Mini-Reviews: Proposal, Peculiar, Royal

Mary Balogh, The Proposal

This is the first book in the Survivors’ Club series, which centers around seven individuals who have endured wounds (both physical and mental) in the Napoleonic Wars. Hugo Emes, the son of a merchant, is lauded as a war hero, but he feels guilty for leading his men into a deadly battle which few survived. He is looking for a practical, capable wife of his own class; too bad he’s instead drawn to the beautiful, aristocratic, and (he thinks) flighty and arrogant Gwendoline, Lady Muir. Gwen is similarly attracted, despite finding Hugo coarse and uncompromising. Together they must decide whether and how to make a relationship work. I always enjoy Balogh’s romances; she writes about people who have been through some hard life experiences and who find peace and healing as well as love. I found Hugo’s bluntness and social awkwardness endearing, and I liked Gwen as well (although I felt she was less interesting than Hugo). Overall, this novel didn’t blow me away, but I enjoyed it quite a bit and will certainly continue with the series.

Ashley Weaver, A Peculiar Combination

In this World War II mystery, safecracker Ellie McDonnell is caught stealing jewelry; but instead of arresting her, her captor, Major Ramsey, offers her a deal. Ramsey is with British intelligence, and he needs Ellie’s expertise to break into the safe of a suspected German spy. But when Ellie and Ramsey discover the suspect dead and the contents of the safe missing, they must team up to find what was stolen and uncover the murderer. This is a fun book that combines mystery, period detail, and a hint of romance. It’s not life-changing, but I found it a solid, enjoyable read. The main mystery is solved, but since this is a series opener, there are a lot of loose ends, including a love triangle and a mystery involving Ellie’s dead mother. I’m definitely intrigued enough to read the next book when it comes out!

Sharon Shinn, Royal Airs

Rafe Adova lives in the slums of Chialto, the capital city of Welce, where he makes a precarious living by playing cards. A chance encounter with Princess Josetta, however, changes his destiny. As Rafe and Josetta get to know each other better, they fall in love; but the intrigues of Chialto’s court and the mystery of Rafe’s identity may keep them apart. I found this sequel to Troubled Waters somewhat disappointing, mostly because the main characters are so dull. Rafe is a charming card sharp for approximately one chapter, and then he becomes a boring nonentity. Josetta’s main traits are disliking court life and being a saintly do-gooder (she runs a homeless shelter in the slums). However, the book picks up with some exciting plot toward the end, and there are many interesting secondary characters (as well as the welcome return of the main players from the first book). So I’ll continue with the series even though this book fell a bit flat.

Mini-Reviews: Lady, Flight, Velocipede

Eliza Casey, Lady Takes the Case

The lady of the title is Lady Cecilia Bates, the daughter of an old, aristocratic family that has fallen on hard times. To keep the estate functioning, her brother, Patrick, needs to marry a rich woman; luckily, American heiress Annabel Clarke has agreed to attend their house party. All seems to be going according to plan until one of the other guests, a famous explorer, is poisoned over dinner. When Patrick appears to be the police’s main suspect, Cecilia decides to launch her own investigation, along with Annabel’s intelligent maid, Jane, and a little help from Jane’s cat. I liked this book and think it would appeal to fans of Downton Abbey, but I think the setting and characters are definitely more interesting than the mystery. I’m not sure I care enough to read the sequel; another book in a similar vein is Alyssa Maxwell’s Murder Most Malicious, and I’d rather continue with Maxwell’s series.

Jean-Pierre Gibrat, Flight of the Raven

I’m not generally a big graphic novel fan; I’m not a very visual person, and my tendency is to go straight for the text without really absorbing the illustrations. But this GN drew me in with its World War II setting, French Resistance heroine, and cat burglar hero, not to mention the absolutely gorgeous art! The overarching plot — in which the heroine, Jeanne, searches for her missing sister and worries about a traitor within her Resistance cell — is not particularly well fleshed out, but it’s really just an excuse for her to team up with the cat burglar and the other quirky characters she meets along the way. Overall, I did like this and would recommend it to people who enjoy both historical fiction and graphic novels.

Emily June Street, The Velocipede Races

In an invented world similar to late Victorian England, velocipede racing is both a popular sport and the only socially acceptable way for upper-class men to earn money. Women, of course, don’t participate and are not even supposed to ride velos in private. Nevertheless, Emmeline Escot has always dreamed of racing, and she’s determined not to let social conventions get in her way. Complications ensue, however, when she is inadvertently “compromised” by a rich stranger and forced to marry. I picked up this book knowing very little about it, so I’m happy to say I enjoyed it! But I think my favorite parts were honestly the interactions between Emmeline and her new husband; their relationship interested me a lot more than the descriptions of velo racing, and I found Emmeline’s obsession with the races a little tedious. Still, I think this one is worth reading if you like historical romance with a strong (and not terribly subtle) feminist message.

