Mini-Reviews: Aunt, Farleigh, Likeness, Poldark

As you can tell, I’m not super motivated to blog at the moment, and I’m contemplating some possible changes to my process. Going forward, I’d like to absolve myself from trying to review every book I read, and maybe just focus on the best or most interesting books of each month. I’d also like to vary my content a little bit more, maybe by doing more discussion posts and memes à la Top Ten Tuesday. So I’m ruminating on that…but in the meantime, here are some more mini-reviews!

Death of My AuntIn Farleigh Field

C.H.B. Kitchin, Death of My Aunt — I love a good Golden Age mystery, but this one isn’t one of my favorites. I don’t remember it being particularly bad, but nothing stands out as particularly memorable either. It’s your standard “unpleasant family matriarch dies, the younger husband is the main suspect, but did he really do it?” plot. I did like the fact that the younger husband wasn’t an obvious slimeball, as they generally tend to be in these types of stories. But in the end, I think only diehard Golden Age fans will enjoy this one.

Rhys Bowen, In Farleigh Field — This book has a lot of my favorite things: historical fiction, World War II, spies, and a friends-to-lovers subplot. But while it was an enjoyable read, I didn’t fall in love with it. I think I wanted more from the espionage story, and the characters all seemed a little flat to me. Also, while the book can definitely be read as a standalone, I got the impression that it was setting up a sequel, and I’m not sure I care enough to continue with a (hypothetical) series.

Likeness, TheJeremy Poldark

Tana French, The Likeness — The modern crime thriller isn’t my preferred genre, but I made an exception for French’s In the Woods and completely devoured it. This is the second book in the Dublin Murder Squad series, and it focuses on Cassie, Ryan’s partner from the first book. The premise is somewhat outlandish, as Cassie must go undercover to investigate the murder of a young woman who looks just like her. But despite that, I found myself completely compelled by Cassie’s journey as she integrates herself into the dead woman’s life. I definitely plan to continue with this series — I’ve already bought book three!

Winston Graham, Jeremy Poldark — ***Warning: Spoilers for previous books in the Poldark series.***

Book three in the Poldark saga really amps up the drama, as it begins with Ross on trial for his life because of his role in the shipwreck and ensuing events at the end of Demelza. Of course, Ross is hellbent on making things as difficult as possible for himself, and George Warleggan is working behind the scenes to get Ross convicted. This is the book that really sold me on the series, although newcomers should start at the beginning with Ross Poldark.

Mini-Reviews #11: December, part 1

I can’t believe it’s already New Year’s Eve…time to finish up those 2016 (mini) reviews before 2017 arrives!

skink-no-surrendersomebody-to-love

Carl Hiaasen, Skink: No Surrender — Teenager Richard teams up with the idiosyncratic Skink (former governor, current homeless eco-warrior) to find Richard’s missing cousin Malley. There’s no particular mystery about what happened to her, but the fun is in the journey, as rule-follower Richard finds his worldview enlarged by Skink’s more reckless lifestyle. Overall, while this isn’t really my kind of book, I did enjoy it and may read more by the author. I believe Skink is a recurring character in Hiaasen’s novels, and I’d like to know more of his backstory.

Kristan Higgins, Somebody to Love — Another light, charming contemporary romance from Kristan Higgins. Although most of her books are not serialized, this one borrows the location (and a few characters) from Catch of the Day, and it also features the couple from The Next Best Thing. Having read those two books, I enjoyed seeing how the various fictional worlds overlapped. That said, I don’t think you’d miss anything important if you haven’t read the other two books. I always enjoy Higgins’ books, but this one isn’t destined to be one of my favorites.

old-dogsenvious-casca

Donna Moore, Old Dogs — If you enjoy heist movies, you should definitely check out this book, which involves two priceless historical artifacts: solid gold dog statues. Main characters Letty and Dora are aging ex-hookers who hope to enjoy a lavish retirement by stealing the dogs from a museum exhibit. The trouble is, they’re not the only ones after the dogs…. While I didn’t find this one laugh-out-loud funny, it does include plenty of entertaining mishaps, mistaken identities, and mad schemes of vengeance. Definitely worth reading if the word “caper” appeals to you!

