2014 Monthly Motifs Challenge Wrap-up

I also completed the 2014 Monthly Motifs challenge, in which participants were asked to read at least one book per month that corresponded with that month’s assigned theme.

2014 monthly motifs

Here’s what I read for each month, along with a short explanation of why it fits:

January (Around the World — a book set in, or by an author from, a country different than your own):
Julia Quinn — Just Like Heaven (U.K. – England)
Elizabeth Hay — Late Nights on Air (Canada)
D.E. Stevenson — The Two Mrs. Abbotts (U.K. – England)
Susanna Kearsley — The Shadowy Horses (U.K. – Scotland)

February (Award Winner):
Lois Lowry — The Giver (Newbery)

March (Fairytales or Fairy Creatures):
Elizabeth Blackwell — While Beauty Slept (Sleeping Beauty)

April (Short & Sweet — short stories or anthologies):
B.J. Novak — One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories

May (Mystery, Murder, and Mayhem):
Elizabeth Peters — Borrower of the Night
Michael Innes — Death at the President’s Lodging
William Ritter — Jackaby

June (A Long Journey):
J.R.R. Tolkien — The Hobbit

July (Assassins, Warriors, Rebels):
Richard Stark — The Hunter (Parker is a criminal and trained killer)
Baroness Orczy — I Will Repay (set during the French Revolution)
Chris Wooding — The Black Lung Captain (the crew of the Ketty Jay are rebels)

August (Alternate Reality):
Jo Walton — Farthing (England makes a separate peace with Hitler)

September (Book to Movie):
Philip K. Dick — Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (became the movie “Bladerunner”)

October (The Witching Hour — book with a witch in it):
Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett — Good Omens (there are multiple witches in this one!)

November (Oldie but Goodie — a book published and/or set before the year 2000):
D.E. Stevenson — Mrs. Tim of the Regiment (published in the 1930s)

December (That’s a Wrap — finish a series or read the next book in a series):
Rhys Bowen — The Twelve Clues of Christmas (next book in the Royal Spyness series)
Kate Ross — The Devil in Music (last book in the Julian Kestrel series)

For more information on any of these books, check out my Review Index page. And if the challenge looks interesting to you, be sure to sign up for the 2015 version!

Review: The Devil in Music

Devil in Music, TheKate Ross, The Devil in Music

This final installment of the Julian Kestrel series moves from England to Italy, as Julian encounters a five-year-old mystery while traveling on the Continent. Lodovico Malvezzi, a powerful Milanese nobleman, was murdered in 1821, but because of the unstable political situation at the time, the local officials covered up the true cause of his death. Now, in 1825, the truth has finally come out, and the police are once more searching for Lodovico’s killer. The most likely suspect is a young tenor called Orfeo, whom Lodovico had been training for a career in opera and who disappeared shortly after the murder. But Lodovico had kept the singer’s real name a secret, and no one can give a clear description of him to the police. Meanwhile, Julian suspects that Orfeo may not be the guilty party, and he begins to investigate Lodovico’s family, including his fascinating young widow, Beatrice, and his politically involved brother, Carlo. He soon discovers several motives for Lodovico’s murder — but secrets from Julian’s own past will emerge before he can unmask the killer.

As previously mentioned, this is the last book in the Julian Kestrel series, and I’m heartbroken to have come to the end of it! I absolutely love historical fiction, mysteries, and anything set in the Regency period, so this series is really the perfect fit for me. Plus, I’m a sucker for a dandy who is more than he appears to be, which is definitely the case with Julian! That said, I’m not quite sure how I feel about this book specifically. The different setting was interesting, and I enjoyed the little bits of background about Italian politics and opera that permeate the book. I also liked the resolution of the mystery, although certain aspects of it were very predictable. The book’s pacing is also a little slow, and the focus of the book is much more on Julian’s character development than on the plot. While I was glad to see some more exploration of his character, it didn’t altogether satisfy me. I think my issue is the romance between Julian and Beatrice, which just didn’t ring true for me. Still, this is a good book in a great series, and I really wish there were more Julian Kestrel mysteries!

Review: Mrs. Tim of the Regiment

Mrs. Tim of the RegimentD.E. Stevenson, Mrs. Tim of the Regiment

This novel purports to be the diary of Hester Christie, a young army wife who must juggle her responsibilities to her family, to the regiment, and to the society in which she lives. Lively and popular, Hester has many demands on her time, including mandatory socializing with several disagreeable officers’ wives. But her perpetually busy life becomes even more chaotic when her husband, Tim, is transferred to a regiment in Scotland. Hester is sorry to leave but tries to make the best of it, although it means she will be lonely and friendless while Tim is busy with army duties. However, she soon makes a few friends and is even invited to spend time in the country with one of them. In these beautiful surroundings, with congenial company, Hester becomes more reconciled to her new life — and finds plenty of ways to occupy her time, including assisting several young lovers. Little does she realize, of course, that one of the men she meets is interested in her!

