James P. Blaylock, The Elfin Ship, The Disappearing Dwarf: These are old favorites which I read first when I was nine or ten. In The Elfin Ship, when trouble downriver from Twombly Town seems set to prevent holiday trading, Master Cheeser Jonathan Bing sets out on a raft, accompanied by the learned Professor Wurzle, the simple Dooly, and his faithful dog Ahab, to take his cheeses to the elves. Jonathan finds far more trouble than he bargained for, though, getting mixed up with trolls, goblins, skeletons, and a mysterious dwarf with a magical watch. Blaylock is very good at juxtaposing the everyday (even in a fantasy world) with the bizarre, and I really like the contrast between scenes of comfort and coziness, with cheeses, pipes, coffee, and brandy, against creepy, weird encounters with all sorts of monsters and beasts.
The Disappearing Dwarf follows the further adventures of Jonathan and his friends, as they venture into the unknown world of Balumnia in search of the missing Squire Myrkle. Blaylock is good at balancing the fun with the creepy, generally, but I don't think he does it as well here as in the first book; everything is just a touch too grim. Still, it's a worthy sequel and entertaining.
Liza Picard, Elizabeth's London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan London: I found this a lively though not very scholarly guide to London in the time of Elizabeth I. Picard adopts a chatty tone which is very readable and often funny, and she includes lots of quotes from primary sources. However, I often wanted her to try to go deeper into her subject. For instance, after spending an entire chapter on the poor of London and concluding that "there was a splendid, comprehensive, welfare system in place," she quotes a primary source which wonders why "the streets yet swarm with beggars," and says that she has no answer. It seems as though this should be the starting point, not the ending. But I'm probably asking too much of a work of popular history, and even with that quibble, I did enjoy Picard's evocation of Elizabethan London and would certainly read her books on London in other time periods.
Sherwood Smith, King's Shield: What can I say about King's Shield that I didn't say about Inda and The Fox? I can't really talk about the plot developments without spoiling the first two books, but I will say that I'm practically frothing at the mouth with impatience for the next (and last) book in the series. If you like fantasy with incredible worldbuilding, wonderful characters, and lots of action, then you ought to be reading this series (starting with Inda, of course).
Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind: Daniel Sempere's father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in their city of Barcelona, where Daniel is allowed to choose one book. He chooses The Shadow of the Wind by forgotten author Julián Carax. Yet quickly Daniel finds out that Carax is not as forgotten as it would seem, and he is drawn into a quest to find out Carax's fate. I liked this so much that when I got to within about 150 pages of the end, I committed what is often a cardinal sin in our family and withdrew into my cousin's living room by myself to finish it. (Actually, nobody seemed to mind.) It's maybe a little longer than it needs to be, but the mix of Gothic suspense and historical fiction really, really worked for me. I love Wilkie Collins, and this reminded me very much of his books.
I find that Zafón is writing three other books set in Barcelona -- I hope they're as entrancing as The Shadow of the Wind.
Anthony Trollope, The Last Chronicle of Barset: The final book in Trollope's Barsetshire series is simply a masterpiece of character and setting. The basic plot, which revolves around a clergyman, Mr. Crawley, accused of stealing a check, is rather thin and stretched out, but Trollope populates his novel with some of the most well-realized characters in Victorian fiction. Mr. Crawley himself, proud, impoverished, depressive, is especially superb, even though (or possibly because) he isn't terribly likable.
The Last Chronicle of Barset can be read on its own, but since it pulls together people and even plot threads from earlier novels in the series, I think it's stronger if you've read all of them (or at least The Warden, Barchester Towers, and The Small House at Allington). The deaths of two ongoing series characters are much more affecting if you have some background for them. (One of them always makes me cry, actually.)
P.G. Wodehouse, Plum Pie: This is a particularly good Wodehouse collection. There's a Jeeves and Wooster story, a couple of Blandings stories, two about Bertie's friend Bingo Little, and other assorted tales. The standout is probably "Life with Freddie", a long story about Freddie Threepwood (son of Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle) and zany goings-on aboard a ship from England to New York. Interspersed with the stories are selections from Wodehouse's column (for Punch, I think) "Our Man in America", which are very funny bits of odd news, told in the inimitable Wodehouse style.
Winifred Holtby, The Crowded Street: Like so many of Persephone's books, The Crowded Street tells of a woman whose life is constricted by the role she must play in the society of her time. Muriel Hammond's story starts at a dance in 1900, when she's in her early teens; already she feels the pressure to be attractive to boys, so that she may make a good marriage someday. Muriel is quiet and shy, yearning for a career or some way to be of service to others, but the only opportunities she's given are to marry (a chance which never seems to come her way) or to stay home and help her mother, who doesn't really need her help.
