Review: Murder at the Village Fete by Catherine Coles #NetGalley #BookReview #1920s #Mystery

My thanks to NetGalley and BooksGoSocial for a review copy of this one.

After not really requesting books from NetGalley for a bit (so as to tackle by own TBR pile), last month I came across a handful that sounded so interesting and I ended up requesting. One of these was this one–Murder at the Village Fete. This one, a cosy mystery set in the 1920s, was described as Downton Abbey crossed with Murder She Wrote.

This is the second in a series, The Tommy and Evelyn Christie Mysteries. Tommy Christie, formerly a policeman is now Lord Northmoor having inherited the title unexpectedly in the previous book. His wife, Evelyn had also served in the police. In this one, the couple—who are still adjusting to their new life and roles—have been convinced by Evelyn’s sister, Millicent, to host the local fete at Hessleham Hall, while her father, a former MP has asked them to invite some of his close friends and former colleagues to stay. Most of the guests are trying with endless demands and complaints, causing much annoyance to both the staff and Evelyn. Among the guests staying with the Christies is the current local MP Robert Billingham, who is to open the fete. But on the morning of the fete, as Evelyn and Tommy are walking her Gordon Setters, Nancy and Davey, they come upon Billingham lying face down in the stream with a knife in his back! The case is entrusted to Detective Inspector Andrews, but Tommy and Evelyn soon realise that for their guests’ safety, they must themselves step in and find the murderer.  

For starters, even though this was the second in the series, this was not a hard one to get into; one gets a general idea of the events that unfolded in book 1 and it’s easy to pick up the threads again. We learn a little about the simpler lives Tommy and Evelyn lived before he came into the title, the struggles they are having adjusting, but also how they are using the opportunities that this brings to do well by people. Both Tommy and Evelyn are very likeable characters, as is the mischievous Auntie Em (Emily, Tommy’s aunt), who isn’t shy of speaking her mind.

The theme around which this mystery is centred is corruption in arms/ammunition supplies during the war which resulted in many soldiers losing their lives. Tommy is deeply affected by this since he had served in the war and is carrying wounds from the time. There are numerous suspects including even possibly Evelyn’s father, but certainly all the guests he has invited to Tommy and Evelyn’s for they were all serving in key positions at the time. And they have all received letters of blackmail about the incident. Besides the four, the beautiful new schoolteacher, Isolde Newley seems to be hiding something, while a young reporter, Ernest Franklin is also snooping around.

The mystery itself as a result has a few threads and with all of the main suspects having a stake in the corruption scandal, one is not quite sure which of them did it, or whether the blackmailer had more of a motive than blackmail itself. And then of course, there is another death as well, complicating matters. The Detective Inspector seems out of his depth (as is expected in such books) and it is Tommy and Evelyn who do much of the investigating.

The author also uses the story to explore relationships—highlighting Tommy and Evelyn’s comfortable and loving relationship where each has complete trust in the other; and give the other the chance to live their life fully, and so the things that make them happy (including Evelyn’s regular visits to the kitchen and doing some baking there). Some of the others we see are not as lucky. Alongside we also have a possible romance thread with Isolde Newley being somewhat interested in the attractive, but reticent local doctor, Dr. Mainwaring.

While this was a light and fun enough read, there were also some aspects that didn’t work for me. For one, while the murder was supposed to be at the village fete according to the title, we barely see any of the actual fete—I mean it is mentioned and some events happen, but nothing significant; even the murder has taken place before the actual fete, so the fete seems lost in all of this.

Then in the mystery, for one I felt, the murder itself happened far too soon, before we even really got to know the guests. There wasn’t even a chance to guess who the victim might be, it simply happens. Then in the investigation, in some of the conversations Tommy and Evelyn have with various people, they seem to approach them far too directly, rather than more tactfully, if that makes sense—you can’t exactly expect anyone to just come out and admit they were involved, after all. And one suspect Tommy just pronounces as innocent without giving a convincing enough reason (in fact, any reason) for doing so (that makes one begin to doubt his skills as a detective).

