Review: Graceling

GracelingKristin Cashore, Graceling

Throughout the Seven Kingdoms, some individuals have superhuman powers known as Graces. A person’s Grace might be harmless or even useful, such as the ability to swim incredibly fast or to easily perform complex mathematics. But even those Graced with these benign abilities are viewed with suspicion and fear. Katsa, the niece of King Randa, is Graced with superhuman strength, which means that Randa uses her as a threat and a punishment to anyone who crosses him. Katsa hates being used to harm innocent people, and she has begun to fight back by forming a secret Council to rescue those whom Randa seeks to hurt. In the course of one of the Council’s missions, Katsa meets Po, a prince of a nearby kingdom who is Graced with fighting. As they become closer, Po encourages Katsa to stand up for herself at Randa’s court. The two of them also encounter a mysterious plot that sends them on a journey to the farthest reaches of the Seven Kingdoms, where they discover a king hiding a terrible Grace.

I bought this book when it first came out (10+ years ago!) because there was so much good buzz surrounding it; now I finally understand what the fuss was about! I found this book an enjoyable and compelling read. Katsa is a somewhat typical “strong female heroine,” but she’s saved from being too perfect because her Grace is powerless against the Grace of the book’s villain. I liked her stubbornness and independence, and I liked that she was nowhere near as emotionally fluent as the hero. Po is a dream of a love interest; not only is he handsome and able to fight Katsa as an equal, but he also truly respects her and doesn’t try to change her, even when she’s at her most frustrating. My biggest complaint with the book is that the pacing is odd. It almost seems like three different books — one at Randa’s court, another during Katsa and Po’s journey, and a third about the final showdown with the evil king. Personally, I was most interested in the first section, and I would have liked to read an entire novel about the Council and how Katsa finally gets the courage to stand up to Randa. Nevertheless, I would definitely recommend this book to YA fantasy fans!

Review: Murder Has a Motive

Murder Has a MotiveFrancis Duncan, Murder Has a Motive

When retired tobacconist Mordecai Tremaine accepts an invitation to visit his friends Paul and Jean Russell in the quaint village of Dalmering, he has no idea that he’ll shortly be called upon to use his skills as an amateur detective. But the day before he arrives in town, a local woman named Lydia Dare is found stabbed to death on the path that leads to her cottage. Mordecai’s friends ask him to help solve the murder, and he is more than willing to do so, especially when he learns that his friend Inspector Boyce is the Scotland Yard man in charge of the case. As Mordecai gets to know Lydia’s friends and neighbors, it seems that all the clues are pointing toward Martin Vaughan, an old friend of Lydia’s who was in love with her, even though she’d just gotten engaged to another man. But Mordecai is unconvinced, and as he continues to search for more suspects, the killer has ample opportunity to strike again.

I’ve read one other book featuring Mordecai Tremaine, Murder for Christmas, and I find my feelings about this book are the same: it’s an interesting, competently written Golden Age mystery, but not particularly groundbreaking or unique. I like Mordecai; he doesn’t have the theatrical idiosyncrasies of Poirot, but rather is kind and unassuming, preferring to fade into the background most of the time. I also really liked Inspector Boyce, and the conversations between him and Mordecai were my favorite scenes in the book. I felt that most of the other characters were pretty flat; they all seemed to be more stock characters than nuanced individuals. The mystery is clever and (I think) plays fair; I even spotted a pivotal clue, though I didn’t follow it to its logical conclusion. I’m not entirely sure I buy the murderer’s psychology, but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief. Overall, I like Francis Duncan and am glad I have a couple more of his books on my shelves, but I can see why he never became as popular as, say, Agatha Christie.

