Review: The Star of Kazan

star of kazanEva Ibbotson, The Star of Kazan

Twelve-year-old Annika has never known her parents, but she has grown up surrounded by the love of her kind guardians. Her childhood has been largely carefree: she helps with the cooking and household chores, goes to school, and plays with her friends and neighbors in the little square in Vienna where she lives. But she still dreams of the day when her long-lost mother — who will naturally be beautiful, elegant, and kind — will come looking for her. One day the dream comes true, and Annika is overjoyed when her mother whisks her away to live with her “real” family. But as she spends more time with her biological relatives, she is confused and hurt by their indifference, and she eventually learns that their interest in her may have an ulterior motive.

Ibbotson’s books are the ultimate comfort reads, in my opinion — they’re so sweet and old-fashioned, extolling the virtues of community, kindness, and generosity. This one is geared toward younger readers, which makes some aspects of the plot a little simplistic, particularly the “mystery” of Annika’s newfound relatives and their inconsistent treatment of her. But the book is still very charming, and it paints an absolutely beautiful picture of both Vienna and the Austrian countryside. I’m not normally into books with lots of descriptive details, but this novel really makes me want to visit Austria! I also enjoyed the characters, particularly Annika’s friends Pauline (who is afraid of everything but eventually conquers her fears to help Annika) and Zed (a servant who has a way with horses). Overall, this book hit that happy comfort spot for me, and I would recommend it, along with any of Ibbotson’s other books.

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Mini-reviews: Three, Congress, Twisted, Piccadilly

Case for Three DetectivesCongress of Secrets

Leo Bruce, Case for Three Detectives — This parody of Golden Age detective fiction is an absolute must-read for fans of the real thing! It has all the traditional elements: an ill-fated house party, an impossible murder, a brilliant amateur detective (or three), and a bumbling local policeman. In this case, the three detectives — who bear striking resemblances to Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot, and Father Brown, respectively — use their unique methods to arrive at three different solutions to the crime, while Sergeant Beef reiterates in the background, “But I know who done it!” The humor in this book is quite specific: if you’re unfamiliar with any of the three detectives being parodied, you’re missing out on some of the fun, but Leo Bruce really does get the voices of these three fictional detectives exactly right! Also, I was impressed by the fact that he had to come up with four different plausible solutions to the mystery. I’ll definitely read more by this author, and I wholeheartedly recommend this book to fans of Lord Peter, Poirot, and Father Brown!

Stephanie Burgis, Congress of Secrets — This book checks off so many of my personal boxes, it’s ridiculous: The book is set in the 19th century, specifically at the Congress of Vienna that concluded the Napoleonic wars. Magic exists in the world but is being used by powerful men for very dark purposes. And one of the main characters is a con man! And there’s a romance! So, obviously I was predisposed to like this book, and it did not disappoint. I’ve already acquired more books by Burgis, and I’m excited to have discovered a new-to-me author!

Twisted Sword, ThePiccadilly Jim

Winston Graham, The Twisted Sword — Oof, lots of changes for the Poldarks and Warleggans in this book, and most of them are tragic. I won’t go into specifics for fear of spoilers, but in my opinion this is probably the saddest book in the series. It’s still a very absorbing and enjoyable read, though — after 11 books, I’ve really grown invested in the Poldarks, the Warleggans, and all their friends and neighbors in Cornwall and beyond. What I love is that Graham paints such a complete picture of life at the time, weaving the wider political, social, and economic landscape into his tale of these country families.

P.G. Wodehouse, Piccadilly Jim — I loved this book, which is pure farce of the silliest, most delightful kind! Wodehouse actually spent some time in America writing screenplays and musicals (!), and I could definitely see this book as an old-fashioned screwball comedy! It contains so many tropes of that era — mistaken identities, love aboard a transatlantic vessel, a boxer with a heart of gold — not to mention classic Wodehousian touches like a pair of disapproving aunts and a ludicrous kidnapping scheme. Highly recommended!

Mini-Reviews #5: Summer Reading

All right, time to post some mini-reviews of books I read way back in July! Will I ever catch up with all my reviews? Only time will tell, so stay tuned! 🙂

Death of an AirmanSong for Summer, A

Christopher St. John Sprigg, Death of an Airman — In this mystery centered around an English aviation club, one of its best flyers perishes in a tragic plane crash. Most people assume it’s an accident, but the victim was a first-class pilot, and the inquest revealed nothing wrong with the plane. A few of the club members suggest suicide, but a visiting Australian bishop suspects murder. When the police get involved, they realize the victim’s death may be connected to a much larger criminal organization. I liked this mystery well enough, but I think the strength was definitely in the plot rather than in the characters. For example, for the first several chapters, it looks like the Australian bishop is going to be the sleuth, but suddenly everything switches to the police inspector’s point of view. Still, this was a fun variation on the “impossible crime” mystery with a truly ingenious solution.

Eva Ibbotson, A Song for Summer — Ibbotson’s novels are the ultimate comfort reads! I’d never reread this one before, and I think it’s because the plot moves a bit more slowly than in Ibbotson’s other novels, and the atmosphere is bleaker. It’s still a lovely book, but I definitely find myself returning to A Countess Below Stairs and The Morning Gift much more often.

It Happened One WeddingSpear of Summer Grass, ACrown's Game, The

Julie James, It Happened One Wedding — Julie James was my first contemporary romance author, and she pretty much single-handedly convinced me that not all romance novels are poorly written trash. This is another fun, banter-filled romance between hedge fund manager (?) Sidney and FBI agent Vaughn. They initially dislike each other but are forced to play nice when her sister and his brother get engaged. I think we all know where this is going.

Deanna Raybourn, A Spear of Summer Grass — After scandalizing English society with her outrageous behavior, Delilah Drummond is packed off to British East Africa so she won’t further damage her family’s reputation. Although Delilah is the consummate city girl, with her fashionable dresses and daring bob, she soon falls in love with the African landscape. She also encounters various dangers, from marauding lions to outright murder — and possibly finds love as well. I didn’t particularly like this book, and I’m not sure why. I didn’t dislike it either…I just felt indifferent to it. Delilah reminded me a lot of Phryne Fisher, but while I love Phryne, I didn’t have the same enthusiasm for Delilah. Maybe she was too similar (since I encountered Phryne first)? The romance also made me roll my eyes a bit; the hero is very much an alpha-male caveman type, and he just seemed like a stereotype to me. Overall, a “meh” read.

Evelyn Skye, The Crown’s Game — In an alternate Imperial Russia where magic exists but only a few have the power to wield it, Vika knows she is destined to become the Imperial Enchanter and take her place at the emperor’s side. But then she learns that there is another powerful enchanter in Russia — and that she must defeat him in the Crown’s Game, a magical duel in which the winner becomes Imperial Enchanter and the loser is condemned to death. Little does she know that the other enchanter is Nikolai, whose magic (and handsome face) intrigues her. As Vika and Nikolai get to know each other, they realize they don’t want the Crown’s Game to end in death. But will they be able to find a better solution? I have to admit, this book sort of lost me early on, when Vika is described as having wild red hair with a black streak down the middle. I immediately had a knee-jerk Mary Sue reaction, and I never quite warmed to Vika after that. I did end up somewhat liking the book, particularly for the Russian setting and the lovely descriptions of the magic. I also liked the fact that the stakes are real, and not everybody gets a happy ending. I’ll probably look for the sequel when it comes out. Nevertheless, I was definitely underwhelmed by this one, especially given the amount of hype I’d seen about it.