Mini-Reviews: Witch, Scarlet, Homicide

Water Witch*Study in Scarlet WomenHome Sweet Homicide

Cynthia Felice and Connie Willis, Water Witch

I’m a huge Connie Willis fan, so I had high hopes for this book, especially because it also contains some of my favorite elements: con artists, a missing princess, and a sci-fi/romance combo. But overall I found it pretty underwhelming. I really liked the kernel of the story, but I wanted it to be fleshed out a lot more, especially the characterization. The romance essentially comes out of nowhere, and I never really felt like I got to know the hero at all. That said, I really liked a twist involving one of the secondary characters, who came to be a lot more important than I initially expected. Overall, I didn’t like this as much as Willis’s solo work, but I already own two more Willis/Felice collaborations, so I’ll definitely read them at some point.

Sherry Thomas, A Study in Scarlet Women

I’d heard great things about the Lady Sherlock series but was hesitant to dive in, fearing that the books wouldn’t live up to the hype. But I was pleasantly surprised — I really enjoyed this book, which recasts literature’s most famous detective as Charlotte Holmes, a Victorian woman whose brilliant mind is constrained by the social rules of her time. So she decides to leave home and forge her own path. Meanwhile, of course, she solves several murders by realizing that they are all connected. I loved this take on a Holmesian character; Charlotte has a brilliant deductive mind but also really enjoys fashion, and her style is surprisingly ornate and gaudy. I also loved that the book, while sympathetic to Charlotte, also shows her flaws and the negative consequences of some of her decisions. I will definitely continue with the series sooner rather than later!

Craig Rice, Home Sweet Homicide

I found this mystery novel delightful. It’s about three children (ages 8 to 14, I believe) whose mother is a popular mystery novelist. When their neighbor is murdered in real life, the kids are ecstatic — now Mother might get some new material for her books, and the publicity is bound to be good for business. Plus, the handsome detective working the case looks like excellent stepfather material, though Mother doesn’t seem to agree. The children team up to solve the mystery with the help of their friends and neighbors; the result is a farcical romp that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Mini-Reviews: Prim, Reading, Headliners

Awakening of Miss PrimI'd Rather Be ReadingHeadliners

Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera, The Awakening of Miss Prim (trans. Sonia Soto)

This is a strange little novel about a young woman, Prudencia Prim, who applies for a position as a private librarian in a remote French village. A modern woman herself, she is initially shocked by the villagers’ old-fashioned beliefs and behavior. But she soon observes the happiness and prosperity of those around her, and with the help of her enigmatic employer, she comes to see the merits of their way of life. I think this book is aimed at a very particular audience, namely a certain subdivision of Catholics who are huge fans of G.K. Chesterton. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’d say this book is probably not for you! Even as part of the target audience, I still found it a little much.

Anne Bogel, I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life

I’m a big fan of Anne Bogel’s podcast, What Should I Read Next? So when I found her book at a library sale, I snatched it up! The essays are fun — nothing particularly new or memorable, but bibliophiles and fans of the author should enjoy them. A fun read, but not a keeper for me.

Lucy Parker, Headliners

Lucy Parker is an auto-buy author for me; I really love her contemporary romances set in the London entertainment world. In this one, protagonists Sabrina and Nick are rival TV presenters who are forced to work together to revive their network’s struggling morning show. If you enjoy enemies to lovers, this book is a great example! I especially liked how Sabrina and Nick resolve their conflicts like adults; there are no stupid misunderstandings or secrets kept for no reason. I note that, while this book can technically stand alone, it does refer back frequently to the events of the previous book, The Austen Playbook. Definitely recommended for romance fans, although my favorite Parker books remain her first two, Act Like It and Pretty Face.

Mini-reviews: Henrietta’s, Matrimonial, Austen

Henrietta's WarMatrimonial AdvertisementAusten Escape

Joyce Dennys, Henrietta’s War: News from the Home Front 1939-1942

I greatly enjoyed this charming epistolary novel, which is both written and set during World War II. The titular Henrietta writes to her childhood friend Robert, who is off fighting somewhere in France, and describes daily life in her rural English village. Despite the constant presence of the war in the background, Henrietta mostly focuses on the mundane, humorous aspects of life. A pleasant and uplifting book.

