Emily’s Corner: “Miss Buncle’s Book”

20170202_140222Emily and I (Serena) have been friends since the first week of freshman year of college. Other than a lost purse (I did the losing, Emily did the calming), take a wild guess as to what we bonded over? Yes, that is correct: books. And the fact that we both had plans to be English majors and would go on to coordinate our schedules to have as many similar classes as possible! All that said, Emily has agreed to be a semi-regular contributor to our blog, so keep your eyes open for posts from her in “Emily’s Corner” on random Mondays going forward!

15725379Book: “Miss Buncle’s Book” by D. E. Stevenson

Publishing Info: First published in 1934, republished in 2008 by Persephone books

Where Did I Get this Book: Barnes and Nobles! My husband gave me a generous book budget for my Christmas present so I promptly stocked up on all of D. E. Stevenson’s re-published novels.

Book Description: Barbara Buncle is in a bind. Times are harsh, and Barbara’s bank account has seen better days. Maybe she could sell a novel … if she knew any stories. Stumped for ideas, Barbara draws inspiration from her fellow residents of Silverstream, the little English village she knows inside and out.

To her surprise, the novel is a smash. It’s a good thing she wrote under a pseudonym, because the folks of Silverstream are in an uproar. But what really turns Miss Buncle’s world around is this: what happens to the characters in her book starts happening to their real-life counterparts. Does life really imitate art?

Review: This was my most recent pick for book club. I had seen the Miss Buncle series several times at my local Barnes and Nobles (praise be that a real life book store still exists driving distance from my house!) and couldn’t wait to read it.

I’ll be honest, the first several chapters were slow going. I was a bit worried that I’d picked a sleeper, especially after last month’s emotional selection, “My Name is Asher Lev.” But thankfully it picked up after a few short chapters.

Miss Buncle is yet another adorable old maid (you know my soft spot for them, see my The Blue Castle” review.) She is a spinster in her sleepy village, whose pre-war dividends have reduced her monthly budget to minuscule proportions. Eager to lift herself out of poverty, she attempts to write a book and produces a best-seller on her first try. The first half of her novel are thinly veiled accounts of her neighbor’s comings and goings, and in the second half she re-writes their lives doling out both poetic justice and happy endings with glee.

The result is a book that is quickly picked up by a publisher who is convinced that this is a work of satire, an opinion seized upon by the public which launches Miss Buncle into conveniently anonymous stardom. The trials of keeping her identity a secret from her alternately furious and delighted neighbors are hilarious, and involve a scheming gold-digger, the town’s charming new parson living a year of self-imposed poverty, a surprise elopement, and the kidnapping of twins!

One of my favorite characters is Miss Buncle’s publisher, a man who is delighted with both the book and its’ beguiling author, once he comes around to the idea that the satirical “John Smith” is in fact a mousy spinster who is honest to a fault and in desperate need of money. The following quote says all you need to know about him.

“What fools the public were! They were exactly like sheep…thought Mr. Abbott sleepily…following each other’s lead, neglecting one book and buying another just because other people were buying it, although, for the life of you, you couldn’t see what the one lacked and the other possessed.” 

In essence, this is a book about a book, full of thoughtful commentary on what it means to be a reader and the very thin line that exists between fact and fiction. This is exactly the kind of book you want on a sick day at home, under the covers with tea and chocolate toast.

One last observation. I was struck by the similarity in writing style to L. M. Montgomery, so I was delighted to discover the D. E. Stevenson was in fact a contemporary of Montgomery’s! If you like “Anne of Green Gables,” I can almost guarantee that you’ll adore the Miss Buncle trilogy. I have yet to read “Miss Buncle Married” or “The Two Mrs. Abbotts,” but they are next on my list!

Rating 8: Get yourself through the yawn-inducing first chapters, and you’ll be rewarded with a delightful little tale set in just the kind of English village you’ve always wanted to retire to.

Reader’s Advisory:

Funnily enough, “Miss Buncle’s Book” is included on only one Goodreads list and it is “Potential Book Club Choices.”

