Review: The Penguin Pool Murder

penguin pool murderStuart Palmer, The Penguin Pool Murder

When schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers, a “spinster” of 39, takes her third-grade class to the New York Aquarium, she expects nothing more than an educational outing for her students. But first she thwarts a pickpocket by tripping him with her umbrella, and then she discovers a dead body in the penguin tank. Not the sort of person to miss a chance to investigate, Miss Withers quickly befriends Inspector Oscar Piper, the policeman in charge of the murder case. Through a combination of usefulness (she takes shorthand notes of the initial witness statements) and sheer stubbornness, she is allowed to accompany Piper throughout the investigation. Suspicion immediately falls on the dead man’s wife and her former lover, who were both at the aquarium on the fateful day; but Miss Withers isn’t convinced, and her intelligence and determination eventually enable her to solve the case.

I enjoyed this mystery, although it’s a fairly typical example of the Golden Age detective novel. There are a few creative touches — such as one of the penguins swallowing a key piece of evidence — and I enjoyed the repartee between Miss Withers and Inspector Piper, although I wish their relationship had been a bit more fleshed out. In fact, I wanted more character development all around, but that does tend to be a weakness of mysteries from this era, and I wouldn’t quibble so much if the plot had been more inventive. But instead everything unfolds pretty much as expected, from spurious confessions to various motive-related revelations to a second death. I also guessed the murderer’s identity fairly early on. The final chapter, in which the solution is explained, does contain one delightful surprise, which I won’t spoil. But all in all, this book isn’t particularly special — which doesn’t mean it’s not a good read! It just doesn’t deviate much from the traditional formula, so if you’re looking for something with a lot of surprises, this may not be the book for you.

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Mini-reviews: Winter, Wed, Spy

Winter in JuneKathryn Miller Haines, Winter in June

In this installment of the Rosie Winter series, Rosie and her best pal Jayne have joined the USO, and they’re headed for the South Pacific to entertain the troops. There, Rosie gets involved in various forms of trouble, from disagreements with the local WAAC corps to mysterious thefts of military supplies to an inevitable murder investigation. In the meantime, she’s also looking for her ex-boyfriend Jack, who was rumored to have resurfaced in the South Pacific. It’s been years since I read the first two books in this series, and I think I’ve just lost my taste for it. I couldn’t remember who one character was at all, although he was apparently a big part of the first book. And I didn’t find Rosie consistent as a character, although I did still find her voice fairly enjoyable. I’ll read the fourth and final book in this series, just to see how everything turns out, but this series is not a keeper for me.

Someone to WedMary Balogh, Someone to Wed

Wren Hayden longs for the companionship of marriage, but a “disfiguring” birthmark on her face has led her to become a recluse. Nevertheless, she thinks her large fortune might be enough to induce someone to marry her. Alexander Westcott has unexpectedly inherited an earldom, along with the debts and huge financial responsibilities that go with it. He knows he must marry a rich wife, but Wren’s forthright proposal shocks and troubles him. He agrees to test the waters, hoping that at least friendship and respect can grow between them. But can Wren overcome her insecurities and be open to the possibility of a real relationship? I really felt for Wren in this book, and I liked that she and Alex aren’t immediately attracted to one another. In fact, he has to overcome some revulsion — not so much from the birthmark, but from Wren’s cold demeanor toward him. Their relationship is not romanticized, if that makes sense; it felt plausible and real. Another winner from Balogh!

Spy Wore RedAline, Countess of Romanones, The Spy Wore Red

This is a fast-paced, entertaining memoir that reads more like a spy thriller. Aline Griffith was a young woman working as a model in New York, when a chance encounter with a US intelligence operative propelled her into the world of espionage. The book covers her training and her first assignment in Spain, where she must get close to various people suspected of being German spies. The narrative has everything an espionage lover could wish for: code names, double agents, assassination attempts, and even a bullfight or two! Highly recommended for people who like spy novels or who are interested in WW2-era intelligence work.

