A Spy in the House (CBR8 #74)

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It isn’t a book’s fault when you’ve read a version of it better suited to your own personal tastes. I feel poorly for nor liking A Spy in the House more, since as a straight on 1850s historical fiction mystery should be right up my alley. I am a fan of Alex Grecian’s Murder Squad series which starts with The Yard, which is the same basic set up, but 40 years later. But I was left underwhelmed.

I think it may be because Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series is more recently in my memory and it was quite a bit more enjoyable for me. Here’s a synopsis from Goodreads so you can decide for yourself if this book sounds like fun to you:

Rescued from the gallows in 1850s London, young orphan (and thief) Mary Quinn is surprised to be offered a singular education, instruction in fine manners — and an unusual vocation. Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls is a cover for an all-female investigative unit called The Agency, and at seventeen, Mary is about to put her training to the test. Assuming the guise of a lady’s companion, she must infiltrate a rich merchant’s home in hopes of tracing his missing cargo ships. But the household is full of dangerous deceptions, and there is no one to trust — or is there? Packed with action and suspense, banter and romance, and evoking the gritty backstreets of Victorian London, this breezy mystery debuts a daring young detective who lives by her wits while uncovering secrets — including those of her own past.

While I was finishing this book and contemplating both my star rating (2.5) and my review in general the twittersphere blew up about a YA book The Continent, and one of our favorite authors, Courtney Milan, got involved in the discussion, which meant that I got caught up quick. What it basically boils down to is that persons of color in The Continent were mishandled (racist and demeaning descriptors of POC, per the reports), and people spoke out via the methods available to them. The author and her supporters are falling back on a free expression.

But what stood out to me was Milan’s point and emphasis about reading more POC authors, which is actually how I got to this book in the first place, and realizing that I as a white reader need to be aware of my reactions to what I’m reading.  I can’t just sit back and say “I didn’t connect with this for some reason” and not look into the idea of is it simply that this book is handling a viewpoint different than my own, and different to the conventional story arc? I stepped back from this review and thought about it long and hard. Was the trouble I had because the narrative was typical and from a POC author? I’ve come to the conclusion of no, that my real struggle with this book is that it is Y. S. Lee’s first book, the pacing is slow, and it’s a bit more YA than I prefer. But if you are looking for more insight into the conversations surrounding representation in books, particularly YA, Becky Albertelli and Justina Ireland had a great threads on Twitter as well.

 

It Happened One Autumn (CBR8 #51)

After being less than won over by the first book in the Wallflowers series by Lisa Kleypas, I decided the thing to do was to keep going. I figured out later that my real issue was with the secondary plot line and have warmed to the style of Kleypas’ writing in the intervening weeks. In the Wallflowers series, Kleypas tracks the lives and loves of four women passed over by the eligible men of the ton and the friendship they develop along the way.

Book two, It Happened One Autumn features American dollar princess Lillian Bowman and the extremely eligible Marcus Marsden, Lord Westcliff. We met both characters in the first installment, Secrets of a Summer Night, Westcliff is best friend and business partner of the swoon worthy Simon Hunt. Westcliff’s protector personality and the adaptability of his character, while still being loyal to tradition, are made clear at the end of that book and I found myself quite taken with the character who is constrained by his title and position, and appears to be content with who he is, even if he knows he doesn’t always come up to the mark against his friends Simon and Sebastian (more on him later). Lillian comes from new money, and in the social landscape of the United States in the 1840s, it was at times difficult to marry off these women, as neither social strata wanted them. Using that, and adding some truly hideous previous behavior on Lillian’s part, Kleypas weaves in the recognizable history I appreciate in these, and gives us a clear picture of the characters we are dealing with, while simultaneously setting them up as diametrically opposed (although I really didn’t need to hear one more time how Marcus was the heir of the oldest noble line in all of England blah blah blah).

For the first half of the book, another house party at Westcliff’s estate, we the reader are supposed to be enamored of free-spirit Lillian’s take on life and how it keeps running at odds with Westcliff’s propriety and be won over by the chemistry they can’t seem to ignore, even though they can’t stand each other.

I was bored.

