Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Mini Book Reviews: Two Tudor Queens

Katheryn the Wanton Queen by Maureen Peters
3 out of 5 stars

I wasn't expecting much from this book given that I wasn't hugely impressed with the one other Maureen Peters book I read, and I was both spot on and pleasantly surprised. Spot on because this really isn't a book that will leave any kind of lasting impression on me.

It's a basic rundown of events from Katheryn's time growing up with Manox and Dereham going through to her time as queen and then ending with her death. It's all told from the perspective of a barely developed fictional lady, and Katheryn is a distant character who is hard to sympathize with.

But, Katheryn is depicted in a somewhat nuanced way that gives a glimpse into her character. It's not flattering, but it is an interesting piece to add to the historical patchwork. Her character her is very similar to how she was portrayed by Showtime's Tudors series.

There aren't many books about Katheryn, and while this one wasn't particularly memorable, I think it's still worth reading.

My Lady of Cleves by Margaret Campbell Barnes
2 out of 5 stars

What a disappointment! I've had this book on my shelves for years and I'd always just assumed I was going to like it. I've enjoyed the other MCB's books I've read and I have a favorable opinion of Anne of Cleves. Plus, this is pretty much the only Anne of Cleves book I could get my hands on, so I just wanted it to be good.

Recipe for success, right?

No, sadly not. Anne was a strange mix of really dislikable and Mary Sue perfect. Or, rather, it felt like the author tried to make her perfect and make everyone react to her as if she were perfect (which felt so weird, historically speaking), but I just couldn't help but hate her. Her thoughts and actions were not sympathetic and did not endear me to her, which is  difficult to achieve considering how her historical situation is pretty darn sympathetic.

I'm still not ready to admit how much I disliked this book. So much potential! I hope my next MCB book is better.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Book Review: Rosemarked by Livia Blackburne

#1 in the Rosemarked series
Pages: 400
Released: November 11, 2017
Publisher: Disney
Received: ARC from publisher
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I really wasn't planning on reading this book either, but this is twice now that Disney has sent me a book I didn't plan on reading and I ended up enjoying it a whole lot. So, points to you, Disney.

The thing is, while the plot sounds right up my alley (fantasy, conspiracy, hate-turned-love romance, war, spies, etc.), Livia Blackburne's books and I have a love-hate relationship. I adored her short story Poison Dance, and I was so excited to read the series it was setting up, but when it came to the actual novel I couldn't even finish it. It felt like it was written by a completely different author. I figured the short story was a fluke and I pretty much wrote off anything else she wrote. Which is why I hadn't even bothered considering Rosemarked.

And, to be honest, it was all smooth sailing. There was this distance with the characters that made their narrative voices feel muffled and monotone. Sure, there was emotion, but it felt dull and muted like it was underwater. Had the book not been so long, giving me enough time to really get to know them better and become invested in their stories, I probably wouldn't have enjoyed it as much.

But, the book is long, and so we got to spend a lot of time together. The chapters alternate between Zivah and Dineas's narrative focus and that switching combined with fairly short chapters and a slow-burn plot kept me engaged. Their voices were distinct enough, though I appreciated the chapter headings indicating who was speaking. By about halfway through I solidly cared about them and that feeling only grew as I read more.

As the plot progresses the emotions run deeper and deeper and I found myself invested not just in the characters and the story, but also in the idea. I know that doesn't make much sense, but there's an almost philosophical conundrum the characters experience that made me wish I was reading this with a book club so we could discuss all the angles and ramifications. 

The plot and world building are intriguing and I enjoyed reading about them in their own right. The crows, snake, and disease were interesting and well thought-out. I could wish for a little more depth to the empire/conquered peoples, but maybe that will unfold more in the sequel.

I was disappointed when the book ended because even though it was long, I wanted to keep reading. I'm definitely looking forward to reading the next one.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Book Review: Lady of the English by Elizabeth Chadwick

Pages: 514
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Released: 2011
Received: Own
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars Goodreads

I'm pretty sure this is the first Elizabeth Chadwick book I've read, and I have many others on my TBR. I've heard great things about her and so my expectations were high.

Sadly, I met Sharon Kay Penman first. Her recounting of The Anarchy was so much more visceral. The tension between Matilda and her husband was crackling. The scope of the war was huge and devastating.

Elizabeth Chadwick's version just fell flat in comparison. It seemed apologetic for Matilda's temper and Geoffrey's violence. While it seemed like she tried to humanize the characters, there was always an emotional distance and they felt very much like characters rather than people. The only exception to this is of Henry I's second wife. I liked her characterization in this book a lot and wish the book had been about her instead.

I had been hoping for heavier historical fiction with excellent characterization, but instead this felt fluffy and very surface level. More like Christy English and Anne O'Brien than Juliet Grey or Susan Kay. That isn't terrible, but it was more of a forgettable book than I was hoping and expecting.

Well, I won't write off Elizabeth Chadwick just yet and I'll give her other books a shot. I probably would have liked Lady of the English a lot more if I hadn't had the comparison. And, really, if an author is going to suffer in comparison, they can do far worse than to have that comparison be against Sharon Kay Penman. 

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Book Review: Seven Kings of England by Geoffrey Trease

Pages: 164
Publisher: Endeavour Press
Released: Originally published 1955, re-released 2017
Received: Netgalley
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I like non-fiction history books that are broken up into snippets that focus on different historical figures. I also like non-fiction that reads practically like a novel. I also like books with nice covers.

