Top Ten Tuesday: Numbers in the title

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This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic is an interesting one: ten of your favorite books with a number in the title. It’s always fun to find new ways to categorize books! Here are the ten books that immediately sprang to mind for me, in no particular order:

1. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers — The Lord of the Rings is one of my all-time favorite books, and The Two Towers just might be my favorite volume. I find the culture of Rohan fascinating and really love all the scenes involving the Rohirrim. And even the Frodo/Sam plot, though much less eventful, is fascinating on a character level.

2. Ellis Peters, One Corpse Too Many — I adore the Cadfael series, which is about a 12th-century crime-solving monk. The setting is so well rendered, and justice is always served in the end. This book is second in the series and also my favorite, focusing on a missing treasure and the mysterious newcomer Hugh Beringar.

3. B.J. Novak, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories — I’m not a big fan of short stories generally, but I like Novak’s voice and his TV writer’s sensibility. Most of the stories are more like comedy sketches, focusing sharply on a single (often humorous) idea. Favorite stories include “The Ghost of Mark Twain,” “The Something by John Grisham,” and “J. C. Audetat, Translator of Don Quixote.”

4. Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat — This slim book perfectly encapsulates a specific type of British silliness, which I think you either like or you don’t. Fortunately, I fall into the former category, because I found it delightful! Not to mention, it inspired one of my favorite novels, Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog.

5. Leo Bruce, Case for Three Detectives — As a fan of Golden Age mysteries, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, which parodies three of the most beloved detectives of that era: Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot, and Father Brown. I love all three of them, and Bruce perfectly (and hilariously) captures their specific voices.

6. Leigh Bardugo, Six of Crows — This YA fantasy novel combines two of my favorite things, found families and heists. Kaz Brekker and his crack team of ne’er-do-wells are hired for a complicated job with a huge payoff, but they stand to lose a lot more than money if things go wrong. And of course, it’s not really a matter of if, but when. . . .

7. Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale — It’s been a long time since I actually read this book, but I remember loving its gothic atmosphere and its belief in the value of stories:

What succor, what consolation is there in truth, compared to a story? What good is truth, at midnight, in the dark, when the wind is roaring like a bear in the chimney? When the lightning strikes shadows on the bedroom wall and the rain taps at the window with its long fingernails? No. When fear and cold make a statue of you in your bed, don’t expect hard-boned and fleshless truth to come running to your aid. What you need are the plump comforts of a story. The soothing, rocking safety of a lie.

8. C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves — This just might be my favorite Lewis book, in which he examines the concept of love and describes four different types of love that humans experience: affection, friendship, romantic love, and the love of God. The first time I read this book, it made me think about human relationships in entirely new ways, and even on rereading it gives me a lot to think about.

9. Agatha Christie, The Seven Dials Mystery — I could have picked any number of Christie mysteries, since I’m a huge fan of hers. But I wanted to highlight this mystery because it’s a bit different from her usual work, involving political machinations and a secret society. It’s all a little bit silly, but I find the silliness endearing. Plus, there’s a very sweet romantic angle to the story!

10. Mary Stewart, Nine Coaches Waiting — This was my first Mary Stewart novel, and it remains one of my favorites. It has definite Jane Eyre vibes, with a touch more danger to the heroine (and, if I’m recalling correctly, a less problematic hero!). Her novels of romantic suspense make perfect fall reads, if anyone’s looking for something subtly atmospheric rather than terrifying.

Review: Bringing Down the Duke

Bringing Down the Duke.jpgEvie Dunmore, Bringing Down the Duke

It’s 1879, and Oxford University has just opened its door to female students. Annabelle Archer is eager to take her place among them, especially when the alternative is acting as an unpaid servant for her male cousin and his family. She has received a scholarship from the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, so in return for her tuition, she must become involved with the women’s suffrage movement, targeting men of influence in Parliament who might be convinced to vote in their favor. But when Annabelle takes the fight to Sebastian Devereux, the duke of Montgomery, she takes on more than she bargained for. Sebastian is certainly a man of influence, but he is also cold, calculating, and intimidating. Annabelle manages to insinuate herself into Sebastian’s household, but her mission is complicated by the powerful attraction she feels for the duke. The attraction is mutual, but Annabelle’s station in life is so far below Sebastian’s that a happy outcome seems impossible.

