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: Pawn, Undateable, Desperate

Fortune's PawnUndateableDesperate Fortune

Rachel Bach, Fortune’s Pawn

Devi Morris is a space mercenary whose dream is to join her home planet’s most elite fighting force. In order to gain the necessary qualifications and experience, she signs onto the crew of the Glorious Fool, a spaceship with a reputation of getting into trouble. But Devi has no idea just how much trouble is in store for her. I really enjoyed this book, which is sci-fi with a prominent romantic subplot. It’s not groundbreaking, just a really solid example of this type of story. I’m also very intrigued by the plot developments at the end of the book, so I’m definitely planning to read the rest of the trilogy!

Sarah Title, The Undateable

This is a cute romance focusing on Melissa “Bernie” Bernard, a feminist and somewhat frumpy academic librarian. When her student assistant gets engaged via a flash-mob proposal, Bernie’s disapproving reaction is caught on camera and immediately becomes a viral meme. That meme gets the attention of Colin Rodriguez, who works for an online fashion magazine and is looking for a story that will make his job secure. When they team up to do a story about the Disapproving Librarian going on a series of blind dates, they discover an inconvenient mutual attraction. This is a fun book with a very enjoyable heroine; and while the hero isn’t quite as fleshed out, I like that he comes to appreciate Bernie’s quirkiness. They each grow as they learn to understand the other’s point of view, which is a feature I always like in a romance. Worth reading if you like the premise.

Susanna Kearsley, A Desperate Fortune

I’ve read a few of Kearsley’s books before, and I liked but didn’t love them. Still, I decided to give this one a try because it contains a lot of elements I enjoy: codebreaking, espionage, and Jacobites. And I’m so glad I read it, because I absolutely loved it! Mary Dundas is part of a Jacobite family living in exile in France. She yearns for adventure, and finds it when her brother claims her for a mission to camouflage the identity of a fellow Jacobite who is being hunted by the English. Meanwhile, in the present day, Sara is hired to decrypt Mary’s encoded diary. Both Mary and Sara travel, learn more about themselves and the world, and find romance. I should note that Sara has Asperger syndrome, and I thought this aspect of her character was portrayed well — but I don’t really know much about it, so perhaps someone with more expertise would have a different opinion. Overall, I really loved this book and may have to rethink my stance on Kearsley in general!

Review: A Modest Independence

Modest IndependenceMimi Matthews, A Modest Independence

This second installment of the Parish Orphans of Devon series follows Thomas Finchley and Jenny Holloway, both of whom first appeared in The Matrimonial Advertisement. Tom is a London solicitor, and his job is his life; it was his ticket out of the orphanage and his escape from a life of poverty. His clients must always come first, even before his own needs and wants. Meanwhile, Jenny has just received a small fortune that enables her to quit her job as a ladies’ companion. She yearns to see the world and is eager to set sail for India, where she hopes to find news of an old flame who reportedly died in an uprising. Tom and Jenny are powerfully attracted to each other, but they want such different things that a romance seems out of the question. But when Tom spontaneously accompanies Jenny on her trip to India, their feelings for each other grow and intensify. Will they be able to find a way to be together despite pursuing their very different dreams?

I really enjoyed The Matrimonial Advertisement and was excited to continue with the series, but this book suffered a bit by comparison. First of all, I don’t think it stands alone very well; Tom and Jenny’s story definitely began in the first novel, and that context is important as their relationship grows in this book. Secondly, Tom’s actions occasionally rubbed me the wrong way. For example, he decides to escort Jenny to India and hires Indian servants for her without her knowledge or consent. His motives are good — he knows her journey will be more difficult and dangerous if she travels alone — but I didn’t like that he makes these decisions without consulting Jenny first. Finally, the conflict is very repetitive and became frustrating for me. Nearly all the conversations between Tom and Jenny deal with the same problem: she doesn’t want to be tied down by marriage, while he isn’t cut out for a life of adventure. And after all the hand-wringing, the solution seems almost too easy. But while I was disappointed in this book, it wasn’t a bad read by any means, and I definitely plan to continue with the series!

