Mini-Reviews: Queen, Unsuspected, Thieves

Rachel Bach, Heaven’s Queen

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

In this conclusion to the Paradox trilogy, space mercenary Devi Morris and her lover Rupert are on the run, trying to figure out how to save the universe from the constant threat of the phantoms. Devi is determined keep her promise to save Ma’at and her Daughters; but since they’re the only known weapons that actually work against the phantoms, she’s fighting an uphill battle. Luckily, Devi’s good at thinking outside the box, and with Rupert at her side and some help from unexpected places, her crazy plan just might work. This is a satisfying conclusion to the Paradox trilogy, but you really need to read all three books to understand what’s going on. And I must confess, I was kind of tired of this series before I even picked up Heaven’s Queen. It’s a lot of space battles, Devi obsessing about her fancy suit of armor, Rupert declaring his undying love for Devi…I got bored after a while. I was underwhelmed by the romance; it felt very over-the-top and teen-angsty to me. Nevertheless, I’m glad I finished the series, and hardcore fans of the genre might enjoy it more than I did.

Charlotte Armstrong, The Unsuspected

In the eyes of the world, Rosaleen Wright’s tragic death was a suicide, but Rosaleen’s friend Jane is convinced it was murder. Jane turns to her friend Francis for help, telling him that she thinks Rosaleen’s employer, the famous radio personality Luther Grandison, is guilty. Francis immediately takes action, ingratiating himself into “Grandy’s” inner circle by pretending to be the husband of his ward Mathilda, who supposedly died in a shipwreck. But when Mathilda turns up alive, Francis must use any means necessary, including straight-up gaslighting, to maintain his cover and bring the killer to justice. So, yeah, the plot of this book is bananas, but I actually really enjoyed it! I thought the inverted structure of the mystery would make it less exciting, but there was plenty of forward motion to keep me on the edge of my seat. I also liked the main characters, especially Mathilda and Jane — and while Francis does some pretty despicable things, he’s conflicted and regretful enough that I ended up liking him too. Overall, this was a super fun and compelling read — I stayed up way too late to finish it — and I definitely want to read more by Charlotte Armstrong!

Megan Whalen Turner, Thick as Thieves

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

This fifth installment of the Queen’s Thief series centers around Kamet, whom we briefly met in The Queen of Attolia as a slave and personal secretary to Nahusheresh, then the Mede ambassador to Attolia. Now, despite his master’s disgrace, Kamet is content with his power and status in the Mede empire. But the sudden death of Nahusheresh changes his life irrevocably: Kamet is forced to flee, or he and his fellow slaves will all be tortured and killed. He finds an unlikely companion in an Attolian soldier (whom, it turns out, we’ve also met before), who promises Kamet safety and freedom in Attolia. But Kamet has other plans, as does the Attolian king, Eugenides. This book is pretty uneventful compared with the rest of the series; most of it follows Kamet and the Attolian on their journey as they hunt for food, sell their belongings for cash, and evade their Mede pursuers. But the development of Kamet’s character and his friendship with the Attolian are a delight, and of course we get a bit of Eugenides and a few other familiar characters at the end. I heartily recommend both this book and the entire series — I can’t wait to read the next one!

Mini-Reviews: Thorn, Orange, Duke

Intisar Khanani, Thorn

Despite being a princess, Alyrra is a nobody. Abused and neglected by her family, she has nothing to look forward to except a politically strategic marriage. But when she is betrothed to the prince of a neighboring kingdom whom she has never met, she suddenly finds herself embroiled in intrigue and magic. A sorceress curses Alyrra to switch bodies with her lady’s maid, so no one recognizes her as the true princess and she must work as a goose girl instead. But Alyrra is content with her new life — until she realizes that she has a duty to ensure the good governance of her new kingdom, not to mention protect the life of the prince. Overall, I really enjoyed this book! Alyrra is a sympathetic heroine, and I enjoyed watching her slowly, painfully grow throughout the story as she realizes that she can’t avoid her real life forever. There are some pacing issues and some awkward character introductions that had me flipping backwards to make sure I hadn’t missed something. I also wanted some of the secondary characters to be more fleshed out, particularly Kestrin. But I liked the book despite these issues and will plan to read more by Khanani.