The other issue I had was with the writing itself; to me at times it felt (especially in some of the dialogue) far too modern for the time period in which it is set; for instance, Tommy using the expression ‘meet up’; also there were other instances where it just didn’t seem like people would speak that way/use those expressions, so it felt a bit off.

All in all while this had a promising setting and plot, it turned out just an okay read.

Review: House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig #SpookyReads #BookReview #YoungAdult

House of Salt and Sorrows is a young adult fantasy novel which is essentially a retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses but with a dark, in fact, a very dark twist. This one I came across purely by chance in a YouTube video by Hailey in Bookland and got a copy because it sounded so interesting.

In keeping with its dark done, the story opens with a funeral. Our heroine/narrator, Annaleigh Thaumas is one of twelve sisters, but sadly, only eight are left now. They lost their mother when the youngest was born, and since, four other sisters have died—of the plague, a drowning, and now Eulalie, of a plummeting fall—all tragic but seemingly accidental. But with Eulalie’s death, something changes. A young man, Edgar Morris who used to know her (in fact, claims that the two were in love) says he saw something strange on the night it happened. But only Annaleigh seems to believe him. Alongside, while Annaleigh’s family (at the instance of her stepmother Morella) makes a decision to leave aside mourning and attempt to return to normalcy after the tragedies that have plagued them all for far too long, more strange developments take place. Balls are thrown for the girls but the young men of society avoid dancing with the sisters for they are seen as cursed. Disappointed, the girls with their friend Fisher (the son of the housekeeper and their childhood pal) find a door to a magical world where they are invited to balls every night. Attendees are always masked, and wear beautiful gowns (as do our sisters–I thought these balls and the girls’ gorgeous gowns were beautifully described), there are refreshments galore but also something perhaps mysterious in them all—at least Annaleigh seems to get a sense of this. But her sisters are willing to continue to go, even when she stays behind. Their worn out shoes, as in the original story, are a puzzle to their father. In the ‘real’ world, things are not right either. Annaleigh is becoming increasingly suspicious about the circumstances surrounding Eulalie’s death. And one of her younger sisters, Verity not only sees some ghastly apparitions, but she has also been drawing them in her book—including scenes of her sisters’ deaths which she could not possibly have seen. But whenever Annaleigh tries to approach her father for help, either she is not listened to or it turns out that she was imagining it all. Was she? Does she manage to find out what is really going on and why her sisters died?

This story was meant to be a scary, dark read and it certainly was. From the tragedies that have struck and continue to strike the family to the ghastly apparitions that Verity ‘sees’ and draws in her book (to Annaleigh’s horror), to the nightmares Annaleigh has, everything keeps the mood and ‘feel’ very creepy indeed. The setting too, in a manor by the seaside, with cliffs for someone to plummet down from (as Eulalie did) was pretty perfect for the story. For me though, while these ghostly (and grisly) visions did add to the mood, what was truly unsettling were the moments when one couldn’t decide what was illusion and what was reality, and whether what we were taking to be the true version of events really was.

The world in which it is set is a fantasy one with magic yet without it, in that while our characters don’t have magical powers, theirs is a world which gods once frequented and can still influence, and there is some magic in operation like the door that the girls and Fisher find.  For the rest, the place where they live in is an island city in which while people are ordinary and yet, the author creates an ideal world where customs are more egalitarian, and women get their due.

I really enjoyed the plot of the book, the author’s spin on the twelve dancing princesses story. The mystery element was one to which there were some hints, but at the same time, we do get thrown off track suspecting almost everyone, especially since after a point one really doesn’t know what is illusion and what isn’t. I thought the explanation incorporating another story of legend was quite interesting (nicely done) though some parts of it I though went may be a bit too over the top; I mean some of those details it could have done without.

This was a great read for the Halloween season, and one which I enjoyed very much. My rating—4.5 stars).

It wouldn’t do to end this review without a sentence on the actual book. I really liked the cover itself but more so the lovely endpapers in black and silver which incorporate motifs associated with the story—the family’s octopus crest, masks from the balls, and chandeliers among them—very lovely.

