Review: My Plain Jane

My Plain JaneCynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows, My Plain Jane

***Warning: This review contains SPOILERS for Jane Eyre!***

In this fractured-fairytale take on Jane Eyre, Jane is a real person, and she and Charlotte Brontë are best friends. Also, she can see dead people: her other BFF, Helen Burns, is a ghost. Jane is currently a teacher at Lowood School, but her unique gifts bring her to the attention of Alexander Blackwood, the star agent of the Royal Society for the Relocation of Wayward Spirits. Alexander’s job is to find and capture ghosts who are causing trouble for humans, and Jane’s abilities will aid him in this task. But Jane inexplicably prefers to be a governess, and she sets off for Thornfield Hall, where she becomes entangled with a certain Edward Rochester. Charlotte, however, would love to become a member of the Society, despite her utter inability to see ghosts. So she teams up with Alexander to follow Jane, hoping to persuade her to join the Society. When they arrive at Thornfield, they soon realize that something is very wrong, but Jane might be too blinded by her feelings for Rochester to see it. . . .

I think this book was written for a very specific audience in mind, which is people who enjoy Jane Eyre but also realize that Mr. Rochester is a deeply flawed character. As one of those people, I found this book very enjoyable! Ghostly Helen Burns is a hilarious Greek chorus, pointing out Rochester’s inconsistent and manipulative behavior to Jane at every turn. For example, it’s pretty cruel of him to act like he’s going to marry Blanche Ingram just to make Jane jealous. He runs extremely hot and cold, sometimes focusing on Jane with special intensity and sometimes completely ignoring her. And then, of course, there’s the whole wife-in-the-attic thing, which this novel turns on its head, making Bertha Rochester a strong and sympathetic character. I also enjoyed Charlotte’s quest to become a member of the Society, as well as her budding romance with Alexander. It’s all a bit lightweight, and not something I necessarily feel a need to ever reread, but it’s great fun if you’re familiar with Jane Eyre.

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Review: Someone to Love

Someone to LoveMary Balogh, Someone to Love

The earl of Riverdale has just died, and his family is putting his affairs in order. Obviously his son will inherit the title, the estate, and the bulk of the money. But the late earl also had an illegitimate daughter, Anna Snow, who grew up in an orphanage and is now a teacher there. The earl’s widow wants to give Anna some money, both as a kind gesture and as a way to forestall any future claims on the estate. But the lawyer she employs for this purpose makes a shocking discovery: Anna is actually the earl’s legitimate daughter, and her existence effectively disinherits his widow and his other children. Anna would like to be close to her newfound family, since she was previously alone in the world, but they all resent her for depriving them of their wealth and status. Her only ally is Avery Archer, a friend of the family, who decides to help her acclimate to her new life. But he never expected to be so drawn to her; and Anna never thought she would be so tempted to lose her heart to a (seemingly) shallow leader of society.

I was craving a good romance novel when I saw a review of this one at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did, because I really enjoyed this book! First of all, I think the setup is pretty genius; it may not be the most plausible premise, but it certainly sets up some great conflicts, both for this book and (presumably) for future books in the series. I very much liked Anna as a heroine — she’s confident in herself but also has a deep longing for intimacy and connection that she’s not sure how to express. In this respect, Avery is a great match for her, since he also conceals deep loneliness under a bored and detached facade. I really enjoyed his urbane quips and his witty conversations with Anna, and I loved that he’s not a typical alpha-male hero. My only quibble with the book is Avery’s practice of martial arts, because every time Avery engages in violence in the novel, it’s portrayed as being sexually appealing. Additionally, a somewhat stereotypical “Chinese gentleman” is the source of Avery’s knowledge (see the SBTB review and comments for a great discussion of this). Aside from that, though, I liked this book a lot and will definitely seek out more by Mary Balogh when I want a well-written Regency romance.

