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.

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