Review: The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place

Grave's a Fine and Private PlaceAlan Bradley, The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place

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

In this latest installment of the Flavia de Luce series, Buckshaw is in mourning after the death of Haviland. To cheer up Flavia and her sisters, Dogger suggests a holiday to the nearby village of Volesthorpe. But what should be a peaceful boating excursion inevitably turns into another mystery when Flavia dangles her hand in the water and inadvertently catches a corpse. The dead man is Orlando Whitbread, the son of Canon Whitbread, who was convicted of murdering three of his parishioners by poisoning the communion chalice. Naturally, Flavia is on the case, and she soon discovers that the people of Volesthorpe are hiding many secrets, including what really happened in the case of the poisoned chalice.

After reading Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, I honestly wasn’t sure whether I wanted to continue with this series. Flavia’s continuing lack of friends, her adversarial relationship wth her sisters, and of course Haviland’s death made me feel very sad for Flavia, and I was more depressed than entertained. But I’m happy to say that this book was a lot more fun; it feels like the old irrepressible Flavia is back! I loved her interactions with Dogger in this novel, and it was interesting to learn a little more about his backstory. I was also pleased to see her getting along with her sisters a bit better, especially Daffy, whose love of poetry ends up giving Flavia a key clue. There’s even a hint of a suspicion that Flavia might be growing up, although I’m kind of torn on whether or not I want that to happen…. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to the next book now, and I’m happy that the series seems to be back on track!

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Review: The Girl in the Tower

Girl in the TowerKatherine Arden, The Girl in the Tower

In this sequel to The Bear and the Nightingale, Vasya can no longer remain in her childhood home; not only is she now an orphan, but her neighbors fear and distrust her, believing she is a witch. Her only socially acceptable options are to marry or join a convent, but she cannot stomach either fate. Instead, dressed as a boy, she decides to seek adventure in distant lands, with the help of a certain frost demon. Meanwhile, Vasya’s brother Sasha is a monk living in Moscow, where he is a trusted advisor at his cousin Dmitrii’s court. But Dmitrii’s power is far from secure: a group of bandits is ravaging the Russian countryside, and Russia’s Turkish overlords are demanding an exorbitantly high tribute payment. When Vasya and Sasha’s storylines converge, Vasya must help to defeat another magical foe, while navigating a path between society’s expectations and her own desires.

I was a huge fan of The Bear and the Nightingale when I read it last year, and I said at the time that I was eager to read more by Katherine Arden. However, when I realized that this book was a sequel, I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic — I had thought the first book would be a standalone. But fortunately, I ended up loving The Girl in the Tower just as much as the first book! I adore the setting and the writing style, and the plot of this novel had me glued to the pages. I love a good political intrigue, and I enjoyed seeing medieval Moscow through Vasya’s eyes. I do find Vasya slightly annoying sometimes — she’s one of those characters who seems to be amazing at everything — but I love how her choices always have consequences, both for herself and for the people she loves. Overall, I loved this a lot and can’t wait for book 3 to be published this summer!

Review: A Gathering of Shadows

Gathering of ShadowsV.E. Schwab, A Gathering of Shadows

***Warning: SPOILERS for A Darker Shade of Magic***

Four months after the events of A Darker Shade of Magic, Delilah Bard is living her dream of being a pirate — well, privateer, technically — on the ship Night Spire under Captain Alucard Emery. She is also exploring her magical abilities under Alucard’s tutelage, while keeping her thieving skills as sharp as her knives. Meanwhile, Kell and Rhy are struggling with the aftermath of Kell’s decision to bind their lives together. The upcoming Essen Tasch — a competition between the best magicians of Arnes and its neighboring lands — provides an outlet for Kell’s frustration and also draws hordes of people to Red London, including a certain pirate-thief and her swashbuckling captain. But unforeseen dangers threaten Kell, Rhy, and Lila, and strange things are afoot in White London. . . .

I really enjoyed A Darker Shade of Magic, but for some reason it took me a really long time to pick up the second book in the series. I don’t know what I was waiting for, because this book definitely lives up to its predecessor! I love the world of this series, and  the plot — especially once everyone starts to converge on Red London for the Essen Tasch — kept me riveted. I also enjoyed watching the three main characters grow and change; it was particularly nice to get inside Rhy’s head for a bit and see that he’s more than just a pleasure-loving wastrel. I also liked seeing Lila get what she’s always wanted, only to discover that maybe she wants something different now. Fair warning, this book does end on a cliffhanger, so I’m glad I already have A Conjuring of Light on my shelves! I can’t wait to see what happens next and how everything turns out. I’d definitely recommend this series to fantasy lovers!

