Review: What Happens in London

what happens in londonJulia Quinn, What Happens in London

After serving in the army during the Napoleonic Wars, Sir Harry Valentine now works as a translator for the War Office. It’s not particularly dangerous (which is just how he likes it), but it does require a certain amount of secrecy. So when Harry notices that his beautiful neighbor seems to be watching him, he knows there’s a slight chance she could be a threat. Meanwhile, Lady Olivia Bevelstoke is intrigued by her new neighbor, since rumors are flying about the mysterious gentleman who hardly ever goes out into society. When he catches her watching him, she is mortified — especially because, when they finally meet in public, he directly confronts her about it. However, Harry and Olivia’s initial dislike of each other soon turns into friendship and, inevitably, romance. But will a rival suitor, who may also be a spy for Napoleon, come between them?

When I want a light, fluffy Regency romance with minimal angst, I turn to Julia Quinn, and this book delivered pretty much what I expected. I found it a very enjoyable read, particularly because both Harry and Olivia are such nice, normal people. No tortured rakes or unconventional bluestockings here! Don’t get me wrong; those types of characters can be fun to read about, too, but they do tend to be overrepresented in historical romance. By contrast, Harry and Olivia are both fairly conventional, which I found refreshing. There’s plenty of humor in the book, too, mostly surrounding the lurid gothic novel that Harry presents to Olivia. There’s a fantastic scene in which Harry’s cousin Sebastian reads the book aloud to an assortment of spellbound listeners, and it’s an absolute delight. The plot does go off the rails a bit toward the end, with a tonally jarring kidnapping, but at least that storyline wraps up quickly. Overall, I doubt this book will stay with me for a long time, but it was certainly a fun read, and I’d recommend it to fans of historical romance.

Review: The Penguin Pool Murder

penguin pool murderStuart Palmer, The Penguin Pool Murder

When schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers, a “spinster” of 39, takes her third-grade class to the New York Aquarium, she expects nothing more than an educational outing for her students. But first she thwarts a pickpocket by tripping him with her umbrella, and then she discovers a dead body in the penguin tank. Not the sort of person to miss a chance to investigate, Miss Withers quickly befriends Inspector Oscar Piper, the policeman in charge of the murder case. Through a combination of usefulness (she takes shorthand notes of the initial witness statements) and sheer stubbornness, she is allowed to accompany Piper throughout the investigation. Suspicion immediately falls on the dead man’s wife and her former lover, who were both at the aquarium on the fateful day; but Miss Withers isn’t convinced, and her intelligence and determination eventually enable her to solve the case.

I enjoyed this mystery, although it’s a fairly typical example of the Golden Age detective novel. There are a few creative touches — such as one of the penguins swallowing a key piece of evidence — and I enjoyed the repartee between Miss Withers and Inspector Piper, although I wish their relationship had been a bit more fleshed out. In fact, I wanted more character development all around, but that does tend to be a weakness of mysteries from this era, and I wouldn’t quibble so much if the plot had been more inventive. But instead everything unfolds pretty much as expected, from spurious confessions to various motive-related revelations to a second death. I also guessed the murderer’s identity fairly early on. The final chapter, in which the solution is explained, does contain one delightful surprise, which I won’t spoil. But all in all, this book isn’t particularly special — which doesn’t mean it’s not a good read! It just doesn’t deviate much from the traditional formula, so if you’re looking for something with a lot of surprises, this may not be the book for you.

Top Ten Tuesday: First half of 2019

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This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic is the 10 books you’re most excited for in the first half of 2019. I’ve got a lot of long-awaited sequels and follow-ups on my list, as well as a few books that just sound really cool! So without further ado, here’s my list of ten eight books I’m really looking forward to in the first half of this year:

