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.

Review: True Love at the Lonely Hearts Bookshop

True Love at the Lonely Hearts BookshopAnnie Darling, True Love at the Lonely Hearts Bookshop

Despite her job at a bookstore specializing in romantic fiction, Verity Love is happy being single. But her well-meaning friends continue to set her up with every single man they know, and Verity’s tired of it—so tired, in fact, that she’s invented a fake boyfriend to deter their matchmaking. When her friends insist on meeting him, however, she quickly realizes she needs a real person to substantiate her scheme. Enter Johnny, a handsome stranger who also wouldn’t mind having a fake girlfriend to prevent being set up by his own interfering friends. Verity and Johnny agree to be each other’s dates to various social functions for one summer, at the end of which they’ll amicably part ways. But of course, the more time they spend together, the more blurry the boundaries of their relationship become.

Every chapter of this book begins with a quote from Pride and Prejudice, which immediately told me that I’d either love it or hate it. I’m happy to say that I mostly loved it, although occasionally the book does get a bit too twee and cutesy for its own good. But I really liked and related to Verity as a character; she’s an extreme introvert who needs alone time to recharge, but with her large, loving-but-noisy family, she never gets enough of it. As an introvert myself (though definitely not to Verity’s level), I empathized with her when she just couldn’t handle any more socializing. I also love a good “fake relationship” plot, so I was on board for Verity and Johnny’s romance. I was very pleasantly surprised by the writing style as well, give or take a minor copyediting error. Overall, this novel is just the charming, fun romance I was hoping for, and I’m definitely interested in reading the other books in this series at some point.

Review: The Devil’s Delilah

Devil's DelilahLoretta Chase, The Devil’s Delilah

Delilah Desmond is coming to London to make an advantageous marriage; but because her father is the notorious “Devil” Desmond, she knows being accepted by high society will be an uphill battle. Adding to her difficulties, the Devil has written a highly improper and scandalous memoir; though he’s promised not to publish it until he truly needs the money, Delilah knows that even a whiff of scandal will destroy her matrimonial prospects. When the memoir goes missing, she immediately flies into a panic. Luckily, she has the dependable, albeit absentminded, Jack Langdon to lean on. Jack has always been more comfortable with books than with people, especially women. But Delilah attracts him like no one else, and he’s determined to help her, even though the far more charming Lord Berne has his eye on the young beauty as well.

I’m really enjoying making my way through Loretta Chase’s traditional Regencies. Though she’s not quite Georgette Heyer, she’s definitely the next best thing. But I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as Viscount Vagabond (to which this novel is technically a sequel, though it can be read as a stand-alone). I loved the idea of Jack as a hero — someone who seems bookish and absent-minded but who comes through when it counts. But I felt like his character was a bit inconsistent; he doesn’t spend very much time enjoying his scholarly pursuits because he’s always in turmoil about his feelings for Delilah. I also thought the scenes between Jack and Delilah were quite repetitive; they keep having the same fight over and over, which is frustrating. The book is still a fun, fast read with some witty dialogue — I especially enjoyed the Devil’s character — but it’s not my favorite by Chase.

Review: Dear Mrs. Bird

Dear Mrs. BirdAJ Pearce, Dear Mrs. Bird

In 1940 London, Emmeline Lake is determined to do her bit for the war effort. She volunteers at a local fire station, but she dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent, diving into the midst of the action to get a big story. When she sees an advertisement for a job at the Evening Chronicle, she jumps at the chance, only to realize that she’s actually applied for a job with Mrs. Bird’s advice column at Woman’s Friend magazine. Her main duty is to sort through the letters that come to Mrs. Bird and throw away any that mention “unpleasantness.” But Emmy can’t help thinking that these women ought to be helped; and when Mrs. Bird refuses to respond to their letters, Emmy decides to take matters into her own hands. In the meantime, as bombs continue to fall on London, the war affects the lives of Emmy and her friends in profound ways.

