know how successful she is, personally, as I’ve never really had a problem with that aspect of the fairytale, but having that time where Yeva didn’t realize that her friend was the Beast helped, as it more fully illustrated the human/beast divide that is central to the book. It also made Yeva’s falling in love with the Beast more realistic, as she had those moments of humanity to fall back on.
The one part that really bothered me was the epilogue. That’s when Spooner’s modernist interpretation came roaring to the front, even more so than in Yeva’s clichéd retreat from married life and “boring” conventions of the time. To be honest, the entire end of the book unraveled my enjoyment of it, as that’s when it started to get the most loose in terms of plot and pacing. I suppose I shouldn’t have forgotten that Spooner is also the co-author of a book that I despised for its presentation of a romance relationship, but I guess I’m eternally hopeful that relationships will be portrayed in actually healthy ways as opposed to what society thinks is the best way to show them.
The Capture, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2003 by Scholastic.
Pushed from his family’s nest by his older brother, barn owl Soren is rescued from certain death on the forest floor by agents from a mysterious school for orphaned owls, St. Aggie’s. With new friend, clever and scrappy Gylfie, he uncovers is a training camp for the leader’s own nefarious goal.
Guardians of Ga’Hoole was one of my favorite book series growing up. I don’t remember how I discovered them (maybe the first few were given as a Christmas gift?), but I ended up getting every single one that came out. My favorite part about them (at least, the first six) is the gorgeous illustrations that adorn the inside front and back covers.
It’s been a while since I’ve read them and a lot of details have escaped me, so it was almost as if I was reading The Capture for the first time (almost). From the beginning, Lasky develops the “owl culture” of the Ga’Hoole series, complete with slang, profanity, and detailed information about owls themselves (such as species, flying, eating habits, etc.). The world is a post-human world, populated entirely by animals and it seems the only “sentient” ones are owls (to be honest, I’m not sure it’s revealed to be post-human until later in the series…this book reads as straight up “fantasy animal world”).
The series, as far as I can remember, is divided up into multiple arcs, so The Capture sets the stage for the first arc. St. Aggie’s is introduced, with its penchant for brainwashing (“moonblinking”) and desire to obtain the mysterious flecks, more valuable than gold (it’s not obvious, but there are several clues in this book that the flecks are iron). The mysterious, mythical Ga’Hoole Tree and the legendary Guardians of Ga’Hoole are the hopeful destination and the incentive of the characters. And of course, our intrepid band of heroes are introduced: Soren and Gylfie, the main two characters for the majority of the book, and then Twilight and Digger, who join up with them at the end of the book.
The Capture is a good start to the series, introducing a lot, setting up the world, and leaving enough mystery to carry on to the next book. The world is a little odd to get used to, at first, and the characters are sometimes a little bit stilted in dialogue (perhaps due to the oddity of the world). The villains are straight-up cartoonish and melodramatic, and they’re not present enough in the book in order to really seem as a legitimate threat (although, granted, the biggest enemy in this book is moonblinking). However, a lot of good groundwork is sown here—The Capture is, at its heart, merely a set-up story for the world Lasky is going to develop throughout the series.
I’m excited to reread this series again because in my memory, I thought the series should have ended at book eight (possibly six, even), but Lasky continued, (presumably) due to popularity. I’m looking forward to rereading everything to see if, yes, I still think that way, or if there is some merit in the last half of the series. And, of course, I’m eager to see if I will still enjoy the series as much as I did when I was younger.
The White Mountains, by John Christopher, was published in 1967 by Simon & Schuster.
Long ago, the Tripods–huge, three-legged machines–descended upon Earth and took control. Now people unquestioningly accept the Tripods’ power. They have no control over their thoughts or their lives. But for a brief time in each person’s life–in childhood–he is not a slave. For Will, his time of freedom is about to end–unless he can escape to the White Mountains, where the possibility of freedom still exists.
The White Mountains describes a world where, after an alien (machine?) invasion, society has reverted back to medieval times and are now under the dominion of the Tripods. The Tripods, giant three-legged metal things, control the humans with Caps, given to them at a coming-of-age ceremony. However, some people have managed to hide from the Tripods and are Capless, and they seek out boys (but not girls, apparently) who are brave enough to escape society and flee to the White Mountains. That’s what the protagonist, Will, ends up doing, of course, with some comrades of his.
The worldbuilding is actually quite good, at least in terms of describing the way the world reverted back a few hundred years. Will’s fascination with the Watch and the way the boys explore the ruined city (Paris?) and find unexplained, strange things, like cars and subway trains, is quite well done. Yet, Beanpole’s interest with such things shows that the way back to those times is still possible, if humans have a chance to get there.