Review: The Napoleon of Crime

Napoleon of CrimeBen Macintyre, The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief

Ben Macintyre’s enthusiasm for larger-than-life historical figures is evident once again in this biography of Adam Worth, one of the most notorious thieves and con artists of the late 19th century. Worth began his criminal career as a pickpocket but soon established himself as a gang leader, gaining notoriety through planning a series of successful bank jobs. Eventually Worth set up shop in London, where he created a public persona as a wealthy English gentleman, which he was able to maintain for decades even while continuing his criminal activities. His crowning achievement was the theft of Gainsborough’s famous portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Worth’s criminal genius, plus his short stature, prompted a Scotland Yard detective to dub him the “Napoleon of the criminal world” — a phrase famously used to describe the ultimate fictional criminal mastermind, Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis Moriarty.

I’m a big fan of Ben Macintyre’s books about World War II-era espionage, so I was excited to try this book even though it has a different subject matter. I’m not sure if it was the different focus or the fact that I was extremely busy in real life at the time, but I just couldn’t get into this book the same way I did with Operation Mincemeat, for example. I think Macintyre overstates his thesis, which is that Worth was the real-life inspiration for Moriarty; the evidence that exists really doesn’t seem very conclusive. Also, he focuses a lot on Worth’s theft of the Gainsborough painting and engages in some psychological speculation about Worth’s supposed obsession, which according to Macintyre had a sexual component. In this area, there really seems to be NO evidence supporting the book’s claims! I did find the interactions between Worth and William Pinkerton (yes, one of those Pinkertons) to be very interesting and would have loved the book to focus more on that relationship. Overall, the book is entertaining enough, but I didn’t like it as much as I expected to.

Review: Ghostly Echoes

ghostly echoesWilliam Ritter, Ghostly Echoes

This third installment of the Jackaby series focuses on Jenny Cavanaugh, the resident ghost of 926 Augur Lane. She was brutally murdered 10 years ago, and now she is finally ready for her friends Jackaby and Abigail to investigate. As they begin to research the case, they realize that Jenny’s murder may be connected to recent disturbing events in New Fiddleham. Their investigation leads them to the eerie pale man who lurked at the edges of Beastly Bones, to a group of scientists with a sinister plan, and even to the Underworld itself. Meanwhile, Jenny continues to grow in confidence, even as she grapples with the question of what will happen to her when her murder is finally solved. Abigail’s mettle is tested as never before, and glimpses of Jackaby’s mysterious past are finally revealed.

I read this book a couple months ago, and I’m afraid I may not be remembering the plot very clearly; no doubt my summary has left some things out. But this is an exciting installment of the series, pulling together some of the plot threads from earlier books and setting the stage for a magical showdown in the fourth and final novel. I liked that we finally get a little insight into Jackaby’s past and some of the more unusual aspects of his personality, and it was also nice to learn more about Jenny, who is a fairly minor character in the first two books. The solution to the murder mystery is very clever, but I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that it ties into a much larger story arc that won’t be resolved until book four. The first two books in the series are much more episodic, but this one definitely can’t be read as a stand-alone novel. However, I’m certainly intrigued enough to pick up The Dire King and see how everything turns out!

Review: The English Wife

English WifeLauren Willig, The English Wife

In the winter of 1899, Bayard van Duyvil and his highborn English wife, Annabelle, are at the pinnacle of New York high society. Wealthy and attractive, with two young children and a brand-new estate, they seem to be the perfect couple — that is, until their Twelfth Night ball, when Bayard is found murdered and Annabelle goes missing. Rumors abound that Annabelle killed her husband, but Bayard’s sister Janie is not convinced. With the help of dashing journalist James Burke, Janie is determined to discover what really happened to Bay and Annabelle. But she soon learns that their relationship was much more complicated than it appeared.

I always enjoy Lauren Willig’s books, but I find that I definitely prefer her light and fluffy Pink Carnation series to her more serious historical novels. I enjoyed the setting of this one, and I liked Janie a lot — I’m always a fan of characters who have to grow into their strength. The romance between Janie and James was also satisfying, albeit quite predictable. However, I wasn’t a huge fan of the secondary narrative, which takes place five years earlier and is told from the point of view of Georgie, an actress who meets Bayard while he’s visiting London. I liked Georgie but disliked Bayard more and more as the story went on. I also found Janie’s story more interesting, so I was annoyed when the book’s focus shifted away from her. Overall, I found this an enjoyable read, but it’s not a keeper for me.

