Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Book Review: The Art of Disney's Dragons by Tom Bancroft

Pages: 128
Released: June 28, 2016
Publisher: Disney Editions
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Disney fan? Check. Dragon fan? Check? Art fan? Check.

I'm primed to love this book. And I did. Ish. Or, rather, I liked it a lot, but because I can see so easily how a few tweaks could have made me love it, I can't help but feel like I've just eaten a really good, really tiny appetizer and I'm so ready to dive into a full entree, but then I've been told it's time to leave the restaurant. And I'm starving.

Ok, so the good? 

The pictures. Almost every page in the book is a picture, and the pages that have words or copyright information and stuff also have pictures. The pages are also a thick, high gloss paper that really lets the drawings pop. This book is a visual delight.

The variety of pictures. Not only do we get your obvious dragon choices (Maleficent, Mushu, Elliot, Madam Mim, etc.), but there are also pictures of dragons that appear throughout the Disney parks and really emphasize how much care and attention to detail Disney takes, even on its merry-go-round decorations. Also included are character concepts that have not yet been released or were planned for rides, park entertainments, or movies that were later abandoned. This was exciting but also kind of sad to see how much effort went into creating something that never came to fruition.

The introductions. There aren't many words in this book, but those that are there perfectly capture the magic that is Disney. They frame the book and provide insight into how to interpret the images in order to glean a deeper appreciation and understanding of the way Disney animators use all these archival images to create new characters and stories. Though I did say seeing all the old, unused artwork was sad, the introduction showed how these images never truly die, even if they aren't used as originally intended. Often in a book like this I might skip the intro, but in this case I highly recommend reading it and reading it before flipping through the pictures.

The areas for improvement? 

I won't say "the bad" because they're not bad things. These are more observations that if they had been included they would have enhanced the book greatly.

More words. I know, I know, this isn't that kind of book. But, the pictures, while nice to look at, didn't tell the whole story. I would have really liked more background information describing the thought process behind the artistic choices. Why a shorter neck? Why three fingers instead of four or five? Knowing the rationale behind these choices would have enhanced the experience for me, deepened my analysis of the images both individually and as a whole, and would have given me the chance to consider whether or not I agreed with the choices made.

Label the images in the book. Ok, I'm big on organization, so maybe this is just my hangup, but I would have appreciated knowing who the dragons were and what these images were intended to be for while I was looking at the pictures. The way the book is set up now, you flip through all the pictures, but you don't know what is what (unless you recognize the dragon, of course). Then, after you've seen everything, you turn to an index that matches up information about the picture with the page number the picture appeared on. This creates an awkward flip back and forth thing that I guess ultimately worked, but was kind of annoying.

Organize the images. I know, I know, here I go again with the organization. And, again, this may just be me, but I would have appreciated if the images had been in some kind of order that provided a framework in which to interpret the pictures. If, for example, the pictures had been put in chronological order, we could have seen the evolution of the Disney dragon and really start to pick up on how the features changed (and didn't change) throughout the years. See the turning points when a longer neck was introduced, or when there was a body style shift, or color evolution, etc. Or, group the pictures according to dragon "type" so we could start to see how certain features are used to indicate a mean and intelligent dragon versus a mean but lower-intelligence dragon versus a heroic dragon versus a comical and kind dragon, and so on.

Show the evolution of the characters. We got this a little. There were pictures of various dragons at different stages of development, but I would have really appreciated three things: 1) put these pictures in order so we can see the evolution of the design, and 2) explain the rationale behind the changes, and 3) include the "final" result so we can see what was ultimately created and how the earlier incarnations contributed to the finished product.

Bottom line

Had these changes been made this would have easily been a 5 start book with impact. As it is, it was a very nice book that provided a few takeaways but will likely be forgotten. Still recommended for the Disney collector or artists who will pour over the pages and pull out little details on their own.

But, for the more casual reader, they'll probably flip through once or twice, enjoy what they see, and then move on. Had the changes above been included, that would have deepened my experience and made this a very easy book to recommend. As it is, I still recommend it, but the audience is much smaller. In fact, instead of library shelves, I highly recommend this one as a resource in art classes.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Book Review: Winter Rose by Patricia McKillip

Pages: 262
Received: Own
Rating: 3/3.5 out of 5 stars

Dense and dreamy, this book contains a very simplistic and nice fairy tale-like story dressed up with a lot of fancy language and imagery. It is on one hand evocative and mood-setting, while on the other hand bloated and annoying.

I'm not a reader who likes the "dreamscape" feeling, so I really didn't like McKillip's foggy, dreamy wanderings into the vague fairy world. I don't feel like I have a firm explanation on why some things happened the way they did, or even on what exactly happened in a few cases. I feel like there was a lot of "Because, fairies" and not much else of substance provided.

I don't like that, and that intangibility will make this a story that does not stick with me very long, like a dream that already starts disappearing and not making sense as soon as you wake up.

