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 #11: December, part 1

I can’t believe it’s already New Year’s Eve…time to finish up those 2016 (mini) reviews before 2017 arrives!

skink-no-surrendersomebody-to-love

Carl Hiaasen, Skink: No Surrender — Teenager Richard teams up with the idiosyncratic Skink (former governor, current homeless eco-warrior) to find Richard’s missing cousin Malley. There’s no particular mystery about what happened to her, but the fun is in the journey, as rule-follower Richard finds his worldview enlarged by Skink’s more reckless lifestyle. Overall, while this isn’t really my kind of book, I did enjoy it and may read more by the author. I believe Skink is a recurring character in Hiaasen’s novels, and I’d like to know more of his backstory.

Kristan Higgins, Somebody to Love — Another light, charming contemporary romance from Kristan Higgins. Although most of her books are not serialized, this one borrows the location (and a few characters) from Catch of the Day, and it also features the couple from The Next Best Thing. Having read those two books, I enjoyed seeing how the various fictional worlds overlapped. That said, I don’t think you’d miss anything important if you haven’t read the other two books. I always enjoy Higgins’ books, but this one isn’t destined to be one of my favorites.

old-dogsenvious-casca

Donna Moore, Old Dogs — If you enjoy heist movies, you should definitely check out this book, which involves two priceless historical artifacts: solid gold dog statues. Main characters Letty and Dora are aging ex-hookers who hope to enjoy a lavish retirement by stealing the dogs from a museum exhibit. The trouble is, they’re not the only ones after the dogs…. While I didn’t find this one laugh-out-loud funny, it does include plenty of entertaining mishaps, mistaken identities, and mad schemes of vengeance. Definitely worth reading if the word “caper” appeals to you!

Georgette Heyer, Envious Casca — So far, I’ve found Heyer’s mysteries to be a bit hit-or-miss, but I think this is her best one yet! It’s an English country house murder set at Christmas. Of course, there’s a big family party, and of course, everyone has a reason to wish the estate’s owner dead. The novel is very well plotted, and the solution to the mystery is (in my opinion) utterly convincing. Even if you’ve tried another Heyer mystery and didn’t particularly like it, I’d urge you to give this one a try!

Mini-Reviews #1: Readathon leftovers

It’s pretty obvious that I haven’t spent much time on this blog lately. *blush* What can I say — life has been busy for the past couple of months, and when I’ve had free time, I’ve preferred to spend it doing other things (like reading!). As a result, I have a pretty huge backlog of books that I haven’t written about yet, and the thought of sitting down to compose a full review for each one is incredibly daunting. So, rather than continuing to avoid the task, I’ve decided to do three batches of mini-reviews — just titles and authors of the books I’ve been reading, along with a couple of sentences expressing my opinions. Once I catch up, I plan to go back to my regular style of reviewing. But for now, here are mini-reviews for the books I read during April’s 24-hour readathon:

Love, Lies and SpiesAs If!

Cindy Anstey, Love, Lies and Spies — A fun, lighthearted bit of Regency fluff for those who enjoy YA historical romance. I found the spy storyline weak, and the romance wasn’t quite compelling for me — Georgette Heyer, this is not! But it’s a pleasant enough read for fans of the genre.

Jen Chaney, As If! The Oral History of Clueless as Told by Amy Heckerling, the Cast, and the Crew — This book will only appeal to people who really love the movie “Clueless” and who are fascinated by behind-the-scenes movie knowledge. Fortunately, I fall within this demographic, so I really enjoyed the book!

Hermit of Eyton Forest, TheAlways the BridesmaidWhy Not Me?

Ellis Peters, The Hermit of Eyton Forest — Full disclosure: this installment of the Brother Cadfael series features a male character called Hyacinth. But I still love this series about a 12th-century Benedictine monk who solves crimes! (Who wouldn’t?)

Lindsey Kelk, Always the Bridesmaid — Entertaining British chick lit about a young woman named Maddie whose two best friends are at opposite ends of the romantic spectrum: one just got engaged, while the other is getting divorced. My friend pointed out that Maddie is a huge pushover, which she (my friend) found irritating. While I think that’s a fair criticism, I ultimately enjoyed the book for  its humor and romance, so I’d definitely read more by this author.