Find “Miss Buncle’s Book” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “Long May She Reign”

30320053Book: “Long May She Reign” by Rhiannon Thomas

Publication Info: HarperTeen, February 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: Freya was never meant be queen. Twenty third in line to the throne, she never dreamed of a life in the palace, and would much rather research in her laboratory than participate in the intrigues of court. However, when an extravagant banquet turns deadly and the king and those closest to him are poisoned, Freya suddenly finds herself on the throne.

Freya may have escaped the massacre, but she is far from safe. The nobles don’t respect her, her councilors want to control her, and with the mystery of who killed the king still unsolved, Freya knows that a single mistake could cost her the kingdom – and her life.

Freya is determined to survive, and that means uncovering the murderers herself. Until then, she can’t trust anyone. Not her advisors. Not the king’s dashing and enigmatic illegitimate son. Not even her own father, who always wanted the best for her, but also wanted more power for himself.

As Freya’s enemies close in and her loyalties are tested, she must decide if she is ready to rule and, if so, how far she is willing to go to keep the crown.

Review:  Everything about this book description sounded like something that would be right up my alley. And other than a bit of confusion about the genre (fantasy?), I was not disappointed!

Freya is 20-something in line to the throne, but after a mass poisoning, somehow queenship still manages to fall on her shoulders. Now, not only does she, a natural introvert who only wants to work on her science experiments, have to figure out how to rule a country, but she needs to unravel the mystery behind the poisoning before she’s next. No killer would set out to put her on the throne, after all!

This was such a simple story, and I loved it for this very reason! Within the framework of a political drama, Freya herself is allowed to shine as the unique heroine she is. Often we’re presented with this archetypal character arc: shy wallflower through plot devices learns she’s super special and beautiful and ends the book as the bad-ass she was truly meant to be, thus shedding all of her original shyness. I’ve never liked or bought this story arc for a character. As an introvert myself, that’s just not how it works, and I’m kind of offended whenever having a quieter disposition is presented as something that must be “overcome” to become the bad-ass warrior in the end. And it has been well-documented on this blog that I love me some bad-ass women characters! But that doesn’t mean that every character should become this!

Freya’s journey is not to become a better person by the end, but to truly  appreciate that the changes she brings to the country as a different ruler with different strengths, manners, and priorities is ultimately  just what it might need. Mental health is a subject that is brought up a few times in this book, both for Freya who suffers from anxiety attacks and for another noble lady whom Freya quickly befriends who suffers from some form of depression. While neither of these subjects were tackled in any depth, neither character was demonized for the way that they chose to deal with their own mental health and the fact that they each needed to make its management a priority in their own way. For Freya, this meant the comfort of straightforward and logical scientific research.

Given this connection to Freya’s anxiety,  I appreciated that her research wasn’t simply set up in the beginning as “oh, here’s a special thing about her to make her stand apart from all the other fantasy YA heroines but doesn’t actually play any part in the story” but as an aspect of Freya’s character that is continually reinforced throughout the story. Not only does she use her knowledge and abilities to solve the mystery, but we see how she will continue to make room for this important aspect of herself as a ruler going forward. Science is her retreat and her method for calming her mind, and I loved that this was so fully embraced. Further, the characters who are important to her embrace this as well. Not only appreciating that Freya is always going to make scientific research a priority in her life and one that they will have to live aside, but actually joining her and learning from her.

These side characters were also key to my enjoyment of the novel. The cast is a manageable size, both small enough that I felt like I was able to get to know many of them well, but also large enough to hold up the mystery itself with several viable suspects. Many of them were also delightfully written in shades of grey. There are few obviously “good” characters, like Freya’s best friend from the beginning (Yay for female friendships! There were several in this book, and I loved that ultimately these relationships were given more attention than the romantic story line, which is fairly minimal, all told) and, obviously, her cat whom she adores (she risks her life to save the cat at one point which I completely understand!) But several characters on her much-reduced council are presented with their own compelling reasons for either wanting to support her rule or work quietly against it. Freya’s own father is set up as a bit of a grey character. He clearly loves his daughter, but his ambition is what lead to his rise in court from a lowly merchant, and Freya questions where this ambition could ultimately lead. With all of this, I was truly surprised by who the culprit ultimately turned out to be.

