Review: Darkness at Pemberley

Darkness at PemberleyT.H. White, Darkness at Pemberley

This mystery novel begins at Cambridge, where a history don and an undergraduate are nearly simultaneously found shot in their rooms. The local police are called, and Inspector Buller is assigned to investigate. At first it appears that the don murdered the student and then killed himself, but Buller notices a few oddities in the don’s rooms that contradict this murder-suicide theory. He subsequently uncovers a drug scandal in the college and eventually discovers the real murderer’s identity. Unfortunately, the murderer has a cast-iron alibi, so Buller is forced to let the man go free. Buller then goes to visit his friend Charles Darcy at Pemberley and tells him about the murders. Charles, enraged by this injustice, goes to Cambridge to threaten the murderer. When Buller discovers this, he is terrified, knowing that the murderer will now come after Charles in retaliation. Almost immediately, strange things begin to happen at Pemberley, and Buller is convinced that the murderer is hiding somewhere in the house or grounds. Can he catch the murderer before his friend becomes the next victim?

Obviously, I was drawn to this book because of the title; any Austen fan will immediately recognize Pemberley as the name of Mr. Darcy’s grand estate in Pride and Prejudice. Sadly, from my point of view, there’s very little connection to Austen’s novel in this book, except that the current inhabitants of the house are still called Darcy. But this is still a very interesting and suspenseful book, despite the fact that it’s a bit schizophrenic. The first part of the book seems like a traditional locked-room mystery, and the solution is both complicated and ingenious. But as I mentioned, the murderer’s identity is discovered fairly early in the book. The novel then shifts to more of a suspense/thriller, as the inhabitants of Pemberley wait for the murderer to make his move so that they can catch him. The novel genuinely creeped me out in places; the idea of being trapped in a maze of a house, with someone pursuing you whom you can’t see, is absolutely claustrophobic and terrifying to me! So if you enjoy that kind of thing, I definitely recommend this book!

Review: Seraphina

SeraphinaRachel Hartman, Seraphina

The kingdom of Goredd is populated with both humans and dragons, who manage to live peacefully together — for the moment. Not so long ago, the two sides were at war, and even now, the peace between them is very fragile. Dragons are intelligent creatures who can take on human bodies, so they must wear special bells to differentiate themselves from their human neighbors. In this world, Seraphina has a secret that places her in a uniquely dangerous position: she is half-human, half-dragon. No one knew that her mother was a dragon — not even her father, when they first married — and Seraphina is dedicated to preserving the secret at all costs. She seeks to be invisible and hides the telltale scales covering her arms and waist. But when a member of the royal family is murdered in a suspiciously draconian way, she finds herself caught between the two sides of her heritage. As she begins to investigate the murder, with the help of dashing Prince Lucian Kiggs, she uncovers some unexpected secrets about her family’s past and her own identity. But can she solve the mystery before war erupts between humans and dragons once again?

This is a book that a lot of people love, but I must admit, it took me a while to get into it. I was intrigued by the world immediately, being a sucker for political intrigue, and I liked the unusual portrayal of dragons. In this book, they are hyper-rational creatures who thrive as scholars and musicians, but they lack human emotions and empathy. Nevertheless, some of the dragons in this book become more human-like the longer they associate with humans, and these transformations are a great source of conflict. I also really liked that the conflict between humans and dragons isn’t one-sided at all. Both sides contain extremists who would like to return to all-out war, but there are also moderates who want to preserve the peace. As I said, I did have some trouble connecting with the book at first, and I think it’s because an awful lot of information has to be conveyed up front in order to understand what’s going on. Once the story gets moving, though, things pick up considerably, and I really enjoyed the story overall. The sequel, Shadow Scale, just came out, and I look forward to reading it!

