Serena’s Review: “The Phantom Tree”

32618152Book: “The Phantom Tree” by Nicola Cornick

Publishing Info: Graydon House, August 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Browsing antiques shops in Wiltshire, Alison Bannister stumbles across a delicate old portrait – supposedly of Anne Boleyn. Except Alison knows better… The woman is Mary Seymour, the daughter of Katherine Parr who was taken to Wolf Hall in 1557 as an unwanted orphan and presumed dead after going missing as a child.

The painting is more than just a beautiful object from Alison’s past – it holds the key to her future, unlocking the mystery surrounding Mary’s disappearance, and the enigma of Alison’s son.

But Alison’s quest soon takes a dark and foreboding turn, as a meeting place called the Phantom Tree harbours secrets in its shadows…

Review: This is probably one of the first historical fiction novels that is NOT a mystery that I’ve read in quite a while! As such, I was quite excited to return to the genre, especially when comparisons to Phillipa Gregory’s books were being routinely listed (though I’ve had a fairly hit and miss experience with Gregory, I will always love “The Other Boleyn Girl.”) The book had a bit of a slow start and didn’t grab me as much as some of Gregory’s better books, but over all, I still enjoyed “The Phantom Tree,” especially its take on a lesser known and minor character in Tudor history.

Allison is a woman out of her own time, and while she’s managed to scramble a life together for herself, calling upon her vast stores of sheer determination and stubbornness, she still longs to return to her original time back in the 16th century where she was forced to leave behind her infant son. Her only clues are connections to Mary Seymour, a fellow orphan left to be raised at Wolf Hall, and a young woman with a mysterious ability of her own. But Mary has been lost to time, with many scholars believing she died in infancy. When Allison discovers a painting of an adult Mary, she finally is able to begin picking up the clues that may finally lead her home.

This story is pieced together through the perspectives of both Allison and Mary. Allison’s portions consist of her life in the present and her search to return to the past. And through Mary’s eyes, we see the events that lead to Allison’s journey to the future and the events that have unfolded after she’s gone missing, and which Allison herself is now piecing back together centuries later.

Both Allison and Mary were compelling characters, however the nature of the story and the way their stories unfolded did lead to the book feeling as if it had a slow start. Further, both of them were initially a bit unlikeable, with Allison coming off as a bit of a ignorant brat (mostly her past self) and Mary as too wilting and unwilling to take action in her own life. However, from these weaker beginnings, both characters ultimately grew into women I found myself greatly rooting for.

I didn’t know much about Mary Seymour before going into this book, so I did end up doing a bit of background reading to try and figure out how much if this story is based on history. Mary disappeared from history when she was around 2 years old and is presumed to have died in young childhood. That leaves the majority of this story as operating in a fictional setting. However, what made it stand out was the creative way the author managed to tell Mary’s story in a way that made it believable that she may have lived longer but still been absent from history. The fantastical elements come in early, especially with regards to Mary, so there’s never any real question about the authenticity of the tale, but it still added a nice layer that the book never strayed too far into the unbelievable as far as her actual life.

Allison is, of course, a completely fictional character. What I most appreciated about her story was the build-up for her character back in the 16th century that helped establish her as a person capable of adapting to a completely different life in modern times. Think about it: that’s a huge ask of a character and the book explores a few other characters who also time traveled and were less successful with it. The same brashness and stubborn refusal to bend that made her rather dislikable as a teenager in the past were also the traits that let her survive on her own in a completely new world.

The time travel and fantastical elements did end up playing a larger role in the story than I initially anticipated, and there were a few twists and turns towards the end that were especially surprising. At the same time, I never felt like these aspects of the book overran the historical setting of the past sequences or the modern version of the story that focused on Allison’s search for family, her discovery of self and what she wants from her life, and the burgeoning romance with a historical researcher.

By the end of the story, I was actively rooting for both of these main characters, made all the more tense by the knowledge that something dark had to be looming to explain Mary’s sudden disappearance in history. This particular element of the book did wrap up rather suddenly, and while it helped build the believablity of the mystery, it was also a bit traumatic to experience with one of your main characters.

I very much enjoyed “The Phantom Tree.” It was a strange mix of fantasy/time travel, historical fiction, and even modern romance. Both Mary and Allison were compelling heroines, though I never quite escaped a certain sense of distance from the story which prevented me from becoming fully enthralled. For fans of time travel stories, however, and especially those interested in the Tudors, I would definitely recommend this book!

