Monday, June 29, 2015

Book Review: Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace by Faith Blum

Recommended for: Ages 10-Adult

Rating: PG (a drunken character and some clean romance)

Caleb hurried to the post office. He had to get in and out before his sister finished at the general store. “Any mail for the Stuarts?” he asked the postmaster.

The postmaster took a lazy look at him over the top of his eyeglasses and gave a heaving sigh as he turned around to check. “Yep. Somethin’ from Ohio and somethin’ from Montana.”

Tapping his foot, Caleb waited until the large man put the letters lazily in his hand. As he left he wondered why Anna had written someone in Montana and who she knew in Montana. It was really none of his business, but he was still curious. He folded the Ohio letter in half and stashed it in his back pocket. It would get wrinkled, but at least Anna wouldn’t know about it.

 As Caleb struggles through some inner battles, he secretly starts a correspondence with a widow and her daughter. Their unabashed faith in God convicts him and increases his inner struggles.

 Unable to find a steady job, Maggie places an advertisement to become a mail-order bride. Her daughter, Rachel, is her motivation and encouragement, but if Maggie doesn’t find a job or husband soon, Rachel might not survive through the next year.

 Can Caleb learn to trust God despite his past? Can Maggie and Rachel hold onto their faith despite all their trials? What will happen when they meet in person?

I had heard about the Hymns of the West series and even interacted with Faith a little online, but I didn't actually read any of her books until we started doing each others' blog tours. I actually interviewed her on my author blog today. Amazing Grace is the only one I've read so far and I really enjoyed it. I read the prologue one day, but once I actually sat down to read more a few days later, I finished it in an evening and a morning. And despite being book three, it really can be read as a standalone. I'm sure I would get more out of it by reading the others too, but it didn't prevent my understanding this book to have not read the others first.

Writing: 4/5

Faith's writing gave me a really good idea of the story and all that was going on. It definitely held my attention and kept me in the story. There were some points where the writing style seemed rather unpolished, and it was hard at the very first to figure out who Duncan, Maggie, and Rachel were, and what their relationship to one another was. It didn't take long for me to figure it out, though. The only other thing I wasn't sure about with the writing was that it and the dialogue didn't seem quite old fashioned enough for the era. I did really love how many of Maggie and Caleb's letters were included. That was a neat touch.

Setting: 5/5

The setting seemed fairly realistic, not out of place with other books of similar genre like Little House or Sarah, Plain and Tall. Nothing stuck out to me as being out of place historically, and it felt like a real place. It was interesting when a certain character had an "apoplectic fit" as they called it, but I could identify it as a stroke. It really made me think about medicine in the old days and how they really didn't know all the things we do today.

Plot: 4/5

I've been fascinated with the concept of a mail order bride ever since I read Sarah, Plain and Tall. Not that I would ever want to be one, I certainly wouldn't, but it's a very interesting concept. I supposed it's sort of the pioneer equivalent of internet dating, but it has a completely different feel. Now, while that is a major part of the plot, it's really more about faith. The characters go through a lot of uncertain situations, some involving becoming a Christian, some involving a congregation that doesn't like the pastor to preach convicting sermons, some with drunken family members, some just life and carrying on through hardship and sorrow. There is also a bit of a clean romance side to the story, as it does involve two weddings. The part of the story involving the pastor reminded me sadly of the church today. People don't want to hear the hard convicting stuff that's in the Bible. Occasionally the story would skip and it seemed like something interesting would be left out, like Rachel reaching out to Toby and getting him to stop being a bully, but I still really enjoyed the story. I don't know why I waited so long to read Faith Blum. After all, it's more of a pioneer story like my beloved Little House than like a western movie that would bore me less than halfway in.

Character Development: 4/5

I really liked the characters. Caleb was certainly interesting, I liked Maggie a lot, and I loved seeing their relationship develop. Rachel was a very sweet little girl, though very stubborn, and I loved how she used her stubborn nature in the right way. I enjoyed getting to know Miles and Anna, and now I've read the description of book 2, Be Thou My Vision, I want to read it to get to know them better. I kind of felt sorry for Iain, though also a little scared of them. I felt like the characters could have had a little more depth, but they were still plenty well developed for me to enjoy the story. And I can be picky about character development.

Amazing Grace was a really good story and I definitely recommend it.