Review: Snobbery with Violence

Snobbery with ViolenceMarion Chesney, Snobbery with Violence

Captain Harry Cathcart has recently been invalided out of the army and is looking for something to do with himself. Since he is a gentleman, he is not expected to work for a living; yet, although he is the younger son of a baron, the upper classes don’t entirely accept him as one of their own. Putting his ambiguous social standing to use, Harry becomes a discreet fixer for members of the upper class with problems that they’d like to keep quiet. In this capacity, he is hired to investigate Sir Geoffrey Blandon, a suitor of Lady Rose Summer, because Lady Rose’s father is unsure of the man’s intentions. Harry quickly discovers that Sir Geoffrey intends nothing honorable, but when Rose learns of Harry’s activities, she is furious with him. Unfortunately, Rose and Harry soon meet again at the Marquess of Hedley’s house party; but their constant bickering must take a backseat when one of the guests is found dead. Harry suspects murder and begins to investigate quietly. But when Rose insists on getting involved, her interference could prove deadly.

I’ve had a streak of disappointing books lately, and unfortunately, this one is no exception. I loved the idea of this book — mystery and romance in Edwardian England — but the execution fell sadly flat. Every character was a cardboard cutout, including the two protagonists. Harry is a dour alpha male type, while Rose is a feisty 21st-century heroine in period costume. She befriends her maid (a former actress), is active in the suffragette movement, and doesn’t enjoy the Season’s balls and parties like other girls do. Such characters could be interesting, if they ever rose above caricatures, but they never spoke or behaved like real human beings. The book occasionally attempts to comment on the social inequities of the era, but even its depiction of class struggles is superficial, not thought-provoking. As for the mystery, I can’t remember a thing about it, so I guess it was fine, but certainly nothing extraordinary. Marion Chesney is an extremely prolific author — she also writes as M.C. Beaton — so maybe her other books and series are better. But I have no hesitation in recommending others to skip this one!

Review: Left Drowning

Left DrowningJessica Park, Left Drowning

College senior Blythe McGuire has recently suffered the loss of both her parents in a tragic house fire. Numbed by her grief, she has basically stopped going to classes, and she drowns her sorrows in alcohol and partying. But when she meets gorgeous fellow senior Chris Shepherd, she begins to feel a part of herself coming to life again. She immediately feels a strong physical attraction to him — an attraction he seems to reciprocate — but he tells her right away that he’s not looking for a relationship. Nevertheless, Blythe continues to spend time with him and his siblings, who soon become her best friends. The Shepherds shower her with love and acceptance, and she eventually begins to deal with her grief and guilt over her parents’ death. But it soon becomes apparent that Chris is also dealing with traumatic experiences from his past, and in fighting his own internal battles, he pushes Blythe further and further away.

I really enjoyed Jessica Park’s novel Flat-Out Love, so I had high hopes for this book, but unfortunately, I was extremely disappointed. I liked Flat-Out Love for the realistic central characters and the slow-burning romance, but this book has two-dimensional protagonists who fall in “love” instantaneously. I can’t stand it when fictional characters fall in love for no other reason than because it’s destiny, but that’s essentially what happens in this book. Other than that and their shared lust for each other, I have no idea what their supposed love is based on. And unfortunately, the entire book rests on the romance; if that doesn’t work for you, there’s nothing else to hold your attention. Moreover, I wasn’t a fan of the explicit sex scenes in this book — and there are a lot of them. Overall, I wanted to like this book, but I ended up with pretty much the opposite experience. I’m definitely getting rid of my copy!

Review: High Rising

High RisingAngela Thirkell, High Rising

This gentle novel chronicles daily life in an English village between the wars. The protagonist is Laura Morland, a widowed mother of four sons, who earns a living by writing popular but insubstantial novels. Though three of her boys are grown up, she has her hands full with the youngest, Tony, who is currently obsessed with toy trains. She also observes the follies and foibles of her neighbors and friends, and she is not above interfering when the situation warrants it. For example, wealthy widower George Knox has just hired a conniving secretary who bullies his daughter and appears determined to become his wife; since George is oblivious, Laura takes it upon herself to get rid of the odious woman. Then there’s Sibyl Knox, a sweet young girl with no matrimonial prospects as yet, but Laura has a particular match in mind. And finally, there’s loyal Anne Todd, who has sacrificed everything to care for her sick mother but who still longs for a little romance. Can Laura surmount these various obstacles and ensure happy endings for all involved?

