Happy Holidays everyone! Winter is the perfect time to snuggle down with a cozy blanket, a cat, and a great seasonal book. And in celebration of this great time of year, we’re highlighting our favorite holiday reads!
Book: “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” by C. S. Lewis
Publication Info: Geoffrey Bles, October 1950
Not only is the Narnia series a fantasy classic, but this, the first book (let’s not get into the chronological debate, this will always be the first one!!) is a perfect Christmas read, because we all know that the premise is so true: Winter with no chance of Chirstmas would be the worst! Everything about this book makes it a great winter read: the fur coats, the snowy setting, the White Witch, and, of course, Santa Claus. Whether you’ve never read this book before, or read it a million times, this is a great one to check out this winter season!
Book: “Breadcrumbs” by Anne Ursu
Publishing Info: Walden Pond Press, September 2011
There are a few winter fairytales that must make this list, and my all time favorite “The Snow Queen” is first up with this middle grade retelling. This book features the perfect mix of familiar elements from the original story (a young boy and girl who are friends, boy’s heart becomes frozen, girl goes on adventure to save boy) and many new twists. It’s great for fans of fantasy as there are fun references to other works like “Harry Potter” and “The Wizard of Oz” all over the place. It also features a diverse cast and, bonus!, is set in our hometown of Minneapolis (let’s be honest, Minnesota is the perfect setting for any winter-based story).
Book: “East” by Edith Pattou
Publishing Info: HMH Books for Young Readers, May 2005
Another classic winter fairytale is “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” featuring a girl who is stolen away by a snow bear king who lives in a castle full of secrets. This fiarytale eventually evolved in “Beauty and the Beast,” but also remains popular in its more original form. There are a million re-tellings of this story, but this is one of the best as it is basically a straight up novel-length version of the fairytale with very few major changes to the plot. A perfect read for fans of “Beauty and the Beast!”
Book: “NOS4A2” by Joe Hill
Publishing Info: William Morrow, April 2013
No, don’t look at us like we’re crazy. “NOS4A2” is definitely a good pick for a cozy holiday read! Sure, maybe that’s because a child kidnapper takes his victims to a surrealistic dream scape he likes to call Christmasland, where it’s the worst Christmas ever…. But hey, it’s also a really good book that has to do with family, friendship, independence, and facing your fears. Plus, the main character is a kick butt lady named Vic who rides a motorcycle and is determined to save her son from Charlie Manx, the man who is head of the demonic Christmas town. An the holidays are a time for family.
Book: “The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming” by Lemony Snicket and LIsa Brown (Ill.)
Publishing Info: McSweeney’s, January 2007
So maybe this is a picture book, but Lemony Snicket brings a lot of humor and heart to this story about a Hanukkah latke who is trying to explain his holiday to a bunch of Christmas objects. It’s a witty take on the dilemma that many Jewish children face around Christmas time, when people aren’t as in tune with the menorah and dreidels as they are to Santa Claus and reindeer. Plus it stars a frustrated screaming latke who wants others to know why he is significant.
Book: “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash” by Jean Shepherd
Publishing Info: Broadway Books, October 1966
No doubt many of you are familiar with the holiday cult classic film “A Christmas Story”. But maybe you didn’t know that it was based on a book by Jean Shepherd (who served as narrator in the original film). This book goes far beyond the movie, however, as it focuses more on the hometown exploits of a boy named Ralph and the things that (possibly) went on in Shepher’s own childhood. But never fear. The authentic Red Rider BB Gun and the ‘Special Award’ still makes appearances! Shepherd is heralded as the original Garrison Keilor, and his dry wit and humor will keep you laughing on cold winter nights.
What are your favorite books to read during the holiday season? Let us know below in the comments! And have a Happy Holiday Season and New Year!
Book: “The School of Good and Evil” by Soman Chainani
Publication Info: HarperCollins, May 2013
Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!
Book Description:The first kidnappings happened two hundred years before. Some years it was two boys taken, some years two girls, sometimes one of each. But if at first the choices seemed random, soon the pattern became clear. One was always beautiful and good, the child every parent wanted as their own. The other was homely and odd, an outcast from birth. An opposing pair, plucked from youth and spirited away.
This year, best friends Sophie and Agatha are about to discover where all the lost children go: the fabled School for Good & Evil, where ordinary boys and girls are trained to be fairy tale heroes and villains. As the most beautiful girl in Gavaldon, Sophie has dreamed of being kidnapped into an enchanted world her whole life. With her pink dresses, glass slippers, and devotion to good deeds, she knows she’ll earn top marks at the School for Good and graduate a storybook princess. Meanwhile Agatha, with her shapeless black frocks, wicked pet cat, and dislike of nearly everyone, seems a natural fit for the School for Evil.
