The Running Man (Book Review)

The Running Man (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you’re craving a high-octane and decidedly adult version of The Hunger Games

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Running Man

By Richard Bachman (Stephen King)

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

It’s the year 2025, and the bloodshot eyes of the U.S. are glued to screens…

If there is one book genre that I actively avoid, it’s horror. I’ve never read a Stephen King novel in my life. TOO SCARY.

But, when I stumbled across this thriller written under his pen name for Signet, I thought…okay, I can probably do it.

Stephen King is skilled and prolific. I wanted to read him, and this seemed like my best shot of not being scarred for life.

This book was published the year I was born, and it portrays the year 2025—next year, at the time of this review.

In King’s dystopia, the divide between the “haves” and “have nots” in the U.S. has grown into a chasm. Every home is required by law to contain (get this) a Free-Vee. (I have a similarly named app on my television.) Programming is dominated by reality TV—game shows in which people compete in all manner of deadly games in hopes of winning prize money. Contestants are largely comprised of the have-nots.

Our protagonist, Richard, is one such contestant, driven to apply for TV so that he can earn money to buy real medicine for his baby, who is sick with the flu.

Because he’s smart, Richard gets picked for the highest-rated show on TV, The Running Man. Here’s the game: Richard runs for his life, and Hunters try to kill him. He earns money for every hour he stays alive. Stay alive for 30 days, and you win. Nobody has lasted more than eight days.

Sound like the Hunger Games? Yep.

The ending is hauntingly reminiscent of something that ended up happening in real life nearly 20 years after this book rolled off the press.

It’s crazy how many of King’s presentiments have come to pass. The book’s government is irreparably corrupt, and the networks are out for nothing but profit. Today, don’t we feel the same way about Washington and Silicon Valley? People are doping themselves to avoid reality—with entertainment and pot, whatever you can afford. Sound familiar? Everything from the air to the food is polluted. Uncanny.

Content warnings: The entire book is a content warning. There’s foul/offensive language with no filters whatsoever. The book mentions every vice you can imagine, although there’s comparatively little that’s graphically portrayed on the page. There’s no horror, just thrills. Clean? No way. But King knows his Bible, and there are references sprinkled throughout, so there’s that.

3.9
The Anxious Generation (Book Review)

The Anxious Generation (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you’re worried about what smartphones and social media are doing to the kids

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Anxious Generation

By Jonathan Haidt

Information
Inspiration
Writing Craft
Moral Value

“Do NOT let your boys get Snapchat when they’re older!”

My 18-year-old niece said this to me a couple of days after I finished reading this book.

“I’ve never had Snapchat,” I said, “What is it?”

She told me about her brief but potent relationship with the app that ended in January of this year when she deleted it for good. Her story (which included lots of teen drama and unwanted nude photos) reinforced a lot of the issues and concerns that Haidt highlights in this book.

Jonathan Haidt says that, starting around 2010-ish, we began to replace a play-based childhood with a phone-based childhood, and it’s had disastrous results for kids, causing an increase in anxiety and depression.

This book is a must-read for parents who don’t want their kids to have smartphones or social media (too early) but they’re not quite sure why they want this. They’re not sure how to say no. They’re not sure if it’s right to say no.

Jonathan Haidt lays out research and stats, and he also says things that, to me, are common sense and don’t require scientific backing for me to believe them. (Example: Kids today aren’t given the same level of independence or allowed to engage in the same type of risky play that their parents enjoyed at the same age, and this hasn’t kept them safer or made them braver.)

I’m not a big fan of getting the government involved to make laws that could have implications down the road that we can’t predict, but I do love his suggestions for how parents and educators can band together outside of the law to change the ether surrounding phone use at home and at school.

He says that we need to protect kids online WAY more than we are now, and conversely, allow them WAY more independence in the real world than we do now. He suggests practical ways we can do both.

Let’s have the guts to be the parents that this generation needs!

5
The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness (Book Review)

The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
the shackles of self-love and self-hate are too heavy to bear

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness

By Timothy Keller

Information
Inspiration
Writing Craft
Moral Value

A short piece of much-needed truth in our age of selfie syndrome

I listened to this audiobook in one day, and then I turned around and listened to the last chapter again, and I’ll probably listen to it again.

My husband and I are teaching a seminar for 20-somethings next month, and the subject is “the change,” as in Christian transformation, living as a new creature, undergoing the renewal of the mind. This was beautiful food for thought in developing the seminar content.

What does it look like to live a Christ-transformed life? One HUGE indicator is that mature Christians don’t think about themselves all that much. They don’t think less of themselves. They don’t think more of themselves. They think more about God and others than they do about themselves. This, Tim Keller says, is blessed freedom. I couldn’t agree more.

We are constantly looking for signs that we are important and valuable. We live good, Christian lives in order to achieve our “righteous” merit badges. We look to others for validation—I’m reminded of the tortured Anna Karenina asking her sister-in-law, Dolly, again and again, “What do you think of me?” Keller compares this to being in a neverending courtroom, where we are on trial, and we are looking to others (or to ourselves) for a verdict, an answer to the question: Am I a good person?

Keller says we have to get out of the courtroom. How? We accept God’s verdict of us.

When we believe in Jesus as our Savior, then we are beloved children of God. That is our identity. This verdict comes before any “performance” on our part—the act of faith, the choice to believe in the gospel results in God’s final verdict on our identity and worth. We are His children, loved, and accepted. THEN the transformation happens. The verdict OUTFITS us for the performance to come, the “enduring to the end.”

