Monday, 16 November 2015

#CBR7 Book 121: "Cold-Hearted Rake" by Lisa Kleypas

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Devon Ravenel, along with his younger brother West, are the last of a long line of rakish Ravenels. When their cousin, who neither of the brothers could stand dies, Devon unexpectedly inherits an earldom and the accompanying town house, estate and lands. The brothers show up to survey the inheritance when they discover that their cousin had only been married for three days when he managed to get himself thrown off a high-spirited horse in a fit of the legendary Ravenel temper. He left behind a beautiful widow and three younger sisters, who due to Victorian mourning conventions have barely seen anyone but servants for years.

While the estate is quite rich in land, the former earls also left quite a chunk of debt and no modernisation has been done for decades. Devon wants to sell off as much as he can, but Kathleen, his cousin's temperamental widow, is appalled that he would abandon his duties and leave all the people depending on him to fend for themselves. She feels he should step up and take responsibility for his new title, estate and dependants and as he falls madly in lust with her the minute they first start arguing, Devon changes his mind and decides to try to save the lands instead. Anything to spend more time with Kathleen, helping her out of her mourning attire and into his bed.

He enlists the aid of his drunken younger brother, who conveniently turns out to have quite the knack for estate management. He convinces Kathleen to stay on as a companion and tutor of sorts to his young cousins, the serene and bookish Lady Helen and the rambunctious and imaginative twins Cassandra and Pandora. As previously mentioned, Devon wants to seduce Kathleen, but her Catholic scruples and her guilt at what she believes was her culpability in the death of her husband makes her remarkably resistant to his rakish charms.

Cold-Hearted Rake is Lisa Kleypas' first historical romance in five years. The book, which is clearly setting up for a new series, had a lot of people very excited and there were a lot of expectations that needed to be met. Unlike the esteemed Mrs. Julien, whose eloquence on the romance genre puts my humble reviewing efforts to shame, I haven't read the entirety of Ms. Kleypas' historical back catalogue, and I tend to rate quite a few other historical authors higher in my general estimation. Yet there is no denying that Ms. Kleypas is one of the greats and has written some wonderful classics. She's also very good at writing entertaining scoundrels.

Devon seems a pretty typical Kleypas hero. He is handsome and rakish, and initially quite selfish and careless, mainly concerned with his own interests and how he can ruthlessly further them. Of course, taking on his new responsibilities, trying to woo Kathleen and taking care of his female cousins brings about a change in him, making him a gentler, more caring man. He's sworn off marriage for life, but can't get Kathleen out of his mind. They spend a lot of time in spirited banter, both by written correspondence and in person.

Kathleen has, sadly, been brought up to believe that a woman shouldn't really feel any lustful feelings whatsoever. Her brief marriage was SPOILER! never consummated because her husband was a drunken oaf, and what did have time to happen have given her nightmares. There is so much Catholic guilt in her character, and I didn't like it.

One reason this book isn't as satisfying a romance as I think a lot of people were hoping for is that it's as concerned with setting up the whole new series as it is with Devon and Kathleen's romance. There is the beginning redemption of West, there is the beginning of the romance between Lady Helen and Devon's Welsh department store owner friend, Mr. Winterborne and there is getting to know the twins. I'm hoping that later books in the series will be more focused on just one couple at a time. Finally, a note on the cover. I'm assuming the lady on the cover is meant to be Kathleen. As the lady in question is in heavy mourning throughout the whole story, depicting her in a frothy pink dress is just all kinds of wrong.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 120: "Sorcerer to the Crown" by Zen Cho

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Bought and liberated as a child, and later adopted by the esteemed Sorcerer Royal, Sir Stephen Whyte, Zacharias Whyt now has the honour of being the first dark-skinned Sorcerer Royal of England. In a time when English magic is waning due to some mysterious restrictions from the Faerie courts and the country is still facing threats from Napoleon on the Continent, Zacharias is also facing personal challenges, with a seeming majority of the members of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers (gentleman magicians) accusing him of having murdered and usurped Sir Stephen and having destroyed his faerie familiar. They are plotting to having Zacharias removed and replaced, in a process that won't really end well for the poor man.

