Review: The Beauty Chorus

Beauty Chorus, TheKate Lord Brown, The Beauty Chorus

This novel centers around three female pilots who join the Air Transport Auxiliary, ferrying planes back and forth between Allied bases during World War II. Evie Chase is a headstrong young debutante who enjoys her life of privilege but wants to “do her bit” for the war effort — and escape from her odious stepmother. Stella Grainger is struggling with being separated from her baby boy, whom she’s sent to her husband’s parents in Ireland. And Megan Jones, a 17-year-old Welsh girl, wants nothing more than to keep her family’s farm running and to marry her sweetheart, Bill. These three young women couldn’t be more different, but when they join the ATA and become roommates, they form an extremely close bond. Together they deal with the challenges of flying different aircraft, the discrimination they face for being women in a man’s world, and the joys and sorrows of wartime love affairs. But despite their strength and determination, they can never quite escape the brutal realities of war.

This is a book I really wanted to love. The story has so much going for it — WWII, female pilots, romance, and even a little espionage! — but unfortunately, I was disappointed. The biggest problem for me was the clunky writing style; for example, on one occasion, the author drops a character name into the story before introducing that character. I had to flip backward to make sure I hadn’t somehow missed his entrance, but in fact, it was just a confusing way to introduce the new character. There’s also a lot of head-hopping in the book; not only does the point of view shift between the three girls (which would be understandable), but there are random paragraphs from the perspectives of their suitors and various other minor characters. Finally, while I liked the main characters in theory, they never really rose above clichés. For example, Evie is a typical HF heroine: incredibly beautiful, naturally talented as a flyer, and implausibly far ahead of her time. Overall, while the book certainly wasn’t a slog, I can’t say I’d recommend it either.

Vintage Mystery Bingo Wrap-up

I officially call BINGO for the 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge!

Vintage Mystery 2014

Participants were invited to play Bingo on either the Golden Age card (mysteries written pre-1960), the Silver Age card (mysteries written between 1960 and 1989), or both. Because of my other challenge commitments, I only attempted one straight-line Bingo, and I chose to use the Golden Age card:

Vintage Golden Card

G1: A book with a color in the title — A.A. Milne, The Red House Mystery
O1: A book published under more than one title — Michael Innes, Death at the President’s Lodging — also published as Seven Suspects
L1: A book with a “spooky” title — Christopher Morley, The Haunted Bookshop
D1: A book by an author you’ve read before — Georgette Heyer, A Blunt Instrument
E1: A  book with a detective “team” >> FREE SPACE >> An author you’ve never read before — Ethel Lina White, The Lady Vanishes
N1: A book with an animal in the title — Rex Stout, Fer-de-Lance — a type of snake

As always, I really enjoyed this challenge! My favorite books were probably A Blunt Instrument and The Lady Vanishes, while my least favorite was Death at the President’s Lodging (great solution, but what a slog to get there!). I’m already looking forward to the 2015 challenge…I’ve got lots of new (old) books that will work!

Review: Bellman & Black

Bellman & BlackDiane Setterfield, Bellman & Black

This atmospheric novel tells the story of William Bellman, who makes one decision in childhood that will alter the entire course of his life. When he is ten years old, he and a few friends are playing in the field near their village, and they see a rook on a far-off tree branch. Will bets his friends that he can hit the bird with his slingshot, and to everyone’s astonishment, he actually does it. Will and his friends soon forget the incident, but from then on, rooks become a touchstone and a bad omen for William Bellman. As he gets older, he becomes more and more successful: first he get a job at his uncle’s mill, then rises through the ranks until he eventually runs it. He marries and has children, and he begins to make a very comfortable living. But when an illness sweeps through the village and takes most of William’s family, he will do anything to save his remaining daughter — including making a desperate deal with the mysterious Mr. Black. William’s encounter with Black leads him to an entirely different business venture, one that eventually threatens to consume him.

I absolutely loved Diane Setterfield’s debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale, so I had high expectations for this book. Unfortunately, I’m coming away from it with mixed feelings. The writing style is just as rich and gorgeous as I remember, and I found myself reading very quickly despite the slow-moving plot. I also admire the novel’s atmosphere of suspense; it has a wonderfully autumnal, sinister quality, despite the fact that not a lot of scary stuff actually happens. In fact, that may be my biggest problem with the book: there’s this great buildup of tension throughout the novel, but in the end there’s no payoff. The interludes about rooks — and William’s encounters with them throughout the book — are meant to heighten the suspense, I think, but I didn’t really understand their role in the story. Frankly, I was a bit confused about the story as a whole; I was expecting a Faustian narrative in which William essentially sells his soul for success, but that’s not really what happens. In short, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be taking away from this book — but I’m definitely not giving up on Setterfield yet!

