Mini-Reviews: Byline, Chilbury, Swans, Duet

Good Byline, TheChilbury Ladies' Choir, The

Jill Orr, The Good Byline — When Riley Ellison learns that her childhood best friend Jordan has committed suicide, she’s both grieved and shocked. Jordan’s mother asks her to write the obituary, so Riley begins to investigate Jordan’s life. She soon becomes convinced that Jordan didn’t kill herself, and she teams up with a local journalist to discover the truth. Meanwhile, in an attempt to get over being dumped by her long-term boyfriend, she subscribes to an online dating service, with entertaining results. I have to say, I enjoyed the chick lit aspects of this novel much more than the mystery aspects—Regina H., Personal Romance Concierge, was a delight! But the mystery was very predictable, and I didn’t buy Riley’s somewhat indifferent reaction to her former BFF’s death. I’d consider reading a future book in the series, but I won’t be waiting with bated breath.

Jennifer Ryan, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir — An epistolary novel set in an English village during World War II is obviously going to be right up my alley! The book is narrated by five girls and women from the village, who cope with their fear and grief by singing in an all-female choir. The not-so-subtle theme is that the women have finally found a way to raise their voices, exert their power, and make decisions for themselves. I wasn’t quite gripped by all of the characters—I loved Mrs. Tilling but didn’t care so much for Venetia and Kitty—so I didn’t absolutely love this book, but it’s still a very good read for fans of WWII novels.

Four Swans, TheOur Dark Duet

Winston Graham, The Four Swans — ***Warning: spoilers for previous books in the Poldark series***

In book #6 of the series, the Poldarks and the Warleggans maintain an uneasy truce. Demelza is drawn to a young naval officer who has fallen in love with her. Caroline and Dwight struggle in the early days of their marriage. Elizabeth and George confront the elephant in the room, Valentine’s paternity. Osborne Whitworth continues to be the worst. Drake tries to get over Morwenna, and Sam Carne falls in love with an unsuitable woman. Meanwhile, parliamentary elections are held in Truro, with surprising results. This series is still going strong, and I’m eager to see what happens next. I do find the books a bit too long, and they’re easy for me to put down. Still, I have to keep reading to see what (hopefully) terrible fate will befall Ossie!

Victoria Schwab, Our Dark Duet — ***Warning: spoilers for This Savage Song***

After the events of This Savage Song, Kate and August have gone their separate ways. Kate is hunting monsters in Prosperity, while August is desperately trying to defend the few humans left in Verity from the monsters — especially Sloan, who somehow survived the events of the previous book and who now has grand ambitions. This is a very good conclusion to This Savage Song; it provides a dark but satisfying ending, and I also found it a quick, absorbing read. I didn’t really like the introduction of Kate’s friends from Prosperity — they should have been either more important to the plot or cut altogether. Also, there’s a bit too much gore and violence for my liking. But people who enjoy dark fantasy should definitely pick up this duology, and fans of the first book won’t be disappointed.

Mini-Reviews: Seated, Useful, Moon, Devotion

All Seated on the GroundUseful Woman, A

Connie Willis, All Seated on the Ground — What if the aliens finally arrived, but all they did was sit there and look disapproving? That’s the premise of this delightful novella, in which the protagonist is tasked with finding a way to communicate with the aliens. She soon discovers that the key may lie within a Christmas carol, so she enlists the help of a choir director, and together they race against time to find out what the aliens want. It’s an extremely fun ride, and I definitely recommend it, especially if you love Christmas music!

Darcie Wilde, A Useful Woman — In Regency England, Rosalind Thorne has been clinging to her precarious position in society ever since her father caused a scandal by fleeing his creditors and abandoning his family. She manages to be useful to prominent society matrons by investigating and silencing any potential scandals that may threaten their positions. So when a murder occurs in Almack’s, the sanctum sanctorum of London’s elite, Rosalind becomes involved in the investigation. She also finds herself drawn to both her childhood sweetheart, who is now a lord, and the enterprising Bow Street Runner assigned to the case. Obviously I’m going to read any novel whose premise is “murder at Almack’s,” but I liked this book so much more than I was expecting to! I would definitely recommend it to anyone who’s interested in the premise, and I will be seeking out the sequel ASAP.