Rating 7: A solid new entry into the subgenre of historical/time travel fiction, though I didn’t connect with it as fully as I may have wished.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Phantom Tree” is a new book so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Historical Fiction/Time Travel.”

Find “The Phantom Tree” at your library using WorldCat.

 

 

Serena’s Review: “A Treacherous Curse”

26244626Book: “A Treacherous Curse” by Deanna Raybourn

Publishing Info: Berkley, January 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: London, 1888. As colorful and unfettered as the butterflies she collects, Victorian adventuress Veronica Speedwell can’t resist the allure of an exotic mystery—particularly one involving her enigmatic colleague, Stoker.

His former expedition partner has vanished from an archaeological dig with a priceless diadem unearthed from the newly discovered tomb of an Egyptian princess. This disappearance is just the latest in a string of unfortunate events that have plagued the controversial expedition, and rumors abound that the curse of the vengeful princess has been unleashed as the shadowy figure of Anubis himself stalks the streets of London.

But the perils of an ancient curse are not the only challenges Veronica must face as sordid details and malevolent enemies emerge from Stoker’s past.Caught in a tangle of conspiracies and threats—and thrust into the public eye by an enterprising new foe—Veronica must separate facts from fantasy to unravel a web of duplicity that threatens to cost Stoker everything. . . .

Review: I am now completely caught up on the Veronica Speedwell novels! Yay!! There are now no more Vernoica Speedwell novels to read until MARCH 2019! Boo!! But, as always, it is best to focus on the present instead of dreading the long, cold dreary months until next spring when the next book is finally released. And, surprising no one, this book was delight, and I blazed through it much more quickly than I would have liked!

Veronica and Stoker are minding their own business, busily cataloging the items that have been gathering dust in their patron’s expansive properties for generations. All seems well until a sensationalist story of a cursed expedition to Egypt begins making a splash across the local newspapers. But what should have remained a simple curiosity, becomes much more dire when the pair realize that the linchpin for the mystery is a man who was formerly Stoker’s partner. What’s worse, this partner was the one to run off with Stoker’s ex-wife. So when this man disappears, Stoker finds himself squarely in the cross-hairs of an investigation that is only too likely to recast him, once again, as a villain of society. Veronica, of course, has something to say about this, and so with her leading the charge, the pair set out to unravel the mystery and secure Stoker’s reputation and future.

I’ve made comparisons to the Amelia Peabody series from the start, but the subject matter of this one really hits that nail squarely on the head. I’ve always been interested in Egyptology (I blame my unrepentant love of 90s “The Mummy!”), so I was excited to see it as a focal point of this book. There are the requisite references to ancient gods, a few curses running around, and ancient jewelry that’s gone missing. And what would a good Egyptian mystery be without a mummy? So of course there is one of those as well. I enjoyed the sprawling cast of characters that made up the suspect pool of the story, all having an extensive history together working on digs in that area of the world. The tangled relationships and roles left me constantly guessing as to the motives of each player and how they could be involved with the disappearance of Stoker’s former friend.  It was even more fun reading these bits than usual, as references to famous hotels and locations in Eygpt were familiar from my reading of the Amelia Peabody books.

While I did like these elements of the mystery and my general appreciation for the topic remained, I was a bit put off by the constant comparisons to the other series that was going on in my mind. The line was just a bit too close between the two. Not Stoker and Veronica themselves, since as characters they have enough established to differentiate themselves from Amelia and Emerson. But the way the mystery unfolded and the roles the characters involved played did start to feel a bit predictable having come off reading so many historical mysteries featuring similar topics.

Veronica and Stoker were excellent as always. Veronica, especially, seems to really come into her own in this book. Stoker, understandably, struggles with the entire situation and is thrown into numerous scenes that shake him quite badly, most notably a confrontation with his ex-wife. I particularly liked Veronica’s tongue-lashing of Stoker when he too often fell into bouts of self-pity. Stoker’s arc and past have been slowly unrolling for the past several books, but I do hope that this confrontation with his past as forced upon him by this story will put an end to some of the more mopey and melodramatic moments he could be prone to. Veronica always plays nicely off this aspect of him, but at a certain point, there needs to be a bit more growth on Stoker’s side. So while I liked the situations that arose here, I’m hopeful that this will be the end of this particular plot point.

