Mini-reviews: Rebel, Murder, Carrie, Dance

Rebel MechanicsExpert in Murder, An

Shanna Swendson, Rebel Mechanics — This YA steampunk/alternate history tale is set in a world where the American Revolution never took place because the British upper classes have magical powers that give them access to technologies (such as electricity and automobiles) that the American colonists lack. However, the so-called rebel mechanics are hoping to start a revolution by harnessing steam power and thus leveling the technological playing field. Against this political backdrop, Verity Newton is a young woman with many friends among the rebels, yet she works as a governess for an upper-class magister. As the first stirrings of revolution begin, Verity must decide where her loyalties truly lie. This book is a fun steampunk romp, and I really enjoyed the central characters, especially Lord Henry. I’ll definitely be reading the sequels!

Nicola Upson, An Expert in Murder — A historical mystery novel featuring Josephine Tey as an amateur sleuth. The plot revolves around a staging of Tey’s play Richard of Bordeaux, and many of the suspects are involved with the play as actors, producers, and so forth. Even Tey herself is implicated in the crime, since the victim was a fan whose program Tey had signed shortly before the murder occurred. Overall I thought this book was pretty good; I enjoyed the blending of fact and fiction, and the mystery itself was interesting, albeit a little baroque. I may continue with the series, but it’s not at the top of my list.

Carrie PilbyMiller's Dance, The

Caren Lissner, Carrie Pilby — I’ve owned this book for years, but it wasn’t until I saw the movie on Netflix that I was motivated to pick it up! The titular character is a young woman with a genius-level IQ and zero tolerance for liars and hypocrites. As a result, she’s extremely isolated socially, until her therapist challenges her to mix more with the world by making friends, going on dates, and telling people she cares about them. Carrie reluctantly tries to follow this advice and learns more about the world in the process. I thought this book was just OK. Carrie’s voice is sharp and entertaining, but I’m not sure she actually learns very much throughout the course of the book. The various things she experiences and people she meets seem random and unconnected. I think this is a rare case where the movie is better than the book!

Winston Graham, The Miller’s Dance — ***Warning: spoilers for previous Poldark books!***

This book focuses most on Jeremy and Clowance, Ross and Demelza’s adult children, as they deal with career and relationship problems. Jeremy is still interested in steam power and has built a machine to help with the Poldarks’ mine. (I honestly can’t remember anything more than that about the steam-engine stuff!) He is also heartbroken that his beloved Cuby won’t marry him; she needs to marry a rich man to take care of her family’s debts. Meanwhile, Clowance and Stephen continue their relationship, but Clowance starts to have second thoughts. Another enjoyable installment of the series, and I’m curious to see what will happen next. Only three books left!

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Mini-Reviews: Fantastic, Jayne, Trouble, Penhallow

Light Fantastic, TheLady Jayne Disappears

Terry Pratchett, The Light Fantastic — I read The Color of Magic several years ago and enjoyed it, but for some reason it took me a really long time to revisit Discworld. I’m sorry I left it so long, because I really enjoyed The Light Fantastic! The book has a lot of fun with the “chosen one” trope as the failed wizard Rincewind and his unwanted companion Twoflower race around the Disc trying to prevent the end of the world. I will definitely continue with the Discworld series, although I’m trying to decide whether I should read it in publication order or approach it one “cycle” at a time (i.e., read all the Rincewind books first). Advice is welcome!

Joanna Davidson Politano, Lady Jayne Disappears — I don’t usually read “inspirational” novels, but I’m open to them if the premise sounds interesting, and I thought I’d give this one a try. It’s about a young woman, Aurelie Harcourt, who has spent her childhood with her father in debtor’s prison; when her father dies, she is brought to live with rich but emotionally distant relatives. I just really didn’t connect to this book; I found the writing style obnoxious and the plot too predictable. The references to God felt shoehorned in, and Aurelie’s faith didn’t ring true to me. Not recommended.

Trouble with Destiny, ThePenhallow

Lauren Morrill, The Trouble with Destiny — This cute but forgettable YA romance centers around Liza, a type-A teenager who’s very proud of her position as drum major of her high school band. In an effort to raise money to keep the band program from being cut, she enters the band in a competition that will take place (for some inexplicable reason) on a cruise ship. While there, she reconnects with a former crush, butts heads with a best-friend-turned-rival, and unexpectedly connects with the quarterback of the football team, who isn’t as dumb as he seems. I found Liza a very frustrating character — she’s selfish, shrill, and completely blind to what’s going on around her. So overall, I didn’t hate this book but didn’t particularly like it either.

Georgette Heyer, Penhallow — Much as I love Georgette Heyer, I have to admit that I really did not enjoy this book. It’s one of her so-called mystery novels, but the murder doesn’t occur until at least two-thirds of the way through the book, and the murderer’s identity is never a secret. Additionally, every single character is deeply unpleasant. Without an actual mystery to solve or a character to root for, the book just didn’t hold any appeal for me. I still love Heyer, but I’d definitely recommend trying a different book; Envious Casca is her best mystery, in my opinion.

