Mini-Reviews: Forgotten, Kiss, Single

Forgotten GardenIt's in His KissLast Single Girl

Kate Morton, The Forgotten Garden

It took me a while to get through this book, and I think I’m still digesting it somewhat. It tells the stories of four different women. First, Nell is found on a dock in Brisbane, Australia, in 1913. She is raised by a loving family, but when her father finally tells her that she was adopted, she feels compelled to research the mystery of her past. In 2005, Nell passes away, and her granddaughter Cassandra inherits the mystery, as well as a decaying cottage on the coast of Cornwall. She eventually travels to England to see the cottage and piece together what really happened to Nell. Finally, the book jumps to 1900 and details the lives of Eliza Makepeace, a poor orphan with a gift for storytelling, and Rose Mountratchet, a privileged and beloved young woman who befriends Eliza. As the book shifts back and forth between all these different perspectives, the true story of Nell’s origins finally emerges. I thought the mystery was interesting, I liked the writing style, and the main characters were sympathetic; but for me, the pacing was just too slow. I genuinely do think it’s a good book, but I’m not sure I will pick up anything else by Kate Morton.

Bria Quinlan, It’s in His Kiss and The Last Single Girl

Last year I read Worth the Fall, book 2 in Bria Quinlan’s Brew Ha Ha series, and was unexpectedly charmed by it. So I picked up these two e-books when they were on a free deal; It’s in His Kiss is a prequel novella, and The Last Single Girl is book 1. The novella is about Jenna, a YA writer who needs her character to have a first kiss, but it’s been a long time since Jenna experienced one herself. She meets handsome, arrogant Ben while doing “research,” but her beautiful frenemy seems to be competing with her for his attention. Book 1 has all new characters: Sarah, a girl who needs a New Year’s Eve date and meets a bunch of online suitors in a coffee shop, ends up hitting it off with John, the shop’s owner, instead. These were decent quick reads, but I didn’t find the same spark that I did with Worth the Fall. On the upside, I managed to read them both in a single night!

Review: Snowspelled

SnowspelledStephanie Burgis, Snowspelled

In a fantasy world analogous to 19th-century England, upper-class men are expected to be magicians, while upper-class women are destined to be politicians. But Cassandra Harwood has always had a thirst for magic, and her passionate determination got her all the way to the Great Library, the premier training ground for young magicians. She even found love there with the equally passionate and hardworking Wrexham. But a spell gone horribly wrong has deprived Cassandra of her ability to cast magic, not to mention her social standing and her fiancé. Now, four months after this tragic incident, Cassandra is snowed in at a house party with the high-society people she’s been trying to avoid, including her ex-fiancé. To make matters worse, the snowstorm seems to be magical in origin, and Cassandra is tricked into making a bargain with an arrogant elf-lord to discover who is causing it. If she fails, the consequences will be dire for both herself and her nation, as the age-old treaty between humans and elves will be broken. Can Cassandra discover the culprit and sort out her personal life before it’s too late?

I’ve read and enjoyed books by Stephanie Burgis before, and I’m a sucker for anything that can be described as “Jane Austen plus magic,” so this novella seemed right up my alley. And I did enjoy it overall, but now I find myself remembering more of its flaws. I think the main problem, for me, was the heroine. Cassandra is one of those protagonists who is incredibly stubborn, convinced of her own rightness, and unwilling to compromise. All of her problems in the story are of her own making, particularly the mess of her relationship with Wrexham. I did like Wrexham, and I enjoyed the banter between them, but it frustrated me that they’re both such poor communicators, especially since they were once engaged to each other. Cassandra does grow and change in the course of the story, but it was too little, too late for me. Also, as with many novellas, the short length doesn’t leave much room for nuance in the plot or characters. The world of the story is interesting, and I actually wouldn’t mind reading a full-length novel in this setting, but I feel like I didn’t get to see enough of the world. All in all, I’m not giving up on this author, but I think I’ll stick to her full-length novels instead.

Review: A Holiday by Gaslight

Holiday by GaslightMimi Matthews, A Holiday by Gaslight

Sophie Appersett is the elder daughter of an impoverished noble family. Her father has squandered the family fortune, including Sophie’s dowry, on modernizations to the estate, such as the implementation of gaslight. As a result, Sophie knows it’s her duty to marry money, even if means looking outside her own class for a husband. Edward Sharpe is a prosperous tradesman whose fortune is large enough to overcome his lack of gentility. But although he’s asked Sophie’s father for permission to court her, he shows no sign of being in love with her. In fact, Ned is interested in Sophie, but he doesn’t want to commit any breaches of etiquette in his courtship, so he takes refuge in silence. Frustrated, Sophie decides to break things off — but a further conversation with Ned convinces her to try once more. He’ll attend her family’s extravagant Christmas party, and they will both make an effort to know one another better. But will their fledgling relationship survive the obstacles presented by their respective families?

