Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Mini Reviews: Fluffy YA history and fashion

Confederates Don't Wear Couture by Stephanie Kate Strohm
Rating: 3.5 stars

Fun, fun, fun. This book had all the ingredients I needed for a light, fluffy, pick-me-up kind of book. I enjoyed the first book Pilgrims Don't Wear Pink, but I think this one might have been even better. You also don't need to read the first book to enjoy the second (the only spoiler for the first book is who Libby ends up with romantically, and it's really no surprise in the first book).

Sassy gay best friend Dev is pretty much the reason for most of my enjoyment. He spends the entire book joyously reveling in crafting period-appropriate fancy dresses, appreciating the southern gentlemen in uniform, pining for quality coffee,  squealing in terror at the ghost, and coming to Libby's rescue repeatedly with sarcastic sympathy and pretty clothing. He was a delight.

I would happily read more books in this series, as long as Dev continues to steal the spotlight. Alas, I don't think more are planned.

The Time-Traveling Fashionista: On Board the Titanic by Bianca Turetsky
Rating: 3 stars

Overall, I liked this book and I plan on reading the sequels. I figured I should get that out right up front because there were a few things I was kind of meh on, but they clearly weren't deal breakers. So, the things I didn't love:

The pictures were...I don't know, kind of blah? So was the main character. She felt kind of distant, and I think that's because the writing just wasn't that great. There also wasn't any sense of urgency with the plot, which kind of just meandered along.

But, the pictures were also interesting to look at and they made for a really fast read because almost every other page has a picture of some sort on it. The chapters are also really tiny, so, again, super fast read. There were two side characters that really didn't play much of a role but I'm a sucker for the witchy, eccentric lady duo (think Hilda and Zelda in Sabrina the Teenage Witch or the two witchy aunts in Practical Magic) and these were fun. I wish they had more page time, but hopefully they will in the sequels.

I also learned a lot I didn't know about the Titanic, the famous people on the ship, and the fashions of the time. This in turn inspired an hours-long internet research binge after I had finished the book. Always a plus.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Book Review: Royal Bastards by Andrew Shvarts

#1 in the Royal Bastards series
Pages: 352
Released: May 30, 2017
Publisher: Disney
Received: ARC from publisher
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Well, this was a pleasant surprise. I was expecting a court story with a bunch of anachronistic and hard to like royal bastards. I was fully expecting to DNF after a few chapters of drunken lazying about with big chips on our shoulders. I even thought this was historical fiction with a ton of liberties.

Apparently I didn't pay much attention to the blurb? This is pure fantasy. There's about one chapter of the above before very quickly diving into murder, magic, mayhem and perilous flight. The entire book is spent on the road trying to get to a royal city while being pursued by murderous bad guys and running across creepy, deadly wildlife. Basically, it was non-stop action and the pages flew by.

The bratty bastards were also not what I was expecting. They were actually likable. Sure, they're very tropey (tough girl with a soft heart, geeky smart guy, good looking quiet warrior, guy-next-door, and kind princess who is more than she seems), but they were likable tropes. I enjoyed reading about all of them and I cared what happened to them. Plus, there's romance and it hit at all the right spots.  There were a few surprisingly emotional moments that added a level of depth.

The world building is pretty standard fare for medieval-ish fantasy. There aren't orcs and elves, but there are taverns, magic-users, and battles. There's a conquering history that has laid the groundwork for the current rebellion and while it's fairly thin on substance, it gets the job done. The magic is interesting enough and the Narnia-ish turn-people-to-stone magic is suitably horrifying. I liked the inclusion of the gross fantasy creature and I don't think you can go wrong with giant magic explosions (of which there were several). 

I'm wavering between a 3.5 and a 4 and I suspect that in a few months I'll have forgotten most of what happened, but I'm bumping it to a 4 because it was just plain fun. I'm looking forward to finding out what happens next.


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Book Reviews: Tudor Round Up

Tudor by Leanda de Lisle
Pages: 539
Received: Library
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Leanda de Lisle has written what I consider to be a worthwhile (non-fiction) addition to the massive Tudor library. I picked this out as part of my "moving TBR" (that is, all the books that my old library has that my new library doesn't have) and, yeah, picking up such a doorstop while getting ready to move all during a two week window of time was a little intimidating. 

But, I did it. And I actually really enjoyed it. There was something almost cozy about reading through such a familiar story and I really appreciated how Leanda de Lisle added her own touches so it felt familiar but not boring. Her perspective and focus on Margaret Beaufort, Margaret Tudor, and Margaret Douglas was especially interesting. The way she presented their stories helped tie all the events from the Wars of the Roses, Henry VII, Henry III and the rest of the Tudors all together, helped fill in some narrative gaps, and gave more depth to the stories of the more major players. I gained a lot of new insight through this approach.

