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!

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Mini-reviews #10: A mixed bag

I’m still so far behind on both reading and reviewing. I’m still hoping to read six more books in December, but with just two weeks left, I’m not sure how possible that is! At any rate, I can at least try to catch up with the review backlog:

month-in-the-country-avanishing-thief-the

J.L. Carr, A Month in the Country — This quiet, deceptively simple novel is about a World War I veteran who spends a summer restoring a medieval mural in a village church. Nothing much happens, plot-wise, but the narrator (now an old man) remembers this summer as one of the only times in his life when he was truly happy. I really enjoyed this book, which contains some subtle humor despite its overall tone of melancholy, and I’m interested in reading more by Carr.

Kate Parker, The Vanishing Thief — I should have loved this book, which is about a female bookseller in the Victorian era who is also a member of a secret society of detectives. Unfortunately, I wasn’t a fan of the writing style, which I found choppy and clumsy, nor was I interested enough in any of the characters to continue with the series. The author does have another mystery series set in the 1930s, which I might try, but I’ll definitely be going in with more moderate expectations.

code-talkerthis-adventure-ends

Joseph Bruchac, Code Talker — This YA novel is told from the perspective of Ned Begay, a Navajo man who enlists in the Marines as a teenager and becomes a “code talker” during World War II. Although the writing style is a bit simplistic at times, the book presents a good introduction to the Navajo code talkers, and it made me want to read a lot more about them! I was also very touched by the book’s dedication:

This book is dedicated to those who have always, in proportion to their population, volunteered in the greatest numbers, suffered the most casualties, won the most Purple Hearts and decorations for valor, and served loyally in every war fought by the United States against foreign enemies, from the American Revolution to Afghanistan and Iraq–to the American Indian soldier.

Emma Mills, This Adventure Ends — I loved this book! It’s a YA contemporary novel that, while it contains a (very cute!) romance, primarily focuses on friendship. Main character Sloane has always been something of a loner, but when the charismatic Vera reaches out to her, she suddenly finds herself in the midst of a very tight-knit friend group. I found Sloane very relatable, though not always likable, and I really enjoyed all aspects of the story. Definitely recommended for people who like YA contemporaries — this is a fantastic example of the genre.

Mini-Reviews #7: Home stretch

You guys, I did it–I finally caught up with my review backlog! 🙂 I’m hoping to do a better job of keeping up with reviews in the future, and hopefully I can be better about visiting other people’s blogs, too! In the meantime, here’s my last batch of mini-reviews, at least for now:

This Savage SongBoy Is Back, The

Victoria Schwab, This Savage Song — Set in a future where the United States has disintegrated into tiny, isolated city-states, humans and monsters live under an uneasy truce that could snap at any moment. Kate Harker is a human teenager whose father ensures the safety of humans who are willing to pay for his protection. August Flynn is a monster capable of stealing a person’s soul through song, but he’s trying desperately not to give in to his frightening hunger. When August and Kate meet and become friends, they search for a way to keep the peace between monsters and humans. I liked this book a lot; the world-building is excellent, and both Kate and August are intriguing characters. Much of the novel is a setup for the planned sequels, so there’s not a lot of closure in the end (although there’s no cliffhanger per se). But I definitely liked this one enough to continue with the series–looking forward to book #2!

Meg Cabot, The Boy Is Back — I’m pretty sure it was Meg Cabot’s The Boy Next Door that originally got me into chick lit, so I jumped at the chance to read this latest installment in the series. Becky Flowers has made it big in her small town, but she’s never forgotten her high school sweetheart, the one who got away. Reed Stewart is said sweetheart, a professional golfer who left town after graduation and never came back. When he returns to help care for his ailing parents, he and Becky reconnect…and of course, we all know where this is going. I didn’t actually care too much about the central romance–“old flame” isn’t one of my favorite tropes–but I loved the humor and the colorful characters that surrounded Becky and Reed’s story. I also enjoyed the fact that it’s a modern epistolary novel, told entirely through texts, emails, and even online reviews. Definitely recommended for fans of light, fluffy chick lit.

Arabella of MarsEdenbrookeEveryone Brave Is Forgiven

David D. Levine, Arabella of Mars — Three words, y’all: Regency space opera! I loved the idea of combining 19th-century British society with space travel (they use sailing ships!). Ultimately, this is a really fun adventure story wherein Arabella, dressed as a boy, joins the crew of a ship bound for Mars. There’s a handsome captain, a possibly sentient automaton, a mutiny, and a Martian uprising, and it’s all good fun. If you like the premise, you’ll really enjoy this one!

