Review: What Happens in London

what happens in londonJulia Quinn, What Happens in London

After serving in the army during the Napoleonic Wars, Sir Harry Valentine now works as a translator for the War Office. It’s not particularly dangerous (which is just how he likes it), but it does require a certain amount of secrecy. So when Harry notices that his beautiful neighbor seems to be watching him, he knows there’s a slight chance she could be a threat. Meanwhile, Lady Olivia Bevelstoke is intrigued by her new neighbor, since rumors are flying about the mysterious gentleman who hardly ever goes out into society. When he catches her watching him, she is mortified — especially because, when they finally meet in public, he directly confronts her about it. However, Harry and Olivia’s initial dislike of each other soon turns into friendship and, inevitably, romance. But will a rival suitor, who may also be a spy for Napoleon, come between them?

When I want a light, fluffy Regency romance with minimal angst, I turn to Julia Quinn, and this book delivered pretty much what I expected. I found it a very enjoyable read, particularly because both Harry and Olivia are such nice, normal people. No tortured rakes or unconventional bluestockings here! Don’t get me wrong; those types of characters can be fun to read about, too, but they do tend to be overrepresented in historical romance. By contrast, Harry and Olivia are both fairly conventional, which I found refreshing. There’s plenty of humor in the book, too, mostly surrounding the lurid gothic novel that Harry presents to Olivia. There’s a fantastic scene in which Harry’s cousin Sebastian reads the book aloud to an assortment of spellbound listeners, and it’s an absolute delight. The plot does go off the rails a bit toward the end, with a tonally jarring kidnapping, but at least that storyline wraps up quickly. Overall, I doubt this book will stay with me for a long time, but it was certainly a fun read, and I’d recommend it to fans of historical romance.

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Review: The Penguin Pool Murder

penguin pool murderStuart Palmer, The Penguin Pool Murder

When schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers, a “spinster” of 39, takes her third-grade class to the New York Aquarium, she expects nothing more than an educational outing for her students. But first she thwarts a pickpocket by tripping him with her umbrella, and then she discovers a dead body in the penguin tank. Not the sort of person to miss a chance to investigate, Miss Withers quickly befriends Inspector Oscar Piper, the policeman in charge of the murder case. Through a combination of usefulness (she takes shorthand notes of the initial witness statements) and sheer stubbornness, she is allowed to accompany Piper throughout the investigation. Suspicion immediately falls on the dead man’s wife and her former lover, who were both at the aquarium on the fateful day; but Miss Withers isn’t convinced, and her intelligence and determination eventually enable her to solve the case.

I enjoyed this mystery, although it’s a fairly typical example of the Golden Age detective novel. There are a few creative touches — such as one of the penguins swallowing a key piece of evidence — and I enjoyed the repartee between Miss Withers and Inspector Piper, although I wish their relationship had been a bit more fleshed out. In fact, I wanted more character development all around, but that does tend to be a weakness of mysteries from this era, and I wouldn’t quibble so much if the plot had been more inventive. But instead everything unfolds pretty much as expected, from spurious confessions to various motive-related revelations to a second death. I also guessed the murderer’s identity fairly early on. The final chapter, in which the solution is explained, does contain one delightful surprise, which I won’t spoil. But all in all, this book isn’t particularly special — which doesn’t mean it’s not a good read! It just doesn’t deviate much from the traditional formula, so if you’re looking for something with a lot of surprises, this may not be the book for you.

Mini-reviews: Duke, Christmas, Memorial

Duke in Shining ArmorLoretta Chase, A Duke in Shining Armor

This book is the first in a series starring a trio of dukes known as Their Dis-Graces. Ripley, Ashmont, and Blackwood have been friends since childhood, and together they’ve drunk, gambled, and whored their way through London society. Now Ashmont is getting married, but the bride — bookish, practical Olympia Hightower — is having second thoughts. When she runs away on the wedding day, it’s up to best man Ripley to track her down and return her to Ashmont. The trouble is, the more time Ripley spends with Olympia, the more he wants her for himself. I really enjoy Loretta Chase’s writing, especially her humor, but this book was not the right book for me. I really don’t like the “reformed rake” trope, and Ripley is such a stereotypical alpha-male hero. (That said, the humor makes him somewhat more bearable.) But I’ll still be reading more Loretta Chase, and perhaps even more in this series…Blackwood’s marital difficulties, a tiny side plot in this book, sound intriguing!

