Mini-Reviews: Stocks, Glass, Mayhem

Georgette Heyer, Death in the Stocks

The rich but disagreeable Arnold Vereker is stabbed to death, and his body is found in the stocks on the village green. Suspicion centers around the dead man’s half-siblings, Kenneth and Antonia, as well as their shady love interests. Scotland Yard is assisted by Giles Carrington, the Vereker family’s attorney, though he has a personal interest in the case as well. I adore Heyer’s romances but have been less impressed with her mysteries overall. This is one of the few I kept after my initial read, but upon rereading I thought it was just okay. The Verekers are supposed to be likable and entertaining, but they annoyed me this time around, and the romance was barely sketched in. It’s a decent read if you like Golden Age mysteries, but it’s no longer a keeper for me.

Caroline Stevermer, The Glass Magician

Thalia Cutler is a stage magician on the vaudeville circuit, but when a dangerous trick goes wrong, she discovers that she also has real magical powers. But until she learns to control them, she’s in grave danger and must take shelter with a friendly family that has similar powers. Meanwhile, one of Thalia’s onstage competitors is murdered, and her mentor is arrested for the crime, so she must discover the real killer. I wanted to love this book, but it didn’t have the same spark that A College of Magics and A Scholar of Magics did for me. It felt very much like book 1 of a series, with incomplete world-building and storylines that aren’t resolved. I don’t know if a sequel is planned, but I’m not especially interested in it, unfortunately.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Miles, Mystery, and Mayhem

In Cetaganda, Miles and his cousin Ivan travel to Cetaganda to attend a state funeral, only to become entangled in political intrigue and murder. In Ethan of Athos, Ethan leaves his all-male planet and is forced to team up with that most mysterious and dangerous of creatures, a woman (and hey, it’s Elli Quinn from The Warrior’s Apprentice!). And in the novella Labyrinth, the Dendarii Mercenaries’ simple mission to pick up a scientist from Jackson’s Whole goes awry. I’m still really enjoying this series, although the characters trump the plots, for me. I adore Miles and have a huge soft spot for Ivan as well! Also, I find it interesting how much of this series (at least so far) is about gender, sexual politics, and reproduction. Looking forward to seeing what happens next!

Mini-Reviews: Throne, Beloved, Marion

Naomi Novik, Throne of Jade

Former naval captain Will Laurence and dragon Temeraire are now fast friends and inseparable companions. But because Temeraire is an extremely rare and valuable Chinese dragon, China is demanding him back. So Laurence and Temeraire are forced to travel to the imperial court to placate the emperor and prevent the Chinese from allying with France. This book is a worthy continuation of His Majesty’s Dragon, fleshing out the global political situation and contrasting English and Chinese treatment of dragons. I enjoyed watching Temeraire mature a bit and start to question the English way of doing things. Looking forward to book 3!

Mary Balogh, Only Beloved

George, the Duke of Stanbrook, has helped the other six Survivors to heal from their war wounds and find true love. But he has never truly coped with his own pain and loss: his son died in the Napoleonic Wars, and his wife took her own life soon afterward. Now George is lonely and decides to remarry, but his chosen wife is determined to help him finally confront and heal from his tragic past. This isn’t one of my favorite installments of the Survivors’ Club series, but I still enjoyed it. I like Balogh’s style, and it’s refreshing to see historical romance protagonists in their 30s and 40s. The book takes an oddly melodramatic turn toward the end, and the last few chapters are a bit cloying, with all the blissfully married Survivors and their babies. But it’s still worth a read, especially if you’ve enjoyed the rest of the series.

T.A. Willberg, Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder

Marion Lane is an apprentice at a mysterious private detective agency that operates beneath the streets of London. When one of her colleagues is murdered and her mentor is accused of the crime, Marion decides to investigate. But she uncovers some troubling secrets about the agency’s history and isn’t sure whom she can trust. I really liked the world of this novel (shadowy secret society + crime fighting + cool steampunk gadgets!), but I wish it had been more developed. The novel is almost entirely focused on plot, to the detriment of character development and world building. I also found myself oddly sympathetic to the villain! I’m interested enough to read book 2 in the series, but I hope the setting and characters will be more fleshed out.

