Audiobook: School for Brides

schoolforbridesby Patrice Kindl
Read by Bianca Amato
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Others in the series: Keeping the Castle
Content: Nothing objectionable, but a working knowledge of Regeny manners is helpful. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Set a year after Keeping the Castle (but you don’t need to read that one first), the Winthrop Hopkins Female Academy has one purpose: to educate young ladies to make smashing matches. The problem, however, is that in Lesser Hoo, Yorkshire, there is exactly one bachelor, who isn’t exactly everyone’s idea of eligible. How are eight young women supposed to find their matches if there isn’t any eligible young men around?

Thus begins the very charming A School for Brides (which was a delight to listen to). Things begin to look up when a young man breaks his leg while in the country and is put up at the school to heal. His friends come calling, and suddenly everything is looking a lot more complicated. Several of the girls are simply delightful (plus the instructor, Miss Quince; I adored her), being that excellent cross between feminist and historical, saucy and authentic. There were so many delightful characters (though sometimes I wished I was reading it so I could keep track of who was who) doing so many delightful things. There were also ones to loathe, so it wasn’t a perfect froth.

As I was reading, I realized it’s a homage to Jane Austen’s work, but it’s also a parody. That feeling kind of increased when I did some looking at how to spell the names and discovered that Miss Foll-ee-ut (which is how the reader was pronouncing it) is spelled Pffolliott. Definitely a send up to the silliness that goes on in historical England. (Leave it to Psmith, anyone?)

Amato was also delightful, capturing the spirit of the book in her narration as well as the essence of each character, which is a trick since there’s so many. It’s definitely a fun read.

The Road to Little Dribbling

littledribblingby Bill Bryson
First sentence: “One of the things that happens when you get older is that you discover lots of new ways to hurt yourself.”
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Content: There’s a bunch (a dozen or so?) of f-bombs scattered throughout, and it’s a bit old-n-cranky for the younger set. But if you’re interested in that sort of thing (plus England), then it’s in the Creative Non-Fiction section of the bookstore.

It’s been 20 years since Notes from a Small Island, and Bryson’s publisher thought it’d be an interesting thing for Bryson to go back and revisit places. Well, he decided not to do that. Partially because he’s not one to do things exactly the same way, and partially because he applied for British citizenship and one of the questions asked what were the two farthest cities in Great Britain, he drew a line down the middle of the country and decided to loosely follow it, visiting places.

It doesn’t sound like much to hang a book on, but this is Bill Bryson after all. It’s been a while since he’s done a travel book, and I was more than happy that he got back to it. I was much more willing to read this one than I was Notes (I didn’t “get it”. I wonder what that means now.) and I thoroughly enjoyed traveling to all these small, out of the way, strange little English places with him.

But what really struck me is that Bryson is a bit of a crank. A lovable, affable, hilarious crank, but a crank nonetheless. He’s one of those people who think that it Used To Be Better back when he was younger, and that the world — or, more particularly, Great Britain — is going to pot. And yet, the affection he has for his adopted country is obvious. He adores Great Britain, not just with all his faults but because of them. In spite of his occasional crankiness (or maybe because of it?) I had a hilarious, fun, and sometimes insightful (his throw-away comments on U. S. gun control in the last chapter are spot-on) time traveling England with him.

Audio book: The Buried Giant

buriedgiantby Kazuo Ishiguro
Read by: David Horovitch
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Content: There’s some violence and mild sexual elements. But, no worse than any Tolkein book. In fact, if you’ve made it through LOTR, you will probably really like this one.

Axl and Beatrice have had a long, good life. Or, at least as much as they can remember. They live in a cave dwelling in Britain, in the time after the Romans left and Arthur’s peace with the Saxons is waning. They’re not quite content, and so they determine that they need to head to a nearby village to see their son — whom they only can barely remember having — because he’s anxiously waiting for them.

They have no idea how their journey will go, or the people they will meet (an elder Sir Gawain among them, much to my delight), and how it will all change them.

