Monday, December 17, 2018

2018 in Review: January through March

I made a really big list

It's that time of year again! I started making these lists because I'm a list kind of person, but they've become so much more. I've found myself returning to them time and again almost like a scrapbook. It's been a nice way to reflect, remember, and reminisce.

My Name is Victoria by Lucy Worsley
I started out the year with a review book and low expectations. See, I tend to loathe Victoria. Plus, my review book had a much uglier cover than the very pretty cover I've included here (and, yep, I'm totally influenced by covers). And yet, despite all that, I adored this book, which was made even more exciting because I was so not expecting to feel this way.

Added bonus, this book introduced me to Lucy Worsley, which led to many delightful hours spent on Youtube watching Lucy Worsley historical documentaries. Which in turn led to even more happy hours spent watching Dan Jones, Suzannah Lipscomb, Helen Castor, and Thomas Penn historical documentaries. 

The Thrifty Guide to Ancient Rome by Jonathan W. Stokes
Another review book. Yeah, I was slaying it with review books (stay tuned, this doesn't last). The time travel part was pretty hokey and I ended up skimming most of it, but the historical parts were great. Lots of facts and trivia that ended up spurring hours of internet research. Not bad. 

The Kalahari Typing School for Men by Alexander McCall Smith
I call the books in this series my Lady Detective books, and I say it with warm fondness. These books are just nice. They also have a really great sense of place, and added bonus is that it's an interesting place that I don't ever "visit" in other books. I was on a roll with them last year, but this year I only ended up reading the one. Probably because Marion Chesney entered my life (you'll see), but I'll make my way back to the Lady Detective books again.

Epitaph for Three Women by Jean Plaidy
Jean Plaidy is my go-to author when I want historical fiction that basically reads like narrative non-fiction. Never amazing but always solid. This one was pretty long and I remember reading it during my lazy winter mornings before work, curled up under the covers, sipping coffee, and watching the sun rise.

This book focuses on three different women, so it's almost like three different books all set around the same time period. I liked the approach. Catherine of Valois' section was nice and provided great context for the later sections, but otherwise didn't particularly stand out. I enjoyed Anne O'Brien's account more. Joan of Arc's section was fascinating, even if she was not particularly likeable. Eleanor of Gloucester and her husband were both awful people, but it was so much fun reading their sections. Definitely "love to hate" kind of characters. This might be my favorite Plaidy thus far.

Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell
I put off reading this book for so long because the blurb just didn't grab me. I ended up really enjoying it, even if I don't remember much about it now. Nice, sweet, forgettable, and probably re-readable.

Another Little Piece by Kate Karyus Quinn
I've owned this book for six years and I didn't want to cart it through another move without having read it. I put a bunch of unread books on one bookcase and I vowed this year that I was going to make a dent on that shelf. So, that's why I read this book. It was...interesting. Definitely different from the average YA paranormal book and it effectively hit me in an emotional, gut punchy way. This was good. It was also pretty standard YA of the early 2010s era, which means it had an overwrought romance, high page count, and yet was a super fast read. I'm glad I read this one, finally, but I also didn't feel the need to keep it anymore.

Heir Apparent by Vivian Vande Velde
February started with a re-read, but not the best one I could have picked. I love Vivian Vande Velde's books, but this one was never one of my favorites. The main character is stuck in a virtual reality video game where every time her character dies she gets reset to the beginning of the storyline. It's fun to see her figure out which decisions lead to which outcomes and figure out what she needs to do to beat the game, but it is so, so tedious resetting the beginning of the story every time.

The Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell
Well, I enjoyed the other Merrie Haskell book so much that I decided not to wait another seven years before picking up another one of her books. This one was good, and while it had an evocative sense of place and a slow burn, relaxing pace, it was melancholy and also didn't stick with me. But, I did enjoy it a lot and, added bonus, all three of her books tie into one another with subtle nods in the world building and overlapping characters. I wish she'd write more books in this world.