Julianne Donaldson, Edenbrooke — As with Donaldson’s other novel, Blackmoore, I enjoyed this “proper” Regency romance. Marianne Daventry is invited to Edenbrooke along with her sister Cecily, who hopes to marry the heir to the estate. When Cecily is detained in London, Marianne goes to Edenbrooke alone, and she soon finds herself attracted to the handsome and charming Philip–not realizing that he is the very heir her sister is pursuing. This was an entertaining read, but I couldn’t help being impatient with Marianne; it takes her forever to realize that Philip is the heir, and even longer to accept the fact that she’s in love with him. The book is still a pleasant read, but Donaldson isn’t destined to become a favorite author.

Chris Cleave, Everyone Brave Is Forgiven — This novel is a tale of love and loss set during  the early years of World War II. Mary North is an idealistic, privileged young woman who thinks the war is a great adventure, until the Blitz forces her to confront its ugly realities firsthand. Tom Shaw is an educator who isn’t seduced by the glamor of war; he just wants to keep doing his job. And Alistair Heath is Tom’s best friend, who enlists right away but soon realizes that the war might take more than he is willing to give. I wasn’t sure I would like this book at first–the prose definitely has A Style, and I was worried it might get in the way–but I ultimately found it very compelling. There are a lot of heartbreaking moments, but there’s also some great banter and great friendships. Overall, I’d definitely recommend this one to fans of World War II novels.

Mini-Reviews #3: June Books, Part 1

Still making my way through my review backlog, so here are some more short ones:

Lilac GirlsUnexpected Everything, The

Martha Hall Kelly, Lilac Girls — For the past few years, I’ve really gravitated toward books set during World War II, especially those dealing with the “home front” experience rather than the actual fighting. So I think I wanted to like this book more than I did. I found the story of Kasia, a Polish girl imprisoned in Ravensbrück, to be the most compelling. I especially liked how the book follows her (and the other characters) long after the war is over and shows the psychological scars that still remain. But I didn’t like Caroline’s story at all; I found her the least interesting character, and the romance between her and Paul didn’t do anything for me. The book is worth reading if you like the time period, but I’d recommend Elizabeth Wein’s Rose Under Fire for a better book on Ravensbrück.

Morgan Matson, The Unexpected Everything — I’ve said it before, but it’s true: Morgan Matson writes the perfect summer reads! I really enjoyed this one, which centers around politician’s daughter Andie and a summer that doesn’t go quite according to plan. One of my favorite aspects of the book is that Andie has a really close group of girlfriends, and those relationships are just as important as her newfound romance. I’d definitely recommend this book as an adorable summer read, especially for those who enjoy YA.

Summer Before the War, TheDarker Shade of Magic, ACocaine Blues

Helen Simonson, The Summer Before the War — I really enjoyed this quiet, character-driven novel, although I wouldn’t recommend it to those who love lots of action and unpredictable twists. The plot (such as it is) centers around a young woman who moves to a rural English village to become the new Latin teacher. As one might expect, she meets with some resistance from the locals because of her youth and gender, but she also wins over some key players, including the unconventional Agatha Kent and her two nephews. Most of the book involves the resulting social politics, although the titular war (World War I) does intrude near the end.

V.E. Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic — This book hooked me from the first line: “Kell wore a very peculiar coat. It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible.” The novel is an exciting blend of fantasy and sci fi, combining magical artifacts with parallel universes. The hero is a conflicted, magic-wielding prince, and the heroine is a scrappy thief and would-be pirate. In short, I loved it and have already purchased book 2, A Gathering of Shadows!

Kerry Greenwood, Cocaine Blues — After watching and LOVING “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries,” I decided to pick up the first book in the series. Phryne is a wonderfully entertaining character: intelligent, rich, attractive, and determined to get the most out of life. I also really enjoyed the setting of 1920s Melbourne, where Phryne rubs elbows with all sorts of people, from wealthy blue bloods to socialist cab drivers to feisty maidservants. I did miss Inspector Jack Robinson, who apparently has a much smaller role in the books than he does in the TV series. I also didn’t care too much about the mystery, but I still liked the book for its setting and protagonist.

Review: War and Peace

War and PeaceLeo Tolstoy, War and Peace (trans. Anthony Briggs)

“Set against the sweeping panoply of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, War and Peace — presented here in the first new English translation in forty years — is often considered the greatest novel ever written. At its center are Pierre Bezukhov, searching for meaning in his life; cynical Prince Andrei, ennobled by wartime suffering; and Natasha Rostov, whose impulsiveness threatens to destroy her happiness. As Tolstoy follows the changing fortunes of his characters, he crafts a view of humanity that is both epic and intimate and that continues to define fiction at its most resplendent.” (Summary from Amazon.)