This was Holtby's second novel, and it does show some immaturity of style and plot: one section, dealing with Muriel's sister Connie, is overly melodramatic, and Muriel's final transformation is too much told and not shown. But Holtby's depiction of Muriel's plight is sympathetic to Muriel, yet biting to her family and society, and her clear wish for better opportunities for women shines through the novel. It's not as outstanding as South Riding, but well worth reading (and reprinting -- thank you, Persephone.)
E.M. Delafield, Consequences: reread, and still just as harrowing as the first time I read it (when I'd only read Delafield's very funny Provincial Lady books. Alex, the protagonist, is hard to like, being rather a neurotic wimp, but it's equally hard not to feel sympathy and pity for her, trapped in a society she's unsuited for. I've read reviews wishing for a more spirited heroine, but surely part of Delafield's point is that it's women like Alex, without the spirit to do anything about their constricted lives, who most need help and opportunities they simply weren't given in the late Victorian/early Edwardian time period in which Consequences is set.
Elizabeth Scott, Stealing Heaven: Danielle has never led a normal life. Her mother is a professional thief, and from an early age, Dani has moved from place to place with her mom, helping her with heists of antique silver. When they arrive in the seaside town of Heaven, though, everything changes. Dani makes a friend and then finds out that her friend's house is her mom's next target; worse, the cute guy she's been flirting with almost against her will turns out to be a cop. Her loyalties are tangled: does she stick with her mom and her old way of life, or can she find the strength to make a change?
I think this is my favorite of Scott's books so far, although I wasn't sure initially that I'd find the premise convincing. Scott does pull it off, though; the details of the heists ring true, and I especially liked the bit where Dani accidentally shows off her knowledge of crime to Greg, the cop. The characters are believable, and Scott creates interesting backstories for them (Greg's relationship with his father, Allison's problems with her brother) without ever pulling the focus too much off smart, withdrawn, careful Dani.
Leonard Woolf, The Wise Virgins: There are clear parallels with Leonard Woolf's life in this, his second and final novel, in which the Jewish protagonist, Harry Davis, is torn between virginal intellectual Camilla Lawrence and eager, shallow Gwen Garland; Harry is a self-portrait, while Camilla is meant to portray Virginia Woolf. I cannot honestly say that I liked this book. I found Harry himself unpleasant and therefore unsympathetic; he rails against society, cannot free himself from its strictures, and blames everyone but himself (especially Camilla and Gwen).
And let's face it, I really can't ignore the autobiographical aspects, though I feel that I ought to be able to. It was impossible to forget (and would have been impossible not to figure out had I not known in advance) whom Woolf's characters were based on, and it's dismaying to see someone painting his wife as a frigid, remote maiden who ought never to get married. I could feel some understanding of Woolf's scathing portrait of British society, both of Gwen's shallow milieu and Camilla's circle of Bloomsburyish intellectuals, but I couldn't reconcile myself to his treatment of his characters and therefore of the real people on whom the characters are based.
Steven Brust, Jhegaala: In the latest entry in the Vlad Taltos series, Brust has gone back to an earlier period in Vlad's life, between the events of Phoenix and Athyra, rather than continuing with the current events of Issola and Dzur. Vlad returns to the East in search of his mother's family, starting in the small papermaking town of Burz, where his innocent (for Vlad) inquiries lead him into much more trouble than he could have guessed. The central mystery is well-plotted enough (although convoluted), and there's good writing and dialogue, as always. But at this point, I'm not only in it for the writing and the dialogue; I want the books to carry forward the series as a whole, either to continue with current events or to illuminate the backstory, and I didn't really think Jhegaala added a whole lot, if anything, to Vlad's character and backstory.
Aaron Elkins, Uneasy Relations: a good entry in a consistently entertaining series about anthropology professor Gideon Oliver, aka the "Skeleton Detective". I wasn't as fond of the last book, Little Tiny Teeth, because there was too much thriller and not enough mystery; this one has a better mystery of the closed-room type. I liked the Gibraltar setting, and I'm always fond of the smart, loquacious Gideon.
Barbara Hambly, Die Upon a Kiss, Wet Grave: the fifth and sixth Benjamin January books, about a free black man in 1830s New Orleans. Die Upon a Kiss has a wonderful setting -- an opera company, full of life and color -- but suffers from an overly complicated plot and too many characters. Wet Grave was better, with a more focused plot and an amazing, tense climax set during a hurricane. I'm a little sad that I only have two more of these to read, but I did hear recently that Hambly has gotten an offer from a British publisher for two more books in the series, which is excellent news.