A Lot Like ChristmasConnie Willis, A Lot Like Christmas

This collection of Christmas-themed short stories with a speculative-fiction twist is a revised and expanded edition of Miracle and Other Christmas Stories. I still stand by my review of that book, but here are my comments on the new stories:

  • “All about Emily” — A sly take on the movie All about Eve featuring an aging Broadway actress and a robot who wants to be a Rockette. A fun one for fans of musicals and old movies.
  • “All Seated on the Ground” — The aliens have arrived, but no one can figure out what they want. The clue may reside in a Christmas carol, so protagonist Meg teams up with choir director Calvin to solve the mystery. A lovely and romantic meditation on “peace on earth.”
  • “deck.halls@boughs/holly” — I liked this funny rom-com about the effects of technology, especially the internet, on Christmas. It’s futuristic and over the top, of course, but the story does a great job of presenting different views on the issue — with a charming romance thrown in!
  • “Now Showing” — Lindsay really wants to see a particular movie, but she keeps being thwarted by circumstance. It seems like the universe is conspiring against her . . . and according to her ex-boyfriend Jack, that’s exactly what is happening. I really liked this playful homage to romantic-suspense-adventure movies such as How to Steal a Million, French Kiss, and Romancing the Stone.
  • “Just Like the Ones We Used to Know” — Thanks to climate change (or a “discontinuity,” or Armageddon, or . . . ?), places all over the world are having a white Christmas. Places like Los Angeles, and Honolulu, and Jerusalem. The story follows various characters as they deal with the unexpected snowstorm and try to figure out what’s causing it. I thought there were maybe a few too many characters in this one, and at least one storyline was never satisfactorily resolved.

All in all, I’m glad I purchased this one, even though I already own Miracle and Other Christmas Stories. But if you don’t have either book, definitely go with A Lot Like Christmas instead!

Memorial Hall MurderJane Langton, The Memorial Hall Murder

This is the third book in the Homer Kelly mystery series, but it can definitely be read as a stand-alone. The book begins with an explosion that destroys part of Memorial Hall on the campus of Harvard University. A headless body is found in the rubble, and it is soon identified as the corpse of Hamilton Dow, an extremely popular music professor. Homer Kelly, who used to work at the district attorney’s office, happens to be on the scene and decides to investigate. As a mystery, the book is nothing to write home about; the reader is given a lot of information early on, and the perpetrator’s identity isn’t hard to discover. I kept thinking there would be a plot twist to point the finger in a new direction, but it never came. However, the book is fun to read for its playful satire of university life and its prominent featuring of Handel’s Messiah. All in all, I’d consider reading more books in this series.

Mini-reviews: Alterations, Hitman, Temptation

AlterationsStephanie Scott, Alterations

I adore the movie Sabrina (the original, starring Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart), so I was excited to come across this YA contemporary retelling. Unfortunately, I think the concept was better than the execution…or maybe I’ve just outgrown this particular type of novel, with its focus on teen drama and the prom as the pinnacle of human existence. I did like the main character’s personal journey as she gets a prestigious fashion internship and grows in confidence. But I was less interested in the love triangle, although there are a few cute scenes. Overall, I’m left with a strong desire for more Sabrina-inspired books!

Agnes and the HitmanJennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer, Agnes and the Hitman

Part romantic comedy, part gangster movie, this novel is about a food writer named Agnes who accidentally finds herself a target of the local mafia. As a result, her “connected” friend Joey hires a hitman, Shane, to look after her. They are instantly attracted to one another, but their romance is complicated by real estate fraud, several attempts on Agnes’s life, and a flamingo-themed wedding from hell. I didn’t expect this farcical mash-up of genres to be so enjoyable, but I was utterly charmed by it! The plot sweeps along at a dizzying pace, as does the rapid-fire banter, and it’s all great fun. Highly recommended if the idea of a modern screwball comedy appeals to you!