I also don't tend to love the cruel whimsy of fairies, so there's that working against it too. Also, I hated the romantic betrayal. I know, I know, it was a spell or...something? But I don't like cheating, even when it's fairy-induced.

I did appreciate the story and images of winter. The feeling of snowfall, simultaneously beautiful and oppressive has lingered with me.

Bottom line

I felt like I, too, was under a spell when I was reading this. I was sucked in and sped through in a single sitting. The story had a hold on me and I did enjoy it, but I'm also glad it was short. I appreciate Patricia McKillip and I'll give a few more of her books a try.

Authors like Juliet Marillier and Sharon Shinn have a similar style where they use words and imagery to carefully craft a stunning story, but I think those two authors provide more meat to their stories and characters, whereas this book felt like the heavy words and imagery were used to mask and prop up a thin story with stock characters.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Book Review: The Lady in the Tower by Jean Plaidy

Pages: 393
Received: Own

Ok, so my own bias affected my ability to love this book. See, I don't like Anne Boleyn, or, rather, I love her as a villain. I liked her in the Showtime version. Sultry, confident, clever, cruel, ruthless, cunning, social climbing, manipulative, and yet still a victim of her horrible family.

I did not like Jean Plaidy's interpretation as a sweet, good, reluctant lover of the king, left pining for a quiet life with another man. She was so judgmental of her sister Mary for sleeping around both the French and English courts. Which, yeah, I get that, but I don't want Anne to be the judgy moral prude sister. The only thing Plaidy retained was Anne's quick temper, and even that seemed muted.

I did like that we got to spend some time with a young Anne during her time in the French court. Her perspective of the French king and Mary Tutor (sister of Henry) was fun to read.

Plaidy is also always good for her historical recounting, often coming across more like narrative non-fiction than fiction with the main character taking a significant part of the narrative to recount the historical goings on of the time. I can see how readers could get really bored with this style of telling not showing, but I actually like it.

What I don't like about her writing style are the constant repetitions. If all these repeated points and phrases were removed, you probably could eliminate almost 100 pages!

All in all, I liked some things and Jean Plaidy is still a solidly ok historical author that I will continue to read. But, my gosh, her portrayal of Anne was just not something I could get behind.

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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Book Review: Two Elizabeth I Novels

Legacy by Susan Kay
4.5 out of 5 stars

I'm not a big Elizabeth I fan. Respect her, sure. Feel for her over her many crappy situations? Definitely. But like her? No, sorry, I don't think she was a very nice (or sane!) person.

So, Legacy really worked for me, because Susan Kay makes a really compelling case for why we should all feel bad for poor Elizabeth and her difficult situations (true) while still portraying Elizabeth as off-her-rocker crazy and cruel. And, also, admirable, shrewd, and cunning. All of the facets of Elizabeth are captured here.

There's also a ton of historical detail packed into this very large book (over 600 pages! My gosh was that hard, but it was consistently engaging!). I still felt like some things were glossed over more than I would have liked (particularly her later years and politics, this book is more front heavy), but I feel like that's a little quibble in the face of everything I did get.

I started reading Alison Weir's Elizabeth I biography right after finishing Legacy and I ended up DNF-ing it because it didn't offer anything that Legacy hadn't already given me. It also didn't contradict anything. So, high praise.

I've read several books on Elizabeth now and I'll probably pick up a few more at some point, but for now I'm comfortable with keeping Legacy as my go-to Elizabeth book. I read a library copy, but I'd like to have a copy of my own.

The Queen's Handmaiden by Jennifer Ashley
4.5 out of 5 stars

I read this book before I read Legacy and up until that point I would have considered this the book that really cemented an image of Elizabeth in my head (and she's not a nice lady in this book either, though she is sympathetic and smart). That's still true, but Legacy took the foundation built in The Queen's Handmaiden and expanded on it. Though, this book is also very front heavy and focuses a lot more on Elizabeth's pre-queen (living with the Seymours) and early queen years.

The Queen's Handmaiden focuses on Eloise a fictional seamstress who is responsible for concocting Elizabeth's famed dresses and, through these clothes, public image. It's like Queen of Fashion (awesome heavy historical non-fic about how Marie Antoinette's fashion affected history) meets The Winter Palace (so-so lite historical fiction about Catherine the Great's early years as observed by a fictional maid) and falls somewhere between the two in terms of historical details and likability.

Deceptively filled with historical details, The Queen's Handmaiden was a fun way to learn about history and Elizabeth. I'm definitely the type of reader who enjoys learning about history through fashion and how the fashion choices of monarchs influenced their public image. Jennifer Ashley did a great job showing this, and making Eloise the main character helped create a tense atmosphere as I waited with baited breath to see if her latest concoction would aid in Elizabeth's political gambits.

While I usually don't love the "fictional third party observer" approach, Eloise was an endearing character in her own right and I liked following her story just as much as the hard historical parts. Some of it bordered on a little too conveniently sweet, but I appreciated that both because I like sweet stories and because it helped balance out Elizabeth's loveless life.

