Review: The Goblin Emperor

Goblin EmperorKatherine Addison, The Goblin Emperor

Maia’s father is the emperor of all the Elflands, but Maia has spent his entire life in exile because of the emperor’s disdain for Maia’s mother, whom he married solely for political reasons. Maia’s mother died when he was young, so he has grown up in isolation with his abusive cousin Setheris as a guardian. But everything changes for Maia when a messenger from the imperial court brings shocking news: Maia’s father and all his half-brothers have been killed in an airship accident, and Maia is the new emperor. Though Maia has no choice but to do his duty and accept the title of emperor, he is horrified. He is young, ill educated, and completely unprepared for the intrigues of court life; moreover, it’s clear that many of the courtiers aren’t thrilled to have an 18-year-old half-goblin as their ruler. Now Maia must quickly learn how to be the emperor his country needs, distinguish friend from foe, and investigate his father’s death, which may not have been so accidental after all.

This is a book with a high degree of difficulty, but I’m happy I stuck with it because I ended up really liking it. The challenging elements are as follows: first, the world of the book is very detailed and elaborate, but the reader is flung into it without explanation. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — I find exposition-heavy infodumps much worse — but it does make the book hard to follow at first. The second challenge is the language: not only are the names of people and places impossible to pronounce or spell, but characters use a formal “we” when speaking of themselves and an informal “thou” when speaking to their close friends. I actually liked this archaic use of pronouns, but it requires a mental adjustment to get into the flow of the dialogue. And finally, not much happens in the book, plot-wise; Maia mostly drifts from one situation to another and tries desperately not to make a fool of himself. Nevertheless, he’s such a sympathetic character, and the world he’s navigating is so fascinating and well built, that I truly enjoyed the book anyway. I think it would appeal to fans of setting-heavy fantasy novels like The Night Circus.

Review: Ex Libris

Ex LibrisAnne Fadiman, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader

This collection of essays by Anne Fadiman deals with a topic that is dear to every reader’s heart: books and reading. In “Marrying Libraries,” she describes how she didn’t truly feel married to her husband until they merged their book collections. In “My Odd Shelf,” she shares her idiosyncratic passion for polar exploration narratives. In “The His’er Problem,” she discusses the English language’s deficiency in not having a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun. In “The Catalogical Imperative,” she cheekily admits her love of mail-order catalogues. And in “Never Do That to a Book,” she divides readers into “courtly” book lovers and “carnal” book lovers, proudly declaring herself to be one of the latter. Throughout these essays, Fadiman keeps a fairly light, playful tone, but she also deals with weightier topics such as her father’s deteriorating health. Still, the focus remains on books and how the love of reading can shape a person’s life.

I don’t seem to be very good at reading essays; I tend to read them all in one gulp, like a novel, even though I think I ought to dip in and out, reading only a couple at a time. As with any short story or essay collection, some installments are better and more memorable than others. The one I enjoyed most is probably “Marrying Libraries,” which not only touched on serious issues like whose copy of a book should be kept and whose discarded, but also showed a sweet little glimpse into Fadiman’s relationship with her husband. I found “Never Do That to a Book” to be the most controversial, as Fadiman seems to poke fun at people who take care of their books as physical objects. She and her family, it seems, don’t mind dog-earing, tearing out pages, breaking spines, and so forth. I’m not saying those things are wrong, but I also don’t think it’s wrong to keep one’s books looking nice! Overall, I sometimes enjoyed Fadiman’s breezy tone and sometimes found her a bit pretentious. But the essays are certainly fun reads for book lovers!

Review: The Bookish Life of Nina Hill

Bookish Life of Nina HillAbbi Waxman, The Bookish Life of Nina Hill

Nina Hill has a quiet, predictable life, and she likes it that way. She works in an independent bookstore in LA’s Larchmont Village and runs a book club for young female readers. She has some friends in her coworkers and her weekly pub trivia team, but her favorite activity is staying home and reading. Everything changes, however, when Nina learns that her father, whom she never knew, has died and left her something in his will. He’s also left her an assortment of relatives: stepmothers, siblings, aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces. Most of them are eager to welcome Nina with open arms, but Nina is uncomfortable with suddenly having a family, and she isn’t sure if she can — or even wants to — incorporate them into her life. Then there’s the issue of her trivia nemesis, Tom, whom Nina initially dismisses as a dumb jock; they have nothing in common but their love of trivia, yet they also find each other infuriatingly attractive. But can they make a relationship work despite their differences?

