Review: The Hollow Hills

The Hollow HillsMary Stewart, The Hollow Hills

Picking up right after The Crystal Cave left off, this book follows Merlin from the day Arthur was conceived to the day he became high king of Britain. Although Merlin helped Uther Pendragon to marry Ygraine, he is currently out of favor with the king. Yet when Uther needs advice about what to do with his unborn child, Merlin is still the first person he consults. If the child is a boy, Uther must recognize him as the king’s son, just in case he is unable to produce a legitimate heir. At the same time, however, he must keep the boy far away from his court, both to protect him and to get him out of the way in case there should be another son with a better claim to the throne. Merlin suggests sending the child to one of Uther’s loyal knights, where he will be raised as a foster child ignorant of his true parentage. Meanwhile, Merlin becomes Arthur’s friend and protector, teaching him all he needs to know in order eventually to take his rightful place as the king’s heir.

I wasn’t terribly impressed with the first book in this series, The Crystal Cave, but I actually liked this book more. It starts off slowly, but once Arthur is born, the book picks up and gets significantly more interesting. Unsurprisingly, I enjoyed the political machinations aspect of the book more than the mystical aspect; I found Merlin’s visions and prophecies a little boring! I did like watching the relationship between Merlin and Arthur unfold, though, and I look forward to seeing how it continues in the next book. Overall, I’m glad I decided not to give up after The Crystal Cave, and I’m a little more excited about The Last Enchantment than I was before.

Review: Royal Blood

Royal BloodRhys Bowen, Royal Blood

Lady Georgiana Rannoch, still both royal and impoverished, is desperately searching for a way to make ends meet — especially when her brother Binky and his odious wife Fig come to London expecting her to feed and house them. So when the queen suggests that Georgie represent the British crown at a royal wedding in Romania, she jumps at the chance for a taste of adventure and temporary freedom from her financial woes. When Georgie arrives at the royal palace — which is inevitably located in Transylvania — she is impressed by its suitably gloomy and gothic atmosphere. But when one of the wedding guests, an unpopular Bulgarian dignitary, is poisoned during the house party, it’s up to Georgie to discover the murderer before the tragedy escalates into an international incident.

I started this series a few years ago but lost track of it somewhere along the way, so I’m glad I finally decided to pick up the next book! I really enjoy the light, breezy tone of this series. Georgie is an extremely likable protagonist, a bit silly sometimes, but also full of spunk. I also love the 1930s setting, which allows for glamorous evening parties but also hints at the international strife that will soon erupt into World War II. The mystery plot itself is very slight, with a solution that basically comes out of nowhere; but since I enjoy the setting and characters, I can forgive a relatively weak plot. I definitely wouldn’t recommend the book as a stand-alone novel, but fans of historical mysteries and cozies should give this series a try!

Review: Devil’s Brood

Devil's BroodSharon Kay Penman, Devil’s Brood

Henry II, with the help of his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, has created one of the vastest empires known to Europe, and the time has come to parcel it out among his sons. As the oldest, Hal will succeed his father as king of England and will also rule over the French duchies of Normandy and Anjou. Richard, Eleanor’s favorite son, will inherit her lands as Duke of Aquitaine. Geoffrey will become Duke of Brittany through marriage to a prominent heiress. But even though all three boys have grown up, Henry still holds onto the reins of power, convinced that none of them are truly ready to rule in their own right. His sons’ lack of independence soon breeds resentment, and Henry is shocked by its consequence: with the help of their mother, they openly rebel against him. This novel is the story of the conflict between Henry and his sons, between Henry and Eleanor, and between the boys themselves, as their struggle for power leads to almost constant warfare throughout Europe.

I’ve been enjoying Penman’s Plantagenet series, and I think this is my favorite installment so far. It’s hard to believe that the major events in this novel actually happened…there’s just so much drama! I also found the portrayal of Henry and Eleanor’s (adult) sons to be fascinating. Geoffrey was my favorite, which will probably surprise any fans of “The Lion in Winter”; but based on Penman’s depiction, I think he would have made the best king. Sure, he was self-serving and manipulative, but so was everyone else in the book! At least he had a good strategic mind with an ability to make long-term plans, and he managed to win over the Breton nobles so that he could rule Brittany competently. The overarching conflict between Henry and his sons was both sad and frustrating. It seemed to come down to a total lack of communication skills and an inability to see the other side’s point of view. (Hmm, sounds familiar….) I’m glad I finally read this book, and I look forward to reading Lionheart in the future.

Review: The Passion of the Purple Plumeria

The Passion of the Purple PlumeriaLauren Willig, The Passion of the Purple Plumeria

In the eyes of the world, Miss Gwendolyn Meadows is the fiercely protective chaperone of Miss Jane Wooliston, who is currently one of the belles of Parisian society. But since Jane is also the elite British spy known as the Pink Carnation, Miss Gwen’s duties also include strategy, swordsmanship, and a taste for the dangerous work of espionage. Miss Gwen thrives upon the excitement of her double life, but she is forced to return to England when Jane’s younger sister goes missing from her prestigious boarding school. A second girl has also disappeared: the youngest daughter of Colonel William Reid, an officer of the British East India Company who has recently returned to England to reunite with his daughters. Now Miss Gwen and Colonel Reid must work together to find the missing girls — and fight their increasing attraction to one another, because Miss Gwen is all too aware that her clandestine activities are the probable reason for the girls’ disappearance.

