Mini-Reviews: Fire, Hollow, Duke

Katherine Center, Things You Save in a Fire

Cassie Hanwell loves being a firefighter in Austin, Texas; she’s extremely good at her job and is happy to devote her whole life to it. So she’s not thrilled when she is forced to transfer to a small town in Massachusetts to care for her estranged mother during a health crisis. The local fire department is old, outdated, and all male, so Cassie knows she’ll have to struggle to be accepted. As Cassie battles her colleagues’ hostility and resists her mother’s attempts at reconciliation, she grows as a person and decides who she really wants to be. I really liked this book and stayed up far too late to finish it! I found Cassie extremely sympathetic, and I loved how tough and competent she was. There’s also a sweet romance that I was completely on board for. I did feel the ending was a bit too neatly tied up in a bow — and this is coming from someone who likes tidy endings! — but aside from that, I enjoyed this book and look forward to reading more by Katherine Center.

Sherry Thomas, The Hollow of Fear

***Warning: SPOILERS for previous books in the series!***

In this third installment of the Lady Sherlock series, Charlotte Holmes faces her most difficult case yet. Lady Ingram, who disappeared after the events of A Conspiracy in Belgravia, has now been found — dead, in the icehouse on Lord Ingram’s country estate. Of course, Lord Ingram is the prime suspect; everyone knew that he and his wife were estranged, and rumors are swirling about a romance between him and Charlotte. As Scotland Yard builds its case against Lord Ingram, Charlotte works incognito to discover what really happened. I’m very much enjoying this series, and this book is no exception. Though I guessed some elements of the mystery, other plot twists were genuinely shocking. There is a point at which the narrative doubles back to fill in some blanks about earlier events, which I found irritating — it’s the kind of gimmick that would work better in a movie, I think. But otherwise, I liked this book a lot and look forward to seeing what happens next with Charlotte and her friends!

Grace Burrowes, My One and Only Duke

Quinn Wentworth is a convicted murderer awaiting execution. Jane Winston is a minister’s daughter visiting Newgate prison. She’s widowed, pregnant, and desperate to get away from her sanctimonious father, so Quinn proposes marriage. He can provide money for her and the child to live on, and because he’s soon to die, she won’t be stuck with him for long. Jane agrees to the deal, only to be shocked when Quinn is discovered to be the heir to a dukedom and pardoned at the last minute. Now Quinn and Jane must decide whether and how to make their marriage work; but Quinn is determined to find whoever framed him for murder and take his revenge. I found this book mildly enjoyable, but the stakes are pretty low. There aren’t really any obstacles to Quinn and Jane’s romance, and the mystery plot of who framed Quinn doesn’t get a lot of time “on page” either. Basically, I never got emotionally invested in the story or characters. This is the first book in a series, and I am mildly interested in a few of the secondary characters, so I may continue with the series at some point — but I’m not in a big hurry to do so.

Top Ten Tuesday: Mardi Gras

It’s been a while, but I wanted to participate in this week’s Top Ten Tuesday. In honor of Mardi Gras, we’re supposed to pick 10 books with purple, yellow, and/or green covers. I found this surprisingly difficult; purple covers seem pretty scarce, at least in my own library! Nevertheless, here are 10 books on my shelves with Mardi Gras covers, all of which I’ve read and enjoyed (except His at Night, which I haven’t gotten to yet). Which of these have you read?

Mini-Reviews: Women, Coconut, Belle

Madeleine St. John, The Women in Black

This novel follows the lives of four women who all work at Goode’s department store in 1950s Sydney, Australia. Patty, in her mid-30s, is married but unhappily childless, and her husband Frank is oblivious to her emotional turmoil. Fay is around 30 and has been going out with men for years, but somehow none of them seem to want to marry her. Lisa, a temporary hire for the Christmas season, dreams of going to university and becoming a poet, but her strict father won’t hear of it. And Magda, a glamorous Slovenian immigrant, is adjusting to a culture very different from her own. I loved this book and devoured it in a single sitting. It’s light and charming and slyly funny, and I became invested in the stories of all four women. I especially loved Magda, who enjoys the finer things in life and is generous in sharing them. There’s a bit of romance, but the main focus is on women’s experiences and relationships. The book reminds me a bit of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, but with a slightly more satirical edge. I expect to revisit it often and would recommend it as a great comfort read!

