The Orchid Affair

Here's the thing. If you're at the point where you're reading the SEVENTH of a series in HARDCOVER, you don't really need my review. You're like me; you're going to read it regardless of what the main storyline might be. We've come this far and we've been amused enough with the ride, so we'll continue on.

The Orchid Affair is, indeed, the seventh book in the Pink Carnation series (a count which doesn't include the Christmas intrigue published a few months ago or that little online novella) published by Lauren Willig -- historical romance novelist who found her way to full time writing only after going to Harvard Law (something tells me that when they talk about the many things you can do with your law degree, this might not have been what they had in mind). Willig has certainly published a great deal since The Secret History of the Pink Carnation appeared in 2005, so thank goodness she seems to know exactly what her readers want. The series is loosely gathered around the doings of the Pink Carnation, an English spy, but the Pink Carnation herself is a somewhat elusive character -- only peeking in occasionally while each book focuses on the love lives of two other individuals. Most of the pairs of lovers in question are English, regardless of the country that provides our setting, but The Orchid Affair is unique; rather than featuring Englishfolk running about France while sporting flowery spy names, this installment features a Frenchwoman returning home after spending years in England as a governess... so she can sport a flowery spy name and be planted in the home of a French official. Much less Englishness. And running. At least in the first half. In the end, what she (and her super secret spy boss The Pink Carnation) doesn't quite count on is that the French official in question might not be totally on board with the current government's practices either, which would make them surprising allies in the need to smuggle a French claimant to the throne out of France.

Willig readers know the basic idea of what they'll be getting here. Some ridiculous fun and an eventual happy ending, preferably with a sexy scene or two tossed in... or at least some nice romantic angst. And when the obvious set up is between a secret spy governess and the employer she's spying on, well, there you have it. Laura Grey is, indeed, a governess, so posing as a governess isn't a terribly difficult role for her. Her parents were artists (her mother a poet of some note and her father a well-known sculptor) and while they had many friends in life, when they died in a boating accident, Laura made her own way in life. Now, the thrill of serving as a spy (and having gone through the Selwick Spy School) is a bit muted by the daily duties of teaching children, so thankfully the story does eventually veer off into something much more amusing -- a traveling troupe of actors. Andre Jaouen is her employer, the right-hand man (and cousin by marriage) to the Chief of Police. It's not surprising, therefore, that the Pink Carnation might want someone in his employ to glean any useful bits of information... what Laura eventually discovers, however, is that Andre is assisting the Royalist cause, having grown jaded with what the Revolution has led to. As a result, we get a fresher look at all the post-Revolution politics in France, which provides a welcome perspective in a series where naturally one must worry about the whole "those Frenchies seek him everywhere" storyline could get tired.

On the modern end of things (as each novel does tie together with the modern graduate student Eloise and her blossoming romance with the many-time-great-grandson of one of these flowery spies), we actually are seeing some drama stir up that goes beyond Eloise and Colin. I was a tad disappointed that we get no new information about exactly what Colin might be up to (is he really writing a spy novel or is he, perhaps, taking up the family business of spying?), but we do get a bit of drama as it concerns his family's estate and his mother's husband (who was her husband's nephew... ew) making a bit of a power play in his desire to be head of the family and trump Colin. The trouble here is that we get so little time with this cast that I always find myself wishing for more and not in the good sense, strictly speaking. Certainly it's interesting, but it does feel like we're rather eking along there.

I enjoy Willig's novels because she clearly has fun with the story -- which means that the reader is more likely to have fun reading it. She creates likable characters (often of the bumbling variety) and they get up to ridiculous antics -- and The Orchid Affair one was about par for the course (though it takes a little while to get to the ridiculous antics, as Paris is far too grim and serious for such things, evidently). Sadly, we're getting to the point where Willig has paired off so many people, it seems almost absurd when you come across them... a whole group of perfectly matched couples in charge of espionage operations across the Channel. But I chuckled and read the book in a weekend, so clearly it was all still amusing enough. It wasn't my favorite of her novels by any means -- the best one in the recent past was The Betrayal of the Blood Lily. It was good to get back to the actual center of the series (aka the French Revolution), though, and the French perspective was a nice angle. The Mischief of the Mistletoe introduced a whole crop of younger sisters, so clearly Willig has ample future heroines tucked away, so I'll keep on reading. Reading a Lauren Willig novel is an exceedingly pleasant way to pass a winter's afternoon/evening. Just keep the tea warm and the scones at the ready.


The Winter Storm

With The Winter Ghosts, Kate Mosse has crafted an eerie tale of wrongs from the past coming to light in an unearthly way... a concept at which she rather excels. Fans of Mosse and her books will be delighted to learn about her latest novel -- but they might feel a touch disappointed when they find that The Winter Ghosts is a much less substantial epic than Labyrinth and Sepulchre. Sure, it certainly counts as a novel in general terms, but in Mosse terms it feels almost like a novella. It has a quick pace, a small cast, and a straightforward story where two lives damaged by wars come together to bring the past into the light of day so each can find a release... and while all of those things could be seen as positive items in one light, they just aren't the things that I want when I look to Kate Mosse and her rich and elaborate historic novels.

