KJ Charles: A Fashionable Indulgence

KJ Charles: A Fashionable IndulgenceTitle: A Fashionable Indulgence
Author: KJ Charles
Series: Society of Gentlemen

When he learns that he could be the heir to an unexpected fortune, Harry Vane rejects his past as a Radical fighting for government reform and sets about wooing his lovely cousin. But his heart is captured instead by the most beautiful, chic man he’s ever met: the dandy tasked with instructing him in the manners and style of the ton. Harry’s new station demands conformity—and yet the one thing he desires is a taste of the wrong pair of lips.

After witnessing firsthand the horrors of Waterloo, Julius Norreys sought refuge behind the luxurious facade of the upper crust. Now he concerns himself exclusively with the cut of his coat and the quality of his boots. And yet his protégé is so unblemished by cynicism that he inspires the first flare of genuine desire Julius has felt in years. He cannot protect Harry from the worst excesses of society. But together they can withstand the high price of passion.

Rating: B-

I loved Harry’s story: at the start of the book he works in a bookstore and barely makes ends meet. He also has lived through times where things were even worse and he almost starved. Then he learns that he has a rich grandfather who needs an heir because his son (Harry’s uncle) and other grandson died in a fire.

But of course, this isn’t some fairy tale: Harry’s grandfather and father broke when his father married a Radical commoner and went on to fight for the rights of the working-classes with her, a cause he detests. And to get his inheritance Harry has to convince him that he agrees with him on this subject. Of course, he doesn’t: he knows that, contrary to what the upper classes believe, he wasn’t poor just because he didn’t work hard enough. But he has to sit through dinners with friends of his grandfather who believe exactly that and are very vocal about it.

As the reader, you want Harry to jump up and tell these assholes exactly where they can shove their opinions and there are enough books where something along those lines happens. But Harry does that only once, quite late in the book and quickly regrets it and tries to convince his grandfather that it was just a stupid drunken mistake. Because Harry knows exactly what will happen when he displeases his grandfather: he’ll be out on the streets again with no idea if he can afford his next meal and he does not want that again.

But this charade gets harder for him hold up, the longer it goes on. Because while Harry has some issues with the ways his parents fought for their ideals and with the life they dragged him into (a lot of it was spent on the run), he still shares their values and feels like he is betraying their memory by not standing up to his grandfather. And this struggle is so raw and real that it’s impossible not to feel for him.

Of course, there is also another issue Harry has: his grandfather wants him to marry his cousin, to make sure that his fortune stays with the right kind of people. Harry would prefer to lead a life as a confirmed bachelor. If you know what I mean.

Randolph Scott and Cary Grant over a seafood lunch
via

Which brings us to the romance part of this story, which was…OK. Now don’t get me wrong: I liked Julius and there was nothing about the development of their relationship. that made me feel uncomfortable. Rather the opposite: I enjoyed that just like in other KJ Charles books there wasn’t one partner who was experienced in everything and one who needed to be taught everything. Their relationship was very balanced with each having some experiences and knowledge the other hadn’t.

In other words, I shouldn’t have any reason to complain and yet…I simply cared a lot about how Harry dealt with his conscience vs. his desire to not live in poverty again. That fact that he found a boyfriend while dealing with these issues was…nice but not the most important thing for me. And I can’t help feeling that in a romance I should care more about the romantic parts. On the other hand, I loved everything else about this book a lot so does it really matter?

KJ Charles: The Henchman of Zenda

Cover: The Henchman of ZendaAuthor: KJ Charles
Title: The Henchman of Zenda

Swordfights, lust, betrayal, murder: just another day for a henchman.

Jasper Detchard is a disgraced British officer, now selling his blade to the highest bidder. Currently, that’s Michael Elphberg, half-brother to the King of Ruritania. Michael wants the throne for himself, and Jasper is one of the scoundrels he hires to help him take it. But when Michael makes his move, things don’t go entirely to plan—and the penalty for treason is death.

Rupert of Hentzau is Michael’s newest addition to his sinister band of henchmen. Charming, lethal, and intolerably handsome, Rupert is out for his own ends—which seem to include getting Jasper into bed. But Jasper needs to work out what Rupert’s really up to amid a maelstrom of plots, swordfights, scheming, impersonation, desire, betrayal, and murder.