Review: Unexpected Night

Unexpected NightElizabeth Daly, Unexpected Night

This first novel in the Henry Gamadge series centers around Amberley Cowden, a young man who stands to inherit millions of dollars on his 21st birthday—assuming he lives that long. He has a chronic heart condition, and it’s only a matter of time before he has a fatal attack. But when his body is found at the bottom of a cliff on the very day he turns 21, his death can’t help but raise suspicions. The local police mount an investigation that leads to a nearby theater troupe, another mysterious death, and the attempted murder of Alma, Amberley’s cousin and heiress. Henry Gamadge, who knows some of Amberley’s relatives, assists the police in their investigation, and his expertise in handwriting analysis proves valuable in solving the case.

Although it’s not particularly groundbreaking, I enjoyed this Golden Age mystery very much. The plot is a little bloated in places, but I found the ultimate solution ingenious. I also liked the character of Henry Gamadge, although he’s very involved with an investigation he really has no right to be involved with — a fact that several of the other characters point out! But I like that he cooperates so well with the local police, rather than trying to investigate on his own. Stylistically, I didn’t like the fact that dialogue tags are very infrequent; it’s often not immediately obvious who is speaking, although I could generally figure it out from context. Still, that quibble aside, I liked this book and am excited to read more in the Henry Gamadge series.

Review: I Heart New York

I Heart New YorkLindsey Kelk, I Heart New York

This chick lit novel follows Angela Clark, an English girl whose life is turned upside-down when she catches her long-term boyfriend cheating on her, then finds out that all her friends already knew. Feeling heartbroken and betrayed, Angela impulsively hops on a plane from London to New York, where she immediately falls in love with the city. Her new BFF Jenny shows her around town, takes her shopping, and gives her a ton of advice on life, love, and the perfect makeup products. Angela is excited about her new adventure but hesitant to start dating again — that is, until she meets two gorgeous men, Wall Street finance guy Tyler and Brooklyn-based musician Alex. But who is truly the right guy for her? And when Angela is faced with two great job opportunities, one in New York and one back in London, she must make an even bigger decision: will she go back to her old life or embrace her newfound happiness in New York?

I’ve read and enjoyed some other books by Lindsey Kelk, so I was excited to read this one. Unfortunately, I found it pretty disappointing. I expected it to be light and fluffy — indeed, that’s what I’m usually looking for with this type of book — but it was so insubstantial that I completely lost interest. Angela has a fun narrative voice, but she doesn’t seem to care about anything except shopping and dating. And while readers are clearly supposed to be rooting for one of Angela’s suitors over the other, I found them both pretty obnoxious. The economics of this book also frustrated me. Angela is a freelance writer and not working on any particular project when the book begins, yet she is somehow able to afford (1) a last-minute trans-Atlantic flight, (2) several nights in a boutique Manhattan hotel, (3) half the rent on a Manhattan apartment, and (4) thousands of dollars’ worth of designer clothes, handbags, and shoes, all within a period of about three weeks. I mean, I get that this is supposed to be a wish-fulfillment fantasy type of story, but I still wasn’t able to suspend my disbelief. I would say that if you genuinely wish you were Carrie Bradshaw, you might like this book, but I was not a fan.

Review: Discount Armageddon

Discount ArmageddonSeanan McGuire, Discount Armageddon

Verity Price is a cocktail waitress and aspiring professional ballroom dancer living in New York City. But she’s also a cryptozoologist who studies the paranormal inhabitants of Manhattan — everything from ghouls to bogeymen, shapeshifters to the Tooth Fairy. To Verity, cryptids are part of the natural order and should be left alone unless they start harming humans. But not everyone sees it that way, particularly the Covenant of St. George, an ancient order sworn to exterminate all cryptids. Now a member of the Covenant, Dominic de Luca, has arrived in New York; and between his rigid views and his attractive physique, he’s trouble for Verity in more ways than one. Not to mention that there are rumors of a dragon — a species long assumed to be extinct — sleeping underneath the city, and someone seems to be trying to wake it up.

