Bookish Gifts: Mystery Edition

I was about to begin another general Bookish Gifts posts (any excuse to window shop online), but suddenly I was searching for things with a certain detective novel theme. I think it is because I am in the middle of watching the latest Sherlock (don’t tell me what happens). Anyway, there’s something comforting in reading a mystery: you always find out who did it in the end, but you get to have fun guessing along the way. Nancy Drew was my gateway into reading, way back when. I will always have a soft spot for Agatha Christie and Dick Francis too. And of course I’m a fan of the modern-day screen adaptions of Sherlock Holmes (I like the movies, and both Elementary and Sherlock). What are your favorite mystery series?
bookish detective gifts 1
1. The Big Sleep and Murder at the Vicarage mugs (£8.95, AU$14.99, US$9.95) 2. Poirot Mustache stud earrings ($60) 3. Green Popular Penquins (AU$7.99-$9.95) 4. Detective Novel scented candle ($10) 5. Nancy Drew Drawer Pulls ($40) 6. Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson felt dolls ($80) – also available Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot ($45 ea).    7. Sherlock Holmes in The Hounds of the Baskervilles, a Baby Lit sound primer ($8.99)   8. Whodunnit applique pillow ($101.29) 9. 221B button ($2.56)
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10.  The Complete Sherlock Holmes box set ($59.99) 11. Nancy Drew Pillow Cover ($38 to $41, depending on size) 12. Hardy Boys Pillow Cover ($35 to $45, depending on size) 13. Crime Classics phone wallpaper (FREE) 14. Nancy Drew Girl Detective Doll ($149) – other versions available, see link. Also The Hardy Boys and Dick Tracy) 15. The Complete Adventures of Tintin (from about $100) 16. Red Herring Greeting Cards ($2.40 ea) 17. Nancy Drew Taxi Wallet ($49) 18. Question Mark Ring ($13) 19. Private Eye perfume oil ($15)
bookish detective gifts 3
20. The novelist & the detective (set of 6 pencils – $8) 21. Tiny gun necklace ($15) 22. Secret Message Writing set ($9.59) 23. Secret Decoder Ring, Pig Pen Cipher ($15) 24. White’s Books Fine Edition Sherlock Holmes: His Greatest Cases (from $23.82)  25. Pipe pin badge ($8.56) 26. Agatha Christie 1″ buttons (set of 10 for $11) 27. Nancy Drew with redesigned covers ($6.99 ea)

Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale


Midnight in Austenland
Shannon Hale

In Austenland, actors play courting gentlemen and cater to fantasies of Mr. Darcy and other Austeneque heroes for rich female customers. Austenland was about a reporter working on a story about this place, and I enjoyed it, so I was excited to see that Shannon Hale was releasing a follow-up, Midnight in Austenland. This is a review based on an eARC copy.
The Premise: Charlotte is a nice and practical woman who is also rather clever. She has two children, a nice husband, and a flush retirement account, thanks to her business sense. Then her husband James became not-so-nice. He slowly pulls away from their marriage until one day, Charlotte finds herself divorced, older, and a little bit lost. With her kids staying with their father and his new wife for three weeks over the summer, Charlotte decides to book a vacation. Admitting to the travel agent that she’d love to be in an Austen novel, Charlotte finds herself with a booking at the exclusive Austenland.
Unfortunately for Charlotte, she can’t stop her clever mind from chugging along. Worrying about her kids is driving her crazy, so instead she focuses on the people around her. Wondering if Miss Gardenside’s sickness is real or feigned, what is stressing out Mrs. Wattlesbrook, and if Mr. Mallery is sexy or sinister keeps Charlotte busy until she discovers a dead body. At least, she thinks that’s what it was, but she can’t prove it. Suddenly everything and everyone in Austenland is suspect.
My Thoughts: Charlotte is a very likable heroine –  successful in her online landscaping business, a protective mother, and just a little bit of a over-thinker (in an endearing way). For a long time, she felt her husband moving away from her, but no matter what she did to try to mend their marriage, nothing worked.  I felt for her as the only person trying, while James had already checked out. When she finds herself single again, her self-consciousness about not knowing what to do with herself. She worries about what the divorce will do to her teenage daughter and her young son, and she tries to date (and fails miserably). Even in Austenland, where Charlotte can pretend that she’s someone else, she realizes that she can’t stop being the person she is.
So to distract herself from her usual worries, Charlotte begins to look at the guests and actors she’s surrounded by in Austenland. These characters are sketched quickly but distinctly.  The gentlemen/actors courting the three guests are her friendly pretend brother, Mr. Edmund Grey (Eddie), the affable Colonel Andrews, and the dark and broody Mr. Mallery.  The guests: repeat visitor Miss Charming, the sickly Miss Gardenside (who Charlotte recognizes as a pop singer her daughter adores), and her nurse, Mrs. Hatchet.  Then there is household staff, including Charlotte’s lady’s maid, Mary. And finally Mr and Mrs. Wattlesbrook, the owners of Austenland. With all these personalities before her, and with the parlor mysteries that Colonel Andrews devises, Charlotte has plenty keep her imagination going. That is, until one of the games takes a dark turn and the story becomes less about Charlotte on vacation and more about Charlotte solving a mystery.
Because of this mystery, Midnight in Austenland was a very different story than Austenland. If Austenland is chick lit with shades of Pride and Prejudice, Midnight in Austenland is a suspense-comedy reminiscent of Northanger Abbey.  Charlotte’s thought process is a funny thing, and she can’t decide at first if she really felt a dead body or not. Was it part of the game? Was it her imagination? Or was it a man’s corpse? There’s no way to say for sure until she gets to the bottom of things, so she uses her clever mind to investigate. In the meantime, Charlotte finds herself extremely aware of the dark and mysterious Mr. Mallery (and the feeling appears mutual). This is a man so at home in Austenland, Charlotte can’t imagine him anywhere else. If Mr. Mallery is the bad boy of the place, Eddie, her ‘brother’, is the nice guy.  While Mallery exudes danger, Eddie is safety, even if Eddie seems to treat Charlotte’s strange behavior as a joke or product of his ‘sister’s’ overactive imagination.
This is a fun romp with some humor and suspense, and an interesting cast of characters. I enjoyed that Charlotte was not the typical chick lit heroine (twenty-something young working girl), but a older, divorced suburban mom with a brain she can’t stop from churning. But it’s also not a story with huge surprises. It’s clear early on who is behind things and who Charlotte should be with. The mix of the Gothic mystery in the modern day makes the story humorous for some, possibly too farcical for others. For those who want a romance, the mystery leaves less room for the relationship to develop. This also felt like a really short book. Now, my nook has 189 pages for the eARC, while the publisher says the hardcover is 288. Maybe my ARC is missing some scenes added on later? I enjoyed what was there, but it all ended a little quickly for me.
Overall: Charming but not what I expected. Don’t expect this to be your typical chick lit or to be the same type of book as Austenland was. This is more Northanger Abbey than it is Pride and Prejudice, but it was a nice little romp. I wished for a little more romance and a little less farce, but I also went into this book expecting something in the same vein as Austenland. If I hadn’t had this expectation, I think I would have fared better. If I reread this book knowing what I now know, I’d like it more.
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
Other reviews:
Searched but didn’t find reviews within my blogging friends circle. Let me know if I missed you and I will link your review here.