Georgette Heyer, Envious Casca — So far, I’ve found Heyer’s mysteries to be a bit hit-or-miss, but I think this is her best one yet! It’s an English country house murder set at Christmas. Of course, there’s a big family party, and of course, everyone has a reason to wish the estate’s owner dead. The novel is very well plotted, and the solution to the mystery is (in my opinion) utterly convincing. Even if you’ve tried another Heyer mystery and didn’t particularly like it, I’d urge you to give this one a try!

Review: The Gabriel Hounds

Gabriel Hounds, TheMary Stewart, The Gabriel Hounds

It’s all a grand adventure when Christy Mansel unexpectedly runs into her cousin Charles in Damascus. And being young, rich, impetuous, and used to doing whatever they please, they decide to barge in uninvited on their eccentric Great-Aunt Harriet—despite a long-standing family rule strictly forbidding unannounced visits. A strange new world awaits Charles and Christy beyond the gates of Dar Ibrahim—”Lady Harriet’s” ancient, crumbling palace in High Lebanon—where a physician is always in residence and a handful of Arab servants attends to the odd old woman’s every need.

But there is a very good—very sinister—reason why guests are not welcome at Dar Ibrahim. And the young cousins are about to discover that, as difficult as it is to break into the dark, imposing edifice, it may prove even harder still to escape… (Summary from Amazon.com.)

I always enjoy Mary Stewart’s novels of romantic suspense, and The Gabriel Hounds is no exception. I liked Christy’s lively and slightly self-absorbed nature; she seemed real and relatable, if not always admirable. But the Amazon summary makes her sound a lot more irritating and privileged than she is! And the novel is great at creating a subtly sinister atmosphere once Christy enters Dar Ibrahim. The place seems to be nothing more than an old, run-down estate, and its inhabitants all treat Christy kindly, at least at first. Yet the book manages to convey an escalating sense of menace until Christy, with Charles’ help, must flee for her life. The novel’s central mystery, which involves drug trafficking, is both amusingly dated and surprisingly relevant today. I enjoyed the romance and the exotic setting as well, both hallmarks of Mary Stewart’s writing style. This book doesn’t rank among my favorites by Stewart, but it’s still a very solid read if you like the author or old-fashioned novels of romantic suspense.

Review: The Thirty-Nine Steps

39 Steps, TheJohn Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps

Richard Hannay is fed up. He has just returned to London after several years in South Africa, where he’s led an adventurous life and made a modest fortune. His current life of leisure in England seems incredibly dull by comparison — that is, until his neighbor knocks on his door one day with an amazing story about international conspiracies, assassination plots, and his own very important mission. Hannay isn’t sure what to make of the story at first but agrees to keep his neighbor’s secret. When the man is murdered shortly thereafter, Hannay concludes that his farfetched story must actually be true, and he decides to take over the dead man’s mission to deliver some secret documents to a highly important member of the British government. He immediately finds himself on the run, as the people who murdered his neighbor are now on his trail. Hannay encounters a variety of people on his journey, both friend and foe, and he relies on his instincts to tell him whom he can trust with his story. In some cases these instincts are right, while in others, they are very, very wrong. But somehow, he always manages to stay one step ahead of his pursuers as he searches for the mysterious location with the 39 steps, where the evildoers can all be captured in one fell swoop.