Note: This book was originally self-published in 2012, but it was subsequently rereleased by a traditional publisher. According to the author, the rerelease has “gone through four rounds of professional edition . . . the middle of the book was replotted, and the story overall has grown by about 20,000 words.” So, since I read the original self-published version (which was gifted to me years ago), my comments may not be particularly applicable to the version that’s widely available now! I’d actually like to read the rereleased version and see if the issues I complained about have been addressed.

Ellery Queen, The Chinese Orange Mystery

When Ellery Queen accompanies his friend Donald Kirk to a dinner party at Kirk’s hotel suite, he is shocked to discover a murdered man in the waiting room of Kirk’s office. The crime is bizarre for a number of reasons: not only does no one recognize the corpse, but there is absolutely no identifying information to be found anywhere on or around the dead man. Moreover, everything in the room has been turned backwards or upside-down — furniture, art, even the victim’s clothes. As Ellery’s policeman father investigates the case officially, Ellery also does some sleuthing among Kirk’s friends and family, and he eventually discovers the identity of both the victim and the murderer. I enjoyed this mystery and found the solution very clever; I never would have guessed it, but it does make sense and is fairly clued (although the killer’s motive is a little weak). Even the list of dramatis personae drops a few hints! Recommended for fans of Golden Age mysteries — and even though it’s part of a series, it can definitely be read out of order.

Loretta Chase, Ten Things I Hate about the Duke

This second novel in the Difficult Dukes series focuses on Lucius, Duke of Ashmont, whose wild and rakish behavior is a well-known society scandal. He has no interest in reforming his wicked ways, however, until he crosses paths with strong-minded bluestocking Cassandra Pomfret. I’m not a big fan of the “reformed rake” trope, but I liked that Lucius spends most of the book acknowledging his faults and genuinely making an effort to improve himself. He admires Cassandra’s strength and intelligence, and he supports her without trying to take charge or get in her way. I should say that, while this book can technically stand alone, it does refer back to events in A Duke in Shining Armor. I’m looking forward to the third book now, which looks like it will have a marriage-in-trouble plot…unfortunately, it’s not out yet!  

Mini-Reviews: Stitches, Murders, Light

Olivia Atwater, Ten Thousand Stitches

Euphemia “Effie” Reeves is sick of feeling invisible and insignificant. As a maid in a noble house, she is either ignored or mistreated by the family. When she falls for the youngest son of the house, she knows a relationship between them would be impossible, but she can’t help wishing for it anyway. Luckily, she has an ally in the faerie Lord Blackthorn, who is determined to pursue virtue by being kind to the powerless. Unluckily, despite his good intentions, his interference often does more harm than good. When Effie’s dream finally seems to be within reach, she discovers that her desires have changed. Like Atwater’s previous book, Half a Soul, this is a charming fantasy romance with some social satire baked in. I especially loved Lord Blackthorn’s enthusiastic efforts to help, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that they usually led to disaster. Recommended for fans of the genre!

Elizabeth Daly, Murders in Volume 2

Rare manuscript expert Henry Gamadge once again plays detective when Miss Vauregard, a member of one of New York’s most prestigious old families, asks him to discover the true identity of a mysterious young woman who has ingratiated herself with the family patriarch (and holder of the purse strings). As Gamadge investigates, he becomes convinced that the woman is working with someone in the family; things get even worse when the patriarch is murdered and Gamadge himself is the most likely suspect! I enjoyed this novel, which is well plotted and contains such intriguing elements as a hundred-year-old unsolved mystery, a cult, and possible travel to and from the fourth dimension. This is also the book in which Henry Gamadge falls in love, and I would have liked a bit more development of the romance. But overall, I liked this book and will definitely continue with the series.