Mini-Reviews: Lady, Café, Stranger, Bullet

Lady Molly of Scotland YardCafé by the Sea, The

Baroness Orczy, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard — While Orczy’s best-known work is The Scarlet Pimpernel, she also tried her hand at the mystery genre in a collection of short stories featuring Lady Molly, Scotland Yard’s (fictional) first woman detective. The stories are narrated by Lady Molly’s maid, Mary, who serves as the Watson figure and helps Lady Molly with her investigations. Overall, the stories are pleasant enough, and I liked how Lady Molly’s own history was mysterious until the last couple of stories in the collection. However, I didn’t love the portrayal of Lady Molly as a paragon of every virtue, especially when she engages in several instances of morally dubious behavior, such as telling a suspect (falsely) that her baby is dead. The mysteries themselves are fine but nothing groundbreaking. Overall, the collection is more interesting as a historical artifact than as a set of mystery stories.

Jenny Colgan, The Café by the Sea — I enjoyed this chick lit novel a lot more than I was expecting to! Protagonist Flora is trying to build a career in London, but her latest assignment takes her back to the remote Scottish island of Mure, where she has to mend fences with her estranged father and brothers. I liked watching Flora’s personal growth, and I also enjoyed the (inevitable) romance a lot more than I was expecting to. Plus, the setting is gorgeous and makes me want to visit the Hebrides! Definitely worth reading if you enjoy the genre, and I’ll be trying more by Colgan.

Stranger from the Sea, TheBullet in the Ballet, A

Winston Graham, The Stranger from the Sea — More fun and games with the Poldark clan, set 10 years after the events of The Angry Tide. The eponymous stranger from the sea is Stephen Carrington, a confident young man who befriends Jeremy and fascinates Clowance. But what secrets is he hiding? I liked this book a lot and found the time jump refreshing — now that the children are grown up, there are even more characters to follow and care about. Not a fan of Stephen, though, and I hope he’s not around for good.

Caryl Brahms and S.J. Simon, A Bullet in the Ballet — A delightfully absurd Golden Age mystery in which a fairly conventional police inspector must solve a murder that occurs within the madcap Stroganoff Ballet. I really enjoyed the various ballet characters with their artistic temperaments. The murderer’s motive is pretty nonsensical, but this one should definitely be read for the humor rather than for the mystery plot.

Mini-reviews: Fête, Tide, Red, Battle

Fête Worse Than Death, AAngry Tide, The

Dolores Gordon-Smith, A Fête Worse than Death — Jack Haldean, former World War I pilot and current crime writer, becomes involved in a real murder investigation when an old wartime acquaintance turns up at the village fête and is later found dead in the fortune teller’s tent. Jack is convinced that the man’s death is somehow connected to a mysterious scandal from the war, and his investigation soon reveals that the commonly believed version of events is not the whole story. I quite enjoyed this book — Jack is a likable and sympathetic main character, and I appreciated the fact that he was willing to work with the police rather than against them. There’s also a good supporting cast that I suspect will recur in later books. Overall, I think this is a very solid start to a historical mystery series, and I’m glad that my library has several more of the books!

Winston Graham, The Angry Tide — ***Warning: spoilers for previous Poldark books.***

It’s funny — a number of dramatic events occur in this book, but nevertheless I feel like it’s a little short on plot! Ross is now a member of Parliament, which he has conflicting feelings about. He also makes yet another terrible impulsive decision, hurting Demelza but surprising no one. Ossie continues to be the world’s actual worst human being. Pascoe’s bank is in trouble, thanks to Warleggan skulduggery. Drake considers marriage. All in all, I’m happy with where things are at the end of this book and intrigued to see what will happen next!

Red-Rose Chain, AArabella and the Battle of Venus

Seanan McGuire, A Red-Rose Chain — Just as things are looking up for Toby and the gang, the Kingdom of Mists receives a declaration of war — and for some reason, the queen thinks Toby is the perfect person to stop said war from happening. Toby is appointed ambassador to the neighboring Kingdom of Silences and must find a way to convince King Rhys not to invade. But when Toby and her entourage arrive in Silences, they are shocked to discover various secrets the king is hiding. I’m a longtime fan of this series, and this book was a fun read as well, but I think my enthusiasm is beginning to wane. I’m still definitely invested enough to stick with the series until the end; I think I read somewhere that the 12th book will be the last. But I won’t be too upset when it’s over — it’s starting to feel like the characters are nearing the end of their journeys.

David D. Levine, Arabella and the Battle of Venus — ***Warning: spoilers for Arabella of Mars.***

This sequel to Arabella of Mars is just as much swashbuckling fun as the first book. Arabella learns that her beloved Capitan Singh has been captured by the French and imprisoned on Venus. She is determined to rescue him, so she obtains passage to Venus with roguish privateer Daniel Fox. When she arrives on the French-occupied planet, she sees how brutally the English prisoners and native Venusians are treated, and she hatches a daring escape plan under the very nose of Napoleon himself. I’m really enjoying this series and will definitely continue if and when a third book is released!

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.