We step out of the courtroom, no longer trying to prove our goodness, and we are free to stop obsessing over our self-worth and turn our precious focus upward and outward, where we find joy and freedom.

5
A Thousand Pounds of Dynamite (Book Review)

A Thousand Pounds of Dynamite (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you like your true crime without a side of blood and guts

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

A Thousand Pounds of Dynamite

By Adam Higginbotham

Information
Inspiration
Writing Craft
Moral Value

There’s a bomb in a casino. Now what?

I’m intrigued by Higginbotham’s new book on the Challenger disaster, so I thought I’d try one of his earlier and shorter true-crime books. This one describes how a dude made a bomb, put it into a casino, and attempted to extort money. Why did he do it? Did he succeed? Did the bomb, you know, go off?

This was a punchy, intriguing read. I listened to the audio narrated by the author, and it was great.

Because the crime happened back in 1980, before the Internet and cell phones and such, it was fascinating to learn how this dysfunctional man (a real piece of work) got the dynamite, rigged the bomb, placed it, and communicated with authorities…back in the Stone Age. 😂

But even MORE interesting are the family dysfunction and interpersonal dynamics at play here. Nobody does this kind of thing JUST for the money. Nor does a person do it alone, with no accomplices or stooges. The WHY behind the crime was most interesting for me.

I do not like grotesque true crime, where children are abused and people are graphically dismembered. This was a great read for someone like me who enjoys exploring the psyche and motives behind crime, but who can’t stomach graphic violence.

4.5
The Balter of Ashton Harper (Book Review)

The Balter of Ashton Harper (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you’re wondering where all the regency books for kids are at

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Balter of Ashton Harper

By Millie Florence

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

A message of courage for kids who are too scared to reach for their dreams

What an incredible accomplishment for a teen author! This sweet story explores what it means to have hope when hope feels unrealistic and risky. The plot did not take the turns I expected, and what started as historical middle-grade took a turn into fantasyland.

Ashton Harper loves to dance. He secretly harbors hopes of attending a prestigious school of dance. But there’s no way he’ll get in, so why try? Why care?

Ashton and his two sisters DO get a shot at auditioning for the school…will they take it? The story follows Ashton as he figures out what he really wants from life, what’s truly important, and how to let go of his fears and insecurities.

This book is perfect for young readers who love the Regency era but want to read middle-grade (not adult romance, which tends to dominate).

Here’s where I interviewed Millie on Library Binding. She is a pure drop of sunshine!

4.3
Sense and Sensibility (Book Review)

Sense and Sensibility (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
only the most sparkling dialogue will do

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Sense and Sensibility

By Jane Austen

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

Two sisters with wildly different temprements fall in love with men they can’t have

This book contains some of Austen’s all-time best dialogue. So many double meanings, so much dramatic irony. I will say, though, that this novel gets off to a rather slow start. I’d forgotten how long it takes for things to really get rolling. But the story just keeps getting better and better as it flows along.

I’m a total sucker for strong theme, and this book has it—it’s right there in the title. Just like Pride and Prejudice. You’ve got two sisters who embody two extremes of temperament. Eleanor is all sense, and Marianne is all sensibility. Austen shows us the upsides and downsides of each, ultimately praising both in moderation.

In the BBC miniseries from the 2000s, there is a very cringey scene in which Brandon and Willoughby duel with pistols on a foggy morning. I always mocked this scene up and down, saying, “That never happened in the book.” But I was so dead wrong! When Brandon confides in Eleanor, he mentions in veiled language that a duel did take place. So, there you go. Duels do happen in Austen.

4.8
Danny the Champion of the World (Book Review)

Danny the Champion of the World (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
silly father-son stories hit the spot

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Danny the Champion of the World

By Roald Dahl

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

Funny in both senses (haha and strange)

Roald Dahl’s books are morally fraught. They just are. They are a mixed bag of incredibly human impulses. If you try to sanitize his stories, you will erase the very heart of his characters. Danny and his dad are good guys, but (there’s no getting around it) they do some bad things. Funny things. But illegal and low-down, nonetheless.

If I’d known HOW morally mixed this story is, I may NOT have chosen it for our first summer read-aloud with my boys. But, it was a good opportunity for me to casually introduce them to the idea that sometimes the main characters in a book don’t always do the right thing.

What is so morally complicated here in this harmless children’s book?

Well, Danny and his dad are the two sweetest guys you’ll ever meet. They live a simple life in a camper next to the gas station that they own and operate. Danny is only 9 or so, still a kid. One day, his dad confesses that he’s a poacher. He wants to poach pheasants off of a rich neighbor’s land. The rich neighbor is a big, bad meanie, so who cares about him? Danny comes up with a brilliant idea for how they can poach over 100 pheasants in one night and ruin the rich man’s annual shooting party, embarrassing him in front of all his hoity-toity guests.

Um, that’s mean. And illegal. It’s robbing the rich to feed the poor, except nobody is starving, and Danny’s dad says outright that he loves poaching because of the thrill, not because he needs food. Danny and his dad are praised and never condemned for their actions or attitude. Their plot goes off with hilarious results…but the laughs are rather cheap.

