Review: The Spider’s Touch

Spider's TouchPatricia Wynn, The Spider’s Touch

***Warning: SPOILERS for The Birth of Blue Satan.***

This second book in the Blue Satan and Mrs. Kean series picks up shortly after the first one left off. Gideon, Viscount St. Mars, is accused of his father’s murder and, though innocent, has fled to France. There he is approached by supporters of James Stuart and asked to aid the Jacobite cause by returning to England and assessing whether the people would rise up to overthrow George I and restore the Stuart dynasty to the English throne. Gideon is reluctant to embrace the Jacobite cause wholeheartedly, but he agrees to the mission. Meanwhile, Hester Kean is living with her cousin Isabella and the rest of her family, who are trying to ingratiate themselves at George I’s court. However, the family unwittingly becomes close with a number of Jacobite spies and sympathizers. When Gideon returns to England and sees Hester’s plight, he is determined to protect her. And when one of Hester’s Jacobite acquaintances is murdered during an opera performance, she and Gideon team up to solve the mystery.

I don’t know why more novels aren’t set during the early 18th century, when the conflict between Hanover supporters and Jacobites provides such a compelling conflict and backdrop for dramatic action! So I’m very glad that this series exists, and I enjoyed this second installment very much. It had been a few years since I’d read the first book, but Wynn does a good job of catching up readers and reminding them of the most important plot points. I also appreciated the historical note at the very beginning of the book, which provides some much-needed context for the events of the novel. As for the book itself, I really like both Gideon and Hester as characters, and I especially like how Hester’s role (though necessarily a bit more passive, because she’s both a woman and a dependent) is just as vital as Gideon’s. The book starts out slowly because it follows each of them in turn, but it picks up once they start sharing scenes together. I’m definitely here for the inevitable romance! The mystery plot is probably the weakest element, as the culprit is fairly obvious, and I felt it was an uncreative way to resolve that character’s arc. Still, I really liked this book and will definitely continue with the series!

Review: The Lady and the Highwayman

Lady and the HighwaymanSarah M. Eden, The Lady and the Highwayman

In 1860s London, Elizabeth Black is the headmistress of a respectable girls’ school who also writes “silver fork” novels that cater to the tastes of the gentry and aristocracy. However, she also secretly writes “penny dreadfuls” — lurid, sensational stories full of adventure and danger — under the pseudonym Charles King. Meanwhile, Fletcher Walker is another writer of penny dreadfuls, but the success of Mr. King’s stories is beginning to eat away at his profits. Fletcher is disturbed by this because he needs money to fund the mission of the Dread Penny Society, a group of penny dreadful writers who have pledged to help London’s street children escape from the gutter and lead safer, happier lives. This goal is extremely important to Fletcher, who was once himself a forgotten child of the streets. When he meets Elizabeth at a party, he decides to enlist her help in discovering Mr. King’s identity. She agrees, hoping to throw him off the scent; but the more time they spend together, the more they are drawn to each other despite their very different backgrounds.

I found this book fairly enjoyable, but it requires a lot of suspension of disbelief! The idea that all of London’s penny dreadful writers would be members of a secret society designed to rescue impoverished children is a fun one, but I also found it rather silly. Also, it’s very odd that Fletcher would ask Elizabeth for help in tracking down Mr. King, since (as far as he knows) she only writes “respectable” novels — plus, they barely know each other in the beginning! I also found the plot a bit of a mess; there’s the “who is Mr. King?” story, the escapades of the Dread Penny Society (which hint at a nefarious enemy who is never revealed, but perhaps that will come in a sequel), and the romance between Fletcher and Elizabeth, but it’s hard to say which is the main point of the novel. It’s all a bit of a jumble. That said, I enjoyed reading a historical romance set in a later period than the Regency, and I appreciated the main characters’ desire to make their world a better place. I’m not sure if the author is planning a sequel to this book, but I’ll read it if it ever materializes.

Review: Murder Has a Motive

Murder Has a MotiveFrancis Duncan, Murder Has a Motive

When retired tobacconist Mordecai Tremaine accepts an invitation to visit his friends Paul and Jean Russell in the quaint village of Dalmering, he has no idea that he’ll shortly be called upon to use his skills as an amateur detective. But the day before he arrives in town, a local woman named Lydia Dare is found stabbed to death on the path that leads to her cottage. Mordecai’s friends ask him to help solve the murder, and he is more than willing to do so, especially when he learns that his friend Inspector Boyce is the Scotland Yard man in charge of the case. As Mordecai gets to know Lydia’s friends and neighbors, it seems that all the clues are pointing toward Martin Vaughan, an old friend of Lydia’s who was in love with her, even though she’d just gotten engaged to another man. But Mordecai is unconvinced, and as he continues to search for more suspects, the killer has ample opportunity to strike again.