Connie Willis and Cynthia Felice, Light Raid

Sometime in the future, North America is engaged in a civil war, and 17-year-old Ariadne has been evacuated to neutral territory. But when her parents’ letters become less frequent and stop telling her anything specific, Ari knows that something must be wrong. She flees her foster home to return to HydraCorp, the large and powerful company where her parents live and work, only to discover that her father is falling apart and her mother is in jail for treason. Outraged, Ari intends to prove her mother’s innocence, but she is thwarted by the mysterious Joss Liddell, who is as irritating as he is attractive. As Ari investigates the situation at HydraCorp, she discovers a secret so big that it could change the course of the war. I never felt like I fully understood the world of this novel — the book doesn’t spend any time on exposition — and I’m still not sure what the war is actually about. But I did enjoy this book; it’s action-packed and full of plot twists, and there’s also a fun YA romance. I liked Ari’s narrative voice; she reads as immature sometimes, but that makes sense since she’s a teenager. Overall, while I don’t think this book is as good as Connie Willis’s solo stuff, it’s still an entertaining read.

Mini-Reviews: Reading, Jeeves, Enchantment

Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

In this short volume, literature professor Jacobs speaks to people who would like to be readers but feel too busy or intimidated to try, and to people who once were readers but aren’t any longer. He champions the idea that reading can and should be a pleasure, not an obligation. His slogan is “Read at whim” — that is, what you actually enjoy, not what you or others think you ought to read. He discusses the perils of the reading list, the specific joys of rereading, and the notion that different kinds of texts can be read with different types of attention. I think this book is probably preaching to the choir for most of us, but I still found it very interesting, and I liked Jacobs’s friendly and humorous tone. Recommended for current and aspiring readers!

P.G. Wodehouse, How Right You Are, Jeeves

Affable, dimwitted Bertie Wooster gets into scrape after scrape while visiting his Aunt Dahlia in the country. Fellow guests include Roberta “Bobbie” Wickham, a beautiful redhead who is pretending to be Bertie’s fiancée while actually being engaged to his friend Kipper; famous mystery novelist Adela Cream and her playboy son Willie; Aubrey Upjohn, the menacing former headmaster of Bertie’s preparatory school; and Sir Roderick Glossop, a celebrated brain scientist currently posing as Aunt Dahlia’s butler. Naturally, complications ensue, and Bertie must call Jeeves back from his annual vacation to sort out the mess. Wodehouse is always good for the soul, and I found myself chuckling my way through this novel. A fun and breezy lark to kick off the year with!

Margaret Rogerson, An Enchantment of Ravens

Isobel is an extremely gifted painter, which means her work is in high demand among the fair ones. But when Rook, the autumn prince himself, requests her to paint his portrait, she makes a fatal mistake: she paints human sorrow in his eyes, which is both alien and scandalous to the fair ones. To clear his reputation and defend his throne, Rook whisks Isobel away to fairyland, where they encounter many perils and slowly come to a deeper understanding of each other. Yes, this book is YA, and it’s a bit dramatic and angsty at times, but I still really enjoyed it! I loved the magical portrayal of the fairy world, and I wish there were a series of books set in the various fairy courts. Isobel is a strong and practical heroine, and I couldn’t help but enjoy the sulky, emotionally oblivious Rook as well. I also loved Rogerson’s Sorcery of Thorns, and I really hope she comes out with another book soon!

Mini-Reviews: Starlight, Tempted, Detective

Teri Bailey Black, Chasing Starlight

After a series of misfortunes, aspiring astronomer Kate Hildebrand is forced to move in with her estranged grandfather, a former silent movie star, and an assortment of male boarders. Though she dislikes her situation at first, Kate gradually becomes fond of her grandfather and some of the other boarders — particularly the handsome actor Hugo Quick. But when one of the other boarders is murdered, and Hugo and her grandfather are both implicated, Kate must decide whether to cooperate with the police or protect her friends and solve the crime herself. Meanwhile, she gets a job as a production assistant at a Hollywood studio and begins to rethink her career aspirations. I very much enjoyed this YA mystery set during the Golden Age of Hollywood. I loved the atmosphere, which ranges from the glamour of the film studio to the seedy danger of a gangster’s club. The mystery is a little weak, but adequate since I really liked the setting and the main characters. I’m not sure if a sequel is planned, but if it does materialize, I’ll certainly read it!