I’m not sure how much more of the actual plot I want to divulge. Much like LOTR (which this strongly reminded me of), the plot is less important than the journey. Axl and Beatrice’s journey — though we never really got inside Beatrice’s head, which disappointed me — was a grand one, like Odysseus, or Frodo. The people the met, the friendships they made, the emotional journey they took as well as the physical one all had a mythological quality to it.

I’m sure you can find a lot of deeper meaning in the story as well. But for me, listening to it on my way to and from Dallas (the narrator was excellent, once I got used to his cadence), it was more a long oral narrative, a story to be heard by the firelight over several nights, a story to capture the imagination and to be swept up in.

Which means it’s being told by a master storyteller. And I loved every minute.

Mrs. Queen Takes the Train

mrsqueenby William Kuhn
First sentence: “Several years ago, on a dark afternoon in December, Her Magesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, and Her Other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth of Nations, Defender of Faith, Duchess of Edinbugh, Countess of Merioneth, Baroness Greenwich, Duke of Lancaster, Lord of Mann, Duke of Normandy sat at her desk, frowning at a computer screen..”
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Content: There’s a few f-bombs (maybe a half dozen?). But other than that, it’s pretty clean. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

You would think, from the title and first sentence, that this is a story about Queen Elizabeth and you would be right. She is most definitely a character. However, I’m not entirely sure she’s the main character, or rather just a plot device. The basic plot is this: The Queen gets down one December day, and then goes missing. Six people — her lady in waiting, Lady Anne; her dresser, Shirley; her butler, William; a member of her security team, Luke; an employee at the Mews, the horse stables, Rebecca; and an employee of the shop where The Queen gets her cheese, Rajiv — all, for various reasons, go looking for her. It’s much less about The Queen and the reasons she left than it is about the politics of the royal household, and the lives of those looking for her.

Which isn’t to say it was bad. It wasn’t. But it wasn’t as good as I had hoped, either. The parts with The Queen out and wandering around, connecting anonymously with people were really intriguing and quite fun. The rest of it — the backstories, the drama, the relationship building — not so much. There were several times when I considered bailing on this — it just took way too long to get going — but I didn’t because it was for book group. I think I just wanted it to be more… fun. And much less drama-y.

I just wasn’t thrilled with it in the end.

The Wand & the Sea

by Claire Caterer
First sentence: “Holly Shepard was unlike most twelve-year-olds in that she didn’t at all mid sharing a cramped cottage bedroom with her pudgy, snoring, laptop-loving younger brother.”
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Others in the series: The Key & the Flame
Review copy provided by the author’s publicist.
Content: It’s kind of slow to start, and the fantasy is more Narnia-esque than Harry Potter or Percy Jackson. Even so, there’s nothing content-wise, and if there’s a 9- or 10-year-old who likes Narnia, they’ll probably love this. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

It’s been a year since siblings Holly and Ben and their British friend Everett have been to the magical land of Anglielle, where Holly can do magic, and where they’re caught up in a good versus evil battle. They’re determined to get back, but this time, the portal they used before won’t work. This time, it’s the water element that’s highlighted. This time, they need to rescue their friends, who have been imprisoned by the king, and try and find the other adepts, who have been exiled from Anglielle.

Of course, it’s not a simple thing: Everett is still playing the role of the sulky somewhat traitor (think Edmund), the prince Avery’s loyalties are still in question. They do meet a group of pirates, on the ship the Sea Witch, that are quite fascinating. And when Holly finally confronts the Big Bad Guy, it’s pretty intense.

I went back and re-read my review/reaction to the first book in the series, and it seems I liked it. I had a less positive experience this time around; the first book didn’t stay with me as much, and it’s been a couple of years, and it took me longer to get into this story. Still, it’s channeling Narnia quite well, and in the end, the adventure was satisfying, while leaving room for another sequel. (I’m starting to suspect there will be four in all; one for each element.)

Not bad, overall.

Finding Audrey

by Sophie Kinsella
First sentence: “OMG, Mum’s gone insane.”
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Content: It has six f-bombs, all near the end of the book, and nothing else. So, I’m torn: do I leave it on the YA shelves (grades 6-8), where it thematically belongs? Or do I move it to Teen (grades 9+) where it’s not quite edgy enough, but it fits language-wise? Tough call.