Because Danny comes up with the grand idea for the poaching scheme, he’s dubbed the champion of the world. Sigh…this is wish fulfillment for kids. What kid wouldn’t want the grown-ups around him to lift him high and praise his brilliance? BUT…

…at the same time, I love how Danny is given independence. His dad doesn’t baby him. Danny isn’t a listless, depressed, anxious kid who feels like his life is meaningless. He is well on his way to maturity at the tender age of 9, knowing how to problem-solve, handle responsibility, and take calculated risks. There is a degree of merit here, especially for boys.

But, as a mom, I wanted there to be more of a reality check to balance this out.

Hey, it’s Roald Dahl, and you’ve got to know that going in.

3
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (Book Review)

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you’d like to read hands-down winner for best modern Christmas novel for kids

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

By Barbara Robinson

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

A gang of troublemakers want to be in the church Christmas program. Hilarity ensues.

Seeing this play with my Brownies Troop was one of the formative events in my childhood. I still remember the girl who played Imogen swinging the baby Jesus doll around and Mrs. Robinson urging her to hold him like he was precious.

Reading this story was just as good as it’s ever been for me. It asks the question: What would happen if the neighborhood hooligans showed up at church and wanted to star in the Christmas pageant? What is a funny romp for kids is quite convicting for the parents who are reading it. At least it is for me.

My boys loved this book and laughed a lot. We read one chapter a day for a week, and it was a great experience.

Content warnings: The Herdman children smoke, steal, lie, and set things on fire, but it’s all melodrama, not real.

4.6
A Boy Called Christmas (Book Review)

A Boy Called Christmas (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you want to read a Santa-centric book to your kids.

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

A Boy Called Christmas

By Matt Haig

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

How did Santa Claus get to be Santa Claus? Here’s a cute origin story for ya.

This was pure fun. It’s an origin story for Santa Claus, as imagined by Matt Haig, author of The Midnight Library. There’s nothing about Jesus or the reality of Christmas—just the North Pole characters associated with the secular winter holidays. Despite lacking any faith element, it’s a cute, heartwarming story that reinforces the value of life, looking on the bright side, and finding joy in giving to others.

My kids know that Santa isn’t real. Every year, we read Gail Gibbons’s book “Santa Who?” because it discusses all of the different traditions and legends that have contributed to who Santa has become, starting with Jesus Christ, then moving to Saint Nicholas, and then beyond. We treat Santa as a character more than anything—like the Grinch or Scrooge. We visit Santa at the annual Christmas tree lighting. We lay out cookies and milk. I don’t want to deprive them of any childhood magic. But I’m not going to lie and tell them he’s real when he’s not. So, this book provided some Santa fun, and I felt that it helps to reinforce him as a fictional character vs. a reality.

We listened to the audiobook narrated by Stephen Fry, and it was adorable. He reads like Jim Dale, doing all the voices.

Content warnings: Nicholas is mistreated and betrayed, but there is nothing troublingly graphic here. I also want to emphasize that this book is secular and unconnected to any other Santa myths that I know of. There is no mention of religion of any kind, not even St. Nicholas.

I haven’t seen the movie—have you?

3.9
Frederica (Book Review)

Frederica (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you just want to keep reading Jane Austen over and over forever and ever

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Frederica

By Georgette Heyer

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

What happens when a selfish lord decides to help a poor family get a foothold in London society? Rrrrrrrromance! (Roll the “R.”)

This was delightful. Georgette Heyer is often described as the inventor of the regency romance genre when she started publishing novels like this one back in the ’20s. This book is like Jane Austen with antics, haha.

Frederica is determined to see her drop-dead gorgeous younger sister, Charis, have one London season. That’s all she needs to make a comfortable match with a gentleman. Since Frederica lost both her parents and has long been in charge of her younger siblings, it’s up to her to make this happen for Charis.

Frederica appeals to a distant cousin, Lord Alverstroke, who agrees to help her (at first) only to needle his bothersome sisters. But then, Alverstroke realizes that Frederica might just be his kind of gal. Romance ensues.

This book is CUTE. Clean romance. Regency period. Sparkling morals. Sweet to the bone. But, unlike Jane Austen, this isn’t all quiet action in parlor rooms and gardens and country estates. Here, we mix with people of all classes. We have adventures—barking dogs, hot air balloons, steamers!

The only critique I have (and it’s a small one) is that the writing can be clumsy to read at times. It’s not seamless. I found myself halting through some passages, especially those thick with period slang and colloquialisms. Also, Heyer uses exclamation marks with zero hesitation!!! Haha.

The next time I read a Heyer novel, I’d like to listen on audio. I bet that would be even better.

Side note: I can’t believe that filmmakers haven’t picked up on Heyer yet. Instead of making bad adaptations of Jane Austen, they could pick ANY Georgette Heyer novel and run with it.

Content warnings: None. The romance is as clean as it gets.

4.4
Anna Karenina (Book Review)

Anna Karenina (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you want to grapple with big questions on an intimate level.

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Anna Karenina

By Leo Tolstoy

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

We see how love, loss, and jealousy play out in the lives of an interconnected group of Russians

I don’t usually go into a book this long on a whim, but I did this time. I thought I’d listen to a little of the audiobook to see if I liked the narration, and then, I thought, maybe I’d start it for real in 2024. Before I knew it, I was through part one and totally invested.

I think the short chapters propelled me on. And it was great listening on audio because the complex names didn’t trip me up. Also, this book has that “train wreck” quality that makes it impossible to NOT gawk. I just zoomed through!

