Monday, April 14, 2014

Susan K. Marlow's Goldtown Adventures

I was able to review books #3 and #4 of the Goldtown Adventures series by Susan K. Marlow.  I was familiar with some of her books for girls but had no idea she had books for boys--yahoo!  It's really hard to find books for 8-12 year olds that aren't brimming with violence and bad attitudes.  I'll share a summary of each book and then some general thoughts about the series.

Canyon of Danger #3
Jem Coulter has the chance at being "the man of the family" while his Pa escorts a prisoner. Jem takes his job seriously with unpredictable results.  Their livestock have been troubled by a wolf and Jem is determined to catch the culprit.  Unfortunately, he manages to "catch" something other than a wolf which sets into motion a whole cascade of troubles.  Will he ever get things turned right?  And will he manage to reclaim the family's stolen horse and his father's rifle?  I loved the portrayal of Jem and his family. I think both girls and boys will enjoy the sense of danger and uncertainty of not knowing who can be trusted.  I really enjoyed the historical flavor; young readers learn about the Pony Express through one of the characters.
Read an excerpt from book 3.

Here's what my 9 year old thought of the book:
"It was a great book. I enjoyed it very much. The book Canyon of Danger is a mystery and an adventure for Jem when his Pa leaves. It was just a great book!"

River of Peril #4
Jem and his family are on an important journey with their Pa traveling by stagecoach.  Danger in the form of bandits way lay them and the adventures begin. The bandits make off with a huge, heavy box of gold.  But as soon as the bandits are out of sight, the coach takes off with lightning speed before the bandits realize they've been tricked!

When they arrive at their destination (where the gold is to be transported), the ship hasn't arrived and Pa has to make arrangements for securing the gold.  Meanwhile Jem and his sister decide to do some exploring--with some dangerous results. While they are getting a tour of the boat from their new friend (the captain's son), they come face to face with the bandits who tried to rob their coach!  The bandits manage to capture of of them.  How will they make a rescue? How will  Pa keep the gold safe and is their new friend's father one of the bad guys?  How will they get themselves out of this mess?
Read an excerpt from book 4.

At the end of each book, the author includes historical notes explaining a bit more of the time period. I love how accessible history becomes through these great stories!  Marlow creates just enough suspense and feeling of danger without going too far--a very fine balance when writing for this age.  The author really creates an authentic feeling for the time and place that helps kids feel like they know just what it was like living in that time period.

One thing that I really appreciate about Marlow is the exceptional resources she has (both free and for sale) to accompany her books.  You can check out free study guides, or purchase a lapbook to allow your child to create a lasting souvenir from their reading adventure. Do you have a child who still enjoys a coloring book? The author has graciously provided her illustrations to be printed off for coloring.  How many authors do you know who have shared their work in such a way?  I remember when my daughter read the Andi Carter series and I printed off the illustrations for her to color--you would have thought it was Christmas! Those illustrations were treasured.  I look forward to printing off copies for the three whom I'll be reading these books to (a son and 2 daughters so this isn't just a series for boys).

Even though I had not read books 1 and 2 of the Goldtown Adventures, I had no problem "getting into" the story line and understanding the characters.  These books can stand alone but trust me--you'll want them all! They are a nice length for either reading aloud or reading independently.

I wish these books had been available when I was a child; but I'm so thrilled to be able to read these with my kids and hopefully I'll have some grandchildren to relive the adventures with as well!  To see Marlow's whole line of books, visit her website.

Disclaimer: I received free copies of Canyon of Danger and River of Peril from Kregel Publications for the purpose of review. No other compensation was received.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

