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

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

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.

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