This book probably hits everyone differently, but, for me, the central question of the book is “What do we live for?” Ourselves? Our passions? Our families, work, religion? Do we live for God? Each character grapples with this at some point, and I love that there are no tidy answers.

It was fascinating to watch Anna go from a “good” woman to a “bad” one. To watch her get increasingly self-centered and consequently more unhappy and paranoid. When you look at her, you realize that it can happen to anyone. Easily.

I love how life is portrayed in all its complexity and how everyone’s life seems both good and bad, one way from the outside and another way from the inside. And it’s always changing.

Content warnings: Nothing is portrayed graphically. The book deals heavily with adultery, but there are no bedroom scenes. There are some gristly deaths, one of which is suicide.

I haven’t seen the movie yet—is it good?

4.9
The Carver and the Queen (Book Review)

The Carver and the Queen (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
cozy fairy tales in cold settings are your cup of tea

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Carver and the Queen

By Emma C. Fox (Check out my interview with Emma.)

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

Deep in the Russian mountains, two peasants discover a magical realm. But will this power bring good fortune or bad?

This book hit the spot. I loved it, and I thought it was even better than The Arrow and the Crown. The dual protagonists were lovable. The villains were mysterious and not made of cardboard. I also loved the supporting cast.

This book is based on a fairy tale that I’m not familiar with, so, for me, it read like a story set in a fairy tale world. It didn’t feel strange or contrived in any way, which sometimes happens with a retelling when you aren’t familiar with the source. You don’t NEED to know the source story to enjoy this one.

This is a sweet romance, too! Perfect for teens who want clean, mature romance. No spice, just heart.

I’m very much looking forward to Emma C. Fox’s next book!

Content warnings: None


4.6
High (Book Review)

High (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you’re in the mood for a short, hard sci-fi

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

High

By Adam Roberts

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

Too interesting to be so short

This is my first time reading Adam Roberts. I knew upfront that this is a novella and not a full novel, but I found myself wishing that it WAS. The premise is tight-packed—a hitman takes the job of kidnapping a girl on Mars and returning her to her mother on Earth. Bit by bit, Roberts reveals more, but I wish it had been developed into a full novel. I wanted to know more about Hi’s backstory, and I wasn’t sure why the novella ended the way it did.

Hi is the hitman. (How does his name relate to the word “High” as in the title? Welp, it’s the title cut in half…not sure what that means.) A wealthy NYC woman hires Hi to extract her daughter from her ex-husband’s lavish home-compound on Mars. Hi takes the job, but he’s got his own motives for doing so (not purely monetary). Probably shouldn’t give any more away.

In short order, we get a sense of this vast future world and how it works on a solar-system-level. Lots of neat techy gadgets. I wanted more.

I wanted more character. Hi is like a machine, but I wanted to know WHY he was this way. The rest of the characters have strong flaws and motivations, and I wanted more from that—I wanted them to intersect and clash.

The voice…it’s been a long time since I’ve read something written in such a nontraditional style, using second person and direct addresses. Who is this narrator?

Overall, this was intriguing for me, someone who isn’t sci-fi savvy at all.

Content warnings: There was a smattering of foul language, PG-13 violence, and non-graphic sex. Not what I’d call clean, but also not gross.

3.5
Mari in the Margins (Book Review)

Mari in the Margins (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you’re charmed by the little-big dramas of childhood

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Mari in the Margins

By Rebecca J. Gomez

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

How can you stand out when you’re lost in a sea of siblings?

I adored this novel in verse. Mari reminds me a lot of myself—introverted, creative, wondering how she fits in. Mari is the middle child in a family of nine kids. Her busy family, chaotic home life, and her clingy little sister, whom Mari is always stuck babysitting, often push her to her limit, requiring her to hide in the closet or lock herself in the bathroom for some peace and quiet.

Mari feels like she’s a side note in her family, often forgotten while louder voices get the most attention. But she’s not defined by resentment—she loves her family and is devoted to them, even though she finds them exhausting. She’s just wondering how she fits in as an individual in her own right (beyond her perpetual role as babysitter to her younger siblings). What in this world is JUST Mari’s? Who is she?

This a sweet, understated story that explores universal emotions that all kids can relate to. Do my parents really love me? What am I good at? Is she still my friend? Why am I so upset? I love books that are content to portray the ordinary highs and lows of everyday life.

I love Mari’s mixed cultural experience, which adds richness to her life. I love how the book throws all kinds of poetry into the mix, as Mari’s teacher assigns certain forms, we see Mari’s attempts at haiku, limerick, acrostic, and free verse. This book would make a fantastic addition to a homeschool poetry unit, because, as Mari learns to master some of these forms, she remains supremely focused on expressing herself and pouring her heart into her writing. The tension between self-expression and artistic constraint is where the magic happens for her.

Also, the doodles are such a fun addition! The book is beautifully laid out visually.

Overall, I loved this! I’d recommend it to any middle-grader, and I loved it as an adult, too.

4.8
Goblabet (Book Review

Goblabet (Book Review

You’ll love it if
you enjoyed the movie Labyrinth, and you can’t resist a puzzle to solve

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Goblabet: An Alphabetical Murder Mystery

By Ken Priebe

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

Can your kids crack the case of who killed the Goblin King?

What a fun concept! The Goblin king has been poisoned, and 26 suspects are called to defend their innocence. Three are guilty of murder, but which three? The answer is encoded into the book.

