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
Goodreads

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
Goodreads

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
Goodreads

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
Goodreads

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
Goodreads

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
Goodreads

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.


Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Series Reviews: The Poor Relation & The Six Sisters

The Poor Relation Series
by M.C. Beaton (Marion Chesney)
5 out of 5 stars, Special Shelf
Goodreads

I adored every minute of this series! Each book focuses on a different poor relation giving the reader the opportunity to get to know the character in a deeper way while giving the character the opportunity to learn and grow. While there is a sweet and swoony romance in each book, the romance is not always the main character's romance, and this kept the stories fresh and interesting. Each story also has a mystery that is fun, inventive, and not wholly predictable. While many of the romantic leads were somewhat one-note (though, it was a pleasant note), the Poor Relations were all fully fleshed out and enjoyable to read about (particularly Miss Tonks and Sir Phillip). I also consider it a plus that each book is only about 200 pages long, so they're super fast reads.


The Six Sisters Series
By M. C. Beaton (Marion Chesney)
5 out of 5 stars, Special Shelf
Goodreads

While I'd rate this series below The Poor Relation series, it's only a teeny, tiny little bit lower. The romantic leads have a little bit more personality than in The Poor Relation series, but only some of them and only so much. That's fine, but after reading 12 books like that, I was starting to get a little over it. That aside, the romances were still enjoyable and the storylines were engaging. There are three side characters who make appearances throughout the series and each were charming and amusing in ways that I found myself looking forward to their almost comforting appearances.

Both of these series are total cozy comfort reads that are easy to breeze through and sink into at the same time. I love that the books are small as it allows each story to be told in just the right amount of time without getting tedious, but the overarching series allowed me to really get to know the characters and their worlds. I was surprised but super pleased at how the author seems to delight in inserting historical details throughout the stories. This added an extra layer of depth I wasn't expecting from cozy comfort reads by teaching me historical things I didn't know in a way that felt like I was geeking out with a fellow history lover.


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