Mini-Reviews: Groomsmen, Glass, Death

Just One of the GroomsmenGlass OceanShare in Death

Cindi Madsen, Just One of the Groomsmen

This is a cute friends-to-lovers romance set in the small town of Uncertainty, Alabama. Addie Murphy has always been “one of the guys” — literally, because all her best friends since childhood are male. But one of them, Tucker Crawford, has just moved back to town after a few years away, and he’s starting to see Addie differently. The feeling is mutual, but both Tucker and Addie are hesitant to act on their attraction, fearing that they’ll ruin their friendship, irrevocably change the friend group, and become the talk of their small and gossipy town. This book was fun and lighthearted, and I liked that the obstacle to the romance was realistic yet simple. It felt like the book equivalent of one of the better Hallmark movies. I’d definitely consider reading more by this author.

Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, and Karen White, The Glass Ocean

This historical novel focuses on three characters whose destinies are intertwined as they all sail from America to England on the Lusitania‘s final voyage. Caroline Hochstetter is a rich Southern belle torn between her husband, a business-preoccupied industrialist, and her longtime friend Robert Langford. Robert is also aboard the ship, pursuing both Caroline and secret knowledge to aid the British — or is it the Germans? And Tessa Fairweather is a con artist hoping to pull off one last job, but she soon learns that the stakes are higher than she realized. There’s also a contemporary framework narrative involving one of Robert’s descendants and an author hoping to use the story for a book. I really enjoyed this novel, especially the historical parts. What’s not to love about romance and intrigue aboard ship? Highly recommended for fans of historical fiction!

Deborah Crombie, A Share in Death

I discovered something about myself while reading this book: I don’t generally enjoy contemporary mysteries! I love the Golden Age writers such as Agatha Christie, with their puzzle plots and limited selection of suspects. I like their orderliness and clarity, whereas more modern mysteries seem to embrace ambiguity and loose ends. That said, I really enjoyed this particular contemporary mystery; though it was written and set in the ‘90s, it feels very much like a Golden Age throwback, in which a hotel employee is murdered, and the killer must be one of the guests or other employees of the hotel. My one quibble is that protagonist Duncan Kincaid seems to spark a mutual romantic interest with every woman he meets — but I believe a particular love interest will emerge in future books. I’m looking forward to continuing with the series!

Mini-Reviews: Sacred, Nursing, Swan

Sacred Wood and Major Early EssaysNursing Home MurderMurder on Black Swan Lane

T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood and Major Early Essays

Despite its shortness, this book was a real challenge for me. It’s a collection of essays by T.S. Eliot about literary criticism, mostly focusing on specific critics and their (rare) success and (common) failures. Since I hadn’t heard of, much less read, the vast majority of these critics, I found most of Eliot’s arguments extremely hard to follow. On the other hand, I do think reading this book was good for me — the mental equivalent of strenuous exercise. But this is probably the type of book best read in a college course, with a professor and other students on hand to help make sense of it.

Ngaio Marsh, The Nursing Home Murder

When the Home Secretary contracts acute appendicitis and dies on the operating table, his wife insists that he has been murdered. After all, there’s no shortage of suspects: the man had many political enemies, including one of the nurses who assisted with his operation. Another of the nurses was his mistress, who was devastated when he broke off their relationship. Even the operating surgeon is a suspect, since he’s in love with the mistress himself. Then there are the dead man’s wife and sister, who each inherit a substantial sum under his will. Fortunately, Inspector Alleyn and Sergeant Fox are on the case. I found this a thoroughly enjoyable Golden Age mystery, despite some pejorative discussion of mental illness (referring to it as a “taint” in someone’s heredity, for example). I’m slowly working my way through this series and am glad Ngaio Marsh was so prolific!