Season for TemptationTheresa Romain, Season for Temptation

After seeing a lot of praise for Theresa Romain over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, I was excited to try her debut novel. But I wasn’t as impressed as I wanted to be. The plot is quite typical for a Regency romance: the hero needs to marry quickly, proposes to a proper and elegant lady, then falls in love with the lady’s unconventional younger sister instead. Both the hero and heroine are likable, and it’s a pleasant enough read. I also like that the original fiancée gets some character development and is not just a two-dimensional model of propriety. But the writing was occasionally clunky, and I just didn’t see anything exceptional about the book. Not one for the keeper shelf, but I’ll consider trying more by the author — if I can get them from the library!

Mini-reviews: Winter, Wed, Spy

Winter in JuneKathryn Miller Haines, Winter in June

In this installment of the Rosie Winter series, Rosie and her best pal Jayne have joined the USO, and they’re headed for the South Pacific to entertain the troops. There, Rosie gets involved in various forms of trouble, from disagreements with the local WAAC corps to mysterious thefts of military supplies to an inevitable murder investigation. In the meantime, she’s also looking for her ex-boyfriend Jack, who was rumored to have resurfaced in the South Pacific. It’s been years since I read the first two books in this series, and I think I’ve just lost my taste for it. I couldn’t remember who one character was at all, although he was apparently a big part of the first book. And I didn’t find Rosie consistent as a character, although I did still find her voice fairly enjoyable. I’ll read the fourth and final book in this series, just to see how everything turns out, but this series is not a keeper for me.

Someone to WedMary Balogh, Someone to Wed

Wren Hayden longs for the companionship of marriage, but a “disfiguring” birthmark on her face has led her to become a recluse. Nevertheless, she thinks her large fortune might be enough to induce someone to marry her. Alexander Westcott has unexpectedly inherited an earldom, along with the debts and huge financial responsibilities that go with it. He knows he must marry a rich wife, but Wren’s forthright proposal shocks and troubles him. He agrees to test the waters, hoping that at least friendship and respect can grow between them. But can Wren overcome her insecurities and be open to the possibility of a real relationship? I really felt for Wren in this book, and I liked that she and Alex aren’t immediately attracted to one another. In fact, he has to overcome some revulsion — not so much from the birthmark, but from Wren’s cold demeanor toward him. Their relationship is not romanticized, if that makes sense; it felt plausible and real. Another winner from Balogh!

Spy Wore RedAline, Countess of Romanones, The Spy Wore Red

This is a fast-paced, entertaining memoir that reads more like a spy thriller. Aline Griffith was a young woman working as a model in New York, when a chance encounter with a US intelligence operative propelled her into the world of espionage. The book covers her training and her first assignment in Spain, where she must get close to various people suspected of being German spies. The narrative has everything an espionage lover could wish for: code names, double agents, assassination attempts, and even a bullfight or two! Highly recommended for people who like spy novels or who are interested in WW2-era intelligence work.

Mini-reviews: Silver, Dark, Mammoth

Spinning SilverNaomi Novik, Spinning Silver

I won’t hide the ball here: this is my favorite book of 2018. I read it in September, but I should probably have waited until now because it is a perfect book to read in wintertime, with biting cold temperatures and the constant threat of snow. I loved all three of the novel’s heroines, especially Miryem, who is cold and uncompromising and unlikable and not ashamed of it. I loved the creative take on the Rumpelstiltskin story. I loved how all the main characters have hidden depths to them, and I loved the development of the two romances. I’ll admit that the pacing is slow, especially in the beginning, but that just gave me time to soak in the lush descriptions of the wintry village and to get to know the characters a little better. I highly recommend this book to fans of fantasy, especially if you loved Uprooted!

Dark Days ClubAlison Goodman, The Dark Days Club

In this Regency fantasy novel, Lady Helen Wrexhall learns of the existence of Deceivers, demons who survive by stealing energy from living humans. She also learns that she is a Reclaimer, a human capable of spotting and killing Deceivers (who take human form and are thus able to hide in plain sight). Initiating her into these mysteries is the Dark Days Club, a society of Reclaimers led by the broodingly handsome Lord Carlston. But Lady Helen isn’t sure she wants to accept her newfound destiny, and she soon finds herself torn between two worlds. I liked the premise of this book (Regency fantasy is my catnip!), and the writing style is quite good, but I just didn’t find myself very interested in the Deceivers or in Lady Helen’s struggle. I may read the sequel at some point, but I didn’t love this one as much as I was hoping to.