Unraveling Isobel by Eileen Cook

Unraveling Isobel
Eileen Cook

This is a review of an eARC obtained through GalleyGrab.
The Premise: When Isobel’s mother meets a man on the internet and marries him three months later, “appalled” doesn’t begin to cover Isobel’s reaction, especially since it means uprooting in her senior year and moving into his creepy estate. Isobel misses her friends, finds her step-father Richard smarmy, and her gorgeous new step-brother Nathaniel hates her. Then weird things start to happen and Isobel begins to think she has bigger problems: either her she’s seeing ghosts, or she’s starting to show signs of the schizophrenia that runs in her family.
My Thoughts: Isobel is a grumpy teen narrator, who has nothing but snark when it comes to describing the adults around her.  Next to her mother’s sunny, somewhat oblivious outlook on her new life, Isobel is a dark little cloud, and she recounts her mom’s new marriage and their move to Nairne Island with an amusing lack of enthusiasm.  I understand that can be a very fine line between sounding like a typical teen questioning authority and sounding like a snotty brat, but for me, Isobel comes down on the right side of that line because of the adults around her. The biggest red flag is one that we get practically on page one: Richard (Isobel’s stepfather) had a wife and daughter who died seven months ago.  Isobel’s mother seems willing to overlook this, focusing more on her new marriage as a chance to remake herself with little thought to Isobel’s feelings on the matter.
Yes, this is a book with Bad Parents. On one hand, this trope works here because without Isobel’s parents’ choices, there would be no story. We wouldn’t read about Isobel’s trials and tribulations on Nairne, including a stint trying to fit in at school with the popular crowd, or her run-ins with Nathaniel, the other teen in the same dysfunctional boat. On the other hand, their characterization was very convenient to the story. Isobel’s mother was incredibly unaware while Richard was just so self-serving.  While I wished for some more depth to Isobel’s mother and step-father, at least their interactions with Isobel rang true, especially between Isobel and her mother.
Isobel and her time adjusting to her new life felt realistic, and the mystery/ psychological thriller aspect of the story was seamlessly interwoven into it. At one moment, Isobel may be calling her best friend to rant about her new life, the next she is having a strange experience that she can’t explain. Things begin to appear in her room which her mother and step-father insist are put there by Isobel herself. She doesn’t know if they are right and begins to investigate the house while fearing for her own sanity.  This felt like a modern version of a Gothic thriller complete with the haunted mansion and secrets in the attic, but it was a very simple story without any huge, surprising twists in the plot. I think the biggest strength was the interesting mix of the Gothic, psychological element with the modern teenage voice.
The problem I think was that the story didn’t feel like it went far enough. The beginning was very promising, but by the end I wanted more to Isobel’s adjustment to school and her relationship with her step-brother, and at the same time, I wanted more on the mystery of what Isobel was seeing in her new house. These two plots began with great promise but took a very safe and ultimately very bland route. I never really feared that Isobel was sinking into madness, and there was no real mystery of who the bad guy was. Nor is there any emotional depth in the secondary characters. I enjoyed Isobel’s growth in dealing with her genetic predisposition, but I lamented the way in which Nathaniel went from a brooder with issues to becoming a rather generic character. He lost his personality somewhere along the way.  If this story was deeper and darker, I think it would have pushed it to a higher level.
Overall: A really quick, entertaining read. I found the narrator amusing and I liked the mix of contemporary YA with Gothic thriller in Unraveling Isobel, but I think it loses something by not pushing the envelope more. It was fine brain candy for an afternoon.
Unraveling Isobel is slated for publication 1/3/2012
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
Other reviews:
I didn’t see any up yet. Let me know if I missed you!