Penmarric by Susan Howatch
I adore these books! While on the surface this is a family saga set in the early 20th century it is also a pretty spot on historical fiction book about Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their children. Their characterizations are palpable and have stuck with me all year long. I've read several other books this year about these historical figures and Susan Howatch's may just be the most real and gut-punchy characterizations of the bunch (and the other books I read were fabulous, so). The retelling aspects make me ponder the historical figures and events in a new way, adding depth and nuance to their personalities and stories. Thankfully I have one more Howatch book to read, but I so wish she had written more from this era.

Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe by Preston Norton
I'm not sure what I actually think about this book (though pretentious, fun, overblown, ridiculous, memorable, and "oh come on now" all come to mind), but I do know how I feel: happy. Sure, it may be an eye-rolly kind of happy, and this book is far from perfect (it's kind of a hot mess), but my lasting feeling is still happy and I consider that a win.

Prada and Prejudice by Mandy Hubbard
I wanted something light and fun and sweet like Stephanie Kate Strohm's fashion books or Scones and Sensibility, so enter Prada and Prejudice. It hit the mark...and also didn't. It wasn't as good as the other books and the main character was far too modern and refused to adapt to her new era (thanks to time traveling), but she grew on me and the story grew on me and in the end it was light and fun and sweet.

Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede
This is another book from The Shelf, which I've only carted unread through one move and I've only owned it since 2016. So, not terrible, but definitely getting there. I'm more happy that I read this and can remove it from my shelves than I am that I experienced the story. It was ok. I liked the historical fantasy setting and world that was created but I didn't like the "accent" it was written in and the story itself felt plodding. I'm still not sure if I'll read the next book in the series.

The Reluctant Queen by Jean Plaidy
March started off with another Plaidy, but unfortunately this one was one of her weakest thus far. I love the story of Anne and Richard and regardless of The Historical Truth (which we don't totally know) I want to believe that they were the ultimate love match. Anne O'Brien's take on their story was ok, but a little too sugary and the divide between the "goodies" and the "baddies" was laughable at times. I was hoping for more, but I didn't get it here and I ended up liking Anne O'Brien's version more. Richard wasn't the hero I wanted him to be and Anne's story was more tragic and dull than exciting and romantic. Oh well, not bad, but nothing special either.

The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley
Well, I liked Mariana more. I just had to get that out there because Mariana was definitely on my mind when I picked up The Rose Garden. That said, this was a very close second and I loved every minute of it. I was reminded of Daphne du Maurier's Frenchman's Creek, but with a fun paranormal time travel element and a better main character and love interest. I can definitely see myself re-reading this one.

Freya and the Magic Jewel by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams
I love this series! Perhaps not quite as good as the Goddess Girls books, this is definitely a close second. That could also change in the next books, because I've learned that Joan and Suzanne create series where the character of focus can really change my level of enjoyment. That's to say, I tend to enjoy them all, but some characters I really connect with and those stories are the best. Either way, I'm excited to see another retelling series from these authors and I can't wait to read more.

The Shadowy Horses by Susanna Kearsley
Well, The Rose Garden kicked off an obsession and I spent much of March gobbling up Susanna Kearsley books. I'm still amazed that I ended up reading 8 books in March and three of them were over 400 pages long. This book felt different from TRG and Mariana and, it's odd to say, but it kind of reminded me of Michael Crichton. I think it has something to do with the 1990s, which is when this book was written. There's also an archeology theme in this one that reminded me of the early scene in Jurassic Park when Alan and Ellie are digging up the raptor and Alan scares the kid with his raptor claw. There wasn't any time travel here, the ghostly connection to the past was more of a footnote than a central focus (though, there was still a nice bit of Roman history here), and the mystery reveal was kind of eye-rolly, but I still enjoyed this immensely. It was fun.

