Audio book: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

gentlemansguideby Mackenzie Lee
Read by Christian Coulson
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There’s some mild swearing and a lot of drinking and some allusions to sex, including one mostly nude scene. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

The only thing Henry “Monty” Montague wants is to go on his Tour of the continent with his best friend Percy. Sure, there are complications, the big one being is that Monty has a secret crush on Percy. That, and his father has given him an ultimatum: go have a supervised year on the continent and then come back, settle down and run the estate. None of which Monty wants.

However, the year doesn’t go the way that Monty expect. After a disastrous escapade at Versailles, in which Monty steals what he thinks is a simple trinket box, things go away. Monty, his sister Felicity, and Percy find themselves on the run from highway men. And it just goes downhill from there. Full of twists and turns as our fair adventurers try to find out exactly what that box Monty stole was, and then figure out their way home.

Oh, heavens, this is so much fun! Perhaps this was one that I liked because I listened to it, because Coulson was a fabulous narrator. I appreciated that he didn’t make Felicity overly “girly” (because she’s not; let’s hear it for 18th century girls who want to be doctors!) and I adored all the French accents. I loved Monty’s growth arc; he was a douche in the beginning, but as the layers peeled away, I began to understand just why Monty was the way he was. And Percy, even if he was a little overly long-suffering, was sweet and adorable, and I ended up loving him as much as Monty did.

There were some darker parts of it; Lee doesn’t gloss over the racism inherent in 18th century society (Percy’s half black and always mistaken for Monty’s servant/slave) and the prejudice against gay people. It grounds the silliness and over-the-top-ness in the book, giving it a darker edge.

But really, this is just a trip and a half, and definitely worth the read/listen!

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A Winter’s Promise

winterspromiseby Christelle Dabos
Translated by Hildegarde Serle
First sentence: “It’s often said of old buildings that they have a soul.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: The main character is engaged, but other than that there’s nothing “objectionable” (at least that I read). It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) but if a 6-8th grader is interested, I’d give it to them.

When my rep for Europa pitched this book, the first thing I told him was “the cover is awful”. Yes, it fits with the other Europa titles, but, really: what kid is going to want to pick up this book?

But it’s a huge deal in France, he countered. And it’s supposed to be sweeping and epic. So I picked up a few for the store, if only to support Europa’s first foray into young adult fiction. And then I nominated it for the Cybils, so I’d force myself to read it.

And…

Well…

I’m sorry. It’s awful.

I liked Dabos’ world building: she’s imagined a world where there are a bunch of floating “arks” populated by different families with different magical skills. I really  liked our main character, Opheilia’s, magical skill at reading items — she can tell the history of the owner through their items, and she wears gloves so she doesn’t accidentally read other people’s histories without their permission. But, Opheila herself was a huge pushover. I think she was supposed to be cheerily mousy, but instead I just got annoyingly wimpy. She’s been given in an arranged marriage (arranged by the heads of her family, I assume?) to Thorn, who is from the Polar ark (I think), and whose family’s skill has to do with illusion. Except, once on their ark, Sophie finds out that everyone is at each other’s throat and she’s in the middle of it.

At this point, I was more than 200 pages into a nearly 500 page book, and I bailed. It was just going nowhere too slowly for me. The only thing that was holding my attention was the world, and there wasn’t enough of that to make me care enough to keep reading. (And I thought Rowling was overly wordy!) So, I bailed.

But, I suppose, if large, very French, fantasies are your thing, then this one will be perfect. They’re just not my thing.

The Prince and the Dressmaker

by Jen Wang
First sentence: “The prince is holding a ball!”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There are some more mature themes, and it’s in the teen graphic novel/graphic novel section of the bookstore, but I think if there was a 4/5th grader who was interested in the subject, they could certainly read it.

Frances is a dressmaker in Paris in around the turn of the 20th century. She works for a tailor, but has dreams of creating her own fashion line, if only she can meet the right people. When she designs a dress for a client for the prince’s ball celebrating his 16th birthday, it captures the attention of a mysterious patron. Frances jumps at the offer: it’s her chance to get noticed.

