April Minireviews

Heck yeah, now we’re talking!! I’m also down to only 1250 unread emails, so I’m really making progress LOL

I actually read three series in April, so here are all the one-offs, and I’ll be posting some series reviews hopefully soon!

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing a full review for whatever reason, either because life is busy and I don’t have time, or because a book didn’t stir me enough.  Sometimes, it’s because a book was so good that I just don’t have anything to say beyond that I loved it!  Frequently, I’m just wayyy behind on reviews and am trying to catch up.  For whatever reason, these are books that only have a few paragraphs of thoughts from me.

Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis – 5*

Another enjoyable reread, I’ve always been fond of this one, maybe because I absolutely LOVE the name Caspian. So perfect.

A Lady’s Guide to Mischief & Mayhem by Manda Collins – 3*

//published 2020//

This one was a read for the traveling book club, although it’s also one that was on my TBR, so score.  In the end, it was just a little too “sassy independent women are the only kind who get anywhere in the world” for me.  I don’t mind sassy independent women as characters, but when it’s combined with an attitude that all other women are just sad little victims of the patriarchy, it starts to grate on my nerves, especially in “historical” novels.  The timing also felt weird in this one – the main character meets a woman and they hit it off and start hanging out – then literally two weeks later they’re just going on and on about how they’re BFFs and basically inseparable and it just felt odd.  It was the same with the love interest, who goes from a complete stranger to the most important person in her life in about five minutes.  It was also a book that would have benefited from deciding what it wanted to be – either a romance OR a mystery, because in the end it was just pretty muddled.  It wasn’t a bad story, and I can see why some people really like it, but it wasn’t a good fit for me.

Parker Pyne Investigates by Agatha Christie – 3.5*

//published 1934//

This is a collection of short stories based around the character of Parker Pyne, who isn’t a detective at all but someone who says he can make people’s lives happier.  While these were fairly entertaining, they were also a bit ridiculous.  Not a bad read, but not a particularly strong collection.

Mansfield Park Revisited by Joan Aiken – 3.5*

//published 1985//

After reading Mansfield Park in March, I read a few MP variations that had been on my TBR in April.  In this one, Aiken writes a sequel that focuses on Fanny’s younger sister, Susan, who comes to live at Mansfield Park towards the end of the original story.  This wasn’t a bad story, it was just kind of boring.  Aiken also ruthlessly kills off Sir Thomas in the first chapter and since he’s actually pretty much my favorite character in the original story, I was sad to see him go haha

Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling – 4*

//published 1999//

Not my favorite in the series but still a decent installment.  I’m really enjoying reading the British edition of these books as well.  I’m a strong believer that if a book is written by someone who is British, and set in Britain, there should be no “translation” into American English.  It’s just silly!  So it’s fun to read these with their original British slang and terms.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis – 5*

//published 1952//

This is probably the most episodic of the series, with each chapter or two being its own little adventure.  I really do love the redemption of Eustace, and while Reepicheep can be a bit much, I still can appreciate his valor.  There are a lot of interesting little tales here, some better than others, but on the whole a delightful revisit.

August Minireviews – Part 2 – #20BooksofSummer

Still plowing through a pile of back-log reviews!!!

When Patty Went to College by Jean Webster – 4* – #20BooksofSummer

//published 1903//

This was a funny sort of book because there really wasn’t a plot.  We don’t get any character background or explanations – instead the reader is just dumped right into Patty’s senior year of college.  Each chapter is a little adventure, but other than Patty herself, nothing really ties them together.  In that way, this book was a little bit of a disappointment, and I definitely didn’t love this one as much as the Daddy Long-Legs books (especially Dear Enemy… gosh, I love that book SO MUCH).  Still, the stories were funny, and Patty and her friends very likable.  This is also #10 for #20BooksofSummer, so I’ve made it halfway through the list!

The Temporary Wife by Jeannie Moon – 3*

//published 2013//

This was a fun little story, although ultimately unmemorable.  I do love a marriage of convenience trope, and usually can’t resist them even if they sound terrible.  While I enjoyed this one while I was reading it, I didn’t quite enjoy it enough to pony up $4/ea for the rest of the books in the series.  Overall, this one had some likable characters and an interesting premise, but was a bit choppy on the execution and had a bit too much shagging for my taste.

Joy in the Morning by P.G. Wodehouse – 5*

//published 1947//

What holiday is complete without a Wodehouse??  This is one of my very favorites, and I read it in almost one sitting this time around.  There is nothing I can say about Wodehouse that hasn’t been said before.  If you haven’t read him yet, you need to find one immediately!