But when the two girls are swept into the Endless Woods, they find their fortunes reversed—Sophie’s dumped in the School for Evil to take Uglification, Death Curses, and Henchmen Training, while Agatha finds herself in the School For Good, thrust amongst handsome princes and fair maidens for classes in Princess Etiquette and Animal Communication.. But what if the mistake is actually the first clue to discovering who Sophie and Agatha really are…?
Review: This book seemed to hit a peak a few years ago with everyone raving about it, and finally now, years later, I’ve finally gotten to it. I don’t read a lot of middle grade fiction, but this one, with its fun premises and, I’ll admit, very catchy cover seemed worth checking out!
This book is a bit tricky to review, now that I’m getting to it. I finished reading the book about a week ago and am only now writing the review. And that one week, I think, has made an impact on my opinion of the book. Either way, ultimately, I did very much enjoy the story. But with the extra time, I feel there are a few things that were a bit clunky and problematic about it.
I breezed through this story, guys. I mean, fast. Its biggest strengths are the exact things that particularly appeal to me: very creative world building, character-based stories, and a strong dash of wit. I loved all the ties to fairytales in this book, both the direct reference to Snow White, Jack and the Beanstalk, Beauty and the Beast and others, as well the way it poked fun at the generalities of these stories. In the school of Good, princesses must learn how to speak to animals and wait patiently for their princes to save them. In the school of Evil, witches must learn how to curse household items like apples and hairpins and uglify themselves to scare off heroes and heroines. The schools and their history and connection to fairytales were so much fun. Much of it was parody, but parody with heart.
There were also a lot of great characters in this story, other than just Agatha and Sophie, who I’ll get to in a moment. There was Tedros, the most popular prince in school, and son of the famed Arthur and Guenevere who struggles with his mother’s legacy and its impact on his relationship with the women around him. Sophie’s witch roommates, Hester, Dot, and Anadil are each great, particularly Hester whose badassery knows no bounds. The teachers for both school reminded me a lot of the professors from the Harry Potter novels. They are all quirky and teach particular classes. This is one area of the story that I wish there had been more of. The few classroom scenes we had were some of my favorites in the whole story.
And then there are Agatha and Sophie. There was so much I loved about these two. Their friendship is complicated not only by the fact that they are in different schools, but by the very nature of their own beings and their struggles to define themselves. Poor Agatha with her broken down self-esteem. And poor Sophie, trying so hard without realizing the huge mistakes she’s making at almost every step. Neither are simple characters, and I appreciated the time that the author gave to these two and the attention to the difficulties of growing up and recognizing the power we all hold to mold who we want to be.
Packed into this romp of a fairytale are a lot of messages, and some of them are handled better than others. As I said before, there is a lot of parody going on here. This, of course, opens the door for the parody to go unrecognized and for the more harmful aspects of some of these messages to stand as true. The author does a lot of work to speak to the fact that actions speak louder than looks, to the power of goodness and love, and many other very important points. But due to binary set-up of the story and the parallels placed between goodness/beauty and villainy/ugliness, it’s possible for some unwanted aspects to slip through. Ultimately, I feel that if the story is read in the tone that it is meant, much of this comes through very clearly. But this book might not be for everyone, due to this.
While I was able to get on board with many of these points, there was one that was a sticking point, even for me. I love stories about girls’ friendships, and at its core, that it was this is. There is a lot to be said for forgiveness and understanding in friendship, but there were a few too many times where this line was crossed far to completely to be simplified in this way. It is the same as romantic relationships, in this way: at a certain point, if you are being actively hurt by another person, that person is not your friend, even if they truly do have good feelings toward you. So, while I love the message of Agatha saving her friend through sheer will, forgiveness, and kindness, the story also, unfortunately, sets up a bad example of friendships in general. Through large portions of this story, this is not a healthy friendship. And, while we can sympathize for Sophie, it should not stand as an example that just because we (or Agatha) love a friend/boyfriend, that we should tolerate bad treatment with the hope that they will get better.
This last point is what has stuck with me through this last week of building up to this review. I sped through this book and it was wildly entertaining as I was reading. But with distance comes more clarity, and there were problematic aspects of it, as I mentioned. That said, I will definitely continue on with the series. However, I will keep my eyes open for how some parts of it are handled in the future, most notably, this friendship.