One goblin for each letter of the alphabet. One short poem per goblin. One simple code to crack. This is a fun, interactive book for kids.

My 8-year-old had fun decrypting the code and solving the case. But I think he had more fun pouring over the illustrations of each goblin, which are so expressive and flawlessly executed, even though they’re presented as “courtroom sketches” and, as such, are done in rough, sketchy form. They’re so funny and original.

The code is easy to crack, so that will appeal to younger kids, but the poetry is advanced, which will appeal to older kids. It would be fun to use this book as part of a poetry exploration for our homeschool—using the author’s concept to write original short-form poetry with a mystery embedded.

4.5
The Queen’s Gambit (Book Review)

The Queen’s Gambit (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you enjoyed Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Queen’s Gambit (Book 1 of Imirillia)

By Beth Brower

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

Don’t confuse this with Walter Tevis’s chess novel. It’s completely different.

I adored The Q, so I’m making Beth Brower’s books a priority. This one is far less complex (and much shorter) than The Q, but it’s still a worthy read, especially if you love character-driven royal dramas with lots of politics.

The bountiful land of Aemogen is a self-contained country that has little to do with the surrounding nations. When Imirillia, a battle-hardened nation to the north, declares war on the soft Aemogen people, the queen, Eleanor, must figure out how to ready her peaceful farmers for war against a foe that is more numerous and skilled than they can ever hope to be. It’s like The Shire vs. Mordor.

She finds unexpected help when Wil Traveler, a wandering soldier, arrives at court. Asking him to train her troops is a gamble, but she takes the risk.

This book moved slowly, without too much high action. This first installment in the series is more about establishing character dynamics, which, I’m sure set the stage for the second and third books. The characters are good—flawed and riddled with issues. There is also a lot of worldbuilding to clue us in on the traditions and ethos of the two warring nations. I think this is important to know going in.

There’s also a slow-burn romance that is not cheesy. Executing a romantic subplot without cheese on top is no small feat, but I love the way Beth Brower approaches it. You can hand this to any teenager without fear. It’s clean as a whistle without feeling sanitized.

This book doesn’t provide a ton of closure at the end. It doesn’t completely satisfy as a standalone book. The external plot wraps up, but the internal plot is just getting started, so you do feel compelled to read the next book. That’s also important to know going in.

I’m notorious for reading the first book in a series and never continuing. But, I might just keep going with this YA medieval adventure!

4.5
Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library (Book Review)

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you’re craving a Willy Wonka-type adventure (but with less candy and more books)

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library

By Chris Grabenstein

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

A group of kids must escape a game-maker’s library in order to win the grand prize

This was our last read-aloud for the school year. I selected it because I hoped it would be a fun, exciting story to start the summer. My boys did enjoy it, but I was a tad underwhelmed.

I must say, though, that the ending made up for what I thought was a snoozy middle.

When I finished reading the last couple of chapters, my boys (7 and 8 years old) were literally jumping and rolling off the couch and around the carpet. All the tension and excitement they were feeling was manifesting in these funny physical gyrations, and it was hilarious to watch.

The story premise is great. An eccentric game-maker, Luigi Lemoncello, has built a state-of-the-art library in his childhood hometown, and he invites twelve 12-year-olds to a lock-in at the library. The next morning, they opt into an epic game to “escape” the library and win fame and fortune as Lemoncello spokes-kids.

The clues and puzzles were excellent. I felt like they were difficult enough to warrant the fanfare surrounding the game event. The only thing, though, was that SO much went over my boys’ heads. As the adult, I caught all the allusions and Easter eggs, and I wanted to explain them to my boys, but I refrained, haha.

I felt like the writing and the characters were on the weaker side. Granted, this is a plot-driven adventure story, but I was expecting a bit more in the character department. That would’ve helped support the middle of the novel, which dragged for me.

There wasn’t much “there” there, even for our hero, Kyle. The most interesting character is Charles because he’s a worthy villain, who tries to weasel and fake his way to the top. It’s good to see him taken down a notch—my boys loved it—but he’s also something of a caricature.

If each character could’ve displayed more internal conflict, our interest would’ve skyrocketed. There’s one point at which Kyle is tempted to play video games instead of help his team look for clues, and after a quick pause, he resists the temptation. Had the characters had grown and changed to a greater degree, the book would’ve had more to offer.

Also, the grand prize (being a Lemoncello spokesperson) seemed a little strange. I would not wish fame on these poor kids!

3.3
The Hiding Place (Book Review)

The Hiding Place (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you want to hear about the power of God in action in the lives of real people in real trouble

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Hiding Place

By Corrie ten Boom

Information
Inspiration
Writing Craft
Moral Value

Meet a couple of spinsters who will change your life forever and ever amen.

“Can I weep openly right now?” That’s the question I had to ask myself every time before pressing play on this audiobook. I shed many a tear into my family’s dinner as I was cooking it, into the pavement around my neighborhood as I walked, onto my clean laundry as I was folding it.

It’s been 10 years since my last reading of The Hiding Place, so I was due.

First and foremost, this book is a testament to the power of God, and it’s also a tribute to Corrie’s sister, Betsy, and her faith. This time around, I was struck by how many times Corrie described Betsy as an otherworldly being. “Who is this sister of mine?” When she prayed for her enemies, thanked God for fleas. I think this is what it means to be a new person in Christ, to have a new heart. It’s something that the unbelieving spirit of the world cannot comprehend.

