Mini-Reviews: Cherwell, Vanity, Field

Mavis Doriel Hay, Death on the Cherwell

Four students at Oxford’s (fictional) all-female Persephone College meet to discuss the formation of a club in opposition to the college’s unpopular bursar. During their meeting, they spot a canoe floating down the Cherwell river — with the bursar’s drowned corpse inside. The girls are questioned by the police and, realizing they and their fellow students might be suspects, decide to launch their own investigation. I enjoyed this Golden Age mystery, although I wanted more undergraduate hijinks; most of the book has a light, humorous tone, but the final few chapters are quite somber. It’s interesting that this book was published in the same year as Gaudy Night, another mystery novel set at an Oxford women’s college. Gaudy Night is clearly the superior novel, but Death on the Cherwell works well as a less weighty counterpoint.

Kevin Kwan, Sex and Vanity

Lucie Tang Churchill has never felt accepted by her family; as someone with half Chinese and half European ancestry, she doesn’t quite fit in with either side. As a result, she’s always striven for perfection in every aspect of her life. But when she meets the quiet, handsome, unsuitable George Zao at her cousin’s wedding, Lucie is attracted to him and soon feels her perfect life spinning out of control. This novel is a breezy update of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, and while I love the original, I wasn’t quite as impressed by the retelling. It’s a fun read — I especially enjoyed the author’s snarky footnotes — but I couldn’t relate to the characters’ ultra-wealthy, jet-setting lifestyle. The book is filled with name-dropping of people, places, and luxury brands I’ve never heard of. I found Lucie shallow and didn’t understand what George saw in her. Overall, I think this book would make a fun beach read, especially for people who enjoy reading about yachts and couture clothing and hip restaurants. I see the appeal of it, but I definitely prefer Forster’s original novel!

Ellis Peters, The Potter’s Field

In this installment of the Brother Cadfael series, the abbey is given a tract of land known as the Potter’s Field. As the brothers begin to plow the field, they unearth the skeletal remains of an unknown woman. She is most likely the wife of one of the brothers, who deserted her to pursue his religious vocation. Could Brother Ruald be responsible for her death? Brother Cadfael and Hugh Beringar investigate to discover the woman’s identity and find out what happened to her. I love this series because, even though there’s always at least one mysterious death, the overall tone is very gentle and peaceful. Justice always prevails, and usually Cadfael helps a pair of young lovers get together, as he does in this book. It’s the perfect antidote to the anxieties of modern life, and I’d definitely recommend the whole series.

Review: Under a Dancing Star

Under a Dancing StarLaura Wood, Under a Dancing Star

In 1930s England, 17-year-old Beatrice Langton longs to be a scientist, but her parents have a different plan in mind for her: because she’s their only child, and they no longer have the money to maintain the estate, she must marry a rich aristocrat and restore the family fortunes. But Bea’s “outrageous” behavior at an ill-fated dinner party gives her life a new direction when her parents decide to send her to her uncle’s home in Italy. Far from being chastised, Bea is thrilled — especially when she arrives in Italy to find that her uncle and his bohemian fiancée are essentially living in an artists’ commune. She is soon enjoying the freedom of her new life, with one exception: one of the artists, Ben, is as argumentative and obnoxious as he is handsome. But when their friends dare them to embark upon a summer romance, Bea reluctantly agrees. If nothing else, it will be an interesting experiment, and she’ll gain some much-desired life experience. But when their pretend relationship becomes all too real, will their very different backgrounds keep them apart?

Much Ado about Nothing is my favorite Shakespeare play, so I’m game to read any and all retellings, especially if they’re set in interesting historical periods! This one takes place in the 1930s, so I couldn’t help but compare it with Speak Easy, Speak Love, which is another Much Ado retelling set in the 1920s. I absolutely adored Speak Easy, Speak Love, and I must admit that this book suffers a bit by comparison. It’s a light, fun read, and I enjoyed the chemistry between Bea and Ben, but to me it lacked the substance of Speak Easy, Speak Love. It’s also not as good a retelling of Much Ado — it focuses on the Beatrice and Benedick story but jettisons the Hero/Claudio plot entirely, merely keeping a few of the character names. I did love the way this book subtly paraphrased some of the most famous lines from the play, rather than quoting them outright; I thought that was a great way to pay homage to the original play while still keeping the language appropriate for the characters’ ages and the time period. Overall, I enjoyed this book and would read more by Laura Wood, but if you’re looking for a YA Much Ado retelling set in the early 20th century, I’d definitely recommend Speak Easy, Speak Love instead!

