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.

Mini-Reviews: Necromancer, Dimple, Scrapbook

Death of the NecromancerWhen Dimple Met RishiScrapbook of Frankie Pratt

Martha Wells, The Death of the Necromancer

This gaslamp fantasy follows Nicholas Valliarde, otherwise known as Donatien, the leader of a notorious criminal enterprise in the city of Vienne. He has one goal: to ruin the life of the Count of Montesq, who had Nicholas’s foster-father executed on a false charge of necromancy. In the middle of a heist that would further this goal, however, Nicholas runs into an unexpectedly life-threatening situation and soon learns that a real necromancer may be at work in the city. I really enjoyed this novel, especially the setting, which is like a fantastical version of 18th-century France. There’s also a really great friendship that arises between Nicholas and the police inspector who’s been tracking his criminal alter-ego. I will definitely continue with the Ile-Rien series, although this one stands alone quite well.

Sandhya Menon, When Dimple Met Rishi

Dimple and Rishi are Indian American teens who have never met, but their parents are friends and have tentatively arranged a marriage between them. Rishi knows about the arrangement and is happy about it; he loves his family and his culture, and he trusts his parents to choose an appropriate wife for him. Dimple, on the other hand, is more interested in computer coding than marriage, and she’s desperate to attend a prestigious summer program — one that Rishi happens to be attending also. When they meet, Dimple is enraged to discover the marriage arrangement. But the more she gets to know Rishi, the more she ends up liking him. This is a cute YA rom-com with insight into a culture I know little about. I recommend it if the premise intrigues you!

Caroline Preston, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt

This “novel in pictures” tells the story of Frances “Frankie” Pratt, an ambitious American girl who leaves her hometown to attend college, then travel to New York and Paris in hopes of becoming a writer. The book purports to be Frankie’s scrapbook of these eventful years of her life, with just a few sentences of narration on each page. The photos are of authentic 1920s artifacts — advertisements, ticket stubs, postcards, and the like — and I was very impressed by the author’s dedication to finding these artifacts and creating a story around them. That said, the scrapbook conceit is the cleverest part of the book; the plot and characters are all fairly two-dimensional. Still, this is a fun, quick read that would appeal to people who enjoy scrapbooking or are fascinated by the 1920s.

Review: Sherwood

SherwoodMeagan Spooner, Sherwood

This retelling of the Robin Hood legend focuses on the character of Maid Marian. When her fiancé Robin of Locksley dies on crusade, Marian sees it as her duty to protect the people of Locksley from the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham and his lieutenant, Sir Guy of Gisborne. When her maid Elena’s brother, Will Scarlet, is arrested for poaching, Marian is determined to save him, both for Elena’s sake and for Robin’s. But when she dresses in men’s clothing for her first rescue attempt, she is mistaken for Robin himself. The mistake gives Marian a daring idea: as a woman, she is almost powerless in society and cannot fight back against the corrupt laws that oppress her people. But as “Robin Hood,” she can actually make a difference. As her deception becomes more and more elaborate, she finds herself in increasing danger, especially from the enigmatic Gisborne. She also makes some hard choices as she learns how far she’ll go to protect her secret.

My all-time favorite version of the Robin Hood story is Robin McKinley’s The Outlaws of Sherwood. It’s just always felt true to me in a way that, say, the Errol Flynn movie (much as I enjoy it) doesn’t. To my surprise and delight, Sherwood gave me that same sense of truth from a very different perspective. This version of Marian is strong and independent, but while her heart is in the right place, she tends to act without thinking — a trait that usually irritates me, but it makes total sense for her character. And I love that she grows in this area throughout the novel, as she realizes that her impetuous actions sometimes have unforeseen consequences. Similarly, I love how this book gives some nuance to the Robin Hood legend: are his actions in robbing the rich to give to the poor always justified? Could he have worked within the law instead of deliberately flouting it? Finally, there’s a romance in this book that completely sneaked up on me, and I adored it. In short, I really loved this book; the moment I finished my library copy, I immediately bought one for myself! Highly recommended, especially if (like me) you also enjoyed Hunted.