Close up of the end papers

Have you read this one? How did you like it? Looking forward to you thoughts!

#Review: Naked Heat by Richard Castle #Mystery #Castle

Naked Heat is book 2 in the Nikki Heat series of books. The series was published as to tie-in with the TV series Castle in which Richard Castle, an author, first comes in contact with Detective Kate Beckett when a copycat killer bases his crimes on the former’s books, and decides to base his next series on her. The books were actually written by screenwriter Tom Straw, but published under Castle’s name and feature his picture as author. Since I enjoyed the series so much, the initial seasons particularly, I had been meaning to give the books a try as well, and now I finally read this one which I’d bought last year.

 This one opens with Nikki Heat on her way to a crime scene when she encounters something rather unusual. At the crime scene, she finds a victim who used to drive a truck delivering vegetables and fruit with no apparent reason why anyone would kill him. Almost before finishing with that scene, she is called to a second crime scene. Here the victim is a gossip columnist, Cassidy Towne and the person that reporter the murder is journalist Jameson Rook, who was working on a story on her. Needless to say, Towne was no pleasant person and has an endless list of ‘victims’ who’d wish her dead. We follow Rook and Heat and officers Riley and Ochoa as they interview suspects and try to find out which of them actually did her in. As Towne was a celebrity columnist, this is the world they find themselves navigating—not just a singer and a sportsman but also a politician whose career Towne cut short, and Rook’s connections help get them around a bit.

On the personal front, Rook and Heat have broken up since the article he was shadowing her team for ended up focusing on her rather than the team as a whole which left them all angry, and Nikki feeling wronged. Working with Nikki again on this case, Rook hopes to patch things up with her and the others, but Nikki’s old boyfriend enters the scene complicating things a little.

This is an enjoyable read that plays out more or less like any episode of the show Castle. The characters are basically versions of those—Castle is Rook, Beckett is Heat, Ryan is Riley, Esposito is Ochoa, and medical examiner Lanie is Lauren, while Castle’s mother Martha becomes Margaret though his daughter is not in the book (nor mentioned). The mystery is fairly complicated with plenty of suspects (all with strong enough motives) and some red herrings. We also learn something interesting about Rook; while Heat’s mother’s murder is mentioned but there are no developments in that direction. The only complaint if any I had was that may be it felt was a touch too long; but as someone who really enjoyed the show, I thought this was a great deal of fun.

Are you a fan of the show? Have you read this one or any of the others in this series or the Derrick Storm ones? Which ones and how did you like them? Looking forward to your thoughts and recommendations!

#Review: Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt #Mystery #GothicRomance #SpookyReads

This is the first of Victoria Holt’s gothic romances, and my first time reading one of her books though I have read and enjoyed historical fiction written under her other pseudonym, Jean Plaidy, before. This was also one of my first seasonal reads this October, since it was described as having a gothic/spooky tone to it. This one has a Jane Eyre/Rebecca kind of plotline. Martha Leigh is young, unmarried and impoverished which means the only course open to her is to go out as a governess. And this she does—the story in fact opens with her on a train heading to Cornwall and to Mount Mellyn, the residence of the TreMellyns. Martha’s employer (or should I say her Rochester) is Connan TreMellyn, while her charge is Connan’s eight-year-old daughter Alvean, who has had, as is customary in such stories a few governesses before, none of whom lasted very long. At TreMellyn, she also meets (among others) the housekeeper, Mrs Polgrey, slightly imposing but friendly enough when she gets to know her (in other words, no Mrs Danvers), and neighbours Celestine Nansellock and her brother Peter, who are friendly, both with Martha and her employer, though there is something that strains the relationship between the TreMellyns and the Nansellocks. Also there is Mrs Polgrey’s strange granddaughter Gilly, who seems to sing, yet not speak to anyone. Alvean, Martha’s charge, is headstrong and sullen, but Martha soon finds that all she wants is her father’s love and approval, but he continues to be cold. She also finds that her employer’s wife Alice died a year ago in somewhat mysterious circumstances, and in some way or other her shadow remains in the house. In fact, even on the railway journey to Cornwall, someone had warned her to watch out for Alice!

