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!

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: Byline, Chilbury, Swans, Duet

Good Byline, TheChilbury Ladies' Choir, The

Jill Orr, The Good Byline — When Riley Ellison learns that her childhood best friend Jordan has committed suicide, she’s both grieved and shocked. Jordan’s mother asks her to write the obituary, so Riley begins to investigate Jordan’s life. She soon becomes convinced that Jordan didn’t kill herself, and she teams up with a local journalist to discover the truth. Meanwhile, in an attempt to get over being dumped by her long-term boyfriend, she subscribes to an online dating service, with entertaining results. I have to say, I enjoyed the chick lit aspects of this novel much more than the mystery aspects—Regina H., Personal Romance Concierge, was a delight! But the mystery was very predictable, and I didn’t buy Riley’s somewhat indifferent reaction to her former BFF’s death. I’d consider reading a future book in the series, but I won’t be waiting with bated breath.

Jennifer Ryan, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir — An epistolary novel set in an English village during World War II is obviously going to be right up my alley! The book is narrated by five girls and women from the village, who cope with their fear and grief by singing in an all-female choir. The not-so-subtle theme is that the women have finally found a way to raise their voices, exert their power, and make decisions for themselves. I wasn’t quite gripped by all of the characters—I loved Mrs. Tilling but didn’t care so much for Venetia and Kitty—so I didn’t absolutely love this book, but it’s still a very good read for fans of WWII novels.

Four Swans, TheOur Dark Duet

Winston Graham, The Four Swans — ***Warning: spoilers for previous books in the Poldark series***

In book #6 of the series, the Poldarks and the Warleggans maintain an uneasy truce. Demelza is drawn to a young naval officer who has fallen in love with her. Caroline and Dwight struggle in the early days of their marriage. Elizabeth and George confront the elephant in the room, Valentine’s paternity. Osborne Whitworth continues to be the worst. Drake tries to get over Morwenna, and Sam Carne falls in love with an unsuitable woman. Meanwhile, parliamentary elections are held in Truro, with surprising results. This series is still going strong, and I’m eager to see what happens next. I do find the books a bit too long, and they’re easy for me to put down. Still, I have to keep reading to see what (hopefully) terrible fate will befall Ossie!

Victoria Schwab, Our Dark Duet — ***Warning: spoilers for This Savage Song***

After the events of This Savage Song, Kate and August have gone their separate ways. Kate is hunting monsters in Prosperity, while August is desperately trying to defend the few humans left in Verity from the monsters — especially Sloan, who somehow survived the events of the previous book and who now has grand ambitions. This is a very good conclusion to This Savage Song; it provides a dark but satisfying ending, and I also found it a quick, absorbing read. I didn’t really like the introduction of Kate’s friends from Prosperity — they should have been either more important to the plot or cut altogether. Also, there’s a bit too much gore and violence for my liking. But people who enjoy dark fantasy should definitely pick up this duology, and fans of the first book won’t be disappointed.

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 #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:

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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.

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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 #5: Summer Reading

All right, time to post some mini-reviews of books I read way back in July! Will I ever catch up with all my reviews? Only time will tell, so stay tuned! 🙂

Death of an AirmanSong for Summer, A

Christopher St. John Sprigg, Death of an Airman — In this mystery centered around an English aviation club, one of its best flyers perishes in a tragic plane crash. Most people assume it’s an accident, but the victim was a first-class pilot, and the inquest revealed nothing wrong with the plane. A few of the club members suggest suicide, but a visiting Australian bishop suspects murder. When the police get involved, they realize the victim’s death may be connected to a much larger criminal organization. I liked this mystery well enough, but I think the strength was definitely in the plot rather than in the characters. For example, for the first several chapters, it looks like the Australian bishop is going to be the sleuth, but suddenly everything switches to the police inspector’s point of view. Still, this was a fun variation on the “impossible crime” mystery with a truly ingenious solution.

Eva Ibbotson, A Song for Summer — Ibbotson’s novels are the ultimate comfort reads! I’d never reread this one before, and I think it’s because the plot moves a bit more slowly than in Ibbotson’s other novels, and the atmosphere is bleaker. It’s still a lovely book, but I definitely find myself returning to A Countess Below Stairs and The Morning Gift much more often.

It Happened One WeddingSpear of Summer Grass, ACrown's Game, The

Julie James, It Happened One Wedding — Julie James was my first contemporary romance author, and she pretty much single-handedly convinced me that not all romance novels are poorly written trash. This is another fun, banter-filled romance between hedge fund manager (?) Sidney and FBI agent Vaughn. They initially dislike each other but are forced to play nice when her sister and his brother get engaged. I think we all know where this is going.

Deanna Raybourn, A Spear of Summer Grass — After scandalizing English society with her outrageous behavior, Delilah Drummond is packed off to British East Africa so she won’t further damage her family’s reputation. Although Delilah is the consummate city girl, with her fashionable dresses and daring bob, she soon falls in love with the African landscape. She also encounters various dangers, from marauding lions to outright murder — and possibly finds love as well. I didn’t particularly like this book, and I’m not sure why. I didn’t dislike it either…I just felt indifferent to it. Delilah reminded me a lot of Phryne Fisher, but while I love Phryne, I didn’t have the same enthusiasm for Delilah. Maybe she was too similar (since I encountered Phryne first)? The romance also made me roll my eyes a bit; the hero is very much an alpha-male caveman type, and he just seemed like a stereotype to me. Overall, a “meh” read.

Evelyn Skye, The Crown’s Game — In an alternate Imperial Russia where magic exists but only a few have the power to wield it, Vika knows she is destined to become the Imperial Enchanter and take her place at the emperor’s side. But then she learns that there is another powerful enchanter in Russia — and that she must defeat him in the Crown’s Game, a magical duel in which the winner becomes Imperial Enchanter and the loser is condemned to death. Little does she know that the other enchanter is Nikolai, whose magic (and handsome face) intrigues her. As Vika and Nikolai get to know each other, they realize they don’t want the Crown’s Game to end in death. But will they be able to find a better solution? I have to admit, this book sort of lost me early on, when Vika is described as having wild red hair with a black streak down the middle. I immediately had a knee-jerk Mary Sue reaction, and I never quite warmed to Vika after that. I did end up somewhat liking the book, particularly for the Russian setting and the lovely descriptions of the magic. I also liked the fact that the stakes are real, and not everybody gets a happy ending. I’ll probably look for the sequel when it comes out. Nevertheless, I was definitely underwhelmed by this one, especially given the amount of hype I’d seen about it.