The cover of this book is somewhat misleading (although I personally like it!); the story is much less of a romp than the cover indicates, and despite the cartoon-y art, it is a romance novel with some fairly explicit sex scenes. I also think the book’s description is a little misleading, in that it makes it sound like the women’s suffrage movement is going to be a big focus of the plot. But aside from Annabelle’s attendance at a few meetings, and one rally that serves as a plot point, that aspect of the book is not very prominent. So if you’re imagining a book filled with kickass suffragettes earnestly debating political issues, you’ll be disappointed. Nevertheless, I think the book works very well as a romance. Annabelle and Sebastian have an intense and believable chemistry, and their class differences pose a very real obstacle to their relationship. I liked that they both, especially Sebastian, kept trying to find a way to make things work, instead of passively bemoaning their fate. The secondary characters aren’t as well rendered, but they’ll probably be more fleshed out in the inevitable sequels. Overall, I really enjoyed this book and would definitely read more by Dunmore.

Review: Dead Man’s Shoes

Dead Man's Shoes.jpgLeo Bruce, Dead Man’s Shoes

This mystery novel begins on a sea journey from Tangier to London. Everyone on the boat is annoyed by one of the passengers, Wilbury Larkin, who speaks too loudly and seems to enjoy being as obnoxious as possible. Moreover, they’re all convinced that he murdered Gregory Willick, a rich Englishman who was recently shot dead on his daily afternoon walk. Larkin claims that he didn’t murder Willick and that he’s going back to England to prove his innocence. But the night before the boat docks, Larkin falls, or jumps, or is pushed overboard. The crew members find a typed suicide note in Larkin’s cabin, but they realize that it could have easily been faked. Still, the police are happy to think that Larkin committed suicide; now they can close two cases, Larkin’s and Willick’s. But history teacher/amateur detective Carolus Deene isn’t satisfied, so with the help of his precocious student Rupert Priggley, he sets out to investigate both deaths.

A couple years ago I read Leo Bruce’s Case for Three Detectives and found it absolutely delightful! So when I saw a couple of his Carolus Deene books at a local library sale, I snatched them up immediately. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as Case for Three Detectives: it’s not nearly as funny, the mystery is predictable, and there’s not much character development. To be fair, Carolus Deene is a series character — this book is fourth in the series — so maybe he’s more fleshed out in other installments. But it seems that, as with many vintage detective novels, the focus is all on the mystery itself, not on who’s solving it. This particular mystery has a very interesting central concept, but the execution falls flat because it’s increasingly obvious as the book goes on that only one person could have done it. Figuring out the “how” is somewhat interesting, but the inevitability of the solution killed a lot of the suspense for me. Overall, this book was OK, and I’ll read the other Carolus Deene book I own at some point, but I’m not in a hurry to do so.

Review: Life and Other Inconveniences

Life and Other InconveniencesKristan Higgins, Life and Other Inconveniences

Emma London is a single mom raising her teenage daughter, Riley, in Chicago. She adores Riley, but the rest of her family is more complicated: her mother took her own life when Emma was a child, and her father has never really been in the picture. Then there’s her grandmother, Genevieve, a wealthy fashion designer who cared for Emma after her mom died but kicked her out when she got pregnant before graduating from high school. Emma and Genevieve have been estranged ever since, so when Genevieve calls Emma to reveal that she’s terminally ill, Emma doesn’t have a lot of sympathy. Nevertheless, when Genevieve hints that Riley might inherit a fortune in her will, Emma decides to go back to her Maine hometown with Riley in tow, to care for Genevieve in her last days. In the course of the visit, Emma and Genevieve come to understand each other a little better, and they both deal with some unresolved issues in their pasts.

