Review: A Holiday by Gaslight

Holiday by GaslightMimi Matthews, A Holiday by Gaslight

Sophie Appersett is the elder daughter of an impoverished noble family. Her father has squandered the family fortune, including Sophie’s dowry, on modernizations to the estate, such as the implementation of gaslight. As a result, Sophie knows it’s her duty to marry money, even if means looking outside her own class for a husband. Edward Sharpe is a prosperous tradesman whose fortune is large enough to overcome his lack of gentility. But although he’s asked Sophie’s father for permission to court her, he shows no sign of being in love with her. In fact, Ned is interested in Sophie, but he doesn’t want to commit any breaches of etiquette in his courtship, so he takes refuge in silence. Frustrated, Sophie decides to break things off — but a further conversation with Ned convinces her to try once more. He’ll attend her family’s extravagant Christmas party, and they will both make an effort to know one another better. But will their fledgling relationship survive the obstacles presented by their respective families?

Christmas is my favorite holiday, and I’m already starting to get into the spirit of things, although I’m desperately trying to wait until after Thanksgiving to break out my Christmas music! So this holiday-set romance novella was bound to catch my eye, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I loved the premise, which has a sort of marriage-of-convenience flavor (one of my favorite tropes!) but even better because the hero and heroine are actually honest with each other, almost from the very beginning! They communicate well, and almost all the conflict is driven by Sophie’s truly appalling father and his determination to bleed Ned dry in order to improve Appersett House. I like that the book engages with the technological and scientific innovations of the Victorian period; in addition to gaslight, indoor plumbing and the theories of Charles Darwin are also mentioned. My one complaint is that the characterization is a little flat, especially for the secondary characters, but that’s understandable given the length of the story (only about 160 pages in the print version). Overall, I really liked this one and will definitely seek out the author’s full-length novels!

Review: The Cut Direct

Cut Direct.jpgAlice Tilton, The Cut Direct

Leonidas Witherall, a retired professor at a boys’ school, can’t imagine why anyone would want to murder him; but within the first few chapters of this book, he is twice run over by a car. The perpetrator looks like one of Witherall’s former pupils, an unpleasant young man named Bennington Brett. But when Witherall regains consciousness after the second vehicular assault, he wakes up in a chair across from Brett’s corpse. Concerned that he’ll be the number-one suspect if he calls the police, Witherall decides that the only available course of action is to solve the murder himself. Along the way, he accumulates a motley crew of assistants, including a drinking pal of Bennington’s, the Brett household’s beautiful secretary, a mobster and his girlfriend, and the kindly widow next door — whose brother just happens to be the local chief of police. Of course, Witherall’s attempts to investigate are hampered by the fact that his description is all over the police reports and the newspapers. As his efforts to evade capture become ever more farcical, he slowly begins to piece the mystery together.

This second book in the Witherall series is just as much madcap fun as the first book, Beginning with a Bash. The book is light, breezy, and full of delicious banter; it reminds me of the great screwball comedies of the 1930s, and I really wish someone would adapt the series for television. The opening chapters of the book are a little bewildering because Witherall himself doesn’t know what has happened to him, but it’s actually pretty easy to follow all the strands of the somewhat convoluted plot. As a mystery, I’m not sure it’s entirely successful; some aspects of the solution aren’t fair play, although I think astute readers will spot the culprit fairly quickly. But the characters, the dialogue, and the humor more than make up for any plot deficiencies. I especially loved Mrs. Price, the thoroughly respectable widow who wholeheartedly embraces Witherall’s schemes, even going so far as to use police resources to help him out of various difficulties. In short, this book (and, so far, the series) is a delight, especially for fans of movies like His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby.

Review: Don’t You Forget about Me

Don't You Forget about MeMhairi McFarlane, Don’t You Forget about Me

Thirtysomething Georgina Horspool is somewhat lost in life. She’s just been fired from a terrible waitressing job, only to walk in on her boyfriend cheating on her with his assistant. She’s also dealing with her judgmental mother and sister, who never miss an opportunity to criticize her life choices and who are having a field day with these latest crises. So when Georgina’s brother-in-law gives her a tip about a newly renovated pub that’s hiring bartenders, she jumps at the chance of gainful employment. Unfortunately, one of the owners of the pub is Lucas McCarthy, Georgina’s first love — and her first heartbreak. Back in high school, when they were paired together for a class assignment, Georgina fell hard for Lucas, and she could have sworn that the feeling was mutual. But a brutal incident at the end-of-year dance drove them apart, and they haven’t talked since. Now Lucas is smart, successful, and handsomer than ever . . . but he doesn’t even remember Georgina. As she wrestles with her complicated feelings about Lucas, Georgina also finds the strength to stand up for herself and mend the various relationships in her life.

