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2021 Book Reviews

Just like I did last year, I’m going to wrap up 2021 by reviewing some books that were published this year. (These are spoiler-free reviews.) I ranged in genre this year more than I did last year, so here’s a list of the books and their genres:

  • The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner [Historical Fiction]
  • Take It to Heart by Rachel Schmoyer [Nonfiction – Christian Devotional]
  • Star Wars: The High Republic: Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule [Science Fiction]
  • Run: Book One by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin [Juvenile Nonfiction – Historical Graphic Novel]
  • The Christmas Pig by J.K. Rowling [Juvenile Fantasy]
  • The Ivies by Alexa Donne [Young Adult Mystery]
  • Fazbear Frights #5-11 by Scott Cawthon, et al [Young Adult Horror]

The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner – 3/5

This literary fiction takes place partly in the past and partly in the present and follows the journeys of three women: Nella (an apothecary serial killer), Eliza (a servant girl she befriends), and Caroline (a woman researching them in the modern day). The book is longwinded, and the present-day research storyline often seemed especially irrelevant when juxtaposed to the murder story. Both stories were interesting by the climax, but then everything dragged on too long afterwards. Some parts were well-written, but many were repetitive and preachy. All three of the women were wronged by men at some point, so naturally, the novel leans into women’s issues. There’s also a lot about historical preservation. The point where these intersect is a thread about remembering the lives of women. That makes it especially disappointing when Caroline does her research in a way that damages items of historical interest and then deliberately chooses to let some things be lost to history at the very end of the novel. It’s frustrating and a bad example. Plus, her connections to the past story rely on a lot of coincidences. If her half of the book wasn’t there, I would’ve liked the story a lot more, though I’m glad I read to the end. If you decide to read this book, you can skip over all of Caroline’s parts without missing anything, except for the very last chapter, where she reads an old newspaper article that wraps up some loose ends.

Take It to Heart by Rachel Schmoyer – 4/5

I feel like I’m cheating a little on this one, because I’m going to re-use a review that I posted on Amazon, but I think the same about it now as I did when I first read the book. Also, it’s new content to my readers even if it’s something I already did.

While most books I’ve read on Revelation focus on interpreting the imagery or honing in on the End Times aspects, this offers a completely different treatment of the subject. It’s a 30-day devotional that uses each day to focus on practical applications of Revelation for your spiritual growth and life. It’s marketed as a women’s guide, but the content is good for general audiences – men and women, young and old. It would be good as an introduction to Revelation, especially to readers who might find that book abstract or intimidating.

Star Wars: The High Republic: Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule – 2/5

The latest Star Wars multimedia project is the High Republic series, and Light of the Jedi was the first novel in it. The story centers around a Great Disaster and the way various Jedi and members of the Republic try to stop the damage and prevent similar incidents in the future. I like the premise of the story and the general structure. There are a few characters that could’ve been interesting, but the delivery is a hot mess. The size of the cast was the worst part, introducing new sets of people in chapter after chapter, usually with new locations to go along with them. Some only appeared once. Some were recurring. Some appeared early on and didn’t show up again until much later. As a result, I couldn’t get invested in this endless slew of underdeveloped characters. There were some that the author tried to get us to care about just before they died, but none of the deaths had any weight. It’s also worth noting that the writing was weak in general. Granted, the writing style isn’t usually why we pick up a Star Wars novel, but it was more noticeable when combined with the worse issues. I might try other High Republic stories later, since it’s a fresh era, but the series isn’t off to a promising start.

If anyone is interested in reading Star Wars and doesn’t mind delving into the older books, I posted an overview of the Legends books, which has reviews of some of my favorites.

Run: Book One by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin – 3/5

I was excited to delve into this book after reading John Lewis’s March trilogy, which also told parts of Lewis’s autobiography in graphic novel format. That series was about the core of the Civil Rights movement, and this takes place when the movement’s more established. This is an important topic covered by someone on the inside. However, has a slow pace, and that pace isn’t really used to see people develop. It’s an odd choice for a graphic novel, since it’s presented like a collection of anecdotes with large blocks of narration and not much dialog. Still, if the format draws a wider audience than a book without pictures, that could be valuable. It also has a lot of detail and insight that most people probably don’t know about.

The Christmas Pig by J.K. Rowling – 3/5

This was an okay Christmas book, with some notable highs and lows. It’s about a boy named Jack whose stepsister throws away his beloved stuffed pig, DP. She feels bad and gets him a replacement Christmas Pig. The new pig takes Jack on a perilous journey through the Land of the Lost to search for DP. On the plus side, it stars believable child characters with relatable problems. Most people have had a favorite toy go missing or fought with siblings or friends about feelings they couldn’t fully understand or articulate. For the most part, the messages about people’s interrelations are positive ones, even if Rowling spells out characters’ internal motivations far more directly than necessary. However, a huge chunk of the book is dedicated to making people feel bad for their misplaced objects, even ones that are broken or otherwise useless. If people take this too much to heart, it could lead to a hoarder mentality. Even worse, the entire premise of the book is that a boy puts his life in danger to find a lost toy. No. Just no. It’s extremely uncomfortable when other characters laud Jack for his efforts, and that feeling of wrongness never completely went away.

The Ivies by Alexa Donne – 2/5

This YA mystery novel is about a group of girls at a rich private school who scheme and do horrible things to their classmates to take down their competition when trying to get into Ivy League schools. One of them (Emma) ends up dead, and another one of them (Olivia – the protagonist) investigates. Most of the story beats were predictable, including a secret of Emma’s which was extremely obvious. The characters were cliched. Many were interchangeable. There was no reason to care about the protagonist. Like most of the characters, she was a pretty awful person. Maybe we’re supposed to excuse her because most of the things she did weren’t quite as bad as what her friends did and because she’s middle class instead of rich. The only reason she investigates Emma’s death is to clear her own name. She doesn’t learn anything or change in any way over the course of the story. The book had some things to say about some social issues like privileged people protecting each other, but there are other books out there that do it better.

