Book Review – BitterBlue

A Review by Helen McIver

Kristin Cashore’s first two YA novels,  Graceling and Fire, were wonderful books and I was eagerly anticipating this third novel in the series. Although reviewers say you don’t need to read the first two to love this book, I highly recommend doing so as there is good character development and interesting plot interactions. The cast remains exceptional.

This is the story of BitterBlue, whose mother was killed trying to save her from her evil, sociopath father. He in turn was killed by Katsa in Graceling to save the Kingdom. BitterBlue takes place in Monsea, one of the Seven Kingdoms, with magic and nonstop action. In these books a few people have extreme skills known as “Graces” that develop as they mature. Some of the more interesting ones are assassin, herbalist, fearlessness, mind reading, and telling lies which are perceived as true.

At the end of the previous book, Graceling, BitterBlue becomes Queen at the age of 10. As BitterBlue opens, she has matured to the age of 18 and is becoming unsettled in her rule. She has begun to question her advisors and rebel at the mounds of paperwork (we can relate!); and she is intent on unraveling and uncovering her father’s horrific legacy.

BitterBlue is a strong female heroine: curious and extremely intelligent, though extremely sheltered (and at times seeming far younger than 18). In her restlessness she sneaks outside the castle and discovers an entirely different world.

BitterBlue was classified as YA science fiction, but it could equally qualify as adult fiction, romance and political thriller. It is a detailed book of vivid descriptions, though some are horrific and gritty and include details of abuse, corrupt power and betrayal. These are tough issues and difficult questions, but we live in a world with Serbia, Rwanda, Bosnia, North Korea and Iraq. While the characters deal with pain, sorrow, loneliness, depression and heartache, they also experience joy, love and developing friendships.

I sincerely hope the Graceling books continue with these developing characters, especially Bitterblue, Katsa, Po and Sky. My favorite character in this book was Death (pronounced Deeth), the Royal Librarian who is graced with speed reading and possesses a photographic memory for everything he reads.

This book is filled with interesting illustrations which serve to clarify locations.  The romance is perhaps “young and scared,” but it is not the focus of the plot and I, personally, like that her characters don’t fit the “happily ever after” mode.

The first two novels in this series won several awards and were selected for a variety of reading lists, including the ALA Best Book for Young Adults and SLJ Best Book of the Year. I have no doubt this story will follow its predecessors.

To learn more about Kristin Cashore or her series of wonderful books, visit the author’s blog at or

Book Review – The River Between Us

The River Between Us
A Review by Catherine H. Armstrong

It’s the eve of the American Civil War, and tensions are high in the sleepy town of Grand Tower, Illinois, as the country comes to terms with the fact that the world as they know it is about to change.  Families are preparing to send their husbands and sons off to war, and sometimes to fight against each other or their own neighbors.  Then one day, a beautiful young southern woman and her companion arrive by steamboat in the small town, en route to St. Louis.  They decide to travel no further, and instead request lodging within the town.  With no “appropriate” hotel, they soon find lodging as boarders with the Pruitt family – Tilly, Noah, Cass and their mother.

Who is this young woman and her companion?  Is her companion a slave?  The town is abuzz with the notion that the  young woman, Delphine, and her companion, Calinda, are southern spies sent to Grand Tower to gather information and send it to the enemy.  Much intrigue and mystery surround the arrival of these woman, and discovering the truth behind their many stories is at the heart of this spellbinding story.

Richard Peck has written a riveting young-adult novel about the early days of the American Civil War and the young men and women caught in the crossfire.   Young Noah Pruitt will hear the call to battle and feel compelled to don the blue uniform of the North, leaving behind his mother and sisters, together with their two house guests, to survive on their own.  But can he survive without them?

The River Between Us is the YA selection for Rochester Reads 2012.  It is a novel written for YA readers, but with enough history, suspense and mystery to attract older readers.  It was a truly enjoyable read on every level.

This book is available at the Rochester Public Library; however as part of this blog’s FREE BOOK GIVEAWAY, you can win a FREE, gently used, paperback copy of The River Between Us just for having read this review.  Simply enter your name, address, e-mail address and phone number in the entry form below and your name may be chosen at random to receive this free gift.  This contest is open until this Friday, May 18th, at midnight.  Contest winner will be announced on Monday morning, May 21st.

Please note:  This contest is open to Rochester, MN-area residents only.  Winners must be available to pick up your prize at the Friends of the Library Bookstore, located next door to the Rochester Public Library, within 10 days of your winning notification.  Please note that no copies will be mailed.

