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, 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!

Favorite Books of 2017

Happy New Year, everyone! May your 2018 reads all be fabulous. 🙂 Even though I missed the Top Ten Tuesday date for this topic, I really wanted to acknowledge my favorite reads of 2017 before diving into 2018. So without further ado, here are my top 10 books of last year, in the order in which I read them:

1. Connie Willis, Crosstalk — This was my first read of the year, and it was a great one! It combines two seemingly incongruous genres — science fiction and romantic comedy — effortlessly, and it also touches on the serious themes of communication and alienation in a near-future world.

2. Sally Thorne, The Hating Game — I feel like I’ve been praising this book a lot, and I don’t want to overhype it…but seriously, it’s that good! If you enjoy the enemies-to-lovers trope, you absolutely can’t miss this one.

3. Katherine Arden, The Bear and the Nightingale — Luscious writing, a vivid historical setting, and the influence of Russian folklore made this book a favorite for me. Can’t wait to read the sequel, The Girl in the Tower!

4. Tana French, The Likeness — I don’t usually gravitate toward contemporary thrillers, but there’s something about this series! While the premise of this book is a bit farfetched, I was completely caught up in the suspense and couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. I’ll definitely be continuing with this series.

5. Darcie Wilde, A Useful Woman — Regency era + mystery = sold!

6. Keigo Higashino, The Devotion of Suspect X — I really enjoyed reading a contemporary mystery set in an unfamiliar (to me) part of the world.

7. Jenny Colgan, The Café by the Sea — I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this British chick lit novel as much as I did! At the beginning of the book, the main character really wanted X to happen, and I was like, “Ugh, I hope X does not happen,” but by the time X did eventually happen, I was totally on board! Gotta admire an author who can bring me around to her side like that.

8. Leo Bruce, Case for Three Detectives — The audience for this book is fairly specific; you have to be familiar with the fictional detectives Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot, and Father Brown. But if you happen to know and love them, you’ll love this parody as well!

9. Stephanie Burgis, Congress of Secrets — Everything about this book was interesting to me, from the setting (the Congress of Vienna!) to the magical system (evil alchemy) to the romance to the fact that one of the main characters is a con man. I can’t wait to read more by this author!

10. Melissa McShane, Burning Bright — Another book that checks a lot of my boxes: Regency setting, magic, romance, and war on the high seas!

What were your favorite books of 2017? And if you’ve read any of the ones on my list, did you enjoy them as much as I did?

2017 Vintage Mystery Challenge Wrap-Up

2016 Vintage Scavenger HuntI’m sneaking in one more post before the end of the year to wrap up my Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt challenge, hosted by Bev at My Reader’s Block. The goal was to read at least six vintage mysteries published before 1960 (for the gold level, which is the one I participated in) and to find one of the following objects on each book’s cover:


Here are the books I read and the objects I found:

Death of My AuntFive Red Herrings, The
Lady Molly of Scotland YardBullet in the Ballet, APenhallow
Z Murders, TheCase for Three Detectives

1. C.H.B. Kitchin, Death of My Aunt (1929) – curtains
2. Dorothy L. Sayers, The Five Red Herrings (1931) – painting
3. Baroness Orczy, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (1910) – hat
4. Caryl Brahms and S.J. Simon, A Bullet in the Ballet (1937) – performer
5. Georgette Heyer, Penhallow (1942) – bottle/glass for drinking
6. J. Jefferson Farjeon, The Z Murders (1932) – train
7. Leo Bruce, Case for Three Detectives (1936) – dead body

My favorite read for this challenge was Case for Three Detectives, a spot-on parody of three of the most famous detectives of Golden Age fiction! My least favorite was Penhallow, which is relentlessly depressing and also not a good mystery. But overall, I liked what I read for this challenge and look forward to participating in the 2018 vintage mystery challenge as well!

Mini-reviews: Journey, Burning, Bella

Journey to the River SeaBurning BrightBella Poldark

Eva Ibbotson, Journey to the River Sea — Maia is an orphan living at a boarding school in England, when one day she is adopted by distant relatives living in Brazil. She is eager to meet her new family until she discovers that they are selfish and cruel and only took her in for financial reasons. However, she finds consolation in the natural beauties around her, the strange vegetation and wildlife, and the friends she makes in her new homeland. I’ve read and loved all of Ibbotson’s adult/YA books, but I’m still discovering her works for younger readers. This is delightful, and I think it would appeal to kids (and adults!) who enjoy exploration and adventure.

Melissa McShane, Burning Bright — This is a Regency-era fantasy novel, so obviously it’s right up my alley, and I very much enjoyed it! Protagonist Elinor is a Scorcher, which means she can start fires with magic; and she’s also an Extraordinary, which means she can control and put out the fires as well. This talent makes her an extremely valuable prize on the marriage market, and her controlling father wants to snare a rich and powerful husband for her. To escape this fate, Elinor offers her services to the Royal Navy instead. There’s shipboard combat and pirates and romance — basically everything I’m looking for from this type of book. Highly recommended if the premise appeals to you!

Winston Graham, Bella Poldark — Phew, I can’t believe this is the last book in the Poldark series! Clowance decides whether to marry again and must choose between two suitors; Bella embarks on a career; Valentine stirs the pot, as usual; and a serial murderer is on the loose in Cornwall. Not every loose end in the series is tied up, but overall the book is a strong conclusion for the characters I’ve come to know and love over the past 12 books. It’s hard to believe there won’t be any more stories about them!