Rating 7: Really great world-building and a lot of great lessons about self-worth and self-esteem; unfortunately, lessened by some questionable portrayals of healthy friendships.
Publishing Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, July 2014
Where Did I Get This Book: Audiobook from the library!
Book Description:It’s senior year at St. Joan’s Academy, and school is a pressure cooker. College applications, the battle for valedictorian, deciphering boys’ texts: Through it all, Colleen Rowley and her friends are expected to keep it together. Until they can’t. First it’s the school’s queen bee, Clara Rutherford, who suddenly falls into uncontrollable tics in the middle of class. Her mystery illness quickly spreads to her closest clique of friends, then more students and symptoms follow: seizures, hair loss, violent coughing fits. St. Joan’s buzzes with rumor; rumor blossoms into full-blown panic. Soon the media descends on Danvers, Massachusetts, as everyone scrambles to find something, or someone, to blame. Pollution? Stress? Or are the girls faking? Only Colleen—who’s been reading The Crucible for extra credit—comes to realize what nobody else has: Danvers was once Salem Village, where another group of girls suffered from a similarly bizarre epidemic three centuries ago . . . Inspired by true events—from seventeenth-century colonial life to the halls of a modern-day high school—Conversion casts a spell. With her signature wit and passion, New York Times bestselling author Katherine Howe delivers an exciting and suspenseful novel, a chilling mystery that raises the question, what’s really happening to the girls at St. Joan’s?
Review: So I was one of those kids who went to a private prep school in St. Paul from Kindergarten up through Senior Year. Gotta say, while it definitely more than adequately prepared me for college and graduate school, at the time I was under immense, immense pressure. So when I started listening to “Conversion” by Katherine Howe, there were a lot of things that were familiar to me. An ‘Upper School’ building for upper classmen. Homeroom being called ‘advisory’. A Dean of Students. I will say, however, that while I was under stress, I wasn’t going to school in a town that had a notorious history of people being falsely accused of witchcraft and then hanged. So yeah, I couldn’t say that I could totally relate to the tale that was told. In fact, I would say that beyond having the occasional moment of ‘ha, we had that too’, I didn’t really relate to the characters in “Conversion”, even if I was probably supposed to to a certain degree. While Howe definitely put in a good effort at writing teenage girls, a lot of the time it fell pretty darn flat.
I think that the first problem was Colleen herself. While I understand where Howe was trying to go with her, I found her to be incredibly naive and dense, far more dense that someone who is supposedly a legitimate contender for Harvard and neck in neck for Valedictorian at this prestigious prep school. I don’t really want to go into any spoilers here, but there are a few plot points that I feel would have been pretty damn obvious for a number of people who would have been in the situation and experiencing it first hand. I understand that to draw out suspense and story line she would have to be, but it felt like her intelligence was in conflict with the plot. And while I didn’t have as many problems with Colleen’s personality as others have, I didn’t find her to be terribly compelling as a narrator. Neither are her friends. Usually I can find a side character that keeps me going even if the protagonist isn’t too interesting, but in this one we didn’t even really get that. They are all pretty privileged girls whose problems, while mostly relatable given my high school experience, just didn’t connect to me.
Our other narrator is Anne Putnam, one of the girls in Salem Village who accused her neighbors of bewitching her. Far less sympathetic than Colleen (someone who isn’t really all that sympathetic to begin with), Anne tells her story from two perspectives: the time she was accusing people, and the time where she is gearing up to confess her sins to the rest of the town, long after the trials have finished and the fallout has left a mark. While I liked the fact that Howe clearly did a lot of research into the trials and the people involved, making them as realistic and historically accurate as possible. Sure, she took license with motivation, as we don’t know why these girls accused all of these innocent people of crimes that sealed their deaths, but I think that her theories in this story make sense. They definitely have more weight behind them than Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”, though in his defense that wasn’t really about Salem. We all know that. Howe really committed to telling an accurate story. The problem is, while it is meant to serve as a juxtaposition to what is going on in Danvers in 2012, it doesn’t quite work.
And let me tell you why it doesn’t work. Howe has two stories that have similar themes (mass ‘hysteria’), but they ultimately don’t line up. Outside of being two groups of teen girls in the same geographical region, Howe throws in a couple of twists that ultimately undermine the juxtaposition that she put out there in the first place (side note: one of the solutions IS up to interpretation, I will give you that, but boy is it laid on pretty, and supernaturally, thick). I suppose that one could argue that one other connection may be a feeling of powerlessness for adolescent girls, which manifests in puritan times to the modern age, but again…. It’s undermined. I won’t say how, but it is, and that irritated me to no end.
