Thursday 25 April 2019

#CBR11 Book 15: "A Conspiracy in Belgravia" by Sherry Thomas

Page count: 336 pages
Audio book length:
Rating: 4 stars

This is the second book in a series. While it can be read independently, and probably makes sense on its own, you'd be better off starting with book one, A Study in Scarlet Women

From Goodreads:
Being shunned by Society gives Charlotte Holmes the time and freedom to put her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, she’s had great success helping with all manner of enquiries, but she’s not prepared for the new client who arrives at her Upper Baker Street office.

Lady Ingram, wife of Charlotte’s dear friend and benefactor, wants Sherlock Holmes to find her first love, who failed to show up at their annual rendezvous. Matters of loyalty and discretion aside, the case becomes even more personal for Charlotte as the missing man is none other than Myron Finch, her illegitimate half brother.

In the meanwhile, Charlotte wrestles with a surprising proposal of marriage, a mysterious stranger woos her sister Livia, and an unidentified body that surfaces where least expected. Charlotte’s investigative prowess is challenged as never before: Can she find her brother in time—or will he, too, end up as a nameless corpse somewhere in the belly of London?

Now, there are several downsides to having sped through the audiobook version of this in about 24 hours, and having finished the book over a month and a half ago. While I remember very much enjoying it and thinking it builds excellently on the very strong beginning of the series, the details of the plot are decidedly hazy to me (it's a bit tricky for me to recall exactly what was revealed in each of the three books, as I read all of them in a week quite some time ago now).

Despite the misgivings of Mrs. Watson and her niece, Charlotte Holmes chooses to accept a case from Lady Ingram, the wife of  her best friend (a man who very clearly regrets his marriage, and also most likely loves our heroine - it's uncertain whether Charlotte acknowledges and/or returns the sentiment). Lady Ingram claims that once a year, she walks in the park and nods politely at her first love, the man her family didn't approve or would allow her to marry. They never speak or interact in any other way, but he never made their current rendezvous, and she is worries that something bad has happened to him. Charlotte and Mrs. Watson try to suggest that there may be a rational explanation for his absence, and he may just have moved on with his life, yet Lady Ingram insists she needs a definite answer as to why he didn't show up.

Of course it turns out that the case isn't as simple as it first appears, involving, among others, Charlotte's half-brother and a number of other complications. The police need help identifying a young man found dead who may or may not be connected to the case, and on top of everything else, Charlotte receives a marriage proposal from Lord Ingram's older brother, Lord Bancroft Ashburton. There would be many obvious advantages to the match, especially in terms of restoring her ruined reputation in society, appeasing her outraged parents and furthering her sister Livia's chances at a good match. On the other hand, there is Lord Ingram and what becoming his sister-in-law might do to their current connection.

I must admit that even though I was expecting some twists and turns, I had not for a second foreseen where Ms. Thomas ended up taking the story. I don't usually read too many mysteries these days, but it's always fun when the plot of one is constucted in such a way that you're always guessing, and still pleasantly surprised at the end, when all is revealed.

Judging a book by its cover: This is such an evocative, atmospheric cover, with the beautifully attired woman apparently running through the London fog, with the colours of her dress almost blending with the surroundings. It doesn't really have much to do with the story of the book, but would absolutely make me pick up a copy in a bookstore.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Friday 12 April 2019

#CBR11 Book 14: "A Study in Scarlet Women" by Sherry Thomas

Page count: 336 pages
Audio book length: 11 hrs
Rating: 4.5 stars

I keep struggling to summarise the plot in a good way, so I'll just let the blurb do it:

With her inquisitive mind, Charlotte Holmes has never felt comfortable with the demureness expected of the fairer sex in upper class society. But even she never thought that she would become a social pariah, an outcast fending for herself on the mean streets of London. 

When the city is struck by a trio of unexpected deaths and suspicion falls on her sister and her father, Charlotte is desperate to find the true culprits and clear the family name. She’ll have help from friends new and old—a kind-hearted widow, a police inspector, and a man who has long loved her.

But in the end, it will be up to Charlotte, under the assumed name Sherlock Holmes, to challenge society’s expectations and match wits against an unseen mastermind.