Review: Henry Tilney’s Diary

Henry Tilney's DiaryAmanda Grange, Henry Tilney’s Diary

This novel in diary format tells the story of Northanger Abbey from Henry Tilney’s point of view. It starts several years before the beginning of Austen’s novel, when Henry is 16. He and his sister Eleanor are extremely close, and they bond over their shared love of gothic novels. He is less close with his father, a rigid disciplinarian who is obsessed with finding rich and/or titled mates for his children. And while he loves his older brother, Frederick, the latter’s wild behavior and cynical view of women keep Henry at a distance. Henry is determined to become a true hero, and he dreams of one day meeting the perfect heroine. During a family trip to Bath, he meets the naïve and engaging Catherine Moreland, and the more time he spends with her, the more he believes that she could be the girl he’s searching for. Eleanor truly likes her also, and even his father treats her with a surprising warmth and distinction. But when his father’s opinion of Catherine suddenly changes, Henry is faced with a decision as dramatic as any he’s encountered within the pages of a novel.

Austen pastiches are so hard to get right. If you stray too far from the original source material, you risk offending the Janeites who probably comprise your target audience. But if you follow the original too slavishly, you come across as a weak imitation and compare unfavorably to the real thing. So Amanda Grange walks a thin tightrope here, I think with mixed success. The early chapters of the book were unexpectedly entertaining, and I loved learning more about the Tilney family’s backstory, especially how the three siblings related to each other growing up. I wanted more of Henry’s banter with Eleanor, more insight into Frederick, and more of Eleanor’s romance (which is briefly mentioned in Northanger Abbey and slightly expanded upon here). The second half of the book, when Henry meets Catherine Moreland, is a little less fun, mostly because Grange copies and pastes most of the dialogue directly from Austen’s novel. Again, I can understand why she did it that way, but I wanted a little more originality. Still, this is a fun read, and I’m always happy to see Northanger Abbey and Henry Tilney getting some love!

Review: Pumpkinheads

PumpkinheadsRainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks, Pumpkinheads

Deja and Josiah are high school seniors who have worked at the local pumpkin patch every fall for the past three years. They don’t interact much in winter, spring, or summer, but when they’re working together at the Succotash Hut, they’re firm friends. This year, introspective Josiah is contemplating the bittersweet fact that tonight is his last night at the patch; in response, outgoing Deja declares that they need to make the most of it by having an adventure. She encourages Josiah to finally approach his longtime crush, the girl who works at the Fudge Shoppe, but Josiah will only do it if Deja comes along for moral support. Their mission takes them all over the pumpkin patch, from the various food vendors to the bumper cars to the corn maze. Along the way, they reminisce about how they first met and about how much they’ve enjoyed their time at the patch. When Josiah finally catches up with the Fudge Shoppe girl, he realizes that he needs to accomplish one more mission before leaving the pumpkin patch behind.

I’m a big Rainbow Rowell fan, so I was predisposed to like this book even though I don’t normally read graphic novels. And I will say that, while Faith Erin Hicks’s art is very cute and charming, it didn’t add very much to the story for me. But I think I’m just not a very visual person, so your mileage may vary! Anyway, I very much enjoyed the story, which perfectly encapsulates that bittersweet feeling of nostalgia that comes with the end of an era. I also loved the contrast between Josiah and Deja in their attitude toward change: Josiah is a melancholy, head-in-the-clouds type, whereas Deja is more pragmatic and confident. She gives him the kick in the pants he needs to get out of his own head, while his gentleness and sincerity disarm her. I completely bought their friendship and enjoyed watching it develop as the story unfolded. The plot is not particularly suspenseful, but there were times when I genuinely didn’t know how everything would turn out. (I had certain hopes, but I wasn’t sure until a fair way into the book.) Overall, this is a lightweight but very enjoyable story, and I’d love to see it as a movie!

Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January

Ten Thousand Doors of JanuaryAlix E. Harrow, The Ten Thousand Doors of January

In the first years of the 20th century, January Scaller lives a small, safe life in the home of her guardian, Cornelius Locke. Locke House is large and richly appointed, full of rare treasures from faraway lands. January’s father works for Mr. Locke by finding these treasures, so he is often gone for months or years at a time. As a result, January grows up feeling lonely and out of place. Then one day she finds a book called The Ten Thousand Doors, and it introduces her to the concept of Doors, or portals to other worlds, which introduce change and new ideas and revolutions. January is captivated by the book and by the idea of Doors, especially when the book turns out to have a connection to certain surprising abilities of her own. Eventually January sets off on a quest for her past, a quest that involves finding and passing through the right Door. But a malevolent society of rich and powerful men is bent on closing the Doors, and she must ultimately use everything she’s learned to preserve the freedom of multiple worlds.