The mysterious patron turns out to be the prince himself, who has a secret he keeps from everyone except Frances: he likes to wear dresses and wants Frances to make it possible for him to go out in public. He becomes his alter-ego, Lady Crystallia, who, dressed in Frances’s creations, becomes the talk of the town. This, however creates a conflict: Frances wants credit for her designs, but Prince Sebastian is afraid of what his family and his people are going to think if they discover that he is Lady Crystallia.

I’m actually not sure if this fits under the LGBT umbrella, since Sebastian is actually attracted to Frances (I thought for a long time that he was gay, since he wasn’t interested in any of the girls that his parents were proposing he marry), but the ending is ambiguous (aside from a couple of kisses), so maybe it does? It does fall under the “let people be themselves” umbrella. Setting it in the late 19th century, Wang heightens society’s disapproval of someone breaking gender norms, which is really the point. Sebastian wants to wear dresses. Why should it matter who he is attracted to? Sebastian wants to wear dresses. Why should that affect how he relates to those around him or even, eventually, govern? Sebastian wants to wear dresses. Why should that make him less of a person? The ending is a bit too quick for me: initially everyone rejects Sebastian, but they come around pretty quickly (or maybe lots of time passed and I just missed it because it was a graphic novel)…

Wang’s art is charming, as always, and I found the book, overall, to be a delight to read.

Audiobook: The Inquisitor’s Tale

inquisitorstaleby Adam Gidwitz
Read by the author and Vikas Adam, Mark Bramhall, Jonathan Cowley, Kimberly Farr, Ann Marie Lee, Bruce Mann, John H. Mayer, and Arthur Morey
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher for the Cybils.
Content: There’s a lot of poop and fart jokes, plus a bit of a running ass/donkey joke. It’s also a bit, well, long, and some violent moments. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but it’d probably be good up through the 8th grade or so.

I’ll be honest here: I tried reading this one and I didn’t make it through the third chapter. It just didn’t grab me.

The story is this: in the 13th century there are three children who can perform miracles. And someone is asking about them, collecting their story. Told in stages by several people over the course of a night, it follows the children — Jeanne, a peasant girl who has vision; William, a super strong oblate; and Jacob, a Jewish boy with healing powers — how they met, their run from the church and then the king, with a showdown outside of Mont-Saint-Michel.

It’s a very religious story (which shouldn’t have surprised me, considering when it was set), but it also deals with race relations and bigotry and just oppression in general. I think audio was the way to go for me on this one. I loved that the different tale tellers had different narrators reading the tale, each giving it their own spin. It made the tale come alive for me. (Maybe this is one that’s better read aloud?)

So, I’m glad I gave it a second chance. It was worth it.

Wrinkles

wrinklesby Paco Roca
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there! (Kind of; it’s not available in the States, yet.)
Content: There’s really nothing objectionable, content-wise. The subject matter is older adults in a retirement home, so if you’re interested in that, go for it. The book would be in the Graphic Novel section of the bookstore.

One of the members of my in-person book group is a gerontologist, and reads a TON of literature on the subject. She’s always digging up unusual and interesting books that feature older adults and their life experiences, partially for her work, but mostly because it fascinates her. She didn’t pick this book for our discussion however, one of the other members did, hoping that our gerontologist hadn’t read it yet. (She hadn’t, but had seen the movie based on it.)

It’s a very European book, written by a Spanish author and set in France. It’s the story of one gentleman, Ernest, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s and whose children can no longer care for him, so he ends up in a care facility. He’s a bit confused and hurt that he ended up there, so he’s initially resistant to settling in. His roommate, Emile,  is more than welcoming, however. He takes Ernest under his wing and shows him around the home, introducing him to all the people who live there.

It’s their story, of their friendship, of the living they do from day-to-day, of the small joys and the larger hardships, of the inevitability of age. There’s a lot to think about, and even though it made me sad — getting old is not for wimps — I thoroughly enjoyed reading this story.

