Mini-reviews: Rebel, Murder, Carrie, Dance

Rebel MechanicsExpert in Murder, An

Shanna Swendson, Rebel Mechanics — This YA steampunk/alternate history tale is set in a world where the American Revolution never took place because the British upper classes have magical powers that give them access to technologies (such as electricity and automobiles) that the American colonists lack. However, the so-called rebel mechanics are hoping to start a revolution by harnessing steam power and thus leveling the technological playing field. Against this political backdrop, Verity Newton is a young woman with many friends among the rebels, yet she works as a governess for an upper-class magister. As the first stirrings of revolution begin, Verity must decide where her loyalties truly lie. This book is a fun steampunk romp, and I really enjoyed the central characters, especially Lord Henry. I’ll definitely be reading the sequels!

Nicola Upson, An Expert in Murder — A historical mystery novel featuring Josephine Tey as an amateur sleuth. The plot revolves around a staging of Tey’s play Richard of Bordeaux, and many of the suspects are involved with the play as actors, producers, and so forth. Even Tey herself is implicated in the crime, since the victim was a fan whose program Tey had signed shortly before the murder occurred. Overall I thought this book was pretty good; I enjoyed the blending of fact and fiction, and the mystery itself was interesting, albeit a little baroque. I may continue with the series, but it’s not at the top of my list.

Carrie PilbyMiller's Dance, The

Caren Lissner, Carrie Pilby — I’ve owned this book for years, but it wasn’t until I saw the movie on Netflix that I was motivated to pick it up! The titular character is a young woman with a genius-level IQ and zero tolerance for liars and hypocrites. As a result, she’s extremely isolated socially, until her therapist challenges her to mix more with the world by making friends, going on dates, and telling people she cares about them. Carrie reluctantly tries to follow this advice and learns more about the world in the process. I thought this book was just OK. Carrie’s voice is sharp and entertaining, but I’m not sure she actually learns very much throughout the course of the book. The various things she experiences and people she meets seem random and unconnected. I think this is a rare case where the movie is better than the book!

Winston Graham, The Miller’s Dance — ***Warning: spoilers for previous Poldark books!***

This book focuses most on Jeremy and Clowance, Ross and Demelza’s adult children, as they deal with career and relationship problems. Jeremy is still interested in steam power and has built a machine to help with the Poldarks’ mine. (I honestly can’t remember anything more than that about the steam-engine stuff!) He is also heartbroken that his beloved Cuby won’t marry him; she needs to marry a rich man to take care of her family’s debts. Meanwhile, Clowance and Stephen continue their relationship, but Clowance starts to have second thoughts. Another enjoyable installment of the series, and I’m curious to see what will happen next. Only three books left!

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Mini-Reviews: Fantastic, Jayne, Trouble, Penhallow

Light Fantastic, TheLady Jayne Disappears

Terry Pratchett, The Light Fantastic — I read The Color of Magic several years ago and enjoyed it, but for some reason it took me a really long time to revisit Discworld. I’m sorry I left it so long, because I really enjoyed The Light Fantastic! The book has a lot of fun with the “chosen one” trope as the failed wizard Rincewind and his unwanted companion Twoflower race around the Disc trying to prevent the end of the world. I will definitely continue with the Discworld series, although I’m trying to decide whether I should read it in publication order or approach it one “cycle” at a time (i.e., read all the Rincewind books first). Advice is welcome!

Joanna Davidson Politano, Lady Jayne Disappears — I don’t usually read “inspirational” novels, but I’m open to them if the premise sounds interesting, and I thought I’d give this one a try. It’s about a young woman, Aurelie Harcourt, who has spent her childhood with her father in debtor’s prison; when her father dies, she is brought to live with rich but emotionally distant relatives. I just really didn’t connect to this book; I found the writing style obnoxious and the plot too predictable. The references to God felt shoehorned in, and Aurelie’s faith didn’t ring true to me. Not recommended.

Trouble with Destiny, ThePenhallow

Lauren Morrill, The Trouble with Destiny — This cute but forgettable YA romance centers around Liza, a type-A teenager who’s very proud of her position as drum major of her high school band. In an effort to raise money to keep the band program from being cut, she enters the band in a competition that will take place (for some inexplicable reason) on a cruise ship. While there, she reconnects with a former crush, butts heads with a best-friend-turned-rival, and unexpectedly connects with the quarterback of the football team, who isn’t as dumb as he seems. I found Liza a very frustrating character — she’s selfish, shrill, and completely blind to what’s going on around her. So overall, I didn’t hate this book but didn’t particularly like it either.

