Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Illustration for The Sign of Four from The Bristol Observer

The Sign of Four is the third novel and the nineteenth story in the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. This novel introduces Watson’s future wife, Mary Morstan and develops Sherlock Holmes’s cocaine addiction.

Mary Morstan seeks Sherlock Holmes’s help after receiving a mysterious message from a stranger. The stranger has sent her single pearls from a great treasure and promises that her wealth will be even greater if she agrees to meet with him. Holmes agrees that she should go, and he and Watson decide to accompany her. They arrive at the house of the eccentric Thaddeus Sholto, the son of Major Sholto, who served with Mary’s father in India. However, Thaddeus Sholto’s timing in contacting Mary couldn’t have been better, as his brother Bartholomew is mysteriously killed that evening, and it looks like only Sherlock Holmes can prove Thaddeus Sholto’s innocence and solve the case of their father’s missing treasure that Thaddeus promised he and his brother had found and had agreed to share with Mary. In the meantime, Holmes must deal with bungling police officers and Watson’s infatuation with their client as well as a slippery duo he believes has absconded with the treasure.

This novel was better than both A Study in Scarlet and The Valley of Fear, which I previously read for this challenge. Both of those novels suffered from Conan Doyle’s lack of understanding of America and Americans, though it’s also true that this novel suffers from his lack of understanding of India. I’m sure for his era, he might even have been progressive, but I can’t help but notice the racism when he writes about India, and it’s come up a few times in the stories so far. His depiction of Tonga, the Andaman Islands native who blows poison darts in attempts to kill (sometimes successfully) is particularly problematic, though his depiction of Jonathan Small’s confederates, the others that comprise the “Four” of the novel’s title, is not much better. It might just be me, but this kind of story seems to be one that Conan Doyle writes with some frequency: a mysterious missing treasure from an exotic locale, terrible murder, conspiracy, all bound together. For its type, this novel is a decent one, and it was a fairly quick read.

There are several references to The Sign of Four in the BBC Sherlock series. The episode “The Sign of Three” in which Mary Morstan and John Watson marry is the most obvious. Major James Sholto, a character in the episode, had been Watson’s commander in Afghanistan and had been the subject of death threats. At one point, someone does try to kill him by means of a stiletto blade, which might be meant to remind the viewer of the blow darts. In addition, the feeling that things will change between Sherlock and Watson because of his marriage is palpable at the end of both the episode and the novel. The references to A.G.R.A. turn out not to be treasure, but Mary’s true identity as an assassin, which Sherlock discovers in “His Last Vow.” She is the “R” in the initials, and she believes that the other three had been killed, which is similar to Jonathan Small’s notion that the other three members of his treasure confederacy will not be able to access it because they are imprisoned for life. Bill Wiggins is also alluded to in “His Last Vow,” though in that episode he is a drug addict rather than the leader of the Baker Street Irregulars. In the episode “The Six Thatchers,” someone is trying to track down an A.G.R.A. memory stick like Mary’s, and she discovers that one of her former colleagues did not actually die and is angry with Mary for leaving him behind.

In all, the story is probably essential for its introduction of John Watson’s love interest, but I honestly like what the BBC series has done with the story more than the actual Conan Doyle story itself. I do remember The Hound of the Baskervilles being my favorite of the Sherlock Holmes novels. I haven’t read it in years, but based on my memory and the re-reading of the other three Holmes novels, my mind hasn’t changed. I actually think Conan Doyle does better with the short story format, which explains why the bulk of the Sherlock Holmes adventures are written in that format.

Rating: ★★★½☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge

I read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is nineteenth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is Silver Blaze.”

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Review: The Devil’s Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee, Stewart Lee Allen

The description of Stewart Lee Allen’s book The Devil’s Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee would have prospective readers believe that Allen was on a quest to answer two big questions: “Did the advent of coffee give birth to an enlightened western civilization?” and “Is coffee, indeed, the substance that drives history?” I’m not really sure either question was answered, but I did learn a few things about coffee, and I was entertained.

