Bonus Children’s Book: Hang on to Your Whiskers by Geronimo Stilton

I first noticed these books almost 10 years ago when I visited somebody and noticed them on their children’s bookshelves. Though I wanted to, I never really got down to reading one but when I saw this one offered through NetGalley, I simply couldn’t resist. In fact, I’ve even gone and read this out of turn (Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood was the NetGalley book I should have technically been reading since I am trying to read them in the order I get them). So while I’ve already read and reviewed a children’s book this month, I decided to go ahead and do another.

So for the book now. Geronimo Stilton is an Italian book series featuring the eponymous hero who is the publisher of the Rodent’s Gazette. In this one (alternatively titled All Because of a Cup of Coffee) in a diner, a gorgeous mouse spills coffee on Geronimo and he is instantly in love (despite having a series of accidents just after). So much so, that he ignores his staff not working, forgets some of their names even, only dreaming of his love, and doodling hearts. He buys flowers, cheese-flavoured chocolates, but Stephanie von Sugarfur is simply not interested. In fact, she already has an admirer. To win her over, Thea, Geronimo’s sister convinces him that he has to be ‘famouse’ so they, with their cousin Trap, and little nephew Benjamin set off on an adventure to find the world’s eighth wonder―the Valley of the Cheesettes on Butterfly Island.

This was a really fun read. One could almost describe this as a picture book, with illustrations aplenty. The characters are cute and fun as well. Geronimo might well be a journalist/newspaper publisher but he isn’t all that keen on adventure (he scared of pretty much everything)―circumstances and his friends drag him into it. Thea (who I thought great fun) is his opposite―adventurous, a biker, and even flies her own plane. The story was pretty enjoyable, including the end. Besides the story itself I loved the little touches like the names of the characters and cheese references, besides also the maps and things. Since the ‘author’ of these adventures is supposed to be Geronimo himself, there is a nice little bio of him at the end describing him as a Rattus Emeritus of Mousomorphic Literature and Neo-Ratonic Comparative Philosophy and winner of the Ratlizer Prize, among other things. There are also maps of the New Mouse City, Mouse Island, and the offices of the Rodent’s Gazette, where the adventures are set. (In the e-version I got though, these were a little blurry, especially Mouse Island, and the newspaper offices). Still I enjoyed the illustrations (these were B&W―I think the ones in the books are coloured), characters, concept, and story. A quick and entertaining read.
This review also appears on goodreads at: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2308806776?book_show_action=false&from_review_page=1

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Review: Following Ophelia

Following OpheliaFollowing Ophelia by Sophia Bennett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
I picked this one because the description was on the same lines as another book I read last year―Wings over Delft (which was of course in a whole different time period and setting, and really a completely different story as well). This one tells of sixteen-year-old Mary Adams who arrives in London to work as a scullery maid, a job she isn’t really cut out for, but which is the only option available to her as she has lost her previous situation. But along the way, she catches the eye of a group of young pre-Raphaelite painters, many of whom wish to paint her. When one of them convinces her to be his model, Mary begins a double life of sorts, maid by-day, and artist’s model whenever she is needed. Her ‘second’ life takes her into society, parties, meetings with famous artists, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Millais among them, and she is soon the talk of the town. Soon enough she begins dreaming of a better life, and the path to achieving it seems open before her. But when trouble creeps into her life in more than one form, she must take some difficult decisions which might take life in a completely different direction.

I found this book to be a fast-paced, engrossing read, pretty much from the start. Mary was a likeable character, coming across as a believable sixteen-year-old, and one finds oneself rooting for her throughout. The other characters too develop realistically rather than as ‘storybook’ ones―people one likes may not always turn out as one expects them to (although that doesn’t necessarily make them ‘bad’ people, just people), and friendship and help at times comes from completely unexpected quarters. And that indeed is what can be said about the plot and the story as well. I enjoyed the world of art that the book takes us into―although it doesn’t go into it in depth (I couldn’t help comparing it on this count with Wings over Delft); while it creates the atmosphere of the world of art/artists, it remains a light read. What adds to the atmosphere the book creates, and lends it more authenticity, is the combination of both fictional and historical figures (the artists, their muses) in the story which was another element I really enjoyed about it. While I do like reading books on art etc. (the Great Artists Series, especially since it gives one a good introduction to different artists and their works, styles, etc.), the pre-Raphaelite movement was not one I was familiar with, and reading this led me to look into it, and the paintings mentioned in the book. But it is not only art, poetry and poets, and Greek mythology are also elements around which the story is woven. But at the centre of it all is Mary’s story of course, which I found interesting throughout, and it would be fun to see what the next leg of her adventures leads her into (we already know where!).

