Mini-Reviews #5: Summer Reading

All right, time to post some mini-reviews of books I read way back in July! Will I ever catch up with all my reviews? Only time will tell, so stay tuned!🙂

Death of an AirmanSong for Summer, A

Christopher St. John Sprigg, Death of an Airman — In this mystery centered around an English aviation club, one of its best flyers perishes in a tragic plane crash. Most people assume it’s an accident, but the victim was a first-class pilot, and the inquest revealed nothing wrong with the plane. A few of the club members suggest suicide, but a visiting Australian bishop suspects murder. When the police get involved, they realize the victim’s death may be connected to a much larger criminal organization. I liked this mystery well enough, but I think the strength was definitely in the plot rather than in the characters. For example, for the first several chapters, it looks like the Australian bishop is going to be the sleuth, but suddenly everything switches to the police inspector’s point of view. Still, this was a fun variation on the “impossible crime” mystery with a truly ingenious solution.

Eva Ibbotson, A Song for Summer — Ibbotson’s novels are the ultimate comfort reads! I’d never reread this one before, and I think it’s because the plot moves a bit more slowly than in Ibbotson’s other novels, and the atmosphere is bleaker. It’s still a lovely book, but I definitely find myself returning to A Countess Below Stairs and The Morning Gift much more often.

It Happened One WeddingSpear of Summer Grass, ACrown's Game, The

Julie James, It Happened One Wedding — Julie James was my first contemporary romance author, and she pretty much single-handedly convinced me that not all romance novels are poorly written trash. This is another fun, banter-filled romance between hedge fund manager (?) Sidney and FBI agent Vaughn. They initially dislike each other but are forced to play nice when her sister and his brother get engaged. I think we all know where this is going.

Deanna Raybourn, A Spear of Summer Grass — After scandalizing English society with her outrageous behavior, Delilah Drummond is packed off to British East Africa so she won’t further damage her family’s reputation. Although Delilah is the consummate city girl, with her fashionable dresses and daring bob, she soon falls in love with the African landscape. She also encounters various dangers, from marauding lions to outright murder — and possibly finds love as well. I didn’t particularly like this book, and I’m not sure why. I didn’t dislike it either…I just felt indifferent to it. Delilah reminded me a lot of Phryne Fisher, but while I love Phryne, I didn’t have the same enthusiasm for Delilah. Maybe she was too similar (since I encountered Phryne first)? The romance also made me roll my eyes a bit; the hero is very much an alpha-male caveman type, and he just seemed like a stereotype to me. Overall, a “meh” read.

Evelyn Skye, The Crown’s Game — In an alternate Imperial Russia where magic exists but only a few have the power to wield it, Vika knows she is destined to become the Imperial Enchanter and take her place at the emperor’s side. But then she learns that there is another powerful enchanter in Russia — and that she must defeat him in the Crown’s Game, a magical duel in which the winner becomes Imperial Enchanter and the loser is condemned to death. Little does she know that the other enchanter is Nikolai, whose magic (and handsome face) intrigues her. As Vika and Nikolai get to know each other, they realize they don’t want the Crown’s Game to end in death. But will they be able to find a better solution? I have to admit, this book sort of lost me early on, when Vika is described as having wild red hair with a black streak down the middle. I immediately had a knee-jerk Mary Sue reaction, and I never quite warmed to Vika after that. I did end up somewhat liking the book, particularly for the Russian setting and the lovely descriptions of the magic. I also liked the fact that the stakes are real, and not everybody gets a happy ending. I’ll probably look for the sequel when it comes out. Nevertheless, I was definitely underwhelmed by this one, especially given the amount of hype I’d seen about it.

Bout of Books 17: Progress

Bout of BooksMonday 8/22

What I read: David D. Levine, Arabella of Mars — pp. 229-260.

Challenge: Book to Movie at Writing My Own Fairy Tale

“Clueless” is one of my all-time favorite movies, and it just happens to be a magnificent adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma! Although some aspects of the film are gloriously ’90s-tastic (the clothes, the slang, the soundtrack), the movie actually stays quite faithful to the novel’s original plot. And of course I can’t pick just ONE favorite adaptation, so I have to mention Kenneth Branagh’s “Much Ado About Nothing” as well! It’s gorgeous and exuberant and playful and just a joy to watch. On the other hand, I HATED Ron Howard’s live-action version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” The 30-minute cartoon is a lovely holiday classic, but this remake absolutely did not need to happen!