Nobody can be trusted. Everyone has a secret. And love is the worst mistake you can make.

RatingB+

I am quite sure my reader is, if possible, even less interested in my paternal grandmother than I am.

I recently read Sherlock Holmes and the Hentzau Affair and one of my main complaints about it was that the author tried to fix the not too happy ending of The Prisoner of Zenda in a way that didn’t work for me. The Henchman of Zenda also gives some people a happy ending that didn’t have one originally but goes about it very differently.

In The Hentzau Affair, we learn that everything happened exactly as written in the original and this results in people acting really out of character and a very unbelievable happy end. Meanwhile, Henchman starts off by explaining that Rudolf was full of shit and lied through his teeth to make himself look better and therefore the original can’t be trusted. But that doesn’t mean that it ignores the original canon completely. The major events still happen, only some of Rudolf’s actions are different from what he claimed. That has the great side-effect that even if you have read The Prisoner of Zenda you won’t know exactly what will happen. After all, Rudolf might have been lying. So even the retelling stays suspenseful.

That means it doesn’t really matter if you know the original or not: you get all the fun and excitement of a swashbuckling adventure novel with lots of intrigue and changing loyalties and heroes who can have awesome swordfights and snark at their opponents at the same time. But unlike many of these old-timey swashbucklers (like The Prisoner of Zenda), the female characters aren’t just part of the decoration/only there so the hero can save them heroically because he is the hero. The women in this book also play the game of thrones. (And are better at it than the guys).

Gif of Cersei sighing
And unlike Cersei, they all manage that without sleeping with close relatives or being overall horrible.

Now I should mention that The Henchman of Zenda is a story about scheming, conspiracy, and murder. It just happens that while doing all that scheming Jasper and Rupert discover that they find each other hot and decide to spend their time together with something more fun than non-metaphorical sword-fights. And after a while, they start caring about each other. But they don’t show this with emotional declarations of love, rushing to the other’s side after hearing that he was injured or anything one might expect from a romance. And while I really enjoyed the adventure part and am perfectly happy with ‘genre + romantic elements’ I wouldn’t have minded if there had been a bit more time spent on their feelings. Their chemistry was so much fun I’d love to have seen more of it.

ARC received from the author.

David Stuart Davies: Sherlock Holmes and the Hentzau Affair

David Stuart Davies: Sherlock Holmes and the Hentzau Affair

Author: David Stuart Davies
Title: Sherlock Holmes and the Hentzau Affair

Colonel Sapt of the Ruritanian Court journeys to England on a secret mission to save his country from anarchy. He is to engage the services of Rudolf Rassendyll once more to impersonate the King while the monarch recovers from a serious illness. But Rassendyll had mysteriously disappeared. In desperation, Sapt consults Sherlock Holmes who with Watson travels to the Kingdom of Ruritania in an effort to thwart the plans of the scheming Rupert of Hentzau in his bid for the throne.

Rating: D-

It was one of Holmes’s most annoying treats that he would keep vital information to himself until it suited him to reveal it, usually at a moment when he could create the most dramatic effect.

Davies does a good job imitating Doyle’s writing style. Die-hard Holmesians might be able to tell the difference but casuals enthusiast will have a hard time telling if a paragraph has been written by Doyle or Davies. Holmes’ manners and his relationship with Watson is also well described (especially the latter is something pastiche authors often fail to do).

However, this isn’t everything because the story as a whole feels everything but Holmesian. It’s more like a Victorian James Bond with a hero who rushes from one dangerous situation into the next and then has to shoot/punch his way out of it. And Davies’ Holmes has no qualms about this. I genuinely don’t know how many people get killed in this 120-page story but I think it’s somewhere around 10. And only one of those gets murdered by the bad guys, the rest are killed in fights with Holmes and his associates. But don’t worry. They are all –gasp– traitors and anarchists.