Allen begins his journey in Harar, Ethiopia, said to be the birthplace of coffee.As he claims partway through the book, “Coffee and humanity both sprang from the same area in eastern Africa.” Next Allen treks through Yemen, Turkey, Austria, France, and from there to Brazil and finally across America on Route 66, following the course of coffee-loving mystics and adventurers and the coffee plant itself. It’s a little bit like what might happen if you put Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in a blender. It wasn’t what I was expecting, which was more a straight history of coffee, and though there was some history, it was equally Allen’s memoir of his trek around the world in search of coffee’s history.

However, I did learn a few things, such as why coffee dominates in America and tea in Britain (it really has a lot to do with the American Revolution and the Opium Wars), how coffee houses have fomented revolution, and about coffee’s origins among Sufi mystics. For a self-professed coffee fanatic, Allen holds some surprising views. For instance, he doesn’t rag on Starbucks like most coffee snobs I know. Instead he says:

Sure, they’re a megacorporation destroying hundreds of mom-and-pop cafés. But that’s just something large corporations do. The important thing is that they serve fine coffee. Their baristas are generally first-rate.

 

I actually really like Starbucks, but a lot of people don’t describe their coffee as “fine.” I realize that’s partly because it’s really uncool to like anything that’s popular. Hipsters seem bent on making everyone unhappy about liking anything. I am admittedly not a real coffee aficionado, so perhaps that explains why Starbucks and Dunkin and the like taste good to me. I am also not a hipster—not even close.

This was entertaining, quick read, and most of all, it was fun to read with a nice cup of coffee in the morning, but if you’re looking for the straight history that the book’s title suggests, look elsewhere.

Rating: ★★★½☆

I’m counting this book as the “object you might hunt for” for the Wild Goose Chase Challenge because, not only because Allen spends a lot of the book hunting for various types of coffee and stories about coffee’s history and travels, but also because I have sure spent time on a quest for a good cup of coffee on occasion, myself.

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Review: 13 Rue Thérèse, Elena Mauli Shapiro

I found a copy of Elena Mauli Shapiro’s novel 13 Rue Thérèse at a used bookstore in Northampton, MA, where we spent my birthday weekend last year. As such, I suppose this book was a birthday present for myself. I loved the cover, and in flipping through the book, I was intrigued by the premise.

An American historian named Trevor Stratton is given a box of artifacts belonging to a woman named Louise Brunet, who lived at 13 Rue Thérèse in Paris with her husband Henri after World War I. He discovers through piecing together her story that she lost a cousin with whom she was in love and whom she wanted to marry in World War I. She married a man who worked in her father’s shop, and she was desperate for a child. She embarks on a flirtation with a new neighbor, a teacher, who surprises Louise by taking her up on her suggestions. Meanwhile, Trevor can’t explain why he knows things about Louise’s life that don’t appear in the artifacts. How can he know, for example, so intimately how Louise feels and what she does as she goes about her life in Paris in November 1928?

This book is based on an interesting idea. Shapiro apparently has a box of relics belonging to a real-life Louise Brunet who died alone. The landlord of 13 Rue Thérèse allowed the residents to claim her belongings, and Shapiro’s mother selected this box. From the artifacts in the box, Shapiro constructed this story. I’m not sure how I feel about her taking that kind of license with a real person’s life, especially when so much of the story is speculation and doesn’t necessarily cast Louise in a positive light. She is a likable character, but I wonder what her descendants, had she had any, would have thought about her fictional treatment. There is a time-travel element that is not quite gracefully handled as well. One wonders about the necessity of including Trevor Stratton at all. His story seems somewhat superfluous, perhaps because it isn’t woven into Louise’s story as seamlessly as it might be. I love a good time travel story, but I wonder if this book might not have been better as strictly historical fiction. In addition, I would have liked to have seen the plot hang together a bit more tightly.