Mini-reviews: Three, Congress, Twisted, Piccadilly

Case for Three DetectivesCongress of Secrets

Leo Bruce, Case for Three Detectives — This parody of Golden Age detective fiction is an absolute must-read for fans of the real thing! It has all the traditional elements: an ill-fated house party, an impossible murder, a brilliant amateur detective (or three), and a bumbling local policeman. In this case, the three detectives — who bear striking resemblances to Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot, and Father Brown, respectively — use their unique methods to arrive at three different solutions to the crime, while Sergeant Beef reiterates in the background, “But I know who done it!” The humor in this book is quite specific: if you’re unfamiliar with any of the three detectives being parodied, you’re missing out on some of the fun, but Leo Bruce really does get the voices of these three fictional detectives exactly right! Also, I was impressed by the fact that he had to come up with four different plausible solutions to the mystery. I’ll definitely read more by this author, and I wholeheartedly recommend this book to fans of Lord Peter, Poirot, and Father Brown!

Stephanie Burgis, Congress of Secrets — This book checks off so many of my personal boxes, it’s ridiculous: The book is set in the 19th century, specifically at the Congress of Vienna that concluded the Napoleonic wars. Magic exists in the world but is being used by powerful men for very dark purposes. And one of the main characters is a con man! And there’s a romance! So, obviously I was predisposed to like this book, and it did not disappoint. I’ve already acquired more books by Burgis, and I’m excited to have discovered a new-to-me author!

Twisted Sword, ThePiccadilly Jim

Winston Graham, The Twisted Sword — Oof, lots of changes for the Poldarks and Warleggans in this book, and most of them are tragic. I won’t go into specifics for fear of spoilers, but in my opinion this is probably the saddest book in the series. It’s still a very absorbing and enjoyable read, though — after 11 books, I’ve really grown invested in the Poldarks, the Warleggans, and all their friends and neighbors in Cornwall and beyond. What I love is that Graham paints such a complete picture of life at the time, weaving the wider political, social, and economic landscape into his tale of these country families.

P.G. Wodehouse, Piccadilly Jim — I loved this book, which is pure farce of the silliest, most delightful kind! Wodehouse actually spent some time in America writing screenplays and musicals (!), and I could definitely see this book as an old-fashioned screwball comedy! It contains so many tropes of that era — mistaken identities, love aboard a transatlantic vessel, a boxer with a heart of gold — not to mention classic Wodehousian touches like a pair of disapproving aunts and a ludicrous kidnapping scheme. Highly recommended!

Mini-reviews: Inevitable, Ready, Loving, Duke

That Inevitable Victorian ThingReady Player One

E.K. Johnston, That Inevitable Victorian Thing — This alt-historical novel is set in a version of the Victorian era in which technology has greatly advanced, leading to innovations such as a computer that predicts a person’s optimal spouse based on his or her genetic code. In this world, heir to the throne Margaret travels to Canada, posing as a commoner to have one last hurrah before she must submit to a computer-arranged marriage. There she meets Helena and August, who have been unofficially promised to each other for years but who both harbor shocking secrets.

I have mixed feelings about this book. I think it succeeds best when it focuses on the changing relationships among the three main characters (if you’re wondering whether there’s a queer love triangle, the answer is yes). On the other hand, I found myself in a situation where I actually wanted more world-building! The book contains some fascinating ideas about how the world might have been different if things had gone differently in the actual Victorian era, but I wish those ideas had been developed more. Also, I think there’s one significant plot weakness: about halfway through the novel, a big secret is revealed about Helena, but the implications of that secret are never really addressed. Not a bad book, by any means, but I didn’t like it nearly as much as I wanted to.

Ernest Cline, Ready Player One — I have to say, I did not enjoy this book at all! I know it’s very popular, and I can see how it would appeal to lovers of ’80s geek culture, but it is emphatically not the book for me. The protagonist, Wade, is a smug know-it-all who thinks he’s better than everyone else because of his dedication to memorizing the minutia of ’80s movies, music, and video games. He’s the kind of guy who will judge you for not knowing some obscure piece of trivia and claim that you’re not a “true fan” of whatever thing. I honestly can’t remember the last book I read whose protagonist annoyed me so much! That said, the overall concept — sort of The Matrix meets The Westing Game — is fun; it just doesn’t make up for the insufferable “hero,” in my opinion.

Loving Cup, TheDuke and I, The

Winston Graham, The Loving Cup — In the 10th Poldark book, Clowance makes a decision about her future; Jeremy struggles with his obsessive, unrequited love for Cuby; and tensions between Valentine and George finally come to a head. I’m so behind on reviews that I’ve actually finished the series now, so I can’t quite remember which events happened in this book versus others. I do remember Jeremy’s ultimate decision regarding Cuby, which was based on TERRIBLE advice from Ross! I also didn’t love the continued presence of Stephen Carrington, who starts to rehabilitate himself only to fall even more spectacularly. Still, I really enjoyed the series overall, and this installment did some important place-setting for the final two books.

Julia Quinn, The Duke and I — I’d read one Julia Quinn book previously (Just Like Heaven) and enjoyed it, so I decided to try this first book in her famous Bridgerton series. It’s a fun, quick read, but for me it never rose above somewhat mindless entertainment. For one thing, I’m not a huge fan of the “notorious rake is reformed by the love of a good woman” plotline. For another, I didn’t quite know what to make of the hero’s personal history, which basically amounts to serious verbal and emotional abuse from his father. Clearly this backstory is meant to make the hero more interesting and to create an obstacle in the plot; but the book generally has such a lighthearted tone that the backstory seems incongruous and almost inappropriate. All that said, I do enjoy some nice Regency fluff every now and then, so I’ll probably read more by this author…but maybe I’ll try one of her other series!