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.

Review: How to Find Love in a Bookshop

How to Find Love in a BookshopVeronica Henry, How to Find Love in a Bookshop

This story begins with the death of Julius Nightingale, proprietor of Nightingale Books in the village of Peasebrook, near Oxford. When he passes away following a sudden illness, his daughter Emilia inherits the bookshop. Though she receives a lucrative offer from a real estate developer to sell the shop, she decides to take over the management of the store and continue her father’s legacy. But she is surprised to learn just how powerful that legacy was to the community of Peasebrook. As she meets Julius’s friends and customers — like Sarah, the owner of the local stately home, whose relationship with Julius was more complex than anyone suspected; or Thomasina, the painfully shy teacher who can’t muster up the courage to ask out the handsome man she met in the cookbook section — Emilia realizes that Nightingale Books can be her legacy, and her home, as well.

This book is hard to describe because it’s very light on plot; it’s essentially a collection of vignettes about the various residents of Peasebrook and their relationships to one another and to Nightingale Books. All these stories are ultimately sweet and uplifting, despite the fact that the book begins with a death and that many of the characters are grieving. Almost everyone finds love in the end, although surprisingly few of the romances have anything to do with books. That might be my biggest complaint about the novel — there’s not very much about books or bookselling in it. Rather, the store is the backdrop for these various character-driven stories to unfold. I also felt that there were a few too many characters; I would have preferred fewer storylines and more depth. But despite these shortcomings, I actually really enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone who likes a pleasant, feel-good read!

Review: The Heretic’s Apprentice

Heretic's ApprenticeEllis Peters, The Heretic’s Apprentice

In the summer of 1143, the Benedictine abbey of Saints Peter and Paul in Shrewsbury is preparing for its annual festival in honor of St. Winifred. But the celebrations are somewhat dampened when a young man called Elave arrives with the body of his master, Sir William Lythwood, who died returning from a seven-year pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Elave requests that Sir William be buried at the abbey, but questions from a visiting cleric reveal that the dead man had discussed and possibly even espoused heretical views. Elave hotly defends his master and is accused of being a heretic himself. When his accuser is later found stabbed to death, Elave falls under suspicion for murder as well. Luckily, Brother Cadfael is once again on the case, both to solve the mystery and to help clear Elave’s name of the heresy charge.

It’s always a pleasure to spend some time with Brother Cadfael, and this installment of the series is no different. All the quintessential elements of the formula are there: Cadfael gets involved through his knowledge of herbs and healing, he solves the mystery with the help of Hugh Beringar, and he helps two young lovers get together. I particularly enjoyed the heresy plot of this book; not only was it interesting (at least for me) to think about the theological topics at issue, but I liked the fact that no one was a complete villain. The book clearly intends us to side with Elave, and the cleric who interrogates him is portrayed as being too rigid, yet we later catch a glimpse of his humanity as well. The mystery is well plotted, although I was able to guess the culprit in advance. Overall, this is a series I continue to love, and I’m sorry I only have four books left!

Review: Duels & Deception

Duels & DeceptionCindy Anstey, Duels & Deception

After the death of her beloved father, Lydia Whitfield is determined to keep her family’s estate up and running, but her hot-tempered, alcoholic uncle thwarts her at every turn. Lydia’s only solution is to marry a suitable man who will allow her to run things as she chooses. She already has an unofficial understanding with her neighbor, Lord Aldershot, so all she has to do is draw up the marriage contract. Her plan hits a snag, however, when she meets her lawyer — or rather, her lawyer’s clerk, a handsome young man named Robert Newton. He seems to understand Lydia in a way that no one else does, and she finds herself getting distracted by his broad shoulders and kind brown eyes. Complications ensue when Lydia and Robert are abducted by persons unknown, and they must work together to discover who engineered the kidnapping and why.

I’d previously read another book by this author, Love, Lies and Spies, and while I wasn’t crazy about it, the adorable cover of this novel convinced me to try again. Unfortunately, I enjoyed the cover much more than the book! Even as someone who enjoys a light and fluffy Regency romance, I found this novel utterly insubstantial. The attempts at humor are grating, and the setting is nothing more than window-dressing. The mystery of who kidnapped Lydia and Robert isn’t compelling enough to carry the plot, and a separate storyline involving Robert’s best friend and a duel seems to be completely shoehorned in, with no relevance to the A-story. However, that side story does contain the only marginally interesting character in the book, Robert’s best friend Vincent Cassidy. Perhaps it’s just as well that the author hasn’t written a full novel featuring him, because I’m sure I’d be doomed to disappointment if I read it!

Review: The Flatshare

FlatshareBeth O’Leary, The Flatshare

When Tiffy Moore is dumped by her boyfriend, she needs a new place to live right away. So when she spots an ad for an inexpensive flatshare, she jumps at it, despite the unconventional terms of the agreement. Leon Twomey, the current renter of the flat, works nights and weekends as a palliative care nurse. So he only needs the flat from 9am to 6pm, while Tiffy is at work; meanwhile, she can use the flat while he’s gone. They’ll never even have to meet each other. But then Tiffy leaves a note and some leftover baked goods for Leon, and he leaves a thank-you note in response, and soon they’re corresponding via Post-It notes left all over the flat. And while they seem to have little in common—Tiffy is gregarious and messy, while Leon is quiet and self-contained—their correspondence deepens into a close friendship, and maybe even more. But their complicated lives threaten to derail their fledgling romance: Leon’s brother is in jail fighting a wrongful conviction, and Tiffy’s ex doesn’t want to let her move on.

Despite the somewhat contrived premise, this book is an adorable rom-com that I would wholeheartedly recommend! The story is told in alternating chapters from Tiffy’s and Leon’s points of view. While some reviewers had trouble getting into Leon’s clipped, stilted narrative style, I thought it made for a great contrast to Tiffy’s bubbly voice. The notes between Tiffy and Leon are a joy to read, making the relationship between the characters believable despite their not meeting in person until halfway through the book. I also liked that they both seem like real people: they have jobs (and we actually see them doing those jobs!) and friends and family members whom they care about. The secondary characters are a bit less dynamic—Tiffy’s scary lawyer best friend, Leon’s bitchy girlfriend—but I didn’t mind because I enjoyed the main story so much! The book does deal with some serious issues, but it remains light and optimistic overall. In other words, it’s a perfect summer read!