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1. The Hamilton Affair

The Hamilton Affair. Elizabeth Cobbs. 2016. Arcade. 408 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence: The boy frowned, pressed a folded handkerchief to his nose, and scanned the crowd for the third time.

Premise/plot: The Hamilton Affair is historical fiction starring Alexander Hamilton and his wife Eliza. The novel has alternating narrators; readers get to spend time with both Alexander and Eliza. The book leans more towards romance than political drama. I think that's something readers should know from the start. Readers expecting the book to perfectly complement the Broadway musical may be a bit disappointed. Angelica is essentially absent from the book. (She's mentioned now and then, mainly because Alexander borrows money from her husband. Her husband seems more developed as a character than Angelica.) This should not be seen as a novelization of the musical--far from it. With the right expectations, readers can delight in it, I'm sure!

My thoughts: The Hamilton Affair was an almost for me. I wanted to love it so much, yet, in the end it wasn't love for me. Reading is subjective, I remember that always and so should you. But for me it felt both slow and rushed. Not an easy combination perhaps, but, in this case I think that's my honest assessment. The parts I wanted to take time in and explore and really just enjoy the moment felt rushed or passed over altogether. And then there were times it felt sluggish and like there was nothing at all happening to move the plot forward.

I also expected Alexander Hamilton to have more charisma on the page. I wanted to feel what Eliza felt--I wanted to feel helpless. I didn't quite get that. It felt more removed than that. Still, I am glad I read it. And some chapters I really did enjoy.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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2. The House on the Strand

The House on the Strand. Daphne du Maurier. 1968. 352 pages. [Source: Bought]

First sentence: The first thing I noticed was the clarity of the air, and then the sharp green colour of the land. There was no softness anywhere. The distant hills did not blend into the sky but stood out like rocks, so close that I could almost touch them, their proximity giving me that shock of surprise and wonder which a child feels looking for the first time through a telescope.

Premise/plot: Richard Young, the hero of Daphne du Maurier's The House on the Strand, becomes a guinea pig for his scientist friend, Magnus, while vacationing in Cornwall. Magnus has concocted a hallucinogenic drug that allows the user to time travel, though not physically. While Dick's first 'time-travel' experience has its downsides, he enjoys it just enough to keep taking the drug in different locales. Why different locales? Because location matters. Your body may stay in the present, but, your consciousness is far, far away. And your body-and-mind act together. Your mind sees the world as it was. Your body experiences it as it is. Whatever you're doing in the past, you're doing in the present--sitting, standing, walking, running, etc. Readers DON'T see this, of course, just the results and consequences. You may sit down and take the drug in one place, and come back to reality hours later miles and miles away with no real idea of how you got there.

The past is the fourteenth century. The 1320s through the 1340s. Dick is an invisible presence in the past. He can "spy" on the past and follow people around, seeing and hearing plenty that interests him. He becomes very caught up in the lives of Isolda and Roger. (They are not a couple.) The past is full of soap opera like DRAMA.

The present is the 1960s. Dick is married to a woman, Vita, who has two sons. His wife and two stepsons join him on his vacation. He's not excited about that. Why? He really, really, really, really likes taking this mind-altering drug. And he fears that if he's surrounded by his family he might have to be responsible and stay in the present.

The drama isn't all in the past, a few things happen in the present that are just as exciting. Particularly when Magnus comes to visit his friend...

My thoughts: Dick isn't the smartest hero. Perhaps he trusts his friend a LITTLE too much. Or perhaps the sixties were so truly different that taking mind-altering drugs was something you did without blinking--without giving it a second thought. What am I doing to my mind? what am I doing to my body? Are there any side-effects? Are the side-effects longlasting? Is this a good idea?

The book chronicles Dick's adventures in past and present. And the world-building is strong in both. Characterization. I can't say that the characterization was super strong. This is more premise-driven than character-driven. But there's enough drama and mystery to keep you reading.

Science fiction doesn't come to mind when I think about Daphne du Maurier, but, I must say that you can definitely see her unique style in all of it. Especially the ending.

Did I like it? I didn't LOVE it, but, I definitely am glad I read it.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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3. Gidget

Gidget. Frederick Kohner. 1957. 154 pages. [Source: Bought]

I must admit I was disappointed by Frederick Kohner's Gidget. Here are some things you should know: 1) It was originally published in 1957. 2) It is to some degree based on a true teen girl named Kathy, nicknamed Gidget. 3) Fredrick Kohner, the author, based the book on his own daughter and on his own daughter's coming of age story. 4) It is set in Malibu in the mid 1950s. 5) The book became popular enough that a movie was made. 6) Presumably the movie and book were doing so well, it became a TV show. There was something sweet and verging on innocent about the first movie and about the TV show. Not so the book. It may make it more realistic in some people's opinion. 7) The book is written in first person.

The heroine, Franzie, a.k.a "Gidget," is fifteen years old and in love with the beach, the ocean, all things surf, including surfers--no matter their age. She considers herself all grown up, or, at the very least, mostly grown up. I personally prefer "clean" or even "squeaky clean" books in terms of language. This one has a lot of bad language, and, in particular a lot of taking the Lord's name in vain. I was NOT expecting Gidget to have the mouth that she does, because that is certainly not depicted in the movie or the TV show!!! Her days are devoted to the beach, to surfing, to hanging out with as many surfer guys as she can. She becomes particularly close to two. One being "the love of her life" Jeff (aka Moondoggie) and the other Cass (Big Kahuna). Perhaps because her first sex-dream is of Jeff, she becomes convinced that he is the one and that they are meant to be together forever and ever and of course she must share her dream with him and tell him how much he means to her!
There is great longing and much curiosity in Gidget. She's a boy-chaser. (Also she wants to smoke and drink and be one of the guys.) She doesn't want to be thought of as a fifteen year old girl who should be at home with her parents. Her thoughts are definitely becoming more and more focused on one thing. She's scared to death of it and longing for it at the same time. When Jeff begins to show some interest in her--physical interest--she's more than okay being the "other woman." Who cares if he's got a girlfriend?! He's hers for the summer. His girlfriend isn't here at the beach. His girlfriend doesn't even surf. Surely she's not worth any consideration! Jeff's lips are HER LIPS...at least until college starts back up in the fall.

One could easily say that nothing and everything happens in this one.

Nothing if you are looking at it in terms of events alone. It's a bit repetitive. Wake up. Go to beach. Follow Moondoggie around. Surf. Get sick for a week or maybe two. Get better. Go to beach. Have awkward conversations with brother-in-law and parents. Go to beach. Sneak out to all-night beach orgy. Go surfing. Make silly reflective statements about how mature you are now as compared to then.

Everything if you are looking at it in terms of capturing very angst-y, awkward, embarrassing moments that may be common enough to one and all but more cringe-worthy than anything else.

One thing that makes it creepy, for me, is that it is a father writing about his daughter. Even if it's fifty-fifty in its origins--half fictional, half based on true events/people--it's still a bit weird for me when I think about a father writing about his daughter's lust and curiosity. There are just some scenes in this one that are uncomfortable if you keep this in mind. Other scenes are just awkward. Like when Jeff tries to explain to Gidget that dreams are dreams are dreams and not actual reality or signs from the universe that you belong together.

Reading the book did make me appreciate the movie more. The changes made between the book and the movie were for the best, I think. The romance comes across better, cuter.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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4. Flowers for Algernon

Flowers for Algernon. Daniel Keyes. 1966. 311 pages. [Source: Library]

First, I have to say that I am definitely glad I made time to finally read this one! It has been on my to-be-read list for way too many years. And I don't regret the time I spent with Charlie Gordon.

The book is the journal of the main character, Charlie Gordon. The journal consists of his 'progress reports.' The novel opens with him about to become the subject of a scientific experiment. If it works, his IQ will improve dramatically, radically. His IQ is high enough now for him to function living on his own. (He does janitor work.) But his IQ isn't high enough for him to really learn how to read, write, remember. What he does have in abundance: a big, big, big heart, and an ambitious spirit dedicated to learning and becoming. He doesn't know what he's missing, but, he knows he's missing something. He has no real actual memories of who he was, of his family life, of his childhood. His low IQ isn't just "robbing" him of a bright future, but, of his past as well.

Even though I don't usually love first person narratives, in this case, it works really well. Charlies growth is documented in his progress reports. And readers should make the effort to read between the lines some. It isn't that Charlie is an unreliable narrator, just, that he isn't always completely self-aware. (Who is?!?!) Readers are given enough clues to decide for themselves what Charlie Gordon is like.

Will the experiment work? What are the side effects? Is Charlie being used or taken advantage of by the scientists? Did he make the right choice?

I can't decide what is the most heartbreaking about this bittersweet coming-of-age story. I think though that I'll go with the way Charlie was treated by his mother. Those scenes when Charlie remembers his childhood, his mother, his father, his sister, that is what is heartbreaking. The way his mother mistreated him, and Charlie's straight-forward, matter-of-fact remembering. The way it's done is not manipulative at all, in my opinion. But it's very emotional.