One Realm Beyond by Donita K. Paul

This was my first introduction to Donita K. Paul's work. I came into the book with only the brief summary from the publisher to entice me:
Cantor D’Ahma waited his whole life for this day. Born with a gift to jump between worlds, the young realm walker is finally ready to leave his elderly mentor and accept his role as protector and defender of the realms.
But mere hours after he steps through his first portal, Cantor discovers that his job will be more dangerous and difficult than he ever imagined. The realms are plagued with crime and cruelty, and even members of the once-noble Realm Walkers Guild can no longer be trusted. To make matters worse, his first assignment - finding a dragon to assist him on his quest---has led him to Bridger, who is clearly inept and won’t leave him alone.
With the help of his new friends Bixby and Dukmee, Cantor must uncover the secrets of the corrupt guild before they become too powerful to be stopped. But his skills aren’t progressing as fast as he would like, and as he finds himself deeper and deeper in the guild’s layers of deceit, Cantor struggles to determine where his true allegiance lies.
Cantor has recently been initiated into the world of the Realm Walkers. Life is a series of parallel worlds stacked like pancakes and periodically portals open between these worlds enabling the Realm Walkers to enter.  Once initiated and on their first journey, they are given the task of finding a dragon to partner with and also aligning themselves with comrades with whom to journey.

Within minutes of Cantor's arrival on his first journey, he sees a dragon.  But remembering his mentor's caution to not select the first dragon that crosses his path, he tries to ignore the creature. Somewhat of a bungling dragon, one can understand why Cantor wanted to find a better dragon.

Aside from finding a dragon companion, a realm walker is instructed to find a companion realm walker. Here too, Cantor just stumbles upon a very interesting young woman, Bixby, who possesses some interesting talents.  She helps him avoid capture by the ruling soldiers of the land.  And while they were in hiding, they overheard two men planning a mission to free their son who'd been forecefully taken into service.  Sounds like the perfect adventure to prove their worth as realm walkers and they boldly offer their services.

Thus begins a round of adventures (and some mishaps) that bring Cantor and Bixby into contact with Dukmee the healer who teaches Bixby some valuable new skills and in which Bridger proves that he can--on occasion-- be useful.

The realm walkers part paths for a time, with Bridger opting to accompany Bixby. It isn't long, however, before their paths cross again and Cantor realizes just how much he needs his new friends. Bridger also introduces Bixby to his sister dragon, Totobee-Rodolow--a fashion and jewel conscious dragon who enjoys shopping the markets as much as Bixby.  Seems like a match made by Primen [God] Himself.

This cobbled together team discovers a plot that will endanger the lives of many innocent people and they desperately need to free some friends who have been thrown into the dungeon.  This was an exciting tale but be prepared to be left hanging. The first of a trilogy, readers will be anxious to find out whether these novice realm walkers can bring order and justice back to a corrupt and twisted world.

It did take me awhile to get my mind around how the world in this book operates and the various giftings that people utilized (that probably has more to do with the fact that I haven't read a lot of dragon books). Paul does a really nice job of knitting together characters that are worth knowing and a story line with some good lessons about loyalty, faithfulness, and learning to use the unique gifts that the Creator gives each one of us.

Visit the author's website to learn more about this series and her other literary accomplishments.

Disclaimer: I received One Realm Beyond for the purpose of review. No other compensation was received.

I review for BookSneeze®

Friday, April 11, 2014

Merlin's Immortals Book Four: Blades of Valor by Sigmund Brouwer

Publisher Summary:

Travel with Thomas from Jerusalem to England in this exciting conclusion to the Merlin's Immortals series.
Thomas is finally in the Holy Land and reunited with Sir William, but is forced to travel on his own from the coast through Nazareth, and finally to Jerusalem. The road is a dangerous one—especially to a lone traveler. Bandits masquerade as slaves, traitors appear to be allies, and once again, Thomas doesn’t know whom to trust. He must rely on his own resources to discern friend from foe, and to finally discover the final key to the Druids' master plan before returning home to expose them.  Back in England, a final storm is brewing against Thomas, for the Druids are much more powerful than the Orphan King can even imagine. 

At long last, the conclusion to the Merlin's Immortals Series. This is definitely a series that needs to be read from start to finish.  Could it have all been put into one book?  Well, yes, but considering the reading level, I think having 4 shorter installments makes it much more accessible to younger readers (8-12 or older struggling readers).

I really like that Brouwer tackles the very popular Merlin theme.  Without being bogged down with wizardry but rather focusing on the virtue and valor of those who followed Merlin in opposition to the Druids, younger readers will have a wonderful introduction to a fascinating story.  Merlin is really only brought up in his historical sense and the influence he had upon writing down some of the secrets of the Druids (that in this book suggest a knowledge of chemistry that was used to deceive the masses into thinking they had supernatural/magical powers).