Less well done is the concept of the Tripods. It’s never quite clear whether they are machines or controlled by something else—although, granted, no one in the world Christopher has shown us knows the answer to that, either. And I understand that the other books will answer that, as the Rebellion seeks to destroy the Tripods and free the humans. However, in this book, the vague threat of the Tripods, however ominous they are, is too unknown to really sell the book as solid science fiction. They’re metal tripods with strange advanced technology that can control people with silver Caps. That’s all we know. It’s all the characters know, too, but I was itching for more to be revealed.
My other complaint is that the ending is a little too abrupt, and reads too much like a voice-over done at the end of the first movie of a trilogy. I suppose actually showing the boys reaching the White Mountains, learning more about the Resistance, and other things isn’t particularly necessary, since the book is about their escape, and is something that can be explored in the other books, but I would have liked to see a little bit of that in this book.
Also, where are all the girls? Just saying.
The White Mountains does a really good job with some of its worldbuilding, but not so well with the rest, having a threat that’s too vague to really stand out as interesting. The concept is great, and it has enough appeal to hook people into the next books, if only to discover more about the mysterious Tripods, but the ending was too abrupt for my liking, and there’s a lack of female presence. I’ll pick up the next book because I’m interested in finding out more, but I hope some of the flaws are improved.
Disclaimer: First Impressions, by Debra White Smith, 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.
In an attempt to get to know the people of London, Texas—the small town that lawyer Eddi Boswick now class home—she tries out for a local theater group’s production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. She’s thrilled to get the role of lively Elizabeth Bennet…until she meets the arrogant—and eligible—rancher playing her leading man. Dave Davidson chose London, Texas, as the perfect place to live under the radar. Here, no one knows his past, and he can live a quiet, peaceful life with his elderly aunt, who also happens to own the local theater. Dave doesn’t even tryout for the play, but suddenly he is thrust into the role of Mr. Darcy and forced to spend the entire summer with Eddi, who clearly despises him. Sparks fly every time Eddi and Dave meet, whether on the stage or off. But when Eddi discovers Dave’s secret, she has to admit there might be more to him than she thought. Maybe even enough to change her mind…and win her heart.
I was excited when I found out this book was a Pride & Prejudice retelling. I figured I would enjoy it even if it turned out like many of the other mediocre romances I’ve read. I did get a bit of a scare when I reached the second chapter and had a “who thought this way of writing was a good idea?” moment when Smith described a tornado as a “beast,” a “devil,” a “demon,” a “gyrating monster,” a “funnel,” a “ghastly specter,” and, my personal favorite, a “capricious adolescent,” all in the span of three pages. Trust me…I almost stopped reading then and there.
However, I shouldered on, and I’m glad I did. Smith manages to keep a lot of the main characterization of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy and transfers them to her modern characters, Eddi and Dave. I don’t think she quite understands Darcy, but at least her presentation was better than the 2005 Kiera Knightley “shy romantic soul” movie interpretation. A lot of the same issues were addressed, at least in terms of their relationship, and in that regard I quite enjoyed it.
My main quibble was simply the shape of the retelling itself, especially how Smith chose to reinterpret some of the elements. It’s difficult to retell a Regency novel in a modern world, so I can say that Smith did a good job trying to find an equal equivalent to things that happen in the book (though none have done it better than “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries,” in my opinion). I do think she takes it a bit too far, though, especially in terms of Linda, this story’s Lydia. The Lydia of Pride & Prejudice is naïve and silly, but not worldly. I suppose the closest modern interpretation would be a sort of wild party girl, as is portrayed here, but I still think Smith could have done something a little better than what she does with the Lydia plotline. And I get that Christian novels love redemption stories, but redeeming Wickham (or this story’s Wickham, anyway) was too much. I did like the changing of Georgiana to a boy, though, and the way Smith modernized that event.
Some of the other elements were a little all over the place, such as the Chari/Charlotte and and Conner/Mr. Collins plotline, which seemed thrown in purely for the sake of the retelling as opposed to the plot. To be honest, they could have been cut out completely with nothing lost at all. I also was thrown by the early Catharine de Bourge/Davidson’s aunt scene, and I felt the effect was ruined because of it.
Basically, I enjoyed the main plotline of First Impressions, the barebones Pride & Prejudice romance retelling, but I had more serious problems with the writing and the side characters, as well as some of the ways Smith chose to retell and reinterpret the original. I liked it, but if I want a good Pride & Prejudice retelling, this won’t be the book I turn to.