In this stressful time, Zacharias is persuaded by a friend to go give a talk at a girls' school in the countryside, where he discovers that contrary to the popular belief among the Society, that women are only capable of minor hexes and cantrips to help them in the home, many of the young gentlewomen at the school are vastly skilled and are being taught modified curses to drain the magic out of themselves, because it's deemed unseemly for women to possess or use magic at all. He also meets the formidable Miss Prunella Gentleman, and orphan of uncertain parentage (but it's clear that her mother was of Indian persuasion), who appears to have more magic at her ready disposal and control than all of England's male magicians put together. She is also in possession of a magical treasure of untold value and Zacharias feels he has no other choice but to take her with him to London, to tutor her so she doesn't run around uncontrolled.

Of course, once Prunella, used as she is to fixing, sorting and managing everything, discovers the extent to the troubles Zacharias is facing, she's determined to help him sort them out. The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers won't know what hit them.

Sorcerer to the Crown is the debut novel of Zen Cho, a Malaysian fantasy writer. It's the first in a planned trilogy, but never fear, it has a perfectly satisfactory ending, with no pesky cliffhangers to mar your enjoyment until the next book in the series comes out. Clearly inspired by the writing style of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, the language of the book is quite formal and the plot progression is slow. There is a romantic subplot that I found delightful, but there are no passionate declarations or steamy love scenes here, so look elsewhere if that's what you're after. There is the sly wit and humour of both the best of Austen and Heyer, while both being a lot more feminist and diverse than either of those great ladies' books.

In a book where the protagonists are a freed slave and an orphaned, mixed-race, probably illegitimate woman and the main plot involves just how badly the male magic users of England have underestimated the women, not only of their own country, but that of other nations, it makes for a delightful change from a lot of still very male-dominated fantasy. Zen Cho also manages to make her points without it feeling like she's beating you over the head with her "agenda", and while the plot was slow, I very much enjoyed reading the book.

Poor Zacharias clearly never wanted the responsibilities that have been thrust upon him, but grateful to his adoptive parents, he's going to carry out his duties, even knowing that many of his fellow wizards suspect him of murder and manipulation and are plotting to have him killed and replaced as Sorcerer Royal as a result. He would like nothing better than to retire to the countryside as a lowly scholar, but instead he has to negotiate with the Faerie court, try to fend off the demands of the English government who want magical aid in foreign conflicts and then has his entire world view turned upside down when it becomes clear that women can be just as capable of using magic as men, possibly even better at it.

Prunella Gentleman has never known her mother, but knows she was dark-skinned and therefore not exactly desirable in polite society. After her father killed himself, she was raised in the girls' school, on charity, but despite dreaming of balls and suitors and the other things her fellow gentlewomen dream of, it becomes very clear to her that she's seen more as a servant, despite all the help she's given the proprietress over the years. Not one to dwell on disappointment and betrayed feelings for long, pragmatic and ambitious Prunella takes her newly-discovered magical legacy and intends to follow Zacharias to London. Once she saves his life from a magical assassination attempt, he feels indebted to her, and offers her tutelage. She, in return, feels protective of him and determines to help him sort out his troubles, as he's clearly not capable of taking care of himself.

Not surprisingly, the upper classes of English gentlemen are completely unprepared for a female of uncertain origins in their midst, disproving once and for all that women shouldn't use magic. While the plot moves slowly, the final third gets quite action-packed, with Prunella discovering the individual behind the magical attacks against Zacharias and helping sort of the diplomatic tangle that England has got itself tied up in. While the book ends on a satisfying conclusion, there is more than enough hints as to what is to come in the series, and I for one, am very eager to see what Ms. Cho has planned for us next.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

#CBR7 Book 119: "Six Impossible Things" by Fiona Wood

Page count: 304 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Dan Cereill (pronounced "surreal", NOT "cereal") is not having an easy time of it. He and his mother are left shocked, abandoned and nearly penniless after Dan's father simultaneously announces that his business has gone bankrupt and that he's gay. Dan's great-aunt Adelaide recently passed away, the terms of her will stating that Dan and his mother could live in her house (although the house and it's contents were left to the National Trust). The house is ancient, drafty, cold as hell and reeks overwhelmingly of urine, but Dan can cope because it's also next door to his dream girl, Estelle. By accident, he discovers that the two houses have connecting attics, and Estelle has made herself a sort of refuge up on her side. Lonely, miserable and conflicted, Dan can help himself from snooping through Estelle's private things, including her notebooks and diaries, seeing how much they have in common.

