Mini Reviews February 2019

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar & Anna Waterhouse: Mycroft Holmes

This book wants to give us an origin story for Mycroft and show him before he turned into the man we know from the Sherlock Holmes stories but also wants to make sure that we recognise Mycroft as the man from the Sherlock Holmes stories. The result is sadly not a less extreme version of Mycroft but a character that acts like a lovesick teenie in one chapter and in the next fails to take anybody’s feelings into consideration and is such a genius that he can tell how much a body that was dropped into the water weighed, just from the sploshing-sound he heard. It felt like reading about two different characters.
Oh, and feminism makes you evil. I mean, I grant the author that he might have wanted to say something about White Feminism™ but to make that point clear he should have included more than one female character that was relevant to the plot.


Tyler Whitesides: The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn

This book lost itself in too many (repeated) explanations. There are no mages and non-mages in the world of this book, everybody can do magic – provided they have the right grit – powder harvested from dragon dung (yup) – and know how to use it. And the “how” gets explained everytime a character uses some (and they do so very often). In great detail. In very great detail. Now, I vastly prefer fantasy novels that do a bit more explaining than necessary to those that just throw you in the middle without any explanation and by the time you figure out how everything works, you’re halfway through the book. But this isn’t just “a bit more”. This 800-page doorstopper could have been a 600-page doorstopper and I’d still have understood how the magical system works. And another 100 pages could have been knocked off if the narration had replaced the repeated assurances that the character’s feelings had changed, with a few scenes that showed us that.

I also read Without Pretense and you can read my full review over at Love in Panels.

And don’t worry: I still read good books. In fact I recently read a book that was so good, that I’m still trying to figure out how to write a review that isn’t just full of capslock and gifs of cute animals.

KJ Charles: An Unsuitable Heir

Cover

Title: An Unsuitable Heir
Author: KJ Charles
Series: Sins of the City #3

A private detective finds passion, danger, and the love of a lifetime when he hunts down a lost earl in Victorian London.

On the trail of an aristocrat’s secret son, enquiry agent Mark Braglewicz finds his quarry in a music hall, performing as a trapeze artist with his twin sister. Graceful, beautiful, elusive, and strong, Pen Starling is like nobody Mark’s ever met—and everything he’s ever wanted. But the long-haired acrobat has an earldom and a fortune to claim.

Pen doesn’t want to live as any sort of man, least of all a nobleman. The thought of being wealthy, titled, and always in the public eye is horrifying. He likes his life now—his days on the trapeze, his nights with Mark. And he won’t be pushed into taking a title that would destroy his soul.

But there’s a killer stalking London’s foggy streets, and more lives than just Pen’s are at risk. Mark decides he must force the reluctant heir from music hall to manor house, to save Pen’s neck. Betrayed by the one man he thought he could trust, Pen never wants to see his lover again. But when the killer comes after him, Pen must find a way to forgive—or he might not live long enough for Mark to make amends.

Rating: a fun but not very memorable artistic performance

Over the course of the Sins of the City trilogy, three couples find love (four if you count the background couples as well) and a case involving secret heirs, bigamy and murder is solved. I loved the twists and turns the mystery took and I enjoyed the romances in each book (admittedly some a lot *cough Justin and Nathaniel cough* and some more in a ‘It’s nice that these nice people get to be happy’ way) but the combination of both didn’t do the story any favours.

Romances often start with the couple’s first meeting and end with their happy end. So far so obvious. But due to various reasons connected to the overarching mystery plot Pen and Mark’s first meeting is halfway through An Unnatural Vice, the second Sins of the City book. And while we don’t see much of them in Vice, a decisions Mark makes leads to a huge event at the end of the book. So when I started An Unsuitable Heir I already knew what was going to happen and was then not too surprised when it did – almost 50% into the book. Since it is such an important and emotional moment in their relationship, knowing what was coming lessened the impact a lot for me. I went through the first half of the book going “So when are we finally coming to the stuff I don’t know, yet?”

I think that was the main reason why I couldn’t really get as invested in the relationship. Sure, there’s a difference: In Vice we only saw the events from an outsider’s perspective while we are in the heads of those directly affected by the events during Heir but I still found that knowing so much about what would happen removed a lot of the tension. 

In the end I very much like the idea behind the Sins of the City trilogy – an overarching background mystery plot with a complete romance in each book but the execution was simply lacking due to the timelimes that overlapped too much.

Josh Lanyon: Murder takes the High Road

cover133096-mediumAuthor: Josh Lanyon
Title: Murder Takes the High Road

Librarian Carter Matheson is determined to enjoy himself on a Scottish bus tour for fans of mystery author Dame Vanessa Rayburn. Sure, his ex, Trevor, will also be on the trip with his new boyfriend, leaving Carter to share a room with a stranger, but he can’t pass up a chance to meet his favorite author.

Carter’s roommate turns out to be John Knight, a figure as mysterious as any character from Vanessa’s books. His strange nighttime wanderings make Carter suspicious. When a fellow traveler’s death sparks rumors of foul play, Carter is left wondering if there’s anyone on the tour he can trust.

Drawn into the intrigue, Carter searches for answers, trying to fend off his growing attraction toward John. But as unexplained tragedies continue, the whole tour must face the fact that there may be a murderer in their midst—but who?