The scenes that may just stay with me though are the ones about Charlie standing up to the scientists saying YOU DIDN'T MAKE ME. I WAS A PERSON BEFORE. YOU SHOULD HAVE ALWAYS TREATED ME AS A PERSON, A PERSON WITH FEELINGS AND RIGHTS. YOU DIDN'T GIVE ME VALUE BY MAKING ME SMART, I ALWAYS WAS VALUABLE. YOU TREAT ME LIKE AN OBJECT. I'M NOT AN OBJECT OF YOUR MAKING.

So yes this one is worth reading!


© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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5. Return of the King

Return of the King. J.R.R. Tolkien. 1955. 590 pages. [Source: Bought]

Pippin looked out from the shelter of Gandalf’s cloak. He wondered if he was awake or still sleeping, still in the swift-moving dream in which he had been wrapped so long since the great ride began. The dark world was rushing by and the wind sang loudly in his ears. He could see nothing but the wheeling stars, and away to his right vast shadows against the sky where the mountains of the South marched past.  
And I have finished rereading the trilogy! In May I was able to read and review The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. I wanted to finish Return of the King in May too, but, it didn't work out that way! 

So Return of the King consists of books five and six of Lord of the Rings. In book five, narrators shift from chapter to chapter to chapter. Essentially we spend time with everyone but Sam and Frodo. We spend time in Rohan and Gondor. Scarlett O'Hara would be nothing but bored, bored, bored for this one is all about WAR, WAR, WAR. If they're not actually IN battle, they're marching towards battle, planning battle tactics, or recovering from battle. Did I personally find it boring??? Far from it, it is INTENSE and heartbreaking in places. (For example, Theoden's end.) I would actually say almost all the action happens in book five.

Book six starts out as being all about Sam and Frodo, but, it doesn't stay their book. The climax to the trilogy comes early in book six. Soon the fellowship is reunited and readers get the full cast of characters they've become so attached to. Here we have two to three romances squeezed in. If I had any advice for new readers it would be this: don't expect the book to be as focused on ROMANCE and FEELINGS as the movies are. 

So does book six drag? Is the end of the war coming so early in the novel a weakness in the book? I'm going to say perhaps and NO. I love that the book shows what happens next. I love that the book focuses on soldiers going home, on trying to settle back into life after the war. I love that we see the effect of the war. I love that we don't get a polished, rushed happy ending. It would be so easy for a movie to end in a parade and award ceremony. (Think Star Wars!) But life isn't like that. It isn't always easy for soldiers to adjust back into life, into society. I love that we see the ongoing consequences of war. We see how war has changed everyone--not just the Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin--but everyone in the Shire.

Favorite quotes:
Well, no need to brood on what tomorrow may bring. For one thing, tomorrow will be certain to bring worse than today, for many days to come. And there is nothing more that I can do to help it. The board is set, and the pieces are moving. 
‘Nine o’clock we’d call it in the Shire,’ said Pippin aloud to himself. ‘Just the time for a nice breakfast by the open window in spring sunshine. And how I should like breakfast! Do these people ever have it, or is it over? And when do they have dinner, and where?’

‘I am no warrior at all and dislike any thought of battle; but waiting on the edge of one that I can’t escape is worst of all. What a long day it seems already! I should be happier, if we were not obliged to stand and watch, making no move, striking nowhere first.
‘So we come to it in the end,’ he said: ‘the great battle of our time, in which many things shall pass away. But at least there is no longer need for hiding. We will ride the straight way and the open road and with all our speed. The muster shall begin at once, and wait for none that tarry. Have you good store in Minas Tirith? For if we must ride now in all haste, then we must ride light, with but meal and water enough to last us into battle.
‘O Sam!’ cried Frodo. ‘What have I said? What have I done? Forgive me! After all you have done. It is the horrible power of the Ring. I wish it had never, never, been found. But don’t mind me, Sam. I must carry the burden to the end. It can’t be altered. You can’t come between me and this doom.’
‘So that was the job I felt I had to do when I started,’ thought Sam: ‘to help Mr. Frodo to the last step and then die with him? Well, if that is the job then I must do it. But I would dearly like to see Bywater again, and Rosie Cotton and her brothers, and the Gaffer and Marigold and all. I can’t think somehow that Gandalf would have sent Mr. Frodo on this errand, if there hadn’t a’ been any hope of his ever coming back at all. Things all went wrong when he went down in Moria. I wish he hadn’t. He would have done something.’ But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength. Sam’s plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue.
Sam looked at him and wept in his heart, but no tears came to his dry and stinging eyes. ‘I said I’d carry him, if it broke my back,’ he muttered, ‘and I will!’ ‘Come, Mr. Frodo!’ he cried. ‘I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well. So up you get! Come on, Mr. Frodo dear! Sam will give you a ride. Just tell him where to go, and he’ll go.’ As Frodo clung upon his back, arms loosely about his neck, legs clasped firmly under his arms, Sam staggered to his feet; and then to his amazement he felt the burden light.
Then to the wonder of many Aragorn did not put the crown upon his head, but gave it back to Faramir, and said: ‘By the labour and valour of many I have come into my inheritance. In token of this I would have the Ring-bearer bring the crown to me, and let Mithrandir set it upon my head, if he will; for he has been the mover of all that has been accomplished, and this is his victory.’ Then Frodo came forward and took the crown from Faramir and bore it to Gandalf; and Aragorn knelt, and Gandalf set the White Crown upon his head, and said:
‘Now come the days of the King, and may they be blessed while the thrones of the Valar endure!’ But when Aragorn arose all that beheld him gazed in silence, for it seemed to them that he was revealed to them now for the first time. Tall as the sea-kings of old, he stood above all that were near; ancient of days he seemed and yet in the flower of manhood; and wisdom sat upon his brow, and strength and healing were in his hands, and a light was about him. And then Faramir cried: ‘Behold the King!’
‘Are you in pain, Frodo?’ said Gandalf quietly as he rode by Frodo’s side. ‘Well, yes I am,’ said Frodo. ‘It is my shoulder. The wound aches, and the memory of darkness is heavy on me. It was a year ago today.’ ‘Alas! there are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured,’ said Gandalf. ‘I fear it may be so with mine,’ said Frodo. ‘There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?’ Gandalf did not answer. 

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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6. Cain His Brother

Cain His Brother. Anne Perry. 1995. 404 pages. [Source: Library]

I found Cain His Brother a bit of a disappointment after The Sins of the Wolf. Especially in the beginning. Readers be warned, you may spend a lot of time YELLING at William Monk. Especially in the first half of this one. William Monk has been somewhat sympathetic even if flawed in earlier books, but, in this one, well, the way he speaks to Hester is just ALL KINDS OF WRONG. I think it stood out more in this one because of how Sins of the Wolf ended. And it wasn't just that. Also he seems to be completely stupid and gullible sometimes where women are concerned. When Druscilla's character was introduced, for example, I started shouting warnings to Monk. He didn't listen. No matter how many times I tried to warn him. I ended up liking this story after all, but, only because Hester COMPLETELY redeems the situation and saves the day. Does he know it?! Of course not. And if he did, he'd probably just yell at Hester and dig a deeper hole for himself as far as I'm concerned. But still I enjoyed this one overall for how Hester, Monk, and Rathbone work together for justice. And the case they're working on is INTERESTING.

Angus Stonefield has been murdered--presumably--by his "evil" twin brother, Caleb Stone. There is no body, just bloody clothes and a missing person case. Some might argue, well, he tired of his wife, he decided to abandon his family, his job, and begin a new life somewhere else. And his clothes might have anyone's blood on them. The widow, Mrs. Stonefield, comes to William Monk desperate. She needs him to find enough proof that he can be declared dead. Sure she'd love justice, but, is realistic about the situation.

Hester and Lady Callandra, meanwhile, are busy nursing typhoid patients on the wrong side of town. The book is very much focused on poverty and the horrible living conditions in 1850s London.

There is plenty of detecting in this one, and, I think this one probably has the biggest twist so far in the series.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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7. Fellowship of the Ring

The Fellowship of the Ring. J.R.R. Tolkien. 1954/1965. Houghton Mifflin. 423 pages. [Source: Bought]

I am loving my reread of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. I think it may just be a trilogy that I love more each and every time I read it. The book opens delightfully with a birthday celebration. (Not that I skipped the prologue, mind you. I happen to find all the hobbit history interesting.) Bilbo will be turning 111 and Frodo will be turning 33.

Bilbo is preparing to leave the Shire forever, but, he'll be leaving most everything to Frodo--including his magical ring. Gandalf is relieved that the ring will pass onto Frodo, it makes him a bit nervous to see Bilbo so attached to it and calling it precious. As the years go by--and years DO go by--Gandalf becomes concerned, worried, anxious about the ring. He fears that it is the ONE RING, and that Frodo's possession of the ring is dangerous.