Despite some flaws, I didn’t give up on it, and it was a very quick read, if not a gripping one. I think in the case of this particular book, I am probably just not the right audience because many reviewers seem to have liked it more than I did. The QR codes in the back of the book are a nice touch; they allow the reader to see higher resolution photos of the artifacts. I found the color images in the book sufficient. The book is a beautiful book, as well, with a gorgeous cover and thick creamy pages and a pleasant font. It isn’t quite like any other book I’ve read before. You might enjoy it if you like quirky French films.

Rating: ★★★½☆

I’m counting this book for several reading challenges. It’s Paris setting makes it my French book for the European Reading Challenge. I’ve had it on my backlist at least since September when I bought it, so I’m also counting it for the Beat the Backlist Reading Challenge. Finally, it is set mainly in 1928, so I’m also counting it for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

European Reading Challenge 2017 Beat the Backlist

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Sherlock Holmes: The Valley of Fear, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Valley of Fear
Illustration for The Valley of Fear by Frank Wiles for The Strand

The Valley of Fear is the second Sherlock Holmes novel I’ve read for the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. Holmes and Watson receive a strange message in cipher and divine that it reads “some devilry is intended against one Douglas,” the wealthy owner of Birlstone Manor in Kent. Sure enough, Inspector Macdonald turns up and tells the dynamic duo that Douglas has been murdered. Holmes is sure his nemesis Professor Moriarty is involved. Holmes and Watson travel to Kent to investigate, and Holmes quickly deduces that, as usual, the local constabulary has overlooked some important details and that there is a great deal more going on in the case than the murder of the gentleman of Kent. And also as usual, he’s right. Douglas’s murder is at the center of the Pinkertons’ infiltration of the Scowrers, a murderous gang affiliated with the Eminent Order of Freemen, a union/fraternal order that is somewhat harmless is some areas of the country, but which has a stranglehold on the Vermissa Valley in California. In the denouement, Holmes is more convinced than ever that Moriarty is at the heart of even this far-flung criminal organization.

I find myself perplexed again by this novel’s placement in the chronology adopted. I know I have mentioned this issue several times, but it feels so clearly late that it doesn’t seem right here; however, I should mention that in this novel’s case, there’s nothing to put my finger on really except writing style, and that’s explained by Conan Doyle’s having written it later. I enjoyed it more than I thought, especially after I caught wind that Conan Doyle was once again going to try to set part of the novel in America. My previous experience is that he doesn’t really understand Americans all that well. This novel, however, didn’t betray the usual issues (inaccurate dialect, being chief among them). It’s also based on the true case of Pinkerton agent James McParland’s infiltration of the Molly Maguires. Perhaps it’s the additional research Conan Doyle did that lends more of air of authenticity to the story. Once again, however, I found the parts of the story set in England to be far more interesting. Conan Doyle is clearly interested in America, but he writes more engagingly about his own home soil.

The only mention of this novel I found in the Sherlock series is in “The Final Problem” episode, in which Moriarty’s brother is described as being a station master, though in this case a broadcast station and not a railway station. I wouldn’t put this book as up there among the essential or the best, but it wasn’t bad. I found a few passages earlier in the book that I enjoyed, and this one the most, as it captures the characters in a way so many adaptations don’t seem to capture:

I believe that I am one of the most long-suffering of mortals; but I’ll admit that I was annoyed at the sardonic interruption. “Really, Holmes,” said I severely, “you are a little trying at times.”

Tell me you couldn’t hear Martin Freeman saying that to Benedict Cumberbatch.

