Charlotte Anne Hamilton: Of Trust & Heart

Title: Of Trust and Heart
Author: Charlotte Anne Hamilton

The Great War changed everything for Lady Harriet Cunningham. Instead of being presented at eighteen, she trained to be a nurse and shared forbidden kisses with her colleagues.

But now in 1923, at the age of 24, Harriet is facing spinsterhood.

It’s not such a ghastly prospect to her, but as the daughter of the Earl of Creoch, there’s a certain expectation that she must meet. So, in a last attempt to find a match for their daughter to see her safe and secure, they send her to her aunt and uncle in New York.

Only when she gets there, she and her cousin, a man who, like her, suffers from the weight of expectation from his father, decide on one last hoorah as a memory to hold close to their heart in their later life.

But when they arrive at the speakeasy hidden beneath a small bookstore, Harriet finds herself entranced by the singer. No matter how hard she wants to please her family and do her duty, she finds that there’s something about the woman that she can’t stay away from — that she can’t ignore her heart. Which is loudly calling for Miss Rosalie Smith.

This book just didn’t work for me. One reason was that I couldn’t really buy the romance: Harriet goes to a speakeasy gay bar and hears Rosalie singing. They exchange a few sentences and the next time they go there Rosalie has already written an entire song about her and after that Harriet’s heart aches when she thinks about Rosalie and that she can’t be with her, because her family expects her to marry.

That brings me to the second reason the story didn’t work: I also couldn’t really buy the conflict. Because Harriet’s family knows she’s lesbian and doesn’t judge her for it. They still want her to marry because a single woman would be eyed suspiciously and if she is then also frequently seen with another single woman that would cause such a huge scandal that it would dishonour her cow entire family, and would even ruin the marriage prospect of her nieces and nephews. Because it’s not like something happened shortly before the 1920s that seriously decimated the number of young men, no famously there were a shitton of surplus men in that time and if any woman couldn’t find one there had to be something seriously wrong with her.

So Harriet keeps talking about her loving family who only wants her to get married for her own good and all the fault is with the evil society that makes her hide her true self and would make her face horrible consequences if it came out. Now that’s true in theory…but also Harriet drags her prospective fiancee in the mixed-race speakeasy gay bar because she just has a feeling that he would be fine with it so it doesn’t really feel as if she is actually that worried about consequences. (And why would she when even her stuffy conservative aunt goes “Get that hot lady singer’s ass before you get married because nothing a lady does before her wedding should matter”). So the conflict/danger/tension/however you want to call it never feels present. Harriet is surrounded by people with fairly progressive views – which itself isn’t bad because not every historical novel featuring queer characters needs to cause tension with “my loved ones would despise me if they found out who I really am” but…then it needs a different conflict because people in pretty dresses standing around isn’t a story. But that’s how this book felt.

Maggie Robinson: Farewell Blues

Title: Farewell Blues
Author: Maggie Robinson
Series: Lady Adelaide #4

Lady Adelaide Compton had prepared herself to say good-bye forever to Detective Inspector Devenand Hunter. It would be a welcome relief not to get mixed up in any more murders. Not to mention become un-haunted by her late and unlamented husband Rupert, whose post-life duty had been dedicated to detection and her protection. Surely he’d performed the necessary number of good deeds to get out of Addie’s fashionably bobbed hair and gain access to Heaven by now.

But when Addie’s prim and proper mother Constance, the Dowager Marchioness of Broughton is accused of murdering her secret lover, there can’t be enough ghosts and gentlemen detectives on hand to find the truth. The dead Duke of Rufford appeared to lead a blameless life, but appearances can be deceiving. Unless Addie, Dev and Rupert work together, Constance will hang, and Great War flying ace Rupert will never get his celestial wings. 

Let’s get this out of the way first: I’m usually not a big fan of cozies where the sleuth investigate because a friend/relative is a murder suspect and they want to clear that person’s name. This has to do with the fact that I can suspend my disbelief and accept that a random person can walk around and ask others about a crime that has recently been committed, especially because (at least in good cozies) the sleuth usually doesn’t just walk in and demands to know everything about the murder but is more subtle about it. I can buy that but can’t quite believe that it would be quite as easy if the person asking if you didn’t also have an argument with the victim is a child/sibling/friend of the current main suspect. Additionally, I often feel the urgency that this set-up should provoke is missing. If someone a character cares about is suspected of a crime and a lengthy prison sentence or even an execution hangs over their head I expect that character to be worried. But often they just treat it like every other case.