Andrea Penrose, Murder on Black Swan Lane

All London society knows about the animosity between the scientifically minded Lord Wrexham and the Reverend Josiah Holworthy. Cartoonist A.J. Quill has even been selling pointed satirical sketches about their feud. So when Holworthy is murdered, Wrexham is the number-one suspect. To clear his name, he hunts down A.J. Quill and discovers that “he” is actually Charlotte Sloane, a poor widow using her artistic talents to earn a meager living. They team up to solve the murder and are soon plunged into a sinister plot involving alchemy. I love a good Regency mystery, so I had high hopes for this book, but I ended up being a little disappointed. It’s not bad, per se, but nothing about it stood out to me, and I doubt I’ll continue with the series.

Mini-Reviews: Crimson, Still

Crimson BoundStill Life

Rosamund Hodge, Crimson Bound

I was pleasantly surprised by this YA fantasy novel, which is a (very) loose retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. Protagonist Rachelle is a bloodbound, doomed to eventually lose her soul to the evil Devourer at the heart of the forest. In the meantime, she works as the king’s hired killer — until he commands her to guard his son Armand, whom she immediately distrusts because the people revere him as a saint. Yet when Rachelle discovers a possible way to change her destiny and defeat the Devourer, Armand may be her only ally. I liked the juicy plot and (of course) the romance, but my favorite aspect of this book is its unexpectedly serious examination of evil and atonement.

Louise Penny, Still Life

I’ve read so many glowing reviews of this series, so I’m a little afraid to say that I didn’t love this first installment. Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t hate it either. I enjoyed the setting of a small town in Quebec, which is charming without being too idealized. And the mystery plot is interesting; I especially liked how the victim’s art contains a clue to the solution. But for one thing, I thought the book was doing too many things at once: introducing the town, describing the victim and her friends, introducing Inspector Gamache and his team…it was a lot to keep track of, and it was hard to tell which characters would turn out to be important. That’s normal for a series opener, of course, but it still made the book difficult to follow.

I also felt that the victim’s friend group was a little smug and snobbish. They’re mostly wealthy, mostly educated, mostly not originally from the small town…whereas some of the lower-class “townie” characters are painted as villains without one redeeming quality. Finally, I thought Agent Nichol was treated a bit unfairly. I read her as being on the autism spectrum (not understanding social cues, not able to see beyond the literal meaning of what people told her), so even though she unquestionably behaves badly, I wanted Gamache (and the book) to treat her with a little more compassion instead of writing her off as a clueless jerk. All that said, I may try the next book in the series, since it won’t have to do as much work of introducing the world and characters.

Mini-Reviews: Isabella, Taken, Scandal

IsabellaNot to Be TakenFirst Comes Scandal

Loretta Chase, Isabella

I’ve liked all of Loretta Chase’s traditional Regencies, and this is no exception. Isabella Latham considers herself an old maid at 26, but she arrives in London for the Season with her two young cousins and is surprised when she acquires multiple suitors. The most notable are Edward Trevelyan, the earl of Hartleigh, and his charming cousin Basil. Isabella is attracted to both men, but they both seem to have ulterior motives: Edward needs a wife to help raise his ward, the young daughter of his deceased best friend, and Basil has his eye on Isabella’s fortune. Naturally Isabella ends up with the right man, and naturally the spurned suitor gets his own book, The English Witch, which I’m looking forward to reading sometime soon! I’ll be interested to see how Chase redeems his character, because he certainly did some morally dubious things in this book.

Anthony Berkeley, Not to Be Taken

I adore Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case, so I was excited to try another one of his mysteries. But overall, I was a bit disappointed. While this book is well written, the style is entertaining, and the mystery plot hangs together well, there’s nothing particularly special or surprising about it. It’s a classic murder in a small English village, and only one of the victim’s closest friends could have done it. I did find the story entertaining while reading it, especially near the end, when the narrator gives three or four false solutions before revealing the true one. But unlike The Poisoned Chocolates Case, this one is not a keeper. I’ll happily read more by Berkeley in the future, though!

