Mini-Reviews: Mask, Winter, Unlimited

Grey MaskWinter of the WitchDetection Unlimited

Patricia Wentworth, Grey Mask

Charles Moray has just returned to England after four years abroad. When he reaches his home, he is surprised to find that it is unlocked and that a secret meeting is taking place inside. He learns that the intruders are members of a criminal organization led by an unknown man in a grey mask. He also sees Margaret Langton — the woman he once loved, who broke off their engagement right before the wedding with no explanation — enter the house and speak with Grey Mask. Charles decides not to go to the police but to investigate the matter himself. He and Margaret eventually team up to save a beautiful young heiress who is in danger from the gang and to discover the identity of Grey Mask. I thought this book would be somewhat cheesy and campy, but in fact I really enjoyed it! I will definitely read more by Patricia Wentworth; this is technically the first book in the Miss Silver series, but Miss Silver is a pretty marginal character in this installment.

Katherine Arden, The Winter of the Witch

I loved the first two books in this trilogy, The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, and this book was a fitting conclusion to the series. I love the setting, which is essentially a magical version of medieval Russia that contains various elements of Russian folklore. I also really like that the series doesn’t shy away from consequences: although Vasilisa is a sympathetic heroine, sometimes her choices have unexpected or unintended effects on those close to her. It’s a morally complex universe where no one is completely good or evil, and I liked that the book has some sympathy for even the most destructive characters. My only complaint is that the novel is a bit slow-moving, but if you liked earlier books in the series, you should definitely read this last installment!

Georgette Heyer, Detection Unlimited

I love Georgette Heyer, but this isn’t one of my favorite of her mysteries. I’m a little surprised that I feel this way, though, because the mystery plot itself is one of her strongest. It’s a simple setup: a universally disliked man is shot in his garden, and everyone seems to have an alibi for the time of death. I thought the solution was clever and hung together well, although I was a bit disappointed in the choice of murderer because I liked that character! But the reason I didn’t totally love this book is that there’s a lot of padding surrounding the mystery plot; most of the book is just descriptions of the various characters and how they interact with one another. And while Heyer is great at characterization, I just wanted the story to go somewhere!

Mini-Reviews: Scandal, Death, Enchanting

Do You Want to Start a ScandalDeath on a Friday AfternoonOnly Enchanting

Tessa Dare, Do You Want to Start a Scandal

This Regency romance is the story of Charlotte Highwood, who has been nicknamed “the Desperate Debutante” because of her mother’s aggressive matchmaking efforts. Her mother’s latest target is Piers Brandon, Lord Granville; so Charlotte seeks him out at a house party to reassure him that she doesn’t wish to marry him. This strategy backfires immediately when the two are found in a compromising position — they accidentally interrupt a lovers’ tryst, but everyone else believes they are the lovers. Charlotte decides to clear her good name by unmasking the real lovers. But of course, the more time she and Piers spend together, the more they fall in love. This book was fine, although I found the comic style a little forced and overwrought. Not bad, but not particularly recommended.

Richard John Neuhaus, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross

I chose this book at the beginning of Lent as an appropriate spiritual read. As the subtitle suggests, each chapter is inspired by one of the seven last words of Jesus from the cross. Each “word” provides a jumping-off point for the author, a Catholic priest, to discuss various aspects of his faith. Sadly, since I read this a while ago, I don’t remember a lot of the details! But I do remember the chapter on “I thirst” being particularly interesting because it discussed the question of universal salvation (is it possible that everyone will be saved?). I’d say the book is geared more toward intellectual than devotional purposes. Overall, the book gave me a lot of food for thought, and I definitely plan to reread it in the future.

Mary Balogh, Only Enchanting

I’ve yet to be disappointed by a Balogh book, and this Regency romance is no exception. It’s part of the Survivors’ Club series, about a group of people who have been deeply wounded (physically, emotionally, or both) in the Napoleonic Wars, but it can be read as a stand-alone novel. The hero, Flavian, has returned from the war with a head injury that left gaps in his memory. When he is thrown together with Agnes, a widow living a quiet rural life, he impulsively proposes to her, and together they are able to fill in some of the blanks in Flavian’s memory — and fall in love in the process. That makes it sound like love magically cures Flavian’s mental injuries, which isn’t the case…I feel like I’m not describing the plot terribly well! But I really liked the book and will continue reading more in this series.