Review: The Lady Vanishes

Lady Vanishes, TheEthel Lina White, The Lady Vanishes

Iris Carr is a privileged young Englishwoman enjoying a holiday somewhere in Europe with a large group of friends. But when her crowd is ready to leave, Iris decides to stay an extra day and enjoy the beauties of the mountains by herself. When she boards the train to go home, she is immediately isolated from the other passengers because she doesn’t speak the native language. So when a talkative English spinster named Miss Froy introduces herself, Iris is glad to have the company, even though Miss Froy is rather a bore. After a long chat, Iris takes a nap in her compartment; but when she wakes up, Miss Froy is gone! Eventually she begins to worry, so she finds a young Englisman to act as interpreter and ask the other passengers where Miss Froy went. To Iris’ shock, they all claim not to remember Miss Froy and say Iris must be imagining things. Iris knows she didn’t imagine Miss Froy, but without any evidence to the contrary, how can she be sure? And if the lady does exist, why won’t anyone admit to seeing her?

Recently I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes” and really enjoyed it, but I had no idea it was based on a book! I’m glad I discovered the novel, though, because with all due deference to Hitchcock, the book is better. While the movie is a somewhat straightforward thriller, the book has more psychological tension because it keeps you in the dark about Iris’ mental state for much longer. Are the other passengers involved in some sort of unlikely but sinister conspiracy, meaning that she and Miss Froy are both in danger? Or, perhaps even worse, is Iris having a mental breakdown and imagining the whole thing? Either way, she’s trapped in a nightmarish situation, and the book does an excellent job of heightening this tension. I also think the book’s ending is better than the movie’s; while the film ends with a dramatic shootout, the novel has a much more subtle conclusion. So I would definitely recommend this novel to anyone who likes psychological thrillers, especially if you’ve seen or plan to see the movie!

Review: In Your Dreams

In Your DreamsKristan Higgins, In Your Dreams

Emmaline Neal is one of three police officers in the tiny town of Manningsport, New York. She’s a tough, no-nonsense woman who knows her way around a Taser, but she’s also dealing with the fallout of a broken heart. Her first love is about to marry the shrew he dumped Emmaline for — and even worse, he’s invited her to the wedding! Emmaline knows she can’t go alone, so she reluctantly asks Jack Holland to be her date. Jack is friendly, popular, and drop-dead gorgeous, and he can’t say no to a damsel in distress. Em is aware that she’s definitely not Jack’s type, so she’s determined to keep her distance. But after a little wedding-related humiliation and a few glasses of wine, her practical resolutions fly out the window. After one amazing night together, Em tries to fight her growing feelings for Jack — even though he actually seems to be interested in her, too. But Jack is dealing with his own problems, including the sudden reappearance of his dainty ex-wife, who is not-so-subtly trying to get him back. Will Jack and Em be able to overcome their respective pasts and finally find happiness together?

As a Kristan Higgins fan, I’ve been reading and enjoying each new book that comes out, but I have to say that this is definitely my favorite of her recent books! Jack and Em both feel like real people to me, and they each have very specific baggage that prevents them from immediately falling into each other’s arms. I also — contrary to my expectation! — really liked the presence of the Evil Ex in this book. Having an ex-lover resurface is often a tedious, contrived obstacle to keep the hero and heroine apart; but in this book, the presence of Jack’s ex illuminates certain aspects of his character that show why he works with Emmaline. Here, the Evil Ex isn’t actually evil, but she is very needy and can be selfish. By contrast, Jack and Em are both giving people who are willing to sacrifice a lot for the people they love. I do have a few issues with the ending of the book, though; everything seems to work out a little too perfectly. For example, even Emmaline’s ex is redeemed in the end, which I don’t think was necessary. But even despite the magically perfect ending, I’d definitely recommend this book to fans of contemporary romance!