The voice of this novel hooked me from the very beginning. Emmy is young, somewhat naive, and relentlessly cheerful, and I really enjoyed her as a narrator and protagonist. (Her quirky voice may not be for everyone, but you’ll know within the first couple of pages whether it’s for you or not.) I also loved Emmy’s relationship with her best friend Bunty, which turned out to be a much bigger focus of the novel than I was expecting. Even though I love a good romance, it’s refreshing to read a book in which the most significant relationship is a friendship. The secondary characters are also delightful, particularly Emmy’s colleague and mentor, Mr. Collins. (I may or may not have developed a crush on him . . . but sadly, Emmy’s romantic destiny appears to lie elsewhere.) Overall, I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to people who like their World War II fiction on the lighter side, à la The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Review: One in a Million

One in a MillionLindsey Kelk, One in a Million

Annie Higgins is a master of social media, and she co-owns a digital marketing company that manages the social media accounts of various internet content creators. Unfortunately, the company isn’t doing so well, and Annie’s getting desperate for a way to turn things around. Then a conversation with her office landlord turns into a bet: she has to make a random stranger Instagram-famous in 30 days, and if she wins, she doesn’t have to pay rent for a month. Annie jumps at the chance — until she realizes that winning the bet will be a lot harder than she thought. Historian Samuel Page, PhD, is stiff, socially awkward, and absolutely hates social media. But the more time Annie spends with him, the more she genuinely enjoys his company, and the less important the bet seems.

This was a cute, enjoyable chick-lit read with more than a few nods to My Fair Lady, but I liked that the makeover wasn’t all one-sided. Annie helps to give Sam a more marketable public persona, but he also helps her to realize that there’s more to life than the perfect Instagram selfie. (Come to think of it, Eliza Doolittle also changes Henry Higgins in a much more profound way than he changes her.) The central romance is adorable, and I love that Sam is an unconventional hero with his awkward, slightly too formal demeanor. I also enjoyed Annie’s funny first-person voice. I didn’t love all the emphasis on social media; at times the book reminded me of those thinkpieces about whether technology is ruining our lives, which I found tedious. But overall, I liked this fun and breezy rom-com, so I’d recommend it if you’re into that kind of thing!

Review: Murder, Magic, and What We Wore

murder, magic, and what we woreKelly Jones, Murder, Magic, and What We Wore

Miss Annis Whitworth is down on her luck. She and her Aunt Cassia have just learned that her (Annis’s) father has died, leaving them with nothing to live on and forcing them to seek employment. Cassia insists that Annis become a governess, but Annis is determined to escape from such a horrible fate. Instead, she decides to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a spy; but the War Office wants nothing to do with her, even after they learn that she has a magical talent for sewing glamours (illusions) into her garments. Undeterred, Annis decides to use her talent to open a dress shop in a country village, while still sending the War Office information about the various secrets her father had discovered before his death. Little does she know that this knowledge puts her and Cassia in danger, too.

This is a book I really wanted to like. I adore the “magical Regency” setting, and both Caroline Stevermer and Stephanie Burgis — two authors I really like — blurbed it. But my overall impression is that the book is very scattered and confusing. There’s the story about a young woman trying to make her own way in the world, there’s the espionage plot, there’s a fairly prominent subplot involving Annis’s maid, not to mention the magical element — there’s just too much going on. As a result, nothing is developed in much depth, especially the main character. She comes across as extremely flighty and thoughtless, jumping from one half-baked scheme to another. I have no sense of how magic fits into this world. There is some resolution to the spy plot, but Annis doesn’t actually get hired by the War Office until the end of the book! So clearly there’s supposed to be a sequel, but I’m too frustrated to read it when it comes out.

Review: Death of Anton

death of antonAlan Melville, Death of Anton

Joseph Carey’s World-Famous Circus and Menagerie has just arrived in town, complete with clowns, trapeze artists, an intelligent sea lion, and seven Bengal tigers. Detective-Inspector Minto has also just arrived in town for his sister’s wedding, and he becomes friendly with several members of the circus during his stay. After one performance, he’s invited to a party that ends in tragedy: Anton, the man who does the tiger act, has been found apparently mauled to death. Luckily, Minto is on the case, and he soon realizes that Anton was murdered. But who did it — the circus owner, who seems to be hiding something? The jealous trapeze artist, whose wife was allegedly having an affair with Anton? The clown whose costume was ripped as though by a tiger’s claws? Minto’s investigation eventually encompasses not just the murder but a larger mystery surrounding the circus as a whole.

This is a fairly typical Golden Age mystery, albeit with an interesting setting and a fun, breezy writing style. The shady goings-on at the circus aren’t hard to uncover, and while I didn’t actually guess the murderer, there are no big surprises in the denouement of the mystery. But this is a clever book with a lot of interesting little details. My favorite scene is when one character is almost killed because a trapeze has been shortened by just a few inches — what a creative way to murder someone! My big quibble with the book is that the detective’s brother is a Catholic priest to whom someone confesses the crime, and he reveals way too much about that conversation to the detective! I think the author didn’t understand how confession works…but as a Catholic myself, I’m probably more sensitive to that than many other readers. Overall, I like Melville’s writing — I also enjoyed Quick Curtain — and I look forward to reading the rest of his novels.