Mini-Reviews: Copy, Vintage, Earl

Derville Murphy, A Perfect Copy

Daisy is hoping to auction off an old family portrait painted by a famous artist. But then Ben shows up with an identical painting, claiming the subject is one of his ancestors. Is one of the paintings a fake? Daisy and Ben team up to find out, and their research uncovers the surprising history of two Jewish sisters, Rosa and Lena, who leave their impoverished Eastern European village in the 1860s to seek better opportunities in Vienna, Paris, and London. The book alternates between the historical and present-day timelines, which worked fine for me, as I was equally interested in both. The plot is exciting and full of drama, though the characterization is a bit weak and the writing style is clunky at times. Overall, I liked this book fine, and it was certainly a quick read, but I’m not tempted to try more by the author.

Ngaio Marsh, Vintage Murder

Inspector Alleyn is on vacation in New Zealand and falls in with a touring theater company. The actors invite him to their performance and an afterparty, where tragedy strikes and the company’s owner (and husband of the leading lady) is killed, seemingly by accident. But Alleyn immediately suspects murder and cooperates with the local police to solve the crime. This is a solid but unremarkable Golden Age mystery, where the solution hinges on disproving an alibi — with information the reader doesn’t obtain until quite late in the novel. So there’s not a lot of forward motion to the plot; it’s mostly just Alleyn and his colleagues interviewing all the suspects. But I liked the New Zealand setting and the positive (for its time) representation of a Maori character. Overall, a decent read but not one I’d strongly recommend.

Susanna Craig, Who’s That Earl

Thomas Sutherland has spent the past seven years as an intelligence officer in the Caribbean. But now he’s been ordered home to Scotland, where he has unexpectedly inherited an earldom. When he arrives at his crumbling estate, he’s shocked to find that the tenant in residence is none other than his former sweetheart, Jane Quayle. Thomas and Jane are immediately attracted to one another, but they are both keeping secrets and are unsure whether they can trust each other. This was a reasonably fun and well-written romance, but the series is called “Love and Let Spy,” and there is a sad lack of spying! I also didn’t quite buy Thomas and Jane’s romance; they seem to rekindle it awfully quickly after a seven-year separation. But I tend not to like second-chance romances in general, so fans of the trope may enjoy it more. Overall I liked this one but didn’t love it, and I don’t think I’ll continue with the series.

Mini-Reviews: Tongues, No-Show, Viscount

Naomi Novik, Tongues of Serpents

This installment of the series finds Laurence and Temeraire exiled to Australia, where they are tasked with delivering dragon eggs to support the fledgling colony of New South Wales. They also get roped into exploring the interior of the continent while simultaneously pursuing a group of smugglers. Along the way, one of the precious eggs is stolen, and they experience the harsh realities of the Australian wilderness. While it’s always nice to spend time with Laurence and Temeraire, this is my least favorite installment in the series so far. Nothing happens to advance the overall plot; the characters mostly just wander around being hungry, tired, and/or lost. The middle stretch of the book, where the group is slogging through the uninhabited portion of the continent, is especially yawn-inducing. Hopefully things will pick up in the next book!

Beth O’Leary, The No-Show

This novel centers around three women who all get stood up on Valentine’s Day by the same man, Joseph Carter. Siobhan, a tough but overwhelmed life coach, sees him once a month for no-strings-attached sex, but she’s starting to want more. Miranda, a pragmatic tree surgeon, is excited about her new boyfriend. Jane, a shy, book-loving volunteer at a charity shop, is at first happy to be “just friends” with him, but she eventually develops deeper feelings. As all three women move forward in their relationships with Joseph, many secrets are revealed and past traumas resurface. A plot twist near the end explains Joseph’s behavior, but whether this book will work for you largely depends on whether you can deal with hating him for most of the novel. I personally did feel he was redeemed in the end, but I can see how others wouldn’t. And I still found much of the book frustrating, believing he was a terrible cad and thinking all three women deserved better! Siobhan, Miranda, and Jane are all wonderful characters, though, and I enjoyed getting to know them throughout the novel. So overall I did like this one — it’s probably my second-favorite O’Leary novel after The Flatshare — but I feel cautious about recommending it.

Julia Quinn, The Viscount Who Loved Me

Anthony, Viscount Bridgerton, is convinced he will die young, just like his beloved father. He knows it’s his duty to marry and sire an heir, but he has no interest in falling in love, which would make him want to fight his (perceived) fate. So he decides to court Edwina Sheffield, society’s reigning beauty; but to win her favor, he must also charm Kate, Edwina’s older sister. Kate refuses to be charmed — she knows Anthony is a rake and can’t approve of him as a suitor for her beloved sister. But ironically, the more Kate and Anthony butt heads, the more they are drawn to each other, until Anthony wonders whether he may have chosen the wrong sister. This book is pure Regency fluff, but I must say I really enjoyed it! Anthony and Kate are wonderful, separately and together, and I loved their chemistry and banter. I’m very curious to see how Bridgerton season 2 compares! (I watched the first season and had mixed feelings…it was oddly joyless for a romance adaptation, no?)