Our narrator is Freddie Watson, a young Englishman whose revered older brother died in World War I, leaving Freddie's life empty and his parents' lives even emptier, as they contend with the loss of their heir and their near-constant disappointment in the spare. After scraping by for years, Freddie endured a full on breakdown in his early twenties and now, he's still not quite set to rights, but at least he's not still institutionalized. His parents have died and rather than feel any remorse at their passing, he only feels relief. Now he simply makes by on his grief and simple means -- and The Winter Ghosts opens upon Freddie motoring through France, without an exact course so much as a general idea of touring the region and its castles. A sudden blizzard nearly sends his car careening off a precipice, but he manages to traipse through the wilderness and find a small town that seems quite untouched by the weather that nearly cost him his life. After checking in to a small bed and breakfast, he's invited to the celebrations for a local festival -- to which he eventually decides to go. He doesn't quite read the map correctly, so he trusts his instincts to help him find the way -- and sure enough, he stumbles upon a welcoming-looking building with a festival cheerily buzzing inside. What he finds there in the rough hewn clothing of the locals and the company of a beautiful girl... well, it's more than Freddie could ever imagine finding.

The Winter Ghosts is a decent enough tale, bringing an interesting bit of history to attention, but the fact remains that the reader is always waiting for Freddie to catch up and figure out what's going on. Sure, he doesn't have the book title to clue him in, but it's a very long wait for such a small novel. Freddie is a somewhat sympathetic character, but I quickly grew a bit irritated with his failure to understand what was happening. (I also grew a bit irritated about how belabored a point his grief becomes even early on... such stress on the point was totally unnecessary and only served to irritate me a bit as I wished that we'd move on from the set up and reveal more while other things happened, as opposed to front-loading all our Freddie knowledge. Yes, we get it, George was awesome and Freddie has totally ceded the spotlight of his life to his dead brother. Uh-huh. Can we keep going?) Perhaps we needed a slightly unhinged young fellow because he would assume he was losing his mind as opposed to figuring out that life in a Kate Mosse novel frequently yields centuries-old corpses.

The story rather loses the creepy factor by keeping the reader waiting for the grand revelation -- we got to the party so long ago that now we don't much care any more and when there's nothing else that's going to surprise us in the end. When the main descriptive features of the novel include the word ghosts, tragedy, war, romance... well, I suppose it isn't hard to screw that up, but it's hard to make it dull. The history bits were the most engrossing! (Perhaps not a shocker for history fans, but for those who preferred those other four buzzwords, it might be.) I do always appreciate the fascinating historical details that Kate Mosse digs up and presents to her readers -- perhaps more than anything, it's this sense she has for really interesting history that keeps me coming back to her novels. Alas, The Winter Ghosts probably won't win her any additional fans, but if you treat this as a taste of something to tide you over until her next work, well, then I hope we don't have long to wait.


A Novel Bookstore

Fans of quality literature and--perhaps more particularly--quality bookstores will undoubtedly be enchanted by Laurence Cossé's A Novel Bookstore. Within its pages, Cossé has created her (and many others') ideal bookstore, entwining its creation with a strange mystery, made more mysterious by the intricate workings of life, love, and what goes in to selecting great novels.

The story opens upon confusing and strange circumstances, where individuals connected in some as-yet-unknown-to-the-reader way have suffered minor attacks upon their persons. The aim appears to have been not to take their lives, but to shatter a piece of what defines them. Eventually, we find our way to the more linear understanding of the novel: a rather unique bookstore sells only good novels and a secret committee of selectors (so secret that even they do not know the other members on the committee) is responsible for submitting titles that comprise the stock. With extensive advertising efforts, the bookstore appears to be quite a success -- until a series of vicious attacks in print, online, and finally on the supposedly-secret committee members shows that clearly not everyone is thrilled with a bookstore that seems to define "good" novels.

Ivan "Van" Georg is a man who does not appear to have made all that much of his life, but he does know good literature... and those who value literature are drawn to him, appreciating his recommendations and the ability to speak with a kindred spirit. After striking up some conversations with a wealthy customer, Francesca Aldo-Valbelli, Van is suddenly enlisted to assist her on an endeavor to open "The Good Novel," a Parisian bookstore where only good novels will be sold. Together, Francesca and Van go about laying plans for the dream bookstore -- lush, elegant and selective, while still fostering a strong sense of community at the store and online. Francesca and Van select eight modern writers as secret committee members and each person is charged with writing down a list of 600 novels. Each year, they will be asked to submit additional titles so that new books might also have a shot at entering the store's stock. These will be the only titles stocked at The Good Novel; though in return, the secret committee members are sworn to silence regarding their involvement.

Francesca goes above and beyond in advertising for the bookstore and immediately it seems to be a hit. Then the grumblings come, which lead to greater issues. Opinion pieces in newspapers asking what right anyone has to exclude certain works from a store. Customers ordering books that the Good Novel does not stock, then failing to pick up the order so the bookstore has to eat the cost. Counter-ads from other bookstores that insist they have books for everyone, not just the elite. Questions buzzing about just who is funding this endeavor. It's hard enough to run a bookstore in the current climate without such bad press (though this buzz doesn't necessarily hurt the sales at the bookstore at first), but then the attacks upon the secret committee members happen. Van and Francesca decide that it's time to come clean with the committee list, go to the police, and recount the whole story. Mixed in to the history of the bookstore (and, indeed, perhaps creating the more emotional, meatier heart of the novel) are the secret histories of Francesca and Van... Francesca cherishing deep grief and hopeless love; Van stumbling in life and passionate about a girl he barely knows.

