Serena’s Review: “Scarlet”

11983940Book: “Scarlet” by A. C. Caughen

Publishing Info: Walker Childrens, February 2012

Where Did I Get this Book: bought it from the library’s weeding cart!

Book Description: Will Scarlet is good at two things: stealing from the rich and keeping secrets – skills that are in high demand in Robin Hood’s band of thieves, who protect the people of Nottingham from the evil sheriff. Scarlet’s biggest secret of all is one only Robin and his men know…that she is posing as a thief; that the slip of a boy who is fast with sharp knives is really a girl.

The terrible events in her past that led Scarlet to hide her real identity are in danger of being exposed when the thief taker Lord Gisbourne arrives in town to rid Nottingham of the Hood and his men once and for all. As Gisbourne closes in a put innocent lives at risk, Scarlet must decide how much the people of Nottingham mean to her, especially John Little, a flirtatious fellow outlaw, and Robin, whose quick smiles have the rare power to unsettle her. There is real honor among these thieves and so much more – making this a fight worth dying for.

Review: I found this one on the weeded cart at my local library and snatched it up right quick! I love Robin Hood re-tellings, and this one has gotten quite a bit of positive attention in the last few years. (I only discovered after finishing it that it is the first in a trilogy. *Sigh* Sometimes, just sometimes, it would be nice to find a nice, simple stand-alone novel in YA fiction!) The book description gives a good summary for the book and didn’t lead me astray, both with the positive aspects of the book (a female Will Scarlet!) and the negative aspects (a love triangle!).

In the positive arena, Scarlet is a strong protagonist for the story. The book is written from her perspective and the author made an interesting choice to word Scarlet’s narrative using the unique dialect in which Scarlet talks. I can’t speak to how historically accurate it may be, but it did align with what we traditionally think of as a “British commoner” dialect, substituting “were” for “was” and other, similar changes. At first I was put off by this, even quickly skimming further in the book to see if ever changed, but after discovering that it did not and reading on for a few more chapters, I found that I actually appreciated the added layer this writing style gave the story. Readers’ mileage may vary on this point, as it still was a bit jarring to get used to.

Further, towards the back half of the book, I did have a few questions about the authenticity of this choice given Scarlet’s own history. Some of this history was fairly easy to guess and I’m sure many readers will be looking for this outcome from the start, but there were a few added elements to the tale that added some unexpected twists to what was, largely, an expected reveal.

From the get go, I appreciated Scarlet’s spunk and often brass approach to life as an outlaw. She doesn’t let herself be pushed around by the men in her life, and from the very beginning, we are shown that she has the skills to backup her talk. Further, Scarlet discusses the challenges she went through to gain those skills as well, referencing her scarred hands that came from learning to wield her knives. Too often in YA lit readers are simply told that the heroine is a badass, but given very little evidence to back up this claim. Further, any attributes that they do have seem to just appear from nowhere ala “maybe she was born with it!” Not so with Scarlet.

Alas, there were also negatives to this story, both a few that were expected and a few unexpected. Firstly, yes, there is a love triangle between Scalet, John Little, and Rob and it is just as unfortunate as it sounds. As with many love triangles, the “true pairing” is projected from the beginning of the story, there is some event that pushes the heroine to fall into the arms of the second best option during a moment of weakness, “true pairing” dude finds out, much angst ensues, but in the end, in a complete and utter shocker to all, heroine ends up with “true pairing” guy anyways. There was absolutely nothing new in this set up.