Boredom is a grave sin in nearly any genre, but it is particularly terrible in romantical fluff books. The set up was good… it was just reminiscent of the previous book in the series. Kleypas writes the hell out of her scenes and her characters, and as Mrs. Julien says “not-fantastic Kleypas is still very damn good”, but I definitely felt as though I was treading water. There were fantastic scenes in there… they just weren’t nearly close enough together to keep the tediousness at bay.

My other complaint is how evil our next hero was made.

Enter Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent. A new character introduced at the beginning of the book and set up as Marcus’ rival for Lillian’s affections. He is in need of the money she brings to the marriage mart, and infamous rake that he is, the proper families likely won’t have him. Lillian seems to fit the bill, and she’s available, until Marcus makes his move (and it’s a good move).  If Kleypas had left it here, with the rake as legitimate competition for our heroine’s hand, and then let that play out as it did and leave him without the money he needed I would have been fine. I would even have been on board with *SPOILERS* Marcus’ mother orchestrating Lillian’s kidnapping and attempting to loop Sebastian in, and Sebastian not doing anything to help Lillian escape. *END SPOILERS* But with the lengths the last quarter of the book goes to in order to villainize Sebastian, I have epic Romance Trope Concerns. I adore a reforming a rake storyline (although Wounded Hero is really more my cup of tea), but Sebastian was already established as a rake… I don’t know that I needed more, and it’s never a good sign when you are editing a book in your head as you read it.

The next book, with Evie and Sebastian is universally loved (I think) around the Cannonball – I remain cautiously optimistic, but the two drawbacks combined on It Happened One Autumn keep this at three stars.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

When a Scot Ties the Knot (CBR8 #48)

Okay, Tessa Dare finally got me.

The third book in the Castles Ever After series, When a Scot Ties the Knot (oof, the titles on these) hit all of my particular romance novel loves:

  1. Independent lady making her way in the world
  2. Marriage of Convenience plot
  3. Steamy sexy times
  4. Scotland
  5. Wounded Hero
  6. Historical setting
  7. Interesting, but not overtaking, side characters
  8. Comedy/quirkiness/whimsy in some regard.

Those eight things in some order will almost guarantee a four star review from me if executed well, and the truly wonderful ones will get the full five stars. For me, this was a truly delightful read and earned itself the full five stars (on rounding up).

Dare, for those not in the know, does not stay even remotely historically accurate. Sometimes I love a book that sticks to its time period, and sometimes I love a fun, feminist, anachronistic romance novel which takes the barest bones of history and adds what it likes too. In this case we have Captain Logan MacKenzie, recently returned home from war on the continent in the Napoleonic Wars, arrives on the doorstep of Madeline Gracechurch, prepared to marry her. After all, he has a half dozen  wounded men needing a place to settle, and what better place than the castle of the woman who caused him so much hope and anguish for so many years?

The only problem… Maddie thought she’d made him up, and had also killed him off.

In her sixteenth year Maddie had lied about meeting a Scottish officer in order to avoid having a London season, due to her crippling social anxiety (which Dare explains in place of letting her have a lesser, more realistic aversion to people and crowds). Unfortunately for her, the name Maddie pulled out of air belonged to a real man, and he’s not above blackmail.

Enter the marriage of convenience, which gets a bit of a twist as they go with a handfasting which doesn’t bear the full weight of law until the marriage is consummated, and Maddie manages to put off the full act while she tried to find the letters so she can burn them, and she can follow her dream of being an illustrator while figuring out how to give Logan his dream of safety for his men. But we are treated to some satisfying funky bass along the way, as sexy times are very sexy when men respect their lady’s ideas, mind and person – and Logan does. The other part of Logan’s personality which made me swoon? He has a tragic origin story, which puts him on par with Griffin from Any Duchess Will Do. (Bonus part three? Dare doesn’t really hid that Logan is verra similar to Sam Heughan’s Jamie from Outlander.)

This is a Tessa Dare book, and she writes good, charming, whimsical stories with characters that have great emotional chemistry. She also writes great side characters. Seriously, all of Logan’s men and Maddie’s aunt were amusing on the page and added to, but did not hijack, the story. Yes, there is a quirky subplot around mating lobsters, but it’s nowhere near as distracting as the traveling cosplayers of Romancing the Duke, or the terrible ermine. I rounded that one down to four stars, I round this one up to five, and they are both better than Say Yes to the Marquess, which I rounded up to a four. I have a feeling I’ll be revisiting these eventually, they work for me.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

Venetia (CBR8 #41)

With our book club this year I have added the personal goal of reading the runner up choices as well. I figured if it sounded interesting enough to a gaggle of Cannonballers to earn their vote, surely it deserves my reading attention as well. First up on that quest is Venetia one of the runners up to The Bollywood Bride.