This is the 10th book in Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series, and as I expected, it was a fun Regency romp complete with legendary Indian treasure, a meeting of the Hellfire Club, and a sinister French master spy. I like the fact that Willig chose a more mature hero and heroine for this installment of the series; it lent a bit of substance to the story, although the book still retains the series’ trademark light and fluffy tone. Miss Gwen is in her 40s and has long despaired of ever finding romance, so the relationship between her and Colonel Reid is particularly sweet and satisfying. I also liked how Willig is starting to gather the loose threads from some of her earlier books; for example, Colonel Reid is the father of Alex Reid from The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, and some of the events of that novel are relevant to this story. I am really hoping that Jack Reid, the black sheep of the family, is a hero in one of the future Pink Carnation books! All in all, I’m still enjoying this series and will continue to read more by Willig.

Review: A Midsummer Tempest

A Midsummer Tempest

Poul Anderson, A Midsummer Tempest

Set during an alternate version of the English Civil War, this novel follows Prince Rupert of Bohemia, one of King Charles’ most valiant allies. Unfortunately, Charles is losing his war against the Puritans, and after a particularly brutal battle, Rupert is captured by a Puritan nobleman and placed under house arrest. He immediately begins plotting his escape, but fate steps in when he meets his captor’s beautiful niece, Jennifer. The two of them end up fleeing the Puritan’s house together and receiving help from an unlikely source: Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of Faerie. They encourage Rupert to find the lost treasure of Prospero, whose magical artifacts will help the king’s cause; but Rupert must brave many dangers before he can fulfill his quest.

There are so many clever, ingenious concepts at work in this book that it’s almost too hard to list them all. First there is the obvious debt to Shakespeare: in this world, he is not merely a playwright but also the Great Historian, so everything he wrote is factually true. (Bohemia even has a sea coast!) Thus, this book is full of all the wonderful Shakespearean plot devices — faeries, star-crossed lovers, uncouth jesters, shipwrecks, and a very unusual tavern, to name a few. My favorite thing was realizing that several of the characters actually talk in iambic pentameter. Sure, it makes the style a bit choppy and stilted, but the characters talk in iambic pentameter! Add in a discussion of parallel universes, some trains, and angry Puritans getting their comeuppance, and I’m sold! I’d definitely recommend this one if you’re interested in the premise.

Review: True Grit

True GritCharles Portis, True Grit

In the postwar American West, Mattie Ross is a girl on a mission: her father has been killed by one of his drunken hired hands, and she’s determined to avenge his death. Despite being only 14 years old, Mattie has utter faith in her own ability to achieve her goal. As she arranges her father’s burial rites, she demands to know the name of a U.S. Marshal with “true grit” — someone who will be able to hunt down her father’s killer and exact retribution. Thus Mattie sets out with Rooster Cogburn, who is technically on the side of the law but whose own past is murky at best, and a Texan cowboy named LaBoeuf, who is hunting the same man for a different crime, on a quest for justice and revenge.

Though I don’t normally read Westerns, I’m very impressed with the ones I’ve been reading this year! The best part of this book is Mattie’s voice, which is completely distinctive and very funny, often unintentionally. For example, here’s a tidbit in which Mattie asks the sheriff about the various U.S. Marshals who could help her:

The sheriff thought on it for a minute. He said, “…The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking. … Now L.T. Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive. He may let one get by now and then but he believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake.” … I said, “Where can I find this Rooster?”

Another thing I found fascinating about this novel was its exploration of law in the Wild West. Near the beginning of the book, Mattie transcribes the trial of a man whom Rooster Cogburn had caught, complete with lawyers’ arguments and objections. It’s easy to see that, in the world of this novel, the law is largely ineffective and irrelevant to the men whose job is enforcing it. Perhaps that’s why Mattie feels such a strong urge to personally ensure that justice (as she sees it) is done. I’d definitely recommend this book as a quick, adventurous read that raises some thought-provoking questions.

Review: In the Shadow of Gotham

In the Shadow of GothamStefanie Pintoff, In the Shadow of Gotham

After the tragic death of his fiancĂ©e, Detective Simon Ziele needs to get out of New York City. He joins the police force of a small town north of the metropolis, hoping that the work will be a respite from the suffering he’s left behind. But when a well-to-do young woman is brutally murdered — in her own house, in broad daylight — Ziele discovers that he can’t fully escape the violence and tragedy of his past. He receives the help of a criminal psychologist at Columbia University who believes that one of his own research subjects may be responsible for crime. Ziele is skeptical about the psychologist’s methods but accepts his help in hunting for the main suspect. But as they search for the man, Ziele is forced to return to New York City and confront some of the memories of his past.

