Mini-Reviews: Sapphire, Scandalous, Red, Silver

Singapore SapphireSlightly ScandalousRed NecklaceSilver Blade

A.M. Stuart, Singapore Sapphire

I love a historical mystery, and this book’s uncommon setting of 1910 Singapore intrigued me, so I decided to give it a try. Overall, I liked but didn’t love it. Protagonist Harriet Gordon is a widow living with her brother and eking out a meager living as a typist. She’s been hired to type Sir Oswald Newbold’s memoirs, but after only a day of work, the man’s throat is cut. Inspector Robert Curran is on the case, and while he and Harriet get off to a bad start, they soon become friendly as they work together to solve the mystery. I think the mystery itself hangs together well, but it definitely takes a backseat to the setting and characters. It was interesting to get a glimpse of Singapore at this point in time, which was home to so many different cultures, both Asian and European. But if you’re looking for a novel with diverse characters, this isn’t it — there are a few Asian secondary characters, but they’re quite two-dimensional and have no impact on the story. Overall, I’m curious enough to give the next book a try, but this one fell a bit flat for me.

Mary Balogh, Slightly Scandalous

This third book in the Bedwyn saga focuses on Lady Freyja Bedwyn, who is much bolder and more direct than the typical Regency lady. Having grown up with four brothers, she can shoot and ride and box with the best of them. She’s also in no hurry to marry; most of the fashionable society men bore her, and she’s still not over a former flame who recently married someone else (as told in A Summer to Remember, though you don’t need to read that book to understand this one). But when Joshua Moore, marquess of Hallmere, proposes a fake betrothal, Freyja agrees to the scheme, not realizing that there is more to Josh than meets the eye. I continue to enjoy the Bedwyn books, and this might be my favorite so far! Freyja hasn’t been particularly likable in the previous books, but this novel gave her much more dimension. And the roguish Joshua, whose carefree manner and bad reputation hide his true goodness, is a hero after my own heart. The book does have some moments of cheesiness, but overall I liked it a lot and look forward to more of the Bedwyns. I find myself more and more excited for Wulfric’s book!

Sally Gardner, The Red Necklace and The Silver Blade

This YA fantasy duology set during the French Revolution focuses on Yann, a Gypsy boy with unusual gifts, and Sido, an aristocratic girl with a neglectful father. They meet in The Red Necklace when Yann’s theater troupe performs at Sido’s father’s house, and they are immediately drawn to one another. But when the troupe falls afoul of the powerful and evil Count Kalliovski, Yann must flee the country. Later, when Kalliovski sets his sights on Sido as a bride, Yann returns to rescue her. In The Silver Blade, Yann continues to rescue aristocrats from the guillotine, while Sido waits in England. But his plans are once again thwarted by Kalliovski, who wants Yann’s magic for himself. I found these books enjoyable enough — loved the French Revolution setting and the Pimpernel-esque elements — but didn’t like that they spend just as much time (if not more) on the villain as on the heroes. As a result, Yann and Sido don’t have much dimension; I wanted more time with them and less time describing just how evil Kalliovski is. I’m glad I read these books, but now they can leave my shelves to make room for something new!

Mini-Reviews: English, Havana, Watch

English WitchNext Year in HavanaOne to Watch

Loretta Chase, The English Witch

This book is the sequel to Isabella, which I read and enjoyed a few months ago, and the villain of that book is now the hero. Basil Trevelyan has been away from England for several years, working for a prosperous merchant and doing the odd job for the British government along the way. Now, at his aunt’s behest, he must rescue the beautiful Alexandra Ashmore, first from peril in Albania and then from an unwanted engagement in England. Though Basil is by nature a womanizer whose first goal is to pursue his own pleasure, he begins to develop genuine feelings for Alexandra. The fun of this book is watching Basil (1) recognize that he is capable of feeling actual love, not just desire, and (2) hilariously fail every time he tries to articulate his feelings. I’d recommend this book (as well as Isabella) to those who enjoy their historical romance on the lighter side, with lots of plot and minimal angst.