Georgette Heyer, Penhallow — Much as I love Georgette Heyer, I have to admit that I really did not enjoy this book. It’s one of her so-called mystery novels, but the murder doesn’t occur until at least two-thirds of the way through the book, and the murderer’s identity is never a secret. Additionally, every single character is deeply unpleasant. Without an actual mystery to solve or a character to root for, the book just didn’t hold any appeal for me. I still love Heyer, but I’d definitely recommend trying a different book; Envious Casca is her best mystery, in my opinion.

Mini-Reviews: Lady, Café, Stranger, Bullet

Lady Molly of Scotland YardCafé by the Sea, The

Baroness Orczy, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard — While Orczy’s best-known work is The Scarlet Pimpernel, she also tried her hand at the mystery genre in a collection of short stories featuring Lady Molly, Scotland Yard’s (fictional) first woman detective. The stories are narrated by Lady Molly’s maid, Mary, who serves as the Watson figure and helps Lady Molly with her investigations. Overall, the stories are pleasant enough, and I liked how Lady Molly’s own history was mysterious until the last couple of stories in the collection. However, I didn’t love the portrayal of Lady Molly as a paragon of every virtue, especially when she engages in several instances of morally dubious behavior, such as telling a suspect (falsely) that her baby is dead. The mysteries themselves are fine but nothing groundbreaking. Overall, the collection is more interesting as a historical artifact than as a set of mystery stories.

Jenny Colgan, The Café by the Sea — I enjoyed this chick lit novel a lot more than I was expecting to! Protagonist Flora is trying to build a career in London, but her latest assignment takes her back to the remote Scottish island of Mure, where she has to mend fences with her estranged father and brothers. I liked watching Flora’s personal growth, and I also enjoyed the (inevitable) romance a lot more than I was expecting to. Plus, the setting is gorgeous and makes me want to visit the Hebrides! Definitely worth reading if you enjoy the genre, and I’ll be trying more by Colgan.

Stranger from the Sea, TheBullet in the Ballet, A

Winston Graham, The Stranger from the Sea — More fun and games with the Poldark clan, set 10 years after the events of The Angry Tide. The eponymous stranger from the sea is Stephen Carrington, a confident young man who befriends Jeremy and fascinates Clowance. But what secrets is he hiding? I liked this book a lot and found the time jump refreshing — now that the children are grown up, there are even more characters to follow and care about. Not a fan of Stephen, though, and I hope he’s not around for good.

Caryl Brahms and S.J. Simon, A Bullet in the Ballet — A delightfully absurd Golden Age mystery in which a fairly conventional police inspector must solve a murder that occurs within the madcap Stroganoff Ballet. I really enjoyed the various ballet characters with their artistic temperaments. The murderer’s motive is pretty nonsensical, but this one should definitely be read for the humor rather than for the mystery plot.

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: Pretty Face + 3

Real life has been burning me out lately, so instead of getting stressed about the 20-ish reviews I still need to write, I’ve decided to Jack Bauer this situation and just write short ones! Here’s the first batch:

Pretty FaceShadow Bright and Burning, A

Lucy Parker, Pretty Face — I absolutely loved Act Like It, so Pretty Face went on my auto-buy list immediately. And I wasn’t disappointed; I devoured this romance between a beautiful actress who wants to be taken seriously and an older, talented but curmudgeonly director. If you like contemporary romance, you really need to give Lucy Parker a try!

Jessica Cluess, A Shadow Bright and Burning — Historical fantasy set in 19th century England is my jam, and when you add a bright young woman who is accepted into an all-male wizarding school, but she’s not actually the chosen one (or is she?), you can count me 100% in! I liked this book a lot, especially the bits about sorcery versus magic — and, of course, the hints of romance. Looking forward to book #2 in the fall!

Confession of Brother Haluin, TheBear and the Nightingale, The

Ellis Peters, The Confession of Brother Haluin — It’s always a delight to spend some time with Brother Cadfael and company, although this book doesn’t have one of the stronger mysteries in the series. Still, I love these books and am sad that there are only a few more left for me to read!

Katherine Arden, The Bear and the Nightingale — This historical fantasy novel based on Russian folklore is gorgeous and haunting, and I couldn’t put it down! I loved the main character, Vasya (even though she’s one of those not-beautiful-but-still-somehow-beautiful types), and her determination to save her family and land despite everyone else’s fear and skepticism. I was especially fascinated by the character of Father Konstantin, who isn’t exactly evil but is definitely flawed! Also, the setting is vivid and compelling, and I say this as someone who doesn’t usually care too much about setting. This is definitely going to be one of my top books of the year, and I can’t wait to see what Arden will write next!