Well, two out of three isn't bad, and clearly it's the nice cover that Seven Kings of England lacks. I almost didn't download this from Netgally but then I saw that little "read now" button and for some reason the fact that I didn't need to wait was the final push I needed to commit to an impulse read.

I'm glad I did. His writing style was easy, enjoyable, and fun. Each section focuses on a different king, and they seemed to be chosen randomly based on the author's liking of them. The focus of each section was also random, though the flavor of each king's life was generally communicated with a linear narrative that highlighted selected facets of their lives. Nothing is super in depth, but it was all pleasant to read. There really wasn't a section I didn't enjoy.

I'm mentally adding Geoffrey Trease to my small but beloved group of historical non-fiction authors who I enjoy reading just as much as fiction (joining Thomas B. Costain, Robert Lacey, Carolyn Weber, and Dan Jones). He has a book about queens (or two books? It's not clear if it's a re-issue of the same book or two separate books) that I wish was available, though as of now I can't locate a copy.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Mini Reviews: Fluffy YA history and fashion

Confederates Don't Wear Couture by Stephanie Kate Strohm
Rating: 3.5 stars

Fun, fun, fun. This book had all the ingredients I needed for a light, fluffy, pick-me-up kind of book. I enjoyed the first book Pilgrims Don't Wear Pink, but I think this one might have been even better. You also don't need to read the first book to enjoy the second (the only spoiler for the first book is who Libby ends up with romantically, and it's really no surprise in the first book).

Sassy gay best friend Dev is pretty much the reason for most of my enjoyment. He spends the entire book joyously reveling in crafting period-appropriate fancy dresses, appreciating the southern gentlemen in uniform, pining for quality coffee,  squealing in terror at the ghost, and coming to Libby's rescue repeatedly with sarcastic sympathy and pretty clothing. He was a delight.

I would happily read more books in this series, as long as Dev continues to steal the spotlight. Alas, I don't think more are planned.

The Time-Traveling Fashionista: On Board the Titanic by Bianca Turetsky
Rating: 3 stars

Overall, I liked this book and I plan on reading the sequels. I figured I should get that out right up front because there were a few things I was kind of meh on, but they clearly weren't deal breakers. So, the things I didn't love:

The pictures were...I don't know, kind of blah? So was the main character. She felt kind of distant, and I think that's because the writing just wasn't that great. There also wasn't any sense of urgency with the plot, which kind of just meandered along.

But, the pictures were also interesting to look at and they made for a really fast read because almost every other page has a picture of some sort on it. The chapters are also really tiny, so, again, super fast read. There were two side characters that really didn't play much of a role but I'm a sucker for the witchy, eccentric lady duo (think Hilda and Zelda in Sabrina the Teenage Witch or the two witchy aunts in Practical Magic) and these were fun. I wish they had more page time, but hopefully they will in the sequels.

I also learned a lot I didn't know about the Titanic, the famous people on the ship, and the fashions of the time. This in turn inspired an hours-long internet research binge after I had finished the book. Always a plus.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Book Review: Royal Bastards by Andrew Shvarts

#1 in the Royal Bastards series
Pages: 352
Released: May 30, 2017
Publisher: Disney
Received: ARC from publisher
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Well, this was a pleasant surprise. I was expecting a court story with a bunch of anachronistic and hard to like royal bastards. I was fully expecting to DNF after a few chapters of drunken lazying about with big chips on our shoulders. I even thought this was historical fiction with a ton of liberties.

Apparently I didn't pay much attention to the blurb? This is pure fantasy. There's about one chapter of the above before very quickly diving into murder, magic, mayhem and perilous flight. The entire book is spent on the road trying to get to a royal city while being pursued by murderous bad guys and running across creepy, deadly wildlife. Basically, it was non-stop action and the pages flew by.

The bratty bastards were also not what I was expecting. They were actually likable. Sure, they're very tropey (tough girl with a soft heart, geeky smart guy, good looking quiet warrior, guy-next-door, and kind princess who is more than she seems), but they were likable tropes. I enjoyed reading about all of them and I cared what happened to them. Plus, there's romance and it hit at all the right spots.  There were a few surprisingly emotional moments that added a level of depth.

The world building is pretty standard fare for medieval-ish fantasy. There aren't orcs and elves, but there are taverns, magic-users, and battles. There's a conquering history that has laid the groundwork for the current rebellion and while it's fairly thin on substance, it gets the job done. The magic is interesting enough and the Narnia-ish turn-people-to-stone magic is suitably horrifying. I liked the inclusion of the gross fantasy creature and I don't think you can go wrong with giant magic explosions (of which there were several). 

I'm wavering between a 3.5 and a 4 and I suspect that in a few months I'll have forgotten most of what happened, but I'm bumping it to a 4 because it was just plain fun. I'm looking forward to finding out what happens next.


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Book Reviews: Tudor Round Up

Tudor by Leanda de Lisle
Pages: 539
Received: Library
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Leanda de Lisle has written what I consider to be a worthwhile (non-fiction) addition to the massive Tudor library. I picked this out as part of my "moving TBR" (that is, all the books that my old library has that my new library doesn't have) and, yeah, picking up such a doorstop while getting ready to move all during a two week window of time was a little intimidating. 

