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!

Review: Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand

Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand:Miss Grimsley's Oxford CareerCarla Kelly, Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand

Roxanna Drew is at the end of her rope. After the death of her husband the vicar, she must find a new home for herself and her two young daughters. Her late husband’s brother is willing to provide this home, but only if she agrees to become his mistress. Revolted by the suggestion, Roxanna decides to rent the dower house of a nearby estate instead, but her brother-in-law’s nefarious schemes are far from over. Meanwhile, the estate’s owner, Fletcher Rand, Lord Winn, has problems of his own. He is shunned by most of society because he publicly divorced his wife after discovering her many infidelities. His family urges him to marry again and produce an heir, but Winn is reluctant to trust another woman — that is, until he meets Roxanna while on a tour of his estates. Winn is immediately attracted to her and quickly befriends both herself and her children. But when circumstances force them into a marriage of convenience, they must learn whether they can truly rely on each other.

As I’ve become more familiar with the romance genre, I’ve encountered Carla Kelly’s name multiple times as a respected author of traditional Regencies, and this particular novel is often praised as one of her best. I wasn’t quite as impressed as I wanted to be, but I did enjoy this book very much and have already begun another of Kelly’s novels. Both Roxanna and Winn struck me as mature adults who are doing their best in their respective difficult situations. I especially liked Winn because, while he’s slightly curmudgeonly at first, he’s not brooding or selfish like many other romance heroes. He shows his love for Roxanna by always putting her and her family’s needs before his own, but his sense of humor keeps him from being annoyingly perfect. There’s not much plot beyond the initial setup, and I found the writing style a bit clunky and some of the dialogue anachronistic. I also wasn’t convinced by the evil brother-in-law’s repentance in the end. But overall, I did like this one and will definitely read more by the author.

Review: Snowspelled

SnowspelledStephanie Burgis, Snowspelled

In a fantasy world analogous to 19th-century England, upper-class men are expected to be magicians, while upper-class women are destined to be politicians. But Cassandra Harwood has always had a thirst for magic, and her passionate determination got her all the way to the Great Library, the premier training ground for young magicians. She even found love there with the equally passionate and hardworking Wrexham. But a spell gone horribly wrong has deprived Cassandra of her ability to cast magic, not to mention her social standing and her fiancé. Now, four months after this tragic incident, Cassandra is snowed in at a house party with the high-society people she’s been trying to avoid, including her ex-fiancé. To make matters worse, the snowstorm seems to be magical in origin, and Cassandra is tricked into making a bargain with an arrogant elf-lord to discover who is causing it. If she fails, the consequences will be dire for both herself and her nation, as the age-old treaty between humans and elves will be broken. Can Cassandra discover the culprit and sort out her personal life before it’s too late?

I’ve read and enjoyed books by Stephanie Burgis before, and I’m a sucker for anything that can be described as “Jane Austen plus magic,” so this novella seemed right up my alley. And I did enjoy it overall, but now I find myself remembering more of its flaws. I think the main problem, for me, was the heroine. Cassandra is one of those protagonists who is incredibly stubborn, convinced of her own rightness, and unwilling to compromise. All of her problems in the story are of her own making, particularly the mess of her relationship with Wrexham. I did like Wrexham, and I enjoyed the banter between them, but it frustrated me that they’re both such poor communicators, especially since they were once engaged to each other. Cassandra does grow and change in the course of the story, but it was too little, too late for me. Also, as with many novellas, the short length doesn’t leave much room for nuance in the plot or characters. The world of the story is interesting, and I actually wouldn’t mind reading a full-length novel in this setting, but I feel like I didn’t get to see enough of the world. All in all, I’m not giving up on this author, but I think I’ll stick to her full-length novels instead.

Review: A Summer to Remember

Summer to RememberMary Balogh, A Summer to Remember

Kit Butler, Viscount Ravensberg, was once a respectable army officer, but now he’s one of London’s most notorious rakes. His father wants him to come home, accept his responsibilities as heir, and marry the woman his family has chosen for him. Kit rebels from this fate and decides to choose his own wife; but she must be so thoroughly respectable that his family couldn’t possibly object to her. Lauren Edgeworth fits the bill nicely: she’s not only beautiful but a perfectly proper lady. She finds Kit’s behavior shocking, yet she’s also intrigued by his mischievous attempts to provoke her. She won’t consent to a real marriage — ever since she was left at the altar a year ago, she’s been determined to remain a spinster — but eventually she agrees to a fake engagement. She’ll accompany Kit to his home and help to heal the estrangement between him and his family. But in return, she wants a summer to remember. Of course, the longer Kit and Lauren spend together, the fonder they grow of each other. But their love may not be enough to overcome past wounds and present insecurities.

Mary Balogh has quickly become one of my go-to historical romance authors, but I must confess that I didn’t love this book quite as much as some of her others. I think it’s largely because I didn’t find Kit remotely charming or fun in the beginning; rather, I thought he was pushing Lauren out of her comfort zone far too aggressively, almost to the point of harassing her. Balogh does course-correct fairly early in the novel, making Kit realize that he’s been treating Lauren as an object rather than as a fellow human being, but I felt that the transition was abrupt and the motivation for the change was unclear. The premise of the book is a bit thin as well — I didn’t understand what Lauren was actually hoping to get out of her summer with Kit, given that she was planning to live in Bath as a spinster afterwards. However, I liked that both characters are dealing with a lot of emotional pain, but they react in completely opposite ways, Lauren by adhering strictly to society’s rules and Kit by breaking them altogether. So I did warm up to both main characters eventually, and I ended up enjoying this opposites-attract romance quite a bit. I’ll definitely continue to read more by Balogh!