Review: Belgravia

belgraviaJulian Fellowes, Belgravia

This novel by the creator of Downton Abbey tells the story of two families, the aristocratic Bellasises and the social-climbing Trenchards, as their paths collide on the eve of Waterloo and again 25 years later. James Trenchard begins the novel as Wellington’s chief supplier, and thus he has some contact with high society despite being a mere tradesman. When his beautiful daughter Sophia catches the eye of Lord Edmund Bellasis, James is certain that a marriage will soon take place, despite the skepticism of Anne, his pragmatic wife. But Edmund tragically dies at Waterloo, and Sophia follows shortly thereafter – but not before giving birth to his child. The Trenchards place the baby with a foster family in an attempt to hush up the scandal, but the secret threatens to emerge when Anne decides to search for Sophia’s child, Charles Pope, now an intelligent young man of 25. When Charles is introduced into society despite his (supposedly) working-class origins, rumors start flying, and several people begin to ask questions about his true identity. What they uncover is a secret that could be dangerous not only to the Trenchards’ social standing, but to the young man’s very life.

I watched Downton Abbey from start to finish, so I was intrigued that its writer, Julian Fellowes, had written a book set during my favorite historical period. However, I was left feeling pretty underwhelmed by this novel. Much as I enjoyed Downton, it often had problems with pacing and with juggling its large ensemble cast, and those same problems are apparent in Belgravia. The “suspense,” such as it is, comes from the question of whether (or when) the scandal of Charles’s birth will be revealed, but since the reader knows the secret from almost the beginning of the novel, it’s not a very compelling question. I also didn’t care at all about most of the secondary characters. The villain of the piece has moments of being interesting, but he’s largely a flat character who only cares about money and social status. And the downstairs characters get very short shrift, in my opinion; while a couple of the servants do play a role in the plot, their characterization is negligible. Overall, I found this book to be very “meh,” although avid Downton Abbey fans may find it worth reading.

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!

Mini-reviews #10: A mixed bag

I’m still so far behind on both reading and reviewing. I’m still hoping to read six more books in December, but with just two weeks left, I’m not sure how possible that is! At any rate, I can at least try to catch up with the review backlog:

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J.L. Carr, A Month in the Country — This quiet, deceptively simple novel is about a World War I veteran who spends a summer restoring a medieval mural in a village church. Nothing much happens, plot-wise, but the narrator (now an old man) remembers this summer as one of the only times in his life when he was truly happy. I really enjoyed this book, which contains some subtle humor despite its overall tone of melancholy, and I’m interested in reading more by Carr.

Kate Parker, The Vanishing Thief — I should have loved this book, which is about a female bookseller in the Victorian era who is also a member of a secret society of detectives. Unfortunately, I wasn’t a fan of the writing style, which I found choppy and clumsy, nor was I interested enough in any of the characters to continue with the series. The author does have another mystery series set in the 1930s, which I might try, but I’ll definitely be going in with more moderate expectations.

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Joseph Bruchac, Code Talker — This YA novel is told from the perspective of Ned Begay, a Navajo man who enlists in the Marines as a teenager and becomes a “code talker” during World War II. Although the writing style is a bit simplistic at times, the book presents a good introduction to the Navajo code talkers, and it made me want to read a lot more about them! I was also very touched by the book’s dedication:

This book is dedicated to those who have always, in proportion to their population, volunteered in the greatest numbers, suffered the most casualties, won the most Purple Hearts and decorations for valor, and served loyally in every war fought by the United States against foreign enemies, from the American Revolution to Afghanistan and Iraq–to the American Indian soldier.

Emma Mills, This Adventure Ends — I loved this book! It’s a YA contemporary novel that, while it contains a (very cute!) romance, primarily focuses on friendship. Main character Sloane has always been something of a loner, but when the charismatic Vera reaches out to her, she suddenly finds herself in the midst of a very tight-knit friend group. I found Sloane very relatable, though not always likable, and I really enjoyed all aspects of the story. Definitely recommended for people who like YA contemporaries — this is a fantastic example of the genre.

Review: The Invisible Library

invisible-library-theGenevieve Cogman, The Invisible Library

Irene works for the Library, a vast repository of writings from all over the multiverse. As far as she knows, the Library’s sole purpose is to collect these writings, with an emphasis on works that are particularly rare or influential. In general, Irene’s job is to locate a work requested by one of the Library’s higher-ups and retrieve that work from a particular world. Missions vary in difficulty based on whether the world is more orderly or more chaotic. When Irene is saddled with a brand-new assistant, Kai, and sent to a world whose balance is tipping toward chaos, she knows her latest job won’t be easy. And when Irene and Kai land in an alternate version of Victorian London, they soon learn that the general tendency toward chaos is the least of their problems. Murder, mayhem, and magic abound — but will Irene survive long enough to differentiate friend from foe?