Rating: ★★★½☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is fifteenth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition) and second novel. Next up is “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

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Review: The House Between Tides, Sarah Maine

Sarah Maine’s novel The House Between Tides begins with a mystery. Hetty Deveraux (which feels too much like a name only a novel character would have) travels to a remote manse belonging to her ancestors and discovers a body has been found under the floorboards. Hetty soon finds herself untangling a century-old murder as she tries to determine what to do about Muirlan House—tear it down and try to preserve the island’s unique character, as the inhabitants of Muirlan Island think best, or renovate it into a resort hotel as her partner Giles urges her to do. Meanwhile, Hetty becomes curious about her ancestors. The island had once been the inspiration and refuge of her great-grandmother Emily’s brother Theo Blake, a famed painter. Hetty discovers that Theo’s wife deserted him under mysterious circumstances, and she begins to fear she knows whose bones were found underneath the floorboards of Muirlan House. Meanwhile Beatrice Blake, Theo’s wife, tells her story in flashbacks. The the stories of two women, living a century apart, link inextricably with family secrets and a crumbling ancestral home in the space between them.

I have to admit this book was a slow starter for me, even with the discovery of a body under the floorboards. Maine does a great job of creating the atmosphere of Muirlan Island in the Outer Hebrides, a remote and unforgiving landscape that nonetheless lures both Hetty and Beatrice with its fierce beauty. Once the story gets going, however, it’s pretty good. Some aspects of the plot were a little easier to guess than others, and the unraveling of the mysteries that lay buried for so many years made for a satisfying ending. However, I was a good third of the way through the book and contemplating giving up on it before it started to capture my interest. I enjoyed the rest of the book. The parallels between Hetty and Beatrice were interesting, and the family secrets intrigued me enough to persevere through some of the parts that dragged. I have seen some reviewers claim not to have enjoyed the parts set in 2010 with Hetty, but I actually found them more interesting because the discovery of the body as well as Hetty’s conflicted feelings about her partner and his plans for her ancestral home were intriguing to me. I love historical fiction, and at first, I found Beatrice’s story the less interesting of the two. However, as I kept reading, Beatrice grew on me. The book is compared to Daphne Du Maurier’s atmospheric writing, which is a shame because few writers can create a brooding setting like Du Maurier, and anyone suffers by comparison. I think I need to stop having such high expectations of anyone whose work is compared to Du Maurier’s. Still, it was a good read, and the setting was well drawn, if perhaps the characters were not always—I found the minor characters very difficult to keep straight, and the family trees impossible. I also found parts of the story frustrating as I hoped Maine was going somewhere with a thread that was never quite woven in well enough.

Rating: ★★★½☆

I am counting this book toward the following reading challenges:

Beat the BacklistI am counting this book for the Beat the Backlist Challenge. This book has been on my Kindle since last September, but I didn’t start reading it until recently. It was published in 2016, and therefore meets the challenge’s qualification of being released before 2017. I read this on my Kindle, but Goodreads says the paperback version has 400 pages, which is the equivalent of 40 points for Ravenclaw, and posting this review should net 50 more points for a total of 90.

Because about half the book takes place in 1910, I’m also counting it for the Historical Fiction Challenge. In addition, Sarah Maine is a British writer, so this book counts towards the British Books Challenge.

British Books Challenge

Finally, as the book is set in Scotland, part of the UK, it also counts as part of the European Reading Challenge, though this is the only UK book that will count toward the challenge.

European Reading Challenge 2017

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Review: Faithful, Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman’s novel Faithful was released last month and arrived on my doorstep as part of my November Cozy Reader subscription box. I was reminded today that I had decided about seven years ago not to read Hoffman again, and I might not have picked up this book had it not been sent to me, but the reviews were good, and I decided to give it a shot.

Faithful is the story of Shelby Richmond, who survives an accident that puts her best friend into a coma. The novel explores Shelby’s feelings of guilt as the survivor and her subsequent search for meaning in her life as she recovers. Spanning about ten years in Shelby’s story, Faithful in particular explores Shelby’s relationships with family and friends who try to help her see that she is worthy of love and also discover her purpose in the world—”to save a small part of the world.”

