Review: A Gathering of Shadows

Gathering of ShadowsV.E. Schwab, A Gathering of Shadows

***Warning: SPOILERS for A Darker Shade of Magic***

Four months after the events of A Darker Shade of Magic, Delilah Bard is living her dream of being a pirate — well, privateer, technically — on the ship Night Spire under Captain Alucard Emery. She is also exploring her magical abilities under Alucard’s tutelage, while keeping her thieving skills as sharp as her knives. Meanwhile, Kell and Rhy are struggling with the aftermath of Kell’s decision to bind their lives together. The upcoming Essen Tasch — a competition between the best magicians of Arnes and its neighboring lands — provides an outlet for Kell’s frustration and also draws hordes of people to Red London, including a certain pirate-thief and her swashbuckling captain. But unforeseen dangers threaten Kell, Rhy, and Lila, and strange things are afoot in White London. . . .

I really enjoyed A Darker Shade of Magic, but for some reason it took me a really long time to pick up the second book in the series. I don’t know what I was waiting for, because this book definitely lives up to its predecessor! I love the world of this series, and  the plot — especially once everyone starts to converge on Red London for the Essen Tasch — kept me riveted. I also enjoyed watching the three main characters grow and change; it was particularly nice to get inside Rhy’s head for a bit and see that he’s more than just a pleasure-loving wastrel. I also liked seeing Lila get what she’s always wanted, only to discover that maybe she wants something different now. Fair warning, this book does end on a cliffhanger, so I’m glad I already have A Conjuring of Light on my shelves! I can’t wait to see what happens next and how everything turns out. I’d definitely recommend this series to fantasy lovers!

 

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Review: Now That You Mention It

Now That You Mention ItKristan Higgins, Now That You Mention It

By all appearances, Nora Stuart has a great life: she’s a successful doctor living in Boston with her gorgeous boyfriend. But when said boyfriend dumps her while she’s in the hospital recovering from a car accident, she decides to reevaluate her life. She returns to her hometown of Scupper Island, Maine, to recover from her injuries, but in doing so she opens a lot of old wounds. Her relationship with her mother has always been distant, and the townspeople in general haven’t forgiven her for “stealing” a college scholarship from golden boy Luke Fletcher. As Nora starts to rebuild her life, she strives to mend fences, with mixed results. But with the help of a few new friends — and a possible new romance — she eventually feels ready to embrace life again.

Overall, I really loved this book. I found Nora very relatable and likable — in fact, almost too likable and sweet, given how much crap she’s gone through in her life. The chapters that describe her high school experience are downright heartbreaking, and I couldn’t help being angry at nearly every other character because they didn’t give her the love she so desperately needed. Also, there’s one absolutely horrifying scene in which she is the victim of a home invasion; her attacker attempts to rape and murder her, and it’s a very, very hard scene to read. On the one hand, I think it’s important to confront the reality that this happens to women all the time, and it should be disturbing and terrifying. On the other hand, I’m not exactly looking for that in my light fiction, you know? Except for that scene, though, the book is a compelling and ultimately uplifting read. Recommended for fans of women’s fiction with some weight to it.

Review: Homicide for the Holidays

Homicide for the HolidaysCheryl Honigford, Homicide for the Holidays

Vivian Witchell’s star is on the rise. She has a steady job playing Lorna Lafferty on the Chicago radio show “The Darkness Knows,” and her romance with costar Graham Yarborough has only added to her popularity, even if it’s all faked for publicity. But the chance discovery of a hidden key in her late father’s study sends Viv into a spiral of confusion and horror. Apparently her beloved father, who always seemed like such an upstanding member of society, was involved with some very unsavory people — infamous members of the Chicago mob who would stop at nothing to get their way. Despite her inner turmoil, Viv enlists the help of her once and future lover, Detective Charlie Haverman, to investigate her father’s past. But she’s not entirely sure she wants to learn the truth, especially when it seems that her own life may be in danger.

Looking back at my review of The Darkness Knows, it appears that I liked the first book in the series much better than this installment! Viv annoyed me a lot more this time around; she spends most of the book in a lather of indecision, sometimes changing her mind several times in the course of one interior monologue. Should she pursue the investigation of her father’s shady dealings, or should she let the past stay buried? Should she disclose X piece of information to someone, or should she keep it to herself? Should she tell Charlie that her relationship with Graham isn’t real, or should she protect the secret to serve her career? The constant dithering got on my nerves. Also, it’s worth noting that neither Viv nor Charlie actually solves the mystery; Viv stumbles upon the truth by pure chance. I did like the period detail and the unique backdrop of a 1930s radio show, but I’m pretty ambivalent about continuing with the series at this point.

