Review: The Element of Fire

Element of FireMartha Wells, The Element of Fire

In a quasi-Renaissance fantasy world, the kingdom of Ile-Rien is in a precarious position. King Roland is young and weak, completely under the thumb of his conniving cousin, who has his own plans for the throne. Roland’s mother Ravenna still wields much of the throne’s power, but her health is deteriorating, and many of those at court (including the evil cousin) are now her enemies. In addition to these domestic intrigues, Ile-Rien is now under threat from a foreign sorcerer, Urbain Grandier, who is rumored to be a powerful and dangerous dark magician. Thomas Boniface, captain of the Queen’s Guard and Ravenna’s former lover, is charged with finding Grandier and thwarting whatever plans he may have against Ile-Rien. Thomas also finds himself dealing with Roland’s half-fay half-sister Kade, who returns to court after a years-long absence with unknown motives. Amid the complex allegiances of the court — in which it soon becomes apparent that at least one traitor is at work — whom, if anyone, can Thomas trust? And when Grandier finally makes his move, will Thomas be able to stop him before it’s too late?

I first read this book in (I think) 2009, and I enjoyed it so much that I bought four other books set in the world of Ile-Rien. But for some reason, I never read any of those sequels, and since it’s been more than a decade, I wanted to refresh my memory of the first book. I’m happy to say that I still really enjoyed it! It strikes me as a quintessential classic fantasy novel, with tons of political intrigue, sorcery, and fay magic thrown in for good measure. I really like that, instead of the quasi-medieval setting of most fantasy novels, this book evokes more of a Renaissance feel, with pistols and gunpowder beginning to supplement (though not yet replace) swords as the dominant weapons. I also liked the main characters a lot, particularly Thomas and Kade. They share a cynical, bantering sense of humor that makes their interactions particularly enjoyable; but when the chips are down, they also share a deep courage and sense of loyalty. The plot is action-packed and exciting, and the world-building is vivid. In short, I’m really glad I reread this one, and I look forward to reading a few more of the Ile-Rien books this year!

Review: Love Lettering

Love LetteringKate Clayborn, Love Lettering

Meg Mackworth, the “Planner of Park Slope,” has a thriving business in which she creates unique, hand-lettered planners, journals, and calendars for her clients. She’s reasonably successful and Instagram-famous, and now a major stationery brand is interested in hiring her, which would be a big step forward in her career — if only she weren’t completely creatively blocked. To make matters worse, Meg is unexpectedly confronted by a professional faux pas she made about a year ago, when she hid the word “mistake” in a wedding program she designed. The would-be groom, Reid Sutherland, noticed the pattern and has sought out Meg looking for answers. An unlikely friendship grows between them as Reid accompanies Meg on various walks around New York City, searching for inspiration in the city’s wealth of hand-lettered signs. But their relationship can only be temporary, since Reid hates the city and plans to move soon. Can Meg convince him to fall in love with New York — and with her — before it’s too late?

I feel I’ve done a horribly inadequate job of describing this book, which is so much more compelling than I’ve made it sound! Most of what I mentioned above is the setup; the meat of the book is the slow development of Meg and Reid’s relationship. It’s a joy to see them fall in love in such a simple, quiet way, without a lot of unnecessary drama or conflict. The book is told exclusively from Meg’s point of view, so the reader gets to know Reid the same way she does, relying on every little comment, look, or gesture to figure out what he’s thinking. Some readers might be annoyed by this, but I actually really liked it! Reid is definitely my type of hero — a bit Darcy-esque in his directness and occasional awkwardness. I will say, I didn’t love the last section of the book, in which a big external conflict suddenly arises to threaten Meg and Reid’s relationship. I couldn’t figure out what purpose it served, other than to provide the obligatory “It almost didn’t work out!” story beat before the ultimate resolution. But overall, I loved this book and resented every time I had to put it down! Definitely recommended for fans of contemporary romance.

Review: In Milady’s Chamber

In Milady's ChamberSheri Cobb South, In Milady’s Chamber

When Lord Fieldhurst is found murdered in his richly appointed Mayfair home, suspicion immediately falls on his wife. It’s common knowledge in London society that their marriage has been unhappy and that, because of Lady Fieldhurst’s inability to produce an heir, her husband has pursued sexual satisfaction elsewhere. Furthermore, the man was stabbed in the neck with his wife’s own nail scissors. The evidence seems ironclad; but John Pickett, the Bow Street Runner assigned to the case, is immediately enthralled by Lady Fieldhurst’s beauty and becomes determined to prove her innocence. As he investigates other promising suspects, such as Fieldhurst’s heir and his colleagues at the War Office, he uncovers many secrets but comes no closer to finding the killer — that is, until he and Lady Fieldhurst finally join forces to discover the truth.