Mindy Kaling, Why Not Me? — I think Mindy Kaling is very talented and hilarious, and this book had me giggling pretty much nonstop. I like that she isn’t preachy, she’s very self-aware, and she doesn’t apologize for her confidence (some might say arrogance). As she says in the book, there’s nothing wrong with being confident — as long as you’ve put in the hard work to back it up. Bottom line: if you like Mindy Kaling, you’ll like this book.

Review: Step Aside, Pops

Step Aside, PopsKate Beaton, Step Aside, Pops

If you don’t already know Kate Beaton, creator of the delightful webcomic Hark! A Vagrant, you should check out her comics IMMEDIATELY! Not only are they hilarious, but many of them are based on literary works and historical events, so they are educational as well. This book collects some of Beaton’s greatest hits from the website, so some people may be disappointed at the lack of new material (there’s a little bit, but not much). Even so, I’m glad to have a hard copy collecting some of my favorites, from the brazen velocipedestrienne (!) on the front cover to the “straw feminists in the closet” to the classic Gorey and Nancy Drew covers. Definitely recommended for Beaton fans or for those who like their humor to be both smart and silly.

Review: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?Mindy Kaling, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)

This book is Mindy Kaling’s memoir of her journey from a chubby, awkward kid who adored SNL and Monty Python to a famous TV writer and actress (and, later, showrunner, although this book came out before “The Mindy Project” got going). She writes about being a relatively unpopular child whose friends’ interests didn’t quite align with her own, about moving to New York City and finding unexpected success with her Off-Broadway play “Matt & Ben,” about meeting Greg Daniels and landing her role as Kelly Kapoor on “The Office,” about her hatred of comedy roasts and her self-described uselessness as a writer (for a brief period) on SNL, and about her funny and frustrating experiences in Hollywood. There’s a little bit about romance, but mostly in the abstract; this book is not a tell-all, by any means. And while Kaling does address her identity as an Indian American, as well as her totally-normal-but-big-for-Hollywood size, these aren’t the focus of her book, and nor should they be. Instead, this memoir offers a fun, lighthearted look at Kaling’s life and career in television.

This book is exactly what you’d expect it to be if you’re familiar with Mindy Kaling’s persona and style of comedy. It’s as if your good friend, the one whose crazy escapades you like to live vicariously though, is chatting to you after a late night of drinking wine and watching romantic comedies. It’s very light and very funny, and I enjoyed it immensely; it would make excellent plane reading. One of my favorite sections was the chapter on “Types of Women in Romantic Comedies Who Are Not Real,” which debunks the myth of the beautiful klutz. (Because seriously, “klutzy” seems to be the go-to flaw for writers who still want their heroines to be cool and witty and gorgeous and without actual flaws. Do any of us really know smart, hot women who fall down the stairs on a regular basis?) I also loved the list of possible Hollywood movies coming to theaters soon, including “Crest Whitestrips,” “Untitled Jennifer Lopez Sonia Sotomayor Project,” “Street Smart,” and “Street Stupid” (“Street Smart” sequel). Some of them do sound frighteningly plausible! So, bottom line: this is a funny, enjoyable book by a woman who is both successful and relatable. If you like Mindy Kaling, you should definitely check it out!

Review: Gretel and the Case of the Missing Frog Prints

Gretel and the Case of the Missing Frog PrintsP.J. Brackston, Gretel and the Case of the Missing Frog Prints

In the small town of Gesternstadt in 18th-century Germany, Gretel is something of a local celebrity. Her first claim to fame is being the Gretel, the one who escaped the clutches of an evil witch along with her gluttonous brother, Hans (a.k.a. Hansel). Now, the 35-year-old woman makes her living as a private investigator, and the biggest case of her life has just fallen into her lap. She has been summoned by Albrecht Durer the Much Much Younger, whose beautiful and beloved frog prints have been stolen. Gretel takes the case and travels to the busy metropolis of Nuremberg, accompanied by Hans, who wants to attend the city’s world-famous sausage festival. She soon stumbles across a variety of surprises, including a housecleaning hobgoblin, a secret brothel in the basement of a fancy hotel, and a veritable mafia of talking mice. And, naturally, her most promising suspect is later murdered at the scene of the crime. Can Gretel discover the thief, return the prints, and catch the murderer, all without being sidetracked by her dimwitted brother?