I’m not sure if listening to this one via audiobook caused me to not realize how much I was enjoying the story (weird word choice and craft issues can definitely stand out while listening, some things just sound wrong) but when I went about recounting the story to crystalclear I realized how much I loved the main characters of the titular Venetia and her paramour Lord Damerel. These characters are grown-ups with defined personalities, intelligence, senses of humors, and histories. All the things which make us love romance leads.

Let’s unpack them a little: first we have Damerel: an older confirmed rake who doesn’t care much about anything any longer. Or at least he thinks he doesn’t, but underneath there’s a kind man which his growing friendship with Venetia brings out. He starts out intending to seduce her—but respect for her and her brother soon make him realize that he can’t do that. Which leads to a moral conundrum for Damerel: his life has been so reprehensible that he’s no longer accepted in society (his two elderly aunts are trying to find an appropriately on the shelf/desperate wife to help make him respectable enough that they can make him their heir instead of his fop of a cousin), and marrying a sweet younger lady like Venetia would make people despise him even more. Which brings us back around to Venetia – witty, resourceful and not easily fazed by events that would make most ladies throw up their hands in despair (seriously, her brother sends home a pregnant wife and terrible nuisance of a mother-in-law that Venetia is told nothing about and she moves smoothly along like things like this happen all the time to ladies used to running the family estate in their brother’s absence). She’s 25 years old–just about on the shelf by Regency standards. Because her father was a damaged soul, Venetia has spent her entire life in a small town with a very limited circle of friends and acquaintances, but she’s nevertheless well-read and socially adept, if rather innocent in the ways of the world, at least according to everyone else. She knows what she does not know and thinks that’s fine enough.

It’s charming to watch Venetia’s developing relationship with Damerel, they trade all manner of inside jokes (usually literary quotes and allusions that went over my head a bit) and they just understand each other. Their relationship is in turns witty and heart-wrenching since these are two characters who likely shouldn’t end up together on paper, but you as the reader are rooting for them in a major way since the other two men attempting to win Venetia’s heart made me want to punch them through the page and even Venetia is *this close* to rolling her eyes and hitting them with rolled up newspaper. There was also way more smolder than you might expect from a romance written in the 1950s in the style of Austen. Heyer never gives you anything more than a kiss, but that doesn’t stop her from making heat rising off the pages when these two are together.

This book is definitely worth the read.

Beastly Bones (CBR8 #22)

I hate to say it, but William Ritter seems to have hit a sophomore slump with 2015’s Beastly Bones. I loved my experience reading Jackaby last year: it had so much of all the things that I love about books of the type. Much of that remains in book two, Abigail is still independent and self-assured, Jackaby is still his off-kilter self without being off-putting, we still have a live in ghost, and a shape shifter, and a relatively tightly paced mystery.

But… book two commits a sin that book one managed to avoid. Its main purpose seems to be setting up a larger story to be told in the next book (which is to be released later this year). Beastly Bones has a plot all its own – Abigail and Jackaby have been brought in to nearby Gad’s Valley, now home to the exiled New Fiddleham police detective Charlie Cane, dinosaur bones from a recent dig mysteriously go missing, and an unidentifiable beast starts attacking animals and people, leaving their mangled bodies behind. There is also the problem of bodies turning up with weird puncture wounds on their necks, and shapeshifting creatures on the loose.

All of that is resolved (mostly), some new characters get introduced, and things proceed as one would expect for a book aimed at a YA audience. But… I have this nagging dissatisfaction. Was Abigail still awesome? Yes. Was she given great feminist advice which she then turned to her own way of doing things re: her love life and career? Yep. Was there a plausible end to the mystery? You bet. Were characters given enough time on page? Mostly. Jackaby’s landlady ghost, Jenny Cavanaugh, is necessarily out of sorts in order to set up the third book which will focus on her (as book one focused on the titular Jackaby and book two focused heavily on Abigail’s interests and history), and off page because Jackaby and Abigail are away from New Fiddleham. However Jackaby quite literally does an infodump at the end of the book to explain how we’re getting from the events of this book to the ones upcoming. We didn’t need it. The YA readers didn’t need it. And after a bumpy start of the book it made me round this down to 3 stars. It simply wasn’t as strong as some of the other 4 star books I’ve read this year.

