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!

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!