  1. Katherine Arden, The Winter of the Witch (1/8) — After loving both The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, of course I can’t wait to read the final book in this trilogy! If you like lush, descriptive fantasy and/or Russian folktales, I highly recommend these books.
  2. Alan Bradley, The Golden Tresses of the Dead (1/22) — More Flavia is always fun, and I’m especially optimistic because I thought the last book was a return to form for the series.
  3. Sally Thorne, 99 Percent Mine (1/29) — I adored The Hating Game so much that I put Sally Thorne on my list of auto-buy authors immediately. I’ve already preordered my copy of 99 Percent Mine, and I’m really hoping it will meet my high expectations!
  4. Leigh Bardugo, King of Scars (1/29) — When I read the original Grisha trilogy, I mentioned that I’d love a book featuring the secondary character of Nikolai…and the book gods must have been listening, because now it’s here!
  5. Jessica Khoury, Last of Her Name (2/26) — Look, if there’s a retelling of Anastasia set in space, I’m going to read it!
  6. Zen Cho, The True Queen (3/12) — Ever since I read and loved Sorcerer to the Crown, I’ve been dying for the sequel. I’m so excited that it’s finally (almost) here!
  7. Megan Whalen Turner, Return of the Thief (3/19) — Apparently this is the last book in one of my very favorite series. I can’t wait to see how it all ends, and I’m excited to go back and reread the previous books in preparation for the finale.
  8. Lucy Parker, The Austen Playbook (4/22) — I’ve loved all Lucy Parker’s books so far, so I’m super excited for this one…it involves a very grumpy hero and a Jane Austen connection, which is basically all my catnip!

Are you also looking forward to any of these books? What should I be adding to my list?

Review: Speak Easy, Speak Love

speak easy, speak loveMcKelle George, Speak Easy, Speak Love

This debut novel is a YA retelling of Much Ado about Nothing set in the 1920s. Hero Stahr and her father Leo run a speakeasy called Hey Nonny Nonny on Long Island, with the help of Pedro “Prince” Morello. Benedick Scott is an aspiring novelist who chafes under his privileged upbringing and finds a sympathetic home at Hey Nonny Nonny. So does Beatrice Clark, Hero’s cousin, who wants to be a doctor despite her gender and her poverty. Margaret Hughes, the speakeasy’s resident jazz singer, longs for success on a bigger stage — almost as much as she longs for Prince’s standoffish brother, John — but her black skin may stop her from achieving either dream. As these characters fight to keep Hey Nonny Nonny up and running, they must deal with parental pressures, misunderstandings, dangerous bootleggers, and falling in love.

I wasn’t prepared for how much I would love this book. The premise sounded fun, but I thought at best I’d get a lighthearted romp — or, more likely, it would all go horribly wrong. I didn’t expect to care so deeply about these characters, to be so moved by their stories, or to be so invested in their relationships. But I adored this book, and I’m very sure it will be on my “best of 2019” list a year from now! The writing style is sharp and inventive — Beatrice, for example, is described as “a clock-throwing ruin of a girl,” and how could you not love her after that description? I loved the central romance between Beatrice and Benedick, which unfolds with agonizing, delicious slowness. As in Shakespeare’s original, the joy comes from their teasing banter and mutual respect for each other’s intelligence. The book deviates from the play somewhat with the secondary characters, but I thought all the changes made sense and enhanced the story the author was telling. In short, I loved (LOVED) this book and would definitely recommend it to anyone who likes the premise!

2018 Vintage Mystery Challenge Wrap-Up

2018 Vintage Mysteries

I’m a few days late with this post, but the end of 2018 means the end of the 2018 Vintage Mystery Challenge at My Readers Block. The goal of the challenge was to read at least 6 vintage mysteries (published before 1960) that answer the questions “Who,” “What,” “Where,” “When,” “Why,” and “How” Here’s what I read:

1. Ngaio Marsh, A Man Lay Dead — What (reference to a man in the title)
2. Lois Austen-Leigh, The Incredible Crime — Why (author I’ve never tried)
3. Elizabeth Daly, Unexpected Night — How (at least two deaths by different means)
4. Miles Burton, Death in the Tunnel — Where (mode of transportation)
5. Dorothy L. Sayers, Have His Carcase — Who (crime-solving duo)
6. Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep — Why (out of my comfort zone)
7. Francis Duncan, Murder for Christmas — When (set during a recognized holiday)

I enjoyed almost everything I read for this challenge, but the standouts were Death in the Tunnel (best plot), Have His Carcase (best character development), and Unexpected Night (best overall). My least favorite book of the challenge was The Incredible Crime. If you also participated in this challenge, what were your favorite (or least favorite) books?

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Mini-reviews: Duke, Christmas, Memorial

Duke in Shining ArmorLoretta Chase, A Duke in Shining Armor

This book is the first in a series starring a trio of dukes known as Their Dis-Graces. Ripley, Ashmont, and Blackwood have been friends since childhood, and together they’ve drunk, gambled, and whored their way through London society. Now Ashmont is getting married, but the bride — bookish, practical Olympia Hightower — is having second thoughts. When she runs away on the wedding day, it’s up to best man Ripley to track her down and return her to Ashmont. The trouble is, the more time Ripley spends with Olympia, the more he wants her for himself. I really enjoy Loretta Chase’s writing, especially her humor, but this book was not the right book for me. I really don’t like the “reformed rake” trope, and Ripley is such a stereotypical alpha-male hero. (That said, the humor makes him somewhat more bearable.) But I’ll still be reading more Loretta Chase, and perhaps even more in this series…Blackwood’s marital difficulties, a tiny side plot in this book, sound intriguing!

