Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Book Review: The Queen's Daughter by Susan Coventry

Pages: 373
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co.
Released: June 8, 2010
Received: Own
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I don't know why I should feel such a deep sense of satisfaction for finally reading a book that has been sitting on my shelves unread for over 3 years and my TBR for almost 7 years, but I do. I don't even know if it helps or matters that I enjoyed the book, but I did enjoy it.

It's also funny how reading another book can enhance the current reading experience. That also happened here. My previous experience with Thomas B. Costain's hilarious, insightful, and well-plotted non-fiction account of Henry II and Richard the Lionheart's adventures helped deepen my enjoyment of The Queen's Daughter by providing a richer backstory and context with which to place Joan's experiences here.

The Queen's Daughter is divided up into three sections and follows Joan's life from early childhood, through her time with her first husband in Italy, on crusade with Richard, and then back home again. There's a lot of stuff happening, and most of it is either true or makes sense given what we know about history. There's one bit that has no historical basis though and felt unnecessarily sensational. But, it's not a deal-breaker for me.

I'm usually a little eye-rolly about the whole The Somebody's Somebody trend in naming historical fiction books. A quick glance at my shelves show a whole lot of queen's something or king's somebody and it all seems very uninspired. In this case though, I think it actually works well. Joan is a whole lot less known than her dynamic mother (Eleanor of Aquitaine) and much of her life was impacted by her mother's influence, both directly in the sense of "marry this person, partake in this political scheme, suffer the fallout of Eleanor's political scheme" and internally in the sense that you don't have a mom like Eleanor without it affecting your psychological development.

The latter part especially added an extra layer to the book that I appreciated, and also wish had been developed even further. I wonder if this lack of development is because of the YA format, which, side note, this book also made me again question the line between YA and adult when it comes to historical fiction (all the "adult" situations and the way age doesn't line up with modern YA/adult milestones). The romantic ending also feels like it fits better in adult fiction and reminded me a lot of Anne O'Brien's style. This could have easily been classified as an adult book, and I think it might have been a better fit there and would have reached more readers.

Back to Joan, it felt like Susan Coventry had more to say and explore with Joan's thoughts and emotions, but held back, again, possibly because of the YA format. I would have loved a hundred or so more pages to really dig deeper into Joan's thoughts and relationships with the dynamic people in her life (her father Henry II, Richard, and the other men in her life). As it is, it felt toe-dippy, and just as things are getting good, we pull back and jump to the next event. Still, I appreciate what I did get.

Joan is, basically, mentally scarred by her mother's messed up way of dealing with people and much of this book follows Joan as she comes to terms with this and develops into her own person. Eleanor taught Joan not to trust people, not to fall in love, and to use people to get what you want. While this is all totally conjecture (and the author states that in her historical notes), I can buy it given what we do know about Eleanor, the people in Joan's life, and the historical mark (or lack of mark) Joan made herself.

Bottom line

I didn't realize I had so much to say about The Queen's Daughter. Clearly, it made an impact on me. Joan was an interesting, sympathetic person to follow and her perspective provided further depth to the more forceful players of the time (Henry II, Eleanor, Richard). I wish Susan Coventry would write more, as I'd definitely read another historical offering from her. Recommended for fans of Anne O'Brien.

Looking for another book like this? 
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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Series Review: October Daye by Seanan McGuire

I mini-reviewed the first four books in the series during my 2016 recap, so I thought I'd continue in that vein. I've tried to avoid spoilers in every mini-review, so you can read through all of them to get an impression of my feelings on the series without spoiling events. 

One Salt Sea (# 5) by Seanan McGuire

I picked this one up in December, got about halfway through, but then put it on hold during most of winter break. I don't know, I was still enjoying the series, but something about the plot of this one didn't really do it for me. More missing kids? It felt a little ho-hum. What should have felt thrilling (impending war!) just...didn't. I picked it up again after winter break and polished the second half off in about two days ending on a solid Good note. The ending could be considered game changing, but it just didn't impact me like I think it was supposed to.

Ashes of Honor (# 6) by Seanan McGuire

Ok, this one was more episodic. The stakes aren't so high and, yeah, there's another missing teen Toby needs to track down. But, for some reason, this one worked for me. Everything felt engaging and fun, and even if it didn't seem new, it felt familiar like old friends. I also liked getting to see different realms of Faerie. I could definitely see myself picking this one up again for a reread when I want to revisit October's world.

