Review: The Dragon’s Tooth

The Dragon's Tooth, N.D. WilsonThe last two years have been hard on Cyrus and Antigone Smith. Together with their older brother Daniel, they’ve had to abandon their home in California and move to a decrepit roadside motel where nothing ever happens. Until the strange tattooed man arrives and demands a specific room.

A few hours later the tattooed man is dead, and Daniel is missing. Cyrus and Antigone have pledged their loyalty to a mysterious organization whose members serve as explorers, protectors, and jailers.

Just when the siblings think things can’t get any harder, the order’s headquarters come under attack. Who can Cyrus and Antigone really trust, and what secrets about their past are being kept from them?

Not sure how I feel

The Dragon’s Tooth started out strong. Cyrus and Antigone are likeable characters, the mystery was nicely paced, etc. But somewhere along the way I just lost interest.

I think it’s to do with author N.D. Wilson’s world building — it’s confusing. New info is thrown at the reader very rapidly, and I had a hard time keeping it all straight.

However, it’s probably not a coincidence that I lost interest in The Dragon’s Tooth just as some stuff in my personal life hit the fan. Everything went a little sideways, and I had trouble focusing on just about anything for any period of time.

So in the case of The Dragon’s Tooth I’d say it’s a case of “It’s not you, it’s me.” It’s the first in a series, which probably accounts for the world building deluge in this novel. I don’t think I’ll be picking up the next book, though.

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Review: Serving Victoria

Serving Victoria, Kate Hubbard“Your first duty is to God; your second to your Sovereign; your third to yourself.” Such was the belief of those who served England’s Queen Victoria throughout her 63-year reign. Their positions — governess, maid-of-honor, chaplain, physician — were dull and grueling, but gave them an up-close look at a world few could ever see.

Using the letters and diaries left behind by six of Victoria’s staff, Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household gives the reader intimate insights into life in the royal court.

Seen through the eyes of these individuals, the Queen becomes more than the plump aristocrat preserved in photographs. She is funnier, kinder, more emotional, more selfish. Serving Victoria is the perfect counterpoint to the stoicism and prudery associated with the era.

A detailed look into a hidden world

I would never have made it as a servant. I can’t decide which would be worse: the body-breaking work of a 20th-century kitchen maid described in Below Stairs, or the mind-numbingly boring responsibilities of the high-ranking servants described in Serving Victoria.

The bulk of everyone’s time appears to have been spent…well, sitting around. Sitting around eating, sitting around waiting, sitting around on a train or boat on trips back and forth between Windsor, Osborne, and Balmoral. If the book were only about that, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to consider it as boring as the job it describes.

Fortunately for us, the Victorians were prodigious letter writers. Sent to friends and family and preserved through the years, these letters show us what was happening behind the curtain.

Queen Victoria was — if you’ll pardon the phrase — an odd bird. She reinstated many of the court formalities ignored  during her predecessor’s reign, but was known to break into giggle fits and gobble unhealthy food. She had a desperate need to control everything and everyone around her, but shied away from confrontation.

Serving Victoria does go into some detail about the politics of the time, but for the most part it focuses on the Queen and those closest to her. Despite not being a scintillating page-turner, it’s still worth reading if you’re looking for a different slice of the Victorian era.

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Review: Jane Austen Cover to Cover

Jane Austen drew her last breath in 1817, and in the last 200 years her novels and stories have only grown more popular. Most Janeites love Miss Austen’s words, but Jane Austen Cover to Cover gives adoring fans a close look at the cover art — some amazing, some bewildering.

Author Margaret Sullivan showcases covers from the original editions published before Austen’s death, then works chronologically forward into the 20th and 21st centuries.

It’s an incredible spectrum — everything from the famous 1894 “Peacock Edition” to 1950s pulp, foreign-language translations, movie tie-in editions, teen editions, and more. Sullivan also includes snippets of history and excellent commentary on the designs and those who love (or hate) them.

Standout designs

I had little trouble deciding which designs I liked and which I didn’t, and there were several that elicited particularly visceral reactions.

1894 Peacock Edition – George Allen

This art was drawn by Hugh Thomson, one of the most popular illustrators of the time, and started the trend of using peacocks in cover art for Pride and Prejudice. Thomson also filled the book with 160 black-and-white illustrations, as well as decorative chapter titles and initials.This edition has one more claim to fame: its forward contains the first use of the word “Janeites” to describe Austen fans. If you want your own copy, prepare to shell out around $500. 1894 Peacock Edition, Pride and Prejudice

1994 Tor edition

The first time I read Pride and Prejudice it was this exact edition — I remember my mom and I laughing and then shaking our heads at the terrible artwork and even worse tagline: “Mom’s fishing for husbands — but the girls are hunting for love…” 1994 Tor edition of Pride and Prejudice

2006 – Penguin Red Classics

Penguin released special editions of five of Austen’s six novels, my favorite of which is Sense and Sensibility. Illustrator Kazuko Nomoto’s art is pleasing without being fussy or overdone. 2006 Penguin Red Classics, Sense and Sensibility

2013 – Oldcastle Books

Is it me, or did it just get warmer? I have absolutely no idea what’s happening here, but I dig it. This faux-pulp edition of Pride and Prejudice fooled some people, but the fact that Darcy is the spitting image of Colin Firth is a dead giveaway that this isn’t a real 1950s edition. 2013 Oldcastle Books Pride and Prejudice

Beautiful book design

Great content deserves great design, and Jane Austen Cover to Cover does not disappoint. Not only does it have its own fantastic cover art, inside the colors, fonts, and flourishes work beautifully together to give the book an elegant, classic, cheerful feel.

