Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Mini Reviews: Middle Grade Books


The Grave Robber's Apprentice by Allan Stratton 
3 out of 5 stars
 
Well, this has been on my TBR for quite some time, and I guess I'm glad to have finally read it. It's one of those books that as perfectly pleasant while I was reading it, but almost immediately upon finishing it I started struggling to remember what it as about. So, not really a lasting impression kind of book.

It did remind me of Joshua Khan's amazing series, which is both a positive and a negative. The positive is that's a pretty good association. The negative is that The Grave Robber's Apprentice falls flat in comparison.

But, all that aside, I did enjoy it. This is a fast-paced, short-chaptered middle grade story with stock but endearing characters and a story I was interested in following. Kids will probably love it. Overall, recommended.



Horton Halfpott by Tom Angleberger
4.5 out of 5 stars
 
This one was also short, short-chaptered (sometimes even a page!), super fast read, but unlike The Grave Robber's Apprentice, this one sparkled with creativity. The writing style was charming and funny, the characters, while stock, still leapt off the page. This is the kind of book that makes me want to use words like delightful. Very much recommended.



 The Perilous Princess Plot by Sarah Courtauld
2 out of 5 stars

Meh. I was fresh off the high of Horton Halfpott and hoping for more fast, fun middle grade levity but this one kind of put a damper on my streak. It wasn't bad, exactly, but it wasn't great either. Even though The Grave Robber's Apprentice wasn't blowing me away with originality, it still had a plot that was unique enough to be its own.  

The Perilous Princess Plot was just trite. Stereotypical princess (stupid, silly, pretty, focused on romance) gets herself into trouble and stereotypical anti-princess princess (smart, brave, doesn't need a man, amazing!) gets her out of trouble. It was all just dripping with cardboard girl power. And, because that really was the focus of the story, everything else in the book felt like it was only there to prop up the tired old feminist spiel. Which, really, does weaken the message.


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Book Review: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith


Pages: 343
Published: 1943
Received: Library, Own
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Goodreads

*sigh* I've had this book on my TBR for so long, and during that time I've had my expectations bar set all over the place. I don't think I really had a clear idea what type of book this even was for the longest while. At first I was expecting more modern (a quick glance at the publication date set me straight, eventually), then I thought more Austen-Keeping-the-Castle feel (it's not, though KtC definitely pays homage to ICtC), at some point I think I had a vibe of American Gatsby-ish something (closer, though still wrong country), until finally settling on reality, which is a coming of age story set in 1930s England.

Whew. Ok. So even after starting the book it took me until about halfway through to finally realize what I was getting and wasn't going to get. And, that's where my dissatisfaction comes in. It's a very nice story. I like the characters a lot. I love the setting (crumbly old castle!). But, I wanted something to happen and it didn't and while I get it, I'm still not happy about it. I know, very vague.

I also feel so old saying this, but the teenage melodramatics and hyper-hormonal puppy love was not really my thing. I liked Cassandra a lot in the first half of the book when she was all sweet, and then she went full on teenager and it was kind of painful to read about. It sucks being a teenager and while Dodie Smith totally captured that feeling perfectly, it's not really a comfortable feeling or one I'm really aching to revisit.

There were also some not quite kosher romantic things going on surrounding the adults and teenagers in the story and none of that sat very well with me.

Well, that makes it sound like I didn't enjoy this book very much at all, which isn't the case. It's beautifully, vividly written and I was completely transported into the story. The sister's romance was much more up my alley and I wish we had more of an insider's look into that part of the story. The scene with the bear was very funny and I'll likely not forget many of the scenes (I started listing them and then realized I was listing more than half the book). I also have to mention that castle again because I adore it. While everything didn't go exactly as I wanted it to go, I appreciate this book very much and I'm happy to have finally read it.







Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Book Review: The Corfu Trilogy and Three Singles to Adventure by Gerry Durrell


#1: My Family and Other Animals
#2: Birds, Beasts, and Relatives
#3: In the Garden of the Gods

5 out of 5 stars, Special Shelf
 Goodreads

 I first heard of Gerry Durrell's books through Helen's reviews of Three Singles to Adventure and Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons. My tastes tend to run similar to Helen's and the combination of her positive reviews, selected quotes from the books, and how it all reminded me of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series led me to impulsively grab the first Gerry Durrell books I could get my hands on, which was the Corfu trilogy.