I believe Frodo is about fifty when he does eventually set out on his very own adventure. And he won't be alone. He'll be accompanied by Sam, Pippin, and Merry. As their journey progresses, more people join the fellowship, and more risks are faced.

It is different from the movie. But the movie is true to the spirit of the book. In my opinion. It is an absorbing, compelling read. I love, love, love the world-building, the writing, the characterization.

Have you read Fellowship of the Ring? How many times? Do you have a favorite character? a favorite scene? a favorite quote? 

On birthday presents:
Hobbits give presents to other people on their own birthdays. Not very expensive ones, as a rule, and not so lavishly as on this occasion; but it was not a bad system. Actually in Hobbiton and Bywater every day in the year was somebody’s birthday, so that every hobbit in those parts had a fair chance of at least one present at least once a week. But they never got tired of them.
It was a tendency of hobbit-holes to get cluttered up: for which the custom of giving so many birthday-presents was largely responsible. Not, of course, that the birthday-presents were always new; there were one or two old mathoms of forgotten uses that had circulated all around the district; but Bilbo had usually given new presents, and kept those that he received. 
On the food at the birthday party:
There were three official meals: lunch, tea, and dinner (or supper). But lunch and tea were marked chiefly by the fact that at those times all the guests were sitting down and eating together. At other times there were merely lots of people eating and drinking – continuously from elevenses until six-thirty, when the fireworks started. 
Bilbo confesses something to Gandalf:
‘I am old, Gandalf. I don’t look it, but I am beginning to feel it in my heart of hearts. Well-preserved indeed!’ he snorted. ‘Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right. I need a change, or something.’ Gandalf looked curiously and closely at him. ‘No, it does not seem right,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘No, after all I believe your plan is probably the best.’ ‘Well, I’ve made up my mind, anyway. I want to see mountains again, Gandalf – mountains; and then find somewhere where I can rest. In peace and quiet, without a lot of relatives prying around, and a string of confounded visitors hanging on the bell. I might find somewhere where I can finish my book. I have thought of a nice ending for it: and he lived happily ever after to the end of his days.’ 
The ring:
As Frodo did so, he now saw fine lines, finer than the finest pen-strokes, running along the ring, outside and inside: lines of fire that seemed to form the letters of a flowing script. They shone piercingly bright, and yet remote, as if out of a great depth. ‘I cannot read the fiery letters,’ said Frodo in a quavering voice. ‘No,’ said Gandalf, ‘but I can. The letters are Elvish, of an ancient mode, but the language is that of Mordor, which I will not utter here. But this in the Common Tongue is what is said, close enough: One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
It is only two lines of a verse long known in Elven-lore: Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky, Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone, Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die, One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie. One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.’
But as for breaking the Ring, force is useless. Even if you took it and struck it with a heavy sledge-hammer, it would make no dint in it. It cannot be unmade by your hands, or by mine. 
‘There is only one way: to find the Cracks of Doom in the depths of Orodruin, the Fire-mountain, and cast the Ring in there, if you really wish to destroy it, to put it beyond the grasp of the Enemy for ever.’ 
Frodo and Gandalf 'regret' the times in which they live:
‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo. ‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us. And already, Frodo, our time is beginning to look black. The Enemy is fast becoming very strong. His plans are far from ripe, I think, but they are ripening. We shall be hard put to it. We should be very hard put to it, even if it were not for this dreadful chance. 
I am not made for perilous quests. I wish I had never seen the Ring! Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?’ ‘You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.’
‘Not safe for ever,’ said Gandalf. ‘There are many things in the deep waters; and seas and lands may change. And it is not our part here to take thought only for a season, or for a few lives of Men, or for a passing age of the world. We should seek a final end of this menace, even if we do not hope to make one.’ 
More words of wisdom from Gandalf:
Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. 
Hobbits really are amazing creatures, as I have said before. You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after a hundred years they can still surprise you at a pinch.  
The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.’ 
It is perilous to study too deeply the arts of the Enemy, for good or for ill. But such falls and betrayals, alas, have happened before. 
‘Despair, or folly?’ said Gandalf. ‘It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope. Well, let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy! For he is very wise, and weighs all things to a nicety in the scales of his malice. But the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this, we shall put him out of reckoning.’ 
Favorite Sam Bits:
‘Well, sir,’ said Sam dithering a little. ‘I heard a deal that I didn’t rightly understand, about an enemy, and rings, and Mr. Bilbo, sir, and dragons, and a fiery mountain, and – and Elves, sir. I listened because I couldn’t help myself, if you know what I mean. Lor bless me, sir, but I do love tales of that sort. And I believe them too, whatever Ted may say. Elves, sir! I would dearly love to see them. Couldn’t you take me to see Elves, sir, when you go?’
‘It is going to be very dangerous, Sam. It is already dangerous. Most likely neither of us will come back.’ ‘If you don’t come back, sir, then I shan’t, that’s certain,’ said Sam. ‘Don’t you leave him! they said to me. Leave him! I said. I never mean to. I am going with him, if he climbs to the Moon; and if any of those Black Riders try to stop him, they’ll have Sam Gamgee to reckon with, I said. They laughed.’
‘Do you feel any need to leave the Shire now – now that your wish to see them has come true already?’ he asked. ‘Yes, sir. I don’t know how to say it, but after last night I feel different. I seem to see ahead, in a kind of way. I know we are going to take a very long road, into darkness; but I know I can’t turn back. It isn’t to see Elves now, nor dragons, nor mountains, that I want – I don’t rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire. I must see it through, sir, if you understand me.’
Sam looked at him unhappily. ‘It all depends on what you want,’ put in Merry. ‘You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin – to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours – closer than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo. Anyway: there it is. We know most of what Gandalf has told you. We know a good deal about the Ring. We are horribly afraid – but we are coming with you; or following you like hounds.’ 
‘Where did you come by that, Sam?’ asked Pippin. ‘I’ve never heard those words before.’ Sam muttered something inaudible. ‘It’s out of his own head, of course,’ said Frodo. ‘I am learning a lot about Sam Gamgee on this journey. First he was a conspirator, now he’s a jester. He’ll end up by becoming a wizard – or a warrior!’ ‘I hope not,’ said Sam. ‘I don’t want to be neither!’ 
Sam sat on the ground and put his head in his hands. ‘I wish I had never come here, and I don’t want to see no more magic,’ he said and fell silent. After a moment he spoke again thickly, as if struggling with tears. ‘No, I’ll go home by the long road with Mr. Frodo, or not at all,’ he said. ‘But I hope I do get back some day. If what I’ve seen turns out true, somebody’s going to catch it hot!’ 
‘So all my plan is spoilt!’ said Frodo. ‘It is no good trying to escape you. But I’m glad, Sam. I cannot tell you how glad. Come along! It is plain that we were meant to go together. We will go, and may the others find a safe road! Strider will look after them. I don’t suppose we shall see them again.’ ‘Yet we may, Mr. Frodo. We may,’ said Sam.
Concerning Aragorn and other members of the Fellowship:
All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost; The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost. From the ashes a fire shall be woken, A light from the shadows shall spring; Renewed shall be blade that was broken, The crownless again shall be king. 
‘I am Aragorn son of Arathorn; and if by life or death I can save you, I will.’
‘Did the verses apply to you then?’ asked Frodo. ‘I could not make out what they were about. But how did you know that they were in Gandalf’s letter, if you have never seen it?’ ‘I did not know,’ he answered. ‘But I am Aragorn, and those verses go with that name.’ He drew out his sword, and they saw that the blade was indeed broken a foot below the hilt. ‘Not much use is it, Sam?’ said Strider. ‘But the time is near when it shall be forged anew.’
There is naught that you can do, other than to resist, with hope or without it. But you do not stand alone. You will learn that your trouble is but part of the trouble of all the western world.
© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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8. Murder in the Museum

Murder in the Museum. John Rowland. 1938. Poisoned Pen Press. 250 pages. [Source: Review copy]

I really loved reading John Rowland's Murder in the Museum. It was a quick, entertaining read with filled with characters that you can't help wanting to spend time with.

The book opens with Henry Fairhurst happening upon a dead body at the British Museum--in the reading room. He speaks, of course, to the police inspectors--Inspector Shelley and (Constable) Cunningham--and they let slip that it was murder--poison, cyanide. While a bit shocked, perhaps, by the discovery, he's a bit thrilled underneath it all. Nothing like this has ever happened to him before--and the excitement of it, well, he doesn't want to let it go. He wants to help solve the case. They don't agree to this, not right away, of course. But as his volunteered tips prove useful on more than one occasion, soon, he's unofficially taking part.

The victim is a professor of Elizabethan literature, named Julius Arnell. His love of almonds--sugared almonds, I believe--did him in. That is where the poison was.

