Mini-Reviews: Puzzle, Viscount, Sparrow

Patrick Quentin, A Puzzle for Fools

Broadway producer Peter Duluth has been drinking his life away ever since the tragic death of his wife two years ago. Now he’s hit rock bottom and checked himself into a sanatorium to dry out. When he hears a creepy voice talking about murder late one night, he initially thinks he’s imagined it — until a couple of the other patients mention a similar experience. Then a member of the staff is murdered, and while the police are officially investigating, Peter decides to do a little sleuthing of his own. This is my first book by Patrick Quentin, and I’d definitely consider reading more. It’s a solid Golden Age mystery with a perfect sinister setting. The only thing I didn’t particularly like was the romance, which was quite superficial. Still, I’ll keep my eye out for more Peter Duluth mysteries.

Mimi Matthews, The Viscount and the Vicar’s Daughter

Like A Rogue of One’s Own, this novella is a Victorian romance featuring the “reformed rake” trope, and the rake is even named Tristan! This book’s Tristan shows up at an annual country house party that is known for being exceptionally racy, where he unexpectedly befriends Valentine March, a vicar’s daughter who is attending the house party as a lady’s companion. When Tristan and Valentine are caught in a passionate embrace in the conservatory, Tristan does the honorable thing and offers marriage. But Valentine, despite her attraction to Tristan, isn’t sure she wants to marry a man with his unsavory reputation. I liked this novella more than A Rogue of One’s Own, but the many similarities made me feel like I was reading the same book again! I did enjoy this one more, but it’s definitely not my favorite by Mimi Matthews. Still, I look forward to trying some more of her full-length novels.

Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow

The premise of this novel caught my fancy immediately: humans have discovered intelligent life on another planet, and the Jesuits (an order of Catholic priests) are spearheading the mission to make contact with these life forms and learn about their culture. The novel starts in 2060, and Fr. Emilio Sandoz is the sole survivor of that mission; he has returned to Earth badly damaged, both physically and spiritually. The book then jumps back and forth in time, giving the backstory on Emilio and his companions and describing what happened on the alien planet and its aftermath. The novel is epic in scope, and I’m frankly still digesting it. Overall, I think it’s wonderfully done, although it takes a while to get going — we don’t actually meet the aliens until about 2/3 of the way through the book. So it’s not quite an action-packed sci fi story; but as an examination of faith, of human goodness and human frailty, and of the complexity of relationships, this novel has a lot to say and gave me a lot to think about.

Mini-Reviews: Blue, Sorcerer, Queen, Rogue

Lia Louis, Dear Emmie Blue

Emmie has been best friends with Lucas for years — ever since he found the balloon she released into the air when they were just 16. More recently, Emmie’s feelings have deepened into love; so when Lucas invites her to a special birthday dinner and says he has something important to ask her, she’s convinced that he wants to start a romantic relationship. But he actually asks her to be his “best woman” at his upcoming wedding. Emmie is crushed and must now reevaluate her relationship with Lucas and his family, who have always loved her more than her own negligent mother ever did. This book is enjoyable women’s fiction with a romantic subplot (which I loved, even if it was a bit predictable!), but it touches on some heavier themes — not only Emmie’s relationship with her parents, but also a traumatic incident from her past. This book isn’t a keeper for me, but I liked it quite a bit and will look for more books by Louis.

Zen Cho, Sorcerer to the Crown / The True Queen

I was just as delighted by Sorcerer to the Crown on this reread as I was the first time I read it. It’s set in an alternate Regency universe in which England’s magic is disappearing, and the Sorcerer Royal, a man of African descent, must team up with a magically gifted woman to get it back. The sequel, The True Queen, deals with sisters from the island nation of Janda Baik, which has been colonized by the English: one of them is lost in Fairyland, and the other must rely on English magicians for help to find and retrieve her. I love the combination of an Austen-esque setting, mystery, fantasy, and romance, so I really enjoyed both books (perhaps the first a smidge more than the second). Most authors writing in this time period don’t get the style or voice quite right, but I think Zen Cho really nails it! The books are also more diverse than many works of historical fiction set in this period, featuring queer characters and people of color. Definitely recommended if the premise interests you!