Mini-Reviews: Graces, Proposal, News

D.E. Stevenson, The Four Graces

The titular four graces are the four daughters of Mr. Grace, the vicar of the village of Chevis Green. They’re all pretty and intelligent, though Liz is the most outgoing, Sal is the most bookish, and Tilly is the shyest. (Addie, the youngest, is barely on page.) The girls are quite happy until the arrival of Aunt Rona, who’s snobbish and oblivious and determined to “manage” them all. As they wonder how to deal with her, they also take part in village life and consider their futures, especially after the arrival of two potential suitors. I always enjoy D.E. Stevenson’s books, and this one was a pleasant, low-stakes read, despite being set during World War II. I didn’t engage with it quite as much as I did with [Miss Buncle’s Book], although that could be partly because I have a cold at the moment. But I did enjoy the book and will likely revisit it at some point.

Melanie Dickerson, A Viscount’s Proposal

This Regency romance centers around Leorah, a spirited young lady who defies convention, and Edward, an uptight politician who hopes to become prime minister one day. Naturally, they dislike each other immensely, but their feelings change as they get to know one another better. Meanwhile, someone is trying to kill Edward, but no one knows who or why. This was my first book by this author, and I was underwhelmed. The setting doesn’t really ring true (I suspect a lot of historical details are wrong), and the writing style is awkward and inauthentic. The “mystery” plot is paper-thin, and I was expecting more because this book is part of the Regency Spies of London series. There is literally no spying at all! This is a quick read but a bland one, and I won’t be seeking out more books by Dickerson.

Paulette Jiles, News of the World

Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd has lived through three wars and raised two daughters, but now he may face his toughest challenge yet. Johanna Leonberger is a 10-year-old white girl who was captured by Kiowa warriors four years ago and has been living among their people ever since. She’s just been “rescued,” and Captain Kidd is tasked with taking her to her relatives near San Antonio. But Johanna views the Kiowa as her people and doesn’t want to leave. Moreover, there are many dangers along the way, including Kiowa and Comanche raiders, the US Army, hostile townspeople, and opportunists exploiting the lawless American West of the 1870s. I loved this book! The writing style is sparse yet evocative, and the slow evolution of the captain’s relationship with Johanna is touching in its restraint. The book manages to include a lot of interesting history without being too expository or preachy. I would strongly recommend this to lovers of historical fiction, and I know I’ll be seeking out more of Jiles’s books!

Mini-Reviews: Return, Museum, Time

Megan Whalen Turner, Return of the Thief

***Warning: SPOILERS for previous books in the series!***

This last installment of the Queen’s Thief series finds the kingdoms of Attolia, Eddis, and Sounis banding together to defend themselves against the inevitable Mede invasion. The events are chronicled by Pheris Erondites, grandson of the traitorous baron whose machinations in Attolian politics are far from over. Pheris is physically disabled and mute, but he is also clever and observant. When he becomes one of Eugenides’s attendants, he gets a front-row seat to the action and even finds that he has a role to play. I don’t have much to say about this book, except that it’s a fitting end to a fantastic series. If you’ve loved the previous books, you won’t be disappointed! I did wish Costis and Kamet had a little bit more to do in this installment, since they were the focus of the last one; but that’s a very small complaint about an otherwise wonderful book. This series will definitely live on my keeper shelf to be revisited many times in the future!

John Rowland, Murder in the Museum

Mild-mannered Henry Fairhurst is working in the British Museum Reading Room when he notices that one of his neighbors has fallen asleep. His heavy snoring is attracting attention, so Henry attempts to wake him up — only to discover that the man has stopped breathing and died. When Inspector Shelley of Scotland Yard discovers that the man was poisoned, Henry becomes an important witness and uses his enthusiasm for detection to help Inspector Shelley solve the case. Along the way, they encounter a blackmail scheme, a pair of young lovers, a kidnapping, and more suspicious deaths. I liked the writing style of this book (straightforward and occasionally humorous) and found it a quick and easy read, but I wasn’t terribly excited about the mystery. I’m not sure it’s “fair play,” and the solution didn’t quite satisfy me. I did like that there was one seemingly significant event that turned out to be a coincidence; that doesn’t often happen in detective novels, but it’s very true to life! Overall, this particular book isn’t a keeper for me, but I’d definitely read more by this author.