Mimi Matthews, The Matrimonial Advertisement

Last year I read Matthews’s novella, A Holiday by Gaslight, and enjoyed it so much that I wanted to seek out some of her full-length novels. This one, the first in her Parish Orphans of Devon series, is a “proper” Victorian romance (i.e., no explicit content) that centers around a marriage of convenience. Justin needs a wife to manage his remote, secluded estate, and Helena needs a safe place to hide from her past. The book definitely justified my high expectations, and I can’t wait to continue with the series!

Katherine Reay, The Austen Escape

I’ve read one other book by Reay, Dear Mr. Knightley, and I wasn’t a huge fan. But when I got this novel as a gift, I decided to give the author another chance. Unfortunately, I didn’t like this book either — something about the writing style just grates on my nerves. I also found the heroine obnoxious and unsympathetic, and I have no idea what her love interest saw in her. I was frankly appalled by one major plot point: the heroine’s best friend, who has a history of mental health issues, starts to believe she’s living in Jane Austen’s time…and nobody seems to think this is something that needs immediate medical attention! So all in all, I wasn’t a fan, and I’m pretty sure I’m done with this author.

Review: A Question of Proof

Question of ProofNicholas Blake, A Question of Proof

This first book in the Nigel Strangeways mystery series is set at an English boys’ prep school called Sudeley Hall. One of the schoolmasters, Michael Evans, is in love with Hero, the headmaster’s wife. They’ve been having a passionate affair for two months, but so far they’ve successfully managed to keep it a secret. One afternoon they meet for a rendezvous in a haystack on school property. Unfortunately for them, several hours later the corpse of one of the schoolboys is found in that same haystack. The boy, who was unpopular with both the students and teachers, has clearly been murdered, and it seems as though an outsider couldn’t have done it. Michael’s secret makes him the most likely suspect, a fact which isn’t lost on the local policeman in charge of the case. Luckily, one of Michael’s good friends is amateur detective Nigel Strangeways, who agrees to investigate the murder on the school’s behalf. Nigel is convinced of Michael’s innocence and soon sets his sights on another suspect. But since there’s very little physical evidence in the case, the murderer might get away scot-free.

I enjoyed this Golden Age mystery novel and think it’s a solid example of the genre with a few unique elements. First of all, Nicholas Blake is the pen name of Cecil Day-Lewis, who was Poet Laureate of the UK from 1968 to 1972, and I think his literary background shows in the writing style. The first chapter of the book reads more like a play, with lots of interior monologuing and narration that sounds like stage directions. It’s a clever device that recurs throughout the book, but it’s perhaps a bit overwrought. On the other hand, Day-Lewis was also a schoolmaster for several years, and it’s clear that his experience in this area also provided fodder for the book. The characterization of the schoolboys rings true and is especially fun to read. As for the mystery itself, I liked how the book deals with one question at a time and solves it before proceeding to the next problem — it makes the whole outline of the plot easier to follow, rather than waiting to dump everything on the reader in the last chapter. The revelation of the killer made sense but relied an awful lot on Strangeways’s amateur psychological profiling. Overall, I liked this book fine and will read the next in the series, Thou Shell of Death, which is already on my shelves!

Review: Sherwood

SherwoodMeagan Spooner, Sherwood

This retelling of the Robin Hood legend focuses on the character of Maid Marian. When her fiancé Robin of Locksley dies on crusade, Marian sees it as her duty to protect the people of Locksley from the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham and his lieutenant, Sir Guy of Gisborne. When her maid Elena’s brother, Will Scarlet, is arrested for poaching, Marian is determined to save him, both for Elena’s sake and for Robin’s. But when she dresses in men’s clothing for her first rescue attempt, she is mistaken for Robin himself. The mistake gives Marian a daring idea: as a woman, she is almost powerless in society and cannot fight back against the corrupt laws that oppress her people. But as “Robin Hood,” she can actually make a difference. As her deception becomes more and more elaborate, she finds herself in increasing danger, especially from the enigmatic Gisborne. She also makes some hard choices as she learns how far she’ll go to protect her secret.

