Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Book Reviews: Cashelmara and Penmarric by Susan Howatch

Cashelmara by Susan Howatch
Pages: 720
Released:  1974
Received: Library, own
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Goodreads

Wow. Ok, so, on one level this book is set in the 1800s through 1900s and follows the de Salis family through three generations in both England and the United States. But, all of these characters and the events of their lives are a retelling of the lives of Edward I, Edward II, and Edward III. The surface level story is engaging, but what made me love this book was the historical parallel and seeing how Susan Howatch retold history in a way that created a full and original story but still stayed true to the events and characters of history.

Some scenes are searingly evocative (god, that starvation scene), but what really stood out to me were the characters. I felt for them, raged with them, despaired with them, and triumphed with them.  Historical events were reimagined in convincing and, while different, very similar ways. It almost felt like reincarnation where the events of the past are destined to replay themselves again and again.

This is a long book. The chapters are huge. Narration is first person, but the book is broken up into multiple sections and each section is narrated by a different character. The writing is, on the surface, just ok. But. I can't put my finger on exactly when or how, but all of a sudden I went from "This is nice and I'm interested in reading more" to "OHMYGOSH I'M INVESTED!" It's a slower build, but it does build into an all-encompassing powerhouse. Highly recommended.


Penmarric by Susan Howatch

Pages: 702
Released:  1971
Received: Library, own
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Goodreads

Most of everything I said about Cashelmara can be said about Penmarric. The writing is rich, the characters are real, and the parallels between the surface story and the history it retells are fascinating individually and together. Chapters again are large and narration again switches from one character to another.

Instead of the 1300s, the historical parallel here is Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and their "devil's brood," including Richard the Lionheart and the evil King John. And, perhaps that was part of the problem for me. I entered this book with far more investment and knowledge of the historical time period than I did with Cashelmara. The characters here felt close to their historical counterparts, but less seamless. Janna as Eleanor was close, but not quite Eleanor. The nod to the Anarchy fell flat, as inheriting an estate after legal disputes just doesn't have the same level of flair and gravitas as fighting a civil war that tore apart England for over a decade has. Philip's obsession with his tin mines, while an interesting parallel, felt like a bit of a stretch from Richard's famous crusades. Events were also not quite as lockstep with history.

That said, I waver, because as much as I can't deny a sense of disappointment with all that, I still adored the book. As much as I might have felt disappointed with tin mines replacing crusades, I spent so much time pondering the historical nuances in the context of Susan Howatch's story that I gained an even greater appreciation for and understanding of those events in history. Her portrayal of John is, shockingly, one of the best and most humanizing portrayals of him I've ever read. He certainly wasn't likable, but finally he was no longer the two dimensional villain history usually portrays him to be (though Mark as Henry II felt far too villainous and without nuance or redeeming features).

So, again, it may not be quite right, but it did make me think about the real historical events and people with a greater depth. Even with my quibbles, I still thoroughly enjoyed Penmarric and highly recommend it.


Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Book Reviews: King Tut's Tomb


The Visitors by Sally Beauman
Pages: 529
Publisher: Harper
Released: July 18, 2014
Received: Library, now own
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Goodreads 

I can't pinpoint exactly what it was I found so enthralling about this book, but enthralled I undeniably was. The story is told through the eyes of a crotchety old woman remembering her days as a withdrawn young girl convalescing in Egypt with a wallflower view of Howard Carter's infamous discovery of King Tut's tomb. While our narrator is a fictional character, most of the other characters are real people, and their stories are all fascinating. Sally Beauman's immersive writing made the people, locations, and time period feel palpably real and I was fully invested in their lives. I spent hours and hours after finishing this book scouring the Internet for books, movies, and articles about the people, time period, and discovery. It's a shame I have little interest in the other books Sally Beauman has written, because I thoroughly enjoyed this book.


Valley of the Kings by Cecelia Holland
Pages: 215
Released: January 1, 1977
Received: Library
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Goodreads 

This was such a bizarre book. The first half follows Howard Carter in the years leading up to and through his discovery of King Tut's tomb. This part is ok, and considering its short length I felt it was time well enough spent. Put this in context, though: I'd just come off the high of reading The Visitors and I was desperate to read more about this subject. Had that not been the case, I don't think I would have been very impressed. As it was, the two stars come from this section of the book, and they are a generous two stars.