If you’re looking for a fast-paced YA adventure novel, this is not the book for you. It takes its time in setting up January’s character, her world, and a seemingly unrelated plot that (predictably) ties in with the main story. In fact, nothing really happens plot-wise until about halfway through the book! Normally this would bother me, but in this case, I was immersed in the lovely writing and the magical, faintly gothic atmosphere. I’m not usually someone who reads for setting or style, but there are some books that you just sink into — that feel like magic — and for me, this is one of those books. In terms of characters, this is very much January’s story, and much of the book focuses on her thoughts and reactions to things. I would have liked some more insight into Jane and Samuel, two of January’s allies who help her in her quest. We do get their backstory, especially Jane’s, in some depth, but I never felt like I really got to know them as people or understand what made them tick. The book contains some (slightly heavy-handed, I thought) social commentary and a lovely, quiet romance. Overall, I really liked it and think it will end up on my top 10 list for 2019!

Review: Well Met

Well MetJen DeLuca, Well Met

Emily Parker has just moved to the small town of Willow Creek, Maryland, to care for her sister, who was seriously injured in a car accident, and her teenage niece. But she’s also hoping for a fresh start, having left nothing behind her but a jerk of an ex-boyfriend and an unfinished English degree. Following her niece Caitlin’s lead, Emily soon becomes involved with the local Renaissance Faire, where she has a lot of fun learning about history, working on her British accent, and creating her new identity as a tavern wench. The only bad aspect of her new life is Simon Graham, the organizer of the Faire, who always seems to be criticizing and judging her. But in his Faire persona as a roguish pirate, he’s a completely different person — one who flirts shamelessly with Emily’s character. To Emily’s chagrin, she discovers that she likes their role-playing, and Simon himself, a lot more than she thought. But is their connection real or only an act? And when the Faire ends, what will happen to their relationship?

This is a fun, light romance set in the unusual world of a Renaissance Faire, and I really enjoyed it for the unique setting. I’ve been to the Maryland Renaissance Festival and would love to go back; who could resist the combination of history, theater, and roast turkey legs? So I was predisposed to be charmed by this book. I found Emily a likable character overall, although she does seem to make snap judgments about Simon that she doesn’t make about anyone else. At one point she describes herself as having “emotional whiplash” about him, and I definitely experienced that also, as she kept changing her mind about him. I liked Simon too — I love a straitlaced hero with a sense of humor, and a knowledge of English literature is certainly a bonus! — but he remains a little mysterious because everything is told from Emily’s first-person point of view. The obstacles to their romance aren’t particularly huge, and sometimes I just wanted them to communicate already; on the other hand, sometimes it’s nice to read a book with minimal angst, where the characters are all basically good people doing their best. Overall, I did enjoy the book and am glad to see that DeLuca is planning a sequel set in the same world!

Review: The Woman Who Died a Lot

Woman Who Died a LotJasper Fforde, The Woman Who Died a Lot

This seventh book in the Thursday Next series continues the madcap adventures of Thursday Next, her family, and the alternate-reality Swindon that is obsessed with all things literary. Thursday is now middle-aged and struggling with the fact that she’s not as physically resilient as she used to be. She hopes to become the head of a newly reinstated SpecOps 27 (the division of the government dealing with literary crimes), but instead, she’s offered the job of Chief Librarian of Swindon All-You-Can-Eat-at-Fatso’s Drink Not Included Library, a plum assignment that gives her absolute power within the library’s domain. But there’s still plenty of trouble to go around. Her son Friday’s career at the ChronoGuard is halted when time travel is ruled impossible, and he’s now coming to terms with a very different destiny. Meanwhile, the Global Standard Deity is preparing to smite Swindon within a week, unless Thursday’s genius daughter Tuesday can find a way to stop it. Not to mention, the sinister Goliath Corp is up to its usual skulduggery, and more than one person seems to want Thursday dead.