This is one of those books that’s fun to read as a historical artifact, but I feel like it would never be published today. Spy thrillers are so popular in book, TV, and movie formats that audiences have become very sophisticated. The plot of this book may have been cutting-edge when it was published in 1915, but for a modern reader, it’s pretty predictable and really strains credulity at times. Hannay’s actual mission isn’t important; the dramatic tension in the book comes from the fact that he’s being followed, as well as the fact that some pursuers are actually lying in wait for him. There is one pretty suspenseful scene near the end where Hannay is in a room with the suspected evildoers, and he’s suddenly struck with self-doubt: are these people actually the bad guys, or has he been imagining the whole thing? But I did mentally roll my eyes at Hannay several times, as he basically blurts out the entire story to everyone he meets without once stopping to wonder, “Should I actually trust this person?” Still, despite its flaws, I did find the book entertaining and would consider reading more of Hannay’s adventures. I also need to check out the Hitchcock movie now!

Review: Darkness at Pemberley

Darkness at PemberleyT.H. White, Darkness at Pemberley

This mystery novel begins at Cambridge, where a history don and an undergraduate are nearly simultaneously found shot in their rooms. The local police are called, and Inspector Buller is assigned to investigate. At first it appears that the don murdered the student and then killed himself, but Buller notices a few oddities in the don’s rooms that contradict this murder-suicide theory. He subsequently uncovers a drug scandal in the college and eventually discovers the real murderer’s identity. Unfortunately, the murderer has a cast-iron alibi, so Buller is forced to let the man go free. Buller then goes to visit his friend Charles Darcy at Pemberley and tells him about the murders. Charles, enraged by this injustice, goes to Cambridge to threaten the murderer. When Buller discovers this, he is terrified, knowing that the murderer will now come after Charles in retaliation. Almost immediately, strange things begin to happen at Pemberley, and Buller is convinced that the murderer is hiding somewhere in the house or grounds. Can he catch the murderer before his friend becomes the next victim?

Obviously, I was drawn to this book because of the title; any Austen fan will immediately recognize Pemberley as the name of Mr. Darcy’s grand estate in Pride and Prejudice. Sadly, from my point of view, there’s very little connection to Austen’s novel in this book, except that the current inhabitants of the house are still called Darcy. But this is still a very interesting and suspenseful book, despite the fact that it’s a bit schizophrenic. The first part of the book seems like a traditional locked-room mystery, and the solution is both complicated and ingenious. But as I mentioned, the murderer’s identity is discovered fairly early in the book. The novel then shifts to more of a suspense/thriller, as the inhabitants of Pemberley wait for the murderer to make his move so that they can catch him. The novel genuinely creeped me out in places; the idea of being trapped in a maze of a house, with someone pursuing you whom you can’t see, is absolutely claustrophobic and terrifying to me! So if you enjoy that kind of thing, I definitely recommend this book!

Review: The Paris Winter

Paris Winter, TheImogen Robertson, The Paris Winter

In November 1909, young Englishwoman Maud Heighton is in Paris pursuing her dream of becoming a painter. She studies at Lafond’s Academie, one of the few respectable art studios that is open to women. However, despite having some talent as an artist, Maud is living in extreme poverty and will soon have to choose between starving or returning to her family in England, which would be an admission of failure. Fortunately, Maud befriends Tatiana Koltsova, a fellow student at the Academie who is friendly, charming, and rich. Tanya takes Maud under her wing and eventually helps her to get a job as an English tutor for the Morel family. Both Sylvie Morel and her older brother Christian seem eager for Maud to accept their job offer, which includes room and board. But while Maud accepts the job gratefully, she can’t help feeling that it’s a little too good to be true. And the more she learns about the Morels, the more sinister they appear, until eventually she must seek out Tanya’s help to extricate herself from an unbearable situation.