The Dark Enquiry by Deanna Raybourn

The Dark Enquiry
Deanna Raybourn

I don’t know what it is but I was in the mood for a mystery, and the perfect choice was right on my TBR – an ARC copy of The Dark Enquiry picked up at BEA. This is one of my favorite series and I’m happy that I got a chance to meet the author two years running to get a signed copy. One of the highlights of BEA.
This is a series where relationships are built upon from book to book, and I strongly encourage you to start at the beginning if you haven’t started already. Here’s the lineup until now:
Book 1 – Silent in the Grave
Book 2 – Silent in the Sanctuary
Book 3 – Silent on the Moor
Book 4 – Dark Road to Darjeeling
**** This review has spoilers for earlier books, so if you haven’t read up to book 4, you read it at your own peril ****
The Premise: Back in London after their travels overseas, Lady Julia Grey and Nicolas Brisbane are settling into a new, combined household and a new partnership. This is not without its growing pains – finding new housekeeping staff and a cook that will stay is proving to be difficult, and Brisbane has trouble balancing his protectiveness of Julia with his promise to let her work with him. In fact, Brisbane tries to keep Julia out of his newest case, forcing her to engage in trickery to learn about it. She’s shocked to see her brother Bellmont leave Brisbane’s offices. Julia’s oldest and most conservative sibling is in trouble and has turned to her husband for help. He’s being blackmailed, but it is not a simple blackmailing – if Bellmont’s secret gets out, it could topple the government. Tracking the blackmailer leads Brisbane and Julia into the deadly intrigue surrounding The Spirit Club, where the wealthy consult the dead.
Read an excerpt of The Dark Enquiry here
My Thoughts: The Dark Enquiry starts off with our characters, Julia and Brisbane settling into London. Julia is eager to learn what she can so she can become a productive member of Brisbane’s business, so we find her mixing powders and causing minor explosions in her fervor to become a firearms expert. Plum is moving in, and is engaged in what looks to be a simple case of a missing Emerald necklace for Lord Mortlake. Brisbane looks to be resigned to letting his wife help, and has made the business more high tech with the installation of a telephone and buying Julia some expensive photography equipment. He’s even letting her join Plum on his trip to the Mortlakes. That is until Julia realizes that Brisbane is a little too eager to get her out into the country and away from London, and she schemes to stay and see what Brisbane is up to. This is when she finds her oldest brother, Bellmont visiting her husband.
I felt like the story doesn’t really start until Julia disguises herself and arrives at The Spirit House to aid Brisbane in whatever he’s doing for Bellmont. Then the story goes into real Mystery mode, with a murder and blackmail and Julia and Brisbane having no idea who is behind it. Things become more intense when there are indications that the culprit is aware of the investigation and has designs on Julia in particular.
Unfortunately,  for me, this was the weakest Julia Grey mystery in the series. In the past, every mystery has been very personal, with Julia trying to protect either herself or her family with a strength tinged with desperation. In The Dark Enquiry, I didn’t feel the same vested interest in solving the case, even though Julia’s brother Bellmont was directly involved. The threat that Parliament could topple because of Bellmont’s indiscretion was, in my opinion, a far-fetched one, and I didn’t feel like I cared very much if they found out who Bellmont’s blackmailer was. Maybe it was because Julia barely sees Bellmont, and when she does, he acts like a general ass. Maybe I feel this lack of connection because the stable of beloved secondary characters merely make brief, cameo appearances (the most connection we get is with Madam Fleur and with a new character introduced as a Grey relative). Maybe when the story tries to make the threat more immediate (when there’s a implied threat to Julia), it felt like a case of too little, too late. Or maybe, the mystery itself takes it a step too far, and is too ambitious or left-field in its scope.
What I think should have balanced this was the relationship growing pains Brisbane and Julia are going through. This could be why we see little of the secondary characters, but what there is of Julia and Brisbane’s relationship was.. awkward. It starts off well with a clash between the two when Julia discovers her brother is in trouble and Brisbane discovers that Julia has been sneaking around and putting herself in danger. There is some lovely relationship discussion about love and respect and obedience, which looked like it would move these two forward as proper partners. Yet, they both do things after this that suggest that they still don’t understand one another! It felt like the story I was reading the same argument over again, with the same “acceptance” at the end, only for the same argument to come back but from a different angle – now we’re not talking about love, we’re talking about “protectiveness”. I feel like throwing my hands up but I’m cautiously optimistic. I will allow that they are talking and there does seem like some sort of forward momentum because of these talks, but I am sick of the same talk over and over again. It reminds me of I Love Lucy where Lucy keeps asking to be in Ricky’s show. Ricky, just put her in the damn show!
What frustrated me further was that Julia is uncharacteristically idiotic this whole book.  I would have liked her to be described as someone doing well in her efforts to help Brisbane instead of someone constantly bungling and getting caught. Things literally explode in her face, and it frustrated me to have a female character that I like becoming a sort of bumbling fluffy-headed woman. Even after discussions about the danger and how Brisbane feels about her, and how she will be honest with him about what she’s doing, she turns around and does the very thing she said she would not do – go investigating on her own without telling him! Wow. WHY?!  Was this so that Brisbane could be right about his side of the argument? I really hope that some of these frustrating things I’m running into are in the ARC and not the finished copy. To make matters worse the climax involves a sort of thrown-in-there tragedy and the wrap up glossed over it in a strange way, so the last impression I have of the book was a sense of confusion.
Overall: I ended up putting this down in the same category as most books I have lately – in the good range. I thought it was OK. But writing the review, I find myself more frustrated by it than I thought I was when I read it. I guess I was disappointed in this one because I’ve been extremely impressed by the books before it. This one had a weaker mystery, the relationship drama felt somewhat of a rehash even if it does look like things are progressing, and the characterization of Julia in particular felt off.  I really hope Julia and Brisbane find their footing in the the next one.
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
Other reviews (I am in the minority in my reaction to this one!):
Book Harbinger – positive (read this one for a much less frustrated viewpoint on this installment)
Angieville – positive (ditto to the above)
Dear Author – B-

Retro Friday Review: Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc.

