Review: Love’s Shadow

Love's ShadowAda Leverson, Love’s Shadow

Edith Ottley, a pretty and intelligent young woman, has begun to be bored with her life. Her husband Bruce is pompous, condescending, and unaware of his intellectual inferiority to his wife. Edith’s only solace is the companionship of her friend Hyacinth Verney, a young heiress who is living a dashing and unconventional life in London. Hyacinth has just begun to explore the possibility of getting married, and she is strongly attracted to the handsome but aloof Cecil Reeve. But Cecil, in turn, is hopelessly in love with a widow ten years his senior, although she doesn’t return his affections. In short, this novel is a comedy of manners about a social circle in which everyone is in love with the wrong person. Amidst all their tangled romances and unrequited loves, can any of the characters find true happiness?

I read this novel a couple weeks ago, and I find that I don’t have much to say about it now. The book is quite witty in places, and some of the situations and characters strongly reminded me of Jane Austen. (Bruce Ottley, for example, is a slightly more sympathetic Mr. Collins if ever there was one — which makes me wonder why Edith married him in the first place!) But this book never really goes below the surface or allows the reader to sympathize with any of the characters. All the conflicts in the book came across as trivial to me, and in the end I didn’t much care how all the various romances resolved. If you enjoy stylish, witty comedies of manners, you’ll find something to enjoy in this novel; but if you need a strong plot or sympathetic characters, you’ll end up feeling frustrated, as I did.

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: The Gaslight Dogs

Gaslight Dogs, TheKarin Lowachee, The Gaslight Dogs

Sjenn is a member of the Aniw, a nation of hunter-gatherers that lives in the distant, icy North. She is also the ankago, or spirit walker, of her tribe: Through her Dog, the “little spirit” that lives in her body, she is able to communicate with her ancestors and relay their wisdom to her people. When she calls forth her Dog, her human body lies unconscious and unprotected, but her Dog form cannot be killed by human weapons. Because of this mysterious power, Sjenn is kidnapped by the Kabliw, a Southern race that has recently made contact with her people. General Fawle, a powerful military leader of the Kabliw, wants to learn more about Sjenn’s power so that he can harness it for his own ends. But his son, Captain Jarrett Fawle, wants nothing to do with the Aniw woman or her mysterious powers, which seem to him like demon magic. Despite Jarrett’s resistance, however, his fate soon becomes bound with Sjenn’s, as the two of them try to unlock the secrets of her Dog without letting its power get into the wrong hands.

I bought this book when it first came out in 2010, largely because of the interesting premise and setting. The world of the novel is a pretty clear parallel to European colonization of the New World; indeed, Sjenn and her people are explicitly based on the Inuit nation. I also thought the system of magic sounded interesting and different from anything I’d seen before. The book moves at a glacial pace (no pun intended), but the writing is lovely and unique, so I didn’t mind settling in for a slower read. I also found both Sjenn and Jarrett to be very interesting characters, although neither one was developed in a lot of depth. The book doesn’t technically end on a cliffhanger, but there is definitely a lot more to the story. So I would be really interested to read a sequel…except that a sequel doesn’t exist! Apparently the author didn’t have a multi-book contract, and I guess her publisher decided to pull the plug after the first book was released. As a result, I’m incredibly frustrated, because I think this story had a lot of potential as a series! But unfortunately, I don’t think the book stands very well on its own, so I’m not sure I would recommend it.

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: The Red House Mystery

Red House Mystery, TheA.A. Milne, The Red House Mystery

In the time-honored tradition of the classic British mystery, a house party goes terribly awry when one of the guests is murdered and the host disappears. Mark Ablett, owner of the Red House, enjoys collecting people around him, so the house party includes such diverse characters as his private secretary, a military man, an actress, and several idle young people. The party appears to be going well until Ablett learns that his brother, the black sheep of the family who had been living in Australia, will be visiting the Red House for an unspecified but sinister reason. When Robert is inevitably murdered, Mark is nowhere to be found. Is he the murderer, or did someone else in the house party do the deed? Young man-about-town Antony Gillingham just happens to arrive on the scene at a pivotal moment, so he decides to try his skill as an amateur detective; but ultimately he discovers that the solution to the mystery is far more tragic than amusing.