The Splendour Falls by Susanna Kearsley
My Susanna Kearsley kick was still going strong and while this one wasn't quite 400 pages long, it very nearly was. And, just like the others, I didn't feel the length at all. I was really looking forward to the historical connection with this book (King John!), but unfortunately it was more telling than living. We didn't get to travel into the past and there wasn't even a ghost. *Sigh* That said, it was still fun learning about the siege John's queen Isabella endured. The modern story was just ok and instead of finding the characters endearing and lovable like I have in all her other books, these characters felt irritating and slightly creepy. Overall, I still enjoyed this book a lot, but it was also meh enough in parts that it let me put aside the rest of her books for some point in the future. Obsession sated. For now.

The Magic Mirror by Susan Hill Long
I was SO excited when this book came out in 2016 and it was so popular that it took all the way until 2017 for my library hold to come through. So...why did I wait until 2018 to actually read it? I don't even know. But I did read it, and it was worth the wait. Interestingly, I don't remember much of the details of this story except that it was great and I'll probably reread it.

The Case of the Counterfeit Criminals by Jordan Stratford
I read this one as an audiobook and I really think that wasn't the best choice. The reader was fine, very good actually, but I don't like reading books for the first time on audio because I never pay enough attention. I think I need to reread this book to fully appreciate it, but I gathered enough through this experience to know that I want to reread it.

Queens of England by Norah Lofts
This was a total impulse read. I saw it on the shelf at work and decided to grab it. It was heavy, literally. My copy was old and printed back in the day when paper quality was thick. The content wasn't heavy at all though and I flew through it. Each queen gets approximately 2-5 pages (with pictures) and I generally liked the way Norah Lofts described each queen and her impact on history. I've been reading a lot of these chronological bite size accounts, and I like how they reinforce my memory, expand my understanding, and put each historical vignette into the greater context of history.


January through March was filled with delight. I read a nice mix of "goal books," "review books," and books that were unplanned fun. I'm happy that I read so many authors who I've read and enjoyed before rather than leaving huge gaps between reads. Susan Howatch, Susanna Kearsley, Alexander McCall Smith, Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams, Jean Plaidy, Merrie Haskell, and Jordan Stratford all fall into that group and I really enjoyed the time I spent with them again.

I set up my challenges to focus on books acquired in 2018, books acquired prior to 2018, and historical books, and this seemed to work very well. It gave me focus, but also enough freedom to let my reading whims take me wherever I wanted to go.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Book Review: Isabella by Colin Falconer

Pages: 298
Released: April 21, 2015
Publisher: Lake Union
Received: Library
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sometimes when I can't decide what to read next I pick a handful of books and do the "first chapter" test where I read the first chapter of each book and see which one hooks me. Isabella won out. I'm not even sure why, though it's possible the super short chapters helped (it's always easier for me to read a book with short chapters). I was also in the mood to read something historical, and I haven't read too many books yet on Edward II and Isabella so I was curious to learn more about them and their era of history.

I say I'm not even sure why because objectively this book is...not great. The writing style is strange and somewhat off-putting. It reads like an awkward translation with strange sentences and stilted writing. The characters are also thinly drawn and hard to connect with as a result. Most are barely there and interchangeable and I found myself keeping the barons straight by tagging on superficial reminders (oh yeah, he's the one who was nice that time, or he's the one whose her uncle). The main characters like Isabella and Edward were more fleshed out, but I think this was mostly due to the fact that we get to spend more time with them than because they're particularly deep or developed.

But, despite this, I was drawn in right away and continued to feel this way throughout the book. It kept my interest and I kept finding myself pulled back to it. 

As far as history goes, it all seemed pretty accurate. We trot through all the main events without ever going into much detail or complexity. But, it was a good surface-level run through of events and easy to follow, which isn't a bad thing.

Of course, with history like this, it's always colored by how the author chooses to interpret the characters and their motivations, personalities, and the "rightness" of their situations. In this case, Roger Mortimer is a one-note villain and very disappointing. Isabella and Edward, though, were both portrayed in a sympathetic though realistic light, which I found pleasantly surprising. Neither were pure heroes, and nor were they villains. They were both just people, flawed in ways, respectable in others, and both, in their own ways, likeable.

Perhaps this was the real strength of the book. Even though the writing made things distant and I still wouldn't exactly say there was great character depth in that they came alive off the page, their situations and feelings were told in such a way that I really felt for them both.