Mini-Reviews: Brittany, Thing, Diamonds

Assignment in BrittanyJust One Damned Thing after AnotherDiamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend

Helen MacInnes, Assignment in Brittany

Martin Hearne, a British intelligence agent, has just been given a new assignment. He happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to Bertrand Corlay, a Frenchman recuperating in an English hospital after the evacuation of Dunkirk. His job will be to impersonate Corlay and go “home” to the village of Saint-Déodat in Brittany, where he will research the movements of the occupying German troops. Of course, complications ensue as Hearne meets Corlay’s family, shelters an American journalist, and has several unpleasant run-ins with the Nazis. His situation becomes even more precarious when he realizes that the real Corlay hasn’t been entirely truthful with him. I really enjoyed this suspenseful and entertaining book. It’s all the more remarkable because the novel was published in 1942, when the outcome of the war was far from certain. Definitely recommended for fans of spy and/or World War II novels.

Jodi Taylor, Just One Damned Thing after Another

When Madeleine “Max” Maxwell is recruited to join the St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research, she gets a lot more than she bargained for: the historians of St. Mary’s “investigate major historical events in contemporary time” — in other words, time travel! Max embraces the concept wholeheartedly and soon proves herself adept at her new job. But when a trip to the late Cretaceous goes horribly wrong, Max learns that another group of time travelers is wreaking havoc with history, and the St. Mary’s gang will have to stop them in order to protect both the past and the future. This book is a fun romp, although Max is one of those heroines who’s annoyingly good at everything. I found the present timeline hard to follow; the book starts with Max arriving at St. Mary’s, but it seems like several months (or years?) pass without really being acknowledged. There’s also a graphic sex scene that I could have done without. Despite these quibbles, though, I did enjoy the book and will most likely continue with the series.

Jenny Colgan, Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend

This chick lit novel is about Sophie Chesterton, a shallow socialite whose life is upended when her father dies, and the terms of his will state that she must earn her own living for six months before receiving her inheritance. Sophie moves into a dirty flat in South London with four guys, attempts to pursue her interest in photography, and falls for not one but two of her roommates. Normally I really enjoy Jenny Colgan’s novels, but this one was disappointing. Sophie does grow throughout the book, but she’s so awful in the beginning that it’s hard to completely buy her redemption. I also didn’t find the romance angle satisfying; the outcome seemed to come out of the blue, so that I had no chance to become invested. I still recommend Colgan’s books in general, but this one just wasn’t for me.

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.

Review: The Glimpses of the Moon

glimpses-of-the-moon-theEdith Wharton, The Glimpses of the Moon

In the glittering whirl of 1920s New York society, Nick Lansing and Susy Branch are intelligent but impoverished: they survive by living off the generosity of their richer friends. They fall in love with each other and decide to marry, but they agree that if either of them gets a chance to make a better financial match, they’ll divorce amicably. At first the marriage is very successful, and Nick and Susy are able to live off their friends’ extravagant wedding gifts. But when one of their friends lets them stay at her Italian villa during the honeymoon, they soon discover that she requires an ethically dubious favor in return. This favor drives a wedge between Nick and Susy — a wedge that widens even further when a titled Englishman and a rich heiress present themselves as alternative romantic options. In the end, will love or money prevail?

I don’t have much to say about this book except that I really loved it! Wharton’s prose is flawlessly precise, and she has an immense talent for evoking a character’s complete emotional state with a few subtle, well-chosen words. I actually found this book a bit stressful to read at times, because I cared about Nick and Susy so much, and I really wanted their marriage to work out despite the obstacles in their way. I liked the fact that no one is really a villain in the book, not even the wealthier romantic possibilities who are hoping that the marriage will break up. That said, Wharton does include some wonderfully biting satire about the upper classes and the frivolity and emptiness of their lifestyle. I’d recommend this book to anyone, especially those who love comedies of manners and the classics.

Mini-Reviews #8: Losing steam

The last few months of the year always seem to fly by — I can’t believe it’s the middle of November already! Much as I love Christmas and all the hoopla leading up to it, I’m feeling a little burned out this year. I’m behind on reviews again, and I don’t feel particularly enthusiastic about catching up. So it’s back to mini-reviews for the time being, and I think I’m going to stick with this format until the end of 2016. Hopefully I’ll be ready to come back in January with renewed enthusiasm! In the meantime, here are some thoughts on the books I’ve read recently:

most-beautiful-book-in-the-world-thenevernight

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, The Most Beautiful Book in the World (trans. Alison Anderson) — This collection of eight “novellas”/short stories is an interesting meditation on womanhood and the passage of time. Most of the stories have a melancholic aspect, as the (almost always) female protagonists cope with issues like aging, infidelity, illness, and just plain unhappiness. All the same, I enjoyed these stories, particularly “Odette Toulemonde,” which is probably the most uplifting in the bunch. The only one that stood out to me in a negative way was “Intruder,” which has a gimmicky ending. Definitely worth reading if the description sounds interesting to you!