This was a reasonably enjoyable read for me, which delivered on most though not all of what it promised. The plot was as described on the lines of Jane Eyre and Rebecca—more the former than the latter in the sense of a governess going out to look after a child and falling in love with her employer, and there being a secret surrounding the employer’s wife’s death. Our heroine Martha is spirited, outspoken and up for the challenge of looking after a child (something she isn’t used to). In fact, more than that, she is not simply interested in getting young Alvean to accept her but also to improve her relationship with her father. Then she also takes up the case of little Gilly, who she feels is misunderstood. While she is the ideal ‘romance’ heroine, on many occasions, her reactions did feel to me a little childish. The romance thread of the story is I guess the usual, with Martha initially disapproving of her employer, but slowly taking to him; though the change of heart felt a little sudden.

The setting I thought—of a manor up on the Cornish cliffs, with a mysterious death (more than one death, actually) and the foundations she laid of our heroine being warned about Alice was quite perfect. But the spooky elements I felt didn’t turn out to have the effect of actually being creepy or scary in the slightest. There are mysterious whispers in the waves, and shadows of Alice, but the other threads of the story may be take up more prominence and so these don’t quite have the effect I’d have liked them to. But, the book did end up having a genuine mystery plot, surrounding the events that have taken place before Martha’s arrival, and there is more than one secret that the house and the people living in and around it are keeping—some she seems to find out quite soon, others remain a mystery right until the end. So there is a surprise awaiting one in the end, though I must say, if it had turned out as Martha begins to imagine it, it may have been more dark and fun (for us, not her).

Have you read this one? How did you like it? Any Gothic Romances that you read that were actually scary? Looking forward to your thoughts and recommendations!

#Review: Pompeii by Robert Harris #HistoricalFiction

This is a piece of historical fiction with a mix of mostly fictional but also some real historical figures set in the backdrop of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Marcus Attilius Primus is a young engineer sent to take charge of the Aqua Augusta, one of the largest and most complex aqueduct systems in ancient Rome that supplied water to nine cities. The previous aquarius, Exominius has vanished without a trace, and there are problems creeping up with the water supply, from the sulphurous smells in the water to the supply literally drying up in some cities. Marcus, who comes from a family of engineers, is keen to restore the aqueduct to normal, and traces the source of the problem to Vesuvius. Corelia a slave-turned-millionaire’s daughter meanwhile seeks Marcus’ help when the water in their home kills her father’s prized fish and a slave is unfairly blamed. Alongside we have the historical Pliny the elder, serving as admiral but also a naturalist and philosopher interested in all manner of natural phenomena, who Marcus turns to for aid when he realises he must reach Pompeii without delay. In this quest become woven the stories of Corelia, her father Ampliatus and his (so-called) friends, and also Pliny. Pompeii is decadent and corrupt, and Marcus’ seemingly straightforward mission soon becomes surrounded with intrigue and conspiracies, putting his life in danger. Meanwhile in the background Vesuvius is preparing to erupt—our story begins two days before the eruption and continues through the eruption and its immediate aftermath.

This is an exciting tale that pretty much has it all—mystery, adventure, danger (from people and nature), a touch of romance, and also manages to give the reader a picture of life in the time period, and the disaster that nature is about to unleash. Throughout the book, while Marcus is tracing the source of the aqueduct’s problems and alongside looking into his predecessor’s mysterious disappearance (and battling his newly acquired enemies), one finds one is constantly thinking of the much bigger disaster looming in the background, which makes these ‘smaller’ events seem almost insignificant—the author certainly manages to get us to be constantly aware of the real reason behind some of the things that are happening which our characters don’t realise until the explosion. Each chapter begins with quotes from volcanology texts which add to this feeling. I enjoyed the entire historical context, how the author wove Pliny’s real-life story in with the stories of our characters, and the picture of the decadent and corrupt city which Pompeii would have been when these events played out. Also the description of the eruption itself—how it would have been experienced by those who were there—people being pelted with pumice endlessly and the scorching (far worse) winds that followed, more deadly than the eruption itself. The stories of the fictional characters too I enjoyed following though as other reviewers have also noted, the characters themselves were perhaps too black and white. Still, this made for an enjoyable read overall.  

