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.


Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Book Review: My Name is Victoria by Lucy Worsley


Pages: 372
Publisher: Bloomsbury/Candlewick
Released: February 8, 2018/May 8, 2018
Received: ARC from publisher
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Goodreads

Here's the thing, I really don't like reading about Queen Victoria. There are certain historical figures I adore and just click with (Marie Antoinette, Mary I, Cleopatra), and others that I have a really hard time getting on board with. Victoria falls solidly in the latter camp. Even Carolyn Meyer couldn't get me to like her.

So Lucy Worsley has done what I had previously believed was impossible and made me actually like Victoria. Or, well, not quiet. But she wrote a book about Victoria that I was able to really like. I still don't like Victoria.

How did she pull it off? In part because of a narrative approach I usually dislike: the "through the eyes of a servant" narration. More points to you, Ms. Worsley. In this case it really worked. Victoria's irritating personality was tempered by the fact that she wasn't the main character and that Miss V is fully aware of how annoying Victoria can be.

And, finally, for the third "usually I hate this, but Lucy Worsley made me like it" thing that happened...well, I can't tell you about it. It would be a spoiler. I'll say there's a historical twist that isn't true, but gosh do I wish it was. I imagine this is something that readers are either going to love or hate. Usually I would hate it because It's Not Real, but I wish it was real so much that I'm giving it a pass.

Anyway, chapters are short, the narrative is easy breezy, and the characters are sufficiently real that I cared about them. Miss V slowly comes to realize and come to terms with the people surrounding her and all their shades of grey. I really enjoyed this aspect and my heart broke for her as the people around her were hurt by the system or orchestrated the system. Miss V's shifting feelings regarding her father, his role, and his character was devastating. 

I appreciated the small details that were added in that gave the story depth and a sense of place and people. I didn't know until after I had finished the book that Lucy Worsley is a historian, and a fun one at that. A ton of her documentaries are available on Youtube and I've since spent many happy hours watching them.



Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Book Review: Two Modern Austen-Inspired Stories

Scones and Sensibility by Lindsay Eland
Pages: 320
Released: December 2009
Publisher: Egmont
Received: Library
Age: Middle Grade
Rating: 3.5/4 out of 5 stars
Goodreads

I really, really enjoyed this book. It was light, fun, sweet, charming...all those words that describe that kind of book I seek out when I just want something nice to read. There was just enough relationship drama (friendships, family) to make this engaging and touching without being annoying.

Polly's love of all the classic kindred spirit books (think Anne of Green Gables, Jane Austen's hits, etc.) made everything extra endearing and I loved every reference she made to all my own well-worn favorites. Her tendency to ape the social norms and ways of speaking during those times was spot on and definitely one of the things I loved about this book. The fact that she works in a family-owned bakery was icing on the cake (yes, yes, I know, that's a terrible pun but I just couldn't avoid it). Highly recommended, especially if you love books like The Penderwicks, any of the above mentioned classics, Keeping the Castle, or Stephanie Kate Strohm's books.

  
Prada & Prejudice by Mandy Hubbard
Pages: 286
Released: June 2009
Publisher: Razorbill
Received: Library
Age: Young Adult
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Goodreads

I'm mixed on this one. On one hand, the main character was super annoying and could not stop pushing her modern ways of thinking on everyone and then getting hugely offended with them when they held beliefs in line with their time period. The pride, prejudice, and jumping to assumed conclusions that Jane Austen cautioned about in her original story were definitely Lessons to Learn for Callie. She was just behaving so stupidly and rudely, and even if she was ultimately right in some ways, her methods made her wrong, wrong, wrong.  It was painful to watch her blunder around like a bull in a china shop.

And yet, this was still a fun, light time travel story with romance and balls and dresses and endearing friendships and a hint of sweet romance. So. I'm a sucker for all that and despite Callie's groan-inducing moments, overall this was exactly the light, sweet, forgettable-but-enjoyable romp I was hoping it would be.


Wednesday, March 14, 2018

DNF Explanation: Death Below Stairs by Jennifer Ashley

Pages: 313
Released: January 2, 2018
Publisher: Berkley Books (Penguin Random House)
Received: E-ARC from publisher, via NetGalley
DNF: 31%

Jennifer Ashley is probably better known for her romance novels, but she does branch off occasionally and that's when she piques my interest. My one experience with her was her historical fiction take on Elizabeth I and I was pretty impressed with her storytelling, characterizations, and historical detail. So I had high hopes for Death Below Stairs.

The good? Just like in her Elizabeth book, Jennifer Ashley focuses on a historical craft and brings it wholly to life. In the Elizabeth book it was fashion and sewing, but in Death Below Stairs it's all about the food. The main character serves as the cook in a fancy British house ala Downton Abbey and the descriptions of the dishes she makes are detailed and divine. Honestly, I would have enjoyed the book if it was entirely about the cooking. The Downton Abbey feel of the upstairs, downstairs relationships and the big house was charming and thoroughly enjoyable.

So why the DNF? Mainly two reasons: I didn't like the main character and I didn't like her romance. The character of the main character didn't ring true to me and she was far too Strong Female Character for her own good. In an early scene she boldly sasses the master of the house while standing in defense of one of the servant girls who he occasionally likes to get handsy with. Now, don't get me wrong, she was in the right and the master of the house was very much portrayed as the Villain of the Piece, but it all felt so contrived. She also ran off half-cocked, which is behavior that would be more likely to get her fired than not. Which, a woman in her position would know and therefore not likely behave in such an eye-roll-inducing way. I know these traits are supposed to make us root for her, but it really just made me shake my head at her and find her off-putting and not realistic.

And then there's the romantic lead. He's a scoundrelly guy with Secrets who engages in work that isn't exactly above board. He has a network of spies and secret handshakes and disguises and he felt like such a contrived caricature and I just could not care less about him. He and the main character apparently have a history together, which is hinted at very strongly (which, really, the purpose was to hamfistedly direct the reader to the prequel novella) and yet he keeps so many secrets from her. I imagine this is supposed to make him seem dangerous and mysterious and therefore alluring, but I feel like I'm too old for that crap and I just want him to cut the childish games and be trustworthy, honest, and stable for her.

To be fair, much of this is simply a case of "wrong reader" as opposed to any real flaw in the book. The romantic lead is very much the adult version of the Dickensian street scamp, and that's a character I tend not to like very much.

Anyway, then, underneath all this, there is a murder mystery. I was interested in following this part of the story, but between the unappealing main characters and historically unrealistic vibe, I found it hard to stick with the story.

Bottom line

Readers who click with the main character and romantic lead should find enjoyment with Death Below Stairs. There are a lot of elements here I can get on board with and I want to love this series, but I think it's probably just not for me.




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