He makes a list of six impossible things he hopes to achieve, the most important of which is that he wants to kiss Estelle. Of course, he gets completely tongue-tied and awkward talking to ANY girl. Estelle is so far out of his league it's not even funny, and he's deeply ashamed about the fact that he snooped through her diary, betraying her trust before they'd even properly met. His parents' sudden financial difficulties means his mother is trying to make money by starting a wedding cake business. She doesn't really sell any wedding cakes, instead more often than not breaking the couples up after their consultations with her. Dan therefore needs to get a job, in an attempt to help out with bills.

He also has to leave his fancy prep school and get used to going to public school, where he manages to make himself a target for bullies on his very first day. He struggles to make friends, admiring Estelle and her friends from afar, cursing his bad luck and painful lack of cool or social skills.

While Dan reading Estelle's diaries early on is a very bad thing to do, he clearly feels extremely bad about it, and he's in a very bad place emotionally when he succumbs to the temptation. So while it can seem a bit stalkery and inappropriate, he is very sorry and tries not to do it again (too much). He's adorably clueless about girls, and extremely annoyed that his reputation as a prep school kid marks him out as some sort of sad nerd. When he befriends Lou, who seems to be the female flipside of his best friend Fred, it's clear that his penchant for saying exactly the wrong thing to Estelle has more to do with nerves and anxiety than anything else.

Dan feels very betrayed about his father's revelations and feels abandoned by him. He stubbornly refuses to speak to his dad at all, or open the birthday present his dad sends him. He tries as best he can to help his mother, who is very effective at breaking up affianced couples, but not really in securing a single client for her baking business. When she's not making brides reconsider marriage, she mainly mopes around, obsessing about Radiohead. Money is clearly very tight, which becomes more of a problem when Howard, the elderly dog Adelaide left them needs some serious vet's attention. Dan manages to get a part-time job, but discovers that a 15-year-old waiter doesn't exactly make a fortune.

Going for runs with Howard and lifting weights in his room, not to mention some advice from Oliver, the cool market analyst who lives in the mansion's carriage house, means Dan slowly builds both muscle and confidence and as the school year progresses, he starts fitting in better at school. The bullies mainly leave him alone, and as he works in the same café as Janie, Estelle's best friend, he is eventually roped in to help in a harebrained scheme to get Janie to Sydney without their parents discovering. While their parents discover their deception and Estelle and Janie end up grounded for ages, it means he's finally earned the trust of the girl he adores. She uses their shared access to sneak into Dan's house and they spend a lot more time together.

By the time the big dance comes around, Dan is going mad with jealousy because he knows Estelle is taking someone else. When he discovers she's going with a girl from a different school, he finally summons up the courage to show her how he really feels. His guilty conscience about killing her diaries is nearly killing him, though. Will he ruin all his chances with Estelle just as he's finally managed to get her to really see him as a romantic prospect?

Some aspects of this book reminded me of Rainbow Rowell's Attachments, mainly the fact that Dan gets to know Estelle and falls for her by reading something very private to her, the way Lincoln falls for Beth by reading her e-mail correspondence with her best friend. The way Dan works hard to make himself fit and healthy and tries to improve himself looks wise also reminded me of Lincoln. The similarities certainly don't make me like this book any less.

Dan's by no means a perfect guy, and in many ways a very typical teenager. He goes far too long before talking to and forgiving his father and gives his mother a hard time occasionally, feeling very sorry for himself (not entirely without reason). The sixth goal on his list of impossible things is to be good, however, and most of the time, while he doesn't think so himself, he manages very well.

I first heard of this book years ago (not entirely sure where), but it wasn't available in print or e-book outside Australia. Recently, it was released in both print and e-book in the US, though and I finally got my hands on it. I'm glad to see it was worth the wait.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 118: "The Liar" by Nora Roberts

Page count: 512 pages
Audio book length: 16 hrs 37 mins
Rating: 4 stars (3.5 for the book, 0.5 for the narration)

Shelby Foxworth is only 24 when her husband dies in a boating accident, leaving her a widow with a three-year-old daughter. Shortly after her husband's death, she discovers that the man who swept her off her feet and who she believed was rich and successful, was in fact a swindler and a con man, leaving her with mountains of debt. Going through his papers, she finds evidence not only that he cheated on her, but that he had ID for multiple identities. In a safe deposit box, she finds 250 000 dollars in cash, a gun and proof that the man she knew as Richard Foxworth was someone completely fictional.

