Review: Death at the President’s Lodging

Death at the President's LodgingMichael Innes, Death at the President’s Lodging

This first installment of the Inspector Appleby series is a classic locked-room mystery set in the fictional St. Anthony’s college, where its president, Dr. Umpleby, has just been murdered. Because of the prominence of the victim, Inspector Appleby is summoned from Scotland Yard to assist the local police. He soon learns that the layout of the college would have made it impossible for someone without a key to access the scene of the crime. Therefore, suspicion centers around the other fellows of the college, most of whom either had a key or could easily obtain one. As Appleby begins his investigation, he notices strong tensions among these men and uncovers various professional rivalries. He also begins to realize that the case is cluttered with many side issues and diversions. But as he sifts the relevant facts from the distractions, Appleby eventually reaches a conclusion as bizarre as it is shocking.

I’ve now read two mysteries by Michael Innes, and what I’ve learned is that I love his solutions, but I’m not terribly fond of how he gets there! In most mysteries that I read, there’s not a lot of irrelevant information; every fact the detective discovers is a clue. In this book, on the other hand, much of what Appleby discovers isn’t relevant to the solution of the murder. This is certainly more realistic than, say, a Poirot mystery, but it made the reading experience more difficult for me. I also didn’t like the relative lack of character delineation. It’s been less than a month since I read this book, and already I couldn’t tell you the main suspects’ names! Nobody (including Appleby) has much personality, so the murder is more like a logic puzzle than a dramatic event involving actual human beings. All that said, I really did love the solution to this one, which got downright farcical in places! So overall, I’m glad I read this book, but I doubt I’ll get sucked into the rest of the series — which is probably a good thing!

Review: Borrower of the Night

Borrower of the NightElizabeth Peters, Borrower of the Night

This novel introduces Vicky Bliss, a confident, no-nonsense art historian and professor at a small Midwestern university. She and her colleague/boyfriend Tony stumble across a clue to a lost work by Tilman Riemenschneider, a 16th-century German woodcarver. They decide to embark on a friendly competition to see who can discover the artifact first — a competition Vicky is determined to win. She sets off immediately for the supposed location of the artifact, Castle Drachenstein in Rothenburg, Germany. Unfortunately, Tony is hot on her trail, along with several other parties interested in recovering the lost masterwork. As Vicky and her competitors begin their search, they soon realize that something is amiss at Castle Drachenstein, and the root of the trouble lies in the distant past. Is the castle being haunted by the ghost of a former countess, or is there a less supernatural explanation for the danger Vicky finds herself in?

I’ve read and enjoyed the first few books in the Amelia Peabody series, so I was interested to try this series as well. Overall, I thought it was a fun read and a pretty decent mystery. The emphasis wasn’t so much on the “whodunit” aspect of things; rather, the novel focuses on the suspense and danger evoked by the gothic setting. In that respect, I was reminded a lot of Mary Stewart’s novels (which I also really enjoy), and the archaelogical aspect of the plot called to mind “Indiana Jones.” I also liked reading about Vicky, whose sassy comments and progressive (in the 1970s) views always seemed to stir up trouble. I didn’t always like or agree with her, but she was consistently amusing! Overall, I found this book a fun read and will definitely be picking up the sequels at some point.

Review: One More Thing

One More Thing-Stories and Other StoriesB.J. Novak, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories

In this collection of (very) short stories, B.J. Novak — formerly a writer, producer, and actor on the US version of “The Office” — uses his comedic imagination to ask a variety of hypothetical questions. What if the hare who lost the fabled race to the tortoise became obsessed with thoughts of a rematch? What if the handsome man you met in a bar turned out to be a brutally violent African warlord? What if you could literally hold a mirror up to Earth? And what if Chris Hansen, of “To Catch a Predator” fame, were forced to go to a Justin Bieber concert at the insistence of his tween daughter? Novak answers these questions and many more in his debut collection of funny, dark, ridiculous, and often poignant stories.

The first thing to say about these stories is that most of them are very short, some no more than a page or two. So most of the stories don’t have time to delve deeply into plot or character; rather, they focus sharply on a single joke or idea (see, for example, “The Comedy Central Roast of Nelson Mandela” or “The Market Was Down”). In that sense, it’s easy to see the influence of Novak’s TV background. However, even if you aren’t a fan of “The Office” or its style of comedy, you should still find plenty to enjoy in this book! I was very impressed by how smart Novak obviously is; clever wordplay and literary allusions abound. Several of the stories are laugh-out-loud funny, but the comedy is often followed by a swift stab to the gut. One story in particular, “The Ghost of Mark Twain,” gave me chills. Overall, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up this book, but I was very pleasantly surprised!

I was fortunate to be able to attend a book signing with Novak at which he read a few of the stories out loud. Having heard the stories in his own voice, I would strongly recommend the audiobook to those of you who enjoy that format. Apparently Novak reads many of the stories himself, although there are some “special guest appearances” by other actors such as Mindy Kaling and Lena Dunham.