Readers intrigued thus far should hold firm to that interest, for the beginning is a bit dense. I felt a bit daunted by the sudden onslaught of events, French names, and multitude of characters. I even started writing down a character list -- after all, when the authors go by code names to submit their selections and Cossé feels free to refer to them by either name (and they're all vaguely Frenchy), it can get confusing. About fifty pages in, I finally felt like I had my sea legs and never experienced much confusion after that. If anything, the whole mystery is laid out in a rather clear fashion, so it's quite a pleasant ride... until it somewhat peters out. There are many excellent parts to this novel and the entire middle section is a delight... both on the page and off, for it rather stirs within the reader a number of questions about selectivity and the books we feast upon. As a result, it's almost a shame when the ending doesn't have some large finish, but rather a quiet finale... letting us know that being a mystery was perhaps not its main goal. One hopes that Cossé simply wanted readers to think about their book selections and to wonder the same things she wondered... as the reader certainly isn't treated to a grand reveal or any kind of "justice."

When it concerns a bookshop, of course, I suppose the best we can all hope for in today's day and age is simply that it stays in business. It's a charming read, quite a credit to Europa Press, which is developing quite an impressive collection of titles. In my local bookstore, this publisher has a spot of honor... and, indeed, any publisher that puts forth an ode to bookstore like this certainly would seem to merit it. I highly encourage all and sundry to read A Novel Bookstore, but be prepared to simply appreciate the random complications for their own sake and not expect too much of the mystery itself. Van and Francesca are, after all, quite sufficient at holding one's interest as we learn more about their lives and driving forces. It's a bittersweet tale at the end, but real book lovers know that bittersweet is by no means a bad thing.


Mimi's Dada Catifesto

Oh dear goodness, this book makes me wish that I knew a bunch of kids who were (a) not too old for picture books and (b) old enough to understand Dadaism. I'm not sure if those are mutually exclusive qualities, but Mimi's Dada Catifesto is an absolutely stunning tribute to this particular art form.

Mimi is a cat living in a top hat (with two cockroaches that live in the brim). She has a pigeon for a friend, and one night, she sees a Dadaist artist and knows she's finally found her human. She tries to show him that she is a kindred spirit in his dadaist movement but he doesn't always realize hairballs left on his doorstep are works of art. The little details are what make this book a true gem. Seriously. The newspaper whiskers might be the best thing ever.


The Hunger Games

Alright, I get it. I waited for a long time before diving in to this series phenomenon, but I totally get it. It's fast-paced, compelling, exciting, and still has heart. If I had jumped on the bandwagon sooner, I totally would have been one of those people to have my copy of Mockingjay reserved for a midnight pick-up and while I may not have actually worn a mockingjay temporary tattoo, I totally would have asked for one. (I actually found a similar one from HP7 tucked in my copy when I re-read it before the movie release.) I must say, however, that I'm incredibly pleased that for once, I'm not entering a series in the middle and devouring a stack of books, only to impatiently wait for more new releases. At least I had a complete set to tear through in a matter of days -- and even when I started reading, I could tell this would be a book-a-day spree for me.

Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12, where she all but supports her mother and younger sister (Prim, short for Primrose) by illegally hunting in the forest outside the district's fence. Her father died years ago in a coal mining explosion and her mother briefly checked out in her grief before mentally returning to care for her daughters, though Katniss has yet to really forgive her mother for the lapse. This is a post-apocalyptic world and District 12 is located in what was formerly Appalachia, within the country of Panem (formerly North America). The government is concentrated in a central city called the Capitol, which dictates all law to the twelve existing districts. In the history of Panem, an uprising against the government more than seventy years ago resulted in the complete annihilation of District 13 and to prove that the Capitol still has total sway over the lives of every person in every district, the Hunger Games were established.

The Hunger Games are a yearly televised event where twenty-four tributes (a boy and girl from each district, selected by "random" lottery) must fight to the death over the course of a few days or even weeks while simultaneously trying to keep themselves fed and safe from whatever other tricks the arena might have to keep them on their toes. (Each person in the district has their name entered into the lottery when they turn twelve -- and they can choose to take on more chances in exchange for a ration of food to help feed their families.) The sole survivor of each year's Hunger Games will be set for life -- a home, money, fame, and a "job" as coach for the future tributes from their district -- but the games are brutal and while those in the Capitol might cheer and applaud and watch with rapt attention as teenagers fight and die, everyone in the Districts watches because the viewing is compulsory.