The more unexpected negatives had to do with Rob himself. For the first half or so of the book, I really liked Rob, the author’s take on his history, and the relationship he had with his men and Scarlet. Then the love-triangle-angst-moment happened, he discovered Scarlet’s hidden past, and he went crazy saying horrible things and calling her a “whore” at one point. The whole scene and his reaction is so completely blown out of proportion that I had a hard time every getting back on board with him as a character. Love triangle confusion aside, Scarlet’s decision to keep her past a secret was completely her own to make and one that has been keeping her alive for years. She didn’t owe those around her anything more than she felt comfortable giving. His reaction to this choice is deplorable, as is the use of the word “whore.” Later in the book, he attempts to explain his maltreatment of Scarlet in these moments by saying something along the lines of “Don’t you understand? Hurting you was the best way to hurt myself!” Unpacking all the craziness in that statement is not worth my time. But all of this did add up to a very weak reaction on my part to Scarlet and Rob’s inevitable pairing at the end.

I have very mixed feelings about this book. I loved Scarlet herself, and the added twists at the end of the story makes me curious to read more. However, I’m very much not on board with the current direction of her relationship with Rob, and, call me crazy, but not loving the Robin Hood character in a Robin Hood re-telling series seems like a recipe for disappointment as a reader.

Rating 5: A strong leading lady, but a predictable love triangle and rather horrid Robin Hood character.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Scarlet” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Fictional Robin Hood” and “Kingdoms and heroines.”

Find “Scarlet” at your library using Worldcat!

 

 

Serena’s Review: “Without a Summer”

15793208Book: “Without a Summer” by Mary Robinette Kowal

Publishing Info: Tor Books, April 2013

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Jane and Vincent go to Long Parkmeade to spend time with Jane’s family, but quickly turn restless. The year is unseasonably cold. No one wants to be outside and Mr. Ellsworth is concerned by the harvest, since a bad one may imperil Melody’s dowry. And Melody has concerns of her own, given the inadequate selection of eligible bachelors. When Jane and Vincent receive a commission from a prominent family in London, they decide to take it, and take Melody with them. They hope the change of scenery will do her good and her marriage prospects—and mood—will be brighter in London.

Once there, talk is of nothing but the crop failures caused by the cold and increased unemployment of the coldmongers, which have provoked riots in several cities to the north. With each passing day, it’s more difficult to avoid getting embroiled in the intrigue, none of which really helps Melody’s chances for romance. It’s not long before Jane and Vincent realize that in addition to getting Melody to the church on time, they must take on one small task: solving a crisis of international proportions.

Review: I continue on with my reviews of this series! As I commented on in the first reviews, the books’ ties to the Jane Austen novels that the author attempts to mimic has been the difference maker between my enjoyment levels of the first two in the series. The first tried to tie it too closely to “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility,” leaving original characterization and plot to suffer. While the second seemed to step away completely from this format presenting readers with a completely original story and being stronger for it. This third book strikes on the perfect balance of the two with its very loose connections to “Emma” while also building on its original stories and characters.

I was most excited when picking up this book to realize that Melody was again going to play a central role to the story. Her absence was one of the few low points of the second book, in my opinion. And she was featured even more than I originally thought! Jane, back home with her husband Vincent and now recovered from her experiences and trauma dealt in the end of the last book, is realizing how alone and sad her sister is feeling. Country living just doesn’t have enough variety, particularly in the potential husband arena. So, upon receiving a commission for Jane and Vincent’s work on a glamoural for a wealthy family in London, Jane decides the change of scenery would do her sister good. And so we begin to see the set up and ties to “Emma” in this story, with Jane standing in as our poor, struggling matchmaker.

As I said, this book really seemed to hit on the formula for emulating, but not becoming bogged down by, an original Austen work. Only the loosest ties to “Emma” are visible (and three lines from the novel, for those looking closely!). Jane makes many mistakes as a matchmater, but they are of a different variety than Emma’s, both due to differences in their personality and position. Jane is a married woman, so her own romantic confusion is not involved in this. Further, Jane is a very different character than Emma. Emma is lovable for her blissful naivety. Jane is a much more earnest character and one who is used to being on the right side of most conflicts.

