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.

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.