Review: Jackaby

JackabyWilliam Ritter, Jackaby

Abigail Rook has just arrived in the New England town of New Fiddleham with nowhere to go and no way to earn a living. As she sits in a tavern and ponders her next move, she encounters a strange man who turns out to be R.F. Jackaby, a private investigator with an extraordinary gift for detecting paranormal activity. Abigail’s talent for observation lands her a job as Jackaby’s assistant, and she is immediately embroiled in the investigation of a gruesome murder. Jackaby is convinced that the killer is supernatural, but the police scoff at the very idea — except for one young detective named Charlie Cane. With Cane’s help, Jackaby and Abigail pursue the investigation, encountering a banshee, a helpful madwoman, and a possible bridge troll along the way. Meanwhile, Abigail relishes the excitement of her new job, but several people warn her to stay away from Jackaby. She wants to keep her job, but will it cost her her reputation — or even her life?

Despite the fact that this book is classified as YA or even middle-grade, I really enjoyed it! The book is narrated by Abigail, a plucky protagonist who is suddenly thrown into a magical world with nothing but her wits to rely on. I like that she is basically ordinary; though smart and brave, she doesn’t have superpowers, so she is very relatable as she encounters the surprises and challenges of this world. Jackaby is a really fun character as well, with more than a few similiarities to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes! I also loved the richly imagined world of this novel, especially the random little gags that didn’t have much to do with the main plot, such as the frog in Jackaby’s office, or what happened to his former assistant. The mystery itself was fairly easy to solve — I figured out whodunnit almost as soon as the guilty character was introduced — but the fun of the book is the characters and setting. I’d definitely recommend this book to fans of historical fantasy, and I’m looking forward to the sequels!

Review: Rose Under Fire

Rose Under FireElizabeth Wein, Rose Under Fire

Rose Justice is an American pilot who has just come to England to help with the war effort. Though women aren’t allowed to fly planes in combat, she is able to get a job with the Women’s Air Transport Auxiliary ferrying planes back and forth within Allied territory. At first Rose sees her work as a grand adventure, a fascinating change from her sheltered upbringing. But her life is instantly, horribly changed when she is captured by the Germans in the middle of a routine flight from France to England. She is immediately arrested and transported to the women’s concentration camp at Ravensbrück. There Rose confronts the hideous realities of this war for the first time, including the brutal scientific experiments performed on a group of young women known as “rabbits.” But depsite the horrific treatment Rose endures, she forges close bonds with a small group of fellow prisoners and somehow manages to hold onto hope.

This companion novel to Code Name Verity is equally powerful and moving, although it struck me in a very different way. I loved CNV for its suspense, its elements of espionage, and its intense portrayal of friendship. This book is not as suspenseful; we know from the start of Rose’s narrative about Ravensbrück that she is remembering her experiences after she has escaped. It’s also not as personal (if that’s the word I want) because while Rose forms incredibly close bonds with her fellow prisoners, the emphasis is less on individual relationships and more on the experience of Ravensbrück as a whole. Neverthless, this book did strike me on a very deep personal level. It’s easy to become a little desensitized to the atrocities committed by the Nazis, simply because we’ve heard about them so many times, but this book certainly made them vivid for me. The most horrifying thing is that similar atrocities are still occurring in parts of the world today. So this is not an easy read, but I think it’s a very important one.

Review: Letters from Skye

Letters from SkyeJessica Brockmole, Letters from Skye

This epistolary novel tells two parallel love stories, each set against the backdrop of a world war. In 1912, Scottish poet Elspeth Dunn receives a fan letter from David Graham, an exuberant young American. Elspeth replies to the letter, and she and Davey soon strike up a regular correspondence. At first they discuss literature and their favorite books, but soon they’re exchanging ideas about everything under the sun, including their most secret dreams. Unsurprisingly, Elspeth and Davey fall in love, but their romance is fraught with complications. When America enters World War I, Davey enlists immediately as an ambulance driver on the battlefields of France. Additionally, Elspeth is already married, so her stolen moments with Davey are as fleeting as they are precious. Meanwhile, in 1940, Elspeth’s daughter Margaret — also involved in a wartime romance — stumbles upon one of Davey’s letters and decides to search for the secrets in her mother’s past.