I love mysteries and the Regency period, so any book that combines them both is something I’m going to want to read! In this case, the book delivered exactly what I wanted: a light, quick-reading, Heyer-esque period piece with a little mystery and a hint of romance. John Pickett is a somewhat unique protagonist for this type of story: most Regency heroes are self-assured and commanding, but John is young, naive, and idealistic to a fault. Nevertheless, he manages to be good at his job, despite being distracted by the beautiful Lady Fieldhurst. I was a little annoyed that he falls for her so quickly, and apparently on the basis of nothing but her looks, but his awkward pining does make for several humorous moments. Julia, Lady Fieldhurst, is also given some dimension and depth as she helps John with his investigation and contemplates her own future. The mystery is wrapped up a little too abruptly, although I did like the subtle hints to one part of the solution that are seeded throughout the book. But overall, I simply enjoyed spending time in this world with these characters, and I definitely plan on continuing with the series!

Review: Under a Dancing Star

Under a Dancing StarLaura Wood, Under a Dancing Star

In 1930s England, 17-year-old Beatrice Langton longs to be a scientist, but her parents have a different plan in mind for her: because she’s their only child, and they no longer have the money to maintain the estate, she must marry a rich aristocrat and restore the family fortunes. But Bea’s “outrageous” behavior at an ill-fated dinner party gives her life a new direction when her parents decide to send her to her uncle’s home in Italy. Far from being chastised, Bea is thrilled — especially when she arrives in Italy to find that her uncle and his bohemian fiancée are essentially living in an artists’ commune. She is soon enjoying the freedom of her new life, with one exception: one of the artists, Ben, is as argumentative and obnoxious as he is handsome. But when their friends dare them to embark upon a summer romance, Bea reluctantly agrees. If nothing else, it will be an interesting experiment, and she’ll gain some much-desired life experience. But when their pretend relationship becomes all too real, will their very different backgrounds keep them apart?

Much Ado about Nothing is my favorite Shakespeare play, so I’m game to read any and all retellings, especially if they’re set in interesting historical periods! This one takes place in the 1930s, so I couldn’t help but compare it with Speak Easy, Speak Love, which is another Much Ado retelling set in the 1920s. I absolutely adored Speak Easy, Speak Love, and I must admit that this book suffers a bit by comparison. It’s a light, fun read, and I enjoyed the chemistry between Bea and Ben, but to me it lacked the substance of Speak Easy, Speak Love. It’s also not as good a retelling of Much Ado — it focuses on the Beatrice and Benedick story but jettisons the Hero/Claudio plot entirely, merely keeping a few of the character names. I did love the way this book subtly paraphrased some of the most famous lines from the play, rather than quoting them outright; I thought that was a great way to pay homage to the original play while still keeping the language appropriate for the characters’ ages and the time period. Overall, I enjoyed this book and would read more by Laura Wood, but if you’re looking for a YA Much Ado retelling set in the early 20th century, I’d definitely recommend Speak Easy, Speak Love instead!

Review: Greenglass House

Greenglass HouseKate Milford, Greenglass House

”There is a right way to do things and a wrong way, if you’re going to run a hotel in a smugglers’ town.” Thus begins the story of 12-year-old Milo Pine and his parents, who manage an inn called Greenglass House in a port city that is heavily populated with smugglers. But the smuggling business tends to die down in winter, so Milo is looking forward to an uneventful Christmas vacation with his family. His hopes for a quiet Christmas are dashed, however, when several strangers arrive at Greenglass House for an indefinite stay, and then a bad snowstorm effectively traps them all in the inn together. Then several of the guests’ belongings mysteriously go missing, and it becomes obvious that there’s a thief in their midst. Not only that, but each of the guests seems to have a connection to Greenglass House or to be interested in its history. Milo and Meddy, the cook’s daughter, decide to investigate the guests, uncover the thief, and unearth the secrets of Greenglass House. But their search, while exciting, may turn out to be more dangerous than they ever imagined.

I must admit, I picked up this book primarily because of the gorgeous cover, but I’m pleased to say that the story does live up to it! It’s not quite the story I was expecting; I was picturing a little more action in the plot, when in fact it’s a pretty quiet story up until the last chapter or two. The novel actually contains layers of stories: First, Milo is reading a book in which several travelers meet in a tavern and exchange tales. Second, he and Meddy create fictional alter egos based on a roleplaying game similar to Dungeons and Dragons. And third, the guests of Greenglass House each tell a story and thus reveal their reasons for coming to the inn. I found this structure surprisingly complex for a middle-grade novel, but it does a nice job of bringing together all the threads of the plot. One interesting aspect of Milo’s character is that he’s adopted — he is of Chinese descent, while his parents are not — so he wrestles with questions about his heritage, while also worrying about hurting his beloved parents’ feelings. I don’t have personal experience with adoption, but I think the issue is handled sensitively here. Overall, I’d recommend this to people who want a cozy, atmospheric winter read, or for smart kids who loved The Westing Game and want more.