Christmas is my favorite holiday, and I’m already starting to get into the spirit of things, although I’m desperately trying to wait until after Thanksgiving to break out my Christmas music! So this holiday-set romance novella was bound to catch my eye, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I loved the premise, which has a sort of marriage-of-convenience flavor (one of my favorite tropes!) but even better because the hero and heroine are actually honest with each other, almost from the very beginning! They communicate well, and almost all the conflict is driven by Sophie’s truly appalling father and his determination to bleed Ned dry in order to improve Appersett House. I like that the book engages with the technological and scientific innovations of the Victorian period; in addition to gaslight, indoor plumbing and the theories of Charles Darwin are also mentioned. My one complaint is that the characterization is a little flat, especially for the secondary characters, but that’s understandable given the length of the story (only about 160 pages in the print version). Overall, I really liked this one and will definitely seek out the author’s full-length novels!

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 #8: Losing steam

The last few months of the year always seem to fly by — I can’t believe it’s the middle of November already! Much as I love Christmas and all the hoopla leading up to it, I’m feeling a little burned out this year. I’m behind on reviews again, and I don’t feel particularly enthusiastic about catching up. So it’s back to mini-reviews for the time being, and I think I’m going to stick with this format until the end of 2016. Hopefully I’ll be ready to come back in January with renewed enthusiasm! In the meantime, here are some thoughts on the books I’ve read recently:

most-beautiful-book-in-the-world-thenevernight

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, The Most Beautiful Book in the World (trans. Alison Anderson) — This collection of eight “novellas”/short stories is an interesting meditation on womanhood and the passage of time. Most of the stories have a melancholic aspect, as the (almost always) female protagonists cope with issues like aging, infidelity, illness, and just plain unhappiness. All the same, I enjoyed these stories, particularly “Odette Toulemonde,” which is probably the most uplifting in the bunch. The only one that stood out to me in a negative way was “Intruder,” which has a gimmicky ending. Definitely worth reading if the description sounds interesting to you!

Jay Kristoff, Nevernight — I saw a lot of buzz about this book when it came out, but unfortunately it didn’t live up to the hype for me. The story is about Mia Corvere, a young woman seeking revenge after the political murder of her father and subsequent destruction of her family. She decides to seek out the Red Church, essentially a school for assassins, in order to pursue her revenge. Sounds pretty cool, right? Unfortunately, I could not deal with the writing style, which was completely overblown and trying way too hard to be impressive. I realize this is a very subjective criticism, and other readers may love the style, but it was emphatically not for me.

beginning-with-a-bashp-s-i-like-you

Alice Tilton, Beginning with a Bash — What a fun Golden Age mystery! This is the first book in the Leonidas Witherall series, in which our detective has to solve a murder that occurred in a used bookstore before an innocent man takes the blame. Along the way, Leonidas — who is almost always called Bill Shakespeare because of his resemblance to the Bard — reconnects with an old flame and becomes embroiled in a feud between two notorious gangs. It’s really more of an adventure story than a mystery; the whodunit takes a backseat to the car chases, secret passageways, and assorted goings-on. There’s also some delightful vintage banter, which makes me mad that there’s no film version starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. I’ll definitely be continuing with this series, and thankfully I already own the next book, The Cut Direct!

Kasie West, P.S. I Like You — “You’ve Got Mail” is one of my favorite movies, so I was excited to read this YA contemporary romance with a similar plot. One day while spacing out in chemistry class, Lily absentmindedly scribbles a lyric from her favorite indie song onto her desk. The next day, she discovers that someone has continued the lyric, and before she knows it, she and her unknown correspondent are trading notes about music and a whole lot more. But when Lily discovers the identity of her pen pal, it’s the last person she would ever expect. I really enjoyed this book, despite its utter predictability and Lily’s annoying inability to see what’s right in front of her. It’s an adorable, light romance, and sometimes that’s just what you need.

Review: The Wedding of Zein and Other Sudanese Stories

The Wedding of ZeinTayeb Salih, The Wedding of Zein and Other Sudanese Stories (trans. Denys Johnson-Davies)

This very short book contains two short stories, “The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid” and “A Handful of Dates,” as well as the novella “The Wedding of Zein.” All three works portray everyday life in a Sudanese village, but from varying perspectives. “The Doum Tree…” is about a sacred tree that is threatened when outsiders want to cut it down to make room for a new agricultural system. “A Handful of Dates” portrays a young boy’s disillusionment as he realizes that his grandfather isn’t as heroic as the boy once thought. And in “The Wedding of Zein,” the village laughingstock is about to be married to a beautiful and much-desired woman; the varied reactions of the townspeople to the news reveal subtle tensions within the village.

Before giving my thoughts on this book, I must admit that I know next to nothing about Sudan. I wasn’t even aware that its population spoke Arabic until I saw “translated from the Arabic” somewhere on my copy of the book! So I was very interested in reading these stories and broadening my horizons a little bit. Interestingly, my first impression after reading this book was that it could have been set in any number of places: the  country’s major conflicts of the last several years, including the secession of South Sudan, are not mentioned at all. Yet I did get a sense of the country’s Islamic culture and traditions, as well as its incorporation of progressive ideas in the realms of medicine and education. I found my glimpse into this foreign (to me) culture extremely fascinating. But I really liked the book’s focus on universal themes like love, family relationships, and the intricacies of village life. All in all, I found this book very easy to read and would definitely consider reading more by Tayeb Salih.