Crocodile on the Sandbank
Elizabeth Peters

This is a book that landed on my radar last year when The Book Smugglers rec’ed it in one of their reviews for another book. Curious about a mystery series with a plucky Victorian parasol-wielding heroine, I kept it in mind, and pounced when I did see it for sale at that library book sale I went to a few weeks back (in other news, there’s another library book sale in Greenwich, CTthat I have my eyes on).
The Premise: Amelia Peabody was a middle aged spinster, the sole sibling of six willing to take care of her aging father. They lead a quiet life pursuing academia until her father dies, leaving Amelia with half a million pounds and her brothers apoplectic. At first, Amelia is amused by the her family’s sudden interest in her life now that she’s wealthy, but eventually her no-nonsense personality reasserts itself. She decides to leave England before she becomes a cynic and embark on a trip to see all the ancient cities that her father studied. Along the way Amelia rescues Evelyn Barton-Forbes, a fellow Englishwoman that has fallen on hard times after being disinherited by her grandfather. Amelia hires Evelyn to be her traveling companion, and they make their way to Egypt. Here, their adventure begins. On a trip along the Nile, the two women join the Emerson brothers (affable Walter and brooding Radcliffe, aka ‘Emerson’) at their archaeological site, and strange goings on begin to haunt their party.
My Thoughts: This story had a little bit of an old fashioned mystery feel to it. Published in 1975, it’s more modern than the Agatha Christie novels that I love, but it has that same British feel and is set in the past – in the Victorian era. Amelia Peabody is ahead of her time, she’s an independent woman who does as she wants, but she is also a product of her time in her unflappable belief in British superiority, especially when she sees the conditions that the Egyptians live and work in.
Actually, Amelia comes off as a bit of a know-it-all. Her personality is like that of a steamroller, she’s just formidable and sure of herself. At first I wasn’t sure what to make of this, because growing up in a developing country, I was offended by Amelia’s constant tut-tutting over dirt and sanitation while she was in Egypt. So, I didn’t like this aspect of Amelia’s personality, her smug sense of superiority, but I felt like I could let it go because the story was set when it was and it wasn’t overt. When I put this part aside (and it happened less when the story got going), I found Amelia’s bossy practicality amusing and was able to warm to it, particularly when her personality clashed with that of the explosive Emerson.
Amelia and Evelyn first meet Walter and Emerson while visiting the museum of Boulaq, where Amelia decides that a statuette needs dusting and demonstrates this to her companion:

A howl- a veritable animal howl- shook the quiet of the room. Before I could collect myself to search for its source, a whirlwind descended upon me. sinewy, sun-bronzed hand snatched the statuette from me. A voice boomed in my ear.”Madam! Do me the favor of leaving those priceless relics alone. It is bad enough to see that incompetent ass, Maspero, jumble them about; will you complete his idiocy by destroying the fragments he has left?”

Evelyn had retreated. I stood alone. Gathering my dignity, I turned to face my attacker.

He was a tall man with shoulders like a bull’s and a black beard cut square like those of the statues of ancient Assyrian kings. From a face tanned almost to the shade of an Egyptian, vivid blue eyes blazed at me. His voice, as I had good cause to know, was a deep, reverberating bass. The accents were those of a gentleman. The sentiments were not.

“Sir,” I said, looking him up and down. “I do not know you- ”

“But I know you, madam! I have met your kind too often – the rampageous British female at her clumsiest and most arrogant. Ye gods! The breed covers the earth like mosquitoes, and is as maddening. The depths of the pyramids, the heights of the Himalayas – no spot on earth is safe from you!”

He had to pause for bream at this point, which gave me the opportunity I had been waiting for.

“And you, sir, are the lordly British male at his loudest and most bad-mannered. If the English gentlewoman is covering the earth, it is in the hope of counteracting some of the mischief her lord and master has perpetrated. Swaggering, loud, certain of his own superiority…”

My adversary was maddened, as I had hoped he would be. Little flecks of foam appeared on the blackness of his beard. His subsequent comments were incomprehensible, but several fragile objects vibrated dangerously on their shelves.

I stepped back a pace, taking a firm grip on my parasol. I am not easily cowed, nor am I a small woman; but this man towered over me, and the reddening face he had thrust into mine was suggestive of violence. He had very large, very white teeth, and I felt sure I had gotten a glimpse of most of them.”

Compared to the very nice (and civilized) relationship Walter and Evelyn have, Amelia and Emerson are loud and clashing, but I adored them much more. It was just so much fun watching these two dance around each other and generally acting like the other got on their last nerve. I had many a good chuckle at their grumpy banter, Emerson’s explosions, and Amelia’s tactic of purposefully annoying Emerson at strategic moments. They seemed (to me) well matched and I was curious if their real affections for one another would ever come to light. It was one of the reasons I kept turning the pages.
The mystery itself is a very theatrical one – figures in the darkness, sabotage, superstition, kidnapping and sickness, all in the Egyptian desert. Something about this (the archaeological backdrop, the tombs, the curse of Pharaohs), felt very familiar to me. I feel like maybe I have read this book, but it was so long ago that only the residue remains. I didn’t think that the mystery was very difficult to figure out, but there were a couple of twists in the end that I didn’t predict, so overall I was happy with it, but the mystery itself wasn’t the main draw. That was Amelia and the small cast of characters, and the sense of place – the Egyptian backdrop. Those things made this story special.
Overall: Another one in the “good’ category. And by “good” I mean somewhere in the “OK to Great” range.  There’s something comfortingly old-fashioned about this story, and it’s well written and has humor and a fascinating setting. On the other hand, I wish that the mystery was a bit more complex and that there were more characters. In the end, I really liked Amelia and Emerson and I hear that this series only gets better so I plan to continue to read about their adventures.
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
Other reviews:
fashion-piranha – 3 out of 5 stars
My Favourite Books – positive
Books and Other Thoughts – positive (I love her comments about her younger self’s reaction to the romantic developments)
About Happy Books – positive
Angieville – positive

