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.”


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).

J. Jefferson Farjeon: Seven Dead


Title: Seven Dead
Author: J. Jefferson Farjeon

Ted Lyte, amateur thief, has chosen an isolated house by the coast for his first robbery. But Haven House is no ordinary country home. While hunting for silverware to steal, Ted stumbles upon a locked room containing seven dead bodies. Detective Inspector Kendall takes on the case with the help of passing yachtsman Thomas Hazeldean. The search for the house’s absent owners brings Hazeldean across the Channel to Boulogne, where he finds more than one motive to stay and investigate.


There are plenty of Kendalls in the world, but I remember one who did pretty good work recently at Bragley Court, in the case of the Thirteen Guests. What I liked about him was that he didn’t play the violin, or have a wooden leg, or anything of that sort. He just got on with it.

This book stars with seven dead people. Then it gets more absurd. Then a plane crashes and then things get really weird. And as reader, you have no way of guessing how the weirdness will manifest because there are no clues beforehand.

So no, this isn’t a typical golden age mystery. No country house party where coincidentally everyone has a grudge against one party-member. I actually was reminded more of Edgar Wallace (especially the German movie adaptations). There’s a Russian nesting doll of dark secrets, mysterious characters (including an ominous –gasp– foreign silk merchant), a beautiful damsel in distress (she gets to have slightly more agency than those in the Wallace-movies but not much), lots of fog and – most importantly – nobody takes things too serious. They all joke around a lot. Especially the conversation between the inspector and his sergeant are glorious:

Your trouble isn’t that you fail to mention things, Wade, but that you mention them too late, and then incomplete. I have no doubt that, three years after your death, you will send somebody the information.

You will have to suspend your disbelief a lot, though. Even more than “Of course ten people would just accept an invitation from a complete stranger to spend a weekend at a remote island.” More than once per chapter I found myself going Oh come on but – much like in Mystery in White (whose plot looks plain and normal compared to Seven Guests) – I didn’t care. The writing is so fast-paced that that I didn’t have the time to worry about pesky things like logic and realism. But at the same time the absurdity is well-contained. There are surprising coincidences, of course, but they all relate to the crime and the reasons for it; no inspector coincidentally stumbles over an important clue because he happens to be at the right place at right time. There is no bad timing that leads to a side-character betraying important information because they just missed the announcement about who the villain is. The main characters are fairly normal characters who sometimes have bad luck and sometimes good luck.

Still, traditionalists might not enjoy this too much. It really is more Edwardian pulp fiction than golden age mystery.

ARC provided by NetGaley

Anne Meredith: Portrait of a Murderer

36269389Title: Portrait of a Murderer
Author: Anne Meredith (pseudonym of  Lucy Beatrice Malleson)

Each December, Adrian Gray invites his extended family to stay at his lonely house, Kings Poplars. None of Gray’s six surviving children is fond of him; several have cause to wish him dead. The family gathers on Christmas Eve – and by the following morning, their wish has been granted. This fascinating and unusual novel tells the story of what happened that dark Christmas night; and what the murderer did next.

Indeed, I have never been so much ashamed of anything, without being in the least sorry.


It’s hard to read the first chapters of this book without thinking of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (which was published a few years later). We have a Christmas party in a family with little love lost between the different members. Most of the children have money-troubles and unhappy marriages. And then the patriarch who is an all-around horrible person gets murdered.

However, unlike in Christie’s book, it wasn’t a carefully planned deed but simply the result of one child losing their temper after hearing yet again that they are useless. And we know that because we are there when it happens. We see what the killer does afterwards to cover up their tracks and frame a different family member and what they do once the murder is discovered.
And in these parts, the book really shines because it doesn’t portray this as a black-or-white situation. The murderer is no unfeeling psychopath. In between all the siblings who barely tolerate each other, they have a quite close relationship with one sister and try to help her. But neither are they a poor innocent soul who lost their temper only once. We see what they think about the other sibling and their own family. (And, after all, they have no problem framing someone else). Even without the murder, it’s clear that they aren’t a very good person. But we also learn about their past and how they were treated by others (especially the father) and the tragedies that happened in their life. And I couldn’t help but wonder if things would have been different if certain things wouldn’t have happened.