When I came across this book a few years ago, I was delighted to discover that the creator of Winnie the Pooh had written a mystery story! It follows many conventions of the classic Golden Age mystery — such as being “fair,” with all clues presented to the reader as the detective discovers them — but it turned out to be a bit darker and sadder than I was expecting. Tony discovers the murderer’s identity fairly early in the book, so the bulk of the mystery lies in discovering how and why the deed was done. And the thing is, I found the murderer very sympathetic! So I was disappointed that this character turned out to be the guilty party. Also, unlike many mysteries from this period, this book doesn’t contain much humor, nor are there any subplots to lighten the mood of suspense and doom. Tony’s sidekick provides a few funny moments, but otherwise the tone remains pretty dark. Finally, Tony’s character isn’t developed very much, which disappointed me; he seemed really interesting, and I would have liked to know more about his backstory. The book is still worth reading if you enjoy Golden Age mysteries, but I have to admit, it wasn’t my favorite.

Review: In Tearing Haste

In Tearing HasteCharlotte Mosley, ed., In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor

Deborah Devonshire began life as the youngest of the (in)famous Mitford sisters, but she unexpectedly became the duchess of Devonshire when her husband, Andrew Cavendish, inherited the duchy from his brother. Patrick Leigh Fermor was a travel writer who became a war hero by kidnapping the commanding German officer on the Nazi-occupied island of Crete. (The movie “Ill Met by Moonlight” is a fictionalized account of his experience.) The two first met when Deborah was still a young debutante, but they eventually formed a deep friendship, as well as a correspondence that would last for more than half a century. Although “darling Paddy” and “darling Debo” lived through many political upheavals and personal tragedies, their letters to each other always remained upbeat, humorous, and cheerful.

I usually find nonfiction very slow going, but this book was a pleasure to read. Both “Debo” and “Paddy” wrote in a lively conversational style that’s very easy to read, and I felt truly immersed in their day-to-day lives. Patrick often wrote about the various exotic places he visited, including the little town in Greece where he and his wife eventually settled. Deborah largely stayed on the Devonshire estates in England and Ireland, where she waxed poetic about sheep breeding and various fox-hunting excursions. The book also provides some fascinating insights into the psychology of the British upper classes: for example, Deborah mentions, with the utmost casualness, dining with President Kennedy several times. Though there’s not much in-depth discussion of the historical events through which they lived, anyone who is interested in reading a firsthand account of the 20th century should pick up this book! I’d also recommend it for fans of the Mitfords or early 20th-century British literature in general.

Review: The Young Clementina

Young Clementina, TheD.E. Stevenson, The Young Clementina

Charlotte Dean can’t remember a time when she wasn’t in love with Garth Wisdon, her childhood playmate and next-door neighbor. Although Charlotte is merely the daughter of the local vicar, while Garth is the heir to a large estate, she grows up confident that they will marry someday. As they reach adulthood, Garth seems to reciprocate her feelings, but their love is arrested by the outbreak of World War I. Garth goes off to fight in the war, and when he returns, Charlotte no longer recognizes the man she once knew. The new Garth is angry and cynical and seems to hold her in contempt. Nevertheless, she is still overwhelmed with shock when he quickly becomes engaged to her younger sister, Kitty. Now Charlotte is living in a shabby flat in London, where she has little contact with Garth and Kitty. But a tragic turn of events brings them both back into her life — along with their strange, shy daughter, Clementina — and Charlotte must make a decision that could alter the entire course of her life.

