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.

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