Evie Dunmore, A Rogue of One’s Own

This sequel to Bringing Down the Duke focuses on Lady Lucinda Tedbury, an ardent suffragist whose sole focus is convincing Parliament to pass an act allowing married women to own their own property. In pursuit of this goal, Lucie and her friends are trying to buy a London printing press to disseminate their ideas; but they are thwarted by Tristan Ballentine, a notorious rake who has just purchased a 50 percent share in the business. Lucie has known Tristan for years and has always viewed him as weak and contemptible; but the more they’re forced to work together, the more she adjusts her opinion of him. I didn’t enjoy this book as much as the first in the series, largely because I don’t like the “reformed rake” trope and also didn’t find Lucie a very interesting heroine. I think the series is a bit schizophrenic so far; it tries to be a serious examination of feminism, but it also has to hit all the beats of a historical romance novel, and I feel like the split focus detracts from both goals. That said, I’m interested enough to continue with the third book when it comes out next year.

Mini-Reviews: Piccadilly, Fairyland, Nightshade

Anthony Berkeley, The Piccadilly Murder

Mild-mannered Ambrose Chitterwick is a detection enthusiast, but apart from one notable exception (detailed in The Poisoned Chocolates Case), he “detects” merely by observing people and drawing conclusions about them. During one such people-watching adventure at the Piccadilly Palace Hotel, however, he actually sees a murder take place! As the star witness for the prosecution, Mr. Chitterwick is approached by the suspect’s wife, who insists that her husband is innocent and begs Chitterwick to reconsider what he saw. I very much enjoyed this Golden Age mystery; it’s well plotted, the central characters are interesting, and there’s plenty of humor in the form of Chitterwick’s formidable aunt. Definitely recommended if you like this type of thing!

Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

A 12-year-old girl named September yearns for adventure, and she finds more than she expected when she is whisked away to Fairyland by the Green Wind. There she meets various Fairy creatures, undertakes a quest, and comes up against the sinister Marquess, who has usurped the throne of Fairy from Good Queen Mallow. This is a book I wanted to like more than I did. The writing style is interesting and unique, but I felt like the book was all style and no substance. September has a variety of adventures, but I’m not sure what was the point of them, if that makes sense. The stakes of the book are never very clear. Ultimately, I think it sort of collapses under the weight of its own whimsy. I don’t plan to continue with the series, but I would consider reading something else by Valente.

Elizabeth Daly, Deadly Nightshade

After the events of Unexpected Night, Henry Gamadge is called back to coastal Maine to assist the police with a new investigation. Several local children have eaten poisonous nightshade berries; one is now dead, and another is missing. The police suspect that someone may have intentionally given the berries to the children, but they don’t have any leads. Complicating matters is the presence of a Gypsy encampment on the outskirts of town; some of the locals view the Gypsies as convenient scapegoats, and tensions are running high. For me, this book was a mixed bag. On the one hand, I liked the writing style and the main characters. On the other hand, the mystery is extremely convoluted — I’m still not entirely sure it all makes sense — and impossible to guess in advance. So I’m still game to read more Henry Gamadge books, but I don’t think I’ll be revisiting this one.

Mini-Reviews: Switch, Liturgy, Book

Beth O’Leary, The Switch

Leena Cotton has always been driven, but since her sister Carla died more than a year ago, she’s completely thrown herself into her work. But when an anxiety attack causes her to ruin an important meeting, her boss insists on her taking two months of paid leave. Meanwhile, Leena’s grandmother, Eileen, has lived most of her life in a tiny Yorkshire village. Her husband has recently left her, and now Eileen yearns to have the adventures she missed out on as a young woman. So Leena and Eileen decide to switch places: Leena will use her sabbatical to rest in the country, while Eileen will go to London and explore the world of online dating for senior citizens. The premise of this novel might be a little farfetched, but who cares when it yields such delightful results? I really enjoyed both women’s stories, but Eileen totally steals the show: she knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to go after it! I loved her benevolent meddling and the fact that, as a 79-year-old woman, she’s allowed to find love and have adventures. Definitely recommended if you’re looking for something fun and pleasant in your life right now!