I typically try to avoid reading many other reviews for books before I write my own, but with this one I did want to see what other reviewers were doing when slotting this book in a genre. It is presented as a fantasy novel, but for the life of me I can’t really understand why. Sure, it’s set in an imaginary kingdom…but that’s it. There is no magic that is referenced, no creatures that don’t exist in our world, nothing really. And I feel like this was a bit of a failing in its marketing. This book is more a political/historical YA novel, and by setting it up as a YA fantasy (a genre that is booming beyond belief right now), I feel like a lot of readers came out of it disappointed. As I love these genres as well, I wasn’t perturbed by it. But both the description and cover make it seem like this is somehow a fantasy novel, and for readers who are mostly there for the magic and romance that is usually found in YA fantasy…you’re kind of setting the book up to fail by not targeting the correct audience. Sure, publishers want the extra bang for their buck that comes from jumping on a popular genre bandwagon, but is it worth the backlash when readers discover the truth? I never like this type of marketing tomfoolery, as I feel like this is a strong novel for what it is and that’s now being undercut due to these silly tactics.

But if you are a reader who enjoys YA political/historical novels that focus in on science rather than magic, definitely check this one out!

Rating 8: A great, character-focused political romp!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Long May She Reign” is a new book so isn’t on many Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on “YA Royalty” and “Unconventional Princesses (and Princes).”

Find “Long May She Reign” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Valiant”

30375703Book: “The Valiant” by Lesley Livingston

Publishing Info: Razorbill, February 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Fallon is the daughter of a proud Celtic king, the sister of the legendary warrior Sorcha, and the sworn enemy of Julius Caesar.

When Fallon was a child, Caesar’s armies invaded her homeland, and her beloved sister was killed in battle.

Now, on the eve of her seventeenth birthday, Fallon is eager to follow in her sister’s footsteps and earn her place in the fearsome Cantii war band. She never gets the chance.

Fallon is captured and sold to an elite training school for female gladiators—owned by none other than Julius Caesar. In a cruel twist of fate, the man who destroyed Fallon’s family might be her only hope of survival.

Now Fallon must overcome vicious rivalries and deadly fights—in and out of the arena. And perhaps the most dangerous threat of all: her forbidden yet irresistible feelings for Cai, a young Roman soldier.

Review: If you read the above description and thought to yourself “that sounds a lot like the movie ‘Gladiator’ but with a teenage girl instead of Russel Crowe,” well….you wouldn’t be wrong. Your mileage for whether or not that is a good or bad thing will depend on your opinion of that movie. I thought it was quite enjoyable, but I love overly dramatic action movies myself. So with that in mind, and firmly stifling any inner thoughts about historical accuracy, I was excited when this book arrived on the hold shelf at my library last week and jumped right in. And…it was kind of what I expected, there were things I enjoyed, but ultimately I wasn’t blown over by the book as a whole.

First to the pros! This book is non stop action, almost from the very first page where we meet Fallon attempting to execute a dangerous, yet flashy, spear throw from a precarious balance point on a racing chariot. The scene is set. Fallon is a no-holds-barred warrior princess, and I am happy to report that she sticks to these guns throughout the book. We are not simply told that she is an excellent fighter, we see it proven to us time and again.

With break neck speed, the novel rushes through our introductions to Fallon, her father, who is still devastated by the loss of his eldest daughter, Sorcha (who was a brilliant fighter in her own right and essentially raised Fallon and taught her everything she knows), and setting the stage that was Fallon’s life so far. And with equal swiftness, that rug is swept out from Fallon’s, and our, feet, and she’s off to Rome, a captured slave destined for the gladiatorial arenas. Lots of training, fighting, and political drama thus ensues.

And for the most part, I very much enjoyed this fast paced style. The book never sets out to present an in-depth character study of Fallon or historical analysis of her homeland (Britain) and its relationship with the conquering Rome. The book is meant to be full of fight scenes, and full of fight scenes it is. Character development does fall to the wayside with this approach, though Fallon remains true to her original characterization throughout, which was a relief.

