Outlawed, by Anna North

Although biology and societal convention push Ada into it, she is really not cut out for an outlaw’s life in Outlawed, Anna North’s thought-provoking alternate history of late-nineteenth-century America. A few decades before Ada was even born, devastating influenza ripped across the country (and presumably, the rest of the world). The world left behind seems obsessed with growing the population. Women are expected to immediately start gestating as soon as the ink is dry on their marriage certificates and keep going until they die or their body gives out. Women who can’t get pregnant are viewed askance and heaven help them if anything bad happens to anyone or anything in their village. Ada’s path to outlawry begins when she fails to get pregnant and is blamed for everything.

That first chapter or so of Outlawed is very uncomfortable to read, as North throws in just about every anti-feminist trope into the narrative. Women have limited roles: mother, wife, pre-wife, post-mother. Women like Ada and her mother, who are midwives, are tolerated but barely. Ada’s first port after fleeing accusations of witchcraft is a convent of barren women. The convent is relatively safe but Ada finds it just as confining as her village, even if she’s not expected to procreate.

Outlawed starts to get good—even funny—when Ada runs away again, to Hole in the Wall. Hole in the Wall is a remote camp run by the Kid and their gang of gender non-conformists. There are some misadventures that had me smirking at Ada’s terrible luck when she tries to break the law, although that rotten luck puts her on the gang’s bad side more than once. (Ada is a lot more successful when she keeps to doctoring.) When the Kid comes up with a scheme that could set them all up for life, Ada agrees to play a part in the hopes that she might finally be able to follow her dream of studying medicine and finding out the real reason why some women can’t get pregnant. The last third or so of Outlawed follows Ada from one disaster to another as she and the gang try to pull off the Kid’s plan.

While I enjoyed a lot of the plot, there were some things that bothered me about the book as a whole. Gender weighs heavily on this book and I appreciated the community reviewers on Goodreads who pointed out where North had her finger on the scale. For example, readers noted that all of the members of the gang seemed to be assigned female at birth, which means that transwomen are erased from this version of history. The only “safe” male character is a bisexual man who was castrated before he met Ada and the rest of the gang. The more I look back at the book, the more I wish North had had a lighter touch with her handling of gender and race (Ada has some issues with White Saviorhood) and let the characters be characters, instead of mouthpieces.

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence, by R.F. Kuang

Learning another language is hard work for most of us, and I’ve always been a little jealous of kids who grew up bilingual and people who have the knack for picking up new languages. It’s not just the memorization, which I think of as a feat on its own. It’s also the ability to get one’s brain to push a native language to the side enough to let in new grammar, idioms, word order, and cultural context. That first language always leaves a big imprint. I’ve never really been able to get past the stage of translating in my head whenever I’ve attempted to pick up a new language. I’ve always dreamed in English. The protagonists of Babel, or The Necessity of Violence, by R.F. Kuang, however, have the knack for language. Once their linguistic talents were discovered, our protagonists were scooped up from around the British Empire and sent to Oxford University, to take part in the multilingual machine that fuels the whole operation. Word nerds will love this highly original historical fantasy.

Robin Swift was rescued from death by cholera (which killed his family) in Canton by a wealthy Oxford don. His early fluency in Cantonese and English gave Professor Lovell enough confidence in Robin’s talents to take him to England, teach him Latin, Greek, and Mandarin, and eventually send him to the Royal Institute of Translation at Oxford University. The Royal Institute controls the silver-work trade. In this version of history, silver has the ability to transform the inherent instability* of translations to make ships go faster, heal the sick, ensure the safety of roads, and do so many of the things that keep the British Empire ahead of the rest of the world. At the Royal Institute, Robin and the rest of his cohort—Ramy, from Bengal; Victoire, from Haiti via France; and Letty, the sole British student in their group—learn to trace etymologies along with studying the vocabulary and grammar of their designated languages to create the powerful match-pairs of words that fuel the silver.