True fact, with the exception of a couple of extremely abridged and adapted easy reader short stories that we've used as examples of classics when teaching my pupils (which I doubt are really very representative of the real thing, as both the plot and the language have been simplified to an utterly ridiculous degree), I have never read a single Sherlock Holmes story. I have watched both the Guy Ritchie directed movies, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. I watched the first three seasons of the BBC Sherlock, including the Christmas special, but steered clear of the disastrous fourth season, because the show's creators were clearly not taking the story or characters anywhere I was interested in going and life's just too short, you know? My husband and I have so far enjoyed the first five seasons of Elementary (or The Adventures of Mr. Elementary and Joan, as we like to refer to it, as its protagonists are quite a ways away from the original source material by now, and it's just another amusing TV procedural). I've read several YA books with teen sleuths inspired by Sir Conan Doyle's stories, and yet I have never felt the need to read one for myself. I find the concept of the Sherlock Holmes a lot more interesting and appealing than I suspect I would the actual character.

Now, Sherry Thomas, on the other hand, is an author whose career I've followed since she started publishing back in 2008. The only books of hers I haven't read by now are the last two in her YA Elementals trilogy, but I aim to get around to that too. So when she decided to stop writing excellent, if somewhat angsty historical romances, and decided to start gender flipping Sherlock Holmes, I knew I would have to read this books eventually.

For several months now, the pressures of my very time-consuming job and trying to cope with mothering a beautiful, cheerful, but absolutely demanding toddler has been wreaking havoc with my ability to concentrate. On bad days, I feel about two steps away from a complete burnout, and I seem to mostly just want to mindlessly scroll through social media on my phone, as it demands little to nothing of me. For most of my adult life, reading has been an escape and a means of relaxation for me, but since I returned to work in November, it's been hard to find the time, enthusiasm or energy for books. However, when I started the audio books for Ms. Thomas' Lady Sherlock books, I finished the existing three books in less than a week. I found myself making excuses, just so I could listen more and the books absolutely captivated me. As this is a rare feeling nowadays, it made me all the more grateful.

Now, having never read the actual source material, I can't compare it as a reimagining. I can just speak for what works remarkably well in Ms. Thomas' books.

All of the modern depictions of Sherlock Holmes (be it the ones set in actual Victorian times, like the movies, or in the modern era, like the TV shows) portray him as in some way neuroatypical. It seems likely, based on what we now know about the autism spectrum, that Sherlock Holmes is probably on it, if a very high functioning individual. Sherry Thomas' Charlotte Holmes is certainly not like other women of her era, and her portrayal fits into this same pattern. We are told that Charlotte didn't choose to speak until she was four years old, but when she did, it was to make a fairly astute deduction. Sherry Thomas has also chosen to give Charlotte Holmes an older sister, who is much more afflicted by ASD, and needs to be kept under constant supervision, as she cannot take care of herself. So neurodivergence is absolutely something of a theme in these stories.

When we meet our unusual heroine at the start of the book, she has just been publicly ruined and finds herself ostracised from polite society. Unwilling to deal with the scorn of her disappointed parents, Charlotte leaves home and tries to fend for herself. Her sister Livia worries terribly about her, and due to some uncharacteristic lapses in judgement, Charlotte almost finds herself desperate and destitute, when she makes the acquaintance of a widowed actress, Mrs John Watson, who is intrigued by her powers of deduction and observation and offers to hire her as a ladies' companion.

Even prior to her ruination, Charlotte had entertained herself by occasionally assisting the London Metropolitan Police with enquiries (aided by her longtime friend Lord Ingram), using the pseudonym Sherlock Holmes. Thanks to a series of murders being publicised in the press, the name of Sherlock Holmes has become well known, and Mrs. Watson proposes a clever scheme in which Charlotte can earn a living, without anyone discovering that she, a mere woman and publicly disgraced to boot, is in fact the master detective. The two women begin soliciting clients and meeting them in rented rooms, with Charlotte posing as the detective's sister (and Mrs. Watson occasionally pretending to be Mrs. Hudson, the housekeeper), claiming that the great man himself has been struck down by an illness and has to remain bedridden. Charlotte goes into the bedroom next door and "consults" for a few minutes, and then helps the clients. The business savvy Mrs. Watson makes sure the clients pay a suitable fee for the consultation.

The high profile murder case in question is one Charlotte is most eager to help solve, as it casts suspicion on both her father (his mistress is one of the murder victims) and her sister Livia, who was one of the last people to see one of the other victim's alive, and they were witnessed having an argument. With some help from Lord Ingram (who is still unhappy that Charlotte will not accept his protection directly), Charlotte is able to advise Inspector Threadles, the man in charge of the investigation. It turns out to be a much more complicated and involved case than it seemed at the beginning, uncovering some truly horrific secrets and conspiracies to cover them up.