Mary Balogh, Slightly Tempted

When Gervase Ashford, the Earl of Rosthorn, spots Lady Morgan Bedwyn across a ballroom in Brussels, he can hardly believe his luck. He has spent the past nine years on the Continent, having been banished from England as a direct result of certain actions of Morgan’s brother, the Duke of Bewcastle. Now Gervase has the opportunity to take his revenge by flirting outrageously with Morgan and making her the subject of unsavory gossip. But the more time he spends with her — and especially when he sees her strength and determination in helping the wounded after the Battle of Waterloo — the more he genuinely comes to admire her. Meanwhile, Morgan knows that Gervase is an experienced rake, and she’s determined not to fall for his act; but she didn’t expect him to become her closest friend. I think the Bedwyn series gets better and better — I really loved Gervase and Morgan’s story! It’s on the heavy side for a Regency romance, because Waterloo and its aftermath play a pivotal role in the story, but seeing both characters work through their traumas and find love in the process is a fulfilling experience. I can’t wait to continue with the series!

P.D. James, Talking about Detective Fiction

I have mixed feelings about this book. I think I expected more of a general survey of detective literature, whereas the book is a very brief overview of mostly British writers, mostly from the Golden Age — in other words, authors that P.D. James herself happens to like. Nothing wrong with that, of course! It just wasn’t quite what I wanted. I was also annoyed by the occasional spoiler; the book does a good job of avoiding them in general, but then goes and gives away the ending to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd! Being a fan of Golden Age British mysteries myself, I found a lot to enjoy in the book, but I also didn’t really learn anything new or add any books to my TBR list. There’s not even a list of recommended detective novels in the back, which I would think is pretty mandatory for this type of book! All in all, I was pretty “meh” on this, but maybe fans of James’s would enjoy it more.

Mini-Reviews: Piccadilly, Fairyland, Nightshade

Anthony Berkeley, The Piccadilly Murder

Mild-mannered Ambrose Chitterwick is a detection enthusiast, but apart from one notable exception (detailed in The Poisoned Chocolates Case), he “detects” merely by observing people and drawing conclusions about them. During one such people-watching adventure at the Piccadilly Palace Hotel, however, he actually sees a murder take place! As the star witness for the prosecution, Mr. Chitterwick is approached by the suspect’s wife, who insists that her husband is innocent and begs Chitterwick to reconsider what he saw. I very much enjoyed this Golden Age mystery; it’s well plotted, the central characters are interesting, and there’s plenty of humor in the form of Chitterwick’s formidable aunt. Definitely recommended if you like this type of thing!

Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

A 12-year-old girl named September yearns for adventure, and she finds more than she expected when she is whisked away to Fairyland by the Green Wind. There she meets various Fairy creatures, undertakes a quest, and comes up against the sinister Marquess, who has usurped the throne of Fairy from Good Queen Mallow. This is a book I wanted to like more than I did. The writing style is interesting and unique, but I felt like the book was all style and no substance. September has a variety of adventures, but I’m not sure what was the point of them, if that makes sense. The stakes of the book are never very clear. Ultimately, I think it sort of collapses under the weight of its own whimsy. I don’t plan to continue with the series, but I would consider reading something else by Valente.

Elizabeth Daly, Deadly Nightshade

After the events of Unexpected Night, Henry Gamadge is called back to coastal Maine to assist the police with a new investigation. Several local children have eaten poisonous nightshade berries; one is now dead, and another is missing. The police suspect that someone may have intentionally given the berries to the children, but they don’t have any leads. Complicating matters is the presence of a Gypsy encampment on the outskirts of town; some of the locals view the Gypsies as convenient scapegoats, and tensions are running high. For me, this book was a mixed bag. On the one hand, I liked the writing style and the main characters. On the other hand, the mystery is extremely convoluted — I’m still not entirely sure it all makes sense — and impossible to guess in advance. So I’m still game to read more Henry Gamadge books, but I don’t think I’ll be revisiting this one.