I particularly enjoyed the introduction of Elka, a fellow slave-turned-gladiatrix (yes, that is what the female gladiators are called and I cringed every time it came up). Elka is badassery defined. And she also turns into a true and steady friend for Fallon. About halfway through the book, she sadly begins to fade into the background, but whenever she reappeared, I was reminded of how much color she added to the story. Fallon herself was a steady character, but her steadiness also read as a bit one-note at times. Elka’s more electric presence helped reinforce Fallon herself.

Most of my qualms came in the form of the romance. *sigh* All too often that is the case for me, and I was sorry to see it happen here as well. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the romance. But it is never built up. Cai, a Roman soldier, is given no unique traits and seems to, out of nowhere, fall in love with Fallon. And she with him. The amount of time they know each other is minuscule. The natural biases they would have against each other would seemingly be insurmountable, both based on the strife between their countries and the fact that he is a soldier who has probably been trained from birth to look down on slaves and she is a warrior whose father’s spirit was broken by Roman soldiers. It just seems like it should have been more difficult, or at least taken longer and be given more attention for a true-feeling relationship to develop. I simply didn’t care about Cai or this relationship. Elka’s and Fallon’s relationship is much better developed. And frankly, I would have been more than happy to have a book that is already largely focused on the sisterly bonds that can be formed between women and the power this can give them to have based its primary relationships on these only with no need to add romance into the mix at all.

There were also a few “surprises” that weren’t surprises at all if you are familiar with the genre. I was able to quite easily predict the most major twist, and also understand the character motivations that were later revealed, thus making Fallon’s shock and struggle to understand these same points a bit tiresome to plow through.

So, while I did enjoy the action, and Fallon was a decent lead character (if made better by supporting characters like Elka), the story was a bit too predictable and the romance way too tepid for me to completely fall in love with this book. I’ll mark the second one as a “to read” but I don’t feel any anxiety in the wait for its release. However, if you want a strong YA female warrior book and don’t mind a few stale aspects, this might be worth checking out!

Rating 6: Strong action and a likeable heroine weren’t enough to make this book completely engrossing, but it accomplishes its main goal and was a quick read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Valiant” is a newly released book so isn’t on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it has themes fitting of “Best Historical Fiction About Ancient Rome” and “Young Adult Female Fighters.”

Find “The Valiant” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog”

157857Book: “The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog” by Elizabeth Peters

Publishing Info: Grand Central Publishing, February 1994

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

Book Description: Now, in the seventh mystery in the series, the Emerson-Peabodys are traveling up the Nile once again to encounter their most deadly adversary, the Master Criminal, who is back at his sinister best. Amelia Peabody was unabashedly proud of her newest translation, a fragment of the ancient fairytale “The Doomed Prince.” Later, she would wonder why no sense of foreboding struck her as she retold the story of the king’s favorite son who had been warned that he would die from the snake, the crocodile, or the dog. Little did she realize, as she and her beloved husband sailed blissfully toward the pyramids of ancient Egypt, that those very beasts (and a cat as well) would be part of a deadly plot.

Review: And we’re back for my first Amelia Peabody review of the year! After coming out on the top of my favorite reads list from 2016, I had high expectations for this book and this series. But, most comforting of all, even this far into the series, I had very few worries that I would not enjoy this book as much as I have the many that have come before it. Trust has been built, and I can now look forward to each next book in this series with very little trepidation.

“The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog” opens with Amelia and Evelyn pining for the adventure and romance of the past. Neither is unhappy with their life, full as each is by family and profession, but both Amelia and Evelyn spend moments reminiscing for the romantic passions they remember pre-children. And from these honest and natural feelings, comes very unwanted results, at least for Amelia. After returning to Egypt for another season, Amelia is looking forward to a rare opportunity to work alone with Emerson, as Ramses has chosen to remain in England for…school (to moon over Nefret, more likely). But these simple plans are suddenly foiled when Emerson is kidnapped and, while escaping the experience with his life, loses his memories in the process, including the fact that he was ever married to a woman named Amelia Peabody.