As I said I loved this one. I loved the mystery of it, the unfolding of clues and suspects. It was also a tension-filled read in many ways. There is more than one crime, for one thing, and readers see one crime in progress. It's a suspenseful read to be sure!!!

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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9. Death in the Tunnel

Death in the Tunnel. Miles Burton. 1936/2016. Poisoned Pen Press. 232 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Though I may not have loved, loved, loved Death in the Tunnel by Miles Burton, I did find it a thoroughly enjoyable read. The murder in this murder mystery happens early on--in the first few page. And this murder occurs on a train--in a train tunnel. Two men set about solving this mystery, Desmond Merrion (who has his own series, this is #13) and Inspector Arnold (from Scotland Yard). The victim is a businessman, Sir Wilfred Saxonby. The murder was made to look like a suicide--a gun with the victim's initials are found in his compartment. Nothing was stolen from his body, from his wallet. His compartment was locked. But there are several reasons why this suicide theory doesn't sit right with Merrion and Arnold. Can they sift through the dozens of clues to find the murderer? Can they agree upon a believable motive for the crime?

Death in the Tunnel is certainly not a character-driven novel. I would say that character development is kept to a bare minimum. But the abundance of clues and the way that they are shared with readers, keeps one reading to see who did it.

The novel was first published in 1936. It has recently been republished. I am glad to see more golden-age mystery novels being brought back into print. This is one of my favorite genres.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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10. Review: Luckiest Girl Alive

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll. Simon & Schuster. 2015. Library copy.

 
The Plot:Ani FaNelli has the perfect life: a great job at a magazine, a wonderful apartment in New York, just the right wardrobe, and a handsome, rich, old-money fiance. And she's 28 so it's all right on target.

Perfect. If you saw her, with the ring and the clothes and the haircut and her figure you'd see her and think.... perfect.

Maybe you'd be jealous. Maybe you'd hate her. Maybe you'd want to be her.

Anyone else may want to hide her past and where she came from, and so, OK, yes, her name used to be TifAni. And TifAni was suburban middle class but private school and just the right college have helped her become Ani. And Ani wants to show everyone just how perfect her life is, so she's agreed to appear in a documentary about what happened at her school when she was 14. Her fiance doesn't want her to do it, doesn't want her revisiting such terrible times, but she's going to show them all.

Show them with her perfection.

And if Ani can't sleep, so what? Who can tell? And if she's tired of pretending to be the perfect girl to show she's worthy of the perfect fiance, well. Everyone pretends, right? Everyone gets angry, right? No one wears their true face.

The Good: Ani's seething anger is revealed in the first pages. She is shopping for her wedding registry with Luke Harrison, her fiance (and wow, she cannot wait to ditch FaNelli and become a Harrison), and as they look at knives she fantasizes stabbing him.

Ani name drops right and left, to show she knows. She knows. And you don't. She knows the right shoes, the right slacks, the right bag, the right diet, the right way to pass the salt and pepper. She's dedicated her life to being the person who fits in with a certain class of people, Luke's class, and at first I was as annoyed as I get at 7th graders in middle grade fiction who only care about being popular. Why -- why does it matter so much?

Why is it so important, what other people think? Why can Ani only see value in herself based on how others see her? And it's not in an ingratiating way, because Ani also has an edge to her. An anger to her. So she uses her knowing the right thing to do as weapon against those who don't know. And Ani, of course, can figure out those who think they know -- until she shatters that belief by how she dresses and what she eats and what she does for fun.

And the chapters take us back to when Ani was 14, when she was one of those kids who wanted to be popular and liked. To have friends and a boyfriend. And Ani was at a new school, a private school with rich privileged kids who came from the right type of money. And if you haven't guessed, someone named TifAni FaNelli doesn't come from the right type of money.

Something happened, at that perfect school with those perfect kids. And it's terrible. And the aftermath is terrible. And you can see how that shapes the grown up Ani, why she became who she is.

And then, something even worse happens to teen TifAni. And that's the mystery, of course -- what happened to that teenager, and what she did. And how that made her who she is.

But as the reader realizes how the past shaped Ani, down to her anger, the question arises -- when will Ani figure it out? Just as she made herself perfect with her clothes and her hair, she figured out what Luke wanted and became that perfect girl. (And I don't feel sorry for Luke, because whenever Ani slips and shows her true self, Luke is horrified and tries to put her back into the box of perfect girlfriend.) And while the "big reveal" may have been those terrible things from her high school years, and part of the mystery is how that shaped the adult Ani, what I read for, eagerly, was for adult Ani to realize that what she had done to recover and heal was now damaging.

Basically, I waited for her to realize that "winning" isn't being married at 28 to Mr Wonderful -- especially when Mr Wonderful isn't.

Anyway. I LOVED this book, and definitely teen appeal. I'll put it down as a Favorite Read in 2016. And yes, it's a 2015 book so I'm sure many of you have already discovered it -- but I'm getting read for the Edgars Award later this month and this is a nominee so that explains why I didn't read it until now.






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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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11. Doctor Zhivago

Doctor Zhivago. Boris Pasternak. Translated by John Bayley. 1957. 592 pages. [Source: Library]

Doctor Zhivago is one of those books that I've "been meaning to read" for years now. Once I decided to actually read it, it took me just five days. "Actually" is a great little word, I've found.

So is the book like the movie? Or. Is the movie like the book? The book is a lot more complex than the movie, in my opinion. The movie seems to make everything about Dr. Zhivago and Lara, and the depths of their oh-so-amazing love. That is not the case in the book. (That's not to say that Lara isn't one of the major characters in the book, but, the book doesn't revolve around her.)

So essentially, the novel covers a little over three decades of Russian history. And those three decades are turbulent, bloody, terrifying, cruel. Probably three-quarters of the novel is set between the years 1910-1920.

If you come to the novel expecting a ROMANCE, then, chances are you'll be bored. It is "about" so much more than how a man feels about a woman.

Featured prominently in the novel: war, politics, revolution, religion, philosophy, economics, ethics, friendship, and, perhaps then love, romance, marriage, and family.

The main character is Doctor Zhivago (Yurii Andreievich Zhivago; aka Yura). Readers are first introduced to him at his mother's funeral. They learn that his father abandoned him and his mother. He'll be looked after by an uncle (Uncle Kolia). (This definitely varies from the movie.) As a teen, he and a friend (Misha Gordon) live with the Gromekos family. Yura later marries into this family, marries Tonia Gromeko. The start of World War I in 1914 disrupts his happy home.

Lara (Larisa Feodorovna Guishar) is another main character. While in the movie she is without a doubt the one and only love of Dr. Zhivago's life, in the book she plays a subtler role perhaps. Readers do spend some time with her through the decades. But then again readers spend a good amount of time with Tonia as well.

There is a third woman in Dr. Zhivago's life. A woman that the movie fails to portray at all. His "third wife" Marina (Marinka). He spends the most time (day-to-day, routine) with this 'third' family. They have two children together, and, he's there for the raising of them for the most part.

Some of his friendships are stabler than his love life. Though to be honest, this isn't completely his fault! Like when he's compelled (kidnapped) into the army during the Revolution. He was forcibly separated from his family, from returning to his family. (Part of me does wonder, if he hadn't been on the road--returning from the town to his country farm, returning from seeing Lara-- would he have been kidnapped? Would they have sought him anywhere he happened to be, since they knew there was a doctor in the region?) After he escapes, and the escape isn't quick in happening, he learns that his family has been deported to France. He's not exactly able to join them, and, yet, one wonders once again...IF he could join them, if he was granted permission from the country and allowed to leave Russia, and if he had the money to do so...would he? Or would he choose to remain in Russia and start a new life with Lara.

The story and the drama are certainly complex enough. At times I felt the characters were complex as well. At other times, I thought they were a bit flat and idealistic. I never really felt like I could "understand" the characters--understand their thought processes, motivations, and such.

I'm not sure I "liked" any of the characters in the traditional sense. But at the same time, I felt the story compelling enough. Especially if you go into it not expecting a romance. Plenty of tragedy, I suppose, if you want to look at it like that.

I don't think Dr. Zhivago's life turned out like he planned or hoped or dreamed. His life was interrupted and disrupted by outside forces, perhaps. In some ways, Doctor Zhivago reminded me of Gone With The Wind.

I am glad I read it. Have you read it? What did you think?
© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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12. Persuasion (1818)

Persuasion. Jane Austen 1818/1992. Knopf Doubleday. 304 pages. [Source: Bought]

Persuasion by Jane Austen is without a doubt one of my favorite books. Persuasion, Jane Eyre, and North and South are my top three classics, top three romances. As to which of the three I like best, well, do I really have to choose between them?! I've read these three again and again and again and again. I do feel sorry for people who don't make rereading a priority in their lives!

