Review: Portuguese Irregular Verbs

Portuguese Irregular VerbsAlexander McCall Smith, Portuguese Irregular Verbs

This short novel is more like a series of vignettes centering around Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, a German academic whose crowning achievement is a massive book entitled Portuguese Irregular Verbs. Von Igelfeld is pompous and self-absorbed and desperately craves approval from others, while at the same time he utterly lacks any self-awareness about his shortcomings. His adventures take him from his school days — when he accidentally forces his best friend into a duel — to various academic conferences around the globe. He consults with a holy man in India, learns a great deal of profanity in Ireland, and tries unsuccessfully to play tennis in Switzerland. He suffers unrequited love for his dentist. And through it all, he is continually surprised that other people don’t recognize Portuguese Irregular Verbs for the work of genius that, at least in his mind, it is.

The subtitle of this book is “A Professor Dr. von Igelfeld Entertainment,” and I think that pretty much sums it up: it’s entertaining enough, but it doesn’t require or inspire any investment from readers. Von Igelfeld is a well-drawn stereotype of a pompous academic, and he never quite feels like a real person. I don’t think he’s supposed to; his character is just a vehicle for the book’s gentle satire. But I did want to see some character development, some growth in self-awareness, some progress toward being a less petty and self-involved person. For me, the various little incidents von Igelfeld encounters, though humorous, weren’t enough to distract me from the lack of a character arc. All that said, I feel like I could make the same criticisms about Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, but I found that book delightful! So I’m not sure why this one didn’t work for me. Nevertheless, I won’t be continuing with the series.

Review: Evvie Drake Starts Over

Evvie Drake Starts OverLinda Holmes, Evvie Drake Starts Over

Eveleth “Evvie” Drake has been essentially hiding in her home ever since her husband, Tim, died in a car crash. Everyone in the small town of Calcasset, Maine, loved Tim and assumes that Evvie is isolating herself because of grief. Only Evvie knows that Tim had a dark side and that on the day of his death, she was actually in the process of leaving him. Now she’s having trouble making decisions about her life, so when her best friend Andy suggests that she take in a tenant, she goes along with it. Meanwhile, Dean Tenney is a major league baseball pitcher who suddenly can’t pitch anymore. He’s tried everything he can think of to get his mojo back, to no avail. Now that his career as a baseball player is apparently over, he needs to get out of town and figure out what to do next. When he rents the apartment attached to Evvie’s house, the two gradually become friends and maybe more. But will their respective baggage keep them apart?

I really enjoyed this book, although it’s not quite what I was expecting. I think I was anticipating a light and fizzy rom-com, but this book has a quieter, more contemplative feel. While the relationship between Evvie and Dean drives the plot, most of the conflicts they face are internal. Both of them are in a place where their lives have changed unexpectedly, and they’re floundering as they try to figure out what’s next. And while their growing affection makes them happier, it doesn’t magically fix everything in their lives — something I really appreciated about this book. The characters and conflicts are utterly grounded in reality, and I found both Evvie and Dean very relatable. I believed that these characters genuinely like each other and that their love will last because it’s based on a true friendship. All in all, I liked this book and would definitely recommend it to people who enjoy their romance on the realistic side.

Review: The Second Man

Second ManEdward Grierson, The Second Man

Set in 1950s England, this novel focuses on a small-town law practice that has just hired a female barrister. Marion Kerrison is a young woman in an almost overwhelmingly male profession, and she must fight to be taken seriously both in the practice and in court. But she has some allies, including junior lawyer Michael Irvine, who narrates the book. Marion soon proves her worth by winning several cases, and because of her gender she receives some attention from the press. As a result, the practice assigns Marion a much more important case: the defense of John Maudsley, who is accused of murdering his aunt to obtain an inheritance. Everyone except Marion thinks he’s guilty, but she insists that the key witness is lying and that someone else committed the crime. With Michael’s help, she reviews the evidence, questions key witnesses, and tries to come up with an alternate theory of the murder.