I got very excited by the premise of this book, which sounds like a delightfully subversive romp through both mystery and fairy-tale tropes. And indeed, there’s lots of fun stuff in this novel. Gretel has some wonderfully entertaining characteristics: she’s determined, confident, and extremely pragmatic. Hans is a good foil for her, reminding me of a Teutonic Bertie Wooster. But at the same time, I never found a reason to care about these characters; they don’t really develop over the course of the novel. Some of the humor also seemed forced, and the mystery itself was nothing special. I did enjoy the weird genre mashup of mystery plus fairy tale, and I would potentially read the sequel when it comes out. But a novel that’s pure spoof has got to be funny enough to justify itself, and I’m not sure that this one is. It certainly never reaches the zany heights of P.G. Wodehouse! Again, this book is an enjoyable read, but I was ultimately underwhelmed by it.

Review: Don’t Point That Thing at Me

Don't Point That Thing at MeKyril Bonfiglioli, Don’t Point That Thing at Me

This picaresque novel is narrated by the Hon. Charlie Mortdecai, an art dealer who usually operates on the shady side of the law. In the opening scene he is visited by Inspector Martland (of a secret branch of the British police) in connection with a stolen Goya. Mortdecai claims to know nothing of the matter, but he cheekily admits to the reader that it is hidden under the floorboards. After Martland’s visit, Mortdecai knows he must unload the painting, but his mission is complicated by the murder of one of his associates. Even worse, someone seems to want Mortdecai dead as well — so he strikes a bargain with Martland to get diplomatic passage to America, where he hopes to make good his escape. There he encounters a variety of adventures, from constant surveillance by men in blue Buicks to the sexual aggressiveness of a rich American widow. Through it all, Mortdecai maintains a cheerful unconcern as he matches wits with several dangerous opponents.

I have very conflicting feelings about this book. On the one hand, I don’t think I understood the plot at all; there’s definitely a painting involved, and a valuable antique Rolls Royce, and various people who want Mortdecai dead, but I was always a bit confused about what was actually going on. On the other hand, Mortdecai has a delightful narrative voice — very reminiscent of Bertie Wooster, if Bertie were an art thief with a crasser mode of expression. (For example, Mortdecai’s valet/bodyguard is called Jock Strapp, which is either funny to you or it isn’t.) So the book does provide a lot of laughs, but in the end I’m not really sure what to think of it. The novel is first in a series, and I may check out the others at some point. The movie “Mortdecai,” which comes out today in the U.S., is also based on this series, and I’m interested to see how it deviates from the book. Johnny Depp seems like a very odd casting choice, for starters, but I’m nevertheless intrigued!

Review: Good Omens

Good OmensNeil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett, Good Omens

Since the beginning of the world, the forces of good and evil have been preparing for battle, and now Armageddon is imminent. The Four Horsepersons of the Apocalypse roam the earth, the Antichrist is about to be born, and the end times are at hand. But angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley aren’t terribly enthusiastic about the upcoming war and ensuing destruction of Earth. In fact, they’ve both become rather fond of the planet and the foolish humans who populate it. So unbeknownst to their superiors, they strike a truce: neither one of them will attempt to influence the newborn Antichrist in their favor. Little do they know that, thanks to a mix-up at the hospital, they’ve focused their efforts on the wrong baby! Meanwhile, the Antichrist grows up as a perfectly normal human boy called Adam Young, who knows nothing about his special destiny. But as the signs of the end times become harder to ignore, Aziraphale and Crowley must race against time to prevent Adam from unwittingly using his powers to destroy the world.