Amy E. Reichert, The Coincidence of Coconut Cake

Milwaukee restaurateur Lou Johnson is having a run of terrible luck. First her fiancé cheats on her; then, that very night, food critic Al Waters samples her cooking — which is subpar because of her distress over the breakup — and writes a scathing review. The day the review comes out, Lou goes to a bar to drown her sorrows and meets Al. They’re attracted to each other and soon strike up a romance. The only problem is, he doesn’t realize she owns the restaurant he panned, and she doesn’t know he’s the hostile reviewer because he writes under a pen name. I’m a sucker for a You’ve Got Mail story, and this is a fun one that made me want to visit Milwaukee and eat some fried cheese curds immediately. I never quite believed in Lou and Al as characters; they seemed like stock types rather than real people to me. But I liked the setting and the overall cheerful, Hallmark-esque vibe of this novel, so I’d consider trying more by this author.

Paula Byrne, Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice

The idea for this book came from an 18th-century English portrait of two young women — one white, one black — who are portrayed as equals, almost as sisters. The black woman was Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of an English naval captain and an African slave. She grew up in the house of her great-uncle, the Earl of Mansfield, who happened to be the Lord Chief Justice and who decided several cases that would be crucial to the antislavery movement in Britain. It’s a fascinating story, but unfortunately, there’s very little about Dido in the historical record, and consequently very little in the book! Instead, Byrne focuses on the English slave trade, the status of black individuals in London, the Earl of Mansfield’s legal career, etc. It’s all interesting, but I was hoping for more biography, less history. The book does have numbered endnotes, many of which cite primary sources, yet Byrne also editorializes a fair amount. I’d say it’s more of a popular history than a scholarly one. Overall, I’d recommend it for people who are interested in the period. Apparently there’s also a movie about Dido, called Belle, which I’m interested in watching now.

Here is the portrait of Dido and her cousin, Elizabeth Murray:

Mini-Reviews: Stitches, Murders, Light

Olivia Atwater, Ten Thousand Stitches

Euphemia “Effie” Reeves is sick of feeling invisible and insignificant. As a maid in a noble house, she is either ignored or mistreated by the family. When she falls for the youngest son of the house, she knows a relationship between them would be impossible, but she can’t help wishing for it anyway. Luckily, she has an ally in the faerie Lord Blackthorn, who is determined to pursue virtue by being kind to the powerless. Unluckily, despite his good intentions, his interference often does more harm than good. When Effie’s dream finally seems to be within reach, she discovers that her desires have changed. Like Atwater’s previous book, [Half a Soul], this is a charming fantasy romance with some social satire baked in. I especially loved Lord Blackthorn’s enthusiastic efforts to help, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that they usually led to disaster. Recommended for fans of the genre!

Elizabeth Daly, Murders in Volume 2

Rare manuscript expert Henry Gamadge once again plays detective when Miss Vauregard, a member of one of New York’s most prestigious old families, asks him to discover the true identity of a mysterious young woman who has ingratiated herself with the family patriarch (and holder of the purse strings). As Gamadge investigates, he becomes convinced that the woman is working with someone in the family; things get even worse when the patriarch is murdered and Gamadge himself is the most likely suspect! I enjoyed this novel, which is well plotted and contains such intriguing elements as a hundred-year-old unsolved mystery, a cult, and possible travel to and from the fourth dimension. This is also the book in which Henry Gamadge falls in love, and I would have liked a bit more development of the romance. But overall, I liked this book and will definitely continue with the series.

Connie Willis and Cynthia Felice, Light Raid

Sometime in the future, North America is engaged in a civil war, and 17-year-old Ariadne has been evacuated to neutral territory. But when her parents’ letters become less frequent and stop telling her anything specific, Ari knows that something must be wrong. She flees her foster home to return to HydraCorp, the large and powerful company where her parents live and work, only to discover that her father is falling apart and her mother is in jail for treason. Outraged, Ari intends to prove her mother’s innocence, but she is thwarted by the mysterious Joss Liddell, who is as irritating as he is attractive. As Ari investigates the situation at HydraCorp, she discovers a secret so big that it could change the course of the war. I never felt like I fully understood the world of this novel — the book doesn’t spend any time on exposition — and I’m still not sure what the war is actually about. But I did enjoy this book; it’s action-packed and full of plot twists, and there’s also a fun YA romance. I liked Ari’s narrative voice; she reads as immature sometimes, but that makes sense since she’s a teenager. Overall, while I don’t think this book is as good as Connie Willis’s solo stuff, it’s still an entertaining read.