I’m a longtime Fforde ffan, but I haven’t been as impressed by his last few books. Maybe the novelty of his humor has worn off for me, but I was only intermittently amused by this installment. There are still a lot of fun jokes and gags and wordplay, but the whole seems like less than the sum of its parts. The Thursday vs. Goliath stuff was fine, but it felt like a retread of previous books with nothing particularly new to add. The Chronoguard stuff was more interesting — I especially enjoyed the idea that time travel works (or used to work) because someone would invent the technology in the future, and therefore it could be used in the present. I wanted a little more about Thursday’s Librarian gig, but her library-related adventures are fairly peripheral to the main plot. In fact, I’m realizing that there aren’t a lot of literature-related hijinks in this novel. Unlike the first few books, which were constantly jumping into and out of specific literary worlds, this one doesn’t contain many literary allusions at all. Maybe that’s why earlier books in the series worked for me better than the last few. Regardless, I’m glad to be caught up with the Thursday Next series, but I’m also glad that it’s now (as far as I can tell) complete.

Top Ten Tuesday: Numbers in the title

TTT-NEW

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic is an interesting one: ten of your favorite books with a number in the title. It’s always fun to find new ways to categorize books! Here are the ten books that immediately sprang to mind for me, in no particular order:

1. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers — The Lord of the Rings is one of my all-time favorite books, and The Two Towers just might be my favorite volume. I find the culture of Rohan fascinating and really love all the scenes involving the Rohirrim. And even the Frodo/Sam plot, though much less eventful, is fascinating on a character level.

2. Ellis Peters, One Corpse Too Many — I adore the Cadfael series, which is about a 12th-century crime-solving monk. The setting is so well rendered, and justice is always served in the end. This book is second in the series and also my favorite, focusing on a missing treasure and the mysterious newcomer Hugh Beringar.

3. B.J. Novak, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories — I’m not a big fan of short stories generally, but I like Novak’s voice and his TV writer’s sensibility. Most of the stories are more like comedy sketches, focusing sharply on a single (often humorous) idea. Favorite stories include “The Ghost of Mark Twain,” “The Something by John Grisham,” and “J. C. Audetat, Translator of Don Quixote.”

4. Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat — This slim book perfectly encapsulates a specific type of British silliness, which I think you either like or you don’t. Fortunately, I fall into the former category, because I found it delightful! Not to mention, it inspired one of my favorite novels, Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog.

5. Leo Bruce, Case for Three Detectives — As a fan of Golden Age mysteries, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, which parodies three of the most beloved detectives of that era: Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot, and Father Brown. I love all three of them, and Bruce perfectly (and hilariously) captures their specific voices.

6. Leigh Bardugo, Six of Crows — This YA fantasy novel combines two of my favorite things, found families and heists. Kaz Brekker and his crack team of ne’er-do-wells are hired for a complicated job with a huge payoff, but they stand to lose a lot more than money if things go wrong. And of course, it’s not really a matter of if, but when. . . .

7. Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale — It’s been a long time since I actually read this book, but I remember loving its gothic atmosphere and its belief in the value of stories:

What succor, what consolation is there in truth, compared to a story? What good is truth, at midnight, in the dark, when the wind is roaring like a bear in the chimney? When the lightning strikes shadows on the bedroom wall and the rain taps at the window with its long fingernails? No. When fear and cold make a statue of you in your bed, don’t expect hard-boned and fleshless truth to come running to your aid. What you need are the plump comforts of a story. The soothing, rocking safety of a lie.

8. C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves — This just might be my favorite Lewis book, in which he examines the concept of love and describes four different types of love that humans experience: affection, friendship, romantic love, and the love of God. The first time I read this book, it made me think about human relationships in entirely new ways, and even on rereading it gives me a lot to think about.

9. Agatha Christie, The Seven Dials Mystery — I could have picked any number of Christie mysteries, since I’m a huge fan of hers. But I wanted to highlight this mystery because it’s a bit different from her usual work, involving political machinations and a secret society. It’s all a little bit silly, but I find the silliness endearing. Plus, there’s a very sweet romantic angle to the story!