This book is a delightful romp through the Book of Revelation and common cultural perceptions regarding the end of the world. It truly has something for everyone, from demons to witchfinders to psychics to aliens, and I lost count of the jokes that made me laugh out loud! I loved the fact that Famine (one of the Horsepersons) was a diet guru, and that one of Crowley’s most notable Hellish accomplishments was the M25 motorway surrounding London. The book’s plot is rather sprawling, and I wasn’t a big fan of every storyline (didn’t care too much about Anathema Device, for example, although I loved Newton Pulsifer — the name alone!). But then again, who cares about plot when there’s such brilliant silliness to enjoy? I do think this book would be best enjoyed by people who are at least somewhat familiar with the Book of Revelation, because otherwise you won’t get all the jokes! But I honestly think that anyone who enjoys British humor will find this book hugely entertaining.

Review: Texts from Jane Eyre

Texts from Jane EyreMallory Ortberg, Texts from Jane Eyre: And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters

Mallory Ortberg, popular writer for websites such as The Hairpin and The Toast, has expanded her ingenious “Texts From” series into a book. What if the various authors, poets, and characters you studied in school had the ability to text? Hamlet would probably be a whiny teenager who refuses to come out of his room for dinner. William Carlos Williams would be constantly bugging his wife to bring home more plums from the grocery store. And Mrs. Bennet certainly wouldn’t miss an opportunity to urge her daughters to snag rich husbands! From Achilles to Virginia Woolf, Wuthering Heights to Sweet Valley High, nothing is safe from Ortberg’s satirical (and often punctuation-less) eye.

It’s hard to review humor because it’s so subjective: You either think it’s funny or you don’t. I’m definitely a fan of Ortberg’s style — the texts from Jane Eyre had me ROLLING the first time I read them! — so I enjoyed this book. I definitely think it helps to be familiar with the source material; most of the literary references are to pretty famous works, but there are also sections on The Hunger Games and The Baby-Sitters Club, so it’s a rather random, eclectic mix. The biggest criticism I have about the book is that it’s kind of one-note. The premise is funny, but there’s really nothing more to it. Basically, I don’t think it’s a book that I’d need to read over and over again, but it would be a great gift for someone who loves literature!

N.B. I received an ARC of this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. The publication date, per Amazon, is November 4.

Review: No Bed for Bacon

No Bed for BaconCaryl Brahms & S.J. Simon, No Bed for Bacon

In this hilarious send-up of the Elizabethan era — or rather, the Elizabethan era as perceived by popular culture — Sir Francis Bacon is desperate to obtain a bed that Queen Elizabeth has slept in during one of her royal progresses. He wants it to be an heirloom for his family, as he knows the bed’s value will only increase through the years. Sir Walter Raleigh’s attention is divided between his new cloak, which he hopes will be the envy of everyone at Elizabeth’s court (especially that dandy, the Earl of Essex), and his upcoming introduction of the potato to England. Meanwhile, Sir Francis Drake is grumbling about the fact that he hasn’t been able to do any really good pirating in years; theater owner Philip Henslowe will do anything in his power to shut down his rival, Burbage; and Shakespeare is trying to work on a new play, Love’s Labour’s Wunne, but he keeps getting distracted by the problem of how to spell his own name. Add a little romance, an overly ambitious watchman, and some reminiscing about the glory days of the Armada, and the stage is set for high comedy with a few history lessons thrown in.

I didn’t know it until I read the introduction, but this book is actually part of the basis for the Academy Award-winning movie “Shakespeare in Love.” But while the movie focuses almost entirely on the romance between Shakespeare and the noble Lady Viola, in the book it’s just one of many plots involving the most famous figures of the Elizabethan age. If you know anything about the era or are interested in learning more, I highly recommend this book! It’s pure farce, so there isn’t much “plot” to speak of, but the jokes are more than funny enough to make up for that! One of my favorites was an exchange between Shakespeare and Bacon about some plot element of Shakespeare’s play that Bacon didn’t like. Shakespeare responds with great indignation, “Master Bacon, do I write my plays or do you?” Then there’s this internal monologue from a Puritan who seeks to shut down the theater: “People had no right to enjoy themselves. He was going to stop them. His cause was a just one and he knew it. He was enjoying himself.” So if you like Shakespeare and don’t mind a little (or a lot of) silliness, you should definitely check out this book!