Jasper Fforde, The Last Dragonslayer
In the Ununited Kingdoms, magic is a part of everyday life, but it’s only used for the most mundane of tasks, like rewiring a house’s electricity or removing all the moles from the garden (or your face). But lately, the magic levels seem to be rising in the Kingdom of Hereford, and nobody quite knows why. Moreover, the local pre-cogs have begun to prophesy the death of the world’s last remaining dragon — an event of great importance, not only because dragons seem to be inextricably tied to magic, but also because once a dragon dies, its lands are up for grabs. Thus, the premonition inevitably results in a huge influx of people and corporations hoping to claim the Dragonlands for themselves. In the midst of all this, Jennifer Strange, a seemingly ordinary 15-year-old girl, learns that she has a surprising destiny: she is the Last Dragonslayer, the one fated to kill the dragon. The problem is, Jennifer isn’t quite sure she wants to do it….
As a big Fforde ffan, I’m glad I finally got around to reading this book, his first YA novel and the first book in a trilogy. Overall, I found it pretty enjoyable and quite reminiscent of the Thursday Next books in some ways. Like Thursday, Jennifer is a strong and intelligent heroine who’s willing to fight for her principles. She also has a quirky pet, although it’s not a dodo but a Quarkbeast, a visually terrifying creature with the personality of a dog. And just as Thursday often gets into trouble with the all-powerful Goliath corporation, Jennifer runs into similar problems with Consolidated Useful Stuff. In fact, maybe that’s the reason I didn’t like this book as much as Fforde’s other work — it’s a bit too similar to the Thursday Next series, except without all the fun literary references and time travel. I’d say it’s still worth reading if you enjoy Fforde’s particular brand of schtick, but it’s not the best entry point into his work.
Alan Melville, Quick Curtain
Crowds flock to the London premiere of Douglas B. Douglas’ sensational new musical comedy, hoping to catch a glimpse of stage idols Brandon Baker and Gwen Astle. But they get even more sensation than they bargained for when leading man Baker is shot dead in the middle of Act 2. Fortunately, Inspector Wilson of Scotland Yard is in the audience, along with his son Derek, an enterprising young journalist. When another cast member is found hanged in his dressing room, the obvious conclusion is that he murdered Baker, then committed suicide. But Inspector Wilson isn’t convinced, especially when he finds a bullet hole in a place that would be impossible under that theory of the crime. He and Derek jointly investigate the mystery, which leads them to a remote village, several salacious secrets, and an altogether unexpected solution to the mystery.
I absolutely love Golden Age mysteries, and this one was a very enjoyable read, unique in its lighthearted tone and somewhat breezy attitude to police procedure. (For instance, does Inspector Wilson even have jurisdiction over the case? In this book, it doesn’t matter: he’s first on the scene, so he simply commandeers the investigation.) I loved the humorous running commentary on show business of the era; apparently the author himself had a long career in the industry. And I laughed out loud at various silly jokes, particularly an exchange where the play’s director is impatiently waiting for the doctor to examine the corpse. Finally fed up, the director asks, “Well?” “Not at all; in fact, he’s dead,” the doctor replies. The mystery plot isn’t particularly original, and a twist in the last chapter may irritate readers who want their mystery authors to play fair. But I really enjoyed the book’s tongue-in-cheek style and would definitely recommend it to fans of the genre!
Kristan Higgins, Anything for You
Connor O’Rourke thinks it’s the perfect time to propose to his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Jessica Dunn. His restaurant is thriving, his new house is big enough for a family, and he’s even thinking of opening his own brewery. But when he gets down on one knee, Jessica gives him a kind but firm “no.” Her life has always been complicated: unlike Connor, she grew up in poverty with alcoholic parents and an intellectually disabled younger brother. She finally has a good job and a stable living situation, and she doesn’t want anything to change. But Connor is left reeling by her refusal and says that he can’t be with Jessica anymore if she’s not willing to move forward with him. The problem is, no matter how many women his well-meaning sister sets him up with, he can’t get Jessica out of his mind. And Jessica, despite her independent facade, begins to realize that she misses Connor a lot more than she thought she would.
When I need a light, quick, palate-cleansing read, I almost always pick up a Kristan Higgins novel. This one was enjoyable, as always…I liked that the conflict between Connor and Jessica feels realistic, given Jessica’s difficult past. It was also fun to spend more time in the world of the Blue Heron series, of which I think this is the last installment. All the characters and couples from earlier books make an appearance, and they’ve all pretty much achieved their happily-ever-afters. In fact, if I had one complaint, the sheer amount of happiness in this book — literally everyone is getting together, getting married, and/or having babies — is pretty saccharine and unrealistic. But then again, I’m not reading fluffy romance novels for the realism. :) If you’re looking for a sweet, fun romance you can read in a day, I’d definitely recommend this book, although you might be a little confused about the secondary characters if you haven’t read the rest of the series.