About the Author

An avid reader, Faith Blum started writing at an early age. Whether it was a story about the camping trip that summer or a more creative story about fictional characters, she has always enjoyed writing. When not writing, Miss Blum enjoys reading, crafting, playing piano, Captaining on the Holy Worlds Historical Fiction Forum and playing games with her family (canasta, anyone?).

As a history enthusiast who has been fascinated for years with the Old West, Faith has endeavored to create a clean, fun, and challenging Western story. Faith lives with her family on a hobby farm in the Northern Midwest, where she enjoys the many cats they have.

You can find Faith on her Website, Blog, Facebook, and Twitter

Friday, June 26, 2015

Friday Favorites: Magic Tree House

Magic Tree House Series by Mary Pope Osborne

Recommended for: Ages 7 and 8

Rating: G

In books 5-8, Jack and Annie's friend, Morgan le Fay, is in trouble They must find four "M" things to free her from a spell. Their adventures take them to meet a ninja master in ancient Japan, flee a crocodile on the Amazon River, discover the cave people of the Ice Age, and blast off to the moon in the future. It's a difficult and dangerous mission, but Jack and Annie will do anything to save a friend.

When I was about seven, this was my favorite series. I rarely reread books but I read the ones that I owned multiple times. One thing that I didn't like about this series was the evolution, but I would just ignore it. In this series Jack and Annie, brother and sister, would travel through time in a tree house visiting places all over the world. They would visit famous people, like Shakespeare, and experience well-known events such as Pompeii and the Civil War. Sometimes they would have to search for things. Later there were Merlin missions but I only read two of them. This series is the reason that I think of Morgan le Fay, from the King Arthur legends, as good. I was surprised to find out that she is usually a villain. In later books there is more about the Arthur legends but I don't remember reading them. One thing about the time travel in this series that makes it different from most time travel, is that they don't have to fix history or mess up history and then try to fix the problems they created. The way they travel in time is not scientific. All they do is find a book and point to the place and say "I want to go there". They would then use that book for information about the time and place that they traveled to. Sometimes they would end up in the jungle or in a savannah in Africa. The main character is Jack but Annie was my favorite. I don't think they got along perfectly but I don't think that they had a horrible relationship.

These books have a lot of adventure and I don't remember them being scary at all, but some of them might have been. I loved these books and I still loves stories about time travelers in a wooden box. I will always remember this series fondly and I would recommend it to young readers with the one caution that there is evolution in them.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Movie Review: Bleak House

Bleak House (2005)

Rating: NR

Recommended for: Ages 14 to Adult

Out of an interminable court case spin three young people each searching for their place in the world. Their story moves fast - swirling through an incredible array of characters from passionate young lovers to ruthless lawyers, form an ice-cold aristocratic beauty to a shrewd, relentless detective - until the final thrilling climax.

 So I guess I never did write that book review on Bleak House, but here I am for the miniseries! Eight hours of Dickensian awesomeness. Though it's hard to call Bleak House awesome, because even though it's SOOOO good, it's also super extremely sad and a lot of bad stuff happens. I love it. I really do like Dickens, and I think, however much I love Great Expectations, that Bleak House just may be my favorite.

Technical: 5/5

Can I just say fantabulous job all round? The people at the BBC know how to make a spectacular production. The adaptation was well done. While it isn't exactly the most quotable, it is so fantastically well-written and realistic. The acting was superb. I recognized nearly everyone from something else, but they were so good in these roles. The only ones I still had trouble watching because of other roles were Mr. Skimpole and Mrs. Chadband. And that's because I can't stand Agravaine and even dressed for that period and playing her role perfectly, Catherine Tate can't ever be anyone to me except Donna Noble. They were all so in character. They suited their roles perfectly and it was just amazing. Though it was fun to call them by other roles, like saying that Lady Dedlock has a plasmavore for a housekeeper, that Judy needed to go work in the morgue, or that Ada needed to be careful not to blink. And it kind of amused us that X-wing pilot Wedge Antilles made such a perfect Mr. Jarndyce. The costuming was superb and fit each character's personality. It's just so good. Every detail of production was handled in a way that made it all seem even more authentic.

Setting: 5/5

So perfect. Dickens wrote about the times in which he lived, drawing on his own personal experience for inspiration, so I think it's safe to assume the source material is historically accurate. And, while the settings aren't all exactly how I pictured them, they still fit perfectly. From Tom-All-Alones to Bleak House itself, every setting is so unique and real. That's probably one of the biggest things that struck me about this production. It's all so real. So well done that it doesn't feel like watching a movie, but more like witnessing real events.

