Book review: Devil’s Brood by Sharon Kay Penman

Devil's Brood (Henry II & Eleanor of Aquitaine, #3)Devil’s Brood by Sharon Kay Penman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sharon Penman is one of my favorite authors (she ranks up there with Jane Austen and J.R.R. Tolkien) and certainly my favorite author of historical fiction. Devil’s Brood describes the internecine warfare and deteriorating family relationships of the sons of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. (The Plantagenets make the Kardashians look like a stable and wholesome family.)
Every good historical fiction author does impeccable research and brings to life real life characters. What this author does that is head and shoulders above the rest is to imbue each character–whether primary, secondary, or tertiary–with a sense of believability and humanity. The characters are accessible, heroic, and flawed. You come away from reading this book knowing this version of events is how history actually unfolded and that truth has emerged from the author’s pen.
For those interested in medieval British history or historical fiction in general, check out Sharon Penman’s works. The Plantagenet saga is best read in order.

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Book review: The Number Devil by Hans Magnus Enzensberger

The Number Devil: A Mathematical AdventureThe Number Devil: A Mathematical Adventure by Hans Magnus Enzensberger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been meaning to read this book for a long time, as it came highly recommended by both my kids. After reading it, I can see why. The author has written a loose structure of a novel in order to painlessly and seamlessly teach children some basic math concepts. Along the way, he makes math fun and interesting and accessible. (I actually happen to think math *is* fun and interesting and accessible, but I realize that not everyone does.)
The book is geared towards middle schoolers, but it works well for older children and adults as well. It also works well for both people who love math and its intricacies as well as people who are math-phobic, as it provides explanations and projects for experiential learners, all in a fun and light-hearted way.
I would best characterize the book as a novel about math. If that intrigues you, then read the book!

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Book review: Wicked and the Wallflower by Sarah MacLean

Wicked and the Wallflower (The Bareknuckle Bastards, #1)Wicked and the Wallflower by Sarah MacLean
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As you can tell from my Goodreads shelves, I read a lot of Regency romances. I love them–they are light, frothy, and “spoiler alert” always have a happy ending. :). Occasionally, one comes along that has more depth than normal in this genre of lightheartedness and deserves a special mention. “Wicked and the Wallflower” is one of those books.
To begin with, the heroine is plain (but smart). This is a fairly normal anomaly in a genre where the heroine is usually–but not always–beautiful. But the hero is dark (ethically, not just physically) and climbed out of the gutter through sheer force of will and brains. This is not a “good girl reforms bad boy” plot. This is a “good girl joins bad boy” plot. That’s an unusual anomaly. I adored it.
The backstory has complexity, the banter between the hero and heroine is charming, and the entire book has unsuspected depth. It’s as if a Georgette Heyer Regency romance married a C.S. Harris Sebastian St. Cyr mystery, and they had a child (who was happy).
I can’t wait for the second book in the series!

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Book review: The Political Classroom by Diana Hess & Paula McAvoy

The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic EducationThe Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education by Diana E. Hess
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I sit on the board of a pre-K through 12 school, and this book was recommended to me by a faculty member. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, which uses philosophical thinking and empirical science to frame a discussion on how best to answer the question: “How should we live together?” In an era of increasing political polarization, is there a place and an opportunity for schools to teach and model respect, tolerance, and political equity in the classroom, and what should that teaching look like?
The authors examine several types of schools, communities, teachers, and teaching styles to arrive at an ethical framework with which to analyze the question. They looked at schools across the political spectrum and how teachers dealt with students from differing socioeconomic classes, ethnicity, and political viewpoints to model political engagement in a respectful way and how that might differ from teachers who deal with students from more homogeneous socioeconomic classes, ethnicity and political viewpoints. The result is a thought provoking book on what ways teachers should model ideal behavior, the challenges in doing so, and the obstacles that remain.
This book should be the beginning–not the end–of the discussion of how we should all live together and demonstrates how schools and teachers can assist students to start on the path towards political tolerance, respect, and engagement. I highly recommend this book to teachers, parents, and administrators alike!

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Book review: Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb

Fool's Assassin (The Fitz and the Fool, #1)Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I inadvertently entered this series in the middle of the narrative arc (this is the first of this particular series but not the first in the narrative, if that makes any sense). I plan to go back and start at the beginning, which is to say that this book was good enough to make me want to go back and start at the very beginning. Some of the carefully constructed world was a bit unclear from a new reader’s perspective, and there is clearly context that I missed because I picked up the story mid-thread. However, the story was well-crafted and well-plotted, the characters were interesting and three dimensional, and the world was consistent and credible. My only complaint is that there was no real ending–merely a cliffhanger with many plot lines left open–but that’s a flaw that is common in the fantasy genre, especially one that spans so many books. I especially like the author’s willingness to move contrary to the reader’s expectations. In other words, the author will deliberate set up a character and narrative arc so that the reader expects one outcome and then zags to produce a completely different outcome. It’s cleverly done.
Off to find Book #1 of the series!

