Mini-Reviews: Byline, Chilbury, Swans, Duet

Good Byline, TheChilbury Ladies' Choir, The

Jill Orr, The Good Byline — When Riley Ellison learns that her childhood best friend Jordan has committed suicide, she’s both grieved and shocked. Jordan’s mother asks her to write the obituary, so Riley begins to investigate Jordan’s life. She soon becomes convinced that Jordan didn’t kill herself, and she teams up with a local journalist to discover the truth. Meanwhile, in an attempt to get over being dumped by her long-term boyfriend, she subscribes to an online dating service, with entertaining results. I have to say, I enjoyed the chick lit aspects of this novel much more than the mystery aspects—Regina H., Personal Romance Concierge, was a delight! But the mystery was very predictable, and I didn’t buy Riley’s somewhat indifferent reaction to her former BFF’s death. I’d consider reading a future book in the series, but I won’t be waiting with bated breath.

Jennifer Ryan, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir — An epistolary novel set in an English village during World War II is obviously going to be right up my alley! The book is narrated by five girls and women from the village, who cope with their fear and grief by singing in an all-female choir. The not-so-subtle theme is that the women have finally found a way to raise their voices, exert their power, and make decisions for themselves. I wasn’t quite gripped by all of the characters—I loved Mrs. Tilling but didn’t care so much for Venetia and Kitty—so I didn’t absolutely love this book, but it’s still a very good read for fans of WWII novels.

Four Swans, TheOur Dark Duet

Winston Graham, The Four Swans — ***Warning: spoilers for previous books in the Poldark series***

In book #6 of the series, the Poldarks and the Warleggans maintain an uneasy truce. Demelza is drawn to a young naval officer who has fallen in love with her. Caroline and Dwight struggle in the early days of their marriage. Elizabeth and George confront the elephant in the room, Valentine’s paternity. Osborne Whitworth continues to be the worst. Drake tries to get over Morwenna, and Sam Carne falls in love with an unsuitable woman. Meanwhile, parliamentary elections are held in Truro, with surprising results. This series is still going strong, and I’m eager to see what happens next. I do find the books a bit too long, and they’re easy for me to put down. Still, I have to keep reading to see what (hopefully) terrible fate will befall Ossie!

Victoria Schwab, Our Dark Duet — ***Warning: spoilers for This Savage Song***

After the events of This Savage Song, Kate and August have gone their separate ways. Kate is hunting monsters in Prosperity, while August is desperately trying to defend the few humans left in Verity from the monsters — especially Sloan, who somehow survived the events of the previous book and who now has grand ambitions. This is a very good conclusion to This Savage Song; it provides a dark but satisfying ending, and I also found it a quick, absorbing read. I didn’t really like the introduction of Kate’s friends from Prosperity — they should have been either more important to the plot or cut altogether. Also, there’s a bit too much gore and violence for my liking. But people who enjoy dark fantasy should definitely pick up this duology, and fans of the first book won’t be disappointed.

Mini-Reviews: Seated, Useful, Moon, Devotion

All Seated on the GroundUseful Woman, A

Connie Willis, All Seated on the Ground — What if the aliens finally arrived, but all they did was sit there and look disapproving? That’s the premise of this delightful novella, in which the protagonist is tasked with finding a way to communicate with the aliens. She soon discovers that the key may lie within a Christmas carol, so she enlists the help of a choir director, and together they race against time to find out what the aliens want. It’s an extremely fun ride, and I definitely recommend it, especially if you love Christmas music!

Darcie Wilde, A Useful Woman — In Regency England, Rosalind Thorne has been clinging to her precarious position in society ever since her father caused a scandal by fleeing his creditors and abandoning his family. She manages to be useful to prominent society matrons by investigating and silencing any potential scandals that may threaten their positions. So when a murder occurs in Almack’s, the sanctum sanctorum of London’s elite, Rosalind becomes involved in the investigation. She also finds herself drawn to both her childhood sweetheart, who is now a lord, and the enterprising Bow Street Runner assigned to the case. Obviously I’m going to read any novel whose premise is “murder at Almack’s,” but I liked this book so much more than I was expecting to! I would definitely recommend it to anyone who’s interested in the premise, and I will be seeking out the sequel ASAP.