Something that does work, though, is the modern analogs for the Witch Trials, in the form of a trial by media as opposed to a puritanical court room. The press is, of course, whipped into a frenzy about this ‘mysterious illness’ that has fallen upon these girls, and their attention on the school and the students just feeds into it and makes things much, much worse. Adding into that is the factor of rich, entitled, nasty parents who are rightfully afraid for their children, but then lash out when answers aren’t readily apparent. And then, of course, love the media attention, both for awareness an for their own egos. A few people definitely end up on the other end of their fury, and on the other end of the fallout of the mysterious illness. This was both the most interesting, and angering, plot point. Howe wrote this SO well, she has her fingers on the pulse of the nastiest parts of human nature, both in the modern time line and the past time line. These parts made me the angriest, and hey, that was a serious emotional reaction that she no doubt wanted. So she did her job. I did find myself frustrated that sometimes I think she wanted me to feel sympathy for the girls in Salem, as a being a Puritan was very hard, and being a female Puritan was even harder. The lack of power and the lack of agency was apparent. But nope. These girls condemned a number of innocent people to their deaths. I have no sympathy for that.
Finally, this was an audiobook, and the narrator was pretty good! I thought that she did a good job of making her voice sound like a teenage girl when she needed to, but also an adult when the character called for it. Her accents seemed pretty good to me, though I admittedly don’t know much about the linguistics of the Puritan era in America. Overall, I think it was more her that kept me going. Had I been reading this in print form I may have struggled.
So “Conversion” has its moments, but I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would. Though now I’m definitely interested to learn more about the actual people of Salem beyond what was told to me in “The Crucible”.
Rating 6: Though the historical accuracy and research was spot on, “Conversion” had too few interesting characters and too many missed opportunities.
Publication Info: Walker Childrens, September 2013
Where Did I Get this Book: the library!
Book Description:Eve has a new home, a new face, and a new name—but no memories of her past. She’s been told that she’s in a witness protection program. That she escaped a dangerous magic-wielding serial killer who still hunts her. The only thing she knows for sure is that there is something horrifying in her memories the people hiding her want to access—and there is nothing they won’t say—or do—to her to get her to remember.
At night she dreams of a tattered carnival tent and buttons being sewn into her skin. But during the day, she shelves books at the local library, trying to not let anyone know that she can do things—things like change the color of her eyes or walk through walls. When she does use her strange powers, she blacks out and is drawn into terrifying visions, returning to find that days or weeks have passed—and she’s lost all short-term memories. Eve must find out who and what she really is before the killer finds her—but the truth may be more dangerous than anyone could have ever imagined.
Review: I’ve read several of Sarah Beth Durst’s books in the past, and they are if anything, always unique. So when I discovered this one, with its creepy carnival imagery, amnesia, and serial killer nemesis, I knew that the story would be in the hands of an author capable of fully taking advantage of these elements.
The story started off slowly for me, to be honest. While Eve’s amnesia is an important part of the story, it also leaves the reader in an awkward place being equally (perhaps even more so!) in the dark as she is. We’re pretty much plopped down into a situation with no background information and a narrator who doesn’t know anymore than we do, but who is clearly involved in something nefarious, with hints being thrown every direction by other characters. Durst also wasn’t in a rush to resolve this. I was about a third of the way into the book before I started feeling truly invested in the story. And while this is a rather large hurdle to leap for many readers, I would say the later pay off is definitely worth it.
Eve herself is such a unique narrator. Her voice is so strange and it speaks to the deftness of Durst’s abilities that she can show Eve’s growth through even the most minute of changes in Eve’s outlook on what goes on around her. When the reveal comes towards the end of the story, I actually found myself paging back through the book trying to spot these change points, many of which I missed in my initial read through.
As for the twist itself, parts of it I was able to guess, but others came completely out of the blue. The motivation of the villain, Eve’s true back story in relation to the villain, was both heart breaking and distinctly chilling. I particularly appreciated the fact that the story is not quickly wrapped up once some of these twists become clear and we get to fully explore the reality of these developments and spend time in this new world order.
Further, the confusion and distrust that leads to these reveals were excellent. Eve has been told everything, she remembers/knows none of it for herself. So as she begins to question those around her, so do we, the reader. Her bouts of amnesia were both frustrating and refreshingly new to this type of story. She isn’t just a narrator who doesn’t remember her past but whose stories unfolds neatly from there on out. Eve keeps forgetting. Between chapters even! Like I said, frustrating, but also very interesting.