The second half of the book abruptly throws the reader back in time. We entirely abandon Howard Carter, never to return to his story. Instead, the rest of the book is an incredibly fictionalized and sensationalized account of King Tut's reign. This section is oddly sexual, filled with murder, and, while mildly entertaining due to its sheer absurdity, was largely off putting. I only finished this because it was so short and, honestly, it evoked a morbid curiosity in me to see what in the world the author was going to write next.

 

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Book Review: Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe


Pages: 400
Released: May 22, 2018
Publisher: Disney
Received: ARC from publisher
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Goodreads

Ok, this may be dating myself, but when Dawson's Creek first came out there was all this buzz about how the characters all talked using this ridiculous vocabulary and convoluted, overly-pretentious sentences and sounded like pretty much no teenager ever. And it wasn't just the teenage characters, it was all the characters. They all spoke with one voice, and that voice was absurdly unrealistic.

And it was also kind of cool and part of Dawson's Creek's charm.

The same thing happens here. Every single character is an incredibly witty wordsmith and they all speak in exactly the same way. It's so far from realistic, but it's also a big part of why I started and continued reading. If the book hadn't been written in this style, I probably wouldn't have bothered reading it.

The second reason I enjoyed the book is the equally ridiculous 1990s teenage movie vibe where the characters have a mission and the whole school kumbayas in the end. There's even something called a Sermon Showdown. And the whole school gets in on it and it is drop-the-mic epic like when Kat reads her poem about the 10 reasons she hates Heath Ledger or when Laney Boggs walks down the stairs. Yeah. I'm simultaneously appalled and enthralled.

There were some pretty heavy topics like suicide and abusive relationships and drug use and, wow, yeah, now that I think about it this book is stuffed with a whole host of Very Special Episode topics. And it works about as well as it did when TGIF tried to smush together levity and Serious Issues. It works, and it also doesn't work at all. What did work for me were the very contrived but very aw-inducing friendships that were formed between the jock and the nerd and the jock, nerd, and curmudgeonly old man. See what I mean? Sooo predictable, trite, and ridiculous, but also, well, it works. 

I don't really know who this book is written for. It's filled with references and elements to totally resonate with someone who grew up in the 1990s (they even go to a video store), but does that work for actual teens now? I don't know.

Bottom line

If you're looking to fill that 90s teen rom-com void, then Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe is a good pick. It's super long, but short chapters, punchy writing, and the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink jammed in makes for a fast read. I enjoyed reading it, but I don't know that I'd reread it.






Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Book Review: The Boy, The Bird, and the Coffin Maker by Matilda Woods


Pages: 208
Publisher: Philomel
Released: May 15, 2018
Received: ARC from publisher
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars, Special Shelf
Goodreads

There are some books that are just magical, and this is one of them. Fairy tales can have this effect, if done right, where even though the story is short, the characterization is minimal, and every aspect of the plot doesn't always make perfect sense, there's just a special something that makes the story tug at my heartstrings and stay with me in a meaningful way. I care about the characters from page one in a hugely protective, almost visceral way. I'm invested in their story. The messages hit me in a deeply personal way. The Boy, the Bird, and the Coffin Maker has that magical quality.

It also doesn't hurt that the chapters are super tiny and every page is beautifully illustrated.

Highly recommended.


BOOK DESCRIPTION

Friendship and magical realism sparkle on the page in this heartwarming, delightfully eccentric illustrated middle-grade gem from an extraordinary new literary voice. Perfect for fans of A Snicker of Magic and The Penderwicks.

Alberto lives alone in the town of Allora, where fish fly out of the sea and the houses shine like jewels. He is a coffin maker and widower, spending his quiet days creating the final resting places of Allora's people.

Then one afternoon a magical bird flutters into his garden, and Alberto, lonely inside, welcomes it into his home. And when a kindhearted boy named Tito follows the bird into Alberto's kitchen, a door in the old man's heart cracks open. Tito is lonely too--but he's also scared and searching for a place to hide. Fleeing from danger, he just wants to feel safe for once in his life. Can the boy and the old man learn the power of friendship and escape the shadows of their pasts?

With a tender bond that calls to mind The Girl Who Drank the Moon, charming characters reminiscent of The Penderwicks, and the whimsy of A Snicker of Magic, this is a novel to curl up with, an extraordinary work of magical realism that makes the world feel like a warmer and happier place. Complete with dazzling interior illustrations, a gem from start to finish.