There is so much to love in these books. While Charlotte is frighteningly brilliant and her emotional register is not the same as those around her, she's by no means unfeeling and is in fact capable of great affection and feelings of loyalty. She just doesn't outwardly show a lot of emotion and processes things differently than others. Outwardly, she looks deeply frivolous and silly, with golden ringlets, a propensity for ribbons, ruffles and flounces and a love of food, especially sweet things. She loves to eat, but knows she cannot support "too many chins".

These books are so very feminist, with capable and very different women in so many roles. There's Charlotte, her sisters Livia and Bernadine, there's the excellent Mrs. Watson and there are women in more villainous roles. There's Inspector Threadles' wife, whose father is a wealthy industrialist, but who married "down" because she loves him. I doubt women feature much in the original Sherlock Holmes stories, except perhaps as victims, which is another reason why I'm in no rush to read any of them.

Adding to my enjoyment of this book was Kate Reading's pitch perfect narration. I've heard her narrate a number of historical romances in the past, and her arch and proper tones suit this sort of material so very well. A lot of audio book narrators struggle with a large cast of characters, but Ms. Reading manages to give each character a distinct and believable voice, be they male or female, and her narration is now how I hear all these characters in my head. I highly recommend the audio books if you haven't already checked this series out.

Judging a book by its cover: I'm a sucker for a good Victorian dress, and this impressive red one is especially lovely. There seems to be quite a trend of Victorian-set, lady-led mysteries with similar covers, I seem to recall the first book in the Veronica Speedwell series featuring another beautifully attired woman moving away from the reader.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Thursday 4 April 2019

#CBR11 Book 13: "Skinwalker" by Faith Hunter

Page count: 320 pages
Audio book length: 14 hrs 29 min
Rating: 3.5 stars

Jane Yellowrock is, as far as she's aware, the very last of her kind. She's a skinwalker of Cherokee descent and has never encountered anyone with the same powers as her. She makes a living hunting vampires, but finds herself in the unusual position of working for the vampire council in New Orleans, to track down a rogue vampire. Jane has ten days to locate the creature if she wants to get the exclusive bounty, but there are other individuals in the city who seem to be on the same mission. As her hunt intensifies, it seems as if the vampire doesn't just feed on humans, but other vampires, and has the ability to change it's scent - which just shouldn't be possible.

In my experience, it's a rare paranormal/urban fantasy series that has the perfect first book and just hooks you in right away. Most series tend to take at least a book or two (or until book 4, in the case of The Dresden Files) to really get good. Even my beloved co-writing team Ilona Andrews doesn't hit it right out of the park with their Kate Daniels books (but in later series, they had me hooked right from the start). Faith Hunter is a new author for me, but considering there are currently 12 full novels in this series, as well as a number of novellas, I'm guessing she's doing ok for herself and the books are popular enough to justify the extended series length.

While our kick ass heroine, Jane, projects a pretty serious loner vibe to everyone she meets in New Orleans, it's clear that she has a found family that she adores and misses. In the universe Faith Hunter has created, there are vampires and witches, but she hints at the existence of other paranormal entities like were-creatures and possibly fairies as well, plus there is Jane's possibly unique ability as a skinwalker (call me cynical, but I'm willing to bet that somewhere down the line of the series, Jane is going to discover that she's not as alone as she believes herself to be and that her heritage is more complicated than she realised - that's just storytelling 101 in a series like this). Jane's best friend is a witch, who has at least one plot moppet daughter who is apparently off the scale powerful (I did not enjoy the lisping way the narrator voiced the child AT ALL).

There are a bunch of vampire clans in New Orleans, and because they're paying her bills, Jane forces herself to set aside her aversion to them. Like most paranormal heroines on a mission, she doesn't exactly exude charm and make friends whereever she turns up. Jane manages to piss off several high ranking vampires, as well as members of the city's police force while she snoops around and unearths secrets. While there are some guys that Jane clearly finds attractive introduced over the course of the novel, no clear love interest has presented itself, which I like. Romance doesn't have to be a leading subplot for these books to work, and I would rather that the author take a bit longer to establish the world and her main character before introducing potential love interests into the mix.