MammothJill Baguchinsky, Mammoth

Natalie is a plus-size fashion blogger and dinosaur enthusiast who is ecstatic when she wins a prestigious paleontology internship. But when she gets there, she has to deal with professional and personal insecurities, as well as disillusionment with her scientist hero. She also meets some new people who aren’t what they seem and finds herself in the midst of a love triangle (or polygon). As a fellow plus-size person, I both related and didn’t relate to Natalie. Some of her insecurities felt very real to me, but she also had this weird habit of guessing other people’s weight, which is not something I have ever done. It seems like something a thin person would assume a fat person would do, if that makes sense. So I have mixed feelings about that plotline, although I do think it’s great to see more plus-size main characters in fiction! As for the internship drama, I wasn’t very compelled by it. So, not a bad read, but not a great one either.

Mini-reviews: Sleep, Magpie, Bookshop

Big SleepRaymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

I haven’t read widely in the hardboiled mystery genre, but I don’t tend to love dark books, so I was a bit apprehensive about trying this one. But I actually really enjoyed the voice of this book — it’s funny and descriptive and uses startlingly apt metaphors. The plot is exciting and twisty, highlighting the governmental and societal corruption of 1930s Los Angeles in a grim yet matter-of-fact way. Philip Marlowe is a flawed protagonist, to say the least, and the book’s portrayal of women is ugly, albeit true to its time. But all in all, I’m interested to read more of Raymond Chandler in the future.

Magpie MurdersAnthony Horowitz, Magpie Murders

This book has gotten a lot of good buzz, including a lot of comparisons to Agatha Christie, so I was excited to read it. Ultimately, though, I have mixed feelings about it. There are two mysteries for the price of one. First, an editor is reading the manuscript of famous mystery writer Alan Conway’s latest novel, but the last chapters are missing. What happened to them, and where is Conway now? Second, of course, there’s the mystery within Conway’s novel, which involves two deaths that may or may not be related. I was much more interested in the second mystery than the first; I found the editor tiresome, Conway odious, and none of the other characters in that story memorable. But I did think the solution to the second mystery (within Conway’s novel) was pretty ingenious. Basically, I enjoyed the puzzle but could have done without all the meta stuff.

Bookshop on the CornerJenny Colgan, The Bookshop on the Corner

I’m now officially a fan of Jenny Colgan. This book is pure wish-fulfillment fantasy, but it’s also well-written and charming — the perfect read if you’re looking for something light and uplifting. When main character Nina gets laid off from her job, she decides to follow her dream of opening a mobile bookstore. I think a lot of us bookish folks can relate! Nina also, naturally, finds herself torn between two suitors…I wanted to roll my eyes at the saccharine predictability of it all, but the romance actually did work for me, so I won’t complain too much! A lovely comfort read, and I’ll continue to seek out more books by Jenny Colgan.

Review: Servant of the Crown

Servant of the CrownMelissa McShane, Servant of the Crown

Alison Quinn, Countess of Waxwold, has no use for the trappings of high society; she’s perfectly content to work as an editor at her father’s printing press. So she’s both shocked and resentful when she receives a summons from the palace, commanding her to become a lady-in-waiting to the queen’s mother for the next six months. Refusal is impossible, so Alison is forced to move to the palace and participate in court life. There she catches the eye of Anthony North, the queen’s brother and a notorious womanizer, but she wants nothing to do with him. As she and Anthony are thrown together more and more, however, Alison finds herself letting her guard down. But can she really trust the prince? Meanwhile, something mysterious is going on with the Royal Library, so even when a disastrous incident causes Alison to flee the palace, she must eventually return to set things right — and perhaps find love as well.

I really wanted to love this book, since I thoroughly enjoyed Burning Bright by the same author. But I was disappointed, primarily because I found Alison SO obnoxious at first. For the first half of the novel, she seems to be completely self-obsessed and judgmental. Any time a male character talks to her, she assumes he is only interested in sleeping with her, because she is Just So Gorgeous. I suppose that could be a legitimate problem for some people, but let’s just say I didn’t find it relatable! I also wish the fantasy element had been more fleshed out; this is clearly a fantasy world, but aside from a few mentions of magical Devices, there’s no world-building to speak of. And finally, the book suffers from an identity crisis: the first half is almost entirely a romance, while the second half suddenly becomes all about political intrigue. Happily, I did enjoy the second half a lot more! Alison experiences some much-needed character growth, and the plot is much more interesting. All in all, the book got off to an abysmal start but partially redeemed itself in the end. I already own the next two books in the series, so hopefully the upward trajectory will continue!