Deborah Crombie, Where Memories Lies: Each time I read a new book in Crombie's Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James mystery series, I am impressed by how consistently good they are. Here, she delves into a mystery surrounding Gemma's friend Erika Rosenthal, while continuing, as always, to develop Duncan and Gemma's relationship with each other and with their friends and family. Crombie's plots generally weave present-day happenings together with the past; here, she focuses on Erika's past as an escapee from Nazi Germany, which intersects with the present when a diamond brooch Erika once owned surfaces unexpectedly at a London auction house. She cuts back and forth between past and present masterfully, allowing the plot to unfold at a beautifully managed pace; I did figure some things out in advance, but not much in advance.
Besides the central mystery and the historical aspects, I really enjoy Crombie's characters. As Duncan and Gemma's relationship becomes more settled, she's starting to bring in secondary characters, most especially their two second-in-command officers, Melody Talbot and Doug Cullen, and I'm interested to see what she'll do with them in future books.
Carla Kelly, Beau Crusoe: James Trevenen has returned to England after years of being stranded on a desert island. Upon his return, Sir Joseph Banks (yay naturalist!) sends him to stay with Lord Watchmere and his family, which includes his younger daughter Susannah Park, who is a widow, shunned by society after her elopement years ago. I liked the main characters and their romance, and the secondary romance of Susannah's prickly sister, but I hated the subplot around the hero's former mistress. Even if I hadn't had issues with her presentation (controlling nymphomaniac, poor helpless man just can't resist her, poorly written sex), I didn't think that thread was necessary to the rest of the plot anyway.
Charles Dickens, Bleak House: A friend made me read this, finally, and a good thing, too, because it might be my new favorite Dickens. (Though possibly I should reread Great Expectations before saying that.) I was all ready to hate Esther, whom I have always seen referred to as sappy and annoying, but you know, I actually liked her. Yes, her constant admonitions to herself to do her duty are irritating, and she is often unnaturally good and humble, but she's very practical and observant and has a pointed wit when she allows herself to use it (see her descriptions of Mr. Turveydrop and Mrs. Jellyby). The plot is tangled but well designed, and the end is simply compelling; I stayed up much later than I should have finishing the last two hundred pages.
Laurel Winter, Growing Wings: Eleven-year-old Linnet is growing wings from her shoulder blades. She is shocked, but her mother Sarah expected it; after all, she began to grow wings at about the same age -- but her mother cut them off. Linnet and Sarah don't know what to do, but Linnet stumbles into a community of people like her, who live in a secluded place in the mountains, under the threat of exposure. I thought the premise was unusual and interesting, but it wasn't developed enough to really grab me. It's probably meant more as a coming-of-age novel, but I wanted more worldbuilding, particularly near the end; the ending relies too heavily on a deus ex machina which isn't sufficiently explained and therefore isn't convincing.
Jessica Day George, Dragon Flight: I enjoyed the first book, Dragon Slippers, about a seamstress and a pair of magical slippers which control dragons. This one was slighter, with a plot which was insufficiently complex and villains with not enough character or motivation. The book did provide a little more closure to a couple of threads from the first book, which was pleasant.
Sherwood Smith, A Stranger to Command: This is a prequel to Crown Duel and is related also to Senrid (which I didn't know before reading it), but I think it stands very well on its own. Fifteen-year-old Vidanric Renselaeus, Marquis of Shevraeth, has been sent from his home in Remalna to a military academy in Marloven Hess in order to escape political unrest at home, where the king is increasingly out of control. In Marloven Hess, Vidanric must learn and accept many new things: a new name (the Marlovens assume his title, Shevraeth, is his name), a new king (the young king Senrid), new friends and foes, and most of all, a new view of the world, as he must reconcile the seemingly civilized ways of his own country with the warlike ones of Marloven Hess.
As always, the worldbuilding is excellent, though I occasionally wished I'd reread Senrid in advance in order to understand that background better, and the characters are as well. I loved Vidanric's courage, intelligence, and integrity, which he retains in spite of the difficulty of adapting to his new environment. The difference between the two cultures is especially intriguing, as Vidanric finds that there might be more to be said for Marloven Hess than he originally thought. I reread Crown Duel afterward and enjoyed it particularly in light of the extra depth given to Vidanric's character in A Stranger to Command.