Forcing herself to stay strong, she sells off all of her late husband's clothes, shoes, watches and jewelry, as well as all the fancy clothes he wanted her to wear. She discovers that most of the jewelry she'd been given consisted of fakes, but once she gets organised enough to put their massive house on the market, selling all the furniture, wine, art and collectibles that Richard filled the house with, the debt goes from crippling to merely formidable. Before she returns home to her family, she is approached by a private investigator who claims that her husband took part in a robbery of jewels and stamps valued at nearly 30 million dollars. The PI refuses to believe that Shelby could have been married to a man for nearly five years and naively never clued into his true nature. Shelby assures him that she knows nothing about her husband's shady dealings and asks to be left alone.

She goes home to Rendezvous Ridge, Tennessee, where her family embraces her with open arms. While she was married to Richard, he rarely let her return for more than a few days at a time, and they've missed both her and Callie, her little girl. Initially, Shelby is reluctant to tell her extensive family the full truth about how naive she was and how badly Richard treated her, but being back in the safe haven of her home town, she can't go long without coming clean. She refuses to let her parents or grandparents help pay off the remaining debt, instead knuckling down to find a job and making a new life for herself and her daughter. She meets carpenter and contractor Griffin Lott, pretty much the polar opposite of the flashy, manipulative bastard she was married to, and he makes both her and Callie feel like a million bucks. But there are still shadows from her old life ready to come back to haunt her.

What I liked:
- January LaVoy's narration is amazing. There are so many different characters and accents in this book, and she managed to differentiate them all brilliantly. With the exception of Griff's partner Matt, who sounds more like he's a teenage boy than a grown man, she made the listening experience so good. The only reason I'm rating the book 4 stars is because of her voice talents.
- Shelby's pluck and determination. Rather than let herself be broken by all the new and horrible discoveries she makes about Richard, Shelby soldiers on and extremely bravely takes on huge challenges. She holds her head high and is determined to dig herself out of the mess she landed in.
- Shelby's family - In Tennessee, Shelby has parents, grandparents, brothers, a sister-in-law and nephews and they're all pretty great. Determined not to let Shelby beat herself up too much about the mistake she made in trusting and falling for Richard, they're more than willing to take care of her until she's back on her feet.
- Showing that abuse doesn't have to be physical - Richard was a skilled manipulator, who saw a perfect cover for his shady cons in Shelby and dazzled her with charm, wealth and exotic travels until she was so spellbound that she would do anything he asked. Then he skillfully started eating away her confidence, making her seem ignorant, stupid, unattractive and helpless. Isolating her from friends and family, making sure that she could only shop with credit cards, so he could keep track of all her expenses, making it much harder for her to actually leave him, if she could summon up the courage to do so. Shelby keeps saying that he never hit her, but takes a long time to come to terms with the fact that she suffered abuse, nonetheless.
- Griffin, who might actually be almost too perfect. Laid-back, extremely skilled at his job, easy-going, well-liked by absolutely everyone in town. Good-looking, charming, patient, great with kids. Of course he's bought Shelby's dream house on the edge of town and is slowly and lovingly restoring it with his magical handyman skills. Sensible, very good deductive abilities (Shelby's brother, the deputy sheriff, keeps deputising him to help with police work). I'm not sure Griff had a single flaw.
- The ending. While pretty much anyone who's ever read a single suspense narrative isn't going to be overly surprised at the developments towards the end of the book, or the identity of the person who's been running around killing Richard's former associates, who all show up in Rendezvous Ridge at some point to try to question Shelby about the whereabouts of the heist loot, I thought it was dealt with really well. Throughout the book, Shelby was pretty much the opposite of a damsel in distress, and even when in mortal danger, she didn't wait around for any of the many strong menfolk in her life to come and rescue her, she handled the situation admirably herself. Seriously, I had such low expectations to the ending that the way it was dealt with made me raise my rating for the book from 3 to 3.5.