 

Review: Snowblind

SnowblindRagnar Jónasson, Snowblind (trans. Quentin Bates)

This first book in the Dark Iceland series introduces Ari Thór, a brand-new policeman who’s just gotten his first job in Siglufjördur, a tiny town on the north coast of Iceland. Moving to Siglufjördur from Reykjavik proves challenging for Ari; not only does he leave the city and a serious girlfriend behind him, but now he finds himself an outsider in a tight-knit community. He also has to adjust to the weather, which in December consists of constant snowfall and almost 24-hour darkness. But the seemingly sleepy town takes on a more menacing aspect when a woman is stabbed and an old man falls to his death — or was he pushed? As Ari works on both cases, he uncovers multiple secrets that certain locals would rather keep buried.

Although I love a good mystery, I tend to shy away from Nordic crime novels because they all sound relentlessly depressing. But I quite liked this book, despite the slightly claustrophobic setting. It’s a little slow to get going, and I wasn’t a fan of the multiple narratives at the outset — the book bounces to different perspectives and time periods, and it was a bit confusing at first. I don’t like that device in general because it doesn’t allow you to really get into any one story; just when you start getting interested, the narrative jumps to something else. But I did like Ari Thór (although he clearly has some growing up to do) and would enjoy reading more books about him, as well as the other residents of Siglufjördur. I also liked the resolutions to both mysteries. So overall, I’d recommend this book to mystery lovers.

Review: Now That You Mention It

Now That You Mention ItKristan Higgins, Now That You Mention It

By all appearances, Nora Stuart has a great life: she’s a successful doctor living in Boston with her gorgeous boyfriend. But when said boyfriend dumps her while she’s in the hospital recovering from a car accident, she decides to reevaluate her life. She returns to her hometown of Scupper Island, Maine, to recover from her injuries, but in doing so she opens a lot of old wounds. Her relationship with her mother has always been distant, and the townspeople in general haven’t forgiven her for “stealing” a college scholarship from golden boy Luke Fletcher. As Nora starts to rebuild her life, she strives to mend fences, with mixed results. But with the help of a few new friends — and a possible new romance — she eventually feels ready to embrace life again.

Overall, I really loved this book. I found Nora very relatable and likable — in fact, almost too likable and sweet, given how much crap she’s gone through in her life. The chapters that describe her high school experience are downright heartbreaking, and I couldn’t help being angry at nearly every other character because they didn’t give her the love she so desperately needed. Also, there’s one absolutely horrifying scene in which she is the victim of a home invasion; her attacker attempts to rape and murder her, and it’s a very, very hard scene to read. On the one hand, I think it’s important to confront the reality that this happens to women all the time, and it should be disturbing and terrifying. On the other hand, I’m not exactly looking for that in my light fiction, you know? Except for that scene, though, the book is a compelling and ultimately uplifting read. Recommended for fans of women’s fiction with some weight to it.

Review: A Man Lay Dead

Man Lay DeadNgaio Marsh, A Man Lay Dead

This first book in the Inspector Alleyn series is pretty much the quintessential English country house murder. A group of acquaintances is invited to Frantock, the stately home of Sir Hubert Handesley, who is famous for his house parties. Everything seems to be going swimmingly, although first-time guest Nigel Bathgate notices some tension in the air. Sir Hubert suggests a game of Murders, in which one guest is secretly designated the “murderer” and must “kill” another member of the party without being caught. Of course, the game becomes all too serious when one of the houseguests is really killed. Inspector Alleyn is on the case, and he soon uncovers several motives for murder — but it seems as though none of the suspects would have been able to complete the dastardly deed in time.

I’m almost positive that I’ve read this book before, but it’s been so long that I hardly remembered anything about it. Maybe I didn’t like it the first time, because I don’t remember reading any other books by Ngaio Marsh; but I definitely enjoyed it this time around! I liked the writing style, the book has good pacing, and the clues are well planted and spread around. The solution to the mystery is bizarre but satisfying, and there’s even a nice little romance on the sidelines. The characterization is rather flat, even for Alleyn; Nigel Bathgate is the only one with a bit of depth. And a fair bit of the plot is spent on a Russian secret society that (spoiler alert) has nothing to do with the murder and is just there to create trouble. (I mean, that’s not even really a spoiler, because it is literally never the Russians.) Still, I’m definitely interested in continuing with this series, and I’m sure the characterization — at least of Alleyn himself — will improve in later books!

Review: You Need a Budget

You Need a BudgetJesse Mecham, You Need a Budget: The Proven System for Breaking the Paycheck-to-Paycheck Cycle, Getting Out of Debt, and Living the Life You Want

In this book, Jesse Mecham, the creator of YouNeedABudget.com, gives an overview of his budgeting system and — perhaps more importantly — his philosophy of budgeting. His four main budgeting principles are (1) give every dollar a job, (2) embrace your true expenses, (3) roll with the punches, and (4) age your money. Using anecdotes from his own life and from users of the YNAB software, Mecham explains these principles in depth and describes how they can help people get out of debt, stop living paycheck to paycheck, and save money for the priorities that matter most to them.

