Posts Categorized: Review

Mystery review: The Shadow at Greystone Chase by Clara Benson

December 31, 2015 Review 0

The tenth and final outing in the Angela Marchmont series of murder mysteries set in the twenties. Most of the books of this series can be read independently of each other, but this one is the exception: it follows on almost directly from The Scandal at 23 Mount Street and has many spoilers for that story, so if you haven’t read the ninth book yet, read on at your peril.

After the sombre courtroom drama of the previous book, things are almost back to normal here, with ladylike amateur sleuth Angela and her aristocratic reporter sidekick Freddy investigating a murder from several years ago. But it isn’t quite normal, because the murder in question is the wife of Angela’s love interest, jewel thief Edgar Valencourt. And because she feels guilty about the events of book nine, she agrees to try.

The mystery isn’t particularly complicated. I guessed the identity of the murderer, and most of the reasons, within about five minutes. I also spotted some important clues along the way. That doesn’t make it any less interesting or enjoyable to watch the story unfold, and see Angela and Freddy circle closer and closer to the truth. This is, in many ways, a classic country-house murder mystery, with all sorts of family secrets lurking behind the wealthy exterior.

But to be honest, the murder isn’t the focus of this one, so much as the ramifications of the previous book, the weight of guilt and decisions made and actions taken which can never be undone. So there is a heavier tone than in some of the earlier books, and an all-pervading sadness. So can the author wrap things up and bring not just this mystery but the whole series to a satisfying conclusion? Of course she can!

This was another wonderful read, and although (like the previous book) it suffered a little from the backstory-heavy plot, I can’t in all conscience give it less than five stars. And for anyone wondering about the creator of the Angela Marchmont mysteries, you will find a little more information about the reclusive Clara Benson at the end of the book.

A brief word about the series as a whole. They say that many series take several books to establish themselves, and so it is here. The first book, The Murder at Sissingham Hall, is quite slow, and features Angela only as a side character, an odd stylistic choice. The second book, The Mystery of Underwood House, is much more readable, and I’d almost say you could start the series here without losing anything. By book 3, The Treasure at Poldarrow Point, things are beginning to pick up and the humour is finally showing through. By book 5, The Imbroglio at Villa Pozzi, the writing reaches glorious heights of charm, and this and book 6, The Problem at Two Tithes, are among my favourite reads of the year. The rest of the series is magnificent. Highly recommended for fans of cozies and Agatha Christie-style country-house murders.

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Mystery review: The Scandal at 23 Mount Street by Clara Benson

December 31, 2015 Review 0

The ninth and penultimate outing in the Angela Marchmont series of murder mysteries set in the twenties is a complete change of pace. After the light-hearted, almost flippant, tone of the last few books, suddenly life takes a very grave turn for Angela, when her past comes back to haunt her and she has a fight for her very life on her hands.

The mystery this time isn’t so much in whodunit, which is almost incidental, but how on earth Angela is going to get out of the mess she’s in. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler if I say that I never doubted that she would get out of it, but even though I guessed something of how it would go, there was a surprise in store at the end. In fact, there were a lot of revelations about the past, although one of them I’d guessed a while back.

This wasn’t the riotous entertainment of some of the previous books – the tone was too sombre for that. Angela makes some difficult choices in this book, and the very different plot meant that the writing style felt a little denser than usual. However, the courtroom scenes were very well done, Angela’s friends rose to the occasion splendidly, and the biggest reveal of the lot was suitably dramatic. I can’t honestly say I enjoyed this as much as the earlier books – it was too traumatic for that – but the constant tension kept me on the edge of my seat, I tore through it in record time and I very much liked the way it ended [*], so that’s another five stars and straight on to the tenth and final book in the series.

[*] The reported tragedy near the end? Nope. Don’t believe that for one second.

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Mystery review: The Trouble at Wakeley Court by Clara Benson

December 31, 2015 Review 0

The eighth outing in the Angela Marchmont series of murder mysteries set in the twenties sees our heroine drawn into her most preposterous case yet, as a foreign princess is threatened with assassination at the private girls’ school attended by Angela’s god-daughter, Barbara. I won’t attempt to describe the plot – let’s just say it’s convoluted, and leave it at that.

I’m pleased to report that I guessed the identity of the villain right from the start here, but it didn’t hamper my enjoyment in the slightest. For those who enjoy boarding school stories, complete with middle-of-the-night chases across the lawn, creeping about with torches in the attic and teachers who are not all they seem, this will be right up your alley. I particularly enjoyed the games mistress’ robust attitude towards dealing with intruders.