Clueless movie posterMuch Ado About Nothing movie posterHow the Grinch Stole Christmas movie poster

Tuesday 8/23

What I read: David D. Levine, Arabella of Mars — pp. 261-348. Book 1 completed!
Julianne Donaldson, Edenbrooke — pp. 1-116.

Wednesday 8/24

What I read: Julianne Donaldson, Edenbrooke–pp. 117-255. Book 2 completed!

Challenge: Show Off Your Shelves at Bout of Books

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Thursday 8/25

What I read: Chris Cleave, Everyone Brave Is Forgiven — pp. 3-51

Challenge: Titles in the Tabloids at The Book Junkie

I chose the book Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine, and my tabloid headline is: “Murder! Mutiny! Martians! Runaway Teen Tells All.” The book is a good fit for this challenge because so many dramatic adventures take place! ☺️

Friday 8/26

This was a lost day for me…I read maybe one page of Everyone Brave Is Forgiven. Hopefully I’ll do better over the weekend!

Saturday 8/27

What I read:

Sunday 8/28

What I read:

Mini-Reviews #4: June Books, Part 2

More mini-reviews! Just when I think I’m getting to the end of my backlog, I go and read more books. Will I never learn?

Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You, TheSchool for Unusual Girls, A

Lily Anderson, The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You — Oof. I really wanted to like this one — it’s a modern retelling of Much Ado About Nothing! But I was very underwhelmed, and the main reason is that I couldn’t stand the protagonist, Trixie. She’s incredibly self-absorbed and utterly convinced of her own righteousness at all times, which makes her downright mean to the people around her. She’s also a proud geek girl, obsessed with comic books and “Doctor Who.” Don’t get me wrong — I have nothing against these things! But Trixie’s constant references to geek culture didn’t feel real to me. Instead, I felt like the book was trying to pander to a specific audience and going way over the top. In short, I just wasn’t a fan.

Kathleen Baldwin,  A School for Unusual Girls — This one’s about — you guessed it — a school for unusual girls. Sixteen-year-old Georgiana Fitzpatrick doesn’t behave as a proper young lady should; and when one of her scientific experiments nearly burns down the stables, her parents pack her off to a school whose reputation for strictness is legendary. Of course, Georgie soon realizes that the school is not what it seems and that her fellow students all have unique, mysterious abilities. There’s also romance, kidnapping, and a touch of espionage. All in all, a fun read, although not particularly groundbreaking in the genre. I’d like to read the sequel at some point.

Tell Me Three ThingsStrong PoisonDecent Proposal, The

Julie Buxbaum, Tell Me Three Things — I enjoyed this novel despite its ridiculous premise: Jessie Holmes moves across the country when her dad remarries, and she is forced to attend a pretentious private school where she doesn’t know anyone — that is, until the mysterious Somebody/Nobody emails her, offering friendship and guidance in navigating the social scene at her new school. Though Jessie is skeptical at first, she soon opens up to Somebody/Nobody and speculates on who it might be. To the reader, the answer is astoundingly obvious, but it’s still fun to watch Jessie get there. A nice YA romance if you’re into that kind of thing.

Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison — I read this installment of the Lord Peter Wimsey series years ago but didn’t remember much about it, except that Lord Peter finally meets his match in Harriet Vane, a young woman who’s on trial for murdering her ex-lover. For me, this was the best novel in the series so far. The mystery is well plotted (although, as with other books in the series, the suspect list is so small that the true mystery is howdunit, not whodunit), and the romance is nicely underplayed. I’m definitely loving this series more and more as I continue to read, and I’m looking forward to the next book!