Julia Quinn, First Comes Scandal

I think of Julia Quinn as the perfect choice for historical romance with some sweet, silly fun and minimal angst. But the last few books of hers that I’ve read have been a bit “meh,” including this one. The heroine is Georgiana Bridgerton, who is forcibly abducted by one of her suitors and therefore “ruined,” even though nothing actually happened. The hero, Henry Rokesby, is a medical student who’s not particularly interested in marriage. But the Rokesbys and Bridgertons have been neighbors and close friends for many years, so Henry’s father convinces him to propose to Georgiana and salvage her reputation. I liked the premise and the fact that the book is very light on conflict, but the style got on my nerves. I felt like Quinn was trying too hard to be clever, and I also found a lot of the dialogue distractingly anachronistic. So I wouldn’t recommend this one unless you’re a Quinn completist.

Mini-Reviews: Mask, Winter, Unlimited

Grey MaskWinter of the WitchDetection Unlimited

Patricia Wentworth, Grey Mask

Charles Moray has just returned to England after four years abroad. When he reaches his home, he is surprised to find that it is unlocked and that a secret meeting is taking place inside. He learns that the intruders are members of a criminal organization led by an unknown man in a grey mask. He also sees Margaret Langton — the woman he once loved, who broke off their engagement right before the wedding with no explanation — enter the house and speak with Grey Mask. Charles decides not to go to the police but to investigate the matter himself. He and Margaret eventually team up to save a beautiful young heiress who is in danger from the gang and to discover the identity of Grey Mask. I thought this book would be somewhat cheesy and campy, but in fact I really enjoyed it! I will definitely read more by Patricia Wentworth; this is technically the first book in the Miss Silver series, but Miss Silver is a pretty marginal character in this installment.

Katherine Arden, The Winter of the Witch

I loved the first two books in this trilogy, The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, and this book was a fitting conclusion to the series. I love the setting, which is essentially a magical version of medieval Russia that contains various elements of Russian folklore. I also really like that the series doesn’t shy away from consequences: although Vasilisa is a sympathetic heroine, sometimes her choices have unexpected or unintended effects on those close to her. It’s a morally complex universe where no one is completely good or evil, and I liked that the book has some sympathy for even the most destructive characters. My only complaint is that the novel is a bit slow-moving, but if you liked earlier books in the series, you should definitely read this last installment!

Georgette Heyer, Detection Unlimited

I love Georgette Heyer, but this isn’t one of my favorite of her mysteries. I’m a little surprised that I feel this way, though, because the mystery plot itself is one of her strongest. It’s a simple setup: a universally disliked man is shot in his garden, and everyone seems to have an alibi for the time of death. I thought the solution was clever and hung together well, although I was a bit disappointed in the choice of murderer because I liked that character! But the reason I didn’t totally love this book is that there’s a lot of padding surrounding the mystery plot; most of the book is just descriptions of the various characters and how they interact with one another. And while Heyer is great at characterization, I just wanted the story to go somewhere!

Mini-Reviews: Witch, Scarlet, Homicide

Water Witch*Study in Scarlet WomenHome Sweet Homicide

Cynthia Felice and Connie Willis, Water Witch

I’m a huge Connie Willis fan, so I had high hopes for this book, especially because it also contains some of my favorite elements: con artists, a missing princess, and a sci-fi/romance combo. But overall I found it pretty underwhelming. I really liked the kernel of the story, but I wanted it to be fleshed out a lot more, especially the characterization. The romance essentially comes out of nowhere, and I never really felt like I got to know the hero at all. That said, I really liked a twist involving one of the secondary characters, who came to be a lot more important than I initially expected. Overall, I didn’t like this as much as Willis’s solo work, but I already own two more Willis/Felice collaborations, so I’ll definitely read them at some point.

Sherry Thomas, A Study in Scarlet Women

I’d heard great things about the Lady Sherlock series but was hesitant to dive in, fearing that the books wouldn’t live up to the hype. But I was pleasantly surprised — I really enjoyed this book, which recasts literature’s most famous detective as Charlotte Holmes, a Victorian woman whose brilliant mind is constrained by the social rules of her time. So she decides to leave home and forge her own path. Meanwhile, of course, she solves several murders by realizing that they are all connected. I loved this take on a Holmesian character; Charlotte has a brilliant deductive mind but also really enjoys fashion, and her style is surprisingly ornate and gaudy. I also loved that the book, while sympathetic to Charlotte, also shows her flaws and the negative consequences of some of her decisions. I will definitely continue with the series sooner rather than later!