This book entertained me enough that I will probably check out more in the future. With several of my long-running paranormal series completed in the last few years, I'm on the look-out for new examples of the genre. I didn't hate how Khristine Hvam narrated the book, but didn't love it either, so may read the next ones myself, rather than get them in audio.

Judging a book by its cover: While the cover model portraying our heroine no  doubt looks pretty bad ass, I'm not sure whose marketing decision it was to do the cover pretty much exclusively in shades of black and brown. It brings to mind smudging and dirt, and I'm not a huge fan. It's could also only be a more stereotypically paranormal/urban fantasy cover if the cover model was wielding a crossbow rather than shotgun.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

Monday 1 April 2019

#CBR11 Book 12: "Devil's Daughter" by Lisa Kleypas

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is the fifth book in the Ravenels series. While you don't have to have read the previous books in the series, it would probably enhance your enjoyment and make you more familiar with most of the cast of characters. While you also don't NEED to have read it, you really should read Devil in Winter, because it's a classic of the genre, and will give you more insight in some of the supporting characters here.

Plot summary from Goodreads, because I finished this book over a month ago:
Although beautiful young widow Phoebe, Lady Clare, has never met West Ravenel, she knows one thing for certain: he's a mean, rotten bully. Back in boarding school, he made her late husband's life a misery, and she'll never forgive him for it. But when Phoebe attends a family wedding, she encounters a dashing and impossibly charming stranger who sends a fire-and-ice jolt of attraction through her. And then he introduces none other than West Ravenel.

West is a man with a tarnished past. No apologies, no excuses. However, from the moment he meets Phoebe, West is consumed by irresistible desire...not to mention the bitter awareness that a woman like her is far out of his reach. What West doesn't bargain on is that Phoebe is no straitlaced aristocratic lady. She's the daughter of a strong-willed wallflower who long ago eloped with Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent—the most devilishly wicked rake in England.

Before long, Phoebe sets out to seduce the man who has awakened her fiery nature and shown her unimaginable pleasure. Will their overwhelming passion be enough to overcome the obstacles of the past?

Only the devil's daughter knows...

For the previous four books in this series, I have been rather impatiently waiting for Lisa Kleypas, writer of some truly classic historical romances, to deliver something even half as enjoyable as some of her best books. While Devil's Daughter by no means can compete with the best of Kleypas' back catalogue, it was a very satisfying read and I didn't want to spend most of the reviews nitpicking all the things that didn't work.

I liked the premise of headstrong, young woman finding herself reluctantly attracted to her husband's former bully. In West Ravenel's defence, a lot of teenage boys are exceptionally thoughtless and stupid, and his own social standing and family connections made him prone to lashing out at others, one hapless victim of which was Phoebe's sickly, now deceased husband. Considering the redemptive arc that Phoebe's own father had to go through in Devil in Winter and West seems like a choir boy instead.

West has been possibly my favourite supporting characters in the series so far. He's quite the worthless, drunken layabout at the start of Cold Hearted Rake, but over the course of the series becomes a truly changed man, devoting himself to land management and taking care of his family members, yet always feeling like he can't atone for his boorish and uncouth past. So when he falls head over heels for the beautiful Phoebe, he never believes himself good enough for her.

Phoebe married her sickly childhood friend, who lived long enough to give her two sons. The daughter of strong-minded and very formidable parents (so beloved by romance readers everywhere), she keeps repressing her passionate nature and inquisitive mind, devoting herself entirely to the raising of her two sons, while letting her husband's cousin deal with everything involved with her estate, even though both her father and brother feel she should take a more active role in caring for her sons' inheritance.

While she wants nothing to do with West, remembering all the bullying her late husband wrote to her about in his letters from school, her family members keep pushing her in his path, because he's clearly the best person to teach her how to properly manage her own lands. That everyone around them can see the sparks flying every time West and Phoebe are near each other, probably doesn't hurt either.

West is an excellent example of a properly reformed rake and while his own self image is wildly distorted, he eventually comes to understand how much good he could do for Phoebe. She needs time to properly come to terms with the loss of her husband, yet realise that she's still young, and deserving of love and some of the promises she made to her husband while he was dying were unreasonable in the extreme.