Kemper Donovan, The Decent Proposal — I was drawn to this book because of the title, and I knew very little about it going in. The premise is that a mysterious benefactor has promised two L.A. residents, happy-go-lucky Richard and highly regimented Elizabeth, that they will each receive half a million dollars if they agree to meet each other once a week for a year and talk — just talk. Of course they accede to the proposal, and of course they start out as very different people but eventually find some common ground. I liked the development of the relationship between Richard and Elizabeth, especially since I honestly didn’t know whether it was going to end in friendship or romance. I could have done without most of the other characters, actually; they seemed like they should get their own novels rather than being relegated to secondary characters in this one. I also think people who have lived in L.A. would get more out of the book, since it’s definitely written in that specific setting. Overall, I did like the book, but I’m glad I got it from the library instead of buying.

Mini-Reviews #3: June Books, Part 1

Still making my way through my review backlog, so here are some more short ones:

Lilac GirlsUnexpected Everything, The

Martha Hall Kelly, Lilac Girls — For the past few years, I’ve really gravitated toward books set during World War II, especially those dealing with the “home front” experience rather than the actual fighting. So I think I wanted to like this book more than I did. I found the story of Kasia, a Polish girl imprisoned in Ravensbrück, to be the most compelling. I especially liked how the book follows her (and the other characters) long after the war is over and shows the psychological scars that still remain. But I didn’t like Caroline’s story at all; I found her the least interesting character, and the romance between her and Paul didn’t do anything for me. The book is worth reading if you like the time period, but I’d recommend Elizabeth Wein’s Rose Under Fire for a better book on Ravensbrück.

Morgan Matson, The Unexpected Everything — I’ve said it before, but it’s true: Morgan Matson writes the perfect summer reads! I really enjoyed this one, which centers around politician’s daughter Andie and a summer that doesn’t go quite according to plan. One of my favorite aspects of the book is that Andie has a really close group of girlfriends, and those relationships are just as important as her newfound romance. I’d definitely recommend this book as an adorable summer read, especially for those who enjoy YA.

Summer Before the War, TheDarker Shade of Magic, ACocaine Blues

Helen Simonson, The Summer Before the War — I really enjoyed this quiet, character-driven novel, although I wouldn’t recommend it to those who love lots of action and unpredictable twists. The plot (such as it is) centers around a young woman who moves to a rural English village to become the new Latin teacher. As one might expect, she meets with some resistance from the locals because of her youth and gender, but she also wins over some key players, including the unconventional Agatha Kent and her two nephews. Most of the book involves the resulting social politics, although the titular war (World War I) does intrude near the end.

V.E. Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic — This book hooked me from the first line: “Kell wore a very peculiar coat. It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible.” The novel is an exciting blend of fantasy and sci fi, combining magical artifacts with parallel universes. The hero is a conflicted, magic-wielding prince, and the heroine is a scrappy thief and would-be pirate. In short, I loved it and have already purchased book 2, A Gathering of Shadows!

Kerry Greenwood, Cocaine Blues — After watching and LOVING “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries,” I decided to pick up the first book in the series. Phryne is a wonderfully entertaining character: intelligent, rich, attractive, and determined to get the most out of life. I also really enjoyed the setting of 1920s Melbourne, where Phryne rubs elbows with all sorts of people, from wealthy blue bloods to socialist cab drivers to feisty maidservants. I did miss Inspector Jack Robinson, who apparently has a much smaller role in the books than he does in the TV series. I also didn’t care too much about the mystery, but I still liked the book for its setting and protagonist.

Mini-Reviews #2: May books

Still behind on reviews, so here’s a batch of minis for the books I read in May!

Spy Among Friends, AOne Perfect Day

Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal — Guys, if you’re at all interested in espionage in the 20th century, you need to read Ben Macintyre! This is a fascinating stranger-than-fiction account of Kim Philby, an old-school English gentleman who rose to an extremely high position in the Secret Service while actually being a spy for the USSR.

Rebecca Mead, One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding — Mead, a British journalist, examines the contemporary American wedding from a sociological and monetary perspective. If you enjoy weddings but suspect they’ve gone off the rails in recent years decades–particularly in the ever-inflating costs for both the couple getting married and their guests–you’ll find a lot of interesting material here.