Review: The Neruda Case

Neruda Case, TheRoberto Ampuero, The Neruda Case (trans. Carolina De Robertis)

Cayetano Brulé, one of the most respected private investigators in Valparaíso, is on his way to meet a prospective client when he stops at a restaurant for lunch. When he opens the menu, he sees a photograph of Pablo Neruda and immediately recalls his first case as a detective, in which his client was the Nobel laureate himself. Suddenly it’s 1973, and Cayetano (a Cuban by birth) is somewhat adrift in his adopted homeland of Chile. At a political party with his wife, Cayetano meets Neruda for the first time, and they soon strike up a conversation. Later, Neruda invites Cayetano to his home and makes a surprising request: he wants Cayetano to find a missing person, a doctor whom Neruda knew many years ago. Cayetano’s search takes him to Mexico City, Havana, and even East Berlin, and he eventually learns that Neruda’s desire to find the doctor is not as straightforward as it seems. Meanwhile, Chile is also experiencing a period of upheaval, as Salvador Allende’s Marxist government is succeeded by the dictatorship of Pinochet.

This novel attempts to do many different things, with mixed results. As a mystery, I think it falls flat; there is no real urgency to Cayetano’s search, and the results of his investigation ultimately don’t matter very much to the story. The book is more successful at painting a portrait of Pablo Neruda at the end of his life. I feel like I got a sense of his personality and his importance to Chile as a political figure. Best of all, this book does a wonderful job of depicting the political situation in Chile at the time and relating it to the wider issue of global politics. It’s no coincidence that Cayetano mostly visits Communist countries, in an era dominated by the Cold War and the ideological conflicts between socialism and capitalism. The novel is definitely not neutral on this subject; both Cayetano and Neruda favor Allende’s government, while Cayetano condemns his wife’s more radical Communism. Overall, I was fascinated by the setting much more than I was by the story. So I’m glad I read this book, but I won’t be seeking out any more installments of the series.

Library sale!

It’s one of my favorite times of year, the public library’s semi-annual sale! Yesterday I went with some bookish friends, and today I couldn’t resist a second, solo trip for half-price day. :) Here’s what I got:

fall 2014 book sale


Nicholas Blake, A Question of Proof — This is the first Nigel Strangeways mystery, which I need to read before the second one, which I already own.

Elizabeth Daly, Evidence of Things Seen — I like the look of this vintage mystery (first published in 1943), which seems to involve murder and ghosts. Unfortunately, it appears to be the middle of a series, but I’m hoping it can stand on its own!

Theresa Tomlinson, The Forestwife Trilogy — I’ve been wanting to read these books for FOREVER, but I believe they’re out of print; either that, or they’re just REALLY hard to find!

Helen Humphreys, Coventry — I love a good World War II novel, and I’ve heard good things about this one.

Celine Kiernan, The Poison Throne — I THINK this might already be on my TBR list? Not sure, but I couldn’t resist the cover and the interesting summary! I’m even prepared to overlook the fact that the heroine’s name is Wynter.

Phil & Kaja Foglio, Agatha H. and the Airship City — This one looks like a fun steampunk romp, and the tagline totally sold me: “Adventure! Romance! Mad Science!” I mean, right?

Poul Anderson, Three Hearts and Three Lions — Ever since The High Crusade, I’m always on the lookout for cheap Poul Anderson!

David Howarth, 1066: The Year of the Conquest — I’ve already read this book, but now I have my own copy! :)

Martha Wells, The Wizard HuntersThe Ships of AirThe Gate of Gods — At some point I read and liked a Martha Wells book, and this entire trilogy was 75 cents, so why not?

E.C. Bentley, Trent’s Last Case — I’m pretty sure I read a good review of this recently, and I’m always in the market for a good mystery! Despite its title, this is actually the FIRST Philip Trent case.

P.D. James, Talking About Detective Fiction — I actually haven’t been impressed with the few P.D. James books I’ve read, but she is a big name in the mystery genre, and I have no doubt she has some interesting and articulate things to say about it.

Dorothy L. Sayers & Jill Paton Walsh, Thrones, DominationsThe Attenbury Emeralds — I’m slowly building my collection of the Lord Peter Wimsey (and Harriet Vane) novels, and even though these weren’t written entirely by Sayers, I think they still count!