Chanel Cleeton, Next Year in Havana

In 1958, Elisa Perez is the daughter of a wealthy Cuban family. Despite unrest throughout the country and popular discontent with Batista’s regime, her life is mostly occupied with suitors and social engagements. But when she falls in love with Pablo, an intense and dedicated revolutionary, Elisa must rethink what it means to be loyal to her country. In the present day, Elisa has just passed away in Miami, and her granddaughter Marisol is returning to Cuba to lay Elisa’s ashes to rest. Marisol is excited to visit her family’s homeland but soon realizes that her Cuban American identity is more complex than she realized. There’s nothing wrong with this book, but it never really grabbed me and took me a long time to finish. I found the historical background about Cuba fascinating — and sadly new to me, since I learned basically nothing about the country in school — but the individual characters and circumstances weren’t compelling. That said, Cleeton wrote a follow-up book featuring Elisa’s sister Beatriz, and I might be curious enough to seek that one out at some point.

Kate Stayman-London, One to Watch

Bea Schumacher is a plus-sized fashion blogger with a certain amount of internet fame. But when she writes a drunken rant criticizing the lack of body diversity on a Bachelor-style reality show, her piece goes viral, and she is unexpectedly offered the chance to become the next season’s star. Twenty-five men will compete for her affection on camera, and at the end of the season, she’ll become “engaged” to the winner. Bea agrees, but she’s hesitant; despite her efforts to accept her body, she knows that the world isn’t always kind to fat people, and she doubts whether any of the men on the show will truly be interested in her. But as the show is filmed, she finds both rejection and affirmation in surprising places. I enjoyed this book a lot! It’s fun and entertaining–a perfect beach read–but as a plus-sized woman myself, I also found Bea incredibly relatable. It was great to see her overcome her doubts and insecurities to find a happy ending. Definitely recommended if you think the premise sounds fun!

Mini-Reviews: Q, Manners, Shades

QMurder Is Bad MannersWell of Shades

Beth Brower, The Q

Quincy St. Claire has put her heart and soul into The Q, a popular publication owned by her Great-Uncle Ezekiel. When Ezekiel dies, she expects to inherit The Q, but she soon discovers that there are conditions attached to the inheritance. She must complete 12 undisclosed tasks within a year, or she’ll lose The Q; and she’ll be supervised in these tasks by James Arch, Ezekiel’s solicitor, whom Quincy thoroughly dislikes. This is a self-published novel, and it shows a bit; the plot tends to meander, and there are several intriguing characters on the sidelines whose stories should have been more developed. But I really enjoyed this book nonetheless; it’s part romance, part coming-of-age tale as Quincy learns what’s really important in life. The setting is great, and I’d love to read more books set in this world! I am definitely interested in reading more by Brower.

Robin Stevens, Murder Is Bad Manners

In a British boarding school in the 1930s, Hazel Wong stands out for being the only student from Hong Kong. Luckily, she’s best friends with Daisy Wells, a quintessentially English girl whose good looks and pleasant demeanor distract everyone — well, everyone but Hazel — from the fact that she’s also highly intelligent. Daisy and Hazel have formed a secret detective society, but so far their cases have been mundane and easy to solve. That is, until Hazel discovers the body of their science teacher on the floor of the gymnasium! I really enjoyed this book; not only is the mystery surprisingly satisfying for a middle-grade novel, but I also loved Hazel and was fascinated by her relationship with Daisy. They may be best friends, but Hazel is often relegated to the role of sidekick. Fortunately, she starts to realize this and to come into her own more as the book goes on. Overall, I liked this a lot and will definitely plan to continue with the series.