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy

Anyone who’s ever been to a Catholic mass will know that it follows a very specific, structured order called the liturgy. This book explains the “why” behind various liturgical practices and also talks about the philosophy of liturgy itself. I found it very interesting, though heavy going at times, and I definitely received some new insights on why certain liturgical rules exist — for example, that churches should be oriented to the east — and why they are important. I would definitely recommend this book for people who are interested in the subject and who already have some knowledge of Catholic liturgical practices. It wouldn’t be a good introductory work, however!

Amanda Sellet, By the Book

In this cute YA romance, Mary Porter-Malcom is a socially awkward teenager who’s accumulated most of her knowledge of the world from classic literature. As you might suspect, she’s not terribly popular; but when she overhears a group of girls discussing a notorious “cad” at their high school, Mary can’t help but share her opinion and cite the novels that support her theory. In gratitude, the girls accept Mary into their friend group. But as they apply Mary’s literary wisdom to their other relationships and potential romances — and as Mary starts to fall for the cad herself — she risks losing both her friends and her crush. I liked the premise of this novel and thought it was executed fairly well, but it panders a little too much to its target audience of bookish teen girls. The romance is predictable but fine, and I liked that Mary’s friendships are at least as important to her as her love life. A fun book, but not a keeper for me.

Mini-Reviews: Sapphire, Scandalous, Red, Silver

Singapore SapphireSlightly ScandalousRed NecklaceSilver Blade

A.M. Stuart, Singapore Sapphire

I love a historical mystery, and this book’s uncommon setting of 1910 Singapore intrigued me, so I decided to give it a try. Overall, I liked but didn’t love it. Protagonist Harriet Gordon is a widow living with her brother and eking out a meager living as a typist. She’s been hired to type Sir Oswald Newbold’s memoirs, but after only a day of work, the man’s throat is cut. Inspector Robert Curran is on the case, and while he and Harriet get off to a bad start, they soon become friendly as they work together to solve the mystery. I think the mystery itself hangs together well, but it definitely takes a backseat to the setting and characters. It was interesting to get a glimpse of Singapore at this point in time, which was home to so many different cultures, both Asian and European. But if you’re looking for a novel with diverse characters, this isn’t it — there are a few Asian secondary characters, but they’re quite two-dimensional and have no impact on the story. Overall, I’m curious enough to give the next book a try, but this one fell a bit flat for me.

Mary Balogh, Slightly Scandalous

This third book in the Bedwyn saga focuses on Lady Freyja Bedwyn, who is much bolder and more direct than the typical Regency lady. Having grown up with four brothers, she can shoot and ride and box with the best of them. She’s also in no hurry to marry; most of the fashionable society men bore her, and she’s still not over a former flame who recently married someone else (as told in A Summer to Remember, though you don’t need to read that book to understand this one). But when Joshua Moore, marquess of Hallmere, proposes a fake betrothal, Freyja agrees to the scheme, not realizing that there is more to Josh than meets the eye. I continue to enjoy the Bedwyn books, and this might be my favorite so far! Freyja hasn’t been particularly likable in the previous books, but this novel gave her much more dimension. And the roguish Joshua, whose carefree manner and bad reputation hide his true goodness, is a hero after my own heart. The book does have some moments of cheesiness, but overall I liked it a lot and look forward to more of the Bedwyns. I find myself more and more excited for Wulfric’s book!

Sally Gardner, The Red Necklace and The Silver Blade

This YA fantasy duology set during the French Revolution focuses on Yann, a Gypsy boy with unusual gifts, and Sido, an aristocratic girl with a neglectful father. They meet in The Red Necklace when Yann’s theater troupe performs at Sido’s father’s house, and they are immediately drawn to one another. But when the troupe falls afoul of the powerful and evil Count Kalliovski, Yann must flee the country. Later, when Kalliovski sets his sights on Sido as a bride, Yann returns to rescue her. In The Silver Blade, Yann continues to rescue aristocrats from the guillotine, while Sido waits in England. But his plans are once again thwarted by Kalliovski, who wants Yann’s magic for himself. I found these books enjoyable enough — loved the French Revolution setting and the Pimpernel-esque elements — but didn’t like that they spend just as much time (if not more) on the villain as on the heroes. As a result, Yann and Sido don’t have much dimension; I wanted more time with them and less time describing just how evil Kalliovski is. I’m glad I read these books, but now they can leave my shelves to make room for something new!

