Review: Murder at the Brightwell

Murder at the BrightwellAshley Weaver, Murder at the Brightwell

Amory Ames and her husband Milo are having marital difficulties. They met just a few years ago and married quickly after a whirlwind romance. But now Milo is spending most of his time in various fashionable European cities — and gaining quite a reputation as a playboy — while Amory sits at home. Then one day Amory receives a visit from Gil Trent, a longtime friend and former fiancé, who needs her help: Gil’s sister has just gotten engaged to a thoroughly unsuitable man, and Gil hopes that Amory can persuade her not to go through with the wedding. Intrigued by Gil’s reappearance in her life, and angry at her husband, Amory agrees to help. She accompanies Gil to the fashionable Brightwell hotel, where Gil’s sister, her fiancé, and a small group of friends have gathered. But Amory gets more than she bargained for when the fiancé is murdered, and the culprit must be someone she knows….

This is one of those books that you’ll enjoy if the summary sounds interesting to you. I really like traditional English mysteries set in the first half of the 20th century, and this novel is a solid addition to that tradition. Amory is a likeable narrator and protagonist, and even though her amateur sleuthing seems a bit unnecessary (given the presence of a competent police inspector on the case), at least she’s not obnoxious or too stupid to live. The mystery plot is reasonably satisfying; it’s not particularly original or shocking, but the killer’s identity did surprise me. There’s a strong romantic subplot in the novel as well, as Amory must choose between Gil and Milo. I’m a fan of romance in my fiction, so I enjoyed this plotline, although I was never really in any doubt about whom Amory would choose. All in all, I enjoyed the book and would certainly read a sequel if one materializes.

N.B. I received an ARC of this novel at Book Expo America. The US publication date, per Amazon, is October 14.

Review: The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla

Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla, TheLauren Willig, The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla

In the autumn of 1806, a popular novel called The Convent of Orsino (written by none other than Miss Gwen!) has sparked a vampire craze in fashionable society. Rumors swirl around one man in particular — Lucien, Duke of Belliston — whose long absence from society is seen as evidence that he is a creature of the night. Practical, outspoken Sally Fitzhugh is determined to prove this rumor false, so she seeks out an acquaintance with the duke. For Lucien, the rumor escalates from inconvenient to dangerous when a young woman is murdered at a society ball, with what appear to be fang marks on her throat. Lucien and Sally quickly realize that someone is framing Lucien for the murder, so together they decide to find the real killer. Is it someone with a personal grudge against Lucien, or could the nefarious French spy known as the Black Tulip be at work again? The more time Lucien and Sally spend together, the more they are drawn to each other; but before they can be together, they must defeat a cunning killer.

This 11th novel in the Pink Carnation series once again combines romance, historical fiction, and a touch of intrigue for a very enjoyable read. I wasn’t totally enthused about the plot of this installment beforehand, since vampires aren’t really my thing, but fortunately they’re not a big part of the story. I also didn’t completely warm up to Lucien or Sally, both of whom seem like types rather than characters…Sally in particular just seems like a younger version of Miss Gwen. But there’s still an awful lot to enjoy in this book! I was pleasantly surprised by the resolution of the mystery, which is quite clever and hangs together well. And as always, I adore the light, tongue-in-cheek tone of the series; it doesn’t take itself too seriously and aims to be entertaining above all else. I should mention that the contemporary story takes some significant steps forward in this installment, with Eloise facing important decisions both personally and professionally. So I’m really looking forward to the next (and last!) Pink Carnation novel, which will finally tell the story of the Carnation herself!

Review: The Shadow of the Wind

Shadow of the Wind, TheCarlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind (trans. Lucia Graves)

When Daniel Sempere is ten years old, his father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time. There he must choose one book that calls to him, and it will be his job to protect it forever. Daniel chooses a novel called The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax, unaware that this simple decision will alter the entire course of his life. Daniel reads the book and loves it, so he tries to find other novels by Carax, only to discover that there are none. Someone is systematically destroying every copy of every book Julián Carax ever wrote, and he is calling himself Laín Coubert, one of Carax’s names for the devil. As Daniel comes of age in mid-20th-century Barcelona, he makes it his mission to discover who is destroying Carax’s books and why. His quest leads him to a long-buried secret involving friendship, passion, madness, and true love. But the more deeply Daniel digs into Carax’s mysterious background, the more he discovers parallels to his own life, and the more danger he finds himself in.

This is one of those books that just didn’t grab me, for some reason. I found myself able to put it down for days at a time, and when I finally did power through it, my mind kept wandering. But I don’t quite understand why, becasue I honestly liked a lot of things about this book! First of all, I’m now dying to visit Barcelona because of the vivid descriptions of its streets, neighborhoods, and restaurants. I also enjoyed the almost Dickensian depictions of the secondary characters, like this one:

His mouth was glued to a half-smoked cigar that seemed to grow out of his mustache. It was hard to tell whether he was asleep or awake, because he breathed like most people snore.