Have you read this one or any others by Harris? Which one(s) and how did you find it/them? Looking forward to your thoughts and recommendations!

Cover image: Goodreads

#Review: Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer #Childrensfiction #Magic #Fairies #mastercriminals

The first of the series of the same name, I read this the first time some years ago, but having more or less completely forgotten it, I decided to revisit. Picking this up again, just like previously, I loved the gold cover with the lock on it—the fairies’ book—with the mysterious writing in code.

Artemis Fowl is 12 but he is also a master criminal. Having taken over from his father, who was one too, but who had tried to legitimize his business and perished in the process, Artemis wishes to rebuild the family’s fortunes, and to do this in this one he has a dastardly plan up his sleeves (or rather his very sharp mind). The book opens in Ho Chi Minh city where Artemis and his faithful (and rather dangerous) butler, er… Butler (who’s family name was apparently the source of the word 🙂 ), where they are on the trail of a fairy who seems to have strayed on the wrong path, to obtain something precious she has, and getting hold of it marks the start of young Fowl’s scheme. On the other side, we met the LEPrecons, the police unit of the fairies who deal with all sorts of dangerous creatures every day. But Captain Holly Short, a fairy officer, who has neglected something that she should have done falls into Artemis’ trap. Thus begins a battle of wits, plans and counterplans between Fowl and the fairies, putting both sides in danger. Does Artemis succeed or do the fairies outsmart him?

This was a fun enough read, but still, like the impression I had of it from my first reading, it wasn’t something exceptional for me (even though our ‘hero’ is a ‘villain’). Even though the setting of the opening in Ho Chi Minh city was something that intrigued me, there was really not much of the city in it, and more so, I felt our first introduction to Artemis and establishment of his extraordinary intelligence was not all that well done. The story does however pick up as we go along and are introduced to our fairy characters and once Artemis’ actual plans start to be put into action. There is a fair bit of magic, some magical creatures including a troll reminiscent of the one from Harry Potter (and the Philosopher’s Stone), and a kleptomaniac dwarf (with a rather weird trait, other than pinching things I mean), as well as two somewhat comic police officers, besides the Commander Root, and the squad’s ‘Q’ (or something on those lines), Foaly. There’s plenty of action, a bit of magic and some hi-tech gadgetry, but what I liked was that at the end it isn’t again or magic that solves things but the good old mind. Also great fun is the code in the fairy script that runs through the book, which I still haven’t deciphered (just being lazy, I know). I started, worked out some letters as I had done last time but didn’t continue. But I will before I put it away again!

Overall, this was good fun, but I still didn’t find I enjoy it as much as many other readers seem to have.

Have you read this one? How did you like it? Looking forward to your thoughts!

Cover image: Goodreads

#Repost: #Review: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Once again this week (another busy one for me), I’m sharing an old review of a Classic, Vanity Fair, from 2018 when I reread it with a Goodreads group. The story of two young girls, Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp from very different stations in life, who leave school together to start their lives. Both also have very different personalities–the angelic Amelia is unable to stand up for herself while Becky is ready to manipulate others and climb the social ladder at any cost. The review was posted on Goodreads but not this blog.