The Dead Travel Fast by Deanna Raybourn

The Dead Travel Fast
Deanna Raybourn

I was thrilled to get an autographed copy of this book at BEA last year and I’ve been saving this read for a few months. I finally got around to it last weekend, and it was a relatively fast, atmospheric read.

The Premise:
Theodora Lestrange is left with little prospects after the death of her scholarly grandfather, and despite her sister and her husband’s good intentions, she has no desire to live with them. Theodora longs for passion and adventure and to be able to continue writing her books.  So when an old school friend writes to Theodora asking her to come to Transylvania to celebrate her betrothal and stay for a little while, Theodora jumps at the chance to be bold and to have her creativity sparked. When she gets there she falls in love with the mysterious countryside and the man who is lord of it, despite the disturbing beliefs of it’s people.
Read an excerpt of The Dead Travel Fast here
My Thoughts: The Dead Travel Fast is a book that is separate standalone from the Lady Julia Grey series, with a very different heroine and a very different tone.  Rather than a Victorian mystery, this is a tale spun in sensational Gothic fiction tradition, starting with it’s horror setting: a crumbling castle set imposingly above a rustic village in the Carpathian mountains. This is where Theodora arrives and meets an eccentric bunch: an aging but haughty countess, a stoic group of servants, a jovial family doctor, Theodora’s school friend Cosmina, and the handsome, enigmatic Count Andrei Dragulescu. Stories of vampires and werewolves abound, and Theodora is thrilled to have so much fodder for her writing. She doesn’t believe any of it’s true at first, but as she experiences more of this place, it’s difficult to disbelieve that there are not evil creatures roaming the night. As she falls under the spell of the castle, she also falls for the seductive count.
This story felt like a tribute to the Gothic genre and thus certain “rules” of that genre were followed, which I think lent this story a simpler feel compared to Raybourn’s other books, both in plot and character. Theodora felt like your typical intrepid but still innocent Gothic romance heroine. She has a high level of imagination and a romantic heart.  She tells her sister she wants to feel passion and will settle for nothing less, and when she meets the count, despite his improprieties, she just can’t seem to help herself. Over and over she resolves to stay away, and over and over she does not.
The count on the other hand is a despoiler, and it’s very obvious that he’s seducing our heroine. He even explains to her that there are “only three types of women that matter in a man’s life –those he marries, those he seduces, and those he takes. I have only to tailor my behavior to become whatever the lady in question wants me to be and I’m assured of success.” I think this sentence explains why I found his character unlikable. While he may be genuinely attracted to Theodora, the calculated way he got her attention rubbed me the wrong way. What softened the dislike was that his character fit the Gothic tale – is he the hero, or the villain? I hoped he was the hero because Theodora (the narrator) sees him through rose-colored glasses, but I questioned her judgment severely.
The first part of The Dead Travel Fast builds up the melodrama of the story, and I wasn’t sure whether a supernatural being would appear or not or if this would be just a romance or something more. Thankfully, the typical Raybourn mystery does appear (albeit in a smaller dose than in previous books). While this was a quick read, I was relieved by the mystery because that’s where I feel Raybourn shines. Theodora may not be as sharply observant as Julia Grey, but once she does put her mind to it, she’s just as quick to see the possibilities. As a result, the book ends on a satisfying high note.
Overall: This is a story which nods it’s head towards the Gothic fiction tradition and mixes that with a romance and a mystery. In the end I liked this one, but I wanted to like it more than I actually did. I understood where the author was going, but the Gothic affectations of the characters stopped me from really connecting to them. If it wasn’t for the satisfying ending this would have fallen into my “OK” category, but if I was an English Literature major or someone interested in the Gothic genre, I think I’d probably have appreciated this more.
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
Other reviews:
Angieville – positive
See Michelle Read – mixed feelings
fashion_piranha – positive/some criticisms
The Book Harbinger – positive
Dear Author – B-

Dark Road to Darjeeling by Deanna Raybourn

Dark Road to Darjeeling
Deanna Raybourn

This is a review of an eARC I received from the publisher.

Dark Road to Darjeeling
is the fourth book in one of my favorite series. Here are my reviews of the first three books:

Book 1: Silent in the Grave
Book 2: Silent in the Sanctuary
Book 3: Silent on the Moor


***** There are minor spoilers for earlier books in this review ****

The Premise: Lady Julia Grey and her now-husband Nicolas Brisbane have been honeymooning for 8 months, when her sister Portia and brother Plum cross paths with them in Cairo. Portia’s former lover Jane has written from India with the news that she’s pregnant and now a widow. She doesn’t explicitly say it, but Portia senses that there is something wrong in her letters and suspects foul play in the death of Jane’s husband Freddie Cavendish. So of course, Julia and Brisbane, Portia and Plum journey to India, to give Jane support during the last few months of her pregnancy and to secretly investigate the possibility of Cavendish’s murder.