Craig Rice, Home Sweet Homicide

I found this mystery novel delightful. It’s about three children (ages 8 to 14, I believe) whose mother is a popular mystery novelist. When their neighbor is murdered in real life, the kids are ecstatic — now Mother might get some new material for her books, and the publicity is bound to be good for business. Plus, the handsome detective working the case looks like excellent stepfather material, though Mother doesn’t seem to agree. The children team up to solve the mystery with the help of their friends and neighbors; the result is a farcical romp that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Review: A Question of Proof

Question of ProofNicholas Blake, A Question of Proof

This first book in the Nigel Strangeways mystery series is set at an English boys’ prep school called Sudeley Hall. One of the schoolmasters, Michael Evans, is in love with Hero, the headmaster’s wife. They’ve been having a passionate affair for two months, but so far they’ve successfully managed to keep it a secret. One afternoon they meet for a rendezvous in a haystack on school property. Unfortunately for them, several hours later the corpse of one of the schoolboys is found in that same haystack. The boy, who was unpopular with both the students and teachers, has clearly been murdered, and it seems as though an outsider couldn’t have done it. Michael’s secret makes him the most likely suspect, a fact which isn’t lost on the local policeman in charge of the case. Luckily, one of Michael’s good friends is amateur detective Nigel Strangeways, who agrees to investigate the murder on the school’s behalf. Nigel is convinced of Michael’s innocence and soon sets his sights on another suspect. But since there’s very little physical evidence in the case, the murderer might get away scot-free.

I enjoyed this Golden Age mystery novel and think it’s a solid example of the genre with a few unique elements. First of all, Nicholas Blake is the pen name of Cecil Day-Lewis, who was Poet Laureate of the UK from 1968 to 1972, and I think his literary background shows in the writing style. The first chapter of the book reads more like a play, with lots of interior monologuing and narration that sounds like stage directions. It’s a clever device that recurs throughout the book, but it’s perhaps a bit overwrought. On the other hand, Day-Lewis was also a schoolmaster for several years, and it’s clear that his experience in this area also provided fodder for the book. The characterization of the schoolboys rings true and is especially fun to read. As for the mystery itself, I liked how the book deals with one question at a time and solves it before proceeding to the next problem — it makes the whole outline of the plot easier to follow, rather than waiting to dump everything on the reader in the last chapter. The revelation of the killer made sense but relied an awful lot on Strangeways’s amateur psychological profiling. Overall, I liked this book fine and will read the next in the series, Thou Shell of Death, which is already on my shelves!

Review: In Milady’s Chamber

In Milady's ChamberSheri Cobb South, In Milady’s Chamber

When Lord Fieldhurst is found murdered in his richly appointed Mayfair home, suspicion immediately falls on his wife. It’s common knowledge in London society that their marriage has been unhappy and that, because of Lady Fieldhurst’s inability to produce an heir, her husband has pursued sexual satisfaction elsewhere. Furthermore, the man was stabbed in the neck with his wife’s own nail scissors. The evidence seems ironclad; but John Pickett, the Bow Street Runner assigned to the case, is immediately enthralled by Lady Fieldhurst’s beauty and becomes determined to prove her innocence. As he investigates other promising suspects, such as Fieldhurst’s heir and his colleagues at the War Office, he uncovers many secrets but comes no closer to finding the killer — that is, until he and Lady Fieldhurst finally join forces to discover the truth.