Mini-Reviews: Shell, Fiancée, Time

Nicholas Blake, Thou Shell of Death

When legendary airman Fergus O’Brien receives a series of threatening letters, he asks private detective Nigel Strangeways to come to his Christmas house party, where he’s invited all the people he suspects of being the letter writer. He hopes Nigel will discover the author’s identity and prevent any violence from occurring, but unfortunately O’Brien is indeed shot the day after Christmas. Now Nigel and the police must work together to discover the killer — a task that is complicated by a few more bodies, not to mention Nigel’s growing attachment to one of the suspects. I enjoyed this book very much. It’s well written with a touch of sly humor, and while the mystery’s solution is wildly dramatic and implausible, I do think it’s fairly clued. I’m definitely interested in reading more of the Nigel Strangeways books.

Virginia Heath, Never Fall for Your Fiancée

Hugh’s mother is determined to see him wed, but he doesn’t want to get married because he’s afraid he’ll be like his philandering father. His solution? Invent a fake fiancée. It actually seems to work, until his mother announces she’s planning a visit from America to meet his dear Minerva. Desperate, Hugh offers to pay the beautiful but penniless Minerva Merriwell to pose as his fiancée, but complications ensue when he really falls in love with her. I love a good fake-relationship plot, but this one does strain credulity, particularly Hugh’s motivations for creating and persisting in the lie. The book is a breezy, enjoyable read (though not as funny as it wants to be), but I can’t get past the utter ridiculousness of the plot. I may look for the sequel when it comes out, but I’ll borrow it from the library instead of buying.

I also need to complain about the cover for a second. I don’t mind illustrated covers, but I do want the people to look the way they’re described in the book!  Minerva’s hair is described as very dark, “almost black,” and Hugh is supposed to be blond! Not sure what happened there — maybe dark-haired heroes sell better?

Sophie Cousens, This Time Next Year

Minnie Cooper and Quinn Hamilton were both born on January 1, 1990 — but since Quinn came just moments earlier, he became the first ‘90s baby born in the UK. He won notoriety and a large cash prize, while Minnie got nothing. And the same bad luck has dogged her ever since, especially on her birthday. When Minnie and Quinn meet again as adults, she’s strangely drawn to the man she’s resented all her life, but several obstacles threaten their romance. I liked this book a lot; both Minnie and Quinn are sympathetic, and they have real problems that aren’t magically solved by love. The romance is sweet and satisfying, but the characters’ individual growth is equally (if not more) important. I’m excited to try more by this author, and I would definitely recommend this book to chick lit fans.

Review: Faithful Place

Faithful PlaceTana French, Faithful Place

Frank Mackey, last seen as Cassie’s irascible handler in The Likeness, is an experienced undercover cop. He’s tough as nails and an expert in detachment: getting emotionally involved in an operation is the surest way to screw it up. But Frank’s detachment is really rooted in his childhood, growing up in a poor neighborhood in 1980s Dublin. When he was 19 years old, he was madly in love with Rosie Daly, the girl next door. Despite their families’ disapproval, they were planning to run away to England together. But Rosie never showed up, and Frank always assumed that she changed her mind and left the neighborhood on her own. Now, however, one of Frank’s sisters reaches out to him with disturbing news: no one has heard from Rosie since she supposedly left town, and her suitcase has just been found. To find out what really happened all those years ago, Frank must return to his estranged family and face the ghosts of his past; but the truth may be even more horrible than living with the uncertainty.

The word I keep using to describe this book is intense, but that doesn’t seem to encompass the emotional wringer I went through while reading this book. Something about Tana French’s writing pulls me in and grabs me, and I think this novel might be my favorite of hers so far. Frank is not a particularly likable character—he’s manipulative, callous, and occasionally violent—but I never doubted the truth of his thoughts, feelings, and actions. His interactions with his family also felt real to me; French excels in her depiction of dysfunctional families, and the Mackeys are a quintessential example. The plot isn’t particularly complex as far as mysteries go; Rosie’s fate is never really in doubt, and the villain of the piece isn’t that hard to spot either. But the point of this type of mystery isn’t solving the puzzle of whodunnit or why; the point is what happens, or what ought to happen, once the puzzle is solved. And the consequences of Frank’s discovering the truth provide the gut punch of this novel. Bottom line, I can’t wait to continue with the Dublin Murder Squad series!

N.B. This is technically book 3 of the Dublin Murder Squad series, but you absolutely won’t be missing anything if you haven’t read books 1 and 2.

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.