But, I did it. And I actually really enjoyed it. There was something almost cozy about reading through such a familiar story and I really appreciated how Leanda de Lisle added her own touches so it felt familiar but not boring. Her perspective and focus on Margaret Beaufort, Margaret Tudor, and Margaret Douglas was especially interesting. The way she presented their stories helped tie all the events from the Wars of the Roses, Henry VII, Henry III and the rest of the Tudors all together, helped fill in some narrative gaps, and gave more depth to the stories of the more major players. I gained a lot of new insight through this approach.

I love that the author was more sympathetic toward Mary I, and I definitely got the feeling she was far more on the side of Catherine than Anne. And not overly fond of Elizabeth or Edward. She's also not a fan of Richard III, but not wholly in favor of Henry VII either and really not a fan of Henry VIII. So, biases definitely came through, but I wasn't turned off by them.

Tudor starts with Catherine of Valois' death and paces through the Wars of the Roses and then continues through to the death of Elizabeth I. It's detailed and follows the narrative timeline, but it doesn't delve into minute details. Very much recommended.

The Tudor Tutor by Barb Alexander
Pages: 160
Received: Library
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

I mean, it was fine. I guess.

There's way too much effort focused on trying to be witty and write in a comedic bloggy kind of way and not enough effort focused on actually being funny or writing about history. The writing style wasn't bad enough to induce an eye-roll sprain, but it was close. It's reminiscent of bathroom books and has this smarmy blend of mocking superiority with a slangly attempt to appear casual and hip, while also being totally smart and stuff because this is, like, a history book.

So, yeah, I wasn't in love with it. 

The Tudor Tutor also suffers from the "technically correct, but..." syndrome where the author writes something that's technically true, but they provide so little context, leave out vital information, and jump onto the next snippet so quickly that it leads the reader to draw an inaccurate understanding of what actually happened.

While the reader with more Tudor knowledge won't fall into that pitfall, there isn't much to this book for them. It's a bare-bones rundown of events that won't add much to the knowledge base of a reader whose sole familiarity with the family is through Jonathan Rhys Meyers' interpretation on Showtime's series. For the reader who hasn't even seen the show, well, this wouldn't be a terrible place to start, but there are far, far better out there.  

Catherine of Aragon by Alison Prince
(also known as My Tudor Queen)
Pages: 160
Received: Library
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Ok, this wasn't nearly as bad as this author's book about the princes in the Tower. I get the feeling the author likes Catherine (she gave her strange focus in the other book, which really has nothing to do with Catherine). This is another book where the story is told through the eyes of a servant, but in this case it worked about as well as that device can work for me.

The chapters were short, the story basic, but this was a solid addition and should be enjoyed by readers who like the Scholastic My Royal Diaries series and books like them. Recommended.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Book Review: The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding by Alexandra Bracken

#1 in the series
Pages: 362
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Released: September 5, 2017
Received: ARC from publisher
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Alexandra Bracken and I have a rocky relationship. It started out with flailing love, fizzled with lukewarm disappointment, and sunk to the bottom of the ocean with a vow never to pick up another one of her books again.  

So why in the world was I reading The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding then? Well, because I'm  a sucker for pretty things and when the publisher sent me an ARC in a pretty box with fall leaves, throwback Halloween candy, apple cider mix, and other goodies? Um, yeah, like I said, I'm a sucker.

I'm glad my will is so weak and Disney decided to send me an ARC because, overall, I had a nice time with Prosper Redding. It's not a perfect book. It's actually pretty rough. The pacing is off, the plot is tenuous, the characters are underdeveloped and pretty stock, and the main character felt like he couldn't decide if he was 12 or 17 years old (for the record, I would have preferred 17. It rang truer.). If I didn't know any better I'd think this was a debut.

But all that said, I still just liked the book. It felt good, if that makes sense. It felt like a Disney Channel Original Movie. Kind of goofy, far from perfect, but light, airy, and fun. The atmosphere of the story evoked all the right fall feelings: crisp air, the silliness and creepiness of Halloween, sweater weather, and childhood bliss.

Not much happened overall, and while there are a lot of pages in the book, this is very much just an introduction to the story. I suspect that when all is said and done, all the books in the series probably could be edited down into one book. So, will I read the sequel? Maybe. I'm not rushing out to get it, but if I came across it in the library or was sent a copy, I'd read it. If not? I don't know that I'd go out of my way to get it.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Book Reviews: Wars of the Roses Round Up

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
Pages: 206
Received: Library, own
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

I read this book in bed while recovering from a cold, which is the best way to read this book as main character Inspector Alan Grant spends the whole book bedridden recovering from a broken leg. Being in a similar situation made me feel even more connected with the story.

Grant spent his time researching through history books and applying his detective's mind to unraveling the mystery surrounding Richard III, Henry VII, and the murder of the princes in the tower and I happily sleuthed alongside him.

I am still so pleasantly surprised by how absolutely enthralled I was by The Daughter of Time. It's a pretty straight forward book and there's a ton of "telling," so much so that it almost feels like I spent the day chatting with a historian rather than reading a fictional story. The chapters move along pretty quickly and are usually only about ten pages or fewer.

For me, the jury is still out on who did in the lost princes in the tower, but I tend to lean on the side of sympathy toward Richard and blame to Henry. I'm ok with reading the "blame Richard" side, but I definitely appreciated Josephine Tey's take instead. Her explanation seems reasonable, and even if historically we may never know, story-wise she wrote a compelling narrative.