Audrey doesn’t leave the house. Doesn’t talk on the phone. Doesn’t talk to people (outside of her therapist and her family). Doesn’t look people in the eye (in fact, she prefers to wear dark sunglasses all the time). She hasn’t done any of these things since the “incident”. And she prefers to keep it that way.

Before I go much further I have to interject: this is a hilarious book. Perhaps it’s because I love All Things British, but I was thoroughly charmed by Audrey and her family. It is possible to take something serious (like bullying — though you never really find out what happened, and that’s okay) and severe anxiety and to be, well, warm about it.

Maybe I should make a second diversion: I adored Audrey’s family. From her gamer older brother (with his mile-wide sarcastic streak) to her absolutely adorable four-year-old younger brother (adorable!) to her completely clueless dad (probably stereotypical, but it worked), to her over-protective mom (I will stand by my statement that the best way to be a good parent is to read YA books), they were all entertaining. Kinsella definitely wrote this with love.

(It reminded me, in some ways, of the Casson family books. That makes me happy.)

The arc of the novel is Audrey’s “recovery”. It’s aided by Linus, one of her brother’s friends who takes an interest in her. He supports her and pushes her to try new things, to somehow get a grip on her anxiety. I really liked that Audrey was never “cured”: she learned how to handle her fears and her body’s reaction to them, but they were always still around, which was not only realistic but somewhat of a relief.

Yes, things were kind of tied up in a nice bow at the end, but that’s kind of expected and I didn’t mind. In fact, I really quite enjoyed this.

As You Wish

Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride
by Cary Elwes with Joe Layden
read by Cary Elwes (with other actors/directors/etc. reading their contributions)
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Content: There’s nothing “objectionable”, though the reading level is probably that of high school. It’s in the biography and film sections of the bookstore, but I’d give it to anyone who has a interest in the movie (especially if they are big fans).

I’m late to this party, since this book came out last October. But, I’ve had my eye on it, mostly because I have loved the movie for years (and am constantly surprised how many of my regular daily sayings are actually lines from this movie) and finally got my hands on the audio book.

There’s not much to say about the content: Cary Elwes was asked at the 25th anniversary screening of the movie what he took away from the making of it. He came up with (in his words) a lame answer, and this book was born out of his desire to really detail what the experience meant to him. He got contributions from the actors who are still alive, and a book was born.

It’s not brilliant writing by any stretch of the imagination. But, it is chock-full of fun trivia (yes, I did watch the movie again, spouting out all the wonderful tidbits I’ve learned. My family was patient with me.) and delightful stories.

But, the best thing? (And the reason I’d recommend the audio over the print?) Cary Elwes is a brilliant narrator. Not just his regular voice, but he does a spot-on American accent (several, in fact), and he is just a delightful narrator to spend six hours with.

At the very least, it’ll make you smile. And that, I think, is worth it.

The Viscount Who Loved Me

by Julia Quinn
First sentence: “Anthony Bridgerton had always know he would die young.”
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Content: Um… yeah…. it’s definitely an Adult book. *blush*

I’ve always said that I prefer plot and character development with my sex (in books). So, I went into this one (a YAckers read, of course) with hopes that it would be, at the very least, entertaining.

And, thankfully, I was rewarded. (Yay!)

The basic plot is was this: Anthony Bridgerton is a rake of the worst sort. It’s 1814, in the height of the Jane Austen era, when chaperones were needed and etiquette was severely structured, and Lord Bridgerton is running around making love to all sorts of women. (Unsavory women, too!) So, of course Kate Sheffield was not going to let him any where near her sister Edwina (seriously: WHAT KIND OF NAME IS EDWINA?), even though she’s the catch of the season and Bridgerton has got it into his head to marry. And everyone knows he gets what he wants.