Review: Dreamer’s Pool

Dreamer's PoolJuliet Marillier, Dreamer’s Pool

This novel, set in early medieval Ireland, tells the story of Blackthorn, a young woman who has been imprisoned by a cruel chieftain and sentenced to death. But on the eve of her execution, she is saved by one of the Fair Folk, who grants her freedom under two conditions: she must assist anyone who asks for her help, and she cannot seek revenge against her jailer for seven years. Blackthorn reluctantly accepts these terms and escapes from the prison, along with fellow prisoner Grim. At first, the two travel aimlessly, with Blackthorn occasionally using her skills as a wise woman to help those who need medical attention. Eventually, they arrive in the kingdom of Dalriada, where Prince Oran asks Blackthorn for help. He is about to be married to Flidais, the daughter of a neighboring chieftain. He has fallen in love with her because of the letters she has sent him; but when Flidais arrives in person, she seems completely unlike the woman of the letters. Blackthorn and Grim help Oran to investigate his bride’s seemingly changed personality, and their search eventually leads to a shocking discovery about the nearby Dreamer’s Wood.

I’m a big fan of Juliet Marillier’s books, and I’m pleased to say that I liked this one also. The novel is narrated by Blackthorn, Grim, and Oran in turn, and each character’s voice is very specific and distinct from the others. Blackthorn is clearly the book’s true heroine, and I found her an interesting protagonist, especially because most of her motivation at this point stems from her (justifiable) rage at being imprisoned for so long. In other words, she’s not a very nice person, and her traumatic past often leads her to assume the worst of other people. But her flaws make her a compelling character, and I look forward to seeing how she continues to develop as the (planned) series progresses. Grim is also an intriguing character, although not as well fleshed out as Blackthorn; I’m eager to learn more of his backstory. Like most of Marillier’s novels, the pace of this one is quite slow, and I’m not sure the mystery with Flidais needed to be as drawn-out as it was. That said, I did like the book and will plan to continue with the series; I believe book 2 comes out later this year.

Review: In the Woods

In the WoodsTana French, In the Woods

Detective Rob Ryan and his partner, Cassie Maddox, are two up-and-coming detectives on the Dublin Murder Squad. But Ryan is hiding a secret about his past: his real name is Adam Ryan, and when he was 12 years old, his two best friends vanished in the woods of Knocknaree without a trace. Ryan was even with them at the time, but he has no memory of what happened to them — or why they disappeared while he was found. Ryan has apparently done a good job of recovering from this trauma and moving on with his life, but he is deeply shaken when he and Cassie are assigned to another case in Knocknaree, where a young girl has been murdered. As Ryan returns to his hometown and is confronted with memories he didn’t even know he had, he wonders whether the girl’s murder is connected to his own past. Ultimately, Ryan knows that this case will have deep personal importance for him — but will it make his career or destroy it?

I’m having a hard time collecting my thoughts on this book. At first I thought I wasn’t going to like it at all — in fact, I almost gave up after the flowery prologue — but eventually I got completely sucked in. The strongest aspect of the book, for me, was the relationship between Ryan and Cassie. Ryan isn’t a particularly likable character, but the bond between him and Cassie is so strong that you can’t help feeling he must be a pretty good guy after all. The way this relationship evolves and changes throughout the book kept me riveted. The novel’s narrative structure also creates a lot of suspense: Ryan is the narrator, and he says right from the start that he tells lies. So I was constantly wondering whether he was lying about certain things, and I became really invested in both mysteries as a result. That said, the book’s ending drove me a little crazy: some things made me sad, others frustrated me, and others I actually liked a lot. So I’m still undecided about this book; but I am glad I read it, and I will certainly be reading The Likeness at some point as well!

Review: Son of the Shadows

Son of the Shadows by Juliet MarillierJuliet Marillier, Son of the Shadows

Warning: SPOILERS for Daughter of the Forest.

Liadan, the youngest daughter of Sorcha and Red, loves her home at Sevenwaters and wants nothing more than to remain there with her beloved family. However, it seems the Fair Folk have another destiny in store for her. While paying a visit to a sick farmer, Liadan is kidnapped by a group of mercenary soldiers and forced to use her healing skills on their behalf. Terrified to be held captive by these intimidating warriors, Liadan nevertheless does her best to heal the wounded man. Her quiet determination soon wins the men’s respect, but she frequently finds herself at odds with their leader, a man tattooed with menacing symbols and thus referred to as the Painted Man. The arguments between Liadan and the Painted Man eventually transform into a grudging respect and then something more, but outside pressures continually conspire to drive them apart.

I read the first Sevenwaters book, Daughter of the Forest, a few years ago and absolutely loved it. Soon afterward, I acquired the next two books in the series, but for some reason I never got around to reading them. Now I can say that Son of the Shadows is an excellent read, though not a very quick one. There’s so much lush language and description that the book moves fairly slowly.  While I got a little impatient with the pervasive mystical elements (telepathic communications, mysterious prophecies, etc.), they definitely help to create the full-bodied world of the series. I was also annoyed by the Big Secret involving Liadan’s sister Niamh, which was predictable and should have been revealed a lot sooner than it was. However, I really enjoyed the story of Liadan and the Painted Man, and I look forward to seeing what happens in the next installment of the series, Child of the Prophecy.

P.S. Question time: is this the worst cover ever? It’s definitely one of the worst I’ve seen!