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? 
You might like:

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!

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