Mini-Reviews: Witch, Scarlet, Homicide

Water Witch*Study in Scarlet WomenHome Sweet Homicide

Cynthia Felice and Connie Willis, Water Witch

I’m a huge Connie Willis fan, so I had high hopes for this book, especially because it also contains some of my favorite elements: con artists, a missing princess, and a sci-fi/romance combo. But overall I found it pretty underwhelming. I really liked the kernel of the story, but I wanted it to be fleshed out a lot more, especially the characterization. The romance essentially comes out of nowhere, and I never really felt like I got to know the hero at all. That said, I really liked a twist involving one of the secondary characters, who came to be a lot more important than I initially expected. Overall, I didn’t like this as much as Willis’s solo work, but I already own two more Willis/Felice collaborations, so I’ll definitely read them at some point.

Sherry Thomas, A Study in Scarlet Women

I’d heard great things about the Lady Sherlock series but was hesitant to dive in, fearing that the books wouldn’t live up to the hype. But I was pleasantly surprised — I really enjoyed this book, which recasts literature’s most famous detective as Charlotte Holmes, a Victorian woman whose brilliant mind is constrained by the social rules of her time. So she decides to leave home and forge her own path. Meanwhile, of course, she solves several murders by realizing that they are all connected. I loved this take on a Holmesian character; Charlotte has a brilliant deductive mind but also really enjoys fashion, and her style is surprisingly ornate and gaudy. I also loved that the book, while sympathetic to Charlotte, also shows her flaws and the negative consequences of some of her decisions. I will definitely continue with the series sooner rather than later!

Craig Rice, Home Sweet Homicide

I found this mystery novel delightful. It’s about three children (ages 8 to 14, I believe) whose mother is a popular mystery novelist. When their neighbor is murdered in real life, the kids are ecstatic — now Mother might get some new material for her books, and the publicity is bound to be good for business. Plus, the handsome detective working the case looks like excellent stepfather material, though Mother doesn’t seem to agree. The children team up to solve the mystery with the help of their friends and neighbors; the result is a farcical romp that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Mini-Reviews: Prim, Reading, Headliners

Awakening of Miss PrimI'd Rather Be ReadingHeadliners

Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera, The Awakening of Miss Prim (trans. Sonia Soto)

This is a strange little novel about a young woman, Prudencia Prim, who applies for a position as a private librarian in a remote French village. A modern woman herself, she is initially shocked by the villagers’ old-fashioned beliefs and behavior. But she soon observes the happiness and prosperity of those around her, and with the help of her enigmatic employer, she comes to see the merits of their way of life. I think this book is aimed at a very particular audience, namely a certain subdivision of Catholics who are huge fans of G.K. Chesterton. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’d say this book is probably not for you! Even as part of the target audience, I still found it a little much.

Anne Bogel, I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life

I’m a big fan of Anne Bogel’s podcast, What Should I Read Next? So when I found her book at a library sale, I snatched it up! The essays are fun — nothing particularly new or memorable, but bibliophiles and fans of the author should enjoy them. A fun read, but not a keeper for me.

Lucy Parker, Headliners

Lucy Parker is an auto-buy author for me; I really love her contemporary romances set in the London entertainment world. In this one, protagonists Sabrina and Nick are rival TV presenters who are forced to work together to revive their network’s struggling morning show. If you enjoy enemies to lovers, this book is a great example! I especially liked how Sabrina and Nick resolve their conflicts like adults; there are no stupid misunderstandings or secrets kept for no reason. I note that, while this book can technically stand alone, it does refer back frequently to the events of the previous book, The Austen Playbook. Definitely recommended for romance fans, although my favorite Parker books remain her first two, Act Like It and Pretty Face.

Mini-reviews: Henrietta’s, Matrimonial, Austen

Henrietta's WarMatrimonial AdvertisementAusten Escape

Joyce Dennys, Henrietta’s War: News from the Home Front 1939-1942

I greatly enjoyed this charming epistolary novel, which is both written and set during World War II. The titular Henrietta writes to her childhood friend Robert, who is off fighting somewhere in France, and describes daily life in her rural English village. Despite the constant presence of the war in the background, Henrietta mostly focuses on the mundane, humorous aspects of life. A pleasant and uplifting book.

Mimi Matthews, The Matrimonial Advertisement

Last year I read Matthews’s novella, A Holiday by Gaslight, and enjoyed it so much that I wanted to seek out some of her full-length novels. This one, the first in her Parish Orphans of Devon series, is a “proper” Victorian romance (i.e., no explicit content) that centers around a marriage of convenience. Justin needs a wife to manage his remote, secluded estate, and Helena needs a safe place to hide from her past. The book definitely justified my high expectations, and I can’t wait to continue with the series!

