A Mother’s Secret (Hearts of the Lancaster Grand Hotel) book review

 

  • Title: A Mother’s Secret
  • Author: Amy Clipston
  • Print length: 309 pages
  • Publisher: Zondervan
  • Publication date: June 3, 2014
  • Sold by: HarperCollins Publishing
  • Rating:
  • 4 gingersnaps (out of 5 gingersnaps) for content(1)
  • 3 gingersnaps for craft(2)
  • 5 gingersnaps for its handling of Christian themes(3)
  • Comprehensive score: 4 gingersnaps (recommended)

Review copy provided by BookLook Bloggers, a subsidiary of HarperCollins Christian Publishing

The periphery details:

A Mother’s Secret is book two in Hearts of the Lancaster Grand Hotel, a series of romances set in an Amish community. I did not read book one, and I was still able to enjoy this book as a stand-alone. The book also includes a glossary of terms used in the Amish community, a family tree, and a set of discussion questions.

The book:

(From the publisher)

 

Carolyn Lapp longs to have a traditional Amish family. But she lives on her brother’s farm with her parents and her 15-year old son, Benjamin. Carolyn has never revealed the identity of Benjamin’s father and lives daily with the guilt and shame of her youthful indiscretion. Her brother simply will not forgive her.

 

His answer is to arrange a practical marriage for Carolyn to Saul, a widower with a little girl. But Carolyn isn’t convinced that Saul really loves her and believes he is simply looking for someone to help raise his daughter.

 

When Benjamin causes trouble at a local horse auction, horse breeder Joshua Glick decides that he must be taught a lesson. Carolyn and Joshua are unmistakably drawn to each other, but Joshua mistakenly assumes that Benjamin is Carolyn’s brother. Carolyn fears that if he discovers the truth, her past will destroy their budding romance.

 

After years of shame and loneliness, Carolyn suddenly has two men vying for her attention. But which of them will give her the family—and the unconditional love—she’s longed for?

The positive:

The writing is more tell than show, Clipston relies heavily on cliches, and the paper-thin plot is no more than a series of romance novel tropes cobbled together. Still, the book is charming. In the world of Christian fiction, this is the equivalent of the new Avengers movie: you know you are being manipulated to cheer, but you do it anyway. Pleasant, formulaic, and inoffensive, this novel ends with a happily-ever-after that satisfies even if it is not quite earned.

By the end of page one, the reader knows exactly how the story will end. There are no surprises here, but Clipston makes the read a pleasant journey. If you want a family-friendly story as a diversion for a few hours, this is a sure bet. I enjoyed reading about a family that has its foibles but genuinely cares for each other. I rate this book four gingersnaps, not because the writing is outstanding, but because the book clearly defines its premise from page one and delivers exactly what it says it will. If you enjoy the first few pages of the ebook sample, you’ll like the book.

The not-so-positive:

While the Amish community Clipston researched may have a stylized, limited vocabulary and repeat the same words in every conversation, in a novel this reads as inferior writing and a distraction. In some places, it felt as if Clipston had to justify her glossary by repeating the same words as many times as possible.

While I enjoyed the sweetness of the romance (a few romantic touches at most), others might have difficulty with a subplot of chastising a teenage girl for talking with a boy. Still, given the context and acknowledgment by the girl’s father that he was too harsh, it works. Potential readers should be aware, though, that some of the patriarchal attitudes toward women and sexuality may not be their cup of tea.

 

 

 

Conclusion: A Mother’s Secret is a pleasant, formulaic read filled with cliches and feel-good moments. Recommended as a quick, light read.

  1. Content refers to the themes and structure of the book. For fiction, this includes macro elements such as the book’s premise, character arcs, and how well the conflict and resolution fulfill the promise of the book. For non-fiction, this refers to the information that is conveyed.
  2. Craft refers to the level of writing technique, ranging from clarity of text to carefully edited prose.
  3. Christian themes refers to the application of Biblical principles as well as the understanding and application of Christian theology.
    .
    Additional note: The combined score generally is a mathematical average of the three ratings, unless an individual rating is especially low or high.