Black Moon, TheDevotion of Suspect X, The

Winston Graham, The Black Moon — More fun and games with the Poldarks and Warleggans. A new source for conflict between the families is the budding romance between Elizabeth’s cousin Morwenna Chynoweth, who now lives at Trenwith as Geoffrey Charles’s governess, and Drake Carne, Demelza’s brother. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will say that this is not one of the more cheerful endings in the series. Luckily there are still seven books to go!

Keigo Higashino, The Devotion of Suspect X (trans. Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander) — This Japanese crime novel is a take on the inverted mystery, in which we know whodunit from the beginning, so the main interest of the story is seeing how the investigator solves the crime. Yasuko is a single mother who, when her ex-husband repeatedly harasses her and violently assaults her daughter, kills him in the heat of the moment. Her neighbor Ishigami, a brilliant mathematician, helps her to conceal the crime. I was (and still am) confused about why Yasuko needed to cover up the killing, since she was acting in immediate fear for her daughter’s life; I don’t know anything about Japanese law, but isn’t there some kind of “defense of others” argument that would apply? Aside from that, I really enjoyed the book, especially the back-and-forth between Ishigami and Dr. Manabu Yukawa, who assists the police with their investigation. I’m definitely interested in reading more by this author.

Mini-Reviews: Scrappy, Baker’s, Alex, Warleggan

Scrappy Little NobodyBaker's Daughter, The

Anna Kendrick, Scrappy Little Nobody — This is a fun, breezy memoir by Anna Kendrick, an actress I generally enjoy and find likable. It’s not as funny as Tina Fey’s Bossypants or Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), but fans of those books would probably like this one too. I was interested to learn that one of Kendrick’s first roles was the little sister in the 1998 Broadway production of High Society — I love the movie version with Grace Kelly!

D.E. Stevenson, The Baker’s Daughter — D.E. Stevenson is always reliable for a sweet, old-fashioned comfort read, and this book certainly fits the bill. The titular baker’s daughter is Sue Pringle, a plain and practical young woman whose life is changed forever by the arrival of John Darnay, an absentminded painter. If you like this kind of thing in general, you’ll enjoy the book.

Alex, ApproximatelyWarleggan

Jenn Bennett, Alex, Approximately — This book is billed as a YA contemporary You’ve Got Mail, but I don’t think it really delivers on that premise. Teenager Bailey is obsessed with old movies, and she’s been corresponding with her fellow cinephile Alex over the Internet. Now she’s moving to Alex’s hometown to live with her dad, and she’s excited to finally meet him in person. But she quickly gets swept off her feet by her annoyingly cocky yet handsome coworker, Porter. Fortunately, as the book jacket reveals, Porter IS Alex! But this whole You’ve Got Mail framework — which is what attracted me to the book in the first place — is the merest background, and it barely has anything to do with the plot. The meat of the story is the teen romance, which just didn’t do much for me. Another take on the YA You’ve Got Mail story is Kasie West’s P.S. I Like You, which I enjoyed a lot more.

Winston Graham, Warleggan — Things really get going in this fourth Poldark book, which is full of twists and betrayals and Ross making even more terrible decisions. I’m starting to think George isn’t such a villain; he undoubtedly does some despicable things, but after the events of this book, it’s clear that Ross isn’t exactly blameless. Demelza is definitely the true hero of this series!

Mini-Reviews: Aunt, Farleigh, Likeness, Poldark

As you can tell, I’m not super motivated to blog at the moment, and I’m contemplating some possible changes to my process. Going forward, I’d like to absolve myself from trying to review every book I read, and maybe just focus on the best or most interesting books of each month. I’d also like to vary my content a little bit more, maybe by doing more discussion posts and memes à la Top Ten Tuesday. So I’m ruminating on that…but in the meantime, here are some more mini-reviews!

Death of My AuntIn Farleigh Field

C.H.B. Kitchin, Death of My Aunt — I love a good Golden Age mystery, but this one isn’t one of my favorites. I don’t remember it being particularly bad, but nothing stands out as particularly memorable either. It’s your standard “unpleasant family matriarch dies, the younger husband is the main suspect, but did he really do it?” plot. I did like the fact that the younger husband wasn’t an obvious slimeball, as they generally tend to be in these types of stories. But in the end, I think only diehard Golden Age fans will enjoy this one.

