Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Book Reviews: Middle Grade Round Up

The Door by the Staircase by Katherine Marsh
Received: ARC from publisher
Rating: DNF

Chalk this up to a case of good book, wrong reader. The story seems great and definitely my kind of book, but the characters just weren't doing it for me. Mary was too "typical spunky orphan" but without anything to make her stand out from the crowd for me and we never clicked.

Goodreads reviewers have spoiled the plot pretty well (thanks!), so any tension or mystery that might have otherwise been there wasn't there for me. I felt bored and couldn't get into the story, mostly because of those spoilers. So, if you're at all interested in The Door by the Staircase, don't read Goodreads reviews!

It's hard to describe, but the book has a similar vibe as The Wolf Princess, which was another book that didn't work for me but should have. I kept wanting to enjoy myself, and kept trying to convince myself that I was enjoying myself, but, really, I wasn't having a good time. I couldn't even say why, exactly, except that the book just wasn't a good fit for me.

Still, it might be a good fit for middle grade readers and fans of Serafina and the Black Cloak

A Question of Magic by E. D. Baker
Received: Library
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

E.D. Baker and I have a hit and miss relationship. I love her Wide-Aware Princess, but couldn't get into the Frog Princess series. A Question of Magic falls somewhere between the two for me, settle on a solid "like."

I don't think the characters and plot would sustain me through a series, but as a standalone book, which this is, everything kept me happily entertained. I liked how the author interpreted the Baba Yaga story (especially the "you only get one question" thing—LOVE that! Makes me wonder what I would ask...), and you can't ever go wrong with a talking cat. The main character was nice but forgettable (see, I can't even remember her name now), but that didn't take anything away from my enjoyment.   

Definitely not a bad way to spend an afternoon if you're a fan of fairy tale retellings. Recommended.  


Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Series Review: The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency by Jordan Stratford

I'm a sucker for historical mysteries, spunky heroines, and middle grade mysteries, so it was pretty much a case of love at first sight as soon as I opened the envelope and The Case of the Girl in Grey fell into my hands.

Of course, then I realized it was the second book in the series, so I groaned and contemplated reading the second book first. Which is something I never do. That's a book sin I put right up there with dog-earing, but such was the depth of my desire to dive right into this series (I don't do patience very well).

Thankfully, I restrained myself and turned to the library, and the library came through for me. Sidebar? Much as I love real hold-in-my-hands books, there is nothing like an e-library for perfectly meeting my needs of instant gratification and laziness.

So, needless to say I flew through these books and I'm toe-tappingly annoyed that there aren't any more for me to read because I adore them (auto-buy kind of love). These are the types of books that make me want to use words and phrases like "delightful" and "bosom friends." Jordan Stratford's writing really is a cut above and that makes all the difference. The books are both tiny with super short chapters, and yet there was so much depth and substance. The illustrations peppered throughout fit perfectly and I looked forward to each one. Strongly recommended for fans of the Theodosia Throckmorton series.

Oh, also, the characters in this series are real historical figures, but their ages and timelines have been turned all kinds of topsy-turvey. Normally I should hate this because you know how I feel about messing with history. But, for some reason, I really don't mind it here at all. Maybe it's because Jordan Stratford does such a good job at making these characters that I couldn't imagine them (or don't want to imagine them) otherwise? I don't know. There is a historical note at the end and he's very upfront about all the changes, so young readers won't be led astray.

The Case of the Missing Moonstone
Received: Library
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The cast starts out smaller, introducing first Ada and then Mary and Peebs. Ada is the kind of character that might otherwise annoy me because she's just...odd. But the nuances of her personality and her friendship with Mary make Ada a character with depth, and that depth makes all the difference between "irritating stock character" and "beloved friend." Mary just seems straight out fun and Peebs is the kind of hapless character I just want to hug. The mystery was entertaining and, even though I would have been into the story for the characters alone, the mystery stands up just as well.

The Case of the Missing Moonstone
Received: Finished copy from the publisher
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The cast gets bigger with the additions of both Mary and Ada's younger sisters. I can't say I'm much of a fan of either, but somehow that seemed to work. I found them annoying and yet still entirely lovable. I guess kind of like how little sisters can be.

Still, I didn't love how this did take some attention away from Ada and Mary and their friendship. Taken in the context of the larger series, though, I don't think this will be a problem since we'll have plenty of time to explore all the characters.