Katherine Reay, The Austen Escape

I’ve read one other book by Reay, Dear Mr. Knightley, and I wasn’t a huge fan. But when I got this novel as a gift, I decided to give the author another chance. Unfortunately, I didn’t like this book either — something about the writing style just grates on my nerves. I also found the heroine obnoxious and unsympathetic, and I have no idea what her love interest saw in her. I was frankly appalled by one major plot point: the heroine’s best friend, who has a history of mental health issues, starts to believe she’s living in Jane Austen’s time…and nobody seems to think this is something that needs immediate medical attention! So all in all, I wasn’t a fan, and I’m pretty sure I’m done with this author.

Review: A Question of Proof

Question of ProofNicholas Blake, A Question of Proof

This first book in the Nigel Strangeways mystery series is set at an English boys’ prep school called Sudeley Hall. One of the schoolmasters, Michael Evans, is in love with Hero, the headmaster’s wife. They’ve been having a passionate affair for two months, but so far they’ve successfully managed to keep it a secret. One afternoon they meet for a rendezvous in a haystack on school property. Unfortunately for them, several hours later the corpse of one of the schoolboys is found in that same haystack. The boy, who was unpopular with both the students and teachers, has clearly been murdered, and it seems as though an outsider couldn’t have done it. Michael’s secret makes him the most likely suspect, a fact which isn’t lost on the local policeman in charge of the case. Luckily, one of Michael’s good friends is amateur detective Nigel Strangeways, who agrees to investigate the murder on the school’s behalf. Nigel is convinced of Michael’s innocence and soon sets his sights on another suspect. But since there’s very little physical evidence in the case, the murderer might get away scot-free.

I enjoyed this Golden Age mystery novel and think it’s a solid example of the genre with a few unique elements. First of all, Nicholas Blake is the pen name of Cecil Day-Lewis, who was Poet Laureate of the UK from 1968 to 1972, and I think his literary background shows in the writing style. The first chapter of the book reads more like a play, with lots of interior monologuing and narration that sounds like stage directions. It’s a clever device that recurs throughout the book, but it’s perhaps a bit overwrought. On the other hand, Day-Lewis was also a schoolmaster for several years, and it’s clear that his experience in this area also provided fodder for the book. The characterization of the schoolboys rings true and is especially fun to read. As for the mystery itself, I liked how the book deals with one question at a time and solves it before proceeding to the next problem — it makes the whole outline of the plot easier to follow, rather than waiting to dump everything on the reader in the last chapter. The revelation of the killer made sense but relied an awful lot on Strangeways’s amateur psychological profiling. Overall, I liked this book fine and will read the next in the series, Thou Shell of Death, which is already on my shelves!

Review: Would Like to Meet

Would Like to MeetRachel Winters, Would Like to Meet

Evie Summers has been an assistant at a film agency for several years, hoping one day to be promoted to agent. For now, though, her hands are full with the agency’s most important client, a critically acclaimed screenwriter who has been contracted to write a romantic comedy but who keeps missing his deadlines. In an effort to motivate him, Evie proposes an experiment to prove that people can fall in love the way they do in romantic comedies. She’ll use the meet-cute methods of famous romcoms to get someone to fall in love with her, and in return, the screenwriter will deliver his script. Of course, Evie’s various attempts at a meet-cute generally end in disaster; luckily, she has her friends and a sympathetic single dad named Ben to help her out. As she continues to struggle in her career and her love life, she gradually realizes that real love may have been right in front of her all along.

I enjoyed reading this book; it’s a fun, quick page-turner with a satisfying romantic comedy built into it. But I must say, I found a lot of Evie’s decisions frustrating, to say the least! She puts up with incredibly bad treatment from her boss, reasoning that if she just hangs in there a little longer, he’ll eventually promote her — but it’s immediately obvious that he never will. At one point, she seems to be torn between two suitors, but it’s painfully clear that one of them is just using her. There’s a big “twist” near the end of the book involving Evie’s written record of her meet-cutes, but I saw it coming a mile away. Basically, I felt sorry for Evie, but I didn’t have a lot of respect for her because she kept making such terrible choices. Also, I found her friend group a bit stereotypical, including a gay BFF and a super-type-A bridezilla. I did like the romance a lot and almost wish it had been more of a focus in the book. Overall, this is a cute chick lit novel that I’d recommend as a breezy beach or airplane read.

Review: In Milady’s Chamber

In Milady's ChamberSheri Cobb South, In Milady’s Chamber

When Lord Fieldhurst is found murdered in his richly appointed Mayfair home, suspicion immediately falls on his wife. It’s common knowledge in London society that their marriage has been unhappy and that, because of Lady Fieldhurst’s inability to produce an heir, her husband has pursued sexual satisfaction elsewhere. Furthermore, the man was stabbed in the neck with his wife’s own nail scissors. The evidence seems ironclad; but John Pickett, the Bow Street Runner assigned to the case, is immediately enthralled by Lady Fieldhurst’s beauty and becomes determined to prove her innocence. As he investigates other promising suspects, such as Fieldhurst’s heir and his colleagues at the War Office, he uncovers many secrets but comes no closer to finding the killer — that is, until he and Lady Fieldhurst finally join forces to discover the truth.