Review: The Moving Toyshop

Moving ToyshopEdmund Crispin, The Moving Toyshop

On holiday in Oxford, poet Richard Cadogan stumbles upon a perplexing mystery. Arriving in town late at night, he blunders into a toyshop (the front door being mysteriously unlocked) and discovers a corpse in the flat upstairs. Before he can do much more than ascertain that the old woman is really dead, someone hits him from behind and knocks him out. When he comes to, Cadogan escapes and rushes to tell the police about the murder. But when he leads the policemen back to the scene of the crime, the toyshop is gone. In its place is a grocer that has obviously been there for years. Of course, the police think that Cadogan is crazy, and they won’t investigate a murder without a body. Luckily, Cadogan is acquainted with Gervase Fen, an Oxford don who moonlights as an amateur detective. Together, Fen and Cadogan investigate the mystery and uncover a murderous conspiracy, as well as discovering what happened to the moving toyshop.

This is a fun romp of an English Golden Age mystery, with just enough Oxford detail to please fans of academic mysteries. But despite the fact that it’s probably Crispin’s most famous novel, several aspects of it didn’t work for me. First, I can’t figure out Gervase Fen as a character: he’s supposed to be about 40 and lean, but his dialogue (especially the constant exclamations of “Oh, my dear paws!” and “Oh, my fur and whiskers!”) makes me picture a much older and larger man. Also, he’s rude about Jane Austen, which is an automatic strike against him in my book! Then there’s the issue of pacing. The story starts off strong, but it seems like most of the mystery is solved with about one-third of the book still to go. Finally, it seemed like the novel was setting up a romance for Cadogan, but nothing ever came of it, which I found confusing and disappointing. Still, I did enjoy the novel’s light tone overall, as well as the Oxford setting. I’d consider reading more by Crispin, but I think I’ll have to go in with moderate expectations.

Review: A Holiday by Gaslight

Holiday by GaslightMimi Matthews, A Holiday by Gaslight

Sophie Appersett is the elder daughter of an impoverished noble family. Her father has squandered the family fortune, including Sophie’s dowry, on modernizations to the estate, such as the implementation of gaslight. As a result, Sophie knows it’s her duty to marry money, even if means looking outside her own class for a husband. Edward Sharpe is a prosperous tradesman whose fortune is large enough to overcome his lack of gentility. But although he’s asked Sophie’s father for permission to court her, he shows no sign of being in love with her. In fact, Ned is interested in Sophie, but he doesn’t want to commit any breaches of etiquette in his courtship, so he takes refuge in silence. Frustrated, Sophie decides to break things off — but a further conversation with Ned convinces her to try once more. He’ll attend her family’s extravagant Christmas party, and they will both make an effort to know one another better. But will their fledgling relationship survive the obstacles presented by their respective families?

Christmas is my favorite holiday, and I’m already starting to get into the spirit of things, although I’m desperately trying to wait until after Thanksgiving to break out my Christmas music! So this holiday-set romance novella was bound to catch my eye, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I loved the premise, which has a sort of marriage-of-convenience flavor (one of my favorite tropes!) but even better because the hero and heroine are actually honest with each other, almost from the very beginning! They communicate well, and almost all the conflict is driven by Sophie’s truly appalling father and his determination to bleed Ned dry in order to improve Appersett House. I like that the book engages with the technological and scientific innovations of the Victorian period; in addition to gaslight, indoor plumbing and the theories of Charles Darwin are also mentioned. My one complaint is that the characterization is a little flat, especially for the secondary characters, but that’s understandable given the length of the story (only about 160 pages in the print version). Overall, I really liked this one and will definitely seek out the author’s full-length novels!

Review: Don’t You Forget about Me

Don't You Forget about MeMhairi McFarlane, Don’t You Forget about Me

Thirtysomething Georgina Horspool is somewhat lost in life. She’s just been fired from a terrible waitressing job, only to walk in on her boyfriend cheating on her with his assistant. She’s also dealing with her judgmental mother and sister, who never miss an opportunity to criticize her life choices and who are having a field day with these latest crises. So when Georgina’s brother-in-law gives her a tip about a newly renovated pub that’s hiring bartenders, she jumps at the chance of gainful employment. Unfortunately, one of the owners of the pub is Lucas McCarthy, Georgina’s first love — and her first heartbreak. Back in high school, when they were paired together for a class assignment, Georgina fell hard for Lucas, and she could have sworn that the feeling was mutual. But a brutal incident at the end-of-year dance drove them apart, and they haven’t talked since. Now Lucas is smart, successful, and handsomer than ever . . . but he doesn’t even remember Georgina. As she wrestles with her complicated feelings about Lucas, Georgina also finds the strength to stand up for herself and mend the various relationships in her life.

Mhairi McFarlane has become one of my go-to authors for British “chick lit” with emotional depth. While Georgina’s situation is by no means unique in the genre — single, underemployed, dealing with family problems and low self-esteem — I found her both likable and relatable, and I was immediately rooting for her to overcome the various challenges in her life. I was drawn to her funny, self-deprecating voice and her vibrant personality that emerges when she’s hanging out with her friends. I also really enjoyed the development of her relationship with Lucas, which plays a prominent role in the story. I’m not usually a fan of second-chance romances, but the plot really worked for me here, in part because the reasons for their initial breakup are so understandable. (I don’t want to spoil the plot, but the incident at the end-of-year dance does involve sexual trauma [not perpetrated by Lucas], so be warned if you’re sensitive to that issue.) Lucas in particular didn’t handle things well, but I ultimately forgave him because (1) he was young and stupid and (2) he gives very good grovel in the end. Overall, if you like this genre, I’d definitely recommend this book, as well as McFarlane’s other novels.

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.