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.

Looking for another book like this? 
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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

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Book Review: The Woodvilles by Susan Higginbotham

Library book
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

I've been dipping my toes into historical non-fiction lately, and I'm quickly learning to group these books into two personal categories: Narrative (more or less straight historical recounting) and Academic (themes and lots of quotes from other people). I very much like the first group, but I'm rapidly learning I could do without the latter.

Unfortunately for me, The Woodvilles is more the latter. There was a whole lot of "According to so and so...[insert long quote]" and I found myself skipping over the quotes almost entirely the more I read.

I'd rather do the comparisons between historians myself, at least at this point, and I'd rather the author quietly do their research and then present to me a straight narrative of their findings. I don't really like the whole, "Well, this historian thought this, but it's countered by this other historian with this diary entry we've since found..." And The Woodvilles had a whole lot of that.

There was also a lot of themed chapters that touched on highlights of the Woodvilles' lives, but skipped over a lot of the general historical timeline. This wasn't awful, since the chapters were laid out more or less chronologically, but it did remove some of the oomph of certain moments (like Jacquetta's witchcraft trial).

I also got the impression that there just was not enough known historical fact to really flesh out an entire book, so there was a lot of "probably, maybe, possibly" and a few scenes were repeated far too often (yesh, I get it, the Woodville men were "judged" by the Yorks!)

On the positive side, I did learn some things (though not nearly enough—possible limitation of the subject matter?), and that just further supports my already positive feelings toward Susan Higginbotham. Also, when she's not quoting other people, I really do like her writing style.

Points too for providing a more sympathetic approach to the Woodvilles (though it seemed at times perhaps a little too sympathetic? Especially when there really didn't seem to be enough historical data in some situations to back up either a sympathetic or hostile approach). This last was especially nice to see and makes me even more of a Susan Higginbotham fan given she has also written sympathetically from the Lancastrian side. Yay for balance!

So, will I read more of Susan Higginbotham's fiction? Absolutely! Will I read more of her non-fiction (if she writes more)? Eh, likely not. Or, I'd at least flip through it first to see how many block quotes there are and go from there.


Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Book Review: Royal Diaries: Isabel and Mary

Mary, Queen Without a Country by Kathryn Lasky
3 out of 5 stars

I don't have much to say about this book. I read it a while back and then stalled on the review, to the point where I don't really remember all that much. Which, I guess, says a lot in and of itself. As an entry in The Royal Diaries series, this one isn't bad, but it didn't really stand out much either. Given their short length (made even shorter by the diary format and big historical notes section padding out the back end) and overall solid recounting of history, I don't think it's ever a waste of time to read a Royal Diaries book, this one included. That said, I enjoyed Carolyn Meyer's take on Mary in The Wild Queen a lot more.

Isabel, Jewel of Castilla by Carolyn Meyer
3.5 out of 5 stars

My first historical fiction foray into Isabel's world was through C. W. Gortner's powerful The Queen's Vow. Now, that book was an adult book that clocked in at about 400 pages. This one is a MG book with fewer than half that many pages, all told through diary format. Comparing the two is totally unfair. But who said I'm fair? Of course the MG version came up lacking in detail and depth and was totally sanitized compared to C. W. Gortner's scary Isabel. But that's also ok, because this is a look at a young Isabel, and she wasn't always a single-minded crusader. It was nice seeing this softer, younger side of Isabel, but Carolyn Meyer also totally planted the seeds of the kind of woman Isabel would grow to become. Recommended. Bonus points for the thrilling chase scene!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Book Review: Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge

Pages: 342
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Received: Library
Rating: 3.5/4 out of 5 stars

After reading Uprooted and Heart's Blood, I wanted another Beauty and the Beast retelling and so I finally picked up Cruel Beauty.

Unfortunately, Cruel Beauty didn't live up to the other two for me. It didn't have the depth and coherence of the other two and there was something that kept me from really sinking into the story, though I can't totally put my finger on it.

The characters didn't quite do it for me. Nyx kept pushing everyone away, and that worked on me, too. I couldn't get close to her and as much as I wanted to warm up to her, I had a hard time connecting. She was so down on herself all the time for being cruel, but her actions didn't really line up with this. It all worked together to create a vague character that I couldn't ever really connect with or even remember clearly.

Her romantic interests also suffered from this vague personality and, like Nyx, while I wanted to like them they too kept pushing me away. I could never fully settle in with trusting them or even knowing who they really were. When everything was finally revealed, it felt more destabilizing instead of less.

I'm also not sure how I feel about the ending, but I won't say anything more on that. 

Then there was the story, and this I did really like. The magic was evocative and gave me just what I was looking for when I wanted more Uprooted. Exploring the house and unraveling the mystery gave me what I was looking for when I wanted more Heart's Blood. This is the kind of story where once everything is revealed I can spend a lot of time thinking over it all and savoring how all the pieces fit together.

Bottom line

Cruel Beauty came very close to being a great book for me. The structure is good and a few tweaks and a little more fleshing out and I think I would have easily loved it. I think I will enjoy it as a reread, now that I know what to expect out of the characters. I'm wavering between a 3.5 and a 4, but I think a re-read could bump it to a four.

 Looking for another book like this? 
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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

DNF Explanation: Passenger by Alexandra Bracken

#1 in the Passenger series
Pages: 486
Released: January 5, 2016
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Received: ARC from publisher
Rating: DNF on page 62

Once upon a time there was a book called Brightly Woven, and this book stole my heart. It had it all: sleepover party main character Sydelle, swoony and sarcastic Wayland North, questing, creative world-building and magic, and did I mention the romance? I read Brightly Woven back in 2010, and I've been pining for more ever since.

