So we’re alarmingly close to the end of 2015, which means it’s time to start looking at 2016 challenges! One of my perennial favorites is the vintage mystery challenge hosted by Bev at My Reader’s Block. For the past few years, the challenge has been a game of Bingo, but this year she’s switching things up: participants must complete a scavenger hunt by finding certain objects on the covers of their books. For more information (and the lists of items), check out the sign-up post! I’m going to do the Golden Age list, but I’ll probably only read the six-book minimum instead of a different book for every single item. Some options include:
- Dorothy L. Sayers, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
- Georgette Heyer, No Wind of Blame
- Nicholas Blake, A Question of Proof
- Elizabeth Daly, Unexpected Night
- John Bude, The Lake District Murder
- Phoebe Atwood Taylor (writing as Alice Tilton), The Cut Direct
I’ve fallen so far behind on blogging (11 reviews behind, you guys!) that I forgot to do my wrap-up post for R.I.P. X! But better late than never, right? I ended up reading four books that fit within the challenge guidelines, thus completing Peril the First. Here’s what I read:
- Dorothy L. Sayers, Unnatural Death
- Deanna Raybourn, A Curious Beginning
- Rainbow Rowell, Carry On
- Leigh Bardugo, Six of Crows
I liked all the books, more or less, although A Curious Beginning was probably my least favorite (the heroine was far too modern). Six of Crows was my favorite for sheer entertainment value, and I also liked Carry On more than I was expecting to. Yet another fun year for this challenge, and I’m sure I’ll be participating again next year!
Kristan Higgins, Until There Was You
Cordelia Osterhagen, known to everyone as Posey, is largely content with her life. She lives in a picturesque New England town near her family, with whom she is close, and owns her own architectural salvage company. She also works at her parents’ cheesy but beloved German restaurant. But Posey’s love life is somewhat less successful; she’s never managed to find a man she loves as much as she once loved Liam Murphy, the high school bad boy whom she worshiped from afar. But now Liam is back in town, a gruff widower with a teenage daughter, and Posey’s old feelings immediately resurface. However, she tries to play it cool and slowly begins to form a friendship with him. Meanwhile, Liam is constantly stressed from his efforts to protect his daughter from every possible harm, but he’s surprised by how peaceful he feels around Cordelia Osterhagen. When their relationship takes a romantic turn, will he be able to face the possibility of real commitment? And will Posey be able to stop herself from falling head-over-heels in love again?
After the mental exercise of Embassytown, I really just needed a palate cleanser, so I naturally turned to one of the Kristan Higgins romances I hadn’t read yet. It perfectly fit the bill by providing a pleasant romance with minimal angst. All the Higgins trademarks are there: a quaint New England town, a heroine with a crazy-yet-lovable family and an improbably well-paying job, and a friendly dog or two. I liked Posey, although I couldn’t help being irritated by her job — what exactly is an architectural salvager, and how does she make enough money in her tiny hometown to stay in business? It sounds like one of those fake careers that TV people have, not something that could actually enable a person in small-town New Hampshire to make a living. Liam is a perfectly fine hero, although he’s a bit too perfect for my taste (sinfully gorgeous, loves his daughter, wounded just enough to be interesting). But despite all my nitpicking, I enjoyed the book, as I always do with Higgins’ contemporary romances.
China Miéville, Embassytown
In a futuristic world on a faraway planet, Avice Benner Cho lives in the main colonists’ city of Embassytown. The planet’s natives, whom the colonists refer to as Hosts, have a unique system of language involving two simultaneously spoken voices that makes communication with them largely impossible; while the humans can understand the Hosts, the Hosts can’t understand most humans at all. The only people even remotely able to speak to the Hosts are the Ambassadors, identical twins who have been specifically engineered for the purpose. So when a new Ambassador arrives on the planet, and they’re not identical twins at all, everyone is shocked by the sheer impossibility of it. And when this Ambassador speaks to the Hosts, even more astonishing — and dangerous — consequences ensue. Avice, though not an Ambassador, has a special relationship to the Host language because she is one of its living similes. Can she find a way to mitigate the disasters caused by the new Ambassador?
If you’re confused by my summary of this book, don’t worry — I was confused for about the first half of the novel! Miéville creates an extremely intricate world full of technobabble and doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining things; rather, the reader is thrust directly into the world and left to sink or swim. I usually don’t mind this technique, since lengthy world-building exposition can be tedious. But because the world is so complicated, it took me a while to figure out which things were important to the story and which were just window dressing. Additionally, the book jumps between two different time periods, which confused me at first. But once I figured out where the story was going and how the past and present narratives fit together, I became much more invested. People who are interested in linguistics will be fascinated by Avice’s eventual solution to communicating with the Hosts. The book also touches on issues of colonialism: although the humans aren’t overtly oppressors, there is a shadowy empire in the background to remind us that there might be hidden agendas at play. Overall, this is not the most accessible book to a casual reader, but those who persevere will be rewarded.