Mini-reviews: Journey, Burning, Bella

Journey to the River SeaBurning BrightBella Poldark

Eva Ibbotson, Journey to the River Sea — Maia is an orphan living at a boarding school in England, when one day she is adopted by distant relatives living in Brazil. She is eager to meet her new family until she discovers that they are selfish and cruel and only took her in for financial reasons. However, she finds consolation in the natural beauties around her, the strange vegetation and wildlife, and the friends she makes in her new homeland. I’ve read and loved all of Ibbotson’s adult/YA books, but I’m still discovering her works for younger readers. This is delightful, and I think it would appeal to kids (and adults!) who enjoy exploration and adventure.

Melissa McShane, Burning Bright — This is a Regency-era fantasy novel, so obviously it’s right up my alley, and I very much enjoyed it! Protagonist Elinor is a Scorcher, which means she can start fires with magic; and she’s also an Extraordinary, which means she can control and put out the fires as well. This talent makes her an extremely valuable prize on the marriage market, and her controlling father wants to snare a rich and powerful husband for her. To escape this fate, Elinor offers her services to the Royal Navy instead. There’s shipboard combat and pirates and romance — basically everything I’m looking for from this type of book. Highly recommended if the premise appeals to you!

Winston Graham, Bella Poldark — Phew, I can’t believe this is the last book in the Poldark series! Clowance decides whether to marry again and must choose between two suitors; Bella embarks on a career; Valentine stirs the pot, as usual; and a serial murderer is on the loose in Cornwall. Not every loose end in the series is tied up, but overall the book is a strong conclusion for the characters I’ve come to know and love over the past 12 books. It’s hard to believe there won’t be any more stories about them!

Mini-reviews: Three, Congress, Twisted, Piccadilly

Case for Three DetectivesCongress of Secrets

Leo Bruce, Case for Three Detectives — This parody of Golden Age detective fiction is an absolute must-read for fans of the real thing! It has all the traditional elements: an ill-fated house party, an impossible murder, a brilliant amateur detective (or three), and a bumbling local policeman. In this case, the three detectives — who bear striking resemblances to Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot, and Father Brown, respectively — use their unique methods to arrive at three different solutions to the crime, while Sergeant Beef reiterates in the background, “But I know who done it!” The humor in this book is quite specific: if you’re unfamiliar with any of the three detectives being parodied, you’re missing out on some of the fun, but Leo Bruce really does get the voices of these three fictional detectives exactly right! Also, I was impressed by the fact that he had to come up with four different plausible solutions to the mystery. I’ll definitely read more by this author, and I wholeheartedly recommend this book to fans of Lord Peter, Poirot, and Father Brown!

Stephanie Burgis, Congress of Secrets — This book checks off so many of my personal boxes, it’s ridiculous: The book is set in the 19th century, specifically at the Congress of Vienna that concluded the Napoleonic wars. Magic exists in the world but is being used by powerful men for very dark purposes. And one of the main characters is a con man! And there’s a romance! So, obviously I was predisposed to like this book, and it did not disappoint. I’ve already acquired more books by Burgis, and I’m excited to have discovered a new-to-me author!

Twisted Sword, ThePiccadilly Jim

Winston Graham, The Twisted Sword — Oof, lots of changes for the Poldarks and Warleggans in this book, and most of them are tragic. I won’t go into specifics for fear of spoilers, but in my opinion this is probably the saddest book in the series. It’s still a very absorbing and enjoyable read, though — after 11 books, I’ve really grown invested in the Poldarks, the Warleggans, and all their friends and neighbors in Cornwall and beyond. What I love is that Graham paints such a complete picture of life at the time, weaving the wider political, social, and economic landscape into his tale of these country families.

P.G. Wodehouse, Piccadilly Jim — I loved this book, which is pure farce of the silliest, most delightful kind! Wodehouse actually spent some time in America writing screenplays and musicals (!), and I could definitely see this book as an old-fashioned screwball comedy! It contains so many tropes of that era — mistaken identities, love aboard a transatlantic vessel, a boxer with a heart of gold — not to mention classic Wodehousian touches like a pair of disapproving aunts and a ludicrous kidnapping scheme. Highly recommended!

Mini-reviews: Inevitable, Ready, Loving, Duke

That Inevitable Victorian ThingReady Player One

E.K. Johnston, That Inevitable Victorian Thing — This alt-historical novel is set in a version of the Victorian era in which technology has greatly advanced, leading to innovations such as a computer that predicts a person’s optimal spouse based on his or her genetic code. In this world, heir to the throne Margaret travels to Canada, posing as a commoner to have one last hurrah before she must submit to a computer-arranged marriage. There she meets Helena and August, who have been unofficially promised to each other for years but who both harbor shocking secrets.

