Review: The Jane Austen Project

Jane Austen ProjectKathleen A. Flynn, The Jane Austen Project

Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane live in a near-future world where time travel is well established as a scientific research tool. Their first mission is to travel to 1815, where they will retrieve Jane Austen’s personal letters (many of which were destroyed after her death) and her manuscript of “The Watsons,” which, according to a recent discovery, she actually did complete. To achieve this goal, Rachel and Liam will pose as members of the gentry and try to become part of the Austens’ social circle. But the more they get to know Jane and her family, the more Rachel and Liam begin to have scruples about their actions. Additionally, they start to worry about the possibility of changing history and the even scarier possibility that they may not be able to leave 1815. And of course, the deepening of their relationship to each other may have far-reaching consequences in both 1815 and their own time.

I enjoyed this book overall, but I definitely think some parts were more successful than others. The premise is certainly an interesting one if you love Jane Austen, and overall I think the portrayal of Jane and her family was very well done. The book evokes the 1815 setting very well; it feels like the reader is also a time traveler, being immersed into this bygone era for the first time. I was particularly tickled by one scene where Jane catches Rachel looking through her private papers and accuses her of being a French spy! That said, the novel gives short shrift to the time travel element; it doesn’t explain how it works or what the “rules” are, and the future consequences of Rachel and Liam’s actions in 1815 are wrapped up very quickly. Finally, I wasn’t particularly invested in the romance. While Rachel and Liam are both pleasant enough, I never really got a sense of what made them tick. Ultimately, I did like the book, but I don’t think it’s one I’ll ever need to reread.

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Review: Beastly Bones

Beastly BonesWilliam Ritter, Beastly Bones

In this second installment of the Jackaby series, Abigail Rook has finally begun to adjust to life as the assistant of R.F. Jackaby, paranormal detective. However, she still remains interested in her first passion, paleontology, so she is delighted to learn that a relatively nearby scientific dig has unearthed what appears to be a brand-new species of dinosaur. Abigail is eager to travel to the site and participate in the excavation, but Jackaby isn’t interested — until the wife of the site’s landowner dies somewhat mysteriously. Together they travel to the dig and meet up with police officer Charlie Cane, an ally to Jackaby and possibly something more to Abigail. But they immediately run into several challenges, including two rival scientists who each want to claim the discovery, a brash female journalist who keeps getting underfoot, and the apparent theft of some of the bones. And then more people start dying. . . .

It’s been a few years since I read Jackaby, but I was so charmed by it that I always intended to continue with the series. By and large, I enjoyed this installment very much as well. Abigail is a wonderful heroine and narrator, smart and plucky without being The Best at Everything. And Jackaby, between his penetrating intelligence, abrupt demeanor, and genuine fondness for his friends, is a delight — think Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, but more likable. I do think the plot has a bit too much going on — the dueling scientists are fun but don’t really add much to the story. Also, the tone is a little too light considering the high body count, but I suppose that’s to be expected with many books geared toward younger readers. But I liked this book a lot overall and look forward to reading the third installment soon!

Review: The English Wife

English WifeLauren Willig, The English Wife

In the winter of 1899, Bayard van Duyvil and his highborn English wife, Annabelle, are at the pinnacle of New York high society. Wealthy and attractive, with two young children and a brand-new estate, they seem to be the perfect couple — that is, until their Twelfth Night ball, when Bayard is found murdered and Annabelle goes missing. Rumors abound that Annabelle killed her husband, but Bayard’s sister Janie is not convinced. With the help of dashing journalist James Burke, Janie is determined to discover what really happened to Bay and Annabelle. But she soon learns that their relationship was much more complicated than it appeared.

I always enjoy Lauren Willig’s books, but I find that I definitely prefer her light and fluffy Pink Carnation series to her more serious historical novels. I enjoyed the setting of this one, and I liked Janie a lot — I’m always a fan of characters who have to grow into their strength. The romance between Janie and James was also satisfying, albeit quite predictable. However, I wasn’t a huge fan of the secondary narrative, which takes place five years earlier and is told from the point of view of Georgie, an actress who meets Bayard while he’s visiting London. I liked Georgie but disliked Bayard more and more as the story went on. I also found Janie’s story more interesting, so I was annoyed when the book’s focus shifted away from her. Overall, I found this an enjoyable read, but it’s not a keeper for me.

