Review: A Rogue of Her Own

Rogue of Her OwnGrace Burrowes, A Rogue of Her Own

Charlotte Windham hates London “society” life and has suffered through too many seasons of being envied by other women (because of her titled connections) and dodging the proposals of fortune hunters. Meanwhile, Lucas Sherbourne is a commoner whose substantial wealth has gained him entrance into society, but he is still acutely aware of his lower status in the eyes of the aristocrats surrounding him. The two decide to embark upon a marriage of convenience: Charlotte will have a wealthy husband and a secluded Welsh estate to call home, while Lucas will benefit from marrying into a noble family. Of course, there’s no question of love; but as Lucas tries to jump-start a new coal mine and Charlotte gives her spending money to “fallen” women, they find themselves turning to each other for support and understanding.

I find myself very confused about this book, because the things I really liked about it are also the things I disliked about it! For example, I liked that the book has a lot of plot (trouble with the coal mine, Charlotte’s charitable giving, the backstory of why she’s so passionate about helping women in trouble), but I also felt that the romance suffered because of it. I also liked that both Lucas and Charlotte have friends and family who support them; I especially enjoyed the development of Lucas’s friendship with his aristocratic neighbors. But again, those relationships almost felt more central than the romance. I also thought some of the plot twists and turns were a little melodramatic. Overall, I liked this book for having characters with their own interests and lives outside of one another…but I think I wanted a little more of them together, too! That said, I’d definitely be willing to try another book by Grace Burrowes.

Review: The Golden Tresses of the Dead

Golden Tresses of the DeadAlan Bradley, The Golden Tresses of the Dead

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

Flavia de Luce is at it again in this 10th book of the series. Her older sister Feely is finally getting married, and Flavia is surprised to find that she has mixed emotions about Feely’s leaving Buckshaw. But her inner turmoil soon becomes the least of Flavia’s concerns when, at the reception, she discovers a human finger in the wedding cake. Of course, Arthur W. Dogger and Associates are on the case — and of course, a second mystery presents itself soon afterward, involving a famous homeopathic doctor and two female missionaries who have recently returned from West Africa. As Flavia investigates, with the help of faithful Dogger and annoying cousin Undine, she realizes that the two cases may be connected.

Is it just me, or did the mystery plot of this book make even less sense than usual? One character dies in the novel, but I don’t think we ever find out for sure who the murderer was or how the killing took place. Another dies off-page, and it’s not actually clear what the cause of death was — murder, natural causes, something else? Maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention, but I felt like there were a lot of loose ends with this plot. Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed the book for Flavia’s voice and her relationships with the other characters, particularly Dogger. I also like the fact that she’s slowly gaining more self-awareness as she grows up, and I hope to see that trend continue in subsequent books. So I actually did like this novel overall, but it’s not a book (or series, really) to read for the mystery.

Review: The Devil’s Delilah

Devil's DelilahLoretta Chase, The Devil’s Delilah

Delilah Desmond is coming to London to make an advantageous marriage; but because her father is the notorious “Devil” Desmond, she knows being accepted by high society will be an uphill battle. Adding to her difficulties, the Devil has written a highly improper and scandalous memoir; though he’s promised not to publish it until he truly needs the money, Delilah knows that even a whiff of scandal will destroy her matrimonial prospects. When the memoir goes missing, she immediately flies into a panic. Luckily, she has the dependable, albeit absentminded, Jack Langdon to lean on. Jack has always been more comfortable with books than with people, especially women. But Delilah attracts him like no one else, and he’s determined to help her, even though the far more charming Lord Berne has his eye on the young beauty as well.

I’m really enjoying making my way through Loretta Chase’s traditional Regencies. Though she’s not quite Georgette Heyer, she’s definitely the next best thing. But I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as Viscount Vagabond (to which this novel is technically a sequel, though it can be read as a stand-alone). I loved the idea of Jack as a hero — someone who seems bookish and absent-minded but who comes through when it counts. But I felt like his character was a bit inconsistent; he doesn’t spend very much time enjoying his scholarly pursuits because he’s always in turmoil about his feelings for Delilah. I also thought the scenes between Jack and Delilah were quite repetitive; they keep having the same fight over and over, which is frustrating. The book is still a fun, fast read with some witty dialogue — I especially enjoyed the Devil’s character — but it’s not my favorite by Chase.

