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.

Advertisements

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!

Mini-reviews: Three, Congress, Twisted, Piccadilly

Case for Three DetectivesCongress of Secrets

Leo Bruce, Case for Three Detectives — This parody of Golden Age detective fiction is an absolute must-read for fans of the real thing! It has all the traditional elements: an ill-fated house party, an impossible murder, a brilliant amateur detective (or three), and a bumbling local policeman. In this case, the three detectives — who bear striking resemblances to Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot, and Father Brown, respectively — use their unique methods to arrive at three different solutions to the crime, while Sergeant Beef reiterates in the background, “But I know who done it!” The humor in this book is quite specific: if you’re unfamiliar with any of the three detectives being parodied, you’re missing out on some of the fun, but Leo Bruce really does get the voices of these three fictional detectives exactly right! Also, I was impressed by the fact that he had to come up with four different plausible solutions to the mystery. I’ll definitely read more by this author, and I wholeheartedly recommend this book to fans of Lord Peter, Poirot, and Father Brown!

Stephanie Burgis, Congress of Secrets — This book checks off so many of my personal boxes, it’s ridiculous: The book is set in the 19th century, specifically at the Congress of Vienna that concluded the Napoleonic wars. Magic exists in the world but is being used by powerful men for very dark purposes. And one of the main characters is a con man! And there’s a romance! So, obviously I was predisposed to like this book, and it did not disappoint. I’ve already acquired more books by Burgis, and I’m excited to have discovered a new-to-me author!

Twisted Sword, ThePiccadilly Jim

Winston Graham, The Twisted Sword — Oof, lots of changes for the Poldarks and Warleggans in this book, and most of them are tragic. I won’t go into specifics for fear of spoilers, but in my opinion this is probably the saddest book in the series. It’s still a very absorbing and enjoyable read, though — after 11 books, I’ve really grown invested in the Poldarks, the Warleggans, and all their friends and neighbors in Cornwall and beyond. What I love is that Graham paints such a complete picture of life at the time, weaving the wider political, social, and economic landscape into his tale of these country families.

P.G. Wodehouse, Piccadilly Jim — I loved this book, which is pure farce of the silliest, most delightful kind! Wodehouse actually spent some time in America writing screenplays and musicals (!), and I could definitely see this book as an old-fashioned screwball comedy! It contains so many tropes of that era — mistaken identities, love aboard a transatlantic vessel, a boxer with a heart of gold — not to mention classic Wodehousian touches like a pair of disapproving aunts and a ludicrous kidnapping scheme. Highly recommended!

Mini-reviews: Inevitable, Ready, Loving, Duke

That Inevitable Victorian ThingReady Player One

E.K. Johnston, That Inevitable Victorian Thing — This alt-historical novel is set in a version of the Victorian era in which technology has greatly advanced, leading to innovations such as a computer that predicts a person’s optimal spouse based on his or her genetic code. In this world, heir to the throne Margaret travels to Canada, posing as a commoner to have one last hurrah before she must submit to a computer-arranged marriage. There she meets Helena and August, who have been unofficially promised to each other for years but who both harbor shocking secrets.

I have mixed feelings about this book. I think it succeeds best when it focuses on the changing relationships among the three main characters (if you’re wondering whether there’s a queer love triangle, the answer is yes). On the other hand, I found myself in a situation where I actually wanted more world-building! The book contains some fascinating ideas about how the world might have been different if things had gone differently in the actual Victorian era, but I wish those ideas had been developed more. Also, I think there’s one significant plot weakness: about halfway through the novel, a big secret is revealed about Helena, but the implications of that secret are never really addressed. Not a bad book, by any means, but I didn’t like it nearly as much as I wanted to.

Ernest Cline, Ready Player One — I have to say, I did not enjoy this book at all! I know it’s very popular, and I can see how it would appeal to lovers of ’80s geek culture, but it is emphatically not the book for me. The protagonist, Wade, is a smug know-it-all who thinks he’s better than everyone else because of his dedication to memorizing the minutia of ’80s movies, music, and video games. He’s the kind of guy who will judge you for not knowing some obscure piece of trivia and claim that you’re not a “true fan” of whatever thing. I honestly can’t remember the last book I read whose protagonist annoyed me so much! That said, the overall concept — sort of The Matrix meets The Westing Game — is fun; it just doesn’t make up for the insufferable “hero,” in my opinion.