Review: The Napoleon of Crime

Napoleon of CrimeBen Macintyre, The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief

Ben Macintyre’s enthusiasm for larger-than-life historical figures is evident once again in this biography of Adam Worth, one of the most notorious thieves and con artists of the late 19th century. Worth began his criminal career as a pickpocket but soon established himself as a gang leader, gaining notoriety through planning a series of successful bank jobs. Eventually Worth set up shop in London, where he created a public persona as a wealthy English gentleman, which he was able to maintain for decades even while continuing his criminal activities. His crowning achievement was the theft of Gainsborough’s famous portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Worth’s criminal genius, plus his short stature, prompted a Scotland Yard detective to dub him the “Napoleon of the criminal world” — a phrase famously used to describe the ultimate fictional criminal mastermind, Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis Moriarty.

I’m a big fan of Ben Macintyre’s books about World War II-era espionage, so I was excited to try this book even though it has a different subject matter. I’m not sure if it was the different focus or the fact that I was extremely busy in real life at the time, but I just couldn’t get into this book the same way I did with Operation Mincemeat, for example. I think Macintyre overstates his thesis, which is that Worth was the real-life inspiration for Moriarty; the evidence that exists really doesn’t seem very conclusive. Also, he focuses a lot on Worth’s theft of the Gainsborough painting and engages in some psychological speculation about Worth’s supposed obsession, which according to Macintyre had a sexual component. In this area, there really seems to be NO evidence supporting the book’s claims! I did find the interactions between Worth and William Pinkerton (yes, one of those Pinkertons) to be very interesting and would have loved the book to focus more on that relationship. Overall, the book is entertaining enough, but I didn’t like it as much as I expected to.

Review: Ghostly Echoes

ghostly echoesWilliam Ritter, Ghostly Echoes

This third installment of the Jackaby series focuses on Jenny Cavanaugh, the resident ghost of 926 Augur Lane. She was brutally murdered 10 years ago, and now she is finally ready for her friends Jackaby and Abigail to investigate. As they begin to research the case, they realize that Jenny’s murder may be connected to recent disturbing events in New Fiddleham. Their investigation leads them to the eerie pale man who lurked at the edges of Beastly Bones, to a group of scientists with a sinister plan, and even to the Underworld itself. Meanwhile, Jenny continues to grow in confidence, even as she grapples with the question of what will happen to her when her murder is finally solved. Abigail’s mettle is tested as never before, and glimpses of Jackaby’s mysterious past are finally revealed.

I read this book a couple months ago, and I’m afraid I may not be remembering the plot very clearly; no doubt my summary has left some things out. But this is an exciting installment of the series, pulling together some of the plot threads from earlier books and setting the stage for a magical showdown in the fourth and final novel. I liked that we finally get a little insight into Jackaby’s past and some of the more unusual aspects of his personality, and it was also nice to learn more about Jenny, who is a fairly minor character in the first two books. The solution to the murder mystery is very clever, but I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that it ties into a much larger story arc that won’t be resolved until book four. The first two books in the series are much more episodic, but this one definitely can’t be read as a stand-alone novel. However, I’m certainly intrigued enough to pick up The Dire King and see how everything turns out!

Review: Home by Nightfall

home by nightfallCharles Finch, Home by Nightfall

***Warning: Slight spoilers for previous books in this series.***

In this ninth installment of the Charles Lenox series, the Victorian gentleman-sleuth is happy that his fledgling detective agency is beginning to thrive. He is especially excited about the recent disappearance of a famous German pianist who had been performing in London. Hoping to be hired to assist the police, Charles eagerly reads the newspaper reports and spins theories to explain the disappearance. But his attention is split between this mystery and his brother Edward, who is grieving the recent death of his wife Mary. Charles offers to keep Edward company at his country estate, only to run into more strange occurrences: a break-in, several thefts, and an unsettlingly cryptic drawing. Now Charles must work to solve two mysteries, and he soon realizes that in both cases, nothing is as it seems.