Review: Unexpected Night

Unexpected NightElizabeth Daly, Unexpected Night

This first novel in the Henry Gamadge series centers around Amberley Cowden, a young man who stands to inherit millions of dollars on his 21st birthday—assuming he lives that long. He has a chronic heart condition, and it’s only a matter of time before he has a fatal attack. But when his body is found at the bottom of a cliff on the very day he turns 21, his death can’t help but raise suspicions. The local police mount an investigation that leads to a nearby theater troupe, another mysterious death, and the attempted murder of Alma, Amberley’s cousin and heiress. Henry Gamadge, who knows some of Amberley’s relatives, assists the police in their investigation, and his expertise in handwriting analysis proves valuable in solving the case.

Although it’s not particularly groundbreaking, I enjoyed this Golden Age mystery very much. The plot is a little bloated in places, but I found the ultimate solution ingenious. I also liked the character of Henry Gamadge, although he’s very involved with an investigation he really has no right to be involved with — a fact that several of the other characters point out! But I like that he cooperates so well with the local police, rather than trying to investigate on his own. Stylistically, I didn’t like the fact that dialogue tags are very infrequent; it’s often not immediately obvious who is speaking, although I could generally figure it out from context. Still, that quibble aside, I liked this book and am excited to read more in the Henry Gamadge series.

Review: I Heart New York

I Heart New YorkLindsey Kelk, I Heart New York

This chick lit novel follows Angela Clark, an English girl whose life is turned upside-down when she catches her long-term boyfriend cheating on her, then finds out that all her friends already knew. Feeling heartbroken and betrayed, Angela impulsively hops on a plane from London to New York, where she immediately falls in love with the city. Her new BFF Jenny shows her around town, takes her shopping, and gives her a ton of advice on life, love, and the perfect makeup products. Angela is excited about her new adventure but hesitant to start dating again — that is, until she meets two gorgeous men, Wall Street finance guy Tyler and Brooklyn-based musician Alex. But who is truly the right guy for her? And when Angela is faced with two great job opportunities, one in New York and one back in London, she must make an even bigger decision: will she go back to her old life or embrace her newfound happiness in New York?

I’ve read and enjoyed some other books by Lindsey Kelk, so I was excited to read this one. Unfortunately, I found it pretty disappointing. I expected it to be light and fluffy — indeed, that’s what I’m usually looking for with this type of book — but it was so insubstantial that I completely lost interest. Angela has a fun narrative voice, but she doesn’t seem to care about anything except shopping and dating. And while readers are clearly supposed to be rooting for one of Angela’s suitors over the other, I found them both pretty obnoxious. The economics of this book also frustrated me. Angela is a freelance writer and not working on any particular project when the book begins, yet she is somehow able to afford (1) a last-minute trans-Atlantic flight, (2) several nights in a boutique Manhattan hotel, (3) half the rent on a Manhattan apartment, and (4) thousands of dollars’ worth of designer clothes, handbags, and shoes, all within a period of about three weeks. I mean, I get that this is supposed to be a wish-fulfillment fantasy type of story, but I still wasn’t able to suspend my disbelief. I would say that if you genuinely wish you were Carrie Bradshaw, you might like this book, but I was not a fan.

Review: Child 44

Child 44Tom Rob Smith, Child 44

In the USSR of the 1950s, no crimes are acknowledged except crimes against the state. After all, by removing distinctions of class and property ownership, the communist regime has theoretically abolished every reason for individuals to commit crimes like murder or theft. Leo Demidov, an officer of the state security force, believes this unquestioningly — until a coworker’s son is murdered, his stomach removed, and his mouth stuffed with dirt. Leo is ordered to report the boy’s death as an accident, but then he discovers that a dead girl’s body was found in the same condition, in a town hundreds of miles away. As Leo investigates these seemingly related deaths, he himself comes under the state’s suspicion and must ultimately question his commitment to the regime.

This is a book with a lot of different things going on, and ultimately I enjoyed some elements more than others. First, it’s a depiction of life in 1950s Russia that I found very compelling. Some Amazon reviewers have noted inaccuracies in the details, and the overall portrayal does lack nuance — no question who the bad guys are here! — but I definitely thought a lot about what it must be like to live in such a constant state of fear. Less successful, for me, was the hunt for the serial killer. The storyline lacks momentum, and without spoilers, I’ll just say that the overall resolution seemed to rely on one twist too many. Finally, the development of Leo’s relationship with his wife Raisa was a bit sketchy and rushed; I would have liked the book to spend a lot more time exploring their complicated feelings toward each other. Overall, I did enjoy the book and would consider reading the sequels, but I wasn’t wowed by it.

