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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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Tiny Reviews: The Restorer & The House on Tradd Street

The Restorer by Amanda Stevens

I was so reluctant to read this book, but Ruby had been trying to convince me for months and then I saw a copy in the $1 bargain bin and I realized resistance was futile.

And boy am I glad I did! Amelia is a total sleepover party, BFF charm swapping, kindred spirit kind of character. She's a graveyard restorer and while there's definitely an ick factor to the profession (especially when fresh bodies turn up where they don't belong and oh my gosh that crypt scene), but it also shares all the cool historical mysteries stuff that I love about old historical house books.

The fact that she can see ghosts is a blessing and a curse, but I don't blame her at all for being a somewhat reluctant medium. I also don't blame her for being a reluctant romantic partner for one of her choices because, eh, I'm not sold on him (he has dead wife issues), but I totally blame her for not jumping all over her book 2 love interest because he is absolutely perfect for her.

Each book ends with the central mystery solved, but there's an overarching mystery (the dead wife, who so inconveniently haunts her husband) and this isn't finished yet. I read the first book fully expecting to find it meh. Instead, as soon as I finished it I checked out the sequel (which I loved even more) and then the third book. Now I'm impatiently waiting for book four to come out and considering just re-reading book two again while I wait. Definitely recommended.

Purchased #1, library for 2 & 3
Rating: 4 out of 5 for the series overall
This is an adult book

The House on Tradd Street by Karen White

I picked this one up from the $1 bin too and was hoping it would fill the Restorer void for me. Inherited old houses (which are right up there with discovering treasure), ghosts, hidden diamonds, and a generational mystery were enough to make me say YES PLEASE. Prickly Mellie, oh so charming Jack and aw-inducing family moments cinched the deal.

Plus, I have to mention the house again because it's practically a character itself. I thoroughly enjoyed everything about it from the details of the restoration project to snooping through all the drool-worthy antique furniture and old timey stuff. The Tradd Street house is so vividly and lovingly described that it feels real.

I flew through the first book and I'm currently devouring the second. Thankfully I have two more waiting in the wings when I'm done.

Purchased #1, library for #2
Rating: 5 out of 5
This is an adult book

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Book Review: The Kiss of Deception by Mary Pearson

Release Date: July 8, 2014
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co. 
Pages: 486
Received: ARC from publisher, via NetGalley
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I really, really, really didn't like this book. I feel like there have been a million reviews for The Kiss of Deception lately and I'm so bleurgh about the book overall so I'm going for the bullet points.

Here we go, seven reasons I did not like The Kiss of Deception:

1. LOVE TRIANGLE. This one was especially insufferable. Lia gets to choose between an aimlessly moody prince with a bland personality and a wishy washy assassin who isn't assassiny enough to be cool but is way too assissiny for Lia to actually consider as a romantic partner (unless she's lost her mind, which, well, more on that later). Both choices are awful and shouldn't even be on the table for consideration, yet Lia somehow manages to fall for both of them. Can you hear me face-palming?

2. Lia is not very bright. You know how sometimes authors make their characters do unrealistically stupid things in order to advance the plot? Yeah, The Kiss of Deception is kind of the opposite of that. The plot is incredibly unrealistic in order to accommodate Lia's blinding stupidity. So, Lia's decision to run away from home (that would be, her ROYAL home), shirk her duties (which would be entering into a political alliance through marriage) and play barmaid in a tavern a few towns over? Yeah, no one will look for her, or find her!

SPOILER (except her brother, who finds her pretty fast...and lets her stay there because, um, royal responsibility is for suckers so enjoy shlepping drinks and crushing on the locals?)

3. Three quarters of the (very long) book is spent doing absolutely nothing. Also, incredibly uneven plotting. Where was the editor?

4. Total cliffhanger ending. Don't think I can be manipulated into reading book 2 by dangling all those loose ends in my face. I don't care enough about anything in this book to bother reading the next one, cliffhanger or no cliffhanger.