A complaint I’ve had in the past has had to do with the endings often feeling rushed and too convenient. This book mostly avoids that same pitfall. Mostly. Instead, there are various reveals scattered throughout the story. This allows what is really a very complicated mystery with a ton of moving pieces to come together in a more natural and less info-dumpy manner. However, again, the ending did fall prone to the convenience factor with the villains neatly doing away with themselves. It seems to be a common trait.

The romance between Veronica and Stoker was understandably muted in this story, given the nature of the mystery and the involvement of Stoker’s ex, whom he still struggles to move on from. Similarly to his tendency towards the morose, I’m hopeful that this book marks a turning point in their relationship as well. No need to rush to the alter or anything, but a bit more progress in this area would be nice.

I very much enjoyed “A Treacherous Curse.” It remained true to all the aspects that I’ve enjoyed previously, most notably the strength of its two leads and the inclusion of a legitimately puzzling mystery. The topic of the mystery was a bit dampened  by comparisons to the Amelia Peabody books, because let’s be honest, there’s no beating those stories as far as historical mysteries in Egypt go. But this goes down as another solid entry in this series, and if you haven’t already, definitely check it out. Or save it up a bit until March is closer so you’re not waiting forever like me.

Rating 8: While Egypt remains Amelia Peabody’s stronghold, Veronica and Stoker are setting up camp as a strong second.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Treacherous Curse” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Regency and Victorian Mysteries” and “Historical Mysteries and Thrillers Featuring Women.”

Find “A Treacherous Curse” at your library using WorldCat.

 

Book Club Review: “Deathless”

8694389We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. 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 “B-Sides,” where we pick different books from previous authors that we read in the club.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Deathless” by Catherynne M. Valente

Publishing Info: Tor Books, March 2011

Where Did We Get This Book: Kate from the library, Serena owns it.

A-Side Book: “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making”

Book Description: Koschei the Deathless is to Russian folklore what devils or wicked witches are to European culture: a menacing, evil figure; the villain of countless stories which have been passed on through story and text for generations. But Koschei has never before been seen through the eyes of Catherynne Valente, whose modernized and transformed take on the legend brings the action to modern times, spanning many of the great developments of Russian history in the twentieth century.

Deathless, however, is no dry, historical tome: it lights up like fire as the young Marya Morevna transforms from a clever child of the revolution, to Koschei’s beautiful bride, to his eventual undoing. Along the way there are Stalinist house elves, magical quests, secrecy and bureaucracy, and games of lust and power. All told, Deathless is a collision of magical history and actual history, of revolution and mythology, of love and death, which will bring Russian myth back to life in a stunning new incarnation.

Serena’s Thoughts

This was my bookclub book choice. After reading and loving the entire “Fairyland” series, I was eager to see what Valente had to offered with a new fantasy setting and topic. How would her lyrical writing style and witty twists of nonsense translate to the seemingly much more dark and serious tone of a Russian fairytale?

As a young girl growing up, Marya sees more than most. She sees the bird-forms that her sisters’ husbands wore before changing into men and asking for their hands. She’s visited the small beings who run her house via committee. She knows there is magic in the world, and she is ready and waiting for her turn. But what she gets is Koschei, a dark being who has served as the nightmare in Russina folklore. However, Marya is no wilting flower herself, and over the years proves to be the challenging equal of even a being so great as Koschei.

This is the story of Marya, but it is also the story of Russia. And with that dual focus and the time period during which this is set, there is a darkness that permeates the story. There are some incredibly rough scenes that draw from historical events and Valente doesn’t back down from the tragedy of it all. It was quite the change from the up-beat and fuzzy tone of her other books, but not a change for the worse. I don’t have a strong foundation in Russian history, so there were various points where I had to put the book down out of curiosity about the real-life events that were being referred to. However, the book and fairytale aspects are also strong enough on their own that this type of extra research was by no means necessary.

I very much enjoyed Marya herself and the way she moved through her own fairytale. I also wasn’t familiar with the original folktale, so I read up on that as I went along, too. The story was slow to start, but once it gets into the truly fantastical elements and onto Marya’s own adventures and quests, I was able to zip along.

I did struggle a bit more with Valente’s flowery way of writing in this story. While she still had several very beautiful lines and highly quoatable sections, there were also portions that felt like they just dragged on just for the sake of lyrical lines. But those lines were actually adding anything to the story. It felt like an editor could have been used to really pair these sections down. This would have not only helped the pacing, which, like I said, could be slow at times, especially in the beginning. But it also would have left the remaining beautiful bits as stronger for being more rare.