Black Moon, TheDevotion of Suspect X, The

Winston Graham, The Black Moon — More fun and games with the Poldarks and Warleggans. A new source for conflict between the families is the budding romance between Elizabeth’s cousin Morwenna Chynoweth, who now lives at Trenwith as Geoffrey Charles’s governess, and Drake Carne, Demelza’s brother. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will say that this is not one of the more cheerful endings in the series. Luckily there are still seven books to go!

Keigo Higashino, The Devotion of Suspect X (trans. Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander) — This Japanese crime novel is a take on the inverted mystery, in which we know whodunit from the beginning, so the main interest of the story is seeing how the investigator solves the crime. Yasuko is a single mother who, when her ex-husband repeatedly harasses her and violently assaults her daughter, kills him in the heat of the moment. Her neighbor Ishigami, a brilliant mathematician, helps her to conceal the crime. I was (and still am) confused about why Yasuko needed to cover up the killing, since she was acting in immediate fear for her daughter’s life; I don’t know anything about Japanese law, but isn’t there some kind of “defense of others” argument that would apply? Aside from that, I really enjoyed the book, especially the back-and-forth between Ishigami and Dr. Manabu Yukawa, who assists the police with their investigation. I’m definitely interested in reading more by this author.

Mini-Reviews: Scrappy, Baker’s, Alex, Warleggan

Scrappy Little NobodyBaker's Daughter, The

Anna Kendrick, Scrappy Little Nobody — This is a fun, breezy memoir by Anna Kendrick, an actress I generally enjoy and find likable. It’s not as funny as Tina Fey’s Bossypants or Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), but fans of those books would probably like this one too. I was interested to learn that one of Kendrick’s first roles was the little sister in the 1998 Broadway production of High Society — I love the movie version with Grace Kelly!

D.E. Stevenson, The Baker’s Daughter — D.E. Stevenson is always reliable for a sweet, old-fashioned comfort read, and this book certainly fits the bill. The titular baker’s daughter is Sue Pringle, a plain and practical young woman whose life is changed forever by the arrival of John Darnay, an absentminded painter. If you like this kind of thing in general, you’ll enjoy the book.

Alex, ApproximatelyWarleggan

Jenn Bennett, Alex, Approximately — This book is billed as a YA contemporary You’ve Got Mail, but I don’t think it really delivers on that premise. Teenager Bailey is obsessed with old movies, and she’s been corresponding with her fellow cinephile Alex over the Internet. Now she’s moving to Alex’s hometown to live with her dad, and she’s excited to finally meet him in person. But she quickly gets swept off her feet by her annoyingly cocky yet handsome coworker, Porter. Fortunately, as the book jacket reveals, Porter IS Alex! But this whole You’ve Got Mail framework — which is what attracted me to the book in the first place — is the merest background, and it barely has anything to do with the plot. The meat of the story is the teen romance, which just didn’t do much for me. Another take on the YA You’ve Got Mail story is Kasie West’s P.S. I Like You, which I enjoyed a lot more.

Winston Graham, Warleggan — Things really get going in this fourth Poldark book, which is full of twists and betrayals and Ross making even more terrible decisions. I’m starting to think George isn’t such a villain; he undoubtedly does some despicable things, but after the events of this book, it’s clear that Ross isn’t exactly blameless. Demelza is definitely the true hero of this series!

Mini-Reviews: Aunt, Farleigh, Likeness, Poldark

As you can tell, I’m not super motivated to blog at the moment, and I’m contemplating some possible changes to my process. Going forward, I’d like to absolve myself from trying to review every book I read, and maybe just focus on the best or most interesting books of each month. I’d also like to vary my content a little bit more, maybe by doing more discussion posts and memes à la Top Ten Tuesday. So I’m ruminating on that…but in the meantime, here are some more mini-reviews!

Death of My AuntIn Farleigh Field

C.H.B. Kitchin, Death of My Aunt — I love a good Golden Age mystery, but this one isn’t one of my favorites. I don’t remember it being particularly bad, but nothing stands out as particularly memorable either. It’s your standard “unpleasant family matriarch dies, the younger husband is the main suspect, but did he really do it?” plot. I did like the fact that the younger husband wasn’t an obvious slimeball, as they generally tend to be in these types of stories. But in the end, I think only diehard Golden Age fans will enjoy this one.

