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.

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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.

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!

Review: Why Earls Fall in Love

Why Earls Fall in LoveManda Collins, Why Earls Fall in Love

In this Regency romance, Georgina Mowbray is a war widow eking out a living as Lady Russell’s paid companion. Despite the fact that much of Lady Russell’s family regards her as the help, Georgie is quite content with her situation; it’s a vast improvement over life with her husband Robert, who was violent and abusive toward her. So she certainly has no intention of getting involved with Lady Russell’s attractive nephew, the Earl of Coniston, even when he begins to show an interest in her. Though Georgie soon finds herself drawn to Con, she cannot bring herself to trust him, or any man, after what Robert put her through. But when a secret from Georgie’s past threatens her safety, Con is determined to protect her from harm—and to give her the love she truly deserves.

I enjoyed this book while reading it, but ultimately it’s not one I plan to keep. I read it just a couple months ago, and I’ve already forgotten most of the salient details. I was annoyed by the fact that this isn’t really a stand-alone novel; although I knew it was book 2 in a trilogy, I expected to be able to follow the plot (most romance novels, even in a series, can be read as stand-alones). But in this case, you really need to know what happened in book 1, because there’s a big suspense plot in this book that is almost entirely based on previous events. (There’s a prologue that is meant to catch you up, but I still felt like I was missing a lot.) Also, Con seems to fall for Georgie awfully quickly . . . if I’m remembering correctly, he’s a rake who pretty much immediately gives up his rakish ways for her. So overall, this book was fine, but I don’t feel compelled to seek out more books by the author.

Review: Servant of the Crown

Servant of the CrownMelissa McShane, Servant of the Crown

Alison Quinn, Countess of Waxwold, has no use for the trappings of high society; she’s perfectly content to work as an editor at her father’s printing press. So she’s both shocked and resentful when she receives a summons from the palace, commanding her to become a lady-in-waiting to the queen’s mother for the next six months. Refusal is impossible, so Alison is forced to move to the palace and participate in court life. There she catches the eye of Anthony North, the queen’s brother and a notorious womanizer, but she wants nothing to do with him. As she and Anthony are thrown together more and more, however, Alison finds herself letting her guard down. But can she really trust the prince? Meanwhile, something mysterious is going on with the Royal Library, so even when a disastrous incident causes Alison to flee the palace, she must eventually return to set things right — and perhaps find love as well.

I really wanted to love this book, since I thoroughly enjoyed Burning Bright by the same author. But I was disappointed, primarily because I found Alison SO obnoxious at first. For the first half of the novel, she seems to be completely self-obsessed and judgmental. Any time a male character talks to her, she assumes he is only interested in sleeping with her, because she is Just So Gorgeous. I suppose that could be a legitimate problem for some people, but let’s just say I didn’t find it relatable! I also wish the fantasy element had been more fleshed out; this is clearly a fantasy world, but aside from a few mentions of magical Devices, there’s no world-building to speak of. And finally, the book suffers from an identity crisis: the first half is almost entirely a romance, while the second half suddenly becomes all about political intrigue. Happily, I did enjoy the second half a lot more! Alison experiences some much-needed character growth, and the plot is much more interesting. All in all, the book got off to an abysmal start but partially redeemed itself in the end. I already own the next two books in the series, so hopefully the upward trajectory will continue!

Review: My Plain Jane

My Plain JaneCynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows, My Plain Jane

***Warning: This review contains SPOILERS for Jane Eyre!***

In this fractured-fairytale take on Jane Eyre, Jane is a real person, and she and Charlotte Brontë are best friends. Also, she can see dead people: her other BFF, Helen Burns, is a ghost. Jane is currently a teacher at Lowood School, but her unique gifts bring her to the attention of Alexander Blackwood, the star agent of the Royal Society for the Relocation of Wayward Spirits. Alexander’s job is to find and capture ghosts who are causing trouble for humans, and Jane’s abilities will aid him in this task. But Jane inexplicably prefers to be a governess, and she sets off for Thornfield Hall, where she becomes entangled with a certain Edward Rochester. Charlotte, however, would love to become a member of the Society, despite her utter inability to see ghosts. So she teams up with Alexander to follow Jane, hoping to persuade her to join the Society. When they arrive at Thornfield, they soon realize that something is very wrong, but Jane might be too blinded by her feelings for Rochester to see it. . . .