“One prefers, of course, on all occasions to be stainless and above reproach, but, failing that, the next best thing is unquestionably to  have got rid of the body.”

The Convenient Marriage by Georgette Heyer – 4*

//published 1934//

While this story was engaging and had its funny moments (the whole scene where they are trying to be highwaymen is quite, quite funny), it really wasn’t one of my all-time favorite Heyer stories (even with my favorite trope).  The main female character speaks with a stammer, something that doesn’t bother me at all to listen to in real life but g-g-g-grates on m-m-m-my nerves v-v-v-very m-m-much when reading.  It also seemed completely unnecessary.  Still, a happy one-off read, even if it isn’t one that I intend to add to my permanent collection.

The Five-Minute Marriage by Joan Aiken – 4.5*

//published 1978//

On the theme of marriages of convenience, I reread this one while on vacation as well.  While not quite as perfect as I remember (how could I possibly have forgotten how ridiculous it was that the entire family had names related to Arthurian legend??  Did I just not notice it the first time around??  The evil cousin’s name is Mordred??  Really??) this was nonetheless a truly delightful and fun romance, with a strong-minded and independent heroine who isn’t obnoxious.  It’s a bit on the melodramatic side, but I still thoroughly enjoyed the read.

Midnight is a Place

by Joan Aiken

Published 1974

So Aiken is one of those authors whose books I either seem to really enjoy or really not enjoy.  For those of you who have been reading this blog for a while, you know that Wolves of Willoughby Chase is one of my all-time favorites.  Last fall, I read the rest of the books in Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, and was so disappointed that (in my opinion) they got progressively less coherent and much darker as the series progressed.  However, I’ve read a couple of her other novels and enjoyed them both – Jane Fairfax is a delightful continuation of Jane Austen’s Emma, and The Five-Minute Marriage is a wonderfully fun and lively Regency romance.  (I actually have another of her Regency romance on the TBR shelf.)

The point is, I approach each of her books with trepidation – and, for the first time, I found one of her books that was just, well, a book.  A solid 3/5, it struck no real emotion in me.  Midnight is a Place is an interesting and well-written story, set in the town of Blastburn (recognizable from Wolves).  One can get the gist of the story from the titles of its three distinct parts – “Evening,” “Midnight,” and “Daybreak.”  The “Daybreak” one is what gave me the courage to read the story, and I was rewarded – while the ending is not happy, exactly, it is at least a bit optimistic, as though things may get better.  (In a weird way, it reminded me of the ending of the actual novel The Princess Bride  – the ending of the book isn’t at all like the ending of the movie, really – a bit ambiguous.)

While I liked the main characters, Lucas and Anna-Marie, and appreciated their courage and maturity under difficult circumstances, the story itself was rather dark without a strong plot.  I’ve owned this book since 2005, when I bought it at a booksale, and read it now as part of my strict “I will read every book I own or I will get rid of it” policy.  Sadly, Midnight is a Place is destined for the give-away pile, although at least that means I have shelf space for a new read, right??

“Midwinter Nightingale” and “The Witch of Clatteringshaws”

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by Joan Aiken

Published 2003, 2005

And so here we have the final books of the Wolves series.  Sadly, I can’t say that I am disappointed to see the end of them.  While I enjoyed the humor at times, and Dido’s character, the series became stranger and more violent as it went (especially for children’s books – and these are usually in the juvenile library, not the YA).

In these two books, Dido returns as the main character.  They are shorter than most of the other books in the series – both of them together are about the same size as Cold Shoulder Road or Dido and Pa.   Unfortunately, they are just as confusing as some of the earlier books.  First off, the two books before this one – Is and Cold Shoulder Road  – were about Dido’s younger sister, Isadora.  In Midwinter Nightingale, we get basically no contact with them – Dido is kidnapped as soon as she arrives in England, and we are left to assume that the characters we met and adventured with in the previous two books are fine.

In these books, Aiken is even more casual about killing off characters.  There are several minor characters who are introduced and seemingly having played their part, are casually disposed of, as though the author was unable to think of any other way of getting on with the story without them.  The whole concept of good/bad guys is more or less eradicated, as virtually everyone seems to just be striving for their own power and glory, except for Simon, who goes from being the intelligent, forward-thinking fellow that he was towards the beginning of the series to being an incredibly passive character who worries about his future but doesn’t seem to do anything to change it.  Deaths are violent: people are speared, poisoned, crushed, thrown off of towers, in carriages that drive into ravines, eaten by wolves, drowned, buried alive, and killed in any other number of dreadful ways.  You’ll note that it’s a long list: that’s because a lot of people die.  A lot.