Read an excerpt of Dark Road to Darjeeling here

My Thoughts: As with the earlier books, the writing beautifully describes a setting that’s in a different place and time, in this case a valley isolated from the world where Jane now resides in a tea estate: “The Peacocks is the name of the estate, a tea garden on the border of Sikkim, outside of Darjeeling, right up in the foothills of the Himalayas.”

Here, a small English community lives – the Cavendishs who own the plantation (Harry is the late Freddie’s younger brother, and Camellia Cavendish is their aunt and runs the household), the White Rajah (a mysterious older man who lives in a ruined monastery above the valley), the Pennyfeathers (a clergyman, his free-spirited artist wife Cassandra and two children Primrose and Robin), Dr Llewellyn (a grieving man who lost his wife after a tiger attack), and finally Lucy and Emma Phipps, cousins to the Marches (last seen in the second book of the series). Surrounding these are their numerous servants, including twins sisters Lalita, a cook, and Miss Thorne, governess to the Pennyfeather children.

As Julia and the others make acquaintances with those around them, it becomes clear that the mystery of Freddie’s death is going to be a tough one. Almost everyone could have had a reason or the means to have killed him, if in fact he was murdered. Officially he died of an infection after being bitten by a small, usually harmless snake, not something that would typically kill a healthy man, but India is a place where such things happen. In fact, as I kept reading this book, it began to feel like the valley is not kind at all to those who settle there.  One tragedy or another seems to have befallen everyone there, particularly the English.

In the meantime, the honeymoon is over for Brisbane and Julia, and the two are trying to figure out the compromises that make up married life, without being the one who actually makes the compromise! These two are as as in love as ever, but they’re clearly human. Julia wants to be a partner in Brisbane’s investigations, while Brisbane wants his wife to stay away from danger. This is probably the first book where I really thought about the problems in both of their perspectives, and I felt like neither was truly right or wrong. I think before this book, I was with Julia in expecting that she should be able to investigate, but now I see where Brisbane comes from. On the other hand, both characters also do things that probably aren’t best for their marriage when they try to exert their will over the other. Brisbane continues with his mind games to keep Julia out of trouble, while Julia hides things from Brisbane in order to “win” the race to figure out the mystery and prove she’s an equal. Clearly these characters are imperfect and I like that they have a lot of room to grow, but I the previous books didn’t leave me as frustrated with Brisbane and Julia as much as Dark Road to Darjeeling did. It left me with a generally perturbed feeling to uncover their shortcomings the way they were presented here.

Overall: As I’ve come to expect, I liked the book: it has all the Raybourn hallmarks (lovely writing, unique characters, beautiful setting), but I didn’t close the pages with the same feeling of happy satisfaction as the earlier books, so it’s not my favorite of the series. Conflict and the overall tragic events put this volume into a “bittersweet” category. Compared to the earlier books I felt unsettled after reading this one, but I still love and recommend this series, and I am looking forward to what happens next.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
See Michelle Read – positive review
Tempting Persephone – positive review
Monkey Bear Reviews – B- (I’m surprised by how similar I feel to this review – read it after writing mine)
Book Harbinger – positive
Babbling about Books, and More – B

Silent on the Moor by Deanna Raybourn

Silent on the Moor
Deanna Raybourn

I’ve been meaning to read this, the third installment of one of my favorite series for a while but I’ve been gated by the fact that there are no mass market paperback copies. More on that side rant later.
Book 1: Silent in the Grave
Book 2: Silent in the Sanctuary

**** Minor spoilers for the earlier books in this review ****

The Premise: In the last book, Brisbane disappears, as usual, leaving Lady Julia Grey again with the sense of unfinished business regarding their relationship, so when her sister Portia is invited to Brisbane’s new home on the northern moors, Julia decides to take matters into her own hands and come along, uninvited or not. Julia doesn’t expect a warm welcome by a man who is clearly hiding something, but she’s surprised to find the previous tenants of Grimsgrave, the Lady Allensby and her two daughters, Ailith and Hilda, still in residence, while Brisbane acts as slippery as ever.

Read an excerpt of Silent on the Moor here

My Thoughts: Julia gets more and more impetuous in each book. I think the first impression she made on me has stayed in my mind (a woman who knows the societal rules of her time and abides by them despite feeling the constraints), so whenever Julia does or says things that are distinctly unladylike, I feel a little surprised. I wasn’t sure how to feel about Julia’s decision to just show up at Brisbane’s house, despite her sister Portia and brother Valerius coming along, because there are members of her family (including her father) who call it what it is – throwing herself at a man who of late has shown an insulting lack of interest.  I did cringe a little, wondering what Brisbane’s reaction would be.

When Julia gets to Grimsgrave, the sparring with Brisbane begins again, and their interactions highlight how much Julia’s character has evolved. Do not fear though – this is the best thing ever. I find their relationship even more delicious because Julia is comfortable with who she is. Brisbane is a dark horse; he manages to stymie Julia even when she thinks she has the upper hand, but Julia isn’t afraid to keep pushing.  I understand her character (it helps that she’s the first person narrator), but Brisbane holds his cards very close to his chest. I know he loves her, but he has strange ideas about honor, relationships, and protecting people. If Julia hadn’t changed into who she is now, I don’t think their relationship would work because she’d be too afraid to break down his barriers. This Julia gives as good as she gets, and I was cheering for her every time she managed to chip his armor.