10. Mary Stewart, Nine Coaches Waiting — This was my first Mary Stewart novel, and it remains one of my favorites. It has definite Jane Eyre vibes, with a touch more danger to the heroine (and, if I’m recalling correctly, a less problematic hero!). Her novels of romantic suspense make perfect fall reads, if anyone’s looking for something subtly atmospheric rather than terrifying.

Review: Bringing Down the Duke

Bringing Down the Duke.jpgEvie Dunmore, Bringing Down the Duke

It’s 1879, and Oxford University has just opened its door to female students. Annabelle Archer is eager to take her place among them, especially when the alternative is acting as an unpaid servant for her male cousin and his family. She has received a scholarship from the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, so in return for her tuition, she must become involved with the women’s suffrage movement, targeting men of influence in Parliament who might be convinced to vote in their favor. But when Annabelle takes the fight to Sebastian Devereux, the duke of Montgomery, she takes on more than she bargained for. Sebastian is certainly a man of influence, but he is also cold, calculating, and intimidating. Annabelle manages to insinuate herself into Sebastian’s household, but her mission is complicated by the powerful attraction she feels for the duke. The attraction is mutual, but Annabelle’s station in life is so far below Sebastian’s that a happy outcome seems impossible.

The cover of this book is somewhat misleading (although I personally like it!); the story is much less of a romp than the cover indicates, and despite the cartoon-y art, it is a romance novel with some fairly explicit sex scenes. I also think the book’s description is a little misleading, in that it makes it sound like the women’s suffrage movement is going to be a big focus of the plot. But aside from Annabelle’s attendance at a few meetings, and one rally that serves as a plot point, that aspect of the book is not very prominent. So if you’re imagining a book filled with kickass suffragettes earnestly debating political issues, you’ll be disappointed. Nevertheless, I think the book works very well as a romance. Annabelle and Sebastian have an intense and believable chemistry, and their class differences pose a very real obstacle to their relationship. I liked that they both, especially Sebastian, kept trying to find a way to make things work, instead of passively bemoaning their fate. The secondary characters aren’t as well rendered, but they’ll probably be more fleshed out in the inevitable sequels. Overall, I really enjoyed this book and would definitely read more by Dunmore.

Review: Dead Man’s Shoes

Dead Man's Shoes.jpgLeo Bruce, Dead Man’s Shoes

This mystery novel begins on a sea journey from Tangier to London. Everyone on the boat is annoyed by one of the passengers, Wilbury Larkin, who speaks too loudly and seems to enjoy being as obnoxious as possible. Moreover, they’re all convinced that he murdered Gregory Willick, a rich Englishman who was recently shot dead on his daily afternoon walk. Larkin claims that he didn’t murder Willick and that he’s going back to England to prove his innocence. But the night before the boat docks, Larkin falls, or jumps, or is pushed overboard. The crew members find a typed suicide note in Larkin’s cabin, but they realize that it could have easily been faked. Still, the police are happy to think that Larkin committed suicide; now they can close two cases, Larkin’s and Willick’s. But history teacher/amateur detective Carolus Deene isn’t satisfied, so with the help of his precocious student Rupert Priggley, he sets out to investigate both deaths.

A couple years ago I read Leo Bruce’s Case for Three Detectives and found it absolutely delightful! So when I saw a couple of his Carolus Deene books at a local library sale, I snatched them up immediately. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as Case for Three Detectives: it’s not nearly as funny, the mystery is predictable, and there’s not much character development. To be fair, Carolus Deene is a series character — this book is fourth in the series — so maybe he’s more fleshed out in other installments. But it seems that, as with many vintage detective novels, the focus is all on the mystery itself, not on who’s solving it. This particular mystery has a very interesting central concept, but the execution falls flat because it’s increasingly obvious as the book goes on that only one person could have done it. Figuring out the “how” is somewhat interesting, but the inevitability of the solution killed a lot of the suspense for me. Overall, this book was OK, and I’ll read the other Carolus Deene book I own at some point, but I’m not in a hurry to do so.