Review: Aurora Blazing

Aurora BlazingJessie Mihalik, Aurora Blazing

Bianca von Hasenberg, a daughter of one of the three High Houses in the Consortium (an interplanetary governing body), adopts the public persona of an empty-headed space princess. But she’s actually an extremely gifted intelligence-gatherer with a wide network of informants, usually women she has quietly rescued from bad domestic situations. Thanks to the illicit experiments of her late husband, Gregory, Bianca also has the ability to detect and decode nearly any message sent via technology, no matter how complex its encryption. So when Bianca’s brother Ferdinand — the heir to House von Hasenberg — is kidnapped, she feels compelled to use her expertise to save him. But Ian Bishop, House von Hasenberg’s head of security, is determined to protect Bianca by refusing to let her participate in the investigation. Bianca doesn’t take his orders lying down, however, and soon she’s on the run with an angry, and infuriatingly attractive, Ian in hot pursuit. Eventually, they realize that they will accomplish more by working together, but their fragile trust may not survive all the dangerous ordeals that await them.

I enjoyed the first book in this series, Polaris Rising, and was excited for this sequel, which seemed like it would contain more of my favorite romance tropes—forced proximity, enemies to lovers, grumpy hero, and so on. But while those tropes do exist in the book, they fell flat for me, mostly because the romance definitely takes a backseat to the external plot in this book. It’s almost the halfway point before Bianca and Ian end up on the same spaceship, and even then, there isn’t very much development of their relationship. The turn from enemies to lovers seems very abrupt, and Ian’s shift in demeanor was particularly jarring to me. The character development is clumsy; Bianca and Ian each get a scene where one explains a tragic incident in his/her past to the other, but that’s it. It all feels very rote. I wanted more about Ian’s past, especially how he was able to become the head of House von Hasenberg security before age 30, and I think Bianca’s disastrous marriage should have been explored in more depth too. Plot-wise, there’s plenty of action, as well as fun tech discussions if you’re into that sort of thing. But overall, I’m pretty “meh” on this book. I will probably still read the third one when it comes out next year, though!

Review: The Spider’s Touch

Spider's TouchPatricia Wynn, The Spider’s Touch

***Warning: SPOILERS for The Birth of Blue Satan.***

This second book in the Blue Satan and Mrs. Kean series picks up shortly after the first one left off. Gideon, Viscount St. Mars, is accused of his father’s murder and, though innocent, has fled to France. There he is approached by supporters of James Stuart and asked to aid the Jacobite cause by returning to England and assessing whether the people would rise up to overthrow George I and restore the Stuart dynasty to the English throne. Gideon is reluctant to embrace the Jacobite cause wholeheartedly, but he agrees to the mission. Meanwhile, Hester Kean is living with her cousin Isabella and the rest of her family, who are trying to ingratiate themselves at George I’s court. However, the family unwittingly becomes close with a number of Jacobite spies and sympathizers. When Gideon returns to England and sees Hester’s plight, he is determined to protect her. And when one of Hester’s Jacobite acquaintances is murdered during an opera performance, she and Gideon team up to solve the mystery.

I don’t know why more novels aren’t set during the early 18th century, when the conflict between Hanover supporters and Jacobites provides such a compelling conflict and backdrop for dramatic action! So I’m very glad that this series exists, and I enjoyed this second installment very much. It had been a few years since I’d read the first book, but Wynn does a good job of catching up readers and reminding them of the most important plot points. I also appreciated the historical note at the very beginning of the book, which provides some much-needed context for the events of the novel. As for the book itself, I really like both Gideon and Hester as characters, and I especially like how Hester’s role (though necessarily a bit more passive, because she’s both a woman and a dependent) is just as vital as Gideon’s. The book starts out slowly because it follows each of them in turn, but it picks up once they start sharing scenes together. I’m definitely here for the inevitable romance! The mystery plot is probably the weakest element, as the culprit is fairly obvious, and I felt it was an uncreative way to resolve that character’s arc. Still, I really liked this book and will definitely continue with the series!

Review: Graceling

GracelingKristin Cashore, Graceling

Throughout the Seven Kingdoms, some individuals have superhuman powers known as Graces. A person’s Grace might be harmless or even useful, such as the ability to swim incredibly fast or to easily perform complex mathematics. But even those Graced with these benign abilities are viewed with suspicion and fear. Katsa, the niece of King Randa, is Graced with superhuman strength, which means that Randa uses her as a threat and a punishment to anyone who crosses him. Katsa hates being used to harm innocent people, and she has begun to fight back by forming a secret Council to rescue those whom Randa seeks to hurt. In the course of one of the Council’s missions, Katsa meets Po, a prince of a nearby kingdom who is Graced with fighting. As they become closer, Po encourages Katsa to stand up for herself at Randa’s court. The two of them also encounter a mysterious plot that sends them on a journey to the farthest reaches of the Seven Kingdoms, where they discover a king hiding a terrible Grace.