My all-time favorite version of the Robin Hood story is Robin McKinley’s The Outlaws of Sherwood. It’s just always felt true to me in a way that, say, the Errol Flynn movie (much as I enjoy it) doesn’t. To my surprise and delight, Sherwood gave me that same sense of truth from a very different perspective. This version of Marian is strong and independent, but while her heart is in the right place, she tends to act without thinking — a trait that usually irritates me, but it makes total sense for her character. And I love that she grows in this area throughout the novel, as she realizes that her impetuous actions sometimes have unforeseen consequences. Similarly, I love how this book gives some nuance to the Robin Hood legend: are his actions in robbing the rich to give to the poor always justified? Could he have worked within the law instead of deliberately flouting it? Finally, there’s a romance in this book that completely sneaked up on me, and I adored it. In short, I really loved this book; the moment I finished my library copy, I immediately bought one for myself! Highly recommended, especially if (like me) you also enjoyed Hunted.

Top Ten Tuesday: Judging books by their covers

TTT Christmas

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday topic is a cover freebie, so even though we’re not supposed to judge books by their covers, that’s exactly what I’m doing this week! Below are ten nine covers of books I own (or formerly owned), all of which I really like. I wouldn’t call them all beautiful (though many are), but they’re all appealing to me in some way, and in some cases they even contributed to my buying the book!

Midnight Queen, TheDarker Shade of Magic, A*Nightingale

1. Sylvia Izzo Hunter, The Midnight Queen — I don’t often do this, but I’m pretty sure I did buy this book based solely on how gorgeous the cover is!

2. V. E. Schwab, Shades of Magic series — The covers for this series, designed by Will Staehle, are so striking! I love the neutral beige and black with that pop of red.

3. Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale — I really like the colors on this cover, especially the author’s name in aqua and the title and bird/flower design in yellow. (The yellow is brighter in person than in this photo!)

*Essex SerpentGreenglass House*Wildwood Dancing

4. Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent — I love a super ornate cover, and this one also has a fun raised/embossed texture!

5. Kate Milford, Greenglass House — This cover is absolutely stunning, and it looks exactly the way Greenglass House is described in the book.

6. Juliet Marillier, Wildwood Dancing — I really like the cover artist, Kinuko Y. Craft. Her paintings are so detailed, lush, and fantastical; they really evoke the magic of the story.

*Study in Scarlet Women*September Society*Secret History of the Pink Carnation

7. Sherry Thomas, A Study in Scarlet Women — This is such a great cover for a historical mystery. I love the darkness of the room contrasted with the light behind the door, and the woman’s red dress being the only spot of color apart from the light sources.

8. Charles Finch, Charles Lenox series — Each book in this series features three of the same type of object on the cover, and the center one is always broken or “wrong” in some way (like the bloodred ink dripping from the second pen here). It’s such a clever concept, and I’m sad it’s no longer being used for the prequels.

9. Lauren Willig, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation — I’ve always liked art-based covers for historical novels, and this is a gorgeous example. The first few books in the series followed a similar style, but unfortunately the cover art changed partway through the series. Don’t you hate when that happens?!

Review: Would Like to Meet

Would Like to MeetRachel Winters, Would Like to Meet

Evie Summers has been an assistant at a film agency for several years, hoping one day to be promoted to agent. For now, though, her hands are full with the agency’s most important client, a critically acclaimed screenwriter who has been contracted to write a romantic comedy but who keeps missing his deadlines. In an effort to motivate him, Evie proposes an experiment to prove that people can fall in love the way they do in romantic comedies. She’ll use the meet-cute methods of famous romcoms to get someone to fall in love with her, and in return, the screenwriter will deliver his script. Of course, Evie’s various attempts at a meet-cute generally end in disaster; luckily, she has her friends and a sympathetic single dad named Ben to help her out. As she continues to struggle in her career and her love life, she gradually realizes that real love may have been right in front of her all along.