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Review: Rani Padmavati: The Burning Queen

Rani Padmavati: The Burning QueenRani Padmavati: The Burning Queen by Anuja Chandramouli
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My thanks to the author for a review copy of this book.

Padmavati, the legendary queen of Chittor who chose to commit jauhar (self-immolation) rather than fall into enemy hands when their kingdom fell is the focus of this book by Anuja Chandramouli. While in a sense a historical figure, Padmavati or Padmini is also a legend for historical accounts of her are few. Chandramouli’s books traces her story from about the time that she is married to Rawal Rattan Singh of Chittor with whom she falls deeply in love and who reciprocates, to her life at Chittor, which in many senses is far from perfect to the final trial when Chittor is under siege and Rattan Singh is forced to consider the most difficult decision of his life, surrendering to the enemy. Chandramouli’s version of this story was somewhat different to the one I’ve heard but it comes across mostly as more realistic than stuff of myth or legend. Padmavati is near perfect, beautiful beyond description, with a disposition to match, blessed in the love of her family and in her husband but having to contend with others in Chittor, her husband’s first wife among them who have nothing but ill-will towards her. Rattan Singh is torn between his principles and quest for fairness, and the conduct expected of him. Alauddin is ruthless, the consummate villain but one who does operate by his own principles, a hate of traitors (no matter who they may be benefitting) among them.

This was a fairly enjoyable read for me―for it makes Padmavati’s story a little more complex, and a little more realistic than the legend―it isn’t about love and lust and honour alone, but also about hate, jealousy, betrayal, and conspiracy. In fact, Alauddin’s part in the whole tale as it comes across isn’t half as black as the ordinary version―his conquests more related to his ambitions for empire. And Chittor’s fall was not a consequence of Alauddin’s might but circumstances that were beyond Rattan Singh or his people’s control. For me (as compared to the other historical novel by the author I read earlier this month, Prithviraj Chauhan), the characters in this one felt somewhat (though not entirely) more black and white than ones with many shades. Padmavati herself in particular I thought came across as a little too perfect, particularly in her conduct, without the slightest reaction to any hate, any hostility she faces. In comparison, Rattan Singh perhaps feels a little more human. Rattan Singh’s first wife I think was well fleshed out, one who let her feelings get the better of her (saying more would be a spoiler). Like other reviewers have also said, I felt the writing in this one was not of the same quality as some of her other books. Also, if I compare it with Prithviraj Chauhan again, that story felt like it had more substance to it as well, perhaps a result of a stronger historical basis than for Padmavati who is more a subject of legend. Still, it was a quick and interesting read. Three and a half stars.

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Reading Goals and Some Plans for this Blog

So the end of February is probably a little late to be writing about reading goals but with ten months to go in the year, there’s still time so I decided I will go ahead and write about them. Plus, more generally, as I realise I haven’t really been posting on this blog in any very planned way, mostly haphazardly and whenever an idea enters my mind, I would also set out some broad goals for this blog which I have been trying to keep up regularly over the last few months.

To start with reading goals for the year, having more than 300 (yes, 300) books waiting on my TBR (220 or more of these are e-books which are either public domain or free kindle books, or some review copies I got off NetGalley), my first priority is to bring this down a fair bit and resist adding too many more to this till it comes down a reasonable number. I have entered a number of reading challenges on goodreads towards this with a general reading goal at 108 books (including rereads) and one with another group Mount TBR in which currently I have set my goal at 60 books (fresh reads only, not revisits) with an option to increase the number as I go. To make this process fun, I’ve decided to pick a theme or set a mini challenge or challenges every month. So this month, mostly because of books I had to read for challenges and some that I had/have for review my theme has been historical fiction―other than the children’s book I read (review in the previous post) which I read for a challenge with another goodreads group, all that I read and am reading this month has been historical fiction.