Generally, I am very suspicious of the whole amnesia plot tactic. This probably stems from being burned in early childhood by the egregious and completely unacceptable use of an amnesia story being thrown into my beloved “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” and essentially triggering the beginning of the end for the series as a whole. But I won’t go on another rant about that, though it’s is difficult to resist. However, here, Peters uses it as simply another foil to Amelia’s ever-lasting quest to simply get through an archeological season without murder and mystery.

Having read the series up to this point over the last few years, it was interesting being thrown back in time, essentially, to the character that Emerson was pre-Amelia. I have to say, I’m not sure he deserved her, based on his behavior here! I haven’t re-read the original story, but I have to think that this version of the character was fairly true to how he was written then, and in one word, he’s kind of an ass. I have gotten accustomed to his gruffness and easy piques of anger always being balanced by his love and respect for Amelia. But without her influence or his desire to appease her sense of rightness, these quirks suddenly start overcoming the more appealing parts of his character. However, Amelia remains steadfast to winning him back throughout it all, even if we, the readers, want to smack him up the backside of the head (though she does employ similar tactics in her “wooing”).

The mystery itself is quite a tangled web with many villains re-appearing from past books. Probably the most challenging part of the story was trying to remember these characters and keep their histories straight in my head. There is typically a large cast of characters in these books, but we’re often meeting them for the first time and thus given time to acquaint ourselves. Here, while brief introductions are given, a lot is left to the reader to fill in gaps. I feel like the suspects would have been better rounded out had these histories and motivations been a bit better documented, for those of us who don’t have an encyclopedic memory of the series as a whole.

I also enjoyed the fact that the Nefret storyline wasn’t completely dropped in this book.  Most of the previous books can be read as standalones, and that is true of this one as well, for the most part. But the adventures and outcomes of “The Last Camel Died at Noon” introduced lasting effects on the Emerson-Peabody family going forward. Not only do we have a new character whom we can only assume will be a major staple in the series in the future, but her sudden appearance and secret history would be largely commented on by society as a whole. On the more intimate character level, I loved Amelia’s struggles with adapting to being a mother figure for a daughter as well as a son, and her realization that their needs are very different. And on a larger story level, I appreciated the fact that the happenings of the previous book were paramount to the mystery we have here while still allowing the book to be read on its own. It is a tricky balance to maintain, but one that I feel Peters pulled off very effectively.

While the amnesia storyline was handled for the most part very well, this book does highlight a trend for my views on the series as a whole.  I understand that perhaps the author was concerned that the happy and stable relationship between Amelia and Emerson might come across as tired, book after book, and she felt compelled to throw wrenches into the work. But the two books were this tactic was more prominently used (this story with the amnesia, and “Deeds of the Distruber” where there is much confusion and distrust between the two) were both on the lower end of my ratings. I still very much enjoyed them, but I, at least, don’t need relationship drama from this series to remain interested and when it’s present, it doesn’t add much to the series as a whole.

But, as I said, I still very much enjoyed it and am happily looking forward to the next!

Rating 7: Relationship shenanigans aside, an interesting mystery and a nice tie-in to the previous book.

Reader’s Advisory:

The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog” is included on these Goodreads lists: “The Villain Was Interesting” and “Mysteries with great humor.”

Find “The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog” at your library using WorldCat.

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”

Serena’s Review: “Ghostly Echoes”

28110857Book: “Ghostly Echoes” by William Ritter

Publishing Info: Algonquin Young Readers, August 2016

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

Book Description: Jenny Cavanaugh, the ghostly lady of 926 Augur Lane, has enlisted the investigative services of her fellow residents to solve a decade-old murder—her own. Abigail Rook and her eccentric employer, Detective R. F. Jackaby, dive into the cold case, starting with a search for Jenny’s fiancé, who went missing the night she died. But when a new, gruesome murder closely mirrors the events of ten years prior, Abigail and Jackaby realize that Jenny’s case isn’t so cold after all, and her killer may be far more dangerous than they suspected.