Rhys Bowen, In Farleigh Field — This book has a lot of my favorite things: historical fiction, World War II, spies, and a friends-to-lovers subplot. But while it was an enjoyable read, I didn’t fall in love with it. I think I wanted more from the espionage story, and the characters all seemed a little flat to me. Also, while the book can definitely be read as a standalone, I got the impression that it was setting up a sequel, and I’m not sure I care enough to continue with a (hypothetical) series.

Likeness, TheJeremy Poldark

Tana French, The Likeness — The modern crime thriller isn’t my preferred genre, but I made an exception for French’s In the Woods and completely devoured it. This is the second book in the Dublin Murder Squad series, and it focuses on Cassie, Ryan’s partner from the first book. The premise is somewhat outlandish, as Cassie must go undercover to investigate the murder of a young woman who looks just like her. But despite that, I found myself completely compelled by Cassie’s journey as she integrates herself into the dead woman’s life. I definitely plan to continue with this series — I’ve already bought book three!

Winston Graham, Jeremy Poldark — ***Warning: Spoilers for previous books in the Poldark series.***

Book three in the Poldark saga really amps up the drama, as it begins with Ross on trial for his life because of his role in the shipwreck and ensuing events at the end of Demelza. Of course, Ross is hellbent on making things as difficult as possible for himself, and George Warleggan is working behind the scenes to get Ross convicted. This is the book that really sold me on the series, although newcomers should start at the beginning with Ross Poldark.

Mini-reviews: Pretty Face + 3

Real life has been burning me out lately, so instead of getting stressed about the 20-ish reviews I still need to write, I’ve decided to Jack Bauer this situation and just write short ones! Here’s the first batch:

Pretty FaceShadow Bright and Burning, A

Lucy Parker, Pretty Face — I absolutely loved Act Like It, so Pretty Face went on my auto-buy list immediately. And I wasn’t disappointed; I devoured this romance between a beautiful actress who wants to be taken seriously and an older, talented but curmudgeonly director. If you like contemporary romance, you really need to give Lucy Parker a try!

Jessica Cluess, A Shadow Bright and Burning — Historical fantasy set in 19th century England is my jam, and when you add a bright young woman who is accepted into an all-male wizarding school, but she’s not actually the chosen one (or is she?), you can count me 100% in! I liked this book a lot, especially the bits about sorcery versus magic — and, of course, the hints of romance. Looking forward to book #2 in the fall!

Confession of Brother Haluin, TheBear and the Nightingale, The

Ellis Peters, The Confession of Brother Haluin — It’s always a delight to spend some time with Brother Cadfael and company, although this book doesn’t have one of the stronger mysteries in the series. Still, I love these books and am sad that there are only a few more left for me to read!

Katherine Arden, The Bear and the Nightingale — This historical fantasy novel based on Russian folklore is gorgeous and haunting, and I couldn’t put it down! I loved the main character, Vasya (even though she’s one of those not-beautiful-but-still-somehow-beautiful types), and her determination to save her family and land despite everyone else’s fear and skepticism. I was especially fascinated by the character of Father Konstantin, who isn’t exactly evil but is definitely flawed! Also, the setting is vivid and compelling, and I say this as someone who doesn’t usually care too much about setting. This is definitely going to be one of my top books of the year, and I can’t wait to see what Arden will write next!

Review: Demelza

DemelzaWinston Graham, Demelza

***Warning: spoilers for Ross Poldark.***

This second novel in the Poldark saga begins with Demelza giving birth to her and Ross’s first child, a baby girl named Julia. Uneasy at the thought of her lower-class, illiterate relatives mixing with Ross’s family and friends among the gentry, Demelza decides to hold two different parties for Julia’s christening. Of course, this plan goes terribly awry and ends in social disaster — the first of many situations in this novel where Demelza struggles with her new position in society as Ross’s wife. Meanwhile, low copper prices are causing trouble for Ross and the other mine owners, and many of the mine workers are facing dire poverty. Desperate, Ross joins a risky scheme that would give mine owners more control over copper prices, but the Warleggans are formidable enemies to this project. Personal tragedies, reversals of fortune, and love affairs gone wrong (or right) all play a part in this novel, but ultimately it’s the strength of Ross and Demelza’s relationship that gets them through it all.