Take This Cup (The Jerusalem Chronicles) book review

 

  • Title: Take This Cup
  • Author: Bodie and Brock Thoene
  • Print length: 388 pages
  • Publisher: Zondervan
  • Publication date: March 25, 2014
  • Sold by: HarperCollins Publishing
  • Rating:
  • 2 gingersnaps (out of 5 gingersnaps) for content(1)
  • 3 gingersnaps for craft(2)
  • 4 gingersnaps for its handling of Christian themes(3)
  • Comprehensive score: 3 gingersnaps (average)

Review copy provided by BookLook Bloggers, a subsidiary of HarperCollins Christian Publishing

The periphery details:

Bodie and Brock Thoene are two of my favorite authors of gripping Christian fiction. Their Zion Covenant series stands out as a testament to their ability to make memorizing Bible verses (specifically, verses of Isaiah) seem like a privilege won thanks to the death-defying adventures of our predecessors. I chose to review this book, despite it being the second in a series (and not having read the first) because I love their work.

The book:

(From the publisher)

Nehemiah, the young son of a Jewish woman, a weaver from Jerusalem, is born and raised among the Jews who didn’t return to Jerusalem from the Exile. Educated by Rabbi Kagba, one of the magi present at Jesus’ birth thirty years earlier, Nehemiah grows up with the expectation of a soon-coming Messiah. Could the Yeshua of Nazareth, who is walking the earth, reportedly doing miracles, be that Messiah?
When young Nehemiah must travel the long caravan road to Jerusalem, he is charged with an unusual mission—to carry a mysterious object back to the holy city of Jerusalem . . . an object whose reappearance heralds the Messiah’s arrival.Nehemiah arrives in Jerusalem just as the final events of Jesus’ earthly ministry are coming to a climax: the Feast of Dedication, the Triumphal Entry, the last cleansing of the Temple, and culminating at the Last Supper in the Upper Room. Only Nehemiah understands the true sacrifice that is to come as he makes the cup worthy of his Savior.

The positive:

The Thoenes are able writers who spin a tale with skill. They dramatize the last few months of Jesus’ life as told through the eyes of a shepherd boy, along with dream cameo appearances by Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel.

There was a lovely scene between Joseph and Nehi, the shepherd boy, in which they talk about not losing hope.

The use of “Sparrows” for the homeless boys in Jerusalem was well done.

The not-so-positive:

I wanted to love this book. I really did, but it fell so flat that it took me two weeks to finish. I fell asleep for the first five or ten times I tried to read the book. I only managed to finish by using the text-to-speech feature on my Kindle and listening to large chunks of the book while ironing.

It took me most of the book to figure out why this book was dull, and I’ll list them here:

  • Nehi (Nehemiah), the shepherd boy, never does anything wrong and never experiences character growth.
  • The dream visions from Joseph were probably meant to be inspiring, but they felt too much like a deus ex machina to squeeze in narrative that Nehi could not have known.
  • The constant repetition of “This cup is an amazing treasure that will change history” felt forced and did not build a sense of awe and grandeur.
  • None of the characters experience growth or change.

If you want a dramatized version of the Bible verses, akin to a Passion Play, this is a nice (but wordy) way to imagine what it might be like to wave palm branches while shouting hosannas as Jesus entered Jerusalem.

If you want a well-crafted story that can stand on its own merits, this is not it.

Warning: Spoiler!

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I particularly objected to the miraculous reappearance of Nehi’s parents at the end, when they had been presumed dead for the bulk of the book. The book takes great pains to show how Nehi can identify with homeless orphan boys, only to throw him into the joyous arms of his parents a dozen chapters later. Considering the enormous drama involved in the Passion itself, this melodrama was unnecessary and cheapened the narrative. Children do lose their parents to early death, and false death came across as a way to play on the heartstrings of the reader and not because it made narrative sense.

 

Conclusion: Take This Cup gives a dramatized version of the Passion through the eyes of a young shepherd boy. Well-meaning but wordy and slow-moving.

  1. Content refers to the themes and structure of the book. For fiction, this includes macro elements such as the book’s premise, character arcs, and how well the conflict and resolution fulfill the promise of the book. For non-fiction, this refers to the information that is conveyed.
  2. Craft refers to the level of writing technique, ranging from clarity of text to carefully edited prose.
  3. Christian themes refers to the application of Biblical principles as well as the understanding and application of Christian theology.
    .
    Additional note: The combined score generally is a mathematical average of the three ratings, unless an individual rating is especially low or high.

Samantha Sanderson on the Scene book review

If you’re looking for the Hop Against Homophobia and Transphobia post for International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, click here.

Because I have already reviewed the first book, Samantha Sanderson at the Movies, at length, you may want to read that review first.