I’ve read one other book featuring Mordecai Tremaine, Murder for Christmas, and I find my feelings about this book are the same: it’s an interesting, competently written Golden Age mystery, but not particularly groundbreaking or unique. I like Mordecai; he doesn’t have the theatrical idiosyncrasies of Poirot, but rather is kind and unassuming, preferring to fade into the background most of the time. I also really liked Inspector Boyce, and the conversations between him and Mordecai were my favorite scenes in the book. I felt that most of the other characters were pretty flat; they all seemed to be more stock characters than nuanced individuals. The mystery is clever and (I think) plays fair; I even spotted a pivotal clue, though I didn’t follow it to its logical conclusion. I’m not entirely sure I buy the murderer’s psychology, but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief. Overall, I like Francis Duncan and am glad I have a couple more of his books on my shelves, but I can see why he never became as popular as, say, Agatha Christie.

Review: Henry Tilney’s Diary

Henry Tilney's DiaryAmanda Grange, Henry Tilney’s Diary

This novel in diary format tells the story of Northanger Abbey from Henry Tilney’s point of view. It starts several years before the beginning of Austen’s novel, when Henry is 16. He and his sister Eleanor are extremely close, and they bond over their shared love of gothic novels. He is less close with his father, a rigid disciplinarian who is obsessed with finding rich and/or titled mates for his children. And while he loves his older brother, Frederick, the latter’s wild behavior and cynical view of women keep Henry at a distance. Henry is determined to become a true hero, and he dreams of one day meeting the perfect heroine. During a family trip to Bath, he meets the naïve and engaging Catherine Moreland, and the more time he spends with her, the more he believes that she could be the girl he’s searching for. Eleanor truly likes her also, and even his father treats her with a surprising warmth and distinction. But when his father’s opinion of Catherine suddenly changes, Henry is faced with a decision as dramatic as any he’s encountered within the pages of a novel.

Austen pastiches are so hard to get right. If you stray too far from the original source material, you risk offending the Janeites who probably comprise your target audience. But if you follow the original too slavishly, you come across as a weak imitation and compare unfavorably to the real thing. So Amanda Grange walks a thin tightrope here, I think with mixed success. The early chapters of the book were unexpectedly entertaining, and I loved learning more about the Tilney family’s backstory, especially how the three siblings related to each other growing up. I wanted more of Henry’s banter with Eleanor, more insight into Frederick, and more of Eleanor’s romance (which is briefly mentioned in Northanger Abbey and slightly expanded upon here). The second half of the book, when Henry meets Catherine Moreland, is a little less fun, mostly because Grange copies and pastes most of the dialogue directly from Austen’s novel. Again, I can understand why she did it that way, but I wanted a little more originality. Still, this is a fun read, and I’m always happy to see Northanger Abbey and Henry Tilney getting some love!

Review: The Woman Who Died a Lot

Woman Who Died a LotJasper Fforde, The Woman Who Died a Lot

This seventh book in the Thursday Next series continues the madcap adventures of Thursday Next, her family, and the alternate-reality Swindon that is obsessed with all things literary. Thursday is now middle-aged and struggling with the fact that she’s not as physically resilient as she used to be. She hopes to become the head of a newly reinstated SpecOps 27 (the division of the government dealing with literary crimes), but instead, she’s offered the job of Chief Librarian of Swindon All-You-Can-Eat-at-Fatso’s Drink Not Included Library, a plum assignment that gives her absolute power within the library’s domain. But there’s still plenty of trouble to go around. Her son Friday’s career at the ChronoGuard is halted when time travel is ruled impossible, and he’s now coming to terms with a very different destiny. Meanwhile, the Global Standard Deity is preparing to smite Swindon within a week, unless Thursday’s genius daughter Tuesday can find a way to stop it. Not to mention, the sinister Goliath Corp is up to its usual skulduggery, and more than one person seems to want Thursday dead.

I’m a longtime Fforde ffan, but I haven’t been as impressed by his last few books. Maybe the novelty of his humor has worn off for me, but I was only intermittently amused by this installment. There are still a lot of fun jokes and gags and wordplay, but the whole seems like less than the sum of its parts. The Thursday vs. Goliath stuff was fine, but it felt like a retread of previous books with nothing particularly new to add. The Chronoguard stuff was more interesting — I especially enjoyed the idea that time travel works (or used to work) because someone would invent the technology in the future, and therefore it could be used in the present. I wanted a little more about Thursday’s Librarian gig, but her library-related adventures are fairly peripheral to the main plot. In fact, I’m realizing that there aren’t a lot of literature-related hijinks in this novel. Unlike the first few books, which were constantly jumping into and out of specific literary worlds, this one doesn’t contain many literary allusions at all. Maybe that’s why earlier books in the series worked for me better than the last few. Regardless, I’m glad to be caught up with the Thursday Next series, but I’m also glad that it’s now (as far as I can tell) complete.

