Charlotte Anne Hamilton: Of Trust & Heart

Title: Of Trust and Heart
Author: Charlotte Anne Hamilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maggie Robinson: Farewell Blues

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

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

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

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

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

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

KJ Charles – Subtle Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ARC received from the author

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

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.

E.C.R. Lorac: Murder in the Mill-Race

Author: E.C.R. Lorac
Title: Murder in the Mill-Race: A Devon Mystery
Series: Robert MacDonald #37

“Never make trouble in the village” is an unspoken law, but it’s a binding law. You may know about your neighbours’ sins and shortcomings, but you must never name them aloud. It’d make trouble, and small societies want to avoid trouble.’
When Dr Raymond Ferens moves to a practice at Milham in the Moor in North Devon, he and his wife are enchanted with the beautiful hilltop village lying so close to moor and sky. At first they see only its charm, but soon they begin to uncover its secrets – envy, hatred and malice. A few months after the Ferens’ arrival, the body of Sister Monica, warden of the local children’s home, is found floating in the mill-race. Chief Inspector Macdonald faces one of his most difficult cases in a village determined not to betray its dark secrets to a stranger.

I really enjoyed this…*mild exclamation of surprise*. After all, I hadn’t been overwhelmed by my previous experiences with Lorac and the first few chapters of the book didn’t make me think that this time would be different. We follow a young couple – Raymond and Anne – who has just moved to Devon because he’s a doctor and wants to take over the practice of the old village doctor who is about to retire. They meet the other inhabitants of the village, including Sister Monica who oversees the local children’s home and we’re immediately informed that they don’t like Sister Monica. They talk to each other about how little they like her. Anne meets Sister Monica again, they have a conversation and while they have this conversation we’re again told how little Anne likes her. After that she talks to her husband again about…you know. It got boring, especially because we only got to see Sister Monica being somewhat annoying but nothing that seemed to justify the level of hatred aimed at her.

Well, unsurprisingly Sister Monica gets killed and the focus shifts from other people talking about how horrible she was to Inspector MacDonald trying to figure out who killed her (and admittedly, discovering that enough people had reason to do so, so Anne’s initial assessment wasn’t exactly wrong). And the investigation is again good and solid crime novel fare, admittedly not terribly exciting but I enjoyed the backdrop of the small Devon village a lot. I have already mentioned that I think Lorac is very good at describing the settings and anchoring the crime story firmly in those and this is no exception. In many mysteries set in small villages, those places are described as really cozy and charming but this one really focusses on the claustrophobia that comes with the everyone knows everyone and everybody’s buisness which I definitely prefer. So, after a slow start, I really enjoyed this one.

ARC received from NetGalley

George Bellairs: The Body in the Dumb River

Author: George Bellairs
Title: The Body in the Dumb River. A Yorkshire Mystery
Series: Chief Inspector Littlejohn #35

A decent, hardworking chap, with not an enemy anywhere. People were surprised that anybody should want to kill Jim.’

But Jim has been found stabbed in the back near Ely, miles from his Yorkshire home. His body, clearly dumped in the usually silent (‘dumb’) river has been discovered before the killer intended – disturbed by a torrential flood in the night.

Roused from a comfortable night’s sleep Superintendent Littlejohn of Scotland Yard is soon at the scene. With any clues to the culprit’s identity swept away with the surging water, Bellairs’ veteran sleuth boards a train heading north to dredge up the truth about the real Jim Teasdale and to trace the mystery of this unassuming victim’s murder to its source.

The workpeople had returned to their factories and offices and the market was almost deserted now. All the bargains had gone. The man with the cheese and the chickens had sold up and was packing up his belongings and dismantling his stall. Fruit salesmen were altering their prices, chalked up on brown paper bags and stuck among the fruits on the end of a stick. Oranges at 4d. each in the morning were now four a shilling. A man who sold curtains was holding an auction sale. He was drunk already and now and then gave away a length of material for nothing.