Mhairi McFarlane has become one of my go-to authors for British “chick lit” with emotional depth. While Georgina’s situation is by no means unique in the genre — single, underemployed, dealing with family problems and low self-esteem — I found her both likable and relatable, and I was immediately rooting for her to overcome the various challenges in her life. I was drawn to her funny, self-deprecating voice and her vibrant personality that emerges when she’s hanging out with her friends. I also really enjoyed the development of her relationship with Lucas, which plays a prominent role in the story. I’m not usually a fan of second-chance romances, but the plot really worked for me here, in part because the reasons for their initial breakup are so understandable. (I don’t want to spoil the plot, but the incident at the end-of-year dance does involve sexual trauma [not perpetrated by Lucas], so be warned if you’re sensitive to that issue.) Lucas in particular didn’t handle things well, but I ultimately forgave him because (1) he was young and stupid and (2) he gives very good grovel in the end. Overall, if you like this genre, I’d definitely recommend this book, as well as McFarlane’s other novels.

Review: The Lady Rogue

Lady RogueJenn Bennett, The Lady Rogue

An unconventional young woman growing up in the 1930s, Theodora Fox has a thirst for adventure. Her father, Richard, is a well-known treasure hunter who travels the world collecting rare and precious artifacts. Yet despite Theo’s eagerness to accompany her father on these trips, he usually ends up leaving her behind, allegedly for her own protection. When Richard fails to return from one such trip, Theo is worried that he’s gotten into trouble and decides to take matters into her own hands. With the help of Huck Gallagher, Richard’s protégé and her own former love interest, she looks for clues in her father’s journal and soon realizes that he was on the trail of a supposedly magical ring that once belonged to Vlad the Impaler, a.k.a. Vlad Dracula. Now Theo and Huck must retrace her father’s footsteps into Romania, where they soon discover that they aren’t the only ones on Richard’s trail. They also encounter murder, magic, and a dangerous secret society with its own plans for Dracula’s ring.

This book sounded like it was going to be a fun, adventurous romp, but unfortunately I didn’t enjoy it. I find myself getting a bit grumpy about YA lately, and this book is a good example of why: I just found Theo to be incredibly immature. She’s one of those headstrong, anachronistic heroines with implausibly amazing skills (in Theo’s case, codebreaking) and a fairly self-centered worldview. She doesn’t really grow or change throughout the novel, although I’ll grant that she does make one very good decision at a climactic moment. But I just didn’t care about her or her quest. The treasure-hunting aspect of the novel is also disappointing, since Theo and Huck are terrible detectives; they wander around Romania cluelessly and finally stumble upon the exact individuals who can tell them what’s going on and what to do next. Finally, the romance irritated me; it was all angst and physical attraction, no true compatibility. Also, I hated the characterization of Huck — he’s from Northern Ireland, and he’s an incredibly broad stereotype (says “Jaysus” all the time, calls Theo “banshee” as a pet name). In short, this one definitely wasn’t for me.

Review: Aurora Blazing

Aurora BlazingJessie Mihalik, Aurora Blazing

Bianca von Hasenberg, a daughter of one of the three High Houses in the Consortium (an interplanetary governing body), adopts the public persona of an empty-headed space princess. But she’s actually an extremely gifted intelligence-gatherer with a wide network of informants, usually women she has quietly rescued from bad domestic situations. Thanks to the illicit experiments of her late husband, Gregory, Bianca also has the ability to detect and decode nearly any message sent via technology, no matter how complex its encryption. So when Bianca’s brother Ferdinand — the heir to House von Hasenberg — is kidnapped, she feels compelled to use her expertise to save him. But Ian Bishop, House von Hasenberg’s head of security, is determined to protect Bianca by refusing to let her participate in the investigation. Bianca doesn’t take his orders lying down, however, and soon she’s on the run with an angry, and infuriatingly attractive, Ian in hot pursuit. Eventually, they realize that they will accomplish more by working together, but their fragile trust may not survive all the dangerous ordeals that await them.