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Book review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle, #1)The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I rarely give a book 5 stars, but the rating is well-deserved for this one. Recommended by Lin-Manuel Miranda via my daughter (who’s not much of a fantasy reader but who also loved it), this is the first volume of a trilogy describing the life of Kvothe who is part magician, part musician, and part assassin. Building a convincing and consistent fantasy world is difficult, and though it took 722 pages to do so (and that’s only volume #1), those 722 pages were well utilized. The world is gritty and realistic, the magic is complex and consistent, and the narrative is multi-layered and compelling. The book is told mostly in first person by Kvothe, with bits and pieces of a third person narrator thrown in to deepen the narrative. Despite the length, the author leaves you with questions unanswered and mysteries still to be solved. (This is the one weakness of a planned trilogy, which is that the ending leaves you incomplete.) It’s worth it.
All in all, this is the best fantasy novel I’ve read in quite some time. I look forward to reading the second in the series and wait impatiently for the final volume to be released.

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Book review: A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas

A Study in Scarlet Women (Lady Sherlock, #1)A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The premise for this series is very interesting: it posits that Sherlock Holmes is actually a woman, Charlotte Holmes. In this first of a series, Charlotte deliberately loses her virginity in order to carve out a life as an independent woman. She is rescued from her attempt to earn her own living by a former actress, Mrs. John Watson, who befriends her and invests the seed money for Sherlock/Charlotte Holmes to open up a consulting detective business.
The initial mystery is a murder where Charlotte’s sister is the primary suspect. Charlotte is assisted in her investigation by a police officer and a childhood friend.
The author is wide-ranging in her books, writing everything from romances to fantasy. Her research into Victorian times and the role given to women is impeccable. The premise works–Charlotte may not be a self-described high functioning sociopath in the manner of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes in the BBC television series, but she is definitely not within the mainstream of women or men in Victorian society. The mystery is solidly, if not impressively, plotted, and the characters are well drawn.
I really enjoyed this twist on the Sherlock Holmes genre, and I look forward to reading the next book in the series!

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Book review: Bonfire Night by Deanna Raybourn

Bonfire Night (Lady Julia Grey, #5.7)Bonfire Night by Deanna Raybourn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the last in the Lady Julia Grey series, and I have been putting off reading it because I don’t want the series to end. I gave the novella 4 stars but would probably more honestly give it somewhere between 3 and 3.5 stars if it weren’t for the fact that it’s the last story. The author wraps up most of the loose ends of the previous novella, but the story reads as if she wants the series to end as well. There isn’t much of a plot, and the characters aren’t as vibrant or witty or full of personality as they have been in previous books.
I very much wish that the series could continue in novel length (novellas being limited in their story-telling by their shorter length) as I think the main characters still have many stories to be told. That being said, if you have not read this series, I highly recommend you start at the beginning and work your way through (including all the novellas). The characters, the quality of the writing, and the mysteries are all beautifully rendered and should not be missed.

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Book review: The Case of the Missing Moonstone by Jordan Stratford

The Case of the Missing Moonstone (The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency, #1)The Case of the Missing Moonstone by Jordan Stratford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love the premise of this first in a series of YA mysteries: Ada Byron (the daughter of Lord Byron) and Mary Godwin (the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft) form the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency as young girls. Ada is better known as Ada Lovelace, sometimes referred to as the world’s first computer programmer and known as a brilliant mathematician, and Mary is better known as Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. The author takes slight liberties with the timeline, having the girls only 3 years apart in age as opposed to 18, but this allows the girls to be contemporaries and friends and allows the author to portray their very different personalities and temperaments.
Other historical personages that make appearances in this book are Charles Babbage, Charles Dickens and Percy Shelley.
In addition to the interesting premise, the mystery is interesting and engaging, and the book is well-written.
If I had to describe the book (and presumably the series), I would say it is similar to the Encyclopedia Brown series but geared towards girls.
The book is a quick read for adults but if you are interested in Ada and Mary and the lives they might have lived, this is the book for you!

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Book review: The Hermit of Eyton Forest by Ellis Peters

The Hermit of Eyton Forest (Chronicles of Brother Cadfael #14)The Hermit of Eyton Forest by Ellis Peters
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have been slowly but faithfully making my way through this series, which is so wonderful. (I am going to be really sad when I’ve finished them all.) I’ve taken only to reviewing ones that are unusual or resonated with me beyond the normal “I love this series” feeling.
This book is one that stood out, not so much for the quality of the mystery but because it gives great insight into how the medieval world valued honor and loyalty. There isn’t much of the medieval world that I’d trade for what we have today (medical care and standard of living come instantly to mind), but I think we could do well to emulate their code of honor.
At any rate, the musings towards the end of the book of the main characters, Brother Cadfael and Hugh Beringar, about what constitutes loyalty and honor are a good reminder of the values we should all live our own lives by.

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