Frances de Pontes Peebles, The Seamstress
This historical epic set in 1920s and ’30s Brazil tells the story of two sisters, Emília and Luzia, and the bond they share despite the very different directions in which life takes them. They grow up in a small mountain town, where they eke out a living as seamstresses. Emília dreams of someday moving to a big city, dressing in fine clothes, and leaving poverty behind forever. Luzia, whose arm was deformed after a childhood accident, simply wants to escape her cruel nickname of “Victrola.” Emília eventually achieves her goals by marrying the rich Degas Coelho, but she find herself unprepared both for Degas’ family and for the strict rules of Brazilian high society. Meanwhile, Luzia is abducted by a gang of bandits led by the notorious Hawk, but she eventually discovers a certain aptitude for their way of life.
I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it paints an extremely vivid picture of Brazilian life during this time period, encompassing wealthy city dwellers, powerful country landowners known as “colonels,” and the impoverished rural folk who equally fear the colonels and the bandits as they constantly prey upon each other. I know basically nothing about Brazilian history, so it was fascinating to immerse myself in this unfamiliar setting. I also really liked the central relationship between Emília and Luzia; even though they are very different people, and they don’t spend much time together in the novel, they still share an obvious bond. On the other hand, the book is very slow-paced, and I honestly found it a slog a lot of the time. It’s definitely worth reading if the setting interests you, but I must admit, I’m just relieved to have finished it!
Georgette Heyer, No Wind of Blame
Plenty of people wanted to murder the shiftless, good-for-nothing Wally Carter. His rich wife, Ermyntrude, was tired of giving him money that he only drank or gambled away. Ermyntrude’s daughter, Vicky, thought her mother would be happier with another man. The slick “Prince” Alexis Varasashvili, had his eye on Ermyntrude’s fortune. And several other characters had equally strong movies for wanting Wally out of the way. But when he actually is shot, it seems that no one could possibly have fired the gun without being immediately discovered. As suspicion rests on each of the characters in turn, it’s up to Scotland Yard’s Inspector Hemingway to discover the truth. Along the way, a sordid scandal comes to light, a crooked business deal is unearthed, and romances end and begin.
I’m glad I chose this book to kick off my 2016 reading, since it contains both an ingenious mystery plot and a wonderful assortment of classic Heyer characters. I loved the histrionic Ermyntrude, who is certainly vulgar but also extremely kind-hearted. And Vicky, who delights in playing a variety of different roles (such as Sports Girl and Dutiful Daughter), annoyed me at first, but eventually I began to enjoy her antics in spite of myself. The main characters are so well-drawn that the mystery is a bit sidelined, but I do think the solution is very clever. I guessed the murderer but not the “how” or the “why,” although Heyer plants a few clues throughout the novel. The romances are a bit undercooked, especially the one involving Wally’s ward, Mary Cliffe. I don’t know whether I’d consider it one of my favorite Heyer mysteries, but it was still a fun read and a great start to the year!
Cyril Hare, An English Murder
The setting of An English Murder seems, at first, to be a very conventional one. A group of family and friends come together for Christmas at a country house, Warbeck Hall. The house is owned by Lord Warbeck, a dying and impoverished peer who wants to be among loved ones for what he thinks will be his last Christmas. The holiday decorations are up and snow is falling fast outside. The guests range from the Lord’s difficult son to a visiting Czech historian. There is, of course, a faithful butler and his ambitious daughter. But when the murders begin, there is nothing at all conventional about them – or the manner of their detection. This ingenious detective story gleefully plays with all of our expectations about what an ‘English murder’ might be and offers enough twists and turns to keep us reading into the night. (Summary from Amazon.com.)
This was my first Cyril Hare mystery, but hopefully it won’t be my last! This is a quintessential English country house mystery, and I really enjoyed it. Most of the characters aren’t particularly likable, but the amateur sleuth, Dr. Wenceslaus Bottwink, makes up for all the others. Not only does he have a great name, but his somewhat detached “observer” status allows him to see the situation clearly and even find some humor in the various nasty interactions among other characters. The book is also interesting as a historical artifact: it was published just after World War II (1951, I believe) and contains characters whose views span the whole political spectrum, from socialism to fascism. The solution to the mystery, which also explains the book’s title, is one of the most delightful resolutions to a murder mystery that I’ve read in a while. Definitely recommended for vintage mystery lovers!