Rhys Bowen, In Farleigh Field — This book has a lot of my favorite things: historical fiction, World War II, spies, and a friends-to-lovers subplot. But while it was an enjoyable read, I didn’t fall in love with it. I think I wanted more from the espionage story, and the characters all seemed a little flat to me. Also, while the book can definitely be read as a standalone, I got the impression that it was setting up a sequel, and I’m not sure I care enough to continue with a (hypothetical) series.

Likeness, TheJeremy Poldark

Tana French, The Likeness — The modern crime thriller isn’t my preferred genre, but I made an exception for French’s In the Woods and completely devoured it. This is the second book in the Dublin Murder Squad series, and it focuses on Cassie, Ryan’s partner from the first book. The premise is somewhat outlandish, as Cassie must go undercover to investigate the murder of a young woman who looks just like her. But despite that, I found myself completely compelled by Cassie’s journey as she integrates herself into the dead woman’s life. I definitely plan to continue with this series — I’ve already bought book three!

Winston Graham, Jeremy Poldark — ***Warning: Spoilers for previous books in the Poldark series.***

Book three in the Poldark saga really amps up the drama, as it begins with Ross on trial for his life because of his role in the shipwreck and ensuing events at the end of Demelza. Of course, Ross is hellbent on making things as difficult as possible for himself, and George Warleggan is working behind the scenes to get Ross convicted. This is the book that really sold me on the series, although newcomers should start at the beginning with Ross Poldark.

Mini-Reviews #12: December, part 2

This is officially my LAST BATCH of reviews for 2016! I’m looking forward to starting next year (aka tomorrow) with a clean slate. These last books are all rereads, and it was lovely to revisit some books I’ve enjoyed in the past!

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Rainbow Rowell, Attachments — I’ve loved all of Rainbow Rowell’s books, but this one (her first novel) remains my favorite. It’s the story of Lincoln, an Internet security specialist whose job is to monitor all emails sent from company accounts. When the emails of Jennifer and Beth get flagged for “inappropriate” usage, Lincoln has to read them; it’s his job. But before long, he gets caught up in the women’s stories and becomes genuinely interested in learning more about them. Then he begins to fall for Beth…but how can he transform his one-sided crush into an actual relationship?

Sharon Shinn, Summers at Castle Auburn — The first time I read this romantic fantasy novel, I didn’t quite pick up on the romance and felt it was a little abrupt. I don’t know what I was thinking, because this time I was all about the romance! It’s subtle and builds slowly, which is just the way I like it. 🙂 I also really enjoyed the vivid fantasy world, and I liked the fact that the heroine truly grows and changes throughout the novel. Definitely recommended for fans of this genre!

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Georgette Heyer, The Corinthian — One of Heyer’s excellent Regency romances, featuring a jaded young man and a scrappy girl (dressed as a boy) who’s running away from home. The plot gets a bit convoluted, comprising highwaymen, elopements, and even a murder. But of course, everything turns out right in the end!

Patricia Wynn, The Birth of Blue Satan — I read this book, the first in a series, a few years ago, but for some reason I didn’t continue with the series. Recently I decided I’d like to read book two, but I had to refresh my memory by rereading this one first. As a mystery novel, it’s not particularly strong — the solution basically comes out of nowhere — but I loved the period setting (1715! More novels about Jacobites, please!) and the main characters. I’m definitely looking forward to reading book two and seeing what happens next!

Review: First Impressions

First ImpressionsCharlie Lovett, First Impressions

Book lover and Austen enthusiast Sophie Collingwood has recently taken a job at an antiquarian bookshop in London when two different customers request a copy of the same obscure book: the second edition of A Little Book of Allegories by Richard Mansfield. Their queries draw Sophie into a mystery that will cast doubt on the true authorship of Pride and Prejudice—and ultimately threaten Sophie’s life.

In a dual narrative that alternates between Sophie’s quest to uncover the truth—while choosing between two suitors—and a young Jane Austen’s touching friendship with the aging cleric Richard Mansfield, Lovett weaves a romantic, suspenseful, and utterly compelling novel about love in all its forms and the joys of a life lived in books. (Summary from Amazon.com.)

I should have known better than to pick this one up. My love of Jane Austen means that I’ve read a lot of the retellings, re-imaginings, and spinoffs of her novels, and most of them have ranged from “meh” to truly awful. So I should have known that I’d dislike this book, and indeed, the writing style had turned me off by the end of the first chapter. The author unwisely makes Jane Austen a character and tries to imitate her voice, with disastrous results.