This is my first encounter with Angela Thirkell, but it definitely won’t be my last! In the past few years, I’ve discovered that I really love the types of books published by Persephone, Virago, and Bloomsbury. They’re usually written by women, usually in the 20th century prior to World War II, and they usually deal with the quiet, domestic problems of village life. For me, these books are a form of escapism to a (supposedly) simpler time, but they are also wonderful character studies that explore various forms of human weakness with humor and compassion. In this book, for example, there are no real heroes or villains; even Miss Grey, the objectionable secretary, is ultimately more pathetic than evil. The book is sweet and often quite funny, especially in its descriptions of Tony. I was a little disappointed that Laura herself didn’t end up finding a suitable match, but I suppose that only adds to the realism of the book. Overall, I’m not sure I’ll be re-reading this particular book, but I’ll definitely be continuing with the Barsetshire series!

N.B. I should add that the edition I read (pictured) is full of typos, misspellings and other errors. I’d suggest finding a different version if you can!

Review: Missing Reels

Missing ReelsFarran Smith Nehme, Missing Reels

This novel, set in New York in the late 1980s, follows the plucky young Ceinwen (pronounced KINE-wen) Reilly as she attempts to pursue her dreams in the big city. Unfortunately, she’s completely broke, so she lives with two roommates and works for a terrible boss at a vintage clothing store. But Ceinwen remains dedicated to her love of vintage clothes and classic movies — the older the better. She is also fascinated by her downstairs neighbor, Miriam, an older woman who is always poised, reserved, and impeccably dressed. Little by little, Ceinwen strikes up an acquaintance with Miriam and learns that she once starred in a silent movie that has since been lost. Ceinwen immediately becomes obsessed with the idea of finding the lost film, and with the help of a handsome British professor, she searches for anyone who might have a connection to the missing reels. In the course of her investigation, Ceinwen finds a community of fellow film nuts, a new romance, and possibly even a future career for herself.

I hate to say it, but this was one of my most disappointing reads of the year so far. The cover blurb makes the novel sound like a screwball romantic comedy, somewhat in the vein of “Bringing Up Baby” (which I love!). Suffice it to say, the book is nothing like that. There is very little humor in it, and Ceinwen is definitely not the effervescent, witty heroine I wanted her to be. Instead, she comes across as pushy and obsessive, practically stalking Miriam in order to get the inside scoop on her past life. I didn’t like her or her love interest, who is insufferably smug and patronizing, so I definitely wasn’t satisfied by the romance. And even as a fan of classic movies, I didn’t find anything interesting about Ceinwen’s quest to find the lost film. She goes around interviewing every person with even a remote connection to the film, asking questions she really has no business asking, and eventually the answer just plops into her lap. There’s no tension, no real stakes to the investigation. Overall, this book was disappointing to me on many levels — especially because I was hoping for something quite different.

Review: Courtship & Curses

Courtship and CursesMarissa Doyle, Courtship & Curses

Lady Sophie Rosier is about to make her debut during the London Season, but what should be an exciting prospect is sad and scary for her. Her beloved mother has recently passed away, and the illness that claimed her life has also left Sophie with a deformed leg and an unattractive limp. Sophie is painfully aware that the denizens of society will view her differently; she won’t even be able to dance at the Season’s balls and other entertainments. Moreover, Sophie is hiding the fact that she has magical abilities, since witchcraft is feared and frowned upon by society. But when certain members of the War Office begin falling victim to mysterious “accidents,” Sophie is able to perceive that magic is involved. With the help of her best friend Parthenope, as well as a potential suitor, Sophie must discover the culprit and save the Duke of Wellington himself.

This book contains a lot of my favorite things: the Napoleonic era, an underdog heroine, magic, and romance. As such, I found it an enjoyable read, but certain things didn’t quite gel for me. First, I’m a little bit confused about the role of magic in the novel. It seems to be a social taboo — when one character learns of Sophie’s abilities, he is absolutely repulsed by it — but the why is unclear. Plus, Sophie’s own mother taught her to cultivate her abilities, which seems like a bad idea if society shuns practitioners of magic. I also would have liked a little more tension in the romance between Sophie and her paramour. On the other hand, I really enjoyed the more lighthearted moments in the book, especially those involving the mischievous Parthenope! Overall, this was a fun read, and if a sequel appears, I’ll most likely read it as well.