The cast of characters is ever changing as Thomas travels quite a bit throughout this 4 book series.  I'd recommend reading the series in quick succession to not lose track of who is who.  With elements of mystery, adventure, danger, and a touch of romance (not enough to bother boys), this is truly a sweeping story that comes to an utterly satisfying conclusion.  All the loose ends are tied off in the perfect (and not all that predictable) way.  I was surprised on more than one occasion by the turn in action and loyalty.

I think this series fills an important niche for young readers.  Tackling a topic often written for a much older audience, Brouwer brings clarity to the issue of spiritual battles that have raged for centuries.  The Druids, rightly so, are portrayed in no glamorous light but showing instead the true depravity of their motives and methods.  Good is clearly good and bad is clearly bad--you will find no graying of moral boundaries.  I appreciate a book that elevates and encourages the kind of valor that is so rare in this day and age.

Want to stay up to date with Brouwer's new releases?  Hop on over to his Facebook page. And if you'd like to join in his literacy efforts, check out his website: Rock and Roll Literacy.

Disclaimer: I received a free Kindle version of Blades of Valor for the purpose of review. No other compensation was received.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Cloak of the Light by Chuck Black

Cloak of the LightChuck Black has been a household name since we first learned of his Kingdom Series several years ago. At that time, my husband read the 7 book set to our three oldest children.  Now he's on a second read through with our three younger children and they are just as enthralled with the allegorical storyline.

When the opportunity to review a new book by Chuck Black came out, I jumped at the chance. I was curious how this first book in this new series might compare to the one I was familiar with.

Cloak of the Light is set in current times and the main character is not a Christian. There are only a handful of believers in the book that cross the hero's path. This could be a prequel to Pilgrim's Progress--the hero encounters struggles that [hopefully] will lead him to becoming a pilgrim. In this first book, we have yet to have a pilgrim. By comparing it to Pilgrim's Progress, I don't mean to imply that this is an allegory but the main character does encounter his share of obstacles, much like Bunyan's Christian.

Drew Carter is twelve when the book opens and he has just lost his father. The reader grows up with Drew through those lonely and agonizing years without a father. In high school, Drew and his mother move to a new town and a better job to meet their needs. Thankfully, Jake, a friend of his dad's steps in and provides some masculine leadership and mentoring--largely in the form of survival skills on annual camping trips. Jake is available for Drew through many ups and downs with the challenges of starting at a new school, fitting in and facing a myriad of temptations.

Through it all, Drew makes one friend, Benjamin, who sticks with him through thick and thin.  After graduation, they even attend the same college and continue to support one another in their respective pursuits. Then one fateful night Benjamin confides in Drew about the experimental work that he's been assisting a professor with.  The prof has disappeared and Benjamin wants to replicate the experiment.

Things don't go quite according to plan and they're both in a lot of trouble.  The rest of the book deals with Drew trying to handle the events that are set in motion and the new realization of another dimension and the potential danger therein.  He's not sure who or what the menacing presence is but it's clear they are out to get him and will stop at nothing to eliminate him.

This was a fantastic read that I would say is geared to upper middle school to high school audience. There is some violence but not excessively portrayed.  If nothing else, the violence clearly paints the boundaries between good and evil.  Along with Jake, Drew has a friend who has intrigued him since high school--a Christian young lady who has refused to date him but prays for him and encourages him when he feels alone and abandoned.  And isn't ashamed about her faith.

There are others in Drew's life who try to point him to the truth but he's just not ready to hear it. Not everything is resolved in the first book so readers will definitely be wanting to read the next installment; hopefully we won't have too long to wait!

The Cloak of the Light will be released on March 18. You can find out more about this first book in the War of the Realm series by visiting the author's web site. You can pre-order a copy today. While you wait, indulge yourself by reading the first chapter. Want to connect with other readers? Visit Chuck Black's Facebook page.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of Cloak of the Light from Blogging for Books program for the purpose of review. No other compensation was received.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Vicar's Wife by Katharine Swartz

Drastic times require drastic measures. Jane's daughter is caught drinking underage.  That set in motion a plan that affects everyone in the family.  Jane's husband decides he's had enough of the big apple and wants the family to move to England where he is originally from.

