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

Mini Reviews January 2021

For all those books I’ve read but don’t have enough to say to write a whole review

Nghi Vo – Empress of Salt and Fortune

I can see why people love this book. It has a magnificent plot, told concisely in a novella that never seems rushed but exactly the right length. It felt very much like reading an old legend with characters that single-mindedly pursue their epic goal but stay somewhat distant. And that was exactly my problem. I want to feel with the characters. I want to see them develop relationships with others beyond being told “And then they fell in love”. But that’s very much what classic legends and fairy tales do and that’s exactly what this book does. And so the final spark that would have made me go “Wow! This is beyond amazing” just wasn’t there.

Adrian Tchaikovsky – Guns of the Dawn

The main reason I didn’t write a longer review of this was that it’s very hard to talk much about the book without spoiling a major twist. Our heroine, Emily lives in Lascanne, a kind of fantasy regency England, that has been at war with its neighbour Denland for so long that they have now started drafting women as soldiers (despite the gender-roles being otherwise very Regency England) and so Emily goes to war. And the author manages to describe war as something as being horrible without getting all grimdark detailed descriptions of gruesome injuries. And for quite a while that’s all: Emily is at the front, forms friendships with fellow soldiers, fights…and has not much of a clue how the war as a whole is going because nobody bothers telling simple soldiers about that.
Eventually something happens that puts previous events in a very different light…but it does take a long time to get there. And while I usually roll my eyes at people who recommend books to me by going “This 800 page doorstopper gets really good after 400 pages” I still enjoyed this book a lot. Also because I wouldn’t call the beginning bad or boring…just different from what you would expect from a book with that title and that cover.

Adella J. Harris – The Marquess of Gorsewall Manor (dnf)

In a romance it is vital that you feel with the characters and this book just didn’t deliver on that front. One of the protagonists went through what should have been very traumatic events – he was caught in a police raid on a molly house and imprisoned – but it barely seemed to affect him. All he did was occasional mentions of the food being bad…I also would have expected him to be more careful about showing his inclinations after already being imprisoned for it but he jumps the Marquess at almost the first chance he gets…nothing about this story was convincing.

Gil North – Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm

So far I have finished every Crime Library Classic book I started but this book almost broke that streak. I think I only got through it because the audiobook is only about 4 hours long and so I was already almost halfway through after one Sunday walk and decided that now I might as well make it through the end. I really shouldn’t have bothered because the author really makes his opinions clear in the first few chapters and then just repeats them over and over…or perhaps I should rather say one opinions: It’s always the woman’s fault. Because all women are horrible whores who just want to doom men. Only their breasts are interesting. Which is why Cluff/the narrator will describe them every time a woman appears…even if she’s dead or barely of age.

KJ Charles – The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting

Title: The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting
Author: KJ Charles

Robin Loxleigh and his sister Marianne are the hit of the Season, so attractive and delightful that nobody looks behind their pretty faces.

Until Robin sets his sights on Sir John Hartlebury’s heiress niece. The notoriously graceless baronet isn’t impressed by good looks, or fooled by false charm. He’s sure Robin is a liar—a fortune hunter, a card sharp, and a heartless, greedy fraud—and he’ll protect his niece, whatever it takes.

Then, just when Hart thinks he has Robin at his mercy, things take a sharp left turn. And as the grumpy baronet and the glib fortune hunter start to understand each other, they also find themselves starting to care—more than either of them thought possible.

But Robin’s cheated and lied and let people down for money. Can a professional rogue earn an honest happy ever after? 

As much as I love reading about people who fall in love while solving a murder, occasionally I do enjoy something less bloody. Especially in times like these. And especially if it is obvious that while the MCs might not solve big world-changing problems, the stakes are still high. Because – let me get sappy for a moment – somebody’s happiness is quite a high stake. And the book does a very good job at convincing me that many people in this book (not just the designated couple) would be absolutely miserable if things went wrong. And that kept me glued to the pages and once again awake somewhat longer than I should have because every time I thought “Well, I’ll finish that chapter and then go to sleep.” the chapter ended on some bombshell-twist that made me go “b…b…buuut how can that still end happily now? NOW I NEED TO CONTINUE”.

Of course, that only works if you care about the characters. And I did. A lot. And not only about the main couple but also the side characters: Robin’s sister and Sir John’s sister and his niece. None of is are just defined by their relationship to the men; all have their own thoughts, feelings and goals and are amazing characters in their own right. But they also have a great relationship with their brother/uncle and you can tell that they all truly care about each other (which is nice because sometimes it seems fiction is much more interested in destructive and unhealthy family-dynamics).

Something else? Oh right, of course, there are also Robin and John. I know, this is getting repetitive but I loved them. And to get repetitive again let me say something else I keep saying about KJ Charles romances: I loved the amount of thought that went into the balancing of the power dynamics between the two leads. John is rich and very privileged (and not fully aware just how privileged) but also shy and very inexperienced where romantic relationships (and to an extend sex) is concerned. He is resigned to not finding – and not deserving – happiness. Robin meanwhile has no privilege and nothing material to offer. But he has experience in other fields and does everything to convince John that he does deserve the kind of nice things that money can’t buy. And that’s beautiful.