Review: This Love Story Will Self-Destruct

This Love Story Will Self-DestructLeslie Cohen, This Love Story Will Self-Destruct

Eve is a music writer who thrives on emotion, creativity, and chaos. She dates edgy, brooding musicians, and she’s not attracted to anyone who isn’t a little bit broken. In short, she’s the last person who would want to be in a stable, long-term relationship—especially with someone like Ben. Ben is a civil engineer who values order, logic, and direct communication. A girl like Eve would drive him crazy. Of course, this novel is their love story, and it traces their relationship from college acquaintances to a one-night stand and beyond. But of course, there are many obstacles in their path: Eve is emotionally guarded due to her father’s abandonment and a family tragedy, while Ben is keeping a secret relevant to that same tragedy. And then there’s the matter of Eve’s ex-boyfriend Jesse, one of the aforementioned brooding musicians, who comes back into her life at the worst possible time. Will these obstacles force Eve and Ben apart, or is their connection strong enough to bring them back to each other?

I have deeply mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I found it compelling enough that I read most of it in one sitting and stayed up way too late as a result. On the other hand, I found myself (metaphorically) rolling my eyes a lot. I recently saw this quote in a commentary on the Morning News Tournament of Books: “The only books I refuse to read are those about twenty-somethings living in New York.” And while I don’t have that same rule myself, I completely understood what that commentator meant as I was reading this book. This is a novel that positions itself as a romantic comedy—the cover compares the author to Nora Ephron—but it has none of the lightness, humor, or joy I’d expect from a rom-com. Rather, the whole thing is just kind of dreary. I did find Eve’s journey somewhat interesting; she’s a character who has been telling herself a certain narrative about who she is, and she eventually discovers that her narrative is flawed and that it can change. At the same time, she annoyed me more often than she intrigued me. Ben is a more likable character, but that’s only because he doesn’t have much of a personality. Overall, I’m not quite sure who this book is for: whether you want a rom-com or a literary depiction of New York, I think there’s better stuff out there.

Review: Heart of Iron

Heart of IronAshley Poston, Heart of Iron

Ana was raised an outlaw on the spaceship Dossier, under the rough but loving care of the infamous Captain Siege and her crew. She remembers nothing of her life before the Dossier found her; the only connection to her past is her Metal (robot), D09, who also happens to be her best friend. When D09 starts to malfunction, Ana is so desperate to save him that she’ll even steal the coordinates for the long-lost spaceship Tsarina, which is rumored to have the information she’ll need to repair D09. But her plan goes wrong when Robb, an Ironblood (upper class) boy who has his own reasons for seeking the Tsarina, gets the coordinates first. Now Ana and Robb find themselves on the same side as they search for answers. Meanwhile, the Iron Kingdom needs a new leader, since a rebellion several years ago killed the entire royal family. Robb’s corrupt brother Erik is next in line, but legend has it that one of the murdered emperor’s children may have survived after all. . . .

This book was originally pitched as “Anastasia meets Firefly,” and since I love both of those things, I figured I’d be the ideal reader for this novel! Unfortunately, that didn’t turn out to be the case, but I want to emphasize that my problems with the book are very specific and may not be problems for another reader! It’s certainly a fun read overall, with a nice blend of outer space action and political intrigue. But for me, the book is missing the elements I was hoping for based on the premise. My favorite aspects of Anastasia are the con angle and the enemies-to-lovers romance, neither of which are present in this book. Instead, one of the main plot lines is a romance between a human and a robot, and I just couldn’t get past it. I think the discussion about artificial intelligence and consciousness is absolutely fascinating, but there’s not much debate about it in the novel; rather, all the “good” characters simply accept D09’s humanity, which just left me with a lot of questions and frustration. Also, I found the Firefly elements to be a little superficial: yes, there’s a ragtag crew of space pirates/adventurers, but only a few of them get any significant characterization. In short, all I can say is that this book didn’t deliver what I was hoping for based on the premise. But again, that has a lot to do with my own subjective expectations, and I expect that many other readers will love it!

