Mini-Reviews: Crimson, Still

Crimson BoundStill Life

Rosamund Hodge, Crimson Bound

I was pleasantly surprised by this YA fantasy novel, which is a (very) loose retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. Protagonist Rachelle is a bloodbound, doomed to eventually lose her soul to the evil Devourer at the heart of the forest. In the meantime, she works as the king’s hired killer — until he commands her to guard his son Armand, whom she immediately distrusts because the people revere him as a saint. Yet when Rachelle discovers a possible way to change her destiny and defeat the Devourer, Armand may be her only ally. I liked the juicy plot and (of course) the romance, but my favorite aspect of this book is its unexpectedly serious examination of evil and atonement.

Louise Penny, Still Life

I’ve read so many glowing reviews of this series, so I’m a little afraid to say that I didn’t love this first installment. Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t hate it either. I enjoyed the setting of a small town in Quebec, which is charming without being too idealized. And the mystery plot is interesting; I especially liked how the victim’s art contains a clue to the solution. But for one thing, I thought the book was doing too many things at once: introducing the town, describing the victim and her friends, introducing Inspector Gamache and his team…it was a lot to keep track of, and it was hard to tell which characters would turn out to be important. That’s normal for a series opener, of course, but it still made the book difficult to follow.

I also felt that the victim’s friend group was a little smug and snobbish. They’re mostly wealthy, mostly educated, mostly not originally from the small town…whereas some of the lower-class “townie” characters are painted as villains without one redeeming quality. Finally, I thought Agent Nichol was treated a bit unfairly. I read her as being on the autism spectrum (not understanding social cues, not able to see beyond the literal meaning of what people told her), so even though she unquestionably behaves badly, I wanted Gamache (and the book) to treat her with a little more compassion instead of writing her off as a clueless jerk. All that said, I may try the next book in the series, since it won’t have to do as much work of introducing the world and characters.

Mini-reviews: Inevitable, Ready, Loving, Duke

That Inevitable Victorian ThingReady Player One

E.K. Johnston, That Inevitable Victorian Thing — This alt-historical novel is set in a version of the Victorian era in which technology has greatly advanced, leading to innovations such as a computer that predicts a person’s optimal spouse based on his or her genetic code. In this world, heir to the throne Margaret travels to Canada, posing as a commoner to have one last hurrah before she must submit to a computer-arranged marriage. There she meets Helena and August, who have been unofficially promised to each other for years but who both harbor shocking secrets.

I have mixed feelings about this book. I think it succeeds best when it focuses on the changing relationships among the three main characters (if you’re wondering whether there’s a queer love triangle, the answer is yes). On the other hand, I found myself in a situation where I actually wanted more world-building! The book contains some fascinating ideas about how the world might have been different if things had gone differently in the actual Victorian era, but I wish those ideas had been developed more. Also, I think there’s one significant plot weakness: about halfway through the novel, a big secret is revealed about Helena, but the implications of that secret are never really addressed. Not a bad book, by any means, but I didn’t like it nearly as much as I wanted to.

Ernest Cline, Ready Player One — I have to say, I did not enjoy this book at all! I know it’s very popular, and I can see how it would appeal to lovers of ’80s geek culture, but it is emphatically not the book for me. The protagonist, Wade, is a smug know-it-all who thinks he’s better than everyone else because of his dedication to memorizing the minutia of ’80s movies, music, and video games. He’s the kind of guy who will judge you for not knowing some obscure piece of trivia and claim that you’re not a “true fan” of whatever thing. I honestly can’t remember the last book I read whose protagonist annoyed me so much! That said, the overall concept — sort of The Matrix meets The Westing Game — is fun; it just doesn’t make up for the insufferable “hero,” in my opinion.

Loving Cup, TheDuke and I, The

Winston Graham, The Loving Cup — In the 10th Poldark book, Clowance makes a decision about her future; Jeremy struggles with his obsessive, unrequited love for Cuby; and tensions between Valentine and George finally come to a head. I’m so behind on reviews that I’ve actually finished the series now, so I can’t quite remember which events happened in this book versus others. I do remember Jeremy’s ultimate decision regarding Cuby, which was based on TERRIBLE advice from Ross! I also didn’t love the continued presence of Stephen Carrington, who starts to rehabilitate himself only to fall even more spectacularly. Still, I really enjoyed the series overall, and this installment did some important place-setting for the final two books.

Julia Quinn, The Duke and I — I’d read one Julia Quinn book previously (Just Like Heaven) and enjoyed it, so I decided to try this first book in her famous Bridgerton series. It’s a fun, quick read, but for me it never rose above somewhat mindless entertainment. For one thing, I’m not a huge fan of the “notorious rake is reformed by the love of a good woman” plotline. For another, I didn’t quite know what to make of the hero’s personal history, which basically amounts to serious verbal and emotional abuse from his father. Clearly this backstory is meant to make the hero more interesting and to create an obstacle in the plot; but the book generally has such a lighthearted tone that the backstory seems incongruous and almost inappropriate. All that said, I do enjoy some nice Regency fluff every now and then, so I’ll probably read more by this author…but maybe I’ll try one of her other series!