I actually found this to be a very interesting take on a matchmaking failure, and one that can speak to a quandary that many people can find themselves in. In many ways, Jane is a very open-minded, justice-oriented character. In the last several books, she is always on the right side of situations that deal with prejudice and injustice. So, in this way, its not surprising that she has become a bit complacent with her own perception of the world, sure that she does not fall into the same traps that other, less wary and more judgemental, people do. But alas, we can guess how this turns out! I really enjoyed this take as it is a pitfall that I think many of us can fall into, becoming falsely secure in our own perception of the world and failing to recognize that we are still susceptible towards opinions and thoughts that are convenient and not as open-minded as we may think. Vincent’s sly hints that she might be a bit off track were also great. It was a nice little wink to the maneuverings of marriage where battles must be picked carefully and opinions offered gently.

The other main storyline of this book was the complete and utter awfulness that is Vincent’s family. We’ve heard about his past some in the previous books, but here we get to meet the whole cast and man, weren’t they all just a bundle of joy. His father in particular reached truly astonishing levels of evil. There were a few scenes where they are all getting together for family gatherings, and just coming of Christmas, which can have familial challenges for some, I think we can all just count ourselves lucky that at least it wasn’t this. The snark was high with these ones.

The pacing of this book was a bit strange, I have to admit. The first half is fairly slow, with a lot of groundwork being laid, but not a lot of action coming of it. But the book did take a big, unexpected turn towards the end that really brought a new life to the story. While the resolution was very convenient, I did enjoy the tension that was brought to the story in this last third.

All in all, I think this book was a great addition to the series. I enjoyed the ties to “Emma,” but was relieved to find that the story was still also very much its own thing. The action towards the end was appreciated, and I’m excited to see where the books will go next and if we’ll see any other Jane Austen storylines! As long as its not “Northanger Abbey”…

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(source)

Rating 7: Series seems to be still going strong!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Without a Summer” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Alternate England” and “Napoleonic Novels.”

Find “Without a Summer” at your library using WorldCat.

Previously Reviewed: “Shades of Milk and Honey” and “Glamour in Glass”

Serena’s Review: “Northanger Abbey” – Jane Austen Project #2

18778806Book: “Northanger Abbey: Jane Austen Project #2” by Val McDermid

Publishing Info: Grove Press, April 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Cat Morland is ready to grow up. A homeschooled minister’s daughter in the quaint, sheltered Piddle Valley in Dorset, she loses herself in novels and is sure there is a glamorous adventure awaiting her beyond the valley’s narrow horizon. So imagine her delight when the Allens, neighbors and friends of her parents, invite her to attend the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh as their guest. With a sunny personality, tickets every night and a few key wardrobe additions courtesy of Susie Allen, Cat quickly begins to take Edinburgh by storm and is taken into the bosom of the Thorpe family, particularly by eldest daughter Bella. And then there’s the handsome Henry Tilney, an up-and-coming lawyer whose family home is the beautiful and forbidding Northanger Abbey. Cat is entranced by Henry and his charming sister Eleanor, but she can’t help wondering if everything about them is as perfect as it seems. Or has she just been reading too many novels?

Review: I found this book while wandering around my library one afternoon. I have a usual reading test that I apply to re-tellings of Jane Austen stories which simply involves reading the first chapter. Mostly this is due to the fact that Austen’s signature writing style is so tricky to duplicate and it is often what sinks many re-imaginings. I’ve wasted too many hours where what might have been a good book on its own is ruined for me by the simple fact that I am too distracted by the writing style itself to focus on the story. Well, this one passed this initial test and so I gave it a go!

First off, since style of writing is usually a major factor for me with these types of books, I will give credit to McDermid for what she does with it in this story. The book is helped by the fact that it is set in the modern day so there is no need to replicate the style of speaking and writing that came with the original. Beyond this, McDermid does a good job converting several of the scenes and dialogue from the original directly into the story with very minimal changes that are both believable and, in some cases, quite creative. Perhaps at times some of the slang that is used for the teenagers who are speaking is a bit much, but for the most part, McDermid avoided overdoing it in this area.