Highly recommended for those who enjoy Wars of the Roses and Tudor history, though the anti-Ricardian may struggle.

The Lost King by Alison Prince
Pages: 96
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Wow. This book is...not very good at all. It's super short and the chapters are usually only a few pages long, but that's about the only positive thing I can say.

The story is narrated by a fictional "observer" character in the form of a servant. This is a narrative device I usually don't like, and in such a short book it felt even more useless. We even get a few bits and pieces from her personal life, but this felt even more pointless considering how much of a non-character the narrator turned out to be.

But, whatever, if that was the worst thing then it wouldn't have bothered me that much. No, the reason this book gets such a low rating stems entirely from its historical inaccuracies. Simple things that could be found on the Wikipedia page aren't even correct! What is accurate is presented in such an abridged way that readers with little to no knowledge of the time will likely come away with an inaccurate understanding of people and events.

Definitely not recommended.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Book Review: A Matter of Class by Mary Balogh

Pages: 208
Published: 2009
Received: Library
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

*sigh* I was so hoping to love this one. I don't remember if I had added this to my TBR before or after reading Leah's review, but either way her review upped my expectations and excitement a lot. Hate turned love romance, historical setting, so much of this was calling my name.

Unfortunately, I read Lord Fenton's Folly before I read A Matter of Class and the former must have been heavily inspired by the latter. I felt like I was reading a rehash of a story I already read. That isn't a total dealbreaker (let's face it, I'm the type of reader that has no problem reading the same story over and my Tudor, Arthurian, and Wars of the Roses reading list can attest), but the insubstantial characters did nothing to capture my interest.

It's kind of hard to get invested in a story when the only thing it has going for it is a romance with a plot I've already read and characters for which I can't muster up a care. The final blow was the fact that the book it so reminds me of is not one I particularly enjoyed, so my associated feelings were doing this story no favors.

My overall impression? A lukewarm meh.

It's a shame, because I feel like I probably would have enjoyed A Matter of Class much more had I not read Lord Fenton's Folly first. I don't think I ever would have loved it, but I probably would have liked it more. Oh well. It's funny how an experience with a book can be so affected by previous reading adventures.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Book Review: The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

Pages: 233
Published: 1998
Received: Library
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This series was super popular when I worked in my public library in New York (over five years ago! Time flies!) but I had always kind of shrugged it off as "not my thing." Which is funny, because I apparently had a completely inaccurate idea of what this book was even about (I thought it took place in England. Or America.)

That said, over five years ago this probably really wasn't my thing. My thing was mostly YA and middle grade, usually focused on fairy tale retelling, fantasy, and magic. The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is none of those things. It's a book about an adult woman in Botswana, Africa and the narrative meanders through multiple little mysteries while providing a local flavor and sense of place.

Honestly, while my reading focus has definitely shifted lately, I'm still not sure if this subject is my thing. But this book? Definitely my thing. Main character Precious Ramotswe has such an appealing voice and I had such a nice, relaxing time following along with her as she went about her life and investigated different mysteries. Precious is adept at coming up with clever ways to ferret out the truth of a situation and I was continually amused by her approach. I even shared a few of the stories with my husband.

A significant part of the book focuses first on Precious's childhood and father, meandering through this time period without much focus. I normally would have been bored and frustrated, but I liked the writing style and characters enough that I was actually really into it. The characters all come alive and it's easy to love and hate them as appropriate. It was also fun getting a glimpse into a culture and country I don't often read about. Eventually it gets to the mysteries and these read like multiple short stories rather than one overarching mystery.

Everything was wrapped up at the end, so if you want to read it as a standalone that's totally fine. I haven't read the other books in the series yet, but I do plan on reading at least one or two more. I don't know that I'd read the entire series (it's really long!) but I can see myself picking up another one when I'm looking for something like and sweet. I picked this one up completely unplanned, much like a checkout line impulse buy, directly after reading Helen's review, and I'm very glad I did.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Mini Reviews: Middle Grade Books

The Grave Robber's Apprentice by Allan Stratton 
3 out of 5 stars
Well, this has been on my TBR for quite some time, and I guess I'm glad to have finally read it. It's one of those books that as perfectly pleasant while I was reading it, but almost immediately upon finishing it I started struggling to remember what it as about. So, not really a lasting impression kind of book.

It did remind me of Joshua Khan's amazing series, which is both a positive and a negative. The positive is that's a pretty good association. The negative is that The Grave Robber's Apprentice falls flat in comparison.

But, all that aside, I did enjoy it. This is a fast-paced, short-chaptered middle grade story with stock but endearing characters and a story I was interested in following. Kids will probably love it. Overall, recommended.

Horton Halfpott by Tom Angleberger
4.5 out of 5 stars
This one was also short, short-chaptered (sometimes even a page!), super fast read, but unlike The Grave Robber's Apprentice, this one sparkled with creativity. The writing style was charming and funny, the characters, while stock, still leapt off the page. This is the kind of book that makes me want to use words like delightful. Very much recommended.

 The Perilous Princess Plot by Sarah Courtauld
2 out of 5 stars

Meh. I was fresh off the high of Horton Halfpott and hoping for more fast, fun middle grade levity but this one kind of put a damper on my streak. It wasn't bad, exactly, but it wasn't great either. Even though The Grave Robber's Apprentice wasn't blowing me away with originality, it still had a plot that was unique enough to be its own.  

