Review: Duels & Deception

Duels & DeceptionCindy Anstey, Duels & Deception

After the death of her beloved father, Lydia Whitfield is determined to keep her family’s estate up and running, but her hot-tempered, alcoholic uncle thwarts her at every turn. Lydia’s only solution is to marry a suitable man who will allow her to run things as she chooses. She already has an unofficial understanding with her neighbor, Lord Aldershot, so all she has to do is draw up the marriage contract. Her plan hits a snag, however, when she meets her lawyer — or rather, her lawyer’s clerk, a handsome young man named Robert Newton. He seems to understand Lydia in a way that no one else does, and she finds herself getting distracted by his broad shoulders and kind brown eyes. Complications ensue when Lydia and Robert are abducted by persons unknown, and they must work together to discover who engineered the kidnapping and why.

I’d previously read another book by this author, Love, Lies and Spies, and while I wasn’t crazy about it, the adorable cover of this novel convinced me to try again. Unfortunately, I enjoyed the cover much more than the book! Even as someone who enjoys a light and fluffy Regency romance, I found this novel utterly insubstantial. The attempts at humor are grating, and the setting is nothing more than window-dressing. The mystery of who kidnapped Lydia and Robert isn’t compelling enough to carry the plot, and a separate storyline involving Robert’s best friend and a duel seems to be completely shoehorned in, with no relevance to the A-story. However, that side story does contain the only marginally interesting character in the book, Robert’s best friend Vincent Cassidy. Perhaps it’s just as well that the author hasn’t written a full novel featuring him, because I’m sure I’d be doomed to disappointment if I read it!

Review: The Flatshare

FlatshareBeth O’Leary, The Flatshare

When Tiffy Moore is dumped by her boyfriend, she needs a new place to live right away. So when she spots an ad for an inexpensive flatshare, she jumps at it, despite the unconventional terms of the agreement. Leon Twomey, the current renter of the flat, works nights and weekends as a palliative care nurse. So he only needs the flat from 9am to 6pm, while Tiffy is at work; meanwhile, she can use the flat while he’s gone. They’ll never even have to meet each other. But then Tiffy leaves a note and some leftover baked goods for Leon, and he leaves a thank-you note in response, and soon they’re corresponding via Post-It notes left all over the flat. And while they seem to have little in common—Tiffy is gregarious and messy, while Leon is quiet and self-contained—their correspondence deepens into a close friendship, and maybe even more. But their complicated lives threaten to derail their fledgling romance: Leon’s brother is in jail fighting a wrongful conviction, and Tiffy’s ex doesn’t want to let her move on.

Despite the somewhat contrived premise, this book is an adorable rom-com that I would wholeheartedly recommend! The story is told in alternating chapters from Tiffy’s and Leon’s points of view. While some reviewers had trouble getting into Leon’s clipped, stilted narrative style, I thought it made for a great contrast to Tiffy’s bubbly voice. The notes between Tiffy and Leon are a joy to read, making the relationship between the characters believable despite their not meeting in person until halfway through the book. I also liked that they both seem like real people: they have jobs (and we actually see them doing those jobs!) and friends and family members whom they care about. The secondary characters are a bit less dynamic—Tiffy’s scary lawyer best friend, Leon’s bitchy girlfriend—but I didn’t mind because I enjoyed the main story so much! The book does deal with some serious issues, but it remains light and optimistic overall. In other words, it’s a perfect summer read!

Review: Duplicate Death

Duplicate DeathGeorgette Heyer, Duplicate Death

Young barrister and future baronet Timothy Harte is in love with Beulah Birtley, but his family fears she’s an unsuitable match. She works as a secretary for Mrs. Haddington, a widow with shady origins who has somehow found a way into London society. When a man is murdered at Mrs. Haddington’s bridge party, suspicion falls on Beulah, and Timothy is determined to prove her innocence. But Beulah is clearly hiding something, and she had both motive and opportunity to commit the murder. Luckily, the policeman in charge of the case is Chief Inspector Hemingway, who remembers Timothy from an earlier encounter (detailed in They Found Him Dead). As Hemingway and his assistant investigate the case, they discover not only Beulah’s secret but a host of others. They develop what seems to be a convincing theory of the crime — until a second murder throws all their conclusions into doubt.