Robin has had doubts about the British Empire and his role in it almost since he met Lovell. These doubts grow in the face of the casual racism he and, later, the brown members of his cohort experience constantly in England. Robin also grows up starved of love in Lovell’s house. There are strong hints that Lovell is Robin’s biological father and yet the man is incapable of praising Robin or showing him any sign of affection whatsoever. Worse, Lovell firmly believes in the superiority of the white race and is violently prejudiced against Asians. The only reason he learned Mandarin and Cantonese—and fathered children with Chinese women—was because the Royal Institute required increasingly diverse match-pairs because the English language notoriously adds new vocabulary whenever its speakers meet a new language. Robin’s questions about the injustice he sees everywhere around him only grow louder as he learns more about what the Royal Institute and the British government have done and are doing to preserve their preeminence.

As Robin and his cohort get closer to graduation, the novel shifts from Babel to The Necessity of Violence. More people than just Robin, Ramy, and Victoire are unhappy about the status quo. They are contacted by members of the Hermes Society, a group of disgruntled students and former students of the Royal Institute who want to change the world. They want justice. They want equality. The problem is that they are tackling entrenched, systemic inequality and they can’t decide if the best way to affect change is by persuasion or through violence. Robin et al. waver between peaceful protest and violent acts of sabotage for much of the book, until betrayal and events that look an awful lot like the start of the Opium Wars kick off. They can’t go on among Oxford’s dreaming spires with clear consciences. Something has to be done.

Some readers might find Babel a little preachy at times. Even though I agree with a lot of the arguments made here about redistribution of wealth, anti-racism, gender equality, and dismantling monopolies, there were some sections of dialogue I skimmed over. That said, there was a lot I loved in this book. I loved the tricky character development and psychological realism. I adored Kuang’s reimagined Oxford and magical system. I was absolutely hooked by the sections that discussed with relish the intricacies of language. As I said, word nerds are going to enjoy the hell out of this book. I also think that readers who see injustice in the real world around them will find a lot to relate to here and, maybe, find some of the gumption Robin finds to make a stand and foster change for the better.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Panorama of Oxford University, 2016 (Image via Wikicommons)

* While it is possible to translate words one-for-one between languages, something is always lost in terms of nuance and context. Translators often wrestle with fidelity (perfectly capturing the original language) and making something flow in another langauge. For example, German word order often kicks a verb to the end of a sentence. For example, if I were to faithfully translate the sentence “Ich würde lieber Kaffee trinken” in English, I would end up with the ungrammatical “I would prefer coffee to drink.” It’s easy with this simple example to re-render the sentence into “I would prefer to drink coffee” without losing much, if anything. But this small example doesn’t involve untranslatable terms like Schadenfreude**, idioms, complex tenses, etc. When that happens, translators have to make choices about what’s essential and what’s grammatically/lexically possible.

** One of my absolute favorite words and I’m glad English stole it from the Germans.

The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

There’s a line in the movie Jurassic Park, spoken by Dr. Ian Malcom, that I will always remember: “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t start to think if they should.” This line is the perfect summary for so many Faustian tales. It’s definitely true for Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s latest amazing novel, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, inspired by another classic Faustian story The Island of Doctor Moreau. But where those stories focus on the Faust character and his moral dilemmas, Moreno-Garcia puts the emphasis squarely on the fallout of a scientist’s careless meddling with the natural order.

Jules Verne’s island, in this version, is a remote corner of the Yucatán peninsula. It is isolated by dense jungle and fears of Mayans rebelling against oppressive landowners. The only contact the eponymous daughter, Carlota Moreau, and her father and their companions have with the outside world are occasional visits from the man who funds Doctor Moreau’s hacienda and his research. We meet Carlota just before another visit from Señor Lizalde, who has arrived with a new assistant and another exhortation for Doctor Moreau to give him something he can actually use to recoup his investment. The new assistant, Montgomery (and our second narrator, after Carlota), was hired to keep an eye on the doctor as much as anything else.

Up until this point, if you didn’t know about The Island of Doctor Moreau, it would be easy to ignore the hints that something very strange is going on at the Moreau’s hacienda. There are hints that, apart from the Moreaus and their housekeeper, the other inhabitants are not entirely human. We only learn the truth from Montgomery’s reaction when he meets one of the sentient animal hybrids the doctor has created. It seems as though Doctor Moreau has been tinkering with genetics, although he never calls it that. His creations are not healthy. They’re in pain. They have short lives. All Doctor Moreau really cares about is perfecting his methods, so he doesn’t have much to do with the hybrids he’s created so far. Carlota does the caring for him.