As I said, this is the first book in the series I would recommend without reservation and I'm now very intrigued by what I'm assuming will be the final book in the series (all the other Ravenels are now married off). Kleypas is good at making complicated and rather dislikable individuals into very interesting romance heroes, so I can't wait to see how she redeems Tom Severin next year.

Judging a book by its cover: All the books in this series have had absolutely awful covers, and while this one isn't great, it's not quite such an eye sore of anachronistic prom dresses as some of the previous ones. Considering Phoebe is still a widow in half mourning, the golden meringue monstrosity she's wearing on this cover seems deeply inappropriate (if not as bad as half undone, pastel pink tulle nightmare that the cover model wears on the cover of Cold Hearted Rake, where the heroine is a widow whose husband JUST died. She literally wears full black throughout the whole book!) Also inappropriate for a proper widow and mother of two is this lady's unpinned hair, which appears to be part tentacle - so when I feel this is the best cover of the series so far, it is not complimentary in the slightest to the four previous books.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

#CBR11 Book 11: "The Girl Who Drank the Moon" by Kelly Barnhill

Page count: 400 pages
Ratin: 4.5 stars

Because tradition dicatates it, each year on a certain day, the council of elders in the Protectorate take an infant and leave it in the woods as a sacrifice to the witch. Bad things will happen to the settlement if they don't (although no one is really clear what dire consequences there will be, because there has never been a time when they didn't place a child in the woods). Normally, the grieving family whose child has been selected meekly go along with the council's edict, but one year, the infant's mother rages, screams and tries to fight back (can't say I blame her). She's locked away in a tower, run by sinister nuns. Antain is a young apprentice elder, and he is deeply discomfited by the whole thing. Eventually, he quits the council and becomes a carpenter instead.

Xan, the witch in the woods, travels to the same spot in the woods each year, to pick up the poor, abandoned child left there. She feeds the babies starlight and finds them good homes in the cities on the other side of the forest, far away from the Protectorate. These star children are always deeply cherished and go on to lead especially successful lives. This one year, she's a bit late, and flustered, she feeds the baby moonlight instead of starlight. Moonlight gives the recipient magical power, and before Xan has a chance to rectify it, little Luna (as she names the girl) is clearly brimming with magical potential. Because of the accident, Xan can't give Luna up to another family and takes it upon herself to raise the girl herself. Aided by Glerk, a pessimistic, yet very poetic bog monster and Fyrian, a tiny, hyperactive dragon, she does her best to teach Luna, while hoping that she can prepare her properly for her magical gifts, that are likely to come bursting forth around puberty.

As Luna happily grows older in Xan's care, her mother sits locked up in a tower in the Protectorate, making elaborate birds from paper she seems to conjure out of nothing, longing for her lost child. Antain, horribly scarred after a meeting with the madwoman, becomes a very successful carpenter, marries and gets his own child. However, the Protectorate tradition has marked his unborn baby the next to be left in the woods. Antain decides he has to track down the witch and stop her once and for all.

This book has already been reviewed a bunch of times by other Cannonballers, and as far as I can tell, they all really loved it. That's because this is an absolutely wonderful middle grade book, which I would have adored if it had been available to me growing up. It's a different kind of fairy tale, and subverts the reader's expectations several times throughout the story. I loved the way magic seems to work in the story, and the way the story slowly unfolded, giving little glimpses of important backstory portioned out along the way, so it took quite some time to understand the whole picture.

I loved the found family of Xan, who end up raising Luna, despite being really rather unprepared for the task of bringing up a very magically gifted child. I felt immense sympathy for poor Luna's mother and think I may also have been driven utterly mad had someone stolen my child away from me. I was very glad when they were eventually reunited, even as I ached for all the years they had lost.

I saw a Goodreads review that complained that while there are a number of interesting and powerful women in this story, all the male characters are utter buffoons. I'm not entirely sure what book that person has read, because that is not my experience here at all. Yes, there are some male characters that are stupid, but others who are very heroic and capable, if misinformed for parts of the story.

This book won the Newberry Medal in 2017, as well as several others, plus it was nominated for a bunch it didn't win. It's a lovely story, which while sad at times, has a proper and satisfying resolution. I can't wait for my son to be old enough to read it for himself.

Judging a book by its cover: Such a sweet book, such a lovely cover. I love everything about it, from the glowing paper birds, to the tiny dragon, to the giant moon with the dynamic little girl in front of it. If I recall correctly, the cover is one of the reasons I wanted to pick up this book in the first place.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.