I’ve read several of Kristan Higgins’s lighthearted romance novels and really enjoyed them. Recently she’s moved into women’s fiction, and I’ve been more lukewarm on those books, although I still quite liked If You Only Knew and On Second Thought. This book, however, just irritated me. There’s nothing lighthearted or joyful about it; everyone is miserable, and they basically stay miserable until the very end. I’ve already described Emma’s sad backstory, but every other character is dealing with multiple tragic problems, too: Genevieve is not only dying, but she’s devastated by the loss of her husband and her older son. Miller, Emma’s love interest, is mourning his dead wife and trying to raise a hostile three-year-old alone. Emma has a sister who can’t live on her own due to a rare genetic disorder. It’s all just too depressing, especially when I’ve historically looked to this author for light and fluffy reading! I also didn’t love that the majority of the book is told in flashbacks; there’s very little forward motion to the plot, just a slow unfolding of past tragedies. In short, I’m not a fan of this one, and Higgins is no longer a must-read author for me.

Review: Doctor Thorne

Doctor ThorneAnthony Trollope, Doctor Thorne

The Greshams of Greshamsbury have long been one of the most important and well-respected families in their county, but the present squire’s mismanagement of the estate has forced him to sell part of the land and borrow heavily against the rest. As a result, the Greshams are in serious financial difficulties, and the only way to overcome them (in their eyes) is for the young Greshams to marry money. This duty is especially important for Frank Gresham, the oldest son and heir to the estate. Unfortunately, Frank has already fallen in love with Mary Thorne, the niece of the village doctor. Mary has no fortune, and the circumstances of her birth are unknown to all but Doctor Thorne; she may not even be his legitimate niece. So the Gresham family — especially Frank’s mother, Lady Arabella — is determined to discourage the match and find Frank a rich wife. But when a surprising turn of events makes Mary the possible heir to a large fortune, Doctor Thorne must decide how much he can legitimately reveal, knowing that Mary’s happiness may depend on whether or not she gets the inheritance.

I’ve only read a couple of books by Anthony Trollope, but I really enjoy his writing style. He’s like Dickens but funnier, and the prose style is one of the most enjoyable elements of this novel. There’s some wonderful satire of the upper classes, as represented by the de Courcys (Lady Arabella’s relatives) and the Duke of Omnium, who can’t be bothered to talk to the guests at his own dinner party. I also learned a fair amount about parliamentary elections in the 19th century, and it seems that in some ways, not much has changed! Further, I found the book interesting in its treatment of money versus breeding. The Greshams are proud of their status as landed gentry and look down on those who are “in trade,” but they’re also willing to compromise their principles if the tradesmen are wealthy enough. I suspect that their attitude reflects a broader cultural shift. As for the characters, Frank and Mary are fairly two-dimensional, but Doctor Thorne is more complex and interesting. The plot is well constructed, but everything that happens is telegraphed ahead of time and therefore predictable. I liked the book, but I’d recommend it more for the style and the social insights than for the story. I would also recommend the Julian Fellowes adaptation, which is currently free to stream on Amazon Prime!

Top Ten Tuesday: Fall into books!

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Y’all, I am so excited that it’s officially autumn! Fall is unquestionably my favorite season: I can finally turn off my air conditioning, put on a jacket, and breathe in that cool, crisp autumn air! Plus, cooler temps make it the perfect time to snuggle up on my couch with a blanket and a good book. This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic is 10 books on your fall TBR list, and I’m really excited about the books on my list! Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Jenn Bennett, The Lady Rogue — I saw a review for this book at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, and it looks like a ton of fun! It’s described as a romp through 1930s Romania as the heroine searches for a cursed ring that belonged to Vlad the Impaler. So basically, it sounds like Indiana Jones meets Dracula, and I am here for it!

2. Alix E. Harrow, The Ten Thousand Doors of January — I think the beautiful cover is what drew me to this book, which appears to be a portal fantasy with gothic vibes. In other words, a perfect fall read!