I love historical fiction and was intrigued by the premise of this book, but I ended up with mixed feelings about it. First, I did love the setting, especially because it depicts a less glamorous version of Paris than many other books and movies do. Although Maud comes from the English gentry, she is forced to live a much more bohemian life in Paris, befriending people from each extreme of the class spectrum. And because she is not rich, she doesn’t have much opportunity to participate in the exciting, glamorous activities one usually associates with Paris during the Belle Époque. However, I wasn’t particularly invested in Maud as a character or in the plot involving her relationship with the Morels. It moved very slowly and eventually became a psychological thriller, which isn’t quite what I expected when I picked up the book. I thought both Tanya and Yvette, the artists’ model at the Academie, were more interesting characters, and I wish the book had focused more on their stories. That said, I did like the book’s denouement, which takes place during the great Paris flood of 1910. I would recommend this book to fans of historical fiction, but it’s not my favorite offering in the genre.

Review: The Lady Vanishes

Lady Vanishes, TheEthel Lina White, The Lady Vanishes

Iris Carr is a privileged young Englishwoman enjoying a holiday somewhere in Europe with a large group of friends. But when her crowd is ready to leave, Iris decides to stay an extra day and enjoy the beauties of the mountains by herself. When she boards the train to go home, she is immediately isolated from the other passengers because she doesn’t speak the native language. So when a talkative English spinster named Miss Froy introduces herself, Iris is glad to have the company, even though Miss Froy is rather a bore. After a long chat, Iris takes a nap in her compartment; but when she wakes up, Miss Froy is gone! Eventually she begins to worry, so she finds a young Englisman to act as interpreter and ask the other passengers where Miss Froy went. To Iris’ shock, they all claim not to remember Miss Froy and say Iris must be imagining things. Iris knows she didn’t imagine Miss Froy, but without any evidence to the contrary, how can she be sure? And if the lady does exist, why won’t anyone admit to seeing her?

Recently I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes” and really enjoyed it, but I had no idea it was based on a book! I’m glad I discovered the novel, though, because with all due deference to Hitchcock, the book is better. While the movie is a somewhat straightforward thriller, the book has more psychological tension because it keeps you in the dark about Iris’ mental state for much longer. Are the other passengers involved in some sort of unlikely but sinister conspiracy, meaning that she and Miss Froy are both in danger? Or, perhaps even worse, is Iris having a mental breakdown and imagining the whole thing? Either way, she’s trapped in a nightmarish situation, and the book does an excellent job of heightening this tension. I also think the book’s ending is better than the movie’s; while the film ends with a dramatic shootout, the novel has a much more subtle conclusion. So I would definitely recommend this novel to anyone who likes psychological thrillers, especially if you’ve seen or plan to see the movie!

Review: The Shadow of the Wind

Shadow of the Wind, TheCarlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind (trans. Lucia Graves)

When Daniel Sempere is ten years old, his father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time. There he must choose one book that calls to him, and it will be his job to protect it forever. Daniel chooses a novel called The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax, unaware that this simple decision will alter the entire course of his life. Daniel reads the book and loves it, so he tries to find other novels by Carax, only to discover that there are none. Someone is systematically destroying every copy of every book Julián Carax ever wrote, and he is calling himself Laín Coubert, one of Carax’s names for the devil. As Daniel comes of age in mid-20th-century Barcelona, he makes it his mission to discover who is destroying Carax’s books and why. His quest leads him to a long-buried secret involving friendship, passion, madness, and true love. But the more deeply Daniel digs into Carax’s mysterious background, the more he discovers parallels to his own life, and the more danger he finds himself in.

This is one of those books that just didn’t grab me, for some reason. I found myself able to put it down for days at a time, and when I finally did power through it, my mind kept wandering. But I don’t quite understand why, becasue I honestly liked a lot of things about this book! First of all, I’m now dying to visit Barcelona because of the vivid descriptions of its streets, neighborhoods, and restaurants. I also enjoyed the almost Dickensian depictions of the secondary characters, like this one:

His mouth was glued to a half-smoked cigar that seemed to grow out of his mustache. It was hard to tell whether he was asleep or awake, because he breathed like most people snore.