Review: Dead Man’s Shoes

Dead Man's Shoes.jpgLeo Bruce, Dead Man’s Shoes

This mystery novel begins on a sea journey from Tangier to London. Everyone on the boat is annoyed by one of the passengers, Wilbury Larkin, who speaks too loudly and seems to enjoy being as obnoxious as possible. Moreover, they’re all convinced that he murdered Gregory Willick, a rich Englishman who was recently shot dead on his daily afternoon walk. Larkin claims that he didn’t murder Willick and that he’s going back to England to prove his innocence. But the night before the boat docks, Larkin falls, or jumps, or is pushed overboard. The crew members find a typed suicide note in Larkin’s cabin, but they realize that it could have easily been faked. Still, the police are happy to think that Larkin committed suicide; now they can close two cases, Larkin’s and Willick’s. But history teacher/amateur detective Carolus Deene isn’t satisfied, so with the help of his precocious student Rupert Priggley, he sets out to investigate both deaths.

A couple years ago I read Leo Bruce’s Case for Three Detectives and found it absolutely delightful! So when I saw a couple of his Carolus Deene books at a local library sale, I snatched them up immediately. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as Case for Three Detectives: it’s not nearly as funny, the mystery is predictable, and there’s not much character development. To be fair, Carolus Deene is a series character — this book is fourth in the series — so maybe he’s more fleshed out in other installments. But it seems that, as with many vintage detective novels, the focus is all on the mystery itself, not on who’s solving it. This particular mystery has a very interesting central concept, but the execution falls flat because it’s increasingly obvious as the book goes on that only one person could have done it. Figuring out the “how” is somewhat interesting, but the inevitability of the solution killed a lot of the suspense for me. Overall, this book was OK, and I’ll read the other Carolus Deene book I own at some point, but I’m not in a hurry to do so.

Review: Doctor Thorne

Doctor ThorneAnthony Trollope, Doctor Thorne

The Greshams of Greshamsbury have long been one of the most important and well-respected families in their county, but the present squire’s mismanagement of the estate has forced him to sell part of the land and borrow heavily against the rest. As a result, the Greshams are in serious financial difficulties, and the only way to overcome them (in their eyes) is for the young Greshams to marry money. This duty is especially important for Frank Gresham, the oldest son and heir to the estate. Unfortunately, Frank has already fallen in love with Mary Thorne, the niece of the village doctor. Mary has no fortune, and the circumstances of her birth are unknown to all but Doctor Thorne; she may not even be his legitimate niece. So the Gresham family — especially Frank’s mother, Lady Arabella — is determined to discourage the match and find Frank a rich wife. But when a surprising turn of events makes Mary the possible heir to a large fortune, Doctor Thorne must decide how much he can legitimately reveal, knowing that Mary’s happiness may depend on whether or not she gets the inheritance.

I’ve only read a couple of books by Anthony Trollope, but I really enjoy his writing style. He’s like Dickens but funnier, and the prose style is one of the most enjoyable elements of this novel. There’s some wonderful satire of the upper classes, as represented by the de Courcys (Lady Arabella’s relatives) and the Duke of Omnium, who can’t be bothered to talk to the guests at his own dinner party. I also learned a fair amount about parliamentary elections in the 19th century, and it seems that in some ways, not much has changed! Further, I found the book interesting in its treatment of money versus breeding. The Greshams are proud of their status as landed gentry and look down on those who are “in trade,” but they’re also willing to compromise their principles if the tradesmen are wealthy enough. I suspect that their attitude reflects a broader cultural shift. As for the characters, Frank and Mary are fairly two-dimensional, but Doctor Thorne is more complex and interesting. The plot is well constructed, but everything that happens is telegraphed ahead of time and therefore predictable. I liked the book, but I’d recommend it more for the style and the social insights than for the story. I would also recommend the Julian Fellowes adaptation, which is currently free to stream on Amazon Prime!

