Mini-reviews: Fête, Tide, Red, Battle

Fête Worse Than Death, AAngry Tide, The

Dolores Gordon-Smith, A Fête Worse than Death — Jack Haldean, former World War I pilot and current crime writer, becomes involved in a real murder investigation when an old wartime acquaintance turns up at the village fête and is later found dead in the fortune teller’s tent. Jack is convinced that the man’s death is somehow connected to a mysterious scandal from the war, and his investigation soon reveals that the commonly believed version of events is not the whole story. I quite enjoyed this book — Jack is a likable and sympathetic main character, and I appreciated the fact that he was willing to work with the police rather than against them. There’s also a good supporting cast that I suspect will recur in later books. Overall, I think this is a very solid start to a historical mystery series, and I’m glad that my library has several more of the books!

Winston Graham, The Angry Tide — ***Warning: spoilers for previous Poldark books.***

It’s funny — a number of dramatic events occur in this book, but nevertheless I feel like it’s a little short on plot! Ross is now a member of Parliament, which he has conflicting feelings about. He also makes yet another terrible impulsive decision, hurting Demelza but surprising no one. Ossie continues to be the world’s actual worst human being. Pascoe’s bank is in trouble, thanks to Warleggan skulduggery. Drake considers marriage. All in all, I’m happy with where things are at the end of this book and intrigued to see what will happen next!

Red-Rose Chain, AArabella and the Battle of Venus

Seanan McGuire, A Red-Rose Chain — Just as things are looking up for Toby and the gang, the Kingdom of Mists receives a declaration of war — and for some reason, the queen thinks Toby is the perfect person to stop said war from happening. Toby is appointed ambassador to the neighboring Kingdom of Silences and must find a way to convince King Rhys not to invade. But when Toby and her entourage arrive in Silences, they are shocked to discover various secrets the king is hiding. I’m a longtime fan of this series, and this book was a fun read as well, but I think my enthusiasm is beginning to wane. I’m still definitely invested enough to stick with the series until the end; I think I read somewhere that the 12th book will be the last. But I won’t be too upset when it’s over — it’s starting to feel like the characters are nearing the end of their journeys.

David D. Levine, Arabella and the Battle of Venus — ***Warning: spoilers for Arabella of Mars.***

This sequel to Arabella of Mars is just as much swashbuckling fun as the first book. Arabella learns that her beloved Capitan Singh has been captured by the French and imprisoned on Venus. She is determined to rescue him, so she obtains passage to Venus with roguish privateer Daniel Fox. When she arrives on the French-occupied planet, she sees how brutally the English prisoners and native Venusians are treated, and she hatches a daring escape plan under the very nose of Napoleon himself. I’m really enjoying this series and will definitely continue if and when a third book is released!

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: Somewhere in France

Somewhere in FranceJennifer Robson, Somewhere in France

Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford, known to friends and family as Lilly, has always felt stifled by her privileged upbringing. Though she’d like to go to university and embark on a career, it seems her only task in life will be to snare a rich, titled husband. Unfortunately, the only man to catch her eye is Robbie Frasier, a promising young surgeon whom her parents consider quite unsuitable. But with the outbreak of World War I, Lilly suddenly has access to a variety of new opportunities. Hoping to help with the war effort, she learns how to drive and eventually applies to the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, where she becomes an ambulance driver. Meanwhile, she carries on a clandestine correspondence with Robbie, who is working in a field hospital in France. When she and her colleagues are offered a chance to transport injured soldiers from the front lines, Lilly jumps at the chance to be reunited with Robbie. But will the tragic violence of this war ultimately separate them forever?

I picked up this book because I wanted to read something set in World War I for the centennial, but I wasn’t in the mood for something incredibly dark or depressing. Unfortunately, this book goes too far in the other direction; it’s a light, pleasant romance, but the World War I setting is a mere backdrop. I don’t need to read about the horrors of war in graphic detail, but I do want to feel that the characters are in real danger, that they must struggle against real obstacles, and that the war has left some kind of mark on them. Instead, even the descriptions of what Robbie sees on his makeshift operating table are bland, evoking no emotional response whatsoever. Part of the problem is that Lilly and Robbie are both such clichés: she is the naive and enthusiastic upper-class heroine, while he is the overprotective self-made hero. I just didn’t really care about either character, so I wasn’t invested in their romance at all. I was more interested in the secondary characters, Lilly’s brother Edward and her friend Charlotte — I’d love to read the story of their romance! Overall, this book isn’t a bad read, but it is completely and utterly forgettable.