This year, when they call the name of the first tribute from District 12, it's Prim. Her first time in the lottery with only one chance of being called... Prim. Almost immediately, Katniss insists on taking Prim's place (which is an option), refusing to let her little sister even be considered. The selected male tribute is named Peeta, the baker's youngest son, and Katniss has had next to no contact with him in the past -- save for one very memorable occasion where she was on the verge of starving and he purposely burned two loaves of bread so he could toss them to her. Now, Katniss knows that she might have to kill the boy with the bread if she hopes to make it home, so she tries her best to put some distance between herself and Peeta, though he remains friendly enough towards her. She wonders if this is his strategy, as others have employed before him -- to come off as harmless until the end when true killing colors are displayed. Katniss and Peeta are taken off to the Capitol where they're given a team of stylists, fed, and play to the cameras. They are paraded around and interviewed -- and even when fighting for their lives within the arena, they still need to concern themselves about "sponsors" that might pay to supply a tribute with a gift within the arena (food, water, medicine, or some such item). Katniss has no idea how she might survive -- until suddenly, an angle for their joint participation is foisted upon her. Katniss has to decide if she can keep up the charade and keep herself alive at the same time.

From page one, this is an incredibly compelling story and there was hardly a moment to breathe as you are swept along with Katniss through her district and to the Capitol, where you're tossed into the games... at which point I somehow managed to read even faster. Katniss is no wilting or pandering heroine and even when being coached for the cameras before the games, her mentor has no idea what angle to work with a girl who clearly despises everyone around her. But she is strong, tough, and unpredictable... with a deep capacity for love (as demonstrated by her immediate selfless act to replace her sister) that she keeps closely guarded. The Hunger Games are no place to become attached to fellow contestants and the reader believes that if anyone is capable of surviving the games through a mixture of skill and cunning, it could very well be this girl from District 12. Peeta, meanwhile, is seen through Katniss's eyes as a threat. Not only might he be playing some kind of angle in his sweet-fellow attitude, but Katniss fears caring about the boy if she'll ultimately end up having to kill him. When only one tribute can remain standing as the victor, Katniss must focus her attention on using her skills to her best advantage and returning home alive.

If you haven't read them yet, you're in for quite a treat. The Hunger Games and its accompanying two books should not be missed.


The Three Weissmanns of Westport

If you have not read Sense and Sensibility, you would still be able to read The Three Weissmanns of Westport and receive some enjoyment, but I can't quite imagine that it's equaled to those who know its inspiration. Cathleen Schine's adaptation is much more than a modernization (and believe me, I've read a few), to the point where it actually does merit the word "homage" as opposed to an author simply fiddling with the calendar and fashion. The spirit of the novel comes through crystal clear, even when the plotlines deviate from the original, making Schine an author who actually understands Austen's observational wit and develops her own humorous attention to detail in the modern sense.

In Schine's novel, instead of a new widow with an entailment on the estate forcing her and her daughters from their home, Mrs. Betty Weissmann is shocked and surprised when her husband asks for a divorce after nearly fifty years of marriage. Unaware of another (younger) woman in the wings (who works under him at the office), Betty Weissmann and her two grown daughters (named Anne and Miranda, who are not Joseph Weissmann's daughters biologically, but were raised by the man and he looks upon them as his own) immediately insist he get a brain scan, believing a medical issue to be at the root of his request. When the reality sets in, Anne and Miranda realize that it doesn't matter the age at which one becomes a child of divorce, it's heart-wrenching no matter what. Betty copes by speaking of Joseph as though he's already dead, inserting "may he rest in peace" after his name and calling herself a widow. Anne is in her fifties and raised two boys as a single mother (her husband took off early and never had anything to do with his sons after that); she is a librarian, though is quietly noted for running a well-respected series of literary events through her Upper West Side library. Miranda is a famous literary agent whose star is about to explode in scandal as several of her "Awful Authors," are now being unmasked as never having experienced the terrible things their memoirs recount. The ultimate shame (a disapproving look from Oprah on her own show) is cast upon Miranda and she is dealing with the fallout from her career and failing agency while her mother deals with the divorce. As a result, Miranda and Betty think it's a brilliant idea for both sisters to move in with their mother and to take up their cousin's offer of a small seaside bungalow on Long Island. Anne is not quite so convinced, but as the two women together would never be able to budget for themselves (as both Miranda and Betty's assets have frozen due to divorce/bankruptcy), Anne sublets her apartment and the three decamp to Westport.

It turns out their cousin is a bit of a collector of humanity, insisting every stray soul is "like family," so there is no shortage of odd characters to entertain at the cousin's lavish dinners and parties. (This includes his wife's dottering father whose outbursts are enough to surprise any reader into laughter.) While Anne commutes in to work on the train, Miranda decides to take up kayaking as a hobby... resulting in her near drowning and then rescue by Kit, a young actor with a two-year-old-son named Henry staying with an aunt who doesn't particularly like them. As Miranda falls in love with Kit (or is it Henry?), she remains oblivious to the attentions of a somewhat reserved and semi-retired attorney. Anne, meanwhile, has fallen in love with Frederick Barrow, a successful author introduced to her by his sister, the Vice President in Joseph's company (and, incidentally, the woman for whom Joseph has left Betty). Given their sporadic meetings and his children's somewhat jealous demands on his time, Anne and Frederick are hardly together long enough for anything to blossom and Anne remains filled with silent longing.

Those looking for an exact modernization of Sense and Sensibility will be disappointed, as will those who believe any such nonsense that Schine has totally captured the feel of Austen. She does, however, have a clear sympathy and understanding for Austen's work, and by placing her story in present time, is an excellent example of our modern desire for Austen's stories in our lives. Schine, however, does not feel tied to the exact storylines and so changes are made to better fit the lives of her own characters... and perhaps to express a secret question in the hearts of many Austen-lovers as to what if the story had taken a slight turn. (Note that I say "question" and not "desire," as I could never hope that things ended a different way in actual Sense and Sensibility.)