This was a very long-winded way of saying that even though I had loved the previous Lady Adelaide novels I was a bit sceptical when I heard that in Farewell Blues Addie’s mother was the main suspect in a murder. But then I was pleasantly surprised when it turned out very differently from what I had feared. Addie being the daughter of the main suspect makes her investigation more difficult. Some people very much don’t want to talk to her. At the same time, it’s difficult for Addie because it’s her mother who’s a suspect and if she fails to find the true killer her mother will likely die. But despite that Farewell Blues is still a mystery novel where the main question is…well whodunit? It manages to find a perfect balance between these two aspects.

(The other question is of course: how long will I be able to read about Addie and Dev yearning for each other without going mad? Let me just say that I was very happy and content after the last page. Very.)

Freya Marske: A Marvellous Light

Title: A Marvellous Light
Author: Freya Marske
Series: The Last Binding #1

Robin Blyth has more than enough bother in his life. He’s struggling to be a good older brother, a responsible employer, and the harried baronet of a seat gutted by his late parents’ excesses. When an administrative mistake sees him named the civil service liaison to a hidden magical society, he discovers what’s been operating beneath the unextraordinary reality he’s always known.

Now Robin must contend with the beauty and danger of magic, an excruciating deadly curse, and the alarming visions of the future that come with it—not to mention Edwin Courcey, his cold and prickly counterpart in the magical bureaucracy, who clearly wishes Robin were anyone and anywhere else.

Robin’s predecessor has disappeared, and the mystery of what happened to him reveals unsettling truths about the very oldest stories they’ve been told about the land they live on and what binds it. Thrown together and facing unexpected dangers, Robin and Edwin discover a plot that threatens every magician in the British Isles—and a secret that more than one person has already died to keep.

This book was…fun. The magical mystery part was even great fun. The mystery itself was cleverly intertwined with the magical worldbuilding which was intriguing and full of unusual ideas without being so complicated that I felt I needed to make notes to keep track. I also loved that Edwin was great at magical theory but simply didn’t have much magical power. It was a nice change from characters that are either very good at everything or very bad at everything. (And unrelated to magic: Edwin came up with his own library classification system as a kid. As a library-adjacent nerd I am delighted).

The non-mystery bit, i.e. the romance, was just…nice. I liked Robin. I liked Edwin. I even liked their developing friendship and how they helped each other with their vulnerabilities. But there was simply no spark between them that made me really care about them as romantic couple. In fact, when the big break-up due to an unfortunate series of misunderstandings/stupidity on both sides came my first thought was “Noooo! You’re both going to mope now instead of investigating the mystery further and that’s what I’m most interested in.” which was probably not the reaction the author intended.

The side-characters were a bit hit-and-miss for me. I adored Edwin’s colleague Miss Morrisey and hope to see more of her in future books. But his siblings/friends of his siblings mostly stayed somewhat one-dimensional and I did have some trouble keeping them apart (admittedly I also took my time reading this book and perhaps it would have been easier if I had read it quicker). Robin’s sister was very much the quirky enlightened/progressive female character that seems to be required in (historical) m/m romance and while I wouldn’t call her annoying she simply didn’t leave much of an impression.

Overall it was a fun read and I will pick up the next book because I do want to know how the mystery continues.

Cat Sebastian – The Queer Principles of Kit Webb

Title: The Queer Principles of Kit Webb
Author: Cat Sebastian

Kit Webb has left his stand-and-deliver days behind him. But dreary days at his coffee shop have begun to make him pine for the heady rush of thievery. When a handsome yet arrogant aristocrat storms into his shop, Kit quickly realizes he may be unable to deny whatever this highborn man desires.

In order to save himself and a beloved friend, Percy, Lord Holland must go against every gentlemanly behavior he holds dear to gain what he needs most: a book that once belonged to his mother, a book his father never lets out of his sight and could be Percy’s savior. More comfortable in silk-filled ballrooms than coffee shops frequented by criminals, his attempts to hire the roughly hewn highwayman, formerly known as Gladhand Jack, proves equal parts frustrating and electrifying.