I'm afraid I may have partially ruined myself for all future Gerry Durrell books (of which there are many) by reading the Corfu trilogy first. They're just so good that I don't know that the other books will be able to match that high bar. But, I loved them so much that I'll also read through all his other books in the hopes that I can recapture this magic again.

The trilogy is made up of loose short stories recounting the funny adventures and experiences Gerry and his family have during their stay in Corfu. The stories are hilarious (often, literally, laugh out loud funny) and the kind of stories where I'm still turning to my husband and saying "Remember the one with the turtle" and then we both burst into laughter.

But it's not just the humor that makes these books so special. That alone would do it, but it's also the wonder of childhood, the relaxed atmosphere of Corfu, and the intriguing and surprisingly informative aspects of the stories. All of these things come together to create something I can only describe as magical.


Three Singles to Adventure
3.5 out of 5 stars
Goodreads

Fresh off the euphoria of the Corfu trilogy I quickly put in a NetGalley request for the book that sparked my interest from Helen's review: Three Singles to Adventure. The name alone is captivating and full of promise. To say my expectations bar was set high is an understatement.

Alas, was it my high expectations or are the Gerry Durrell books from his adulthood just missing the spark of childhood wonder? I found myself yearning for that undefined something that was missing in this book and so abundant in the Corfu trilogy.

The stories were funny, but few were hilarious. I found myself missing Gerry's family, such vibrant characters in the Corfu trilogy and sadly absent in this adventure. The cast of characters we meet here were fine, but somewhat undefined, especially in contrast to the vivid Larry, Leslie, Margo, and Mother.

Still fun, still nice, still an enjoyable and quick read. But, just not the Corfu trilogy.


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Mini Review: Dream Magic by Joshua Khan

Review of Book 1: Shadow Magic
Goodreads

This is maybe a weird way to think about a book, but I feel such relief with this series. The books are just consistently good and I feel like I can trust Joshua Khan to give me exactly the story I want.

The characters are well-developed and I like them. I like spending time with them, I like what they say, I like what they do, I like their hopes, dreams, worries, and fears.

The world is interesting, multi-layered, and feels real. I guess maybe that's a good way of describing these books: they feel real. Genuine. Nothing feels half-thought-out or inconsistent or false. Joshua Khan paints such a vivid picture of everything that I feel like I'm completely immersed in this world.

The pacing is pretty swift, but it doesn't feel like it's intentionally trying to keep the pace up to retain interest.

I don't have much to say about the plot without giving spoilers. I will say that this is an underappreciated series that I wish more people were reading. I love it.  


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Series Partial Review: Saranormal 1-5 by Phoebe Rivers


Goodreads

I started reading this middle grade series toward the end of December and carried through February before starting to run out of steam in March. They're quick, they're enjoyable, and they're deeper than I was expecting. They remind me the Mediator series by Meg Cabot, but with a little more people-focus and a little less action. I do plan on reading the rest of this 11 book series, just maybe with a bit of a pause.

Sara is a shy, insecure girl, and that's the main reason I need a small break from her. She has a tendency to respond to every new development with a similar mix of fear and sadness, even when the event is positive (yay she has a boyfriend! Let's focus on her fear of losing him! yay she develops a new power! Let's focus on how it makes her anxious).

She's sweet and overall I like her, but her insecurity, nervousness, and tendency toward the sad is wearing after a while, especially if I'm feeling stressed myself.

This does also make Sara a very real character though. She feels far more developed than I would have expected in a middle grade series where the books clock in only around 150 pages each (and that's with BIG font). I feel like I know her, and while the other characters don't get quite as much depth since we're not in their head, they aren't cardboard cutouts either and they're surprisingly nuanced. My favorite secondary character is eccentric Lady Azura, the old fortune teller Sara and her father move in with. She is hilarious, sweet, and definitely someone who can have fun. I always enjoy her scenes.