Juliet Marillier, The Well of Shades

I read the first two books in the Bridei trilogy years ago, and I finally decided to pick up this final installment. It focuses mainly on Faolan, Bridei’s trusted spy and assassin, who is on the road once again on a mission for Bridei. Things quickly go wrong when Faolan meets Eile, a 16-year-old girl who is clearly trapped in an abusive household. Faolan helps Eile and her daughter to escape, then decides they must travel with him so that he can keep them safe. Meanwhile, intrigue surrounds Bridei’s court once again: one of his biggest allies seems to have betrayed him; his trusted adviser, Broichan the druid, has disappeared; and a group of Christian monks is asking to live in Bridei’s lands, threatening their traditional way of life. I’m glad I finally finished this series, especially because Faolan was one of my favorite characters and I wanted to see a happy resolution for him. I really liked the Faolan/Eile chapters, but I found some of the other sections less interesting, especially everything involving Broichan. Still, I enjoyed the book overall, and it’s reminded me how much I like Juliet Marillier in general!

Mini-Reviews: Steal, Jane, Wicked

Cold StealJane Austen SocietySlightly Wicked

Alice Tilton, Cold Steal

Leonidas Witherall is returning home from a trip around the world, and he’s looking forward to some peace and relaxation. But of course, he’s immediately embroiled in a mystery when he witnesses suspicious activity on a train. Then he is kidnapped by one of his fellow travelers; and when he finally escapes, he discovers the dead body of a local woman in his house! This book, like the previous installments in the series, is pure farce and a lot of fun. But some scenes, where all the characters are talking at cross-purposes and no one is explaining anything, actually stressed me out a bit! The mystery is definitely secondary to the farce; barely any time is spent on actual detection. Still, I enjoy this series and will continue with it at some point. One quick note: I think it would be helpful to read at least book 2, The Cut Direct, before reading this one, as several of the characters are recurring.

Natalie Jenner, The Jane Austen Society

This book, set in 1950s Chawton, is about a group of very different people who are united by their love of Jane Austen and their desire to preserve her legacy. At this time, Chawton is much like any other English village; while some tourists do show up looking for the house where Austen lived, there’s no official effort to preserve her home or other items of historical value. So the self-appointed Jane Austen Society decides to lead this effort. In the meantime, of course, the various society members become entangled in Austen-esque stories of their own. I found this book a pleasant, enjoyable read, but I’m having trouble remembering a lot of the details. It definitely didn’t affect me emotionally in the way that The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society did…perhaps that’s an unfair comparison, but the similar titles and time periods made a connection between the two books in my mind. Overall, though, I did like the book and think it’s a great escapist read for Austen fans!

Mary Balogh, Slightly Wicked

This second book in the Bedwyn series focuses on Judith Law, the daughter of an impoverished clergyman who is destined to live with her aunt as a “poor relation.” But Judith secretly yearns for adventure — and when a chance encounter with the dangerously attractive Rannulf Bedwyn gives her the opportunity to experience a sexual relationship, she takes it. After all, she’s unlikely ever to marry, and this may be her only chance. But when she arrives at her aunt’s home, she is dismayed to learn that Rannulf is in the area visiting his grandmother, and what was meant to be a one-night stand quickly becomes much more complicated. I didn’t enjoy this book as much as other Balogh novels that I’ve read. The premise didn’t do anything for me, and I didn’t particularly connect to Rannulf as a hero; other than his good looks and wealth, I couldn’t see what Judith saw in him. There’s also some cringeworthy dialogue, in the first love scene especially. I still liked the book enough to finish it in two days, but I’m definitely hoping the series improves with subsequent books.

Mini-Reviews: Sacred, Nursing, Swan

Sacred Wood and Major Early EssaysNursing Home MurderMurder on Black Swan Lane

T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood and Major Early Essays

Despite its shortness, this book was a real challenge for me. It’s a collection of essays by T.S. Eliot about literary criticism, mostly focusing on specific critics and their (rare) success and (common) failures. Since I hadn’t heard of, much less read, the vast majority of these critics, I found most of Eliot’s arguments extremely hard to follow. On the other hand, I do think reading this book was good for me — the mental equivalent of strenuous exercise. But this is probably the type of book best read in a college course, with a professor and other students on hand to help make sense of it.