Do I still suggest this series to you? Absolutely. They are fun, clever, and quick-witted and I remain enthusiastic for book three, Ghostly Echoes.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

The Map (CBR8 #9)

Last year I was delighted with Jackaby by William Ritter. It had just the right mix of historical fiction, fantasy, and whodunit to be right up my alley. It’s got a bit of Sherlock mixed with a little Doctor Eleven for a male protagonist and a female protagonist who is smart, wily, and sarcastic in equal measure – and a great example of female agency in print. I immediately added the second book, Beastly Bones, on my to read list for 2016 as well as this fun little novella The Map.

The action of The Map is centered on one day – Abigail Rook’s birthday. She dares to hope that her employer Jackaby, detective of the supernatural, won’t make a fuss. She is let down. The pair are off for parts unknown using magical party crackers to teleport in time and space (I told you, a smidge timey wimey) using a cryptic map that may lead to a forgotten treasure.  Jackaby is going to give Abigail the present of adventure, just as soon as she comes around to it.

In some ways this short story felt much more akin to a television script than it did a novella, and that isn’t really a detraction. You probably need to have read the first book in order to appreciate this one, for while certain characters don’t appear on page, they are referenced. The same goes for some of the action. This one also doesn’t give us any new character development, and may not be the best place to meet these characters as this is VERY plot driven, but if you are already into the world of Jackaby it is currently FREE on both Amazon and Barnes and Noble for download.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

All the Light We Cannot See (CBR7 #7)

I loved this one.

I wasn’t really sure about All the Light We Cannot See when I decided to put a hold on it at my library (which has quickly escalated into an addiction in case you were wondering, I have approximately 20 books on holds which will deliver them to my library over the next 6 months). I based my selection of the book on its winning Goodreads Book of the Year –Historical Fiction and the glowing review of a friend on that site. My only concern was that I have read a lot of books set in 1930s/1940s Europe and wasn’t sure that I really wanted to spend more time there just now. As it turned out that wasn’t actually a problem and I devoured this masterly crafted work and sped through it over the course of three days.

The structure of this book is its biggest strength. We are on two timelines throughout – in one we are in August 1944 in Saint-Malo, France during the firebombing. In the second we travel from 1934 to August 1944 chronicling the movements and links between the characters in Saint-Malo. This doesn’t seem like it should be a gripping structure, but boy is it. Each chapter alternates between different characters, and for approximately 90% of the book we are moving between Werner, orphan in Germany’s coal country, radio/electrical genius and soon to be sucked up into the Nazi war machine and Marie-Laure, daughter of the master of keys and locks and the National Natural History Museum in Paris, and on the run with her father who has been tasked with keeping a piece of the collection safe from the invading German forces. Oh, and she’s been blind since the age of 6. It’s basically the same as the set up for Eleanor and Park, minus the love story and the knowing each other part.

I can’t seem to capture in words how captivating this narrative device truly is in this outing. Everywhere All the Light We Cannot See is mentioned the fact that Anthony Doerr spent a decade working on it is mentioned. Initially I was annoyed, I don’t tend to put a lot of weight into how long or how short someone’s writing process is. Everyone’s process is their own, you know? But as I worked my way through the stories of Werner and Marie-Laure, and the details started to line up, and the tension and mood were so expertly crafted, and the topics so lovingly brought to life, I understood why people wanted me to know how long Doerr spent, because the craftsmanship of a decade shines through like a well-made piece of furniture.

If there was a small stumble it was near the end. I had assumed that the ending of the book and the various narrative threads would wind up at the end of the war, and probably around August 1944, which we kept bouncing to and back from. It doesn’t. The narrative makes several additional jumps forward in the final 30 pages and while it was perhaps nice to see where these characters ended up, it was also somehow more than I needed. I think if the last jump forward hadn’t happened, I would have been completely satisfied.

This is however, my first five star book of the year, and I don’t give those out lightly. If you like historical fiction, read this.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.