In theory, I should love this book, since it combines a lot of my favorite things: epistolary novel, WWI and WWII setting, love stories, family secrets. But while I found it an entertaining read, my overall experience was somewhat disappointing. First of all, the story is really about Elspeth and Davey, so the parts about Margaret felt very cursory and not fleshed out at all. I would have liked to know a lot more about her reactions to her mother’s secret, as well as the details of her own romance. Also, the story itself seems very superficial, given the gravity of the WWI backdrop. Even though I enjoy light romances with happy endings, I felt like this book lacked emotional stakes. Elspeth and Davey are likeable characters, and their letters are often very charming, but I was never in any real doubt about the end result of their story. Maybe part of my problem is that this book seems like a copycat of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, only not nearly as good! Overall, this book is a nice, quick read, but it won’t stay with me the way Guernsey has.

Review: Blade of Fortriu

Blade of FortriuJuliet Marillier, Blade of Fortriu

In this sequel to The Dark Mirror, King Bridei of the Priteni believes his mission is to eradicate the Gaels and their Christian religion from his lands. He is a strong king, brave in battle and devout in his allegiance to the old gods, so he’s the ideal person to unite the Priteni against this outside threat. Bridei is planning a big move against the Gaels, but in order to succeed, he needs the help of a foreign chieftain named Alpin. Bridei therefore proposes to offer his royal hostage, Ana, to Alpin as a bride, hoping this will ensure his loyalty. Ana longs to marry for love, but she knows she has no choice in the matter. She sets out for Alpin’s lands in the company of Faolan, Bridei’s most trusted bodyguard, spy, and assassin. As Ana and Faolan travel together, their relationship deepens, but she is already promised to Alpin. And when she finally arrives at Alpin’s court, Ana discovers a shocking secret that will have drastic implications for both Bridei’s campaign and her own heart.

Much like its predecessor, The Dark Mirror, this book is very slow-paced, and I had trouble getting into it as a result. I find the world of this series fascinating; it’s based on historical facts (the Priteni were real, and Bridei really was their king for a time), but Marillier weaves many fantastical elements into the setting. Half the novel focuses on Ana’s story, while the other half follows Bridei’s campaign against the Gaels. Personally, I was much more interested in Ana’s story, especially since I always enjoy a little romance with my fantasy! Interestingly, the story seems very predictable at first, but it eventually veers into an unexpected direction. I wasn’t entirely pleased with the resolution of Ana’s story, but it does provide some interesting avenues to explore in the final book of the trilogy. I’ll definitely be reading The Well of Shades to see how everything turns out, but I don’t think this series is Marillier’s best work. Try her Sevenwaters books instead!

Review: The Sunne in Splendour

Sunne in Splendour, TheSharon Kay Penman, The Sunne in Splendour

When most people think of Richard III, they picture a hunchbacked villain who was obsessed with being king and who murdered the princes in the Tower as a result. But in this novel, the last Plantagenet king is portrayed in a very different light: Richard (or Dickon, as most characters call him) is noble and loyal to a fault, and these good traits are ultimately what cause his downfall. The novel begins with Dickon’s childhood, when his father, the Duke of York, is killed in the war against the Lancastrian Henry VI. Dickon’s oldest brother Edward subsequently takes his father’s place in leading the Yorkist faction against Henry; eventually, he is crowned as Edward IV, and Dickon becomes one of his most trusted advisers and most skilled battle commanders. But as Edward obtains more and more power, Dickon becomes disillusioned with his brother’s morally questionable choices, and the struggle of brother against brother mirrors the broader conflict between York and Lancaster.

As always, in this book Sharon Kay Penman manages to bring the Middle Ages to life. I always enjoy her vivid descriptions of daily life during this period, as well as her depictions of medieval religion, warfare, and politics. This book in particular is a fascinating political study, showing that the cutthroat nature of modern politics is rooted in a long tradition. I also like the fact that this novel approaches Richard III from a countercultural perspective. While I don’t know enough about the subject to judge whether Penman’s interpretation is justified, it makes sense to me that Henry Tudor (who acceded to the throne after Richard’s death) would want to do everything in his power to discredit his predecessor. It’s always important to remember that history is written by the victors! All in all, I heartily recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Richard III, the War of the Roses, or the Middle Ages in general.