Chimes at Midnight (# 7) by Seanan McGuire

Yes! Chimes combined the fun of Ashes but also brought in some bigger events. I'm definitely, solidly, into this series again. The librarian in me loved the time we got to spend in the traveling library and the romantic in me was so happy that things are finally going how I want them to go. October's powers are growing, and while she skirts the line of "too powerful," I'm still on board and having fun learning what she can now do. There's also a scene at the end of this one that brought back some of the emotional depth I had been missing lately.

The Winter Long (# 8) by Seanan McGuire

FINALLY more secrets revealed! And, oh boy, there were a lot of secrets revealed. So much backstory was revealed and every answer was satisfying in its own way. We got to see shady characters from the past and learn a whole lot more about their motives, history, and ties to October. Of course, this also brought up just as many questions, and I'm still very interested in learning the answers to those questions now.

A Red-Rose Chain (# 9) by Seanan McGuire

Ugh, but I won't be finding them here. This book was awful. October became a super-human parody of herself, Tybalt became a love-sick sop randomly spouting Shakespearian tripe, all of the once-charming side characters became hollow props, and the author went off on a poorly inserted political rant. What a hot mess.

Once Broken Faith (# 10) by Seanan McGuire

I was ready to give up on the entire series after the abomination that is A Red-Rose Chain, but I figured with just one book left (published, there are still several more planned) that I might as well give it a shot. I'm glad I did. While Once Broken Faith isn't as good as the other books in the series, it's far from awful.

October is still too super-human and shallow, Tybalt is still too hollow (which, sidebar, it's such a shame to see his once-vibrant character turned into a cardboard cutout who only lives as a romantic caricature), and I didn't really get any answers to the overarching mysteries.

But, it also felt like everything was shifted a little closer to the good side of things. So it was comforting and my positive memories of the other books could carry the framework of this one well enough. I'm glad I read it, and now I will pick up the next book when it's released.

A note on the short stories:

There are a ton of short stories that can be read as companion pieces between the various novels. For the most part, I didn't like them. The ones I (tried to) read felt like fan-fiction in both writing and how much they diverged from cannon. Many are written from the POV of other characters and their voices just felt strange.

I don't think anything is missed by not reading these stories, and I wish I hadn't looked into them myself. The only one I did enjoy is Dreams and Slumbers, which comes right after Once Broken Faith. This one is also included in the published copy of that book, so I wonder if my enjoyment of it has something to do with the fact that it went through the publisher process (as opposed to all the other ones I read that were freebies).

Bottom line

Though the series is starting to wear a little thin, I'm still really glad I picked it up. I've had so much fun in October's world and am glad to have spent time with the characters I've met along this journey. I'm looking forward to reading more and I'm sad that I have to wait to continue on with October and this world. Despite the few rocky points, I'd still recommend this series. I just hope Seanan McGuire can recapture the magic in the final books. Now I need to find another paranormal series to fill the void.


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Book Review: Mariana by Susana Kearsley

Pages: 382
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Released: 1994
Received: Library, now own
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I picked this one up on a total impulse. Melissa from Melissa's Eclectic Bookshelf was reading this and I saw one of her updates on Goodreads. Something about the book grabbed my attention, and I downloaded it right then and there from the library. Thank you, Overdrive!

I started reading and I was immediately sucked into the story. Something about Susanna Kearsley's writing felt familiar, comfortable, and almost Daphne du Maurier-ish.

Much like a du Maurier book, Mariana moseys through the plot. Nothing is rushed, but at the same time nothing feels slow or dragging. It's all just a relaxing meander through old ruins, large historical houses, laid back visits to the local pub, and languid trips back through time. I enjoyed all of the characters, and while none really stood out, they all felt like familiar old friends. 

This is one of those heroine gets mentally sucked into the past type books where we slowly learn about a past history. I tend to like those kinds of stories, and Mariana can now be counted among my favorites. There's a little explanation given as to how all the time-slipping works and it's good enough for me to accept.

There's a twist at the end that I wish had been foreshadowed better. As it was, I accept it, and actually like it, but it was a little too about-face for my taste. Or maybe I'm just a very blind reader!

This was a great book to escape into and let the real world drift away. It's my first by Susanna Kearsley, but I'm now looking forward to making my way through her other works. The only challenge will be deciding where to begin!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Book Review: The Conquering Family by Thomas B. Costain

Pages: 291
Released: 1949
Received: Library, now own
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I really can't praise this book highly enough. I've been toe-dipping into non-fiction lately, but that doesn't mean I have any more tolerance for slow, dry books. I'm still an impatient reader and I still hate long digressions into primary source excerpts. So the fact that I've been enjoying some non-fiction doesn't mean I've really changed as a reader. It just means I've found some non-fiction that reads like fiction.