Kate’s Thoughts

I was the person in book club who didn’t really care for “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making”, but when I heard the plot of “Deathless” I was game to give Valente another try. I don’t know much about Russian folklore outside of Baba Yaga, and my knowledge of Russian history is admittedly limited, but I thought that this could be a fun break from the usual fairy tale retellings that usually have a huge focus on Western European stories. And these aspects were the things that I liked best about this book.

I had never heard of the Marya and Koschei story, but found myself completely taken in by their admittedly problematic relationship. Yes, he kidnapped her as a child and there was certainly a fair amount of manipulation to begin with (very “V for Vendetta”, as we agreed in book club). But ultimately, like in “V for Vendetta”, Marya became more than Koschei, became an incredibly tough and strong protagonist who takes back her agency, and has a new kind of connection to Koschei. Sure, in real life this isn’t a good thing, but HEY GUESS WHAT I DON’T EVEN CARE!! I was one hundred percent invested in them and was rooting for them, even when Ivan showed up (as he does in the original story), because Ivan can’t POSSIBLY get Marya like Koschei does. I went back and looked up the original Marya and Koschei the Deathless fairy tale, and I liked how Valente subverted it to fit along with important, and sometimes dark as night, moments in Russian history.

But ultimately, I still have a very hard time with Valente’s writing style. While I liked the plot, I found myself slogging through this book because of how detailed and flowery her writing is, and also found myself having to skip back and re-read sections just to figure out what was going on. I don’t like having to do that repeatedly in a book, and I was doing that a fair amount in “Deathless”. I think that her writing style and the way that she likes to make her fantasy worlds (another thing I am not keen on) are just not conducive to how I like my stories.

I’m glad that we read “Deathless” if only because we stretched our reading muscles a bit and covered unknown folk tales from a not as familiar culture and history.

Serena’s Rating 7: I enjoyed this book, especially the darker fairytale aspects and the tie-ins to Russian history, however I felt that Valente’s writing style too often distracted from the story itself or needlessly dragged out sections of the plot.

Kate’s Rating 6: I’m still not really into fantasy and think that Valente’s style is a bit too flowery for me, but I liked the Russian fairy tale aspect, and I was deeply invested in the messed up romance between Marya and Koshchei.

Book Club Questions:

  1. This is a fairytale re-telling. How does it compare to other fairytales you’ve read? Were you familiar with the original fairytale this was based on? Or Russian fairytales in general?
  2. The story blends fairytales with historical fiction. How did this work for you? Were there parts you particularly intriguing or you felt could have been expanded upon more?
  3. There was also some subtle or not too subtle commentaries on politics and the Communist regime, like the committees of house imps and references to Party slogans. How did these work for you?
  4. Mixed with the topics of war and fear, the story explores love and marriage. Marya and Koschei have a tumultuous (to say the least) relationship. What did you think of the arc of their story? How did you feel about the character Ivan and his role in the story?
  5. Valente has a very unique writing style. Did this add or detract from the story in your opinion?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Deathless” is included on the Goodreads lists “Dark, Lyrical Fairytales”, and “Russian Motifs in Fantasy”.

Find “Deathless” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Scarlett Hart: Monster Hunter”

34499251Book: “Scarlett Hart: Monster Hunter” by Marcus Sedgwick and Thomas Taylor (Ill.)

Publishing Info: First Second, April 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Scarlett Hart, orphaned daughter of two legendary monster hunters, is determined to carry on in her parents’ footsteps—even if the Royal Academy for the Pursuit and Eradication of Zoological Eccentricities says she’s too young to fight perilous horrors. But whether it’s creepy mummies or a horrid hound, Scarlett won’t back down, and with the help of her loyal butler and a lot of monster-mashing gadgets, she’s on the case.

With her parent’s archrival, Count Stankovic, ratting her out to T.R.A.P.E.Z.E. and taking all the monster-catching rewards for himself, it’s getting hard for Scarlett to do what she was born to do. And when more monsters start mysteriously manifesting than ever before, Scarlett knows she has to get to the bottom of it and save the city… whatever the danger!

In his first adventure for middle-grade readers, acclaimed YA author Marcus Sedgwick teams up with Thomas Taylor (illustrator of the original edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) to create a rip-roaring romp full of hairy horrors, villainous villains, and introducing the world’s toughest monster hunter—Scarlett Hart!