I’m so glad Sourcebooks is reprinting the novels of D.E. Stevenson, because I’ve really enjoyed all the ones I’ve read so far! This book is a bit more somber than her Miss Buncle series, but it’s still a nice, leisurely, and ultimately sweet read. I was expecting the central storyline to be a romance, but really the book is much more about Charlotte’s growth as she is forced out of her comfort zone. In the beginning, it’s a bit difficult to feel much sympathy for her because she accepts her sister’s betrayal so passively. But as she emerges from her solitary cocoon and starts to cultivate friendships, she becomes a much stronger person who is capable of standing on her own two feet. On the other hand, I never felt much sympathy for Garth, even after he explained his actions; in my opinion, everything he suffered throughout the novel was his own stupid fault! But overall, I’d definitely recommend this book to people who like slower-paced, old-fashioned books with a contemplative feel.

Review: The Haunted Bookshop

Haunted Bookshop, TheChristopher Morley, The Haunted Bookshop

In this sequel to Parnassus on Wheels, bibliophile Roger Mifflin has temporarily abandoned his traveling bookstore for a more permanent location on Gissing Street in Brooklyn. He calls his store the Haunted Bookshop, claiming that it is “haunted” by the ghosts of great literature. One day a young salesman named Aubrey Gilbert enters the store, hoping to persuade Roger to advertise with his firm; instead, the two men have an intense discussion that leaves Aubrey with a newfound appreciation for literature. When Aubrey returns to the shop a few days later, he is immediately smitten with Titania Chapman, the beguiling new shopgirl. But as he starts to visit the store more regularly, he notices something strange: an old and rather obscure volume keeps disappearing from the Haunted Bookshop and then re-appearing without warning. Is there a literary-minded thief frequenting the bookstore, or is something more sinister at work?

This is one of those cozy little books that take you back to a simpler time, and I found it absolutely charming! Roger Mifflin’s enthusiasm for books is infectious, and the novel is full of his musings on literature, both in general and about specific books. Unfortunately, I didn’t recognize most of the titles he mentioned, presumably because they’ve gone out of fashion (and print!) since the book was published in 1919. But this is definitely the type of book that reminds me of the huge number of books in the world that I still haven’t read! The mystery plot is clever, though very slight and easy to guess (and very much a product of its time). I also liked the central characters, especially Aubrey, who makes a lot of endearing mistakes in his quest to solve the mystery and win Titania’s heart. All in all, I finished this book wishing that I could stop by the Haunted Bookshop for dinner and a literary discussion with these characters.

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: Love Irresistibly

Love IrresistiblyJulie James, Love Irresistibly

Brooke Parker is a smart, tough-as-nails lawyer with a very demanding job. As general counsel of an up-and-coming food & beverage provider, she works long hours doing everything from drafting employment contracts to wining and dining new clients. As a result, Brooke has no time to spend on other aspects of her life, especially not a relationship. Meanwhile, Cade Morgan is a former college football star who now works as a federal prosecutor after sustaining a career-ending injury. He dates a variety of women but doesn’t like to get serious with anyone. But when an investigation of a corrupt politician brings Cade and Brooke together, sparks immediately fly between them. At first, they seem to be on the same page, both wanting nothing more than a casual fling. But as they spend more time together, Brooke and Cade start to develop genuine feelings for one another. Will they be brave enough to go beyond the superficial and really commit to each other?

Julie James is the author who convinced me that not all romance novels are terrible, and she’s been on my auto-buy list for a long time. But for some reason, I wasn’t terribly fond of this book. It’s certainly a fun, quick read with a lot of good points. For example, I liked the fact that there were no contrived obstacles or Big Misunderstandings keeping Brooke and Cade apart; their hesitations seemed genuine and realistic. I also loved Brooke’s friend Ford (give him his own book, please!) and Cade’s FBI buddies. They may be there for sequel fodder, but they’re also fun characters in their own right. However, I just couldn’t get invested in the romance betwen Brooke and Cade. Maybe it’s because they’re both annoyingly perfect, with supermodel good looks and prestigious, high-paying jobs. Even though they each have a backstory that provides them with a smidgeon of depth, they just seemed like generic hot people to me. That said, I haven’t given up on Julie James and will definitely be reading her next book!