It took me more than three months to read this book, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. I feel a bit presumptuous in criticizing such a well-known classic, but certain parts of the novel worked for me much more than others. There’s a lot of social comedy in this book, which I loved! And I find the Napoleonic era fascinating, although I’ve only been exposed to it from a British point of view, so it was interesting to see that conflict from a Russian perspective. However, there are reasons most people never finish this book, and those reasons are: the overly long, mind-numbingly tedious descriptions of battles; philosophical digressions; and tirades about the right and wrong way to study history. I do think this book is worth reading once, but I’m glad I don’t ever have to read it again!

I also want to note that I liked the Briggs translation; it’s not as word-for-word accurate as the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation is rumored to be, but I suspect it’s more readable. Instead of footnoting the long French passages, Briggs just translates them directly into English, although he does note when certain characters are speaking French. I actually preferred this, but some readers may not. Also, the Briggs translation is pretty aggressively British; for example, some of the lower-class soldiers have Cockney accents! Again, I didn’t mind this, but I can see how others might. All in all, I’d recommend this translation for casual readers but maybe not for serious scholars.

Review: Coventry

CoventryHelen Humphreys, Coventry

On the evening of November 14, 1940, Harriet Marsh stands on the roof of the historic Coventry cathedral and marvels at the frost glittering beneath a full moon. But it is a bomber’s moon, and the Luftwaffe is coming to unleash destruction on the city. For Harriet; for the young fire watcher, Jeremy, standing beside her; and for his artist mother, Maeve, hiding in a cellar, this single night of horror will resonate for the rest of their lives. Coventry is a testament to the power of the human spirit, an honest and ultimately uplifting account of heartache transformed into compassion and love. (Summary from Amazon.com.)

Many World War II novels are sprawling epics that reflect the enormity of the tragedy, death, and suffering caused by the war. By contrast, this is a lovely little book that focuses on one specific event, the bombing of Coventry in 1940, and on three people whom the bombing affects in various ways. Harriet is the most fleshed-out (and therefore most sympathetic) character, but I was interested in all three stories and how they intersect. The novel is very understated in its description of the fear and pain the characters experience, which makes these emotions seem all the more vivid and raw. I was reminded of a quote by a musician I like: “Sometimes a sketch says more than a mural” (Grant-Lee Phillips on his album Ladies’ Love Oracle). This book is a sketch, but an effective one. I’d definitely recommend it to fans of World War II novels or historical fiction in general.

Review: Rook

RookSharon Cameron, Rook

Centuries after a shift in the Earth’s magnetic poles triggered an apocalyptic event, civilization has been rebuilt, but almost every form of technology is regarded with grave suspicion. In the Sunken City (formerly known as Paris), a revolution has established an oppressive new regime, and everyone who opposes it is ruthlessly executed. But one person dares to flout the authority of this new regime by stealing political prisoners away from their very jail cells: the Red Rook, who boldly leaves a crow’s feather tipped in red in the place of each escapee. No one suspects that the Red Rook is a teenage girl, Sophia Bellamy, who lives in the neighboring Commonwealth. With the help of her brother Tom, her friend Spear, and a small band of loyal friends, Sophia hopes to rescue as many doomed people from the Sunken City as she can. But her plans are complicated by her betrothal to the empty-headed social butterfly René Hasard. Despite her distrust of him, however, Sophia can’t help being attracted — especially when she discovers that his foppish persona might be an act. When a mission goes awry and Tom is captured, Sophia is forced to ask for René’s help, but can she really trust him?

Obviously, this book is an homage to one of my very favorite books, The Scarlet Pimpernel, but I was pleased to discover that it’s very much its own story. The basic idea of a daring rescuer with a secret identity is the same, but the plot diverges very significantly from the original story. I wouldn’t have minded a stricter retelling, but I’m glad this book was able to be inspired by the Pimpernel without simply copying it. I’m not sure how I feel about the science fiction elements; technically we’re in a post-apocalyptic world, but that doesn’t really seem to be necessary to the story, and it sometimes felt distracting. On the other hand, there are a few fun moments where the characters speak reverently about little bits of neon plastic, which are great treasures in this anti-technological world. Overall, I enjoyed both the action-filled plot and the romance, although the latter was a bit TOO romance-y for me (a little too much russet hair and piercing blue eyes and whatnot). I also think René’s true nature could have been left in a little more doubt, which would have increased the dramatic tension. But I did like this book a lot, and Pimpernel fans should definitely check it out!

