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Archive for the ‘Charlotte’s Picks’ Category

Vertigo42Martha Grimes has come a long way since she started a series of mysteries named after English pubs. Her latest Richard Jury mystery is named for a champagne bar atop a skyscraper that overlooks the London financial district. While stretching the definition of “pub,” and sporting a cover that looks like a city crime thriller, the story offers the same mix of tragic, wealthy victims and eccentric rural Brits that have made Grimes’s books so popular for years.

Quite a few characters have been introduced in the course of 23 books, and the ones who weren’t Inspector Jury’s love interest have mostly survived to feature in later books. Grimes’s latest books are like a roll call of characters, each of whom seems to have wandered in from a different genre of mystery. Richard Jury, handsome and melancholy, lives in a darker, psychological mystery series where most people die, especially women he admires, and terrible things happen to children; reluctant aristocrat Melrose Plant evokes the golden age of wealthy amateur sleuths with butlers; while the crew of hangers-on in the town of Long Piddleton and Plant’s dreadful American aunt seem like they’d be comfier in a cozy mystery with tea shops and talking cats. But Grimes throws them all together along with movie references in affectionate nods to all kinds of mysteries past.

The movie reference in this case is obviously Hitchcock’s dizzy thriller Vertigo. For an old friend, Jury agrees to look into a very cold case: seventeen years ago, the friend’s beloved wife “fell” down a stone stairway, or so the police concluded at the time. It does seem suspicious that her death mirrored an even earlier tragedy, when a bossy, unpopular child at a birthday party “fell” into an empty pool on the same grounds. And while Jury is mulling over these incidents, a woman “falls” from a tower in the surprisingly crime-ridden environs of Long Piddleton, involving Melrose Plant and the usual suspects who hang out at the local pub. Jury and Sgt. Wiggins trace the survivors of the fatal party, and a depressing lot they are. But are they murderers?

Check the WRL catalog for Vertigo 42

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Duke Duke DukeFirst of all, Isolde Ophelia Goodnight is a fantastic name for a romantic heroine, even if it doesn’t lead you to expect a happy ending.

Izzy Goodnight’s father was the author of a beloved series of children’s stories set in a fictional medieval kingdom. But since her father died, leaving nothing but debts, Izzy’s real life is no fairy tale. Her purse is empty when she receives notice of a surprising bequest: her godfather appears to have left her a castle. And when she arrives to take stock of the new real estate, uneasily situated in the middle of nowhere, her ownership of the castle comes as a surprise to the duke who is already living there.

A scarred, snarling misanthrope with his own problems, Ransom William Dacre Vane doesn’t remember selling the castle at any point, and he’s unwilling to move out, as he needs a cold, bat-infested castle for brooding purposes. You can’t properly hate mankind in a rose cottage, can you? Not one to back down, Izzy strikes a deal with the duke: he will pay her to act as his clerk; she will sort through his piles of unopened correspondence in hopes of settling the legal status of the castle. Her duke-infested castle.

This lighthearted romance is roughly based on the story of “Beauty and the Beast.” That’s never been one of my favorite fairy tales, as it requires the hero to waste so much time insisting he’s a monster— so I was actually pretty relieved when the LARPers showed up. Yes, I picked this title out of a stack of historical romances because it contains 19th-century cosplay, a band of fannish role players who are starstruck to meet the Izzy Goodnight of the Goodnight Tales and who spend their spare time re-enacting medieval romances.

Written in a breezy, conversational style, this is a romance for pure escapism. All the gothic elements, the isolated castle, the bats, and the apparently brutish lead— so brooding!— are played for laughs and to surprisingly sweet effect. There’s a sneaky undercurrent of modern references, too (“The threat is coming from inside the castle”), that let you know this story is all in good fun.

Check the WRL catalog for Romancing the Duke.

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FakingArt, theft, and con artists in love are an irresistible combination in this contemporary romance classic. Whip-crack dialogue and lots of old movie quotes evoke the great screwball comedy duos of the screen.

They meet in the closet while burgling a house: Davy Dempsey, a (reformed?) con man introduced in Welcome to Temptation, is trying to steal three million back from a gold-digging ex who has moved on to her next victim, an art collector. Tilda Goodnight is trying to steal back her own painting so that the world won’t learn that the respected Goodnight art gallery has been trafficking in forgeries.

I’d forgotten how crowded this book is when I revisited it on my recent romance binge. On top of the cast of dozens, some have double identities and others have multiple nicknames, depending on which movie they happen to be quoting at the time. Fast-paced and funny, it’s one of those comedy romances in which you never know who will come through the door next— the con man, the hit man, the gold digger, the FBI? “It’s like the clown car at the circus,” someone remarks during the whirlwind conclusion, but it all ends in a happily ever after with character reveals that would make Shakespeare proud.