Kit refuses to participate in the robbery but agrees to teach Percy how to do the deed. Percy knows he has little choice but to submit and as the lessons in thievery begin, he discovers thievery isn’t the only crime he’s desperate to commit with Kit.

But when their careful plan goes dangerously wrong and shocking revelations threaten to tear them apart, can these stolen hearts withstand the impediments in their path?

This book was very…twee. Something I wasn’t entirely unprepared for, since the cover doesn’t exactly scream ‘dark and edgy’ and if you’re familiar with fanfiction neither does coffee shop. And I wanted something cutesy and twee when I picked up this book. And I got it. I got a book that contained the phrases “He even smelled good, even though the only scent Percy could detect was yesterday’s soap, tobacco, and what his mind stupidly and unhelpfully identified as man” and “He felt like he ought to be cataloguing all the ways this was different from kissing a woman but it wasn’t.” which both poke fun at stuff that you found frequently in fanfiction about ten years ago, yet somehow also shout them out pretty non-ironically. I got a book with cheesy hurt/comfort scenes (including I want to hurt the person who hurt you), Kit having strong feelings for his pet-spider (of course only Percy understands), witty female side characters that of course can hold their own, and did I mention that it’s set in a coffee shop?

I also got Kit who lost many people he loved tragically, who recently received a serious injury that crippled his leg and who now has to learn to live with a disability and Percy who has just found out that his entire life has been a lie and the things you learn about his childhood and his parents make you want to call Georgian child services. And those two hatch a plan together that could get both of them killed. So not exactly light-hearted. But I kept forgetting about that between the best-of cheesy romance/fanfic tropes this book bombards you with. And then it came up again and I thought ‘Dude. Shouldn’t you be more affected by that?’ So, I guess I would have either needed this to be either less dark or less cutesy, but the combination of both didn’t work at all.

KJ Charles – Subtle Blood

Author: KJ Charles
Title: Subtle Blood
Series: Will Darling #3

Will Darling is all right. His business is doing well, and so is his illicit relationship with Kim Secretan–disgraced aristocrat, ex-spy, amateur book-dealer. It’s starting to feel like he’s got his life under control.

And then a brutal murder in a gentleman’s club plunges them back into the shadow world of crime, deception, and the power of privilege. Worse, it brings them up against Kim’s noble, hostile family, and his upper-class life where Will can never belong.

With old and new enemies against them, and secrets on every side, Will and Kim have to fight for each other harder than ever—or be torn apart for good.

I had been very excited for the conclusion of the Will Darling Books and was not disappointed. The mystery is again great fun and kept me guessing for a long time. Not to mention, it offers a fun twist on the “sleuth investigates because a family member is under suspicion” trope (which I am usually not overly fond of), in that Kim doesn’t particularly care for his brother – or is fully convinced of his innocence – but him getting convicted for murder and executed would mean Kim would end up with the title and all the publicity that comes with it, something he wants under no circumstances. This goes so far that he is seriously considering using his connections to save him, even if it does turn out he’s guilty. Surprisingly, these considerations do cause some tension in his relationship with Will.

This does give us a great set-up. Kim’s brother is so unlikeable, as reader, you almost want it to be him because the thought of him continuing to run around freely is depressing. (And besides he doesn’t exactly act innocent). But at the same time it’s clear that him having actually committed a murder would open an entirely different can of worms. That’s a good way to up the stakes for the grand finale without fabricating stupid misunderstandings or making the case ridiculously over-the-top (I mean…it’s already pulp. The case is ridiculously over-the-top. But in a fun way).

And for the rest: It still has all the things I loved about the first two books: a great couple (that still has to work on their relationship and does so), charming side-characters (I admit I thought Phoebe was fun in book one…now I love her), and delightfully fiendish villains who have hatched a dastardly evil scheme. And a surprising end – in more than one way.

ARC received from the author

Rose Lerner – The Wife in the Attic

Author: Rose Lerner
Title: The Wife in the Attic

Goldengrove’s towers and twisted chimneys rose at the very edge of the peaceful Weald, a stone’s throw from the poisonous marshes and merciless waters of Rye Bay. Young Tabby Palethorp had been running wild there, ever since her mother grew too ill to leave her room.

I was the perfect choice to give Tabby a good English education: thoroughly respectable and far too plain to tempt her lonely father, Sir Kit, to indiscretion.

