Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Tiny Reviews: Casting Spells and Blackmoore

One for the "Nice but forgettable" group and the other firmly on my Special Shelf.

Casting Spells by Barbara Bretton

Honestly, I read this book because I'm STILL going through Tradd Street withdrawals and I wanted something to fill that void. So, paranormal element? Check. Light romance? Check. Cozy town? Check. Mystery? Check. I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

Unfortunately, Casting Spells was no Tradd Street.

Nothing about it was BAD, but it really didn't stand out in any way. Thin characters, a barely there mystery, and while there were literal romantic sparks in the book, I felt none of them myself.

The worst really was the poor character development. I could deal with the lackluster mystery if there were good characters, but none of these people had any depth or made me care about them. They were all nice enough, but that's about it.

On the positive side, I liked the setting of the small, wintery Vermont town and the knit shop. I would love to have one of those never-empty yarn baskets.

Bottom line: Good enough to read to the end, but I don't think I'll be picking up the sequel.

Library book
Rating: 3 out of 5

Blackmoore by Julianne Donaldson

I had high hopes for this book, and boy did it meet every one of them! I'm reduced to letting out swoony sighs, clutching my chest, and gasping about how achingly romantic every bit of Blackmoore turned out to be.

Kate is a heroine I can get behind. Her desire to break free of the constraints placed upon her, her noble sacrifice, her floundering to find her place, her hearbreakingly beautiful love, her independent spirit, her fortitude in the face of her shameful family...I adore every bit of her and cheered her on desperately hoping she would find happiness.

The plot is not fast and does not have a central mystery to propel events forward. This is more like a Jane Austeny type of plot where all the focus is on character interactions. And the building slow burn romance, of course.

That said, I never felt bored or impatient. I sped through the (short!) chapters and often pushed my bedtime later and later so I could squeeze in just one more chapter. I was utterly engrossed in the characters, the setting (SO palpable!), and the progress of their story.

This is definitely the type of book I'll return to again and again, both in whole and flipping to my favorite parts (the tower scenes! *sigh*). Highly, highly recommended to fans of Jane Austen (particularly Northanger Abbey and Persuasion), Keeping the Castle, and Georgette Heyer (if my one foray is any indication of her body of work).

Rating: 5 out of 5
Special Shelf

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Mini Review: To Be Queen by Christy English

Release Date: April 5, 2011
Pages: 380
Received: Bought
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Eleanor of Aquitaine is a tough lady to like, and Christy English's version is no exception. Eleanor is haughty and bold, which can be totally fine if the lady backs up her sass with badassery. Unfortunately, this Eleanor does a lot more "talking the talk" than actually "walking the walk."

Is that Christy English or Eleanor? I'm inclined to put more of the blame onto the author with this one because unlike Katherine, Eleanor was actually right in the middle of all the juicy political turmoil and was definitely a key schemer.

And, to be fair, many of the events were mentioned. Eleanor did face kidnapping attempts and she did go on Crusade and her power struggles with her (first) husband's men were mentioned. But this was all very surface and often took a back seat whenever Eleanor felt some lusty urges (both rumored real and totally fictional).

It doesn't bode well when more detail is spent describing Eleanor's passion for her lover of the week than on her political intrigues, events, the historical setting, or deeper character development (doubly so when said romantic dalliances are also historical liberties).

Sure she talked about her power and what she wanted to ultimately happen but that's all it was. Talk. And it was pretty weak talk at that in a very "Eleanor Rules, Suger Drools" kind of simplistic end game.

She sounded like a petulant child stomping her foot and relying on "BECAUSE I'M QUEEN" to get her way when it should have been "Because I will politically DESTROY YOU, and let me explain in great detail the jaw-dropping scope of my plan."

The real Eleanor was a little more cunning and not quite as one-note as Christy English portrayed. I would have really appreciated it if she had delved a little deeper into Eleanor's craftiness and political manipulations. That also would have gone a long way toward me, if not liking Eleanor (lady was a harsh mom), then at least respecting her.

Bottom line

Oh well. Despite all that, it was a good enough run down of some of the main events of the time that I'm glad I read it. And, despite Eleanor's thin portrayal, the author actually did give a decently nuanced characterization of Eleanor's first husband Louis VII. He was deplorably weak but also way more sympathetic and likable and his struggles were presented in a compassionate, thought-provoking manner. I'd recommend the book for Louis alone.

I will read the companion novel The Queen's Pawn, but I'll also be on the lookout for a better Eleanor book. Surprisingly, (or not), the Royal Diaries Eleanor installment is still holding strong in comparison.