Review: Dear Mrs. Bird

Dear Mrs. BirdAJ Pearce, Dear Mrs. Bird

In 1940 London, Emmeline Lake is determined to do her bit for the war effort. She volunteers at a local fire station, but she dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent, diving into the midst of the action to get a big story. When she sees an advertisement for a job at the Evening Chronicle, she jumps at the chance, only to realize that she’s actually applied for a job with Mrs. Bird’s advice column at Woman’s Friend magazine. Her main duty is to sort through the letters that come to Mrs. Bird and throw away any that mention “unpleasantness.” But Emmy can’t help thinking that these women ought to be helped; and when Mrs. Bird refuses to respond to their letters, Emmy decides to take matters into her own hands. In the meantime, as bombs continue to fall on London, the war affects the lives of Emmy and her friends in profound ways.

The voice of this novel hooked me from the very beginning. Emmy is young, somewhat naive, and relentlessly cheerful, and I really enjoyed her as a narrator and protagonist. (Her quirky voice may not be for everyone, but you’ll know within the first couple of pages whether it’s for you or not.) I also loved Emmy’s relationship with her best friend Bunty, which turned out to be a much bigger focus of the novel than I was expecting. Even though I love a good romance, it’s refreshing to read a book in which the most significant relationship is a friendship. The secondary characters are also delightful, particularly Emmy’s colleague and mentor, Mr. Collins. (I may or may not have developed a crush on him . . . but sadly, Emmy’s romantic destiny appears to lie elsewhere.) Overall, I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to people who like their World War II fiction on the lighter side, à la The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Review: Murder, Magic, and What We Wore

murder, magic, and what we woreKelly Jones, Murder, Magic, and What We Wore

Miss Annis Whitworth is down on her luck. She and her Aunt Cassia have just learned that her (Annis’s) father has died, leaving them with nothing to live on and forcing them to seek employment. Cassia insists that Annis become a governess, but Annis is determined to escape from such a horrible fate. Instead, she decides to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a spy; but the War Office wants nothing to do with her, even after they learn that she has a magical talent for sewing glamours (illusions) into her garments. Undeterred, Annis decides to use her talent to open a dress shop in a country village, while still sending the War Office information about the various secrets her father had discovered before his death. Little does she know that this knowledge puts her and Cassia in danger, too.

This is a book I really wanted to like. I adore the “magical Regency” setting, and both Caroline Stevermer and Stephanie Burgis — two authors I really like — blurbed it. But my overall impression is that the book is very scattered and confusing. There’s the story about a young woman trying to make her own way in the world, there’s the espionage plot, there’s a fairly prominent subplot involving Annis’s maid, not to mention the magical element — there’s just too much going on. As a result, nothing is developed in much depth, especially the main character. She comes across as extremely flighty and thoughtless, jumping from one half-baked scheme to another. I have no sense of how magic fits into this world. There is some resolution to the spy plot, but Annis doesn’t actually get hired by the War Office until the end of the book! So clearly there’s supposed to be a sequel, but I’m too frustrated to read it when it comes out.

Review: Viscount Vagabond

viscount vagabondLoretta Chase, Viscount Vagabond

Max Demowery has always felt stifled by his aristocratic upbringing and done everything in his power to rebel. But now that he has succeeded to his brother’s title, he knows it’s his duty to marry and start producing heirs. He celebrates his last night of freedom in a brothel, where he is confronted by the last thing he’d ever expect: an innocent girl who needs his help. Catherine Pelliston is desperate to escape from her alcoholic father and loutish fiancé, but she now finds herself in even more dire circumstances, kidnapped and forced into prostitution. She appeals to Max for help, but even after he saves her from the brothel, she has nowhere to go. Against his better judgment, Max finds himself getting involved in Catherine’s future — and finding love in the process.

The premise of this book seems very implausible, but I found it so charming I didn’t care at all! I loved Max right away; he’s funny and likable from the very first scene. Catherine is a bit pricklier — understandably, given her backstory — but it’s not hard to warm up to her. She tries to approach everything logically and precisely, which makes for a humorous contrast to the impulsive Max. The plot is a bit contrived, involving multiple kidnappings and an over-the-top villain, and there’s an obligatory adorable urchin whom Catherine inevitably befriends. But for me, the book’s light and witty style, plus the utterly adorable main characters, more than make up for those shortcomings. Loretta Chase has written a few more of these “traditional Regencies” (so called because they don’t have explicit sex scenes), and I’m definitely going to seek them out!