Review: Meet Me at the Cupcake Café

Meet Me at the Cupcake CaféJenny Colgan, Meet Me at the Cupcake Café

Isabel “Issy” Randall has always loved baking. Her Grampa Joe owned a successful chain of bakeries and taught Issy everything he knew, including a deep love of giving pleasure to others through food. So when Issy is laid off from her boring office job, she decides to open her own bakery—after all, how hard can it be? Of course, she quickly realizes that starting a business is more difficult than she’d anticipated, and she faces a variety of problems, from the hostility of the local business community to the lack of foot traffic on her street to the astronomically high rent for the café’s space. Luckily, she has the support of her best friend Helena, her new friend and employee Pearl, and her bank loan officer Austin. Eventually Issy’s business starts to take off, as does a potential romance with Austin. But interference by a big-shot property developer — who also happens to be Issy’s ex-boyfriend — may derail both her professional and her personal life.

I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of Jenny Colgan’s books in the past, so I was excited to pick this one up. It pretty much follows the Colgan formula: the female protagonist starts out with an unfulfilling job and an unsatisfactory boyfriend, loses both, pursues a new career she’s passionate about, and finds love in the process. But while the other Colgan books I’ve read (The Café by the Sea and The Bookshop on the Corner) have a certain emotional depth that makes them more substantial than a generic chick-lit novel, this one was missing that depth, for me. I found Issy’s friend Pearl, who deals with poverty and class insecurities, much more interesting than Issy herself. But I did like that this book focuses a lot on the difficulties of opening a small business; Issy doesn’t just magically succeed because she’s a great baker. So the book feels a little more grounded in reality than, say, a Hallmark movie. Overall, this was a pleasant read, and I’ll definitely read more by Colgan, but it’s not my favorite of her books.

Review: The Second Man

Second ManEdward Grierson, The Second Man

Set in 1950s England, this novel focuses on a small-town law practice that has just hired a female barrister. Marion Kerrison is a young woman in an almost overwhelmingly male profession, and she must fight to be taken seriously both in the practice and in court. But she has some allies, including junior lawyer Michael Irvine, who narrates the book. Marion soon proves her worth by winning several cases, and because of her gender she receives some attention from the press. As a result, the practice assigns Marion a much more important case: the defense of John Maudsley, who is accused of murdering his aunt to obtain an inheritance. Everyone except Marion thinks he’s guilty, but she insists that the key witness is lying and that someone else committed the crime. With Michael’s help, she reviews the evidence, questions key witnesses, and tries to come up with an alternate theory of the murder.

Most mystery novels end with the discovery of the guilty party and the implication that he or she will be brought to justice. But this novel explores what happens next: the investigators may have discovered the truth, but can they prove it in a court of law? What happens if witnesses are unreliable, evidence is inadmissible, or one side simply has a better lawyer than the other? This book explores these fascinating questions by focusing almost entirely on the murder trial, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I also thought the portrayal of Marion was very interesting. I expected it to be more sexist, frankly, given the author’s gender and the era in which the book was written. But while the novel does make some irritating assumptions about Marion’s “intuition,” it is also surprisingly sensitive to the difficulties she faces as a woman in her profession. My one complaint is that the book ends rather abruptly, and the solution to the mystery isn’t explained in much depth. I missed that final chapter where the detective explains how s/he solved the crime. But overall, I would definitely recommend this book if the premise interests you.

Review: The Cornish Coast Murder

Cornish Coast MurderJohn Bude, The Cornish Coast Murder

Old friends Reverend Dodd and Dr. Pendrill enjoy their weekly custom of eating dinner together and discussing mystery novels. Both are avid fans of the genre but recognize that in their small Cornish town, it’s extremely unlikely that a real mystery will come their way. So when the local major landowner, Julius Tregarthan, is shot dead in his living room, Dodd and Pendrill are naturally eager to assist the police with their investigation. The case quickly becomes more complicated for Dodd, however, when he learns that Tregarthan’s niece, Ruth, was seen behaving suspiciously on the night of the murder. Suspicion also falls on Ruth’s suitor, Ronald Hardy, who had argued with Tregarthan shortly before his death. Reverend Dodd can’t believe that either Ruth or Ronald is guilty, so he exercises his detective skills to find the real murderer.

This is my first John Bude mystery novel, but it won’t be my last! It’s not exactly groundbreaking — I’d consider it a fairly traditional vintage mystery — but it’s a great example of the genre. There’s the unpleasant victim who leaves an inheritance behind him, a pair of young lovers who may or may not be conspiring, an enthusiastic amateur sleuth who assists the police, and a tightly plotted mystery whose solution unfolds logically and systematically. I’m not quite sure it’s “fair,” though — I don’t recall learning enough to guess the motive until the culprit confesses at the end of the book. Also, I wish there had been a few more suspects, and that Ruth and Ronald had been more fleshed out. But I really liked that the book spends a lot of time on both the amateur and professional investigations. Many books of this era don’t care about the routine details of police work, but this one acknowledges them without getting too tediously descriptive. Overall, I enjoyed this book and look forward to reading more by the author.