Angela solves the case, as usual, and all the loose ends are neatly resolved. This one wasn’t quite as laugh-out-loud funny as the previous outing, but still very enjoyable. Five stars.

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Pauline’s self-published gems of 2015

December 31, 2015 Review 3

This is the third year running that I’ve cobbled together a list of self-published gems from my reading over the year. For anyone who’s not tried self-published books before, it can be difficult to find quality reading among the morass of poorly-edited and derivative junk out there. I’ve learned to be very selective about what I spend time on, but even so, there are still a lot of not terribly good books around.

BUT if you look carefully, there are plenty of gems around. The best self-published books bring a freshness and vitality to their genres that make them a delight to read. These are some that I loved wholeheartedly.

PART 1: FANTASY:

The Proving series: Marina Finlayson

Urban fantasy at its best – dragons and a whole panoply of shifters, a heroine who’s a mother of a young son (a refreshing change from the usual teenage kickass protagonist), a setting in Sydney, Australia, and a wonderful line in dry Aussie humour. Oh yes, and non-stop action right the way through the trilogy. All 3 books are now published; start with Twiceborn. My review.

 

Daughter of the Wildings series: Kyra Halland

This is a Western fantasy romance series, with a pair of charmingly old-fashioned main characters, some intriguing magic and plenty of no-holds-barred wizard-battles. Great fun. 5 parts of the 6-book series published so far; start with Beneath The Canyons. My review.

 

 

The Living Throne: H Anthe Davis

I’ve been raving about the War of Memory series ever since I discovered the first in the series, The Light of Kerrindryr. Industrial-strength world-building, compelling characters and a vivid style of story-telling that verges on horror in places, this is epic fantasy in every sense. The Living Throne is the third of the series, with more to come. My review.

 

 

White Blood: Angela Holder

An unusual book, in many ways. Firstly, it’s a stand-alone. Then, it’s about a wet-nurse, that unsung heroine of history, who fed and essentially raised the sons and daughters of noble houses. And thirdly, it features an unusual kind of blood magic, intertwined with the religious system. There is a lot of detail about breast-feeding and small babies in general, but if you don’t mind that, you’ll be rewarded with a charming story with solid world-building, plenty of dramatic action in the second half, and a perfectly judged romantic ending. My review.

Echoes of Imara series: Claire Frank

Another series for fans of true epic fantasy, with gloriously detailed world-building, a large cast-list and spectacular wizardy battles. Unusually, the two main protagonists are a happily-married couple, which I found refreshingly different, especially as it’s the husband who gets himself kidnapped and the wife who has to set out to rescue him. Two parts already published, a third due out soon; start with To Whatever End. My review.

 

Theft and Sorcery series: Erica Dakin

A little bit different: a sexy romance involving half-elves, this series started as a frivolous bonk-a-thon, and ended up as something much more interesting, with the third book of the series, The Coup, having a finely-wrought political plot and some interesting world-building going on in the background. A series that gets better with each book. But be warned: there’s a lot of graphic sex and robust language. My review.

 

Watersmeet: Rachel Cotterill

A pleasant, if undemanding, read, less action-filled than a lot of fantasy, but with intriguing world-building, some terrific characters and enough surprises in the plot twists and turns to keep me happy. One of those books that’s very satisfying without being ostentatious. The first of a series, but I’m hoping for more to flesh out the details of the setting. My review.

 

 

PART 2: NON-FANTASY:

See You: Dawn Lee McKenna

This is an extraordinary book. I cried almost all the way through, yet I couldn’t put it down. Actually, I laughed almost as much as I cried. It’s a love story, and no, that’s not a euphemism for romance, this really is a story about love. And not your conventional couple, either. Jack was raised by his best friend’s mother, Miss Margret, and returned every year to visit her and her granddaughter, Emma Lee. When Miss Margret died, the visits stopped but now Jack’s back, and finds Emma Lee still living in the same house, and raising her own daughter. Jack has some secrets to share, but Emma has a secret of her own – she’s been in love with him since she was a child. And that doesn’t even begin to convey the atmosphere, the depth of the characters and the sheer wonder of this book. Please read it. My review.

The Angela Marchmont series: Clara Benson

A 10-book murder mystery series, set in – or rather, steeped in – the twenties, which brilliantly evokes the atmosphere of the times. The opening story is a little wobbly, but the author soon settles down, the characters come to life and the gentle humour and charm are quite wonderful. Recommended for fans of Agatha Christie. Start with The Murder at Sissingham Hall. My review.