Crusie’s titles stand out from a crowd of romances because of the truths underneath the silliness: women trying on different roles, trying to be all things to all people, and losing track of which is the “real” self in the end. Tilda, a gifted painter, has been supporting her family with knockoff Impressionist murals for so long, she’s come to hate her art— and Davy can give Tilda her art back, not just in literal paintings, stolen or conned from their original owners, but in the joy of painting again in her own style. And while Davy and Tilda’s hot-and-cold affair is in the spotlight, there are satisfying moments of revelation for all three generations of Goodnight women. Happy endings are not only for the young and cute! Mother Gwen, whose long-repressed anger comes out in subversive cross-stitch and patchwork quilts with teeth motifs, gets a new beginning out of the plot as well.

For other romantic crime capers, Melissa recommends The Spellman Files. Or, there’s the stylish 1960s film, How to Steal a Million, in which Peter O’Toole, Audrey Hepburn, and Hepburn’s Givenchy and Cartier wardrobe also find true love in a closet, while conspiring to steal a forged sculpture. While Dempsey and Goodnight are more down-to-earth than O’Toole and Hepburn— aren’t we all— the aura of witty, screwball fun is the same.

Check the WRL catalog for Faking It.

Go ahead, watch How to Steal a Milliontoo.

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Heiress“She imagined the conversation as a prime coach-and-four. She imagined it racing along a road at top speed, the wheels glinting in the sunlight. And then she imagined driving it straight into a hedge.”

Jane Fairfield has the opposite problem of many romantic heroines: she has too much money (a hundred thousand a year!) and too many suitors (who are after her money), and it’s very important to her that she not get married. Marriage would take her away from her sister, who suffers doubly from seizures and from the torturous attempts at a “cure” forced upon her by their uncle.

To further the goal of remaining single at all costs, Jane pretends to look for a husband but presents herself as a tactless nitwit, a social bull in a china shop, and she tops off the performance with the most tasteless, over-the-top gowns she can get away with in a ballroom (“nothing says lace like…. more lace”).

Oliver Marshall, the illegitimate son of a duke, has parliamentary ambitions. Moving between his working-class background and the upper crust set he’s hoping to impress, Marshall is doing his best to blend in with society, while Jane is flying in the face of it. Of course they are meant to be together. Unfortunately, Marshall’s mentor wants a favor in exchange for delivering a bloc of votes in Parliament: publicly humiliate that appalling woman, Jane Fairfield.

Part of a series of loosely-connected novels, this historical romance features not just a duo but an ensemble of strong characters— an aspiring suffragette, an Indian law student, an agoraphobic aunt, lady geneticists!— each with a compelling subplot. Jane, with her tasteless wardrobe and outrageous opinions, is a refreshing and entertaining heroine. The 1860s setting provides all manner of external conflicts in society: class issues, the debate over natural selection, and the vote for women, to name a few. The interpersonal conflicts are handled not just with empathy, but sensibly, with characters having rational conversations with one another and helping one another towards their goals. Nobody gets rescued; instead, with help, everyone rescues themselves. Full of quotable lines, this is a fun, redemptive romance that will have you cheering for, well, everybody.

The Brothers Sinister series can certainly be read out of order, as I’ve been doing, but if you like to take things in order, start with The Duchess War

Check the WRL catalog for The Heiress Effect

WRL also owns the ebook.

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crowsIt’s always exciting to discover that an author has returned to a series you thought had been abandoned. While browsing the stacks, I recently came across a new-to-me installment in the adventures of Sir Robert Carey, sixteenth-century Elizabethan courtier and crime solver.

These historical mysteries are set in the 1590s in Carlisle, on the border between England and Scotland, a frontier where blood feuds and cattle raids are what pass for law and order. Carey, taking advantage of his position as Queen Elizabeth’s favorite cousin, finagles a position as Deputy Warden of the West Marches to escape his many creditors and to be near his unlucky lady love, unhappily married to another man. When last seen, our hero and his trusty henchman, Sergeant Henry Dodd, had narrowly escaped torture and death at the hands of an enemy ranked high in Elizabeth’s court.

Picking up where she left off more than a decade ago, Chisholm has relocated her characters from the wild borderlands of northern England to the city of London. Carey is charged with looking into a botched execution in which the wrong man appears to have been hanged, drawn, and quartered. Meanwhile Sgt. Dodd, far from the kinsmen who might help him wreak revenge, decides to pursue city justice against their new enemy. While dubious that anything can be done with warrants and writs on paper, he hires the last lawyer in London willing to do business with them. It’s bad enough that their enemy can buy or terrorize anyone into silence, and that their lawyer seems to have his own agenda, but things really begin to look worrisome when their lines of inquiry point back to Carey’s own mother… a cheerful Cornish lady with her own letters of marque.