Review: Rarely can you find an author who can jump from genre to genre with ease. A lot stick within their strengths, which may  be limited to one or two genres. It’s true that sometimes you get some who can shift between them and be strong in all of them (Stephen King and J.K. Rowling come to mind for me), but I wouldn’t necessarily expect it of an author, great ones included. So Marcus Sedgwick just keeps completely surprising me. He has written dark fantasy (“Midwinterblood”), straight up horror (“White Crow”), speculative Science Fiction (“The Ghosts of Heaven”), and realistic crime fiction with a literary zest (“Saint Death”). And he does a good job in all of them. Now we can add children’s graphic fantasy to his already impressive list of genre jumping, with “Scarlett Hart: Monster Hunter”. Given that the last book I read by him was the brutal and violent and depressing “Saint Death”, I thought that he couldn’t POSSIBLY make a realistic shift to a fun fantasy for children.

And yet “Scarlett Hart: Monster Hunter” is exactly that. Scarlett is a mix of Anne Shirley and Buffy Summers, as she’s a plucky monster hunter with a lot of heart but also a bit of sad baggage. She is determined to follow in the footsteps of her parents, both renowned monster hunters in their own right who died in the line of duty, but is too young according to The Royal Academy for the Pursuit and Eradication of Zoological Eccentricities (T.R.A.P.E.Z.E.). With the help of her guardian/former servant Napoleon White she breaks the rules, wanting to make her parents proud. I loved Scarlett, for her tenacity and her recklessness, and I loved how she and Napoleon banter and work together in their monster hunting. Napoleon himself is a fun stereotype/send up of the stuffy Gilded Age British  butler, with his worry about the state of his car and restrained frustration with Scarlett’s antics. Their interactions are both funny and sweet, and you get a good sense of both their motivations and devotions to her late parents as well as his devotion to her because of a sort of surrogate parental instinct. It’s very Buffy and Giles.

giphy12
With all the father/daughter-esque joy and none of the angst. (source)

The monsters themselves are pretty standard villains, but they have some fun tweaks and twists added to them. We’ve all heard of the Hound of the Baskervilles Church Grims, and mummys and gargoyles. But while they are presented as menacing and definitely scary, the tone is lighthearted enough that kids who may not like scary things will probably be able to enjoy the monster hunts themselves. The true villains of this story are Count Stankovic, who was the arch rival of Scarlett’s parents and hates her just as much, and, in some ways, society. T.R.A.P.E.Z.E. is a very strict group, seeming to  be mirrored off of old Victorian secret societies that you might see in other books like this, and one of the rules is that Scarlett is too young to officially hunt, under threat of punishment if she is caught. But given that is her main source of income now that she has been orphaned, she has little choice, especially since women during this time period (Victorian? Edwardian? I’m not totally certain) really didn’t have many options if they were on their own. Seeing her fight against norms of the society she lives in is fun and encouraging, and I think that a lot of people, kids and teens alike, will find a lot to relate to with her.

I also really enjoyed the artwork for this book. It’s cartoony enough to be entertaining to the audience it’s written for, but there is a lot of depth to it as well. I’m not too surprised, given that Thomas Taylor was the original artist for the cover of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” in the U.K. He’s made a career for himself beyond that, but he was the first. And his talents are definitely on display in this book.

Screen Shot 2018-05-22 at 3.28.56 PM
(source)

“Scarlett Hart: Monster Hunter” is a comic that I think will be perfect for end of summer reading for kids and teens alike. Heck, if stories about spunky orphans getting into some daring do is your thing, you’ll probably like it too! Marcus Sedgwick has now branched his writing talents into the middle grade community, and I think that he is going to fit in just swimmingly!

Rating 8: A fun and sweet romp with good characters and a solid premise, “Scarlett Hart: Monster Hunter” is just another example of Marcus Sedgwick’s talent as a writer.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Scarlett Hart: Monster Hunter” is fairly new and not on many Goodreads lists. But it is included on “Great Graphic Novels for Girls”, and I think it would fit in on “Women Leads: Kids Books and Comics”.

Find “Scarlett Hart: Monster Hunter” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Seeing a Large Cat”

66526Book: “Seeing a Large Cat” by Elizabeth Peters

Publishing Info: Grand Central Publishing, 1997

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: No villain is safe in 1903 Egypt as feisty archaeologist Amelia Peabody embarks on her ninth adventure.