The end of the whole series seems quite weak.  Most of these books have been about people plotting to overthrow the king.  In the last book, through a series of events, Simon has been crowned king.  But his position is, as I mentioned, very passive.  The king has no power, no control, nothing.  So why has everyone else been trying to attain this position?  He leads an entire army to fight a battle simply because he’s bored and wants out of the castle.  The king of the invading nation challenges him to play a chess-like game.  Instead of building tension, the whole situation devolves into them just playing this game, and when it looks like Simon is going to win, the other king just makes a compromise about the whole invasion thing and everyone goes home (???).  I don’t know.  Both of these books were very confusing and dull.

Overall, it’s been a disappointment to read these books.  I love Wolves of Willoughby Chase so very much, and have enjoyed some of Aiken’s other works, like Jane Fairfax (a retelling of Emma) and The Five-Minute Marriage was such a delight that I have several of her other period novels on my TBR list.  But the rest of the Wolves series just fell apart in my opinion, becoming more disjointed, confusing, violent, and depressing with each book.

“Is” and “Cold Shoulder Road”

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by Joan Aiken

Published 1992, 1995

At the end of Dido and Pawe leave everyone (the ones that lived, anyway) seemingly happy.  Is, the little girl who had worked as a servant for Dido’s father and his mistress, is invited to live with Dido’s older sister, Penny, who eloped in Black Hearts in Battersea.  Apparently, that marriage didn’t work out so well; Penny’s husband has long since absconded, leaving Penny to shift for herself; she lives in the woods and makes toys.  Another character from the Dido and Pa, a kind, goodhearted man, also takes up residence, leaving us with the impression that they will be a happy (if immoral) household.

But, of course, happiness can’t last in Aiken’s alternate world, and when Is opens, we find that the kind gentleman has also disappeared (which honestly seems decidedly out of character for him, which rather annoys me.  It’s obvious that having him around would make the whole plot of these two books not work, but I would much preferred him to have died instead of sneaking off in the dead of night; I’ve begun to wonder if Aiken hated men, as she seems incapable of writing any who are not sneaks, thieves, philanderers, or just plain evil), and Penny and Is are enjoying a peaceful life on their own.  However, their peace is shattered when a stranger stumbles into their home, fatally wounded.  Before dying, he tells them that he has been desperately searching for his son, who has disappeared.  Penny and Is are surprised to find that this man is actually their uncle.  (It was never made clear in Dido in Pa whether or not Is was Twite’s daughter, but in Is, it seems an accepted fact.)

And so, Is heads to London, having promised her uncle that they would do their best to locate their cousin.  In London, there is a mystery deeper than the disappearance of one boy – many children are being mysteriously spirited away from London’s streets.  Is’s adventure takes her far from home and introduces her to many new family members, friends, and enemies.

Throughout these two stories, Is discovers a sort of thought-speech, wherein she, and other children who are so gifted, are able to communicate without vocalizing.  It’s an interesting way to add to the story, but also a bit creepy.

Dido is conspicuously absent from these two books (in Cold Shoulder Road, Is and her cousin make their way  home, with a great deal of difficulty), but at times I forgot I wasn’t reading about Dido, because Is basically sounds and acts exactly like her.  While these books weren’t quite as dark as Dido and Pa, they are still rather creepily strange.  Aiken is unafraid to write about cruel, evil people; she is also unafraid to give those people their just desserts (in detail).  Per usual, plenty of perfectly innocent, happy characters get killed off as well – there is really just too much death in these books for me to really get into them.  In Cold Shoulder Road, a little girl who has been especially friendly and helpful throughout the story is killed almost as an afterthought.  The book ends on page 233; the girl dies on page 228, after the enemies have been defeated and everyone is congratulating themselves:

“They shot that poor girl,” [Penny] told Is bitterly, when she was within speech range.

“Who?”

“Jen Braeburn, she was called.  From Seagate.  She came to the house in Cold Shoulder Lane to fetch me.  Those two coves who followed me were lurking outside and shot her. …”

“Oh, poor Jen, how dreadful.  How wicked.  Why should she have to die?”

“Why should any?”  said Pen.

I wonder the same thing, Penny, exactly the same the same thing.

Dido & Pa

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by Joan Aiken

Published 1986

In the last account of Dido’s adventures, The Cuckoo Tree, Dido runs into her father.  A staunch Hanoverian (in Aiken’s AU, the Scottish James III, and then his son, Richard, are on the throne; an underground political group desires to bring the German Hanoverian to rule over Britain instead, and most of the plots in the Wolves Chronicles are based on a Hanoverian plot of some kind), Mr. Twite is also a passionate musician.  The rest of Dido’s family (except for her older sister who eloped in Black Hearts in Battersea), was killed in an explosion (a literal backfire of a Hanoverian plan), so Dido is surprised to find her father alive and well, traveling under various assumed names to avoid arrest.