I have mixed feelings about this book. I think it succeeds best when it focuses on the changing relationships among the three main characters (if you’re wondering whether there’s a queer love triangle, the answer is yes). On the other hand, I found myself in a situation where I actually wanted more world-building! The book contains some fascinating ideas about how the world might have been different if things had gone differently in the actual Victorian era, but I wish those ideas had been developed more. Also, I think there’s one significant plot weakness: about halfway through the novel, a big secret is revealed about Helena, but the implications of that secret are never really addressed. Not a bad book, by any means, but I didn’t like it nearly as much as I wanted to.

Ernest Cline, Ready Player One — I have to say, I did not enjoy this book at all! I know it’s very popular, and I can see how it would appeal to lovers of ’80s geek culture, but it is emphatically not the book for me. The protagonist, Wade, is a smug know-it-all who thinks he’s better than everyone else because of his dedication to memorizing the minutia of ’80s movies, music, and video games. He’s the kind of guy who will judge you for not knowing some obscure piece of trivia and claim that you’re not a “true fan” of whatever thing. I honestly can’t remember the last book I read whose protagonist annoyed me so much! That said, the overall concept — sort of The Matrix meets The Westing Game — is fun; it just doesn’t make up for the insufferable “hero,” in my opinion.

Loving Cup, TheDuke and I, The

Winston Graham, The Loving Cup — In the 10th Poldark book, Clowance makes a decision about her future; Jeremy struggles with his obsessive, unrequited love for Cuby; and tensions between Valentine and George finally come to a head. I’m so behind on reviews that I’ve actually finished the series now, so I can’t quite remember which events happened in this book versus others. I do remember Jeremy’s ultimate decision regarding Cuby, which was based on TERRIBLE advice from Ross! I also didn’t love the continued presence of Stephen Carrington, who starts to rehabilitate himself only to fall even more spectacularly. Still, I really enjoyed the series overall, and this installment did some important place-setting for the final two books.

Julia Quinn, The Duke and I — I’d read one Julia Quinn book previously (Just Like Heaven) and enjoyed it, so I decided to try this first book in her famous Bridgerton series. It’s a fun, quick read, but for me it never rose above somewhat mindless entertainment. For one thing, I’m not a huge fan of the “notorious rake is reformed by the love of a good woman” plotline. For another, I didn’t quite know what to make of the hero’s personal history, which basically amounts to serious verbal and emotional abuse from his father. Clearly this backstory is meant to make the hero more interesting and to create an obstacle in the plot; but the book generally has such a lighthearted tone that the backstory seems incongruous and almost inappropriate. All that said, I do enjoy some nice Regency fluff every now and then, so I’ll probably read more by this author…but maybe I’ll try one of her other series!

Mini-reviews: Poison, Best, Z, Crooked

Poison Dark and Drowning, ABest Man, The

Jessica Cluess, A Poison Dark and Drowning — ***Warning: slight spoilers for A Shadow Bright and Burning.***

Henrietta Howel is now a full-fledged sorcerer defending England against the Ancients, horrible monsters from another world. When she and her fellow sorcerers discover the existence of special weapons that might help defeat the Ancients, they immediately begin the search. But along the way, Henrietta learns some disturbing truths about the Ancients, her friends, and her own past. I have to say, I enjoyed the first book very much, but now I’m really nervous about where the series is going! Certain character developments were unwelcome, to say the least. But then again, the second installment of a trilogy often ends dark — think The Empire Strikes Back — and everything still turns out fine. I’m curious to see what will happen in the third (and presumably final) book now!

Grace Livingston Hill, The Best Man — An old-fashioned novel of romantic suspense featuring secret agent Cyril Gordon, who infiltrates a criminal gang and steals a secret message that has grave implications for national security. To evade the criminals’ pursuit, he runs into a church where a wedding is about to take place. The guests mistake him (he thinks) for the best man, so he stands in front of the altar…only to realize at the end of the ceremony that he is actually the groom! Now Cyril must not only deliver the message to the US government, but he must also deal with the stranger who is now his wife. Overall, this book was a fine read, but it is quite dated, and there’s really nothing remarkable about it other than the extremely farfetched premise.