Good luck!

Contest Entry

Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak
June 10, 1928 – May 8, 2012

“Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, “Dear Jim: I loved your card.” Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”

— Maurice Sendak

Book Review & Contest Kick-off – Death Comes to Pemberley

Death Comes to Pemberley
A Review by Catherine H. Armstrong

It’s been only a few years since I finally picked up Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and then only because I felt somewhat guilted into doing so.  I had recently read several novels in a row where Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy had repeatedly been referenced, and I was feeling a little “uneducated” because I had no idea who these two characters were or why they were so beloved.  So I picked up an old, dusty copy of Pride and Prejudice, dusted off the jacket, and began reading.  I immediately fell in love.  Who knew that something written so long ago would resonate so deeply within me?  Who knew that I would count it as among my Top 10 Favorite Books of All Time?

Since reading the original work by Austen, I’ve so fallen in love with the characters that I never miss a chance to read another author’s “sequel.”  I want to know what Darcy and Elizabeth have been up to.  How have their lives changed since the closing pages of Pride and Prejudice?  With this in mind, I was ecstatic to see a new book, Death Comes to Pemberley, that would hopefully address some of my questions.

It’s been six years since the weddings of Elizabeth to Darcy and Miss (Jane) Bennet to Bingley.  Both families are settled in homes with close proximity to the other, and the sisters and best friends freely visit each other as often as their responsibilities will allow.  Even their households become somewhat intertwined with the impending marriage of a Pemberley parlour maid to the butler in the Bingley’s household.  Everything is right in the worlds of the Darcys and the Bingleys until the ominous events on the evening of the eve of Lady Anne’s Ball when the sister to the two women, Lydia Wickham, arrives at Pemberley with no small amount of commotion.  Her husband, Mr. Wickham, and his friend have disappeared into the woodlands surrounding Pemberley and shots have been fired, leading the coachman and Lydia to surmise that disaster has struck.

Immediately a search party of Darcy and his male guests ensues, the result of which is finding the nefarious Mr. Wickham cradling the dead body of his best friend and confidant, Captain Denny.  “He’s dead!  Oh God, Denny’s dead!  He was my friend, my only friend, and I’ve killed him!  I’ve killed him!  It’s my fault,” cries an obviously distraught and inebriated Wickham.

Has Wickham declared his guilt in the death of his friend, or was this the ramblings of a man who feels his actions have simply contributed to the untimely death of his friend?  An Inquest would be assembled to determine whether the evidence is sufficient to presume the guilt of Wickham in his friend’s death.

Death Comes to Pemberley sees the return of Austen’s most beloved characters:  The Darcys, The Bingleys and the Wickhams of course; but also the return of the forbidding Lady Catherine and the ridiculous Mr. Collins.  The long-suffering Mr. Bennet is still patiently enduring the dramatic and embarrassing antics of his wife, and the sweet Georgiana – the younger sister to Mr. Darcy – has grown and matured into a graceful young woman with several marriage prospects.

Author P.D. James

While Jane Austen might have a few words to say about such scandal coming to her beloved Pemberley, there can be no doubt that fans of Austen’s original story will find much to recommend itself in P.D. James’ sequel to Pride and Prejudice.

Death Comes to Pemberley is available through the Rochester Public Library.  However, as a kick-off to our Free Book Giveaway, a gently used copy of this book will be awarded to one lucky blog-reader just for reading this review and entering our contest.

To enter, simply complete the form below and your name will be entered into a drawing to receive a free, hardcover, gently used copy of Death Comes to Pemberley.  Please note that this contest is open only to Rochester, MN-area residents only, and you must be available to pick up your free copy at the Friends of the Library Bookstore within 10 business days of notification, and during normal bookstore hours.  No copies will be mailed.  This contest is open until Midnight on Friday, May 11th, and the winner will be announced on this blog on Monday, May 14th

Good luck!


Book Review – Florence of Arabia

Florence of Arabia
Review by Sam Hedrick, Guest Contributor

Florence Farfaletti had been sawing z-z-z-z’s when a casual acquaintence, Princess Nazrah, favorite wife of His Excellency Prince Bawad bin-Rumallah al-Hamooj, ambassordor of the oil rich Royal Kingdom of Wasabi found herself slobbering drunk, pursued by a Virginia State trooper at triple the speed limit, and surrounded by the airbags in one of her husband’s Cadillacs after plowing through the gate and a steel retainer of the George Bush Center for Intelligence in McLean, VA.  She was still deep in the Land of Nod when Princess Nazrah involked her name when, through a veil of runny mascara and tears, she asked for political asylum in the United States.  Be that as it may, as a mid-level minion in the State Department she was powerless to help her out of her fix.  Unfortunately, foreign relations being what they are, the price of oil and what not, Princess Nazrah found herself pumped full of valium, hustled back to Wasabi on the next royal jet, and eight inches shorter due to the strong arm and sharp sword of the royal executioner.