What didn't work so well for me:
- If someone's husband runs up a huge amount of debt and then dies, is the wife really responsible for all of it? I've seen several reviews of the book comment on this and I also think it seems very far-fetched. Especially after Shelby discovers that Richard Foxworth wasn't even her husband's real name or identity and that he had a history as a thief and a con man. Surely she could contact the authorities and get the debt forgiven somehow?
- The length of the book. The book goes into minute detail about every single thing Shelby does after discovering that Richard is a lying cheat. Every thing she sells, the complicated process of putting her house on the market, her fears and worries, her road trip back home. Pretty much every errand she runs, every conversation she has, every person she talks to when trying to get a job - it's related far too closely. While Ms. Roberts does a great job of establishing the feel of the small town Shelby is from and making you care for the characters, a lot of the plot drowns in trivialities.
- The subplot with Melody, Shelby's enemy from high school. Melody was an unrealistically histrionic character and I didn't think a singly scene with her added significantly to the plot or the development of the other characters in any way.
- The lack of suspense - for a book that is supposed to be romantic suspense, this book is more like decorating porn than a tense and action-packed read. There is a huge amount of page space dedicated to house remodels, bathroom refurbishments, paint colours, tiles, decorating and home improvement in general. Every so often, someone on the trail of Richard, either one of his nefarious old associates or someone from the law turns up, each new encounter revealing even more of what a rotten piece of work he was, but even with a couple of dead bodies turning up, there isn't all that much that is suspenseful until the end of the book.

I haven't actually read a whole lot of the books Nora Roberts has written under her own name (I'm somewhere in the 20s when it comes to her J.D. Robb books). With the exception of her Bride quartet (about four friends who run a wedding planning business), this is my first experience with the books of La Nora. The book came highly recommended on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and the audio was praised on All About Romance, so when the book was on sale at Audible while I was concussed and in search of a new book to entertain me, it seemed like the perfect coincidence. While I wish Ms. Roberts had trimmed out a lot of the small town ambiance scenes that didn't move the plot or character developments forward in any way, I don't mind the hours I spent listening to the book. It should probably not be the first romantic suspense by Ms. Roberts you pick up, though, as there is a lot more just idyllic Southern small town everyday life here than actual suspense.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Books 116-117: "Rat Queens, vol 1 and 2" by Kurtis J. Weibe and Roc Upchurch

Total page count: 256 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Rat Queens, volume 1: Sass and Sorcery
Rat Queens, volume 2: The Far Reaching Tentacles of N'rygoth

Meet the fierce and fearsome ladies of the Rat Queens, although calling them ladies is probably to exaggerate. There's Hannah the Elven Mage, whose parents are both necromancers; Violet the Hipster Dwarven Fighter, who shaved her beard off and left her family because she wanted to brawl; Dee the Atheist Human Cleric, whose family are Cultists of the giant Squid God of N'Rygoth and last, and while least in size, by no means any less formidable, Betty the Smidgen Thief, frequently drugged to her eye balls on sugar or hallucinogens. What's a Smidgen, you ask? As far as I can tell, some sort of fantasy mix of a midget and a hobbit.

The four members of the Rat Queens are only one of the bands of adventurers/mercenaries (the others include the very Gothy Obsidian Darkness, another band of lady-dominated fighters, the Peaches, and the Four Daves (my favourite group name!)) in the town of Palisade. At the start of Sass and Sorcery, they are in the town jail, after yet another destructive bar brawl, and Sawyer, the captain of the City Watch (and occasional fuck buddy of Hannah) has an ultimatum from the Mayor for all of them. The various bands can go off and perform the quests assigned, or be banished from the town forever. The Rat Queens are told to rid a nearby cave of goblins and reluctantly agree. Turns out, the missions are traps, with each of the groups ambushed and attacked by one of the dark, ninja-like warriors from the Black Khali. Few of bands make it back intact, but the Rat Queens will not be stopped, by goblins or legendary fighters.

They try to investigate who might be behind the assassinations, but have to join forces with the other surviving adventurers to defend Palisade from a horde of vengeful goblins. Once the battle and subsequent victory celebrations are over, Dee discovers that ninja assassins may be the least of their problems, however.