Mini-Reviews: Switch, Liturgy, Book

Beth O’Leary, The Switch

Leena Cotton has always been driven, but since her sister Carla died more than a year ago, she’s completely thrown herself into her work. But when an anxiety attack causes her to ruin an important meeting, her boss insists on her taking two months of paid leave. Meanwhile, Leena’s grandmother, Eileen, has lived most of her life in a tiny Yorkshire village. Her husband has recently left her, and now Eileen yearns to have the adventures she missed out on as a young woman. So Leena and Eileen decide to switch places: Leena will use her sabbatical to rest in the country, while Eileen will go to London and explore the world of online dating for senior citizens. The premise of this novel might be a little farfetched, but who cares when it yields such delightful results? I really enjoyed both women’s stories, but Eileen totally steals the show: she knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to go after it! I loved her benevolent meddling and the fact that, as a 79-year-old woman, she’s allowed to find love and have adventures. Definitely recommended if you’re looking for something fun and pleasant in your life right now!

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy

Anyone who’s ever been to a Catholic mass will know that it follows a very specific, structured order called the liturgy. This book explains the “why” behind various liturgical practices and also talks about the philosophy of liturgy itself. I found it very interesting, though heavy going at times, and I definitely received some new insights on why certain liturgical rules exist — for example, that churches should be oriented to the east — and why they are important. I would definitely recommend this book for people who are interested in the subject and who already have some knowledge of Catholic liturgical practices. It wouldn’t be a good introductory work, however!

Amanda Sellet, By the Book

In this cute YA romance, Mary Porter-Malcom is a socially awkward teenager who’s accumulated most of her knowledge of the world from classic literature. As you might suspect, she’s not terribly popular; but when she overhears a group of girls discussing a notorious “cad” at their high school, Mary can’t help but share her opinion and cite the novels that support her theory. In gratitude, the girls accept Mary into their friend group. But as they apply Mary’s literary wisdom to their other relationships and potential romances — and as Mary starts to fall for the cad herself — she risks losing both her friends and her crush. I liked the premise of this novel and thought it was executed fairly well, but it panders a little too much to its target audience of bookish teen girls. The romance is predictable but fine, and I liked that Mary’s friendships are at least as important to her as her love life. A fun book, but not a keeper for me.

Mini-Reviews: Sapphire, Scandalous, Red, Silver

Singapore SapphireSlightly ScandalousRed NecklaceSilver Blade

A.M. Stuart, Singapore Sapphire

I love a historical mystery, and this book’s uncommon setting of 1910 Singapore intrigued me, so I decided to give it a try. Overall, I liked but didn’t love it. Protagonist Harriet Gordon is a widow living with her brother and eking out a meager living as a typist. She’s been hired to type Sir Oswald Newbold’s memoirs, but after only a day of work, the man’s throat is cut. Inspector Robert Curran is on the case, and while he and Harriet get off to a bad start, they soon become friendly as they work together to solve the mystery. I think the mystery itself hangs together well, but it definitely takes a backseat to the setting and characters. It was interesting to get a glimpse of Singapore at this point in time, which was home to so many different cultures, both Asian and European. But if you’re looking for a novel with diverse characters, this isn’t it — there are a few Asian secondary characters, but they’re quite two-dimensional and have no impact on the story. Overall, I’m curious enough to give the next book a try, but this one fell a bit flat for me.

Mary Balogh, Slightly Scandalous

This third book in the Bedwyn saga focuses on Lady Freyja Bedwyn, who is much bolder and more direct than the typical Regency lady. Having grown up with four brothers, she can shoot and ride and box with the best of them. She’s also in no hurry to marry; most of the fashionable society men bore her, and she’s still not over a former flame who recently married someone else (as told in A Summer to Remember, though you don’t need to read that book to understand this one). But when Joshua Moore, marquess of Hallmere, proposes a fake betrothal, Freyja agrees to the scheme, not realizing that there is more to Josh than meets the eye. I continue to enjoy the Bedwyn books, and this might be my favorite so far! Freyja hasn’t been particularly likable in the previous books, but this novel gave her much more dimension. And the roguish Joshua, whose carefree manner and bad reputation hide his true goodness, is a hero after my own heart. The book does have some moments of cheesiness, but overall I liked it a lot and look forward to more of the Bedwyns. I find myself more and more excited for Wulfric’s book!