Some of the other goals I’ve set for myself is to read more non-fiction regularly, for which I will try and pick at least one book a month from my current TBR- perhaps sometime later in the year, I might even pick a non-fiction theme for a month and read mostly non-fiction, but one a month I plan to read certainly. Children’s fiction is something I enjoy reading a lot, as I’ve mentioned, so that’s another genre I will try and include every month, and I plan to as far as I can link it to the theme I pick for the month, but where this isn’t working, or I haven’t found (on my TBR since I am trying not to add new ones) I will pick one randomly off the existing pile.

I also realised from my reading the past few years that I haven’t been reading all that many new releases or new books, and even books that I have on my shelves are more older ones than new. Partly to remedy this, I joined NetGalley so that I can keep up with newer books which interest me and also from time to time try out genres which I don’t usually pick up. I have read and reviewed only two books so far and have a couple more to go, after which I’ll pick some more.

As for the blog, while I started this blog over three years ago, I’d been writing only when something struck my mind and not keeping things up regularly at all. But since the last few months I have been making an effort to post more regularly, share reviews oftener, and from this January at least trying to do a minimum of a post a week and wherever possible more. But I realised that while I don’t want this blog to just be a place where I’m only sharing reviews that I write on goodreads, where I can write some more general book-related things as well (favourite series, authors, comparisons, something on poetry even), I do need to bring in some sort of order. So for the time being I’ve decided to stick with the one post a week (at least) rule. Every month, I will do a post on the theme that I picked for the month (towards the end of the month), generally reviewing my reading under that theme, and also writing a little on the theme or challenge picked for the next month/s. I will also do posts on Children’s Book/s each month and the Non-Fiction read of the month. Plus, I will try (as often as possible) to do one post on poetry (since I’m beginning to enjoy doing these). From time to time, I may add more categories and may be do each one every other month. But for a start this is what I have in mind (any other suggestions are welcome). In addition, I will share reviews of NetGalley books, and books I receive for review as and when I read/review these. And of course, do general book/author related posts whenever an idea comes to mind. Oh and yes, when I set myself any specific challenges or participate in challenges set by others I will share reviews and experiences as well.

So as I wrote already, this month I’ve been reading historical fiction, so I will be doing a post either in a few days (at the end of the month) or the beginning of March recapping what I read. Next month, instead of selecting a genre, I’ve decided to do some catching up. I plan to complete my Five Findouters Challenge (which I started last year) in which I’m reading all of Enid Blyton’s Five Findouters books in order. I’d reached book 11 (all the reviews are on this blog) and have to read books 12–15. Then I have Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell which I started reading with a group on goodreads but fell behind on. Other catch-up reading includes The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert (which I was approved for on NetGalley) but will probably on get started on in March (early March) and Sophie’s World by which I’ve started twice (and am enjoying when I read it) but have been putting aside to catch up with other challenges. So the findouters and Hazel Wood will definitely be on this blog next month, and so will something on poetry and non-fiction. Since the Findouters are children’s books, so I may not do a separate children’s book next month. But before that, some historical fiction as well, as I have two review books on this theme left both of which I’m reading (Rani Padmavati by Anuja Chandramouli, and Following Ophelia by Sophia Bennett). So, well plenty of interesting reading and writing lined up ahead. Let’s see how things go!

Children’s Book of the Month: Mary Kate and the School Bus and Other Stories by Helen Morgan

One of my reading goals, or rather goals for the blog this year (I will be writing a separate post on this soon) is to read and write on at least one children’s book each month, as this is a genre I really enjoy and read very often. I will try and pick one (as far as possible) connected to the theme I select for the month (again something I’ll write about in my reading goals post). This time around though, the one I picked is related to a challenge with a goodreads group.

I read or rather reread Mary Kate and the School Bus and Other Stories for the ???th time yesterday as one of the challenges I’m taking this year with the group A Book for All Seasons on goodreads involved reading a chapter book I enjoyed as a child. Actually it was more about reading the first one, one remembered reading as a child but as I didn’t really remember the very first, I picked one which I enjoyed reading very much and read countless times. This is also one of very few non-Enid Blyton books I read as a child (I think probably 90 per cent of my reading as a child, if not more, was Enid Blyton).