Most mystery novels end with the discovery of the guilty party and the implication that he or she will be brought to justice. But this novel explores what happens next: the investigators may have discovered the truth, but can they prove it in a court of law? What happens if witnesses are unreliable, evidence is inadmissible, or one side simply has a better lawyer than the other? This book explores these fascinating questions by focusing almost entirely on the murder trial, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I also thought the portrayal of Marion was very interesting. I expected it to be more sexist, frankly, given the author’s gender and the era in which the book was written. But while the novel does make some irritating assumptions about Marion’s “intuition,” it is also surprisingly sensitive to the difficulties she faces as a woman in her profession. My one complaint is that the book ends rather abruptly, and the solution to the mystery isn’t explained in much depth. I missed that final chapter where the detective explains how s/he solved the crime. But overall, I would definitely recommend this book if the premise interests you.

Review: The Famous Heroine / The Plumed Bonnet

Famous Heroine:Plumed BonnetMary Balogh, The Famous Heroine / The Plumed Bonnet

This volume collects two of Balogh’s earlier novels, which each focus on couples who marry first and fall in love later. In The Famous Heroine, Cora Downes, the daughter of a rich merchant, is launched into high society in hopes that she’ll find an aristocratic husband. But Cora is clumsy, outspoken, and ignorant of the rules of this new world. Lord Francis Kneller takes her under his wing, and they become good friends — until he inadvertently “compromises” her and feels honor-bound to marry her. In The Plumed Bonnet, Alistair Munro, the duke of Bridgwater, gives a ride to a hitchhiking young woman out of boredom. Because of her gaudy clothes, he assumes she’s a prostitute and listens with amusement to her unlikely story of misfortune. But when he learns that Stephanie Gray’s story is true, he realizes that he’s ruined her reputation and must marry her to make amends.

I’ve been slowly discovering Mary Balogh’s books and haven’t hit a bad one yet! I didn’t find either of the romances entirely compelling — something prevented me from becoming fully emotionally invested — but these two novels are on the short side, so perhaps there was just less space for character development. And there’s still plenty to enjoy with both of these books. I liked Cora’s frank nature and was amused by Francis’s attitude toward her: bewilderment slowly transforming into delight. They’re a more fun, lighthearted couple than Alistair and Stephanie, but I found Stephanie’s conflict (she’s trying so hard to become duchess material that she begins to lose herself) more interesting. I should note that these two books are actually the third and fourth installments of a series that starts with Dark Angel and Lord Carew’s Bride; the heroes and heroines of those books appear in both of these as well. You don’t HAVE to read the first two books to understand what’s going on, but it would give you some extra context. Overall, I liked these books a lot and will continue my wanderings through Balogh’s backlist.

Review: The Friend Zone

Friend ZoneAbby Jimenez, The Friend Zone

***Warning: This review contains SPOILERS! Highlight the white text in the second paragraph to read them.***

This contemporary romance novel focuses on Kristen Peterson, an outspoken entrepreneur who creates and sells accessories for small dogs, and Josh Copeland, a firefighter and ex-Marine. Kristen and Josh meet cute when she slams on her brakes and he rear-ends her; they then learn that their respective best friends, Sloan and Brandon, are getting married to each other. As Kristen and Josh spend more time together, they can’t deny their mutual attraction. But Kristen has a boyfriend who’s currently deployed overseas. And even if she weren’t dating someone else, she has a secret that makes her fundamentally incompatible with Josh: she has a medical condition that will make her unable to have children. Since Josh has stated that he wants a big family, Kristen knows she has to keep Josh in the “friend zone,” but the closer they become, the harder it is for her to deny her true feelings for him.

So, despite the good buzz surrounding this book, I must confess that it annoyed me on a number of different levels! First of all, the title is completely misleading. It gives the impression that this is a friends-to-lovers romance, but the attraction between Kristen and Josh is there from the start, and it doesn’t even take them that long to act on it. Second, Kristen keeps her medical issue a secret for far too long, so that the main obstacle to the romance is her failure to communicate, not the fact that Josh wants kids and she can’t have any. Third, a huge tragedy occurs near the end of the book, and that’s what brings Kristen and Josh together at last. But the event seemed totally unnecessary and emotionally manipulative to me. And finally, I was truly enraged by the resolution of the infertility conflict, which is that against all odds, Kristen gets pregnant after all! I know such things are medically possible, but this book has gotten a lot of positive attention for having an infertile heroine, and if I’m an infertile woman reading this book and the heroine gets pregnant in the end, I’m going to be PISSED! So yeah, I didn’t enjoy this book, and I feel like the title and description are misleading for multiple reasons. I’m getting mad again just thinking about it!