In The Far Reaching Tentacles of N'Rygoth the readers are given more back story into each of the Rat Queens, and they face a much bigger threat than a horde of goblins or some Black Khali assassins. Someone has a serious grudge against Sawyer, the captain of the City Watch, and is not afraid to summon some truly dark powers to get even. Dee is visited by an individual from her past, come to tell her that the ceremonial Death Mask of the High Priest of N'Rygoth has been stolen. In the wrong hands, it can unleash murder, madness, chaos and horrible tentacled monsters in the skies. The Rat Queens and the other warriors in Palisade have to band together to fight against unspeakable horrors, before their town is completely destroyed.

Rat Queens is a great comic, full of violence, adventure, sex, humour and swearing. The protagonists are fast-talking, foul-mouthed, hard-hitting and great friends. Not only is this comic very diverse, I would be surprised if it didn't pass the Bechdel test in every issue. I was given the first volume as a Christmas present by my husband, but didn't get round to reading it until a while after volume 2 came out. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes fantasy, role-playing games, adventure or just good comics.

 Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR7 Book 115: "4:50 from Paddington" by Agatha Christie

Page count: 351 pages
Audio book length: 7 hrs 8 mins
Rating: 2 stars

On her way by train to visit her old friend Jane Marple for Christmas, Mrs Elspeth McGillicuddy is shocked to realise that she's witnessing a murder in the train running parallel. A tall, dark man in a dark coat is strangling a blond woman in a fur coat and there is nothing Mrs McGillicuddy can do. As soon as the train stops, she notifies the ticket inspector and the station master of what she saw, and when she arrives at Miss Marple's, the two talk to the police and report the crime.

No one else appears to have witnessed anything amiss, however. No dead bodies have been found on the train, and no women have been reported missing. There are suggestions that perhaps Mrs. McGillicuddy imagined what she saw, but she is adamant she witnessed a crime, and her friend Miss Marple, far too experienced with the dark deeds that people commit, believes her. Once her friend leaves to visit her children after Christmas, Miss Marple starts her own investigation. She discovers that the train the murderer would have been on comes to a sharp turn shortly before it enters the station in the town of Brackhampton. There is a sloping hill where a body could easily have been dumped.

As Miss Marple is old and incapable of going around to snoop for a dead body herself, she engages the assistance of a young friend, Miss Lucy Eyelesbarrow, a highly intelligent and competent woman whose made a name for herself as the perfect domestic servant. She can perform the duties of housekeeper, cook, nursemaid or nanny for the people she works for, always leaving the household much better off than it was when she left. Because of her dedication and skill, she's in high demand, but has some free time because of the holidays and Miss Marple's problem intrigues her. She manages to secure a post with the Brackenthorpe family, who live in the manor where Miss Marple suspects the body has been hidden. When Lucy finds the dead woman in an antique sarcophagus in one of the manor's outbuilding, there are several mysteries that need to be unravelled. Who is the dead woman, who none in the Brackenthorpe family claim to recognise? How did she end up hidden in their barn? And last, but not least, who murdered the young woman?

Lucy Eyelesbarrow acts as Miss Marple's eyes, ears and legs in the case, while the godson of Miss Marple's good friend, Inspector Craddock, is in charge of the investigation on behalf of the Scotland Yard. As in most good Agatha Christie mysteries, there's a fairly large cast of characters who could all be guilty of the murder, and the blond woman on the train is not the only one who ends up dead.

This audiobook was bundled with The Man in the Brown Suit, a kind gift from my BFF Lydia. As a young teenager, I voraciously devoured all the Agatha Christie novels in Norwegian translation in my local library, and I was pretty sure I'd read most of the books in her bibliography. I know I much preferred the stand-alones and the Poirot books to those with Miss Marple, and at no point when listening to this book, did I remember anything that made it likely I'd read it before. They do all blend together a bit, but I really think this was the first time I came across this particular story. While Agatha Christie didn't really write any bad books, this one very much suffered from being listened to right after one of my all-time favourites. While Lucy was an engaging enough character and Miss Marple obviously is a very clever old lady, a sedate manor mystery set in the English countryside set shortly after Christmas just cannot compete with Anne Beddingfeld's adventures in South Africa with diamond theft, cruise ships, civil unrest in South African and dashing young men in brown suits.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday, 26 October 2015