Aren’t you fascinated by that paragraph? Isn’t it…thrilling? Especially considering nothing plot-relevant happens on this market. The investigator simply passes it at the end of his workday. And that’s one of the problems of this book; it gets clogged down with so much description of unnecessary details. It’s not enough to say that a character grabbed his coat and left. We’ll read how he got up, walked to his coat, put it on, walked to the door, opened it and went out. It’s extremely boring and there’s no good mystery to distract me from it. The murder victim is a man who turns out to have been leading a double life. He told his family that he was a travelling salesman but actually had a stall on a travelling carnival and lived there with another woman. The investigation quickly focusses on his first family and every single one is a flat caricature whose only aim is to appear as unlikeable as possible. His father-in-law is even described as having “an indescribable odour of evil and corruption around him”. Just so know he even smells evil…

Of course, these kinds of characters aren’t terribly rare in mysteries. Especially horrible family patriarch is a staple in mysteries. But the thing is that these characters usually get murdered in chapter two or three and so you don’t have too much time to think about just how flat this character really is. Sometimes there are books that have the setup “horrible person gets murdered but only halfway through the book” and honestly, I already have a hard time getting through those because I find it exhausting. Here, none of the horrible people get murdered, they just spent all their time being horrible about each other and about the victim. It’s not particularly enjoyable to read about and so the book left me feeling bored and annoyed in turn.

Erica Ruth Neubauer – Murder at the Mena House

Title: Murder at the Mena House
Author: Erica Ruth Neubauer
Series: Jane Wunderly Mysteries #1

Well-heeled travelers from around the world flock to the Mena House Hotel—an exotic gem in the heart of Cairo where cocktails flow, adventure dispels the aftershocks of World War I, and deadly dangers wait in the shadows . . .

Egypt, 1926. Fiercely independent American Jane Wunderly has made up her mind: she won’t be swept off her feet on a trip abroad. Despite her Aunt Millie’s best efforts at meddling with her love life, the young widow would rather gaze at the Great Pyramids of Giza than into the eyes of a dashing stranger. Yet Jane’s plans to remain cool and indifferent become ancient history in the company of Mr. Redvers, a roguish banker she can’t quite figure out . . .

While the Mena House has its share of charming guests, Anna Stainton isn’t one of them. The beautiful socialite makes it clear that she won’t share the spotlight with anyone—especially Jane. But Jane soon becomes the center of attention when she’s the one standing over her unintentional rival’s dead body.

Now, with her innocence at stake in a foreign country, Jane must determine who can be trusted, and who had motive to commit a brutal murder. Between Aunt Millie’s unusual new acquaintances, a smarmy playboy with an off-putting smile, and the enigmatic Mr. Redvers, someone has too many secrets. Can Jane excavate the horrible truth before her future falls to ruin in Cairo . . . and the body count rises like the desert heat?

Jane Wunderly is Not Like The Other Girls. Other girls dress up in ridiculously revealing dresses to impress men like whores. Jane has no interest in men.

Except for Mr. Redvers. I mean he doesn’t even tell her his first name, quite obviously lies to her or at least evades her questions but that doesn’t stop Jane from swooning about him while still insisting that she doesn’t need no men. Can we just stop with that? Either give me a character who says she has no interest in relationships and then sticks to it or one who says “Yeah. I want to marry (again) but I don’t want the first guy my overenthusiastic relatives who all think a woman without a man is worthless throw at me. I want to marry someone I actually care about.” In historicals that would still be unusual enough and would not give us the moral of “Actually, everyone wants a relationship and all those who say they don’t, just haven’t realized it, yet.”

So, no, I wasn’t a fan of the setup of the blossoming romance. Especially since, as mentioned, I saw no reason why she should even trust him…And if possible I was even less a fan of the mystery. I admit I’m already not the biggest fan of “Sleuth starts sleuthing because they/someone close to them is a suspect” but that wasn’t even a particularly well-done variety of that trope. It never feels like the inspector is really serious about his suspicions. He barely plays a part in the novel and the most threatening thing he does is ask her not to leave the hotel for a while. That leaves us with the “Sleuth starts sleuthing because they totally know better than the stupid police” trope, except that you could even argue that it’s not Jane doing the sleuthing but her mouth. Without her agreement. Yes, the phrase “And before I could stop myself I found myself saying X” gets overused in this book. Oh and what she finds herself saying is usually stuff she strictly speaking shouldn’t know and occasionally she does it while being alone with the suspect. Yes, Jane is one of the people you find pictured in the dictionary next to “Too Stupid Too Live”. But she still somehow survives…and solves everything thanks to a string of ridiculous coincidences. Because that what sleuths in bad cozy mysteries always do.