I enjoyed the first book in this series, Polaris Rising, and was excited for this sequel, which seemed like it would contain more of my favorite romance tropes—forced proximity, enemies to lovers, grumpy hero, and so on. But while those tropes do exist in the book, they fell flat for me, mostly because the romance definitely takes a backseat to the external plot in this book. It’s almost the halfway point before Bianca and Ian end up on the same spaceship, and even then, there isn’t very much development of their relationship. The turn from enemies to lovers seems very abrupt, and Ian’s shift in demeanor was particularly jarring to me. The character development is clumsy; Bianca and Ian each get a scene where one explains a tragic incident in his/her past to the other, but that’s it. It all feels very rote. I wanted more about Ian’s past, especially how he was able to become the head of House von Hasenberg security before age 30, and I think Bianca’s disastrous marriage should have been explored in more depth too. Plot-wise, there’s plenty of action, as well as fun tech discussions if you’re into that sort of thing. But overall, I’m pretty “meh” on this book. I will probably still read the third one when it comes out next year, though!

Review: The Spider’s Touch

Spider's TouchPatricia Wynn, The Spider’s Touch

***Warning: SPOILERS for The Birth of Blue Satan.***

This second book in the Blue Satan and Mrs. Kean series picks up shortly after the first one left off. Gideon, Viscount St. Mars, is accused of his father’s murder and, though innocent, has fled to France. There he is approached by supporters of James Stuart and asked to aid the Jacobite cause by returning to England and assessing whether the people would rise up to overthrow George I and restore the Stuart dynasty to the English throne. Gideon is reluctant to embrace the Jacobite cause wholeheartedly, but he agrees to the mission. Meanwhile, Hester Kean is living with her cousin Isabella and the rest of her family, who are trying to ingratiate themselves at George I’s court. However, the family unwittingly becomes close with a number of Jacobite spies and sympathizers. When Gideon returns to England and sees Hester’s plight, he is determined to protect her. And when one of Hester’s Jacobite acquaintances is murdered during an opera performance, she and Gideon team up to solve the mystery.

I don’t know why more novels aren’t set during the early 18th century, when the conflict between Hanover supporters and Jacobites provides such a compelling conflict and backdrop for dramatic action! So I’m very glad that this series exists, and I enjoyed this second installment very much. It had been a few years since I’d read the first book, but Wynn does a good job of catching up readers and reminding them of the most important plot points. I also appreciated the historical note at the very beginning of the book, which provides some much-needed context for the events of the novel. As for the book itself, I really like both Gideon and Hester as characters, and I especially like how Hester’s role (though necessarily a bit more passive, because she’s both a woman and a dependent) is just as vital as Gideon’s. The book starts out slowly because it follows each of them in turn, but it picks up once they start sharing scenes together. I’m definitely here for the inevitable romance! The mystery plot is probably the weakest element, as the culprit is fairly obvious, and I felt it was an uncreative way to resolve that character’s arc. Still, I really liked this book and will definitely continue with the series!

Review: The Lady and the Highwayman

Lady and the HighwaymanSarah M. Eden, The Lady and the Highwayman

In 1860s London, Elizabeth Black is the headmistress of a respectable girls’ school who also writes “silver fork” novels that cater to the tastes of the gentry and aristocracy. However, she also secretly writes “penny dreadfuls” — lurid, sensational stories full of adventure and danger — under the pseudonym Charles King. Meanwhile, Fletcher Walker is another writer of penny dreadfuls, but the success of Mr. King’s stories is beginning to eat away at his profits. Fletcher is disturbed by this because he needs money to fund the mission of the Dread Penny Society, a group of penny dreadful writers who have pledged to help London’s street children escape from the gutter and lead safer, happier lives. This goal is extremely important to Fletcher, who was once himself a forgotten child of the streets. When he meets Elizabeth at a party, he decides to enlist her help in discovering Mr. King’s identity. She agrees, hoping to throw him off the scent; but the more time they spend together, the more they are drawn to each other despite their very different backgrounds.

I found this book fairly enjoyable, but it requires a lot of suspension of disbelief! The idea that all of London’s penny dreadful writers would be members of a secret society designed to rescue impoverished children is a fun one, but I also found it rather silly. Also, it’s very odd that Fletcher would ask Elizabeth for help in tracking down Mr. King, since (as far as he knows) she only writes “respectable” novels — plus, they barely know each other in the beginning! I also found the plot a bit of a mess; there’s the “who is Mr. King?” story, the escapades of the Dread Penny Society (which hint at a nefarious enemy who is never revealed, but perhaps that will come in a sequel), and the romance between Fletcher and Elizabeth, but it’s hard to say which is the main point of the novel. It’s all a bit of a jumble. That said, I enjoyed reading a historical romance set in a later period than the Regency, and I appreciated the main characters’ desire to make their world a better place. I’m not sure if the author is planning a sequel to this book, but I’ll read it if it ever materializes.

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!