#CBR7 Book 114: "The Man in the Brown Suit" by Agatha Christie

Page count: 288 pages
Audio book length: 7hrs 59 mins
Rating: 5 stars

Anne Beddingfeld's father is a famous archaeologist and anthropologist. He dies, leaving Anne mostly penniless, but hungry for adventure. She kindly rejects the proposal of the village doctor and accepts her father's solicitor's invitation to stay with him and his wife for a time in London. Shortly after her arrival in the capital, she is witness to an accidental death. A man in a large overcoat reeking of mothballs falls onto the tracks of the train station, and a tall, bearded man claiming to be a doctor examines the body. The bearded man in the brown suit loses a scrap of paper, which also reeks of mothballs. Could he have been searching the dead body? The paper reads "17 122 Kilmorden Castle" - what could it mean?

The newspapers discover a connection with the dead man on the train tracks and a young woman murdered in the house of Sir Eustace Pedler. Not only that, but the man in the brown suit who Anne witnessed is the main suspect for the woman's murder. Then Anne discovers that the Kilmorden Castle is a cruise ship, sailing to South Africa. A first class ticket costs exactly the amount of money she was left after her father's debts were paid off, and Anne sees this as a clear sign that adventure is calling. With cheek and audacity, she gets the owner of the main newspaper hunting for "The Man in the Brown Suit" to agree to hire her on as a freelance reporter if she tracks down more information connected with the crime.

On the ship, the adventurous, but nearly penniless Anne befriends society beauty Susanne Blair and earns the admiration of both Sir Eustace Pedler, on his way to South Africa on a task for the Foreign Office and Colonel Race, a tall and striking gentleman rumoured to be working for the Secret Service. Among the travellers are also the suspiciously untanned Reverend Chichester, who claims to have been working in the depths of Borneo for years; Guy Pagett, Sir Eustace's secretary and Harry Raybourn, a mysterious young man who stumbles into Anne's cabin one night, having been stabbed by unknown assailants in the hallway. Sir Eustace claims the handsome young man is his other secretary, but Anne deduces that he is none other than the infamous "Man in the Brown Suit". After her brief evening encounter with him, she's convinced he didn't kill the woman in England, and becomes determined to clear his name.

The Man in the Brown Suit, along with They Came to Baghdad and Why Didn't They Ask Evans? (the first Christie I ever read), is probably my favourite Agatha Christie book, a fact my BFF Lydia knew very well. So trying to cheer me up when I was unable to read physical books while concussed, she sent me this as an audio book, bundled (really rather strangely) with the eighth Miss Marple mystery, 4:50 from Paddington. I hadn't realised, until I looked it up on Wikipedia to remind myself of the name of some of the secondary characters, that this was only Ms. Christie's fourth novel, which makes it even more of an impressive achievement. Apart from some very clunky info-dumping in the prologue, when two criminal henchmen sit around discussing the many nefarious acts of their employer, the shadowy "Colonel", in a way that no people ever would talk about a person they worked for, this book is a fun thrill-ride from start to finish.

There is Anne, the self-proclaimed adventuress, who loves "The Perils of Pamela" and wants to fall in love with someone strong, silent and dashing. Full of pluck and determination, she throws caution to the wind and travels to South Africa in search of a murderer, with barely a penny in her pocket, just convinced that it'll all work itself out somehow. Some might find her callous disregard for practicalities annoying, but I find her delightful and she's not wrong, things keep turning out in her favour, even if she keeps ending up in near-death situations.

This story has murder; stolen diamonds: abductions; dastardly henchmen; a cunning underworld kingpin; a dashing, wronged and emotionally vulnerable love interest and more. I like any Christie with a romantic subplot and my only gripe with the book is that Emilia Fox, who mostly does an excellent job with narrating, gave Harry Raybourn, our haunted love interest, a voice so dark and gravelly that it mostly reminded me of Christian Bale doing Batman-growling. See, Christian Bale's normal voice - lovely, luscious and sexy as heck. Christian Bale's Batman-growling - just not hot. Which is a shame, cause Harry Raybourn should be passionate and appealing. It didn't detract too much from my enjoyment, but means I can't rate the narration of the audiobook as highly as I'd like.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.