Mini-Reviews #6: Dog days

I can see the light at the end of the tunnel for these mini-reviews! I’ll do this post and one more, and then I should finally be caught up! *sobs with relief*

Murder on the LusitaniaSingle Girl's To-Do List, The

Conrad Allen, Murder on the Lusitania — This is a fairly pedestrian mystery novel set during the Lusitania’s maiden voyage, where ship’s detective George Porter Dillman thinks he’ll have to deal with nothing more exciting than a few thefts. Of course, when an unpopular journalist is murdered on board, Dillman has to investigate–and choose between two women, the beautiful but aloof Genevieve and the happy-go-lucky Ellen. I didn’t particularly like this book, mostly because the characters annoyed me. Dillman is too smug and superior, and Genevieve seems more like a male fantasy than an actual person. The solution to the mystery was fine but seemed to come out of nowhere–or perhaps I just stopped paying attention too soon. Overall, a very “meh” read, and I feel no desire to continue with the series.

Lindsey Kelk, The Single Girl’s To-Do List — After enjoying Always the Bridesmaid, I had to track down another Lindsey Kelk novel, and this one did not disappoint! Rachel has just been dumped by her long-term boyfriend and has basically forgotten how to be single, so her two best friends create “the single girl’s to-do list” to force her out of her comfort zone. I really liked that Rachel’s friendships were so central in the novel, remaining constant throughout her tumultuous love life. Of course, the ultimate romance comes as no surprise, and I would have liked the hero to be a little more fleshed out. Nonetheless, I liked this book a lot and will continue to read more by Kelk.

CotillionBetween Shades of Gray Blackmoore

Georgette Heyer, Cotillion — One of my very favorite Heyer novels, mainly thanks to its delightful hero, Freddy! He is a wonderfully unconventional leading man: not particularly handsome, not a ladies’ man, not overly burdened with brains. In fact, he reminds me of a slightly more functional Bertie Wooster. But of course, his “street smarts” and kind heart ultimately win the day!

Ruta Sepetys, Between Shades of Gray — This World War II novel centers around an aspect of the war that is sadly often forgotten. The narrator, Lina, is a 15-year-old Lithuanian girl who is abducted one night, along with her mother and brother, by the NKVD. Lina describes the horrible tortures and indignities she and her fellow prisoners suffer, as well as the desperate hope that somehow her father will find her. My favorite thing about this book is that many of the characters are portrayed with some complexity. For example, one of Lina’s fellow prisoners is a cranky old man who constantly complains, yet in the end he manages to do something heroic. Similarly, one of the Soviet guards is deeply conflicted about his cruel actions. But some of the other characters–particularly Lina’s saintly mother–remain annoyingly simplistic. I also wasn’t a fan of the flashbacks to Lina’s carefree earlier life; they were too jarring for me. Still, I liked the book overall, and I think it tells a story that needs to be told.

Julianne Donaldson, Blackmoore — Kate Worthington wants nothing more than to escape her horrible family and go to live in India with her aunt. But her mother refuses to let her go, finally delivering an ultimatum: if Kate wants to go to India, she must first receive–and reject–three marriage proposals. Since Kate is not beautiful and flirtatious like her sister, she despairs at first. But when she is invited to the estate of her old friends, Sylvia and Henry Delafield, she reasons that she can at least try. Of course, she doesn’t expect to fall in love along the way. While this book is extremely predictable, I have to say that I enjoyed it anyway! My biggest complaint is that it takes Kate far too long to realize that her ideal mate is right in front of her, head over heels in love. The Big Misunderstanding could easily have been solved with a little rational communication! I should also note that the book is subtitled “A Proper Romance,” which essentially just means it’s rated PG; there’s nothing explicitly religious or preachy about it. All in all, this was a pleasant read that satisfied my craving for a Regency romance.

Review: As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust

As Chimney Sweepers Come to DustAlan Bradley, As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust

***Warning: SPOILERS for previous books in the series!***

Flavia de Luce’s life has been turned upside-down by the shocking revelation that her mother, Harriet, worked as a spy for England before her death. What’s more, Harriet was groomed for this work at an elite Canadian boarding school, where she belonged to a secret society called the Nide. Now the twelve-year-old Flavia must follow in her mother’s footsteps all the way to Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy, so that she can carry on the family’s legacy of covert service to England. But Flavia is less than thrilled about leaving Buckshaw and all her family and friends behind. Still, Miss Bodycote’s proves more interesting than Flavia expected when a dead body falls down the chimney into her bedroom on her very first night at the school. But whose body is it, and who would have placed the remains there? Was it a fellow student? The science teacher who was once tried for murder? Perhaps even the stern headmistress herself? Once again, Flavia uses her insatiable curiosity and her passion for chemistry to discover how, why, and by whom the victim was murdered. She also struggles to fit in at Miss Bodycote’s and eventually makes an important decision about her future.

This book marks a significant change in the direction of the series, as Flavia is uprooted from Bishop’s Lacey and placed in different surroundings with an entirely new cast of characters. Some people were skeptical about this change, but I was optimistic going in; if series aren’t willing to shake things up sometimes, they risk becoming stale. Unfortunately, I don’t think this particular change was terribly successful. The idea of Flavia trying to fit in at a strict boarding school filled me with glee, but this book doesn’t spend much time on her interactions with the other students, except as necessary for her investigation. And the book really suffers for not having Father, Feely, Daffy, and Dogger to be Flavia’s confidantes, friends, and sometimes enemies. I don’t read this series predominantly for the mysteries; while these are usually fine, the books’ charm lies in Flavia and her unique reactions to the people around her. And sadly, in this book, her social interactions just weren’t as funny, interesting, or poignant as they usually are. The end of this novel promises another change for Flavia, and I hope that the next book will take things in a more satisfying direction.

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!