The plot is fairly melodramatic, but it’s undeniably interesting and full of event. Maybe I was a bit put off by the staggering number of coincidences connecting Daniel’s story to Carax’s, or maybe I didn’t like the portrayal of the female characters (who are basically nothing more than male fantasies). Ultimately, I just didn’t connect that much to the story or characters, so it was an effort for me to finish the book.

Review: Somewhere in France

Somewhere in FranceJennifer Robson, Somewhere in France

Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford, known to friends and family as Lilly, has always felt stifled by her privileged upbringing. Though she’d like to go to university and embark on a career, it seems her only task in life will be to snare a rich, titled husband. Unfortunately, the only man to catch her eye is Robbie Frasier, a promising young surgeon whom her parents consider quite unsuitable. But with the outbreak of World War I, Lilly suddenly has access to a variety of new opportunities. Hoping to help with the war effort, she learns how to drive and eventually applies to the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, where she becomes an ambulance driver. Meanwhile, she carries on a clandestine correspondence with Robbie, who is working in a field hospital in France. When she and her colleagues are offered a chance to transport injured soldiers from the front lines, Lilly jumps at the chance to be reunited with Robbie. But will the tragic violence of this war ultimately separate them forever?

I picked up this book because I wanted to read something set in World War I for the centennial, but I wasn’t in the mood for something incredibly dark or depressing. Unfortunately, this book goes too far in the other direction; it’s a light, pleasant romance, but the World War I setting is a mere backdrop. I don’t need to read about the horrors of war in graphic detail, but I do want to feel that the characters are in real danger, that they must struggle against real obstacles, and that the war has left some kind of mark on them. Instead, even the descriptions of what Robbie sees on his makeshift operating table are bland, evoking no emotional response whatsoever. Part of the problem is that Lilly and Robbie are both such clichés: she is the naive and enthusiastic upper-class heroine, while he is the overprotective self-made hero. I just didn’t really care about either character, so I wasn’t invested in their romance at all. I was more interested in the secondary characters, Lilly’s brother Edward and her friend Charlotte — I’d love to read the story of their romance! Overall, this book isn’t a bad read, but it is completely and utterly forgettable.

Review: Water for Elephants

Water for ElephantsSara Gruen, Water for Elephants

Jacob Jankowski is an old man in his 90s living out the remainder of his days in a nursing home. His children rarely come to visit, and he’s both lonely and frustrated by nursing home life. But when the circus comes to town one day, it triggers Jacob’s memories of his youth and the years he spent with the Benzini Brothers Greatest Show on Earth. In the 1930s, Jacob was a promising veterinary student who was about to join his father’s practice; but after his parents’ tragic death, the practice had to be sold to pay the family debts. Bereft and with nowhere to go, Jacob hopped a train that turned out to belong to a traveling circus; and because of his veterinary skills, the ruthless circus owner decided to keep him around. At the circus Jacob met a variety of new people, including a sarcastic dwarf, a mercurial animal trainer, and the trainer’s beautiful but trapped wife. Eventually his involvement with the circus would trigger a series of shocking and catastrophic events.

I remember that when this book first came out, a lot of my friends were raving about it, convinced that I’d absolutely love it. Unfortunately, I didn’t have that experience…maybe I’m missing something, but this book just didn’t resonate with me. I really enjoyed the setting; circus life in Depression-era America was fascinating, and I liked the photos of real historical circuses that preceded each chapter. It’s truly amazing to think about the amount of work (and food!) it took to keep the circus going! But I wasn’t that nuts about the plot or characters in this book. The main story is the romance between Jacob and Marlena, a performer who is trapped in an unhappy marriage. But while her menacing husband is an interesting (albeit repulsive), larger-than-life character, Marlena herself seems very bland, with no defining qualities other than her beauty and her misery. I also didn’t find Jacob particularly interesting; he acts like a stock character rather than an individual. Overall, the book is worth reading if you’re interested in the setting, but in my opinion it doesn’t live up to the hype.