I don’t object to a bit more action in Holmes-stories. And after all The Prisoner of Zenda is quite a swashbuckling novel full of fights (and also with quite a high body count which only bothers the heroes tangentially) so you can’t fault the book for taking some inspiration from there. But the reason Holmes (and Watson) get in half of these fights is their incredible stupidity:

Just imagine: You are on a very dangerous case. You know your opponents don’t shy away from anything and have already tried to kill you twice. Now you meet someone new. You feel there is something fishy about him but you can’t quite put your finger on it, yet. He offers you a drink. Do you

a) Drink it
b) Wait a moment and try to figure out why you have such a bad feeling

If you answered b) congratulations! You are cleverer than Holmes is in this book!

Gif: Russian Watson is judging you

Then there’s the fact that this is also a sequel to The Prisoner of Zenda and…it’s not a good one. In the original Rupert Hentzau works for the Black Michael, the main villain but while they get Michael, Rupert gets away at the end. As a reader, you can’t help but feel happy about it because Rupert is such a fun villain. He’s definitely bad: he has no issues with killing unarmed men if they stand in his way, and he has no sad backstory as a reason for it (not that sad backstories excuse murder…but there are people who think that) and his ulterior motive is power and money. But he has glorious one-liners, is charming and dashing (even the narrator says so) and gets played by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the movie.

I mean:

Once again he turned to wave his hand, and then the gloom of thickets swallowed him and he was lost from our sight. Thus he vanished–reckless and wary, graceful and graceless, handsome, debonair, vile, and unconquered.

Is an actual quote from the actual Prisoner of Zenda. Even Rudolf loves him. Sort of.

In other words: Rupert is a bit of a magnificent bastard.

In The Hentzau Affair, he’s a mustache-twirling villain who abducts children to blackmail their relatives into helping him and has the rhetoric talent of a playground bully.

And then there is the end. The Prisoner of Zenda does not have a very happy ending and it seems the author wants to ‘fix’ this with his book. Now that in itself isn’t wrong but in doing that he ignores all the reasons why there wasn’t a happy end in the original. He seems to think there was only one obstacle and by getting rid of that everything will be fine but there were more reasons.

What now follows are ramblings that spoil this book, The Prisoner of Zenda and its actual sequel Rupert of Hentzau so proceed at your own risk.

Continue reading “David Stuart Davies: Sherlock Holmes and the Hentzau Affair”

Lindsay Jayne Ashford: The Woman on the Orient Express

The Woman on the Orient Express - CoverTitle: The Woman on the Orient Express
Author: Lindsay Jayne Ashford

Hoping to make a clean break from a fractured marriage, Agatha Christie boards the Orient Express in disguise. But unlike her famous detective Hercule Poirot, she can’t neatly unravel the mysteries she encounters on this fateful journey.

Agatha isn’t the only passenger on board with secrets. Her cabinmate Katharine Keeling’s first marriage ended in tragedy, propelling her toward a second relationship mired in deceit. Nancy Nelson—newly married but carrying another man’s child—is desperate to conceal the pregnancy and teeters on the brink of utter despair. Each woman hides her past from the others, ferociously guarding her secrets. But as the train bound for the Middle East speeds down the track, the parallel courses of their lives shift to intersect—with lasting repercussions.

RatingE

He said that once I’d produced a child, my job would be over. It wouldn’t matter if it was a boy or a girl – as long as there was a baby. That was another condition of his inheriting the earldom, apparently.

This isn’t how this works. This isn’t how any of this works. Earls can’t choose who inherits their title. It will always be the oldest (I think there might be an exception if he has committed high-treason but that is not the case here). Of course, if the author had just spent one more paragraph on this and explained that only some money is entailed to the title and dad threatens to leave his unentailed fortune to somebody else it would have been fine. The son would have worried about ending up a title and a grand mansion he can’t afford the upkeep to. The plot would have still worked in our world and not only in some alternate reality Choose Your Own Earl-England. (It still would have raised the question why granddad would have been fine with a girl who couldn’t inherit the title but you can’t have everything).

But then this is only a tiny part of the book. It mainly is about three women. The three women who all have problems caused by romantic relationships with men: Agatha just got divorced and has body-image/general self-confidence issues brought on by her ex-husband’s abusive behaviour. Nancy discovered very shortly after her marriage that her husband has no interest in her and now she’s pregnant by somebody else. Katharine blames herself for her first husband’s suicide and is now afraid of what will happen if her second husband makes the same discovery her first husband did.

