Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Quick Bites: Stitchery, Double Takes, and the Twilight of Imperial Russia (Again)

I’ve peremptorily decided to create a new feature for RTET, called Quick Bites. The idea is to write short reviews of books read in the recent past (but perhaps not too recently, thus enabling the requisite shortness), and gather them up into a single post. Minute reviews, if you will. Called quick bites, because they’re quick…and bite-sized…and about books on a blog that also occasionally covers food-related topics… (Yes, yes, I’m terribly clever, I know.) This new feature will appear on the blog…well, whenever I feel like creating such a post. It’ll be crazy! Fun! You’ll never know when one’s coming!!! (…have I convinced you that sporadic is cool?)

The Gentle Art of Stitching, by Jane Brocket
Published by Collins & Brown in 2012
Read: March 2014
From: Library
4 Sashiko Needles

Yay for another crafty book! As you can guess from reading the title, this one is about stitching—all different kinds, in fact. That’s what makes it such a fun book—it goes beyond the basics to cover projects involving Japanese sashiko, Indian kantha-style quilts, interesting ways to use buttons, modern needlepoint cushions… The book is full of ideas, and provides practical information and instructions to complete the projects included, while also equipping the reader to take inspiration from them and create projects of their own devising. I had originally picked it up to see what sorts of cross stitch projects it contained, and while they were cute, I was looking for a bit more complex of a project to take on. My absolute favorite project in the book is one where kitschy embroidered linens from the ‘40s (easily found at antique shops and online) are repurposed into a collage quilt with a very vintage, very fun design aesthetic. The one the author made is the coolest thing, and I can’t remember the last time I was so inspired by a project idea—I was showing it off to everyone I know, and got really excited about making one myself someday. There were admittedly a few projects that were a little TOO kitschy for my taste (anything involving felt, pretty much), but most of the projects were things I’d like to try someday. Very cool book—I will be purchasing a copy, and checking out the author’s other craft books.

The Burning Sky, by Sherry Thomas
Published by Balzer + Bray in September 2013
Read: April 2014
From: Paper ARC Susan sent me
3.5 Canaries

You may remember when Susan read and reviewed this one last fall, giving the verdict of “very enjoyable.” Now I’ve finally gotten around to reading it, and while I did enjoy it, I think I perhaps enjoyed it with more reservations than she did. Quick plot rundown for those who didn’t click the link: Iolanthe Seabourne is the greatest elemental mage of her generation, being hunted by the Big Bad Guy the Bane and his agents of Atlantis. Titus is the prince of the Domain they live in, but is actually just a puppet of Atlantis, and he wants to find Iolanthe because a prophecy says she’ll help him defeat the Bane. They meet up, he hides her by making her pose as Archer Fairfax, a fellow student at Eton, and they begin training to defeat the Bane and hide from the agents that are trying to capture her.

The book was slow to start, but I kept at it, and overall it was a fun fantasy with historical elements. My main issues with the book, however, involve the world building. It was shaky, holey, and not explained well enough to create a solid base for the story to unfold upon. For example, Iolanthe and Titus are from the Domain. Okay, sounds good. Like maybe some random fantasy place not in our world. But then Titus travels to England to go to Eton. This does not involve spaceships, so maybe the Domain is on Earth, or somewhere close enough for him to reach it by magic? But what about Atlantis? They’re running the show in the Domain and have agents everywhere, and there are mentions of other mage and non-mage realms existing. But do they exist in our world? On parallel Earths? Are they hidden in plain sight in our world, like in another dimension? When I ranted at Susan about this, the best explanation we came up with was perpendicular universes. …when I have a tenuous grasp of something as basic to a book as its setting, that’s a problem for me. I also found Titus too-tragic-to-tolerate for much of the book, but he did get better as it went on. The best scenes were when they were at Eton, and I wish there had been more of that. But even with my complaints, as the book reached its climax involving intrepid travel and danger via the virtual reality-like fairytale training books, I was very invested and flipping pages like nobody’s business. And once Titus stopped being a putz, the romance became cute, too. I’ll probably read the sequel, but it’s not one I’ll feel compelled to grab right when it’s published.

Tsarina, by J. Nelle Patrick
Published by Razorbill in February 2014
Read: March 2014
From: Library
3.5 Fabergé Eggs

Despite crap luck in the past with books involving the downfall of imperial Russia, this one came highly recommended by Maggie Stiefvater, so I thought I’d give it a go. I really, really want there to be a novel on this subject that’s as awesome as Anastasia, and I will keep looking until I find it, dammit! This one was better than the last, but still not quite as much as I’d been hoping for. Natalya, daughter of an aristocrat military officer, is in love with Alexei Romanov. During a ball, Alexei lets his love in on a secret—before Rasputin died, he channeled all of his power into the Constellation FabergĂ© egg, and it will keep Russia and the Romanovs safe. Soon, however, the Reds rise up in St. Petersburg, raiding the palace and capturing the imperial family. Natalya, along with fellow aristocrat and friend Emilia, will have to team up with a mysterious young man named Leo to track down the egg and save Russia and the Romanovs.

I liked that both Natalya and Leo have convictions about their respective White and Red politics, and that over time they come to see that it’s not quite that simple. They gain an understanding of the other’s point of view as the story progresses, which felt realistic, and provided obstacles to their relationship and a meaningful way for it to develop. While we’re on the subject of relationships, we actually only see Alexei and Natalya together in the first chapter, which is really more of a prologue, since it happens months before the action of the rest of the story. Because we have only that and Natalya’s recollections of him to go on, it was hard for me to be invested in their love. Still, even though I didn’t see their relationship unfold, even though I know that Russian society had some big-time problems that needed to be fixed, even though I KNOW what happens, I found myself hoping that the story would somehow take an alternate history tack and there’d be a way for them to be together and have Russia’s problems solved magically and for everyone to be happy. And when the inevitable comes to pass, it was more affecting than I had expected it to be due to foreknowledge of history and a lack of attachment to their relationship.

One of the weaker aspects of the book was the plot line with the mystics—it was a bit muddled, and I just didn’t find it compelling. As historical fantasy, some liberties are taken with the actual history of the Russian revolution and related topics (aging up Alexei, for one). This isn’t the kind of thing that bothers me, but if it would irritate you, it’s something to consider. Overall, while the novel may not rank among my favorites, it was entertaining and highly readable, though I wish it had made me feel more. I may pick up the sequel, but it’s probably not a must-read for me.

Have you already read any of these or plan on checking them out?


Susan said...

I'm glad you had the Burning Sky to pick you up after that super-sad looking Tsarina! At least this one lacked dramatic train rides, music boxes, and orphan girls who look remarkably like princesses in paintings, right? ;-)

Alyssa L. said...

There actually WAS a dramatic train ride!

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