Mini-Reviews #5: Summer Reading

All right, time to post some mini-reviews of books I read way back in July! Will I ever catch up with all my reviews? Only time will tell, so stay tuned! 🙂

Death of an AirmanSong for Summer, A

Christopher St. John Sprigg, Death of an Airman — In this mystery centered around an English aviation club, one of its best flyers perishes in a tragic plane crash. Most people assume it’s an accident, but the victim was a first-class pilot, and the inquest revealed nothing wrong with the plane. A few of the club members suggest suicide, but a visiting Australian bishop suspects murder. When the police get involved, they realize the victim’s death may be connected to a much larger criminal organization. I liked this mystery well enough, but I think the strength was definitely in the plot rather than in the characters. For example, for the first several chapters, it looks like the Australian bishop is going to be the sleuth, but suddenly everything switches to the police inspector’s point of view. Still, this was a fun variation on the “impossible crime” mystery with a truly ingenious solution.

Eva Ibbotson, A Song for Summer — Ibbotson’s novels are the ultimate comfort reads! I’d never reread this one before, and I think it’s because the plot moves a bit more slowly than in Ibbotson’s other novels, and the atmosphere is bleaker. It’s still a lovely book, but I definitely find myself returning to A Countess Below Stairs and The Morning Gift much more often.

It Happened One WeddingSpear of Summer Grass, ACrown's Game, The

Julie James, It Happened One Wedding — Julie James was my first contemporary romance author, and she pretty much single-handedly convinced me that not all romance novels are poorly written trash. This is another fun, banter-filled romance between hedge fund manager (?) Sidney and FBI agent Vaughn. They initially dislike each other but are forced to play nice when her sister and his brother get engaged. I think we all know where this is going.

Deanna Raybourn, A Spear of Summer Grass — After scandalizing English society with her outrageous behavior, Delilah Drummond is packed off to British East Africa so she won’t further damage her family’s reputation. Although Delilah is the consummate city girl, with her fashionable dresses and daring bob, she soon falls in love with the African landscape. She also encounters various dangers, from marauding lions to outright murder — and possibly finds love as well. I didn’t particularly like this book, and I’m not sure why. I didn’t dislike it either…I just felt indifferent to it. Delilah reminded me a lot of Phryne Fisher, but while I love Phryne, I didn’t have the same enthusiasm for Delilah. Maybe she was too similar (since I encountered Phryne first)? The romance also made me roll my eyes a bit; the hero is very much an alpha-male caveman type, and he just seemed like a stereotype to me. Overall, a “meh” read.

Evelyn Skye, The Crown’s Game — In an alternate Imperial Russia where magic exists but only a few have the power to wield it, Vika knows she is destined to become the Imperial Enchanter and take her place at the emperor’s side. But then she learns that there is another powerful enchanter in Russia — and that she must defeat him in the Crown’s Game, a magical duel in which the winner becomes Imperial Enchanter and the loser is condemned to death. Little does she know that the other enchanter is Nikolai, whose magic (and handsome face) intrigues her. As Vika and Nikolai get to know each other, they realize they don’t want the Crown’s Game to end in death. But will they be able to find a better solution? I have to admit, this book sort of lost me early on, when Vika is described as having wild red hair with a black streak down the middle. I immediately had a knee-jerk Mary Sue reaction, and I never quite warmed to Vika after that. I did end up somewhat liking the book, particularly for the Russian setting and the lovely descriptions of the magic. I also liked the fact that the stakes are real, and not everybody gets a happy ending. I’ll probably look for the sequel when it comes out. Nevertheless, I was definitely underwhelmed by this one, especially given the amount of hype I’d seen about it.

Review: Circling the Sun

Circling the SunPaula McLain, Circling the Sun

Beryl Markham is known to history as one of the pioneers of aviation: she was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west. But this novelized version of her life focuses on her childhood and youth on an African farm in what is now Kenya. Beryl’s family moved to Kenya when she was four years old, but her mother had trouble adapting to African life and soon returned to England. As a result, Beryl’s upbringing was unconventional, and her education was sporadic at best. She grew up with a deep love of the land and creatures surrounding her, and she loved to ride, shoot, and train horses. But as she approached adulthood, her father’s farm fell on hard times, and he eventually decided to sell the property and relocate to Nairobi. Distraught at the thought of leaving her home, and unwilling to be a burden on her father (with whom she was not close), Beryl married a neighboring farmer. But the marriage was not a happy one, and Beryl soon left him to become a horse trainer in her own right. The novel follows Beryl’s attempts to stand on her own against the odds, and it also chronicles her friendship with Karen Blixen — better known as Isak Dinesen, the author of Out of Africa — and her love affair with Denys Finch Hatton, whom the book portrays as the great love of Beryl’s life.

This book initially caught my interest because I find the early days of flight fascinating. It’s amazing to me that traveling by plane is so common now, when back then it was terribly dangerous, and only the most daring adventurers were brave enough to attempt it. Unfortunately, this novel has almost nothing to do with Beryl Markham’s career as an aviatrix; but I still ended up enjoying it a lot for the setting and characters. I don’t know much about Beryl’s life, so I can’t say how accurate the book is in its details, but it certainly paints a vivid and compelling picture of her character and of life in British East Africa at that time. The Beryl of this book was certainly ahead of her time in many ways. She married and divorced multiple times, and she had several extramarital affairs, including one with Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester. She pursued a career at a time when most women were still relegated to the home. Such characteristics make her a compelling heroine, and I enjoyed reading about her adventures — although this book focuses a lot on her various romances, when I really wanted to know more about her professional life and aspirations. But I did enjoy the novel and would like to learn more about this era. I’ll have to read Out of Africa and Beryl’s own memoir, West with the Night!

Review: The Ashford Affair

The Ashford AffairLauren Willig, The Ashford Affair

In this book, Willig takes a break from her Pink Carnation series and visits a different setting, the 1920s in England and Kenya. Addie Gillecote is a poor relation living with her aunt and uncle at Ashford Park. Her deceased parents were bohemian artists, so Addie finds it hard to adjust to her new life, which is bound by etiquette and propriety. Her only solace is the friendship of her cousin Bea, who is outgoing and confident where Addie is quiet and modest. The two girls grow up the best of friends, but when they become marriageable young ladies, their relationship changes forever. Bea marries a handsome young earl but soon finds herself unable to control her husband’s wandering eye. Desperately unhappy, she rushes into an affair of her own — with the man Addie loves. Addie and Bea’s story is framed by the contemporary trials of Clemmie Evans, Addie’s granddaughter, who accidentally uncovers a scandalous secret in her family’s history.

I really enjoy Willig’s Pink Carnation books; they’re a bit silly sometimes, but I love their exuberant treatment of romance and espionage during the Napoleonic Wars. This book has a much more serious tone, which is an interesting departure from Willig’s usual style. Also, where the Pink Carnation books primarily focus on romance, this book is really about the relationship between Addie and Bea. In fact, I think that Bea is the true main character in this novel. She is catty and manipulative and such an unconventional protagonist that the novel felt unique and original to me. The modern-day sections of the book were quite boring by comparison; I didn’t care about Clemmie or her job or her romantic problems at all. It’s understandable that Willig would want to stick with her tried-and-true formula, but I’d like to see her attempt a book without the contemporary framing story. Overall, though, I was very impressed with this book, and I hope Willig continues to write books outside the Pink Carnation universe!