5. Lia destroyed a priceless historical heirloom. As a lover of history, antiques, and all such things I literally gasped when Lia casually discarded this object in a scene that I think was supposed to make her seem "free spirited" but just made her seem childish.

6. The world building was seriously lacking. Sporadic allusions to political disputes (with no substance), impending war (with no legit cause), and the existence of some kind of magic stuff all set in a generic Medieval-ish village does not constitute proper world building. Inserting vague story excerpts randomly throughout the narrative also does not constitute world building. Even if it's written in italics.

7. Look, I'm totally cool with unreliable narrators, but they have to be done right. When done right, they can completely make a book. There's so much wrong with the way it was done in The Kiss of Deception. It was obvious, but less because there were clues and more because it was handled in an awkward, clunky way. Absolutely nothing changed once it was revealed so I don't really see what the point of it was to begin with.

Bottom line

Awful. Disappointing. Almost enough to make me swear off this author if she hadn't also written the fantastic The Adoration of Jenna Fox.

Explanation of rating system: Star Rating Key 

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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

DFN Explanation: The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming

Read: 68 of253
Received: Finished copy from publisher
Released: July 8, 2014

I'm a big fan of historical fiction, but one of my biggest pet peeves is when historical fiction authors make stuff up.

I know, I know, it's fiction, but I still can't stand it.

So I set an especially high bar for a NON-fiction book like The Family Romanov being, you know, historically accurate.

So what do you get with The Family Romanov?

On the positive side, there's the short chapters, easy-breezy writing, and engaging narrative. This book is so very easy to read. I adore the structure of tiny sub-chapters with big descriptive headings (makes it SO easy to say "just one more") and I flew through 68 pages in about a half hour, which is amazing for me because I am a slooooow reader.

Then again, the writing style is also almost offensively dumbed down. I get it, this book is aimed at kids, but last I checked kids are not morons. Even books that are undoubtedly Made For Kids like the Royal Diaries series aren't written with the condescending pat on the head tone used in The Family Romanov.

There's also a surprising lack of historical detail. Sure there's talk about events (kinda, sorta, mostly glossed over), and there's of course a lot of focus on the Romanov family (a little, shallowly), but there's very little to actually make me feel like I'm living in that time period and knowing any of the people. It's all very thinly described, and, again, I know it's aimed at kids, but, again, Kristiana Gregory didn't let that stop her

And then there's the bias. Historical fiction for sure comes with bias because they're usually written as first person narratives. Non-fiction, on the other hand, is supposed to provide a more objective, unemotional recounting of Facts.

Non-fiction books like The Family Romanov, which covers both the royal family and the citizens of Russia, are supposed to be the ultimate in providing facts and perspectives from all sides of a situation.

"Supposed to" being the key words there. The majority of historical fiction books I've read, including all those very emotional first person narratives, have more of an unbiased approach than The Family Romanov.

Combine the heavy bias with the "children must be imbeciles" approach and The Family Romanov reads like one big bash fest on the Baddies and love fest for the pure, innocent Goodies. Anyone even remotely familiar with the Russian Revolution knows that's not quite the case and there's a lot more depth to the conflict than a simplistic Good Guys versus Bad Guys.

Which brings me to the next travesty: historical inaccuracy.

Yes, you read that right. 

The oversimplification and heavy bias resulted in a narrative that left out huge, gigantic, very important pieces of information, which totally skews a reader's understanding of the time (even things as basic as fleas!). Now, technically, what's written isn't false, but it's pretty much like lying by omission.

Readers hoping to use The Family Romanov as their first substantive look into the Russian Revolution (you know, the targeted audience for this book) will come away with a really warped, inaccurate, and swiss-cheesy interpretation of events.

Bottom line

Not only pass, but auto-banning this author.


Saturday, September 20, 2014

Giveaway: Nerd Camp 2.0 (US)

Gabe is happily headed back to Nerd Camp, but can he handle a cool-kid invasion?