Review: Faithful Place

Faithful PlaceTana French, Faithful Place

Frank Mackey, last seen as Cassie’s irascible handler in The Likeness, is an experienced undercover cop. He’s tough as nails and an expert in detachment: getting emotionally involved in an operation is the surest way to screw it up. But Frank’s detachment is really rooted in his childhood, growing up in a poor neighborhood in 1980s Dublin. When he was 19 years old, he was madly in love with Rosie Daly, the girl next door. Despite their families’ disapproval, they were planning to run away to England together. But Rosie never showed up, and Frank always assumed that she changed her mind and left the neighborhood on her own. Now, however, one of Frank’s sisters reaches out to him with disturbing news: no one has heard from Rosie since she supposedly left town, and her suitcase has just been found. To find out what really happened all those years ago, Frank must return to his estranged family and face the ghosts of his past; but the truth may be even more horrible than living with the uncertainty.

The word I keep using to describe this book is intense, but that doesn’t seem to encompass the emotional wringer I went through while reading this book. Something about Tana French’s writing pulls me in and grabs me, and I think this novel might be my favorite of hers so far. Frank is not a particularly likable character—he’s manipulative, callous, and occasionally violent—but I never doubted the truth of his thoughts, feelings, and actions. His interactions with his family also felt real to me; French excels in her depiction of dysfunctional families, and the Mackeys are a quintessential example. The plot isn’t particularly complex as far as mysteries go; Rosie’s fate is never really in doubt, and the villain of the piece isn’t that hard to spot either. But the point of this type of mystery isn’t solving the puzzle of whodunnit or why; the point is what happens, or what ought to happen, once the puzzle is solved. And the consequences of Frank’s discovering the truth provide the gut punch of this novel. Bottom line, I can’t wait to continue with the Dublin Murder Squad series!

N.B. This is technically book 3 of the Dublin Murder Squad series, but you absolutely won’t be missing anything if you haven’t read books 1 and 2.

Review: Frogkisser!

Frogkisser!Garth Nix, Frogkisser!

Princess Anya of Trallonia just wants to live peacefully at home, mingling with the Royal Dogs and studying a bit of sorcery in the palace library. But her wicked step-stepfather, the powerful sorcerer Duke Rikard, wants the throne of Trallonia for himself, and he’ll stop at nothing to get it. He’s already eliminated several threats to his power by transforming them into frogs—including Prince Denholm from a neighborhing kingdom, who is smitten with Anya’s sister Morven. Anya promises the distraught Morven that she’ll transform Prince Denholm back into a human, but she’ll need to leave the palace to acquire the proper magical ingredients to reverse the spell. She sets forth on her quest with Ardent, one of the most loyal and intelligent Royal Dogs, only to discover that Duke Rikard has sent spies and assassins after her. As Anya and Ardent race against time to complete their quest, Anya meets many new friends and foes, including a thief in the body of a newt, an angry giant, a good wizard, and even Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. She also finds that the people of her kingdom are depending on her to defeat Duke Rikard and reestablish the ancient Bill of Rights and Wrongs. But are Anya and her allies strong enough to survive against Duke Rikard and his band of evil sorcerers?

I enjoyed this charming middle-grade fantasy adventure. I found Anya to be a very appealing heroine, especially because she grows as a character throughout the novel. At the outset she is practical and kind, but she’s also a little bit selfish and ignorant about what’s going on in her kingdom. Initially she thinks her quest is limited to transforming Prince Denholm back into a man; she doesn’t want to fight Duke Rikard, and she’s not particularly interested in the Bill of Rights and Wrongs. But the more she learns about the people around her, the more she realizes that she has a responsibility to step up and be the leader they need. I also enjoyed the little flashes of humor throughout the story; at times I was reminded of Terry Pratchett. I absolutely loved the good wizard and the subversive take on Snow White! My only quibble with the book is that the tone is a bit inconsistent. At its core it’s a story for children, complete with talking dogs and the heroine learning a valuable lesson, but there are occasional sly jokes that seem intended for an adult audience. The narrative isn’t played entirely straight, but it’s not exactly a spoof or parody either. Still, there’s a lot to like in this book, and I’d recommend it for people who enjoy a light fantasy frolic.