Review: The Glimpses of the Moon

glimpses-of-the-moon-theEdith Wharton, The Glimpses of the Moon

In the glittering whirl of 1920s New York society, Nick Lansing and Susy Branch are intelligent but impoverished: they survive by living off the generosity of their richer friends. They fall in love with each other and decide to marry, but they agree that if either of them gets a chance to make a better financial match, they’ll divorce amicably. At first the marriage is very successful, and Nick and Susy are able to live off their friends’ extravagant wedding gifts. But when one of their friends lets them stay at her Italian villa during the honeymoon, they soon discover that she requires an ethically dubious favor in return. This favor drives a wedge between Nick and Susy — a wedge that widens even further when a titled Englishman and a rich heiress present themselves as alternative romantic options. In the end, will love or money prevail?

I don’t have much to say about this book except that I really loved it! Wharton’s prose is flawlessly precise, and she has an immense talent for evoking a character’s complete emotional state with a few subtle, well-chosen words. I actually found this book a bit stressful to read at times, because I cared about Nick and Susy so much, and I really wanted their marriage to work out despite the obstacles in their way. I liked the fact that no one is really a villain in the book, not even the wealthier romantic possibilities who are hoping that the marriage will break up. That said, Wharton does include some wonderfully biting satire about the upper classes and the frivolity and emptiness of their lifestyle. I’d recommend this book to anyone, especially those who love comedies of manners and the classics.

Review: The Devil in Music

Devil in Music, TheKate Ross, The Devil in Music

This final installment of the Julian Kestrel series moves from England to Italy, as Julian encounters a five-year-old mystery while traveling on the Continent. Lodovico Malvezzi, a powerful Milanese nobleman, was murdered in 1821, but because of the unstable political situation at the time, the local officials covered up the true cause of his death. Now, in 1825, the truth has finally come out, and the police are once more searching for Lodovico’s killer. The most likely suspect is a young tenor called Orfeo, whom Lodovico had been training for a career in opera and who disappeared shortly after the murder. But Lodovico had kept the singer’s real name a secret, and no one can give a clear description of him to the police. Meanwhile, Julian suspects that Orfeo may not be the guilty party, and he begins to investigate Lodovico’s family, including his fascinating young widow, Beatrice, and his politically involved brother, Carlo. He soon discovers several motives for Lodovico’s murder — but secrets from Julian’s own past will emerge before he can unmask the killer.

As previously mentioned, this is the last book in the Julian Kestrel series, and I’m heartbroken to have come to the end of it! I absolutely love historical fiction, mysteries, and anything set in the Regency period, so this series is really the perfect fit for me. Plus, I’m a sucker for a dandy who is more than he appears to be, which is definitely the case with Julian! That said, I’m not quite sure how I feel about this book specifically. The different setting was interesting, and I enjoyed the little bits of background about Italian politics and opera that permeate the book. I also liked the resolution of the mystery, although certain aspects of it were very predictable. The book’s pacing is also a little slow, and the focus of the book is much more on Julian’s character development than on the plot. While I was glad to see some more exploration of his character, it didn’t altogether satisfy me. I think my issue is the romance between Julian and Beatrice, which just didn’t ring true for me. Still, this is a good book in a great series, and I really wish there were more Julian Kestrel mysteries!

Review: Mistress of Rome

Mistress of RomeKate Quinn, Mistress of Rome

In the late first century A.D., Thea is a Jewish slave girl living in Rome after the rest of her family committed suicide during the siege of Masada. Thea’s owner, the spiteful Lepida Pollia, misses no opportunity to berate and abuse her; so when Rome’s most popular gladiator, Arius the Barbarian, falls in love with Thea and spurns Lepida’s advances, Lepida immediately takes a brutal revenge. This novel follows the stories of Thea, Arius, Lepida, and several other characters as they all try to better their fortunes, with varying degrees of success. Eventually, Thea uses her talents as a singer and musician to perform before the most fashionable crowds in Rome, where she catches the eye of Emperor Domitian. As the emperor’s mistress, she becomes the most powerful woman in Rome; but the more she learns about the enigmatic emperor’s true nature, the more desperate she becomes to escape her fate.

This is one of those books that hooked me almost immediately, and I found it compulsively readable. Ever since I took Latin in high school, I’ve been interested in the setting of ancient Rome, and this book explores so many aspects of life at that time, from social mores to military strategy to fashion. It’s a truly fascinating time period, and Quinn takes full advantage of the drama it provides. Indeed, the book is almost too melodramatic at times; it’s very much a soap opera, complete with fake deaths, illegitimate children, and even an orgy. The love story between Thea and Arius is often sweet but occasionally becomes a bit too over-the-top. I feel like I should also mention a particular review on Amazon, which pointed out several flaws in plot logic and historical accuracy. But personally, I really enjoyed the novel overall, and I’ll definitely seek out the sequels at some point. If you like your historical fiction gory, sexy, and extremely dramatic, I highly recommend this book!

