Review: The Jane Austen Project

Jane Austen ProjectKathleen A. Flynn, The Jane Austen Project

Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane live in a near-future world where time travel is well established as a scientific research tool. Their first mission is to travel to 1815, where they will retrieve Jane Austen’s personal letters (many of which were destroyed after her death) and her manuscript of “The Watsons,” which, according to a recent discovery, she actually did complete. To achieve this goal, Rachel and Liam will pose as members of the gentry and try to become part of the Austens’ social circle. But the more they get to know Jane and her family, the more Rachel and Liam begin to have scruples about their actions. Additionally, they start to worry about the possibility of changing history and the even scarier possibility that they may not be able to leave 1815. And of course, the deepening of their relationship to each other may have far-reaching consequences in both 1815 and their own time.

I enjoyed this book overall, but I definitely think some parts were more successful than others. The premise is certainly an interesting one if you love Jane Austen, and overall I think the portrayal of Jane and her family was very well done. The book evokes the 1815 setting very well; it feels like the reader is also a time traveler, being immersed into this bygone era for the first time. I was particularly tickled by one scene where Jane catches Rachel looking through her private papers and accuses her of being a French spy! That said, the novel gives short shrift to the time travel element; it doesn’t explain how it works or what the “rules” are, and the future consequences of Rachel and Liam’s actions in 1815 are wrapped up very quickly. Finally, I wasn’t particularly invested in the romance. While Rachel and Liam are both pleasant enough, I never really got a sense of what made them tick. Ultimately, I did like the book, but I don’t think it’s one I’ll ever need to reread.

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Review: Beastly Bones

Beastly BonesWilliam Ritter, Beastly Bones

In this second installment of the Jackaby series, Abigail Rook has finally begun to adjust to life as the assistant of R.F. Jackaby, paranormal detective. However, she still remains interested in her first passion, paleontology, so she is delighted to learn that a relatively nearby scientific dig has unearthed what appears to be a brand-new species of dinosaur. Abigail is eager to travel to the site and participate in the excavation, but Jackaby isn’t interested — until the wife of the site’s landowner dies somewhat mysteriously. Together they travel to the dig and meet up with police officer Charlie Cane, an ally to Jackaby and possibly something more to Abigail. But they immediately run into several challenges, including two rival scientists who each want to claim the discovery, a brash female journalist who keeps getting underfoot, and the apparent theft of some of the bones. And then more people start dying. . . .

It’s been a few years since I read Jackaby, but I was so charmed by it that I always intended to continue with the series. By and large, I enjoyed this installment very much as well. Abigail is a wonderful heroine and narrator, smart and plucky without being The Best at Everything. And Jackaby, between his penetrating intelligence, abrupt demeanor, and genuine fondness for his friends, is a delight — think Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, but more likable. I do think the plot has a bit too much going on — the dueling scientists are fun but don’t really add much to the story. Also, the tone is a little too light considering the high body count, but I suppose that’s to be expected with many books geared toward younger readers. But I liked this book a lot overall and look forward to reading the third installment soon!

Review: The English Wife

English WifeLauren Willig, The English Wife

In the winter of 1899, Bayard van Duyvil and his highborn English wife, Annabelle, are at the pinnacle of New York high society. Wealthy and attractive, with two young children and a brand-new estate, they seem to be the perfect couple — that is, until their Twelfth Night ball, when Bayard is found murdered and Annabelle goes missing. Rumors abound that Annabelle killed her husband, but Bayard’s sister Janie is not convinced. With the help of dashing journalist James Burke, Janie is determined to discover what really happened to Bay and Annabelle. But she soon learns that their relationship was much more complicated than it appeared.

I always enjoy Lauren Willig’s books, but I find that I definitely prefer her light and fluffy Pink Carnation series to her more serious historical novels. I enjoyed the setting of this one, and I liked Janie a lot — I’m always a fan of characters who have to grow into their strength. The romance between Janie and James was also satisfying, albeit quite predictable. However, I wasn’t a huge fan of the secondary narrative, which takes place five years earlier and is told from the point of view of Georgie, an actress who meets Bayard while he’s visiting London. I liked Georgie but disliked Bayard more and more as the story went on. I also found Janie’s story more interesting, so I was annoyed when the book’s focus shifted away from her. Overall, I found this an enjoyable read, but it’s not a keeper for me.