Mini-Reviews: Dragon, Austen, Venom

Naomi Novik, His Majesty’s Dragon

When naval captain Will Laurence captures a French ship with a coveted dragon egg aboard, his life is turned upside-down. He bonds with the baby dragon, Temeraire, which means he must give up his naval career to become an aviator — a way of life completely different from what Laurence is used to. But his newfound friendship with Temeraire carries him through, and the two of them will have an important role to play in England’s ongoing war with France. I’ve read several books in this series, but I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed them! The concept (Napoleonic Wars plus dragons) is right up my alley, and I adore both Laurence and Temeraire as characters. I can’t wait to read about their further adventures in subsequent books! 

Lucy Worsley, Jane Austen at Home

This biography is a breezy and entertaining look at Jane Austen’s life through the lens of the homes she lived in. It also explores how the concepts of home and domesticity informed her work. As an enthusiastic Janeite, I enjoyed this book, although if you’ve read other Austen biographies you don’t particularly need to read this one. It appears reasonably well cited; there are numbered endnotes, and Worsley quotes many primary sources. She speculates quite a bit about motives and emotions (as she herself admits in the introduction), and I occasionally found her interpretations farfetched. Overall, though, a good read, especially for those who haven’t read other books on Austen’s life and work.

Kristin Burchell, Court of Venom

Badriya never wanted to become the queen’s poisoner, but she has no choice. The malicious Queen Solena will kill her if she refuses, and the city is surrounded by a wasteland full of witches and demons, making it impossible for her to run away. But when a neighboring prince arrives as a potential suitor for the queen, Badriya may finally get the chance to pursue a different life. This novel reads like a standard YA fantasy (though it’s marketed as adult); the heroine is an outsider with special powers who eventually has to fight for justice. It’s entertaining enough, but not particularly unique. I didn’t like how the book kept jumping between past and present; I think it was supposed to generate suspense, but instead it just made the world-building confusing and hard to follow. Overall, while I certainly didn’t hate this book, I wouldn’t particularly recommend it either.

Mini-Reviews: Sapphire, Scandalous, Red, Silver

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A.M. Stuart, Singapore Sapphire

I love a historical mystery, and this book’s uncommon setting of 1910 Singapore intrigued me, so I decided to give it a try. Overall, I liked but didn’t love it. Protagonist Harriet Gordon is a widow living with her brother and eking out a meager living as a typist. She’s been hired to type Sir Oswald Newbold’s memoirs, but after only a day of work, the man’s throat is cut. Inspector Robert Curran is on the case, and while he and Harriet get off to a bad start, they soon become friendly as they work together to solve the mystery. I think the mystery itself hangs together well, but it definitely takes a backseat to the setting and characters. It was interesting to get a glimpse of Singapore at this point in time, which was home to so many different cultures, both Asian and European. But if you’re looking for a novel with diverse characters, this isn’t it — there are a few Asian secondary characters, but they’re quite two-dimensional and have no impact on the story. Overall, I’m curious enough to give the next book a try, but this one fell a bit flat for me.

Mary Balogh, Slightly Scandalous

This third book in the Bedwyn saga focuses on Lady Freyja Bedwyn, who is much bolder and more direct than the typical Regency lady. Having grown up with four brothers, she can shoot and ride and box with the best of them. She’s also in no hurry to marry; most of the fashionable society men bore her, and she’s still not over a former flame who recently married someone else (as told in A Summer to Remember, though you don’t need to read that book to understand this one). But when Joshua Moore, marquess of Hallmere, proposes a fake betrothal, Freyja agrees to the scheme, not realizing that there is more to Josh than meets the eye. I continue to enjoy the Bedwyn books, and this might be my favorite so far! Freyja hasn’t been particularly likable in the previous books, but this novel gave her much more dimension. And the roguish Joshua, whose carefree manner and bad reputation hide his true goodness, is a hero after my own heart. The book does have some moments of cheesiness, but overall I liked it a lot and look forward to more of the Bedwyns. I find myself more and more excited for Wulfric’s book!