Mind you all that doesn’t mean the murderer is likeable. They made enough despicable decisions apart from the murder. But that was exactly what made the story so fascinating (and slightly disconcerting ) for me. Most killers aren’t the pure evil we see on Criminal Minds. Neither are they avenging angels like Dexter who only kill bad people. Most of them aren’t even the type you see in Agatha Christie novels, who plan carefully and built elaborate contraptions to make it seem like they have an alibi. Most killers are exactly like the one in this book: a worse person than the average but it’s still easy to see that if one or two things had gone differently they would have gone through life as a bad person who never killed anybody.

There are still things that are not great about this book. Like the not exactly subtle antisemitism. One son-in-law is Jewish and – of course – a banker and – of course – a fraud who ruined lots of people. Any comments about this are mostly limited to one chapter and then not brought up again. It’s also not a major plot-point, it’s just there like so often in novels from that time. I have read worse (hello Greenmantle) and I can’t deny I enjoyed the book anyway. I will think twice about picking up another book by the author, though.

Then, once the murder is committed, we don’t only follow the killer, we see how the whole family reacts to the events. It changes them. And for all the characters that were at least somewhat likeable, things get better. They decide to live their life again, their situation improves, abused children get better homes…it’s an odd contrast to the rest of the rather dark story.

And then there’s the unnecessary information. We get pages of backstory for the inspector who appears once and does little to solve the crime. We learn a lot about the things the victim did during and before the war, which would have made a good red herring in an ordinary crime-story but served no purpose here. The oldest daughter-in-law reminisces in depth about one of her maids who left the household long before the story starts. Sometimes it feels like the author is trying to make a point with these asides but I can’t make out what. Sometimes all it seems to do is fill the pages.

I would still recommend this book to everyone who wants to read a very different golden age mystery.

ARC provided by NetGalley

Carol Berg: Restauration

618198Title: Restoration
Author: Carol Berg
Series: Rai-Kirah, #3

By the time Seyonne survived sixteen years of slavery, reclaimed his life, and watched it slip away again he had undeniable evidence of the gods. Now, exiled from his homeland, he is left to face the demon inside his soul. Meanwhile, the Hamraschi have sworn to destroy Prince Aleksander and anyone who shelters him. Assassins abound. And when Seyonne journeys across the borders of the world to finally confront his own haunted dreams and put them to rest, he discovers instead something both unreservedly terrifying and thrilling. Soon he will become all that he ever feared… 


There is no evil one human will not work on another.

I rarely say this about fantasy novels but: this book would have worked better if it had been longer. And had had more POV-characters. Now usually I appreciate it when fantasy-authors manage to keep their stories short(ish) and limit their POV-characters but in this book, there was too much major stuff going on off-screen.

Seyonne continues his journey from the last book. After all, he made an irreversible decision in the last book, one that went against everything his people believed. Now things are happening that make him question if he really did the right thing. And because having only one thing to worry about would be boring there’s more: Even if he did the right thing, his work isn’t done. And he is scared of the consequences of him taking the next step.

But Seyonne isn’t the only one with a problem. The unrests Aleksander had to deal with in the last book have turned into a full-blown rebellion. A massive one. And now he is well and truly fucked and has to think and act quickly if he doesn’t want to end up as head on a spike. And he and Seyonne are together for large parts of the book and we see how both of them are working on their problems. But for about the last third they are separated and we only see what Seyonne is doing. And in that last third, the major things happen. For Aleksander, that means major win-your-kingdom back battles and various other problems you can guess if you’ve read the previous books. And all of that happens off-screen which is disappointing. Even if the finale we actually got to see was still epic.

But in the end: what drew me into the series was the beautiful friendship of Aleksander and Seyonne in book one. And I appreciated how Berg completely turned my expectations about where the plot was going on its head in book two. But I also missed that friendship because they spent most of the time apart. Now, Restauration again has lots of interactions between them and I loved them. (And that epic finale I mentioned? I still can’t even). So even though I would have loved to see more off Aleksander’s storyline, I still got all the things I came to this series for.