Jay Kristoff, Nevernight — I saw a lot of buzz about this book when it came out, but unfortunately it didn’t live up to the hype for me. The story is about Mia Corvere, a young woman seeking revenge after the political murder of her father and subsequent destruction of her family. She decides to seek out the Red Church, essentially a school for assassins, in order to pursue her revenge. Sounds pretty cool, right? Unfortunately, I could not deal with the writing style, which was completely overblown and trying way too hard to be impressive. I realize this is a very subjective criticism, and other readers may love the style, but it was emphatically not for me.

beginning-with-a-bashp-s-i-like-you

Alice Tilton, Beginning with a Bash — What a fun Golden Age mystery! This is the first book in the Leonidas Witherall series, in which our detective has to solve a murder that occurred in a used bookstore before an innocent man takes the blame. Along the way, Leonidas — who is almost always called Bill Shakespeare because of his resemblance to the Bard — reconnects with an old flame and becomes embroiled in a feud between two notorious gangs. It’s really more of an adventure story than a mystery; the whodunit takes a backseat to the car chases, secret passageways, and assorted goings-on. There’s also some delightful vintage banter, which makes me mad that there’s no film version starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. I’ll definitely be continuing with this series, and thankfully I already own the next book, The Cut Direct!

Kasie West, P.S. I Like You — “You’ve Got Mail” is one of my favorite movies, so I was excited to read this YA contemporary romance with a similar plot. One day while spacing out in chemistry class, Lily absentmindedly scribbles a lyric from her favorite indie song onto her desk. The next day, she discovers that someone has continued the lyric, and before she knows it, she and her unknown correspondent are trading notes about music and a whole lot more. But when Lily discovers the identity of her pen pal, it’s the last person she would ever expect. I really enjoyed this book, despite its utter predictability and Lily’s annoying inability to see what’s right in front of her. It’s an adorable, light romance, and sometimes that’s just what you need.

Mini-Reviews #3: June Books, Part 1

Still making my way through my review backlog, so here are some more short ones:

Lilac GirlsUnexpected Everything, The

Martha Hall Kelly, Lilac Girls — For the past few years, I’ve really gravitated toward books set during World War II, especially those dealing with the “home front” experience rather than the actual fighting. So I think I wanted to like this book more than I did. I found the story of Kasia, a Polish girl imprisoned in Ravensbrück, to be the most compelling. I especially liked how the book follows her (and the other characters) long after the war is over and shows the psychological scars that still remain. But I didn’t like Caroline’s story at all; I found her the least interesting character, and the romance between her and Paul didn’t do anything for me. The book is worth reading if you like the time period, but I’d recommend Elizabeth Wein’s Rose Under Fire for a better book on Ravensbrück.

Morgan Matson, The Unexpected Everything — I’ve said it before, but it’s true: Morgan Matson writes the perfect summer reads! I really enjoyed this one, which centers around politician’s daughter Andie and a summer that doesn’t go quite according to plan. One of my favorite aspects of the book is that Andie has a really close group of girlfriends, and those relationships are just as important as her newfound romance. I’d definitely recommend this book as an adorable summer read, especially for those who enjoy YA.

Summer Before the War, TheDarker Shade of Magic, ACocaine Blues

Helen Simonson, The Summer Before the War — I really enjoyed this quiet, character-driven novel, although I wouldn’t recommend it to those who love lots of action and unpredictable twists. The plot (such as it is) centers around a young woman who moves to a rural English village to become the new Latin teacher. As one might expect, she meets with some resistance from the locals because of her youth and gender, but she also wins over some key players, including the unconventional Agatha Kent and her two nephews. Most of the book involves the resulting social politics, although the titular war (World War I) does intrude near the end.

V.E. Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic — This book hooked me from the first line: “Kell wore a very peculiar coat. It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible.” The novel is an exciting blend of fantasy and sci fi, combining magical artifacts with parallel universes. The hero is a conflicted, magic-wielding prince, and the heroine is a scrappy thief and would-be pirate. In short, I loved it and have already purchased book 2, A Gathering of Shadows!