Sally Gardner, The Red Necklace and The Silver Blade

This YA fantasy duology set during the French Revolution focuses on Yann, a Gypsy boy with unusual gifts, and Sido, an aristocratic girl with a neglectful father. They meet in The Red Necklace when Yann’s theater troupe performs at Sido’s father’s house, and they are immediately drawn to one another. But when the troupe falls afoul of the powerful and evil Count Kalliovski, Yann must flee the country. Later, when Kalliovski sets his sights on Sido as a bride, Yann returns to rescue her. In The Silver Blade, Yann continues to rescue aristocrats from the guillotine, while Sido waits in England. But his plans are once again thwarted by Kalliovski, who wants Yann’s magic for himself. I found these books enjoyable enough — loved the French Revolution setting and the Pimpernel-esque elements — but didn’t like that they spend just as much time (if not more) on the villain as on the heroes. As a result, Yann and Sido don’t have much dimension; I wanted more time with them and less time describing just how evil Kalliovski is. I’m glad I read these books, but now they can leave my shelves to make room for something new!

Review: The Element of Fire

Element of FireMartha Wells, The Element of Fire

In a quasi-Renaissance fantasy world, the kingdom of Ile-Rien is in a precarious position. King Roland is young and weak, completely under the thumb of his conniving cousin, who has his own plans for the throne. Roland’s mother Ravenna still wields much of the throne’s power, but her health is deteriorating, and many of those at court (including the evil cousin) are now her enemies. In addition to these domestic intrigues, Ile-Rien is now under threat from a foreign sorcerer, Urbain Grandier, who is rumored to be a powerful and dangerous dark magician. Thomas Boniface, captain of the Queen’s Guard and Ravenna’s former lover, is charged with finding Grandier and thwarting whatever plans he may have against Ile-Rien. Thomas also finds himself dealing with Roland’s half-fay half-sister Kade, who returns to court after a years-long absence with unknown motives. Amid the complex allegiances of the court — in which it soon becomes apparent that at least one traitor is at work — whom, if anyone, can Thomas trust? And when Grandier finally makes his move, will Thomas be able to stop him before it’s too late?

I first read this book in (I think) 2009, and I enjoyed it so much that I bought four other books set in the world of Ile-Rien. But for some reason, I never read any of those sequels, and since it’s been more than a decade, I wanted to refresh my memory of the first book. I’m happy to say that I still really enjoyed it! It strikes me as a quintessential classic fantasy novel, with tons of political intrigue, sorcery, and fay magic thrown in for good measure. I really like that, instead of the quasi-medieval setting of most fantasy novels, this book evokes more of a Renaissance feel, with pistols and gunpowder beginning to supplement (though not yet replace) swords as the dominant weapons. I also liked the main characters a lot, particularly Thomas and Kade. They share a cynical, bantering sense of humor that makes their interactions particularly enjoyable; but when the chips are down, they also share a deep courage and sense of loyalty. The plot is action-packed and exciting, and the world-building is vivid. In short, I’m really glad I reread this one, and I look forward to reading a few more of the Ile-Rien books this year!

Mini-Reviews: The 13 Clocks; Chalice

13 ClocksJames Thurber, The 13 Clocks (illustrated by Marc Simont)

This odd little book is like nothing I’ve ever read. A sort of fable or fairytale for adults, it’s the story of a wicked duke who is keeping captive the beautiful Princess Saralinda, and of the noble prince who must complete an impossible task in order to rescue her. Good ultimately triumphs over evil, yet the overall mood is creepy and melancholy. Neil Gaiman was the perfect choice to write the short introduction, because his writing gives me a similar (though even darker) vibe. I would definitely recommend this to anyone, and I think it will be even more interesting on a reread.