This book felt very accessible to me (a person who is relatively ignorant of all things finance); it’s a quick read, not at all technical, and it offers a very big-picture look at why budgeting is important. I was struck by this quote from the beginning of the book: “[M]oney is not the point, not the end goal. In truth, when we’re stressed about our finances, it’s because we’re not sure our money decisions are aligned with the life we want to be living.” Mecham’s point, which really resonated with me, is that budgeting is about putting your money toward the goals and priorities that really matter to you. I definitely got a lot out of this book and found it very useful in preparing my own budget going forward. I’d recommend this to people who feel like they should be doing more with their money but don’t know quite where to start.

Review: Homicide for the Holidays

Homicide for the HolidaysCheryl Honigford, Homicide for the Holidays

Vivian Witchell’s star is on the rise. She has a steady job playing Lorna Lafferty on the Chicago radio show “The Darkness Knows,” and her romance with costar Graham Yarborough has only added to her popularity, even if it’s all faked for publicity. But the chance discovery of a hidden key in her late father’s study sends Viv into a spiral of confusion and horror. Apparently her beloved father, who always seemed like such an upstanding member of society, was involved with some very unsavory people — infamous members of the Chicago mob who would stop at nothing to get their way. Despite her inner turmoil, Viv enlists the help of her once and future lover, Detective Charlie Haverman, to investigate her father’s past. But she’s not entirely sure she wants to learn the truth, especially when it seems that her own life may be in danger.

Looking back at my review of The Darkness Knows, it appears that I liked the first book in the series much better than this installment! Viv annoyed me a lot more this time around; she spends most of the book in a lather of indecision, sometimes changing her mind several times in the course of one interior monologue. Should she pursue the investigation of her father’s shady dealings, or should she let the past stay buried? Should she disclose X piece of information to someone, or should she keep it to herself? Should she tell Charlie that her relationship with Graham isn’t real, or should she protect the secret to serve her career? The constant dithering got on my nerves. Also, it’s worth noting that neither Viv nor Charlie actually solves the mystery; Viv stumbles upon the truth by pure chance. I did like the period detail and the unique backdrop of a 1930s radio show, but I’m pretty ambivalent about continuing with the series at this point.

Top Ten Tuesday: Best New-to-Me Authors of 2017

Top 10 Tuesday

It’s the first Top Ten Tuesday of the year, hooray! And naturally it’s about looking back at 2017 and acknowledging all the great new authors we discovered! Here’s my list of 10 11 favorite new-to-me authors in 2017. (Look, I tried to narrow it down to 10, but I just couldn’t!)

1. Sally Thorne — Is it possible for someone to become an auto-buy author after just one book? After reading The Hating Game, I can unequivocally state that the answer is yes!

2. Katherine Arden — I loved the gorgeous The Bear and the Nightingale, and I’m planning to read The Girl in the Tower this month.

3. Darcie Wilde — A Useful Woman unites two of my favorite things, the Regency era and mysteries! Best of all, it’s first in a series, so hopefully I’ll get to read many more books by Wilde!

4. Keigo Higashino — While I had reservations about one plot point in The Devotion of Suspect X, I really enjoyed this contemporary mystery novel set in Tokyo. I’d like to check out some more books in the series; luckily several of them have been translated into English!

5. Stephanie Kate Strohm — After reading the adorable Prince in Disguise, I definitely need to check out some more of Strohm’s books! I’m intrigued by It’s Not Me, It’s You

6. Dolores Gordon-Smith — I love discovering a new mystery series, and A Fête Worse Than Death is a very entertaining start to the Jack Haldean series. I’m excited that my library has most of the rest of the books!

7. Jenny Colgan — Occasionally I’m in the mood for some chick lit, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed The Café by the Sea. I’ve already picked up another Colgan novel, The Bookshop on the Corner, on a friend’s recommendation.

8. J. Jefferson Farjeon — The Z Murders definitely requires some suspension of disbelief, but I loved its overall style and tone. I’m looking forward to more Farjeon, and I’ve already acquired both Thirteen Guests and Mystery in White.

9. Leo Bruce — I think it was the spot-on parody of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown that really sold me on Case for Three Detectives, but I adored the humor and cleverness throughout.

10. Stephanie Burgis — Hooray for well-written historical fantasy! Congress of Secrets was so entertaining, and I can’t wait to read Masks and Shadows as well.

11. Melissa McShane — I really liked Burning Bright — another well-written historical fantasy, this time with pirates!