Indeed, this book does not diminish the power of God. Every step of the way, Corrie demonstrates with evidence (tangible and intangible) how God gave them everything they needed to do everything He asked of them. Many times, they didn’t see His hand until after undergoing a test of faith, and only afterward did they realize He’d been at work.

I love everything about this story, and I think everyone should read it. It’s a WW2 memoir that is almost never a downer…ever! It’s edifying and uplifting while also not shying away from the horrors and atrocities.

I’m amazed by how readable and riveting the writing is.

5
The Master of Tides (Book Review)

The Master of Tides (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you want to read a hidden gem by an author with a Christian worldview

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Master of Tides

By Jamin Still

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

An unlikely crew of young people must save the land from an evil sorcerer

The setting for this story is really refreshing. I haven’t read anything with quite this mix. Here, in the first book in the series, we start in a seaside industrial town. Then, we’re on the road with a circus. Then, we’re in a dark, fantastical wood. Then the open sea. It’s not typical medieval times in Hibaria.

I enjoyed Cora as a heroine, but I think I liked Will more. He was much spunkier, and Victoria was a tortured soul. But Cora makes sense as the protagonist because she has the most growing to do.

I know that authors sometimes fear dumping too much worldbuilding on the reader, but, because Hibaria has such a unique mythos, I kept forgetting certain aspects that popped up later, such as the role of the constellations and Augrind’s backstory.

Even though this is the first book in the series, and it ends with setup for the next book, there was good closure here. No cliffhangers, just a few twists.

I think that kids around 12 and up would enjoy this, and the morals are sterling.

3.8
A River in Darkness (Book Review)

A River in Darkness (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
…well, you can’t love a book about another’s real-life suffering

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

A River in Darkness

By Masaji Ishikawa

Information
Inspiration
Writing Craft
Moral Value

What if you exchanged a life of freedom for one of complete bondage?

This account was devastating to read. I can’t imagine how devastating it was to live through.

The atrocities that the North Korean government committed against its people are horrific. (And it’s still happening.) Masaji had a unique perspective because he spent his childhood in Japan, so when his family moved to North Korea when he was 13, he completely understood what they’d left behind…the “other” world that was “out there.” I can only imagine how those memories tortured him (and his family).

This book shows where communism leads…eventually. It’s bad.

I will say that this account is very sad, front to back. I wish that it ended on a happier note, but it ends on an honest one. If you’re hoping for a soaring tale of hope, this isn’t it.

4
Room One (Book Review)

Room One (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you’re looking for a gentle kids’ mystery with a discussable ending

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Room One

By Andrew Clements

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

Who is hiding out in the ol’ farmhouse?

I love Andrew Clements, but this was not a favorite for me or my boys. The book came with our homeschool curriculum, and it sounded intriguing—”two mysteries in one,” says the cover. I think that skewed my expectations. I was anticipating something heavy on clues, puzzles, twists, and gasps.

But this book was very quiet and unassuming. The drama is small, just like the town of Plattsford, Nebraska, where the story is set. The main character, Ted, is a sixth-grader who stumbles upon a family squatting in an abandoned farmhouse, and he does what he can to help them.

The book has gold-standard values, I will give it that. But, everyone in the book seemed to be on his/her best behavior. It would’ve been interesting to have a mischief-maker or a bad guy in the mix to liven things up. There wasn’t enough conflict for me.

The climax of the story is a huge bust—and it’s supposed to be. This made for some interesting discussion. My boys and I were rooting for a magical ending where everyone cheers and the kids hug and the parents cry while the soundtrack swells to a crescendo. The book deliberately bursts your bubble. Asking “WHY?” is a good exercise for kids.

Overall, though, I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who is looking for a page-turner to keep the interest of a reluctant reader. Good but not great.

3.3
The Q (Book Review)

The Q (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you love the Victorian Era and the publishing biz—and romance

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Q

By Beth Brower

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

This book wins the award for Cutest Romance That Isn’t Cutesie

It was a slow start, but once I got my mental bearings, I was hooked.

The reason that this book started a TAD slow for me is because the author throws a lot at you right away. There’s a deep cast of secondary characters, and there are businesses, locations, and other things that can cause some early “who’s who?-type” confusion. But just push through that, and you’ll be glad you did.

Set in a fictional European city in the late 1800s, the story opens with Quincy St. Claire, owner of The Q, a newspaper that consists entirely of reader-submitted questions. Kind of like the Classifieds, but anything goes. She’s a brilliant businesswoman with a fiercely independent spirit. Quincy doesn’t need anyone or anything in her life except The Q. It’s her meat and drink.

She works for her uncle, who owns The Q. When he dies, his will states that Quincy can’t inherit The Q unless she meets a set of 12 requirements. The catch? She can’t know what the requirements are. The only person who knows (and who will determine if she meets them) is The Q’s lawyer, Mr. Arch.

Quincy and Arch are tossed together a lot due to this “requirement business,” and they combine like oil and water. Their tart banter is a highlight of this book. Ever so slowly, Arch gets Quincey to open up, and she does NOT want to do this. She prefers accounts, data, and machinery. People are way too unpredictable—not a smart investment.

So, you can see where it’s going, but the journey is worth every page. This is a LONG 500+ page book, and Beth Brower doesn’t rush Quincy’s transformation. Thus, we as readers do feel like we’ve made a big investment in this St. Claire woman, and we want to see how things turn out for her.