Fantasy and folklore mix with mad science as Abigail’s race to unravel the mystery leads her across the cold cobblestones of nineteenth-century New England, down to the mythical underworld, and deep into her colleagues’ grim histories to battle the most deadly foe she has ever faced.

Review: Trekking right along with my read through of the Jackaby series, “Ghostly Echoes” starts off basically right where “Beastly Bones” leaves off. Jenny, the local friendly ghost whose murder has went unsolved for a decade, has finally decided to take things into her own hands. Literally. She actually learns how to pick up things. But this is an important step, and one that coincides with the return of murders that seem to match the M.O. of her own assailant many years ago.

This book represents an interesting turning point in the series so far. Up to this point, the books have been largely stand-alone novels. Sure, a few things will be referenced here and there, but very few plot lines carry through directly from one book to the other. However, in the last book, Ritter laid the groundwork for a “big bad” to best all “big bads.” And one who had been operating in the background all along. Here, we find this is very true, with the plot lines from not only its direct prequel, “Beastly Bones,” but also from the first book in the series, “Jackaby,” being tied together to a larger mystery.

However, this book was very hit and miss for me, tonally. Ritter was essentially wanting to have his cake and eat it too with this one. The larger plot line and mystery were intriguing. Both Jenny’s burgeoning abilities to operate in the real world, the murders that seem so similar to her own, and the clues that begin to point to a strange organization that is operating with its own nefarious agenda were interesting. There was a lot to get through just with this main story line.

But Ritter had also to pay off the set-up he had built with the previous two books where readers expect to find wit, strange beasts, and madcap adventures. All of these bits, while good, seemed to fit in strangely with the more serious tone of this book. I found myself getting pulled one way and the other when the book would veer back and forth between the main story and the smaller interactions that, while important to the overall plot, felt more light and oddly out of line with the rest of the story.

As I mentioned in my last review of the series, the story is at its best when the character of Jackaby is used sparingly. He did have more page time in this story than the last, but this book also did a lot of work building up his past and making him into a more three dimensional character with deeper inner struggles than the simple “wacky Doctor-like” character he has been presented as for the last two books. I was happy to see him becoming more of a character than a plot point.

Towards the end, Ritter did seem to find his footing a bit better, sending Abigail off on an adventure of her own. However, Abigail probably was the least served character by this change of pace to the series. As I mentioned above, Jackaby’s past and character are fleshed out more fully. Jenny becomes an actual character in her own right beyond simply being a friendly ghost and friend to Abigail. But Abby herself? Largely it just feels like she was there to narrate the story to us. And while she does get her own action, it is only that: action. There didn’t feel like there was a lot of character development for her in this book, which I sadly missed. Also Charlie! He was barely there!

So, in conclusion, this book was a bit of a mixed bag. I very much liked the added depth that was given to the greater story line that now pulls through all the books in the series. And Jackaby himself is a more intriguing character now that it has been revealed that he is more than just a quirky, gimmick. But my favorite character, and the main character of the series, was left dangling a bit. And tonally, the book was a bit all over the place, teetering between a more serious larger plot line, and the expected wackiness established in the first two books.

The next and final book comes out this summer, however, and I am still excited to see how Ritter wraps up this all up!

Rating 7: Some imbalanced highs and lows make for a mixed bag read, but still a strong series overall!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Ghostly Echoes” is included on these Goodreads lists: “YA & Middle Grade Historical Mysteries”and should be on this list “YA Mythology Challenge.”

Find “Ghostly Echoes” at your library using Worldcat!

Previously Reviewed: “Jackaby” and “Beastly Bones”

Serena’s Review: “The FitzOsbornes at War”

13414810Book: “The Fitzosbornes at War” by Michelle Cooper

Publishing Info: Knopf Books for Young Readers, October 2012

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Sophie FitzOsborne and the royal family of Montmaray escaped their remote island home when the Nazis attacked. But as war breaks out in England and around the world, nowhere is safe. Sophie fills her journal with tales of a life during wartime. Blackouts and the Blitz. Dancing in nightclubs with soliders on leave. And endlessly waiting for news of her brother Toby, whose plane was shot down over enemy territory.