Anne Elliot is the heroine of Persuasion. She has a father, who in turns neglects and insults her, and two sisters. Her oldest sister, when she thinks of her at all, does so in a condescending manner. Her younger sister, well, she thinks of her more often, but mainly in a way that takes advantage of her! Anne is both patient and frustrated. She's made peace with how things are, accepts that this is how things will likely remain. True, she sometimes finds herself dreaming of HIM. The man she loved passionately way back when, and, still loves to this day. The man that her family disapproved of. The man that she ultimately broke up with because she was a dutiful daughter. Captain Wentworth. Yes, sometimes she does think of him....

So when the family's financial difficulties leads the family to move to Bath and rent out their estate to a naval officer, that, is when Anne gets a second chance at life, love, and happiness. Of course, no one knew it would be to her advantage! Anne meets Captain Wentworth again. The meeting isn't without its awkwardness. And Captain Wentworth seems EAGER to marry now that he's established himself and is quite wealthy. But he's eager to marry any woman that is not Anne....

There are dozens of characters to meet in this one. Austen, like always, does a great job in creating a world we carry about, and characters we can react to! This is Captain Wentworth and Anne's story....but.... it's much more than that.

I would definitely recommend this one. And. If you get the chance to read it before Pride and Prejudice that might be even better. I think when people become so obsessed with Pride and Prejudice it can be hard for them to like Austen's other heroines. But I much prefer Persuasion to Pride and Prejudice.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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13. The Pastures of Heaven

The Pastures of Heaven. John Steinbeck. 1932. 207 pages. [Source: Library]

This was not my first Steinbeck, but, even so I didn't know quite what to expect. Sometimes I love, love, love his work, and, other times I really almost hate it. The Pastures of Heaven is a collection of inter-connected short stories set in California, spanning several decades, I believe.

I wouldn't consider myself a fan of short stories--usually. The one notable exception being my love for L.M. Montgomery's short stories. But. I found the stories within The Pastures of Heaven to be compelling and entertaining. I read the book all in one sitting, it was just that hard to put down. True, it's not a huge book. But still, it's worth noting all the same. There was a time when I read many books quickly, but, that isn't the case anymore.

The characters. What can I say? Some I really liked. Some I really hated. Some I almost felt pity for more than anything else. I think overall one could easily say that Steinbeck created very human, very flawed, very authentic-feeling characters. Some stories were on the amusing side; others were almost melancholy. I liked the variety. Not just of the emotions within the stories and the types of stories, but, also of the narratives, of the narrators.

I was not a fan of Grapes of Wrath, but, I am a fan of Pastures of Heaven.

Favorite quote:
He knew that the people who were to be his new neighbors were staring at him although he could never catch them at it. This secret staring is developed to a high art among country people. They have seen every uncovered bit of you, have tabulated and memorized the clothes you are wearing, have noticed the color of your eyes and the shape of your nose, and, finally have reduced your figure and personality to three or four adjectives, and all the time you thought they were oblivious to your presence. (12)


© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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14. By The Stars

By the Stars. Lindsay B. Ferguson. 2016. Cedar Fort. 320 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Do you enjoy reading books about World War II? Do you enjoy reading romance novels? Would you find it refreshing to read a book with Mormon characters that isn't about polygamy and sister wives? By the Stars by Lindsay B. Ferguson may be just the book you're looking for. The book is primarily set in Utah, except for the chapters that follow our hero, Cal, to training camp and war. The story has a framework, someone has come to Cal's home to interview him. Subsequently, Cal is telling his story--his and Kate's story humbly and simply. Most of the book, I suppose, is what I'd call a flashback.

Cal and Kate met in junior high school. Their lockers were next to each other. For him, it was love at first sight. For her, well, she wasn't looking for love right then. And while she was friendly enough, she wasn't overly interested in being best-best friends or having him as a boyfriend. But that was then. The book gives readers glimpses of their encounters, meetings. A scene here and there spread out over ten years.

I can see why these glimpses had to be so short and almost disconnected. To keep the story moving. After all, if the narrative were continuous, and the book started when he was in eighth grade, the book would be at least a couple hundred more pages. And it would have a lot more angst more likely. That being said, I had a hard time at first really connecting with the characters. This didn't stay the case by any means. But it was almost like I was waiting for the "real" story to begin.

After Cal returns from his three year mission trip for the church (which we learn little about besides his bus trip there, and his first day there), he reconnects with Kate. But don't imagine for a second, that it will be easy to woo her. For Kate won't easily be persuaded to say "I do" to anyone. She doesn't, she asserts again and again, believe in marriage....

Cal's time in the war was in the last year. Readers get glimpses of the war as well....

Once the romance starts, the story picks up. If you like romance, I think this one will work for you. I have to be in the exact right mood for romance. (I think of Anne Shirley needing just the right kind of pen in order to be able to right mushy love letters to Gilbert Blythe in Anne of Windy Poplars.) I wasn't in that right mood while I was reading this one. But even so, I found it enjoyable enough.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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15. Throwback Thursday: The Accidental Diva

The Accidental Diva by Tia Williams 2004
Putnam

Incredible Quote: "What he didn't tell Billie was how naive she sounded, telling him what hustling was about. In the fifth grade, he had more game in his size-five Adidas kicks than anyone at that party could ever hope to have. He hustled to survive. It was either get out there and sell the shit out of some crack, or eat grape jelly for dinner and hope the rat that bit you in your sleep wasn't carrying anything lethal. When Billie talked about hustling and playing the game, what she really meant was that she was ambitious. She was a go-getter. She set high goals for herself and met them, exceeded them. But the bottom line was that she had been born into a supportive, loving, comfortably middle-class family that took care of her and nurtured her and provided as security blanket. Jay came from nothing. Worse than nothing" (186).


One Sentence Review: A diverting read that is excellently paced and notable for both its now-outdated culture references and relevant social commentary on a number of topics ranging from class to fashion to race with a distinctive (in the best way possible) narrative voice.

I love this distinction Ms. Williams makes in her novel. I never realized that people describing themselves as "hustlers" bothered me until I read this passage and found myself nodding in agreement. Especially when celebrities use the term, I just find it ridiculous (excluding those who actually came up from nothing as opposed to those born to famous parents, etc etc) and Ms. Williams perfectly illustrates why. If you're thinking this quote is a bit heavy and shying away from this novel, never fear. This quote is expertly woven into a romp of a read that straddles the line between light and social commentary. It was exactly what I needed to end 2015, a lot of fun to read while making witty observations about being "the only" and exploring class issues that it managed to not only hold my attention but also cause me to pause and think after reading a passage. 

The only negative I can see is that it confirmed my fears about the beauty industry in terms of its shallowness. But it's a unique (for me) professional setting for a book so it kept me turning the pages. This book was published in 2004, 12 years later it's sad that we're still having the same conversations. Through Billie the author tackles cultural appropriation (which Bille calls "ethnic borrowing" in the beauty and fashion industry and maybe it's just because of the rise of the Internet and public intellectuals and blogging but it had honestly never occurred to me that people were having these conversations pre-Twitter. That demonstrates my ignorance and I was happy to be enlightened while also being sad that white gaze still has so much power over beauty standards. Although it is getting better because it is harder for beauty companies, fashion companies and magazines to ignore being called out when they "discover" some trend people of color have been naturally gifted with/been doing/wearing for years.

Aside from the pleasing depth of the novel, it's a quick paced read. I actually felt caught up in Billie's sweeping romance and just as intoxicated as she did, I didn't want to resurface from her studio apartment. Honestly I'd like a prequel so that we can live vicariously through Billie, Renee and Vida's college years. And I'm so happy her friends served more of a role than just providing advice at Sunday brunch. Also Billie's family dynamics were absolutely hilarious and unexpected. 

I dealt with similar issues to Billie and Jay although not on as large a scale, granted I'm not a professional (yet) but I can relate to the class issues that come up in a relationship with two different economic backgrounds. And not to be a cliche but especially when it's the woman who comes from the comfortable lifestyle and the preconceived notions that we have/that other have about us, difficulty is involved and so on a personal level I was able to really connect with Billie (and better understand Jay).

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16. A Sudden, Fearful Death

A Sudden, Fearful Death. Anne Perry. 1993. 464 pages. [Source: Library]

A Sudden, Fearful Death is the fourth book in Anne Perry's William Monk mystery series. I am definitely settling into the series and enjoying it very much! To catch up readers:

William Monk, our detective-hero, has lost his memory. Occasionally, he'll get a flash of something resembling a memory. But for the most part, he's always got one case on the back of his mind: his own. He's piecing together who he was. What he's learned so far is that he was an absolutely horrible jerk that most everyone hated. He does NOT want to be that guy anymore.

Hester Latterly, our heroine, was one of the "Florence Nightingale" nurses during the Crimean war. Her employment since coming home is irregular but somewhat steady. Usually, she's a private nurse. In this book, however, she's going undercover at a hospital...