Once again, Heyer delivers a mystery in which the plot is a lot less interesting than the characters. But her sparkling dialogue and incisive social commentary make up for any weaknesses in the mystery itself. I enjoyed Timothy’s interactions with Beulah, which strongly reminded me of Heyer’s romances. I also liked the fact that, for the first time in a Heyer mystery, the policemen are actual characters! Hemingway gets a lot more time on page than he has done in previous mysteries, and his exchanges with the Scottish Inspector Grant are some of the funniest in the book. But as I mentioned earlier, the mystery plot isn’t particularly strong, particularly when it comes to the second murder. The book also describes a homosexual character in very derogatory terms by today’s standards. Overall, I did enjoy this book and would recommend it to people who like Heyer and/or vintage mysteries, but it’s not a keeper for me.

Review: A Counterfeit Betrothal / The Notorious Rake

Counterfeit Betrothal : Notorious RakeMary Balogh, A Counterfeit Betrothal / The Notorious Rake

This volume contains two Regency romance novels, each on the shorter side. In A Counterfeit Betrothal, debutante Lady Sophia is upset that her parents, Marcus and Olivia, have been estranged for 14 years, though they were once desperately in love. She concocts a ridiculous scheme to reunite them: by betrothing herself to an unsuitable man, she hopes her parents will unite to find a society-approved way of breaking the engagement. But Sophia gets more than she bargained for with her incorrigible fiancé; meanwhile, Marcus and Olivia must move past an old argument to repair their relationship. In The Notorious Rake, a chance encounter brings the respectable Mary, Lady Mornington, together with the dissipated Lord Edmond Waite. He soon begins to pursue her, hoping to make her his mistress. Mary resists but is confused by her attraction to him. The more she gets to know him, the more she begins to hope that he will reform his rakish ways.

So, I started this volume last night, intending to read just a few chapters — and stayed up until 3 a.m. to finish both novels! Mary Balogh isn’t Georgette Heyer; her style isn’t as light and witty, and she certainly writes more sexual content (though it’s not on the super explicit end of the spectrum). But she may be the next best thing! I very much enjoy reading about her complex characters, most of whom have experienced significant troubles in their lives and need healing as well as love. I will say, I was a bit disappointed in A Counterfeit Betrothal, which sounded like a fake relationship story (my favorite!) but turned out to be a second-chance romance (not my favorite), focusing much more on Marcus and Olivia’s story than on Sophia’s. It was still well-written and entertaining, though! And I was very pleasantly surprised by The Notorious Rake, because I usually don’t find reformed-rake stories very appealing or convincing. But in this case, while Edmond starts out as a truly despicable character, he genuinely does grow and change throughout the book. All in all, I really enjoyed both books and look forward to my next Balogh!

Review: Verdict of Twelve

Verdict of TwelveRaymond Postgate, Verdict of Twelve

This Golden Age mystery (originally published in 1940) uses a unique method to tell its story. The book opens with the information that someone is on trial for murder, and it focuses on the swearing-in of the jury. It gives a short sketch of each juror’s life, the various obstacles they’ve faced, their political opinions, how the world perceives them, and how they view the task they’re about to undertake. One juror, for example, is distracted by problems at his job and only wants to finish the business as quickly as possible. Another is a grieving widow whose husband was killed in an anti-Semitic attack, and his murderer was never brought to justice. Only after giving these psychological portraits of the jurors does the novel describe the actual case, which centers around a woman who is accused of murdering her nephew and ward. By focusing on the jurors’ backgrounds and biases, the book provides a nuanced, cynical view of law and justice.

I was very interested in the premise of this novel and found it a fascinating read. Many Golden Age mysteries tend to focus on plot, and the characters are often flat and two-dimensional. But this book is just the opposite; the characters are extremely well defined, while the mystery plot is quite simple and is given comparatively little attention. I thought the psychological studies of the jurors were very well done and convincing, though for me, the descriptions of the accused woman and her nephew were even more interesting. The final scene in the jury room is almost anticlimactic after all the intense buildup. It’s interesting to see who originally votes “guilty” and “not guilty,” but there is no real drama in reaching the verdict. The novel’s ending is fantastic: it reveals what really happened but also ends on an ambiguous, somewhat chilling note. Overall, I’d definitely recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the premise!