The Little Paris Bookshop

by Nina George
First sentence: “How on earth could i have let them talk me into it?”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s a few sex scenes, mostly tasteful, though it gets somewhat crude once. There are also several instances of mild swearing. It’s in the adult section for thematic reasons.

Jean Perdu (which is French for lost) owns a small bookshop on a barge floating in the Seine in Paris. His specialty is figuring out what a person needs to read and then “prescribing” the Right Book for the malady. He calls his store the Literary Apothecary and has had some measure of success.

With everyone but himself.

His great love, Manon, left him 22 years ago, and Jean’s life has basically frozen since then. Sure, he’s lived — he’s in his 50s now — but he’s not Lived. And then he meets Catherine, and his life starts unthawing (but not in the way you think at first). He ends up on a boat trip (river trip?) down to the south of France to find Manon’s memory (she died soon after she left him) and to properly grieve.

This book is being billed as a bookish book, and it is in a way. It’s about the power of stories and narrative to help us through all times — both the good and the bad. But, it’s more about the healing power of grief. How, if you don’t let yourself grieve for what is lost then you can never move on, never really live again.

It’s very French, as well.  (A co-worker, who is very knowledgeable in All Things French, mentioned that this is a homage to Jean de Flourette and Manon of the Spring, both of which I saw when I was at BYU and probably should hunt down again.) There’s is a slight magical realism thread through it, in the way Jean could find the right book, to the power of food and company. It gets bogged down in the middle, during the river trip, and Manon’s travel journals, while providing some interesting insight to her and Jean’s relationship, interrupt the flow of the book.

That said, it was enjoyable, though it’s not my favorite bookish book about books.

Black Dove, White Raven

by Elizabeth Wein
First sentence: “Sinidu told me I should aim for the sun.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s a smattering of violence, and some insinuations, but it’s not nearly as intense as Wein’s other books we have in the store. I’m torn between leaving it where it is (in Teen, grades 9+) and moving it to YA (grades 6-8), where it really fits better, subject and content-wise. Thoughts?

I know Wein has written other books about Ethiopia, but I didn’t know they existed, really, until this one came out and I started hearing the buzz. And so I really didn’t know what to expect with this one.

Many of the elements I have enjoyed about Wein are there: women pilots, in this case two: a white woman, Rhoda, and her black friend, Delia,  learned to fly in France and go around the States in the late 1920s/early 1930s with their barnstorming act. There is also World War II: after Delia’s accidental death, Rhoda takes their two children, her daughter Emelia and Delia’s son Teo (whom Rhoda has taken as her own) to live in Ethiopia, which was Delia’s dream.

The book is a long letter written to the emperor of Ethiopa by Emelia. It’s in the middle of World War II, and the Italians have invaded Ethiopia. Because of their precarious legal situation: Teo is not legally Rhoda’s son, they’re not really legally in the country, and because Teo’s father was Ethiopian, it means that their position in the country, especially with the Italians there, is a precarious one.

Emelia recounts history and how their little family ended up where they are. Teo contributes some, writing journal entries and flight logs — Rhoda eventually teaches both children to fly — and so you hear his voice as well as Emelia’s.

There’s a lot going on in this book, and yet, I felt like the conflict didn’t really pick up until the last third. It’s a quieter book than her previous two WWII books, one that felt more vignette-driven as well. (Though typing that, and thinking back to Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire, I’m not sure that’s true.) The characters were definitely younger in this one, and perhaps that’s what I’m feeling. I did like how Wein rounded out most of the characters in the book, but especially the female ones (the male ones, aside from Teo, were basically set dressing, there to move the plot along). Wein also touched on a lot of cultural issues for the time: segregation in the US, slavery in Ethiopia, the war, the limitations of women at the time. Even though it didn’t feel like much, plot-wise, there was enough to hold my interest and carry the book.

I’m not sure I love it as much as I do the other books I’ve read by Wein, but I did thoroughly enjoy it.