Oliver Rathbone is a lawyer--a barrister--on "friendly" terms with both William Monk and Hester Latterly. He's even invited Hester to meet his dad, Henry! I've come to greatly appreciate him. He has at various times hired William Monk to do detective work for him.

Lady Callandra Daviot is a saint--nearly. She helps William Monk find work as a private investigator. When he's in-between cases, she makes sure he has enough to see him through. She takes an interest in some of his more interesting cases. She is very good friends with Hester. At times she's helped Hester find suitable employment as well.

These four are our "main characters" that we spend a lot of time with in each book in the series.

The opening of A Sudden, Fearful Death reminded me of some of Wilkie Collins' books--in a good way. I was absolutely hooked though a bit confused since I didn't see how these opening chapters could connect with the book's description on the back cover. The chapters serve as a compelling prologue of sorts--an overture.

The premise: Prudence Barrymore, a nurse at a London hospital, is murdered. Lady Callandra herself discovers the body--in a laundry chute, I believe. Who murdered her? The police, of course, are on the case, but Lady Callandra doesn't fully trust the police to get it right. She hires William Monk to do some investigating for her, and Hester goes undercover as a nurse to see if she can help out on the case. The murderer works at the hospital most likely, and important clues could still be found by close observation. Most of this case focuses on WHY would anyone want to kill her? Several motives are suggested by those involved in the case--prosecution and defense--but, it takes some thinking outside the box to find the right motive and the murderer.

One of the themes in this one is women's rights--or lack thereof. Prudence Barrymore had ONE big dream in life, to be a doctor, but as a woman she faced huge obstacles. Everyone thought they knew what was best for her: give up her idea of doctoring, even of nursing, and MARRY quickly before someone realizes you're thirty-ish. Her family, instead of being proud of her for being so extraordinarily good at what she does, was disappointed and ashamed that she was so unnatural. Very few "understood" her and accepted her as she was.

In addition to reminding me of a Wilkie Collins' novel, this one also reminded me of the show Law and Order SVU. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about how rape and sexual assault would have been viewed in the 1850s. About how the victims would in most cases rather die than go to the police to report the crime, and the thought of pursuing justice in court--NEVER. This book deals with how rape is viewed in society, and, also abortion.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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17. Defend and Betray

Defend and Betray. (William Monk #3) Anne Perry. 1992. 439 pages. [Source: Bought]

Defend and Betray by Anne Perry is the third book in the William Monk mystery series. This mystery series is set in Victorian England. My favorite of the three--so far--is the second. I suspect that while I will probably "like" each book in the series, there will be some that I *love* and others not quite as much. This will probably be determined in part by the mystery.

The book opens with Hester Latterly meeting a friend, Edith Sobell, in the park. Edith has surprising, sudden news to share with her friend, her older brother has died at a horrid dinner party. It was a horrid gathering BEFORE the death, both guest and host will admit. Turns out his death was no accident. You might guess that Defend and Betray is about Hester Latterly and William Monk trying to solve this mystery and discover the identity of the murderer. But. You'd be wrong. A confession comes really early in this one. His wife confesses to the crime. Few really believe the reason given for the crime: jealousy over another woman. But some choose to pretend to believe it all the same because it's easier than thinking that she had a better, more logical reason for the crime OR that someone else in the family committed the crime and she's covering it up and taking the blame.

Hester encourages the family to hire Oliver Rathbone to defend her. Oliver, once hired, hires William Monk to investigate. The mission of all three is to find out WHY she murdered her husband, so that she will have defense in court. The last third of the book, I'd say, is focused almost exclusively on the trial. Readers "hear" both the prosecution and defense make their case--calling witnesses, cross-examining, arguing, etc.

I definitely am liking the series. This particular case was not my favorite. But it is worth noting that William Monk recovers a memory or two in this one. The case brings to his mind a woman that he loved. He can see her face. He remembers feeling deeply connected to her--tenderly concerned about her. But he can't remember her name. Just that she must have been someone he met while working a case! I did miss Evans in this one. Now that William Monk is no longer with the police, we don't spend much time with Evans. Oh, I should also add that we get to meet Oliver Rathbone's father! Now that was fun!
© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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18. Negroland

Negroland: a memoir by Margo Jefferson 2015
Pantheon/Knopf Doubleday

IQ "Average American women were killed like this [by men in crimes of passion] every day. But we weren't raised to be average women; we were raised to be better than most women of either race. White women, our mothers reminded us pointedly, could afford more of these casualties. There were more of them, weren't there? There were always more white people. There were so few of us, and it had cost so much to construct us. Why were we dying?" 168

There is so much to unpack here, so many quotes I want to discuss, which I will do later on in the review but if you only want to read one paragraph I'll try to make this one tidy.

One sentence review: There is something new to focus on with every reading and like all great works of literature there is something for everyone, the writing is flowery but I mean that in the best way possible.

I fell in love with the life of Margo Jefferson and the history of the Black American elite (think Our Kind of People). I would say I'm on the periphery of the Negroland world so much of what Jefferson describes is vaguely familiar to me but obviously I am not a product of the '50s and '60s so that was all new to me. I appreciated Jefferson's honesty that she finds it difficult to be 100% vulnerable, I imagine that is part of why she chooses to focus so much on the historical. But at least she doesn't pretend that she will bare her soul, but she still manages to go pretty damn far for someone who believes it is easier to write about the sad/racist things. Jefferson eloquently explores the black body, class, Chicago, gender, mental illness and race from when she was a child into adulthood with a touch of dry humor here and there. Jefferson is the epitome of the cool aunt and I want to just sit at her feet everyday and learn (I was fortunate to hear her speak at U of C and it was magical, her voice is heavenly and she's FUNNY).

I understand complaints that the narrative is disjointed but Jefferson always manages to bring her tangents back to the main point. It is not simply random ramblings the author indulges in, each seemingly random thought serves a purpose that connects to the central theme of the chapter/passage. Jefferson does not owe us anything, yes she chose to write a memoir but she also chose to write a social history. She explores some of her flaws and manages to avoid what she so feared;  "I think it's too easy to recount unhappy memories when you write about yourself. You bask in your own innocence. You revere your grief. You arrange your angers at their most becoming angles. I don't want this kind of indulgence to dominate my memories" (6). For someone raised to be twice as good and only show off to the benefit of the Black race, Jefferson thankfully manages to let us in on far more than I expected when it comes to the Black elite.

Jefferson comes at my life when she says, "At times I'm impatient with younger blacks who insist they were or would have been better off in black schools, at least from pre-K through middle school. They had, or would have had, a stronger racial and social identity, an identity cleansed of suspicion, subterfuge, confusion, euphemism, presumption, patronization, and disdain. I have no grounds for comparison. The only schools I ever went to were white schools with small numbers of Negroes" (119). I too attended majority white schools and have often wondered if I would have had an easier time identifying with other Black students in college (and even high school) if I had gone to majority Black schools instead of remaining on the periphery. She goes on to explain her impatience because she felt that for the first few years of school she was able to live her life unaware of race and I would agree, there were only a few incidents but mostly I felt free. So she's right, it's a trade off and ultimately we all end up in the same white world. I still think I should have gone to an HBCU just to see what it's like, to force myself to confront my own privilege but I managed to do that at my PWI and there's no point in worrying about it anymore. It's this matter-of-fact tone Jefferson uses throughout the book that I adored, she largely avoids sentimentality. Although she somehow manages to fondly look back at Jack & Jill which makes me sad that I don't share the same happy memories of the group and based on conversations with a few others on Twitter I am not alone in that (someone should research the history of Jack & Jill and explain why it has become so awful although I have my own theory).

Much has already been said about how candidly Jefferson discusses depression, an aspect of mental health that was not discussed in the Black community. Thus I do not wish to dwell on the topic since writers far more articulate than I have mentioned it in their reviews, but I appreciate her talking about it and I know what she means. Slowly but surely the 'strong Black woman' facade is being allowed to crack and we are all the better for it. I wish she had delved a bit into Black women and eating disorders because she mentions how much she loved Ballet and the ideal beauty standards of the Black elite (no big butts or noses for example) but maybe this is not something she witnesses personally. Jefferson mentions that when Thurgood Marshall and Audrey Hepburn died around the same time, she and her friend felt guilty for caring more about Hepburn's death because of all she symbolized for them. At first I raised my eyebrows at this sign of racial disloyalty but she notes what Hepburn meant to her; "And the longing to suffer nothing at all, to be rewarded, decorated, festooned for one's charms and looks, one's piquant daring, one's winning idiosyncrasies: Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face and Breakfast at Tiffany's. Equality in America for a bourgeois black girl meant equal opportunity to be playful and winsome. Indulged" (200). And I understood exactly what she meant. It's why I cling to Beyonce, Carmen Jones (and Dorothy Dandridge by extension), Janelle Monae etc etc. I can't think of a Black manic pixie dream girl but I'd love to have a Black girl play one, to be able to complain about a character we have long been denied.