I usually do not really develop intensely clear visual images of characters in books, but for some reason, I had The Three Weissmanns of Westport quite clearly cast -- and almost everyone was the result of having appeared in a prior Jane Austen film adaptation. The impeccable Gemma Jones was very clearly Mrs. Betty Weissmann (part Mrs. Dashwood and part Bridget Jones's mum) and Emma Thompson was a very obvious Anne (though she is a bit young for the Anne/Elinor depicted here). Alan Rickman reprised his Colonel Brandon role as the reserved attorney and Ciaran Hinds came in to play the updated Edward (whose name was Frederick in this novel and so clearly he came over from Persuasion). The spirit of Juliet Stevenson was everywhere and I'm not sure I ever pinned her down entirely (save, perhaps as a narratorial voice, as she deftly handles biting wit so very well). Miranda was the sole character I couldn't quite cast... my mind cast about for a version of Naomi Watts who was a little older, a little less immediately identifiable as every man's dream, and a little more capable of being laughed at.

Ultimately, I can understand purists who seethe at this novel for deviating so much from Sense and Sensibility, but I persist in seeing this as a better-than-average example of a Jane Austen modernization, which shows that Austen's themes are still quite pertinent to today's world. One might argue that in today's world, women were much more dependent and much less capable of making their own way in the world, so the troubles of the Weissmann women hardly compare to the very real dangers facing a widow and her penniless daughters, but there's also a flip side to this when actions within this storyline have harsher consequences than the similar storyline in S&S. Schine hits the mark more than once in exploring her parallel plot and I have to say that I really appreciated Schine's ending as it fit her own characters. (Well, I like the Anne bit at least; the Miranda character was always a bit annoying and her storyline started straying into some somewhat silly territory in my opinion.)

If you enjoyed Sense and Sensibility and think that you can relinquish hold on the exact plot details, then you'll likely appreciate The Three Weissmanns of Westport. Certainly if you're looking to find a decent Austenuation, this is quite a few cuts above the average chick lit modernizations -- it's not simply focused on romance and fluff. There are a few slow bits and one or two rather absurd moments, but Schine's humor carries the story in this exploration of loss, heartbreak, and moving on.


Grave Secret

Grave Secret is the fourth and final installment in the Harper Connelly Mysteries, written by Charlaine Harris. On the whole, this series has provided interesting, quick reads that I didn't love but I certainly wouldn't dissuade anyone from picking up and reading. Grave Secret focuses on a case that hits home for Harper and Tolliver in unexpected ways. A wealthy Texas ranch woman likes weird and interesting things, and so invites Harper to do a reading at the family cemetery... only to meet with knowledge of events that happened eight years prior that complicates the lives of her and her family. Her father didn't die peacefully, but instead had a snake thrown at him, causing his heart attack... and his caretaker appears to have died from complications following childbirth (though no one seems to have known she was pregnant). Given that she invited a woman who could describe causes of death, I think it's fair to say that this woman had it coming. As did anyone else in the family if they had anything to do with these past events.

Surely this isn't Harper and Tolliver's problem, right? Well, let's just say it plays a greater role in their lives when Tolliver gets shot and Harper finds herself getting death threats, and they have a sneaking suspicion that this case is at the center of their issues. Top it off, they're having their own family complications as Tolliver's dad, Matthew, has gotten out of jail and wants to reconnect with his sons. This filial love doesn't quite extend to Harper, his step-daughter, and there's only a mild interest in his real daughters, adopted by his sister-in-law and her husband. Originally, Harper and Tolliver had been glad to see their half-sisters, but now they're beginning to fear for everyone as a strange tip on a Cameron sighting has Harper confused... and concerned that somehow, they're coming to the end of their search for what happened to her abducted sister (as strangely enough, she was abducted shortly after the events in question for the Texas ranch family).

This is, clearly, the final installment in this series and fans who worry about loose ends shouldn't have too much to fear. All questions are answered by the end of the novel, though not necessarily to intense satisfaction. I can't express surprise, as I realized halfway through the book where the chips would fall, but I am still somewhat disappointed. It is, at least, a somewhat action-packed book, with the shooting at the beginning getting the tension bar set high from the get-go. The ending had a bit of fizzle as we solve one case then move on to deal with another. Very British murder mystery with the long descriptions and accusations. Still, I suppose this particular plotline wasn't going to take Charlaine Harris through multiple sequels and I'm impressed she got to four books instead of three, so that's something. At least the events in this book didn't cause the same discomfort as the events from An Ice Cold Grave, though I think it's safe to say that Tolliver and Harper have the *worst family ever.* I read the whole series in about a week, so if you're looking for something quick to breeze through and you've enjoyed other Charlaine Harris books, this should fit the bill.

An Ice Cold Grave

For those who were creeped out by anything in Grave Sight or (more likely) Grave Secret, An Ice Cold Grave is not for you. The cover might tip you off, as you realize that there's not just the regular creepy skull, but red flags that suggest multiple points of interest (aka multiple bodies or pieces of bodies). Pretend Charlaine Harris only made it to two books in the series and the third one doesn't exist (and this probably goes for the fourth one, too). For those with a stronger constitution, An Ice Cold Grave will still creep you out, but probably only for the twisted abduction/murder story at the heart of everything as opposed to the Tolliver-Harper stuff.