Plot: 5/5

So, half the reason I really wanted to watch this was to understand it. See, I listened to the audiobook and it took me awhile to really pay attention to the parts that weren't Esther's narrative, so I was a bit lost on many points. This helped me to understand it. Yeah, they did change some things, like omitting Caddy Jellyby's wedding, the visit to Mr. Skimpole's family, not having Charley get smallpox first, SPOILER how they had Mr. Jarndyce propose to Esther face to face instead of in a letter, and having Lady Dedlock take off because Smallweed had showed up to tell Sir Leicester her secret rather than when she discovered she was a suspect in Tulkinghorn's murder END SPOILER, but it was still a very faithful adaptation. And my sister reminded me more than once that it was already eight hours long. They can't have everything. In true Dickens style, everyone turns out to be connected somehow, despite how complicated and individual each storyline at first appears to be. This story connects practically everything through the wretched case Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce in which no one can determine the actual will of the late John Jarndyce. Everyone sucked into the suit basically goes to ruin. It follows the stories of the wards in Jarndyce, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare, and Ada's companion Esther Summerson, Esther who is so sweet and kind that everyone loves her, including the rather creepy stalkerish Mr. Guppy. But I think I shall go into the character section of this review now.

Character Development: 5/5

Dickens has created some of the most memorable characters of all time. Many of them reside within the worthy classic Bleak House. My favorite is Esther. Of course. She's all the other characters' favorite. She's so kind. I also love Mr. Jarndyce. He's good and kind too, just such a great guy. Only my saying that would cause the wind to be in the east, likely. Ada is sweet too, and so pretty. Carey Mulligan did a fantastic job with her character. Despite his major responsibility issues, I actually like Richard. But at the same time, I want to slap him across the face and tell him to grow up, forget the Chauncery suit, and stick to an occupation so he can be the wonderful sort of man he he has the potential to be and the sort of husband Ada deserves. And I much like Allan Woodcourt. Who doesn't like a man who is super poor because he helps people without thought of pay? He doctors the dying street urchins just the same as he would the rich aristocracy, even though he knows full well they can never pay him. Then there are the other characters. Lady Dedlock is cold and distant, but we see in a certain situation that she does care for some people and that she is hiding a dark secret that must not be known. Mr. Guppy is, well, Mr. Guppy, sort of slimy, well intentioned, sort of, but quite creepy in his own way. Tulkinghorn is creepy in a scary way. You don't want to cross Mr. Tulkinghorn, or let him know your secrets. Harold Skimpole is so annoying. I know he is simple, "but a child," but he's so annoying. In a different way from Agravaine, but still. Smallweed..."Shake me up, Judy." Annoying, kind of gross (his teeth are yellow), this guy is memorably awful. "Judy, shake me up." There are so many more, like Caddy Jellyby, Prince Turveydrop and his father, Mrs. Rouncewell (once I discovered she was the plasmavore in Doctor Who, I couldn't help quoting "I even brought a straw" every time she came onscreen), Mr. George, Mr. Boythorn, Miss Flite, Mr. Krook, Charley, Jo, Mr. Vholes, Clamb, Inspector Bucket...There just isn't time to talk about them all, but they're all so vivid and quirky and unique.

Bleak House is certainly a Dickensian masterpiece and this production of it is true to all that it is. It's Dickens, so it's not exactly kid-friendly, but if you're in your mid to late teens or an adult, read it and watch it. It's super long, but it's worth it. SOOO worth it.

Note: This edition at least does split it up into the episodes in which it first aired, so it's really quite manageable.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Book Review: Brothers and Betrayal

We're back! We moved at the beginning of the month, so that's the reason we've been sort of absent, but things are fairly settled now, so we should be able to post regularly again.

 Brothers and Betrayal by Sarah Holman

Rating: PG (violence)

Recommended for: Ages 10 to Adult

A boy, running for his life
A princess, trying to save her people
And an archer who seeks to defend the defenseless

 Bryon, after witnessing his brother’s murder, takes his sisters and flees into the woods to a mysterious figure known as The Archer who lives there. But though he finds temporary safety, bitterness threatens his heart.

 Brianna only wants to help the people of Taelis, but her father, the king, seems bent on making life hard for all of them. She works tirelessly to save the kingdom from war, while secretly helping The Archer.