I enjoyed reading this book; it’s a fun, quick page-turner with a satisfying romantic comedy built into it. But I must say, I found a lot of Evie’s decisions frustrating, to say the least! She puts up with incredibly bad treatment from her boss, reasoning that if she just hangs in there a little longer, he’ll eventually promote her — but it’s immediately obvious that he never will. At one point, she seems to be torn between two suitors, but it’s painfully clear that one of them is just using her. There’s a big “twist” near the end of the book involving Evie’s written record of her meet-cutes, but I saw it coming a mile away. Basically, I felt sorry for Evie, but I didn’t have a lot of respect for her because she kept making such terrible choices. Also, I found her friend group a bit stereotypical, including a gay BFF and a super-type-A bridezilla. I did like the romance a lot and almost wish it had been more of a focus in the book. Overall, this is a cute chick lit novel that I’d recommend as a breezy beach or airplane read.

Review: Play It Again

Play It Again- An Amateur against the ImpossibleAlan Rusbridger, Play It Again: An Amateur against the Impossible

The author of this memoir is, at the time of writing, a 57-year-old amateur pianist with a dream: to competently play Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23. This is an extremely difficult and demanding piece, and Rusbridger is understandably nervous about whether he’ll be able to achieve his goal. His project is further complicated by the fact that his day job is editor of the Guardian, a major British news outlet. And of course, the time frame he’s chosen for learning the Ballade happens to coincide with high-profile news events such as the Wikileaks story and the News of the World phone hacking scandal. Nevertheless, Rusbridger manages to carve out at least 20 minutes to practice most days, and he also asks for advice wherever he can get it, including from books, music teachers, and even concert pianists. Rusbridger documents his quest to learn the Ballade in diary format, sharing his strategies, doubts, successes, and failures along the way.

I picked up this book because the premise sounded like something I might actually want to do: I’m an amateur pianist who took lessons from second grade up through college, and I still play occasionally for community theater musicals. I also own the score of the Ballade, though I’ve never attempted to read more than the first couple of pages. I think some familiarity with the Ballade is necessary to get anything out of this book; luckily, there are a ton of performances on YouTube, and Rusbridger includes his annotated score in the appendix. But he does spend a fair amount of time discussing the minutiae of the piece, referring to specific measure numbers, fingerings, and rhythms. So if you’re completely nonmusical, I wouldn’t recommend this book. I largely enjoyed following Rusbridger along his journey, although I couldn’t help noticing his privilege in being able to consult world-famous pianists about his project. The book also gets a bit same-y after a while, which made the last stretch somewhat tedious. Nevertheless, I’d definitely recommend this book to any musician, professional or amateur!

Review: The Element of Fire

Element of FireMartha Wells, The Element of Fire

In a quasi-Renaissance fantasy world, the kingdom of Ile-Rien is in a precarious position. King Roland is young and weak, completely under the thumb of his conniving cousin, who has his own plans for the throne. Roland’s mother Ravenna still wields much of the throne’s power, but her health is deteriorating, and many of those at court (including the evil cousin) are now her enemies. In addition to these domestic intrigues, Ile-Rien is now under threat from a foreign sorcerer, Urbain Grandier, who is rumored to be a powerful and dangerous dark magician. Thomas Boniface, captain of the Queen’s Guard and Ravenna’s former lover, is charged with finding Grandier and thwarting whatever plans he may have against Ile-Rien. Thomas also finds himself dealing with Roland’s half-fay half-sister Kade, who returns to court after a years-long absence with unknown motives. Amid the complex allegiances of the court — in which it soon becomes apparent that at least one traitor is at work — whom, if anyone, can Thomas trust? And when Grandier finally makes his move, will Thomas be able to stop him before it’s too late?

I first read this book in (I think) 2009, and I enjoyed it so much that I bought four other books set in the world of Ile-Rien. But for some reason, I never read any of those sequels, and since it’s been more than a decade, I wanted to refresh my memory of the first book. I’m happy to say that I still really enjoyed it! It strikes me as a quintessential classic fantasy novel, with tons of political intrigue, sorcery, and fay magic thrown in for good measure. I really like that, instead of the quasi-medieval setting of most fantasy novels, this book evokes more of a Renaissance feel, with pistols and gunpowder beginning to supplement (though not yet replace) swords as the dominant weapons. I also liked the main characters a lot, particularly Thomas and Kade. They share a cynical, bantering sense of humor that makes their interactions particularly enjoyable; but when the chips are down, they also share a deep courage and sense of loyalty. The plot is action-packed and exciting, and the world-building is vivid. In short, I’m really glad I reread this one, and I look forward to reading a few more of the Ile-Rien books this year!