I love mysteries and the Regency period, so any book that combines them both is something I’m going to want to read! In this case, the book delivered exactly what I wanted: a light, quick-reading, Heyer-esque period piece with a little mystery and a hint of romance. John Pickett is a somewhat unique protagonist for this type of story: most Regency heroes are self-assured and commanding, but John is young, naive, and idealistic to a fault. Nevertheless, he manages to be good at his job, despite being distracted by the beautiful Lady Fieldhurst. I was a little annoyed that he falls for her so quickly, and apparently on the basis of nothing but her looks, but his awkward pining does make for several humorous moments. Julia, Lady Fieldhurst, is also given some dimension and depth as she helps John with his investigation and contemplates her own future. The mystery is wrapped up a little too abruptly, although I did like the subtle hints to one part of the solution that are seeded throughout the book. But overall, I simply enjoyed spending time in this world with these characters, and I definitely plan on continuing with the series!

Review: Murder Most Malicious

Murder Most MaliciousAlyssa Maxwell, Murder Most Malicious

It’s Christmas 1918, and England is ready for a little peace on earth after the end of the Great War. But the house party at Foxwood Hall is anything but peaceful: on Christmas night, Lady Phoebe Renshaw hears her older sister Julia arguing with her would-be fiancé, Lord Allerton. The argument ends with Julia breaking off their relationship — and the next day, Lord Allerton is nowhere to be found. Then some of the Foxwood servants receive a gruesome surprise in their Boxing Day gifts, indicating that Allerton is dead. The police believe one of the footmen is responsible, but Lady Phoebe and her maid, Eva Huntford, are convinced of his innocence. In an effort to prove it, Phoebe and Eva do some investigating of their own, and they soon discover that many of Foxwood’s current inhabitants — both above and below stairs — had a reason to want Allerton dead. And if they don’t stop sleuthing, they may be the next to die.

This book has strong Downton Abbey vibes, and I think anyone who enjoyed that show will like this book too. It gives that same upstairs-downstairs picture of English country house life at a time when social mores were beginning to shift dramatically. Phoebe and Eva are both likable protagonists, and despite their class differences, it’s obvious that they truly care for one another. At times they feel a little too much like stock characters, though . . . like every other heroine in historical fiction, they’re intelligent women who seek to transcend their social roles, but they don’t have many other personality traits. The same is true for most of the other characters: there’s the eccentric older relative, the faithful butler, the autocratic matriarch, the handsome lord who’s more than he seems, and so on. Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable formula, so I didn’t mind too much. The mystery plot was interesting, and while I did guess the culprit, it was fun to follow along. Overall, I’m definitely interested in continuing with the series, and I hope that Phoebe and Eva’s characters will be more fleshed out in subsequent books.

Review: Mystery in White

Mystery in WhiteJ. Jefferson Farjeon, Mystery in White

Six passengers in a third-class train compartment become entangled in a sinister mystery when the train is trapped in a snowdrift on Christmas Eve. The group includes a lively young brother and sister, a chorus girl, an elderly bore, a shy clerk, and a professor with an interest in the supernatural. They all decide to leave the train and seek shelter at a nearby station, but they become lost in the snow and end up at an isolated country house. Desperate for shelter, they enter the house, but no one seems to be home. Yet the teakettle is on, and the table is set for a meal. As the characters try to make sense of these events, one of them reveals that a man was murdered in the train — and when the group is later joined by another “lost” individual, they suspect that he may be the murderer. This chain of events later converges with another mystery concerning the house itself and a murder that happened 20 years ago.

I enjoy Farjeon’s light and humorous writing style, and his characters are well rounded and sympathetic. But plot-wise, I was quite disappointed in this novel. The six characters introduced in the opening chapters of the book are the ones we follow for about two-thirds of the novel, so naturally I assumed that they would be the most important people in the story. But in fact, aside from the professor, who acts as the detective and orchestrates the denouement, none of these six people have any relevance to either of the mysteries in the novel! They provide some humor and some human interest, but they have no actual function in the plot. Instead, two new characters come in late in the game, and they turn out to be central to the story. I can’t understand why Farjeon would structure his story in such a way that it’s totally disconnected from the characters we’ve been following all along. I also felt sorry for several of the characters, who deserved a happier ending than what they got. All in all, this might be entertaining for people who enjoy a witty period piece, but I definitely wouldn’t recommend it for people who want a good mystery!