Z Murders, TheAll the Crooked Saints

J. Jefferson Farjeon, The Z Murders — Everyman Richard Temperley takes an overnight train into London and must share a compartment with a surly elderly man. He goes from the train station to a hotel, where he sees his traveling companion sitting in an armchair in one of the public rooms — only to discover that the man has been murdered. Richard is, of course, a prime suspect, as is the woman seen leaving the hotel shortly before the victim was found dead. Of course, Richard falls in love with the woman and decides to clear her name (and his own) by finding the real murderer. The idea that the police would allow Richard such free rein to investigate is absurd, and the revelation of the true murderer is nothing short of bonkerballs insane, but I honestly enjoyed this book a lot! I’ll definitely seek out more by this Golden Age author.

Maggie Stiefvater, All the Crooked Saints — The tiny town of Bicho Raro, hidden away in the Colorado desert, is a place people visit for only one reason: to find a miracle. Daniel Soria is the current Saint of Bicho Raro, the one responsible for performing miracles; but the results are almost never what the seekers of such miracles expect. His cousin Beatriz could have been the Saint, but she prefers to focus on tangible, scientific pursuits. And the third Soria cousin, Joaquin, operates a pirate radio station under the name Diablo Diablo, hoping someday to become a famous DJ. All three cousins are changed irrevocably when two new visitors arrive in Bicho Raro, and these changes will alter the status quo for the Soria family forever. Much as I love Maggie Stiefvater, this novel didn’t quite click for me. The first half especially is very slow going, as Stiefvater sets up the world and explains the status quo; the second half is paced better, and I found myself getting more invested in the book. But I think the world-building gets too much emphasis, at the expense of character and plot. Then again, I’m not a huge fan of magical realism in general, so maybe this just wasn’t the right book for me.

 

Mini-Reviews: Fantastic, Jayne, Trouble, Penhallow

Light Fantastic, TheLady Jayne Disappears

Terry Pratchett, The Light Fantastic — I read The Color of Magic several years ago and enjoyed it, but for some reason it took me a really long time to revisit Discworld. I’m sorry I left it so long, because I really enjoyed The Light Fantastic! The book has a lot of fun with the “chosen one” trope as the failed wizard Rincewind and his unwanted companion Twoflower race around the Disc trying to prevent the end of the world. I will definitely continue with the Discworld series, although I’m trying to decide whether I should read it in publication order or approach it one “cycle” at a time (i.e., read all the Rincewind books first). Advice is welcome!

Joanna Davidson Politano, Lady Jayne Disappears — I don’t usually read “inspirational” novels, but I’m open to them if the premise sounds interesting, and I thought I’d give this one a try. It’s about a young woman, Aurelie Harcourt, who has spent her childhood with her father in debtor’s prison; when her father dies, she is brought to live with rich but emotionally distant relatives. I just really didn’t connect to this book; I found the writing style obnoxious and the plot too predictable. The references to God felt shoehorned in, and Aurelie’s faith didn’t ring true to me. Not recommended.

Trouble with Destiny, ThePenhallow

Lauren Morrill, The Trouble with Destiny — This cute but forgettable YA romance centers around Liza, a type-A teenager who’s very proud of her position as drum major of her high school band. In an effort to raise money to keep the band program from being cut, she enters the band in a competition that will take place (for some inexplicable reason) on a cruise ship. While there, she reconnects with a former crush, butts heads with a best-friend-turned-rival, and unexpectedly connects with the quarterback of the football team, who isn’t as dumb as he seems. I found Liza a very frustrating character — she’s selfish, shrill, and completely blind to what’s going on around her. So overall, I didn’t hate this book but didn’t particularly like it either.

Georgette Heyer, Penhallow — Much as I love Georgette Heyer, I have to admit that I really did not enjoy this book. It’s one of her so-called mystery novels, but the murder doesn’t occur until at least two-thirds of the way through the book, and the murderer’s identity is never a secret. Additionally, every single character is deeply unpleasant. Without an actual mystery to solve or a character to root for, the book just didn’t hold any appeal for me. I still love Heyer, but I’d definitely recommend trying a different book; Envious Casca is her best mystery, in my opinion.

Mini-Reviews: Lady, Café, Stranger, Bullet

Lady Molly of Scotland YardCafé by the Sea, The

Baroness Orczy, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard — While Orczy’s best-known work is The Scarlet Pimpernel, she also tried her hand at the mystery genre in a collection of short stories featuring Lady Molly, Scotland Yard’s (fictional) first woman detective. The stories are narrated by Lady Molly’s maid, Mary, who serves as the Watson figure and helps Lady Molly with her investigations. Overall, the stories are pleasant enough, and I liked how Lady Molly’s own history was mysterious until the last couple of stories in the collection. However, I didn’t love the portrayal of Lady Molly as a paragon of every virtue, especially when she engages in several instances of morally dubious behavior, such as telling a suspect (falsely) that her baby is dead. The mysteries themselves are fine but nothing groundbreaking. Overall, the collection is more interesting as a historical artifact than as a set of mystery stories.