On Black men & women; "But the boys ruled. We were just aspiring adornments, and how could it be otherwise? The Negro man was at the center of the culture's race obsessions. The Negro woman was on the shabby fringes. She had moments if she was in show business, of course; we craved the erotic command of Tina Turner, the arch insolence of Diana Ross, the melismatic authenticity of Aretha. But in life, when a Good Negro Girl attached herself to a ghetto boy hoping to go street and compensate for her bourgeois privilege, if she didn't get killed with or by him, she usually lived to become a socially disdained, financially disabled black woman destined to produce at least one baby she would have to care for alone. What was the matter with us? Were we plagued by some monstrous need, some vestigial longing to plunge back into the abyss Negros had been consigned to for centuries? Was this some variant of survivor guilt? No, that phrase is too generic. I'd call it the guilty confusion of those who were raised to defiantly accept their entitlement. To be more than survivors, to be victors who knew that victory was as much a threat as failure, and could be turned against them at any moment" (169). Jefferson embraces feminism and pushes back on the constraints of Black womanhood.

I've already picked this book up and re-read random passages which is rare for me so soon after finishing it the first time (this is what happens when you have a towering TBR pile). I took an African American Autobiography class in college and I really hope this book gets added to the syllabus. It combines so many topics of interest to me, acknowledges so many greats in Black history, exposes some secrets of the Black upper class (passing, brown paper bag test) while combining history and memoir, absolutely captivating. I instinctively knew I would need to buy this book (ended up getting it autographed) and I am so glad I did. The cover is phenomenal.

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19. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Mark Twain. 1889. 258 pages. [Source: Bought]

It was in Warwick Castle that I came across the curious stranger whom I am going to talk about. He attracted me by three things: his candid simplicity, his marvelous familiarity with ancient armor, and the restfulness of his company—for he did all the talking.

Did I enjoy reading Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court? Yes!!!! Very, very much!

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is a story within a story. The narrator meets a talkative stranger, the stranger begins to relate a strange-but-true story--so we're told--and finally, the stranger hands the narrator an old manuscript to finish the tale. Most of the book except for the beginning and ending frames, IS the manuscript written by the talkative stranger.

Here is how that manuscript begins:
I am an American. I was born and reared in Hartford, in the State of Connecticut--anyway, just over the river, in the country. So I am a Yankee of the Yankees--and practical; yes, and nearly barren of sentiment, I suppose--or poetry, in other words.
Readers learn that this Yankee was mysteriously transported BACK in time to the days of King Arthur's Court. This manuscript is his story of those events: the people he met, the dangers he faced, the near-misses and close-calls of his adventures, the friendships he formed, and the nearly successful, progressive experiments he conducted. For this time-traveler, THE BOSS, as he came to be called, had lofty goals once he realized where he was and the unique opportunity he had to shape or reshape society. These goals, for example, included introducing technology and establishing education for all.

The book is quite entertaining and at times very amusing!!! There is some action to be sure, but, it is a comedy through and through.

Some of my favorite quotes:
The mere knowledge of a fact is pale; but when you come to realize your fact, it takes on color.
The only right way to classify the majestic ages of some of those jokes was by geologic periods. But that neat idea hit the boy in a blank place, for geology hadn't been invented yet. However, I made a note of the remark, and calculated to educate the commonwealth up to it if I pulled through. It is no use to throw a good thing away merely because the market isn't ripe yet.
Inherited ideas are a curious thing, and interesting to observe and examine. I had mine, the king and his people had theirs. In both cases they flowed in ruts worn deep by time and habit, and the man who should have proposed to divert them by reason and argument would have had a long contract on his hands. 
Spiritual wants and instincts are as various in the human family as are physical appetites, complexions, and features, and a man is only at his best, morally, when he is equipped with the religious garment whose color and shape and size most nicely accommodate themselves to the spiritual complexion, angularities, and stature of the individual who wears it. 
There never was such a country for wandering liars; and they were of both sexes. Hardly a month went by without one of these tramps arriving; and generally loaded with a tale about some princess or other wanting help to get her out of some far-away castle where she was held in captivity by a lawless scoundrel, usually a giant. Now you would think that the first thing the king would do after listening to such a novelette from an entire stranger, would be to ask for credentials—yes, and a pointer or two as to locality of castle, best route to it, and so on. But nobody ever thought of so simple and common-sense a thing at that. No, everybody swallowed these people's lies whole, and never asked a question of any sort or about anything. Well, one day when I was not around, one of these people came along—it was a she one, this time—and told a tale of the usual pattern. Her mistress was a captive in a vast and gloomy castle, along with forty-four other young and beautiful girls, pretty much all of them princesses; they had been languishing in that cruel captivity for twenty-six years; the masters of the castle were three stupendous brothers, each with four arms and one eye—the eye in the center of the forehead, and as big as a fruit. 
Would you believe it? The king and the whole Round Table were in raptures over this preposterous opportunity for adventure. Every knight of the Table jumped for the chance, and begged for it; but to their vexation and chagrin the king conferred it upon me, who had not asked for it at all.
Indeed, I said I was glad. And in a way it was true; I was as glad as a person is when he is scalped.
There, there, never mind, don't explain, I hate explanations; they fog a thing up so that you can't tell anything about it.
But that is the way we are made: we don't reason, where we feel; we just feel.
Take a jackass, for instance: a jackass has that kind of strength, and puts it to a useful purpose, and is valuable to this world because he is a jackass; but a nobleman is not valuable because he is a jackass. It is a mixture that is always ineffectual, and should never have been attempted in the first place. 
You can't reason with your heart; it has its own laws, and thumps about things which the intellect scorns.
Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising. 
They are common defects of my own, and one mustn't criticise other people on grounds where he can't stand perpendicular himself. 
Words realize nothing, vivify nothing to you, unless you have suffered in your own person the thing which the words try to describe.
Clarence was with me as concerned the revolution, but in a modified way. His idea was a republic, without privileged orders, but with a hereditary royal family at the head of it instead of an elective chief magistrate. He believed that no nation that had ever known the joy of worshiping a royal family could ever be robbed of it and not fade away and die of melancholy. I urged that kings were dangerous. He said, then have cats. He was sure that a royal family of cats would answer every purpose. They would be as useful as any other royal family, they would know as much, they would have the same virtues and the same treacheries, the same disposition to get up shindies with other royal cats, they would be laughably vain and absurd and never know it, they would be wholly inexpensive; finally, they would have as sound a divine right as any other royal house, and "Tom VII, or Tom XI, or Tom XIV by the grace of God King," would sound as well as it would when applied to the ordinary royal tomcat with tights on. "And as a rule," said he, in his neat modern English, "the character of these cats would be considerably above the character of the average king, and this would be an immense moral advantage to the nation, for the reason that a nation always models its morals after its monarch's. The worship of royalty being founded in unreason, these graceful and harmless cats would easily become as sacred as any other royalties, and indeed more so, because it would presently be noticed that they hanged nobody, beheaded nobody, imprisoned nobody, inflicted no cruelties or injustices of any sort, and so must be worthy of a deeper love and reverence than the customary human king, and would certainly get it. The eyes of the whole harried world would soon be fixed upon this humane and gentle system, and royal butchers would presently begin to disappear; their subjects would fill the vacancies with catlings from our own royal house; we should become a factory; we should supply the thrones of the world; within forty years all Europe would be governed by cats, and we should furnish the cats. The reign of universal peace would begin then, to end no more forever.... Me-e-e-yow-ow-ow-ow—fzt!—wow!" Hang him, I supposed he was in earnest, and was beginning to be persuaded by him, until he exploded that cat-howl and startled me almost out of my clothes. But he never could be in earnest. He didn't know what it was. He had pictured a distinct and perfectly rational and feasible improvement upon constitutional monarchy, but he was too feather-headed to know it, or care anything about it, either.
© 2015 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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20. Silent Nights

Silent Nights. Edited by Martin Edwards. 2015. Poisoned Pen Press. 298 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Love mystery and detective stories? Love British mystery and detective stories? Treat yourself to this collection of SHORT STORIES edited by Martin Edwards. Each mystery is set during the holidays. So many authors are included in this collection, you're almost sure to find your favorite author. But what I loved even more than finding "favorite authors" was finding new-to-me authors. Edwards introduces each story by providing readers with a little information about the author and the story included. Some of these stories are rare and almost forgotten. All are "vintage" or "classic" stories. I think the most recent being from the 1940s.

The book includes:
  • The Blue Carbuncle by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Parlour Tricks by Ralph Plummer
  • A Happy Solution by Raymund Allen
  • The Flying Stars by G.K. Chesterton
  • Stuffing by Edgar Wallace
  • The Unknown Murderer by H.C. Bailey
  • The Absconding Treasurer by J. Jefferson Farjeon
  • The Necklace of Pearls by Dorothy L. Sayers
  • The Case Is Altered by Margery Allingham
  • Waxworks by Ethel Lina White
  • Cambric Tea by Marjorie Bowen
  • The Chinese Apple by Joseph Shearing
  • A Problem in White by Nicholas Black
  • The Name on the Window by Edmund Crispin
  • Beef for Christmas by Leo Bruce
Probably my favorite short story was Waxworks by Ethel Lina White. I also enjoyed Cambric Tea by Marjorie Bowen.