Mini-Reviews: English, Havana, Watch

English WitchNext Year in HavanaOne to Watch

Loretta Chase, The English Witch

This book is the sequel to Isabella, which I read and enjoyed a few months ago, and the villain of that book is now the hero. Basil Trevelyan has been away from England for several years, working for a prosperous merchant and doing the odd job for the British government along the way. Now, at his aunt’s behest, he must rescue the beautiful Alexandra Ashmore, first from peril in Albania and then from an unwanted engagement in England. Though Basil is by nature a womanizer whose first goal is to pursue his own pleasure, he begins to develop genuine feelings for Alexandra. The fun of this book is watching Basil (1) recognize that he is capable of feeling actual love, not just desire, and (2) hilariously fail every time he tries to articulate his feelings. I’d recommend this book (as well as Isabella) to those who enjoy their historical romance on the lighter side, with lots of plot and minimal angst.

Chanel Cleeton, Next Year in Havana

In 1958, Elisa Perez is the daughter of a wealthy Cuban family. Despite unrest throughout the country and popular discontent with Batista’s regime, her life is mostly occupied with suitors and social engagements. But when she falls in love with Pablo, an intense and dedicated revolutionary, Elisa must rethink what it means to be loyal to her country. In the present day, Elisa has just passed away in Miami, and her granddaughter Marisol is returning to Cuba to lay Elisa’s ashes to rest. Marisol is excited to visit her family’s homeland but soon realizes that her Cuban American identity is more complex than she realized. There’s nothing wrong with this book, but it never really grabbed me and took me a long time to finish. I found the historical background about Cuba fascinating — and sadly new to me, since I learned basically nothing about the country in school — but the individual characters and circumstances weren’t compelling. That said, Cleeton wrote a follow-up book featuring Elisa’s sister Beatriz, and I might be curious enough to seek that one out at some point.

Kate Stayman-London, One to Watch

Bea Schumacher is a plus-sized fashion blogger with a certain amount of internet fame. But when she writes a drunken rant criticizing the lack of body diversity on a Bachelor-style reality show, her piece goes viral, and she is unexpectedly offered the chance to become the next season’s star. Twenty-five men will compete for her affection on camera, and at the end of the season, she’ll become “engaged” to the winner. Bea agrees, but she’s hesitant; despite her efforts to accept her body, she knows that the world isn’t always kind to fat people, and she doubts whether any of the men on the show will truly be interested in her. But as the show is filmed, she finds both rejection and affirmation in surprising places. I enjoyed this book a lot! It’s fun and entertaining–a perfect beach read–but as a plus-sized woman myself, I also found Bea incredibly relatable. It was great to see her overcome her doubts and insecurities to find a happy ending. Definitely recommended if you think the premise sounds fun!

Mini-Reviews: Steal, Jane, Wicked

Cold StealJane Austen SocietySlightly Wicked

Alice Tilton, Cold Steal

Leonidas Witherall is returning home from a trip around the world, and he’s looking forward to some peace and relaxation. But of course, he’s immediately embroiled in a mystery when he witnesses suspicious activity on a train. Then he is kidnapped by one of his fellow travelers; and when he finally escapes, he discovers the dead body of a local woman in his house! This book, like the previous installments in the series, is pure farce and a lot of fun. But some scenes, where all the characters are talking at cross-purposes and no one is explaining anything, actually stressed me out a bit! The mystery is definitely secondary to the farce; barely any time is spent on actual detection. Still, I enjoy this series and will continue with it at some point. One quick note: I think it would be helpful to read at least book 2, The Cut Direct, before reading this one, as several of the characters are recurring.