It was kind of like watching those docudramas where the narrator says things like, "It must have been terribly sad for Isabella..." or "We can only imagine how conflicted Edward must have felt..." (on a side note, I've been loving the docudramas narrated by the historical writers Suzannah Lipscomb and Dan Jones). Isabella's painful unrequited love and Edward's raw loss and unapologetic sympathy for Isabella took this book beyond the weird writing style, giving it a humanity and nuance that makes it stand out as among the better books I've read about these two people.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Book Review: Mother Knows Best by Serena Valentino

Pages: 400
Released: August 7, 2018
Publisher: Disney
Received: Finished copy from publisher
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

These books are wacky. I've now read three of these Disney Villain origin stories (Ursula, The Queen from Snow White) and I'm noticing a pretty consistent pattern. Basically:

Intriguing plot. I get hooked by these stories. I want to know what happens next. I wouldn't say they're well-plotted stories, since they're actually pretty ridiculous. But I can't help enjoying them.

So-so writing. The writing is pretty stilted. The dialogue is sometimes painful. I feel like I'm reading fan fiction.

Sympathetic villain. The origin stories turn the villains into saccharine sweet victims of horrible circumstances. It's a little much, but it's also pretty effective. I liked Gothel, I wanted her to win, and my heart broke for her every time her situation got worse and worse.

Side characters. There's usually at least one side character that's, if not fully developed, they're written in such a way that I care for them and enjoy reading about them.

Background story.  Serena Valentino has created three new characters that appear in each of these books. They're interesting, a little annoying, and I feel like I want to dislike them but can't help being intrigued by their side story. I want to trust them and like them, and I do, but then they go and do something that makes me question how good and trustworthy they actually are. I just want to know! We get glimpses into what they're up to and I just want to shake them and get them to tell me what's going on already (which is usually how the main villain character feels about them, too).

Bottom line?

I like these books. I roll my eyes and feel ridiculous and then I gobble them up. I'll keep reading this series.


Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Book Review: Titans of History by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Pages: 640
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin Random House)
Released: October 16, 2018
Received: ARC from publisher
Rating: 4 our of 5 stars

I adore books like this: short chapters (2-4 pages) focused on different people throughout history in a roughly linear romp through time. Filled with facts, bite-sized enough to easily speed through a few at a time, yet also short enough not to bog down or require commitment.

Surprisingly, good versions of these types of books are fairly hard to come by. Sure, you can grab a million different "short history snippet" type books, but so many fall into one or more of the following pitfalls:

1. The author is trying too hard to be funny, usually resulting in slightly mocking writing that puts down those who tend to like history while failing to be witty enough to entertain those who don't like history.

2. The snippets are so short and the author leaves out crucial information or lumps everyone into caricatures that leaves the reader with a complete misunderstanding of people and events.

3. Overblown sensationalism.

4. Not enough meat to the chapters, so they end up making little sense unless you already know the historical figures or events.

Simon Sebag Montefiore managed to avoid all of these pitfalls. Not only that, but he also made each chapter interesting and engaging. Multiple times I'd get to a historical figure and I'd think, "I don't think I care about this person enough to bother reading their chapter," but then the "it's only 3 pages" voice would chime in and I'd give in and read the chapter. And I'd find myself fully enthralled and wanting to jump to Google and start searching for more information on the historical figure and their time period. Which, really, is what this type of book is supposed to do.

This is the first printing in the US, but was previously published in the UK. Some new chapters have been added and some chapters removed for this US version. Looking at the UK version, there may be more removed than added, but I'm not positive. I do miss some of the missing chapters and I wonder why they were slated for removal. As with all of these types of books, some of my favorites in history weren't included, whereas others I wouldn't have necessarily picked were included. Not a big deal either way. Some author bias also comes through (he asserts in no uncertain terms that Richard III did indeed murder his nephews), but, again, it's not awful.

While I tend to prefer reading about Western figures, there are a number of Middle Eastern and Asian "titans" included, which admittedly did help broaden the scope of history and put all of those European doings into a greater world context (ala "meanwhile, in China..."). 