Vinegar GirlRaven King, TheLike Water for Chocolate

Anne Tyler, Vinegar Girl — First there was The Austen Project, for which six famous contemporary authors tried their hand at updating the novels of Jane Austen. Now Hogarth Shakespeare is doing a similar project with the Bard’s plays, with Vinegar Girl being a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew. Judging it as a novel, I found it a very pleasant read, albeit not particularly original or memorable. But I didn’t think it was a particularly good retelling of The Taming of the Shrew! So whether you enjoy the book will probably depend on what you’re looking for.

Maggie Stiefvater, The Raven King — If you love the series, you’ll love the ending! I thought certain plot elements were resolved a bit too abruptly, but the heart of the book–the relationships between Blue, Gansey, Ronan, Adam, and Noah–remains true. I was also torn on the addition of Henry Cheng as a character. First of all, I should say that I LOVED Henry Cheng! (Maybe he could have his own book? More Henry Cheng, please!) But part of me felt like the book was already crowded enough between the five main players and all the people at Fox Way. Be that as it may, I found this book to be a deeply satisfying ending to a wonderful series. If you love fantasy, you definitely need to read it!

Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate (trans. Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen) — I’d heard a lot of good things about this book; people are always mentioning magical realism and comparing it to Sarah Addison Allen’s books (which I love). But ultimately, it didn’t do much for me. I felt sorry for Tita, doomed to take care of her bullying mother and remain unmarried while the love of her life marries her sister. But I also found the entire situation entirely too melodramatic, and the supernatural elements didn’t charm me. Overall, a disappointing read.

Mini-Reviews #1: Readathon leftovers

It’s pretty obvious that I haven’t spent much time on this blog lately. *blush* What can I say — life has been busy for the past couple of months, and when I’ve had free time, I’ve preferred to spend it doing other things (like reading!). As a result, I have a pretty huge backlog of books that I haven’t written about yet, and the thought of sitting down to compose a full review for each one is incredibly daunting. So, rather than continuing to avoid the task, I’ve decided to do three batches of mini-reviews — just titles and authors of the books I’ve been reading, along with a couple of sentences expressing my opinions. Once I catch up, I plan to go back to my regular style of reviewing. But for now, here are mini-reviews for the books I read during April’s 24-hour readathon:

Love, Lies and SpiesAs If!

Cindy Anstey, Love, Lies and Spies — A fun, lighthearted bit of Regency fluff for those who enjoy YA historical romance. I found the spy storyline weak, and the romance wasn’t quite compelling for me — Georgette Heyer, this is not! But it’s a pleasant enough read for fans of the genre.

Jen Chaney, As If! The Oral History of Clueless as Told by Amy Heckerling, the Cast, and the Crew — This book will only appeal to people who really love the movie “Clueless” and who are fascinated by behind-the-scenes movie knowledge. Fortunately, I fall within this demographic, so I really enjoyed the book!

Hermit of Eyton Forest, TheAlways the BridesmaidWhy Not Me?

Ellis Peters, The Hermit of Eyton Forest — Full disclosure: this installment of the Brother Cadfael series features a male character called Hyacinth. But I still love this series about a 12th-century Benedictine monk who solves crimes! (Who wouldn’t?)

Lindsey Kelk, Always the Bridesmaid — Entertaining British chick lit about a young woman named Maddie whose two best friends are at opposite ends of the romantic spectrum: one just got engaged, while the other is getting divorced. My friend pointed out that Maddie is a huge pushover, which she (my friend) found irritating. While I think that’s a fair criticism, I ultimately enjoyed the book for  its humor and romance, so I’d definitely read more by this author.

Mindy Kaling, Why Not Me? — I think Mindy Kaling is very talented and hilarious, and this book had me giggling pretty much nonstop. I like that she isn’t preachy, she’s very self-aware, and she doesn’t apologize for her confidence (some might say arrogance). As she says in the book, there’s nothing wrong with being confident — as long as you’ve put in the hard work to back it up. Bottom line: if you like Mindy Kaling, you’ll like this book.