Mini-Reviews: Honeymoon, List, Garden

Dorothy L. Sayers, Busman’s Honeymoon

Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane are finally getting married, and they’ve decided to spend their honeymoon at Talboys, a house in Harriet’s childhood neighborhood that she’s always loved and that Peter has purchased for her. They’ve made arrangements for the turnover with Noakes, the previous owner, but when they arrive on their wedding night, Noakes is nowhere to be found. Eventually Peter and Harriet discover Noakes’s dead body in the cellar, and all signs point to murder. As they assist the local police in solving the mystery, they also adjust to their new reality as a married couple. This might be my favorite Wimsey story yet. The mystery is more satisfying than many of Sayers’s others; there are multiple plausible suspects and some well-placed clues. But the subtitle of the novel is “a love story with detective interruptions,” and the real meat of the story is Peter and Harriet’s relationship, as they learn more about each other and figure out how to combine two very independent lives. This book also fleshes out two recurring characters, Bunter and the Dowager, in a satisfying way. A wonderful ending to the series, in my opinion, although Sayers newbies shouldn’t start here.

Suzanne Allain, Mr. Malcolm’s List

Jeremy Malcolm, the wealthy and handsome younger son of an earl, is widely regarded as the catch of the season. He wants to find a suitable bride, but none of the women he’s met has checked off every item on his list of requirements for a wife. When Julia Thistlewaite, one of the young ladies he rejects, discovers the existence of the list, she is outraged and asks her friend Selina Dalton for help. Selina will come to London and capture Mr. Malcolm’s heart by pretending to have every quality on the list, but will then reject him for not meeting her own standards. Selina is reluctant to go along with the scheme, especially when she meets Mr. Malcolm and finds herself extremely attracted to him. This Regency romance is fine but lacks depth. It’s extremely fast-paced, leaving little time for character or relationship development. Overall, I thought it was just okay.

Jules Wake, Covent Garden in the Snow

Tilly loves her job as a makeup artist at the London Metropolitan Opera Company, but she’s a disaster with technology. When she inadvertently sends a computer virus to her entire contact list, she’s forced to work with the new IT director, Marcus, to gain some computer literacy. Marcus looks like a slick corporate type, and Tilly immediately decides that he has nothing useful to teach her. But she also feels an unwanted attraction, and the more time they spend together, the more she comes to like and appreciate him. This was a cute read; I enjoyed the backstage theatrical setting, and Marcus is an appealing hero (perhaps a bit too perfect). But Tilly drove me CRAZY. She’s laughably bad at technology — so much so that I couldn’t take her seriously as a professional adult. She also puts up with way too much from her feckless fiancé, who has to betray her trust in multiple very significant ways before she’s finally ready to end the relationship. And she’s completely awful to her family for no discernible reason. Yes, she does grow toward the end of the book, but by then I was already too annoyed with her. Overall, I liked some aspects of this book, and it was a quick and entertaining read, but the frustrating heroine prevented me from fully enjoying it.

Mini-Reviews: Reading, Jeeves, Enchantment

Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

In this short volume, literature professor Jacobs speaks to people who would like to be readers but feel too busy or intimidated to try, and to people who once were readers but aren’t any longer. He champions the idea that reading can and should be a pleasure, not an obligation. His slogan is “Read at whim” — that is, what you actually enjoy, not what you or others think you ought to read. He discusses the perils of the reading list, the specific joys of rereading, and the notion that different kinds of texts can be read with different types of attention. I think this book is probably preaching to the choir for most of us, but I still found it very interesting, and I liked Jacobs’s friendly and humorous tone. Recommended for current and aspiring readers!

P.G. Wodehouse, How Right You Are, Jeeves

Affable, dimwitted Bertie Wooster gets into scrape after scrape while visiting his Aunt Dahlia in the country. Fellow guests include Roberta “Bobbie” Wickham, a beautiful redhead who is pretending to be Bertie’s fiancée while actually being engaged to his friend Kipper; famous mystery novelist Adela Cream and her playboy son Willie; Aubrey Upjohn, the menacing former headmaster of Bertie’s preparatory school; and Sir Roderick Glossop, a celebrated brain scientist currently posing as Aunt Dahlia’s butler. Naturally, complications ensue, and Bertie must call Jeeves back from his annual vacation to sort out the mess. Wodehouse is always good for the soul, and I found myself chuckling my way through this novel. A fun and breezy lark to kick off the year with!