Natalie Jenner, The Jane Austen Society

This book, set in 1950s Chawton, is about a group of very different people who are united by their love of Jane Austen and their desire to preserve her legacy. At this time, Chawton is much like any other English village; while some tourists do show up looking for the house where Austen lived, there’s no official effort to preserve her home or other items of historical value. So the self-appointed Jane Austen Society decides to lead this effort. In the meantime, of course, the various society members become entangled in Austen-esque stories of their own. I found this book a pleasant, enjoyable read, but I’m having trouble remembering a lot of the details. It definitely didn’t affect me emotionally in the way that The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society did…perhaps that’s an unfair comparison, but the similar titles and time periods made a connection between the two books in my mind. Overall, though, I did like the book and think it’s a great escapist read for Austen fans!

Mary Balogh, Slightly Wicked

This second book in the Bedwyn series focuses on Judith Law, the daughter of an impoverished clergyman who is destined to live with her aunt as a “poor relation.” But Judith secretly yearns for adventure — and when a chance encounter with the dangerously attractive Rannulf Bedwyn gives her the opportunity to experience a sexual relationship, she takes it. After all, she’s unlikely ever to marry, and this may be her only chance. But when she arrives at her aunt’s home, she is dismayed to learn that Rannulf is in the area visiting his grandmother, and what was meant to be a one-night stand quickly becomes much more complicated. I didn’t enjoy this book as much as other Balogh novels that I’ve read. The premise didn’t do anything for me, and I didn’t particularly connect to Rannulf as a hero; other than his good looks and wealth, I couldn’t see what Judith saw in him. There’s also some cringeworthy dialogue, in the first love scene especially. I still liked the book enough to finish it in two days, but I’m definitely hoping the series improves with subsequent books.

Mini-Reviews: Chaos, Never, Slightly

Chaos ReigningIf I Never Met YouSlightly Married

Jessie Mihalik, Chaos Reigning

The final book in the Consortium Rebellion trilogy focuses on Cat, the youngest daughter of House von Hasenberg. Her persona is that of a ditzy space princess, but in fact she uses her social capital to gain valuable information for her House. When she’s invited to a house party that is also a prime intelligence-gathering opportunity, her sister Bianca forces her to take two bodyguards — one of whom, Alex, is far too attractive for Cat’s peace of mind. The house party brings unexpected dangers and eventually culminates in news of an open rebellion against the Consortium. I thought this was a fine conclusion to the series, although I enjoyed the first half of the book more than the second. The house party intrigue was a lot more interesting to me than the straightforward space-battle stuff at the end. Overall, I’d recommend this series to people who enjoy action-filled sci-fi romance.

Mhairi McFarlane, If I Never Met You

For women’s fiction with depth, you can’t beat Mhairi McFarlane! I’ve loved several of her books, but this one may be my new favorite. Laurie is a successful lawyer in a prestigious firm, and she’s been in a loving relationship with her boyfriend Dan for more than a decade. So when Dan dumps her out of the blue, she’s completely blindsided; and to make matters worse, he works at the same firm, which means there will be gossip. Meanwhile, Jamie Carter is the office playboy, but he desperately wants to be taken seriously so that he can make partner. He proposes a fake relationship to Laurie: his “commitment” will show the bosses that he’s a responsible adult, while Laurie will avoid the pity of her coworkers and possibly even make Dan realize his mistake. I love a fake relationship, and moreover I just really loved these characters. They’re very different, but they’re able to find common ground as they build a friendship through mutual respect. Highly recommended if you enjoy this genre!

Mary Balogh, Slightly Married

I picked up Balogh’s Slightly Dangerous some time ago because I’d seen many people praise it as their favorite Balogh novel and compare it to Pride and Prejudice. So I obviously had to add it to my TBR pile immediately! But then I was advised to read the entire six-book Bedwyn series — of which Slightly Dangerous is the last book, naturally — so that I could get a complete picture of the hero and his relationship with his family. So I caved and started with the first book, Slightly Married, which is a marriage-of-convenience story. The hero, Aidan Bedwyn, is a military officer who promises a dying soldier that he’ll take care of his sister no matter what. As it happens, the sister, Eve, is about to be forced out of her home unless she marries quickly, so Aidan proposes. I love a good uptight, duty-bound hero, and Aidan is a great example. The more open-hearted and empathetic Eve is a great match for him. I liked this book a lot and will continue to read the series in order.