Review: Crooked Heart

Crooked Heart.jpgLissa Evans, Crooked Heart

In this novel set during World War II, Noel Bostock is a precocious 10-year-old boy who lives with his strong, intelligent godmother, Mattie. But his life changes dramatically when Mattie begins to exhibit signs of dementia, just as children are being evacuated from London under the threat of bombing. Noel is sent to the country to live with Vera Sedge, a middle-aged woman desperately trying to make ends meet, who only takes him in for the sake of the small government stipend she’ll receive. Vera plans to make some money by pretending to collect donations for the war effort, but her high-strung, panicky nature makes her fairly unsuccessful — until Noel shocks her by offering to help.

I love a good World War II novel, and this is one of the most unique ones I’ve read so far. What makes it different is that the main characters are not heroes. In fact, what Vera and Noel do in this book is pretty despicable: they lie to people, playing on their feelings of patriotism and compassion, and steal their money. Even without their illegal scheme, neither character is particularly likable at first. But somehow this book peels back their layers and makes them understandable, even sympathetic. Both Vera and Noel are completely alone and very guarded as a result, but this novel shows them slowly coming closer together. I enjoy “found family” narratives, and this one definitely qualifies! So I would recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in the period or the premise.

Also, this book has no epigraph, but I’m fairly certain the title is from the W.H. Auden poem “As I Walked Out One Evening”: “You shall love your crooked neighbour / With your crooked heart.” Which perfectly sums up the theme of the book, in my opinion!

Review: What Happens in London

what happens in londonJulia Quinn, What Happens in London

After serving in the army during the Napoleonic Wars, Sir Harry Valentine now works as a translator for the War Office. It’s not particularly dangerous (which is just how he likes it), but it does require a certain amount of secrecy. So when Harry notices that his beautiful neighbor seems to be watching him, he knows there’s a slight chance she could be a threat. Meanwhile, Lady Olivia Bevelstoke is intrigued by her new neighbor, since rumors are flying about the mysterious gentleman who hardly ever goes out into society. When he catches her watching him, she is mortified — especially because, when they finally meet in public, he directly confronts her about it. However, Harry and Olivia’s initial dislike of each other soon turns into friendship and, inevitably, romance. But will a rival suitor, who may also be a spy for Napoleon, come between them?

When I want a light, fluffy Regency romance with minimal angst, I turn to Julia Quinn, and this book delivered pretty much what I expected. I found it a very enjoyable read, particularly because both Harry and Olivia are such nice, normal people. No tortured rakes or unconventional bluestockings here! Don’t get me wrong; those types of characters can be fun to read about, too, but they do tend to be overrepresented in historical romance. By contrast, Harry and Olivia are both fairly conventional, which I found refreshing. There’s plenty of humor in the book, too, mostly surrounding the lurid gothic novel that Harry presents to Olivia. There’s a fantastic scene in which Harry’s cousin Sebastian reads the book aloud to an assortment of spellbound listeners, and it’s an absolute delight. The plot does go off the rails a bit toward the end, with a tonally jarring kidnapping, but at least that storyline wraps up quickly. Overall, I doubt this book will stay with me for a long time, but it was certainly a fun read, and I’d recommend it to fans of historical romance.

Review: Speak Easy, Speak Love

speak easy, speak loveMcKelle George, Speak Easy, Speak Love

This debut novel is a YA retelling of Much Ado about Nothing set in the 1920s. Hero Stahr and her father Leo run a speakeasy called Hey Nonny Nonny on Long Island, with the help of Pedro “Prince” Morello. Benedick Scott is an aspiring novelist who chafes under his privileged upbringing and finds a sympathetic home at Hey Nonny Nonny. So does Beatrice Clark, Hero’s cousin, who wants to be a doctor despite her gender and her poverty. Margaret Hughes, the speakeasy’s resident jazz singer, longs for success on a bigger stage — almost as much as she longs for Prince’s standoffish brother, John — but her black skin may stop her from achieving either dream. As these characters fight to keep Hey Nonny Nonny up and running, they must deal with parental pressures, misunderstandings, dangerous bootleggers, and falling in love.