P. F. Chisholm is a pen name for Patricia Finney, who also writes sixteenth-century espionage thrillers. The mysteries have a lighter, more humorous tone, but in all of her novels she revels in the details of dress and weaponry that make the setting come alive, plus enough dialect and slang to make the glossary at the back a welcome appendix. Chisholm’s London is boisterous, smelly, and violent. Dodd’s sardonic view of the soft, decadent southerners and his daydreams of leading a great raid on the banks of London lighten the atmosphere; in fact, it isn’t fair to call Dodd the henchman in this one, he’s really the star.

If you’re new to Chisholm’s mysteries, don’t start here; there’s too much back story. Pick up the first book in the series, A Famine of Horses and carry on from there.

Check the WRL catalog for A Murder of Crows

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LiarsImagine being King Lear’s granddaughter.

In this young adult novel, the powerful head of a wealthy family has spent two generations playing each of his three daughters off the others – who loves me the most? Which of you is my favorite… today? Who will inherit my “kingdom”? The Boston house? Grandmother’s pearl necklace?

Cady Sinclair Eastman is the granddaughter. She spends every summer on her family’s private island, where her mother and aunts each have a house, where she and her cousins swim and boat and have clam bakes and bonfires to their heart’s content. It sounds like heaven, but there are fault lines running through all the family relationships, and Cady’s closest cousins, who call themselves “the Liars,” get tired of being pawns in the Sinclair family mind games. And for the past few summers, their close-knit group has been joined by Gat Patil, handsome and ambitious, who enters the closed, privileged world of the Sinclair family island like a catalyst for disaster. Or first love.

Cady has no memory of what happened to her two summers ago. An accident has left her with crippling migraines, and everyone in her family is acting even weirder and more dysfunctional than usual. Every time she asks—what did happen before she was found, shivering and amnesiac, on the beach?—she forgets the answer.  This summer, her seventeenth, she’s going to find out the truth.

Foreboding hangs over every page of this story as bits and pieces of Cady’s fifteenth summer resurface—family squabbles, way too much alcohol, a confusing relationship with Gat—is their connection just a summer fling or something more? Punctuating contemporary suspense with passages of bloody fairy-tale retellings, author E. Lockhart presents a chilling novel very different from her previous titles. With short chapters and prose that’s almost free verse, this is a quick, summer page turner that touches very lightly on the larger issues of class and race prejudice that it raises. What did Cady do last summer? Teens will be flying through the pages to get to the awful answer.

For a similar mix of modern-day drama and prose laden with metaphor, try Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls; or try Adele Griffin’s Tighter for another suspenseful story of privileged, troubled teenagers in which nothing is exactly what it seems.

Check the WRL catalog for We Were Liars.

 

 

 

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GoblinMaia Drazhar is an 18-year-old half-elf, half-goblin prince, living in exile with his embittered guardian, when a zeppelin accident (yes, the elves have zeppelins) takes out most of the royal line. Suddenly Maia is Emperor of the Elflands. As the fourth son of an unfavored and long-dead empress, he was never expected to rule. His guardian always punished him for talking too much, and now he’s expected to give speeches. No one has taught him even to dance, far less negotiate a divisive trade agreement… or investigate the treasonous sabotage of the previous Emperor’s airship.

This high fantasy follows Maia’s efforts to navigate his new position, as a bullied youth forced onto a very public stage, learning and choosing how to wield unexpected power. The charm of the story is that Maia is a thoroughly decent individual, winning readers to his side even as he alienates many of his courtiers. Hastily made over with new robes and crown jewels, Maia confounds the court with such gestures as attending the funerals of mere servants and asking daughters of royal houses who they would prefer to marry. (Not him, unfortunately.)

With a leisurely pace and old-fashioned speech, forsooth, this is a fantasy for readers who enjoy the complicated politics of historical novels but who aren’t in the mood for a George Martin-style slaughter of characters. It’s much like the court at Versailles, but with dirigibles, and an enemy is more likely to attack via a courier with a strongly worded letter than at swords’ point. As she’s shown in previous novels, the author is particularly dedicated to world-building, and that set dressing of costume, language, and protocol makes Maia’s Untheileneise Court come to life. Oh, and I thought I’d read enough fantasy not to be bothered by such things, but I do recommend that you read the appendix on names and forms of address before you start. I can’t remember the last time I had so much trouble keeping track of character names and titles… oh, yes, it was Wolf Hall. At least the Tudors were all Tom, Dick, and Harry at home, not Edrehasivar, Varenechibel, and Cstheio Cairezhasan. Ai, Elbereth Gilthoniel!

Katherine Addison is a pen name; as Sarah Monette, she has written the delightful, Gothic tales of Kyle Murchison Booth, collected in The Bone Key, and an involving four-book fantasy series that begins with Mélusine.

Check the WRL catalog for The Goblin Emperor.

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