Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Book Review: The Afterlife Academy by Frank L. Cole


Pages: 288
Released: September 8, 2015
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Goodreads

A good, solid middle-grade book that should appeal equally to boys and girls. I'm already starting off this review pretty paint-by-numbers, but that's kind of because this is a pretty paint-by-numbers book. Which isn't a bad thing. See, here's what you get:
  • Feisty ghost sidekick
  • Shy living boy who geeks out in all the right ways and finds his inner strength and confidence
  • One-note villains who aren't complex, but also don't need to be
  • Steady pacing that isn't breakneck, but isn't slow either
  • Super short chapters
  • Clever, but not overly complex world-building
  • A Big Reveal that isn't super predictable
So, you can see how The Afterlife Academy doesn't really break new ground or stand out in any amazing way. But, it also doesn't stand out in any bad ways, either. The characters, plot, and world were also fleshed out enough to hold the interest of an adult reader. This may sound like damning with faint praise, but I think the exact opposite is the case. This is a dependable book. The kind of book that will deliver a solid, fun story. 

The Afterlife Academy is a good contribution that deserves a spot on gift lists and library shelves. This is a standalone, but it has a solid enough base that I could easily see it going on to become a steadily successful series. Recommended, especially for Rick Riordan fans.






Looking for another book like this? 
You might like:
http://smallreview.blogspot.com/2011/05/book-review-fourth-stall-by-chris.htmlhttp://smallreview.blogspot.com/2015/10/book-review-sword-of-summer-by-rick.html

Click on the covers to go to my reviews


Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Book Review: In the Shadow of the Crown by Jean Plaidy


Pages: 406
Published: May 18, 2004 (originally 1989)
Publisher: Broadway Books
Received: Own
Rating: 3.5/4 out of 5 stars

Oh Mary. This is not a happy story, though it is one sympathetic to Mary. Plaidy starts the book when Mary is a beloved child and all is more or less well between her parents Katherine and Henry VIII. Anne Boleyn comes on the scene early on though, and of course it's all downhill from there.

In typical Plaidy style, this is pretty much a rundown of events, complete with repetitive phrases, non-fiction-ish narrative, and thinly developed characters. All of which I'm ok with.

I already know this story and have read the events of Mary's life through multiple other books, so I'm not sure at this point how In the Shadow of the Crown would come across to readers unfamiliar with Mary's history. I didn't come across any cringe-worthy inaccuracies and the events seemed pretty balanced with good pacing though, as often seems to be the case, more focus on her pre-queen years.

The queen years were where I was truly gutted and Plaidy broke out of her play-by-play style and actually developed a character for Mary. This part was so hard to read because Mary is so hopeful and in love, and her husband and court are not at all nice to her. Watching her continually make a fool of herself, when all she wanted was someone to finally love her, was painful to read. My heart broke for her as she pinned her hopes on her husband, kingdom, and dreams for a child and then it broke further as she eventually came to terms with the realities of these situations. This part was well done.

Bottom line

Plaidy has proven to be a solid historical fiction choice, and this was one of  her better books. Mostly it's typical Plaidy, but she slowly grows Mary as an individual with the final chapters solidifying Mary as one of Plaidy's more richly drawn historical figures.

Definitely recommended for Mary fans, but also for historical fiction fans in general who don't mind Plaidy's drier style.

Looking for another book like this? 
You might like

http://smallreview.blogspot.com/2015/11/book-review-mary-tudor-by-anna-whitelock.html
Click on the cover to go to my review

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Book Review: A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

Released: May 5, 2015
Publisher: Bloomsbury Children's
Received: Library
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars, Special Shelf


The preamble

Well, be still my heart!

I was a little worried (ok, ok, I was A LOT worried) I wouldn't love this new series as much as I love the Throne of Glass series.

I mean, it has fairies and stuff.

And, her name is Feyre, which I can't for the life of me say properly in my head (I'm constantly tripping up between "Freya" and "Fire" and stuttering through a mix of the two every single time I read her name.)