I found Shelby to be a bit of a cipher. She pushed everyone away to such a degree that I found it difficult to like her myself—not that I have to like characters to enjoy a book. I do however, need to be interested in them, and it took me a while to become interested in what happened to Shelby, but by a few chapters in, I was. The present-tense storytelling didn’t work for me as a reader, though I think I understand the point in using it. It did make the story feel more immediate in some ways, but it also made it hard for me to place in time.

I’m not sure what to make of this book. I read the first chapter, and I thought it was going to the did-not-finish pile in short order, but I gave it another chance. I liked it way more than 3 stars, but I’m not sure it’s a full 4 stars for me either, even though I basically read almost all of it in a day. There were moments that were a bit wrenching for me as I lost my grandmother last month, and this book confronts the pain of loss in multiple ways, but it didn’t quite get inside me in a deep way. Perhaps it was that I never fully warmed to Shelby. I certainly felt bad for her, and I wanted her to forgive herself, but even her descriptions of what she was like before the accident made it hard for me to feel like I knew her. I felt like even as a reader, she didn’t want to let me in. Still, it looks like lots of readers are loving it, and it’s a pretty good read, though the NY Times review by Helene Wecker captures my feelings about the book well.

Rating: ★★★½☆

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Review: A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler

Not too long ago, I joined Litsy, which has been described as a combination of Instagram and Goodreads. It’s not, but I guess that’s as close as it gets. I posted a picture of the books I had purchased and wondered which to start with. A commenter recommended Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread. While I’ve had some things going on and haven’t felt much like reading, it’s also true that this book only sort of half grabbed me. I picked it up because the opening pages are excellent, but they also deceived me about what the book would be.

You’ll have to forgive me. I haven’t read any of her other books, so from what I understand, this one is familiar territory for her: set in Roland Park in Baltimore, about family dynamics and the million tiny ways families disappoint one another. The Whitshank family lives in a house built by the patriarch, Junior Whitshank. His son Red and daughter-in-law Abby live in the house after the passing of Junior Whitshank and his wife (Red’s mother) Linnie Mae. Red and Abby raised their own four children in the house. The novel moves back and forth in time, beginning in the 1990’s with a phone call the Whitshanks’ son Denny makes to announce he’s gay and ending as Denny boards a train to New Jersey to see what appears to be an on-again, off-again girlfriend who is battening down the hatches for Hurricane Sandy. In between, we meet the rest of the Whitshank family and see the Whitshank grandchildren born, we go back and see Red and Abby before they started dating, and then we go further back and meet Junior and Linnie Mae both before and after they move into the house on Bouton Road.

When I say I was deceived by reading the beginning, here is an example of what I mean. Denny calls to announce he is gay. And that whole thread is completely dropped after the opening as Denny has relationships with women and even a daughter, Susan. I have to wonder what the point was. The thread is never picked up. And yes, I am using that metaphor on purpose. Maybe that was what Tyler had in mind. Leaving a lot of loose threads around. For instance, we learn Junior and Linnie Mae died in a crazy car accident, but we don’t really learn why. How did they really even feel about each other? After you read the section about Junior and Linnie Mae, you will wonder if there is more to it. The novel ends without a clear resolution, too. It doesn’t feel satisfying at the end. I wanted to like it more because I do feel that Anne Tyler drew very realistic and recognizable characters, and I liked them. I just didn’t get to see enough plot. It was sort of like peeking through the drapes and watching snippets of a family’s development. I guess I wanted to be a bit closer. In the end, I just kept wondering why Tyler wove in certain scenes and didn’t go anywhere with them.

I am not sure how to rate it because there are parts I liked, but as a whole, it didn’t hang together for me. I will not count it as historical fiction, even though much of it is, because the main storyline is too current.