I bought this book when it first came out (10+ years ago!) because there was so much good buzz surrounding it; now I finally understand what the fuss was about! I found this book an enjoyable and compelling read. Katsa is a somewhat typical “strong female heroine,” but she’s saved from being too perfect because her Grace is powerless against the Grace of the book’s villain. I liked her stubbornness and independence, and I liked that she was nowhere near as emotionally fluent as the hero. Po is a dream of a love interest; not only is he handsome and able to fight Katsa as an equal, but he also truly respects her and doesn’t try to change her, even when she’s at her most frustrating. My biggest complaint with the book is that the pacing is odd. It almost seems like three different books — one at Randa’s court, another during Katsa and Po’s journey, and a third about the final showdown with the evil king. Personally, I was most interested in the first section, and I would have liked to read an entire novel about the Council and how Katsa finally gets the courage to stand up to Randa. Nevertheless, I would definitely recommend this book to YA fantasy fans!

Review: Murder Has a Motive

Murder Has a MotiveFrancis Duncan, Murder Has a Motive

When retired tobacconist Mordecai Tremaine accepts an invitation to visit his friends Paul and Jean Russell in the quaint village of Dalmering, he has no idea that he’ll shortly be called upon to use his skills as an amateur detective. But the day before he arrives in town, a local woman named Lydia Dare is found stabbed to death on the path that leads to her cottage. Mordecai’s friends ask him to help solve the murder, and he is more than willing to do so, especially when he learns that his friend Inspector Boyce is the Scotland Yard man in charge of the case. As Mordecai gets to know Lydia’s friends and neighbors, it seems that all the clues are pointing toward Martin Vaughan, an old friend of Lydia’s who was in love with her, even though she’d just gotten engaged to another man. But Mordecai is unconvinced, and as he continues to search for more suspects, the killer has ample opportunity to strike again.

I’ve read one other book featuring Mordecai Tremaine, Murder for Christmas, and I find my feelings about this book are the same: it’s an interesting, competently written Golden Age mystery, but not particularly groundbreaking or unique. I like Mordecai; he doesn’t have the theatrical idiosyncrasies of Poirot, but rather is kind and unassuming, preferring to fade into the background most of the time. I also really liked Inspector Boyce, and the conversations between him and Mordecai were my favorite scenes in the book. I felt that most of the other characters were pretty flat; they all seemed to be more stock characters than nuanced individuals. The mystery is clever and (I think) plays fair; I even spotted a pivotal clue, though I didn’t follow it to its logical conclusion. I’m not entirely sure I buy the murderer’s psychology, but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief. Overall, I like Francis Duncan and am glad I have a couple more of his books on my shelves, but I can see why he never became as popular as, say, Agatha Christie.

Review: The Woman Who Died a Lot

Woman Who Died a LotJasper Fforde, The Woman Who Died a Lot

This seventh book in the Thursday Next series continues the madcap adventures of Thursday Next, her family, and the alternate-reality Swindon that is obsessed with all things literary. Thursday is now middle-aged and struggling with the fact that she’s not as physically resilient as she used to be. She hopes to become the head of a newly reinstated SpecOps 27 (the division of the government dealing with literary crimes), but instead, she’s offered the job of Chief Librarian of Swindon All-You-Can-Eat-at-Fatso’s Drink Not Included Library, a plum assignment that gives her absolute power within the library’s domain. But there’s still plenty of trouble to go around. Her son Friday’s career at the ChronoGuard is halted when time travel is ruled impossible, and he’s now coming to terms with a very different destiny. Meanwhile, the Global Standard Deity is preparing to smite Swindon within a week, unless Thursday’s genius daughter Tuesday can find a way to stop it. Not to mention, the sinister Goliath Corp is up to its usual skulduggery, and more than one person seems to want Thursday dead.

I’m a longtime Fforde ffan, but I haven’t been as impressed by his last few books. Maybe the novelty of his humor has worn off for me, but I was only intermittently amused by this installment. There are still a lot of fun jokes and gags and wordplay, but the whole seems like less than the sum of its parts. The Thursday vs. Goliath stuff was fine, but it felt like a retread of previous books with nothing particularly new to add. The Chronoguard stuff was more interesting — I especially enjoyed the idea that time travel works (or used to work) because someone would invent the technology in the future, and therefore it could be used in the present. I wanted a little more about Thursday’s Librarian gig, but her library-related adventures are fairly peripheral to the main plot. In fact, I’m realizing that there aren’t a lot of literature-related hijinks in this novel. Unlike the first few books, which were constantly jumping into and out of specific literary worlds, this one doesn’t contain many literary allusions at all. Maybe that’s why earlier books in the series worked for me better than the last few. Regardless, I’m glad to be caught up with the Thursday Next series, but I’m also glad that it’s now (as far as I can tell) complete.