According to an ancient Egyptian papyrus, dreaming of a large cat means good luck. And that’s just what Amelia Peabody could use, as her growing family matures in the new century. What’s more, Amelia’s dashing husband Emerson has received a mysterious warning not to enter the Valley of the Kings. To Emerson’s annoyance, Amelia’s meddling distracts her attention as she exposes a fraudulent spiritualist, saves a marriage, and plays matchmaker. But diabolical forces are at work when an unknown tomb reveals a shocking murder — and the Peabody family dodges bullets from an assassin determined to put an end to their discoveries.

Previously Reviewed: “The Crocodile on the Sandbank” and “The Curse of the Pharaohs” and “The Mummy Case” and “Lion in the Valley” and “Deeds of the Disturber” and “The Last Camel Died at Noon” and “The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog.” and “The Hippopotamus Pool”

Review: I know, right?! Finally, we’re back with another Amelia Peabody book! I mean, yes, the Veronica Speedwell books have been a nice stand-in, but I can’t write a single review of those without referencing the OG female sleuth, Amelia. Plus, as much as I like the slow-burn romance in that book, I was also hankering for a nice, established relationship where I could just lounge in all of the lovely romance.

This book takes another pretty big leap in time between it and its predecessor. For the most part, the books before went year to year. But when we start this one, we see Amelia and Emerson waiting for the return of their son Ramses, who, now a young man, has spent the summer with the tribes and is only just not rejoining his family. I believe he is around 16 in this book? With Neferet being around 19? I was doing a lot of mental math throughout the book, and at a certain point, it was just distracting, so we’ll go with that.

Anyways! Reunited, the Emersons find themselves once gain caught up in a mystery. With dire warnings coming their way (which Amelia ignores, of course!) and old friends reemerging with romantic entanglements of their own, Amelia never wavers in her confidence that she is prepared to handle it all. This book also marks a change in that we get several chapters that are written in third person, detailing the goings-on of the younger generation. Here, we finally see behind the curtain and realize that while yes, Amelia does have a good understanding of much that is happening, her rapscallion child and wards also get up to a good amount of mischief that does fly beneath her ever-watchful radar.

It took a bit for me to get used to having to share my narrative time with these third-person chapters. Part of the reason I love these books so much is the brilliance of Amelia’s narrating voice, so it felt like a loss to give that up, even briefly. It was also unclear who actually wrote these other chapters. The rest of the books have clearly stated that Amelia is writing them for posterity. Who, then, is writing these? Especially since it is written in third person? It seems as if it has to be either Ramses or Neferet. But as the story progressed, I did begin to appreciate more and more this inner look into the “childrens'” eyes. One has to assume that as the series progresses, their own story lines will also begin to take more precedence (especially the thwarted love that Ramses feels for Neferet), and this device is a clever way of balancing both.

The mystery itself was also quite complicated and good. I also love the fact that Amelia’s penchant for match-making often seems to play a role in these stories. And here, that thread takes on a very different role with the return of two characters whom she had previously matched and who are now struggling quite a bit. From my view of things, I think the man in question never redeems himself and I was pleased to see Amelia think equally poorly of him for his failings. But, because these are happy books, things are resolved eventually.

Amelia and Emerson were as great as ever. Their banter and bond remain one of the biggest draws for the series. I also liked the action of this story, particularly the final scene. Of course the family ends up in quite a scrap, but the way things resolved was surprising and took on an unexpected, but appreciated, serious tone. I’m curious to see what the fall-out of this experience will be for the entire family.

All told, this was another solid entry into the series. I feel that it is ushering in a new age for the series with the introduction of the Manuscript H sections that feature the younger generation. But I was pleased to see that these sections never over-shadowed the real draw: Amelia herself!

Rating 8: An excellent return to a favorite series! This book brought forward new views on this familiar and beloved family.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Seeing a Large Cat” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Brainy/Genius Romantic Heroes” and “Sleuths in Silks.”

Find “Seeing a Large Cat” at your library using WorldCat.

 

Serena’s Review: “Keeping the Castle”

12871232Book: “Keeping the Castle” by Patrice Kindl

Publishing Info: Viking Childrens Books, 2012

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Seventeen-year-old Althea is the sole support of her entire family, and she must marry well. But there are few wealthy suitors–or suitors of any kind–in their small Yorkshire town of Lesser Hoo. Then, the young and attractive (and very rich) Lord Boring arrives, and Althea sets her plans in motion. There’s only one problem; his friend and business manager Mr. Fredericks keeps getting in the way. And, as it turns out, Fredericks has his own set of plans . . .

