Alan Bradley, As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust
***Warning: SPOILERS for previous books in the series!***
Flavia de Luce’s life has been turned upside-down by the shocking revelation that her mother, Harriet, worked as a spy for England before her death. What’s more, Harriet was groomed for this work at an elite Canadian boarding school, where she belonged to a secret society called the Nide. Now the twelve-year-old Flavia must follow in her mother’s footsteps all the way to Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy, so that she can carry on the family’s legacy of covert service to England. But Flavia is less than thrilled about leaving Buckshaw and all her family and friends behind. Still, Miss Bodycote’s proves more interesting than Flavia expected when a dead body falls down the chimney into her bedroom on her very first night at the school. But whose body is it, and who would have placed the remains there? Was it a fellow student? The science teacher who was once tried for murder? Perhaps even the stern headmistress herself? Once again, Flavia uses her insatiable curiosity and her passion for chemistry to discover how, why, and by whom the victim was murdered. She also struggles to fit in at Miss Bodycote’s and eventually makes an important decision about her future.
This book marks a significant change in the direction of the series, as Flavia is uprooted from Bishop’s Lacey and placed in different surroundings with an entirely new cast of characters. Some people were skeptical about this change, but I was optimistic going in; if series aren’t willing to shake things up sometimes, they risk becoming stale. Unfortunately, I don’t think this particular change was terribly successful. The idea of Flavia trying to fit in at a strict boarding school filled me with glee, but this book doesn’t spend much time on her interactions with the other students, except as necessary for her investigation. And the book really suffers for not having Father, Feely, Daffy, and Dogger to be Flavia’s confidantes, friends, and sometimes enemies. I don’t read this series predominantly for the mysteries; while these are usually fine, the books’ charm lies in Flavia and her unique reactions to the people around her. And sadly, in this book, her social interactions just weren’t as funny, interesting, or poignant as they usually are. The end of this novel promises another change for Flavia, and I hope that the next book will take things in a more satisfying direction.
Heather Demetrios, I’ll Meet You There
Skylar Evans can’t wait to escape from her dead-end hometown of Creek View, California. Fortunately, she’s just graduated from high school and is bound for art school in the fall, so she only has to survive one more summer working at the ironically-named Paradise Motel. Meanwhile, Josh Mitchell thought he had already escaped Creek View by joining the Marines, but when his leg was blown off in Afghanistan, he was forced to return and face a wildly different future than the one he expected. Now Josh is doing odd jobs at the Paradise, and Skylar finds herself trying to reach out, because it seems as though the leg is the least of Josh’s problems. Skylar and Josh begin a tentative friendship that eventually deepens into something more. But as Skylar’s mom relapses into alcoholism and Josh struggles to deal with his physical and psychological wounds, their fledgling relationship falters under the strain. Eventually, Skylar and Josh must both develop the courage to face the future — together or apart.
I like YA contemporary romances when they’re done right, and this one is definitely done right. I found both Skylar and Josh to be extremely sympathetic characters, so their romance was easy to root for. That’s not to say that they’re perfect human beings — far from it. Skylar is so focused on her desire to get out of Creek View that she subconsciously looks down on her friends who don’t want — or simply can’t afford — to leave. Meanwhile, Josh spends the first part of the novel engaging in a lot of self-destructive behaviors. While his choices are understandable given what he’s been through, they certainly don’t make him a likable character at first. I also liked the fact that the romance between Skylar and Josh doesn’t magically solve all their problems. They both still have a lot of issues to work through, and they have goals and plans that don’t revolve around each other. Ultimately, I’d recommend this book to anyone looking for a good love story; it’s one of the best YA contemporary novels I’ve read in a while.
I just signed up for Dewey’s 24-hour read-a-thon on Saturday, April 25, and so can you! As the name implies, this semi-annual event asks participants to read — any format, any language, any genre — for a 24-hour period. The truly hardcore read-a-thoners will stay awake and reading for the whole 24 hours, but you can read as much or as little as you want. There are also fun mini-challenges (some with prizes!) and tons of interaction with your fellow readers and book bloggers. I always have a lot of fun with this event, and even though I can’t participate for all 24 hours, I still hope to spend a lot of quality time reading! Will you be participating in the read-a-thon this time around? If so, what will you read?
T.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!
Rachel 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!
Marion 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!
Jessica 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!
Angela 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!
Farran 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.
Marissa 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.