 Join the adventure in… Brothers and Betrayal

I loved Sarah Holman's Destiny Trilogy and I enjoyed book one of the Tales of Taelis series, Adventures and Adversities, even more, so naturally I had to have the second book in the series. Unfortunately, I didn't like it as much as previous books, though I truly, honestly believe it is entirely due to personal preference, and would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who likes Robin Hood type stories.

Writing: 4.5/5

This book was pretty well written. Actually, I hadn't realized how much Sarah's writing has improved. I reread bits of The Destiny Trilogy at about the same time since the short story collection was coming out, and was impressed with how far she's come since those days. I'm not sure of specifics, but there's a definite improvement in her style and grasp of writing "rules." It is a story well told. It was also better proofread than any of her books I've read beside Waltz into the Waves. I noticed very few typos.

Setting: 5/5

Like in the first book, Taelis seems like a real place. It's a well thought out medieval country with realistic places and government. It was a little difficult for me to place the different nobility that had been in the first book and remember what had happened with them, but that's entirely my fault since it had been over a year since I'd read Adventures and Adversities and I wasn't sure where I'd packed it. The settings were well described, and it's a place I would love to visit. She makes use of its being an invented country by creating history and government of her own while never making it feel out of time period.

Plot: 4/5

The storyline was interesting and the premise intriguing, no plot holes that I noticed. It didn't grab me as much as the first book did, though, causing me to take a week to read it, rather than the day it took to read book one. However, I'm entirely convinced it was just me for three reasons. One: I started reading it about two weeks before I moved. Distractions galore. Two: It's a sort of Christian Robin Hood, and, while I love the idea, I've never been interested at all in Robin Hood, so it wasn't exactly my thing. Three: my sister read it in a single day, so she obviously liked it enough not to put it down. Because it really is a good story. And the message of forgiveness woven throughout was truly a meaningful one. Though what happened to some book one characters...I'm not sure I can forgive Sarah for it. :'(

Characters: 4/5

I certainly liked the characters. I can't say I loved them as much as I did Alditha and Will, but they were well developed. I could feel Bryon's struggles with wanting revenge for his brother's death, I could see all the difficulties Brianna faced trying to help her people behind her father's back, I sympathised with Gwendolyn over her lost fiance, I witnessed the struggle to survive of the inhabitants of Taelis. Bryon had a realistic and interesting character arc including the most important and impactful change any person can have. And I did get to see a little of Alditha, though not nearly so much as I would have liked.

All in all, I did really like Brothers and Betrayal, and would recommend it to fans of Sarah Holman and people who like historical fiction and/or Robin Hood retellings.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Book Review: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Recommended For: Ages 12 and up

Rating: PG (for crime)

 A colonel receives five seeds in the mail...and dies within weeks. A young bride disappears immediately after her wedding. An old hat and a Christmas goose are the only clues to a stolen jewel. A son is accused of his father's murder.
 These mysteries-and many more-are brought to the house on Baker Street where detective Sherlock Holmes resides. No case is too tricky for the world's most famous sleuth and his incredible powers of deduction.

This book is a collection of some of the many short stories that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about Sherlock Holmes.

Writing 4/5

 This book was easier to pay attention to than many old books, and each mystery was interesting and had something unique. Each story is separate, which made it hard to get into the next story because there wasn't anything connecting them. At the end of the stories they would wrap up very quickly. I wished there was a little more with the conclusion of each one.

Setting: 5/5

 The stories are set in the 1800s in London and other places in England in the country. The settings seem like every other book about that time and place, so I assume that it is accurate. The stories do not occur in chronological order. Some of them happen when Watson is married and some of them happen before he was married

Plot: 4/5
 Each plot is different and one of them doesn't even appear to be a crime at first. None of them are really complicated, since each is only about thirty pages long. I'm not sure how realistic all of the mysteries are and that is why I gave it 4/5. For part of each story, there is the client's story which usually takes a good portion of each short story. 

Characters: 5/5

 There are two  main characters: Watson and Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes is a genius who can figure things out from small details. He is a little strange but he is and more caring and upset about crime than is portrayed in the BBC TV show. Watson is the main character and the stories are as if he wrote them down. They are all from his point of view and so you know his confusion at each mystery.

I think that Sherlock Holmes is probably the most realistic mystery series that I have read and I enjoyed reading each mystery. If you enjoy mysteries, then I would recommend that you read this and the first two Sherlock Holmes books.