I wasn’t prepared for how much I would love this book. The premise sounded fun, but I thought at best I’d get a lighthearted romp — or, more likely, it would all go horribly wrong. I didn’t expect to care so deeply about these characters, to be so moved by their stories, or to be so invested in their relationships. But I adored this book, and I’m very sure it will be on my “best of 2019” list a year from now! The writing style is sharp and inventive — Beatrice, for example, is described as “a clock-throwing ruin of a girl,” and how could you not love her after that description? I loved the central romance between Beatrice and Benedick, which unfolds with agonizing, delicious slowness. As in Shakespeare’s original, the joy comes from their teasing banter and mutual respect for each other’s intelligence. The book deviates from the play somewhat with the secondary characters, but I thought all the changes made sense and enhanced the story the author was telling. In short, I loved (LOVED) this book and would definitely recommend it to anyone who likes the premise!

Mini-reviews: Duke, Christmas, Memorial

Duke in Shining ArmorLoretta Chase, A Duke in Shining Armor

This book is the first in a series starring a trio of dukes known as Their Dis-Graces. Ripley, Ashmont, and Blackwood have been friends since childhood, and together they’ve drunk, gambled, and whored their way through London society. Now Ashmont is getting married, but the bride — bookish, practical Olympia Hightower — is having second thoughts. When she runs away on the wedding day, it’s up to best man Ripley to track her down and return her to Ashmont. The trouble is, the more time Ripley spends with Olympia, the more he wants her for himself. I really enjoy Loretta Chase’s writing, especially her humor, but this book was not the right book for me. I really don’t like the “reformed rake” trope, and Ripley is such a stereotypical alpha-male hero. (That said, the humor makes him somewhat more bearable.) But I’ll still be reading more Loretta Chase, and perhaps even more in this series…Blackwood’s marital difficulties, a tiny side plot in this book, sound intriguing!

A Lot Like ChristmasConnie Willis, A Lot Like Christmas

This collection of Christmas-themed short stories with a speculative-fiction twist is a revised and expanded edition of Miracle and Other Christmas Stories. I still stand by my review of that book, but here are my comments on the new stories:

  • “All about Emily” — A sly take on the movie All about Eve featuring an aging Broadway actress and a robot who wants to be a Rockette. A fun one for fans of musicals and old movies.
  • “All Seated on the Ground” — The aliens have arrived, but no one can figure out what they want. The clue may reside in a Christmas carol, so protagonist Meg teams up with choir director Calvin to solve the mystery. A lovely and romantic meditation on “peace on earth.”
  • “deck.halls@boughs/holly” — I liked this funny rom-com about the effects of technology, especially the internet, on Christmas. It’s futuristic and over the top, of course, but the story does a great job of presenting different views on the issue — with a charming romance thrown in!
  • “Now Showing” — Lindsay really wants to see a particular movie, but she keeps being thwarted by circumstance. It seems like the universe is conspiring against her . . . and according to her ex-boyfriend Jack, that’s exactly what is happening. I really liked this playful homage to romantic-suspense-adventure movies such as How to Steal a Million, French Kiss, and Romancing the Stone.
  • “Just Like the Ones We Used to Know” — Thanks to climate change (or a “discontinuity,” or Armageddon, or . . . ?), places all over the world are having a white Christmas. Places like Los Angeles, and Honolulu, and Jerusalem. The story follows various characters as they deal with the unexpected snowstorm and try to figure out what’s causing it. I thought there were maybe a few too many characters in this one, and at least one storyline was never satisfactorily resolved.

All in all, I’m glad I purchased this one, even though I already own Miracle and Other Christmas Stories. But if you don’t have either book, definitely go with A Lot Like Christmas instead!

Memorial Hall MurderJane Langton, The Memorial Hall Murder

This is the third book in the Homer Kelly mystery series, but it can definitely be read as a stand-alone. The book begins with an explosion that destroys part of Memorial Hall on the campus of Harvard University. A headless body is found in the rubble, and it is soon identified as the corpse of Hamilton Dow, an extremely popular music professor. Homer Kelly, who used to work at the district attorney’s office, happens to be on the scene and decides to investigate. As a mystery, the book is nothing to write home about; the reader is given a lot of information early on, and the perpetrator’s identity isn’t hard to discover. I kept thinking there would be a plot twist to point the finger in a new direction, but it never came. However, the book is fun to read for its playful satire of university life and its prominent featuring of Handel’s Messiah. All in all, I’d consider reading more books in this series.