I knew better than to trust my new employer with the truth about my past. But knowing better couldn’t stop me from yearning for impossible things: to be Tabby’s mother, Sir Kit’s companion, Goldengrove’s new mistress.

All that belonged to poor Lady Palethorp. Most of all, I burned to finally catch a glimpse of her.

Surely she could tell me who had viciously defaced the exquisite guitar in the music room, why all the doors in the house were locked after dark, and whose footsteps I heard in the night…

I have put off this review for quite a while now because I just don’t know how to put my feelings into words. I did like this book but there were also things that just didn’t quite work for me. The Wife in the Attic is a story in the tradition of Gothic Novels. Spooky houses, dark secrets…almost every chapter ends with the heroine being shocked by something and half of those cliff-hangers get resolved a few lines into the next chapter. E.g. one chapter ends with Deborah opening and orange and being shocked because blood is coming from it. The next chapter opens with someone explaining to her what a blood orange is. In most other books I would have rolled my eyes at that but here it fits right into the atmosphere. Because the atmosphere is properly Gothic, also because of how great Sir Kit is written. He makes a brilliant gothic villain by being…nice. He is very nice to Deb as long as she does what he wants. Actually he is still very nice is if she doesn’t do it…then he smiles and makes sure that she feels very stupid for wanting it in the first place. As someone who has actually an easier time with reading/watching physical violence than gaslighting/emotional manipulation those were scenes that made me very uncomfortable but then that’s what they were supposed to do.

And of course The Wife in the Attic doesn’t just take ye olden gothic tropes without questioning them. Especially the “Otherness” – in the sense of non-WASP non-English – being the scary thing. Because Deb’s family are Portuguese Jews and so for her white (English) people are rather scary. (Not just in a vague sense, her grandmother’s family was killed by the inquisition and she suffers from intergenerational trauma). And, more generally the book also has a lot to say about the role of women in that ere and their lack of power…but it does all this while still “staying gothic”. Sure, it would be frightening if the villain found out what Deb is doing behind his back. And him discovering that she’s Jewish would be even more frightening.

And because everything is so gothic I found it odd that the story continued even after a “proper” gothic novel would have ended. After they escaped the creepy castle. And it doesn’t just continue for a bit to tie up some loose ends, the audiobook goes on for over 3 more hours after what I expected the end to be. Now some of it fits together with the modernized gothic tropes, but a lot of it felt like I was suddenly reading/listening to a completely different genre and that made those last hours drag on quite a bit.

John Dickson Carr – The Lost Gallows

Title: The Lost Gallows
Author: John Dickson Carr

It started when El Moulk’s automobile roared crazily through a London fog, its driver dead as a herring. The car screeched to a stop in front of that creaky relic of ancient horrors, the Brimstone Club. Through its cavernous rooms and gaslit passages a murderer hunted victims for a private gallows. The calling cards of a notorious hangman, a miniature gibbet, a length of rope, and an inscription from the tomb of Egyptian kings warned El Moulk and his dazzling French mistress that death was on their trail. It was a perfect case for Bencolin, a detective who preferred fantastic murders. 

Carr really should be exactly for me: over-the-top pulpy mysteries about fiendish villains who don’t only make elaborate plans that makes it seem like they have an alibi for the time of the murder, no they are also in it for the aesthetic. They are doing all this for a particular reason and the murder and everything that surrounds it needs to match that reason. I love that stuff and can even overlook some of its issues….like that women in pulp fiction generally are only allowed to be distressed damsels, love interests, femme fatales (or distressed love interests). I did roll my eyes at Bencolin (and I guess in extension also Carr) slagging off crime writers who go for more ordinary, down-to-earth mysteries. I mean I knew what I was getting into when picking up this book, no need to piss on books that belong to a completely different end of the sub-genre. But I could have overlooked that as well. The ableism was harder to ignore but sadly it’s also not exactly surprising for books of that time and type.

