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!

Review: Life of Johnson

Life of JohnsonJames Boswell, Life of Johnson

James Boswell and Samuel Johnson were unlikely friends: Boswell was a young Scottish nobleman with a penchant for drinking and whoring, while Johnson was poorer, much more devout (in theory, at least), and a good 30 years older. Yet throughout the course of this monumental work, Boswell describes his reverence for Johnson’s intelligence, morality, and literary talents — a reverence so extreme that Boswell took notes on almost every conversation he ever had with the older man. As a result, this biography is stuffed full of Boswell’s personal anecdotes, letters both to and from Johnson, and first-person accounts of other contemporaries who knew him. Near the end of the book, Boswell states: “The character of Samuel Johnson has, I trust, been so developed in the course of this work, that they who have honoured it with a perusal, may be considered as well acquainted with him.” And indeed, anyone who reads this book will come away with an extremely vivid picture of a remarkable man.

This book is so huge and deals with so many things that I don’t quite know what to say about it. At first I was very intimidated, both by its length and by Boswell’s flowery 18th-century prose. But even though it’s not a quick read, this book contains a wealth of fascinating details about Johnson and the age in which he lived. I was struck by how literary the 18th century was, in the sense that seemingly anyone with a claim to intelligence was churning out books and pamphlets. In that way, Johnson’s time is very similar to our own, where everybody can (and does) publish blogs, tweets, and other forms of instantaneous literature. I was also fascinated by Johnson’s unique character; though intelligent, he was often pompous, narrow-minded, and abrasive. I frequently found myself underlining various Johnsonian sayings that were wise, or funny, or both — but I would have hated to be forced to converse with him! Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the time period or who enjoys very thorough biographies!

Review: The Birth of Blue Satan

The Birth of Blue SatanPatricia Wynn, The Birth of Blue Satan

Set in England during the reign of George I, this book follows the turbulent fortunes of Gideon St. Mars. Gideon is a handsome and rich aristocrat who hopes to marry Isabella Mayfield, the most sought-after beauty in London. His father, however, disapproves of the match, so Gideon visits him in hopes of persuading him to change his mind. Unfortunately, they have a violent quarrel, which becomes a damning piece of evidence against Gideon when his father is murdered later that day. Although Gideon is innocent, his so-called friends in London society immediately begin to suspect and shun him, including Isabella. Only Isabella’s companion, Hester Kean, believes in Gideon’s innocence; with her help, Gideon must hide from the law until he can bring his father’s real murderer to justice.

This is one of those books whose plot seems custom-made for me: a murder mystery, a wrongly accused hero, an interesting period setting, and a slowly developing romance. So perhaps it’s needless to say that I really enjoyed it! The early 18th century is a period I don’t know much about, but it seems fascinating and ripe for dramatic conflict. George I, the first Hanoverian monarch, is on the throne of England, but there are plenty of dissenters who would like to restore the Stuart line to power. This larger conflict is woven into Gideon’s story, and I’m interested to see how events will unfold in future installments of the series. The only jarring aspect of this book, for me, was that all the women were addressed as “Mrs.” regardless of their marital status. An author’s note explains that this was apparently the custom at that time, but it definitely confused me at first! Otherwise, though, I liked this book a lot and will definitely seek out the sequels.