Harper has been booked in a small North Carolina town to assist the local law enforcement -- over the past few years, several young men have gone missing. The previous sheriff wrote them off as runaways but the current sheriff believes that they might have a serial killer on their hands and with nowhere else to turn, she has reluctantly turned to Harper Connelly and her strange ability to find bodies. And Harper finds them alright... she locates the burial site where more boys than just the ones missing from this town were buried after being raped, tortured, and killed. The sickening facts surrounding the fates of those boys puts the whole town in mourning, but now the sheriff has to find the person responsible... and realize that this might not be the work of one man.

The crime itself is just horrifying. I'm not a squeamish person, but even I read a little quickly through any discussion of the case. This isn't a true crime novel but it's really terrifying to realize this is a possibility in the world. Truly sick individuals are capable of such violence and depravity. I'm also getting a bit sick of the fact that all three books have dealt with dead teens/kids... and sure, adults get tossed in there, too, but they're often not the main focus of the crime and end up dead as a result of learning something dangerous. These are cases where kids are murdered and it's pretty rough, particularly here.

The mystery surrounding the culprit is actually more interesting than the past two books, though not necessarily any more mysterious. For those who are Harris fans from the Sookie Stackhouse books, the romantic storyline will be more what you're used to... in the sense that there are some pretty descriptive sex scenes (the first ones of the series, really). At the end of Grave Secret, Harper realized that she was in love with her step-brother, Tolliver. Note the emphasis on "step" and therefore not related by blood, as this is fairly crucial to understanding that it's not incesty... though the fact that they were partially raised together and have treated each other like siblings for years makes Harper's love all a bit complicated/weird. Lots of people reading these books (along with lots of characters in the stories) would find the very idea of this too weird, but oddly I'm okay with it. I mean, come on, it makes sense... they've been through a lot together (and continue to go through a lot together), so it seems a natural progression that given the option, they would band together in all ways. Harper doesn't want to be co-dependent upon Tolliver (and while Harris goes to lengths to prove that this isn't a weird co-dependent relationship, the reader never quite buys it), but he's always there for her and accepts her for what she is. Of course, Harper is too frightened of losing Tolliver and so resolves to never mention anything... but that never really works, does it? So An Ice Cold Grave deals a lot with Harper's feelings with regard to her brother and quite frankly, it's a welcome distraction from the case.

Despite my discomfort with the case, I thought Harris was more spot-on with her characters in this book than she was with the last, and so I enjoyed this more than Grave Surprise. I'm not sure if it's the subject matter surrounding the characters or what, but this book definitely indicates that this will be a very limited series and even if I didn't know that only four books are out, I would say that all signs here point to a series conclusion happening very soon.


Grave Surprise

Harper Connelly is back in Grave Surprise, the second in a series written by Charlaine Harris about the lightning-strike-survivor who finds corpses through a strange sixth sense. This time, Harper and her step-brother Tolliver are traveling to Memphis for what's supposedly just a college class demonstration -- though they assume (correctly) that the professor is out to prove they're frauds. They all get a bit more than they bargained for when Harper not only correctly explains the cause of death for every person buried in the small college cemetery (take that, professor), but finds that one additional body has been buried there. The body is that of a little girl who went missing two years prior from Nashville... and the twist comes with the fact that Harper had been hired to find the girl, but met with no success at the time (without a hint as to the body's location, she could never find the girl in the places they searched). Now, nearly two years later, she meets success... in the town where the bereaved family has relocated to try and make a fresh start. While the family can finally have peace, no one thinks these facts add up to a coincidence.

Harper and Tolliver are drawn in to the case, though obviously her peculiar talents are somewhat limited in terms of finding out the who's of things... which makes it helpful when bodies keep showing up as a means of providing clues. The tie here is almost more emotional and it's unsurprising that little things keep popping up to keep Harper in town... not the least of which is yet another fresh body, this time that of the professor originally calling her to Memphis.

I wasn't as thrilled with Grave Surprise as I was with Grave Sight, mostly because I feel it was a transition novel, getting us to a point with character development so that the next book could get interesting (aka the relationship between Tolliver and Harper being weird). You probably should read Grave Sight first before this one, even though I feel like we were treated to a lot of repetition as far as their backgrounds were concerned. The mystery itself was intriguing, but also somewhat predictable in the end, which was a disappointment. Still, it was an amusing enough quick read and if you liked the first, you'll likely still enjoy the second to some degree.


Grave Sight

Well, I'll say this for Charlaine Harris... she certainly has a very readable style. As one who has kept on reading all the Sookie Stackhouse novels, no matter what weird fairy things happen, I know that Harris has a style that flows very easily and she can usually come up with characters in complicated situations... who aren't all that complicated themselves (or at least not overly so). Here with Grave Sight and the launch of the Harper Connelly Mysteries series, we have another southern female narrator with a weird gift and without much education (though she's got plenty of street-smarts and likes to read) who manages to stir up trouble wherever she goes.