Sam Hawke – Hollow Empire (Poison War #2)

Title: Hollow Empire
Author: Sam Hawke
Series: Poison War #2

Two years after a devastating siege tore the country apart, Silasta has recovered. But to the frustration of poison-taster siblings Jovan and Kalina, sworn to protect the Chancellor, the city has grown complacent in its new-found peace and prosperity.

And now, amid the celebrations of the largest carnival the continent has ever seen, it seems a mysterious enemy has returned.

The death of a former adversary sets Jovan on the trail of a cunning killer, while Kalina negotiates the treacherous politics of visiting dignitaries, knowing that this vengeful mastermind may lurk among the princes and dukes, noble ladies and priests. But their investigations uncover another conspiracy which now threatens not just Silasta and the Chancellor but also their own family.

Assassins, witches and a dangerous criminal network are all closing in. And brother and sister must once more fight to save their city – and everyone they hold dear – from a patient, powerful enemy determined to tear it all down . . .

In City of Lies I really enjoyed the basic premise of the plot: a mystery that had to be solved not by two amateurs who just stumbled into everything but by two people who had been trained to deal with problems…they just had never expected to deal with such a huge problem (or to deal with it that early in their lives). I also loved that, despite it being a historically inspired fantasy setting, there was no “historically accurate sexism”. Women and men are equal. Same-sex relationships exist. Full stop. But I also found that the characters lacked distinct voices. The book switches between two narrators and I frequently forgot who was the narrator in the chapter I was reading. And, more generally, I also had issues telling the other characters in the story apart because they all remained a bit colourless. I picked up the sequel because I hoped that these things would get better.

Now, in Hollow Empire… I still had trouble telling the narrators apart but the supporting characters seemed more developed and I no longer thought “This scene would probably feel more dramatic if I remembered who this person was”. Unfortunately, the plot no longer was what could be considered a very grand scale murder mystery but leaned heavier towards a conspiracy thriller. Not a genre I am very fond of. Besides, one of the main characters got framed for a crime he didn’t commit which is very much my least favourite trope and then the characters have to do quite a lot of dealings with a foreign country that has historically accurate sexism of the worst “women are just there to marry them off to form alliances” kind.

So, while technically some things got better, overall it got much worse for me because there was more and more stuff I simply didn’t like.

A solemn look back at 2020

Don’t worry…not the whole dumpster fire, just at my reading choices.

What’s the best book you read this year?

I loved The Last Uncharted Sky and both of KJ Charles’ Will Darling books (the second even more than the first) and I can’t pick either of them as absolute favourite.

What’s the worst book you read this year?

JB Lawless – Der Tote in der Bibliothek. There was exactly one good thing about it and that was that I got it from the library and so did not waste any money on it.

Your favourite “classic” you read this year:

*mumbles* I read The Tennant of Wildfell Hall and two Georgette Heyer books (Masquerades and Faro’s Daughter) and considering those classics is probably already a stretch and I wouldn’t say any of those was a favourite. But I guess I enjoyed Masquerades most.

The book that disappointed you:

Well. *awkwardly shuffles around*. You need expectations to be disappointed. And there were two books that were hyped A Lot and that I ended up not enjoying much. There were books I hated much more but I had no expectations for those.

And now I guess I have to name those books…so…I liked neither Red White and Royal Blue nor Boyfriend Material. And now excuse me I have to go into Witness protection now….oh and when I’m at it I can add The Unspoken Name to the list.

The hardest book you read this year (topic or writing style):

Saša Stanišić – When the Soldier repaired the Gramophone. The topic (The war in Yugoslavia) was heavy but it also had a style that made it hard to read more than a few pages at a time.

The funniest book you read this year:

*stares at her 2020 booklist* I laughed a lot at Jeremy Hardy Speaks Volumes. It was a collection of stand-up pieces from a Comedian I really liked so I expected it to be very funny.

The saddest book you read this year:

Well and then I was sad about the same book because it was a posthumously published collection with many essays by his friends. Otherwise I stayed away from really sad books this year because *gestures broadly at everything*

A book that surprised you:

Aliette de Bodard – Of Dragons Feasts and Murder. I had some mixed experience with my previous attempts with her stuff (one dnf, one fun plot but a bit…wordy for me and one meh) but ended up really enjoying that one.

A(nother) book you read this year you want to recommend (maybe one that you haven’t mentioned yet?):

Maggie Robinson’s Lady Adelaide series. Which…is more than one book. And I read the first one last year but 2 and 3 this year and now I have to wait UNTIL SEPTEMBER for the next one. Anyway I love it and it’s great fun.

An author you discovered this year that you will definitely read again:

I picked up The White Ship by Charles Spencer because it was about The Anarchy and what led up to it, a topic I am interested in since reading my mom’s Brother Cadfael novels, and ended up liking it so much that I picked up his To Catch a King afterwards even though Charles II had never been a topic I cared much about but he just has a way to talk about subjects that just maker me interested in them.