Review: Child 44

Child 44Tom Rob Smith, Child 44

In the USSR of the 1950s, no crimes are acknowledged except crimes against the state. After all, by removing distinctions of class and property ownership, the communist regime has theoretically abolished every reason for individuals to commit crimes like murder or theft. Leo Demidov, an officer of the state security force, believes this unquestioningly — until a coworker’s son is murdered, his stomach removed, and his mouth stuffed with dirt. Leo is ordered to report the boy’s death as an accident, but then he discovers that a dead girl’s body was found in the same condition, in a town hundreds of miles away. As Leo investigates these seemingly related deaths, he himself comes under the state’s suspicion and must ultimately question his commitment to the regime.

This is a book with a lot of different things going on, and ultimately I enjoyed some elements more than others. First, it’s a depiction of life in 1950s Russia that I found very compelling. Some Amazon reviewers have noted inaccuracies in the details, and the overall portrayal does lack nuance — no question who the bad guys are here! — but I definitely thought a lot about what it must be like to live in such a constant state of fear. Less successful, for me, was the hunt for the serial killer. The storyline lacks momentum, and without spoilers, I’ll just say that the overall resolution seemed to rely on one twist too many. Finally, the development of Leo’s relationship with his wife Raisa was a bit sketchy and rushed; I would have liked the book to spend a lot more time exploring their complicated feelings toward each other. Overall, I did enjoy the book and would consider reading the sequels, but I wasn’t wowed by it.

Review: The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place

Grave's a Fine and Private PlaceAlan Bradley, The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place

***Warning: SPOILERS for previous books in the series!***

In this latest installment of the Flavia de Luce series, Buckshaw is in mourning after the death of Haviland. To cheer up Flavia and her sisters, Dogger suggests a holiday to the nearby village of Volesthorpe. But what should be a peaceful boating excursion inevitably turns into another mystery when Flavia dangles her hand in the water and inadvertently catches a corpse. The dead man is Orlando Whitbread, the son of Canon Whitbread, who was convicted of murdering three of his parishioners by poisoning the communion chalice. Naturally, Flavia is on the case, and she soon discovers that the people of Volesthorpe are hiding many secrets, including what really happened in the case of the poisoned chalice.

After reading Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, I honestly wasn’t sure whether I wanted to continue with this series. Flavia’s continuing lack of friends, her adversarial relationship wth her sisters, and of course Haviland’s death made me feel very sad for Flavia, and I was more depressed than entertained. But I’m happy to say that this book was a lot more fun; it feels like the old irrepressible Flavia is back! I loved her interactions with Dogger in this novel, and it was interesting to learn a little more about his backstory. I was also pleased to see her getting along with her sisters a bit better, especially Daffy, whose love of poetry ends up giving Flavia a key clue. There’s even a hint of a suspicion that Flavia might be growing up, although I’m kind of torn on whether or not I want that to happen…. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to the next book now, and I’m happy that the series seems to be back on track!

Review: The Girl in the Tower

Girl in the TowerKatherine Arden, The Girl in the Tower

In this sequel to The Bear and the Nightingale, Vasya can no longer remain in her childhood home; not only is she now an orphan, but her neighbors fear and distrust her, believing she is a witch. Her only socially acceptable options are to marry or join a convent, but she cannot stomach either fate. Instead, dressed as a boy, she decides to seek adventure in distant lands, with the help of a certain frost demon. Meanwhile, Vasya’s brother Sasha is a monk living in Moscow, where he is a trusted advisor at his cousin Dmitrii’s court. But Dmitrii’s power is far from secure: a group of bandits is ravaging the Russian countryside, and Russia’s Turkish overlords are demanding an exorbitantly high tribute payment. When Vasya and Sasha’s storylines converge, Vasya must help to defeat another magical foe, while navigating a path between society’s expectations and her own desires.