Mary Kate and the School Bus and Other Stories by Helen Morgan, illustrated by Shirley Hughes is a little collection of 7 chapters/stories about a little girl Mary Kate who is has just turned five and is about to start school. The stories aren’t of adventure or fantasy but of simple everyday happenings that can be as exciting as an adventure. The stories in this collection include Mary Kate getting her first ride in the school bus before she formally starts school (which turns out to be an interesting little adventure on a very snowy day), Mary Kate starting school which sees her getting so many new things (from her uniform to school supplies) that she thinks it’s as good as a birthday, her first day at school, shopping with her uncle Jack, losing her first tooth, a day of things going wrong (including her dog Jacky following her to school― one could almost sing “Mary (Kate) had a little dog”), an early morning walk and picnic with her aunt Mary, and finally her first sports day at school. While I like all the stories in this collection, a few of my favourites are the one where Mary Kate ends up going on an early morning walk (at half-past three) with her aunt to watch the sun rise, and enjoy the peace and beauty of the woods, and also ends up having a picnic breakfast (buttery rolls, sausages, tomatoes, and chocolate―”the nicest breakfast she’d ever had”, all on a fallen tree trunk). The day begins “pink and gold and glowing”, and the wood is full of rhododendrons, lines of pine trees, the ground “mauve with bluebells”, and plenty of daffodils in bloom as well. The others are two connected stories of Mary Kate preparing for her first day at school, her new things all laid out (her uniform, various pairs of shoes, and socks), receiving the various things she’d need as presents from her relatives (het satchel, colouring pencils, and pencil case with pencils and erasers, a painting pinny, etc.). Then is the tale of the day she finally goes to school, eating her breakfast, and setting off, then setting down in school with her own name tag (a red elephant) and making a friend. What I love about all the stories, are that they are such simple, gentle stories which give you a sense of calm and contentment, and which show you how much joy and indeed excitement of a kind there can be in the routine happenings in life, if one is open to enjoying them rather than waiting for “special” things or “big” happenings. While these are essentially children’s stories, there are things once can enjoy about them as an adult as well. I also love the illustrations by Shirley Hughes. A lovely revisit.

This review also appears on goodreads at: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1511871297?book_show_action=false

Book Review: The Light in the Labyrinth

The Light in the LabyrinthThe Light in the Labyrinth by Wendy J. Dunn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My thanks to NetGalley for a copy of this book for review. This one I picked because it was set in Tudor England, Henry VIII’s court to be specific, and told through the eyes of young Catherine ‘Kate’ Carey, daughter of Mary Boleyn, and Anne’s niece.

Kate Carey is disgruntled with her life at home with her mother and stepfather, Will Stafford, perplexed at why her mother married so much beneath her, and why she has to stay home with her new step brother and sister while her brother Henry is at court. When finally, she gets permission to go to court, she finds life there completely unlike what she had expected. Danger and treachery lie at every step, every unguarded word, every friendship even, can in the blink of an eye spell doom. For a young girl like Kate, despite her position, the court isn’t the safest of places either (this wasn’t something I’d realised from the other books I’ve read set in Tudor England). Life isn’t much rosier for her aunt the Queen, as Kate also finds for Anne hasn’t yet given the King his heir, and her past ally Cromwell is now her enemy awaiting his chance to bring her down for they no longer see eye to eye. As she navigates through the court in the last five months of Anne’s life, Kate has to grow up all too soon, facing truths of her own life, and supporting her aunt, who she loves very much, and who loves her in turn through the very heavy trials that lie ahead, the very heaviest one among them.

I thought the author did a great job of telling Anne’s tale from Kate Carey’s perspective, and gives us a credible portrayal of the world of Henry’s court through the eyes of a naive fourteen-year-old. Kate is really only a child when she first arrives―a typical adolescent with dreams and also her share of tantrums (of a kind) but once at court she must already start facing truths she had been protected from so far, and face the often ugly reality of life. But on the positive side for her is her love story with her future husband Francis Knollys, who she also meets at court.

Cromwell in this story is also the villain of the piece, certainly like some portrayals I’ve read of him (unlike the more positive image that Hilary Mantel has painted in her books) – but one realises in this as in so much historical fiction (or even non-fiction, for that matter), so much depends on perspective―the same person can well be a hero or a villain, depending on whose story is being told.

I also enjoyed the author’s take on Anne Boleyn herself. We see her as a strong, and courageous woman who may have been arrogant, and certainly ambitious but as one who did love her husband, and who wanted really to do something for the country once she was Queen. I also liked the somewhat “feminist” interpretation that the author gave to Anne’s character which was as much responsible for her downfall as were the conspirators plotting to bring her down.