Review: Broken April

Broken AprilIsmail Kadare, Broken April (trans. from the Albanian)

In the remote mountains of Albania, communities live by the ancient rule of the Kanun, a code of conduct that governs every aspect of their lives. The most important part of the Kanun is the rules for blood feuding, which is an integral part of mountain life. Such feuds can endure for centuries and affect every aspect of the community. At the beginning of this novel, Gyorg is lying in wait to kill the man who killed his brother, in accordance with the dictates of the blood feud. But once he kills the man, his own life will be forfeit after a 30-day truce. Now living under a sentence of death, Gyorg travels throughout the countryside musing on the Kanun, fate, and his own impending death. Meanwhile, newlyweds Bessian and Diana have (unconventionally) decided to honeymoon in the wild Albanian mountains, to learn more about this harsh, rule-governed way of life. But while they start out as tourists, their exposure to the rules of the Kanun eventually changes them both in unexpected ways.

This is a very slow-paced, meditative novel that focuses entirely on the Kanun and the different characters’ responses to it. The visitors, especially Bessian, simultaneously romanticize the practice of blood feuding and regard it as a quaint, outdated custom. Gyorg, whose life is more directly affected, wishes he could somehow survive but views the Kanun as inevitable and unchangeable. I liked how Kadare shows the custom from these varying perspectives, so that the reader gets a fuller picture of what it actually means for the people involved. Something else I found particularly fascinating is that the novel is set between the two World Wars, when Albania was a monarchy, but Kadare wrote it in the 1970s, when the country was under Soviet control. So perhaps his exploration of the Kanun is indirectly a critical examination of a different set of harsh, all-encompassing laws. All in all, I found this book a very interesting window into a foreign (to me) culture, and I’d recommend it to people who find the premise interesting.

Review: The Quick

Quick, TheLauren Owen, The Quick

This novel, set in late Victorian England, centers around James Norbury and his sister Charlotte. After growing up isolated in a crumbling country estate, James is eager to move to London and try his luck as a poet. He slowly begins to conquer his shyness and mix a little in society, and eventually he even falls in love. But everything changes one fateful night when James is attacked, kidnapped, and initiated into the sinister Aegolius Club. Meanwhile, Charlotte has grown more and more anxious about her brother, who seems to have vanished without a trace. She journeys to London and attemps to discover what has happened to him, but what she finds out is more shocking and horrible than she ever could have imagined. As the Aegolius Club’s secrets are slowly revealed, and its members become more and more dangerous, Charlotte realizes that her only course of action is to destroy the club; but even if such a thing were possible, would she truly be able to rescue James?

I find that I really can’t talk about this book without mentioning one significant spoiler, so please STOP READING NOW if you don’t want to know anything else about the plot of this book! … If you’re still interested, here goes: this book is about vampires. I mention it because there is nothing in the book’s description or on the cover blurb about them, yet they are central to the entire book! Personally, I’m not a big fan of vampire novels and would not have picked up this book if I’d known they would be such a big part of the plot. That said, I actually really liked it a lot; Owen is a wonderful writer, and I found the novel a real page-turner despite the fact that it’s over 500 pages long. In fact, my other complaint is that it could probably have ended a few chapters before it did. I wasn’t a huge fan of the (largely depressing) ending, and I would have liked a little happiness for the main characters in the end, after they’d suffered so much. Still, this is a very accomplished gothic novel, and I’d definitely consider reading more by Lauren Owen.

Review: Mistress of Rome

Mistress of RomeKate Quinn, Mistress of Rome

In the late first century A.D., Thea is a Jewish slave girl living in Rome after the rest of her family committed suicide during the siege of Masada. Thea’s owner, the spiteful Lepida Pollia, misses no opportunity to berate and abuse her; so when Rome’s most popular gladiator, Arius the Barbarian, falls in love with Thea and spurns Lepida’s advances, Lepida immediately takes a brutal revenge. This novel follows the stories of Thea, Arius, Lepida, and several other characters as they all try to better their fortunes, with varying degrees of success. Eventually, Thea uses her talents as a singer and musician to perform before the most fashionable crowds in Rome, where she catches the eye of Emperor Domitian. As the emperor’s mistress, she becomes the most powerful woman in Rome; but the more she learns about the enigmatic emperor’s true nature, the more desperate she becomes to escape her fate.