That would certainly separate their daughter from unwanted influences! Jane just sort of floats along without really letting reality sink in. Refusing to go look at houses, her husband buys one for them--reporting in glowing terms about it's "character" (code word for fixer-upper).

The idyllic image of England somehow doesn't match reality. The trade from a high end apartment in New York to a drafty, run-down vicarage is quite distressing for Jane. They don't even have a Starbucks!

So begins a new and stormy chapter in Jane's life. Always a city girl, rural England is quite an adjustment. But she gave up more than city life; she gave up a rewarding--albeit demanding--position helping women.

Gone are the glitzy fundraising dinners, always networking to develop a strong donor base. Also gone are the days of a franetic schedule that left little time to spend with her children.  With time now on her hands, Jane is faced with how little she knows about her children. They'd barely had time to talk in New York; now when Jane has time, some of her children are less than willing to make the effort.

The book is all from Jane's perspective. From her vantage point, it's Jane against the world. She's angry with her husband for moving her to the middle of nowhere, distant from her children because she's rarely spent time with them and at odds with her mother-in-law whom she felt never liked her.

Even her house is against her--peeling paint and disrepair in every room. Although Jane came across as a spoiled socialite, she does have a pretty tall order to fill with getting their family settled in a less than posh home. Part of me wondered why her husband didn't have any time off when they moved to help out with some of the grunt work in making their house habitable?  Does he not know how to paint or clean?  How about time to instruct her on the use of the ancient stove in the home? Who wouldn't feel overwhelmed in a new town, house and even country!

While Jane was taking out shelves in a pantry to paint, she uncovered a slip of paper that looked like a grocery list. Written in the beautiful script of days gone by and the mention of guests for dinner, Jane wonders about the author of the list.

She visits the church to find out the names of prior vicars. And this bit of mystery suddenly provides Jane with the distraction she needs to escape her self-pity. The reader is then introduced to the list writer--a previous vicar's wife, Alice, and the remainder of the book is a parallel story of Alice's story and Jane's who experienced similar struggles adjusting to life at the vicarage, although decades apart.

I have to admit to feeling a bit disappointed that a book titled, "The Vicar's Wife" had very little to do with church or her Christian faith. Neither Alice, nor Jane, seemed to see the the Lord as a source of strength. Alice in her shyness remained somewhat aloof from her husband's parish and Jane in her ignorance, didn't really include church as part of her family's life.  I would have assumed that with a church in your backyard, just plain curiosity would have had led her there before the very end of the book.

In spite of not having a lot of spiritual depth to the story, I did enjoy the parallel stories and the emotional development that happened in both Alice's and Jane's lives, albeit years apart. It demonstrates how universal our humans struggles really are.

Read an excerpt and then visit Kregel Publications to purchase a copy of The Vicar's Wife . The book is also available at one of the following retailers:

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of The Vicar's Wife from Kregel Publications for the purpose of review. No other compensation was received.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Captives by Jill Williamson

Captives, by Jill Williamson is the first in The Safe Lands series.  The world as Williamson has imagined it has become a place of polar opposites: those living in "The Safe Lands" within a carefully guarded, highly tech dependent, and largely epicurean society; and those Safe Landers have termed "outlanders" who live a rather primitive existence by comparison (hunting for food, arranged marriages, and a surprising lack of modern conveniences like indoor toilets).  I have to admit to scratching my head at that would a group of people digress back to outhouses in about 75 years (book takes place in 2088)?  Did all the plumbers and carpenters just disappear (or all migrate to the Safe Lands?).

The reason for the two divergent realities was not really explained in this book. However, being the first in the series, perhaps the origins may yet be explained in a future book.

Omar is the main focus of the outlander storyline. He is the boy who doesn't fit in. He isn't a manly man wanting to go out and hunt and prove his masculinity. He has never felt his father's love--more like his disdain.  His grandfather is the "Elder" of their community that is supposedly Christian but overall the leadership in the community was lacking and his own father treated him horribly.  No wonder he starts thinking that perhaps the grass is greener in the Safe Lands.