Bottom line

Nicely done, Mr. Montefiore. Nicely done.

Now, let's work on getting a better cover, please.


Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Book Review: Bright Burns the Night by Sara B. Larson

Pages: 307
Publisher: Scholastic
Released: May 29, 2018
Received: ARC from publisher
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

So, technically this is book 2 in a duology and I have not read book 1. I don't think that really matters, and it's not the reason why I ended up dropping so many stars.

Up until about two thirds of the way through this was a solid 3.5 star read. Nothing amazing, but it had that something special with the characters that made me care about seeing what happened to them. The romance had all the right sparks (hate turned love) and there was enough treachery and menace to the world to keep my heart pounding.

Until it didn't. The final third of the book saw the characters leaving the slow-build safety of their castle and venturing out on a quest. Should be awesome, right? Except, no. It felt like the first two thirds were fully fleshed out and, if not well-written, at least written in a way that was engaging and fun. I felt nostalgic for the good old days of YA paranormal/fantasy romance.

That final third, though. It felt like the author ran up against a deadline and needed to wrap things up STAT. Everything went off the rails ridiculous, which I could have even tolerated, but it was all so thin. I felt like I was reading a framework of a story instead of the actual published book.

Bottom line

I would have enjoyed this so much more had the ending not rushed everything and fallen apart in the process. What a shame.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Book Review: The Thrifty Guide to Ancient Greece by Jonathan W. Stokes

Pages: 144
Publisher: Viking
Released: September 11, 2018
Received: Finished copy from publisher
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This marks the third edition in the Thrifty Guide series, with each book focusing on a different era in history. So far I'm 2/3 with this series (I didn't like the American Revolution one very much), which isn't too bad. I still don't care for the time travel gimmick, but this time I pretty much just skipped over reading any of those parts and I didn't miss anything.

The rest is pretty much straight non-fiction, exploring everything from famous people, aspects of culture, major achievements, and significant events. So many facts were crammed into this slim book, but it was never bogged down or boring. Each fact is broken up into bite-sized pieces and described in an easy-breezy way that made for light, fun reading. For all the time it took me to read the book (not much time at all) I learned or brushed up on a whole lot of information.

Recommended. I'm looking forward to the next installment: Medieval Times!

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Book Review: Her Highness, the Traitor by Susan Higginbotham

Pages: 323
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Released: June 1, 2012
Received: Own
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I enjoy Susan Higginbotham's novels. In this one, we get to see the events surrounding Edward VI's reign and death, Jane Grey's short-lived reign, and Mary I's rise to the throne. I've read about this period before, but never through the eyes of Jane Dudley and Frances Grey, the mothers of the ill-fated Guilford Dudley and Jane Grey. Chapters alternate between these perspectives, breathing new life into this period of history and definitely contributing to my enjoyment of the book.

Were they both as innocent of social climbing as Susan Higginbotham makes them out to be? Maybe. Their treatment by Mary seems to imply that they weren't the schemers many books make them out to be.

While both of the mothers were sympathetic, it was hard to like Jane Grey. I've seen her portrayed as an innocent victim and as a snooty religious fanatic, and her portrayal here is sort of a mix between the two. Her youth is frequently brought up and it is important to remember how she was still young and learning. But, she's still really annoying. Almost so annoying that when she died it was all I could do not to feel happy about that.

I also liked how Susan Higginbotham didn't cast either Mary or Elizabeth as a villain. Both women were made out to be good-hearted, if not always making the best choices. Elizabeth plays a very, very minor role, but Mary has several scenes and I found myself looking forward to reading them. I'd enjoy reading a Mary-focused book, if the author ever chose to write one.

What I like about the books like this that focus on a real person, but not one of the Major Players is that I tend to connect even more dots between historical figures. The relationships and social positions of the wives, their husbands, their rivals, and their children helped flesh out my understanding of how all of these people were connected and influenced events. I definitely feel like I've deepened my understanding of this time period.

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