  • Title: Samantha Sanderson on the Scene
  • Author: Robin Caroll
  • Print length: 244 pages
  • Publisher: Zonderkidz
  • Publication date: May 6, 2014
  • Sold by: HarperCollins Publishing
  • Rating:
  • 2 gingersnaps (out of 5 gingersnaps) for content(1)
  • 3 gingersnaps for craft(2)
  • 3 gingersnaps for its handling of Christian themes(3)
  • Comprehensive score: 2.5 gingersnaps (below average)

Review copy provided by BookLook Bloggers, a subsidiary of HarperCollins Christian Publishing

The periphery details:

Same as the first book.

The book:

Sam Sanderson returns, this time in a bullying case. A girl at school receives notes calling her fat, and Sam gets help from her best friend Makayla to figure out who’s responsible.

The positive:

Finding quality Christian fiction for children is always a challenge, particularly fiction that doesn’t package a sermon in a flimsy disguise for a story. I appreciate the light hand Caroll takes in regards to Christianity, even if it gets lost underneath the heavy-handed “After-School Special” approach to bullying.

Without giving spoilers, I will say that the choice of “bad guy” was handled appropriately. There are no true villains in this story, which is a good message and good writing.

I also appreciate seeing fiction about Christian girls with positive role models and supportive parents.

This book’s mystery, the bullying of a schoolmate, is more plausible (than the first book in which Sam investigates a bombing) for a middle-school girl heroine.

 

The not-so-positive:

This book had the same issues as the first in regard to pacing. In fact, the book used exactly the same formula: opening mystery, multiple dead-end red herring trails, an abrupt resolution a few pages from the end of the book, and no consequences for any of Sam’s inappropriate behavior.

However, this book magnifies the flaw of the first one and adds another one. It’s an odd mixture of preaching about bullying and allowing its main character to flout ethics without consequences.

I was disturbed by Sam’s slap on the wrist followed by praise for confessing that she broke into an administrator’s computer. In the first book, Sam used her school newspaper blog to launch wild accusations at innocent adults without any consequences. In this book, Sam does confess and receive a token punishment (clean-up duty), but she receives many pats on the back for owning up to her mistake. I agree that fiction should depict real people, rather than a morality lesson, but Caroll takes such pains to reinforce the lesson (BULLYING IS BAD) that the contrast is unsettling.

What was worse, however, was Makayla’s gossip about students’ counseling files. Again, as in book one, Sam breaks rules in order to get information for her sleuthing. In the first book, Sam regularly eavesdropped and ended up getting her dad in trouble at work. In this book, she pressures a friend to break ethical rules about confidentiality. As an aside, why would a school allow a student to see confidential files, anyway? I would be very upset, as a student or a parent, if private details were shared without my permission.

What I found most disappointing about this book was its issues with superficial attempts to include diversity. Unlike the first book, that only mentioned “mocha” skin in passing and therefore rated only a small mark-down, this book tried to address race and failed. I beg of any author:

Write diversity well, or skip it entirely.

One of the worst lines of dialogue in the entire book is when Tam, an Asian character, says that she was bullied “about my Asian heritage.” Few adults of color would say that, let alone children. Honestly. What middle school student would talk this way, particularly an American child who is half Chinese? The line rings tone-deaf to the actual racism and bullying faced by children of color every day.

Makayla, who is this time identified as “African American” (but still portrayed as white on the book, this time with even lighter skin), is surprised when Sam informs her that bullying can take racial forms. I guarantee that if Makayla were an actual living middle school student, she would be the one teaching white Sam about racial bullying. I have never met a person of color who could not instantly come up with several instances of racially inappropriate behavior. Are they willing to share it with a white author gathering source material for her book? Most likely not.

I beg authors to either write racial diversity the real way or omit it. This kind of ethnocentrism is a poor message in applying Christianity to our day-to-day lives. Nearly thirty years ago, The Baby-Sitters Club mentioned its one member of color in passing as a token nod to diversity. Surely, in 2014, we have moved past this kind of superficial representation?

Lest this review come across as harsh, let me point out that I am critiquing this representation within its own context. I would not apply the same criteria to a book that never mentioned skin color of its characters, or a book that used some self-awareness about its superficiality regarding race.

(Bonus reading: “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” from the New York Times and “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature”, also from the New York Times)

Children of color are Christians, too. They deserve stories for and about them, not to be relegated as a white-washed sidekick who must be taught about racial bullying by the white protagonist.

 

Conclusion: Samantha Sanderson on the Scene offers a Christian-based story for white readers. Not recommended for children of color.