Explanation of rating system: Star Rating Key 

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Mini Review: The Corinthian by Georgette Heyer

Release Date: 1940  
Pages: 261
Received: Library
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars, Special Shelf

I wasn't dead set against picking up a Georgette Heyer book, but I was somewhat reluctant (I was afraid she'd be boring, which is so far from reality it's laughable) and I was totally overwhelmed by her huge body of work. Enter Ruby. Again. She steered me toward the slim The Corinthian and I loved it.

Much as I did enjoy it, the first half of the book didn't completely hook me, but that's mostly because of main character Penelope. Her contentious relationship with Sir Richard was amusing, but she felt so young to me and I had a hard time connecting with her. At least in the first half.

Sir Richard was a completely different story. It was love at first sight and the more time I spent with him and his sly apathy and subtle sarcasm, the deeper that love grew.

Plot wise, the first half was a rollicking lark complete with concealed identities, jewel thieves, Austen-y families (of the groan and cheer inducing varieties), and the 19th century version of a Proper Quest. There was never a dull moment so it was easy to zip right through.

The second half? Total farce. I laughed out loud until I gasped for air at the absolutely perfect absurdity of it all. All the difficulty I had connecting with Pen completely evaporated and we became bosom friends, shooting each other covert eye-rolls amidst all the chaotic fun.

Of course, Sir Richard only grew in my estimation and the banter between him and Pen was epic. Also, Ms. Heyer totally gets the importance of THAT KISS and delivers all the knee-wobbling heel-popping, heart-clutching impact of a properly done kiss.

Explanation of rating system: Star Rating Key 

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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Tiny Reviews: The Summoning and Magic Bites

The Summoning by Kelley Armstrong

Oh boy, I'm in the minority on this one. I hated it. Absolutely hated this book. The main character was astoundingly stupid and insufferably mean and judgmental (just because he has pimples doesn't mean he isn't a nice guy, Chloe). It didn't take long for me to start wishing her dead.

The plot didn't help things either because absolutely nothing happens (Chloe takes a good part of the book just to come to terms with the fact that she's supernatural not crazy *yawn*). The Summoning is book 1 of a series, but it could have easily been edited down to a few chapters.

And the writing. Yikes. I'm a fantasy fan, so by default I have a pretty high tolerance threshold for info dumps, but my god, Kelley Armstrong had Chloe Google "necromancer" and then read off the results. Remember when Bella Googled "vampire" and how cringe-worthy that scene was? Yeah, this was worse. At least Bella knew what the word "vampire" meant.

Own (but not for long)
Rating: 1 out of 5

Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews

I'm not really a big fan of adult paranormal romances, and while I can't quite put my finger on why, Magic Bites definitely hit my Do Not Want buttons. Maybe it's the grit? These books always make me think of dirt and darkness.

It's weird because a lot of the staples of the genre are definitely features I like: tough but wary main character, alpha male love interest, magic, quirky side characters. I can get on board with all of that (just so long as you add a dash of Southern charm, maybe?).

But there's just something about the way those things are handled in a lot of adult paranormal romance books that just doesn't work for me and didn't work for me here.

I never warmed up to Kate, her love interest was somewhat repellant, the side characters grated instead of endeared, and the magic did not interest me. Add in a plot that just never seemed to grab me and a vague off-putting vibe and I'm kind of surprised I finished this one. Call it peer pressure. I know Kate Daniels is beloved in the genre, but I don't think I'll be continuing on with her.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Tiny Reviews: Enchanted & The Silver Bowl

Enchanted by Alethea Kontis

I was really expecting to love this book more than I did. It was perfectly nice and at points I really did enjoy it, but it just wasn't amazing like I was expecting it to be.

The integration of various fairy tales was fun and probably my favorite part of the book. The whole set up of all the different characters and their allusions to fairy tales and unique spins on those stories took up a lot of the pages and was interesting to read.

But, it felt more like a whole lot of description and background and not a whole lot of substance with the here and now story. I'm a reader who loves background stories, so I was mostly ok with this, but every once in a while I'd come up for air and realize I didn't have a cohesive story or characters I could really latch onto and care about. 

There was also a kind of overdone vibe that made me feel bogged down, but I can't pinpoint what it was exactly. That's sort of strange to say because I flew through the book, but it almost felt like I was under a fairy tale spell myself, compulsively reading until I finally finished and could surface again. Usually that's a good thing, but for some reason it felt sort of suffocating.

I'm still interested in reading the sequel, but it's on the back burner for now.