As for supporting characters, these were a bit more hit and miss. I loved Malcom from the get go, and grew to love his partner as well. However, I was less thrilled with the three other teens Eve meets: Aiden, Victoria, and Topher. They seemed like a neat idea, but ultimately, I feel like they didn’t even need to be in the story. Very little of the outcome would have been changed, and they were often so unlikable that I found myself wanting to skim read through their portions.
And as for the love interest, Zack…I just don’t know. There are elements of his character that I liked, but he never fully recovered for me from his introductory line of dialogue when first meeting Eve:“I think it’s a shame that it’s customary to shake hands upon greeting when what I really want to do is kiss your lips and see if you taste like strawberries.”
Personally, if a guy introduced himself to me that way the door would be slammed on the chance of us even be acquaintances, let alone romantically involved, right then and there. It’s supposed to be twisted together with Zack’s defining characteristic: he does not tell lies. And while this plays an important role later in the story, I think there is an obvious miss between “not telling lies” and “not spewing out every ridiculous-bordering-on-creepy thought that comes into your head to a complete stranger.”
Slow start and creepy Zack aside, once pieces of the mystery started fitting together, I couldn’t put this book down. If you like dark, fantasy stories and can be patient with unreliable narrators and a slow start, definitely check this one out!
Book: “Only the Dead Know Burbank” by Bradford Tatum
Publishing Info: Harper Perennial, October 2016
Where Did I Get This Book: The library!
Book Description:With Lon Cheney and Boris Karloff among its characters, this sweeping and stylish love letter to the golden age of horror cinema tells the wonderful, tragic story of Maddy Ulm. It takes readers through her rise from the complicated shadows of Berlin’s first experiments with expressionist cinema to the glamorous deserts of Hollywood. For Maddy has a secret. A secret that has given her incredible insight into the soul of horror. A secret that has a terrible price as well.
A young girl awakens in a hastily dug grave—vague memories of blood and fever, her mother performing a mysterious ceremony before the world went away. Germany has lost the first great war and Europe has lost millions more to the Spanish Flu epidemic. But Maddy has not only survived, she has changed. No longer does she eat, sleep, or age. No longer can she die. After taking up with a pair of street performers, she shocks and fascinates the crowds with her ability to survive outrageous traumas. But at a studio in Berlin, Maddy discovers her true calling: film.
With her intimate knowledge of fear, death, and realms beyond the living, she practically invents the modern horror genre on the spot. Before long, she travels to California and insinuates herself in Hollywood as the genius secretly behind The Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, and Frankenstein. And yet she must remain in the shadows—a chilling apparition suspended eternally between worlds.
Clever, tragic, and thoroughly entertaining, Only the Dead Know Burbank introduces readers to one of the most unique, unforgettable characters in fiction.
Review: This past Halloween weekend, I was attending a bonfire gathering of former coworkers. Me and my friend Scott were the first to arrive, and as we build the bonfire and chatted he told me about a book that he had heard of and was interested in. When he told me it was about a girl in Germany is some kind of immortal state who takes an interest in movie making and moves to Hollywood, having a hand in making the Golden Age of Horror movies that define the time… I too was interested. As someone who likes horror, someone who likes vampire(?) lore, and someone who really likes the Golden Age of Horror Films, this should have been a home run right out of the park.
The bad news is that it didn’t quite even get a double.
The good news is, Boris Karloff is a treasure.
I stand by my assertion that this plot does have a lot of serious potential and promise. Madchen, or Maddy, is a very well rounded and relatable protagonist, a girl who is trapped in stasis and has ambitions that are beyond a world she does not fit into anymore. She is a tragic figure who never asked for this eternal life, the ‘victim’ of a ritual performed by her negligent and narcissistic mother who, in a rare moment of love for her daughter, tried to save her from the Spanish Flu. Maddy is haunted by her immortality, and also haunted by the spirit of a cruel man named Volker, who may or may not be her father, and fell victim to murder at the hands of her mother. Unfortunately, the tangles and drama in Weimar Germany and Austria really dragged the narrative down, and while I appreciated the references to German Expressionism and the undoubted influence it had on Maddy, and therefore the films she would influence, I just kind of wanted for her to go west, young vampire(?).