The mystery here is just as good as the first book and I was happy to see Charles (as in, Dickens) get to play a part in the sleuthing. I love how the mysteries pay homage to classic Gothic and mystery tales while still feeling fresh and unpredictable. I really can't rave about this series enough.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Book Review: The Sherwood Ring by Elizabeth Marie Pope

Release Date: October 29, 2001
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Pages: 256
Received: Library
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Goodreads Page

Not what I thought it would be

I thought this book must have been made for me when I read the description, and while I did end up liking The Sherwood Ring, it wasn't as spectacular as I was hoping.

The blurb sounded very Gothic and it says the house is full of mysteries, so I was expecting, you know, Gothic mysteries. And, I guess there sort of is a mystery, but it wasn't all that twisty and it was more like Gothic lite.

Who, what

The main character is pretty much a generic stand-in for the reader. She doesn't have much personality and her own story seemed like a half-hearted attempt thrown together at the end to make the character passably interesting. Her resolution was kinda hokey and obvious.

But that's mostly ok, because the meat of the story isn't about her. The point of her character is pretty much to sit back and listen to each of the ghosts tell their story. I liked their story (a little action, a little romance, a touch of peril), and even though those characters were only slightly more fleshed out, I was entertained.

The Sherwood Ring really was a sweet, feel-good story, but it was almost too easy. The two men, while they were on opposing sides, really didn't seem to be combatants. Neither seemed particularly attached to their war causes (making the historical backdrop inconsequential) and the resolution seemed extremely convenient. The same can be said for the romances between the men and their respective sweethearts.

You're not even a tease

I love uncovering secrets in Gothic stories--discovering old letters, journals, or hidden away objects. But there needs to be a little frustration in the telling. The secrets can't come without some searching.

The secrets of The Sherwood Ring were divulged without Peggy ever even having to ask for them. The ghosts simply appeared, told their section of the tale, and then disappeared to make way for the appearance of the next ghost. This was disappointingly easy.

Bottom line

The Sherwood Ring wasn't the twisy Gothic tale I was expecting, but it was enjoyable, light, and fun. Even though it had large chapters and there wasn't a TON of action, I still flew through it. It just goes down smoothly, and the storytelling aspect made it extremely easy to sit back and let the tale wash over me.

Don't expect a Gothic tale with emotions running high, peril, death, tragedy, and terrible secrets kept across the generations. Expect a sweet story that leans a little more MG than YA, where everything resolves happily and easily.

Explanation of rating system: Star Rating Key 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Book Review: The Secret Bride by Diane Haeger

Received: Own
Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars

Dear lord, is it that hard to Google??

I don't have too many good things to say about this book. The historical "accuracy" was pitiful. I know, I know, you may think, "But Small, it's historical fiction!" And, yes, I know.

But I don't like historical fiction that takes gigantic liberties with historical fact, especially when a quick trip to Wikipedia would set things straight.

And I'm not even talking about things like minor smushings of the timeline (which were definitely present— characters were walking around when they should have been dead years ago and others died too soon), but I can give a pass for when it makes for easier storytelling...which kinda sorta might have applied here?

I'm talking about stupid little things like getting Catherine of Aragon's hair color right (it's RED, not black!) or Anne Boleyn's birth order right (yes, there's contention, but modern opinion is she was the younger sister), or the number and birth order of Mary Tudor's sons right (none of her sons made it to the age of her book son, and, yeah, notice I'm using the plural, Ms. Haeger?).

Simple little things that don't require the author to be a master historian but do take enough effort to Google. And, really, I don't think I'm asking too much in that. I am not a super historian and my memory is awful and even I managed to pick up on these things.

You'd think an author who chooses to write in the genre would at least put in some minimal effort to get these things right. I mean, even the author's note was riddled with errors!  

Bonus points: It's poorly written! 

From a storytelling perspective, The Secret Bride was so, so boring. Nothing happened. Their "romance" plodded along with repetitive mentions of feelings but no actual showing of the development of said feelings. No reasons were given for why these two characters fell in love and would risk the wrath of the king.

Character development was inconsistent with history, but also super shallow. Mary and Charles don't feel like real people beyond the page. I couldn't muster up a care for their plight and the side characters were even less developed. Henry VIII's characterization was laughable.

Bottom line

The TV show was about a thousand times better in all major areas: storytelling, accuracy, and character development. And, yeah, I know all about the historical inaccuracies in that show.

I won't be wasting my time nor my shelf space on another book by this author.

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