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Mystery review: ‘The Problem at Two Tithes’ by Clara Benson

December 20, 2015 Review 0

Another bundle of fun in the Angela Marchmont series of murder mysteries set in the twenties. This is the seventh, and the author is absolutely on top form. After the wonderful outing in Italy in The Imbroglio at the Villa Pozzi, here we are back in the heart of England, at the very respectable village home of Angela’s brother, Sir Humphrew Cardew and his wife Elisabeth, two of the most pompous, stuffy and dull people imaginable. They disapprove of Angela and everything about her, and although she sets out not to ruffle their feathers, naturally she can’t help getting into trouble almost immediately.

The village setting, and the murder that takes place against a backdrop of the village fete, is redolent of Midsomer Murders, or perhaps the Miss Marple series of Agatha Christie. There are eccentric characters in abundance – an elderly lady on a bicycle, the gossipy vicar’s wife and so on. Angela’s aristocratic reporter pal, Freddy, turns up, as well, together with an even more outrageous reporter from a rival newspaper, who proceeds to trample all over the case, and, when facts are in short supply, makes things up. And then there’s the brother’s mother-in-law, who isn’t quite the meek little old lady she appears to be.

The local police are augmented by Inspector Jameson, but even so, it takes Angela’s determination to solve the case. However, as usual in this series, the murder takes second place to the characters and the little side-stories which are so cleverly woven into the story, such as the sister seemingly about to marry a very dull man for lack of other options, and Angela’s maid trying to find out what, exactly, her mistress got up to in Italy. And the humour, of course. The Cardews are perhaps my favourites for laughs here, but with Freddy, the rival reporter, the old lady and the vicar’s wife, I was entertained from beginning to end. And a charming little romance, as well. An excellent five stars.

 

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Mystery review: ‘The Imbroglio at the Villa Pozzi’ by Clara Benson

December 18, 2015 Review 0

Good grief, that was the most amazing fun. The sixth Angela Marchmont amateur detective series, set in the twenties, sees Angela holidaying in Italy, tangling with spiritualists and meeting an old acquaintance, a certain jewel thief by the name of Edgar Valencourt, last seen charming Angela in The Treasure at Poldarrow Point, book 3 of the series. I always hoped he’d turn up again, but his reappearance was even better than I could have imagined.

The mystery this time is nothing terribly convoluted, but I enjoyed trying to puzzle it out, getting it wrong and watching Angela resolve everything with an airy wave of her hand. But the murder takes a back seat to the characters, and their personal lives. The mysterious Duchessa, for example, who pops up from time to time. The fidgety English clergyman and his long-suffering wife. The almost-convincing medium and the daughter who ‘sees’ things. Even the Italian hotelier and the relaxed ask-no-questions local policeman. All of them feel very real, and the author has cleverly resisted the temptation to resort to caricatures or stereotypes.

But for me the big attraction is Mr Valencourt. He’s a charmer, of course, but then, he’s a con-man, so that goes with the territory, and Angela should know better than to fall under his spell. She does know better, in fact, but somehow she can’t resist him, and he can’t resist her either, even though she knows his criminal background and could give him away. And oh so gently they circle around each other. Their conversations are an absolute delight, every scene sparkling with wit and charm and affection, in a manner completely lost in modern-style books where the romantic couple simply dive into bed together. I loved it.

This book was a joy to read. Italy was the perfect setting, the mystery was plausible, the characters were entertaining and the romance – oh, the romance! If Mrs Marchmont and Mr Valencourt don’t make a match of it eventually, I shall be sorely disappointed. Although Mr Marchmont would seem to be something of an obstacle.

This series just gets better and better. Five stars. At least.

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Urban fantasy review: ‘Twiceborn Endgame’ by Marina Finlayson

December 11, 2015 Review 0

This is the third part of the Proving Trilogy, and there were big reveals in the first two parts which it’s difficult to avoid mentioning in this review. If you haven’t read them yet and don’t want to spoil the surprise, don’t read on.