Sally Gardner, The Red Necklace and The Silver Blade

This YA fantasy duology set during the French Revolution focuses on Yann, a Gypsy boy with unusual gifts, and Sido, an aristocratic girl with a neglectful father. They meet in The Red Necklace when Yann’s theater troupe performs at Sido’s father’s house, and they are immediately drawn to one another. But when the troupe falls afoul of the powerful and evil Count Kalliovski, Yann must flee the country. Later, when Kalliovski sets his sights on Sido as a bride, Yann returns to rescue her. In The Silver Blade, Yann continues to rescue aristocrats from the guillotine, while Sido waits in England. But his plans are once again thwarted by Kalliovski, who wants Yann’s magic for himself. I found these books enjoyable enough — loved the French Revolution setting and the Pimpernel-esque elements — but didn’t like that they spend just as much time (if not more) on the villain as on the heroes. As a result, Yann and Sido don’t have much dimension; I wanted more time with them and less time describing just how evil Kalliovski is. I’m glad I read these books, but now they can leave my shelves to make room for something new!

Mini-Reviews: Ruby, Angel, Bride

Ruby in the SmokeDark Angel : Lord Carew's Bride

Philip Pullman, The Ruby in the Smoke

I greatly enjoyed this historical adventure set in Victorian England. When 16-year-old Sally Lockhart’s father dies under mysterious circumstances, she visits his business partner looking for answers — and stumbles into a sinister plot involving opium and murder. It’s just a really fun, pulpy novel for the MG/YA demographic, and I definitely plan to read the rest of the series!

Mary Balogh, Dark Angel / Lord Carew’s Bride

It’s a testament to how much I enjoy Balogh’s writing that I thoroughly enjoyed Dark Angel, even though it contains some of my least favorite romance tropes: reformed rake and revenge-seduction of the heroine. But the book doesn’t minimize the hero’s (initially) awful behavior or its painful consequences. The heroine doesn’t forgive him too easily, and he fully acknowledges how terrible his actions were. So I was ultimately able to root for the couple and believe in their happy ending.

I also liked Lord Carew’s Bride, though it wasn’t quite as emotionally resonant for me. Samantha has had a terrible experience with love, so she’s determined to keep her many suitors at arms’ length. Then she meets the incognito Lord Carew, who she mistakes for a common landscape gardener. He falls for her immediately, and she accepts his marriage proposal because she feels safe with him — and because the man she once loved is trying to weasel his way back into her life. I liked the hero more than the heroine in this one, but I do think they’re well matched. And I enjoyed seeing the villain get his comeuppance!

Mini-Reviews: Crimson, Still

Crimson BoundStill Life

Rosamund Hodge, Crimson Bound

I was pleasantly surprised by this YA fantasy novel, which is a (very) loose retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. Protagonist Rachelle is a bloodbound, doomed to eventually lose her soul to the evil Devourer at the heart of the forest. In the meantime, she works as the king’s hired killer — until he commands her to guard his son Armand, whom she immediately distrusts because the people revere him as a saint. Yet when Rachelle discovers a possible way to change her destiny and defeat the Devourer, Armand may be her only ally. I liked the juicy plot and (of course) the romance, but my favorite aspect of this book is its unexpectedly serious examination of evil and atonement.

Louise Penny, Still Life

I’ve read so many glowing reviews of this series, so I’m a little afraid to say that I didn’t love this first installment. Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t hate it either. I enjoyed the setting of a small town in Quebec, which is charming without being too idealized. And the mystery plot is interesting; I especially liked how the victim’s art contains a clue to the solution. But for one thing, I thought the book was doing too many things at once: introducing the town, describing the victim and her friends, introducing Inspector Gamache and his team…it was a lot to keep track of, and it was hard to tell which characters would turn out to be important. That’s normal for a series opener, of course, but it still made the book difficult to follow.

I also felt that the victim’s friend group was a little smug and snobbish. They’re mostly wealthy, mostly educated, mostly not originally from the small town…whereas some of the lower-class “townie” characters are painted as villains without one redeeming quality. Finally, I thought Agent Nichol was treated a bit unfairly. I read her as being on the autism spectrum (not understanding social cues, not able to see beyond the literal meaning of what people told her), so even though she unquestionably behaves badly, I wanted Gamache (and the book) to treat her with a little more compassion instead of writing her off as a clueless jerk. All that said, I may try the next book in the series, since it won’t have to do as much work of introducing the world and characters.