Kerry Greenwood, Cocaine Blues — After watching and LOVING “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries,” I decided to pick up the first book in the series. Phryne is a wonderfully entertaining character: intelligent, rich, attractive, and determined to get the most out of life. I also really enjoyed the setting of 1920s Melbourne, where Phryne rubs elbows with all sorts of people, from wealthy blue bloods to socialist cab drivers to feisty maidservants. I did miss Inspector Jack Robinson, who apparently has a much smaller role in the books than he does in the TV series. I also didn’t care too much about the mystery, but I still liked the book for its setting and protagonist.

Review: Rook

RookSharon Cameron, Rook

Centuries after a shift in the Earth’s magnetic poles triggered an apocalyptic event, civilization has been rebuilt, but almost every form of technology is regarded with grave suspicion. In the Sunken City (formerly known as Paris), a revolution has established an oppressive new regime, and everyone who opposes it is ruthlessly executed. But one person dares to flout the authority of this new regime by stealing political prisoners away from their very jail cells: the Red Rook, who boldly leaves a crow’s feather tipped in red in the place of each escapee. No one suspects that the Red Rook is a teenage girl, Sophia Bellamy, who lives in the neighboring Commonwealth. With the help of her brother Tom, her friend Spear, and a small band of loyal friends, Sophia hopes to rescue as many doomed people from the Sunken City as she can. But her plans are complicated by her betrothal to the empty-headed social butterfly René Hasard. Despite her distrust of him, however, Sophia can’t help being attracted — especially when she discovers that his foppish persona might be an act. When a mission goes awry and Tom is captured, Sophia is forced to ask for René’s help, but can she really trust him?

Obviously, this book is an homage to one of my very favorite books, The Scarlet Pimpernel, but I was pleased to discover that it’s very much its own story. The basic idea of a daring rescuer with a secret identity is the same, but the plot diverges very significantly from the original story. I wouldn’t have minded a stricter retelling, but I’m glad this book was able to be inspired by the Pimpernel without simply copying it. I’m not sure how I feel about the science fiction elements; technically we’re in a post-apocalyptic world, but that doesn’t really seem to be necessary to the story, and it sometimes felt distracting. On the other hand, there are a few fun moments where the characters speak reverently about little bits of neon plastic, which are great treasures in this anti-technological world. Overall, I enjoyed both the action-filled plot and the romance, although the latter was a bit TOO romance-y for me (a little too much russet hair and piercing blue eyes and whatnot). I also think René’s true nature could have been left in a little more doubt, which would have increased the dramatic tension. But I did like this book a lot, and Pimpernel fans should definitely check it out!

Review: French Leave

French LeaveAnna Gavalda, French Leave (trans. Alison Anderson)

This book centers around four adult siblings — Simon, Lola, Garance, and Vincent — who don’t see each other as often as they used to. But when the eldest three reunite for a family wedding, they spontaneously decide to visit Vincent, the baby of the family, who has a job in the French countryside. Garance narrates the story and paints vivid pictures of her siblings. Simon, the eldest child, is the family’s golden boy, the responsible one, who grew up to obtain a good job and a suitable wife, Carine, whom Lola and Garance tease mercilessly. Lola and Garance are best friends despite their differences; as Garance notes, “She’s romantic, I’m pragmatic. She got married, I flitter and flirt. She can’t sleep with a guy unless she’s in love, I can’t sleep with a guy unless there’s a condom.” When they abandon their relative’s wedding to visit Vincent, the four siblings have a charmed weekend, reminiscing about the past and reevaluating some of the choices they’ve made in their lives.

This novella is like a bite of some frothy dessert, short and sweet. I don’t often read books where the main focus is on sibling relationships, but I enjoyed reading about Garance and her brothers and sister — especially because their relationships are generally good and pleasant rather than dysfunctional. I can relate to their situation somewhat: I only have one sibling, and we get along great, but because we are both adults who live far from each other, we don’t stay in touch as well as I’d like. I think this book captures that bittersweet aspect of adult sibling relationships very well. I also liked the evolution of Garance and Lola’s relationship with Carine; they sort of villainize her at first, but eventually they begin to see where she’s coming from and tolerate her a little more. There’s not much of a plot in this book, but it’s such a quick read that it doesn’t need many events to propel it forward. Overall, I found this book a pleasant diversion, and I’d recommend both it and Hunting and Gathering, a full-length novel by the same author.