A book that you never want to read again:

I mean…lots. Some of which have already been mentioned but to add a new one: I never want to come anywhere near Bruce Robinson’s 800 page rant that supposedly solves the Jack the Ripper case but really is just him yelling constantly.

Were you part of a reading challenge? Did you meet it?

My Goodreads challenge were 53 books and I read over 70. I also had a list of I think 10 specific books I meant to read this year and only read 6 or 7 of those because ‘gestures broadly at everything’

Are you signed up for any in 2021?

I will do the Goodreads one again and probably set my number a bit higher. Otherwise I’m planning to look for some short-term challenges/bingos because I have by now realised that year-long ones don’t work for me.

The book series you read the most volumes of this year:

Well…there are three series of which I read two books each: KJ Charles’ Will Darling, Maggie Robinson’s Lady Adelaide and Sharon Shinn’s Elemental Magic

Which authors featured most prominently for you in 2020?

And then I also read KJ Charles’ final Magpie Lord book, which brings the number of books by her up to a staggering three and she’s the winner.

The last book you finished this year:

Yesterday Maggie Robinson’s Just Make Believe. I am more than Halfway through Sam Hawke’s Hollow Empire but I probably won’t finish it this year…

The first book you will finish in the new year:

…which means it’s probably going to be the first next. That or Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Guns at Dawn.

The genre you read the most this year:

I think this year there was more fantasy than mystery but I am too lazy to count.

Which books are you most looking forward to reading in 2021?

I am repeating myself but Lady Adelaide #4, Will Darling #3 for books to be published next year. Apart from that I have read three of Marshall Ryan Maresca’s Maradaine novels and now want to read the rest of the series

And finally, make a New Year’s Resolution: How many books do you think you will read in the new year?:

As said…more than 53? I think I might go for 60 or so

Yangsze Choo – The Ghost Bride

Title: The Ghost Bride
Author: Yangsze Choo

Though ruled by British overlords, the Chinese of colonial Malaya still cling to ancient customs. And in the sleepy port town of Malacca, ghosts and superstitions abound.

Li Lan, the daughter of a genteel but bankrupt family, has few prospects. But fate intervenes when she receives an unusual proposal from the wealthy and powerful Lim family. They want her to become a ghost bride for the family’s only son, who recently died under mysterious circumstances. Rarely practiced, traditional ghost marriages are used to placate restless spirits. Such a union would guarantee Li Lan a home for the rest of her days, but at a terrible price.

After an ominous visit to the opulent Lim mansion, Li Lan finds herself haunted not only by her ghostly would-be suitor, but also by her desire for the Lims’ handsome new heir, Tian Bai. Night after night, she is drawn into the shadowy parallel world of the Chinese afterlife, with its ghost cities, paper funeral offerings, vengeful spirits, and monstrous bureaucracy—including the mysterious Er Lang, a charming but unpredictable guardian spirit. Li Lan must uncover the Lim family’s darkest secrets—and the truth about her own family—before she is trapped in this ghostly world forever. 

Unlike other girls, Li Lan really hates sewing and embroidery. She’s really bad at it. She still wins a needle-threading competition but she informs us that she isn’t quite sure how she did it. I did roll my eyes at that bit but kept going because the rest was intriguing. The atmosphere of 19th century Malaysia was vividly described and the question of why the Lim family is so eager for her and only her to be the ghost bride of their son promised a good mystery. Sadly, the rest of the book didn’t really deliver on that promise.

The plot seemed to follow two maxims: maximum convenience and maximum drama. Li Lan is – very conveniently – always in hearing range of people who share vital information so she can eavesdrop and be led to the next place where she can overhear the next vital piece of information that advances the plot (and sometimes it’s not even that. Sometimes she just stumbles over one piece of information after the other without having to connect any dots). Now to an extent, this is hard to avoid. She isn’t a noisy old spinster in 1920s England who can poke her nose into everything and ask slightly insolent questions. She’s a young (not very well off) woman in a society where that means she hasn’t much freedom. But I simply couldn’t get through such an amount of plot-convenient coincidences without a lot more eye-rolling…

Meanwhile, on those occasions where Liu Lan actually does talk to people, she just believes everything they say. Even when she knows their people have their own agenda, even if those people make no secret about how much they hate her. It’s inconceivable that they would lie to her. Hence many a dramatic freak-out.

But, the absolute death-blow for me was how utterly flat the romance fell for me. This book is not a capital-R Romance; there are two man Li Lan develops feelings for and at the end, she has to make a decision. But many of her decisions are influenced to at least some degree by her feelings for those men. I am fairly sure that the story of the book had played out very differently if she hadn’t had those feelings. And…I didn’t buy any of those feelings. I could sort of buy the first as a crush that somewhat escalated due to some very unusual circumstances but I genuinely had no idea that she had developed any feelings for the second guy until she actually said it and that’s…just not exactly great writing.