Melissa 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!
Cynthia 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.
Anna 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.
Mary 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.
Marissa 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.
Dorothy 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.
Ben Macintyre, The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief
Ben Macintyre’s enthusiasm for larger-than-life historical figures is evident once again in this biography of Adam Worth, one of the most notorious thieves and con artists of the late 19th century. Worth began his criminal career as a pickpocket but soon established himself as a gang leader, gaining notoriety through planning a series of successful bank jobs. Eventually Worth set up shop in London, where he created a public persona as a wealthy English gentleman, which he was able to maintain for decades even while continuing his criminal activities. His crowning achievement was the theft of Gainsborough’s famous portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Worth’s criminal genius, plus his short stature, prompted a Scotland Yard detective to dub him the “Napoleon of the criminal world” — a phrase famously used to describe the ultimate fictional criminal mastermind, Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis Moriarty.
I’m a big fan of Ben Macintyre’s books about World War II-era espionage, so I was excited to try this book even though it has a different subject matter. I’m not sure if it was the different focus or the fact that I was extremely busy in real life at the time, but I just couldn’t get into this book the same way I did with Operation Mincemeat, for example. I think Macintyre overstates his thesis, which is that Worth was the real-life inspiration for Moriarty; the evidence that exists really doesn’t seem very conclusive. Also, he focuses a lot on Worth’s theft of the Gainsborough painting and engages in some psychological speculation about Worth’s supposed obsession, which according to Macintyre had a sexual component. In this area, there really seems to be NO evidence supporting the book’s claims! I did find the interactions between Worth and William Pinkerton (yes, one of those Pinkertons) to be very interesting and would have loved the book to focus more on that relationship. Overall, the book is entertaining enough, but I didn’t like it as much as I expected to.
Morgan Matson, Save the Date
Charlotte “Charlie” Grant is the youngest of five siblings, and she loves her big, boisterous family more than anything. Now her older sister is getting married — a bittersweet occasion for Charlie, since the wedding will be the last big event in her family home, which is about to be sold. Still, Charlie is thrilled that her siblings will all be coming home for the wedding, and she’s looking forward to a perfect weekend of family togetherness. But, of course, nothing goes according to plan: The wedding planner quits at the last minute, forcing the Grants to scramble for a substitute. The weather refuses to cooperate. The house is overcrowded with unexpected guests. Charlie’s favorite brother brings home an awful girlfriend without telling anyone. And, of course, there are Charlie’s own problems, including a possibly requited crush on the neighbor boy and a tough decision about which college to attend in the fall. As Charlie attempts to cope with these issues, she also begins to realize that her seemingly idyllic family might not be quite so perfect after all.
Morgan Matson is one of my favorite YA contemporary authors, so it’s no surprise that I really enjoyed this book. I love anything wedding-related, so the setting was automatic catnip for me; and I also love books about big families, which seem to be somewhat underrepresented in fiction. I completely bought the family dynamic in this book, especially the loving but complicated bonds between Charlie and her siblings. An interesting aspect of Charlie’s character is that she tends to perceive her siblings in somewhat static categories: Danny, the oldest brother, is her hero; J.J. is the class clown; Mike is the “problem” child. And a lot of her growth comes from recognizing that they can’t be classified so neatly, that they are real human beings who grow and change just as she does. So I really liked that aspect of the book! I will say that the romance, while adorable, doesn’t get much development compared to all the family stuff, so readers who are looking for that might be disappointed. Also, Charlie can be almost irritatingly naive at times. But overall, I liked this one a lot and am eagerly awaiting Matson’s next book!
William Ritter, Ghostly Echoes
This third installment of the Jackaby series focuses on Jenny Cavanaugh, the resident ghost of 926 Augur Lane. She was brutally murdered 10 years ago, and now she is finally ready for her friends Jackaby and Abigail to investigate. As they begin to research the case, they realize that Jenny’s murder may be connected to recent disturbing events in New Fiddleham. Their investigation leads them to the eerie pale man who lurked at the edges of Beastly Bones, to a group of scientists with a sinister plan, and even to the Underworld itself. Meanwhile, Jenny continues to grow in confidence, even as she grapples with the question of what will happen to her when her murder is finally solved. Abigail’s mettle is tested as never before, and glimpses of Jackaby’s mysterious past are finally revealed.
I read this book a couple months ago, and I’m afraid I may not be remembering the plot very clearly; no doubt my summary has left some things out. But this is an exciting installment of the series, pulling together some of the plot threads from earlier books and setting the stage for a magical showdown in the fourth and final novel. I liked that we finally get a little insight into Jackaby’s past and some of the more unusual aspects of his personality, and it was also nice to learn more about Jenny, who is a fairly minor character in the first two books. The solution to the murder mystery is very clever, but I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that it ties into a much larger story arc that won’t be resolved until book four. The first two books in the series are much more episodic, but this one definitely can’t be read as a stand-alone novel. However, I’m certainly intrigued enough to pick up The Dire King and see how everything turns out!
Matt Haig, The Humans
Professor Andrew Martin, a mathematician at Cambridge University, has just proved the Riemann hypothesis, an action that represents a huge breakthrough with dramatic consequences for the improvement of human science and technology. Unfortunately, his discovery has come to the attention of an alien race that, believing all humans are motivated by violence and greed, will do anything to prevent it from going public. Therefore, one of the aliens is sent to Earth to invade the professor’s body, destroy the proof of the Riemann hypothesis, and kill anyone who might know about the discovery — including the professor’s wife and troubled teenage son. At first, the alien is eager to complete his mission; but the more time he spends on Earth, the more he comes to understand and even love the humans around him.
I went into this book knowing very little about it, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it! Matt Haig has a light, playful style but doesn’t shy away from more serious moments, as when the alien narrator begins to feel the tension between his growing empathy with the humans and his own cultural values. I liked that the book is a sort of philosophical thought experiment, exploring how the human race might look to an intelligent but emotionally detached outsider, and ultimately considering the question of what it means to be human. Oddly, I found the human culture on display in this book to be a bit off-putting . . . for example, the fact that Andrew Martin’s son is named Gulliver rubbed me the wrong way. But overall, this is a fun read with a good mixture of levity and thoughtfulness.