Review: The Midnight Queen

Midnight Queen, TheSylvia Izzo Hunter, The Midnight Queen

Gray Marshall is a promising student of magick at Oxford’s prestigious Merlin College, but his life changes instantly when an ill-fated midnight expedition results in the death of one of his classmates. Although Gray had nothing to do with the violence that resulted in this tragedy, he soon learns that everyone is blaming him. His tutor, Professor Appius Callender, whisks him off to the professor’s country house as punishment for his supposed misdeeds. At first Gray is miserable there; his magickal powers seem to have deserted him, and he is forced to work in the professor’s gardens all day. But then he meets Sophie, the professor’s kind and intelligent daughter, and he soon discovers there is more to her than meets the eye. As Gray and Sophie become closer, they begin to uncover shocking secrets about Sophie’s family, as well as a conspiracy that threatens not only Gray but the entire kingdom of Britain.

I hardly ever buy books on impulse anymore; usually I’ll only shell out money for an author or series I already know I like. But this book jumped out at me because of its beautiful cover, and then the lure of a Regency-era fantasy with romance totally sold me! Overall, I’m glad I took the plunge in buying this book, because I really enjoyed it. Gray is a very endearing hero: studious, shy, and hardworking, with a stutter that appears when he’s nervous. He’s well matched in Sophie, a heroine who is strong without being abrasive and forward-thinking without being anachronistic. The book moves fairly slowly, which might bother some readers, and I also felt that the plot was a bit scattered. For example, Gray frequently mentions his various siblings, but only one of them is even “on page” in this book, so I was a bit confused and distracted by the other sibling references. Still, I suppose these loose ends and tangents might be resolved in a sequel; if one should materialize, I’ll definitely be seeking it out!

Review: The Winter Long

Winter Long, TheSeanan McGuire, The Winter Long

***Warning: SPOILERS for previous books in this series!***

Things finally seem to be looking up for October Daye. Now that the malevolent, usurping Queen of the Mists has been dethroned and the true queen reinstated, Toby’s biggest problem is having to dress up for court functions. But of course, this pleasant state of affairs can’t last, as Toby learns when Simon Torquill — the man whose spell once turned her into a fish for 14 years — suddenly re-enters her life. Shockingly, he doesn’t seem to want to harm Toby this time; in fact, he claims that he’s only trying to protect her from another, more powerful enemy. Toby knows she can’t trust Simon, but the more she investigates his allegations, the more it seems he’s actually telling the truth. Someone from Toby’s past is out to get her, and it’s the last person she would ever expect. Can Toby once again protect her loved ones, defeat the bad guys, and live to fight another day?

Seanan McGuire actually wrote a little intro to this book in which she said, “Everything I have done with October’s world to this point has been for the sake of getting here.” And indeed, this book is a game-changer for the series, shedding a whole new light on the events of previous books. I love the fact that McGuire has plotted this series so meticulously, and it really shows in this installment. Now I want to go back and re-read the entire series, so I can pick up on all the little clues I missed the first time around! So plot-wise, I really loved this book, and I’m very intrigued to see what’s next for Toby and the gang. At the same time, though, I’m a little nervous about the future of this series. With every new installment, it seems that the stakes get higher and higher, and Toby becomes more and more important in her Fae world. In the first few books, she seemed refreshingly ordinary, but now it seems that she’s some kind of Chosen One, which is a trope that often bugs me in fantasy novels. I’m definitely still hooked on the series for now, but I hope that I will still be enthusiastic after future installments!

Review: Jane Austen Cover to Cover

Jane Austen Cover to CoverMargaret C. Sullivan, Jane Austen Cover to Cover: 200 Years of Classic Covers

This is a book that delivers exactly what it promises: AustenBlog editrix Margaret C. Sullivan has compiled a large (though not exhausitve) collection of covers of Jane Austen’s novels, from the earliest published editions of the Regency period to the movie tie-in editions of today. The covers are arranged chronologically, giving Sullivan the opportunity to discuss related topics such as the publishing industry in Austen’s day, the waxing and waning of Austen’s popularity in both the U.K. and the U.S., and the Janeite resurgence that began in the 1990s with the iconic image of a wet-shirted Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. The covers themselves are a delightful hodgepodge of different styles, from the somber scholarly editions to the far-out art of the 1970s. Overall, I enjoyed the book but found it rather insubstantial; it doesn’t really have anything to say about the broader cultural relevance (if any) of Austen cover art. Still, it would make a great gift for Janeites or for anyone who judges a book by its cover!