When I want a light, charming comfort read, D.E. Stevenson always fits the bill, and this book is no exception. It’s an interesting mixture of slice-of-life with comedy of manners, as Hester can’t help poking fun at some of her less congenial acquaintances. I thoroughly enjoyed her narrative voice and found her a very likeable character. The biggest flaw in the book, in my opinion, is her husband Tim. He’s not “on page” terribly often, and while it’s obvious that Hester loves him very much, she also can’t help noticing his little foibles. So I was a bit lukewarm on their relationship, especially when Hester’s other suitor, Major Morley, is so much more interesting! Morley actually plays a fairly large role in the book, as he is Tim’s fellow officer and ends up visiting Hester’s hostess in the Scottish countryside. He has an air of cynicism but is also quite sweet to Hester, and I couldn’t help wishing that she was single (and less oblivious) so that they could get together! But aside from that, I enjoyed the book and would be interested in reading the sequels, though I think they might be out of print now.

Review: Good Omens

Good OmensNeil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett, Good Omens

Since the beginning of the world, the forces of good and evil have been preparing for battle, and now Armageddon is imminent. The Four Horsepersons of the Apocalypse roam the earth, the Antichrist is about to be born, and the end times are at hand. But angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley aren’t terribly enthusiastic about the upcoming war and ensuing destruction of Earth. In fact, they’ve both become rather fond of the planet and the foolish humans who populate it. So unbeknownst to their superiors, they strike a truce: neither one of them will attempt to influence the newborn Antichrist in their favor. Little do they know that, thanks to a mix-up at the hospital, they’ve focused their efforts on the wrong baby! Meanwhile, the Antichrist grows up as a perfectly normal human boy called Adam Young, who knows nothing about his special destiny. But as the signs of the end times become harder to ignore, Aziraphale and Crowley must race against time to prevent Adam from unwittingly using his powers to destroy the world.

This book is a delightful romp through the Book of Revelation and common cultural perceptions regarding the end of the world. It truly has something for everyone, from demons to witchfinders to psychics to aliens, and I lost count of the jokes that made me laugh out loud! I loved the fact that Famine (one of the Horsepersons) was a diet guru, and that one of Crowley’s most notable Hellish accomplishments was the M25 motorway surrounding London. The book’s plot is rather sprawling, and I wasn’t a big fan of every storyline (didn’t care too much about Anathema Device, for example, although I loved Newton Pulsifer — the name alone!). But then again, who cares about plot when there’s such brilliant silliness to enjoy? I do think this book would be best enjoyed by people who are at least somewhat familiar with the Book of Revelation, because otherwise you won’t get all the jokes! But I honestly think that anyone who enjoys British humor will find this book hugely entertaining.

Review: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Sometime in the early 21st century, World War Terminus has resulted in widespread destruction and nuclear fallout, so everyone who can afford it has emigrated to Mars. To help these emigrants establish a new civilization, androids were created to be servants and laborers. As time went on, the androids became more sophisticated until they were virtually indistinguishable from humans — except for a complete lack of empathy. Now some of these androids have returned to Earth, where their presence is illegal, and policeman Rick Deckard is charged with hunting them down and “retiring” them. In fact, he is authorized to kill them on sight; but as he pursues the rogue androids, he must confront his own feelings and beliefs, including what it means to be human.

When I started this book, I was expecting the main issue to be the nature of the androids themselves: If they have the same intelligence and (mostly) the same emotions as humans, aren’t they also human? But oddly enough, the book leaves no doubt on this issue — the androids are not human, and Rick Deckard’s struggle with this fact gets him into trouble on several occasions. Even though the androids are machines, Deckard can’t help but see them as human beings, due to his own empathetic response. He feels pity for them, recognizes their contributions to society, and even falls in love with one of them. Ultimately, the real issue of the book is not the humanity of the androids, but rather the humanity of the humans: Can Deckard do his job and still retain his humanity? As such, I found the book a fascinating read, even though it wasn’t quite what I expected.

Blade Runner final cutAfter reading this book, I decided to rent the movie “Blade Runner” so that I could compare and contrast the film adaptation with the original. Basically, the movie is VERY different from the book, and I was bewildered by most of the changes. The movie is visually stunning — I loved the vision of a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles — but I just didn’t understand Deckard’s relationships with the androids in the movie at all. It’s hard to say more without spoiling, but let me just say that the final confrontation scene goes VERY differently in the movie versus the book. The movie also suggests (and Ridley Scott confirmed that this was his intention) that Deckard himself is an android, which is 100% NOT the case in the book. So while “Blade Runner” is an interesting movie in its own right, it’s definitely not a faithful adaptation of the book!

Review: Farthing

FarthingJo Walton, Farthing

This novel is a murder mystery with a twist: what if a fascist English government had made a separate peace with Hitler? In the world of this book, it’s 1949, and war still rages between the Third Reich (which now encompasses all of Europe) and the Soviet Union, but England has managed to remain at peace. The “Farthing set,” who engineered the treaty with Hitler, have congregated at an English country estate, where Lucy (the daughter of the house) and her husband David are staying. Because David is Jewish, they both endure various snubs and cruelties from the other guests. Then a notable member of the Farthing set is murdered, and his corpse is decorated with Jewish symbols. Lucy is convinced that her husband has been framed, and Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard agrees. But as the English government becomes more totalitarian and anti-Semitic, both Lucy and Carmichael must make devastating choices that could allow the murderer to go free.