Review: Letters from Skye

Letters from SkyeJessica Brockmole, Letters from Skye

This epistolary novel tells two parallel love stories, each set against the backdrop of a world war. In 1912, Scottish poet Elspeth Dunn receives a fan letter from David Graham, an exuberant young American. Elspeth replies to the letter, and she and Davey soon strike up a regular correspondence. At first they discuss literature and their favorite books, but soon they’re exchanging ideas about everything under the sun, including their most secret dreams. Unsurprisingly, Elspeth and Davey fall in love, but their romance is fraught with complications. When America enters World War I, Davey enlists immediately as an ambulance driver on the battlefields of France. Additionally, Elspeth is already married, so her stolen moments with Davey are as fleeting as they are precious. Meanwhile, in 1940, Elspeth’s daughter Margaret — also involved in a wartime romance — stumbles upon one of Davey’s letters and decides to search for the secrets in her mother’s past.

In theory, I should love this book, since it combines a lot of my favorite things: epistolary novel, WWI and WWII setting, love stories, family secrets. But while I found it an entertaining read, my overall experience was somewhat disappointing. First of all, the story is really about Elspeth and Davey, so the parts about Margaret felt very cursory and not fleshed out at all. I would have liked to know a lot more about her reactions to her mother’s secret, as well as the details of her own romance. Also, the story itself seems very superficial, given the gravity of the WWI backdrop. Even though I enjoy light romances with happy endings, I felt like this book lacked emotional stakes. Elspeth and Davey are likeable characters, and their letters are often very charming, but I was never in any real doubt about the end result of their story. Maybe part of my problem is that this book seems like a copycat of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, only not nearly as good! Overall, this book is a nice, quick read, but it won’t stay with me the way Guernsey has.

Review: Dreamers of the Day

Dreamers of the DayMary Doria Russell, Dreamers of the Day

This novel, set in the early 20th century, is narrated by Agnes Shanklin, a schoolteacher who has spent her entire life caring for her domineering mother. But when the influenza pandemic of 1918 carries off most of her family, including Mumma, Agnes finds herself unexpectedly inheriting a substantial sum of money. Though she is grieved by the multiple deaths in her family, she is also finally free from Mumma’s influence. Impulsively, she decides to see the world and books a trip to Egypt. There she meets several prominent British officers and diplomats, who are in Cairo to come to an agreement on Middle Eastern policy. Agnes is drawn into their social circle and mingles with the likes of Winston Churchill and Thomas Edward Lawrence, now famously known as “Lawrence of Arabia.” She also meets a German called Karl Weilbacher, who is handsome, kind, and attentive, but may not be all that he seems. Ultimately, the people Agnes meets and events she witnesses in Egypt will have a profound effect on the rest of her life.

After finally reading and loving Doc, I was eager to try another book by Mary Doria Russell. This one was very readable, and the insights into the Cairo Conference of 1921 were fascinating. It’s a historical event that still has obvious ramifications for our world today, covering issues such as a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the territorial boundaries of new nations like Iraq, and the amount of influence Western countries should continue to have in the Middle East. I enjoyed Russell’s depictions of real historical figures in this book, particularly Churchill, wo made me laugh even at his most exasperating. I didn’t like this novel nearly as much as Doc, however, mostly because I found it too preachy. Agnes is an extremely opinionated character, and due to a strange framing device in the novel, she narrates from a quasi-omniscient perspective. Because of this, she judges the events of her time from a 21st-century point of view, which I find very irritating in historical novels. And since Western involvement in the Middle East is still a very complex and controversial issue, I didn’t appreciate Agnes’ more simplistic perspective. But even though this aspect of the book rubbed me the wrong way, I think it’s still worth a read for people interested in the time period or in the creation of the modern Middle East.