Every book in this series involves a mystery.  In Silent on the Moor, the biggest mystery is Brisbane himself. He clearly has a past that is tied to Grimsgrave, and Julia learns as much about him as she does about the strange Allensbys. At first, it’s Julia’s nosiness that prompts her questions about the Allensby family. Is there something between the beautiful Ailith and Brisbane? Then there is the question of Redwall Allenby, Ailith’s brother, recently passed. Was there more to his death and his disgrace in Egyptology circles? These are things Julia is curious about, but it’s only when she makes a macabre discovery that the sleuthing begins in earnest. Julia knows that this is the window for her chance at happiness, and if she doesn’t figure out what’s going on, she’ll lose Brisbane forever.  Although the mystery feels somewhat secondary to the relationship troubles, I found it rather satisfying that the focus was where it was. I wanted what Julia does when she goes to Grimsgrave: to settle the thing between her and Brisbane once and for all.

It’s all very atmospheric. The Allenbys sit proud, closed off in their broken down home, remembering glory of generations long past, while the nearby villagers bear them no good will. Julia and her family stumble awkwardly into this situation, not exactly wanted but tolerated nonetheless, while Brisbane stomps in and out, dark and broody as ever. Brisbane perfectly suits the crumbling Grimsgrave and the wild and dangerous moor. I loved the setting, particularly at this time of year, when things get wet and gloomy, and dark clouds hang above.  With Brisbane’s gypsy past and the moor setting, it’s clear that there’s a nod here to Wuthering Heights, but in this case there’s a happier outcome.

Oh man, the ending. The story took it’s time getting there (my trade paperback is 465 pages), but it was well worth reading because the final pages are sigh-worthy.  For those of you who are peekers – just believe me that it ends well and try not to skip ahead.

Overall: This may be my favorite Lady Julia Grey installment yet. Wholly for the ending, although the dramatic setting on the moors, the strange Allenbys and the broody Brisbane aren’t too shabby in making this a lovely story. The mix of romance, mystery and the Victorian setting are perfect. I love this series. So good.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Side rant!
OK, I must say that I’ve been waiting for this book to be published in Mass Market because my copies of the earlier books are MMPBs. But, although this book was published in trade paperback in March, 2009 (as of this post 1 year and 8 months ago), there seems to be no plan to release this book in mass market? What’s up with that?

Other reviews:
See Michelle Readpositive review
Aneca’s World – 4/5
The Good, the Bad, and the Unread – B
Angieville – positive review

Grave Secret by Charlaine Harris

Grave Secret
Charlaine Harris

This is a series that falls more into the “mystery” genre (and that’s where it’s shelved), but there are paranormal overtones. Harper Connelly, the protagonist was struck by lightening as a child and after that, she’s been able to sense the dead – at least when she’s in close proximity to their bodies. She can also tell how someone died. With her step-brother Tolliver Lang, Harper has used her ability as a unique way to earn money – finding bodies and identifying the cause of death for her clients.

Read an excerpt of Chapter 1 of Grave Secret here

I’ve been reading this series for a while now, and at four books, I think it may be done, at least for the foreseeable future. Grave Secret came out in September 2009, and there hasn’t been news of another book yet. Here are my reviews for the first three books in this series:

Book 1: Grave Sight
Book 2: Grave Surprise
Book 3: An Ice Cold Grave

The Premise: Harper and Tolliver decided to visit their younger sisters Mariella and Gracie who live with their aunt and uncle in Dallas. Along the way to Dallas, they take a job identifying what killed the grandfather and patriarch of the wealthy Joyce family, and Harper discovers some things that the Joyce’s are not happy to hear. Then Tolliver and Harper discover that Tolliver’s father Matthew was recently released from prison and is trying to renew ties with his children. Then someone begins shooting at Harper and Tolliver. Somehow all of this is connected and their past is involved. Memories and questions about the abduction of Harper’s older sister Cameron resurface.

******* Minor spoilers for earlier books from this point on ********

My Thoughts: Like the other books in this series, Harper and Tolliver are presented as not really sleuths, but people who keep getting targeted by people with something to hide or found out news they didn’t want to hear.  In this book, someone keeps shooting at them. Something happens which forces them to stay in the area, and to stay alive, they have to re-examine the past few days and find out who wants to kill them. I think that this is sort of a standard Harper Connelly mystery, with a bunch of deaths before we find out what is really going on. It’s a little unsatisfying that so many people die before the bad guys are caught, but this seems to be how it goes in these books.

I’ve commented on this before: I find Harper to be a hard character sometimes. The book is told from her point of view, and how she sees people feels colored by lenses that first look for what’s wrong in others. I don’t think this is an obvious thing, but when you read half a book and meet several characters you notice that Harper isn’t one who tends to like someone at first sight and what she says about people is often unflattering. I think this is something I can only take in small doses, but, this is all part of her character. Harper’s mom and Tolliver’s dad were drug addicts and dragged their children from a regular family life to one of despair and poverty. In this book when Matthew Lang, Tolliver’s father shows up, the dark childhood that Harper experienced was rehashed, and I could see why Harper took a jaded view of people. It was pretty bad. I think Harper and Tolliver have the appropriate, healthy response to their father. I wouldn’t forgive or trust him either. On the other hand, we also get to see more of the rest of Harper’s family and Harper learns to appreciate her Aunt and Uncle, who adopted her sisters, but Harper has always had a little friction with, as well as their other siblings. There seemed to be a better understanding all around by the time the book was done.