I enjoyed this book while I was reading it, but I find I don’t have much to say about it a few weeks later. I do remember the writing style; while I normally like plain, unobtrusive prose, this book definitely has a cheeky, quirky style that I mostly enjoyed. On the other hand, the actual plot fell flat for me. The big conflict is supposed to be that Nina is extremely introverted and is thus uncomfortable with her brand-new family. But the thing is, she’s not all that uncomfortable, and everyone accepts everyone else pretty much right away. One of her aunts is hostile at first and kicks up a fuss about the will, but Nina isn’t bothered by it, and eventually the aunt comes around. The romance with Tom is also pretty dull, although to be fair, the book isn’t primarily a romance. I think my biggest issue is that I expected Nina to be more bookish and more introverted than she was. She seemed to perceive herself as incredibly unusual, but her levels of bookishness and introversion are pretty common among readers, at least in my experience! So maybe I was just a little let down by the premise. Overall, this was a good-not-great book for me, but I’d consider reading more by Waxman.

Review: The Seat of Magic

Seat of MagicJ. Kathleen Cheney, The Seat of Magic

Two weeks after the events of The Golden City, Duilio is missing Oriana and getting slightly worried: he’s had no word from her since she left his house for her sereia homeland. But he has plenty of distractions to occupy his mind: it seems that someone is killing prostitutes in the Golden City without leaving a visible mark on their corpses. And someone — the same person, or someone else? — is murdering nonhuman individuals and removing their magical body parts. As Duilio and his cousin Joaquim investigate these crimes, they once again uncover dark magic and a plot that threatens the very existence of Northern Portugal. Meanwhile, Oriana learns some shocking information about her family and realizes that her own past may be directly connected to the conspiracy Duilio is uncovering. Together, Oriana and Duilio must act to prevent a political catastrophe — and also finally to address their feelings for one another.

I liked but didn’t love the first book in this series, and I find myself feeling the same way about this installment. I probably prefer it slightly to The Golden City because there’s less exposition about the world and the major characters. I also think the mystery plots are a little tighter and better integrated with each other. My favorite part of this book was Duilio’s relationship with the infante, who — as brother of the reigning prince and next in line for the throne — is kept under house arrest to prevent a coup. The infante is a fun character, and I enjoy a good political intrigue plot, so I was definitely on board for that storyline. I also liked learning more about Joaquim and getting inside his head a little bit. As in the first book, I think the murder-and-magic stuff is actually the weakest part; but at least it ties in well with the other plot lines in this installment of the series. Finally, I was glad to see how Duilio and Oriana resolved their relationship conflicts. Overall, I’m not racing to pick up the next book, but I do plan to continue with the series at some point.

Review: Portuguese Irregular Verbs

Portuguese Irregular VerbsAlexander McCall Smith, Portuguese Irregular Verbs

This short novel is more like a series of vignettes centering around Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, a German academic whose crowning achievement is a massive book entitled Portuguese Irregular Verbs. Von Igelfeld is pompous and self-absorbed and desperately craves approval from others, while at the same time he utterly lacks any self-awareness about his shortcomings. His adventures take him from his school days — when he accidentally forces his best friend into a duel — to various academic conferences around the globe. He consults with a holy man in India, learns a great deal of profanity in Ireland, and tries unsuccessfully to play tennis in Switzerland. He suffers unrequited love for his dentist. And through it all, he is continually surprised that other people don’t recognize Portuguese Irregular Verbs for the work of genius that, at least in his mind, it is.

The subtitle of this book is “A Professor Dr. von Igelfeld Entertainment,” and I think that pretty much sums it up: it’s entertaining enough, but it doesn’t require or inspire any investment from readers. Von Igelfeld is a well-drawn stereotype of a pompous academic, and he never quite feels like a real person. I don’t think he’s supposed to; his character is just a vehicle for the book’s gentle satire. But I did want to see some character development, some growth in self-awareness, some progress toward being a less petty and self-involved person. For me, the various little incidents von Igelfeld encounters, though humorous, weren’t enough to distract me from the lack of a character arc. All that said, I feel like I could make the same criticisms about Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, but I found that book delightful! So I’m not sure why this one didn’t work for me. Nevertheless, I won’t be continuing with the series.