Review: Bringing Down the Duke

Bringing Down the Duke.jpgEvie Dunmore, Bringing Down the Duke

It’s 1879, and Oxford University has just opened its door to female students. Annabelle Archer is eager to take her place among them, especially when the alternative is acting as an unpaid servant for her male cousin and his family. She has received a scholarship from the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, so in return for her tuition, she must become involved with the women’s suffrage movement, targeting men of influence in Parliament who might be convinced to vote in their favor. But when Annabelle takes the fight to Sebastian Devereux, the duke of Montgomery, she takes on more than she bargained for. Sebastian is certainly a man of influence, but he is also cold, calculating, and intimidating. Annabelle manages to insinuate herself into Sebastian’s household, but her mission is complicated by the powerful attraction she feels for the duke. The attraction is mutual, but Annabelle’s station in life is so far below Sebastian’s that a happy outcome seems impossible.

The cover of this book is somewhat misleading (although I personally like it!); the story is much less of a romp than the cover indicates, and despite the cartoon-y art, it is a romance novel with some fairly explicit sex scenes. I also think the book’s description is a little misleading, in that it makes it sound like the women’s suffrage movement is going to be a big focus of the plot. But aside from Annabelle’s attendance at a few meetings, and one rally that serves as a plot point, that aspect of the book is not very prominent. So if you’re imagining a book filled with kickass suffragettes earnestly debating political issues, you’ll be disappointed. Nevertheless, I think the book works very well as a romance. Annabelle and Sebastian have an intense and believable chemistry, and their class differences pose a very real obstacle to their relationship. I liked that they both, especially Sebastian, kept trying to find a way to make things work, instead of passively bemoaning their fate. The secondary characters aren’t as well rendered, but they’ll probably be more fleshed out in the inevitable sequels. Overall, I really enjoyed this book and would definitely read more by Dunmore.

Review: Dead Man’s Shoes

Dead Man's Shoes.jpgLeo Bruce, Dead Man’s Shoes

This mystery novel begins on a sea journey from Tangier to London. Everyone on the boat is annoyed by one of the passengers, Wilbury Larkin, who speaks too loudly and seems to enjoy being as obnoxious as possible. Moreover, they’re all convinced that he murdered Gregory Willick, a rich Englishman who was recently shot dead on his daily afternoon walk. Larkin claims that he didn’t murder Willick and that he’s going back to England to prove his innocence. But the night before the boat docks, Larkin falls, or jumps, or is pushed overboard. The crew members find a typed suicide note in Larkin’s cabin, but they realize that it could have easily been faked. Still, the police are happy to think that Larkin committed suicide; now they can close two cases, Larkin’s and Willick’s. But history teacher/amateur detective Carolus Deene isn’t satisfied, so with the help of his precocious student Rupert Priggley, he sets out to investigate both deaths.

A couple years ago I read Leo Bruce’s Case for Three Detectives and found it absolutely delightful! So when I saw a couple of his Carolus Deene books at a local library sale, I snatched them up immediately. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as Case for Three Detectives: it’s not nearly as funny, the mystery is predictable, and there’s not much character development. To be fair, Carolus Deene is a series character — this book is fourth in the series — so maybe he’s more fleshed out in other installments. But it seems that, as with many vintage detective novels, the focus is all on the mystery itself, not on who’s solving it. This particular mystery has a very interesting central concept, but the execution falls flat because it’s increasingly obvious as the book goes on that only one person could have done it. Figuring out the “how” is somewhat interesting, but the inevitability of the solution killed a lot of the suspense for me. Overall, this book was OK, and I’ll read the other Carolus Deene book I own at some point, but I’m not in a hurry to do so.

Review: The Seat of Magic

Seat of MagicJ. Kathleen Cheney, The Seat of Magic

Two weeks after the events of The Golden City, Duilio is missing Oriana and getting slightly worried: he’s had no word from her since she left his house for her sereia homeland. But he has plenty of distractions to occupy his mind: it seems that someone is killing prostitutes in the Golden City without leaving a visible mark on their corpses. And someone — the same person, or someone else? — is murdering nonhuman individuals and removing their magical body parts. As Duilio and his cousin Joaquim investigate these crimes, they once again uncover dark magic and a plot that threatens the very existence of Northern Portugal. Meanwhile, Oriana learns some shocking information about her family and realizes that her own past may be directly connected to the conspiracy Duilio is uncovering. Together, Oriana and Duilio must act to prevent a political catastrophe — and also finally to address their feelings for one another.