This is one of those books that hooked me almost immediately, and I found it compulsively readable. Ever since I took Latin in high school, I’ve been interested in the setting of ancient Rome, and this book explores so many aspects of life at that time, from social mores to military strategy to fashion. It’s a truly fascinating time period, and Quinn takes full advantage of the drama it provides. Indeed, the book is almost too melodramatic at times; it’s very much a soap opera, complete with fake deaths, illegitimate children, and even an orgy. The love story between Thea and Arius is often sweet but occasionally becomes a bit too over-the-top. I feel like I should also mention a particular review on Amazon, which pointed out several flaws in plot logic and historical accuracy. But personally, I really enjoyed the novel overall, and I’ll definitely seek out the sequels at some point. If you like your historical fiction gory, sexy, and extremely dramatic, I highly recommend this book!

Review: The Complaint of the Dove

Complaint of the Dove, TheHannah March, The Complaint of the Dove

In 1760s England, private tutor Robert Fairfax is charged with escorting his pupil, Matthew Hemsley, to London for a bit of town polish. But Fairfax is apprehensive: how can he introduce Matthew to the worldly, sophisticated atmosphere of London while at the same time protecting him from bad influences? Unfortunately, during their very first trip to the theater, Matthew instantly falls in love with the beautiful and popular actress Lucy Dove. Though she is a sweet and talented girl, her profession is most unsuitable, so Fairfax hopes that Matthew’s infatuation is only temporary. But Matthew gets into even bigger trouble when Lucy is murdered shortly afterwards, and he is found at the crime scene under very suspicious circumstances. When Matthew is actually arrested for the murder, Fairfax knows it is his duty to clear his pupil’s name — which means launching an investigation to discover the real killer.

I discovered this series by accident at a library book sale where the second and third books were available for 25 cents each, so of course I had to track down the first book as well! I was intrigued by the concept of a Georgian mystery, since I haven’t seen many novels set in that era (especially compared to the much more popular 19th century!). Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately, given the magnitude of my TBR list already), I’ve discovered a new mystery series to enjoy! I loved the period detail: the crush of theatergoers more interested in each other than in what’s happening onstage; the elaborate wigs, patches, and high heels worn by aristocratic men and women alike; the rudimentary knowledge of medicine, including the ingestion of mercury as a cure for venereal disease. It’s a fascinating time period, and March really brings the era to life. I also liked Robert Fairfax as a sleuth, and I look forward to seeing how his complex character will develop in subsequent books. Overall, I’d definitely recommend this book to fans of historical mysteries!

Review: The Girl Is Murder

Girl Is Murder, TheKathryn Miller Haines, The Girl Is Murder

Fifteen-year-old Iris Anderson is having a hard time. About a year ago, her Pop returned from Pearl Harbor with a missing leg, which meant he was no longer able to do the active work required by his business as a private investigator. As a result, Pop and Iris have moved from their old affluent neighborhood to a poor area on the Lower East Side, and Iris has to go to public school instead of the elite private school she formerly attended. Hoping to get closer to her only surviving parent (her mother committed suicide shortly after Pop returned from the war), Iris tries to help Pop with his cases, but he forbids her from having anything to do with the PI business. When one of the boys at Iris’ new school goes missing, however, she can’t help but do a little sleuthing. Along the way, she makes a few friends at her new school, including the unpopular Pearl and the glamorous, fast-talking Suze; but as Iris navigates her way through various cliques and social minefields, how will she know whom she can really trust?

If you enjoy Haines’ Rosie Winter mysteries, you’ll feel right at home in the world of this novel, set in the fall of 1942. The book isn’t about World War II, yet the war permeates almost every aspect of Iris’ life, from the slang used by Suze and the other cool girls at school to the disturbing racisim and anti-Semitism espoused by some of the characters. (These attitudes are definitely not condoned by the book, however; they simply mirror the atttitudes of many Americans at that time.) I liked Iris as a protagonist; her problems are specific to her era yet also universal, as she struggles with her own identity, fitting in, and building a relationship with a distant parent. Her voice is occasionally too precocious for a 15-year-old, but I found that flaw forgivable since she’s so entertaining. As a mystery, the book is very weak; Iris doesn’t spend much time investigating anything, and she’s not even the one who solves the case! So I’d recommend this to someone looking for an interesting YA book about World War II, but it’s not a great read for a mystery fan.