I was a huge fan of The Bear and the Nightingale when I read it last year, and I said at the time that I was eager to read more by Katherine Arden. However, when I realized that this book was a sequel, I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic — I had thought the first book would be a standalone. But fortunately, I ended up loving The Girl in the Tower just as much as the first book! I adore the setting and the writing style, and the plot of this novel had me glued to the pages. I love a good political intrigue, and I enjoyed seeing medieval Moscow through Vasya’s eyes. I do find Vasya slightly annoying sometimes — she’s one of those characters who seems to be amazing at everything — but I love how her choices always have consequences, both for herself and for the people she loves. Overall, I loved this a lot and can’t wait for book 3 to be published this summer!

Review: A Gathering of Shadows

Gathering of ShadowsV.E. Schwab, A Gathering of Shadows

***Warning: SPOILERS for A Darker Shade of Magic***

Four months after the events of A Darker Shade of Magic, Delilah Bard is living her dream of being a pirate — well, privateer, technically — on the ship Night Spire under Captain Alucard Emery. She is also exploring her magical abilities under Alucard’s tutelage, while keeping her thieving skills as sharp as her knives. Meanwhile, Kell and Rhy are struggling with the aftermath of Kell’s decision to bind their lives together. The upcoming Essen Tasch — a competition between the best magicians of Arnes and its neighboring lands — provides an outlet for Kell’s frustration and also draws hordes of people to Red London, including a certain pirate-thief and her swashbuckling captain. But unforeseen dangers threaten Kell, Rhy, and Lila, and strange things are afoot in White London. . . .

I really enjoyed A Darker Shade of Magic, but for some reason it took me a really long time to pick up the second book in the series. I don’t know what I was waiting for, because this book definitely lives up to its predecessor! I love the world of this series, and  the plot — especially once everyone starts to converge on Red London for the Essen Tasch — kept me riveted. I also enjoyed watching the three main characters grow and change; it was particularly nice to get inside Rhy’s head for a bit and see that he’s more than just a pleasure-loving wastrel. I also liked seeing Lila get what she’s always wanted, only to discover that maybe she wants something different now. Fair warning, this book does end on a cliffhanger, so I’m glad I already have A Conjuring of Light on my shelves! I can’t wait to see what happens next and how everything turns out. I’d definitely recommend this series to fantasy lovers!

 

Review: Homicide for the Holidays

Homicide for the HolidaysCheryl Honigford, Homicide for the Holidays

Vivian Witchell’s star is on the rise. She has a steady job playing Lorna Lafferty on the Chicago radio show “The Darkness Knows,” and her romance with costar Graham Yarborough has only added to her popularity, even if it’s all faked for publicity. But the chance discovery of a hidden key in her late father’s study sends Viv into a spiral of confusion and horror. Apparently her beloved father, who always seemed like such an upstanding member of society, was involved with some very unsavory people — infamous members of the Chicago mob who would stop at nothing to get their way. Despite her inner turmoil, Viv enlists the help of her once and future lover, Detective Charlie Haverman, to investigate her father’s past. But she’s not entirely sure she wants to learn the truth, especially when it seems that her own life may be in danger.

Looking back at my review of The Darkness Knows, it appears that I liked the first book in the series much better than this installment! Viv annoyed me a lot more this time around; she spends most of the book in a lather of indecision, sometimes changing her mind several times in the course of one interior monologue. Should she pursue the investigation of her father’s shady dealings, or should she let the past stay buried? Should she disclose X piece of information to someone, or should she keep it to herself? Should she tell Charlie that her relationship with Graham isn’t real, or should she protect the secret to serve her career? The constant dithering got on my nerves. Also, it’s worth noting that neither Viv nor Charlie actually solves the mystery; Viv stumbles upon the truth by pure chance. I did like the period detail and the unique backdrop of a 1930s radio show, but I’m pretty ambivalent about continuing with the series at this point.