By the time we did get to Hollywood, things picked up, and it was lots of fun seeing Maddy interact with familiar icons of the Universal Horror circuit. From Lon Chaney to Tod Browning to a superb and sweet Boris Karloff, Maddy interacts with legends of old and her unique perspective on death and existential crises helps create the masterpieces of cinema that are still heralded today. And yet the song is still the same, as she is influential and instrumental, but as a young woman she gets absolutely no credit and is never taken seriously. These parts were the best parts of the book for me, and her friendships with Chaney and Karloff (especially Karloff, whom she affectionately called “Billy”) gave her that much more heart and rounded out two real life giants who had flaws, dreams, and spirit. Karloff is such a gentle and thoughtful soul in this book, and for whatever reason that just plucked at all my heartstrings.
But Maddy’s greatest relationship is the one she has with Mutter, a gentle giant she meets while still in Europe, who was wounded in WWI and permanently maimed both physically and mentally. Mutter is the other great tragedy of this book, as while he is so unattached from others around him for being different and special needs, his affection for and connection to Maddy is one of those tenuous threads that does connect her to humans. Maddy’s fondness for him is absolutely touching, and it leads to many moments where the two of them, defined and limited by their Otherness, are in this together, and against the world. True, one of his storylines felt awkward and superfluous (he ends up living with a number of the Native American actors who live on the studio lot, on call for roles as disposable extras, and the view and description of them made me uncomfortable because they too were so Othered), but their final bit together really, really hit me right in the gut. Because Maddy and Mutter find themselves being shipped back to Germany, right when Hitler has taken power…
Unfortunately, while I liked these really well done nuggets of characterization and mythology, the pacing was very slow, almost to the point where I was close to giving up on it. Whenever Maddy was back in Germany, the odd storyline with Volker and the baggage that comes with Maddy and her mother weighed down the narrative. It wasn’t as bad the second time, but it definitely hurt the tone to the point where I couldn’t really get past it. I also feel like it probably went on a bit longer than it had to, as the extended adventures with her mother in Hollywood were just not what I was here for. I was here for Boris Karloff. I wanted more Boris Karloff.
There were moments of “Only the Dead Know Burbank” that were absolutely beautiful in their power, tenderness, and despair. I lived for those moments. I just wish that it hadn’t taken so long to get there, and that we didn’t get slogged in parental angst. Overall, Maddy was a lovely and fascinating creature, and I will no doubt think of her whenever I rewatch an old monster movie from the 1930s.
Rating 6: Though it had moments of beautiful pathos and super fun and moving portrayals of classic movie stars, the slow start and disjointed focus in certain plot points made the book a bit harder to swallow than I had hoped for.
We are part of a group of librarian friends who have gone the extra mile and created our own bookclub. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Across the Decades,” we each drew a decade and had to select a book that was either published or set in that decade.
For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for bookclub. We’ll also post the next book coming up in bookclub. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own bookclub!
Book: “A Brief History of Montmaray” by Michelle Cooper
Publishing Info: Knopf Books for Young Readers, October 2009
Where Did We Get This Book: audiobook from the library!
Book Description:Sophie Fitzosborne lives in a crumbling castle in the tiny island kingdom of Montmaray with her eccentric and impoverished royal family. When she receives a journal for her sixteenth birthday, Sophie decides to chronicle day-to-day life on the island. But this is 1936, and the news that trickles in from the mainland reveals a world on the brink of war. The politics of Europe seem far away from their remote island—until two German officers land a boat on Montmaray. And then suddenly politics become very personal indeed.
So as a fan of “Downton Abbey”, and as a fan of kicking the shit out of Nazis, I had high hopes that “A Brief History of Montmaray” would combine the best of both worlds. I had this vision of Mary Crawley punching an S.S. officer in the face a la “Indiana Jones” while making some snippy and cruel remark, and in my mind that was just the best damn thing that I had ever thought of in the history of ever, crossover wise.