Top Ten Tuesday: Spring TBR

Top 10 TuesdayNow that spring is finally (FINALLY!) in sight, it’s appropriate that this week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic is the spring TBR list. This year I’m trying not to schedule my reading too far in advance…but I’m failing a little bit with that goal. :) Between library holds, new releases, and the few reading projects I’m still doing, I have a full plate this spring! Here are some of the books I’m planning to read:

1. Nick Hornby, Funny Girl — I’m a huge fan of Nick Hornby’s, so I was thrilled to see that he just came out with another book! This one is set in the television world of 1960s Britain, which sounds intriguing!

2. Rachel Hartman, Shadow Scale — I recently read and enjoyed Seraphina, so I’m definitely looking forward to getting my hands on this sequel.

3. Juliet Marillier, Dreamer’s Pool — Juliet Marillier is one of my favorite authors, and this is the first book in her Blackthorn & Grim series.

4. Anne Cleeland, Murder in Thrall — Saw this one at Barnes & Noble and then discovered that my library has it, so I figured I’d give it a shot! It appears to be a mystery set in contemporary England with a romantic element.

5. Elizabeth Wein, Black Thorn, White Raven — This one has been on my TBR list for ages, and it’s finally coming out at the end of March! Can’t wait!!!

6. Jane Austen, Mansfield Park — I’m doing a year-long read of Austen’s novels with some folks from LibraryThing, and MP is slated for March/April. It’s been years since I read the book, so I’ll be interested to see how it strikes me this time around!

7. Intisar Khanani, Thorn — This retelling of “The Goose Girl” looks very interesting. I’m a sucker for a good fairy tale!

8. P.J. Brackston, Gretel and the Case of the Missing Frog Prints — Speaking of fairy tales. :) The synopsis of this reminded me of Jasper Fforde’s Nursery Crime series, and that can only be a good thing!

9. Katie Van Ark, The Boy Next Door — I received this book as a gift from my #OTSPSecretSister last month, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. But ever since “The Cutting Edge,” I’ve been a big fan of love stories featuring figure skaters!

10. Mindy Kaling, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) — I’ve been wanting to read this one for a while, but I’ve been saving it for the 24-hour read-a-thon in April. (Yeah, I’m planning my reads a month in advance, so what?) I read Tina Fey’s Bossypants during a previous read-a-thon and found that it was a refreshing break in the midst of all the fiction I was reading.

So that’s my list, although it’s certainly subject to change! What are you planning to read this spring?

Review: Saga, Volumes 1-2

Saga Volume 1Saga Volume 2

Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples, Saga: Volume One and Saga: Volume Two

This graphic novel tells the story of one family’s struggle to survive in the midst of a brutal interplanetary war. Alana is from Landfall, the largest planet in the galaxy. Marko is from Wreath, its satellite. When they meet, they fall in love almost immediately; but unfortunately for them, Landfall and Wreath have been at war for as long as anyone can remember. Since both Alana’s and Marko’s people disapprove of their marriage, the star-crossed lovers have no choice but to flee. They end up on the remote backwater planet of Cleave, where their daughter Hazel is born. The story is narrated by Hazel as she describes her parents’ escape from the forces seeking to tear them apart. But various parties from both Landfall and Cleave are pursuing this family, and it will take all their courage and ingenuity to survive.

After seeing some positive reviews of Saga, I decided to give the series a try, even though I generally don’t read graphic novels. (I have nothing against them, but I’m not a very visual person, so I generally find the artwork more distracting than helpful for the story.) I’m very glad I gave this series a chance, since I ended up enjoying it quite a bit. The story is very compelling and spans several genres, from romance to survival adventure to space opera. I loved the banter between Alana and Marko, who clearly care a lot about each other and express their love through teasing. I also found Hazel’s voice to be very compelling, and I look forward to seeing how she grows as the series progresses. There’s some colorful language and a few graphic (ha ha) images, so be warned if that bothers you. Overall, I definitely plan to continue with the series, and I already have Volumes 3 and 4 from the library!