Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Ahhh--the French Revolution!

A Tale of Two Cities and The Scarlet Pimpernel will find themselves in good company with this new "series" (I say series because there's only two books)

The Red Necklace and its sequel, The Silver Blade, take younger readers through the French Revolution and do a relatively good job of it, too, with only a few critiques on my part.

The Red Necklace
By Sally Gardner

Timeperiod: Early French Revolution; France and England
Rating: "PG-13" for mild language, strong violence and scary fantasy elements

I usually am a very big fan of historical fiction---if it is done right. Ann Rinaldi is probably my top historical fiction writer--she happens to write stuff geared more towards kids, and to me that is an awesome balance. Sally Gardner is perhaps just a hair under her-- throughout the entire story (and it is quite a lengthy story) I was completely captivated. The setting is 1789-1792 France, with a brief switch over to England. I saw similarites to The Scarlet Pimpernel and A Tale of Two Cities both, not only in the setting and plot but also in the story's more intricate details. Sally Gardner is a perfect author for young readers because she has such a natural gift for using literary elements-- The Red Necklace is full of clever metaphors, allusions and personifications as 18th century France is brought to life. In response to opinions that Gardner "overexaggerates" in her story - both with respect to characters and situations - I humbly remind people that the French Revolution was one major exaggeration after another. Aristocrats were extremely foppish and out-of-touch with reality, and poor, wretched, put-upon peasants turned out-of-control savage. The time of this age swung from one extreme to another. And the two main villains of the novel--a foppish (that's my word of the day, I guess) Marquis and the sinister Count Kalliovski --are entertainingly one-sided. JUST BECAUSE A CHARACTER IS ONE-SIDED DOES NOT MEAN HE IS FLAT! Sometimes the best villains - especially in childrens/YA literature - are the ones who are just downright bad. That being said, the narration didnt really show Kalliovski's POV until the very last of the story, and I would have liked more of a window into his behavior throughout the story. I'm totally okay with evil characters doing evil things, but I'd like to know why they do evil things or what their purpose is for doing evil things. I'm still a bit confused, in fact, about Kalliovski's reasons for doing anything. While I love the story's two protagonists - a mysterious gypsy boy named Yann and a longsuffering aristocrat-with-a-heart-of-gold Sido, I feel a bit disappointed by their relationship. Reading reviews of The Red Necklace, I was under the impression that the book would spend a great deal of time - or at least SOME time - on their romantic development, but actually, they only have a few conversations together. Yes, they're in love and all that, but why? Sally Gardner is such a talented author and she really has a gift for words, so I wish she could have given their relationship a bit more detail. - My one main criticism of the book comes out of this: Her beginning and end segments are clearly the strength of the book, and the middle drags. That being said, the last half of the book, I'd say (beginning when the book flashes forward to 1792) at times feels really rushed, and her once descriptive narrative voice gets choppy and sloppy. For example, when Yann first sees Sido after a 3-year-absence, they just start talking like "oh, whatever. there you are." And then ending...? It should have been better explained. I knew it was coming, but still... an author really needs to expand on the great "WHY's" of their books. And one more nitpicky thing: In historical fiction (particularly kids/YA) you cant just throw out characters without taking the time to explain who they are. The "Big Three" of the Revolution--Robespierre, Marat, and Danton, are all mentioned, but in a very random "name-dropping" sort of way. I knew who they were just because I'd just taken a class talking about the Revolution, but kids will have no idea who they are, so they might as well not have been mentioned. - I will admit that my little issue could stem totally from the fact that I am a college-age history major. MS and HS kids will love this, and I certainly see this as a book I could read aloud to my future students.

The Silver Blade
By Sally Gardner

Timeperiod: Later days of the French Revolution
Rating: 'PG-13' for mild language, strong/pervasive violence and scary fantasy elements; a scene of implied sex (very mild, but still probably annoying for some parents and readers like me)