Review: Double Cross

Double CrossBen Macintyre, Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies

Seventy years ago, the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy and began the campaign to liberate Nazi-occupied Europe. Many circumstances contributed to the success of the D-Day invasion, but one of the most important factors was the campaign of disinformation being fed to the Germans by a network of double agents whose sole purpose was to convince the Abwehr that the Allies would be landing at Calais rather than Normandy. Had these agents failed, the Germans would have concentrated their forces at Normandy, most likely stopping the Allied invasion in its tracks. This book tells the stories of the individual double agents involved in this task, including Serbian playboy Dusko Popov (“Tricycle”), Peruvian socialite Elvira Chaudoir (“Bronx”), and Polish nationalist Roman Czerniawski (“Valentine”). Ultimately, Macintyre makes a convincing case for the proposition that the Allies would never have won the war on the battlefields had they not already won the intelligence war.

This book gives a wealth of fascinating detail about the six men and women who acted as double agents in Britain, allegedly spying for Germany but really working for the Allies. I was shocked to learn that British intelligence had actually discovered and turned every German agent in Britain at the time! Because of this, the Allies were able to present a unified message to the Germans, subtlely directing their attention away from Normandy and toward other possible invasion sites. Some of the specific stories in the book prove once again that truth is stranger than fiction: for example, Dusko Popov thrived on creating networks of sub-agents that were entirely fictional, yet he retained the Abwehr’s complete trust. I also loved the fact that these double agents were handled in Britain by the Twenty Committee, so named because the Roman numeral for 20 is XX, or “double cross.” In short, if you’re interested in true stories of WWII-era espionage, Ben Macintyre is your man!

Review: Rose Under Fire

Rose Under FireElizabeth Wein, Rose Under Fire

Rose Justice is an American pilot who has just come to England to help with the war effort. Though women aren’t allowed to fly planes in combat, she is able to get a job with the Women’s Air Transport Auxiliary ferrying planes back and forth within Allied territory. At first Rose sees her work as a grand adventure, a fascinating change from her sheltered upbringing. But her life is instantly, horribly changed when she is captured by the Germans in the middle of a routine flight from France to England. She is immediately arrested and transported to the women’s concentration camp at Ravensbrück. There Rose confronts the hideous realities of this war for the first time, including the brutal scientific experiments performed on a group of young women known as “rabbits.” But depsite the horrific treatment Rose endures, she forges close bonds with a small group of fellow prisoners and somehow manages to hold onto hope.

This companion novel to Code Name Verity is equally powerful and moving, although it struck me in a very different way. I loved CNV for its suspense, its elements of espionage, and its intense portrayal of friendship. This book is not as suspenseful; we know from the start of Rose’s narrative about Ravensbrück that she is remembering her experiences after she has escaped. It’s also not as personal (if that’s the word I want) because while Rose forms incredibly close bonds with her fellow prisoners, the emphasis is less on individual relationships and more on the experience of Ravensbrück as a whole. Neverthless, this book did strike me on a very deep personal level. It’s easy to become a little desensitized to the atrocities committed by the Nazis, simply because we’ve heard about them so many times, but this book certainly made them vivid for me. The most horrifying thing is that similar atrocities are still occurring in parts of the world today. So this is not an easy read, but I think it’s a very important one.

Review: The Taliban Cricket Club

Taliban Cricket Club, TheTimeri N. Murari, The Taliban Cricket Club

The heroine of this novel is Rukhsana, an intelligent, independent young woman fighting for survival under the Taliban regime in Kabul. A former journalist, Rukhsana is no longer allowed to work, but she still manages to publish stories in foreign newspapers by using a pseudonym. When she is summoned to appear before a Taliban minister, she fears she’s been discovered; but to her surprise, the minister simply announces that Afghanistan will be holding a cricket tournament in three weeks, and the winning team will be leaving the country to compete with other teams around the world. Rukhsana seizes this opportunity to escape by convincing her brother and other male relatives to form a cricket team. Women are not allowed to play, but Rukhsana is familiar with the game from her time as a university student in Delhi. Will she be able to coach her team to victory and freedom, or will her rebellion have dire consequences for herself and her family?

This is a book I should have loved, and I’m a little confused about why it didn’t quite work for me. The premise is certainly compelling, and I was very interested in learning about daily life in Afghanistan under the Taliban. But while the picture Murari paints is certainly bleak, I didn’t connect to it on an emontional level; I believed the book’s depiction of a lives full of fear and oppression, but I didn’t feel it. The book frequently mentions that Rukhsana and her family are in grave danger, but we hardly ever see that danger firsthand, so the suspense doesn’t really build. I also think Rukhsana’s conflict is a bit too superficial or simplistic…she views the burka as a prison and hates the Taliban with every fiber of her being. Now, I’m not defending the Taliban, but I think having a little moral ambiguity in some of the characters would have made this a stronger novel. I did enjoy the contrast between the world of cricket, with its notions of order and fair play, and the world of war-torn Kabul. But overall, I was hoping to connect with this book more than I did.