Rating: ★★★½☆

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Review: Marie Antoinette: The Journey, Antonia Fraser

Antonia Fraser’s comprehensive biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey inspired a film starring Kirsten Dunst in the role of the queen some years ago. Essentially, Fraser’s portrayal of the queen is sympathetic. Not well educated or especially groomed for a role of greatness, Marie Antoinette found herself packed off to France at the age of fourteen to make a political marriage. It seems the French never really warmed to her, and in the end, she became a scapegoat for the entire French Revolution. It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for her, and Fraser clearly wants the reader to feel sympathy for the woman whom history misremembers as suggesting, upon hearing of the lack of bread and subsequent starvation of her people, “Let them eat cake.”

I started reading this book over a year ago—on February 8, 2015, to be exact. I have been picking away at it here and there, but I never found it so engaging that I couldn’t put it down until the Revolution started and Marie Antoinette’s tribulations truly began. I think, and I’m probably not alone in this, that the most interesting thing about Marie Antoinette is her death. It sounds terribly cold and callous to put it that baldly, but as a queen she was fairly similar to most aristocrats. A little vain, a bit frivolous, and not terribly smart. She seems to have been devoted to her children. She also seems to have had genuine great affection for Louis XVI. Antonia Fraser argues that Marie Antoinette had an affair with Swedish Count Axel von Fersen. Whatever the true nature of their relationship, they were great friends, but Fraser really seems to want this affair to have happened, and I think her treatment of that particular aspect of the biography suffers as a result—too much conjecture, and not enough real evidence, especially given how carefully Fraser describes the queen’s utter lack of privacy from the moment she entered France. The whole story just doesn’t hang together well.

On the other hand, the portrait Fraser paints of the imprisoned Marie Antoinette as pious, stoic, and forgiving is admirable and seems to square well with other historical evidence I’ve read. In her last days, her treatment was much harsher than her husband received prior to his own execution. She was separated utterly from every aspect of her former station in life, from her children and other family to her comforts and even occupations. In the end, she emerges as an admirable figure through the fortitude she displayed as she faced death. There is a horrible sentiment expressed by the Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” after he shoots and kills the Grandmother: “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” It’s a horrible thing to say, I suppose, but Marie Antoinette was undeniably a brave woman at the end of her life. Whatever she may have been in life, she didn’t deserve for her life to end the way it did.

Fraser’s biography is, in the end, not without its faults, but it is certainly thorough and the reader senses the affection the author feels for her subject. Perhaps because this book is Marie Antoinette’s story, and not a story, necessarily, of the Revolution that killed her, one will not learn a great deal about many of the other movers and shakers in the events of the time, though Fraser did clear up a few issues I had difficulty understanding—why Marie Antoinette was so reviled, for one thing, and on a more minor point, the difference between the Girondins and Jacobins (I was quite fuzzy on that point, thought I admit I haven’t read widely on the Revolution, and that confusion may easily have been cleared up elsewhere as well). Robespierre, for example, is mentioned only a handful of times. While he never seems sympathetic in anything I’ve read about him, I can’t deny he’s a great deal more interesting to me than Marie Antoinette.

In some ways, I don’t feel like I’ve been quite fair to Marie Antoinette in this book review, but the truth is that I didn’t quite find her fascinating enough to merit the comprehensiveness of this biography, however fascinating her death might have ultimately been. In a way, I sort of felt like one of those gawkers passing an accident on the side of the road. Still, I can’t deny that Fraser does her best, and Marie Antoinette comes to life and ultimately emerges as a sympathetic person in the pages of this book.

Rating: ★★★½☆

I am going to count this for the Mount TBR Challenge because I’ve been meaning to finish it for a long time, but I’m not sure about counting it for the Shelf Love Challenge because it hasn’t really been neglected on my shelf if I’ve been picking away at it for a year.

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Review: The Shadow of Night, Deborah Harkness, narrated by Jennifer Ikeda

Deborah Harkness’s Shadow of Night is the second in her All Souls Trilogy. In the first book, which I read and reviewed here, witch and historian Diana Bishop calls forth the mysterious manuscript Ashmole 792 from Oxford’s Bodleian Library, arousing the curiosity of many other “creatures,” including vampire Matthew Clairmont.