I love that the author was more sympathetic toward Mary I, and I definitely got the feeling she was far more on the side of Catherine than Anne. And not overly fond of Elizabeth or Edward. She's also not a fan of Richard III, but not wholly in favor of Henry VII either and really not a fan of Henry VIII. So, biases definitely came through, but I wasn't turned off by them.

Tudor starts with Catherine of Valois' death and paces through the Wars of the Roses and then continues through to the death of Elizabeth I. It's detailed and follows the narrative timeline, but it doesn't delve into minute details. Very much recommended.

The Tudor Tutor by Barb Alexander
Pages: 160
Received: Library
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

I mean, it was fine. I guess.

There's way too much effort focused on trying to be witty and write in a comedic bloggy kind of way and not enough effort focused on actually being funny or writing about history. The writing style wasn't bad enough to induce an eye-roll sprain, but it was close. It's reminiscent of bathroom books and has this smarmy blend of mocking superiority with a slangly attempt to appear casual and hip, while also being totally smart and stuff because this is, like, a history book.

So, yeah, I wasn't in love with it. 

The Tudor Tutor also suffers from the "technically correct, but..." syndrome where the author writes something that's technically true, but they provide so little context, leave out vital information, and jump onto the next snippet so quickly that it leads the reader to draw an inaccurate understanding of what actually happened.

While the reader with more Tudor knowledge won't fall into that pitfall, there isn't much to this book for them. It's a bare-bones rundown of events that won't add much to the knowledge base of a reader whose sole familiarity with the family is through Jonathan Rhys Meyers' interpretation on Showtime's series. For the reader who hasn't even seen the show, well, this wouldn't be a terrible place to start, but there are far, far better out there.  

Catherine of Aragon by Alison Prince
(also known as My Tudor Queen)
Pages: 160
Received: Library
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Ok, this wasn't nearly as bad as this author's book about the princes in the Tower. I get the feeling the author likes Catherine (she gave her strange focus in the other book, which really has nothing to do with Catherine). This is another book where the story is told through the eyes of a servant, but in this case it worked about as well as that device can work for me.

The chapters were short, the story basic, but this was a solid addition and should be enjoyed by readers who like the Scholastic My Royal Diaries series and books like them. Recommended.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Book Review: The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding by Alexandra Bracken

#1 in the series
Pages: 362
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Released: September 5, 2017
Received: ARC from publisher
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Alexandra Bracken and I have a rocky relationship. It started out with flailing love, fizzled with lukewarm disappointment, and sunk to the bottom of the ocean with a vow never to pick up another one of her books again.  

So why in the world was I reading The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding then? Well, because I'm  a sucker for pretty things and when the publisher sent me an ARC in a pretty box with fall leaves, throwback Halloween candy, apple cider mix, and other goodies? Um, yeah, like I said, I'm a sucker.

I'm glad my will is so weak and Disney decided to send me an ARC because, overall, I had a nice time with Prosper Redding. It's not a perfect book. It's actually pretty rough. The pacing is off, the plot is tenuous, the characters are underdeveloped and pretty stock, and the main character felt like he couldn't decide if he was 12 or 17 years old (for the record, I would have preferred 17. It rang truer.). If I didn't know any better I'd think this was a debut.

But all that said, I still just liked the book. It felt good, if that makes sense. It felt like a Disney Channel Original Movie. Kind of goofy, far from perfect, but light, airy, and fun. The atmosphere of the story evoked all the right fall feelings: crisp air, the silliness and creepiness of Halloween, sweater weather, and childhood bliss.

Not much happened overall, and while there are a lot of pages in the book, this is very much just an introduction to the story. I suspect that when all is said and done, all the books in the series probably could be edited down into one book. So, will I read the sequel? Maybe. I'm not rushing out to get it, but if I came across it in the library or was sent a copy, I'd read it. If not? I don't know that I'd go out of my way to get it.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Book Reviews: Wars of the Roses Round Up

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
Pages: 206
Received: Library, own
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

I read this book in bed while recovering from a cold, which is the best way to read this book as main character Inspector Alan Grant spends the whole book bedridden recovering from a broken leg. Being in a similar situation made me feel even more connected with the story.

Grant spent his time researching through history books and applying his detective's mind to unraveling the mystery surrounding Richard III, Henry VII, and the murder of the princes in the tower and I happily sleuthed alongside him.