Review: I Will Repay

I Will RepayBaroness Emmuska Orczy, I Will Repay

Paris, 1783: Paul Déroulède, a wealthy but non-aristocratic member of Parisian society, accidentally kills the young Vicomte de Marny in a duel. The vicomte’s sister, Juliette, swears an oath that she will one day avenge her brother’s death. Ten years later, Juliette finally gets her opportunity: by provoking an angry mob right outside Déroulède’s door, she is able to gain entrance to his house and look for a means to destroy him. But the more time she spends with Paul Déroulède, the more she finds herself responding to his kind, chivalrous nature. Meanwhile, Déroulède occupies a somewhat tenuous position in the brand-new Republic of France: while he is popular with the common masses for his moderate, benevolent views, many of the revolutionary leaders view him as dangerous. When Juliette discovers that Déroulède is planning to rescue the condemned Marie Antoinette — an act that would brand him as a traitor to the Republic — she must decide whether to fulfill her oath or listen to the promptings of her heart.

So as it turns out, there are SEQUELS to The Scarlet Pimpernel! Since TSP is one of my favorite books of all time, I was thrilled to discover that many of the sequels are in the public domain and easily downloadable in e-book format. I Will Repay is the first of these sequels (in publication order), and I really enjoyed it — despite the fact that the Pimpernel has a very minor role, and Marguerite and Chauvelin don’t appear at all! But I loved the descriptions of Paris in the throes of the French Revolution, as well as the romance between Juliette and Déroulède. Of course, the book is far from perfect; the writing style is quite flowery and over-the-top, and I really wasn’t a fan of the (unconscious) sexism exhibited throughout the book. For example, in one pivotal scene, Déroulède defends Juliette’s actions by saying, essentially, that you can’t expect girls to act rationally. So that really bugged me — especially coming from a female author, who should know better! But I have to admit, I still kind of loved this book, and I look forward to reading more of the Pimpernel sequels!

Review: Naughty in Nice

Naughty in NiceRhys Bowen, Naughty in Nice

Lady Georgiana Rannoch is facing yet another a dreary winter in London. Despite her royal pedigree — she’s 34th in line to the throne of England — she has no income, and the worldwide depression in the wake of World War I has made it impossible for her to find work. What’s more, her brother Binky and his intolerable wife, Fig, have decided to close up their London house, which means Georgie will be essentially homeless. Fortunately, the queen comes to her rescue by sending her to the French Riviera on a secret mission: she must recover a stolen snuffbox, believed to be in the possession of one Sir Toby Groper. At first, Georgie is ecstatic to be in Nice, mingling with rich English pleasure-seekers and dashing French aristocrats. She even meets Coco Chanel, who asks her to model one of the looks from Chanel’s new collection. But then a priceless necklace is stolen and a man is murdered — and in the eyes of the French police, Georgie is the prime suspect! Can she clear her name by finding the real thief and murderer?

I’m really enjoying the Royal Spyness series, and this book (the 5th installment) is no exception. It’s a light, exuberant mystery that still manages to incorporate a lot of information about this time period. For example, the Prince of Wales and his paramour, Wallis Simpson, make brief appearances in the book, and there are also a few mentions of Hitler as he begins his rise to power in Germany. In addition to the setting, I enjoyed the plot of this book, which is a bit more substantial than some of the earlier books in the series. Georgie is a fun character, but she’s not really much of a detective; she tends to stumble onto the solution of the mystery rather than actually investigating or deducing anything. In this book, though, she actually does take some initiative and is able to put the pieces together — though not before her own life is endangered once more. All in all, I think this is one of the better installments of the series, and I’m planning to continue with The Twelve Clues of Christmas in December!

Review: No Bed for Bacon

No Bed for BaconCaryl Brahms & S.J. Simon, No Bed for Bacon

In this hilarious send-up of the Elizabethan era — or rather, the Elizabethan era as perceived by popular culture — Sir Francis Bacon is desperate to obtain a bed that Queen Elizabeth has slept in during one of her royal progresses. He wants it to be an heirloom for his family, as he knows the bed’s value will only increase through the years. Sir Walter Raleigh’s attention is divided between his new cloak, which he hopes will be the envy of everyone at Elizabeth’s court (especially that dandy, the Earl of Essex), and his upcoming introduction of the potato to England. Meanwhile, Sir Francis Drake is grumbling about the fact that he hasn’t been able to do any really good pirating in years; theater owner Philip Henslowe will do anything in his power to shut down his rival, Burbage; and Shakespeare is trying to work on a new play, Love’s Labour’s Wunne, but he keeps getting distracted by the problem of how to spell his own name. Add a little romance, an overly ambitious watchman, and some reminiscing about the glory days of the Armada, and the stage is set for high comedy with a few history lessons thrown in.