Margaret Rogerson, An Enchantment of Ravens

Isobel is an extremely gifted painter, which means her work is in high demand among the fair ones. But when Rook, the autumn prince himself, requests her to paint his portrait, she makes a fatal mistake: she paints human sorrow in his eyes, which is both alien and scandalous to the fair ones. To clear his reputation and defend his throne, Rook whisks Isobel away to fairyland, where they encounter many perils and slowly come to a deeper understanding of each other. Yes, this book is YA, and it’s a bit dramatic and angsty at times, but I still really enjoyed it! I loved the magical portrayal of the fairy world, and I wish there were a series of books set in the various fairy courts. Isobel is a strong and practical heroine, and I couldn’t help but enjoy the sulky, emotionally oblivious Rook as well. I also loved Rogerson’s Sorcery of Thorns, and I really hope she comes out with another book soon!

Mini-Reviews: Cherwell, Vanity, Field

Mavis Doriel Hay, Death on the Cherwell

Four students at Oxford’s (fictional) all-female Persephone College meet to discuss the formation of a club in opposition to the college’s unpopular bursar. During their meeting, they spot a canoe floating down the Cherwell river — with the bursar’s drowned corpse inside. The girls are questioned by the police and, realizing they and their fellow students might be suspects, decide to launch their own investigation. I enjoyed this Golden Age mystery, although I wanted more undergraduate hijinks; most of the book has a light, humorous tone, but the final few chapters are quite somber. It’s interesting that this book was published in the same year as Gaudy Night, another mystery novel set at an Oxford women’s college. Gaudy Night is clearly the superior novel, but Death on the Cherwell works well as a less weighty counterpoint.

Kevin Kwan, Sex and Vanity

Lucie Tang Churchill has never felt accepted by her family; as someone with half Chinese and half European ancestry, she doesn’t quite fit in with either side. As a result, she’s always striven for perfection in every aspect of her life. But when she meets the quiet, handsome, unsuitable George Zao at her cousin’s wedding, Lucie is attracted to him and soon feels her perfect life spinning out of control. This novel is a breezy update of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, and while I love the original, I wasn’t quite as impressed by the retelling. It’s a fun read — I especially enjoyed the author’s snarky footnotes — but I couldn’t relate to the characters’ ultra-wealthy, jet-setting lifestyle. The book is filled with name-dropping of people, places, and luxury brands I’ve never heard of. I found Lucie shallow and didn’t understand what George saw in her. Overall, I think this book would make a fun beach read, especially for people who enjoy reading about yachts and couture clothing and hip restaurants. I see the appeal of it, but I definitely prefer Forster’s original novel!

Ellis Peters, The Potter’s Field

In this installment of the Brother Cadfael series, the abbey is given a tract of land known as the Potter’s Field. As the brothers begin to plow the field, they unearth the skeletal remains of an unknown woman. She is most likely the wife of one of the brothers, who deserted her to pursue his religious vocation. Could Brother Ruald be responsible for her death? Brother Cadfael and Hugh Beringar investigate to discover the woman’s identity and find out what happened to her. I love this series because, even though there’s always at least one mysterious death, the overall tone is very gentle and peaceful. Justice always prevails, and usually Cadfael helps a pair of young lovers get together, as he does in this book. It’s the perfect antidote to the anxieties of modern life, and I’d definitely recommend the whole series.

Mini-Reviews: Longbourn, Dates, Half, Wrong

Tracy Kiely, Murder at Longbourn

In this cozy contemporary mystery, Elizabeth Parker goes to visit her Aunt Winnie, who owns a bed and breakfast called the Inn at Longbourn on Cape Cod. Aunt Winnie is hosting a New Year’s Eve murder mystery party — but disaster strikes when one of the guests is really murdered. Because the dead man wanted to force Aunt Winnie to sell the inn to him, she becomes the police’s prime suspect. Confident that her aunt is innocent, Elizabeth does some amateur sleuthing to find the real killer. I don’t normally read contemporary cozies, but this was a pleasant read that kept me turning the pages. I enjoyed the nods to Pride and Prejudice (yes, there are a Darcy and a Wickham for our heroine to choose from) and to Agatha Christie (characters named Jackie and Linnet!). I may continue with the series, since the books are available at my local library.