I read this book through the library, but I'd like to own a copy someday.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

DNF Explanation: The Vanishing Island by Barry Wolverton

Read page 50 of 352  
Received: ARC from publisher

The Vanishing Island is the kind of book that is EXACTLY my kind of book. Middle grade adventuring, high seas, treasure hunts, maps, and mischief.

Plus, a cool cover, which never hurts.

So why the DNF? I'm kinda puzzled myself. There was just a something that didn't work for me. Or, a bunch of little somethings that all added up to a disappointing no thanks.

I didn't connect with the main character. The idea of the vomitorium was off-putting, and not just for the puke, but just the...outlandishness of it all? I can be pretty picky when it comes to liking outlandish. And then there was the "too much time before adventuring started," (I quit at page 50 and we had only just gotten to the vomitorium) and you know how impatient I can be.

It got to the point where this felt like a chore to read, which is my cue to DNF. I definitely think it is a case of, "It's not you book, it's me," though, so check it out if it appeals to you. With a boy main character, The Vanishing Island also seems like it would appeal to both boy and girl readers.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Book Review: With All My Heart by Margaret Campbell Barnes

Pages: 259
Published: March 29, 2016 (originally published 1951)
Publisher: Endeavour Press
Received: ARC from publisher, via NetGalley
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Ok, full disclosure, Charles II is not my favorite monarch, and the Restoration time period is not my favorite era to read about.

With all the mistresses, merrymaking, and theater, it all feels so frivolous and foolish. I've always wanted to shake Charles and remind him he's a king and he's responsible for all these people. I feel like such a stuffy rule follower scowling at people for laughing, but the sheer irresponsibility that seems to permeate Charles's reign always bugged me.

Though, to be honest, my first impressions have led me to read read very little about Charles and so my judgypants reactions were not rooted in much actual truth. And, this position seems especially unfair of me considering my strong support of similarly misrepresented Marie Antoinette.

Thankfully, Margaret Campbell Barnes set me straight. I enjoyed her book on Elizabeth of York and decided to give Charles II a chance based on my faith in Margaret Campbell Barnes alone. Now, like her book on Elizabeth, MCB definitely has a tendency to paint her heroes and heroines in the best possible light. I get that, this book is slanted, but it IS told from the perspective of Charles and Catherine, and the facts are still there.

I appreciated how well MCB laid events out for me and forced me to understand why Charles behaved the way he did. She did an excellent job humanizing him and showing the psychological impact the civil war years had on him and how that influenced his behavior during his reign. I don't give him a free pass now for cheating on his wife or spending so much money on his many mistresses, but I get it now.

It was also interesting to compare his relationship with his wife to Henry VIII's relationships with his wives, and the effectiveness of various factions' attempts to use the kings' marriages to further farther reaching religious and political agendas.

I learned a lot about the people and politics of the time and was able to connect different periods in history to form a greater understanding overall. So, why only 3.5 stars?

Well, despite all this learning that was going on, it happened slowly and without a whole lot of excitement. There was a lot of telling and after-the-fact descriptions. I'm fine with this more non-fiction telling approach, but thrilling it is not. Basically, it's very Jean Plaidy-ish.  

Catherine is also definitely a wallflower character and her characterization here made her seem shallow. I learned a lot about Charles and came to appreciate him way more than before, but Catherine's existence seemed to pretty much revolve around Charles with not much actual substance beyond him.

Bottom line

Another solid MCB book that gave me new insight into historical figures I had previously misjudged. I like these kinds of books because even if they're not fantastic, they are solid and dependable.

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Click on the cover to go to my review

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

DNF Explanation: Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis

Pages: 300
Published: April 12, 2016
Publisher: Pyr
Received: Copy from publisher
Rating: DNF page 79 (26%)

Call this one a case of reader/book incompatibility, because I could not get into Masks and Shadows at all. The setting had a vague "Eastern European" feel to it where I can't help picturing everyone walking around with fake Dracula accents. The characters ranged from irritating to bland, but all cardboardy, and I couldn't connect with any of them.

The dastardly mystery felt hokey and forced, which was super disappointing because with features like murder, secret mystical groups of shady intent, hidden alliances, and magic, I figured I was going to love this. But, no, it all felt very paint-by-numbers with no heart.

And, speaking of heart, the romance was...icky. I'm sorry, I just couldn't wrap my head around a romance between dull, main-ish character Charlotte and jerky Carlo Morelli, a castrato.

Bottom line

Maybe if one of these things worked for me, if I clicked with Charlotte or if the mystery was more engaging or if the setting sucked me in or if Carlo was a likable person or if the romance was swoony, ONE thing and maybe I could have made it work.

As it was, I had to force myself to read this because I SO wanted to love it (I adore Stephanie Burgis's Kat books), but, no, Masks and Shadows is not the book for me.

Looking for another book like this? 
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Click on the cover to go to my review

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