I love mysteries and the Regency period, so any book that combines them both is something I’m going to want to read! In this case, the book delivered exactly what I wanted: a light, quick-reading, Heyer-esque period piece with a little mystery and a hint of romance. John Pickett is a somewhat unique protagonist for this type of story: most Regency heroes are self-assured and commanding, but John is young, naive, and idealistic to a fault. Nevertheless, he manages to be good at his job, despite being distracted by the beautiful Lady Fieldhurst. I was a little annoyed that he falls for her so quickly, and apparently on the basis of nothing but her looks, but his awkward pining does make for several humorous moments. Julia, Lady Fieldhurst, is also given some dimension and depth as she helps John with his investigation and contemplates her own future. The mystery is wrapped up a little too abruptly, although I did like the subtle hints to one part of the solution that are seeded throughout the book. But overall, I simply enjoyed spending time in this world with these characters, and I definitely plan on continuing with the series!

Review: Murder Most Malicious

Murder Most MaliciousAlyssa Maxwell, Murder Most Malicious

It’s Christmas 1918, and England is ready for a little peace on earth after the end of the Great War. But the house party at Foxwood Hall is anything but peaceful: on Christmas night, Lady Phoebe Renshaw hears her older sister Julia arguing with her would-be fiancé, Lord Allerton. The argument ends with Julia breaking off their relationship — and the next day, Lord Allerton is nowhere to be found. Then some of the Foxwood servants receive a gruesome surprise in their Boxing Day gifts, indicating that Allerton is dead. The police believe one of the footmen is responsible, but Lady Phoebe and her maid, Eva Huntford, are convinced of his innocence. In an effort to prove it, Phoebe and Eva do some investigating of their own, and they soon discover that many of Foxwood’s current inhabitants — both above and below stairs — had a reason to want Allerton dead. And if they don’t stop sleuthing, they may be the next to die.

This book has strong Downton Abbey vibes, and I think anyone who enjoyed that show will like this book too. It gives that same upstairs-downstairs picture of English country house life at a time when social mores were beginning to shift dramatically. Phoebe and Eva are both likable protagonists, and despite their class differences, it’s obvious that they truly care for one another. At times they feel a little too much like stock characters, though . . . like every other heroine in historical fiction, they’re intelligent women who seek to transcend their social roles, but they don’t have many other personality traits. The same is true for most of the other characters: there’s the eccentric older relative, the faithful butler, the autocratic matriarch, the handsome lord who’s more than he seems, and so on. Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable formula, so I didn’t mind too much. The mystery plot was interesting, and while I did guess the culprit, it was fun to follow along. Overall, I’m definitely interested in continuing with the series, and I hope that Phoebe and Eva’s characters will be more fleshed out in subsequent books.

Review: Mystery in White

Mystery in WhiteJ. Jefferson Farjeon, Mystery in White

Six passengers in a third-class train compartment become entangled in a sinister mystery when the train is trapped in a snowdrift on Christmas Eve. The group includes a lively young brother and sister, a chorus girl, an elderly bore, a shy clerk, and a professor with an interest in the supernatural. They all decide to leave the train and seek shelter at a nearby station, but they become lost in the snow and end up at an isolated country house. Desperate for shelter, they enter the house, but no one seems to be home. Yet the teakettle is on, and the table is set for a meal. As the characters try to make sense of these events, one of them reveals that a man was murdered in the train — and when the group is later joined by another “lost” individual, they suspect that he may be the murderer. This chain of events later converges with another mystery concerning the house itself and a murder that happened 20 years ago.

I enjoy Farjeon’s light and humorous writing style, and his characters are well rounded and sympathetic. But plot-wise, I was quite disappointed in this novel. The six characters introduced in the opening chapters of the book are the ones we follow for about two-thirds of the novel, so naturally I assumed that they would be the most important people in the story. But in fact, aside from the professor, who acts as the detective and orchestrates the denouement, none of these six people have any relevance to either of the mysteries in the novel! They provide some humor and some human interest, but they have no actual function in the plot. Instead, two new characters come in late in the game, and they turn out to be central to the story. I can’t understand why Farjeon would structure his story in such a way that it’s totally disconnected from the characters we’ve been following all along. I also felt sorry for several of the characters, who deserved a happier ending than what they got. All in all, this might be entertaining for people who enjoy a witty period piece, but I definitely wouldn’t recommend it for people who want a good mystery!