While the book did have some likable characters (the cousin Veronica, in particular) overall I was a bit disappointed that “A Brief History of Montmaray” was more focused on the dysfunctional, if quirky, royal family and the problems that they are facing in love, life, and succession. Our narrator, Sophie, is pretty good at laying out the family lines and showing how the royal family connects to each other (King John has no male heir, so the next in line should be his nephew Toby, Sophie’s older brother). Sophie, not having as much investment in the royal line to the throne, is a good choice for narrator, as she doesn’t have the pressure of being a direct heir like her brother, nor does she have the frustration of being an ineligible heir like her cousin based solely on her gender. Because of this she can present a pretty fair view of how things are supposed to work in this family. She is a fine narrator and a good lens to see these conflicts, but at the same time she isn’t as interesting as I wanted her to be. I much preferred Veronica, the incredibly intelligent and capable daughter of the King, who would make a fine queen if only Montmaray approved of female succession. She was by far the most interesting character, as she has so much more interest in her home country than Toby, the flaky rightful heir. It’s the perfect example of an unjust and sexist society that is probably really screwing itself over. Veronica is also quite well rounded, probably the most well rounded of all the characters. She is cunning and ambitious, but also loves her home and her family, so much so that she puts rightful succession above all else even though you know she is aching for it. Had the story been following Veronica’s POV, I think that I would have been able to forgive it a bit more for not focusing on the Nazi storyline, and the storyline about how Europe was in serious, serious danger at this time. I do realize that this is a series and that there were two other novels to focus on that, and that this novel was more about introducing us to this family. But to me, the family wasn’t the part that I wanted to focus on outside of Veronica. It was a bit too “I Capture The Castle” for me, a book that I recognize as being significant and a classic, but one that I also am not terribly fond of as a whole.
And yes, I’m resentful that there weren’t enough Nazis, at least not as much as the summary would suggest. True, the Germans do land on Montmaray, sending the FitzOsbourne family into turmoil for many reasons. But they are there for a moment in the middle, and then come back at the end. The rest of the book is about the family and their squabbles and scandals. And hey, I like a nice soap as much as the next person, but it all felt kind of trite compared to the things I knew were coming, even further into the series. It’s hard for me to care about awful (AWFUL) housekeepers and their stupid secrets when I know that a whole lot of awful pain is about to rain down on the rest of Europe. And maybe for me it’s still a little raw since there was recently just footage of a bunch of these guys doing the Hitler salute in D.C. But had I known that the family malarky and hoopla was going to be the focus (aka, more “Downton” and less “Indiana Jones”), my expectations would have been more in line with how it turned out, and therefore I would have been more receptive to it. As it was, I kept saying to myself “BUT WHEN ARE ALL THE NAZIS GOING TO REALLY GET THEIR COMEUPPANCE?!”
So I think that it’s fair to say that “A Brief History of Montmaray” was at a disadvantage because of misplaced expectations. It’s not necessarily the fault of Cooper, but more so how it was promoted. I loved Veronica, but that was about the only thing that I really enjoyed, and sadly that’s not really enough to keep me going.
This book had been on my reading list for a while as it was well reviewed by several other blogs that I followed. And when I ended up with the 30s as my decade of choice for our bookclub theme this go-around, it seemed like a perfect time to finally get around to it!
As the historical fiction reviewer on this blog, it’s probably not a surprise that I enjoyed this book more than Kate. For the most part, the historical detail is what captures me in these stories, and I enjoy books about quirky families (ala “Anne of Green Gables” and Jane Austen novels). The addition of a bit more action than is usually found in this type of book was the extra cherry on the top for me.
I agree with Kate’s assessment of the characters themselves. Sophie was an interesting narrator and I enjoyed the transformation she goes through during this book. The combination of teenage silliness mixed with a healthy dose of self-awareness with regards to said silliness made her a very endearing teenage protagonist. Veronica, however, is the type of character I generally gravitate towards. Intelligent, snappy, and a girl who firmly has her head on her shoulders. Seriously, nothing would get done if Veronica wasn’t there. And she has by far the most challenging set of circumstances to deal with, what with the sexism involved in the rules of ascension and the terrible family life (crazy dad who hates her, abandoned by her mother).
As for the boys involved, I found myself increasingly frustrated with Simon, the set up love interest for Sophie. I couldn’t help agreeing with Veronica’s assessment of him as a bit of a self-serving prat. And while I generally liked Toby, I found myself becoming more and more annoyed with his selfishness. I mean, the guy gets to go out and live in the world to go to school, make friends, be in society, and, yes, there are responsibilities to being the heir, but that’s a huge amount of privilege, too. So for him to whine to his cousin and sisters who are living in a castle that is literally falling down around them and who have no friends of any sort really just seems ridiculous and made me want to slap some sense into him.