This book is a really fun and unique fantasy novel. I loved the concept of the Library and was intrigued by the hints that something shady might be going on. At the beginning, Irene is blindly devoted to the Library and sees the preservation of literature as the highest goal. She has no interest in saving the world — or, more correctly, one of the infinite worlds that comprise the multiverse. But as she spends more time in one particular world for this mission, she starts to wonder whether there are additional moral and ethical factors to consider. I also really enjoyed the various fantasy and mystery elements in the novel. For example, Irene and Kai team up with a private investigator, and Irene is excited to fulfill her childhood dream of working with a Holmes-esque “great detective.” I was a little disappointed in the main antagonist, who is introduced as a Big Bad and remains a Big Bad throughout. But other character relationships were more fleshed out and less predictable. All in all, I think this is a very promising start to the (planned) trilogy, and I look forward to reading book two!

Mini-Reviews #7: Home stretch

You guys, I did it–I finally caught up with my review backlog! 🙂 I’m hoping to do a better job of keeping up with reviews in the future, and hopefully I can be better about visiting other people’s blogs, too! In the meantime, here’s my last batch of mini-reviews, at least for now:

This Savage SongBoy Is Back, The

Victoria Schwab, This Savage Song — Set in a future where the United States has disintegrated into tiny, isolated city-states, humans and monsters live under an uneasy truce that could snap at any moment. Kate Harker is a human teenager whose father ensures the safety of humans who are willing to pay for his protection. August Flynn is a monster capable of stealing a person’s soul through song, but he’s trying desperately not to give in to his frightening hunger. When August and Kate meet and become friends, they search for a way to keep the peace between monsters and humans. I liked this book a lot; the world-building is excellent, and both Kate and August are intriguing characters. Much of the novel is a setup for the planned sequels, so there’s not a lot of closure in the end (although there’s no cliffhanger per se). But I definitely liked this one enough to continue with the series–looking forward to book #2!

Meg Cabot, The Boy Is Back — I’m pretty sure it was Meg Cabot’s The Boy Next Door that originally got me into chick lit, so I jumped at the chance to read this latest installment in the series. Becky Flowers has made it big in her small town, but she’s never forgotten her high school sweetheart, the one who got away. Reed Stewart is said sweetheart, a professional golfer who left town after graduation and never came back. When he returns to help care for his ailing parents, he and Becky reconnect…and of course, we all know where this is going. I didn’t actually care too much about the central romance–“old flame” isn’t one of my favorite tropes–but I loved the humor and the colorful characters that surrounded Becky and Reed’s story. I also enjoyed the fact that it’s a modern epistolary novel, told entirely through texts, emails, and even online reviews. Definitely recommended for fans of light, fluffy chick lit.

Arabella of MarsEdenbrookeEveryone Brave Is Forgiven

David D. Levine, Arabella of Mars — Three words, y’all: Regency space opera! I loved the idea of combining 19th-century British society with space travel (they use sailing ships!). Ultimately, this is a really fun adventure story wherein Arabella, dressed as a boy, joins the crew of a ship bound for Mars. There’s a handsome captain, a possibly sentient automaton, a mutiny, and a Martian uprising, and it’s all good fun. If you like the premise, you’ll really enjoy this one!

Julianne Donaldson, Edenbrooke — As with Donaldson’s other novel, Blackmoore, I enjoyed this “proper” Regency romance. Marianne Daventry is invited to Edenbrooke along with her sister Cecily, who hopes to marry the heir to the estate. When Cecily is detained in London, Marianne goes to Edenbrooke alone, and she soon finds herself attracted to the handsome and charming Philip–not realizing that he is the very heir her sister is pursuing. This was an entertaining read, but I couldn’t help being impatient with Marianne; it takes her forever to realize that Philip is the heir, and even longer to accept the fact that she’s in love with him. The book is still a pleasant read, but Donaldson isn’t destined to become a favorite author.

Chris Cleave, Everyone Brave Is Forgiven — This novel is a tale of love and loss set during  the early years of World War II. Mary North is an idealistic, privileged young woman who thinks the war is a great adventure, until the Blitz forces her to confront its ugly realities firsthand. Tom Shaw is an educator who isn’t seduced by the glamor of war; he just wants to keep doing his job. And Alistair Heath is Tom’s best friend, who enlists right away but soon realizes that the war might take more than he is willing to give. I wasn’t sure I would like this book at first–the prose definitely has A Style, and I was worried it might get in the way–but I ultimately found it very compelling. There are a lot of heartbreaking moments, but there’s also some great banter and great friendships. Overall, I’d definitely recommend this one to fans of World War II novels.