But even as bombs rain down on London, hope springs up, and love blooms for this most endearing princess. And when the Allies begin to drive their way across Europe, the FitzOsbornes take heart—maybe, just maybe, there will be a way to liberate Montmaray as well.

Review: I’m back for the final book in the Montmaray trilogy, and boy, am I sad to see it go! And sad for tons of other reasons cuz the story has now progressed to the point where this book is pretty much entirely made up of World War II. But, while it’s not the most perky of the series, it is definitely my favorite, so let’s get down to it!

As this series has progressed, so has the stakes. Looking back on the first book, it now seems like such a fluff pot (though of the very good variety) full of oddball characters, a bizarre little island country, and a madcap adventure at the end. The second book, with the FitzOsbornes forced away from their Nazi-invaded home, raised the stakes, though was still largely comprised of social outings and kerfuffles with their strict Aunt whose primary goal in life was marrying off her young relatives. But here, in the last book in the series, the tone is very different.

This book takes place over the longest segment of time of the three stories, covering 1939-1944. And it’s a haul for our main characters with one challenge after another. Even more so than the previous two books, it is clear just how much research Cooper put into this story. Beyond our fictional main characters and a few of their associates, most of the happenings in this book are lifted directly from the history books. And where many other authors have focused on the more dramatic events of this time period, Cooper focuses Sophie’s story on the day-to-day struggle of surviving in a war-torn country for so many years.

As an American, we have a tendency to view WWII through our own lens: one that is viewed from a more comfortable oceans-apart distance and one that is much shorter, as was our involvement. So it is a stark reminder to read a book like this that truly focuses in on life in London and just how long British citizens were living in this horrible reality. Through Sophie’s eyes we see her initial terror when the bombing starts, but then as the years go by, we see how, overtime, even the most horrific things can become one’s norm and how this change in oneself can affect  day-to-day decision making as well as one’s larger world view. This is the quieter side of the war: the hours spent in shelters every day, the constant change to the city with whole blocks disappearing over night, the sense of never knowing whether one will make it to the next day, the long lines for food, and the struggle to remain connected to the regular parts of life throughout it all.

Cooper doesn’t take any easy outs to the harsh truths of what it would be like to live through this time period. This book is fully of tragedy and hopelessness, but through it all, Sophie and Veronica still find moments of strength, beauty and even romance. Sophie truly grows up through this book, and her maturation is handled so subtly, that by the end of the book, you can’t pinpoint any one moment where this change was obvious.

I greatly enjoyed this book and series as a whole. It’s always exciting to find a series that grows in strength as it continues. For a series that started out with what could have been a rather ridiculous premise (a fictional island country with a family growing up in a crumbling castle), I would strongly recommend these books for any history buffs. The books provide a unique view on a very well-known time period (focusing on the daily life of those at home rather than the more common stories of those fighting in the war itself) and touch on many small details that you may or may not be aware of (for example, there’s even discussion of a spy scandal that went on in the American Embassy in the early part of the war). The author’s note truly hits home just how many historical facts are crammed into this novel. While the book is listed as young adult, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this to adult historical fiction fans either!

Rating 9: An excellent end to an excellent series.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The FitzOsbornes at War” is included in these Goodreads lists: “World War II England”  and “YA set in the 1940s.”

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Previously Reviewed: “A Brief History of Montmaray” and “The FitzOsbornes in Exile”

 

 

 

Serena’s Review: “Heartstone”

31290944Book: “Heartstone” by Elle Katharine White

Publishing Info: Harper Voyager, January 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: A debut historical fantasy that recasts Jane Austen’s beloved “Pride & Prejudice” in an imaginative world of wyverns, dragons, and the warriors who fight alongside them against the monsters that threaten the kingdom: gryphons, direwolves, lamias, banshees, and lindworms.

They say a Rider in possession of a good blade must be in want of a monster to slay—and Merybourne Manor has plenty of monsters.