Ngaio Marsh, The Nursing Home Murder

When the Home Secretary contracts acute appendicitis and dies on the operating table, his wife insists that he has been murdered. After all, there’s no shortage of suspects: the man had many political enemies, including one of the nurses who assisted with his operation. Another of the nurses was his mistress, who was devastated when he broke off their relationship. Even the operating surgeon is a suspect, since he’s in love with the mistress himself. Then there are the dead man’s wife and sister, who each inherit a substantial sum under his will. Fortunately, Inspector Alleyn and Sergeant Fox are on the case. I found this a thoroughly enjoyable Golden Age mystery, despite some pejorative discussion of mental illness (referring to it as a “taint” in someone’s heredity, for example). I’m slowly working my way through this series and am glad Ngaio Marsh was so prolific!

Andrea Penrose, Murder on Black Swan Lane

All London society knows about the animosity between the scientifically minded Lord Wrexham and the Reverend Josiah Holworthy. Cartoonist A.J. Quill has even been selling pointed satirical sketches about their feud. So when Holworthy is murdered, Wrexham is the number-one suspect. To clear his name, he hunts down A.J. Quill and discovers that “he” is actually Charlotte Sloane, a poor widow using her artistic talents to earn a meager living. They team up to solve the murder and are soon plunged into a sinister plot involving alchemy. I love a good Regency mystery, so I had high hopes for this book, but I ended up being a little disappointed. It’s not bad, per se, but nothing about it stood out to me, and I doubt I’ll continue with the series.

Mini-Reviews: Isabella, Taken, Scandal

IsabellaNot to Be TakenFirst Comes Scandal

Loretta Chase, Isabella

I’ve liked all of Loretta Chase’s traditional Regencies, and this is no exception. Isabella Latham considers herself an old maid at 26, but she arrives in London for the Season with her two young cousins and is surprised when she acquires multiple suitors. The most notable are Edward Trevelyan, the earl of Hartleigh, and his charming cousin Basil. Isabella is attracted to both men, but they both seem to have ulterior motives: Edward needs a wife to help raise his ward, the young daughter of his deceased best friend, and Basil has his eye on Isabella’s fortune. Naturally Isabella ends up with the right man, and naturally the spurned suitor gets his own book, The English Witch, which I’m looking forward to reading sometime soon! I’ll be interested to see how Chase redeems his character, because he certainly did some morally dubious things in this book.

Anthony Berkeley, Not to Be Taken

I adore Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case, so I was excited to try another one of his mysteries. But overall, I was a bit disappointed. While this book is well written, the style is entertaining, and the mystery plot hangs together well, there’s nothing particularly special or surprising about it. It’s a classic murder in a small English village, and only one of the victim’s closest friends could have done it. I did find the story entertaining while reading it, especially near the end, when the narrator gives three or four false solutions before revealing the true one. But unlike The Poisoned Chocolates Case, this one is not a keeper. I’ll happily read more by Berkeley in the future, though!

Julia Quinn, First Comes Scandal

I think of Julia Quinn as the perfect choice for historical romance with some sweet, silly fun and minimal angst. But the last few books of hers that I’ve read have been a bit “meh,” including this one. The heroine is Georgiana Bridgerton, who is forcibly abducted by one of her suitors and therefore “ruined,” even though nothing actually happened. The hero, Henry Rokesby, is a medical student who’s not particularly interested in marriage. But the Rokesbys and Bridgertons have been neighbors and close friends for many years, so Henry’s father convinces him to propose to Georgiana and salvage her reputation. I liked the premise and the fact that the book is very light on conflict, but the style got on my nerves. I felt like Quinn was trying too hard to be clever, and I also found a lot of the dialogue distractingly anachronistic. So I wouldn’t recommend this one unless you’re a Quinn completist.