I also appreciated the parallels that were drawn between the original and this book with regards to the parody angle. Austen’s “Northanger Abbey” was largely written in response to the over-done, and often poorly written, gothic horror/romances that were popular in the time. Her heroine loves these stories, but throughout the book learns an important lesson with regards to these books’ failures to depict real people and real life. In this, gothic romance is substituted for the “Twilight” series, which is not only funny, but very accurate when it comes to being a wildly popular book/now genre that is much loved by teenage girls. It has also been highly criticized for portraying unrealistic people and unhealthy world views for these same adoring fans. So to use that series/genre in a re-telling like this is very true to the message and structure of the original.

That said, there are some big problems using this set up as well. In the original, Catherine fears the Tilneys are hiding dark secrets having to do with the suspicious death of the mother, perhaps at the father’s hand. In this, Catherine suspects the Tilneys…are vampires. Look, this is just not the same. Murder, especially at the hands of an emotionally abusive spouse, while rare, is an actual thing. So Catherine’s suspicions can be offensive to the family, but ultimately can be forgiven as fanciful foolishness. In this story, Cat’s suspicions of actual vampires are ridiculous. Every time it came up, I immediately lost respect for Cat. And in the end, when she actually puts voice to her suspicions, it made me judge Henry as well for not dumping her on the spot. If a love interest suddenly made it known to me that not only do they actually believe vampires exist, but they suspect me and my family are these monsters (very specific sort of vampires ala “Twilight” nonetheless who can go out and about in the day and eat rare meat to survive), I’d be out of there immediately.

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Apparently, real vampires sparkle. (source)

Cat is supposed to be on the verge of adulthood, and these imaginings are worrisome with regards to her actual sanity, not just teenage silliness like the original character.

Further, Henry was downgraded even more as a romantic hero when it came to the reason that Cat is evicted from the family home and his belief in that reason himself, not just the General’s belief. I don’t want to spoil things, but the changed reason was ridiculous, and almost offensive, in many ways. I honestly don’t quite know why this had to be changed at all. The original reason, Catherine’s not having a fortune at her disposal, is still a legitimate stumbling block for the type of snobby, pretentious father that the General is made out to be in both books.

To end on a good note, I very  much enjoyed the portrayal of the villains in this story. Bella, Johnny, and the eldest Tilney, Freddie, were all spot on as modern adaptations of the original characters. They were all three highly entertaining and the types of characters you loved to have around just to hate them.

All in all, I was very disappointed with this book. The language was so strong (my usual criticism for this type of story) and many of the characters were perfect. But for some reason the author felt it necessary to adapt portions of the book in ways that severely detracted from the story as a whole. For a book that was so on-the-nose as an adaptation (there were many scenes and conversations that were almost directly lifted from the original), it was shame to have it fail due to unnecessary and weak plot changes.

Rating 3: One point for strong writing, another for good villains, and a third for adapting original scenes and dialogue for a modern setting in a believable way. Ultimately, a failing rating for a terrible choice with regards to Cat’s belief in actual, real life vampires.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Northanger Abbey” is included on these Goodreads lists: “YA Gothic Retellings” and “Retellings of Jane Austen’s ‘Northanger Abbey’.”

Find “Northanger Abbey” at your library using WorldCat.

Kate’s Review: “Only the Dead Know Burbank”

28694501Book: “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.

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I spent a majority of this book wanting to keep him safe and loved. (source)

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.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Only the Dead Know Burbank” is still relatively new and is on few Goodreads lists. But it would feel right at home on “Best Books on Old Hollywood”, and “Hollywood Historical Fiction”.

Find “Only the Dead Know Burbank” at your library using Worldcat!

Bookclub Review: “A Brief History of Montmaray”

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! 

6341739Book: “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.

Kate’s Thoughts

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.

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And she’ll never tell where the bodies are buried either. (source)

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?!”

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Preferably in this kind of endgame situation. (source)

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.

Serena’s Thoughts

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!

Bookclub Questions:

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?