***

ChaliceRobin McKinley, Chalice

Robin McKinley is an author onto whom I imprinted sometime in my late elementary or middle school years. Novels such as The Blue Sword, Beauty, and The Outlaws of Sherwood were my introduction to the fantasy genre, and they remain some of my all-time favorite books. Chalice was written several years later, and while I still bought and read it immediately, I remember not loving it as much as McKinley’s other books. Because of my memory of that disappointment, I’d never reread it until now, but I appreciated it more this time around. I loved the protagonist, Mirasol, and her stubborn attempts to do her duty in an unusual situation. It was a pleasure to sink into the lush descriptions and slow unfolding of the story. It is a very slow-moving book, which might put off some people; but if you like McKinley’s style of writing, you’ll like this one.

Mini-Reviews #12: December, part 2

This is officially my LAST BATCH of reviews for 2016! I’m looking forward to starting next year (aka tomorrow) with a clean slate. These last books are all rereads, and it was lovely to revisit some books I’ve enjoyed in the past!

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Rainbow Rowell, Attachments — I’ve loved all of Rainbow Rowell’s books, but this one (her first novel) remains my favorite. It’s the story of Lincoln, an Internet security specialist whose job is to monitor all emails sent from company accounts. When the emails of Jennifer and Beth get flagged for “inappropriate” usage, Lincoln has to read them; it’s his job. But before long, he gets caught up in the women’s stories and becomes genuinely interested in learning more about them. Then he begins to fall for Beth…but how can he transform his one-sided crush into an actual relationship?

Sharon Shinn, Summers at Castle Auburn — The first time I read this romantic fantasy novel, I didn’t quite pick up on the romance and felt it was a little abrupt. I don’t know what I was thinking, because this time I was all about the romance! It’s subtle and builds slowly, which is just the way I like it. 🙂 I also really enjoyed the vivid fantasy world, and I liked the fact that the heroine truly grows and changes throughout the novel. Definitely recommended for fans of this genre!

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Georgette Heyer, The Corinthian — One of Heyer’s excellent Regency romances, featuring a jaded young man and a scrappy girl (dressed as a boy) who’s running away from home. The plot gets a bit convoluted, comprising highwaymen, elopements, and even a murder. But of course, everything turns out right in the end!

Patricia Wynn, The Birth of Blue Satan — I read this book, the first in a series, a few years ago, but for some reason I didn’t continue with the series. Recently I decided I’d like to read book two, but I had to refresh my memory by rereading this one first. As a mystery novel, it’s not particularly strong — the solution basically comes out of nowhere — but I loved the period setting (1715! More novels about Jacobites, please!) and the main characters. I’m definitely looking forward to reading book two and seeing what happens next!

Mini-Reviews #4: June Books, Part 2

More mini-reviews! Just when I think I’m getting to the end of my backlog, I go and read more books. Will I never learn?

Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You, TheSchool for Unusual Girls, A

Lily Anderson, The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You — Oof. I really wanted to like this one — it’s a modern retelling of Much Ado About Nothing! But I was very underwhelmed, and the main reason is that I couldn’t stand the protagonist, Trixie. She’s incredibly self-absorbed and utterly convinced of her own righteousness at all times, which makes her downright mean to the people around her. She’s also a proud geek girl, obsessed with comic books and “Doctor Who.” Don’t get me wrong — I have nothing against these things! But Trixie’s constant references to geek culture didn’t feel real to me. Instead, I felt like the book was trying to pander to a specific audience and going way over the top. In short, I just wasn’t a fan.

Kathleen Baldwin,  A School for Unusual Girls — This one’s about — you guessed it — a school for unusual girls. Sixteen-year-old Georgiana Fitzpatrick doesn’t behave as a proper young lady should; and when one of her scientific experiments nearly burns down the stables, her parents pack her off to a school whose reputation for strictness is legendary. Of course, Georgie soon realizes that the school is not what it seems and that her fellow students all have unique, mysterious abilities. There’s also romance, kidnapping, and a touch of espionage. All in all, a fun read, although not particularly groundbreaking in the genre. I’d like to read the sequel at some point.