Harper Connelly can find dead people. After surviving a lightning strike as a teenager, Harper found herself able to "feel" dead bodies, the sense manifesting as a kind of buzzing in her mind. Every corpse gives off a tingle, even if it's centuries old, though the feeling grows more intense if the person died more recently. Her way of explaining this is that everyone, particularly those who did not die of natural causes, wants to be found. She can also tell exactly how the person died, often catching a glimpse of their final moments (though this almost never reveals who a killer could be, just the cause of death). She now makes a living off of this ability -- contacted mostly by the families of missing persons who have come to grips with the likely conclusion that their loved one is dead and the remains simply need to be found. Given a bead on where the body could be, Harper can locate it and explain the cause of death. She can't find missing persons (particularly if they're still alive), she can only find death... but she hopes this gives the families of the deceased some closure.

She works with her step-brother Tolliver Lang, who's a few years older than Harper and runs the business end of things -- the schedule, the payments, all of that. While not actually siblings, the two rely pretty heavily on each other (though sometimes Harper wonders what keeps Tolliver around, as she needs him a bit more). They didn't have a terribly easy childhood. Harper at least remembers a time when her family was well-off and whole, when she and her older sister Cameron were like any other middle-class kids without issues. Before their parents divorced. Before her mother married Tolliver's dad (when Tolliver and Harper were teens). Before their parents dissolved their lives in drugs and alcohol, plunging the kids into a life of hiding their home situation from authorities and raising two new half-sisters almost entirely on their own. Tolliver and his brother Mark didn't fall as far as the girls did in terms of social standing, but no one came out well. Mark, as the oldest, escaped the trailer and brought food when he could. Mark and Harper raised the little girls. And then Cameron was taken -- snatched off the road, leaving only her backpack behind and never found. The authorities swooped in and the little girls were given to a strict aunt for adoption. Mark assumed guardianship of Tolliver; Harper was put in foster care. Harper knows that one day, she'll find her sister's body and then they'll finally know at least a part of what happened, but for now, she and Tolliver drive across the country, working as "consultants" and finding the dead loved ones of others.

The particular case that Grave Sight focuses on involves a pair of teenagers -- a boy named Dell who was shot and whose body was located, and his girlfriend named Teenie, who disappeared. Harper has been brought in to find Teenie and perhaps qwell rumors that he killed her before committing suicide (or that she killed him and ran), but even when Harper manages this with relative speed, the case is far from over as she and her brother find themselves stuck in a town that does not want them there... in danger from a killer that has a secret s/he wants no one else to know.

In the end, the killer is obvious, but the road to get there is a perfectly acceptable crime/mystery novel, and the supernatural element of Harper's powers keeps the reader pretty aware of just who's telling the story. Harper seems like a slightly harder version of Sookie. People are frightened of her because of a weird gift; she's been knocked about a bit and so she's more likely to be blunt; and she has her very own indulgent activity (Sookie was suntans, Harper is manicures). AND Harper has dark hair. Clearly it's night and day here, folks. Despite these obviously overwhelming differences, it does take a while to shake the initial image of Miss Stackhouse for a reader who's used to Bon Temps, but eventually one sees enough of a difference in the storylines to pull away from Fangtasia. Tolliver is not as well-drawn as his sister, but he didn't immediately call to mind a counterpart from the other series (he's certainly no Bill or Eric). Their dynamic will clearly be the oddity at the heart of the series -- a brother-and-sister pair that aren't really brother-and-sister and so things could get weird. They both seem to think the other might be better off without this lifestyle so that they could settle down to do the marriage-and-kids thing, but neither is making that move (though Harper does dream of them buying a house together eventually). Perhaps one thing that was missing from this that I thought rather typified a fun Harris novel was a sex scene with odd descriptions or moments. Not that the sex is odd, it's just that sometimes there's a weird moment that makes one pause or even laugh out loud. I still recall Sookie's breasts quivering like puppies wanting to be petted. There is some sex here, but it's not described in any detail. It seemed oddly modest for the woman who once wrote about breasts as small animals.

With Grave Sight, Charlaine Harris has created another interesting character, but I'm not entirely sure if she's up to the task of the usual crime/mystery novelist where plotlines can get repetitive and the characters don't always progress much in their own lives. I think Harris is too interested in her characters to hold to the standard format for long, but I suppose we'll see. She does maintain her very Charlaine Harris sense of humor, which is part of what makes her style so identifiable. A particularly favorite moment of mine occurred during a fight where narrator-Harper said something like "the gun fell from his hand--yay!" before the struggle continued. It lets you know that even if she's creating a crime novel, Harris knows the reader is there for enjoyment and she's enjoying the ride, too.

It's a very fast read and for those Harris fans looking to tide themselves over to the next Sookie book, this first Harper mystery is perfectly satisfying for what it is. If I sound overly critical, let me emphasize again that I thought it was fun and I'll definitely be reading the next one... I'm just not sure if this series will have the same staying power as the Sookie books. If anyone could make a go of it as far as paranormal mystery is concerned, though, it's going to be Ms. Charlaine Harris.