Except, what he wants turns out to be Kate. *wink wink* *nudge nudge*

And that’s about all the plot there is. There’s a lot (a LOT) of sassy banter between Kate and Anthony and a lot (a LOT) of innuendo and under-the-surface desire before he’s caught with his mouth on her breast, sucking the “venom” out of a bee sting (at which point I was howling with laughter), and they were forced to marry. And then the real fireworks started. Two whole chapters of a sex scene (why was there a chapter break in between?) in which Anthony desires his wife and she lets him have his way with her. (I am SURE there’s a feminist objection here, but honestly, I couldn’t see it for the blatant disregard for the time period.) It was bad. It was so horrible and awful and blush-worthy, I couldn’t stop reading. It was just so bad it turned the corner into good. (Or at least deliciously mock-worthy.) Everyone murmured.   Or had husky voices. It was just too, too delightful.

There were some honestly good bits along the way. I really enjoyed the Bridgerton dynamic as a family: there’s a croquet game that was honestly a lot of fun to read. And Quinn made them a close-knit, loving family which is not something you often see. And there was a bit of depth in both Kate and Anthony; Quinn did manage to give them some fears and insecurities, so they weren’t completely one-dimensional.

Not usually my type of book, but it ended up being a great diversion.

Cuckoo Song

by Frances Hardinge
First sentence: “Her head hurt.”
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Review copy left for me by the publisher rep.
Comtent: It’s more than a bit creepy, and it’s slow (like many Hardinge) books. I’ll probably put it in the YA section (grades 6-8), but I’d give it to a 10-year-old who showed interest and was willing to be patient with it.

I have not read everything Hardinge has read, but what I’ve read I’ve (almost) wholeheartedly loved. She is not an easy author to love; she makes you work for the story, often having a very slow start and building from there. Cuckoo Song was no different in that respect. It was a slow and somewhat confusing beginning, one that took me a bit to get into.

Triss has been ill for a good long while. She is Delicate, and often prone to Sickness. And so when she wakes after an accident during her family’s vacation no one seems to think that anything is the matter. Except she feels like something is … off. And her younger sister, Pen, (with whom she has always had a contentious relationship) is screaming awful things at her.  And so Triss does what any 12-year-old would do: she tries to figure out what’s wrong with her. And the deeper she goes into that mystery, the more she discovers that there are things Wrong with her family in some very dark (and somewhat magical) ways. And it’s probably up to her and Pen to fix things.

I don’t want to give away too much because much of what I loved about this was the slow realization of what was going on. There’s a reason the beginning is slow and confusing: Triss, herself, is slow and confused. The reader figures things out as Triss does, peeling one glorious, dark, delicious layer back after another. And no to worry: once the story really gets going, Hardinge’s writing is so lyrical it pulls you in, increasing the tension until the immensely satisfying ending.

It’s absolutely wonderful.

The Slanted Worlds

by Catherine Fisher
First sentence: “The Bomb fell in a split second of silence.”
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Others in the series: Obsidian Mirror
Content: There’s some violence and (much like the first one) this takes some effort to follow. Not for the reluctant of readers. It’s in the YA (Grades 6-8) section of the bookstore.

A few spoilers for the first one, obviously. You’ve been warned.

Both Jake and Venn have become increasingly desperate to use the mirror, to make it work right. Jake, in order to find his father. Venn, because he wants to turn back the clock to get his wife back. Neither of them know of the outside forces controlling the mirror — that’s a knowledge known intimately to Maskelyne, an old, old time traveler, who may have been the one who invented the mirror — but both are willing to do whatever it takes to keep the mirror safe, and bring back the ones they love. Including involving Summer, the leader of the Shee, the fae-like creatures.

I have realized while typing the above that I could recount the plot of the entire book and it probably wouldn’t make any sense to those who haven’t read it.

There are other factors, as well: Sarah’s still around, trying to destroy the mirror and rid the world of Janus, and she’s willing to involve the Shee as well.  In fact, the Shee is the wild card here: Summer is the chaotic evil here, working toward her own end, but we have no idea what that end it.

There’s a lot of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff in this book, time looping in and back and forward on itself in incredibly fascinating ways. Jake is the real focus of the book; its his quest to find his father that we follow most closely. It was a good thing to focus on one arm of the conflict, though I did miss having Sarah around.

But at the end, I was left wondering: how is this all going to come together in the next book? How are we going to resolve the tension between needing to rescue those trapped in time and the need to destroy the mirror to save the world?

I suppose I’m just going to have to read the third one and find out.