Tell Me Three ThingsStrong PoisonDecent Proposal, The

Julie Buxbaum, Tell Me Three Things — I enjoyed this novel despite its ridiculous premise: Jessie Holmes moves across the country when her dad remarries, and she is forced to attend a pretentious private school where she doesn’t know anyone — that is, until the mysterious Somebody/Nobody emails her, offering friendship and guidance in navigating the social scene at her new school. Though Jessie is skeptical at first, she soon opens up to Somebody/Nobody and speculates on who it might be. To the reader, the answer is astoundingly obvious, but it’s still fun to watch Jessie get there. A nice YA romance if you’re into that kind of thing.

Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison — I read this installment of the Lord Peter Wimsey series years ago but didn’t remember much about it, except that Lord Peter finally meets his match in Harriet Vane, a young woman who’s on trial for murdering her ex-lover. For me, this was the best novel in the series so far. The mystery is well plotted (although, as with other books in the series, the suspect list is so small that the true mystery is howdunit, not whodunit), and the romance is nicely underplayed. I’m definitely loving this series more and more as I continue to read, and I’m looking forward to the next book!

Kemper Donovan, The Decent Proposal — I was drawn to this book because of the title, and I knew very little about it going in. The premise is that a mysterious benefactor has promised two L.A. residents, happy-go-lucky Richard and highly regimented Elizabeth, that they will each receive half a million dollars if they agree to meet each other once a week for a year and talk — just talk. Of course they accede to the proposal, and of course they start out as very different people but eventually find some common ground. I liked the development of the relationship between Richard and Elizabeth, especially since I honestly didn’t know whether it was going to end in friendship or romance. I could have done without most of the other characters, actually; they seemed like they should get their own novels rather than being relegated to secondary characters in this one. I also think people who have lived in L.A. would get more out of the book, since it’s definitely written in that specific setting. Overall, I did like the book, but I’m glad I got it from the library instead of buying.

Reread: Emma

As some of you already know, I am a huge Jane Austen fan. I’ve read all six of her completed novels multiple times, and I’ve seen (and in fact own) most of the major film adaptations. I may or may not (ahem) be in love with Mr. Darcy. I also have a Jane Austen action figure, which is lovingly preserved in its original packaging. In short, I am a big Austen dork. Feel free to judge.

Yet I recently realized that, for some reason, I hadn’t read any Austen in at least a year. To rectify the situation, I decided to revisit Emma. It’s definitely been several years since I last read it, and even though it’s not my favorite Austen novel (that would be Pride and Prejudice, obviously), I was craving some Highbury action. Here are some things that I was thinking about during this reading (and guys, there will be SPOILERS, so be warned!):

  • Miss Bates is GENIUS. Her long monologues may seem pointless and boring, but they actually contain all the clues to the Frank Churchill/Jane Fairfax relationship. I love Miss Bates. She would undoubtedly be tedious in real life, but she’s definitely a wonderful comic character — and also the moral center of the novel. Other characters (Emma in particular) are often judged by how well or poorly they treat Miss Bates.
  • The romance between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax is actually a lot more dramatic than the main action with Emma. In some ways, Jane Fairfax is actually a much more likely heroine for a novel: she’s an orphan raised in a wealthy environment but destined to become a governess. She’s beautiful and accomplished — much more so than Emma, we’re told. She meets the dashing Frank Churchill at Weymouth and is swept off her feet. They’re secretly engaged, unfairly separated by the class-conscious Churchills, and forced to hide their true feelings from everyone else. It’s practically Romeo and Juliet, if you think about it! Yet Austen interestingly decided to tell most of this story offstage, focusing instead on the more mundane dramas of Highbury.
  • I love the moment when Emma meets Mrs. Elton for the first time and is enraged that she casually refers to Mr. Knightley as “Knightley.” Methinks I see some foreshadowing there!
  • Speaking of Emma and Mrs. Elton, in some ways they are eerily similar. Emma judges Mrs. Elton harshly for trying to manage every aspect of Jane Fairfax’s life — yet Emma herself did essentially the same thing to Harriet Smith! Emma is a more sympathetic character than Mrs. Elton, but does she really deserve to be?

So anyway, I really enjoyed my reread of Emma, and now I have a craving to watch the 1996 movie version with Gwyneth Paltrow. Well, either that or “Clueless”!