Mini-Reviews: Necromancer, Dimple, Scrapbook

Death of the NecromancerWhen Dimple Met RishiScrapbook of Frankie Pratt

Martha Wells, The Death of the Necromancer

This gaslamp fantasy follows Nicholas Valliarde, otherwise known as Donatien, the leader of a notorious criminal enterprise in the city of Vienne. He has one goal: to ruin the life of the Count of Montesq, who had Nicholas’s foster-father executed on a false charge of necromancy. In the middle of a heist that would further this goal, however, Nicholas runs into an unexpectedly life-threatening situation and soon learns that a real necromancer may be at work in the city. I really enjoyed this novel, especially the setting, which is like a fantastical version of 18th-century France. There’s also a really great friendship that arises between Nicholas and the police inspector who’s been tracking his criminal alter-ego. I will definitely continue with the Ile-Rien series, although this one stands alone quite well.

Sandhya Menon, When Dimple Met Rishi

Dimple and Rishi are Indian American teens who have never met, but their parents are friends and have tentatively arranged a marriage between them. Rishi knows about the arrangement and is happy about it; he loves his family and his culture, and he trusts his parents to choose an appropriate wife for him. Dimple, on the other hand, is more interested in computer coding than marriage, and she’s desperate to attend a prestigious summer program — one that Rishi happens to be attending also. When they meet, Dimple is enraged to discover the marriage arrangement. But the more she gets to know Rishi, the more she ends up liking him. This is a cute YA rom-com with insight into a culture I know little about. I recommend it if the premise intrigues you!

Caroline Preston, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt

This “novel in pictures” tells the story of Frances “Frankie” Pratt, an ambitious American girl who leaves her hometown to attend college, then travel to New York and Paris in hopes of becoming a writer. The book purports to be Frankie’s scrapbook of these eventful years of her life, with just a few sentences of narration on each page. The photos are of authentic 1920s artifacts — advertisements, ticket stubs, postcards, and the like — and I was very impressed by the author’s dedication to finding these artifacts and creating a story around them. That said, the scrapbook conceit is the cleverest part of the book; the plot and characters are all fairly two-dimensional. Still, this is a fun, quick read that would appeal to people who enjoy scrapbooking or are fascinated by the 1920s.

Mini-Reviews: Mask, Winter, Unlimited

Grey MaskWinter of the WitchDetection Unlimited

Patricia Wentworth, Grey Mask

Charles Moray has just returned to England after four years abroad. When he reaches his home, he is surprised to find that it is unlocked and that a secret meeting is taking place inside. He learns that the intruders are members of a criminal organization led by an unknown man in a grey mask. He also sees Margaret Langton — the woman he once loved, who broke off their engagement right before the wedding with no explanation — enter the house and speak with Grey Mask. Charles decides not to go to the police but to investigate the matter himself. He and Margaret eventually team up to save a beautiful young heiress who is in danger from the gang and to discover the identity of Grey Mask. I thought this book would be somewhat cheesy and campy, but in fact I really enjoyed it! I will definitely read more by Patricia Wentworth; this is technically the first book in the Miss Silver series, but Miss Silver is a pretty marginal character in this installment.

Katherine Arden, The Winter of the Witch

I loved the first two books in this trilogy, The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, and this book was a fitting conclusion to the series. I love the setting, which is essentially a magical version of medieval Russia that contains various elements of Russian folklore. I also really like that the series doesn’t shy away from consequences: although Vasilisa is a sympathetic heroine, sometimes her choices have unexpected or unintended effects on those close to her. It’s a morally complex universe where no one is completely good or evil, and I liked that the book has some sympathy for even the most destructive characters. My only complaint is that the novel is a bit slow-moving, but if you liked earlier books in the series, you should definitely read this last installment!

Georgette Heyer, Detection Unlimited

I love Georgette Heyer, but this isn’t one of my favorite of her mysteries. I’m a little surprised that I feel this way, though, because the mystery plot itself is one of her strongest. It’s a simple setup: a universally disliked man is shot in his garden, and everyone seems to have an alibi for the time of death. I thought the solution was clever and hung together well, although I was a bit disappointed in the choice of murderer because I liked that character! But the reason I didn’t totally love this book is that there’s a lot of padding surrounding the mystery plot; most of the book is just descriptions of the various characters and how they interact with one another. And while Heyer is great at characterization, I just wanted the story to go somewhere!