Mini-reviews: Journey, Burning, Bella

Journey to the River SeaBurning BrightBella Poldark

Eva Ibbotson, Journey to the River Sea — Maia is an orphan living at a boarding school in England, when one day she is adopted by distant relatives living in Brazil. She is eager to meet her new family until she discovers that they are selfish and cruel and only took her in for financial reasons. However, she finds consolation in the natural beauties around her, the strange vegetation and wildlife, and the friends she makes in her new homeland. I’ve read and loved all of Ibbotson’s adult/YA books, but I’m still discovering her works for younger readers. This is delightful, and I think it would appeal to kids (and adults!) who enjoy exploration and adventure.

Melissa McShane, Burning Bright — This is a Regency-era fantasy novel, so obviously it’s right up my alley, and I very much enjoyed it! Protagonist Elinor is a Scorcher, which means she can start fires with magic; and she’s also an Extraordinary, which means she can control and put out the fires as well. This talent makes her an extremely valuable prize on the marriage market, and her controlling father wants to snare a rich and powerful husband for her. To escape this fate, Elinor offers her services to the Royal Navy instead. There’s shipboard combat and pirates and romance — basically everything I’m looking for from this type of book. Highly recommended if the premise appeals to you!

Winston Graham, Bella Poldark — Phew, I can’t believe this is the last book in the Poldark series! Clowance decides whether to marry again and must choose between two suitors; Bella embarks on a career; Valentine stirs the pot, as usual; and a serial murderer is on the loose in Cornwall. Not every loose end in the series is tied up, but overall the book is a strong conclusion for the characters I’ve come to know and love over the past 12 books. It’s hard to believe there won’t be any more stories about them!

Mini-reviews: Three, Congress, Twisted, Piccadilly

Case for Three DetectivesCongress of Secrets

Leo Bruce, Case for Three Detectives — This parody of Golden Age detective fiction is an absolute must-read for fans of the real thing! It has all the traditional elements: an ill-fated house party, an impossible murder, a brilliant amateur detective (or three), and a bumbling local policeman. In this case, the three detectives — who bear striking resemblances to Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot, and Father Brown, respectively — use their unique methods to arrive at three different solutions to the crime, while Sergeant Beef reiterates in the background, “But I know who done it!” The humor in this book is quite specific: if you’re unfamiliar with any of the three detectives being parodied, you’re missing out on some of the fun, but Leo Bruce really does get the voices of these three fictional detectives exactly right! Also, I was impressed by the fact that he had to come up with four different plausible solutions to the mystery. I’ll definitely read more by this author, and I wholeheartedly recommend this book to fans of Lord Peter, Poirot, and Father Brown!

Stephanie Burgis, Congress of Secrets — This book checks off so many of my personal boxes, it’s ridiculous: The book is set in the 19th century, specifically at the Congress of Vienna that concluded the Napoleonic wars. Magic exists in the world but is being used by powerful men for very dark purposes. And one of the main characters is a con man! And there’s a romance! So, obviously I was predisposed to like this book, and it did not disappoint. I’ve already acquired more books by Burgis, and I’m excited to have discovered a new-to-me author!

Twisted Sword, ThePiccadilly Jim

Winston Graham, The Twisted Sword — Oof, lots of changes for the Poldarks and Warleggans in this book, and most of them are tragic. I won’t go into specifics for fear of spoilers, but in my opinion this is probably the saddest book in the series. It’s still a very absorbing and enjoyable read, though — after 11 books, I’ve really grown invested in the Poldarks, the Warleggans, and all their friends and neighbors in Cornwall and beyond. What I love is that Graham paints such a complete picture of life at the time, weaving the wider political, social, and economic landscape into his tale of these country families.

P.G. Wodehouse, Piccadilly Jim — I loved this book, which is pure farce of the silliest, most delightful kind! Wodehouse actually spent some time in America writing screenplays and musicals (!), and I could definitely see this book as an old-fashioned screwball comedy! It contains so many tropes of that era — mistaken identities, love aboard a transatlantic vessel, a boxer with a heart of gold — not to mention classic Wodehousian touches like a pair of disapproving aunts and a ludicrous kidnapping scheme. Highly recommended!