A Lot Like ChristmasConnie Willis, A Lot Like Christmas

This collection of Christmas-themed short stories with a speculative-fiction twist is a revised and expanded edition of Miracle and Other Christmas Stories. I still stand by my review of that book, but here are my comments on the new stories:

  • “All about Emily” — A sly take on the movie All about Eve featuring an aging Broadway actress and a robot who wants to be a Rockette. A fun one for fans of musicals and old movies.
  • “All Seated on the Ground” — The aliens have arrived, but no one can figure out what they want. The clue may reside in a Christmas carol, so protagonist Meg teams up with choir director Calvin to solve the mystery. A lovely and romantic meditation on “peace on earth.”
  • “deck.halls@boughs/holly” — I liked this funny rom-com about the effects of technology, especially the internet, on Christmas. It’s futuristic and over the top, of course, but the story does a great job of presenting different views on the issue — with a charming romance thrown in!
  • “Now Showing” — Lindsay really wants to see a particular movie, but she keeps being thwarted by circumstance. It seems like the universe is conspiring against her . . . and according to her ex-boyfriend Jack, that’s exactly what is happening. I really liked this playful homage to romantic-suspense-adventure movies such as How to Steal a Million, French Kiss, and Romancing the Stone.
  • “Just Like the Ones We Used to Know” — Thanks to climate change (or a “discontinuity,” or Armageddon, or . . . ?), places all over the world are having a white Christmas. Places like Los Angeles, and Honolulu, and Jerusalem. The story follows various characters as they deal with the unexpected snowstorm and try to figure out what’s causing it. I thought there were maybe a few too many characters in this one, and at least one storyline was never satisfactorily resolved.

All in all, I’m glad I purchased this one, even though I already own Miracle and Other Christmas Stories. But if you don’t have either book, definitely go with A Lot Like Christmas instead!

Memorial Hall MurderJane Langton, The Memorial Hall Murder

This is the third book in the Homer Kelly mystery series, but it can definitely be read as a stand-alone. The book begins with an explosion that destroys part of Memorial Hall on the campus of Harvard University. A headless body is found in the rubble, and it is soon identified as the corpse of Hamilton Dow, an extremely popular music professor. Homer Kelly, who used to work at the district attorney’s office, happens to be on the scene and decides to investigate. As a mystery, the book is nothing to write home about; the reader is given a lot of information early on, and the perpetrator’s identity isn’t hard to discover. I kept thinking there would be a plot twist to point the finger in a new direction, but it never came. However, the book is fun to read for its playful satire of university life and its prominent featuring of Handel’s Messiah. All in all, I’d consider reading more books in this series.

Mini-reviews: Miracle, Murder, Wired

Miracle on 5th AvenueSarah Morgan, Miracle on 5th Avenue

Eva Jordan, who owns an event-planning company with her two best friends, has been hired to decorate a swanky Manhattan apartment for Christmas. Little does she know that the owner — wildly successful (and handsome) mystery writer Lucas Blade — is still in residence. As luck would have it, a severe blizzard hits New York, trapping them in the apartment together. Sunny, optimistic Eva and grumpy, brooding Lucas clash right away, until of course they don’t. But will their very different personalities and priorities put a stop to their growing romance? I liked how honest Eva was about her needs and feelings, but otherwise I thought this book was just okay.

Murder for ChristmasFrancis Duncan, Murder for Christmas

A quintessential English country house mystery in which Father Christmas himself (as portrayed by one of the house party) is murdered. Naturally, all the characters seem to have a motive, and amateur detective Mordecai Tremaine just happens to be on the scene to solve the case. I really liked the atmosphere and writing style of this novel, although I’ll admit to being somewhat disappointed by the resolution of the mystery. It does make logical sense; it just didn’t turn out the way I would have preferred. Still, I’m definitely interested in trying more of the Mordecai Tremaine novels!