Review: The Austen Playbook

Austen PlaybookLucy Parker, The Austen Playbook

West End actress Freddy Carlton is at a crossroads in her career. Her family has been extremely influential in the theater world for generations: her grandmother wrote one of the most important plays of the 20th century, and her father was an extremely talented actor. But Freddy would much rather do light-hearted musical comedies than the serious dramatic roles her father is pushing her toward. So she’s thrilled to be cast in The Austen Playbook, an interactive TV special that combines various Austen characters and plots with a murder mystery. Too bad it will be filmed at the estate of James Ford-Griffin, London’s harshest theater critic, who has given Freddy a few negative — yet oddly perceptive — reviews in the past. But as Freddy and Griff get to know each other, they are surprised to discover a mutual attraction. They also discover a shocking secret that may have devastating consequences for Freddy’s career.

I was expecting to adore this book, and I did! I’m a huge Lucy Parker fan and have loved all her books so far, but this one had so many features that appealed to me: a grumpy hero, an English country house party (well, rehearsal), a juicy mystery, and a little Jane Austen flavor. I adored Griff — he may be my favorite Parker hero yet! — and Freddy’s bubbly personality is the perfect foil for his uptight, reserved one. I also enjoyed uncovering the literary/theatrical mystery along with Griff and Freddy, which was interesting in its own right and also provided most of the obstacles to the romance. I do think there was possibly too much going on; because of Freddy’s career/family angst, the mystery, and the romance, the production of The Austen Playbook wasn’t as much of a focus as I wanted it to be. I also found the romantic scenes to be a little more explicit than in Parker’s previous books, which I personally didn’t need. But those minor quibbles aside, I really enjoyed this installment of the London Celebrities series and can’t wait for the next one!

Review: Enter a Murderer

Enter a MurdererNgaio Marsh, Enter a Murderer

This second installment of the Inspector Alleyn series is set in the London theater world. Arthur Surbonadier, a supporting actor in a new play, has managed to alienate nearly everyone in the cast and crew. He has threatened his uncle, who owns the theater company, in order to be cast in a better role. He has made unwelcome advances to the leading lady, which upsets both her and her new lover, the leading man. So it’s not entirely surprising that Arthur ends up murdered — shot onstage with a prop gun that was supposed to be loaded with dummy cartridges. Luckily, Inspector Alleyn and his journalist friend, Nigel Bathgate, are in the audience. Their investigation uncovers many sordid details about the victim’s past, including blackmail, drug dealing, and the seduction of one of the stagehands. But they are nevertheless unprepared for another murder, which leads to the shocking discovery of the killer’s identity.

I’ve been reading up a little bit about Ngaio Marsh, and one of the most frequent complaints about her novels is that they have a good setup but get very boring once the murder takes place. I can see some validity in that complaint: the first few chapters of this book are very compelling, as they introduce the characters and ratchet up the pre-murder tension, but the rest of the novel follows the relatively mundane police activity of interviewing suspects. Nevertheless, I wasn’t bored by this book — it’s very short, and I didn’t mind the suspect interviews, especially when they allowed Alleyn and Bathgate to bounce off of each other. I still don’t really have a sense of Alleyn as a character, except that he can occasionally be playful and enjoys keeping his friends (i.e., Nigel) in the dark. But perhaps he’ll be fleshed out more in later books. I did enjoy the solution to the mystery, which I didn’t guess ahead of time, and I’m looking forward to reading more in this series.

Review: One Day in December

One Day in DecemberJosie Silver, One Day in December

Laurie has just left university and is living in London with her best friend, Sarah, as she pursues a career in magazine publishing. One December evening, she’s sitting on a bus crowded with Christmas shoppers, when she looks out the window and spots a man standing across the street. Their eyes meet, and Laurie feels a deep, instant connection. She could swear he feels it, too, but the bus drives away before she can get off and speak to him. For the next several months, Laurie searches for “bus boy,” convinced that they’re meant to be. But when she finally does meet him, there’s a catch: he just happens to be Sarah’s new boyfriend, Jack. The book follows Laurie and Jack over the next several years, as they experience career achievements and setbacks, tragedy, love, and heartbreak; but will they ever be able to act on that moment of connection they experienced even before they met?