Usually when it comes to sequels, I like the first book better, but in this case, I would have to say that I found The Silver Blade much more action-packed and gripping than its predecessor. That's not to say that The Red Necklace is boring, but this book has a much more amplified story. It's a teen-version (and generally less-boring version) of The Scarlet Pimpernel and I have reasons to think that Sally Gardner intended it that way: at one point in the story, a character is surprised at the hero's appearance, saying he expected him to be "older" and "an Englishman." Then at the end, there is a scene almost exactly like the finale in Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities: i mean, ALMOST EXACTLY. I found the similiaries charming and kind of tongue-in-cheek, but that's just me. I read many reviews before diving into this sequel, and so I was expecting the continuing love story between Yann and Sido to be wishy-washy, but I was surprised by the quality of writing on the author's part to make me really *care* about what they're going through. I found their letters sweet and touching, instead of annoying. I just really like characters who are true to each other, so I found these two to be quite refreshing. * There is way more "magic," or whatever you want to call it, in this book, and that's not altogether a good thing. It's like Sally Gardner is so desiring to keep her readers in the dark until the last minute, she doesnt give us enough clues as to what exactly she's talking about. This book is directed at MS-HS age readers, and I'm in college, so my age should have given me an advantage in deciphering what exactly she was talking about, but it didnt help, and throughout the story I remained a bit flabbergasted as to what was going on. The Gypsy magic part of the story just seemed really confusing and vague, and I still am not entirely sure how orders of events were worked out. And there's one aspect of the story in particular that just doesnt sit well with me: a character discovers secrets about said character's father and mother, but the relationship between the father and mother is never fully detailed, so it makes me wonder if the mother was a victim, or a "word-that-rhymes-with-'tank'". I dont know, it was just weird. The explanation given never really made sense, nor did it completely satisfy. So I don't know... * BUT Gardner did a better job in the historical department: Danton, Robespierre, and other real-life figures are more adequately explained in this story, and I greatly appreciated the many references to the National Guard, the Concierge (sp?) and other aspects of history. * The ending: if there's ever a part of a story in which I am at my most critical, it's over the ending. I am about 89% happy with the way the last 100 pages were handled, but I think that at one particular time, Gardner's "priorities" got a bit out-of-sync. I've given my "THIS IS A 'YA' BOOK, SO YOU AUTHORS SHOULD WATCH WHAT YOU WRITE!!!" speech on other reviews, and I hold to my ideas. The event in question was not handled in a bad or explicit way, and perhaps not even in an "inappropriate" way--I'm still perched on the fence about it, I just wish it could have been placed closer to the ending, that's all. I don't want to say that it wasnt necessary, but I think it just happened at the wrong time. So all-in-all, it was quite an enjoyable read. With a bit of editing, I could see myself reading this book and The Red Necklace to my future students, and in the meantime, I would certainly recommend this book and its predecessor.

Historical Fiction!

The Dark Queen (The Dark Queen, Book I)
By Susan Carroll

Timeperiod: Late 16th century; features the historic St. Batholomew's Day Massacre
Rating: 'R' for violence and sexual content
Age minimum? Yes, grown ups

I give this a 4/5. I gotta say--there were so many times when I expected the plot to evolve one way, and it went in a totally opposite direction. In this case, I mostly didnt mind, and I really liked the sequence of events! - I personally think this book has a pretty decent amount of actual history. I knew that there would be references to the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, but I thought that would be the extent of it: just a reference. Those scenes were some of the best-written in the book, I think, and Carroll did a good job capturing the intensity of the situation. Now of course, most of Catherine de Medici's character is mere speculation. A great many people probably did consider her a witch, but here she definitely is one...if you're somebody who likes for historical figures to not be messed with, you might not be too thrilled with her presentation in this story. I was a bit surprised with how large of a role she played in the book: even though the title is a reference to her, I was thinking (from what I had read on some other reviews) that she'd mostly be a background character; I was very much surprised with the level of development given to her. Of course, I think it's always a tricky situation when an author makes a fictional statement/draws a fictional portrayal of a real-life character---in this case, making the "Italian woman" into the vindictive villain. It worked, though. I totally believed (to the best of my history-major ability) that she was indeed a bitchy witch. :D - And now on to the main characters: for the most part, I really liked the story development between Ariane and the Comte. It was not what I expected, but I still enjoyed it...even the more "turn-your-cheeks-red" passages ;P - The only complaint I have is the (in my opinion) OVER-development of the supporting characters, especially the two other sisters. I know that Gabrielle and Miri each have their own specific sequel in this "series," but I expected this book to establish the basics about them and then have them function as secondary elements to the main characters. There were many instances when I skipped over their scenes: I don't care about Gabrielle and her stupid backstory and her relationship with the captain! That's book 2! All in all: a highly enjoyable read: historical FICTION romance done right :D PS--i probably should acknowledge that this is, ummm, NOT for young people. hahhaha. oh my goodness. susan carroll can certainly write a good "kissing scene," but she can also write other scenes as well! (wink wink nudge nudge). i must be really, REALLY immature, because there were times when i just burst out laughing. they're not badly written--not by a long shot!--but still...i thought they were entertaining. :D

The Silver Rose (The Dark Queen, Book II)