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Vanity Fair, the novel ‘without a hero’ aptly opens with our two very different heroines leaving Miss Pinkerton’s school/establishment heading to very different destinations, and perhaps destinies. Amelia Sedley, the daughter of a well-off merchant, well-liked by all her fellow students and teachers is heading home to a comfortable life, and marriage to the son of a family friend, the very handsome George Osborne, while Rebecca ‘Becky’ Sharp who has been an articled pupil, teaching other students in exchange for her own board and keep, is to be governess in a family after spending a few days of rest in Amelia’s home. But fortune has other things in store for them both. Not only are their circumstances different but the two girls themselves are as different as chalk and cheese―Amelia is simple, straightforward, good-hearted, but just a little bland, while Becky, who has had to and must continue to make her own way in the world, has a grudge against the world at large, is manipulative, and looks at nothing but her own advantage in everything she does, and needless to say, as a result is the more interesting of the two, even if not the most likeable.  Fate of course has something different in store for Amelia whose father loses his money, which leads to George’s father literally disowning their family and breaking off the match with Amelia. Becky on the other side takes up her new appointment and begins to use her brains, charm, and manipulation to work her way up the social ladder. Things aren’t that easy for her either for there as many miscalculations along the way and her plans too backfire. But while Vanity Fair is the story of these two young women and the people in their lives, it is really the story of Vanity Fair itself, representative of society at any point in time where money, power, position, and status are valued but not the human person for himself or herself, where social success is, for most, the ultimate measure of achievement, where greed, hypocrisy or opportunism are part of daily life, and where life is certainly not ‘fair’ not does everyone necessarily get their just desserts. 

I read this book in instalments over two months (March–April) with the Victorians group on Goodreads. While thinking back over the characters for this (long overdue) review, I realised that there wasn’t one whom I really liked, though they were all quite human (even the angelic Victorian heroine Amelia finds her voice once in a way), and there were times when I felt sorry for one or the other characters. There are times one is cheering on Becky, others when one disapproves of her actions, times (much of the time for me) when Amelia’s ostrich-like attitude to some things, and one-track mind got on my nerves, yet there were moments when I cheered for her too; Dobbin too gave me cause for both annoyance and cheer; and so did Rawdon Crawley, who I found myself feeling sorry for at one point, as well as Old Sir Pitt, who was otherwise despicable at most moments. The story has plenty of twists and turns, with unexpected incidents in some ways happening even up to the end and was in itself interesting to follow, but more than that I think, the value of the book lies in its look at Vanity Fair itself, for while the times may have changed and many other facets and aspects about society, human nature with respect to it remains the same, the same ‘false gods’ (money and power) continue to be worshipped and sort, and the same wiles and machinations employed to get them. It sees life and people as it is and they are, not always in black and white, and not always fair. While I can’t say as such that I loved this book, I certainly did appreciate it and the picture that it was trying to paint (rather than a message being given of any sort), and the discussions with the group made it a far more enjoyable experience than it would otherwise have been.

Have you read this one? How did you like it? Looking forward to your thoughts!

#Review: Heartstone by C.J. Sansom #historicalfiction #mystery #MatthewShardlake

The fifth of the series featuring Matthew Shardlake and set in Tudor England. This one is set in 1545 in turbulent times, for England is at war and the French are expected to arrive at any moment with an army and fleet of ships much larger than the Spanish Armada. And Portsmouth is where they are expected to arrive with Henry VIII preparing to head there. Meanwhile back in London, Shardlake finds himself called on once again by Catherine Parr, who had promised to keep him away from politics. And while she does keep her promise, she has a case for him nonetheless. The son of a former servant was tutor to two children Hugh and Emma; after their parents died, their wardship was bought by one Master Hobbey, clearly with far from noble intentions (benefitting from their property at the very least while they remain minors). But Emma too has died of an illness, while the Hobbeys with Hugh have moved to the country, dismissing the tutor Michael Calfhill. Michael happens to visit them one day one day, to look into Hugh’s wellbeing and finds out something horrifying, even filing a complaint about it (not saying what it was though). But before anything further happens, Michael commits suicide. Now Shardlake is asked to take the case and look into the matter and the welfare of Hugh. And where would the Hobbeys live, but Portsmouth. Alongside Shardlake also plans to look into the case of Ellen, the woman in Bedlam he met on a previous case and why her family seems to have abandoned her there. Since her village is also in the vicinity, he decides to investigate although he knows Ellen would not approve and wants the past to be left alone. Meanwhile his assistant Jack’s wife Tamasin is expecting while because of the war (and his impudence), he is on the verge of being drafted. This adventure takes us into not only some interesting mysteries, but also in the midst of the war showing both the young men who were being led there, their training, fears, apprehensions, and also some of the action itself, including aboard the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s carrack.