This book caught my eye because of the adorable cover, and I was interested to read a cute holiday rom-com. In fact, this is much more of a drama than a comedy, and I have mixed feelings about it. I think it’s very well written and executed. The premise made me nervous — I was skeptical about a romance that would presumably end in betrayal of the innocent best friend. But the book managed to make me sympathetic to both Laurie and Jack. I liked that Laurie sincerely tries to put her own feelings aside, not to spend time alone with Jack, and to move on by dating other people. I believed that Laurie and Jack really do become friends who care about each other, regardless of whatever does or doesn’t happen between them. But I’m not sure we needed to follow their story for so many years, especially since the expected confrontation between Laurie and Sarah doesn’t happen until almost the end of the book — and then it’s rushed to a resolution. As a skeptic of love at first sight, I also didn’t buy that both Laurie and Jack would be so affected by their initial brief moment of attraction. Despite my quibbles, though, I did enjoy the book and would recommend it to people who are interested in the premise.

Review: Kat, Incorrigible

Kat, IncorrigibleStephanie Burgis, Kat, Incorrigible

“In nineteenth-century England, twelve-year-old Kat Stephenson knows she was born to be a magical Guardian and protector of Society—if she can find true acceptance in the secret order that expelled her mother. She’s ready to upend the rigid Order of the Guardians, whether the older members like it or not. And in a Society where magic is the greatest scandal of all, Kat is determined to use her powers to help her two older sisters find their own true loves, even if she has to turn highwayman, battle wild magic, and confront real ghosts along the way! History seamlessly merges with fantasy in this humorous and lively novel.” (Summary from Amazon.com.)

As you know, I’m a sucker for anything that can be described as “Jane Austen plus magic,” and this book delivers on that premise with a fun middle-grade adventure. There are two plots, each in a different genre. Oddly, the Regency romance plot, in which Elissa and Angeline both encounter obstacles on their way to marital bliss, gets most of the emphasis. The fantasy plot, in which Kat discovers her magical abilities and has to figure out what they mean, is somewhat underdeveloped by comparison. But there are (at least) two more books in the series, so hopefully the magical system and Kat’s role in it will become clearer as the series progresses. I think my favorite aspect of the book is the relationship among the three sisters; although they often squabble, they always have each other’s backs when things get tough. All in all, I found this novel charming and look forward to reading the sequels.

Review: I Owe You One

I Owe You OneSophie Kinsella, I Owe You One

Fixie Farr comes by her nickname honestly: she’s an extreme people-pleaser who can’t help trying to fix every problem in her family and friends’ lives. She is the manager of the family store, and while her brother James and sister Nicole are also supposed to help out, Fixie often finds herself picking up their slack. Now James is determined to turn the modest store into a trendy, upscale shop, and Nicole wants to get rid of merchandise and replace it with a yoga studio. Fixie is horrified by these changes but struggles to stand up for herself. She also faces trouble in her personal life, when she’s torn between her childhood crush and a handsome stranger whose laptop she rescues, kick-starting a chain of IOUs and possibly a new relationship.

I generally enjoy Sophie Kinsella’s books, and I had fun reading this one as well, but I must admit that I was bothered by several aspects of the book. The biggest problem is Fixie herself; she’s such a doormat, and it’s incredibly frustrating to see her constantly giving in to her awful siblings. I know that many people, especially women, are people-pleasers and have trouble advocating for themselves, but I couldn’t understand why Fixie was such a pushover. I also hated her obsession on childhood crush Ryan, who is obviously 100% terrible from the moment he’s introduced. Fixie’s deluded belief that he wants a relationship with her just made her seem stupid. I did like her relationship with the stranger, Seb, but even that has some weird pacing issues and questionable logic (why does he go back to his ex-girlfriend?). Despite my complaints, I did find the book an enjoyable experience overall, but it’s definitely not one of Kinsella’s best — try I’ve Got Your Number instead.