Diana Wynne Jones, A Tale of Time City

It’s the beginning of World War II, and Vivian Smith is being evacuated from London to the English countryside to escape the Blitz. Her cousin is supposed to meet her at the train station, but instead she is kidnapped by two boys, Jonathan and Sam. They take her to Time City, a place outside history whose residents are tasked with observing history and making sure it doesn’t go off the rails. But something is going wrong, and Jonathan and Sam are convinced that Vivian can somehow put it right — except they’ve kidnapped the wrong Vivian Smith! Diana Wynne Jones can do no wrong, and I enjoyed this time travel adventure, although I found the plot hard to follow at first. Fortunately, everything came together in the end, and I very much enjoyed Vivian’s narrative voice. Recommended for fans of the author.

Mini-Reviews: Gentleman, Goodbye, First

Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow

In 1922, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is arrested and tried for the crime of being an aristocrat. But because he once wrote a poem with a revolutionary message, he isn’t immediately killed; instead, he is sentenced to house arrest for life in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel. As Alexander lives out his days in the Metropol, he befriends a variety of people, including hotel employees, Party officials, a beautiful actress, and (most significantly) a solemn young girl named Nina. Despite the turbulent political situation in the country as a whole, this novel focuses on one man’s life as he adapts to extraordinary circumstances. Like everyone else, I loved this book! The pace is slow, and there aren’t many dramatic events, but it felt like real life to me. There are some delicious satirical jabs at the broader political situation in Russia/the USSR, but the novel focuses primarily on Alexander’s own experiences. I would definitely recommend this to anyone who enjoys historical fiction!

Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, and Karen White, All the Ways We Said Goodbye

This is one of those historical novels with multiple storylines set in three different time periods. In 1914, Aurélie de Courcelles abandons her luxurious life with her mother at the Paris Ritz and runs to her father’s ancestral home, which is later invaded by German soldiers. In 1942, Daisy Villon is primarily concerned with keeping herself and her children safe in occupied France, but she is eventually drawn into the resistance effort and an illicit love affair. And in 1964, Babs Langford travels from England to Paris in search of information about her deceased husband’s war years. Overall, I liked this book and found it entertaining; there’s a lot of drama and excitement to keep the pages turning, and I do love a good WW2 spy plot. On the other hand, the plot twists and “reveals” are quite predictable. And while I liked all three stories, I think they were a little much for one book; perhaps the authors should have eliminated the 1964 story and focused on the other two in greater depth. As I said, I enjoyed the book overall, but I didn’t like it as much as these authors’ previous book, The Glass Ocean.

Kate Clayborn, Love at First

Nora Clarke loves her Chicago apartment building; her happiest childhood memories were spent there with her grandmother, and she’s known and loved her neighbors all her life. So when the building’s owner dies and his nephew, Will Sterling, inherits it, Nora is terrified that things will change. In fact, Will has no interest in owning or living in the building, so he decides to rent out his uncle’s unit to short-term tenants. Aghast, Nora is determined to stop him; but the more time she spends trying to persuade Will, the more she is attracted to him. I was a bit nervous about this book since I enjoyed Love Lettering so much, but thankfully I ended up loving this one too! I liked that the characters actually move on from the apartment conflict pretty quickly; they each come to understand the other’s position and are both willing to compromise. The real obstacles to their relationship are their fears and insecurities, which I found very realistic. I was rooting so hard for Will and Nora, and I enjoyed the quirky secondary characters as well (Will’s buttoned-up boss might be my favorite). And as with Love Lettering, I adored Kate Clayborn’s writing style. Fans of contemporary romance with minimal drama, where people actually deal with their problems like adults, should definitely check out this author!

Mini-Reviews: Never, Alice, Bargain

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go

On the threshold of a big change in her life, narrator Kathy looks back on her youth at Hailsham, a prestigious British boarding school, and on her friends Ruth and Tommy, whom she met there. As Kathy tells her story, it slowly becomes obvious that there is something different about Hailsham and its students. But only now, as an adult, does Kathy truly understand how her experiences at Hailsham have shaped the course of her life. I really liked the first 75 percent of this book, but I felt it petered out toward the end. The meat of the book is the relationships between Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy, which I found complex, interesting, and poignant. The speculative-fiction elements of the book, by contrast, didn’t interest me much, and because the ending has to deal with those elements, I think it’s not as strong as the rest of the novel. Still, I did like the book overall and would recommend it to fans of The Remains of the Day.