The Perilous Princess Plot was just trite. Stereotypical princess (stupid, silly, pretty, focused on romance) gets herself into trouble and stereotypical anti-princess princess (smart, brave, doesn't need a man, amazing!) gets her out of trouble. It was all just dripping with cardboard girl power. And, because that really was the focus of the story, everything else in the book felt like it was only there to prop up the tired old feminist spiel. Which, really, does weaken the message.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Book Review: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Pages: 343
Published: 1943
Received: Library, Own
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

*sigh* I've had this book on my TBR for so long, and during that time I've had my expectations bar set all over the place. I don't think I really had a clear idea what type of book this even was for the longest while. At first I was expecting more modern (a quick glance at the publication date set me straight, eventually), then I thought more Austen-Keeping-the-Castle feel (it's not, though KtC definitely pays homage to ICtC), at some point I think I had a vibe of American Gatsby-ish something (closer, though still wrong country), until finally settling on reality, which is a coming of age story set in 1930s England.

Whew. Ok. So even after starting the book it took me until about halfway through to finally realize what I was getting and wasn't going to get. And, that's where my dissatisfaction comes in. It's a very nice story. I like the characters a lot. I love the setting (crumbly old castle!). But, I wanted something to happen and it didn't and while I get it, I'm still not happy about it. I know, very vague.

I also feel so old saying this, but the teenage melodramatics and hyper-hormonal puppy love was not really my thing. I liked Cassandra a lot in the first half of the book when she was all sweet, and then she went full on teenager and it was kind of painful to read about. It sucks being a teenager and while Dodie Smith totally captured that feeling perfectly, it's not really a comfortable feeling or one I'm really aching to revisit.

There were also some not quite kosher romantic things going on surrounding the adults and teenagers in the story and none of that sat very well with me.

Well, that makes it sound like I didn't enjoy this book very much at all, which isn't the case. It's beautifully, vividly written and I was completely transported into the story. The sister's romance was much more up my alley and I wish we had more of an insider's look into that part of the story. The scene with the bear was very funny and I'll likely not forget many of the scenes (I started listing them and then realized I was listing more than half the book). I also have to mention that castle again because I adore it. While everything didn't go exactly as I wanted it to go, I appreciate this book very much and I'm happy to have finally read it.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Book Review: The Corfu Trilogy and Three Singles to Adventure by Gerry Durrell

#1: My Family and Other Animals
#2: Birds, Beasts, and Relatives
#3: In the Garden of the Gods

5 out of 5 stars, Special Shelf

 I first heard of Gerry Durrell's books through Helen's reviews of Three Singles to Adventure and Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons. My tastes tend to run similar to Helen's and the combination of her positive reviews, selected quotes from the books, and how it all reminded me of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series led me to impulsively grab the first Gerry Durrell books I could get my hands on, which was the Corfu trilogy.

I'm afraid I may have partially ruined myself for all future Gerry Durrell books (of which there are many) by reading the Corfu trilogy first. They're just so good that I don't know that the other books will be able to match that high bar. But, I loved them so much that I'll also read through all his other books in the hopes that I can recapture this magic again.

The trilogy is made up of loose short stories recounting the funny adventures and experiences Gerry and his family have during their stay in Corfu. The stories are hilarious (often, literally, laugh out loud funny) and the kind of stories where I'm still turning to my husband and saying "Remember the one with the turtle" and then we both burst into laughter.

But it's not just the humor that makes these books so special. That alone would do it, but it's also the wonder of childhood, the relaxed atmosphere of Corfu, and the intriguing and surprisingly informative aspects of the stories. All of these things come together to create something I can only describe as magical.

Three Singles to Adventure
3.5 out of 5 stars

Fresh off the euphoria of the Corfu trilogy I quickly put in a NetGalley request for the book that sparked my interest from Helen's review: Three Singles to Adventure. The name alone is captivating and full of promise. To say my expectations bar was set high is an understatement.

Alas, was it my high expectations or are the Gerry Durrell books from his adulthood just missing the spark of childhood wonder? I found myself yearning for that undefined something that was missing in this book and so abundant in the Corfu trilogy.

The stories were funny, but few were hilarious. I found myself missing Gerry's family, such vibrant characters in the Corfu trilogy and sadly absent in this adventure. The cast of characters we meet here were fine, but somewhat undefined, especially in contrast to the vivid Larry, Leslie, Margo, and Mother.

Still fun, still nice, still an enjoyable and quick read. But, just not the Corfu trilogy.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Mini Review: Dream Magic by Joshua Khan

Review of Book 1: Shadow Magic

This is maybe a weird way to think about a book, but I feel such relief with this series. The books are just consistently good and I feel like I can trust Joshua Khan to give me exactly the story I want.

The characters are well-developed and I like them. I like spending time with them, I like what they say, I like what they do, I like their hopes, dreams, worries, and fears.

The world is interesting, multi-layered, and feels real. I guess maybe that's a good way of describing these books: they feel real. Genuine. Nothing feels half-thought-out or inconsistent or false. Joshua Khan paints such a vivid picture of everything that I feel like I'm completely immersed in this world.

The pacing is pretty swift, but it doesn't feel like it's intentionally trying to keep the pace up to retain interest.

I don't have much to say about the plot without giving spoilers. I will say that this is an underappreciated series that I wish more people were reading. I love it.  