Review: Kindred Spirits

Kindred SpiritsRainbow Rowell, Kindred Spirits

Elena is a “Star Wars” superfan. She grew up watching the original trilogy with her dad and is absolutely thrilled when “The Force Awakens” comes out. In fact, she’s so excited that she decides to camp out in front of the movie theater before opening night. She imagines a huge group of people who love “Star Wars” just as much as she does, and she can’t wait to share her excitement with like-minded fans. Unfortunately, she never imagined that (1) there would only be two other people in line, (2) one of them would be a silent boy named Gabe who doesn’t seem particularly interested in sharing the “Star Wars” love, or (3) she’d have nowhere to pee except in a cup behind a dumpster. Still, Elena is determined to persevere, and her eventual experience is as wonderful as it is unexpected.

At a succinct 62 pages, this tale is either a very short novella or a very long short story. Either way, I really enjoyed it, as I’ve enjoyed all of Rainbow Rowell’s books. Rowell is obviously very interested in fandom and its role in the creative arts, and this story explores one small facet of that. Elena is a fan of “Star Wars,” and she has certain expectations about how fans should behave. But her fellow line mates, Troy and Gabe, don’t exactly match up with her preconceived ideas. And as she discovers, Gabe has doubts about the authenticity of her fandom because she’s a “cool” girl and not a “nerd.” I thought the story explored the idea of what constitutes a “real fan” very well, albeit in a narrowly focused way. There’s also a bit of romance in the story (which, duh, it’s Rainbow Rowell), but I would have loved a bit more! Still, fans of Rowell’s other work will definitely want to read this as well, whether or not they’re into “Star Wars.”

Review: War and Peace

War and PeaceLeo Tolstoy, War and Peace (trans. Anthony Briggs)

“Set against the sweeping panoply of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, War and Peace — presented here in the first new English translation in forty years — is often considered the greatest novel ever written. At its center are Pierre Bezukhov, searching for meaning in his life; cynical Prince Andrei, ennobled by wartime suffering; and Natasha Rostov, whose impulsiveness threatens to destroy her happiness. As Tolstoy follows the changing fortunes of his characters, he crafts a view of humanity that is both epic and intimate and that continues to define fiction at its most resplendent.” (Summary from Amazon.)

It took me more than three months to read this book, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. I feel a bit presumptuous in criticizing such a well-known classic, but certain parts of the novel worked for me much more than others. There’s a lot of social comedy in this book, which I loved! And I find the Napoleonic era fascinating, although I’ve only been exposed to it from a British point of view, so it was interesting to see that conflict from a Russian perspective. However, there are reasons most people never finish this book, and those reasons are: the overly long, mind-numbingly tedious descriptions of battles; philosophical digressions; and tirades about the right and wrong way to study history. I do think this book is worth reading once, but I’m glad I don’t ever have to read it again!

I also want to note that I liked the Briggs translation; it’s not as word-for-word accurate as the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation is rumored to be, but I suspect it’s more readable. Instead of footnoting the long French passages, Briggs just translates them directly into English, although he does note when certain characters are speaking French. I actually preferred this, but some readers may not. Also, the Briggs translation is pretty aggressively British; for example, some of the lower-class soldiers have Cockney accents! Again, I didn’t mind this, but I can see how others might. All in all, I’d recommend this translation for casual readers but maybe not for serious scholars.

Review: Salt to the Sea

Salt to the SeaRuta Sepetys, Salt to the Sea

“World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, many with something to hide. Among them are Joana, Emilia, and Florian, whose paths converge en route to the ship that promises salvation, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Forced by circumstance to unite, the three find their strength, courage, and trust in each other tested with each step closer to safety. Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes. Not country, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people — adults and children alike — aboard must fight for the same thing: survival.” (Summary from Amazon.)

I’m a sucker for a good World War II story, and this one approaches the conflict from a unique (to me) perspective: it focuses on three Eastern European teenagers who are caught between Nazi Germany and the advancing Red Army. My favorite character was Florian, who is carrying out a secret mission while trying very hard not to fall in love with Joana. But I honestly enjoyed all three main characters’ stories, especially after they meet up and continue their westward journey together. There are definitely some heartbreaking events in this book, which is to be expected, but the overall message is one of hope. I’d definitely recommend this book to fans of historical fiction, especially those who don’t mind a narrative geared toward a younger audience.