I liked but didn’t love the first book in this series, and I find myself feeling the same way about this installment. I probably prefer it slightly to The Golden City because there’s less exposition about the world and the major characters. I also think the mystery plots are a little tighter and better integrated with each other. My favorite part of this book was Duilio’s relationship with the infante, who — as brother of the reigning prince and next in line for the throne — is kept under house arrest to prevent a coup. The infante is a fun character, and I enjoy a good political intrigue plot, so I was definitely on board for that storyline. I also liked learning more about Joaquim and getting inside his head a little bit. As in the first book, I think the murder-and-magic stuff is actually the weakest part; but at least it ties in well with the other plot lines in this installment of the series. Finally, I was glad to see how Duilio and Oriana resolved their relationship conflicts. Overall, I’m not racing to pick up the next book, but I do plan to continue with the series at some point.

Review: The Famous Heroine / The Plumed Bonnet

Famous Heroine:Plumed BonnetMary Balogh, The Famous Heroine / The Plumed Bonnet

This volume collects two of Balogh’s earlier novels, which each focus on couples who marry first and fall in love later. In The Famous Heroine, Cora Downes, the daughter of a rich merchant, is launched into high society in hopes that she’ll find an aristocratic husband. But Cora is clumsy, outspoken, and ignorant of the rules of this new world. Lord Francis Kneller takes her under his wing, and they become good friends — until he inadvertently “compromises” her and feels honor-bound to marry her. In The Plumed Bonnet, Alistair Munro, the duke of Bridgwater, gives a ride to a hitchhiking young woman out of boredom. Because of her gaudy clothes, he assumes she’s a prostitute and listens with amusement to her unlikely story of misfortune. But when he learns that Stephanie Gray’s story is true, he realizes that he’s ruined her reputation and must marry her to make amends.

I’ve been slowly discovering Mary Balogh’s books and haven’t hit a bad one yet! I didn’t find either of the romances entirely compelling — something prevented me from becoming fully emotionally invested — but these two novels are on the short side, so perhaps there was just less space for character development. And there’s still plenty to enjoy with both of these books. I liked Cora’s frank nature and was amused by Francis’s attitude toward her: bewilderment slowly transforming into delight. They’re a more fun, lighthearted couple than Alistair and Stephanie, but I found Stephanie’s conflict (she’s trying so hard to become duchess material that she begins to lose herself) more interesting. I should note that these two books are actually the third and fourth installments of a series that starts with Dark Angel and Lord Carew’s Bride; the heroes and heroines of those books appear in both of these as well. You don’t HAVE to read the first two books to understand what’s going on, but it would give you some extra context. Overall, I liked these books a lot and will continue my wanderings through Balogh’s backlist.

Review: Ten Things I Love about You

Ten Things I Love about YouJulia Quinn, Ten Things I Love about You

Sebastian Grey occupies an unusual social position: he is the heir apparent to his uncle, the Earl of Newbury, but if the earl marries and has a son, Sebastian gets nothing. The earl hates Sebastian and is therefore desperate to marry a young, fertile bride. His eye falls on Annabel Winslow, who is young enough to be his granddaughter, but whose numerous siblings and wide hips seem to guarantee her ability to produce heirs. Though Annabel is repulsed by the earl, she feels obligated to marry him to gain financial security for her impoverished family. But of course, complications ensue when Sebastian and Annabel meet and are immediately attracted to one another — each without knowing the other’s identity. When they discover their situation, Sebastian initially sees an opportunity to thwart his uncle’s plans; but he soon realizes that his feelings for Annabel are all too genuine.

It’s telling that I read this book a week ago and could barely remember the plot; I had to read some Amazon reviews to refresh my memory. It’s not a bad book, and I can’t point to anything specific that annoyed me about it, but it just didn’t leave much of an impression on me. Earlier this year I read and enjoyed the prequel to this book, What Happens in London, and found Sebastian to be a delightfully fun character. The scene in which he performs a dramatic reading from a lurid gothic novel (of which he is secretly the author) was a highlight of that book. So I was excited to read his story, but I found it underwhelming. We don’t really get to know more about Sebastian as a character. We learn that he’s had insomnia ever since returning from the Napoleonic Wars, and we know that he enjoys writing novels, but neither one of these character traits is really explored. And while Annabel seems perfectly nice, it’s never entirely clear why he falls in love with her. Overall, a very “meh” read.