The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

Book–Henry “Monty” Montague, bisexual teenager and soon-to-be British lord, is a drunk disappointment to his abusive father. His last hurrah before descending into the doldrums of running the estate at his father’s side is his grand tour, the trip around the European continent that many young male aristocrats take to shore up overseas alliances and soak up some culture. Monty is not interested in alliances or culture; he’s interested in (read: has a massive crush on) his traveling companion, his biracial best friend Percy, and in getting drunk and laid as much as possible. Monty’s tour gets hijacked by his father sending along his sharp-tongued little sister Felicity and, even worse, a chaperone to keep Monty on a strict itinerary. However, when Monty swipes a MacGuffin from one of his father’s allies and highwaymen ransack their carriage to get it back, their tour takes a sharp turn toward adventure, complete with alchemy, pirates, and even true love.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is so darn much fun. Monty, Percy, and Felicity are all such well-drawn characters with great dialog and relationships with each other. While each of the characters has some darkness and secrets in them, the overall tone is optimistic. If I had any complaint about this book, it’s that it felt too modern. Monty’s coolness with his bisexuality (and conception of it as such) among other things seems anachronistic and is not entirely explained away by the Author’s Note at the end. If you enjoy this one, you might also like the Doctrine of Labyrinths series by Sarah Monette for a darker, more complex take on an adventuring and queer romance story or Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda if you were into it for the character dynamics and romance, but not the adventure.

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

Book – The summer of 1976 is the hottest in recent memory, and Mrs. Creasy has disappeared from the Avenue.  Grace and Tillie, both aged ten, are determined to get to the bottom of the case, but secrets run deep in their little suburb, and the more they investigate the mystery, the further they find themselves drawn into their community’s shared and troubling past–all starting with the long-ago disappearance of a little girl.

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep is a hard book to categorize; it doesn’t really fit well into any type of mystery I know.  It doesn’t feature much actual detective work, and while we the readers learn the full story of What Happened through flashbacks, most of the characters do not.  As such, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep might better be considered as a work of literary fiction or coming-of-age story with mystery elements.

I think that my own vague feeling of letdown at the end of the book was a result of trying to force it to fit a more traditional mystery mold, but the fact that I made it to the end at all is evidence of its good points.  The author’s voice is compelling, and the novel’s themes are deep, exploring community, memory, scapegoating and the ways that fear and guilt can twist human behavior.  As a fan of ensemble stories, I enjoyed the large cast of complex and not-always-likeable characters.  As a whole, I found it a sufficiently intriguing debut novel to have hope for the author’s sophomore outing.

Dark Angel (2016)

TV – Do you remember beloved and loyal Anna from Downton Abbey?  This time Joanne Froggart plays a very different character. Mary Ann Cotton was one of Britain’s most notorious and prolific serial killers, believed to have murdered over 20 people in Victorian England. Mary Ann, who became known as the ‘Dark Angel”, just wanted to get ahead of life, escaping the poverty of the coal fields and the hardships of a miner’s family. She did back breaking work, but never earned enough to enjoy the fruits of her labor.  Desperate, she discovered the benefits of life insurance and the effects of arsenic, especially when dispensed in a “nice cup of tea”. She became an expert at poisoning by mimicking the ailments of that time, such as cholera and typhoid fever.  Despite her pre-meditated planning, it’s hard for the viewer not to empathize with her situation – she was abused, hungry, lived in filthy and dangerous environments. She gave birth to 13 children and had four husbands of which it was believed that she murdered 11 0f her children and four of her husbands. In 1873, she was arrested, tried, and hanged for poisoning her stepson. She never admitted to any of the murders.

This is a fascinating Masterpiece Theater Production of a woman whose victims outnumbered even the notorious Jack the Ripper.

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Book – “What’s your favorite book?” is a cruel and unusual question to ask any librarian, but when absolutely forced to give an answer, Good Omens is where I tend to land.  In an effort to keep this review from getting too gushing, then, I’m going to try to focus more on comparisons than description, because allowing me near superlatives in this case is a dangerous prospect.  Let me just give the basics on plot–namely, it’s a humorous take on the Apocalypse (no, really)–and hurry from there to the land of “you’ll like this if”.