For Gabe, the equation for ideal summer bliss equals six glorious weeks of vigorous learning immersion at the Summer Center for Gifted Enrichment; aka, Nerd Camp. Last year was amazing, and this summer will be even better.

At least, that's what Gabe thinks until a new variable is introduced: Zack, Gabe's cool stepbrother, was supposed to attend a camp nearby, but in the aftermath of a recent wildfire, Zack's camp and nerd camp will be sharing territory. As these two very different worlds collide, will both camps - and both stepbrothers - survive the summer?


Info for the giveaway:
  • What you can win: A finished copy of Nerd Camp 2.0 by Elissa Brent Weissman
  • As always, you do NOT have to be a follower
  • This giveaway is US only
  • You must be 13 years of age or older
  • One entry per person
  • I will contact the winners (2) through email and the winner will have 24 hours to reply before a new winner is chosen 
  • This giveaway closes on September 30th 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Book Review: Allies & Assassins by Justin Somper

#1 in the Enemies of the Prince series
Release Date: May 27, 2014
Publisher: Little Brown Books for Young Readers
Received: Library
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


A murdered prince, an assassin on the loose, a shady group of advisers, tensions between kingdoms? Yes, Allies and Assassins has all the making of a Small book for sure, and thankfully it lived up to almost every one of my hopes.

But I'm a character girl!
I say almost because the characters weren't quite real enough for me. I didn't dislike them, and I did actually like a lot of them, but none are particularly memorable or fleshed out beyond their surface roles. I'm intrigued by a bunch of them, but I never really felt like Justin Somper delved deep enough.

For a character reader like me, that was disappointing, but luckily everything else was so good this is only a minor complaint. Though, there is definitely a good foundation to dig in further and really develop them into fascinating characters. Since this is only part one of a series, I'm thinking this will likely happen across the story.

Trust no one

The mystery is what really hooked me and kept me reading. Information is doled out at a nice even pace, and combined with the shorter chapters I was able to fly through this big book pretty fast.

I had my suspicions early on as to who was behind the murder, and even though I was ultimately right, Justin Somper had me questioning everyone. There were several times where I was fully ready to believe the complete wrong person did it (and for the complete wrong reasons). There were also a few big surprises that I won't spoil now, but I will say my jaw very literally dropped after several totally unexpected twists.

That jacket hints at romance

Look, I'll be honest, I was hoping for a little romance between Jared and Asta. I mean, jacket blurbs can't just write "Asta and Jared take it upon themselves to hunt down his brother's assassin..." and NOT expect me to infer "and each clue they uncover propels them closer to THAT KISS." Am I right?

Apparently Justin Somper didn't get the slow burn romance memo. Asta and Jared are Just Friends.

Oh well. I'm sighing now, but by the end of this series I'm pretty positive I'm going to be clutching the books to my chest in happiness because, despite my frustration now, I think Justin Somper secretly DID get the memo and he's not going to spoil the series by doling out a premature THAT KISS.

And you know what? If that's what ends up happening, then that will be perfect.

Bottom line

This is what I was hoping The Goblin Emperor would be, so I'm happy to have found at least one book to fulfill my desire for a whodunnit within the palace walls kind of story. 

Allies and Assassins was well on its way to reading perfectly fine as, if not a standalone (because, impending war. Yay!) then at least a series start that ends nicely and allows me to wait in peace until the next book is published.

And then those last five pages totally blew any chances I might have had of being able to calmly wait until the next book comes out—which, by the way, is when??? I don't even see a title on Goodreads. How am I supposed to deal if I can't even mark the next book as "Want to Read" on my Goodreads lists??

So, clearly, I'm invested in this series and highly recommend it to fans of court fantasy and intrigue. The cover (is awful, but has good "boy appeal") screams middle grade, but it has crossover appeal to older audiences for sure, and actually touches on some not-so-middle grade subjects (so caution for younger audiences there).

Explanation of rating system: Star Rating Key 

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