In the meantime, their sister Cameron’s abduction is brought up again. That mystery is one brought up from the very beginning of the series, and Harper has mentioned details of the day Cameron disappeared in other books. This story does get wrapped up here, which is why I think that this is probably the final book of the series. There’s also a resolution here in terms of Harper’s relationship with her family, and in terms of her relationship with Tolliver. I still maintain that I feel uneasy about their relationship. I know that they’re not blood related. They’re only step-siblings. I think it bothers me because Harper keeps calling him her brother. Not step-brother. Brother. She introduces him as such, even after they become lovers, and then reminds herself she has to stop thinking of him as her brother. Ew? I’m also not exactly sure how long they lived together as siblings. I’d feel better if it wasn’t long, but we’re not really reminded. It feels like the author is deliberately pushing the ick-boundaries on purpose by doing these things. The reaction of other characters who find out about them feels like a backhanded way of telling the reader not to judge, but I find it hard when the narrative seems to intentionally push my buttons.

Overall: I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand I feel satisfied by the way the long-running story arc of Cameron’s abduction and of Harper and Tolliver’s relationship were dealt with in this book, but on the other, I wasn’t as satisfied by the other mystery. It felt sort of overly-complicated and forced to fit with the Cameron storyline with some senseless killings thrown in. The mystery didn’t feel as strong as the previous books -and the big reveal felt rushed and convenient. I also felt like I was being emotionally played with in terms of the ick factor in the main relationship, which bothered me.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Karissa’s Reading Review – positive review
Angieville – positive review (Harper and Tolliver accept that they are all each other has in such a matter-of-fact way, with such stoic integrity, it pulls at my heartstrings”)
Ellz reads – similar comments to mine about the mystery here but satisfied by how the series ended
jmc_bookrelated – “phoned in”. A C- grade
lindseyfrankin “3-3/5 stars for a solid end to a good mystery series”
Fantasy & Sci-Fi Lovin’ News and reviews – not really a review but a commentary that I found aligned with some of my complaints

The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: Seance for a Vampire by Fred Saberhagen

This book was provided to me by the publisher, Titan Books, for review.

The Premise: In this series by different authors (originally published in the ’90s and being repackaged and republished today), Sherlock Holmes interacts with very unusual characters like the supernatural or alien. Some characters are recognizable from other famous works like aliens from the War of the Worlds, and in this case the vampire Dracula (who is a cousin).

In Seance for a Vampire, Holmes and Watson are asked to sit in on a seance for their client Ambrose Altamont. Altamont believes that a couple of charlatans are using the recent drowning death or their eldest daughter Louisa to swindle money out of his too easily duped wife. This turns out not to be a simple case however, because Louisa Altamont does show up at the seance – but as a vampire, and she begs her family to find some long lost treasure before her soul can rest. In the ensuing chaos, Sherlock Holmes is kidnapped. Watson turns to the only person who could help in these bizarre circumstances – Holmes’ distant cousin, Prince Dracula.

My Thoughts: This is sort of a mash-up, because we have Sherlock Holmes, and we have vampires and Dracula, but it’s not quite what I consider a mash-up, where worlds from an original story is used with additional monsters added to it. This is an original work but using characters from famous works. I’m not really a fan of mash-ups but I do like mysteries and I do like vampires, so I thought it would be interesting to see what this one would be like.

This book read like a pretty straightforward mystery – the prologue gives us most of the background into the crime who is behind it all and why. I won’t go into details here to keep it spoiler free, but this is all in the prologue, which means the reader knows what is going on at all times, and the only mystery is where the treasure really is hidden. Otherwise, we just follow Watson and Dracula, who are the narrators of the story, as they track down Louisa Altamont and the man who turned her into a vampire.

I think the writing is supposed to reflect the same tone as the original Sherlock Holmes novels, and there is a formality to the story because of that. It’s a clear, easy read, but also rather dry. The voice of Dracula is a little bit more elegant than that of Watson, but sometimes I did not really notice when the narrators had been switched until either one would drop a clue as to who was talking. Dracula would also sometimes describe his actions in the third person as if his alias, Mr. Prince, was another character, which was very odd. I think that the author must have done a lot of research into the time period that this book was set (the early 1900s), and it is reflected in the language and the terms used. I  liked the mention of the newest technology of the time – the motorcars and how driving in them at 30 miles an hour was a novelty, but at times the details felt like overkill, like when Dracula reads pages of headings of a daily newspaper, and this had nothing to do with the case.

One thing that bothered me in this book was the way a lot of the female characters were portrayed. Firstly, they were all very minor, and victims (of murder, kidnapping, rape, fraud) or opportunists (a vampiress, a fake psychic). Then there is what happens to them. I suppose the thing that really bothered me was when Louisa shows up in her fiance’s bedroom and the next morning after their night together, he is repelled and attracted to her (not knowing at yet beginning to suspect that she’s not Louisa anymore), and thinks of her as “last night’s whore”. He sleeps with her again the next night. It’s a case where one line in a book can really jar you. Later we find that Watson, Holmes, and Dracula are all sure that Louisa was raped by a vampire (I’m not sure what evidence they used, but apparently her night with her fiance was it), which disturbed me further because her actions did not reflect this. I think that a lot of the characters got very distraught and upset over Louisa’s death and return as a “ghost” but the deep trauma that Louisa herself must have gone through in turning into a vampire seemed glossed over and that one line with her fiance thinking of her as a whore felt REALLY inappropriate.

After reading this, I discovered a lot of references to a previous adventure with Sherlock Holmes and Dracula. You don’t have to read that book (The Holmes-Dracula File) to understand what’s going on in this one, but it would probably help.

Overall: It was OK. It was a light, easy read. The pull of the book was having both Dracula and Sherlock Holmes in it, but the story was so straightforward and lacked a really juicy mystery, that I felt like Holmes or Dracula could have been substituted with any detective and vampire team and there wouldn’t have been a difference, and the switch in narrators was sometimes confusing. I also had a problem with the portrayal of the victim Louisa in this story.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
The Great Geek Manual – C (70 / 100)