There is nothing wrong with a plot that focusses on these issues. After all, it is set in the 1920 – a time where a woman who didn’t have a husband had a much harder time. And I have yelled enough about historical novels that feature too-modern characters so I’m not saying they all should have said ‘Well fuck men’ but I do wish that we had gotten one main character with a problem caused by something else. No ultra-modern ‘I want to change the world and women’s place in it’-views required, simply a character who’s worried about a sibling or a parent. Just anything else.

And I wish even more that these problems – and them finding out about each other’s problems – hadn’t been presented in such a soap-operific manner but at the end of most chapters, you could almost see the Dramatic Zoom In™ on the Shocked Face™

Dramatic Zoom in from Weissensee
With apologies to Jörg Hartmann who is a better actor than the camera-work in Weissensee makes you believe

We also get a Dramatic Reveal brought on by a poisonous snake, a character who watches another character give a third one a massage, they then immediately assume the others were having sex and rushes off  (and at first tries to block off any attempts at explanations from Character #2)  as well as a character who throws themselves on their knees and buries their head in their hands before revealing their Tragic Past™. Not to mention all the single tears that are cried in this book…really, it’s a wonder the desert, where most of the book takes place in, didn’t turn into an ocean from so many of them.

And to top it all off, at the end, the character who had the most atypical life for a woman at the time suddenly gets some very typical feminine things and it turns out: deep down she wanted them all along and only now is truly happy. Of course.

Disgusted Luise Kinseher as Bavaria


Card: Crime Scene - The Orient Express from the Kill Your Darlings-game

This is also read for the Kill Your Darlings game (Crime Scene: Orient Express, where it actually checks all the boxes: the characters travel, it’s set in the 1920s and it has a train on the cover)

Melanie Clegg: Before the Storm

Melanie Clegg: Before the Stom CoverTitle: Before the Storm
Author: Melanie Clegg

Unable to attract suitably aristocratic suitors in London, a group of beautiful, wealthy and extremely ambitious English heiresses decide to try their luck in Paris instead. Although they initially take the city of light by storm, they soon discover that the glittering facade of social success hides a multitude of sins and iniquities while their own dark secrets could well destroy everything that they have worked so hard to achieve…

“There’s something in the air…”
Madame d’Albret nodded. “It’s the calm before the storm. And when the storm comes, nothing will ever be the same again.”

Rating: B-

I had put off reading this book for a while because I had only recently read the author’s Blood Sisters about three aristocratic sisters, caught up in the French revolution. The blurb of Before the Storm made it sound like it would be a very similar story. It’s true that I probably would have guessed that both books were written by the same author, even if I hadn’t known it. Adélaïde from Blood Sisters has much in common with Clementine from Before the Storm. They both grew up in a family with very traditional views about what women should and shouldn’t do and are unhappy with that.
Both books feature a character that is a lady-in-waiting to the Queen and those character witnesses both the March on Versailles and the storming of the Tuileries. The descriptions of these events are very similar in both books. But then they do describe the same event. And while Adélaïde and Clementine have very similar characters, their journeys are very different. (And the other characters have much fewer similarities with those in Blood Sisters).

Before the Storm is a retelling of Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers, a book I have not read, yet (but definitely want to do now). So I can’t tell how closely it resembles it and – more importantly – if some of the things that bothered me about this book are perhaps the ‘fault’ of the original. For example, in one chapter a character thinks about marriage and says that she might never want to marry. Then there’s a time-jump and in the next chapter, she has been unhappily married for a while. In hindsight, her motivations become a bit clearer but it still is clumsily done.

And being told things only after they happened is one of the general problems of this book. In one dramatic scene, one of the characters tells her husband that she intends to leave him. The next time they meet, she says she wants to make another attempt at saving their marriage. Then we are told that she has thought about how she would become a social outcast as a woman who left her husband and that she couldn’t bear that thought. A perfectly valid reason, especially in the 18th century, but we don’t see her making that decision, just the result of it. Some parts of the book could have benefitted from having more depth. Additionally, the book started off as one about a number of different women but over the course of it, most of them got sidelined. At the end, it was mostly about one of them and we got the occasional mention of what the rest had been up to in the meantime.