Overall, this was a great book that I’d recommend to anyone who loves Jane Austen but with way more sass.

4.8
The Book of Three (Book Review)

The Book of Three (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you want to read a kid-friendly quest-story that feels like Lord of the Rings

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Book of Three

By Lloyd Alexander

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

An unskilled young boy is forced into a quest where he must face menacing, magical foes

My 7- and 8-year-old boys REALLY enjoyed this. This is the first book in a fantasy series in the tradition of LOTR (the parallels are unmistakable). So, it would be a fun series for kids who aren’t quite ready for Lord of the Rings yet—or, on the other side of the coin, kids who have read LOTR (bless them) and want something that feels similar.

This book is a rescue/quest. Taran, our preteen hero, has just one job: keep the magical pig in her pen. But, when an evil warrior and his minions ride into the vicinity, the pig runs for her life, and Taran runs after her.

The story starts quickly and there’s swift pacing throughout. By chapter two, we see Taran plunge into the forbidden woods after the pig. From there, he meets many friends and foes. He’s tested and transformed. It’s got everything you want in a medieval adventure.

The reason why I gave it four instead of five stars is because the climax was a bit soft, and the ending abrupt. This is the first book in a series, so, hey, there’s more! But as a book in its own right, the ending was a bit wah-wah.

Content warnings: There are the normal swordfights and battles that you’d expect in a book like this. The description of the Horned King (pictured on the cover) may be a little much for sensitive kids. There is one quick mention of the bad guys making human sacrifices (gross). And one of the female foes has a particularly wicked interaction with our main characters…but it’s easily self-censored if you’ve got littler kids listening.

4
Twenty and Ten (Book Review)

Twenty and Ten (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you can’t resist a tight, tense WW2 story

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Twenty and Ten

By Claire Huchet Bishop

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

Can a group of 20 French kids protect a group of 10 Jewish kids during WW2?

My two boys were RIVETED to this story. Granted, it starts slow, but by the end, they were hanging on every last word. This book contains five short chapters. You could read the whole thing in an hour or two, and it’d be well worth your time.

The story is simple. Twenty French children have been sent away to live in the safety of a convent during World War II. One day, the nun in charge introduces them to 10 new children, Jews. She tells them that the Nazis want to hurt these children, and they must all keep them safe and hidden. She makes each of the 20 French kids solemnly promise not to betray the 10 Jewish kids—no matter what.

All goes well until the Nazis pay a surprise visit when the nun is away on an errand. What will the children do when faced with this pressure and without any adult protection?

The story is told in the POV of one of the French girls, and this works so well because we’re better able to relate to her dilemma—things get tricky when the Nazis show up, and the kids have to think on their feet.

The book crescendos at the climax, where you’re not sure how things are going to play out, and then everything comes full circle, and you’re glad you read that first chapter, which started off slow, because it makes the ending all the more satisfying.

Content warnings: It’s made clear that the Jewish kids will be in danger if they are caught.

4.6
Book Uncle and Me (Book Review)

Book Uncle and Me (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you’ve got a bookwormy kid who needs an easy read

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Book Uncle and Me

By Uma Krishnaswami

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

Can one little girl save her neighborhood lending library?

This was one of the read-alouds that came with our homeschool curriculum. It was very quick, and my boys liked it, but it’s not going down as a family favorite.

The most interesting part of this story is the setting in India. A lot of our recent read-alouds have been set in the U.S. or in fantasyland, so this was a nice change, and it gave us a chance to discuss how things are different in other countries than they are here.

The main character is a young girl, Yasmin, who loves to read. She gets a new book every day from Book Uncle, a retired teacher who has a lending library on the street corner outside her apartment complex. When he’s forced to close up shop, Yasmin rallies the neighborhood to make Book Uncle a campaign issue in the mayoral election.

Thankfully, this didn’t get TOO political, and I think that the message here is “If it matters to you, then make it known” versus “Protest anything you don’t like.” With this being a presidential election year, it was a good way to get words like “election,” “campaign” and “vote” into the vocabulary of my very young children.

There were friendship and family issues in the book that helped balance out the focus on politics. And, in the end, readers are warned against putting their trust in political figures, which is something I agree with.

The book is written in Yasmin’s childish voice, and it’s very sweet and appealing for the younger set. It wasn’t too long and didn’t try to be “too much.” Overall, a good book, but not a standout.

Content warnings: None.

3.4
Jane of Lantern Hill (Book Review)

Jane of Lantern Hill (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you’ve got a soft spot for wholesome growing-up stories (and wicked adults who get their comeuppance)

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Jane of Lantern Hill

By L. M. Montgomery

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

A stifled young girl finds freedom and purpose on P.E.I.

I love children’s stories where the little protagonist starts out as an underdog (like Mary Lennox or Anne Shirley) and then has a chance to blossom into who they truly want to be. Jane is just like that.

Jane lives in Toronto under the thumb of her impossible-to-please grandmother. She also lives with her mother, who is a total pushover and won’t stand up to her mother. Grandmother makes life miserable, and Jane is afraid, friendless, and talentless. Who is Jane’s dad and where is he? That’s a mystery, until one day, a letter arrives. From him. Requesting that Jane spend the summer with him on (you guessed it) P.E.I.

Like so many Montgomery books, this one is an ode to the wonders of nature and a free-range childhood. Many passages linger on dewdrops and whitecaps and fenceposts. Montgomery is never too busy to slow down and look at nature.