Fazbear Frights #5-11 by Scott Cawthon, et al – 4/5

This series needs a quick explanation. I reviewed the first four books of this series in my post last year, so I wanted to finish out the series even though books 5 and 6 were technically written last year. There is one more book coming out with bonus stories, and then the creators will start a new series called Tales from the Pizzaplex, but I’m probably not going to keep reviewing those. I’ll still read them, but I imagine they’ll be similar in quality to all the others and that I won’t have much to say after this.

Each book in this YA horror series (set in the Five Nights at Freddy’s universe) contains three novellas and one epilogue. (Each book carries the title of the first story inside.) The epilogues together make up one larger story. Each of the main three stories could stand alone, but they’re also part of the larger story if you read the epilogues. I was satisfied by the way the epilogues wrapped up, but I had a hard time remembering everything, since I was only getting chunks of the story at a time between book release dates. Like last year’s set, this one contained some happy endings, some sad ones, and some ambiguous ones. Now, on to the individual books!

Bunny Call: At this point, the series is starting to feature more adult protagonists. All three in this volume are grown up, and “Bunny Call” features the oldest protagonist yet – a family man in a midlife crisis. The story has a little too much padding in some parts and leans on a few clichés, but the author sets the scene well, and the climax of the story is suspenseful. “In the Flesh” is about someone working on developing a new FNaF game. The meta idea is kind of interesting, but the writing is mediocre and the main protagonist is a huge jerk. Like the guy in the last story, he’s also dealing with feeling inadequate and out of control in his life, but he’s not as three-dimensional as the grumpy but sympathetic character from “Bunny Call.” The plot was similar to another story earlier in the series (I won’t say which due to spoilers), which made it easy to predict once the trouble started. Halfway through, it switches briefly to another person’s perspective after the first guy, and in both cases, it flips back and forth between their real selves and their avatar selves. The second person’s storyline never pays off. “The Man in Room 1280”, about a priest visiting a man in a hospital, is well-written and suspenseful – very much a traditional horror story.

Blackbird: This was a strong addition to the series, starting with a collection of layered characters in “Blackbird”. Here, a college student is stalked by a creature that he views as a manifestation of his guilt. This story was really great at drawing out emotion, as was the next one: “The Real Jake”. Again, the characters were the real selling point here, with this one focusing on a boy with a brain tumor, his army dad, and his live-in nanny. This story was much less creepy but still intense. Also, this story is a key piece in the lore of the Fazbear Frights series. It can be read on its own, but it also explains the origins of a character that becomes the emotional core of the series in the epilogues. Then we get to “Hide and Seek”, which was pretty standard for FF stories. It was another one about guilt. A lot of themes tend to recur in these books (like bullying and self-worth). Guilt haunting people is one that pops up in a lot of these books. “Hide and Seek” came across as a little by-the-numbers, which made it a bit of a letdown after the first two stories. I’m sure I would’ve liked it more if I hadn’t just seen it done better, but as it was, it was average on the scale.

The Cliffs: “The Cliffs” doesn’t seem super FNaF-y, but it’s a good character portrait. “The Breaking Wheel” was cluttered with characters, technobabble, and tropes. It wasn’t very suspenseful, either. I knew what was going to happen, and it seemed very avoidable. The story mostly leaned on the gruesomeness factor. “He Told Me Everything” starts slow and has a creepy end that I might’ve enjoyed if it hadn’t taken so long to get there. There’s also more suspension of disbelief in this one (and not about the supernatural elements) since it relies on a big secret that a bunch of kids are supposed to keep. Somehow all of them keep the secret, and many go along with something that would’ve freaked them out in real life.

Gumdrop Angel: Between the cover, title, and opening scene, it was very obvious what was going to happen in “Gumdrop Angel”, and not in a suspenseful way. It stretched on way too long, especially in the middle. I was bored by the end, so the story wasn’t scary by that point – just kind of gross. The other two got progressively better. “Sergio’s Lucky Day” had a character who kept making such terrible choices, it was like watching a slow-moving train wreck, and it was painful in a good way. There were some pacing issues, but the end of the story did a hard right turn into something that I hadn’t expected but didn’t seem out of place, and it ended on a horror high note. “What We Found” not only had an interesting story, but out of all the novels and short stories so far, this one feels most like it was taken straight from a game (specifically FNaF 3). It also used setup and payoff effectively.

The Puppet Carver: “The Puppet Carver” was great because I legitimately had no idea where it was going for a while. On the other hand, the next story, “Jump for Tickets” was back on predictable ground with a plot like the one in “Hide and Seek” and a protagonist like the one in “Lonely Freddy”, except this one wasn’t nearly aware enough of his predicament for a while. In “Pizza Kit”, we’re back to the theme of harmful lies, with the protagonist stuck in a downward spiral after she panics and tells a lie to save herself very unnecessarily. (I like recurring themes, just not rehashes of the same plots, so this part’s okay.) This story is on the extreme side of the body horror imagery. I liked the ending, though.

Friendly Face: “Friendly Face” was a well-crafted but slow-moving story with a great ending. “Sea Bonnies” surprisingly had a character who didn’t start off in an awful place in life, and who approached his problem the way a reasonable person would. “Together Forever” was predictable.

Prankster: In “Prankster”, there was lots of buildup where I was waiting for some kind of twist or surprise, but it never paid off. “Kids at Play” was set up well, there was some good characterization, and the themes tie in well with the plot. “Find Player Two!” was one of the best in the series, with a flawed but likeable main character in a well-paced and suspenseful story.

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