Well, another Bout of Books has come and gone! Sadly, I didn’t read as much as I’d hoped — my goal was 1,000 pages, and I only read 226! *blush* But at least I read something, right? I think part of my problem was that I alternated between two sizable books: Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which is just a brick, and Frances de Pontes Peebles’ The Seamstress, which is a slow-moving historical saga of 600+ pages. Don’t get me wrong; both books are good — War and Peace, in particular, is a very pleasant surprise! But they couldn’t quite hold my focus for sustained periods of time. I would have been better off with shorter books; then I’m sure I would have gotten a lot closer to my goal. I also participated in almost every challenge, which was fun as always. Looking forward to the next installment of Bout of Books in May! :)
Garth Nix, Newt’s Emerald
After Lady Truthful’s magical Newington Emerald is stolen from her she devises a simple plan: go to London to recover the missing jewel. She quickly learns, however, that a woman cannot wander the city streets alone without damaging her reputation, and she disguises herself as a mustache-wearing man. During Truthful’s dangerous journey she discovers a crook, an unsuspecting ally, and an evil sorceress—but will she find the Emerald? (Summary from Amazon.com.)
A Regency romance with fantasy elements…of course I was going to like this book! :) It’s actually the first thing I’ve read by Garth Nix, and I believe it’s somewhat atypical for him, but I’m still interested in reading more of his backlist now. I think my favorite thing about this book is the light, bright tone throughout. Even though the novel’s stakes are fairly high — the missing emerald is an ancient and powerful jewel capable of causing significant havoc — the plentiful humor and Regency elements make the book a very light, pleasant read. I also enjoyed Truthful’s adventures as a man, especially because they allowed her and her love interest truly to get to know each other, beyond the superficial interactions between ladies and gentlemen in Regency society. The actual romance wasn’t totally satisfying for me; it starts off with a nice slow build, but the resolution is extremely abrupt and comes very late in the book. But overall, I really enjoyed this novel, and so should any fan of the genre!
Marie-Helene Bertino, 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas
Madeleine Altimari is a smart-mouthed, rebellious nine-year-old who also happens to be an aspiring jazz singer. Still mourning the recent death of her mother, and caring for her grief-stricken father, she doesn’t realize that on the eve of Christmas Eve she is about to have the most extraordinary day—and night—of her life. After bravely facing down mean-spirited classmates and rejection at school, Madeleine doggedly searches for Philadelphia’s legendary jazz club The Cat’s Pajamas, where she’s determined to make her on-stage debut. On the same day, her fifth grade teacher Sarina Greene, who’s just moved back to Philly after a divorce, is nervously looking forward to a dinner party that will reunite her with an old high school crush, afraid to hope that sparks might fly again. And across town at The Cat’s Pajamas, club owner Lorca discovers that his beloved haunt may have to close forever, unless someone can find a way to quickly raise the $30,000 that would save it.
As these three lost souls search for love, music and hope on the snow-covered streets of Philadelphia, together they will discover life’s endless possibilities over the course of one magical night. (Summary from Amazon.com.)
I think I was hoping to love this book more than I did, but I still found it pretty enjoyable. I don’t really like when a book jumps around between too many characters, because it splits my focus, and I end up not being very invested in any of the storylines. But in this case, I was immediately drawn to Lorca and the other denizens of The Cat’s Pajamas. I’m an amateur musician myself, and I always love reading about music and musicians. So I sympathized with Lorca, whose beloved jazz club is slowly dying, and the literal band of misfits he’s collected. But I wasn’t as invested in the other stories until the end, where all the characters converge on the club. I did get a kick out of Madeleine, whose goal of becoming a jazz singer is so precocious and bizarre, and I warmed up to Sarina as her story unfolded. The book also has a great sense of atmosphere and paints a vivid picture of contemporary Philadelphia. Some people may find the novel too whimsical, but I liked it overall, even though it didn’t completely grab me.
Charlie N. Holmberg, The Paper Magician
Ceony Twill arrives at the cottage of Magician Emery Thane with a broken heart. Having graduated at the top of her class from the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined, Ceony is assigned an apprenticeship in paper magic despite her dreams of bespelling metal. And once she’s bonded to paper, that will be her only magic…forever.
Yet the spells Ceony learns under the strange yet kind Thane turn out to be more marvelous than she could have ever imagined—animating paper creatures, bringing stories to life via ghostly images, even reading fortunes. But as she discovers these wonders, Ceony also learns of the extraordinary dangers of forbidden magic.
An Excisioner—a practitioner of dark, flesh magic—invades the cottage and rips Thane’s heart from his chest. To save her teacher’s life, Ceony must face the evil magician and embark on an unbelievable adventure that will take her into the chambers of Thane’s still-beating heart—and reveal the very soul of the man. (Summary from Amazon.com.)
This was a pleasant read on the younger end of the YA spectrum, which is to say that I enjoyed it in the moment, but it wasn’t particularly complex or compelling. I think I was expecting more of a steampunk adventure, whereas the book is actually rather placid. Yes, there’s a dark sorceress who tears Emery Thane’s heart out of his chest, and Ceony has to stop her. But she basically fulfills this mission by entering Emery’s heart and thus becoming privy to his memories and emotions. I actually liked this conceptualization of the heart, especially as Ceony accesses both the good and evil parts of Emery’s psyche. But the character development is a bit simplistic, and the action doesn’t really pick up until the end. All in all, a decent read, but I’m on the fence about whether I want to continue with the series.