Review: This book has been hanging around on my Goodreads TBR pile for quite a while. Like, years. Between all the new releases and series that I’ve been reading so far, it’s never made its way to the top. Until last month when I was heading out on vacation and realized I had nothing on my Kindle that was particularly calling to me. Not to mention, I’ve been reading a heavy dose of fantasy/sci fi books recently, it was about time I got back to good, old historical fiction. So without further ado, I checked it out and raced through it.

The castle that Althea, her mother, her brother and her two snobby (but rich!) step-sisters live in is falling apart around them. Literally. Pieces of the ceiling pose a danger at any moment and the family must carefully arrange chairs when they have guests over to limit the risk of said chairs caving in from sheer age and decrepitude. Althea knows her duty: to save the castle by marrying well. Luckily, while fortune is not on her side, she does have a good amount of looks. Armed with this and a healthy dose of determination, Althea sets her eyes on their new neighbor, Lord Boring. But can she even get at him when the ever present, ever annoying Mr. Fredericks is always by his side?

From that description alone, you can probably guess the majority of the story. That, or having read/been exposed to any Jane Austen in your lifetime. I’m not leading with this as a criticism of the book (though it did have its downsides, which I’ll get into later), but as a general description of what this book sets itself up to be from the very beginning. There are no illusions of creating a completely distinct work. Instead, the story walks a line between parodying other classic works while also trying to work in a few surprises of its own. Some pieces of this were more successful than others.

Many of the characters had similarities to other stereotypical characters one usually finds in historical romance. Althea was an entertaining blend of Emma from “Emma” and Elizabeth from “Pride and Prejudice.” At her core, she’s a good-willed, smart woman. But she also has a healthy dose of foolishness that leads to all of the some-what expected shenanigans one could hope for from a light-hearted story like this. The two step-sisters were, of course, terrible, each exhibiting comical combinations of idiocy, selfishness, and petty cruelty.

The characters I was a bit more surprised with were Althea’s mother and the two gentlemen who are introduced. The mother was neither foolish nor absent! That alone is kind of shocker for stories like this. Instead, Althea’s mother is a very compassionate character and had her own mini arc throughout the book. As for the men, it’s not a spoiler to reveal that OF COURSE Althea has it all wrong about both of them. But their backgrounds and motivations where different than one might expect. This played to varying success. I liked the evaluation of Lord Boring and the choices he makes, revealing that in some ways, men and women in this time are not all that different.

But, while I liked Mr. Fredericks for the most part, I still struggled a bit with his “change” and the romance between him and Althea. Her frustrations with him are, largely, completely valid. And while he does make up for some his errors, I wasn’t quite convinced that I saw a discernible change in their relationship as the book progressed. Althea just kind of suddenly realizes that she has feelings. But it several of the better traits about Mr. Fredericks haven’t even been revealed! It isn’t a huge complaint, as I still enjoyed their scenes and dialogue together. But I also never really felt the chemistry between them either, which is a problem for a book like this where the romance is key.

As for the plot, like I said earlier, there are a lot of references to plot points from Jane Austen novels and the like in this book. While I enjoyed these for the most part, there were also moments when the book simply felt predictable because of how closely it was following the storyboard of those types of books. There were very few real surprises in here.

But, again, this is a book that one reads for the light, fluffy romance and for the writing style itself. There, the author very much succeeded. She did manage to neatly grasp the way of talking and writing that is common to stories set in this time period, and there were several turns of phrase that had me laughing out loud and highlighting bits.

All in all, it was a very pleasing book. It didn’t push any boundaries or surprise me, but it was just what it claimed to be: a light historical romance with some witty banter.

Rating 7: A fun, easy read, but don’t expect to be surprised or challenged in any way.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Keeping the Castle” is on these Goodreads lists: “Teen novels related to Jane Austen” and “Clean Regency (or around then) Romance Novels.”

Find “Keeping the Castle” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Into the Bright Unknown”

18054074Book: “Into the Bright Unknown” by Rae Carson

Publishing Info: Greenwillow Books, October 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: Leah Westfall, her fiancé Jefferson, and her friends have become rich in the California Territory, thanks to Lee’s magical ability to sense precious gold. But their fortune has made them a target, and when a dangerous billionaire sets out to destroy them, Lee and her friends decide they’ve had enough—they will fight back with all their power and talents. 

Lee’s magic is continuing to strengthen and grow, but someone is on to her—someone who might have a bit of magic herself. The stakes are higher than ever as Lee and her friends hatch a daring scheme that could alter the California landscape forever. 