  1. Content refers to the themes and structure of the book. For fiction, this includes macro elements such as the book’s premise, character arcs, and how well the conflict and resolution fulfill the promise of the book. For non-fiction, this refers to the information that is conveyed.
  2. Craft refers to the level of writing technique, ranging from clarity of text to carefully edited prose.
  3. Christian themes refers to the application of Biblical principles as well as the understanding and application of Christian theology.
    .
    Additional note: The combined score generally is a mathematical average of the three ratings, unless an individual rating is especially low or high.

Samantha Sanderson at the Movies book review

  • Title: Samantha Sanderson at the Movies
  • Author: Robin Caroll
  • Print length: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Zonderkidz
  • Publication date: May 6, 2014
  • Sold by: HarperCollins Publishing
  • Rating:
  • 4 gingersnaps (out of 5 gingersnaps) for content(1)
  • 4 gingersnaps for craft(2)
  • 5 gingersnaps for its handling of Christian themes(3)
  • Comprehensive score: 4 gingersnaps (recommended)

Review copy provided by BookLook Bloggers, a subsidiary of HarperCollins Christian Publishing

Note: I received a print copy for review, but Amazon currently offers only the ebook version. I’m not sure when or if this will change, but please keep in mind that there may be issues with the ebook that were not in the print copy.

The periphery details:

Samantha Sanderson at the Movies is exactly what it sounds like: a book in a series aimed at upper elementary and middle school students. So far, the series has two books. The 22 chapters are followed by an acknowledgements page, two-page list of discussion questions, a preview of the second book in the series, and an invitation to join the Zondervan (parent company of Zonderkidz) street team.

The book itself is pleasing to hold and read. The pages are laid out well, the font is clear and easy to read, and the matte cover is nicely done. My very small complaint is that the title seems to target a younger audience (reminiscent of the Cam Jansen mystery books whose heroine is two years younger than Samantha).

The book:

Picture a Disney family movie, Cam Jansen for a slightly older audience, and a Christian setting. That’s Samantha Sanderson at the Movies, with a dash of 21st-century technology. Seventh-grader Samantha, who prefers to be called “Sam,” divides her time between cheerleading, writing for her school newspaper, and enjoying her best friend, Makayla. Her detective father and international journalist mother spend a good deal of their time apart, but her mother keeps in touch with her through daily phone calls.

While visiting the local movie theater, Sam and her father discover a bomb set to go off during the showing of a Christian film. Desperate to prove her journalistic mettle, she begs for the story assignment and spends the book sleuthing for the culprit. In the process, she comes to learn lessons of integrity, ethics, witnessing her faith, friendship, and loyalty.

The positive:

Samantha Sanderson at the Movies receives top marks for its handling of Christian themes. During a conversation, Sam realizes that her classmate is not a Christian and that this is the first non-Christian she has encountered. Misunderstandings occur on both sides.

“Do you have a problem with that?”

“No. It’s none of my business,” Sam said.

“Right. Just because we’re not part of some religious mumbo-jumbo group, we’re weird, right?”

“I didn’t say that,” Sam argued.

“You didn’t have to. It was all in the curl of your lip.” Grace shook her head. “Hypocrite.”

“I didn’t mean that. You’re putting words in my mouth. Or in the curl of my lip.” Sam’s heartbeat hiccuped. She really did like Grace and didn’t want to offend or upset her. She hadn’t meant to do that at all.

“Since we’re not some holier-than-thou Christian types, you think we’re weird, don’t you?”

[. . .]

Sam fell into step alongside with her. “I can’t speak for anybody else, but I just don’t understand it is all.”

[. . .]

Grace shook her head. “I just can’t buy into a loving Father or anything. Look at all the evil in the world. All the bad things that keep happening … even that bomb at the theater. If there’s a God who wants what’s best, why does stuff like this happen?”

The same questions Sam wrestled with. “I don’t know, exactly. But I believe in God. I believe in His Son. [. . .] I don’t have all the answers, Grace. I wish I did. But I do know that our time here is marked in years, but after here? Yeah, that’s forever. I want to have eternal life, and the only way for me to have that is to know that Jesus is God’s Son, He died for me, and I accept Him in my heart.”

[. . .]

“I still don’t buy it, but thanks for not thinking I’m a freak for being different,” Grace said as she took two steps toward her own class.

(pp. 126-128)

Wow. First, Sam apologizes for appearing to judge when she acted out of ignorance. Second, she admits to not having answers. Third, Grace the non-Christian is given worthy, weighty questions that all Christians should struggle with in order to strengthen our faith. Best of all, Sam’s response to Grace is reinforced by her mother and later her youth group leader. Smug, know-it-all, superficial Christians do far more harm than good when they judge without understanding. Hats off to Caroll for portraying real faith instead of a cardboard cutout faith suitable for a six-year-old. Hats off for portraying non-Christian characters with respect and dignity.