Mini-Reviews: Sacred, Nursing, Swan

Sacred Wood and Major Early EssaysNursing Home MurderMurder on Black Swan Lane

T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood and Major Early Essays

Despite its shortness, this book was a real challenge for me. It’s a collection of essays by T.S. Eliot about literary criticism, mostly focusing on specific critics and their (rare) success and (common) failures. Since I hadn’t heard of, much less read, the vast majority of these critics, I found most of Eliot’s arguments extremely hard to follow. On the other hand, I do think reading this book was good for me — the mental equivalent of strenuous exercise. But this is probably the type of book best read in a college course, with a professor and other students on hand to help make sense of it.

Ngaio Marsh, The Nursing Home Murder

When the Home Secretary contracts acute appendicitis and dies on the operating table, his wife insists that he has been murdered. After all, there’s no shortage of suspects: the man had many political enemies, including one of the nurses who assisted with his operation. Another of the nurses was his mistress, who was devastated when he broke off their relationship. Even the operating surgeon is a suspect, since he’s in love with the mistress himself. Then there are the dead man’s wife and sister, who each inherit a substantial sum under his will. Fortunately, Inspector Alleyn and Sergeant Fox are on the case. I found this a thoroughly enjoyable Golden Age mystery, despite some pejorative discussion of mental illness (referring to it as a “taint” in someone’s heredity, for example). I’m slowly working my way through this series and am glad Ngaio Marsh was so prolific!

Andrea Penrose, Murder on Black Swan Lane

All London society knows about the animosity between the scientifically minded Lord Wrexham and the Reverend Josiah Holworthy. Cartoonist A.J. Quill has even been selling pointed satirical sketches about their feud. So when Holworthy is murdered, Wrexham is the number-one suspect. To clear his name, he hunts down A.J. Quill and discovers that “he” is actually Charlotte Sloane, a poor widow using her artistic talents to earn a meager living. They team up to solve the murder and are soon plunged into a sinister plot involving alchemy. I love a good Regency mystery, so I had high hopes for this book, but I ended up being a little disappointed. It’s not bad, per se, but nothing about it stood out to me, and I doubt I’ll continue with the series.

Mini-Reviews: Ruby, Angel, Bride

Ruby in the SmokeDark Angel : Lord Carew's Bride

Philip Pullman, The Ruby in the Smoke

I greatly enjoyed this historical adventure set in Victorian England. When 16-year-old Sally Lockhart’s father dies under mysterious circumstances, she visits his business partner looking for answers — and stumbles into a sinister plot involving opium and murder. It’s just a really fun, pulpy novel for the MG/YA demographic, and I definitely plan to read the rest of the series!

Mary Balogh, Dark Angel / Lord Carew’s Bride

It’s a testament to how much I enjoy Balogh’s writing that I thoroughly enjoyed Dark Angel, even though it contains some of my least favorite romance tropes: reformed rake and revenge-seduction of the heroine. But the book doesn’t minimize the hero’s (initially) awful behavior or its painful consequences. The heroine doesn’t forgive him too easily, and he fully acknowledges how terrible his actions were. So I was ultimately able to root for the couple and believe in their happy ending.

I also liked Lord Carew’s Bride, though it wasn’t quite as emotionally resonant for me. Samantha has had a terrible experience with love, so she’s determined to keep her many suitors at arms’ length. Then she meets the incognito Lord Carew, who she mistakes for a common landscape gardener. He falls for her immediately, and she accepts his marriage proposal because she feels safe with him — and because the man she once loved is trying to weasel his way back into her life. I liked the hero more than the heroine in this one, but I do think they’re well matched. And I enjoyed seeing the villain get his comeuppance!