Werewolves are part of my unholy trinity – along with vampires and zombies – which I will NOT read about, no matter what. Or so I thought. But this is the series that made me love werewolves. Who’d a thunk it? But then this is an unusual urban fantasy in many ways. The main character, Kate, isn’t a badass teenage girl snarking her way through life, and doing nothing but drool over the hot blokes. She’s the mother of a young boy, and heaven knows that makes a refreshing change. Now, there’s a certain amount of snark (she’s Australian, so that goes with the territory), and there’s a little drooling too, it has to be said. But Kate has her priorities sorted, and her son Lachie is at the top of the list.

Kate spent the first book of the series working out what was going on, and trying to survive the Proving, a fight to the death between daughters of the current dragon queen – last one standing gets to inherit the crown. Kate doesn’t want to be queen, but wants to be dead even less, so in the second book she stepped up to the plate to take on her sisters, and her mother. But Finlayson is a demon with those unexpected twists – just when you think Kate must surely be safe, some new and terrifying disaster hits. And at the end of book 2, she’s blindsided by new revelations, to set things up brilliantly for this book.

But Kate isn’t the passive I-want-to-be-human weakling she was at the start of the trilogy. Previously, she’s turned to her dragon-side as a last resort – to save her son, for instance – but now she fully embraces her dragon nature, and truly takes on the role of leader. And yet she never forgets her human side, either, and that’s a difference that gives her a unique advantage, both physically and psychologically.

This book felt slightly less frenetic than the previous two, but that’s partly because Kate is more in charge now, and taking control of her life. Even so, there are still plenty of twists and turns along the way, and the action rarely lets up. And just when you think everything is tied up with neat little bows, Finlayson has one last surprise up her sleeve, which I did NOT see coming. Finally, Kate’s romantic life reaches a resolution at last, and a very satisfactory one it is too.

Everything I look for in fantasy is right here – compelling characters, a fascinating premise and a plot that rattles along with a new surprise round every corner. Add in the author’s terrific writing style, a healthy dollop of Aussie humour and lots of dragons, not to mention werewolves and a whole raft of other shifters, and this is another five stars. I highly recommend the whole trilogy, and not just to urban fantasy fans.

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Georgette Heyer Regency Romance #1: ‘Regency Buck’

December 7, 2015 Georgette Heyer, Regency romances, Review 2

This is the first stage in my attempt to read (or reread) all of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances in the correct order. This was first published in 1935, and it shows. The writing style is high-flown Jane Austen, the backdrops are authentically drawn from the era, complete with famous characters, and the plot is squeezed in amongst all that historical accuracy. The characters have to play second fiddle, and the book suffers for it.

Judith Taverner and her brother Perry are orphans, seemingly abandoned by the guardian appointed by their father, the Earl of Worth. Undaunted, they set off for London to track down the Earl and establish themselves. And on the way there, they bump into (literally!) a most unpleasant character, haughty and supercilious, who treats them like dirt. And guess who their guardian turns out to be?

This was rather good fun, if you can overcome a natural distaste for a heroine who stubbornly does everything she’s told not to do, and a hero who arrogantly manipulates his wards without ever bothering to explain his reasoning. But the side characters were entertaining, the dialogue sparkled with wit and the mystery element of the plot was nicely done, even if there was never the slightest doubt in my mind about what was going on, and why, and by whom.

For fans of historical detail, there’s a veritable deluge of it here. If you want an exact description of the Prince Regent’s outlandish Brighton Pavilion, or a list of the coaching inns between London and Brighton, or the various shops and lending libraries for the well-heeled, or the types of snuff in use, look no further. And several famous people, including the Prince Regent himself and various of his brothers, play small but significant roles in the story. To my mind, so much regurgitated research got between me and the story, and by the end I was skipping the seemingly endless descriptions of furnishings and decoration.

The author has obviously been inspired by Jane Austen, specifically Pride and Prejudice, and I noticed many turns of phrase lifted almost wholesale from there, not to mention certain elements of the plot (the hasty journey to London to track down a missing character, for instance, very redolent of Mr Bennet haring off after Lydia, although in this case with no justification whatsoever). It made the prose a little heavy at times, but still readable.

On the whole, I quite enjoyed the story, and the characters didn’t bother me as much as they did some readers (there are some very disparaging reviews). However, it failed in two respects. The first is the time-honoured one: there would have been no plot at all if the main characters had just talked to each other. The argument for secrecy was never well-made, and the worst thing the hero did to the heroine (to my mind) was to allow her to think her brother was dead. That was cruel and unforgivable, and far worse than the snatched kiss or his consistent rudeness (because – aristocracy; arrogance goes with the territory).