By Susan Carroll
Timeperiod: Late 16th century
Rating: 'R' for violence and sexual content
Age minimum? Yes, grown ups

I give this a 4/5. Okay, so I've read so many reviews were people say that this installment of Susan Carroll's fantasyish/historical fiction DARK QUEEN series is their favorite. So maybe I entered with too-high hopes, because while I did enjoy it, I still liked the first book the best. The whole witch/witch-hunter relationship certainly was interesting, but I still would choose Renard over Simon anyday. This book in particular just seemed a little too "wordy." I mean, characters would just go into paragraph-long emotional revelations (in their heads, most of the time) that became extremely repetitive over the 500+-page-course of events. At times, the dialogue would be so "emotional," it would come across as super-sappy. I'm sorry, but if two people are like making out--they're not going to be TALKING so much!!! I busted out laughing quite frequently with this book, that's for sure! It's funny, but also over-the-top, just *how* in-touch Simon seems to be with his feelings--now I'm not saying that men in books should have the emotional capacity of a brick, but when they say things like, "Ever since I was a boy, blah blah blah blah," it makes them seem very unrealistic! Like I said, I do like Simon and Miri and think they are cute together, but at times I thought that there were contradictions in their characterization. Either a character is "innocent" (a word Carroll really likes to use, but doesnt seem to know the definition of), or they're not, so make up your mind! But I will say that I liked the two of them together--their relationship seems natural, and they relate to each other really well (if not too well). There's not as much "history" in this book as The Dark Queen, but overall that wasnt too much of a loss. Catherine de Medici only has about 2 or 3 scenes in this book, and the climax doesnt revolve around a major historical event like in the first book. And Ariane and Gabrielle - while seen in flashbacks and referred to frequently - dont make an actual appearance. I just thought I'd throw that out there. Rather, a lot of characters from the previous book The Courtesan (which I have NOT read) are carried over into this book. Again, one thing I like about this series is the ability of each of the books to stand on their own: there's enough recap to make the reader aware of events from previous books without feeling lost or confused. I certainly never felt confused about characters or events, but I never felt like Carroll was getting redundant, either, so she did that well :D So yes, I "really liked it." I liked The Dark Queen better, but this was enjoyable nonetheless!

A Company of Swans

Eva Ibbotson

Timeperiod: Early 20th century (I think)
Rating: 'PG-13' for language, thematic elements and sexuality
Minimum age? This book is supposedly for YA readers, and I find that a tad annoying/disturbing. There's frequent implied sex and what I would call "thematic elements" (teen runs away from home and Becomes Independent...gag)

Ehh...it was okay. As a former ballerina, I absolutely loved how ballet was incorporated into the story; it wasnt just used as a way to describe the characters, but it had its own place in the story. But past this general positive, my feelings about the book get a little more confused. This is the only Eva Ibbotson I've read (and you know, while it wasnt an awful read, I certainly dont feel the impulse to go out and read more of her stuff) and her writing style is descriptive and at times even elegant but her characters are very vacillated and her story pacing is really, REALLY weird. This is first and foremost a romance story (there's little to no actual "HISTORY" here) and so therefore the romantic aspect should be the most important and the one that carries the weight of the story. Well, the whole thing just left me feeling rather confused: the relationship is way WAY too rushed at the expense of a moderately-paced blossoming love story in which the reader gets to know the characters well and really see their relationship grow. What could have been sweet and "romantic" gets questionable and downright tawdry. And I consider myself one of the last true Romantics running around today. I love "happily-ever-afters." I love "true love" and all that jazz. But this is just weird. Now granted, there were some good dialogue segments here and there, but not evenly or properly spaced throughout the story. And this is just a personal pet peeve of mine, but I don't understand why authors feel the need to include "previous encounters" of the love interest... THIS IS NOT A CARFAX HISTORY REPORT! I dont want to know all the other people who have driven your car!!! And I am certainly not a progressive, but I found it just a bit weird that this seemingly good-natured, innocent but grounded character would be so quick to tramp herself up. Girls, when you're shacking up with someone on a regular basis (well, that is what "shacking up" means), that's trampy. When the main character (who is at the ripe old age of 18 i might add) communicates a willingness to live as a "kept woman," that's trampy. that's adultery, also. How is that romantic? Like I said before, the characters' profiles just seem to constantly contradict each other. The ballerina in me was satisfied, and there were SOME parts of the harriett-rom romance that i thought was sweet (i like it when guys "rescue" girls--not because girls cant do anything for themselves, but because guys need to get off their butts and be productive! Not because we're weak, because WE'RE WORTH IT!) but overall, not one of my favorites. Ann Rinaldi is still the queen of "HISTORYCAL FICTION" in my book!


