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
Goodreads

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
Goodreads

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
Goodreads

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
Goodreads

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
Goodreads

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.


Recommended for readers who enjoyed: 

http://smallreview.blogspot.com/2011/07/book-review-plain-kate-by-erin-bow.html
http://smallreview.blogspot.com/2011/06/spotlight-list-fairy-tale-retellings.htmlhttp://smallreview.blogspot.com/2016/03/book-review-uprooted-by-naomi-novik.html 






Friday, January 6, 2017

2017 Library Reading Challenge



Challenge Basics:  

Name: 2017 Snagged at the Library Challenge
Previous Hosts: Geeky Blogger's Book Blog (in 2016)
Starts: January 1, 2017
Ends: December 31, 2017
Eligible Books: Books from my libraries 


Why I'm Interested:  

Last year this challenge put in perspective the idea that, while yes I do have access too all these great libraries, there is a definite "use it or lose it" factor in play here. Libraries weed their shelves, I move. So, with that lesson in mind, I want to make an effort to consistently check out books from my library.



Books Completed:

5.
4.
3.
2.
1.



Books DNF'ed:

1.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

2017 Read My Own Books Challenge


7/12 books


Challenge Basics: 
Name: Read My Own Damn Books Challenge
Previous Hosts: Estella's Revenge
Starts: January 1, 2017
Ends: December 31, 2017
Eligible Books: Books you own prior to 2017.
Levels: I'm going to try to read and/or DNF and get rid of 12 books I own.

Why I'm Interested:  

I seriously have too many books and they keep sitting on my shelves unread. I did this challenge in 2015 and ended up getting rid of almost all the books I read for the challenge, which means I've carted around and found room for all those books that I didn't even end up liking. Before I move again, I need to reevaluate the books I'm bringing with me and make sure they're books I actually want.

Some books I'm considering: 

Anything on my Own-Unread shelf that I acquired prior to 2017.

At the start of 2017, here's where I stand as far as what books I own and what percentage of them I've read:

31% Acquired in 2016
17% Acquired in 2015
32% Acquired in 2014
50% Acquired in 2013
39% Acquired in 2012
75% Acquired in 2010-2011
83% Acquired in 2008-2009
85% Acquired in 2003-2007
96% Acquired in 2002 and earlier


Books Completed:

12.
11.
10.
9.
8.
7. The Queen's Daughter by Susan Coventry (2013)
6. Spirits of the Season by Phoebe Rivers (2016)
5. One Salt Sea by Seanan McGuire (2016)
4. Mischief Night by Phoebe Rivers (2016)
3. Mariana by Susanna Kearsley (2016)
2. Haunted Memories by Phoebe Rivers (2016)
1.The Guests on South Battery by Karen White (2016)


Books DNF'ed:

1.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

2017 Historical Fiction Challenge



2/15 books

Challenge Basics:  

Name: 2017 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge
Hosts: Passages to the Past
Starts: January 1, 2017
Ends: December 31, 2017
Eligible Books: YA and adult historical fiction books. Non-fiction included.
Levels: I am going to try for 15 books

Why I'm Interested:  

Historical Bio: These are the weightier, meatier books that I want to make top priority. They go into detail about actual people and events and I'll learn the most from them. I've thrown in the non-fiction books onto this shelf, too. I've been toe-dipping into non-fiction, and I'd like to continue that toe-dip.

Historical Fantasy: These vary as far as actual historical learning goes. Some have a ton of historical detail, but most just use a historical setting. Some of my favorite books come from this shelf and I don't want to neglect them just because they're not heavy historical fiction.

Historical Lite: These are a lot like the books on my Historical Fantasy shelf, just without the fantasy elements. Usually they're mysteries or romances set with a historical backdrop of varying degrees of detail. They're often easy breezy, fun books and I want to make sure I read them as well.

I also went on a buying spree and brought home a whole bunch of historical fiction books that I don't want to leave unread for years. So, extra points if I read those.


Books Completed:

Historical Non-Fiction

3.
2.
1.

Historical Bio (fiction):

9.
8.
7.
6.
5.
4.
3.
2.
1. The Queen's Daughter by Susan Coventry

Historical Fantasy:

3.
2.
1. Mariana by Susanna Kearsley

Historical Lite:

3.
2.
1.


DNF:

1.

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