The obvious ones first: if you already enjoy the solo work of either Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett, then Good Omens is unquestionably worth your time.  Even though it was written before the explosion of the internet and the resulting acceleration of mashup culture, it’s a perfect example of the kind of textual remixing that both writers did and do so well, deconstructing classic stories and themes and rebuilding them into something fresh and self-aware.  It has all of Sir Terry’s boundless humor (and footnotes!) and sudden moments of profound emotional insight, with Gaiman’s unpretentious lyricism and finger on the pulse of the collective unconscious, and it reads so seamlessly that it’s impossible to tell that it comes from two different authors.

But you by no means need to already be a fan of either writer to love Good Omens; it was the first thing I read of either of theirs, and I was hooked from page one.  If you already love Douglas Adams, Monty Python, Eddie Izzard or Christopher Moore, you’re a shoe-in; Good Omens is all about that same irreverent sense of humor.  It’s a great choice, too, for fans of Roald Dahl or Ray Bradbury or  Kurt Vonnegut, sharing their sometimes dark yet deeply compassionate lens on humanity.  It’s for fantasy and sci-fi fans, but for humor fans too.  It’s for the reader who wants a quick read that deserves to be called ‘light’ yet tackles big themes and doesn’t shy away from emotional impact.  It’s for pretty much anybody who doesn’t mind allowing humor and religion to mix (never, in my opinion, in a way that mocks anyone or their beliefs).  And it is–to allow myself just the one moment of gushing–an absolute, unqualified delight.

Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella

Book–Becky Bloomwood is a reluctant financial journalist with a dirty secret:  she can’t stop spending money. Despite harassment from creditors, Becky cannot resist the siren song of shiny new things, particularly clothes, to the point where she invents a dying aunt to justify borrowing money to buy a new scarf. She tries spending less money (and fails), tries making more money (and fails), and even tries marrying rich. The fun of this novel comes from watching Becky squirm; she has a knack for getting herself into sticky, embarrassing situations reminiscent of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones and is a delightfully flawed character who with a distinctive and strong narrative voice. As long as you don’t take it too seriously, Confessions of a Shopaholic is chick lit at its light, airy, and compulsively readable best.

If you like this book because of the fashion focus, you’ll also love The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger (and its sequel), the Haley Randolph series by Dorothy Howell (start with Handbags and Homicide), and the rest of the Shopaholic series. If you’d have liked this one better if only Becky weren’t so darn shallow, try some of Rainbow Rowell’s books, like Attachments, or A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan.

 

 

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Book – My favorite kinds of mysteries are the ones that play games with your expectations – things like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – so I was intrigued by the description of Anthony Horowitz’s new novel. It’s a murder mystery inside a murder mystery: Alan Conway, author of the bestselling Atticus Pünd series of whodunnits, committed suicide just after turning in his latest manuscript. Except that the manuscript is missing the last chapter, and Susan Ryeland, one of his editors, thinks he didn’t commit suicide at all. The first half of the book is Magpie Murders, the final Atticus Pünd novel; the second half is Susan’s investigation into Conway’s death. (Don’t worry; you do get to read the final chapter in the end.)

Horowitz is a bestselling author and screenwriter in the UK – he’s a co-creater of the longrunning TV show Midsomer Murders – but despite his two excellent Sherlock Holmes novels, he’s not as well known here. He does a terrific job with both mysteries in Magpie Murders, Pünd’s classic whodunnit set in the 1950s and Susan’s modern, genre-savvy investigation in the modern day. Readers who love the puzzle aspect of mysteries but who are turned off by the violence and heavy reliance on forensics in modern thrillers will love this unique novel.

Awake by Natasha Preston

22881022Book – Scarlett Garner remembers nothing about her life before the age of four. She accepts what her parents tell her, that she lost it from the trauma of seeing her childhood home burn down. That is, until a horrible car crash brings back a lot of her memories and she struggles to find out who she really is, but the consequences of finding out just might kill her. Enter Noah, a charming and charismatic new boy at her school who vows to help her remember her past. But Noah isn’t all he seems… Could a pretty face be hiding something even darker than Scarlett’s own worse demons?