I quite enjoy this series, so I’m not sure why I waited three and a half years to read this book after reading the previous installment! It was nice to revisit these characters and immerse myself in this world after spending some time away. And I think this might be one of the strongest books in the series. I was able to guess some elements of the countryside mystery, but it still held my interest, and I found the resolution to be very thought-provoking and poignant. I also enjoyed the diversion to the village setting — most of the plot takes place there, although Charles does dash up to London every so often to work on the case of the disappearing pianist. In fact, my main complaint is that the dual mystery plots split the reader’s focus; I would have preferred to stay in the country and follow that case, perhaps leaving the pianist for another book. Still, this is a very good installment of an enjoyable series — well worth reading for fans of historical mysteries!

Review: The Star of Kazan

star of kazanEva Ibbotson, The Star of Kazan

Twelve-year-old Annika has never known her parents, but she has grown up surrounded by the love of her kind guardians. Her childhood has been largely carefree: she helps with the cooking and household chores, goes to school, and plays with her friends and neighbors in the little square in Vienna where she lives. But she still dreams of the day when her long-lost mother — who will naturally be beautiful, elegant, and kind — will come looking for her. One day the dream comes true, and Annika is overjoyed when her mother whisks her away to live with her “real” family. But as she spends more time with her biological relatives, she is confused and hurt by their indifference, and she eventually learns that their interest in her may have an ulterior motive.

Ibbotson’s books are the ultimate comfort reads, in my opinion — they’re so sweet and old-fashioned, extolling the virtues of community, kindness, and generosity. This one is geared toward younger readers, which makes some aspects of the plot a little simplistic, particularly the “mystery” of Annika’s newfound relatives and their inconsistent treatment of her. But the book is still very charming, and it paints an absolutely beautiful picture of both Vienna and the Austrian countryside. I’m not normally into books with lots of descriptive details, but this novel really makes me want to visit Austria! I also enjoyed the characters, particularly Annika’s friends Pauline (who is afraid of everything but eventually conquers her fears to help Annika) and Zed (a servant who has a way with horses). Overall, this book hit that happy comfort spot for me, and I would recommend it, along with any of Ibbotson’s other books.

Review: The Jane Austen Project

Jane Austen ProjectKathleen A. Flynn, The Jane Austen Project

Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane live in a near-future world where time travel is well established as a scientific research tool. Their first mission is to travel to 1815, where they will retrieve Jane Austen’s personal letters (many of which were destroyed after her death) and her manuscript of “The Watsons,” which, according to a recent discovery, she actually did complete. To achieve this goal, Rachel and Liam will pose as members of the gentry and try to become part of the Austens’ social circle. But the more they get to know Jane and her family, the more Rachel and Liam begin to have scruples about their actions. Additionally, they start to worry about the possibility of changing history and the even scarier possibility that they may not be able to leave 1815. And of course, the deepening of their relationship to each other may have far-reaching consequences in both 1815 and their own time.

I enjoyed this book overall, but I definitely think some parts were more successful than others. The premise is certainly an interesting one if you love Jane Austen, and overall I think the portrayal of Jane and her family was very well done. The book evokes the 1815 setting very well; it feels like the reader is also a time traveler, being immersed into this bygone era for the first time. I was particularly tickled by one scene where Jane catches Rachel looking through her private papers and accuses her of being a French spy! That said, the novel gives short shrift to the time travel element; it doesn’t explain how it works or what the “rules” are, and the future consequences of Rachel and Liam’s actions in 1815 are wrapped up very quickly. Finally, I wasn’t particularly invested in the romance. While Rachel and Liam are both pleasant enough, I never really got a sense of what made them tick. Ultimately, I did like the book, but I don’t think it’s one I’ll ever need to reread.

Review: The English Wife

English WifeLauren Willig, The English Wife

In the winter of 1899, Bayard van Duyvil and his highborn English wife, Annabelle, are at the pinnacle of New York high society. Wealthy and attractive, with two young children and a brand-new estate, they seem to be the perfect couple — that is, until their Twelfth Night ball, when Bayard is found murdered and Annabelle goes missing. Rumors abound that Annabelle killed her husband, but Bayard’s sister Janie is not convinced. With the help of dashing journalist James Burke, Janie is determined to discover what really happened to Bay and Annabelle. But she soon learns that their relationship was much more complicated than it appeared.