AUTHOR BIO

Matilda Woods (www.matildawoods.com) grew up in the small town of Southern Tablelands, Australia. She graduated from Monash University with a Masters of Social Work. Matilda splits her time between writing middle grade fiction and working as a youth social worker. The Boy, the Bird, and the Coffin Maker is her debut novel. She currently lives in the same small town where she grew up, with her four chickens, three dogs, two cats and one bird.


Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Book Review: Freya and the Magic Jewel

Freya and the Magic Jewel by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams
#1 in the Thunder Girls series
Pages: 272
Publisher: Aladdin
Released: May 1, 2018
Received: ARC from author
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Goodreads

I've been a long-time fan of Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams' Goddess Girls series and I've sampled a number of their other series. While I enjoyed their Grimmtastic Girls series, it wasn't quite at Goddess Girls levels and I only toe-dipped in their Heroes in Training series (for a slightly younger audience). That isn't to say the other series aren't good, but rather to say how awesome the Goddess Girls series is.

And now we have the Thunder Girls series, focusing on Norse mythology instead of Greek. I knew I would like these books, but even my expectations were blown away and I adore this series! It's right up there with the best Goddess Girls books and I hope we see just as many books in this series (20+ and counting) because I will read every one of them and hand them out to all my little library patrons.

This first book in the series focuses on Freya as she starts a new school. Coming from a different land, Freya has a tough time settling in and making friends. Homesickness, feeling different, worrying about fitting in, and so on, her feelings are easy to relate to at any age and developed in a realistic way throughout the story. Freya's quest to find her missing necklace added in a dash of adventure.

As in the Goddess Girls series, the world created her is inventive and reading about the magical charms, school, and daily life are highly entertaining, especially if you're a reader who likes world building. It was fun, particularly in this first book, getting to know all the new characters, seeing their personalities unfold, and wondering what parts they'll play in future stories.  

Highly recommended for fans of Goddess Girls, Norse mythology, and sweet books with a happy mix of friendship, inventive mythology adaptations, a smidge of romance, and a big helping of adorableness. Readers who are already fans of Goddess Girls can safely add this series to their auto-buy lists.


Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Book Review: The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

Pages: 320
Released: March 6, 2018
Publisher: Penguin
Received: Finished copy from publisher
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Goodreads 

I was hoping for a spooky, twisty Gothic thriller and that's exactly what I got. Creeping, menacing supernatural happenings stalk Elsie and the terror builds steadily until the shattering climax and the final, horrifying ending. This is in no way a feel-good book, but it is a fabulous read for chilly winter nights or Halloween.

The story alternates between three different time periods: Elsie after the climax, Elsie leading up to the climax (both in the 1800s), and an older series of events set in the 1600s that provide insight into the supernatural happenings Elsie battles against. All three sections were gripping and the slow unraveling of information was well spun across these sections.

A part of me does wish everything had been explained a little more. In the broad strokes, the story is immersive, gripping, and satisfying. If I start to think more deeply on events, however, I come away with questions and some events that are only tenuously explained. But, really, that doesn't matter and didn't impact my enjoyment at all. I don't mind a little unexplained happenings in supernatural stories, and that does seem to be par for the course in Gothic novels to an extent.

Bottom line

Highly enjoyable. I am looking forward to reading more from Laura Purcell.


Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Book Review: The Secrets She Carried by Barbara Davis

Pages: 368
Released: October 1, 2013
Publisher: NAL (Penguin)
Received: Library
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Goodreads

A dual era mystery with touches of romance and long-hidden family secrets should have been the perfect book, but perhaps suffers in comparison to books I've read previously. The Secrets She Carried had so many elements in common with my beloved Tradd Street series (Southern setting, the gorgeous writer male lead, and the prickly female lead) and I think that worked against it. I couldn't help but compare the two, and Secrets just didn't measure up.

The mystery was extremely predictable, and so the unraveling of it had less desperate "I need to find out what happened!" and a lot more "finally" when it was all revealed. Still, it's a dual era mystery with shades of history and a slower burn romance, so despite my frustrations with the similarities and less-than-inspiring mystery, I did still enjoy it.

As often is the case for me, I liked the historical sections more than the modern sections, though I think in this case part of that had to do with the way each section was written. The modern sections are third-person past-tense, whereas the past sections are first-person present-tense. I wish they had both been first-person past-tense and I think the writing style hindered my immersion and enjoyment. The characterizations in the historical sections were a lot richer and it was easier to become invested in the heroine and loathe the villainess.

Bottom line

I'd give it a solid good. I'll probably find myself picking up another book by this author at some point.


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