Review: Niccolò Rising

Niccolo RisingDorothy Dunnett, Niccolò Rising

In 15th-century Bruges, commerce is intimately linked to power: the more astute and skillful the merchant, the greater his position in society. So while nobility and ancient bloodlines are still important, ordinary men and women have unprecedented opportunities to raise their social standing. This novel follows the fortunes of Claes, a dyer’s apprentice whose easygoing demeanor disguises an extremely shrewd mind. Among his friends and employers, Claes is regarded as little more than the village idiot, which makes it all the easier for him to obtain useful knowledge simply by keeping his ears open and his mouth shut. When he learns about a risky business opportunity that could result in a huge payoff, Claes doesn’t hesitate to act on the information. But his quest for riches causes him to offend some powerful people, including a Scottish nobleman who has both financial and personal reasons to hate Claes.

Dorothy Dunnett is one of those authors I really want to like. I’ve heard great things about her books, and I love well-written historical fiction, so I thought she would be right up my alley. But when I tried the first book in her Lymond Chronicles a few years ago, I couldn’t get past the first chapter. I was hoping that this book from a different series would work better for me, but unfortunately it didn’t. My first problem was the number of characters; there are too many people to keep track of, and there’s a lot of hopping between different points of view. Secondly, I couldn’t figure out what was happening for a large portion of the novel. Dunnett likes to allude mysteriously to things instead of describing them directly, which I found incredibly frustrating. I didn’t understand even the main plot until the book was almost over! I think Dunnett’s intention was to build suspense and then have a big reveal at the end, but in my opinion, the resolution didn’t make up for the hundreds of pages of confusion I had to endure first. I did enjoy the setting of late medieval/early Renaissance Bruges, but I wouldn’t recommend this slog of a book to anyone!

Review: Juliet

JulietAnne Fortier, Juliet

Julie Jacobs and her twin sister, Janice, have lived with their Aunt Rose ever since their parents died tragically when they were babies. When Aunt Rose dies, her will stipulates that Janice will inherit her entire fortune, including the house. Julie is shocked and angered by this slight, until she discovers that Aunt Rose has left her some old documents that belonged to her mother — documents that hint at a treasure hidden somewhere in Siena, Italy. Julie immediately goes to Siena in hopes of discovering this hypothetical treasure, but she soon finds that her inheritance — and indeed her whole identity — is bound up in the story of Romeo and Juliet. Far from being the fictional creation of William Shakespeare, their story is based on true events that occurred in Siena in the 1300s. As Julie digs deeper into the medieval legend of Romeo and Juliet, she eventually discovers some priceless artifacts connected to the lovers and finds her own destiny in the process.

Though Romeo and Juliet is by no means my favorite Shakespeare play (that would be Much Ado About Nothing, in case you were wondering!), I was excited to read this book for its combination of literary detection and romance. Unfortunately, I ended up not liking it very much! My main problem is that the heroine, Julie, is too whiny. She constantly complains about Janice’s poor treatment of her growing up, and she’s always bemoaning her “unattractive” appearance, even though she immediately catches the eye of a handsome Italian. I also hated her narrative style, which is completely stilted and unrealistic. The dialogue is almost uniformly terrible. As for the actual story, parts of it were interesting, especially in the historical chapters. But as events unfolded, I grew more and more irritated at the supernatural elements of the plot, which I was not expecting at all. Basically there’s this Ancient Curse ™ that hangs over Julie and her paramour, who are sort of reincarnations of the original Romeo and Juliet, and they need to break it in order to live happily ever after. The farther I got through the book, the more I went from “not great, but still readable” to “I can’t wait for this mess to end!” Overall, not recommended.

Review: Dead Men Don’t Ski

Dead Men Don't SkiPatricia Moyes, Dead Men Don’t Ski

Inspector Henry Tibbett and his wife Emmy are looking forward to a relaxing ski holiday in the Alpine town of Santa Chiara, Italy. However, Henry has also been asked to keep his eyes peeled for information relating to an international smuggling ring that might be headquartered in the area. Though reluctant to spoil his holiday with work, Henry can’t help but notice that several of his fellow vacationers have secrets to hide. Then one of the other guests at his hotel, Fritz Hauser, is found murdered on the ski lift. As Henry helps the local police to investigate, he soon learns that Hauser was involved in the smuggling ring — and that several of the hotel guests had good reasons for wanting him dead.

I think this book could best be described as a “traveling” English country house mystery. All the key elements are there — unlikable murder victim, plenty of suspects, an unusual crime scene which demands very precise alibis from everyone — but it happens to take place in a ski villa rather than an English country house. Since I love the genre, I found a lot to enjoy in this book. I especially enjoyed the subtle deviations from the standard mystery formula: for example, two of the characters are a hearty English colonel and his domineering wife, yet there’s more to both of them that meets the eye. Also, the “foreigners” in classic mystery novels always seem to be there as mere background, but here they were truly fleshed-out characters with actual relevance to the plot. I believe this is the first book in a series featuring Tibbett, and I’d gladly read more. Definitely recommended for classic mystery fans!