I think this book was written for a very specific audience in mind, which is people who enjoy Jane Eyre but also realize that Mr. Rochester is a deeply flawed character. As one of those people, I found this book very enjoyable! Ghostly Helen Burns is a hilarious Greek chorus, pointing out Rochester’s inconsistent and manipulative behavior to Jane at every turn. For example, it’s pretty cruel of him to act like he’s going to marry Blanche Ingram just to make Jane jealous. He runs extremely hot and cold, sometimes focusing on Jane with special intensity and sometimes completely ignoring her. And then, of course, there’s the whole wife-in-the-attic thing, which this novel turns on its head, making Bertha Rochester a strong and sympathetic character. I also enjoyed Charlotte’s quest to become a member of the Society, as well as her budding romance with Alexander. It’s all a bit lightweight, and not something I necessarily feel a need to ever reread, but it’s great fun if you’re familiar with Jane Eyre.

Review: This Side of Murder

This Side of MurderAnna Lee Huber, This Side of Murder

It’s 1919, and war widow Verity Kent is on her way to an engagement party. Her late husband, Sidney, had been close friends with the groom, and they had fought together in the war. Nevertheless, Verity isn’t particularly excited about this party, but she has a specific reason for going: she has received an anonymous note implying that Sidney was involved in treasonous activity during the war. Verity is outraged — she knows Sidney would never do such a thing — and she wants to identify and expose the letter-writer. But when Verity arrives at the party, she learns that all the male guests knew Sidney from the war; in fact, they all served in the same battalion. Then one of the men turns up dead, and Verity is convinced that the murder is connected to the battalion’s actions during the war. To solve the mystery, Verity must investigate her husband’s past, but what she discovers is more shocking than she ever imagined.

I’m always on the lookout for historical mysteries set in the period between the two world wars. Ever since my tween self’s obsession with Agatha Christie, I’ve enjoyed books set in this era, especially if they also involve murder and skulduggery. So I was predisposed to like this book, and I did find it fairly enjoyable. Verity Kent is a somewhat stereotypical heroine, in that she is beautiful, highly competent, and forward-thinking enough to be appealing to contemporary readers. She’s fine, but I wasn’t particularly engaged with her character. However, I do have to give the author credit for surprising me, both regarding the evildoer’s identity and regarding certain romantic plot elements. I’m not entirely on board with how the romance turned out, but I’m intrigued to see what might happen in future books! So while this book didn’t blow me away, I liked it enough that I plan to seek out the sequel, Treacherous Is the Night.

Review: Someone to Love

Someone to LoveMary Balogh, Someone to Love

The earl of Riverdale has just died, and his family is putting his affairs in order. Obviously his son will inherit the title, the estate, and the bulk of the money. But the late earl also had an illegitimate daughter, Anna Snow, who grew up in an orphanage and is now a teacher there. The earl’s widow wants to give Anna some money, both as a kind gesture and as a way to forestall any future claims on the estate. But the lawyer she employs for this purpose makes a shocking discovery: Anna is actually the earl’s legitimate daughter, and her existence effectively disinherits his widow and his other children. Anna would like to be close to her newfound family, since she was previously alone in the world, but they all resent her for depriving them of their wealth and status. Her only ally is Avery Archer, a friend of the family, who decides to help her acclimate to her new life. But he never expected to be so drawn to her; and Anna never thought she would be so tempted to lose her heart to a (seemingly) shallow leader of society.