Further, the entire “past” storyline had essentially no stakes, being nothing more than an account of the friendship between Austen and an elderly clergyman. In the “present” storyline, book lover Sophie Collingwood comes across said clergyman’s name in connection with Austen and investigates a possible plagiarism scandal. Because of course Austen lovers want to read books suggesting that she didn’t actually create her own work!

Anyway, Sophie is an utter ninny caught between a Darcy and a Wickham, although they’re pretty equally insufferable! The Wickham (whose name I can’t actually remember) is supposed to be skeevy, of course, but the Darcy also exhibits some major stalker vibes. Therefore, I didn’t buy the love triangle or enjoy the romance. So for me, the book failed on basically every front. Maybe I’m being too harsh; I’d read some positive reviews of the novel, and possibly my expectations were too high. But unfortunately, this book is in my “bottom 10” for the year.

Review: Gretel and the Case of the Missing Frog Prints

Gretel and the Case of the Missing Frog PrintsP.J. Brackston, Gretel and the Case of the Missing Frog Prints

In the small town of Gesternstadt in 18th-century Germany, Gretel is something of a local celebrity. Her first claim to fame is being the Gretel, the one who escaped the clutches of an evil witch along with her gluttonous brother, Hans (a.k.a. Hansel). Now, the 35-year-old woman makes her living as a private investigator, and the biggest case of her life has just fallen into her lap. She has been summoned by Albrecht Durer the Much Much Younger, whose beautiful and beloved frog prints have been stolen. Gretel takes the case and travels to the busy metropolis of Nuremberg, accompanied by Hans, who wants to attend the city’s world-famous sausage festival. She soon stumbles across a variety of surprises, including a housecleaning hobgoblin, a secret brothel in the basement of a fancy hotel, and a veritable mafia of talking mice. And, naturally, her most promising suspect is later murdered at the scene of the crime. Can Gretel discover the thief, return the prints, and catch the murderer, all without being sidetracked by her dimwitted brother?

I got very excited by the premise of this book, which sounds like a delightfully subversive romp through both mystery and fairy-tale tropes. And indeed, there’s lots of fun stuff in this novel. Gretel has some wonderfully entertaining characteristics: she’s determined, confident, and extremely pragmatic. Hans is a good foil for her, reminding me of a Teutonic Bertie Wooster. But at the same time, I never found a reason to care about these characters; they don’t really develop over the course of the novel. Some of the humor also seemed forced, and the mystery itself was nothing special. I did enjoy the weird genre mashup of mystery plus fairy tale, and I would potentially read the sequel when it comes out. But a novel that’s pure spoof has got to be funny enough to justify itself, and I’m not sure that this one is. It certainly never reaches the zany heights of P.G. Wodehouse! Again, this book is an enjoyable read, but I was ultimately underwhelmed by it.

Review: The Gilded Shroud

Gilded Shroud, TheElizabeth Bailey, The Gilded Shroud

Ottilia Draycott has just accepted a position as companion to the Dowager Lady Polbrook, expecting nothing more adventurous than a change of scenery after her former position as governess to her two young nephews. But on her very first day at her new post, the current Lady Polbrook (the dowager’s daughter-in-law) is found dead in her room, having been strangled sometime during the night. The household immediately falls into a panic, especially when it becomes evident that the master of the house has disappeared. Ottilia knows that suspicion is bound to fall on Randal Polbrook; no one knows where he has gone or why, and it’s common knowledge that he and his wife were estranged. But Ottilia, after examining the scene of the crime, believes the late Lady Polbrook was entertaining a lover on the night she died. She shares her suspicions with the dowager and with Lord Francis Fanshawe, the younger brother of the absent marquis. Together, they try to discover the lover’s identity and clear Randal’s name, while minimizing the scandal as much as possible. Meanwhile, the pragmatic, clear-headed Ottilia finds her objectivity compromised as she grows closer to Lord Francis.