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Brief History of Montmaray” is included on these Goodreads Lists: “Fiction Set During WWII”, and “Best YA Historical Fiction.”

Find “A Brief History of Montmaray” at your library using WorldCat.

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!

Serena’s Review: “Glamour in Glass”

12160890Book: “Glamour in Glass” by Mary Robinette Kowal

Publishing Info: Tor, April 2012

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

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!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Glamour in Glass” is included on these Goodreads lists: :Regency Fantasy” and “Historical Paranormal Romance.”

Find “Glamour in Glass” at your library using WorldCat.

Previously Reviewed:“Shades of Milk and Honey”

Serena’s Review: “Shades of Milk and Honey”

8697507Book: “Shades of Milk and Honey” by Mary Robinette Kowal

Publishing Info: Tor Book, August 2010

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Shades of Milk and Honey” is exactly what we could expect from Jane Austen if she had been a fantasy writer: “Pride and Prejudice” meets “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.” It is an intimate portrait of a woman, Jane, and her quest for love in a world where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality.

Jane and her sister Melody vie for the attentions of eligible men, and while Jane’s skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face. When Jane realizes that one of Melody’s suitors is set on taking advantage of her sister for the sake of her dowry, she pushes her skills to the limit of what her body can withstand in order to set things right—and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own.

Review: As a fan of Jane Austen, I routinely find myself picking up books that have any hint of similarities. And as the description with this one promised a mix of Jane Austen PLUS fantasy, I knew I would have to read it immediately.

In many ways,  Jane lives in typical Regency England. Manners, gentlemen and ladies, balls, and lots of sitting in breakfast rooms gossiping about one’s neighbors. Except, to be a proper, accomplished lady, alongside skills in embroidery, painting, and music, one must also master the art of glamour. Described as folding and weaving light, a glamourist is able to create magical scenes and movement, often for the purposes of impressing one’s neighbors at dinner parties. It seems equivalent with hiring a master painter to create unique portraits for one’s family, essentially. And while Jane’s sister Melody received the looks and charm of the family, Jane is the sister skilled in this specific art.

I really enjoyed the descriptions of this glamour magic. It is such a unique idea and seems to have endless applications. It’s curious seeing it primarily as an art form, as I would imagine there would have to be many other more practical uses for something like this, other than just decorating rich people’s houses. But, like many historical “manners” stories, we are mostly focused on the very privileged lives of our gentry main characters, so I guess seeing it mainly as a form of art makes sense. The whole idea is fascinating and the descriptions of the process of weaving light and the end results were engaging.

As for characters, they were fairly typical fare for a book that is purporting itself as a “Jane Austen read-alike.” It was an interesting mix of storylines and character types from both “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility.” For fans of Jane Austen’s work and those two books specifically, it was fun spotting the tie-ins. Jane, herself, was a likeable heroine, if perhaps lacking some of Elizabeth Bennet’s spunk. Vincent, too, plays the role of the broody leading man effectively. His backstory was interesting and I enjoyed learning more about his character and motivations.

There were a few problems with the writing itself. For the most part, the language is descriptive and elegant. However, there were times where it seemed that the author couldn’t decide how fully to commit to the language of the time. Words would go back and forth from being spelled in the traditional manner to the modern. And there were even a few words of the time that it seemed the author didn’t fully understand. She used the word “droll” in place of the word “dour” it seemed, several times using “droll” to describe a character who was behaving in a gloomy and stern manner. This was frustrating to see in what was otherwise a very competent novel.

All in all, language quibbles aside, I very much enjoyed this book and will be checking out the next one. As all of Jane Austen’s stories were one-offs, it will be interesting to see what the author does with this story, now that we are beyond the point that any of those books cover.

Rating 7: A very unique magic system, if only marked down for some peculiar language mistakes.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Shades of Milk and Honey” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Fantasy of Manners” and ““Sister” Novels.”

Find “Shades of Milk and Honey” at your library using WorldCat.