Loving Cup, TheDuke and I, The

Winston Graham, The Loving Cup — In the 10th Poldark book, Clowance makes a decision about her future; Jeremy struggles with his obsessive, unrequited love for Cuby; and tensions between Valentine and George finally come to a head. I’m so behind on reviews that I’ve actually finished the series now, so I can’t quite remember which events happened in this book versus others. I do remember Jeremy’s ultimate decision regarding Cuby, which was based on TERRIBLE advice from Ross! I also didn’t love the continued presence of Stephen Carrington, who starts to rehabilitate himself only to fall even more spectacularly. Still, I really enjoyed the series overall, and this installment did some important place-setting for the final two books.

Julia Quinn, The Duke and I — I’d read one Julia Quinn book previously (Just Like Heaven) and enjoyed it, so I decided to try this first book in her famous Bridgerton series. It’s a fun, quick read, but for me it never rose above somewhat mindless entertainment. For one thing, I’m not a huge fan of the “notorious rake is reformed by the love of a good woman” plotline. For another, I didn’t quite know what to make of the hero’s personal history, which basically amounts to serious verbal and emotional abuse from his father. Clearly this backstory is meant to make the hero more interesting and to create an obstacle in the plot; but the book generally has such a lighthearted tone that the backstory seems incongruous and almost inappropriate. All that said, I do enjoy some nice Regency fluff every now and then, so I’ll probably read more by this author…but maybe I’ll try one of her other series!

Mini-reviews: Poison, Best, Z, Crooked

Poison Dark and Drowning, ABest Man, The

Jessica Cluess, A Poison Dark and Drowning — ***Warning: slight spoilers for A Shadow Bright and Burning.***

Henrietta Howel is now a full-fledged sorcerer defending England against the Ancients, horrible monsters from another world. When she and her fellow sorcerers discover the existence of special weapons that might help defeat the Ancients, they immediately begin the search. But along the way, Henrietta learns some disturbing truths about the Ancients, her friends, and her own past. I have to say, I enjoyed the first book very much, but now I’m really nervous about where the series is going! Certain character developments were unwelcome, to say the least. But then again, the second installment of a trilogy often ends dark — think The Empire Strikes Back — and everything still turns out fine. I’m curious to see what will happen in the third (and presumably final) book now!

Grace Livingston Hill, The Best Man — An old-fashioned novel of romantic suspense featuring secret agent Cyril Gordon, who infiltrates a criminal gang and steals a secret message that has grave implications for national security. To evade the criminals’ pursuit, he runs into a church where a wedding is about to take place. The guests mistake him (he thinks) for the best man, so he stands in front of the altar…only to realize at the end of the ceremony that he is actually the groom! Now Cyril must not only deliver the message to the US government, but he must also deal with the stranger who is now his wife. Overall, this book was a fine read, but it is quite dated, and there’s really nothing remarkable about it other than the extremely farfetched premise.

Z Murders, TheAll the Crooked Saints

J. Jefferson Farjeon, The Z Murders — Everyman Richard Temperley takes an overnight train into London and must share a compartment with a surly elderly man. He goes from the train station to a hotel, where he sees his traveling companion sitting in an armchair in one of the public rooms — only to discover that the man has been murdered. Richard is, of course, a prime suspect, as is the woman seen leaving the hotel shortly before the victim was found dead. Of course, Richard falls in love with the woman and decides to clear her name (and his own) by finding the real murderer. The idea that the police would allow Richard such free rein to investigate is absurd, and the revelation of the true murderer is nothing short of bonkerballs insane, but I honestly enjoyed this book a lot! I’ll definitely seek out more by this Golden Age author.

Maggie Stiefvater, All the Crooked Saints — The tiny town of Bicho Raro, hidden away in the Colorado desert, is a place people visit for only one reason: to find a miracle. Daniel Soria is the current Saint of Bicho Raro, the one responsible for performing miracles; but the results are almost never what the seekers of such miracles expect. His cousin Beatriz could have been the Saint, but she prefers to focus on tangible, scientific pursuits. And the third Soria cousin, Joaquin, operates a pirate radio station under the name Diablo Diablo, hoping someday to become a famous DJ. All three cousins are changed irrevocably when two new visitors arrive in Bicho Raro, and these changes will alter the status quo for the Soria family forever. Much as I love Maggie Stiefvater, this novel didn’t quite click for me. The first half especially is very slow going, as Stiefvater sets up the world and explains the status quo; the second half is paced better, and I found myself getting more invested in the book. But I think the world-building gets too much emphasis, at the expense of character and plot. Then again, I’m not a huge fan of magical realism in general, so maybe this just wasn’t the right book for me.

 

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!

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.