3. Sarah M. Eden, The Lady and the Highwayman — This one is a romance between two rival authors of “penny dreadfuls” in Victorian London. The heroine writes under a pseudonym, and the hero, not knowing her true identity, asks for her help in discovering the identity of his rival. I adore the premise and can’t wait to see how it plays out.

4. Rainbow Rowell, Pumpkinheads —  As a huge Rainbow Rowell fan, I’ve been dying to read this graphic novel ever since I found out about it more than a year ago! I don’t read many graphic novels, but I’m desperately hoping for one of Rowell’s signature swoonworthy romances. And the pumpkin patch setting is perfect for fall!

5. Jessie Mihalik, Aurora Blazing — I enjoyed the first book in this sci-fi romance series, Polaris Rising, so I’m excited to read this sequel, which comes out in the US on October 1. It’s a bodyguard romance, which I find to be a fun trope.

6. Erin Morgenstern, The Starless Sea — The long-awaited follow-up to Morgenstern’s hit debut novel, The Night Circus. I had mixed feelings about The Night Circus, but I’m definitely interested to read more of Morgenstern’s work. (Also, where is my The Night Circus movie directed by Baz Luhrmann? Get on it, Hollywood!)

7. Maggie Stiefvater, Call Down the Hawk — Much as I loved the Raven Cycle, and especially the character of Ronan Lynch, I’m undecided as to whether I need another whole trilogy about him. Nevertheless, I’ve already placed a hold at my library for this book and hope that it exceeds my expectations.

8. Amanda Grange, Henry Tilney’s Diary — Of all the Austen heroes, Henry Tilney might just be the one I’d most like to date in real life. (Sure, Darcy is great, but Tilney is indisputably more fun!) I’ve had this book on my shelves for ages, and I think it’s finally time to pick it up.

9. Francis Duncan, Murder Has a Motive — For some reason, autumn always makes me crave vintage British mysteries. I previously enjoyed Duncan’s Murder for Christmas, so it’s time to check out more of his books!

10. Tessa Dare, Do You Want to Start a Scandal — Sometimes I just need some romantic Regency silliness, and the plot description of this book sounds an awful lot like Clue (except, you know, less murder-y). I’ve only read one other book by Tessa Dare, but I remember enjoying it, so I have high hopes!

Review: Meet Me at the Cupcake Café

Meet Me at the Cupcake CaféJenny Colgan, Meet Me at the Cupcake Café

Isabel “Issy” Randall has always loved baking. Her Grampa Joe owned a successful chain of bakeries and taught Issy everything he knew, including a deep love of giving pleasure to others through food. So when Issy is laid off from her boring office job, she decides to open her own bakery—after all, how hard can it be? Of course, she quickly realizes that starting a business is more difficult than she’d anticipated, and she faces a variety of problems, from the hostility of the local business community to the lack of foot traffic on her street to the astronomically high rent for the café’s space. Luckily, she has the support of her best friend Helena, her new friend and employee Pearl, and her bank loan officer Austin. Eventually Issy’s business starts to take off, as does a potential romance with Austin. But interference by a big-shot property developer — who also happens to be Issy’s ex-boyfriend — may derail both her professional and her personal life.

I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of Jenny Colgan’s books in the past, so I was excited to pick this one up. It pretty much follows the Colgan formula: the female protagonist starts out with an unfulfilling job and an unsatisfactory boyfriend, loses both, pursues a new career she’s passionate about, and finds love in the process. But while the other Colgan books I’ve read (The Café by the Sea and The Bookshop on the Corner) have a certain emotional depth that makes them more substantial than a generic chick-lit novel, this one was missing that depth, for me. I found Issy’s friend Pearl, who deals with poverty and class insecurities, much more interesting than Issy herself. But I did like that this book focuses a lot on the difficulties of opening a small business; Issy doesn’t just magically succeed because she’s a great baker. So the book feels a little more grounded in reality than, say, a Hallmark movie. Overall, this was a pleasant read, and I’ll definitely read more by Colgan, but it’s not my favorite of her books.

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.