Review: The Cornish Coast Murder

Cornish Coast MurderJohn Bude, The Cornish Coast Murder

Old friends Reverend Dodd and Dr. Pendrill enjoy their weekly custom of eating dinner together and discussing mystery novels. Both are avid fans of the genre but recognize that in their small Cornish town, it’s extremely unlikely that a real mystery will come their way. So when the local major landowner, Julius Tregarthan, is shot dead in his living room, Dodd and Pendrill are naturally eager to assist the police with their investigation. The case quickly becomes more complicated for Dodd, however, when he learns that Tregarthan’s niece, Ruth, was seen behaving suspiciously on the night of the murder. Suspicion also falls on Ruth’s suitor, Ronald Hardy, who had argued with Tregarthan shortly before his death. Reverend Dodd can’t believe that either Ruth or Ronald is guilty, so he exercises his detective skills to find the real murderer.

This is my first John Bude mystery novel, but it won’t be my last! It’s not exactly groundbreaking — I’d consider it a fairly traditional vintage mystery — but it’s a great example of the genre. There’s the unpleasant victim who leaves an inheritance behind him, a pair of young lovers who may or may not be conspiring, an enthusiastic amateur sleuth who assists the police, and a tightly plotted mystery whose solution unfolds logically and systematically. I’m not quite sure it’s “fair,” though — I don’t recall learning enough to guess the motive until the culprit confesses at the end of the book. Also, I wish there had been a few more suspects, and that Ruth and Ronald had been more fleshed out. But I really liked that the book spends a lot of time on both the amateur and professional investigations. Many books of this era don’t care about the routine details of police work, but this one acknowledges them without getting too tediously descriptive. Overall, I enjoyed this book and look forward to reading more by the author.

Review: Ten Things I Love about You

Ten Things I Love about YouJulia Quinn, Ten Things I Love about You

Sebastian Grey occupies an unusual social position: he is the heir apparent to his uncle, the Earl of Newbury, but if the earl marries and has a son, Sebastian gets nothing. The earl hates Sebastian and is therefore desperate to marry a young, fertile bride. His eye falls on Annabel Winslow, who is young enough to be his granddaughter, but whose numerous siblings and wide hips seem to guarantee her ability to produce heirs. Though Annabel is repulsed by the earl, she feels obligated to marry him to gain financial security for her impoverished family. But of course, complications ensue when Sebastian and Annabel meet and are immediately attracted to one another — each without knowing the other’s identity. When they discover their situation, Sebastian initially sees an opportunity to thwart his uncle’s plans; but he soon realizes that his feelings for Annabel are all too genuine.

It’s telling that I read this book a week ago and could barely remember the plot; I had to read some Amazon reviews to refresh my memory. It’s not a bad book, and I can’t point to anything specific that annoyed me about it, but it just didn’t leave much of an impression on me. Earlier this year I read and enjoyed the prequel to this book, What Happens in London, and found Sebastian to be a delightfully fun character. The scene in which he performs a dramatic reading from a lurid gothic novel (of which he is secretly the author) was a highlight of that book. So I was excited to read his story, but I found it underwhelming. We don’t really get to know more about Sebastian as a character. We learn that he’s had insomnia ever since returning from the Napoleonic Wars, and we know that he enjoys writing novels, but neither one of these character traits is really explored. And while Annabel seems perfectly nice, it’s never entirely clear why he falls in love with her. Overall, a very “meh” read.

Review: Sorcery of Thorns

Sorcery of ThornsMargaret Rogerson, Sorcery of Thorns

Elisabeth is an orphan who was raised in a Great Library among the grimoires, books that have been enchanted by the demonic power of sorcery. She hopes one day to become a warden so that she can protect the pubic from the evils they contain. When one of the library’s most dangerous grimoires escapes, Elisabeth successfully stops it from harming anyone, but her presence on the scene is viewed as suspicious. She is taken to the capital city to be tried for sabotage, but there she soon realizes that this one incident is part of a much larger and more dangerous plot. Her only ally is Nathaniel Thorn, a powerful sorcerer whom she has every reason to distrust. But as they work together to discover the real saboteur’s identity and purpose, Elisabeth learns that there is more to sorcery — and to Nathaniel — than meets the eye.