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Series Partial Review: Saranormal 1-5 by Phoebe Rivers


I started reading this middle grade series toward the end of December and carried through February before starting to run out of steam in March. They're quick, they're enjoyable, and they're deeper than I was expecting. They remind me the Mediator series by Meg Cabot, but with a little more people-focus and a little less action. I do plan on reading the rest of this 11 book series, just maybe with a bit of a pause.

Sara is a shy, insecure girl, and that's the main reason I need a small break from her. She has a tendency to respond to every new development with a similar mix of fear and sadness, even when the event is positive (yay she has a boyfriend! Let's focus on her fear of losing him! yay she develops a new power! Let's focus on how it makes her anxious).

She's sweet and overall I like her, but her insecurity, nervousness, and tendency toward the sad is wearing after a while, especially if I'm feeling stressed myself.

This does also make Sara a very real character though. She feels far more developed than I would have expected in a middle grade series where the books clock in only around 150 pages each (and that's with BIG font). I feel like I know her, and while the other characters don't get quite as much depth since we're not in their head, they aren't cardboard cutouts either and they're surprisingly nuanced. My favorite secondary character is eccentric Lady Azura, the old fortune teller Sara and her father move in with. She is hilarious, sweet, and definitely someone who can have fun. I always enjoy her scenes.

The mysteries are nice, though none have really blown my mind either. That's ok though. They're more focused on character exploration than thrills as Sara slowly uncovers their histories and deaths, and helps them come to terms with whatever it is that is keeping them from moving on. This is another opportunity for Phoebe Rivers' ability to explore characters to shine, but it's also usually pretty sad considering they're dead and clinging onto an unresolved issue.

Phoebe Rivers does just as good a job with world building as she does with character development. Sara's old, haunted Victorian home is a perfect "old house" experience, and her school and ice cream parlor hang-out spot feel comfortably familiar. Even the weather comes alive off the page, especially when a swirling blizzard blows through.

Bottom line

I've had this series on my TBR for a while and it's definitely lived up to my own internal hype. I like Sara, and her world of friends, ice cream shops, haunted Victorian houses, and family is palpably developed. I wish the books were a little more upbeat, but overall I'm very happy and impressed with this series.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Book Review: The Virgin Widow by Anne O'Brien

Pages: 409
Publisher: NAL
Released: November 2, 2010
Received: Own
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

I've been trying to read through more of the books I own, and I've owned The Virgin Widow for about four years. For such a large book (hey, for me 400 pages is large!), it was a pretty quick read.

It was also a pretty surface-level read. Which, isn't a bad thing, but it is a little disappointing. Anne O'Brien mostly focuses on events and throws in a few one-note emotions for flavor. Basically, Anne loves Richard. Anne doesn't like admitting that to Richard (this causes misunderstandings). Anne likes her mom. Anne pretty much dislikes everyone else. Her emotions are shared in a very surface-level way without much explanation or depth, but Anne O'Brien makes sure the reader gets it through a lot of repetition. This effectively sorts the characters into the "good guys" and the "bad guys" without much nuance or character development.

The closest O'Brien gets to the type of exploration I'd prefer is with Anne's changing relationship with her father. This was also pretty thinly explored, but at least it was explored and is one of the only instances of Anne actually growing or changing as a person.

I also hated the invented incestuous relationship between Margaret of Anjou and her son. And, really, their entire characterizations. They were clearly the Baddies and Anne O'Brien seemed to relish in making up evil actions for them to engage in. I'm surprised our heroine didn't walk in on the pair cackling evilly over a cauldron. This was embarrassingly awful, but once I accepted it, it was actually kind of fun in an absurd way.

I'm not sure whether to put this in as a good thing or a bad thing, but I couldn't help but picture all the characters as they appeared in the miniseries version of Philippa Gregory's The White Queen. The events follow so closely and the characters are more or less written the same (though, TWQ miniseries had a lot more character depth and development, and that's not saying much). Despite its flaws, I enjoyed the miniseries and was able to get on board with most of the casting, so the association actually enhanced my enjoyment of The Virgin Widow.

I also appreciated how lockstep the characterizations were between this book and the miniseries. I don't think we can actually know for certain how all of these people acted, thought, and felt, but consensus among authors gives the illusion of truth (or plagiarism. Or lack of originality. I'd rather just pretend it's evidence of truth).

As for events, the broad strokes are all pretty much true. There are some tweaks in timing, and don't look too closely at the details, but if you unfocus your eyes and look at the blurry structure of events, it's pretty spot on. You have all the major players and events represented, just with a little mixing, tweaking, and smushing going on. Yes, I realize how absurd that sounds.

Despite its numerous flaws, I couldn't help but enjoy The Virgin Widow. Anne is likable enough and I didn't mind the overly fluffy romance between her and Richard. The story ends before Edward IV dies, so everything is happiness and love for Anne and Richard when we leave them. It was nice.

Bottom line

If the story felt a little false, it was a nice, fluffy kind of false. Look at this more as a romantic novel with a dash of history rather than the reverse. I think I would have been bothered more by The Virgin Widow if I didn't already know enough about the Wars of the Roses to be able to spot the inaccuracies. As it was, I wasn't fooled into "learning" something about history that's wrong (the biggest reason I hate inaccurate historical fiction), and I could just enjoy the romantic spin on what is, to me, an undeniably exciting slice of history.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Book Review: The Queen's Daughter by Susan Coventry

Pages: 373
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co.
Released: June 8, 2010
Received: Own
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I don't know why I should feel such a deep sense of satisfaction for finally reading a book that has been sitting on my shelves unread for over 3 years and my TBR for almost 7 years, but I do. I don't even know if it helps or matters that I enjoyed the book, but I did enjoy it.