But what really made me realise that Carr is probably just not for me is that I have now read several of his stories and in all of them I read and after a while noticed that I have absorbed absolutely nothing of what happened in the last view paragraphs (or sometimes pages). He just has a writing-style that makes my thoughts wander to everything but what’s actually on the page. His narrator is just so…rambling. The Bencolin books do go for a Holmes/Watson dynamic with his friend Jeff Marle, recording Bencolin’s adventures. It’s possible that it’s supposed to show that Marle really has no clue what’s going on and gives a lot of unnecessary information but he doesn’t only do that he describes everything in a similar way…it all sounds the same no matter if he’s describing interior decoration or fighting for his life. And that monotony makes it very hard to stay focussed on what’s happening on the page. Previously, I had just though that that I was in the wrong mood while trying to read Carr but now I have come to the conclusion that it’s definitely him, not me.

Freeman Wills Crofts – The Hog’s Back Mystery

Author: Freeman Wills Crofts
Title: The Hog’s Back Mystery
Series: Inspector French #10

Dr James Earle and his wife live in comfortable seclusion near the Hog’s Back, a ridge in the North Downs in the beautiful Surrey countryside. When Dr Earle disappears from his cottage, Inspector French is called in to investigate. At first he suspects a simple domestic intrigue – and begins to uncover a web of romantic entanglements beneath the couple’s peaceful rural life.
The case soon takes a more complex turn. Other people vanish mysteriously, one of Dr Earle’s house guests among them. What is the explanation for the disappearances? If the missing people have been murdered, what can be the motive? This fiendishly complicated puzzle is one that only Inspector French can solve.

This mystery starts like so many at a country house gathering but it’s one that leads only to a disappearance. Which of course means there are more possibilities as to what could have happened. Is it really only a disappearance or is the body just very well hidden? And if the person really disappeared was it voluntarily or not? And anyway why and how? Now, I did go into this with the expectation that this wasn’t so genre-breaking that it would turn out no crime had been committed at all but that still left enough possibilities to have some fun guessing. Admittedly, a seasoned mystery-reader will probably be able to make a good guess as to the motive but that still leaves enough questions about the how (and who exactly) to guess at. I definitely had fun trying to figure those out. However, towards the end, the book drags a bit. Because French has also figured out the why and needs the who and the how and so…he keeps repeating the same information over and over again. X can’t have done it because he has an alibi. Y has no alibi but also no motive…and when he finally has figured it out he only tells his colleagues and not the reader so there’s another chapter where they only talk about what a genius French is for figuring it out without giving away anything. By that point, I was very impatient and slightly annoyed. But not so much that it made me dislike the book. It was still a fun read.

Aster Glenn Gray – Honeytrap

Author: Aster Glenn Gray
Title: Honeytrap

At the height of the Cold War, a Soviet and an American agent fall in love.

Soviet agent Gennady Matskevich is thrilled when he’s assigned to work with American FBI agent Daniel Hawthorne. There’s just one catch: Gennady’s abusive boss wants him to honeytrap his American partner. Gennady doesn’t want to seduce his new American friend for blackmail purposes… but nonetheless, he can’t stop thinking about kissing Daniel.

FBI agent Daniel Hawthorne is delighted to get to know an agent from the mysterious Soviet Union… and determined not to repeat his past mistake of becoming romantically involved with a coworker. But soon, Daniel finds himself falling for Gennady. Can their love survive their countries’ enmity?

This book was not what I expected from the blurb. I picked it up because I thought it would be a mystery/spy thriller (+ romance) and this was…not that. Gennady and Daniel are assigned to investigate a very amateurish assassination attempt on Khrushchev together. Since they’re only decent clue is a scrap from a somewhat obscure magazine they go on a road trip to visit all the subscribers but the story is far more interested in the road trip (during which they experience pretty much every romance trope you can think of…yes they do huddle for warmth in Only One Bed) than the interviews…we only get to see two or three…which is why the case ends up being solved not by them but almost accidentally by the local police. They get back to tie everything up, their working relationship ends, Gennady goes back to the Soviet Union, there’s a time jump to the 1970s when he ends up back in the USA, more romance tropes happen, back to Moscow, another time jump the 90s where they meet again and…well this is a romance novel.

To be perfectly honest: if I had known about this I probably wouldn’t have picked it up. I spent a lot of time during the twee road trip scenes going “Ok but when are you going to do some actual investigating?”. So, no, I’m not the target audience for this book in the first place…however now that I’m here I will also complain about a things that have nothing to do with the fact that this book wasn’t the genre I had expected. Like the fact that this book drowns in romance tropes…now I do love cheesy romance tropes myself but…they have to make sense in context…fit in the story. This books seems on occasions like the author went through a checklist; bedsharing? Check! Christmas together? Check! Major hurt and comfort moment? Check! But it resulted in each scene feeling generic. As if you could swap the order around because there was nothing in it that anchored it at that point in their relationship. (Generally it often felt less like reading about a developing relationship and more like they jumped from one milestone to the next…which can partly blamed on the time jumps but the first part took over half the book there could have been some).