The plot is fairly melodramatic, but it’s undeniably interesting and full of event. Maybe I was a bit put off by the staggering number of coincidences connecting Daniel’s story to Carax’s, or maybe I didn’t like the portrayal of the female characters (who are basically nothing more than male fantasies). Ultimately, I just didn’t connect that much to the story or characters, so it was an effort for me to finish the book.

Review: The Hunter

Hunter, TheRichard Stark, The Hunter

This book introduces Parker, a criminal whose combination of street smarts and brute force has enabled him to live comfortably on the proceeds from his thefts. But his life is fundamentally disrupted when a job goes awry and one of his partners double-crosses him. Now Parker is consumed with thoughts of revenge, and he’ll do anything to catch up with Mal Resnick, the man who stole both his money and his wife. Parker uses a variety of tactics, including intimidation and murder, to track Mal down; meanwhile, Mal learns that Parker is on his trail and tries desperately to escape his clutches. Parker’s task is made more complicated by the fact that Mal is a memeber of an extremely influential crime syndicate called the Outfit, and the Outfit isn’t inclined to let Parker have his way. In order to exact his revenge, Parker must eventually go up against the whole organization; but will killing Mal sign his own death warrant?

While I enjoy the occasional film noir or con movie, I don’t tend to like the noir genre in book form. I tend to prefer my mysteries a little less violent, with a more clearly defined moral code (i.e., the killer is the bad guy). This book has a very cynical tone and a protagonist with few, if any, redeeming qualities. Frankly, I found Parker horrifying, especially in his violent treatment of women and his casual approach to killing anyone who gets in his way. Yet I actually ended up enjoying this book! I liked the writing style, which doesn’t waste any words and gets straight to the point. I also really enjoyed watching the story unfold: the book alternates from Parker’s story in the present to the story of the job that went wrong. Additionally, it was fascinating to see how Parker’s situation changes throughout the novel, as his quest for vengeance against one man turns into a war against the entire Outfit. If I’m ever in the mood for a darker mystery, I may even continue with this series!

There are also two film adaptations of the book, “Point Blank” (1967, starring Lee Marvin) and “Payback” (1999, starring Mel Gibson). I haven’t seen either of them, but I think this story would translate really well to film! Has anyone seen either of these movies, and if so, would you recommend them?

Review: In the Woods

In the WoodsTana French, In the Woods

Detective Rob Ryan and his partner, Cassie Maddox, are two up-and-coming detectives on the Dublin Murder Squad. But Ryan is hiding a secret about his past: his real name is Adam Ryan, and when he was 12 years old, his two best friends vanished in the woods of Knocknaree without a trace. Ryan was even with them at the time, but he has no memory of what happened to them — or why they disappeared while he was found. Ryan has apparently done a good job of recovering from this trauma and moving on with his life, but he is deeply shaken when he and Cassie are assigned to another case in Knocknaree, where a young girl has been murdered. As Ryan returns to his hometown and is confronted with memories he didn’t even know he had, he wonders whether the girl’s murder is connected to his own past. Ultimately, Ryan knows that this case will have deep personal importance for him — but will it make his career or destroy it?

I’m having a hard time collecting my thoughts on this book. At first I thought I wasn’t going to like it at all — in fact, I almost gave up after the flowery prologue — but eventually I got completely sucked in. The strongest aspect of the book, for me, was the relationship between Ryan and Cassie. Ryan isn’t a particularly likable character, but the bond between him and Cassie is so strong that you can’t help feeling he must be a pretty good guy after all. The way this relationship evolves and changes throughout the book kept me riveted. The novel’s narrative structure also creates a lot of suspense: Ryan is the narrator, and he says right from the start that he tells lies. So I was constantly wondering whether he was lying about certain things, and I became really invested in both mysteries as a result. That said, the book’s ending drove me a little crazy: some things made me sad, others frustrated me, and others I actually liked a lot. So I’m still undecided about this book; but I am glad I read it, and I will certainly be reading The Likeness at some point as well!