Review: Evvie Drake Starts Over

Evvie Drake Starts OverLinda Holmes, Evvie Drake Starts Over

Eveleth “Evvie” Drake has been essentially hiding in her home ever since her husband, Tim, died in a car crash. Everyone in the small town of Calcasset, Maine, loved Tim and assumes that Evvie is isolating herself because of grief. Only Evvie knows that Tim had a dark side and that on the day of his death, she was actually in the process of leaving him. Now she’s having trouble making decisions about her life, so when her best friend Andy suggests that she take in a tenant, she goes along with it. Meanwhile, Dean Tenney is a major league baseball pitcher who suddenly can’t pitch anymore. He’s tried everything he can think of to get his mojo back, to no avail. Now that his career as a baseball player is apparently over, he needs to get out of town and figure out what to do next. When he rents the apartment attached to Evvie’s house, the two gradually become friends and maybe more. But will their respective baggage keep them apart?

I really enjoyed this book, although it’s not quite what I was expecting. I think I was anticipating a light and fizzy rom-com, but this book has a quieter, more contemplative feel. While the relationship between Evvie and Dean drives the plot, most of the conflicts they face are internal. Both of them are in a place where their lives have changed unexpectedly, and they’re floundering as they try to figure out what’s next. And while their growing affection makes them happier, it doesn’t magically fix everything in their lives — something I really appreciated about this book. The characters and conflicts are utterly grounded in reality, and I found both Evvie and Dean very relatable. I believed that these characters genuinely like each other and that their love will last because it’s based on a true friendship. All in all, I liked this book and would definitely recommend it to people who enjoy their romance on the realistic side.

Review: The Second Man

Second ManEdward Grierson, The Second Man

Set in 1950s England, this novel focuses on a small-town law practice that has just hired a female barrister. Marion Kerrison is a young woman in an almost overwhelmingly male profession, and she must fight to be taken seriously both in the practice and in court. But she has some allies, including junior lawyer Michael Irvine, who narrates the book. Marion soon proves her worth by winning several cases, and because of her gender she receives some attention from the press. As a result, the practice assigns Marion a much more important case: the defense of John Maudsley, who is accused of murdering his aunt to obtain an inheritance. Everyone except Marion thinks he’s guilty, but she insists that the key witness is lying and that someone else committed the crime. With Michael’s help, she reviews the evidence, questions key witnesses, and tries to come up with an alternate theory of the murder.

Most mystery novels end with the discovery of the guilty party and the implication that he or she will be brought to justice. But this novel explores what happens next: the investigators may have discovered the truth, but can they prove it in a court of law? What happens if witnesses are unreliable, evidence is inadmissible, or one side simply has a better lawyer than the other? This book explores these fascinating questions by focusing almost entirely on the murder trial, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I also thought the portrayal of Marion was very interesting. I expected it to be more sexist, frankly, given the author’s gender and the era in which the book was written. But while the novel does make some irritating assumptions about Marion’s “intuition,” it is also surprisingly sensitive to the difficulties she faces as a woman in her profession. My one complaint is that the book ends rather abruptly, and the solution to the mystery isn’t explained in much depth. I missed that final chapter where the detective explains how s/he solved the crime. But overall, I would definitely recommend this book if the premise interests you.

Review: The Famous Heroine / The Plumed Bonnet

Famous Heroine:Plumed BonnetMary Balogh, The Famous Heroine / The Plumed Bonnet

This volume collects two of Balogh’s earlier novels, which each focus on couples who marry first and fall in love later. In The Famous Heroine, Cora Downes, the daughter of a rich merchant, is launched into high society in hopes that she’ll find an aristocratic husband. But Cora is clumsy, outspoken, and ignorant of the rules of this new world. Lord Francis Kneller takes her under his wing, and they become good friends — until he inadvertently “compromises” her and feels honor-bound to marry her. In The Plumed Bonnet, Alistair Munro, the duke of Bridgwater, gives a ride to a hitchhiking young woman out of boredom. Because of her gaudy clothes, he assumes she’s a prostitute and listens with amusement to her unlikely story of misfortune. But when he learns that Stephanie Gray’s story is true, he realizes that he’s ruined her reputation and must marry her to make amends.