The mysteries are nice, though none have really blown my mind either. That's ok though. They're more focused on character exploration than thrills as Sara slowly uncovers their histories and deaths, and helps them come to terms with whatever it is that is keeping them from moving on. This is another opportunity for Phoebe Rivers' ability to explore characters to shine, but it's also usually pretty sad considering they're dead and clinging onto an unresolved issue.

Phoebe Rivers does just as good a job with world building as she does with character development. Sara's old, haunted Victorian home is a perfect "old house" experience, and her school and ice cream parlor hang-out spot feel comfortably familiar. Even the weather comes alive off the page, especially when a swirling blizzard blows through.

Bottom line

I've had this series on my TBR for a while and it's definitely lived up to my own internal hype. I like Sara, and her world of friends, ice cream shops, haunted Victorian houses, and family is palpably developed. I wish the books were a little more upbeat, but overall I'm very happy and impressed with this series.






Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Book Review: The Virgin Widow by Anne O'Brien


Pages: 409
Publisher: NAL
Released: November 2, 2010
Received: Own
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Goodreads

I've been trying to read through more of the books I own, and I've owned The Virgin Widow for about four years. For such a large book (hey, for me 400 pages is large!), it was a pretty quick read.

It was also a pretty surface-level read. Which, isn't a bad thing, but it is a little disappointing. Anne O'Brien mostly focuses on events and throws in a few one-note emotions for flavor. Basically, Anne loves Richard. Anne doesn't like admitting that to Richard (this causes misunderstandings). Anne likes her mom. Anne pretty much dislikes everyone else. Her emotions are shared in a very surface-level way without much explanation or depth, but Anne O'Brien makes sure the reader gets it through a lot of repetition. This effectively sorts the characters into the "good guys" and the "bad guys" without much nuance or character development.

The closest O'Brien gets to the type of exploration I'd prefer is with Anne's changing relationship with her father. This was also pretty thinly explored, but at least it was explored and is one of the only instances of Anne actually growing or changing as a person.

I also hated the invented incestuous relationship between Margaret of Anjou and her son. And, really, their entire characterizations. They were clearly the Baddies and Anne O'Brien seemed to relish in making up evil actions for them to engage in. I'm surprised our heroine didn't walk in on the pair cackling evilly over a cauldron. This was embarrassingly awful, but once I accepted it, it was actually kind of fun in an absurd way.

I'm not sure whether to put this in as a good thing or a bad thing, but I couldn't help but picture all the characters as they appeared in the miniseries version of Philippa Gregory's The White Queen. The events follow so closely and the characters are more or less written the same (though, TWQ miniseries had a lot more character depth and development, and that's not saying much). Despite its flaws, I enjoyed the miniseries and was able to get on board with most of the casting, so the association actually enhanced my enjoyment of The Virgin Widow.

I also appreciated how lockstep the characterizations were between this book and the miniseries. I don't think we can actually know for certain how all of these people acted, thought, and felt, but consensus among authors gives the illusion of truth (or plagiarism. Or lack of originality. I'd rather just pretend it's evidence of truth).

As for events, the broad strokes are all pretty much true. There are some tweaks in timing, and don't look too closely at the details, but if you unfocus your eyes and look at the blurry structure of events, it's pretty spot on. You have all the major players and events represented, just with a little mixing, tweaking, and smushing going on. Yes, I realize how absurd that sounds.

Despite its numerous flaws, I couldn't help but enjoy The Virgin Widow. Anne is likable enough and I didn't mind the overly fluffy romance between her and Richard. The story ends before Edward IV dies, so everything is happiness and love for Anne and Richard when we leave them. It was nice.

Bottom line

If the story felt a little false, it was a nice, fluffy kind of false. Look at this more as a romantic novel with a dash of history rather than the reverse. I think I would have been bothered more by The Virgin Widow if I didn't already know enough about the Wars of the Roses to be able to spot the inaccuracies. As it was, I wasn't fooled into "learning" something about history that's wrong (the biggest reason I hate inaccurate historical fiction), and I could just enjoy the romantic spin on what is, to me, an undeniably exciting slice of history.


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
Goodreads

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? 
You might like: 
 
http://smallreview.blogspot.com/2014/05/book-review-queen-of-last-hopes-by.htmlhttp://smallreview.blogspot.com/2015/12/book-review-kings-rose-by-alisa-m-libby.html


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...