I love a good historical mystery, and this book is a very solid member of the genre. Ottilia (despite her ridiculous name) is a very likable heroine, with a keen intelligence and a mischievous sense of humor. The other major players are also interesting, from the sharp-tongued but kindly dowager to the handsome Lord Francis. At times I felt that the characters were essentially copied from Georgette Heyer, but since I’m a big Heyer fan, I didn’t mind too much! And one big difference between this book and Heyer’s novels is that here, the servants aren’t just window dressing; they actually have some relevance to the plot. The mystery is well done, although I was able to guess the culprit before the solution was revealed in the book. I also liked the writing style, which seemed appropriate to the time period but was still fairly easy to understand. Oddly enough, my least favorite part of this book was the romance, which just seemed a bit stilted. Overall, I liked this book and will certainly read the sequel at some point, but I didn’t love it in the same way I love Kate Ross’s books, for example.

Review: I Will Repay

I Will RepayBaroness Emmuska Orczy, I Will Repay

Paris, 1783: Paul Déroulède, a wealthy but non-aristocratic member of Parisian society, accidentally kills the young Vicomte de Marny in a duel. The vicomte’s sister, Juliette, swears an oath that she will one day avenge her brother’s death. Ten years later, Juliette finally gets her opportunity: by provoking an angry mob right outside Déroulède’s door, she is able to gain entrance to his house and look for a means to destroy him. But the more time she spends with Paul Déroulède, the more she finds herself responding to his kind, chivalrous nature. Meanwhile, Déroulède occupies a somewhat tenuous position in the brand-new Republic of France: while he is popular with the common masses for his moderate, benevolent views, many of the revolutionary leaders view him as dangerous. When Juliette discovers that Déroulède is planning to rescue the condemned Marie Antoinette — an act that would brand him as a traitor to the Republic — she must decide whether to fulfill her oath or listen to the promptings of her heart.

So as it turns out, there are SEQUELS to The Scarlet Pimpernel! Since TSP is one of my favorite books of all time, I was thrilled to discover that many of the sequels are in the public domain and easily downloadable in e-book format. I Will Repay is the first of these sequels (in publication order), and I really enjoyed it — despite the fact that the Pimpernel has a very minor role, and Marguerite and Chauvelin don’t appear at all! But I loved the descriptions of Paris in the throes of the French Revolution, as well as the romance between Juliette and Déroulède. Of course, the book is far from perfect; the writing style is quite flowery and over-the-top, and I really wasn’t a fan of the (unconscious) sexism exhibited throughout the book. For example, in one pivotal scene, Déroulède defends Juliette’s actions by saying, essentially, that you can’t expect girls to act rationally. So that really bugged me — especially coming from a female author, who should know better! But I have to admit, I still kind of loved this book, and I look forward to reading more of the Pimpernel sequels!

Review: The Complaint of the Dove

Complaint of the Dove, TheHannah March, The Complaint of the Dove

In 1760s England, private tutor Robert Fairfax is charged with escorting his pupil, Matthew Hemsley, to London for a bit of town polish. But Fairfax is apprehensive: how can he introduce Matthew to the worldly, sophisticated atmosphere of London while at the same time protecting him from bad influences? Unfortunately, during their very first trip to the theater, Matthew instantly falls in love with the beautiful and popular actress Lucy Dove. Though she is a sweet and talented girl, her profession is most unsuitable, so Fairfax hopes that Matthew’s infatuation is only temporary. But Matthew gets into even bigger trouble when Lucy is murdered shortly afterwards, and he is found at the crime scene under very suspicious circumstances. When Matthew is actually arrested for the murder, Fairfax knows it is his duty to clear his pupil’s name — which means launching an investigation to discover the real killer.

I discovered this series by accident at a library book sale where the second and third books were available for 25 cents each, so of course I had to track down the first book as well! I was intrigued by the concept of a Georgian mystery, since I haven’t seen many novels set in that era (especially compared to the much more popular 19th century!). Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately, given the magnitude of my TBR list already), I’ve discovered a new mystery series to enjoy! I loved the period detail: the crush of theatergoers more interested in each other than in what’s happening onstage; the elaborate wigs, patches, and high heels worn by aristocratic men and women alike; the rudimentary knowledge of medicine, including the ingestion of mercury as a cure for venereal disease. It’s a fascinating time period, and March really brings the era to life. I also liked Robert Fairfax as a sleuth, and I look forward to seeing how his complex character will develop in subsequent books. Overall, I’d definitely recommend this book to fans of historical mysteries!