So do I wish this book had been longer and told us more about the things happening, instead of summing them up afterwards? Yes. Did I enjoy it anyway? Definitely. It was a fun read that kept me turning the pages (and grumble at anybody who tried to talk to me while reading because I need to know what happens next).

Rose Lerner: In for a Penny

In for a Penny - Cover

Title: In for a Penny
Author: Rose Lerner

Young Lord Nevinstoke enjoys every moment of his deep-gaming, hard-drinking, womanizing life. Then his father is killed in a drunken duel, and Nev inherits a mountain of debts and responsibilities. He vows to leave his wild friends and his mistress behind, start acting respectable—and marry a rich girl.

Penelope Brown, a manufacturing heiress, seems the perfect choice. She’s pretty, ladylike, good at accounting, and looking for a marriage based on companionship and mutual esteem, not love. In fact, the only rash thing she’s ever done in her life is accept Nev’s proposal.

When the newlyweds arrive at Nev’s family estate, they discover that all the respectability and reason in the world won’t be enough to handle a hostile next-door neighbor, mutinous tenants, and Nev’s family’s propensity for scandal. In way over their heads, Nev and Penelope have no one to turn to but each other—but to their surprise, that just might be enough.

RatingD-

She ached in places it wasn’t ladylike to think about.

I was so on board with this story at first. Nev enjoys drinking and gambling with his friends more than anything that looks like genuine work. When his father dies suddenly and Nev discovers the mountain of debt he inherited it shocks Nev into sobriety. He swears off drinking, gambling, and his friends, offers for the rich heiress and promises her not love but to be a good friend and companion. Penny agrees but there’s trouble on the horizon. Nev is leaving behind a mistress, he genuinely cared about. Penny has an almost-fiancee who takes the jilting not well. Nev’s mother and sister are convinced he heroically sacrificed himself and agreed to marry a horrible woman just to save the family and they have no intention of welcoming her with open arms. Once they are at the family estate Nev and Penny discover that it’s in a worse state than they feared and both begin to worry that the other might regret the marriage.

And that right there is already enough for one book but the problems don’t stop there. The neighbor and the parish priest both miss only a black cat they can stroke to be proper cliche villain-evil.

Cardinal Richelieu stroking his black cat

The estate isn’t just in a bad state due to incompetence, there’s something more sinister going on. The tenants are so discontent that they might rebell. Nev’s sister has more problems than not being fond of her new sister-in-law. Poachers are everywhere. Both the ex-mistress and the ex-almost-fiancee make their reappearances at the most inconvenient time. And of course, everybody else is also just at the wrong place at the wrong time so that every mistake or misunderstanding has the worst possible consequences. Considering I have read books by Rose Lerner before and enjoyed the absolute lack of this kind of melodrama, that was very disappointing. The characters in her other books are all refreshingly reasonable. There’s no ‘I overheard only parts of your conversation and now I refuse to let you explain the context’ or any of those cheap soap-opera plotlines.

Some gothic novels are name-dropped during the story and Penny firmly proclaims how ridiculous they are, only to end up in a situation that could be right out of one, which made me wonder if the book wants to be a parody or at least poke fun at some gothic tropes. But for that, the book just isn’t funny enough. Because when Nev and Penny aren’t caught up in ridiculous drama the worries they have about not being good enough for the other or dealing with bigger problems than they can handle are genuinely moving. And the author gives both Nev’s mother and one of the villains a good reason for their hostility but then they act again like the cliche evil mother in law or the mustache-twirling villain. I can’t just read one page of a book as serious romance-novel and the next as over-the-top parody but I had the impression that this was what how the author wanted me to read this.