I’ve been slowly discovering Mary Balogh’s books and haven’t hit a bad one yet! I didn’t find either of the romances entirely compelling — something prevented me from becoming fully emotionally invested — but these two novels are on the short side, so perhaps there was just less space for character development. And there’s still plenty to enjoy with both of these books. I liked Cora’s frank nature and was amused by Francis’s attitude toward her: bewilderment slowly transforming into delight. They’re a more fun, lighthearted couple than Alistair and Stephanie, but I found Stephanie’s conflict (she’s trying so hard to become duchess material that she begins to lose herself) more interesting. I should note that these two books are actually the third and fourth installments of a series that starts with Dark Angel and Lord Carew’s Bride; the heroes and heroines of those books appear in both of these as well. You don’t HAVE to read the first two books to understand what’s going on, but it would give you some extra context. Overall, I liked these books a lot and will continue my wanderings through Balogh’s backlist.

Review: The Friend Zone

Friend ZoneAbby Jimenez, The Friend Zone

***Warning: This review contains SPOILERS! Highlight the white text in the second paragraph to read them.***

This contemporary romance novel focuses on Kristen Peterson, an outspoken entrepreneur who creates and sells accessories for small dogs, and Josh Copeland, a firefighter and ex-Marine. Kristen and Josh meet cute when she slams on her brakes and he rear-ends her; they then learn that their respective best friends, Sloan and Brandon, are getting married to each other. As Kristen and Josh spend more time together, they can’t deny their mutual attraction. But Kristen has a boyfriend who’s currently deployed overseas. And even if she weren’t dating someone else, she has a secret that makes her fundamentally incompatible with Josh: she has a medical condition that will make her unable to have children. Since Josh has stated that he wants a big family, Kristen knows she has to keep Josh in the “friend zone,” but the closer they become, the harder it is for her to deny her true feelings for him.

So, despite the good buzz surrounding this book, I must confess that it annoyed me on a number of different levels! First of all, the title is completely misleading. It gives the impression that this is a friends-to-lovers romance, but the attraction between Kristen and Josh is there from the start, and it doesn’t even take them that long to act on it. Second, Kristen keeps her medical issue a secret for far too long, so that the main obstacle to the romance is her failure to communicate, not the fact that Josh wants kids and she can’t have any. Third, a huge tragedy occurs near the end of the book, and that’s what brings Kristen and Josh together at last. But the event seemed totally unnecessary and emotionally manipulative to me. And finally, I was truly enraged by the resolution of the infertility conflict, which is that against all odds, Kristen gets pregnant after all! I know such things are medically possible, but this book has gotten a lot of positive attention for having an infertile heroine, and if I’m an infertile woman reading this book and the heroine gets pregnant in the end, I’m going to be PISSED! So yeah, I didn’t enjoy this book, and I feel like the title and description are misleading for multiple reasons. I’m getting mad again just thinking about it!

Review: The Cornish Coast Murder

Cornish Coast MurderJohn Bude, The Cornish Coast Murder

Old friends Reverend Dodd and Dr. Pendrill enjoy their weekly custom of eating dinner together and discussing mystery novels. Both are avid fans of the genre but recognize that in their small Cornish town, it’s extremely unlikely that a real mystery will come their way. So when the local major landowner, Julius Tregarthan, is shot dead in his living room, Dodd and Pendrill are naturally eager to assist the police with their investigation. The case quickly becomes more complicated for Dodd, however, when he learns that Tregarthan’s niece, Ruth, was seen behaving suspiciously on the night of the murder. Suspicion also falls on Ruth’s suitor, Ronald Hardy, who had argued with Tregarthan shortly before his death. Reverend Dodd can’t believe that either Ruth or Ronald is guilty, so he exercises his detective skills to find the real murderer.

This is my first John Bude mystery novel, but it won’t be my last! It’s not exactly groundbreaking — I’d consider it a fairly traditional vintage mystery — but it’s a great example of the genre. There’s the unpleasant victim who leaves an inheritance behind him, a pair of young lovers who may or may not be conspiring, an enthusiastic amateur sleuth who assists the police, and a tightly plotted mystery whose solution unfolds logically and systematically. I’m not quite sure it’s “fair,” though — I don’t recall learning enough to guess the motive until the culprit confesses at the end of the book. Also, I wish there had been a few more suspects, and that Ruth and Ronald had been more fleshed out. But I really liked that the book spends a lot of time on both the amateur and professional investigations. Many books of this era don’t care about the routine details of police work, but this one acknowledges them without getting too tediously descriptive. Overall, I enjoyed this book and look forward to reading more by the author.