Well, Mr. Twite kidnaps his own daughter and spirits her away to London to be used as a pawn in the latest political scheme.  Per usual, the part of the book that I enjoyed was Dido herself.  She has developed, through the course of these books, from a rather aggravating urchin in Black Hearts to an intelligent, practical, humorous young woman.  But the rest of the book was just as confusing and verging-on-disturbing as the other more recent books in the series.

First off, we find that Dido’s father is living with a prostitute, with whom he had apparently been having an affair for many years.  The way that it is presented seemed, to me, a bit out of place in children’s book.  (Please keep in mind that many of my criticisms for these books are because they are published as children’s books; I think that a great deal of the material is very dark and almost morbid – not the type of material I’d like to hand any child, really.)  The other regular occupant of the household is Isadora, or Is, who is constantly referred to by Twite and his mistress as “the Slut.”  (I was relieved to find, however, that common British slang uses “slut” as a slovenly woman, not necessarily one who is sexually promiscuous, which is how the word is most often used here in the States; Is seemed far too young for the latter definition to apply with any kind of appropriateness.)  Is is abused, neglected, starved, and beaten, all quite callously.  Dido alone cares, but in many ways even Is herself has given up on life, and it’s a bit creepy.

Throughout the story, several people are rather brutally knocked off, and in the end, even Dido’s own father is killed pretty gruesomely, as he is pursued and beaten by a horde of angry street children (who have discovered that he was willing to let Dido die for the sake of his own preservation), and left, unconscious, to be eaten by the wolves that are invading London.

A stone flew, and hit him in the mouth.

“Come, come now!”  said Mr. Twite, wiping away mud, and possibly a tooth.   …

Another stone flew, and then several more.  Mr. Twite began to run.  He raced into the park, followed by the whole crowd of children.  They yelled and flung objects – anything they could pick up – eggs, oranges, shoes.  Mr. Twite ran desperately across the park toward the river; but the storm of stones, shoes, and other articles became fiercer and fiercer.  At last, under it, he crumpled and fell to the ground.

At the sight of his fall, the children halted.  The looked at him doubtfully from a distance.  He still stirred feebly and moaned.

… “We’d best leave him be.  He ain’t much hurt – I don’t think.  He’ll pick hisself up, soon as we’re gone.  We don’t want the beaks arter us, saying we done him in.  We never.  He’s just a bit dazed, like.”

Everyone agreed.  Without wasting a moment, the crowd of lollpoops [street children] took themselves off, disappearing speedily along alleys and narrow streets …  in five minutes the park was empty, except for Mr. Twite.

But the wolves had come across the river … they found Mr. Twite lying among the missiles that had stunned him and they quite soon finished off what the children had begun.

Not exactly lighthearted fun.  That whole scene was quite abrupt, too.  I had no expectations of Mr. Twite’s sudden demise, although perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, as just that morning he had heartlessly witnessed the complete destruction of the house of his mistress and seemed to display only relief that the burden of keeping her happy could be shed.

There were other things that seemed strangely unexplained, like how the lead villain apparently was being kept alive somehow by Twite’s music, so when Twite didn’t show up to play, he died.

And before their aghast eyes the margrave [that’s the villain] began to shrink, to shrivel and dwindle; the lips pulled back from the teeth, the jaw fell open, the eyes glazed and filmed; witha  final rattling gasp, which sounded like a wild ironic cackle, the patient writhed from head to foot and lay lifeless on his bed.  And not merely lifeless: from the appearance, the chill, and the dreadful dank odor of the body, anyone just arriving in the room would conclude that it had been dead for several days, if not weeks.

Wait, what?  SHE NEVER EXPLAINS WHY.  Was he some kind of zombie, kept alive by the magical music of Twite?  There was never a sense of otherwordliness about him until his death, and that’s all we get, this strange implication that he’d been walking dead for a long time, and then we just move on, still confused and clueless.  (Or at least I was.  Maybe I’m completely dense and bad at these books?)

Overall, I can see these books appealing to and being enjoyed by some.  And Wolves of Willoughby Chase is still one of my childhood favorites.  But these later adventures in the Wolves Chronicles have just been a bit too dark, morbid, and confusing for my personal tastes.  Dido and Pa was a Paperback Swap find, and I do believe that it will be posted there again soon.  2/5.