Kate Quinn, The Alice Network

In 1947, American coed Charlie Sinclair is desperate for some news of her cousin Rose, who has lost touch with her family after the war. Charlie’s search leads her to Eve Gardiner, a curmudgeonly older woman who agrees to help her for a price; but Charlie soon learns that Eve has an ulterior motive. In 1915, the young and pretty Eve is recruited as a British spy. She is sent to a small town in France to pose as a waitress in a restaurant popular with the occupying German troops. The book switches between Charlie’s story and Eve’s until their two quests converge in the late 1940s. I enjoyed this book — it’s well written with an exciting plot and likable characters — but I didn’t LOVE it, and honestly I’m not sure why. I definitely think that fans of historical fiction would enjoy it!

Jane Ashford, The Bargain

When the Prince Regent believes he’s being haunted by the ghost of actress Bess Harding, he calls on Lord Alan Gresham for help. Alan is the sixth son of a duke, but he has no taste for high society; he’d rather be conducting scientific experiments at Oxford than mingling with the prince’s crowd and hunting for a nonexistent ghost. But Alan’s scientific investigation is complicated by Ariel Harding, Bess’s daughter, who is desperately seeking a reason for her mother’s suicide. Passionate, headstrong, and emotional, Ariel is a menace to Alan’s logical and orderly life. Too bad he also finds her infuriatingly attractive. I wasn’t sure I would like this book at first — Alan is SUCH a jerk in his attitude toward women. To him, they’re all flighty, hysterical, and incapable of logical reasoning. But he eventually realizes the error of his ways, including that Ariel is not the only woman capable of rational thought, so he won me over by the end. I also loved how Alan’s relationships with his brothers change throughout the book, and how Ariel helps them all with their romantic difficulties. I almost wanted a sequel by the end! Recommended for fans of Regency fluff, and I might try more by this author in the future.

Mini-Reviews: Brittany, Thing, Diamonds

Assignment in BrittanyJust One Damned Thing after AnotherDiamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend

Helen MacInnes, Assignment in Brittany

Martin Hearne, a British intelligence agent, has just been given a new assignment. He happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to Bertrand Corlay, a Frenchman recuperating in an English hospital after the evacuation of Dunkirk. His job will be to impersonate Corlay and go “home” to the village of Saint-Déodat in Brittany, where he will research the movements of the occupying German troops. Of course, complications ensue as Hearne meets Corlay’s family, shelters an American journalist, and has several unpleasant run-ins with the Nazis. His situation becomes even more precarious when he realizes that the real Corlay hasn’t been entirely truthful with him. I really enjoyed this suspenseful and entertaining book. It’s all the more remarkable because the novel was published in 1942, when the outcome of the war was far from certain. Definitely recommended for fans of spy and/or World War II novels.

Jodi Taylor, Just One Damned Thing after Another

When Madeleine “Max” Maxwell is recruited to join the St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research, she gets a lot more than she bargained for: the historians of St. Mary’s “investigate major historical events in contemporary time” — in other words, time travel! Max embraces the concept wholeheartedly and soon proves herself adept at her new job. But when a trip to the late Cretaceous goes horribly wrong, Max learns that another group of time travelers is wreaking havoc with history, and the St. Mary’s gang will have to stop them in order to protect both the past and the future. This book is a fun romp, although Max is one of those heroines who’s annoyingly good at everything. I found the present timeline hard to follow; the book starts with Max arriving at St. Mary’s, but it seems like several months (or years?) pass without really being acknowledged. There’s also a graphic sex scene that I could have done without. Despite these quibbles, though, I did enjoy the book and will most likely continue with the series.

Jenny Colgan, Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend

This chick lit novel is about Sophie Chesterton, a shallow socialite whose life is upended when her father dies, and the terms of his will state that she must earn her own living for six months before receiving her inheritance. Sophie moves into a dirty flat in South London with four guys, attempts to pursue her interest in photography, and falls for not one but two of her roommates. Normally I really enjoy Jenny Colgan’s novels, but this one was disappointing. Sophie does grow throughout the book, but she’s so awful in the beginning that it’s hard to completely buy her redemption. I also didn’t find the romance angle satisfying; the outcome seemed to come out of the blue, so that I had no chance to become invested. I still recommend Colgan’s books in general, but this one just wasn’t for me.