It’s so well done that it’s almost a distraction from Austen’s covers.

Jane AustenCover to Cover, Margaret Sullivan

Jane AustenCover to Cover, Margaret Sullivan

Jane AustenCover to Cover, Margaret Sullivan

Jane AustenCover to Cover, Margaret Sullivan

If you love Jane Austen, books, and book design, Jane Austen Cover to Cover is the perfect next addition to your collection. It’s just beautiful.

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Review: The Clockwork Scarab

The Clockwork Scarab, Colleen GleasonVampire hunting and mystery solving are not ideal occupations for the well-bred Victorian lady; unfortunately for Evaline Stoker and Mina Holmes, there’s no escaping the family business.

When young women in their social circle start disappearing, these two barely-friends must put aside their differences and rely on each other to solve the mystery of the Egyptian scarab — before they’re next.

Deliciously steampunk

I love smart female characters, and author Colleen Gleason has put two in The Clockwork Scarab, the first in her Stoker & Holmes YA series. Both have big shoes to fill, and are hungry to prove themselves to their families and the public.

Mina is my favorite — both women are intelligent, but Evaline relies too much on brute strength. Mina inherited her uncle’s sharp eyes and deductive reasoning skills, and her personality is less grating.

The world building is interesting — with electricity outlawed, those on the cutting edge rely on ingenious steam-powered devices to make their lives easier.

As the first in a series, The Clockwork Scarab has to set the scene for subsequent books; Gleason introduces us to an alternate reality and more than a half-dozen important characters. It’s clear this novel is just the warm-up.

But a little scattered

I like meaty novels, but this one has a lot going on:

  • Steampunk
  • Alternate reality
  • Egyptian lore
  • Multiple potential love interests
  • Time travel

It’s that last one that really popped the bubble for me. Gleason shoehorned in the time travel plot, and it never felt like it belonged. I’m betting it continues as a subplot in the rest of the books, but right now it feels very unformed — plus I somehow found it a little more interesting than the main plot, which probably wasn’t Gleason’s goal.

The novel is almost totally plot-driven; not a bad thing, but I’m more of a character development kind of gal, and there wasn’t enough of that in my opinion. I met a lot of characters throughout the book, but found it difficult to empathize with them because Gleason didn’t give me much characterization.

While I thought The Clockwork Scarab was a fun, light read, I’m not sure I enjoyed it enough to wait for the next in the series.

(I read this book as a part of the 2015 Monthly Motif Challenge. April’s challenge was to read a murder/mystery, a book in which someone dies of mysterious causes, or a book in which the truth must come out.)

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Review: How to be a Victorian

How to be a Victorian, Ruth GoodmanYou know that moment when you think, “I should have been born in a different century!” and then you read a book about that era and it totally decimates your charming, rose-colored ideas about the time? Welcome to How to be a Victorian.

In this 440-page chunkster, author Ruth Goodman shares incredible details on clothing (male/female, child/adult), cooking, manners, work, leisure, and sex. The book begins at the start of the day, with each subsequent chapter taking us through the morning, noon hours, afternoon, and evening.

Nestled alongside these historic details — including sketches and contemporary photos of clothing and art — are Goodman’s personal experiences with living in recreated Victorian conditions.

How to be a Victorian is enlightening, a little gruesome, and totally fascinating.

Complete perfection (almost)

If you love history, this book is for you. Just like The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England, How to be a Victorian is a detailed, intimate peek into a great period in world history.

Can you imagine spending half of every day in the kitchen and still suffering from malnutrition your entire life?

What struck me first was the book’s structure: chapter one opens at daybreak on a typical Victorian day, and each subsequent chapter takes us through getting dressed, eating, going to work, relaxing at the end of the day, and finally bedtime. Goodman hops between talking about the upper- and lower-classes, but each chapter is a contained topic; this made it easier to take in the incredible amount of information the book contains.

Most interesting to me were the sections on food and medicine, two areas in which humanity has progressed considerably in less than 200 years. Can you imagine spending half of every day in the kitchen and still suffering from malnutrition your entire life? What about giving your infant opium-based “tonics” to improve her health?

While I thought all these minute details were fantastic, I also appreciated that Goodman’s writing expanded to include information on how the Industrial Revolution affected these personal spheres. Mass production of clothing meant women no longer had to make every piece of clothing by hand; new labor laws let children attend school and gave the working class unprecedented leisure time; the widespread acceptance of germ theory changed hygiene practices forever.

My only complaint is that Goodman doesn’t provide much context for why she chose to live in a recreated Victorian setting, and how she was able to do so. Early in the first chapter she mentions that the longest she’s gone without washing with water is four months, and at some point she just tosses in a casual, “Oh, by the way, I lived like a Victorian for a year.”

It was interesting to read about all the things she did, but she could have prevented some distracted reading by adding context — something as simple as a paragraph introducing her reasons why she did it, when she did it, what gave her the idea, etc.

Overall, though, How to be a Victorian was an amazing read. No matter what kind of history buff you are, there’s something in Goodman’s book that’s guaranteed to fascinate you.

If you could live in any other (past) century, which would you choose?

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