Dorothy L. Sayers, Unnatural Death
While dining out one day, Lord Peter Wimsey and his friend Inspector Parker are discussing so-called accidental deaths that might actually be murders. A young doctor overhears them and joins their conversation. He shares the story of a former patient, an elderly woman with cancer who died rather suddenly. She was terminally ill, and no signs of foul play were found on the body, so everyone believed her death was natural; but the doctor was nevertheless suspicious because she had seemed to be improving lately. The woman’s great-niece and presumed heiress was living with her at the time, so she had opportunity, but her motive was questionable because the old lady would die soon enough from natural causes. Lord Peter is intrigued by the case and decides to investigate. He employs Miss Climpson, a chatty but intelligent spinster, to temporarily relocate to the dead woman’s village and do some discreet investigating. Meanwhile, he and Parker search for other suspects, motives, and possible methods of the murder.
After rediscovering Dorothy Sayers earlier this year, I’ve embarked on a project to read all her Lord Peter Wimsey books in publication order. This is book #3 in the series, but if I recall correctly, it can be read as a standalone. I enjoyed this book a lot, but I feel like it’s a very unusual detective story. Despite a high body count, it doesn’t feel very action-packed or plot-driven. The main mystery is not whodunnit, but why and how. One of the biggest clues to the motive is a tiny change in an obscure property statute. Nevertheless, I found the mystery compelling and was eager to solve the complete puzzle of how and why the murder took place. Also, Miss Climpson is delightful; this is her first appearance in the series, but I believe she’ll be a recurring character in future books. She reminds me somewhat of a Jane Austen character — one of the good-hearted chatterboxes, like a more intelligent Miss Bates. I wasn’t completely on board with the characterization of the villain, whose psychology didn’t ring true for me. I doubt this will be my favorite Sayers mystery, but I did enjoy it and look forward to reading the rest of the series.
Jean Webster, Dear Enemy
This sequel to Daddy-Long-Legs centers around Judy’s college friend Sallie McBride, a cheerful but frivolous young woman whose wealth has prevented her from ever having to work for a living. So when Judy and her husband encourage Sallie to take over the administration of the orphanage where Judy grew up, Sallie is flabbergasted. At first she outright refuses their proposal, but eventually they convince her to give it a try. Sallie is shocked to discover that she has an aptitude for the work; and what’s more, she enjoys it! Slowly but surely, she begins to reform the orphanage and give a little joy to the orphans in her care. She also clashes immediately with the local doctor, Robin MacRae, whom she frequently addresses as “Dear Enemy.” But the more they are forced to work together, the more they come to recognize each other’s good qualities, until an unexpected tragedy finally forces Sallie to confront her true feelings.
Like Daddy-Long-Legs before it, this book is a charmingly old-fashioned epistolary novel that I absolutely adored! Sallie is an entertaining correspondent, and her letters (mostly to Judy) are light and chatty and lots of fun to read. I enjoyed the romance a lot as well — maybe even more so than in DLL (and those who’ve read DLL will understand why!). The book is also interesting for its exploration of the role of women in the workforce. Sallie encounters a lot of skepticism from the local community about whether she’s capable of being a good administrator, but she joyfully and determinedly proves them all wrong. The book is less progressive in its depiction of mental illness: both Sallie and the doctor make a few comments about “feeble-mindedness” and how people with subnormal mental functioning shouldn’t reproduce. But aside from that jarring reminder of the book’s age (pub date 1915), I really loved this book and would definitely recommend it to fans of older fiction, although I do suggest reading Daddy-Long-Legs first!
Lauren Willig, The Lure of the Moonflower
***Warning: Possible spoilers for previous books in the series!***
This last installment of the Pink Carnation series finally tells the story of the Pink Carnation herself, Miss Jane Wooliston. It’s 1807, and Napoleon’s armies have invaded Portugal. Officially, the Portuguese royal family have departed for South America; unofficially, the mad Queen Maria is still in the country, providing a focal point for the Portuguese resistance. If the French capture Queen Maria, it will be a decisive victory for Napoleon, so Jane is determined to prevent it by finding her first. But since she is ignorant of both the Portuguese language and the country’s terrain, she’ll need the help of Jack Reid, otherwise known as the Moonflower. Jack, the black sheep of the Reid family, has spied for many nations other than his own, including France. Can Jane trust him not to betray her? And when Jack meets Jane, he’s astonished to discover that the Pink Carnation is a demure young Englishwoman. Can he trust her to maintain her composure — especially when her former lover, a French spy known as the Gardener, is also on Queen Maria’s trail?
I’ve been a fan of the Pink Carnation series ever since the first book, so of course I was eagerly anticipating the final installment. I was especially excited to see that Jane was paired with Jack Reid: they have good chemistry and a believable conflict, as they are both accomplished spies who have trouble trusting each other and showing any hint of vulnerability. Their romance is the main focus of the book, with the spy plot largely being an excuse to get them together — which is fine by me, since I just wanted to see a satisfying ending for these characters whom I’ve grown to love over the course of the series. I do have some complaints, however, mostly because of the stories left untold. For example, we get a little bit of Jane’s romance with the Gardener, but that really should have been its own book. There are also a few minor characters from the series that I wish had gotten more closure. But Willig does include an afterword where she explains her decision to end the series here and gives a little “Where are they now?” update on all her recurring characters. So overall, I think this was a worthy ending to a delightful series, and I look forward to re-reading all the books one of these days!