I enjoyed this continuation of the Poldark series, which I think is a little more eventful and interesting than the first book. One of my favorite aspects of this novel is the portrayal of Ross and Demelza’s marriage. It’s a strong relationship but definitely not a perfect one: they argue, keep secrets from each other, and frequently become trapped in misunderstandings that a little honest communication could have prevented. But I love that Demelza isn’t afraid to speak her mind and that Ross genuinely respects her, notwithstanding her lower-class origins. I also liked the introduction of a few new characters, particularly Dwight Enys, a forward-thinking young doctor who becomes a fast friend of the Poldarks. Overall, this book got me excited about reading the entire series this year, and I’d definitely recommend it to fans of historical fiction or period dramas.

Review: My Lady Jane

My Lady JaneCynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows, My Lady Jane

This novel is a highly fictionalized version of the events surrounding Lady Jane Grey’s accession to the throne of England, where she ruled for only nine days. The story begins as teenage king Edward VI learns that he is dying. He names his best friend Jane as his successor, which immediately makes her a highly desirable bride to the ambitious men at court. Although Jane is not particularly interested in marriage or becoming queen, she is forced to marry Gifford, the son of Edward’s most trusted counselor. Of course, Jane and Gifford don’t get along at first, but soon they must work together when she finds out that Gifford is an Edian, a person with the magical ability to turn into an animal. In fact, he can’t control this power, so he spends all his daylight hours as a horse. Jane and Gifford must conceal this politically dangerous secret and figure out how to control his power — all while navigating the perils surrounding the English monarchy.

When this book first came out, I refused to read it despite its popularity because of the terrible cover. But then I started reading reviews comparing it to things like The Princess Bride and Monty Python. And then I read the dedication — “For everyone who knows there was enough room for Leonardo DiCaprio on that door” — and I was hooked. This book is a fun and funny romp through Tudor history, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Of course, those who are looking for realistic historical fiction from this era should definitely look elsewhere; the actual historical situation is just a springboard for the characters’ completely fantastical adventures. I really enjoyed the main characters, especially Edward, whose main complaint about dying is that he hasn’t ever kissed a girl. The plot does get a bit hectic toward the end, but by then I was happy to go along for the ride. Overall, I liked this book a lot, and now I’m interested in trying some of the authors’ solo works.

Review: Belgravia

belgraviaJulian Fellowes, Belgravia

This novel by the creator of Downton Abbey tells the story of two families, the aristocratic Bellasises and the social-climbing Trenchards, as their paths collide on the eve of Waterloo and again 25 years later. James Trenchard begins the novel as Wellington’s chief supplier, and thus he has some contact with high society despite being a mere tradesman. When his beautiful daughter Sophia catches the eye of Lord Edmund Bellasis, James is certain that a marriage will soon take place, despite the skepticism of Anne, his pragmatic wife. But Edmund tragically dies at Waterloo, and Sophia follows shortly thereafter – but not before giving birth to his child. The Trenchards place the baby with a foster family in an attempt to hush up the scandal, but the secret threatens to emerge when Anne decides to search for Sophia’s child, Charles Pope, now an intelligent young man of 25. When Charles is introduced into society despite his (supposedly) working-class origins, rumors start flying, and several people begin to ask questions about his true identity. What they uncover is a secret that could be dangerous not only to the Trenchards’ social standing, but to the young man’s very life.