I was craving a good romance novel when I saw a review of this one at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did, because I really enjoyed this book! First of all, I think the setup is pretty genius; it may not be the most plausible premise, but it certainly sets up some great conflicts, both for this book and (presumably) for future books in the series. I very much liked Anna as a heroine — she’s confident in herself but also has a deep longing for intimacy and connection that she’s not sure how to express. In this respect, Avery is a great match for her, since he also conceals deep loneliness under a bored and detached facade. I really enjoyed his urbane quips and his witty conversations with Anna, and I loved that he’s not a typical alpha-male hero. My only quibble with the book is Avery’s practice of martial arts, because every time Avery engages in violence in the novel, it’s portrayed as being sexually appealing. Additionally, a somewhat stereotypical “Chinese gentleman” is the source of Avery’s knowledge (see the SBTB review and comments for a great discussion of this). Aside from that, though, I liked this book a lot and will definitely seek out more by Mary Balogh when I want a well-written Regency romance.

Review: Between Silk and Sand

Between Silk and SandMarissa Doyle, Between Silk and Sand

As the younger daughter of the king of Thekla, Saraid has always known that it is her duty to marry the ruler of a neighboring country, thus cementing an alliance that will benefit her people. With the help of The Book, a treatise written by a wise courtier to a previous Theklan monarch, Saraid knows she can become the perfect royal wife. When she is betrothed to the Lord Protector of Mauburni, she sets off with a small retinue through the harsh desert land called the Adaiha. En route she is kidnapped by a warlord named Cadel who is determined not to let her reach her destination. At first, Saraid is furious and desperate to escape. But the more time she spends in Cadel’s camp, the more she finds herself drawn to him — and the more conflicted she becomes about where she truly wishes to be.

I want to start off by saying that I didn’t dislike this book; it was a pleasant enough read, and I liked Saraid as a character. But several things about this book really frustrated me! First of all, the premise reminds me of Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword — which is not necessarily a bad thing, except that The Blue Sword is so much better! Second, the prologue reveals way too much of the plot of the book, which completely killed the dramatic tension for me. And third, I found the romance somewhat problematic because it seems like Saraid is always wrong and Cadel is always right. Not to mention the fact that she is his prisoner; and while Cadel does have legitimate reasons to prevent her from reaching Mauburni, he never shares those reasons with her. So overall, I found myself focusing a lot more on this book’s flaws than its good points. I’ve read and enjoyed other books by Marissa Doyle, but I’d advise people to pass on this one.

Review: Have His Carcase

Have His CarcaseDorothy L. Sayers, Have His Carcase

Harriet Vane, the famous detective novelist and infamous murder suspect (recently acquitted), is on a walking tour of British coastal villages. One afternoon she has a picnic on the beach and drops off to sleep. When she awakens, she is shocked to discover the body of a dead man farther along the beach. The man’s throat has been cut, but there is only one set of footprints (which must belong to the corpse), so suicide is a possibility. But Harriet can’t help thinking it might be murder. She photographs the body — which will be washed away when the tide comes in — and goes for help. But much to Harriet’s chagrin, help eventually arrives in the form of Lord Peter Wimsey, whose eagerness to solve the mystery is compounded by his desire to spend more time with Harriet. As the two join forces to solve the mystery, they also struggle to define the nature and boundaries of their relationship.

The more I read of Dorothy L. Sayers, the more I come to realize that she is emphatically not for everyone. This book is a Golden Age mystery, but it’s far from a typical one. Sayers is unquestionably familiar with the tropes of the genre — indeed, Peter and Harriet have some fun mocking them in this book — but she doesn’t seem particularly interested in following them herself. As with many of her other books, the “whodunit” is not the main concern; rather, she spends most of her time setting up a seemingly impossible crime, then explaining at length how it was possible after all. It’s clever, but I must confess that it didn’t hold my attention. A chapter near the end, where Peter and Harriet decode a letter and painstakingly explain how the code works, is especially dull.

However, I still really liked this book, and the reason is that I’m fascinated by the development of the relationship between Peter and Harriet. There’s one scene in particular, where they leave aside their usual polite banter and express their real emotions, that hit me right in the gut. Much as my romantic heart wants them to get together, I completely understand Harriet’s ambivalence and her struggle to maintain her independence in the face of Peter’s relentless pursuit. I’m extremely eager to read Gaudy Night now, but since I’m going in publication order, I have a couple books in between. I think that when I reread the series (as I undoubtedly will), I’ll group all the Peter-and-Harriet books together.