Library book
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

The Silver Bowl by Diane Stanley

Another one I had high hopes for (not least of which because the sequels have beautiful covers), and another one that let me down. It's very middle grade, which can be fine but in this case made it feel boring and young.

I never fully connected with the main character, though there was nothing particularly wrong with her. The story was interesting, but nothing stood out and made me feel...much of anything.

Probably a good choice for younger readers who like historical fantasy, but it didn't leave enough of an impression on me.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Mini Review: A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson

Release Date:1981
Pages: 383
Received: Bought
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars, Special Shelf

I had an irrational aversion to Eva Ibbotson's books (I though they'd be boring and the high page counts scared me) until Ruby convinced me to read this one with her and just like that, I was a super fan.

This book is just so utterly charming. The good characters are pure and wonderful, but in a way like a fairy tale not like a Mary Sue. The evil characters are straight up evil (though there is still a degree of nuanced depth to their characterizations) it was easy and fun to loathe them. The black and white of the characters made me feel like I had transported back to the comfort of childhood.

Which is not to say that the characters were flat or simplistic. They stand out in my memory, even the tiny asides and little scenes have stuck with me and continue to delight. My conversations with Ruby were of the gasping "Oh my gosh, that scene!" "Totally! And that character! Can you believe what they said?!" "Pupkin!" variety.

As for plot, it reads so fast and easy. There's the sweet sigh-inducing central romance (which could be a Disney princess movie, and that's a very good thing) and all of the side stories swirl around this. Everything builds to create a Downton Abbey-esque atmosphere where you're following a huge cast of characters and they all manage to stand out.

The historical setting frames everything and is surprisingly detailed. It's like a sly historical fiction book—you think you're reading a light fairy tale, but you're actually getting the education of historical fiction with zero work.

Bottom line

It feels strange to describe a book as light and frothy while also substantive and weighty, but Eva Ibbotson has definitely struck that balance. I absolutely adored this book and can't believe I ever doubted Eva Ibbotson. Highly recommended, especially to fans of Downton Abbey and Anne of Green Gables


Explanation of rating system: Star Rating Key 

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Mini Review: The Wars of the Roses by Dan Jones

Release Date: October 14, 2014
 Pages: 416
Received: Finished copy and ARC from publisher via NetGalley 
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars, Special Shelf

I devoured this book. I've been on a total War of the Roses kick and Dan Jones's non-fiction offering was my latest obsession. As in, "leave me alone I'm reading" kind of obsession.

I'm usually not a fan of non-fiction books because, much as I want to love them, most of the ones I've tried to read have been long and rambly and boring and totally lacking all the excitement and character development I crave.

And, true, The Wars of the Roses didn't really have stellar character development. Most of the people are distantly described. I got a great idea of WHAT they did, I got a decent idea of WHY they did what they did, but I didn't get much information about how they FELT about it all. Doubly so when it comes to the ladies of the book.

But, after reading The Queen of Last Hopes, The Forbidden Queen, The Tudor Rose, and watching The White Queen, I had enough character development in my head to fill in the blanks here.

The real strength of The Wars of the Roses is the rip roaring plot. It starts with a bang and just does not let up. Which is pretty easy considering the subject matter is pretty much non-stop war, political intrigue, scheming, marriages, battles, switching alliances, and gory death.

A lot of non-fiction books fall into the habit of digressions, and while they do often contain interesting information, the tendency to wander like that is one of the big reasons I'm turned off from a lot of non-fiction books. It makes them feel so rambly and long (and therefore boring even when they shouldn't be).

Dan Jones does not wander. Not once. He relentlessly drives straight through events, hitting all the high points and never wavering off course. The result is a straight forward account of this time period that makes it really easy to follow all the schemes and events.

That also made it near impossible for me to put it down. I was SO engrossed in what was going on, who was going to die next and who was going to wear the crown (even though, by this point in my historical fiction reading, I already knew all the answers).

Bottom line

If you're looking for a clear accounting or primer of the Wars of the Roses, this is the book for you. Dan Jones does a fantastic job laying out events and key players in a way that is easy to follow and utterly engrossing. Having all the events laid out in one, clear narrative really helped tie together all the fictionalized stories I've read (I had a few Ah-HA moments as I connected the characters and events referenced in the different fiction books).

I will for sure check out Dan Jones's first book in this duology (The Plantagenets), though I think I'm going to try to read some historical fiction accounts of those characters first so I can again have a clearly developed picture of the personalities of the key players.     

Explanation of rating system: Star Rating Key 

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