Wired LoveElla Cheever Thayer, Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes

A charmingly old-fashioned story about a young woman who falls in love with someone she “meets” on the telegraph wire, before ever seeing her correspondent in person. Naturally, complications ensue! I really enjoyed the fact that this is the same plot as You’ve Got Mail written more than 100 years earlier. I also liked the main romance, but I was extremely indignant at the fates of some of the secondary characters (poor Quimby and Jo!). So, not quite as satisfying as I’d have liked, but I still enjoyed this short book overall.

Mini-reviews: Alterations, Hitman, Temptation

AlterationsStephanie Scott, Alterations

I adore the movie Sabrina (the original, starring Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart), so I was excited to come across this YA contemporary retelling. Unfortunately, I think the concept was better than the execution…or maybe I’ve just outgrown this particular type of novel, with its focus on teen drama and the prom as the pinnacle of human existence. I did like the main character’s personal journey as she gets a prestigious fashion internship and grows in confidence. But I was less interested in the love triangle, although there are a few cute scenes. Overall, I’m left with a strong desire for more Sabrina-inspired books!

Agnes and the HitmanJennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer, Agnes and the Hitman

Part romantic comedy, part gangster movie, this novel is about a food writer named Agnes who accidentally finds herself a target of the local mafia. As a result, her “connected” friend Joey hires a hitman, Shane, to look after her. They are instantly attracted to one another, but their romance is complicated by real estate fraud, several attempts on Agnes’s life, and a flamingo-themed wedding from hell. I didn’t expect this farcical mash-up of genres to be so enjoyable, but I was utterly charmed by it! The plot sweeps along at a dizzying pace, as does the rapid-fire banter, and it’s all great fun. Highly recommended if the idea of a modern screwball comedy appeals to you!

Season for TemptationTheresa Romain, Season for Temptation

After seeing a lot of praise for Theresa Romain over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, I was excited to try her debut novel. But I wasn’t as impressed as I wanted to be. The plot is quite typical for a Regency romance: the hero needs to marry quickly, proposes to a proper and elegant lady, then falls in love with the lady’s unconventional younger sister instead. Both the hero and heroine are likable, and it’s a pleasant enough read. I also like that the original fiancée gets some character development and is not just a two-dimensional model of propriety. But the writing was occasionally clunky, and I just didn’t see anything exceptional about the book. Not one for the keeper shelf, but I’ll consider trying more by the author — if I can get them from the library!

Mini-reviews: Winter, Wed, Spy

Winter in JuneKathryn Miller Haines, Winter in June

In this installment of the Rosie Winter series, Rosie and her best pal Jayne have joined the USO, and they’re headed for the South Pacific to entertain the troops. There, Rosie gets involved in various forms of trouble, from disagreements with the local WAAC corps to mysterious thefts of military supplies to an inevitable murder investigation. In the meantime, she’s also looking for her ex-boyfriend Jack, who was rumored to have resurfaced in the South Pacific. It’s been years since I read the first two books in this series, and I think I’ve just lost my taste for it. I couldn’t remember who one character was at all, although he was apparently a big part of the first book. And I didn’t find Rosie consistent as a character, although I did still find her voice fairly enjoyable. I’ll read the fourth and final book in this series, just to see how everything turns out, but this series is not a keeper for me.

Someone to WedMary Balogh, Someone to Wed

Wren Hayden longs for the companionship of marriage, but a “disfiguring” birthmark on her face has led her to become a recluse. Nevertheless, she thinks her large fortune might be enough to induce someone to marry her. Alexander Westcott has unexpectedly inherited an earldom, along with the debts and huge financial responsibilities that go with it. He knows he must marry a rich wife, but Wren’s forthright proposal shocks and troubles him. He agrees to test the waters, hoping that at least friendship and respect can grow between them. But can Wren overcome her insecurities and be open to the possibility of a real relationship? I really felt for Wren in this book, and I liked that she and Alex aren’t immediately attracted to one another. In fact, he has to overcome some revulsion — not so much from the birthmark, but from Wren’s cold demeanor toward him. Their relationship is not romanticized, if that makes sense; it felt plausible and real. Another winner from Balogh!

Spy Wore RedAline, Countess of Romanones, The Spy Wore Red

This is a fast-paced, entertaining memoir that reads more like a spy thriller. Aline Griffith was a young woman working as a model in New York, when a chance encounter with a US intelligence operative propelled her into the world of espionage. The book covers her training and her first assignment in Spain, where she must get close to various people suspected of being German spies. The narrative has everything an espionage lover could wish for: code names, double agents, assassination attempts, and even a bullfight or two! Highly recommended for people who like spy novels or who are interested in WW2-era intelligence work.