Review: While Beauty Slept

While Beauty SleptElizabeth Blackwell, While Beauty Slept

This loose retelling of Sleeping Beauty follows the fortunes of Elise, a peasant who dreams of a better life. Growing up, she listened to her mother’s stories about working at the king’s palace and fantasized about going there herself one day. When a tragic outbreak of the pox kills most of her family, Elise decides she has nothing to lose and sets out to follow her dream. But working at the palace turns out to be more complicated than Elise anticipated. She sees that the king and queen, though apparently blessed with both love and riches, are devastated by their childless state — especially because the king’s brother has a jealous eye on the throne. She also observes the complicated relationship between the queen and Millicent, a relative of the king’s who lives in the palace and has a reputation for witchcraft. When an heir to the throne is born at last, Elise is caught up in the turmoil that ensues; eventually, she is the only person who can ensure the future of the kingdom.

I’m a big fan of fairy tale retellings, so I was excited to find a copy of this book at the library. Overall, I really enjoyed it, but I would caution fantasy lovers that it’s much more of a historical novel than a fairy tale. There’s hardly anything supernatural in the book; although Millicent plays the part of the evil fairy in the Sleeping Beauty tale (and even curses the newborn princess), her ultimate strike against the royal family has nothing to do with magic or sorcery. But I love historical fiction, so I very much enjoyed this magic-less tale. And many elements of the Sleeping Beauty story were still incorporated into this book; I especially liked the burning of the spinning wheels. Elise got on my nerves sometimes — she’s a bit too judgmental and superior for my liking — but ultimately I was interested in the story she told. The ending, in particular, packs a real punch! So all in all, I’d recommend this book to fans of historical fiction or fairy tale retellings.

Review: The Giver

Giver, TheLois Lowry, The Giver

Eleven-year-old Jonas lives with his parents and sister in an idyllic place called simply the Community. The Community is governed by a set of Rules covering all aspects of life, which results in a peaceful, orderly society. Everyone has a specific role to play in the Community, with the Elders evaluating the children on their twelfth birthday in order to determine how they will serve the Community as adults. Jonas is looking forward to his Ceremony of Twelve with great excitement, wondering which job he’ll be assigned to perform. But when the fateful day finally arrives, Jonas is stunned to learn that he’s been chosen for the most prestigious and mysterious job of all: he will be the Community’s new Receiver. At first Jonas doesn’t even know what being the Receiver entails, but he soon learns that it will isolate him from everyone he knows, even his family. And as his training with the former Receiver (now called the Giver) continues, Jonas realizes that the supposedly benevolent Community is hiding some very dark secrets.

Despite the fact that this book came out during my childhood, I somehow never read it before. So I was a bit nervous that I wouldn’t enjoy it, reading it for the first time as an adult. Fortunately, my fear was groundless — I thought this was an absolutely fantastic book! Of course, some of the more sinister aspects of the Community will be unsurprising to adult readers, who have presumably encountered other dystopian novels and can guess what’s coming. But Lowry does such an amazing job of peeling back the seemingly perfect facade of the Community bit by bit, slowly revealing surprising tidbits of this allegedly ideal world. I also really loved the character of Jonas, who reacts to his new discoveries in such an understandable way. I practically got chills at the scene where he gets his list of Rules for how to be the Receiver — it perfectly encapsulates the confusing new world he’s been thrust into. Finally, I liked the ambiguity of the ending; Jonas decides to take a stand, but the outcome of this decision remains uncertain. I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes dystopian novels!

Review: The Shadowy Horses

The Shadowy HorsesSusanna Kearsley, The Shadowy Horses

Verity Grey is a young archaeologist who has recently quit her job at the British Museum and is looking for freelance work. Her former colleague (and ex-boyfriend) Adrian tells her about a potential job in the coastal town of Eyemouth, Scotland, but he is vague about the details. Nevertheless, Verity is intrigued enough to travel to Eyemouth for an interview. There she learns that the head of the expedition, wealthy archaeologist Peter Quinnell, is hoping to find traces of the Ninth Roman Legion, which appeared in Britain in the second century A.D. and then vanished from history. Verity is excited to be part of such a potentially major find — until she learns that Quinnell has no tangible evidence that the Ninth ever passed through Eyemouth. Rather, he is basing his expedition on the word of an eight-year-old boy who is said to have the second sight. Verity is extremely skeptical at first; but the longer she spends in Eyemouth, the more she becomes convinced that something supernatural is at work.

I was surprised to discover that, unlike many of Susanna Kearsley’s other novels, this book is not a work of historical fiction; all the action takes place in the present day. Aside from that, however, The Shadowy Horses definitely has a similar feel to Kearsley’s other books. There is a young, intellectual heroine who is fascinated by history; a story in the present that closely parallels a story in the past; various supernatural elements (in this case, a ghost!); and a romance. These are all things that generally appeal to me in books, but once again, I found myself unable to get emotionally involved with this novel. There is just something about Kearsley’s writing that keeps me at a distance; though her books (including this one) are very readable, I’m never on the edge of my seat, dying to know what will happen next. A lack of dramatic tension, perhaps? Anyway, I did enjoy this book — the bits about archaeology were especially fascinating, though probably a bit outdated now — but it wasn’t anything more than a pleasant read for me.