Short stories aren't my favorite thing to read. But I do love a good mystery. I thought this one was worth reading because it introduced me to some new-to-me authors. And it talked about what else they'd written--including novels. The book gives readers a taste of various authors and their detectives.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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21. The Face of a Stranger

The Face of a Stranger. (William Monk #1) Anne Perry. 1990. 352 pages. [Source: Library]

The Face of a Stranger is a great little mystery, and a fine start to a series, a series that I now want to read more of!

The hero of The Face of a Stranger is William Monk. Readers are just as clueless as to who he is as he is himself. Monk wakes up from an accident with amnesia. He doesn't remember his name, his face, what he does, where he lives. He's clueless. He finds out from others that his name is William Monk and that he's a police detective. Within a few weeks of his release, he's back at work and back to detecting. Just as important to him as getting back to working on cases is solving the mystery of who he is, what kind of man he is. The clues are leading him to suspect that he hasn't been a very nice or kind man. That he's treated others--including his own sister--poorly. He's woken up with a conscience or a change of heart, you might say. His morals have been reset, if you will! He realizes that not many people--if any--actually like him. And that's hard to take, but, he does it well, for the most part. He is not willing to tell everyone that he's clueless, that he has no clue as to his own past. One thing is clear: he's good at noticing details, of finding clues, of putting together theories based on those clues. So along with his own private agenda of finding out WHO he is, he's on an official case with a partner (Evans, I believe). Somebody murdered Major Joscelin Grey. The murder coincidentally enough happened around the same time as his own accident that landed him in the hospital.

Can he solve the murder case? Will he allow pressure from others to influence him into making a quick arrest?

I enjoyed this one oh-so-much!!!!

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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22. Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc. Mark Twain. 1895/1896. 452 pages. [Source: Library]

Did I enjoy reading Mark Twain's Joan of Arc? Yes, very much. Though perhaps not quite as much as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. But that isn't exactly fair to try to compare the two really; they are very different from one another.

Joan of Arc is narrated by Sieur Louis de Conte in his old age, 82 in the year 1492. He is attempting to tell the behind-the-scenes story of Joan of Arc. This telling begins in their childhood. He grew up with her, and, remained close to her and witnessed (almost) all the "big" events. He was even witness to her trials and served as a secretary or note-taker, I believe.

Is the book a comedy? Far from it. (Though there is that one scene about if a stomach can help in the committing of a crime that is funny. And also some great Paladin scenes. He's one of the companions--soldiers--and he's a STORYTELLER if ever there was.) Though a few asides from "the translator" (aka Mark Twain) do pack a little something. The book is properly a tragic history.

Some of my favorite quotes:
It was not my opinion; I think there is no sense in forming an opinion when there is no evidence to form it on. If you build a person without any bones in him he may look fair enough to the eye, but he will be limber and cannot stand up; and I consider that evidence is the bones of an opinion. 
And it is my thought that if one keep to the things he knows, and not trouble about the things which he cannot be sure about, he will have the steadier mind for it--and there is profit in that.
Discretion hasn't anything to do with brains; brains are an obstruction to it, for it does not reason, it feels. Perfect discretion means absence of brains. Discretion is a quality of the heart--solely a quality of the heart; it acts upon us through feeling.
Well, well a good and wholesome thing is a little harmless fun in this world; it tones a body up and keeps him human and prevents him from souring. 
© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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23. Alas, Babylon

Alas, Babylon. Pat Frank. 1959/2005. Harper Perennial Modern Classics. 323 pages. [Source: Bought]

I spent the whole year of 2015 meaning to read Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon. So I decided that this year, it would be one of the very first books I read. I wasn't going to let another year pass before I sat down to reread this sci-fi classic.

Alas, Babylon was originally published in 1959. I think it is crucial to remember that fact as you're reading. The book is set during the Cold War, published during the Cold War, and asks the question: WHAT IF the Soviet Union uses nuclear warfare and attacks various cities and bases across the whole United States. Would there be survivors? How would people survive? What would they eat and drink? Not just in the initial weeks following the nuclear war, but, more long-term than that. How would they cope--how would they manage--without electricity, without batteries (once they ran out), without cars (once all the gas was gone), without new supplies arriving by truck or plane, etc. Would communities come together or be torn apart? How would people deal with one another, treat one another? Would lawlessness prevail? Would fear and anger and greed win the day? Or would people still look out for one another?

Alas, Babylon is not just a what-if story, however. It is a personal story, that I felt remained character-driven. It stars Randy Bragg and his family. His brother, Mark, sends Randy a warning in a telegram, "Alas, Babylon" their code for the end is coming, war is inevitable, be prepared. Randy prepares to receive his sister-in-law, niece, and nephew into his Florida home. The book is set in a small community in Florida, a community that is fortunate in some ways--many ways. Readers get a chance to know quite a few of the locals in addition to this one family. For example, the local librarian who finds herself most necessary to the community. The library COMES ALIVE after the attack, as people become desperate for information and news, for entertainment, etc.

I liked the practical aspects of Alas, Babylon. Unlike Life As We Knew It, I felt it handled the situation practically, logically. One of the big issues I had with Life As We Knew It, a book I love despite its flaws, was the fact that it got a few practical things wrong: for one, how people get water. It has the heroine's family getting well water through their pipes without an (electric) pump! Not the case with Alas, Babylon. If it has flaws, they didn't leap out at me.

Alas, Babylon is a thought-provoking novel. One I'd definitely recommend.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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24. Death on the Riviera

Death on the Riviera. John Bude. 1952/2016. Poisoned Pen Press. 250 pages. [Source: Review copy]
 
Did I enjoy reading John Bude's Death on the Riviera?! Yes! I might even go so far as to call it a gush-worthy read? Why? Purely because I found it hard to put down, and, just overall satisfying to read. Is it the best ever mystery novel? Probably not. But was it a joy to spend time with? Yes, very much.

Inspector Meredith (C.I.D) and Acting-Sergeant Freddy Strang head to Southern France in this mystery novel. They are teaming up with the local police to stop a gang of criminals from printing counterfeit money and introducing it into the currency. The prime suspect--the leader of the gang--is English. But though it is late in coming--very, very late in coming--this one is a murder mystery as well. So there are at least two 'big' stories going on in this delightful golden-age detective novel.

Why did I find it so delightful? Probably for me, the number one reason is the characters and characterization as shown off so well in the dialogue. I really, really enjoyed Freddy Strang's presence in this one. And his attempted romance was just cute and sweet in all the right ways. It was never the focus of the book, but, it was like the chocolate bits in a trail mix. I also enjoyed the setting and the plot and the solution.

The book was originally published in 1952, and it has been republished in 2016.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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25. A Dangerous Mourning

A Dangerous Mourning (William Monk #2). Anne Perry. 1992. 344 pages. [Source: Library]

I loved, loved, loved, LOVED A Dangerous Mourning by Anne Perry. Reading this second William Monk mystery made me want to read everything Perry has ever written--at least her historical mysteries. It was so good, it was near-perfect. I loved, loved, loved the characters of William Monk and Hester Latterly. I like that the first-and-second books flow into one another so smoothly. I like how characters from the first book have carried over into the second book. I like that the series seems to be so much more than just another cozy mystery series. The author seems just as determined to appeal to historical fiction fans as mystery fans.

For those that haven't read the first book, this is what you need to know:

1) William Monk is the hero, the detective.
2) After a bad accident (which occurs BEFORE the first book opens), he has NO MEMORIES of his former life.
3) He knows that he was/is a police detective. He knows that he was respected but far from liked. His boss HATES him.
4) He meets Evans, the sergeant underneath him, his partner. Evans actually seems to genuinely like him and looks up to him.
5) Monk looks for clues to his own past as he continues to work for the police department on new cases.
6) Monk meets Hester Latterly, a nurse with Crimean War experience, and the two clash for the most part. (Think Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.)
7) Hester is very SMART, very OPINIONATED, very OBSERVANT, very LIKABLE. I was thrilled to see her in the second book too.

The mystery of the second book: Sir Basil's married/widowed daughter, Octavia Haslett, was murdered in her bedroom one night. Monk is assigned to the case. Everyone is assuming/presuming that an outsider, a burglar, broke into the house and killed her. But Monk finds no proof that it was an outside job, instead, all the evidence is showing him that someone IN the house committed the crime. Readers get to know the family (quite dysfunctional) and the servants (upstairs and downstairs servants) as the mystery continues....

I loved this book. I did. I definitely loved the first book too. But this one I loved even more. This one I found to be completely gush-worthy.
© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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