Jenny Colgan, The Café by the Sea — I enjoyed this chick lit novel a lot more than I was expecting to! Protagonist Flora is trying to build a career in London, but her latest assignment takes her back to the remote Scottish island of Mure, where she has to mend fences with her estranged father and brothers. I liked watching Flora’s personal growth, and I also enjoyed the (inevitable) romance a lot more than I was expecting to. Plus, the setting is gorgeous and makes me want to visit the Hebrides! Definitely worth reading if you enjoy the genre, and I’ll be trying more by Colgan.

Stranger from the Sea, TheBullet in the Ballet, A

Winston Graham, The Stranger from the Sea — More fun and games with the Poldark clan, set 10 years after the events of The Angry Tide. The eponymous stranger from the sea is Stephen Carrington, a confident young man who befriends Jeremy and fascinates Clowance. But what secrets is he hiding? I liked this book a lot and found the time jump refreshing — now that the children are grown up, there are even more characters to follow and care about. Not a fan of Stephen, though, and I hope he’s not around for good.

Caryl Brahms and S.J. Simon, A Bullet in the Ballet — A delightfully absurd Golden Age mystery in which a fairly conventional police inspector must solve a murder that occurs within the madcap Stroganoff Ballet. I really enjoyed the various ballet characters with their artistic temperaments. The murderer’s motive is pretty nonsensical, but this one should definitely be read for the humor rather than for the mystery plot.

Mini-Reviews: Byline, Chilbury, Swans, Duet

Good Byline, TheChilbury Ladies' Choir, The

Jill Orr, The Good Byline — When Riley Ellison learns that her childhood best friend Jordan has committed suicide, she’s both grieved and shocked. Jordan’s mother asks her to write the obituary, so Riley begins to investigate Jordan’s life. She soon becomes convinced that Jordan didn’t kill herself, and she teams up with a local journalist to discover the truth. Meanwhile, in an attempt to get over being dumped by her long-term boyfriend, she subscribes to an online dating service, with entertaining results. I have to say, I enjoyed the chick lit aspects of this novel much more than the mystery aspects—Regina H., Personal Romance Concierge, was a delight! But the mystery was very predictable, and I didn’t buy Riley’s somewhat indifferent reaction to her former BFF’s death. I’d consider reading a future book in the series, but I won’t be waiting with bated breath.

Jennifer Ryan, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir — An epistolary novel set in an English village during World War II is obviously going to be right up my alley! The book is narrated by five girls and women from the village, who cope with their fear and grief by singing in an all-female choir. The not-so-subtle theme is that the women have finally found a way to raise their voices, exert their power, and make decisions for themselves. I wasn’t quite gripped by all of the characters—I loved Mrs. Tilling but didn’t care so much for Venetia and Kitty—so I didn’t absolutely love this book, but it’s still a very good read for fans of WWII novels.

Four Swans, TheOur Dark Duet

Winston Graham, The Four Swans — ***Warning: spoilers for previous books in the Poldark series***

In book #6 of the series, the Poldarks and the Warleggans maintain an uneasy truce. Demelza is drawn to a young naval officer who has fallen in love with her. Caroline and Dwight struggle in the early days of their marriage. Elizabeth and George confront the elephant in the room, Valentine’s paternity. Osborne Whitworth continues to be the worst. Drake tries to get over Morwenna, and Sam Carne falls in love with an unsuitable woman. Meanwhile, parliamentary elections are held in Truro, with surprising results. This series is still going strong, and I’m eager to see what happens next. I do find the books a bit too long, and they’re easy for me to put down. Still, I have to keep reading to see what (hopefully) terrible fate will befall Ossie!

Victoria Schwab, Our Dark Duet — ***Warning: spoilers for This Savage Song***

After the events of This Savage Song, Kate and August have gone their separate ways. Kate is hunting monsters in Prosperity, while August is desperately trying to defend the few humans left in Verity from the monsters — especially Sloan, who somehow survived the events of the previous book and who now has grand ambitions. This is a very good conclusion to This Savage Song; it provides a dark but satisfying ending, and I also found it a quick, absorbing read. I didn’t really like the introduction of Kate’s friends from Prosperity — they should have been either more important to the plot or cut altogether. Also, there’s a bit too much gore and violence for my liking. But people who enjoy dark fantasy should definitely pick up this duology, and fans of the first book won’t be disappointed.