Lynn Brittney: Murder In Belgravia

37481550Title: Murder In Belgravia: A secret group of detectives solving crime in the seedy underbelly of World War 1 London
Author: Lynn Brittney
Series: Mayfair 100 #1

Set against the backdrop of WW1, Mayfair 100 is the telephone number for a small specially-formed crimebusting team based in a house in Mayfair. London, 1915. Just 10 months into the First World War, the City is flooded with women taking over the work vacated by men in the Armed Services. Chief Inspector Peter Beech, a young man invalided out of the war in one of the first battles, is faced with investigating the murder of an aristocrat and the man’s wife, a key witness and suspect, will only speak to a woman about the unpleasant details of the case. After persuading the Chief Commissioner to allow him to set up a clandestine team to deal with such situations, Beech puts together a small motley crew of well-educated women and professional policemen. As Beech, Victoria, Caroline, Rigsby, and Tollman investigate the murder, they delve into the seedier parts of WWI London, taking them from criminal gangs to brothels and underground drug rings supplying heroin to the upper classes. Will the Mayfair 100 team solve the murder? And if they do, will they be allowed to continue working as a team?

RatingE

Grimdark cozy-mysteries are apparently a thing now. Often cozies are rather clean: the victim wasn’t a good person anyway. The only bad things that ever happened were because of the victim (and possibly the killer). Once the murderer is caught everything is fine again. Or at the very least the (well-adjusted) sleuth has figured out the perfect way to help the person who is still suffering. (To be clear: I don’t mind that. We all need a bit of escapism now and then and many people, myself included, find that in cozies.)

There are cozies that try to break that mold. They use a set-up that is more a cozy than ‘serious’ crime novel but don’t shy away from the fact that there are issues like addiction or racism, you can’t solve in 300 pages. Some are rather subtle about it and/or don’t want to go too deep into it (and while I frequently proclaim my love for the Lady Daisy mysteries, I do wish in a 20+ book series there’d been more than one gay couple and 3 or 4 POC-characters. Though the way she deals with the fallout and consequences of WWI is done very well).

This book has no such qualms. The set-up, with an unofficial team with one-half cops one-half amateurs, is something you’d expect in a cozy. But two of the protagonists are veterans who were seriously injured in the war. The story itself involves sexual assault, PTSD, addiction, pedophilia, and prostitution. Oh and the whole book is set during World War One, and halfway through the story, London is bombed. I had almost forgotten about that, which tells you all about the impact it had on me. But sentences like “Billy explained all about the damage, the dead bodies, the smoke, fire, explosions and general horror he had experienced.” don’t evoke many emotions in me. But throughout the book, the prose is like this: bland, unemotional and no character has a distinct voice.
And even if that wasn’t an issue: the book crams all these horrors into it and features some characters that suffered terribly but they find the perfect solution for all of them. And they all lived happily ever after. I just can’t buy this after tons of misery were piled on them.

And because all this isn’t enough, the book reads like it was written by an author who thinks her readers are really stupid. There is no other reason why the most obvious facts are explained at length and why information is repeated over and over again. Like when one character discovers something and then instead of a simple ‘And then he told X what he discovered that morning’ we get half a page of ‘And then he told X about event A, discovery B, and event C’. Despite the fact that we just read about A, B and C in the previous chapter.
On another occasion, two characters visit a lawyer because they wish to see a document. The lawyer, being a lawyer is reluctant at first but can be convinced that this would be in his client’s interest. Still, he is aware that he shouldn’t really be doing this so he asks one of the characters to leave the room with him to look at a painting. Anybody who has ever consumed any form of fiction now knows what is happening there. The book feels the need to explain to us that “she was being asked to leave the room with Sir Arnold on a pretext so that Beech could look at the documents on the desk.”

Something else? Oh, right the premise of this book is an unofficial police team with women (before they were allowed in the police-force) that deals with cases where e.g. a witness doesn’t want to talk with a man. For that, the men in it were often pretty sexist. And of course, those were different times and having heroes with suspiciously modern views is not the best solution. But neither is not doing anything. The men are happy because women have their “curves in all the right places” or because “being a bodyguard and making arrests appealed to his strong sense of masculinity” and have questionable views on women’s rights, votes for women etc. and all this goes unchallenged. At no point had the characters a serious discussion about this. At no point did I have the impression that the author weighed in on it. She just wrote down what the men said and thought.

ARC received from NetGalley