I also appreciated the portrayal of Sam’s parents as loving, attentive adults who aren’t afraid to set boundaries or teach ethical behavior–without getting preachy. While her father comes across as lenient to the point of indulgent for much of the book, he does not shirk from his parenting responsibilities when Sam steps over the line he’s drawn. The balance is written well. Because he is such a permissive parent for the most part, his boundary-setting is all the more effective when it happens. Samantha deals very well with the ethical questions involved, and Sam comes to a more mature understanding by the end of the book.

The book’s writing is fast-paced and flows well. While there are too many red herrings and the denouement feels rushed, there is enough suspense to keep the reader interested. While good values are reinforced through the storyline, they appear naturally in the background rather than being pushed as a dominant propaganda under a thin veneer of story. Samantha is a story for story’s sake, and its values are an added bonus. Sam’s church and youth group are mentioned in passing, as part of her everyday life, rather than forced down the reader’s throat on every page. Caroll follows her own characters’ advice to demonstrate a life of faith without becoming pushy.

One especially nice touch is the principal’s reaction to Sam’s use of “mental illness” as an inflammatory tactic. Well done.

 

The not-so-positive:

My biggest problem with the book was its pacing. While the initial buildup uses a great hook to spark interest, the multiple dead-end tangents of finding the bombing culprit dominate too much of the book. The sub-plot about her cheerleading is extraneous and distracts from an already sufficiently complex story line. The denouement comes abruptly and does not offer Sam ways to come to terms with the consequences of her journalism. Her daily blogging articles for the school newspaper, correctly termed “sensationalizing” by the movie theater owner, suggest blame for several innocent adults whose reputations are hurt by the process.

In a nod to political correctness without any substance to back it up, Caroll throws in two references to the “mocha” colored skin of Makayla, Sam’s best friend. (Note: Makayla is portrayed as light-skinned on the cover.) Really? Really? If we’re going to write about white main characters in a white family, without mentioning that they are white, there is no need to mention the skin color of the one non-white character of the book. I’ve referred to this before as the “Harry Potter” type of diversity writing, which is to use an “ethnic” name without any “ethnic” characteristics whatsoever. If Makayla is African American (we’ll skip the issue of people of color only representing sidekicks for the moment), then make her African American. Race is about more than skin color, and Caroll would have done better to either omit skin color references entirely or do justice to her token attempt at writing diversity.

Finally, Sam takes entirely too much credit for Makayla’s computer sleuthing skills. I recognize that these types of books, like a Disney family movie, tend to place plaudits on the heroine’s shoulders because they make the audience feel good. I have no objection to some child-targeted wishful thinking, but I’d like to add this to the discussion questions at the end. “Sam receives praise, but many people help her obtain the information. In what ways could Sam express her appreciation for all the people who helped her?”

 

Conclusion: Samantha Sanderson at the Movies deftly weaves a tale of a young girl raised to become an ethical, responsible Christian. While the storyline occasionally takes unnecessary detours, the mystery will draw in young readers. Recommended for upper elementary and lower middle school students.

(UPDATE) After reading the Kirkus Review, I have to agree with these statements:

Her ambition leads her to write a series of witch-hunt pieces, each strongly insinuating the guilt of a suspect du jour [. . .] Self-righteous Sam ignores the effects her articles have on her suspects and her father’s investigation; aside from occasional, fleeting moments of remorse, she faces very few consequences for her actions and sees too little character growth.

I objected to these points, too, but had already written far too long of a book review. I still recommend the book for the reasons I described, but the Kirkus Review explains why I gave the book four gingersnaps instead of five. “Witch-hunt” is an apt description of Sam’s articles, and I became increasingly uncomfortable with her sensationalizing that is praised in the book as honest and courageous journalism. I would hate for any young, aspiring journalists to follow in Sam’s footsteps by accusing community members without any proof.

  1. Content refers to the themes and structure of the book. For fiction, this includes macro elements such as the book’s premise, character arcs, and how well the conflict and resolution fulfill the promise of the book. For non-fiction, this refers to the information that is conveyed.
  2. Craft refers to the level of writing technique, ranging from clarity of text to carefully edited prose.
  3. Christian themes refers to the application of Biblical principles as well as the understanding and application of Christian theology.
    .
    Additional note: The combined score generally is a mathematical average of the three ratings, unless an individual rating is especially low or high.