Mini-reviews: Henrietta’s, Matrimonial, Austen

Henrietta's WarMatrimonial AdvertisementAusten Escape

Joyce Dennys, Henrietta’s War: News from the Home Front 1939-1942

I greatly enjoyed this charming epistolary novel, which is both written and set during World War II. The titular Henrietta writes to her childhood friend Robert, who is off fighting somewhere in France, and describes daily life in her rural English village. Despite the constant presence of the war in the background, Henrietta mostly focuses on the mundane, humorous aspects of life. A pleasant and uplifting book.

Mimi Matthews, The Matrimonial Advertisement

Last year I read Matthews’s novella, A Holiday by Gaslight, and enjoyed it so much that I wanted to seek out some of her full-length novels. This one, the first in her Parish Orphans of Devon series, is a “proper” Victorian romance (i.e., no explicit content) that centers around a marriage of convenience. Justin needs a wife to manage his remote, secluded estate, and Helena needs a safe place to hide from her past. The book definitely justified my high expectations, and I can’t wait to continue with the series!

Katherine Reay, The Austen Escape

I’ve read one other book by Reay, Dear Mr. Knightley, and I wasn’t a huge fan. But when I got this novel as a gift, I decided to give the author another chance. Unfortunately, I didn’t like this book either — something about the writing style just grates on my nerves. I also found the heroine obnoxious and unsympathetic, and I have no idea what her love interest saw in her. I was frankly appalled by one major plot point: the heroine’s best friend, who has a history of mental health issues, starts to believe she’s living in Jane Austen’s time…and nobody seems to think this is something that needs immediate medical attention! So all in all, I wasn’t a fan, and I’m pretty sure I’m done with this author.

Review: A Question of Proof

Question of ProofNicholas Blake, A Question of Proof

This first book in the Nigel Strangeways mystery series is set at an English boys’ prep school called Sudeley Hall. One of the schoolmasters, Michael Evans, is in love with Hero, the headmaster’s wife. They’ve been having a passionate affair for two months, but so far they’ve successfully managed to keep it a secret. One afternoon they meet for a rendezvous in a haystack on school property. Unfortunately for them, several hours later the corpse of one of the schoolboys is found in that same haystack. The boy, who was unpopular with both the students and teachers, has clearly been murdered, and it seems as though an outsider couldn’t have done it. Michael’s secret makes him the most likely suspect, a fact which isn’t lost on the local policeman in charge of the case. Luckily, one of Michael’s good friends is amateur detective Nigel Strangeways, who agrees to investigate the murder on the school’s behalf. Nigel is convinced of Michael’s innocence and soon sets his sights on another suspect. But since there’s very little physical evidence in the case, the murderer might get away scot-free.

I enjoyed this Golden Age mystery novel and think it’s a solid example of the genre with a few unique elements. First of all, Nicholas Blake is the pen name of Cecil Day-Lewis, who was Poet Laureate of the UK from 1968 to 1972, and I think his literary background shows in the writing style. The first chapter of the book reads more like a play, with lots of interior monologuing and narration that sounds like stage directions. It’s a clever device that recurs throughout the book, but it’s perhaps a bit overwrought. On the other hand, Day-Lewis was also a schoolmaster for several years, and it’s clear that his experience in this area also provided fodder for the book. The characterization of the schoolboys rings true and is especially fun to read. As for the mystery itself, I liked how the book deals with one question at a time and solves it before proceeding to the next problem — it makes the whole outline of the plot easier to follow, rather than waiting to dump everything on the reader in the last chapter. The revelation of the killer made sense but relied an awful lot on Strangeways’s amateur psychological profiling. Overall, I liked this book fine and will read the next in the series, Thou Shell of Death, which is already on my shelves!