It's also funny how reading another book can enhance the current reading experience. That also happened here. My previous experience with Thomas B. Costain's hilarious, insightful, and well-plotted non-fiction account of Henry II and Richard the Lionheart's adventures helped deepen my enjoyment of The Queen's Daughter by providing a richer backstory and context with which to place Joan's experiences here.

The Queen's Daughter is divided up into three sections and follows Joan's life from early childhood, through her time with her first husband in Italy, on crusade with Richard, and then back home again. There's a lot of stuff happening, and most of it is either true or makes sense given what we know about history. There's one bit that has no historical basis though and felt unnecessarily sensational. But, it's not a deal-breaker for me.

I'm usually a little eye-rolly about the whole The Somebody's Somebody trend in naming historical fiction books. A quick glance at my shelves show a whole lot of queen's something or king's somebody and it all seems very uninspired. In this case though, I think it actually works well. Joan is a whole lot less known than her dynamic mother (Eleanor of Aquitaine) and much of her life was impacted by her mother's influence, both directly in the sense of "marry this person, partake in this political scheme, suffer the fallout of Eleanor's political scheme" and internally in the sense that you don't have a mom like Eleanor without it affecting your psychological development.

The latter part especially added an extra layer to the book that I appreciated, and also wish had been developed even further. I wonder if this lack of development is because of the YA format, which, side note, this book also made me again question the line between YA and adult when it comes to historical fiction (all the "adult" situations and the way age doesn't line up with modern YA/adult milestones). The romantic ending also feels like it fits better in adult fiction and reminded me a lot of Anne O'Brien's style. This could have easily been classified as an adult book, and I think it might have been a better fit there and would have reached more readers.

Back to Joan, it felt like Susan Coventry had more to say and explore with Joan's thoughts and emotions, but held back, again, possibly because of the YA format. I would have loved a hundred or so more pages to really dig deeper into Joan's thoughts and relationships with the dynamic people in her life (her father Henry II, Richard, and the other men in her life). As it is, it felt toe-dippy, and just as things are getting good, we pull back and jump to the next event. Still, I appreciate what I did get.

Joan is, basically, mentally scarred by her mother's messed up way of dealing with people and much of this book follows Joan as she comes to terms with this and develops into her own person. Eleanor taught Joan not to trust people, not to fall in love, and to use people to get what you want. While this is all totally conjecture (and the author states that in her historical notes), I can buy it given what we do know about Eleanor, the people in Joan's life, and the historical mark (or lack of mark) Joan made herself.

Bottom line

I didn't realize I had so much to say about The Queen's Daughter. Clearly, it made an impact on me. Joan was an interesting, sympathetic person to follow and her perspective provided further depth to the more forceful players of the time (Henry II, Eleanor, Richard). I wish Susan Coventry would write more, as I'd definitely read another historical offering from her. Recommended for fans of Anne O'Brien.

Looking for another book like this? 
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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Series Review: October Daye by Seanan McGuire

I mini-reviewed the first four books in the series during my 2016 recap, so I thought I'd continue in that vein. I've tried to avoid spoilers in every mini-review, so you can read through all of them to get an impression of my feelings on the series without spoiling events. 

One Salt Sea (# 5) by Seanan McGuire

I picked this one up in December, got about halfway through, but then put it on hold during most of winter break. I don't know, I was still enjoying the series, but something about the plot of this one didn't really do it for me. More missing kids? It felt a little ho-hum. What should have felt thrilling (impending war!) just...didn't. I picked it up again after winter break and polished the second half off in about two days ending on a solid Good note. The ending could be considered game changing, but it just didn't impact me like I think it was supposed to.

Ashes of Honor (# 6) by Seanan McGuire

Ok, this one was more episodic. The stakes aren't so high and, yeah, there's another missing teen Toby needs to track down. But, for some reason, this one worked for me. Everything felt engaging and fun, and even if it didn't seem new, it felt familiar like old friends. I also liked getting to see different realms of Faerie. I could definitely see myself picking this one up again for a reread when I want to revisit October's world.

Chimes at Midnight (# 7) by Seanan McGuire

Yes! Chimes combined the fun of Ashes but also brought in some bigger events. I'm definitely, solidly, into this series again. The librarian in me loved the time we got to spend in the traveling library and the romantic in me was so happy that things are finally going how I want them to go. October's powers are growing, and while she skirts the line of "too powerful," I'm still on board and having fun learning what she can now do. There's also a scene at the end of this one that brought back some of the emotional depth I had been missing lately.

The Winter Long (# 8) by Seanan McGuire

FINALLY more secrets revealed! And, oh boy, there were a lot of secrets revealed. So much backstory was revealed and every answer was satisfying in its own way. We got to see shady characters from the past and learn a whole lot more about their motives, history, and ties to October. Of course, this also brought up just as many questions, and I'm still very interested in learning the answers to those questions now.

A Red-Rose Chain (# 9) by Seanan McGuire

Ugh, but I won't be finding them here. This book was awful. October became a super-human parody of herself, Tybalt became a love-sick sop randomly spouting Shakespearian tripe, all of the once-charming side characters became hollow props, and the author went off on a poorly inserted political rant. What a hot mess.