I watched Downton Abbey from start to finish, so I was intrigued that its writer, Julian Fellowes, had written a book set during my favorite historical period. However, I was left feeling pretty underwhelmed by this novel. Much as I enjoyed Downton, it often had problems with pacing and with juggling its large ensemble cast, and those same problems are apparent in Belgravia. The “suspense,” such as it is, comes from the question of whether (or when) the scandal of Charles’s birth will be revealed, but since the reader knows the secret from almost the beginning of the novel, it’s not a very compelling question. I also didn’t care at all about most of the secondary characters. The villain of the piece has moments of being interesting, but he’s largely a flat character who only cares about money and social status. And the downstairs characters get very short shrift, in my opinion; while a couple of the servants do play a role in the plot, their characterization is negligible. Overall, I found this book to be very “meh,” although avid Downton Abbey fans may find it worth reading.

Review: Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d

thrice-the-brinded-cat-hath-mewdAlan Bradley, Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d

Flavia is thrilled to be back in England after her Canadian adventure at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy, but she soon discovers that all is not well at Buckshaw. Her oldest sister Feely is in a fight with her fiancé Dieter, and her annoying cousin Undine won’t leave her alone. Most upsetting of all, her father is sick with pneumonia, and she’s not even allowed to visit him in the hospital. Desperate for a distraction, Flavia agrees to run an errand for the vicar’s wife, delivering a message to the woodcarver who is refurbishing the church. But when Flavia arrives at the woodcarver’s residence, she discovers the man hanging upside-down from his bedroom door, quite dead. Of course, she jumps at the chance to solve another murder, which leads her to uncover a decades-old conspiracy involving a famous author. But as always, Flavia’s investigative skills are so sharp that she finds herself in danger.

I’m a longtime fan of the Flavia de Luce series, so I enjoyed this latest installment. However, I’m starting to feel so sad for Flavia that the books are becoming less fun to read. In the first few books, Flavia and her sisters are constantly fighting, but you get the sense that, deep down, they do care for each other. In this book, the arguments are so mean-spirited and brutal that it’s really no fun to read. Flavia also seems particularly isolated in this book; her father is almost entirely off page, her sisters ignore her when they’re not actively being cruel, and she doesn’t seem to have any friends at all (except the vicar’s wife). The ending of this book seems to indicate an even bleaker future for Flavia, and if that’s the case, the series might actually be too depressing for me to continue. I also didn’t love the mystery in this one, although I was happy to see some interaction between Flavia and her former teacher Mrs. Bannerman. Overall, I found this book somewhat disappointing, and I’m not sure I’ll be continuing with the series (although I may try one more book just to see if things improve).

Mini-Reviews #12: December, part 2

This is officially my LAST BATCH of reviews for 2016! I’m looking forward to starting next year (aka tomorrow) with a clean slate. These last books are all rereads, and it was lovely to revisit some books I’ve enjoyed in the past!

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Rainbow Rowell, Attachments — I’ve loved all of Rainbow Rowell’s books, but this one (her first novel) remains my favorite. It’s the story of Lincoln, an Internet security specialist whose job is to monitor all emails sent from company accounts. When the emails of Jennifer and Beth get flagged for “inappropriate” usage, Lincoln has to read them; it’s his job. But before long, he gets caught up in the women’s stories and becomes genuinely interested in learning more about them. Then he begins to fall for Beth…but how can he transform his one-sided crush into an actual relationship?

Sharon Shinn, Summers at Castle Auburn — The first time I read this romantic fantasy novel, I didn’t quite pick up on the romance and felt it was a little abrupt. I don’t know what I was thinking, because this time I was all about the romance! It’s subtle and builds slowly, which is just the way I like it. 🙂 I also really enjoyed the vivid fantasy world, and I liked the fact that the heroine truly grows and changes throughout the novel. Definitely recommended for fans of this genre!

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Georgette Heyer, The Corinthian — One of Heyer’s excellent Regency romances, featuring a jaded young man and a scrappy girl (dressed as a boy) who’s running away from home. The plot gets a bit convoluted, comprising highwaymen, elopements, and even a murder. But of course, everything turns out right in the end!

Patricia Wynn, The Birth of Blue Satan — I read this book, the first in a series, a few years ago, but for some reason I didn’t continue with the series. Recently I decided I’d like to read book two, but I had to refresh my memory by rereading this one first. As a mystery novel, it’s not particularly strong — the solution basically comes out of nowhere — but I loved the period setting (1715! More novels about Jacobites, please!) and the main characters. I’m definitely looking forward to reading book two and seeing what happens next!