This book picks up Diana and Matthew’s unlikely love story as they prepare to timewalk to the past in the hopes of recovering the mysterious alchemical manuscript known in their time as Ashmole 782, which Matthew hopes will reveal genetic secrets of creatures and help Matthew discover why creatures are dying out. Using Diana’s power to travel to the past, Matthew and Diana go back to Elizabethan London, where Diana discovers her husband is a member of the legendary School of Night. And that’s not his only secret. Diana discovers she has some massive hidden powers, and she rubs shoulders with just about everyone of note in early 1590’s London and Prague.

I have to admit I find both Diana and Matthew pretty grating. People (annoyingly) fall in love with both of them right and left, while they have eyes only for each other. And of course, they have flawless appearances as well. Harkness falls into the trap of making her characters too physically perfect, so she gives them other flaws (that aren’t really flaws). I know they are not supposed to be normal people—they are a witch and vampire—but I still found them both pretty unsympathetic. Even when you’re writing about supernatural creatures, you want your characters to seem believable on some level. On the other hand, as this kind of book goes (think Twilight) this series is entertaining enough. It’s hard to believe even a vampire like Matthew would somehow be to connected to pretty much every major figure in Renaissance London and Prague, too. And I mean, it runs the gamut, from Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, aka the Maharal of Prague, a witch who created the legendary Golem, Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, Queen Elizabeth I, Christopher Marlowe, Sir Walter Raleigh, and more shadowy types like John Dee and Edward Kelley. One can’t deny that Harkness did her research. One wonders if all of it had to be thrown into the book.

Like I said, though, these books are entertaining enough, and they will definitely appeal to people who are looking for fun books about vampires and witches. Jennifer Ikeda’s reading works well with the story and doesn’t hit any wrong notes.

Rating: ★★★½☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★☆

I can’t count this one for the R. I. P. Challenge, even though I think it would be perfect if you’re doing the challenge and looking for something different to read. I started reading it before the challenge started, however. Given that most of the book is set in the past, I do feel it can definitely count for the Historical Fiction Challenge. Diana and Matthew travel from American to Renaissance London, and then to France and Prague, so it’s hard to figure out exactly where to map it for my settings map, but I’m settling on London, as I’d say the bulk of the action takes place there.

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Review: This House is Haunted, John Boyne

John Boyne’s novel This House is Haunted is the story of Eliza Caine, a teacher grieving the recent death of her father. She responds to a mysterious ad for a governess in Norfolk, in part for somewhere to go, now that she’s learned her father never owned the house in which they lived and she’s being unceremoniously thrown out, and in part to escape her sadness. As soon as she arrives on the train, she realizes not only that she has been hired under false pretenses, but also that there is a presence in Gaudlin Hall, the home of her young charges Isabella and Eustace, that does not want her there.

Anyone who is familiar with ghost stories/madwomen in the attic tropes will recognize this story. With serious nods to both The Turn of the Screw and Jane Eyre, as well as bit of “The Fall of the House of Usher” and explicit homages to Dickens, many readers might well accuse this book of cribbing from more illustrious forebears a bit too much. Perhaps there isn’t a whole lot here that is new. As a ghost story, it’s fairly predictable, and despite some pretty chilling scenes (as I described them to my husband, I realized based on his reactions that they were scary at least in the abstract), I wasn’t really scared. I didn’t really want to be terrified. I don’t read much horror for a pretty good reason. It’s not my favorite thing to imagine the absolute worst people do, and I can’t stand gore at all. But a creepy ghost story, like, for instance, The Little Stranger? I’m all over that. This story wasn’t really like that. I think it might make for a pretty interesting atmospheric movie, but it didn’t really deliver any seriously good chills, at least not for me. But it is a quick read, and the story was engaging enough for me to keep turning the pages. It was a nice way to get my feet wet for the R. I. P. Challenge this year.

Rating: ★★★½☆

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