ARC received from NetGalley

KJ Charles: Slippery Creatures

Title: Slippery Creatures
Author: KJ Charles
Series: Will Darling #1

Will Darling came back from the Great War with a few scars, a lot of medals, and no idea what to do next. Inheriting his uncle’s chaotic second-hand bookshop is a blessing…until strange visitors start making threats. First a criminal gang, then the War Office, both telling Will to give them the information they want, or else.

Will has no idea what that information is, and nobody to turn to, until Kim Secretan—charming, cultured, oddly attractive—steps in to offer help. As Kim and Will try to find answers and outrun trouble, mutual desire grows along with the danger.

And then Will discovers the truth about Kim. His identity, his past, his real intentions. Enraged and betrayed, Will never wants to see him again.

But Will possesses knowledge that could cost thousands of lives. Enemies are closing in on him from all sides—and Kim is the only man who can help.

Is “I stayed up past midnight to finish is ” enough of a review? I feared as much. Well then let me start like this: Slippery Creatures is a romance but ends with a happily-for-now rather than a happily-ever-after. The characters are more or less happy where they are but there are still things unsaid and neither of them really thought about their future and if it includes the other one. And that’s a good thing. Because this way we get a really fun and engaging mystery and a good romance that develops in a sensible and normal time-frame. I mean I love me my romance mysteries but occasionally, when I read one and really enjoyed the mystery, the romance fell somewhat flat because the big obstacle to the relationship conveniently vanished into thin air ten pages before the end. here there’s no need to rush the romance because it’s not ending with Will and Kim getting a whatever is the Edwardian pulp equivalent to a white picket fence is. Just with them having agreed that they really enjoy the time they’re spending with each other.

So there’s is lots of space for the gloriously pulpy mystery and I loved every line of it. It had everything. Coded messages! Menacing gangs with creative nicknames! A very dangerous secret! Traitors! What more can you wish for?

Throughout the story we only get Will’s POV, a somewhat odd choice for romance but it works. Because despite that, Kim’s emotions aren’t kept from the reader. It’s not as easy as him saying what he feels (what do you expect? he’s a posh English guy), but I could still read enough about him between the lines to get to know him and care about him, which I often find hard when it comes to the non-POV character in a romance.

So when is the next book coming out?

John Dickson Carr: Castle Skull

‘That is the case. Alison has been murdered. His blazing body was seen running about the battlements of Castle Skull.’
And so a dark shadow looms over the Rhineland where Inspector Henri Bencolin and his accomplice Jeff Marle have arrived from Paris. Entreated by the Belgian financier D’Aunay to investigate the gruesome and grimly theatrical death of actor Myron Alison, the pair find themselves at the imposing hilltop fortress Schloss Schädel, in which a small group of suspects are still assembled.
As thunder rolls in the distance, Bencolin and Marle enter a world steeped in macabre legends of murder and magic to catch the killer still walking the maze-like passages and towers of the keep.

Before Castle Skull I’d only read a couple of John Dickson Carr short stories in anthologies and was not exactly overwhelmed. They were a bit too outlandish for me. Of course, Carr is “the master of the locked room mystery” and those are rarely down-to-earth and full of realism but there’s “this isn’t that realistic” and there’s the “apart from a 10-step cunning plan by the villain this also requires a riddiculous chain of coincidences to work” that happened in the Carr stories I came across.

This book…well it features a riddiculous mustache-twirling villain and a series of coincidences that should have made me roll my eyes. But it also fully commited to the riddiculousness. I mean, it’s called Castle Skull for God’s sake. And the eponymous castle isn’t called like that for some strange outlandish reason…it simply resembles a skull if you look at it from a certain distance. The murder victim was shot and then set on fire and “danced” and screamed before eventually dying. This book doesn’t pretend to be a normal run-of-the-mill mystery and then hit you over the head with a riddiculous solution (which happened to me with the other Carr stories). It goes: “Do you want to read something over-the top and insane? Sit down with me. I have just the right thing for you.” And I really can’t complain about that.

ARC received from NetGalley