This was a really enjoyable read for me. I wonder why it is classed as YA though―besides of course the fact that it is written from the perspective of a young adult. The fact that it spares us some of the gore (all it cannot), and leaves some things in the shadows didn’t for me necessarily make it YA. Anyone who enjoys historical fiction generally, and fiction set in the Tudor period in particular would enjoy this one. Great read.

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Review: Prithviraj Chauhan

Prithviraj Chauhan: The Emperor of HeartsPrithviraj Chauhan: The Emperor of Hearts by Anuja Chandramouli
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My thanks to the author for a review copy of this book.

This is the fourth book I’ve read by Anuja Chandramouli, and while the first three I read were mythology, and a combination of mythology and fantasy, this one is purely historical fiction. Now I must confess that as is the case with Kartikeya, the other book by Chandramouli I read earlier this year, Prithviraj Chauhan was a character I knew very little of when I started the book―I knew he was a warrior king of course, but the only real ‘story’ I knew of him was that of his ‘romance’ with Princess Sanyukta, and one reference I same across in the context of the tale of Alha Udal (which I only read as a picture story―and really only finished now when I started this book) where he is presented as the ‘enemy’ of our heroes and indeed not in very positive light, with even the story with Sanyukta being given a different spin. So anyway, back to this book, I was really glad to actually read his story, which this book tells, pretty much starting with his birth, his life as a child, his education, his reign, wars, loves, and of course his end. He was a child for whom much glory but also great sorrow was portended, and in his story we see how the astrologers’ (one in particular, really) predictions played out.

From the blurb at the back of the book, the impression one gets is that this is a story of Prithviraj of course but also that his story with Sanyukta was the main focus. But this is not really so, the focus of the book is Prithviraj and his story with the Sanyukta legend only forming a small, though important part of it. This was something I actually liked about the book rather than holding against it. It gave a complete picture of the king’s life and deeds rather than focusing just the few legends one most often hears about him. I also liked that the author was able to present a quite good picture of the time as well―the various kingdoms and fiefdoms, the petty and more serious battles between them, the ‘politics’ of the time and of course, the threat and invasions from outside in the form of Muhammad of Ghazni and Mahmud of Ghur. One sees the essence of what was also to cause trouble in a much later age, the Kings attaching more to their petty fights and refusing to aid each other against threats from outside (even allying with them at times) bringing about not only their supposed enemies’ downfall but also their own. Another thing that I really liked about the book was that Chandramouli presented the characters, Prithviraj as well as others as human beings, and not ‘heroes’ in the storybook sense of the word. Prithviraj has several good qualities but he is not beyond having shades of grey and black even. We see his youth and impetuosity, which leads to differences with others older than him, his mother among them. Other characters too make good decisions and bad ones, but they are presented as human with failings and strengths. In fact, the only character who seemed to really have his head on his shoulders was his uncle Kanha, an unusually wide man. Even Prithviraj’s enemies when one comes to think of it, while presented, and naturally so, from Prithviraj’s perspective, don’t come across as outrightly evil (except some, anyway). Also, that the author has put in some research into writing this book is evident from the descriptions of the politics of the time, the alliances and battles, and various relationships but I won’t go into issues of accuracy since I haven’t got much knowledge of the time period, but I did notice a few variations from the Wikipedia account of Prithviraj (I glanced through but didn’t read thoroughly) and the Alha Udal picture story/comic (probably I shouldn’t attach as much to this one).

The book of course has Chandramouli’s characteristic vivid descriptions, which I enjoy reading but there is of course, as would be expected in a book which has its fair share of war, plenty of blood and gore. While most of it was justified, I still cringe a bit at the references to excreta, which while made sense in some cases, felt unnecessary in others.

A couple of things that I felt would have made the book better for the reader were one that the author should have included a map of the region which she is talking of which would have made the picture a lot clearer. Also she should have included one or more family trees explaining the various kingdoms and relationships as while one does get familiar with Prithviraj and his more immediate family pretty much from the start, when it comes to other branches, and the relationships between them, it took me a bit of time and some rereading to get my head around it.

This was overall a pretty good read for me―though it took a little time to really get into the story, once I was into it, I really enjoyed it even overlooking the things that I didn’t like so much about it. Looking forward to the author’s other historical fiction title that I have on my TBR- Padmavati!

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