Awake is a great quick read and full of plot twists on every page. Awake will have you up until just the wee early hours of the morning drinking it up. Natasha has an amazing, original plot line that hasn’t been seen in a very long time. Awake started out as a book on the popular writing platform Wattpad, and quickly grew into something a lot bigger. With over 19.1 million reads this is one of my all time favorites.

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

indexBook – Miranda is a troubled young woman; she has pica, the compulsion to eat things that are not food, and rejects her pastry-chef father’s attempts to get her to eat normally. Her mother, a photographer, died while on a trip to Haiti, and Miri hasn’t been the same since. Her twin brother wants to help but doesn’t know how, especially when she’s accepted to Cambridge and he’s not. The house they live in, their great-grandmother’s house, wants to keep Miranda at any cost, which is not the same as protecting her. When Miranda brings home her Black girlfriend from college, the thin barrier separating the reality of the house from the reality of the rest of their lives starts to slip.

Although this was a short book, it took me a while to read; there’s a lot to digest (pardon the pun). It has a lot to say about the prejudices we inherit, and how hard it is to shed them; and the things we’ll do to keep ourselves in (what we perceive to be) safety. Try this if you like The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, another story about insane houses and troubled women.

The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham

a-1-black-dudleyBook – I have a fundamental problem with the term ‘cozy mystery’.  I agree that it’s a useful term to distinguish the darker, faster-paced, harder-edged tone of a thriller like Gone Girl from an all-ages mystery puzzler like the marvelously re-readable Westing Game.  It seems patronizing, however, to imply that there is anything remotely ‘cozy’ about the slow-burn psychological horror of stories featuring protagonists trapped in increasing danger, like Christie’s terrifying And Then There Were None or J. Jefferson Farjeon’s pleasingly creepy Mystery in White.

For the same reason, I would hesitate to label The Crime at the Black Dudley–the first book in Margery Allingham’s classic Campion series–as a ‘cozy’.  Yes, it’s written by one of the Queens of mystery’s Golden Age, and yes, it features an eccentric amateur sleuth in an English country house.  But it’s also a story about a group of innocents, and one unknown murderer, locked in a remote house by a gang of international thugs, in the company of their dead host, facing increasing and violent pressure to hand over a document which one of the party has already destroyed.  It’s a nightmarish (if over the top) scenario, and Allingham skillfully milks the claustrophobia of the situation for all it’s worth.  The story is wonderfully told in other respects as well, like the fact that the narrator, an undercover policeman, turns out not to be the one who saves the day; Allingham intended him to be the star of her series, but Peter Wimsey caricature Albert Campion unexpectedly stole the show instead.

The Crime at the Black Dudley was a great find hidden away in our stacks, a reminder of the manifold delights of cozy mysteries–or whatever you might want to call them.

The Gentleman by Forrest Leo

6174e2-23JL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Book – Sometimes, it’s easy to know from the outset whether a book will be a good fit or not.  Such is the case with The Gentlemen, a book about a vain Victorian poet who meets the Devil at a masquerade ball, accidentally sells his wife’s soul in exchange for poetic inspiration and consequently launches an expedition (peopled by his bluff adventuring brother-in-law, his scandalous sister, a shy mad scientist and a stalwart butler) to Hell to retrieve her.  If that premise sounds as delightful to you as it did to me, you’ll love the book; if not, don’t bother.  Simple as that.

Forrest Leo’s language in The Gentleman is perfectly Victorian, his parodistic humor is spot-on for the absurd, over-the-top story he’s looking to tell, and the steampunk elements of his universe are used sparingly and well.  While reading, there was a moment when I feared I would feel cheated by the ending, but I was happily mistaken in that.  If I had to quibble, I wouldn’t have minded a little more swashbuckling action.  Overall, however, The Gentleman was a delightfully silly, light, fast-paced, fun first novel, with a great and original premise, from a clearly talented young writer.  I can’t wait to see what he writes next!