Passionate, headstrong Aliza Bentaine knows this all too well; she’s already lost one sister to the invading gryphons. So when Lord Merybourne hires a band of Riders to hunt down the horde, Aliza is relieved her home will soon be safe again.

Her relief is short-lived. With the arrival of the haughty and handsome dragonrider, Alastair Daired, Aliza expects a battle; what she doesn’t expect is a romantic clash of wills, pitting words and wit against the pride of an ancient house. Nor does she anticipate the mystery that follows them from Merybourne Manor, its roots running deep as the foundations of the kingdom itself, where something old and dreadful slumbers . . . something far more sinister than gryphons.

Review: I keep doing it to myself, picking up books that are re-tellings of Jane Austen’s famous novels, always hoping and yet so often disappointed. But this, this, is why I do it! Every once in a blue moon an author gets it right, not feeling too beholden to the original, while also staying true to the themes and doing proper justice to the characters. I very much enjoyed “Hearstone,” both as a retelling of “Pride and Prejudice” and as an original work of fantasy fiction!

As the summary explains, only the barest of bones of the original story can be seen here. This is a different word with a different history and a different society. Fantastical beasts aren’t simply inserted into the Regency England we know from the original novels. And right off the bat this is a strength of the story. Jane Austen’s works are filled with female characters who in one way or another struggle with the limitations that dictate their lives. White does away with this aspect right away. Women not only populate this world equally, but they are active, functioning members of the world. There were many characters from the original who are gender-swapped, like Colonel Foster who becomes a female commander. This was a particularly interesting and freeing choice, I believe, as the story is laid out in a much more action-oriented manner, and White’s world allows all of her characters to play in it equally. Aliza and Anjey (the “Jane” sister) don’t simply get to know their to-be Rider beaus through balls and dancing, but by contributing to the cause to rid their land of monsters.

The story is also told from first person perspective, another change from the original. But Aliza is an entertaining and relatable leading lady. It is interesting watching her develop her opinions and prejudices from the perspective of her inner thoughts, something we don’t see from Elizabeth Bennet. Further, her change of heart as she learns the truth about Daired and grows to care for him is an interesting arc that feels news and fresh coming from this more introspective viewpoint. Daired himself is an appealing leading man. While there is no competing with Mr. Darcy, Daried’s own prejudices and points of pride make sense for the character. In some ways the fact that he manages to attach himself to Aliza based on very few interactions is both more understandable and less than Darcy’s affection for Elizabeth. The two spend more time together than Darcy/Elizabeth and in situations that would cause attachments to develop more quickly. However, as great as the Aliza is, as a character it is less obvious to see why she would stand out so much to Daired who runs into so many people throughout society. Elizabeth’s sparkly wit and uniqueness were always obvious. However, I very much enjoyed their romance, specifically the added action towards the end of the book.

As for secondary characters, it is interesting to see that White seems to have looked at Austen’s original supporting cast and essentially thought “Man, not everyone can be that obnoxious!” This, too, was a welcome change. Austen’s ability to write the ridiculous side of humanity and people is unparalleled. So rather than try to mimic it, White simply eased up on it altogether. The Mr. Collins character is still silly, but she makes him also a good man who ends up in a truly affectionate marriage. Mrs. Bentaine is still set on marrying off her daughters, but she’s also clearly a loving parent, and her insufferablness is very much cut back on. Even deplorable characters like Lady Catherine and Caroline Bingley are reformed, though still flawed. The Caroline Bingley character is a perfect example of both this more positive reimagining and the increased role that female characters play in the story, being a Rider herself alongside Daired and Brysney.

As for the world-building, I very much enjoyed how White built up her fantasy world around this classic story. Nothing felt forced, and she used the fantasy elements as motivations for the plot, not simply as window dressing to support a pre-determined system of events. All of the major plot points from the original story are inherently tied to the specific aspects of this new world.

This was one of the more enjoyable Jane Austen retellings that I can remember reading in quite a long time. If you enjoyed the originals, but also like high fantasy, I definitely recommend checking this one out!

Rating 9:

Reader’s Advisory:

“Heartstone” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on “Best Jane Austen Retellings.”

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