I’m a longtime fan of Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye series, but I haven’t been as enthusiastic about the last few books. So I guess it’s not surprising that I wasn’t a huge fan of this novel either. If you love Toby, you’ll also love Verity; she’s the same type of tough woman who will toss off quip after quip while she’s kicking the bad guy’s ass. But for me, the two characters feel almost too similar, and I’m over the schtick. I do think the world-building is very creative, and it was fun to read about the different types of cryptids and their various abilities. I also enjoyed the romance between Verity and Dominic, although every beat of it is predictable. I wish there had been more ballroom dancing, honestly; it would have been a fun distraction from the main plot, which involves a snake cult (!) and several trips into Manhattan’s sewer system. Maybe I’m being unfair to this book because I’m getting a bit burned out on the author, but I’m not particularly interested in continuing with the series.

Review: The Wedding Date

Wedding Date, TheJasmine Guillory, The Wedding Date

Alexa Monroe gets into an elevator in a swanky San Francisco hotel. At first she doesn’t even notice that the elevator is already occupied, but when it gets stuck due to a temporary power outage, she finds herself making conversation with the handsome, outgoing Drew Nichols. Alexa and Drew have undeniable chemistry, and eventually Drew makes an unusual proposal: he’s supposed to be a groomsman in the wedding of his ex-girlfriend, and he needs a date. Alexa agrees to be his fake girlfriend, but the sparks that fly between them at the wedding are very real. But their fledgling romance is hindered by distance and their busy careers — he’s a pediatric surgeon in L.A., she’s the mayor of Berkeley’s chief of staff — and by Drew’s fear of commitment. Can they overcome these obstacles to make a relationship work?

There’s a lot to like in this charming, romantic novel, but for some reason I just wasn’t feeling it. Both Alexa and Drew are likable characters (albeit somewhat generic), and I loved that they both had jobs and friends and lives outside of the romance. I was especially happy that, contrary to the usual rom-com trope, Drew’s friend Carlos isn’t a dirtbag and actually gives Drew good advice about his relationship! I also enjoyed the detail that this is an interracial relationship — Alexa is black, Drew is white — and that it impacts the plot without being a Huge Issue. I think my problem was that the main conflict is a little banal. Drew’s afraid of commitment, but we never really learn why. The long-distance factor is supposedly an obstacle, but Drew and Alexa don’t try to convince each other to move, nor do they struggle with the idea of moving themselves. It just seemed odd to me that these obstacles aren’t explored in greater depth. So overall, this was a fun read, but nothing particularly special for me.

Review: Now That You Mention It

Now That You Mention ItKristan Higgins, Now That You Mention It

By all appearances, Nora Stuart has a great life: she’s a successful doctor living in Boston with her gorgeous boyfriend. But when said boyfriend dumps her while she’s in the hospital recovering from a car accident, she decides to reevaluate her life. She returns to her hometown of Scupper Island, Maine, to recover from her injuries, but in doing so she opens a lot of old wounds. Her relationship with her mother has always been distant, and the townspeople in general haven’t forgiven her for “stealing” a college scholarship from golden boy Luke Fletcher. As Nora starts to rebuild her life, she strives to mend fences, with mixed results. But with the help of a few new friends — and a possible new romance — she eventually feels ready to embrace life again.

Overall, I really loved this book. I found Nora very relatable and likable — in fact, almost too likable and sweet, given how much crap she’s gone through in her life. The chapters that describe her high school experience are downright heartbreaking, and I couldn’t help being angry at nearly every other character because they didn’t give her the love she so desperately needed. Also, there’s one absolutely horrifying scene in which she is the victim of a home invasion; her attacker attempts to rape and murder her, and it’s a very, very hard scene to read. On the one hand, I think it’s important to confront the reality that this happens to women all the time, and it should be disturbing and terrifying. On the other hand, I’m not exactly looking for that in my light fiction, you know? Except for that scene, though, the book is a compelling and ultimately uplifting read. Recommended for fans of women’s fiction with some weight to it.