Rating: B-

I hadn’t been overwhelmed by the last few Lanyon-books I picked up and so I wasn’t planning on reading this one. But the plot ‘holiday trip with mysterious events and then a sudden death’ just sounded too good to pass. And I was not disappointed. Lanyon gives this frequently used set-up an unexpected twist that fits the story perfectly. (Die-hard mystery traditionalists might complain about it but I enjoyed it a lot).

 

The romance was very low-key. Carter and John meet, are attracted to each other, have sex and agree to stay in touch and take things further but things are not overly emotional. Which is understandable considering the story takes place over the course of one or two weeks and things are quite busy. Still, it’s definitely more a happy-for-now than a happily-ever-after ending. In fact, it felt more like the beginning of a traditional cozy mystery series (where the designated couple meets in book one, there is an obvious attraction but it takes a few more books until they really get together), than of a typical romance series e.g. Lanyon’s Adrien English books or KJ Charles’ Magpie Lord (where the couple has already taken huge steps towards a proper relationship in book one). I don’t mind this since I enjoy both but if you pick this book up for the romance you will probably be disappointed.

What did bother me was the bitchy-ex trope that takes up quite a lot of space. Carter had originally planned to take the trip with his then-boyfriend but then the boyfriend left him for another guy so now all three of them are taking the tour. Both the ex and his new boyfriend spent a lot of time being horrible to Carter and it’s exhausting. Admittedly, it does help muddling the waters because it means Carter can’t be sure if some of the strange occurrences might be their fault. It’s also part of Carter’s character-growth that he realises how little he and Trevor fitted together and it’s much more than ‘well he couldn’t see how awesome I was, so obviously he was horrible’ but especially considering how little space the actual new relationship got, it’s disappointing to see how much time that sub-plot took.

I would still recommend this book but only to people who (also) enjoy classical mysteries and don’t mind having the typical tropes from those played with (and perhaps also lampshaded a bit), not to lovers of romantic suspense because there is not that much romance in it.

ARC provided by NetGalley

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
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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.

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.

Think of England

34715257Title: Think of England
Author: KJ Charles

England, 1904. Two years ago, Captain Archie Curtis lost his friends, fingers, and future to a terrible military accident. Alone, purposeless and angry, Curtis is determined to discover if he and his comrades were the victims of fate, or of sabotage.

Curtis’s search takes him to an isolated, ultra-modern country house, where he meets and instantly clashes with fellow guest Daniel da Silva. Effete, decadent, foreign, and all-too-obviously queer, the sophisticated poet is everything the straightforward British officer fears and distrusts.

As events unfold, Curtis realizes that Daniel has his own secret intentions. And there’s something else they share—a mounting sexual tension that leaves Curtis reeling.

As the house party’s elegant facade cracks to reveal treachery, blackmail and murder, Curtis finds himself needing clever, dark-eyed Daniel as he has never needed a man before…

RatingB+

I had not planned to buy any new books for a while but then I read the author’s post about the inspiration for this book and just couldn’t resist. I did grow up with the Edgar Wallace-movies and still love them. Now I only know Wallace’s mystery stories that involve beautiful heiresses and dastardly villains who are after their fortune and I don’t know any of his spy-stories (or any of the other authors she mentions as inspiration) and Think of England is clearly a spy story.  Admittedly, not a genre I would have picked up normally and the blurb also made expect something that it would eventually turn into a more ‘conventional’ mystery (with a murdered country house guests) that just had some connection with the treason/spy part.

It didn’t. But that doesn’t mean I regret reading this book. Rather the opposite: I had a lot of fun. The plot is fast-paced and takes the characters from one seemingly hopeless situation to the next while never going so far that you wonder how any human can cope with all that. But during all that, there was still time for the characters to develop their feelings for each other without it feeling rushed.

The way the book handled the issue that ‘true’ Edwardian pulp fiction tends to be rather full of homophobia, racism and various other-isms was also done very well. Neither is Curtis the single person in the whole novel who miraculously is tolerant of everything (as some historical fiction tends to do with their main characters) nor is he full of the worst prejudices that magically disappeared once he met Daniel. He starts off with a fair share of them but the circumstances soon force him to reconsider them. And he doesn’t just go ‘Well, Daniel is a foreigner but also a good guy so clearly everything I ever thought about foreigners being cowardly and evil is wrong.’ It’s a process that takes much of the book (and a lot of the time in which he isn’t occupied with escaping from mortal danger he spends reevaluating all the things he so far accepted without question).

The only downside to this is that while the scenes with Curtis and Daniel were intense and the development of their relationship believable there also weren’t that many of them and I really wished there had been more. And especially with the teasing at the end that they might have more adventures together, it’s a bit disappointing that this is a standalone. There’s certainly potential to develop their relationship further but alas…

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This is also part of the 16 Tasks of the Festive Season

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Book themes for Hanukkah: Any book whose main character is Jewish (Daniel)

As well as:

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Tasks for Bodhi Day: Perform a random act of kindness. I tweeted the author to tell her how much I had enjoyed the book. Because I know reviews are a great way to help authors and I always try to write them in a way that they are also helpful to other readers who are trying to decide if they should pick up the book or not. But sometimes it’s just nice to tell an author how much you enjoy what they’re doing.