This is once again, like all the other Shardlake books, a doorstopper—the edition I have has 636 pages, but despite its length it is one that manages to hold one’s attention or even more so, keep one entirely hooked all though. I love how these books really pull one into the settings, as though we are there experiencing events unfold alongside Shardlake. The story, in fact the entire atmosphere is pretty intense, with Shardlake involved in two mysteries that are far from simple and that have, even before he has set out towards Portsmouth begun to put him in danger. When he arrives at the Hobbeys’ home, things seem perfectly normal at the surface, yet he knows the family (and perhaps also their lawyer who has travelled down with him) have something to hide. But what? The mystery surrounding Ellen’s past too is not a very straightforward one and even when he visits her village, the mystery only deepens. In in neither case can the reader figure out what the answer might turn out to be. To add to these baffling cases is the atmosphere of war itself, and for Shardlake the added danger that if he remains in Portsmouth too long, he might end up running into Henry VIII with whom his previous encounter was far from pleasant. His old nemesis Sir Richard Rich too seems to be watching his every step keenly. And in the Hobbey house, besides the tensions within the house, there is discontent in the village as well for the poorer residents are far from pleased with the Hobbeys’ dealings.

Although this is a grave and intense read, dealing also with some disturbing themes, it is also very interesting reading with well-drawn out (and very realistic) characters and a very gripping plot (or should I say, plots?). Once again an excellent read!

Have you read this one? How did you like it? Looking forward to your thoughts!

Cover image: my own.

#Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden #Folktales #Fantasy

The first of a trilogy, The Bear and the Nightingale is a magical and wonderful story combining elements of folklore and fantasy, and exploring various themes, most prominent among them religion—specifically the impact that the arrival/spread of Christianity had on old beliefs. Set in Russia, the story introduces us to the family of Pyotr Vladimirovich whose beloved wife Marina (who had something of magic in her) dies after giving birth to their youngest daughter, our ‘heroine’ Vasilisa or Vasya. Vasya is the only one of the children of have inherited her mother’s abilities/magic; and can see and speak to the spirits that guard their world, the homes they live in, the stables, the forests, and all else—and it is these that keep evil at bay. Vasya and her siblings have a happy enough life, being brought up by Dunya, their mother’s old nurse who tells them all the old fairy tales and stories including of Morozoko, the frost king, but Vasya grows up a little wild preferring to spend her time outdoors and in the forest and not caring much for social decorum. As the other children grow up, Pyotr begins to worry about Vasya and decides on remarriage. His new wife (not of Pyotr’s own choosing due to circumstances that he finds himself in) also has Vasya’s gifts, she can see these spirits but considers them demons rather than friends. Soon, a new priest also comes to their little village and begins to encourage people to give up their old ways—almost all used leave offerings for these spirits even though they could not see them. Vasya sees the village begin to change in front of her eyes as the priest uses his charisma as well as fear to change the people, and as a result, the spirits begin to weaken, and evil begins to enter their lives and homes. Vasya is soon the only friend the spirits have left, and the only one who can protect her village against the evil that is being unleashed. Alongside other storylines too, proceed, something of the fairytales that Dunya used to narrate is playing out in real life, and Vasya is very much a part of it, while away from them in town, the prince (Vasya’s mother’s half-brother) is worried about succession to his throne and the developments that take place as a consequence end up impacting Vasya and her family in more than one way. [Some of the characters are historical but their stories are tweaked.]

This was a rich and beautiful tale, told in a wonderful way. I loved the setting in old Russia, and the whole concept of the spirits that look after everything around us—the domovoi or spirit of the hearth, the vazila, or protector of the stables, the rusalka, the water nymph [even Baba Yaga (the one fairy tale character I was most familiar with from old Misha magazines) finds a mention]. In fact, I felt the author explored/developed the whole theme of the clash or conflict that arose between old beliefs and new, with of course the magic elements attached to them so well—rather perfectly blending in the elements of fantasy and reality. Besides faith, other themes too are explored—from family and relationships to social mores and sanity/insanity, as well as politics and power, and of course magic. Politics we see ends up having also completely unintended, yet rather grave impacts on more than one life (in addition to the reasons those steps were taken).  And while there is a lot going on in the story, both real and fastastical elements being explored side by side, even weaving into each other, they all seemed to move along pretty seamlessly.