I didn’t know it until I read the introduction, but this book is actually part of the basis for the Academy Award-winning movie “Shakespeare in Love.” But while the movie focuses almost entirely on the romance between Shakespeare and the noble Lady Viola, in the book it’s just one of many plots involving the most famous figures of the Elizabethan age. If you know anything about the era or are interested in learning more, I highly recommend this book! It’s pure farce, so there isn’t much “plot” to speak of, but the jokes are more than funny enough to make up for that! One of my favorites was an exchange between Shakespeare and Bacon about some plot element of Shakespeare’s play that Bacon didn’t like. Shakespeare responds with great indignation, “Master Bacon, do I write my plays or do you?” Then there’s this internal monologue from a Puritan who seeks to shut down the theater: “People had no right to enjoy themselves. He was going to stop them. His cause was a just one and he knew it. He was enjoying himself.” So if you like Shakespeare and don’t mind a little (or a lot of) silliness, you should definitely check out this book!

Review: That Summer

That SummerLauren Willig, That Summer

In 2009, Julia Conley learns that she’s inherited a house in England from a great-aunt she’s never met. She hasn’t even been to England since her mother died when she was little. When Julia reluctantly goes to London to get the house ready to sell, she teams up with her cousin Natalie and an attractive antiques dealer named Nick to sort through her great-aunt’s belongings. Julia is especially intrigued by a stunning painting that she finds in a wardrobe, which looks like it was painted by a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Her quest to learn more about the painting leads her to the story of Imogen, who lived in the house with her husband Arthur in the 1840s. Imogen thought her marriage would be like a fairy tale, but in reality her husband is selfish and distant. She finally finds the love she’s been longing for when she meets a struggling painter named Gavin Thorne, who has been hired to paint her portrait. But will their romance last, or is it destined to end in tragedy?

I’m a longtime fan of Willig’s Pink Carnation series, so I was excited to read this book, her second stand-alone novel. As an added bonus, I really like Pre-Raphaelite art and was interested to learn a bit more about the movement. But while this was a fairly good read, I didn’t love it quite as much as I was hoping to. Both Julia’s and Imogen’s stories had the potential to be really interesting, but because the book divides its focus between them, neither plot is as rich as it could be. I had a hard time connecting to Imogen’s story in particular; the romance seemed to happen very abruptly. Also, I personally have a very hard time with love stories that expect me to condone adultery, so while I sympathized with Imogen’s plight, I wasn’t exactly rooting for her and Gavin to get together. Finally, I missed the lighthearted tone and occasionally silly humor of the Pink Carnation books. This novel is much more somber, and I didn’t find it as enjoyable. Overall, I’d say the book is worth a read if you’re a Willig completist (like me) or if you are particularly interested in the premise.

Review and GIVEAWAY: Mortal Heart

Mortal HeartRobin LaFevers, Mortal Heart

This final book in the His Fair Assassin trilogy focuses on Annith, one of the most skilled novices at the convent of St. Mortain in medieval Brittany. She has lived her entire life in the convent but yearns to be sent on her first mission to the outside world, so that she can finally use her skills to serve the god of death. But the abbess has stubbornly kept her in the convent while allowing other, less skilled novices to go out on missions. When Annith hears that the abbess intends to make her the next Seeress, effectively locking her within the convent walls forever, she decides to leave the convent and find her own way to serve Mortain. Along the way she runs into a group of hellequin, doomed souls who can only redeem themselves by ushering the spirits of the dying into the afterlife. At first the hellequin terrify Annith, but she soon grows closer to their mysterious leader, Balthazaar. Will Annith be able to overcome her past, including the secrets the abbess is keeping, and forge her own destiny?

I was a big fan of Grave Mercy and, to a lesser extent, Dark Triumph, so I jumped at the chance to grab this galley at BEA! Unfortunately, I wasn’t completely enamored with the book, although I’m having a hard time pinpointing why. For one thing, the plot doesn’t have much forward momentum; there’s a lot about Annith’s past and the secrets hidden in the convent, but her current journey is much less interesting. I also found Balthazaar underwhelming as a romantic lead. There’s just no spark between him and Annith, possibly because the book spends so much time in the past. And although his big secret makes total sense in the world of this series, it made me less enthusiastic about him and Annith as a couple. That said, I do think the book is a good resolution to the series as a whole, providing some closure on all the main characters and resolving the dangling plot threads from earlier books. So I’d certainly recommend this novel to fans of the series, but I still think the first book, Grave Mercy, is the best.

**********

WIN THIS BOOK

Since I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to read this book, I’d like to give someone else a  chance as well. So with that in mind, I am offering one lucky winner my advance reader copy of Mortal Heart. It’s only been read one time and is still in great shape, I promise! 🙂 Here’s how to enter:

  • Comment on this blog post between now and July 3, 2014, at 11:59 p.m. (Eastern time). Be sure to mention that you are entering the giveaway!
  • One entry per person, please!
  • This giveaway is limited to US readers only. (I know, I know, sorry!)
  • The winner will be chosen randomly, and I’ll announce the results in a new post sometime on July 4.

And…that’s it! Good luck, everyone!