So, of course I've done the only logical thing, which is to expect every subsequent book Alexandra Bracken writes to be as amazingly wonderful as Brightly Woven. Or, basically, to be Brightly Woven, just in different settings.

Enter, The Darkest Minds in 2012, which I was fulling hoping would be Syd and North Do a Dystopia. And, yeah, it so wasn't that. Everything took a big step down. Instead of an intricate world with a unique magic system I could latch onto, I got an interesting premise but a sloppily thrown together world with a whole lot of gaping holes. Instead of kick-butt Sydelle, I got whiny please-kill-her-now Ruby. Instead of swoony Wayland North, I got a dull and forgettable love interest. I was devastated, and I never bothered reading the rest of the series.

Which is a huge preamble just to get to Passenger, which, yeah, I was still hoping for Sydelle and North Do Time Travel Pirate Adventuring. And, ugh, I so did not get that.

Instead, I got The Darkest Minds, but worse.

TDM at least jumped into the action and kept it going. Passenger was a total snore-fest (at least, the parts I read). SO much time was spent repeating the same things over and over. I think this was supposed to constitute "character development" but, yeah, no, telling me over and over and over again about surface level character traits and interests is not "character development."

Basically, after 62 pages I now know that main character what's-her-name really wants to be a violin prodigy, is really nervous about her big debut performance, likes her violin teacher, and has a flighty, artsy but not particularly warm mom. Oh, and she's also really annoying, wishy washy, and has no life or backbone and isn't happy with her life choices. Yawn.

BUT, I do know I really, really don't like her. 

And the guy? Ugh, he's no Wayland North. He's not even that other boring guy from TDM. He's...erm, he sails on ships? I think I'm supposed to think he's adventuresome and smart and all that. Maybe?

So, yeah, characters 0. How about that plot?!

No, plot 0, too.

I thought TDM was thrown together. Ha. I did not know the meaning of thrown together, but Passenger has shown me the way. Absolutely awful pacing. I mean, terrible. Nothing happened in those 62 pages, (though I do think I caught some heavy handed foreshadowing and "cabal-esque" hint dropping) which made the book feel wandering and unsure of itself.

All the musician stuff was close, but not quite right. The ship stuff was erm, well, some of the things were sort of right-ish but at best were a bunch of jargony stuff that could be sort of right but doesn't really actually say anything to straight up not right.

I could give a pass on that. I mean, this is a light, fluffy, YA action book. It's not supposed to be heavy historical fiction. But, but, she could have just googled! I mean, crack open a Patrick O'Brian book to any random page and get some ship info. It's not that hard to get it right! Or, just don't put it in there at all and say "the ship had bigger and more guns than we did oh noes!" instead of trying to describe it in more detail. Either would work. I'd totally be ok with the vague approach. But this poor attempt at detail and getting it wrong is not ok.

But, this is the same problem as with everything else. It's all so hacked together and surface-level, relying on a mish-mash of "close enough" details and bash my head in repetition instead of depth. It just screams low effort. 

Bottom line

This felt like a hot mess. Is it a lack of editing? Rushed writing? I don't know what's happened, but over the course of three books, Alexandra Bracken has gone from an auto-buy author to a library-first, and now I'm sad to say but she's not even on my "consider reading" list anymore.


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Book Review: Shadow Magic by Joshua Khan

#1 in the Shadow Magic series
Pages: 336
Released: April 12, 2016
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Received: ARC from publisher
Rated: 4 out of 5 stars

This book is awesome! Unfortunately, that cover is so not awesome, so I'm a little worried Shadow Magic will get overlooked and that would be awful (also, sad because the illustrations inside are SO much better than the cover).

So, quick and dirty list of why Shadow Magic is great and should go on every TBR:

The world building is surprisingly developed. Each kingdom has a different legacy, magic, history, and culture. Mostly we get to focus on Gehenna, which is basically the kingdom of the dead (think zombies, ghosts, and other creepy dark things), but we also get to see glimpses of the kingdoms of Light, Fire, and erm, foresty stuff. I cannot wait to delve deeper into this world in the next book!

The characters are sleepover party material. Except Gabriel (the obnoxious prince of Light, set to wed main character Lily), because Gabriel was terrible. Until the end, when I even started to feel bad for him. But, the other characters? The best.

Lily is the new ruler of Gehenna since her parents and brother were just assassinated and the killer is still on the loose. She's understandably nervous about ruling, especially since she's a kid and her kingdom is falling apart around her, she's not allowed to do magic, and her uncle is trying to set up an arranged marriage with the kingdom of Light, their arch nemesis. Lily faces it all with spunk and determination.

It also helps that she has a trio of support and every one of these guys is awesome in his own right. Thorn especially. He's the guy riding the giant bat on the cover. Yeah. He's also the sarcastic down-on-his-luck type I can't help but liking. The other two? Well, you'll have to read the book, but one is a prince from the fire kingdom and the other is an executioner. And how could I forget Mary and Rose? They're the other side of Lily's support team, and they're equally awesome.

Twisty mystery. Ok, so Lily is new to her kingdom and learning the ropes. Thorn is looking for his missing father. The prince from the fire kingdom is a hostage of the prince from the kingdom of light. There's that arranged marriage thing that Lily is trying to get out of without ruining her kingdom or starting a war. There's a rogue necromancer raising the dead. Forbidden magic lessons. A murdered royal family and the assassin on the run. Multiple attempts on Lily's life. A few murders. And a giant bat.

There's a lot going on here and it was so much fun to read and unravel the mysteries.

Bottom line

I can't rave about this book enough! The end wraps up pretty well and there isn't a horrible cliffhanger or anything like that. You just know that there are more adventures in store for these characters, and I can't wait to follow them in Dream Magic

Recommended for both boys and girls, middle grade and above.

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