Review: Miss Grimsley’s Oxford Career

Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand:Miss Grimsley's Oxford CareerCarla Kelly, Miss Grimsley’s Oxford Career

Miss Ellen Grimsley is the second daughter of a respectable country gentleman, and her destiny is to marry an equally respectable country gentleman and fulfill her womanly duties as wife and mother. But Ellen would much rather be a scholar and an explorer, traveling the world and making maps of far-off places. When her forward-thinking aunt gets her a place at Miss Dignam’s Select Female Academy, in the very town of Oxford, Ellen is thrilled — but she soon discovers that the classes are only in “feminine” subjects like French and embroidery. So when her brother Gordon, who’s flunking his Shakespeare course at Oxford, asks for her help, Ellen can’t resist writing his papers and even dressing as a man to attend lectures at the university. Obviously she can’t continue this charade for long without being caught; but luckily, the person who catches her is the kind and scholarly Jim Gatewood, who encourages her intellectual curiosity and converses with her as an equal. But when Jim professes his love for her and proposes marriage, Ellen is hesitant to give up her dreams, even for love.

Since this book came in the omnibus with Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand, which I liked, I decided to give this one a try too. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much. The plot is rather muddled, and too many of the events strain credibility. For example, how does Ellen manage to fool everyone (or indeed anyone) in her male disguise? The book mentions that Gordon’s tutor is old and practically blind, but were there no other students nearby? Then there’s Ellen’s roommate, Fanny Bland, who is sometimes cruel and sometimes kind, without any real explanation for these fluctuating moods. Finally, the central conflict between Ellen and Jim seems to come down to Ellen’s own obtuseness. Despite her affection for, friendship with, and attraction to Jim, she refuses to see that she’s in love with him and turns down his repeated proposals of marriage. Near the very end of the book, there’s a hint that Ellen turns him down because she fears giving up her dreams of an independent life. That would have been a more interesting conflict to explore, but the book doesn’t dig into it at all, merely giving Ellen an abrupt change of heart just before the novel ends. Overall, a disappointing read — but at least I was able to finish it before the end of the year!

Top Ten Tuesday: Early 2020 releases

TTT Christmas

Appropriately, the first Top Ten Tuesday topic of 2020 is the books whose publication in the first half of 2020 you’re most excited about. I’m not totally current with all this year’s upcoming releases, but here are six books I’m looking forward to reading (couldn’t think of a full 10!):

1. Lucy Parker, Headliners (1/28) — Lucy Parker is an auto-buy author for me, so of course I can’t wait to devour her latest book, which is about rival TV personalities who are forced to work together and who eventually fall in love. I’ve already preordered this book and can’t wait to get my hands on it!

2. Lottie Lucas, Ten Things My Cat Hates about You (3/5) — This looks like a cute little rom-com about a woman whose cat keeps thwarting her attempts at romance, until she experiences two meet-cutes in a single day and must choose which relationship to pursue. It’s being pitched as perfect for fans of Sophie Kinsella, Lindsey Kelk, and Mhairi McFarlane, so we’ll see!

3. Beth O’Leary, The Switch (3/19) — After loving O’Leary’s debut novel, The Flatshare, I am 100% on board for whatever she writes next!

4. Emily Henry, Beach Read (5/19) — I am so intrigued by the premise of this novel: a man who writes critically acclaimed literary fiction and a woman who writes best-selling romance novels end up vacationing in neighboring beach houses. They’re both suffering from writer’s block, so they challenge each other to step out of their comfort zones: the man will write a romance and the woman will write a “Great American Novel.”

5. Jessie Mihalik, Chaos Reigning (5/19) — I enjoyed the first two books in Mihalik’s Consortium Rebellion series, so I’m looking forward to reading this next installment of the series, which might be the final book.

6. Natalie Jenner, The Jane Austen Society (5/26) — From the Amazon synopsis, this book sounds like a read-alike of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, except with an emphasis on the works of Jane Austen. Which could be very disappointing . . . but if done right, it could be my new favorite book! So, fingers crossed!

What books are you most excited for in 2020? What should I be adding to my TBR list?