Mini-reviews: Henrietta’s, Matrimonial, Austen

Henrietta's WarMatrimonial AdvertisementAusten Escape

Joyce Dennys, Henrietta’s War: News from the Home Front 1939-1942

I greatly enjoyed this charming epistolary novel, which is both written and set during World War II. The titular Henrietta writes to her childhood friend Robert, who is off fighting somewhere in France, and describes daily life in her rural English village. Despite the constant presence of the war in the background, Henrietta mostly focuses on the mundane, humorous aspects of life. A pleasant and uplifting book.

Mimi Matthews, The Matrimonial Advertisement

Last year I read Matthews’s novella, A Holiday by Gaslight, and enjoyed it so much that I wanted to seek out some of her full-length novels. This one, the first in her Parish Orphans of Devon series, is a “proper” Victorian romance (i.e., no explicit content) that centers around a marriage of convenience. Justin needs a wife to manage his remote, secluded estate, and Helena needs a safe place to hide from her past. The book definitely justified my high expectations, and I can’t wait to continue with the series!

Katherine Reay, The Austen Escape

I’ve read one other book by Reay, Dear Mr. Knightley, and I wasn’t a huge fan. But when I got this novel as a gift, I decided to give the author another chance. Unfortunately, I didn’t like this book either — something about the writing style just grates on my nerves. I also found the heroine obnoxious and unsympathetic, and I have no idea what her love interest saw in her. I was frankly appalled by one major plot point: the heroine’s best friend, who has a history of mental health issues, starts to believe she’s living in Jane Austen’s time…and nobody seems to think this is something that needs immediate medical attention! So all in all, I wasn’t a fan, and I’m pretty sure I’m done with this author.

Review: Dear Mrs. Bird

Dear Mrs. BirdAJ Pearce, Dear Mrs. Bird

In 1940 London, Emmeline Lake is determined to do her bit for the war effort. She volunteers at a local fire station, but she dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent, diving into the midst of the action to get a big story. When she sees an advertisement for a job at the Evening Chronicle, she jumps at the chance, only to realize that she’s actually applied for a job with Mrs. Bird’s advice column at Woman’s Friend magazine. Her main duty is to sort through the letters that come to Mrs. Bird and throw away any that mention “unpleasantness.” But Emmy can’t help thinking that these women ought to be helped; and when Mrs. Bird refuses to respond to their letters, Emmy decides to take matters into her own hands. In the meantime, as bombs continue to fall on London, the war affects the lives of Emmy and her friends in profound ways.

The voice of this novel hooked me from the very beginning. Emmy is young, somewhat naive, and relentlessly cheerful, and I really enjoyed her as a narrator and protagonist. (Her quirky voice may not be for everyone, but you’ll know within the first couple of pages whether it’s for you or not.) I also loved Emmy’s relationship with her best friend Bunty, which turned out to be a much bigger focus of the novel than I was expecting. Even though I love a good romance, it’s refreshing to read a book in which the most significant relationship is a friendship. The secondary characters are also delightful, particularly Emmy’s colleague and mentor, Mr. Collins. (I may or may not have developed a crush on him . . . but sadly, Emmy’s romantic destiny appears to lie elsewhere.) Overall, I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to people who like their World War II fiction on the lighter side, à la The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Review: Crooked Heart

Crooked Heart.jpgLissa Evans, Crooked Heart

In this novel set during World War II, Noel Bostock is a precocious 10-year-old boy who lives with his strong, intelligent godmother, Mattie. But his life changes dramatically when Mattie begins to exhibit signs of dementia, just as children are being evacuated from London under the threat of bombing. Noel is sent to the country to live with Vera Sedge, a middle-aged woman desperately trying to make ends meet, who only takes him in for the sake of the small government stipend she’ll receive. Vera plans to make some money by pretending to collect donations for the war effort, but her high-strung, panicky nature makes her fairly unsuccessful — until Noel shocks her by offering to help.

I love a good World War II novel, and this is one of the most unique ones I’ve read so far. What makes it different is that the main characters are not heroes. In fact, what Vera and Noel do in this book is pretty despicable: they lie to people, playing on their feelings of patriotism and compassion, and steal their money. Even without their illegal scheme, neither character is particularly likable at first. But somehow this book peels back their layers and makes them understandable, even sympathetic. Both Vera and Noel are completely alone and very guarded as a result, but this novel shows them slowly coming closer together. I enjoy “found family” narratives, and this one definitely qualifies! So I would recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in the period or the premise.

Also, this book has no epigraph, but I’m fairly certain the title is from the W.H. Auden poem “As I Walked Out One Evening”: “You shall love your crooked neighbour / With your crooked heart.” Which perfectly sums up the theme of the book, in my opinion!