Leigh Bardugo, Ruin and Rising
***Warning: SPOILERS for previous books in the series!***
In the aftermath of the battle at Os Alta, the Darkling now sits on the Ravkan throne, and Alina and her followers have gone underground. Literally — they’re hiding out in a system of tunnels and caves beneath Ravka, where they are temporarily under the protection of the Apparat. But the Apparat has his own agenda: he wants Alina to serve as a figurehead for the loyal but uninformed peasants who believe she is a saint. Alina can’t submit to such a plan, especially when the Darkling is continually expanding his empire through the use of dark magic. But once she and her loyal allies escape, Alina knows she isn’t strong enough to defeat the Darkling, especially since she can no longer access her power. She decides to seek a third amplifier for her magic, the legendary firebird, and her sole clue leads her back to the village from which she and Mal originally came…but what she finds there will challenge everything she has ever believed.
Like the other two books in the trilogy, this is a well written novel with great world-building and an interesting plot. But I still find myself liking rather than loving these books. As I mentioned in my review of Shadow and Bone, I think my issue is that I don’t particularly like or relate to Alina as the main character. She seems to be entirely motivated by her momentous quest to defeat the Darkling, and outside of that, there’s not a lot of complexity to her character. I also don’t care about Mal, the main love interest, at all. He’s basically there to be dreamy and help Alina whenever the plot calls for it, and he doesn’t really have a personality outside of that. I found the secondary characters much more interesting, especially Nikolai — I’d love for him to get his own book at some point! I did enjoy the resolution of the plot and found the ending very satisfying. Overall, I wasn’t bowled over by this trilogy, but I’d still recommend it to YA fantasy fans.
Huntley Fitzpatrick, The Boy Most Likely To
Seventeen-year-old Tim Mason has always been good at three things: flirting with girls, being the life of the party, and finding where his father has hidden the liquor. Recently, however, he’s trying to turn over a new leaf, attending AA meetings and staying out of trouble. But that’s not enough for Tim’s strict father, who has given him an ultimatum: if he hasn’t proved that he can handle adult responsibilities by the time he turns 18, his family will completely cut him off financially and give his college fund to his sister. Tim doesn’t have the foggiest idea of how to live up to his father’s demands, especially when one stupid decision from his past comes back to haunt him. But helping him to figure things out are his best friend Jase and the entire Garrett family, including (especially) Jase’s older sister Alice. Alice is beautiful, smart, and tough as nails, and to Tim she’s completely irresistible. But will he find the courage to go after what he really wants, and will their fledgling romance survive all the baggage from his past?
When I read the prequel to this book, My Life Next Door, I wasn’t completely in love with it, but I remember really liking Tim and wanting to know more of his story. So this sequel was definitely up my alley, and overall I really liked it! Tim is the kind of fictional boy I always end up adoring: he’s done a ton of stupid things and sabotaged himself at every turn, but he’s got a good heart and is trying so hard. When he is confronted with one particular past mistake (I don’t want to spoil it, so I won’t be more specific), he doesn’t react in the best or most selfless way, but his thoughts and feelings seem very realistic under the circumstances. As he adapts to this big change in his life, he grows and matures as a person, which is very satisfying to see. And I loved his relationship with Alice from beginning to end, especially the way their flirtatious banter masked deeper, more vulnerable feelings. There is quite a bit of angst and drama in the book, so it might be too young adult-esque for some. But I found it a compelling read and would definitely recommend it to fans of YA contemporary romance.
Giles Whittell, Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War
This book tells the story of a Cold War prisoner exchange that, in the author’s view, helped to stave off World War Three. William Fisher, a.k.a. Rudolf Abel, was a Soviet agent (actually British by nationality) who was captured in New York city because of his work spying on the U.S. nuclear program. Francis Gary Powers was an American pilot flying reconnaissance over the Soviet Union to get a look at its nuclear arsenal; he was shot down on one of his missions and imprisoned in Russia. And Frederic Pryor actually had nothing to do with the spy game at all — he was simply an American student in Berlin studying Eastern economics, arrested by the Stasi because he fit their profile of what a spy should look like. Cold War tensions were running high at this time, so the agreement to trade Abel for Powers and Pryor was a vital gesture of good faith between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
In my American history classes in school, my teachers would always run out of time at the end of the year, so we’d usually only get as far as World War II in the lesson plan. As a result, I know basically nothing about the Cold War and was excited to read this book to learn more. I have to say, I found it slow going at first, as Whittell takes a long time to set up the three prisoners’ backgrounds. He also goes into stupefying detail about the type of plane Powers flew and the various engineering difficulties that its inventors encountered. But once the prisoners’ arrests are described, the book picks up considerably as it focuses on the political machinations needed to accomplish the prisoner exchange. The book also seems to be very well-researched, as Whittell was able to interview many of the people involved firsthand. I’m not sure it’s a particularly groundbreaking work, but I did find it interesting, and I’m now looking forward to seeing the film version with Tom Hanks.