Review: Someone to Love

Someone to LoveMary Balogh, Someone to Love

The earl of Riverdale has just died, and his family is putting his affairs in order. Obviously his son will inherit the title, the estate, and the bulk of the money. But the late earl also had an illegitimate daughter, Anna Snow, who grew up in an orphanage and is now a teacher there. The earl’s widow wants to give Anna some money, both as a kind gesture and as a way to forestall any future claims on the estate. But the lawyer she employs for this purpose makes a shocking discovery: Anna is actually the earl’s legitimate daughter, and her existence effectively disinherits his widow and his other children. Anna would like to be close to her newfound family, since she was previously alone in the world, but they all resent her for depriving them of their wealth and status. Her only ally is Avery Archer, a friend of the family, who decides to help her acclimate to her new life. But he never expected to be so drawn to her; and Anna never thought she would be so tempted to lose her heart to a (seemingly) shallow leader of society.

I was craving a good romance novel when I saw a review of this one at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did, because I really enjoyed this book! First of all, I think the setup is pretty genius; it may not be the most plausible premise, but it certainly sets up some great conflicts, both for this book and (presumably) for future books in the series. I very much liked Anna as a heroine — she’s confident in herself but also has a deep longing for intimacy and connection that she’s not sure how to express. In this respect, Avery is a great match for her, since he also conceals deep loneliness under a bored and detached facade. I really enjoyed his urbane quips and his witty conversations with Anna, and I loved that he’s not a typical alpha-male hero. My only quibble with the book is Avery’s practice of martial arts, because every time Avery engages in violence in the novel, it’s portrayed as being sexually appealing. Additionally, a somewhat stereotypical “Chinese gentleman” is the source of Avery’s knowledge (see the SBTB review and comments for a great discussion of this). Aside from that, though, I liked this book a lot and will definitely seek out more by Mary Balogh when I want a well-written Regency romance.

Review: Have His Carcase

Have His CarcaseDorothy L. Sayers, Have His Carcase

Harriet Vane, the famous detective novelist and infamous murder suspect (recently acquitted), is on a walking tour of British coastal villages. One afternoon she has a picnic on the beach and drops off to sleep. When she awakens, she is shocked to discover the body of a dead man farther along the beach. The man’s throat has been cut, but there is only one set of footprints (which must belong to the corpse), so suicide is a possibility. But Harriet can’t help thinking it might be murder. She photographs the body — which will be washed away when the tide comes in — and goes for help. But much to Harriet’s chagrin, help eventually arrives in the form of Lord Peter Wimsey, whose eagerness to solve the mystery is compounded by his desire to spend more time with Harriet. As the two join forces to solve the mystery, they also struggle to define the nature and boundaries of their relationship.

The more I read of Dorothy L. Sayers, the more I come to realize that she is emphatically not for everyone. This book is a Golden Age mystery, but it’s far from a typical one. Sayers is unquestionably familiar with the tropes of the genre — indeed, Peter and Harriet have some fun mocking them in this book — but she doesn’t seem particularly interested in following them herself. As with many of her other books, the “whodunit” is not the main concern; rather, she spends most of her time setting up a seemingly impossible crime, then explaining at length how it was possible after all. It’s clever, but I must confess that it didn’t hold my attention. A chapter near the end, where Peter and Harriet decode a letter and painstakingly explain how the code works, is especially dull.

However, I still really liked this book, and the reason is that I’m fascinated by the development of the relationship between Peter and Harriet. There’s one scene in particular, where they leave aside their usual polite banter and express their real emotions, that hit me right in the gut. Much as my romantic heart wants them to get together, I completely understand Harriet’s ambivalence and her struggle to maintain her independence in the face of Peter’s relentless pursuit. I’m extremely eager to read Gaudy Night now, but since I’m going in publication order, I have a couple books in between. I think that when I reread the series (as I undoubtedly will), I’ll group all the Peter-and-Harriet books together.