Also, I hate that cover (seriously, I hate ALL of Sarah's covers, except the first one, which they changed. *sigh*)

So, yeah, there were a lot of things for me to worry about. I worried so much I didn't even pre-order A Court of Thorns and Roses even though Sarah and me are totally on pre-order basis by now (Queen of Shadows already pre-ordered!)

Instead, I waited for a copy to come through inter-library loan. Which basically means I had to hide from the internet all during release week until my ILL copy finally came through because ya'll were blowing up internet with ACoTaR updates, reviews, quotes, and hypable squees.

And, touche, you were all right. I should have just pre-ordered, because I'm totally buying a copy to put on my Special Shelf and re-read a million times.

This is a kissing book
(and then some)

Swoon. Lots of swoon.

I know Sarah J. Maas is known primarily for her YA series and I think a lot of libraries are getting mixed up in their cataloging because of that. But this series? This is NOT a YA series.

I've heard a lot of back and forth about the romance and whether or not it's wrong or swoony or we're wrong for swooning or not or, yeah, I'm not wading into that.

I'll say this: I like it. 

Feyre 

Ok, so I couldn't help comparing Feyre to Celaena, and I'm sorry but I like Celaena a little more. That's not to say that I don't like Feyre, because I definitely do. It's just, Celaena has a...spark? She has something that Feyre doesn't.

Feyre and Celaena are both so similar, but also totally different, which is a completely unhelpful description, I know. They both have fire and sass over a core of vulnerability, but Feyre is in some ways...harder? Darker?

I know that's a weird thing to say considering Celaena is the assassin here, but Celaena always had a certain sparkle to her. She's had terrible things happen to her, but she retains an almost childlike optimism, even when she's in the depths of despair (seriously, could you see moping, sad Celaena turning away candy? I think not.)

She also has a swaggering bravado and self-confidence that I can't help but love. She's Celaena Sardothien, and she will not be afraid.

Feyre feels more beaten down by the grinding suckiness of life. Poverty, starvation, the bone-aching hurt and betrayal of a family that disappoints. Feyre's painful experiences aren't relegated to the world of fantasy and they seem all the more adult and crushing because of that.

But, then I get scenes like the mud worm fight and suddenly Feyre goes from her regular likable but not entirely stand out self to someone who is awesome. And she's made all the more awesome for it because she isn't a trained assassin or some super-fairy. She's just a tough as nails survivor and THAT is what makes me like her so much. 

All the men

For the most part, all of the other main characters are men, and I can't decide which one I like more. They each bring something different to the table (think Marcello, Luca, and Lord Greco), and every one of them is a character who is interesting in his own right beyond romance.

I want to know more about their histories. I want to follow them on their own adventures. I want to read from their perspectives. I want spinoff series.

This is why I love Sarah J. Maas so much—she writes every character with a depth and realism that is usually reserved for the main character. All of her characters have main character potential. Her romantic interests don't just exist for shallow swooning. Her side characters aren't just props to support the main character. They don't exist solely for the purposes of advancing the plot. They are fully fleshed out people who happen to cross paths with the main character while going about their own off-screen story.

Bottom line

Ok, ok, Sarah J. Maas is an auto-buy author, regardless of what series she's writing. I get it. I won't resist again. Just take all my money, ok? All of it. Just please keep writing these books that feel like they're ripped from my very soul and heart and encompass all my readerly desires. Ok? Thanks. 


Looking for another book like this? 
You might like:

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/47953.The_Black_Jewels_Trilogy?ac=1http://smallreview.blogspot.com/2011/03/book-review-waterfall-by-lisa-t-bergren.html

Click on the covers to go to my review/Goodreads


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
Goodreads


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
Goodreads

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.


Looking for another book like this? 
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https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22544764-uprootedhttps://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13929.Wildwood_Dancing



Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Book Review: The Lady in the Tower by Jean Plaidy

Pages: 393
Received: Own
Goodreads

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.


Looking for another book like this? 
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http://smallreview.blogspot.com/2014/02/mini-review-doomed-queen-anne-by.html


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.



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