Stricken by her friend Nazrah’s death and her frustration at not being able to help her in her time of need, she fires off a passionate policy paper entitled “Female Emancipation As A Means Of Achieving Long-Term Political Stability In The Near East: An Operational Proposal.”  Although it it hits the bottom of the round file in her boss’ boss’ office in the State Department, it does catch the eye of some of the boys at Langely.  In short, her idea to establish a satellite television network for the women of Islam –  kind of an Oprah! Network for the burkah crowd –  catches the whim and fancy of the CIA.  Within hours she’s gotten clearance to fly to Mattar, Wasabi’s liberal neighbor, and an audience with Emir Gazzir Bin Haz – Gazzy to his friends.  Matar is very liberal by local standards.  A simple Hermes scarf to compliment the latest Parisian fashion is all that’s necessary in Matar to meet feminine modesty requirements.  It’s Florence’s job, in the guise of a big television producer, to pitch the network to Gazzy who, intelligence has told her, has a penchant for very high-class European call girls.  Florence convinces him that “A man who gives his wife an occupation creates himself an oasis” and wins his blessing as well as a meeting with his Oxford-educated, gorgeous, third and favorite wife, Sheika Laila.

Laila and Florence click, and their first offering –  an Oprah-esque talk show named “Cher Azade” –  is released. Soon households are filled with feminine laughter as their clever hostess, Farah, brings on guests like the “self-defense instructor who gave tips on how to cope with cranky, violent husbands and boyfriends during Ramadan.”  The show, the network, and the CIA operation are a smash hit.  The first Arab women’s network is born.

Great success is often hoped for but rarely predicted, so when the network becomes the toast of women across the Middle East, complete with lucrative advertising dollars to match, it would appear everyone’s goal has been achieved.  Not so quick.  No good deed goes unpunished, and when a video of an abducted Farah from neighboring Wasabi showing the hostess buried up to her neck in sand and pelted by small stones is delivered to the network, they realize they might have a problem.  Not only are Matar and Wasabi ideologically opposites but, as chronicled in “Let’s Put Iraq Here, and Lebanon Over Here: The Making of the Middle East,”  Matar was given the whole of Wasabi’s coastline by an arbitrary slash of Sir Winston Churchill’s pen.  Finally pushed to the limits of their fragile dignity, the Wasabi and their mullah’s lash out at the Matari heretics for corrupting the flower of Wasabi womanhood.  They enlist Gazzy’s jealous younger brother Maliq in an attempt to overthrow Gazzi, place Maliq on the Matari throne and return Matar back to Allah’s good graces… well as ceding Wasabi coastline and political power to Wasabi control.  All this puts Florence, Laila and a redneck CIA rogue-agent watchdog with ever-changing names and personas in a bad spot and, of course, the hijinks ensue.

Christopher Buckley, son of the conservative icon William F. Buckley,  has all of his father’s intelligence and an double helping of razor sharp wit and humor.  Florence of Arabia is a hilarious “what if” scenario that, as all the very best satire, has an undercurrent of truth and relevancy to current events.  The overall tone of the book is irreverent, clever, and very funny.  VERY timely.  Buckley, who also wrote Thank You For Smoking, has a penchant for taking on issues so plausible you can’t help but grin and nod your head while reading.  I often find myself CTMQ (Chuckling To Myself Quietly) whenever reading Buckley’s work.  In the margins though, is a more serious secondary theme.

Florence of Arabia was inspired by the work of Oklahoman Fern Holland, whom Buckley describes as a “real-life Florence of Arabia.” Holland was a 33-year-old lawyer who went to work for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.  On March 9, 2004, Holland was murdered for her work involving women’s rights. The rights of Florence have been purchased by actress Charlize Theron, with a film version due out in the near future.

I’ve read all of Buckley’s work I can put my hands on.  He’s insanely clever, caustic and an equal opportunity critic of anyone guilty of chronic stupidity.  For those who enjoy this book, I’d also highly recommend Supreme Courtship and No Way To Treat A First Lady, also by Christopher Buckley.  All of these titles are available at the Rochester Public Library.