This book follows English history from the days of the Norman Conquest and the beginnings of the Plantagenet family, through Stephen and Matilda's civil war, Henry II's rise and rule, Richard's crusading escapades, and closing with John's bitter demise.

To say there's a lot of information packed in here is an understatement. The book is actually pretty short all things considered (just under 300 pages), and Costain manages to balance giving just the right amount of detail, avoiding the dreaded "too much glossing over" that makes a book worthless to read and the equally tiresome "too much detail" that may be good in theory but can make for an overly long and intimidating read.

Even better, Costain brings the historical figures to life. This, above anything else, is why I think I've remembered so much of what I read in his book. My only complaint is that he spent less time on the ladies of history and so they didn't come alive as much as some of the men.

Costain's opinions of these people are also very, very clear, and that does color the way he describes them and the impression I get of them. Normally I would count this as a negative, but for some reason it actually enhanced my enjoyment. Maybe because I tend to agree with his opinions? Whatever it is, his enthusiastic scorn for the "bad" characters, his unbridled admiration for the "good" characters, and his blunt appraisal of those in between characters made this an almost gleeful delight to read. You can tell he loves what he's writing about.

This is part one of four books making up "A History of the Plantagenets" but since it's history you really can pick them up in any order and stop at the end of any book. I haven't picked up the second book yet, mostly because the entire book covers just one monarch and he's not, at least as far as I know, as interesting to me. So, basically, I'm afraid that the book will be boring. I may skip it and instead jump in with The Three Edwards. I imagine Costain's snark will be laid on thick with that group of people.

Bottom line

Highly, highly recommended for anyone interested in the rise of the Plantagenets and all the crazy fighting they embroiled themselves in. It's a little hard to find these days, but it's well worth the effort to track down a copy.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Book Review: The Guests on South Battery by Karen White

#5 in the Tradd Street series
Pages: 352
Publisher: Berkley
Released: January 10, 2017
Rating: 4.5 out of 5, Special Shelf

Ok, so here's some backstory. I adore this series. Favorite ever, reread a bizillion times, re-listen on audio, feel like the characters are real, adore. The series wrapped up perfectly with book four and then there was a break between book four and book five and I was so worried that the series was going to get stretched beyond its natural ending and things would go downhill.

So. I saved this book for winter break so I could get the full distraction-free experience. And it was both more and less than I was expecting it to be.

Let's get the bad out of the way first? So, yes, the series maybe should have ended with book four. This did seem a little dragged out and we did a lot of retread over things that had been established in the previous four books rather than creating new. It did feel like this book was propped up more by the past than it was standing on its own two feet.

The mystery was good, but also disappointing. I don't pride myself on being a super-sleuth and figuring out mysteries long before they're revealed. The mysteries of the first four books did, well, take me by surprise maybe isn't the right phrase, but they slowly unfolded over the course of the story.

Not so with book five. Here I pretty much figured out all of the Big Reveals as soon as the first clue was dropped. That was disappointing, since half of the fun of these books has been unraveling the mystery. I also always thought the mysteries were clever, and while I do still like these mysteries, the delivery left something to be desired. The connections to Mellie's life also felt forced and unbelievable. How many secrets and ghostly connections can one family have?

And then there was that whole thing with Jack. The whole thing was treated as if it were a growth moment for Mellie, but I don't think she was wrong. I do think Jack was wrong, but it wasn't presented like that. The whole thing made me think less of him, and I really don't want to think less of Jack.

Ok, deep breath. Now that that's all out of the way, on to the good! The book still gets high marks from me because despite all my quibbles, this is still very much a Tradd Street book.

I still adore all the characters, I still love spending time in the old houses, I still love being transported back to Charleston, and I still love the ghostly mysteries. There's also the addition now of Mellie's children and I never thought I'd find fictional babies adorable and wonderful, but Karen White has me (semi) convinced that I want some of my own now.

Bottom line

Yeah, this could have been better. And, yes, it's definitely showing signs of a series that has run its course. But, the ending strongly suggests that we're in for at least one more book, and that's good because despite everything, I'm not ready to let go yet.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Book Review: Beauty and the Beast retellings

Beauty by Robin McKinley
Pages: 256
Rating: 3 our of 5 stars

I've always thought of this as one of those classics I "should" have read a long time ago. It felt like one of those Important Books that I somehow missed out on during my childhood. It also very like a very 1990s book (this cover was from the 1993 edition and the one I most associate as the "real" version), but I was surprised to realize that it was actually first published in 1978. To me, that's "old" and make more sense why I've associated it with a classic or standard version.