The second failure was the romance. I don’t ask much of a book like this, because the journey is more important than the destination, but there should at least be a conviction in the reader that these two are meant for each other. And honestly, I never felt that here. They argued constantly, and not just sniping but quite forceful battles, and even their romantic rapprochement degenerated into an argument in double-quick time. I’m always happy to see two intelligent, spirited, self-confident souls get together, but this pair veered too far into the arrogant, self-willed and plain bloody-minded. I can’t imagine how they will manage as a married couple.

So despite this being an enjoyable read, well-written and set very much in the era, it still merits only three stars.

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Regency romance review: ‘Two Corinthians’ by Carola Dunn

December 4, 2015 Review 0

I love a good Regency romance, but I find it difficult to find any that aren’t dreadfully silly, and historically inaccurate to boot. I don’t expect every last detail to be perfect, but some things are terribly easy to check, like correct forms of address for the aristocracy, and it’s a great irritant when the author hasn’t even bothered. However, I have no such complaints here. There is a great deal of detail of clothing, and the language is riddled with contemporary cant, but it all felt very authentic. And while there is an outbreak of silliness at the end, it was forgivable.

The two Corinthians (men about town) of the title are George Winterbourne and Bertram Pomeroy. Bertram having lost the love of his life to George’s brother, is urged by his ailing father to marry soon. The suggestion is the elder Miss Sutton, Claire, eccentric and spinsterish at twenty eight, but suitable. George, meanwhile, becomes entangled with Claire and her lively younger sister, Lizzie, by chance, and enters into a pact with Lizzie: he will pretend to woo her to stop her dragonish mother from berating her.

So George is pretending to court Lizzie and Bertram is reluctantly courting Claire, and… well, we can see where this is going, can’t we? But even if the resolution is predictable, that’s not a fault in a book like this. It’s more about the journey than the destination, and here the journey is entertaining and unfolds gently and rather sweetly, with good behaviour on all sides.

There’s not much action, so those looking for highwaymen or pirates or spies should move swiftly on. Nor are there any outbreaks of uncontrollable lust. If you like Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, then this book is just the ticket. A pleasant, gentle read. Four stars.

A footnote: I didn’t realise it, but this book is actually a sequel to Miss Hartwell’s Dilemma. It made things a little confusing early on as the author skated rapidly over the backstory, but I soon got the hang of it. However, it’s probably a more enjoyable read if approached in the correct order.

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Mystery review: ‘The Incident at Fives Castle’ by Clara Benson

December 1, 2015 Review 0

The fifth twenties murder mystery in the Angela Marchmont series, this time set in a Scottish castle at Hogmanay, where a murder takes place while the occupants are cut off by snow. And wouldn’t you know it, but Angela is the one to discover the body (again).

This one was great fun. Spies, a missing scientist, hidden documents, secret meetings and lots of rushing about in the snow. And a whole ocean full of red herrings. I didn’t guess this one at all, but it didn’t matter, it was great fun watching the story unfold, Angela beetle about being helpful and Freddy get his nose (or his ear!) into everything. Since the American Ambassador was one of those present, we also learned a little bit more about Angela’s past, which, far from being illuminating, actually makes her even more mysterious. I’d love to know more about the not-spoken-of Mr Marchmont. I’d begun to think he was just a convenient fiction, but seemingly not.

Living in Scotland myself gives me the opportunity to chuckle at the author’s mistakes. It’s obvious Clara Benson never spent a Hogmanay in the Highlands. Even supposing Angela’s Bentley managed to make the border by mid-afternoon (a feat which would be quite impressive even today, with reliable cars and motorways, unless she lived a long way north already), its arrival at the castle in the Cairngorms before it was fully dark would be nothing short of miraculous. The sun sets at 3pm at that time of year, and the castle would be several hours’ drive north of the border. But it really doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t impact the plot at all.

The charm of these books is in the period setting, and the lives of the wealthy upper classes, very reminiscent of vintage Agatha Christie. There must be an army of servants, both indoor and outdoor, but they rarely get a mention, apart from Angela’s chauffeur and lady’s maid, and one or two references to the ‘men’ deployed to remove a fallen tree and clear snow. And it was wonderful how, in the midst of murder, political disaster and general mayhem, everyone still felt it necessary to dress for dinner and sit around in the drawing room making polite conversation about the weather. It reminded me of (I think) Murder on the Orient Express where one character is looking for some of the others and is told: it’s four o’clock, naturally the English passengers are all in the restaurant car having tea.

A light but very enjoyable read. A good four stars.

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