Once Broken Faith (# 10) by Seanan McGuire

I was ready to give up on the entire series after the abomination that is A Red-Rose Chain, but I figured with just one book left (published, there are still several more planned) that I might as well give it a shot. I'm glad I did. While Once Broken Faith isn't as good as the other books in the series, it's far from awful.

October is still too super-human and shallow, Tybalt is still too hollow (which, sidebar, it's such a shame to see his once-vibrant character turned into a cardboard cutout who only lives as a romantic caricature), and I didn't really get any answers to the overarching mysteries.

But, it also felt like everything was shifted a little closer to the good side of things. So it was comforting and my positive memories of the other books could carry the framework of this one well enough. I'm glad I read it, and now I will pick up the next book when it's released.

A note on the short stories:

There are a ton of short stories that can be read as companion pieces between the various novels. For the most part, I didn't like them. The ones I (tried to) read felt like fan-fiction in both writing and how much they diverged from cannon. Many are written from the POV of other characters and their voices just felt strange.

I don't think anything is missed by not reading these stories, and I wish I hadn't looked into them myself. The only one I did enjoy is Dreams and Slumbers, which comes right after Once Broken Faith. This one is also included in the published copy of that book, so I wonder if my enjoyment of it has something to do with the fact that it went through the publisher process (as opposed to all the other ones I read that were freebies).

Bottom line

Though the series is starting to wear a little thin, I'm still really glad I picked it up. I've had so much fun in October's world and am glad to have spent time with the characters I've met along this journey. I'm looking forward to reading more and I'm sad that I have to wait to continue on with October and this world. Despite the few rocky points, I'd still recommend this series. I just hope Seanan McGuire can recapture the magic in the final books. Now I need to find another paranormal series to fill the void.


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Book Review: Mariana by Susana Kearsley

Pages: 382
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Released: 1994
Received: Library, now own
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I picked this one up on a total impulse. Melissa from Melissa's Eclectic Bookshelf was reading this and I saw one of her updates on Goodreads. Something about the book grabbed my attention, and I downloaded it right then and there from the library. Thank you, Overdrive!

I started reading and I was immediately sucked into the story. Something about Susanna Kearsley's writing felt familiar, comfortable, and almost Daphne du Maurier-ish.

Much like a du Maurier book, Mariana moseys through the plot. Nothing is rushed, but at the same time nothing feels slow or dragging. It's all just a relaxing meander through old ruins, large historical houses, laid back visits to the local pub, and languid trips back through time. I enjoyed all of the characters, and while none really stood out, they all felt like familiar old friends. 

This is one of those heroine gets mentally sucked into the past type books where we slowly learn about a past history. I tend to like those kinds of stories, and Mariana can now be counted among my favorites. There's a little explanation given as to how all the time-slipping works and it's good enough for me to accept.

There's a twist at the end that I wish had been foreshadowed better. As it was, I accept it, and actually like it, but it was a little too about-face for my taste. Or maybe I'm just a very blind reader!

This was a great book to escape into and let the real world drift away. It's my first by Susanna Kearsley, but I'm now looking forward to making my way through her other works. The only challenge will be deciding where to begin!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Book Review: The Conquering Family by Thomas B. Costain

Pages: 291
Released: 1949
Received: Library, now own
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I really can't praise this book highly enough. I've been toe-dipping into non-fiction lately, but that doesn't mean I have any more tolerance for slow, dry books. I'm still an impatient reader and I still hate long digressions into primary source excerpts. So the fact that I've been enjoying some non-fiction doesn't mean I've really changed as a reader. It just means I've found some non-fiction that reads like fiction.

This book follows English history from the days of the Norman Conquest and the beginnings of the Plantagenet family, through Stephen and Matilda's civil war, Henry II's rise and rule, Richard's crusading escapades, and closing with John's bitter demise.

To say there's a lot of information packed in here is an understatement. The book is actually pretty short all things considered (just under 300 pages), and Costain manages to balance giving just the right amount of detail, avoiding the dreaded "too much glossing over" that makes a book worthless to read and the equally tiresome "too much detail" that may be good in theory but can make for an overly long and intimidating read.

Even better, Costain brings the historical figures to life. This, above anything else, is why I think I've remembered so much of what I read in his book. My only complaint is that he spent less time on the ladies of history and so they didn't come alive as much as some of the men.

Costain's opinions of these people are also very, very clear, and that does color the way he describes them and the impression I get of them. Normally I would count this as a negative, but for some reason it actually enhanced my enjoyment. Maybe because I tend to agree with his opinions? Whatever it is, his enthusiastic scorn for the "bad" characters, his unbridled admiration for the "good" characters, and his blunt appraisal of those in between characters made this an almost gleeful delight to read. You can tell he loves what he's writing about.

This is part one of four books making up "A History of the Plantagenets" but since it's history you really can pick them up in any order and stop at the end of any book. I haven't picked up the second book yet, mostly because the entire book covers just one monarch and he's not, at least as far as I know, as interesting to me. So, basically, I'm afraid that the book will be boring. I may skip it and instead jump in with The Three Edwards. I imagine Costain's snark will be laid on thick with that group of people.

Bottom line

Highly, highly recommended for anyone interested in the rise of the Plantagenets and all the crazy fighting they embroiled themselves in. It's a little hard to find these days, but it's well worth the effort to track down a copy.

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