Review: Under a Dancing Star

Under a Dancing StarLaura Wood, Under a Dancing Star

In 1930s England, 17-year-old Beatrice Langton longs to be a scientist, but her parents have a different plan in mind for her: because she’s their only child, and they no longer have the money to maintain the estate, she must marry a rich aristocrat and restore the family fortunes. But Bea’s “outrageous” behavior at an ill-fated dinner party gives her life a new direction when her parents decide to send her to her uncle’s home in Italy. Far from being chastised, Bea is thrilled — especially when she arrives in Italy to find that her uncle and his bohemian fiancée are essentially living in an artists’ commune. She is soon enjoying the freedom of her new life, with one exception: one of the artists, Ben, is as argumentative and obnoxious as he is handsome. But when their friends dare them to embark upon a summer romance, Bea reluctantly agrees. If nothing else, it will be an interesting experiment, and she’ll gain some much-desired life experience. But when their pretend relationship becomes all too real, will their very different backgrounds keep them apart?

Much Ado about Nothing is my favorite Shakespeare play, so I’m game to read any and all retellings, especially if they’re set in interesting historical periods! This one takes place in the 1930s, so I couldn’t help but compare it with Speak Easy, Speak Love, which is another Much Ado retelling set in the 1920s. I absolutely adored Speak Easy, Speak Love, and I must admit that this book suffers a bit by comparison. It’s a light, fun read, and I enjoyed the chemistry between Bea and Ben, but to me it lacked the substance of Speak Easy, Speak Love. It’s also not as good a retelling of Much Ado — it focuses on the Beatrice and Benedick story but jettisons the Hero/Claudio plot entirely, merely keeping a few of the character names. I did love the way this book subtly paraphrased some of the most famous lines from the play, rather than quoting them outright; I thought that was a great way to pay homage to the original play while still keeping the language appropriate for the characters’ ages and the time period. Overall, I enjoyed this book and would read more by Laura Wood, but if you’re looking for a YA Much Ado retelling set in the early 20th century, I’d definitely recommend Speak Easy, Speak Love instead!

Review: Call Down the Hawk

Call Down the HawkMaggie Stiefvater, Call Down the Hawk

Ronan Lynch is a dreamer, someone who’s able to take objects from his dreams into the waking world. But lately he’s been having trouble with his dreams: he can’t always control what he brings back, and he’s unable to stay away from his home (near a ley line in Virginia) for any length of time. So when he encounters someone else in his dreams, another dreamer who calls himself Bryde, he’s eager to learn more — even though everyone else in his life warns him it’s incredibly dangerous. Meanwhile, Jordan Hennessy is an art forger on a mission to steal a particular painting that just so happens to have been dreamt by Ronan’s father. But complications ensue when her mission brings her into contact with Declan Lynch, Ronan’s uptight and seemingly boring older brother. And then there’s Carmen Farooq-Lane, who is part of a government agency tasked with finding and killing dreamers, because the agency believes a dreamer will cause the end of the world. But the more she learns about the agency’s agenda and tactics, the more she questions her role.

This book is set in the same world as the Raven Cycle, and while it is technically a stand-alone, I really think having the background from TRC is helpful for understanding the world of the novel and the characters of the Lynch brothers in particular. At the same time, I think fans of TRC might be disappointed by how little the other characters from that series appear. Adam is in a few scenes, but Gansey and Blue only appear briefly via text message. So I’m not quite sure who this book is for, if that makes sense; it seems like it would fall short for both newbies and TRC fans. Also, there’s a lot going on in this book, and I’m not sure it all works; the disparate stories take a long time to converge, and before they do, it can be tedious and confusing to figure out what’s going on. I did really like Declan’s story in this book; he was an intriguing character in the Raven Cycle, and I was glad to see more development for him here. But the Carmen sections particularly dragged and didn’t seem necessary for the plot. Of course, this is the first book in a projected trilogy, so maybe she’ll become more integral later on. But I should say that, while there’s no cliffhanger per se, the main plot lines are not resolved in this book. I’ll most likely continue with the trilogy to find out what happens, but so far I’m not enjoying it as much as the Raven Cycle.