This book was unsettling, to say the least, and I have very conflicting feelings about it. Part of the story is told from Lucy’s perspective, and I really enjoyed her character and her narrative voice. I also think the book very skillfully depicts a nation’s slow slide into despotism; one of the most heartbreaking and effective parts of the book, for me, was David’s strong faith in England. Despite the hardships he endures, he is convinced that Jews will never be persecuted in England the way they are in the Reich…but of course, events in the book ultimately prove him wrong. On the negative side, the “mystery” element of the book is very underdeveloped. I also became irritated by the sheer number of secret, illicit, and/or adulterous relationships in the book; it seemed like EVERY character was involved, which strained my credulity. (Also, everyone seems to have really good “gaydar,” if you’ll pardon the expression!) Overall, I’m not sure the positives outweighed the negatives for me, and I’m still undecided about continuing with the series.

Review: The Black Lung Captain

Black Lung Captain, TheChris Wooding, The Black Lung Captain

***Warning: SPOILERS for Retribution Falls!***

Darian Frey and the crew of the Ketty Jay are once again down on their luck. The airship needs repairs, but Frey can’t afford to buy the engine parts he needs. Crake, still tormented with guilt over accidentally killing his niece, is trying to drown his sorrows in a bottle. Jez is struggling to come to terms with being part Mane, afraid that this feral, violent side of her will eventually consume her humanity. Harkins is so jittery and terrified that he can’t even cope with Slag, the Ketty Jay‘s ancient and ornery cat. Even the loutish Pinn is depressed, missing his girlfriend back home. So when Frey is offered the chance to salvage a mysterious treasure in the heart of the jungle, he leaps at the opportunity despite the obvious dangers ahead. He even teams up with Trinica Dracken, the most feared sky pirate on the planet — and Frey’s ex-lover. But of course, nothing about this job is what it seems to be, and the supposed “treasure” may lead to widespread destruction, unless Frey and his crew can stop it first.

Retribution Falls was an unexpected delight when I read it earlier this year, so I couldn’t resist picking up this second book in the series! I’m thrilled to say that this book is just as much swashbuckling fun as the first, with tons of action and some wonderful character development. The stakes are even higher in this book, because Frey and his crew have more to lose: their last adventure created bonds of friendship and loyalty, and now those bonds are being tested. I really loved that the book switches between many points of view; although Frey, Crake, and Jez are probably the most fleshed-out characters, everyone has a moment to shine — even Slag the cat! And because the main characters of the series have already been established, the book has more time to spend on worldbuilding, giving tantalizing glimpses of the bigger picture surrounding Frey’s adventures. I am really looking forward to learning more about the geopolitical situation of this planet in future books, because I just know Frey and his crew are going to get involved somehow! I can’t wait to continue with this series!

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: The Hunter

Hunter, TheRichard Stark, The Hunter

This book introduces Parker, a criminal whose combination of street smarts and brute force has enabled him to live comfortably on the proceeds from his thefts. But his life is fundamentally disrupted when a job goes awry and one of his partners double-crosses him. Now Parker is consumed with thoughts of revenge, and he’ll do anything to catch up with Mal Resnick, the man who stole both his money and his wife. Parker uses a variety of tactics, including intimidation and murder, to track Mal down; meanwhile, Mal learns that Parker is on his trail and tries desperately to escape his clutches. Parker’s task is made more complicated by the fact that Mal is a memeber of an extremely influential crime syndicate called the Outfit, and the Outfit isn’t inclined to let Parker have his way. In order to exact his revenge, Parker must eventually go up against the whole organization; but will killing Mal sign his own death warrant?

While I enjoy the occasional film noir or con movie, I don’t tend to like the noir genre in book form. I tend to prefer my mysteries a little less violent, with a more clearly defined moral code (i.e., the killer is the bad guy). This book has a very cynical tone and a protagonist with few, if any, redeeming qualities. Frankly, I found Parker horrifying, especially in his violent treatment of women and his casual approach to killing anyone who gets in his way. Yet I actually ended up enjoying this book! I liked the writing style, which doesn’t waste any words and gets straight to the point. I also really enjoyed watching the story unfold: the book alternates from Parker’s story in the present to the story of the job that went wrong. Additionally, it was fascinating to see how Parker’s situation changes throughout the novel, as his quest for vengeance against one man turns into a war against the entire Outfit. If I’m ever in the mood for a darker mystery, I may even continue with this series!

There are also two film adaptations of the book, “Point Blank” (1967, starring Lee Marvin) and “Payback” (1999, starring Mel Gibson). I haven’t seen either of them, but I think this story would translate really well to film! Has anyone seen either of these movies, and if so, would you recommend them?

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!