Review: Murder Most Malicious

Murder Most MaliciousAlyssa Maxwell, Murder Most Malicious

It’s Christmas 1918, and England is ready for a little peace on earth after the end of the Great War. But the house party at Foxwood Hall is anything but peaceful: on Christmas night, Lady Phoebe Renshaw hears her older sister Julia arguing with her would-be fiancé, Lord Allerton. The argument ends with Julia breaking off their relationship — and the next day, Lord Allerton is nowhere to be found. Then some of the Foxwood servants receive a gruesome surprise in their Boxing Day gifts, indicating that Allerton is dead. The police believe one of the footmen is responsible, but Lady Phoebe and her maid, Eva Huntford, are convinced of his innocence. In an effort to prove it, Phoebe and Eva do some investigating of their own, and they soon discover that many of Foxwood’s current inhabitants — both above and below stairs — had a reason to want Allerton dead. And if they don’t stop sleuthing, they may be the next to die.

This book has strong Downton Abbey vibes, and I think anyone who enjoyed that show will like this book too. It gives that same upstairs-downstairs picture of English country house life at a time when social mores were beginning to shift dramatically. Phoebe and Eva are both likable protagonists, and despite their class differences, it’s obvious that they truly care for one another. At times they feel a little too much like stock characters, though . . . like every other heroine in historical fiction, they’re intelligent women who seek to transcend their social roles, but they don’t have many other personality traits. The same is true for most of the other characters: there’s the eccentric older relative, the faithful butler, the autocratic matriarch, the handsome lord who’s more than he seems, and so on. Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable formula, so I didn’t mind too much. The mystery plot was interesting, and while I did guess the culprit, it was fun to follow along. Overall, I’m definitely interested in continuing with the series, and I hope that Phoebe and Eva’s characters will be more fleshed out in subsequent books.

2019 Vintage Mystery Challenge Wrap-Up

2018 Vintage Mysteries

A new year means an all-new vintage mystery challenge! But before I can move on to 2020, I need to post my wrap-up for the 2019 “Just the Facts” vintage mystery challenge! Participants were asked to read at least six books, one from each category on the detective notebook.

Just the Facts Golden 2019

As you can see, I managed to read 12 books, two from each category! Here’s what I read for the challenge, with links to my reviews of each book:

1. Stuart Palmer, The Penguin Pool Murder (what: animal in the title)
2. Alan Melville, Death of Anton (where: theater/circus/place of performance)
3. Ngaio Marsh, Enter a Murderer (who: professional is main sleuth)
4. Raymond Postgate, Verdict of Twelve (how: death by poison)
5. Georgette Heyer, Duplicate Death (why: author not from my country)
6. John Bude, The Cornish Coast Murder (when: during a weather event)
7. Edward Grierson, The Second Man (who: lawyer/barrister/judge)
8. Leo Bruce, Dead Man’s Shoes (why: author’s last name starts with same initial as mine)
9. Francis Duncan, Murder Has a Motive (where: set in a small village)
10. Alice Tilton, The Cut Direct (what: comic/humorous novel)
11. Edmund Crispin, The Moving Toyshop (how: two deaths by different means)
12. J. Jefferson Farjeon, Mystery in White (when: during a recognized holiday)

Of these, I really enjoyed The Penguin Pool MurderEnter a MurdererThe Second Man, and The Cut Direct. Least favorites were Dead Man’s ShoesThe Moving Toyshop, and Mystery in White. Looking forward to reading more vintage mysteries in the coming year!

Review: Mystery in White

Mystery in WhiteJ. Jefferson Farjeon, Mystery in White

Six passengers in a third-class train compartment become entangled in a sinister mystery when the train is trapped in a snowdrift on Christmas Eve. The group includes a lively young brother and sister, a chorus girl, an elderly bore, a shy clerk, and a professor with an interest in the supernatural. They all decide to leave the train and seek shelter at a nearby station, but they become lost in the snow and end up at an isolated country house. Desperate for shelter, they enter the house, but no one seems to be home. Yet the teakettle is on, and the table is set for a meal. As the characters try to make sense of these events, one of them reveals that a man was murdered in the train — and when the group is later joined by another “lost” individual, they suspect that he may be the murderer. This chain of events later converges with another mystery concerning the house itself and a murder that happened 20 years ago.

I enjoy Farjeon’s light and humorous writing style, and his characters are well rounded and sympathetic. But plot-wise, I was quite disappointed in this novel. The six characters introduced in the opening chapters of the book are the ones we follow for about two-thirds of the novel, so naturally I assumed that they would be the most important people in the story. But in fact, aside from the professor, who acts as the detective and orchestrates the denouement, none of these six people have any relevance to either of the mysteries in the novel! They provide some humor and some human interest, but they have no actual function in the plot. Instead, two new characters come in late in the game, and they turn out to be central to the story. I can’t understand why Farjeon would structure his story in such a way that it’s totally disconnected from the characters we’ve been following all along. I also felt sorry for several of the characters, who deserved a happier ending than what they got. All in all, this might be entertaining for people who enjoy a witty period piece, but I definitely wouldn’t recommend it for people who want a good mystery!