I am still so pleasantly surprised by how absolutely enthralled I was by The Daughter of Time. It's a pretty straight forward book and there's a ton of "telling," so much so that it almost feels like I spent the day chatting with a historian rather than reading a fictional story. The chapters move along pretty quickly and are usually only about ten pages or fewer.

For me, the jury is still out on who did in the lost princes in the tower, but I tend to lean on the side of sympathy toward Richard and blame to Henry. I'm ok with reading the "blame Richard" side, but I definitely appreciated Josephine Tey's take instead. Her explanation seems reasonable, and even if historically we may never know, story-wise she wrote a compelling narrative.

Highly recommended for those who enjoy Wars of the Roses and Tudor history, though the anti-Ricardian may struggle.

The Lost King by Alison Prince
Pages: 96
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Wow. This book is...not very good at all. It's super short and the chapters are usually only a few pages long, but that's about the only positive thing I can say.

The story is narrated by a fictional "observer" character in the form of a servant. This is a narrative device I usually don't like, and in such a short book it felt even more useless. We even get a few bits and pieces from her personal life, but this felt even more pointless considering how much of a non-character the narrator turned out to be.

But, whatever, if that was the worst thing then it wouldn't have bothered me that much. No, the reason this book gets such a low rating stems entirely from its historical inaccuracies. Simple things that could be found on the Wikipedia page aren't even correct! What is accurate is presented in such an abridged way that readers with little to no knowledge of the time will likely come away with an inaccurate understanding of people and events.

Definitely not recommended.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Book Review: A Matter of Class by Mary Balogh

Pages: 208
Published: 2009
Received: Library
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

*sigh* I was so hoping to love this one. I don't remember if I had added this to my TBR before or after reading Leah's review, but either way her review upped my expectations and excitement a lot. Hate turned love romance, historical setting, so much of this was calling my name.

Unfortunately, I read Lord Fenton's Folly before I read A Matter of Class and the former must have been heavily inspired by the latter. I felt like I was reading a rehash of a story I already read. That isn't a total dealbreaker (let's face it, I'm the type of reader that has no problem reading the same story over and my Tudor, Arthurian, and Wars of the Roses reading list can attest), but the insubstantial characters did nothing to capture my interest.

It's kind of hard to get invested in a story when the only thing it has going for it is a romance with a plot I've already read and characters for which I can't muster up a care. The final blow was the fact that the book it so reminds me of is not one I particularly enjoyed, so my associated feelings were doing this story no favors.

My overall impression? A lukewarm meh.

It's a shame, because I feel like I probably would have enjoyed A Matter of Class much more had I not read Lord Fenton's Folly first. I don't think I ever would have loved it, but I probably would have liked it more. Oh well. It's funny how an experience with a book can be so affected by previous reading adventures.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Book Review: The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

Pages: 233
Published: 1998
Received: Library
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This series was super popular when I worked in my public library in New York (over five years ago! Time flies!) but I had always kind of shrugged it off as "not my thing." Which is funny, because I apparently had a completely inaccurate idea of what this book was even about (I thought it took place in England. Or America.)

That said, over five years ago this probably really wasn't my thing. My thing was mostly YA and middle grade, usually focused on fairy tale retelling, fantasy, and magic. The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is none of those things. It's a book about an adult woman in Botswana, Africa and the narrative meanders through multiple little mysteries while providing a local flavor and sense of place.

Honestly, while my reading focus has definitely shifted lately, I'm still not sure if this subject is my thing. But this book? Definitely my thing. Main character Precious Ramotswe has such an appealing voice and I had such a nice, relaxing time following along with her as she went about her life and investigated different mysteries. Precious is adept at coming up with clever ways to ferret out the truth of a situation and I was continually amused by her approach. I even shared a few of the stories with my husband.

A significant part of the book focuses first on Precious's childhood and father, meandering through this time period without much focus. I normally would have been bored and frustrated, but I liked the writing style and characters enough that I was actually really into it. The characters all come alive and it's easy to love and hate them as appropriate. It was also fun getting a glimpse into a culture and country I don't often read about. Eventually it gets to the mysteries and these read like multiple short stories rather than one overarching mystery.

Everything was wrapped up at the end, so if you want to read it as a standalone that's totally fine. I haven't read the other books in the series yet, but I do plan on reading at least one or two more. I don't know that I'd read the entire series (it's really long!) but I can see myself picking up another one when I'm looking for something like and sweet. I picked this one up completely unplanned, much like a checkout line impulse buy, directly after reading Helen's review, and I'm very glad I did.

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