Review: The Two Mrs. Abbotts

Two Mrs. Abbotts, TheD.E. Stevenson, The Two Mrs. Abbotts

Warning: SPOILERS for Miss Buncle’s Book and Miss Buncle Married.

This third book in the “Miss Buncle” series jumps forward in time to explore life in an English village during World War II. Barbara Abbott, née Buncle, now lives in Wandlebury with her husband and two adorable children. The war apparently has little effect on her life, except that there is less food available at the market. But Barbara’s niece by marriage, Jerry Abbott, is dealing with the fact that her husband Sam is fighting somewhere in Africa; in the meantime, she has opened her home to soldiers and evacuees. But despite the privations and worries of wartime, there are still plenty of opportunities for gossip and romance! Sullen Lancreste Marvell has fallen in love with an unsuitable woman; famous authoress Janetta Walters is coming to Wandlebury to speak at the village bazaar; and Jerry’s brother Archie finally seems to be ready for marriage. Finding herself in the midst of these entanglements, will Barbara be able to engineer a happy ending?

I’m so happy that Sourcebooks is re-releasing D.E. Stevenson’s books! I really loved the first two “Miss Buncle” books, and this one is also quite fun and charming, though it definitely suffers by comparison. The problem with this book is that it lacks cohesion; there are several little plots going on, but they are largely independent of one another. Some plots also seem to peter out with no resolution; for example, in the beginning of the book, an old friend of Barbara’s comes to visit, and it seems as though she is going to be a big part of the story, but then she vanishes about halfway through the book. Ultimately the biggest story is about Archie’s courtship, which is quite sweet, but it’s not really developed in much depth. I did like reading a World War II novel that isn’t really about the war, but nevertheless the war affects many aspects of the characters’ lives. The happy, wholesome picture of village life in this book was most likely vanishing at the time Stevenson wrote the novel. Overall, I’d recommend this book to people who liked the other “Miss Buncle” books and are looking for a nice comfort read.

Review: Late Nights on Air

Late Nights on AirElizabeth Hay, Late Nights on Air

This novel centers around a small group of people working at a radio station in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada. Harry is a once-promising radio man who has returned to Yellowknife after a disastrous attempt at television. Eleanor, the station’s receptionist, has no life of her own but is keenly observant of the lives of others. Gwen has recently moved to town and is hoping to learn radio production at the station. And newcomer Dido is a natural on-air talent who catalyzes various shifts in the station’s social atmosphere. All these characters have been drawn to Yellowknife for different reasons, but they are united in their fascination and love for the austere beauty of northern Canada. As they develop new friendships, romances, and animosities, they also discuss the history, mythology, and current concerns of the Canadian frontier — especially as a proposed transnational pipeline threatens its very identity.

I picked up this book for its setting, and I think it does a wonderful job of immersing readers in the unique world of the Canadian North. There are lovingly detailed descriptions of weather, scenery, and wildlife; digressive anecdotes about Canadian history, especially the many European explorers who attempted to survive the brutal winters; discussions about the relationship between white settlers and native peoples; and nostalgia for a fading way of life. Hay cleverly uses the debates and hearings surrounding the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline as a framework for her story; the possible destruction of the northern ecosystem parallels the slow destruction of radio as the primary medium for storytelling due to the arrival of television. The novel is somber and contemplative in tone, and the focus is on character and setting much more than on plot. But for anyone interested in books with a unique and vividly described setting, I would definitely recommend this!

Review: Just Like Heaven

Just Like HeavenJulia Quinn, Just Like Heaven

Lady Honoria Smythe-Smith is desperate to be married. Though she is part of a large, affectionate family, things have been very quiet in her parents’ house ever since her brother Daniel fled England after seriously wounding a man in a duel. Honoria longs to start her own family and once again feel surrounded by love; and as an added bonus, once she is married, she’ll no longer have to perform at the Smythe-Smiths’ infamous musicales. Meanwhile, Marcus Holroyd, the Earl of Chatteris, is Daniel’s best friend and has always felt more at home with the Smythe-Smiths than with his own distant family. Marcus and Honoria have always been friendly, but when a sprained ankle and a dangerous illness throw them together, they both begin to suspect that their relationship is deepening into something more.

I basically picked up this book for two reasons: 1) It shares a title with a really great Cure song, and 2) I’m a sucker for ridiculous British surnames. Fortunately, I ended up enjoying it quite a bit! Marcus is a delightful hero; he comes across as proud and brooding, but only because he feels shy and socially awkward (shades of Mr. Darcy!). And Honoria is a sweet girl with just enough humor to keep her from being insipid. Somewhat unusually for a Regency romance, most of this book doesn’t take place during the London Season; rather, Honoria spends a good portion of it nursing Marcus back to health from a life-threatening fever. Some might find the sickroom scenes tedious, but to me they underscored why Marcus and Honoria make such a great pair. All in all, I’d definitely recommend this light, quick read to fans of Regency romances, and I’ll probably pick up something else by Julia Quinn in the future.