Previously reviewed: “Walk on Earth a Stranger” and “Like a River Glorious”

Review: This is the last in the “Gold Seer” trilogy and after the previous book which seemed to wrap up much of the story and do-away with its main villain, I wasn’t sure where this book would go from there. I was also still smarting from the pretty graphic and hard-to-read scenes that made up a good chunk of that book, so I went into this one hopeful that we’d have a return to the “Oregon Trail” adventures of the first book. What we got was probably something in-between.

Life is moving along in Glory, California. Lee and her friends have on their hands what looks to be a growing and bustling town. Except for the fact that the town charter they had paid for from the wealthy Henry Hardwick in the last book has yet to arrive. With this problem before them, a large chunk of our main characters head off to San Fransisco. What they find is a man much more villainous than they had suspected and before long, Lee and her friends have much more to deal with than just a small town charter.

With this as the last book in the trilogy, looking back, it’s hard to get a real sense for this series as a whole. The first one was a fairly straight-forward travelogue with fun call-outs to the tropes of Oregon Trail games and stories. The second took a nose dive into the worst parts of humanity and left Lee as a bit of a passive character. And this one gets the gang back together, adds a new villain, and pretty much turns into a heist story. It’s all a little strange, from that angle.

But to judge this book on its own, there were definite areas of improvement from the last book but it still didn’t manage to reclaim the highs of the first. I very much enjoyed the return of many of our familiar characters who were largely absent in the second book. In particular, Becky, who had snuck up on me in the first book as a favorite and then disappeared in the second installment. As a heist story, it makes sense to have this large cast and the book already had many of these people on hand, so it was fun seeing them all interact and plan together in a way that was intentional, rather than the hap-hazard manner in which they had been forced by circumstances on the trail to work together before.

Lee and Jefferson’s relationship was also good. I was glad to see them working together for much of this book after being separated for so much of it during the previous one. The lack of relationship drama was also a welcome relief given that all too often it seems as if authors feel the need to throw a wrench in their romances in the last book from a misguided attempt to “build tension.”

One of the strongest portions of this book, for me, was the increased focus on Lee’s abilities. There was a big shift in the end of the last book with how her gold sense operated, and it was interesting watching Lee continue to practice and explore the possible new uses of her powers. There were several moments in this book where she came up with clever ways to put this power to use, and after being mostly useless in the second book, the success of their plans ultimately did fall to Lee’s own abilities, both with her powers and her planning. I was also surprised when an arc was introduced that dealt more fully with where these abilities might have come from and what other forms of magic might exist in the world. It was a nice addition as, up to this point, it felt a little strange to have Lee be the only exception to a world that otherwise seemed magic-less and true to history.

Those were the stronger aspects of the book. However, I did still struggle with the main plot itself and the villains. It’s a weird complaint, but like the second book, the villains were almost TOO villainous. In that they all seemed evil simply…because. And while I know that money and influence could go a long way then (and still can today), it also bordered on unrealistic that some of the villains’ actions could have been overlooked for so long. A man is killed in a crowd of people at one point, and no one bats an eye. Even with prejudices in mind, I have to think that this would have lead to something more.

The heist itself was interesting enough. But it was also a bit too complicated, for my thoughts. Or, barring that, not easy enough to put together on ones own without a massive infodump at the end explaining it all. A good heist story keeps some cards hidden, but still leaves room for the reader to put things together for themselves. Here, while there were parts that I could guess, the infodump where “all was told” was still long and confusing. This could partly be due to the simple fact that no finesse was used for said infodump: characters just spilled it out in long chunks of dialogue. At the best, it was just boring. At the worst, it left me still confused but not wanting to expose myself to the boredom again in an attempt to try to understand with a second read-through.

In the end, the series never quite regained the high that was the first book and seemed to flounder around for purchase and focus in the last two books, each presenting wildly different stories both in tone and topic. If I was to recommend this series, I’d almost say to just stop with the first. The second two are not worthless, but they’re also the kind of books that I will quickly forget. But if you are still enjoying these characters and the unique combination of realistic history with small doses of magic, this book was still an improvement on the second and might be worth checking out.

Rating 6: A serviceable story with a few highs relating to Lee’s magic, but a heist that was too confusing to be truly enjoyable.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Into the Bright Unknown” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “California Gold Rush in YA & Middle Grade Fiction” and “Young Adult Books Without Insta-Love.”

Find “Into the Bright Unknown” at your library using WorldCat!