I’ve become somewhat disenchanted with YA fantasy recently, but the premise of this novel intrigued me, so I decided to give it a try. And I’m so glad I did, because I really loved it! Elisabeth is in some ways a typical YA fantasy heroine; she’s great with a sword (despite never having been trained) and has hitherto-unsuspected special powers. But she also strikes me as a real person, someone who has to confront her fears and prejudices as she learns that the world is more complicated than she thought. And I adored both Nathaniel and his demonic servant, Silas; their relationship is almost more compelling than that between Nathaniel and Elisabeth. The plot is exciting and action-packed, and I love that the villain’s identity is revealed early on; the book doesn’t underestimate its readers’ intelligence. Most of all, I enjoyed the flashes of humor throughout the book, as the characters joke and tease even in the most serious, life-threatening situations. In short, I loved this book and will definitely seek out Rogerson’s previous novel, An Enchantment of Ravens!

Review: How to Find Love in a Bookshop

How to Find Love in a BookshopVeronica Henry, How to Find Love in a Bookshop

This story begins with the death of Julius Nightingale, proprietor of Nightingale Books in the village of Peasebrook, near Oxford. When he passes away following a sudden illness, his daughter Emilia inherits the bookshop. Though she receives a lucrative offer from a real estate developer to sell the shop, she decides to take over the management of the store and continue her father’s legacy. But she is surprised to learn just how powerful that legacy was to the community of Peasebrook. As she meets Julius’s friends and customers — like Sarah, the owner of the local stately home, whose relationship with Julius was more complex than anyone suspected; or Thomasina, the painfully shy teacher who can’t muster up the courage to ask out the handsome man she met in the cookbook section — Emilia realizes that Nightingale Books can be her legacy, and her home, as well.

This book is hard to describe because it’s very light on plot; it’s essentially a collection of vignettes about the various residents of Peasebrook and their relationships to one another and to Nightingale Books. All these stories are ultimately sweet and uplifting, despite the fact that the book begins with a death and that many of the characters are grieving. Almost everyone finds love in the end, although surprisingly few of the romances have anything to do with books. That might be my biggest complaint about the novel — there’s not very much about books or bookselling in it. Rather, the store is the backdrop for these various character-driven stories to unfold. I also felt that there were a few too many characters; I would have preferred fewer storylines and more depth. But despite these shortcomings, I actually really enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone who likes a pleasant, feel-good read!

Review: The Heretic’s Apprentice

Heretic's ApprenticeEllis Peters, The Heretic’s Apprentice

In the summer of 1143, the Benedictine abbey of Saints Peter and Paul in Shrewsbury is preparing for its annual festival in honor of St. Winifred. But the celebrations are somewhat dampened when a young man called Elave arrives with the body of his master, Sir William Lythwood, who died returning from a seven-year pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Elave requests that Sir William be buried at the abbey, but questions from a visiting cleric reveal that the dead man had discussed and possibly even espoused heretical views. Elave hotly defends his master and is accused of being a heretic himself. When his accuser is later found stabbed to death, Elave falls under suspicion for murder as well. Luckily, Brother Cadfael is once again on the case, both to solve the mystery and to help clear Elave’s name of the heresy charge.

It’s always a pleasure to spend some time with Brother Cadfael, and this installment of the series is no different. All the quintessential elements of the formula are there: Cadfael gets involved through his knowledge of herbs and healing, he solves the mystery with the help of Hugh Beringar, and he helps two young lovers get together. I particularly enjoyed the heresy plot of this book; not only was it interesting (at least for me) to think about the theological topics at issue, but I liked the fact that no one was a complete villain. The book clearly intends us to side with Elave, and the cleric who interrogates him is portrayed as being too rigid, yet we later catch a glimpse of his humanity as well. The mystery is well plotted, although I was able to guess the culprit in advance. Overall, this is a series I continue to love, and I’m sorry I only have four books left!