THE HUNTER'S MOON: The Chronicles of Faerie: Book One

By OR Melling

I give this a 2/5. Okay, very mixed feelings here! On one hand, I really really enjoyed the descriptive passages about Ireland and its rich history and mythology. On the other hand, I felt that the characters and the general plot were extremely underdeveloped, and in addition, just downright bizarre. - The worst thing an author can do is neglect characterization. Her two protagonists - cousins Findabhair and Gwen - are just weird. first of all, adult supervision, anyone?!?!?! of course not. it's never definitively explained what exactly these girls are doing, what they believe in, or even who they are. Things are just presented like “here you go!” without any characterization or explanation. Now, I actually think there ways to portray a struggle between emotions (there is a question of joining the fairy word), but the author doesn’t give us any of that. There’s no explanation as to why characters do the things that they do, so we can’t really understand them, relate to them, or develop any feelings ourselves. Some of my individual thoughts: - Unromance: it's like the author wants there to be a romantic angle, but she doesnt have the wherewithal to actually write and develop it. On a personal note, I think the author has a really warped idea of what “romance” is. In fact, I think the author has some warped ideas about a lot of things. I would totally understand the struggle if there was a good love element: wanting to stay with said mythological creature, etc…but the scenario presented here is not a romantic one (pg 146 especially) - The decision to have fairies be “neither good nor bad” or for there to be an absence of good/bad, creates a paradox when later, the king supposedly is in love with Findabhair. If there’s no good or bad, how can there be love (which is good)? The whole thing doesn’t make sense. It seems like I (as the reader) am putting more thought into this than the writer! - This battle stuff is way, WAY too fast. It’s very hard to appreciate/empathize with the gravity of the situation if things are so rushed and hectic. ^^Yes, "battle stuff". I guess to write fantasy, it is required that there be some kind of supernatural battle. In this case, it comes out of nowhere, with the unlikeliest and most haphazzard band of fighters, and it's extremely unclimactic. This is a far, far cry from Minas Tirinth. So, it wasnt excrutiatingly bad, but it certainly wasnt great, either. There are things I can take away from this book, however, and that is the "travelism." To be fair, the author does really make you feel that you are touring Ireland--but that's the only redeeming quality. I wouldnt discourage anyone from reading this, but I would certainly caution them not to expect much...

By Becca Fitzpatrick

I give this a 4/5. I wasn't sure whether to give this 4 stars or 5---ahh what the heck, I'll jump on the bandwagon and give it a 5. For a debut novel, Hush Hush was an exciting read! Yes, it reminded me of Twilight, but that's maybe just because I actually *like* Twilight! :P I found it pretty original, too; the subject matter was definitely intriguing. The plot moves at a pretty steady pace until about 2/3 of the way in, then it accelerates quite rapidly. I know a lot of authors like to do that: keep the reader guessing and all that, but I kind of felt like the book went from "hush hush" to "rush rush". Several times toward the end I had to reread segments just to get a bearing what exactly was happening. The ending segments also seemed a bit confusing and left me having to consult earlier passages again to figure out how events ended up relating to each other. And I'm still not really sure about the more mythological aspects of the story. This might just be a "personal me" thing, but I grew up hearing about angels; I know what I believe and what I dont, and there are some revelations in this story that seem weird or just unconventional (like the "fall" of the angels, how the angels live/behave in "heaven"). I'm sure most other people won't even notice, so whatever. What I really liked was the relationship between the two main characters, Nora and Patch. Patch certainly is quite a character, and I certainly enjoyed him, ;) Yes, he may act a bit...idk, "ungentlemanly," but come on, he's a FALLEN ANGEL! you cant expect him to be "mr. manners" (hey, they can't all be Edward Cullen). So for YA/fantasy romance enthusiasts, I would strongly recomment this book! I'm wondering if Fitzpatrick's next book will be a direct sequel to this; the story seemed nicely concluded at the end, but who knows! Usually I try to wait until a series has been completed, so I don't know! Maybe I read this a little too early...:P P.S.: the TITLE! i still dont know why the book is called Hush, Hush! There's no explanation in the book! Random!

My Reviews

I'm going to organize my reviews by category and keep adding on. For right now, I've got
- Fantasy (All level)
- Childrens
- General Fiction (usually means "Grown Up")
- Classics
- Historical Fiction (Kids, YA & "Grown Up")
- History
- Humor
- Politics
- Religion & Theology
- Series Books (Kids & YA)
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