Vasya is a strong and spirited heroine, one who is confident of her own opinions and ways of seeing things and is not even for a moment swayed by the influences that easily seem to impact all others. For a time, she seems to be giving into what is expected of her (the more orthodox paths in life) but soon enough she realises that those are neither for her, nor what she is meant to do. Her family is mostly supportive and loving, but both Pyotr and Dunya take steps that they think will protect her and when her sister and brothers have left home (old enough to start their own lives), she must more or less on her own contend with her stepmother, who is the stereotypical stepmother in some ways, though battling demons of her own.

And speaking of demons, there are a fair few in the story and these certainly make the atmosphere fairly creepy at times; not the spirits but the evil that is unleased when the spirits begin to weaken, and some of the forms that this takes—those plus the cold winter setting makes this one a great read for the Halloween/Fall/Winter time.

I really enjoyed this one, and look forward to seeing how the story proceeds as Vasya continues her adventure.   

[p.s. The cover art of this one is also gorgeous.]

Have you read this one (and the others in the series)? How did you find them? Looking forward to your thoughts!

Find reviews by Az you read (here) and Mischevious Words by Marta (here)

Cover image: my own with in the background a page from Little Cock Feather Frock (a Russian Folktale)

#Review: The Case of the Careless Kitten by Erle Stanley Gardner #Mystery #PerryMason #cats

This, the twenty-first of the Perry Mason books, was certainly a complicated one and a very interesting read, even though the end, or rather the denouement, done differently from usual, was a touch confusing as well, I wasn’t quite sure at first if I understood it right.

This one opens with Helen Kendal, a young woman of twenty-four, who gets a phone call from a man claiming to be her uncle Franklin Shore who had vanished (of his own accord) ten years ago, leaving behind all his wealth, an embittered wife, Matilda (rather a tyrant), a brother Gerald (who had his own law practice) and young Helen. Franklin asks Helen to contact Perry Mason and come see him with Mason and no one else. In the meantime, her little kitten Amber Eyes, who she has been playing with falls ill and is found to have been poisoned. Was it an accident? After getting the kitten treated, Helen who has revealed the phone call to her uncle contacts Perry through him, but when they arrive at the appointed place, with Gerald and Della in tow, more complications await them in the form of a message from Franklin which leads them to finding a dead body. But where is Franklin? Did he commit the murder, and if so, why? Mason of course solves it all, but not before another attempted poisoning, a shooting, and hints of dubious dealings. Everyone has a story to tell or secret to hide.

This is somewhat different from the usual Perry Mason tales for although the matter goes to court, and an arrest is made, we spend only a little time in court and it isn’t Perry’s client who is arrested or charged. In fact, Hamilton Burger, having decided perhaps that Perry needs to be taught a lesson, targets Della, and she ends up being produced in court (having already been arrested by Tragg). Burger tries to ‘remind’ Perry that solving the murder isn’t his job, and so Perry decides to take him at his word and not tell him any of what he finds out or deduces, so at the end while we the readers know the solution, Burger and Tragg are left to find out for themselves. One very much doubts that they do.

The explanation of whodunit and why was one I certainly didn’t see coming and with all of the twists in the plot, even after it was given I had to go back and forth a little to see if I understood it right. But despite that, overall I thought the book was good fun, and kept me reading because I had no idea how things would turn out.

And now to the most important part of the book—Amber Eyes, the kitten. This is the case of the careless kitten, after all, and the kitten is certainly at the centre of things. And she is careless, getting into a fair bit of trouble (may be a little too much, even). But her antics do also provide Perry with important clues as to what happened, especially her typically kitty behaviour.

A very enjoyable one with lots happening, twists and turns, and a totally unexpected outcome.

[p.s. As this was a wartime publication (1942), there is some anti-Japanese sentiment reflected.]

Have you read this one? How did you like it? Looking forward to your thoughts!