And then there’s…well it’s one thing but it was also so much more than just a minor flaw: One of them gets stabbed at one point and…refuses to go to the hospital for reasons that really make zero sense in context so the other decides to drive him to the FBI headquarter to inform their boss that Dude #1 got stabbed. Because this is the 1950s. Telephones weren’t invented yet. So #2 drives #1 who must be happily bleeding over the whole car because the stab wound has received zero care. He then continues to bleed on the FBI carpet and boss also suggests the hospital but no. So #2 makes a suggestion…

You might want to sit down for this

I have a first aid kit in my car…you know the car I just drove you in. Let’s drive to our motel so that you can bleed a bit more in my car and then I can bandage you up there in the motel…with that kit I have currently in my possession and had already when you were stabbed.

Do you feel my pain?

AND THE STUPID IS NOT OVER YET. Because the caring for the wound involves #1 biting on a belt to stop himself from screaming as if he was a soldier getting his leg sawn off without anaesthetics instead of an agent getting his wound disenfected.

Do you feel my pain?

Do you think that was all?

No, because on the next day #2 gives aspirin and then takes him clothes shopping so #1 can move his body full of a blood-thinner a lot while having a wound that has only been bandaged and not stitched.

Look, I happily accept some leaps of logic to get a good hurt/comfort scene. But it’s not a good scene if I keep wondering how he hasn’t bled to death, yet.

Marshall Ryan Maresca – The Velocity of Revolution

Title: The Velocity of Revolution
Author: Marshall Ryan Maresca

Ziaparr: a city being rebuilt after years of mechanized and magical warfare, the capital of a ravaged nation on the verge of renewal and self-rule. But unrest foments as undercaste cycle gangs raid supply trucks, agitate the populace and vandalize the city. A revolution is brewing in the slums and shantytowns against the occupying government, led by a voice on the radio, connected through forbidden magic.

Wenthi Tungét, a talented cycle rider and a loyal officer in the city patrol, is assigned to infiltrate the cycle gangs. For his mission against the insurgents, Wenthi must use their magic, connecting his mind to Nália, a recently captured rebel, using her knowledge to find his way into the heart of the rebellion.

Wenthi’s skill on a cycle makes him valuable to the resistance cell he joins, but he discovers that the magic enhances with speed. Every ride intensifies his connection, drawing him closer to the gang he must betray, and strengthens Nália’s presence as she haunts his mind.

Wenthi is torn between justice and duty, and the wrong choice will light a spark in a city on the verge of combustion

While reading this book, I assumed this was the first in a series. Because there was no way all these problems could be solved easily (or quickly). It is set in a (Mexican or more general Central-American inspired) place which has been colonized and where the (white) colonisers have built up a strict caste-system. The less indigenous blood you have and the whiter you are, the easier your life will be. People with mostly indigenous heritage live in slums and struggle to survive, leaving them with not much energy to fight this status quo. Meanwhile, the colonisers and those light-skinned enough to live comfortably enough have obviously no reason to change it. So getting rid of the dark lord isn’t going to do much because legislative, executive and judiciary are filled with people who never went hungry under him and so won’t see any reason to change anything.

Of course, I didn’t expect to get one book about the revolution and then one about drafting new laws and parliamentary debates (because that would have a very niche market) but I did expect more acknowledgement that it’s still going to take time and effort to make things better again. As it was, over two-thirds of the book were really hammering home the “there’s no single dark lord who is responsible for all our misery” message only to take a sharp U-turn at the last moment and go “but if we press this magical switch it’s going to be all fine” and then veer slightly to the right and mumble “there’s still some vague unspecified stuff to do but really not much”. Now the magical switch felt a bit odd at first and I do wish there had been some more time to set it up but overall it did fit in the story. But I really would have wanted a slightly more open end. As it is, it tied things up far too quickly for me and seemed too rushed.

ARC received from NetGalley