Jenny Bayliss, The Twelve Dates of Christmas

Thirty-four-year-old Kate Turner lives in a small English village with few opportunities to meet single men. So as the holiday season approaches, she decides to sign up for the Twelve Dates of Christmas, a local matchmaking event where she’ll go on 12 dates with 12 different men in the hope of finding romance. Naturally, some dates are better than others, and a few are downright awful; but as Kate tries to envision a future with these men, she must also confront her feelings for her long-time best friend, Matt. This was a fun, light, predictable book that I enjoyed, although it’s not necessarily a keeper for me. Still, I’d recommend it to those looking for a cute holiday read.

Olivia Atwater, Half a Soul

After a dangerous encounter with a faerie as a child, Dora Ettings has been left with half a soul. As a result, she has trouble feeling and processing emotions, which makes her prone to socially embarrassing situations. When Dora and her family travel to London for the Season, she just wants to avoid getting into trouble. But the Lord Sorcier takes an interest in her case, and he and Dora soon find themselves working together to combat a plague with a mysterious connection to Faerie. I’m a sucker for the “magical Regency” genre, and I greatly enjoyed this book. Can’t wait to pick up the next in the series! Definitely recommended if the premise appeals to you.

Cecilia Grant, A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong

In this Regency Christmas novella, Andrew Blackshear is on the way to buy his sister a Christmas present when he comes across the beguiling Lucy Sharp, who happens to be the daughter of the man he came to meet. After a series of accidents, Andrew ends up driving Lucy to a house party, but even more misfortunes arise, forcing them to spend multiple nights together. Andrew values propriety and self-control above all, but he can’t help being wildly attracted to Lucy. The more time they spend together, the more they consider whether they are compatible enough for marriage. I liked this novella and especially enjoyed how Andrew and Lucy both came to appreciate each other’s good points. A cozy little story to end the year with!

2020 Vintage Mystery Extravaganza Wrap-Up

Is it too late to wish everyone a Happy New Year? I’ve been pretty behind on reviews, so I feel a bit like I’m still in 2020. However, I’ve finally posted all my reviews for the 2020 Vintage Mystery Extravaganza challenge at My Reader’s Block, so it’s time for my wrap-up post! Challenge participants were asked to read at least five books that engaged with the so-called Rules of Murder propounded by Ronald Knox and S.S. Van Dine. I participated in the Golden Age level of the challenge (all books published before 1960) and read the following 10 books:

  1. Nicholas Blake, A Question of Proof — breaks Rule #14, “There must be but one detective.” In this book, the investigating is split pretty evenly between the official detective, Nigel Strangeways, and his friend Michael Evans, who is trying to prove his own innocence.
  2. Craig Rice, Home Sweet Homicide — breaks Rule #11, “There must be no love interest.” Though the main sleuths are children, there is a prominent romantic subplot between their mother and the policeman in charge of the case.
  3. Patricia Wentworth, Grey Mask — breaks Rule #16, “Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story.” “A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story.” In this book, the villain is the leader of a criminal secret society (not a spoiler; the mystery is the identity of the criminal mastermind).
  4. Georgette Heyer, Detection Unlimited — complies with Rule #12, “The detective novel must have a detective in it.” The detective is a police inspector.
  5. Anthony Berkeley, Not to Be Taken — engages with Rule #4, “No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used.” Bev clarified that any book that uses poisons would count here, and this novel centers around a murder by poisoning.
  6. Ngaio Marsh, The Nursing Home Murder — breaks Rule #6, “No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.” “The culprit must be determined by logical deductions–not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession.” As I recall, the detective stumbles upon the true culprit by accident, and there’s no particular reason to focus on that person rather than the other suspects.
  7. Anthony Berkeley, The Piccadilly Murder — breaks Rule #10, “Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.” I can’t really say more without spoilers, but the solution to the mystery hangs upon two people looking very similar.
  8. Elizabeth Daly, Deadly Nightshade — engages with Rule #18, “A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide.” The death of a police officer in connection with the mystery appears to be an accident, but that may or may not be the case!
  9. Patrick Quentin, A Puzzle for Fools — breaks Rule #20, which lists a number of overused plot devices, including “the word association test for guilt.” The protagonist of this novel literally uses that exact device to narrow down his list of suspects. Fortunately, the ploy is unsuccessful.
  10. Dorothy L. Sayers, The Nine Tailors — breaks Rule #17, “A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no ‘atmospheric’ preoccupations.” No disrespect to Sayers, but the passages on bell-ringing in this novel are certainly a side issue, and a fairly tedious one unless you happen to be a campanologist!

As always, I very much enjoyed my reading for this challenge, and I look forward to signing up for the 2021 vintage mystery challenge in the coming days!