Shades of Milk and Honey

Well my goodness, what a strange and charming little volume! Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal is described as "Pride and Prejudice meets Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" -- though I would have suggested Sense and Sensibility as the Austen novel in question (if only for the sisters relationship, though other elements clearly owe their foundations to P&P) and the magical element is not nearly as strong in this as in Jonathan Strange. Still, that vague quote will at least clue in a reader to the fact that this is not your ordinary Jane Austen wannabe romantic story. Kowal evidently is quite a Janeite, having thanked the online Jane Austen community in her acknowledgements, and this book could certainly be called an Austenuation, given its tone, character similarities, and occasional spellings. The magical/fantasy element consists of the insertion of "glamour," which I'm sure I will not describe properly, as I'm not sure I even understood it properly. Glamour appears to be a magic pulled from the air that one can manipulate into visual displays -- whether this be the addition of small amounts that would add something extra to an existing item (allow trees in a painting to sway in the wind or give the illusion of light playing against books) or something a bit larger (create an entire theatrical tableau vivant around people, a "glamural" large-scale work, or curtaining off people using folds of glamour so they disappear from view). The thing is, in this world, it doesn't appear as though manipulating glamour is exactly a highly prized skill... at least for men. It seems to be something in the feminine arena, used mostly for improvements in the home, as it doesn't appear to create anything substantial, simply an enhanced visual. There are a few well-regarded artists who work with the medium but, as artists, they are still working at a kind of trade and therefore are a notch above some, but not quite on the level with the usual gentlemen and ladies who do not require a pesky occupation to keep them financially solvent.

Jane Ellsworth is twenty-eight and has almost resigned herself to the life of a spinster... almost. There is still a desperate hope in her heart that despite her age and lack of beauty, she might still make a match and not end her days serving as a tutor to her beautiful younger sister's sure-to-come children. Jane has two things in her favor -- her father has set aside a bit of a dowry for each of his daughters (as he's smart enough to know that they will need this, given that his estate is entailed away) and Jane herself is a somewhat accomplished glamourist. Not that she would own the description as an official title, but even she knows that she can manipulate glamour relatively well and as this talent is appreciated in women to make a home comfortable, to entertain, etc., there is a hope that it enhances her marriageable value. Her younger sister Melody is quite a beauty and beloved by Jane (though the reader rather has to take Jane at her word on Melody's good points, as Melody comes off as a selfish, flighty, and rather vapid creature). Their parents are quite the image of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, though at least Mr. Ellsworth has a bit more sense when it comes to providing for his daughters and keeping them out of trouble as far as that dreaded city of Bath is concerned.

The neighborhood is small, but still has a number of interesting personages within. First, there is Mr. Dunkirk, of whom Jane thinks rather highly, though she also knows her sister feels the same and is immediately inclined to allow her sister the conquest. When his sister Beth comes to visit, Jane develops a fondness for the much younger girl and assists Beth in her basic study of glamour; this quietly delights Mr. Dunkirk, who has a real appreciation for Jane's talents and more than hints that such talents are what truly make a comfortable home. The local elite family is the FitzCameron family, presided over by Lady FitzCameron, a widow with an unmarried daughter... which is why her nephew, Captain Livingston, is in town... a rather dashing and rakish young man in the service of His Majesty's royal navy. Also a guest in the FitzCameron household, we have the standoffish and gruff Mr. Vincent, a noted glamourist who is being employed by Lady FitzCameron to create a large-scale and grand glamural in her home.

While the novel lacked a real Austen-like focus on social commentary and deeper and yet witty observations, Kowal was able to create a heroine who felt quite like a woman who could have existed in an Austen novel, and one who would have merited the high opinion of those sensible souls around her. Jane is quiet and demure, keeping her shrewder thoughts to herself and able to keep confidences (while yet struggling with the question of whether or not to share them with others if only in the best interest of those concerned who might come to harm). She values her sister so highly that she is constantly trying to repair any breaches that occur, though none of them are Jane's fault. Melody is an incredibly annoying chit of a girl, whereas Beth is only a trifle better, if only because she manages to act decently well on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps the more surprising thing (when it concerns comparing Shades of Milk and Honey to any Austen or other Regency novel) is the fact that for all of Jane's concerns about ending a spinster, she actually plays the field a whole lot more than she realizes. The reader will understand pretty quickly who her ideal match would be, but Jane seems to hold two men in high regard for quite some time -- and indeed, even when the real love-match becomes clear, the relationship with the other fellow is not quite closed off (which is, perhaps, a bit more realistic). There's also a rather ridiculous scene filled with galloping horses and duels that feels a bit over-the-top in this particular novel, but perhaps one can forgive it for the sake of fun. It is a pity, though, that there was not more depth to this story beyond the romantic storylines, as I believed Kowal to be quite capable of greater societal observation than was evinced in this volume. The limited mention of how glamour can be used to mask falling fortunes was not quite enough (or at least it didn't ever come to much) and should have merited a greater exploration.

All in all, I would say that Kowal's novel is rather charming, though Regency purists will not be particularly pleased with all this glamour stuff. As I have noted, I do wish that the magical element actually played a bit more of a role in society as something necessary, as opposed to the surface delight that glamour epitomizes. It just doesn't seem to be necessary in the way I would think such an addition would have to be -- but perhaps in future novels of this world (as one always assumes there must be more, nowadays), we'll get more on that subject. Modern readers who can pick up both Georgette Heyer and light fantasy will be able to enjoy Shades of Milk and Honey as a pleasant diversion and I'll be happy to read the next item that comes from Kowal's pen.