As for the Nazi involvement: I actually really appreciated that this book didn’t go the expected route with them. There was a lot of discussion with regards to the political climate in Europe and it does a lot to remind modern readers that the Nazi party didn’t just sprout out of the ground fully formed. There were a lot of moving pieces and many years went by before it became clear just what everyone was dealing with. There were some interesting nuggets that were very…Indiana Jones-ish…and were quite fun, and another lesser used mode of introducing Nazis into the story. I do agree that the book summary can be misleading, so if you go into it expecting clashes with Nazis and said comeuppance served upon them it might not be for you. However, given the year that this is set in, and that it’s the first in a trilogy, I guess I was more prepared for delayed gratification re: Nazi destruction.
All in all, I enjoyed this book quite a bit. It’s definitely more geared towards readers who enjoy slower paced historical novels. There’s a good amount of family drama, family mystery ala books like “Rebecca,” and historical detail. And, while there is action and Nazis towards the end, those aspects definitely come later and don’t take up as much page time as the rest.
Kate’s Rating 6: Though I greatly enjoyed the character of Veronica, overall the story didn’t match my expectations, and therefore didn’t grab me as I thought it would.
Serena’s Rating 8: Strong historical detail and interesting characters, though beware the lighter Nazi involvement if that’s what you were here for!
1.) How did we feel about Sophie as a narrator? What do you think the story would have been like if it had been told from the perspective of a different character?
2.) Montmaray is an imaginary kingdom that is meant to exist in an otherwise historically accurate version of Europe. Did it succeed in this way? Were there aspects of the historical set-up that you particularly enjoyed or found distracting?
3.) The Nazis: How did you feel about them? Their entrance into the story, their mission, and the resolution to their involvement?
4) For a first-person narrated story, it feels as if we get a good amount of detail about many of the side characters. Were there characters who stood out? What about Rebeca and Simon?
5) The book does seem to involve some supernatural elements, how did you feel about this inclusion and twist?
6.) This is the first in a trilogy. Where do you think/want the story to go from here?
The Next Book Selection: Not sure yet! We’re at the switching point between one “season” and another. For our next theme, we all chose two things (“a book that’s been turned into a musical!” or “a book about animals!”) and had to draw from a hat for our own options. We’ll see what comes up!
Book Description:In the tumultuous months after Napoleon abdicates his throne, Jane and Vincent go to Belgium for their honeymoon. While there, the deposed emperor escapes his exile in Elba, throwing the continent into turmoil. With no easy way back to England, Jane and Vincent’s concerns turn from enjoying their honeymoon…to escaping it. Left with no outward salvation, Jane must persevere over her trying personal circumstances and use her glamour to rescue her husband from prison…and hopefully prevent her newly built marriage from getting stranded on the shoals of another country’s war.
Review: The second in the “Glamourist Histories” sereis, “Glamour in Glass” resolved many of the issues I had with the first book and introduced an expanded world and magic system.
While the appeal of the first book lay largely in its comparisons to a Jane Austen novel with magic, this aspect was also its biggest downfall. Let’s face it: more often than not, being compared to a Jane Austen novel is a kiss of death for many historical books since it will only raise expectations to impossible heights. While “Shades of Milk and Honey” wasn’t sunk by the comparison, it didn’t do the story any favors either. The plot devices or characters who struck to closely to aspects of “Emma,” “Sense and Sensibility,” or “Pride and Prejudice” were at best distractions and at worst lacking the heart and wit that lies at the core of these originals. However, this book, taking place after the marriage of Jane and Vincent, is freed from these comparisons as it ventures into unknown territory to Jane Austen stories: Life after the wedding.
I enjoyed reading about Jane and Vincent’s struggles learning to adjust to married life. While very much in love, the reality is that they still have much to learn about each other, both in regards to their own personal relationship, and with how they balance their “professional” lives as gifted glamourists, each in their own way.
The expanded descriptions and explanations for this magic system were particularly interesting. It is a very unique take on magical and I enjoyed discovering more about how it work and the varying ways it can be adapted for different uses. I remember noting in my last review that this type of magic seemed as if it would have more important applications than simply as an art form, and this book explores this concept, much to my delight. Particularly, the book dives into the ways that glamour magic is used as strategy in military maneuvering.
As the description highlights, there is much more action in this story, particularly for Jane. I enjoyed watching her make proactive choices, rather than simply react to the circumstances presented to her.
My only complaint was the decreased role that some of the original characters played in this story. While the setting places some obvious constraints on the involvement of these characters (obviously Melody would not be on their honeymoon with them!), I still missed them.
All in all, this book improved on both of my complaints of the original: freeing itself from comparisons and expanding the use of its magic system. If you were only half-sold on the first book, definitely check this one out as I see it as a great improvement in the series.
Rating 8: A step in the right direction for the series as a whole!