Jane expects to hate the island and her father, but she instantly falls in love with both. Instead of being told to act like a little lady, Jane gets to decide for herself who she’ll be and what she’ll do. She decides to work, work, work. She delights in all the housework that most modern women can’t stand. Laundry, cooking, gardening. Haha! She finds purpose in caring for her father, her pets, and her plants. Instead of living to please her grandmother, she finds joy in living to serve her family and friends. What a difference!

But will her father and mother ever reconcile? What drove them apart? These are big questions for little Jane, but she must face them.

This isn’t my favorite Montogmery novel, but it’s a charming one. It’s beautiful to see a picture of what a healthy childhood could look like in an idyllic, intimate community.

Content warnings: Jane’s parents are separated. Good to know if you’re reading it with kids.

4
The Puppets of Spelhorst (Book Review)

The Puppets of Spelhorst (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you enjoyed the Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Puppets of Spelhorst

By Kate DiCamillo

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

A collection of puppets go on a gentle adventure

By now, I know what to expect from Kate DiCamillo when it comes to a book like this. The Puppets of Spelhorst felt a lot like The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. It’s about a collection of puppets, and things happen to them, and they are changed. Very similar to Edward Tulane, who is a toy that things happen to, and he is changed.

It’s got big-time Velveteen Rabbit vibes, let’s just say that.

This book is charming, and like DiCamillo’s other books, the scope is intimate, but the themes are big. Although the puppets are inanimate, they have an inner life in which they think and communicate with one another (but they can’t move around or speak aloud like in Toy Story).

The big theme revolves around stories and their power. What is a puppet made for if not to tell a story? But the puppets don’t know who they are or what their story is.

All of the puppets start out by defining themselves in terms of what they have (a crown, sharp teeth, real feathers, etc.). But each puppet has a desire for something more (to have a real experience of some kind), and this desire is achieved in a small way by the end of the book. Of course, this led me to ask myself to what degree are we all puppetlike creatures who exist to play a part in a much larger story that we can’t control?

This book uses repetition like the Mercy Watson / Deckawoo Drive books do, and I can see why this might distract or exasperate some readers, but, for me, it slows me down and makes it crystal clear what the author wants me to pay attention to.

I read this book to myself in about an hour. I’m wondering if my boys will enjoy it, too, or if it’ll fly over their heads and leave them wondering what it was all about.

Content warnings: None

4
20 Master Plots (Book Review)

20 Master Plots (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you’re a story nerd

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

20 Master Plots

By Ronald B. Tobias

Information
Organization
Inspiration
Moral Value

Why do some stories just work???

This was just plain fun to listen to on audio. I’m not a writer of novels, but I am a reader of them. I’m interested in why some stories work and others don’t. This book sets forth 20 plot skeletons that writers over the centuries have used as a basis for some of the most enduring stories of all time.
Why do they work?

Well, they have certain elements in common. Without those elements, the plot doesn’t ring true—or it just skids off the path and into muddlement, leaving the reader confused. All of the plots, too, touch certain foundational human impulses, desires, and questions.

Ben-Hur is a revenge plot

Beauty and the Beast is a transformation plot.

Othello is a wretched excess plot.

It’s neat to look at these skeleton plots and see how different authors and writers apply them, whether unknowingly or purposefully. For example, I was watching the 1982 version of Annie with my boys, and I realized that it’s an ascension plot. More than anything else, it’s about Annie (a magnetic central character around whom everything revolves) and her rise from a poor, unloved orphan to the cherished daughter of a billionaire.

I don’t pretend like this book is the ultimate and last word on plots. It’s just interesting information to add to my foundation as a literature nerd. Since this was written back in the ’90s, it comes from a strong Western, Judeo-Christian worldview, and, therefore, it makes a lot of sense when you stand it up next to the Western canon (naturally). There are other storytelling traditions outside of this worldview, but those aren’t mentioned.

Content warnings: None

4
Hickory Dickory Dock (Book Review)

Hickory Dickory Dock (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you want a small-time mystery with a big-time cast of charactersce

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Hickory Dickory Dock

By Agatha Christie

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

When a collection of strange items is stolen from an international boarding house, Poirot takes an interest in solving the puzzle.

Hercule Poirot is my favorite fussy detective. And Hugh Fraser did a fantastic job of narrating the audiobook version of this novel. It was everything I wanted in a Christie book, and it was a quick win for me, but it just wasn’t my favorite Christie book.

We start with a boarding house filled with 20-somethings from all over the globe. An odd collection of things go missing. Some turn up again. Some are destroyed. Then, people are in danger… What starts off as a puzzle turns into more.

I like the stage: an international boarding house, which is basically like a college dorm full of students from different countries, different backgrounds, and different worldviews. I liked the varied cast of characters, although I can see how they might not sit right in today’s tiptoe political climate. I like Poirot because he’s old-fashioned, and so am I. That’s why I like Mma. Ramotswe, too. There’s a tension between modern ways and old ways, and there’s something inside me that loves to see the old ways win, but not from a pulpit.

The plot was good, but it wasn’t gripping. The characters were what made this book enjoyable for me. I would’ve liked a little MORE Poirot here, actually. His police colleague, Detective Sharp, (I may have the name wrong) got just as much page time, although he’s not as entertaining as my Belgian.

Content warnings: Nothing graphic, but people die and plot, as you’d expect. Some mention of opiate use and the mishandling of drugs. One character has a drinking problem.

3.5