This book had been sitting on my shelf for years, so I’m very glad I finally took the time to read it! I haven’t read many books set in turn-of-the-century America, but it’s certainly a fascinating setting for a murder mystery. This book takes full advantage of the setting, frequently mentioning the Tammany Hall political machine and exploring the gap between rich and poor. The mystery itself was fine but not particularly surprising; I didn’t guess “whodunit,” but I came up with a solution that, frankly, I would have enjoyed more than the actual answer! Nonetheless, I liked Simon Ziele and plan to continue with the series. I would definitely recommend this book to fans of historical mysteries.

Review: The Three Musketeers

The Three MusketeersAlexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers (trans. Richard Pevear)

This classic novel, whose title is somewhat misleading, follows a young solider named D’Artagnan who travels from his native Gascony to Paris in order to join the musketeers, an elite military force that serves the king. D’Artagnan naively believes that he will swiftly realize his dream and make his fortune, but his simple goal soon becomes much more complicated. Through a series of accidents he befriends the three most prestigious musketeers, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. He also becomes involved in the struggle between King Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu, the two most powerful men in France. As a would-be musketeer, D’Artagnan is the king’s man, but his loyalty wavers when he meets the beautiful Milady, one of the cardinal’s most influential spies. With the help of his three friends, D’Artagnan must foil Milady’s sinister plot while fighting his own attraction for her.

I actually read this book when I was 12 or so, but I’m very glad I read it again now that I have at least some knowledge of the historical context! I find it very interesting that Dumas, who was writing in the 19th century (shortly after the Napoleonic era), chose to set this story during the 17th-century wars of religion, a similarly tumultuous time for France. But even without the bigger picture, this book is quite simply a rollicking good read! It’s a long book, but the story is gripping and seems to fly by. The strength of the book is definitely its plot; by contrast, the characters aren’t developed very well. It’s fun to watch D’Artagnan and the musketeers interact with each other, but they’re essentially stock characters (Athos is the noble one, Porthos is the buffoon, etc.). And Milady is an extremely flat villain who is Pure Evil ™ through and through. In my opinion, the scheming cardinal is by far the most interesting character! Regardless, I really enjoyed this book and would love to read the rest of the series…one of these years!

Review: A Death in the Small Hours

A Death in the Small HoursCharles Finch, A Death in the Small Hours

Victorian gentleman and amateur detective Charles Lenox has largely given up sleuthing in the pursuit of other interests. A rising member of Parliament, he’s just been asked to give the opening speech for the next session — a very great honor that fills him with both pride and anxiety. But when his uncle, a well-to-do country squire, writes him a letter describing some recent acts of vandalism, Charles is tempted to return to his previous life of detection. He eventually accepts his uncle’s invitation, reasoning that a little time away from London will give him the peace and quiet necessary to work on his speech. When petty vandalism escalates to murder, however, Charles must use all his former skills to uncover the sinister secrets lurking within his uncle’s village.

I always enjoy the Charles Lenox mysteries, but I think this one is a bit of a weak link. My biggest complaint is that the mystery is very perfunctory and almost uninteresting. Although the solution was creative, with the appropriate number of red herrings and so forth, I just didn’t seem to care about it very much! To be fair, the main purpose of the book seems to be Charles’ internal development rather than the external mystery: he is beginning to learn that being a member of Parliament isn’t the dream career he thought it would be. I do love Charles’ character and am interested to see what will happen to him next; I was also very glad to see more of Dallington and would love to see him take a central role in upcoming books! Overall, I definitely plan to continue the series, but this is not one of the strongest installments.

Review: This Burns My Heart

This Burns My HeartSamuel Park, This Burns My Heart

This novel, set in 1960s South Korea, tells the story of Soo-ja, the daughter of a wealthy factory owner who has never had to work for a living. She longs to become one of South Korea’s first female diplomats, but her family wants her to uphold tradition by making an advantageous marriage. When Soo-ja meets the handsome Min Lee, she’s convinced she’ll have the best of both worlds: She will be married to an attractive young man, and she’ll be able to move to Seoul and pursue her dreams. But when she marries Min, she learns that she is expected to stay in the house and be a servant for her new in-laws. As Soo-ja comes to terms with her new life, she remembers the young medical student who once urged her to marry him instead of Min, and she wonders how different her life could have been if she’d made a different choice.

I found this book very readable at the time, but the more I think about it, the fewer good things I can find to say about it. I just didn’t really feel like I got to know any of the characters…something about the tone of the novel kept me at a distance. The book was (as far as I know) originally written in English, but it feels like a translation, if that makes sense. The language was too simplistic, maybe? I also thought that the character portrayals were too black-and-white — Soo-ja’s in-laws are basically portrayed as monsters, while it seems like Soo-ja is supposed to be always right. Personally, I didn’t find her very sympathetic, so maybe that’s why the book didn’t work for me. I don’t mean to sound harsh; I don’t think this is a bad book, by any means. It just wasn’t the right book for me, and I don’t plan to seek out more by this author.