The Cuckoo Tree

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by Joan Aiken

Published 1971

In this next installment of the Wolves series, Dido Twite has finally made it back to England.  King James (this is an AU England, remember) has died and his son, Richard, is getting ready to be crowned.  On their way to London, Dido the captain of the ship she arrived on have a carriage accident, and the captain is quite injured.  They are forced to stay in near a small town, where there are many strange goings-on.

While I liked The Cuckoo Tree better than The Stolen Lakethere was just too much going on in this book for it to be a favorite.  Smugglers, witches, kidnapping, an elephant, twins, assassins, plots to kill the king, and more!

In the last book, Dido met King Arthur and a woman who had lived for hundreds of years, yet in England she acts as though magic is a ridiculous and impossible thing.  The witches are creepy, but kind of pathetic, because all they want to do is go back to a southern-sea island where it’s warm and happy.  One of the characters listens to a strange voice in her head as though it’s a real person, and it’s never really explained at all.  The elephant comes out of nowhere, with basically no explanation.  It was a rather confusing book, although not as bloodthirsty as the on before it.

So an average 3/5 for this one.

The Stolen Lake

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by Joan Aiken

Published 1981

When we last saw Dido Twite, in Nightbirds on Nantucketshe was sincerely hoping to find her way back home to England.  Her friends found her a place on board a British Naval ship, but, along the way, they are called to duty in South America.  In Aiken’s AU, a colony of Britishers settled in South America over a thousand years earlier during an invasion of their home island.  Through the years, Britain and New Cumbria have retained friendly relations, and so the call for help of New Cumbria’s queen is not to be ignored.

The earlier books in this series, while, at times, rather dark, have still been fairly appropriate for children.  In The Stolen Lake, however, things take a turn dark enough that I was a bit confused.  Overall, a 2/5 for this installment of the series.  For more details on this rating, combined with spoilers, read on…

SERIOUS SPOILERS BELOW

Continue reading

Nightbirds on Nantucket

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by Joan Aiken

Published 1966

At the end of Black Hearts and Battersea, Simon and his friend, Dido Twite, are shipwrecked.  While we know that Simon is rescued, everyone fears the worst for Dido Twite, and the book ends with her friends assuming that she died at sea.  I read someplace that Aiken’s original intention was to leave that as canon, but so many of her readers wrote to her asking about Dido’s fate, that she decided that Dido would live.  And, in fact, Dido becomes the main character for the next several books in the Wolves series.  (I am not yet through them all, so I cannot say whether she is the heroine of all of the rest or not!)

In Nightbirds, we find that Dido was rescued by a whaler, and has been in a coma for several months.  The story picks up when Dido regains consciousness, and follows her adventures on the ship, as she befriends the captain’s daughter.  Left on Nantucket to be a companion to the fearful Dutiful Penitence as she goes to live with her aunt.  Except the aunt seems oddly familiar to readers of Aiken’s earlier books…

Adventures with a pink whale, a giant gun, and ridiculous Hanoverians, this story set in Aiken’s alternate-universe world where bonny James III rules England and magic is not completely fictional, this tale was a great deal of fun.

4/5.

Black Hearts in Battersea

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by Joan Aiken

Published 1964

For some reason, even though I have dearly loved Wolves of Willoughby Chase since I was a little girl, I never read any of the rest of the Wolves Chronicles.  It seems as though I may have picked one up when I was quite younger and was confused by it, expecting it to have the same characters as the first book.  At any rate, I have decided to give them a whirl.  

I would call Black Hearts in Battersea a sort of indirect sequel.  The main character, Simon, was a secondary character in Wolves of Willoughby Chase, (albeit the one that I had a crush on).  In this story, Simon travels to London to study art with a friend.  But when he arrives, not only is his friend no where to be found, everyone acts as though he never even existed.  In Aiken’s England, James III from Scotland is on the throne, creating an intriguing alternate universe of Victorian times with Queen Victoria.  In this story, Simon makes new friends and meets up with old ones.  I was slightly confused because in Willoughby Chase one of the main characters is Sylvia; in this book, Simon almost immediately sees a girl named Sophie, whom he apparently knows from the past, even though we (as the readers) have never met  her.  Actually, you have a bit of a feeling of trying to catch up during the whole beginning of this book, as Aiken doesn’t really tell us much of what is going on, leaving us to follow the trail as best we can.

Even though Aiken writes for children, she is unafraid of drastic plot twists, including the deaths of characters.  While Black Hearts is not as light-hearted as Willoughby, it is still an excellent story with a fun mystery and delightful characters.  4/5.