Review of Revelation (Rai-Kirah #2)
Review of Transformation (Rai-Kirah #1)

Naomi Novik – Black Powder War

91989Title: Black Powder War
Author: Naomi Novik
Series: Temeraire #3

With the Chinese threat neatly dissolved, Temeraire is free to return to Britain and continue to help his friends defend their country. But before they board the ship, Laurence — now a member of the Chinese Imperial family by adoption — receives orders from the British Air Corps that he and Temeraire are not to sail with the British forces. Instead, they must take the land route and stop in Istanbul to collect three dragon eggs which the government has purchased at great expense from the Turkish. But the overland flight is fraught with danger. They will have to scale mountains and cross deserts, evade Napoleon’s aggressive infantry and hide from unpredictable feral dragons. And even before they leave, they discover that Lien has left China before them, intent upon revenge.

She wants to destroy Temeraire by stripping him of all that he holds dear and being a celestial dragon, she has the power and intelligence to carry out her terrible threat.


“It seems very peculiar to me that it should make any difference how one says words, and it must be a great deal of trouble to learn how to say them all over again. Can one hire a translator to say things properly?”

“Yes; they are called lawyers.”

I enjoyed the first two Temeraire books but also had some problems with them. Mainly their lack of plot. It was understandable that the first book in a fantasy-series is heavy on worldbuilding (and that the first book in any series spends a lot of time introducing the characters) but the second also was more ‘things are happening near the characters’ than a more conventional ‘the characters have to get from A to B and on the way they discover that they need to go via Z’ type of plot. As a result, it dragged quite a bit.

Black Powder War finally has a plot. Or at least the first half has. Laurence and his crew have to get the dragon eggs. Things go not as planned. They have to improvise. Once that is done the plot starts to disintegrate again. Laurence and Temeraire just happen to end up in the thick of the war again and there is again a lot of fighting. And I did have the same problems with the fight-scenes as the last time: they are awesomely written but I don’t care enough about the gazillion side-characters to worry about them much. Still, it didn’t feel quite aimless this time around. There might be no typical fantasy-novel goal (kill the evil wizard/retrieve powerful artifact…) but the general aim of defeating Napoleon is much more present than it was during Throne of Jade. And you can’t expect much more from a book about a military force in the Napoleonic wars.

Also: the dragons are cute.

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


Book themes for St. Martin’s Day: Read a book set before the age of electricity.

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…


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…



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


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

As well as:


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.

The Secret Diary of a Princess

10755502Title: The Secret Diary of a Princess
Author: Melanie Clegg

The dramatic and often tragic years of Marie Antoinette’s early life told in her own words. This book for young adult readers follows her privileged childhood and adolescence in the beautiful palaces of Vienna as the youngest and least important of the daughters of the all-powerful Empress Maria Theresa of Austria and invites the reader to share the long journey, both emotional and physical that ended with her marriage to the Dauphin Louis of France at Versailles.

This is the unforgettable story of a charming, fun-loving and frivolous young girl, destined for greatness, coming of age in one of the most magnificent and opulent courts that the world has ever seen.


I may not be very clever but I always know what will most please people and that, I think, is far more important.

Novels in diary-format are usually not my thing. I just can’t suspend my disbelief enough to believe that someone would tell their diary in detail about their own family history or anything else they already know perfectly well. Thankfully, this book manages to avoid this pretty well. Sure, there are bits that you would not normally find in a real diary but that are only a few sentences at a time and not pages and pages about the history of the Habsburg dynasty. It also sounds believable like the voice of a young girl without being annoying (something not many authors can pull off).

At the same time, I’m beginning to realize that historical novels featuring real historical people as main characters are not really for me. Especially cases like this. The Secret Diary of a Princess begins when Marie Antoinette is nine years and ends with her wedding at fourteen. During that time, things happen to her and she has no influence over any of those things. Because children of her age rarely have, princesses at that even less (and daughters of Maria Theresia definitely not). I’m aware of all of these things but in a book that reads like fiction a part of me will always expect something – well fictional – to happen. Anything that would stop the plot from going to A to B in a straight line. But since Marie Antoinette’s life wasn’t fiction that doesn’t happen. And so I ended up being somewhat unsatisfied at the end even though I enjoyed the book. But in the future, I guess I’ll stick with historical novels that feature characters that can do whatever they like ;).

This is a read as part of 16 Tasks of the Festive Season


Book themes for Christmas: Read a book whose protagonist is called Mary, Joseph (or Jesus, if that’s a commonly used name in your culture) or any variations of those names.