The Safe Lands are really a moral wasteland of a people infected with a plague. They are desperate to find uninfected people who will be surrogate mothers carrying children who are the product of anonymous donors. With no moral compass, they gather females of child-bearing age into what they term a harem.  At their scheduled, time, members of the harem are impregnated and kept in posh comfort until they deliver. At which time, the child becomes a ward of the state with no parents.  In Captives, several outlanders have been kidnapped; females of child-bearing age are settled into the harem, younger children put in a boarding school and males expected to be making donations to keep the artificial insemination program going.

In reading Captives, I felt hints of the Hunger Games and The Giver books. And even though neither Hunger Games nor The Giver were Christian books, I found stronger moral themes and lessons throughout those than in Williamson's Christian novel. Outlanders are supposedly people of faith but leaders are not godly leaders and Biblical truths are not truly followed.  There may be a few spattering of verses recited by a character here or there but hardly enough to make their faith seem at all believable or authentic.

My biggest disappointment was in how much of the storyline revolved around promiscuity and addiction. Even those characters who claim a Christian faith don't always resist temptations. So many scenes depicting racy night clubs with singles pairing up willy nilly, all while abusing alcohol and narcotics. I felt there was way too much immersion in that setting without a clear depiction of the depravity and emotional bankruptcy that results in wild living.

The reading level and complexity of the story puts it in the Juvenile or Young Adult category but honestly, the issues dealt with are what I consider mature.  The real question is whether this book is worth reading at any age?  Is it necessary to explore a future that is completely obsessed with immorality while missing any clear moral implications and a well-defined border between good and evil?  In my opinion, the answer is no.

I don't make that statement lightly. With six children, I am always on the lookout for worthwhile literature that will inspire, instruct, and enterain. I really wanted to love this book but knew it was not one I could endorse for my own children to read.

To judge for yourself, visit the author's website where you can watch a book trailer and read summaries of Captives as well as the sequel, Outcasts.

Disclaimer: I received an e-book version of Captives for the purpose of review. No other compensation was received.


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Painted Table by Suzanne Field

The book opens with a note about the origin of the table, then a brief look at Saffee's grandmother (who she never met) and the difficult life of Saffee's mother, Joann.  Joann's childhood has been indelibly marked by hardship, loneliness and sorrow. Longing for her mother's attention, Joann seeks solace under the table her grandfather had crafted. She imagines herself invisible and protected under its shadow.  In the wake of her mother's death, her father moves the family to a fishing resort where her education is put on hold while she cleans cabins. At 18, she walks away from her family and never looks back.

All seems well with life when she meets and marries Nels. But the war drives a wedge between their marriage as Nels joins the Navy and Joann has to work and care for their children alone. The strain continues upon Nels return. Saffee witnesses her parents bickering and experiences the jealousy over her mother's preferential treatment toward her sister April.

Then one day Joann receives a visit from a brother-in-law delivering to her the table that played so prominently in her childhood. Her sister only knew of her constant hiding under it, not the tormented memories that drove her there. Its presence becomes a source of anxiety and flashbacks of childhood fears. In an effort to cover the pain, Joann repaints the table. Again and again until it becomes an obsession.  Saffee slowly watches her mother descend into madness; a deterioration her father refuses to see.  Until the day Joann visits a neighbor wielding a butcher knife and she's taken into custody. Nels gets a court order for her admission into a mental hospital. It's the first of many trips in and out, trying various treatments, that do not seem to penetrate her illness.

In the midst of so much pain, the sisters sadly suffer alone in their private torment. Can either daughter find happiness in their own lives?  Will they ever be free from the haunting memories of their childhood?  And worse yet, will they succumb to the illness that has robbed their mother of her sanity?

You will have to read the book to find how each finds redemption and healing in the midst of such agonizing pain.  The key to some of the healing comes from the table itself as it yields a surprising message. Read The Painted Table and see how God can work all things together for good for those who love Him.

To learn about the story behind this book, visit Litfuse Publicity.  You may also enjoy visiting the Suzanne Field and "The Painted Table" Facebook page to connect with the author and other readers.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of The Painted Table from Thomas Nelson's Book Sneeze program for the purpose of review. No other compensation was received.

I review for BookSneeze®