I always enjoy Lauren Willig’s books, but I find that I definitely prefer her light and fluffy Pink Carnation series to her more serious historical novels. I enjoyed the setting of this one, and I liked Janie a lot — I’m always a fan of characters who have to grow into their strength. The romance between Janie and James was also satisfying, albeit quite predictable. However, I wasn’t a huge fan of the secondary narrative, which takes place five years earlier and is told from the point of view of Georgie, an actress who meets Bayard while he’s visiting London. I liked Georgie but disliked Bayard more and more as the story went on. I also found Janie’s story more interesting, so I was annoyed when the book’s focus shifted away from her. Overall, I found this an enjoyable read, but it’s not a keeper for me.

Review: A Gathering of Shadows

Gathering of ShadowsV.E. Schwab, A Gathering of Shadows

***Warning: SPOILERS for A Darker Shade of Magic***

Four months after the events of A Darker Shade of Magic, Delilah Bard is living her dream of being a pirate — well, privateer, technically — on the ship Night Spire under Captain Alucard Emery. She is also exploring her magical abilities under Alucard’s tutelage, while keeping her thieving skills as sharp as her knives. Meanwhile, Kell and Rhy are struggling with the aftermath of Kell’s decision to bind their lives together. The upcoming Essen Tasch — a competition between the best magicians of Arnes and its neighboring lands — provides an outlet for Kell’s frustration and also draws hordes of people to Red London, including a certain pirate-thief and her swashbuckling captain. But unforeseen dangers threaten Kell, Rhy, and Lila, and strange things are afoot in White London. . . .

I really enjoyed A Darker Shade of Magic, but for some reason it took me a really long time to pick up the second book in the series. I don’t know what I was waiting for, because this book definitely lives up to its predecessor! I love the world of this series, and  the plot — especially once everyone starts to converge on Red London for the Essen Tasch — kept me riveted. I also enjoyed watching the three main characters grow and change; it was particularly nice to get inside Rhy’s head for a bit and see that he’s more than just a pleasure-loving wastrel. I also liked seeing Lila get what she’s always wanted, only to discover that maybe she wants something different now. Fair warning, this book does end on a cliffhanger, so I’m glad I already have A Conjuring of Light on my shelves! I can’t wait to see what happens next and how everything turns out. I’d definitely recommend this series to fantasy lovers!

 

Mini-reviews: Journey, Burning, Bella

Journey to the River SeaBurning BrightBella Poldark

Eva Ibbotson, Journey to the River Sea — Maia is an orphan living at a boarding school in England, when one day she is adopted by distant relatives living in Brazil. She is eager to meet her new family until she discovers that they are selfish and cruel and only took her in for financial reasons. However, she finds consolation in the natural beauties around her, the strange vegetation and wildlife, and the friends she makes in her new homeland. I’ve read and loved all of Ibbotson’s adult/YA books, but I’m still discovering her works for younger readers. This is delightful, and I think it would appeal to kids (and adults!) who enjoy exploration and adventure.

Melissa McShane, Burning Bright — This is a Regency-era fantasy novel, so obviously it’s right up my alley, and I very much enjoyed it! Protagonist Elinor is a Scorcher, which means she can start fires with magic; and she’s also an Extraordinary, which means she can control and put out the fires as well. This talent makes her an extremely valuable prize on the marriage market, and her controlling father wants to snare a rich and powerful husband for her. To escape this fate, Elinor offers her services to the Royal Navy instead. There’s shipboard combat and pirates and romance — basically everything I’m looking for from this type of book. Highly recommended if the premise appeals to you!

Winston Graham, Bella Poldark — Phew, I can’t believe this is the last book in the Poldark series! Clowance decides whether to marry again and must choose between two suitors; Bella embarks on a career; Valentine stirs the pot, as usual; and a serial murderer is on the loose in Cornwall. Not every loose end in the series is tied up, but overall the book is a strong conclusion for the characters I’ve come to know and love over the past 12 books. It’s hard to believe there won’t be any more stories about them!