Unfortunately, I didn't read it in the 1990s. I read it in 2016, and I read it six years after I'd read Cameron Dokey's version Belle (part of the excellent Once Upon a Time series). Considering McKinley's version came out long before Dokey's did, I have things kind of reversed in my mind, which isn't entirely fair to McKinley but it is what it is. Since I read the Dokey version first, to me that's the "original" and McKinley's is the copy.

Belle by Cameron Dokey
Pages: 224
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Both versions are so similar that I don't know that my opinion of them wouldn't just be reversed had I read them in the opposite order. They're both written in that superficial way that works really well for fairy tale retellings. What I mean is that the characters don't have depth, the romance is very undeveloped, and the plot doesn't always make perfect sense, but none of that is a bad thing because it's supposed to be that way in a fairy tale.

Both versions stick closely to the bones of the fairy tale: family of sisters lose a mother and fortune, father has an incident with the beast and a rose (a man whose appearance and estate are cursed because his personality is beastly), girl takes place of father in a bargain with the beast, girl and beast find love, enchantment is broken, happily ever afters abound.

There isn't really much to either story beyond that, and nothing more is needed. Both stories are pleasant, slightly beautiful, forgettable in the details, but remembered fondly in the broad strokes. I'd recommend them both equally, but I personally lean toward Dokey because we met first (also, her book has the more beautiful cover. Even the reprints).

I enjoy these types of fairy tale retellings and I think it's somewhat unfair to compare them to the types of retellings where the author takes the bones of the fairy tale and then fleshes them out with their own unique story. Both approaches have their value and I enjoy them both. But, the latter has the ability to stick in my mind more, grip my heart more, and just feel more

Heart's Blood by Juliet Marillier
Pages: 402
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars, Special Shelf

Juliette Marillier's version is the more kind of retelling. It's a Beauty and the Beast retelling, yes, but it's also it's ok unique story. The bones of the original tale are used as a framework that Marillier then weaves her story around. The original becomes almost more inspiration, loosely alluded to and there enough to guide the story but not enough to dictate it or make what happens next wholly predictable.

What sticks in my mind is less the traditional tale and more a mix of ghosts, wintry chill, and peril. An old, isolated castle with cold stones, exploration, and hidden treasures waiting to be discovered. And by treasures, I don't mean gold, but things like libraries, hidden historical clues, stories lost to time, curses, magical artifacts, and secret rooms.

This is the kind of book where things are uncovered. My joy in reading came from following main character Caitrin as she explores the castle, meets the mysterious, friendly, and frightening denizens, uncovers the past, and pieces together the curse. The romance itself was ok. I wasn't a huge fan of the beast because he's, surprisingly, kind of weak. But that's ok, because everything else more than made up for this.

This is the type of book that makes me think of the word storytelling all italicized and underlined. This was a book to be savored, even though I flew through it, utterly absorbed. This is a book to be reread. It reminded me of books like Uprooted and The Thirteenth Tale and holds a place on my Special Shelf.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Pages: 336
Publisher: Del Rey
Released: January 10, 2017
Received: ARC from publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

I kept hearing all sorts of things about how beautiful and lyrical this book was and that usually means I'm equally intrigued and worried about being bored. I like beautiful books. I also know that waxing poetic about how beautifully written a sentence is can also be code for "dull."

Lucky for me, this was the kind of beautiful that is also absorbing and captivating. The chapters are on the longish side and usually that's a bad thing for me, but it didn't bother me in this book. Mostly because I was so, well, absorbed.

The book starts out in one direction and then slowly winds toward the main thread of the story. It first introduces side characters and background characters and normally this would really frustrate me because I hate books that take forever to get going, but in this case it worked for me. Again, chalk it up to the absorbing writing? Probably. It was almost like little fairy tales building on one another to create a bigger fairy tale.

And, yes, this is definitely one of those fairy tale type books. The characters have the depth and nuance of fairy tale characters, which somehow manages to be both shallow and deep at the same time. Sometimes things happen in illogical ways but it works because it's a fairy tale story and sometimes you just need to go with things in these types of stories. The plot winds together slowly and sometimes disconnected, but always methodically and building inexorably toward the final showdown between good and evil.

Bottom line

Beautiful, absorbing, captivating, atmospheric. This recalls childhood stories with all of the magic a good storytelling can impart.

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