Illustration from a 1904 Russian edition of The Island of Doctor Moreau (Image via Wikicommons)

The Daughter of Doctor Moreau bounces back and forth between Carlota and Montgomery narrating events. From Carlota, we find a deep love of others and the hacienda. She worries about everyone but is stymied by her father’s controlling ways; she can’t do much more than try to keep the show running while he works in his lab. On Montgomery’s side, we get a lot of confusion over what on earth is happening. He eventually settles in. He cares, too, but his prickly personality doesn’t let him show it. Through their eyes we see events start to escalate. Señor Lizalde wants his money and the hybrids, promised to him as workers by Moreau. His son, who turns up following rumors of Mayan revels, suddenly decides that he wants the beautiful Carlota. Before long, it’s impossible for anyone to hide away at the hacienda.

This summary isn’t capturing the sweltering, hypnotic atmosphere of The Daughter of Doctor Moreau. Carlota in particular is an amazing narrator. I loved spending time with her, even if she shares her father’s stubbornness and can be just as prickly as Montgomery at times. In addition to watching events through her eyes, we see Carlota grow up from a sheltered child to a fierce young woman. She struggles against her conditioning to obey, not make a fuss, and her sense of duty towards others. And the best part of watching her grow is seeing Carlota find hidden, possibly animal, depths.

I’m still not describing this fantastic book correctly. Go read it. Trust that Moreno-Garcia has delivered another brilliant, engrossing, psychologically deep, beautifully detailed story. This book is one of her best.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

W., by Steve Sem-Sandberg

Trigger warnings for disturbing acts of violence against humans and animals.

I’ve always been bothered by the term “crime of passion.” It always struck me as an excuse for a criminal act of violence, as if someone is somehow less guilty because they weren’t able to control their emotions. But then, when you start to think about things in terms of crime and punishment, how are we, a jury of readers or an actual jury, supposed to interpret the series of actions that lead to and follow a murder? How can we put ourselves in the mind of a perpetrator to decide if they acted with premeditation or malice aforethought or any of a number of legal distinctions for someone’s state of mind? And how much does that state of mind matter when someone is dead? I thought about these questions and the idea of a crime of passion a lot as I read Steve Sem-Sandberg’s W. (translated expertly by Saskia Vogel).

The story of Johann Christian Woyzeck has been told in fiction more than. The first version of the story was an 1836 play by Georg Büchner. Judging by the number of adaptations of that play and other versions of Woyzeck that have appeared in the 200 years since the soldier Woyzeck fatally stabbed his lover, I’m not the only one who is curious about crimes of passion or who wants to understand the thoughts that could lead someone to a sudden act of violence.

Sem-Sandberg’s W. gives Woyzeck a chance to tell his confusing story, in between sections that read like court transcripts or reports from legal and medical experts involved in the Woyzeck case. The legal documents keep us grounded in the facts of the case. Sometime before the night of June 2/3, 1821, Johann Christian Woyzeck procured a dagger made from a broken saber or bayonet blade. He used the blade on that June night to murder Johanna Woost. Woost had been Woyzeck’s lover. Beyond these facts, even in W., there is a lot of uncertainty about why the murder happened. There’s also a lot of uncertainty about Woyzeck’s life. He held a number of different positions: wigmaker’s apprentice, woodworker, soldier, barber, and general man-at-work. It seems like no one, not even Woyzeck himself, knew what to do with the man. I can only describe his life as a dark or anti-picaresque, in which Woyzeck is constantly caught up in bad situations with violent and/or manipulative people.

In Sem-Sandberg’s account, there are a number of factors that might influence a jury’s verdict about Woyzeck’s guilt. Woyzeck suffered a number of head injuries over the course of his life, starting in childhood. We now know that serious head injuries can change someone’s personality or alter their ability to tell right from wrong or affect their ability to regulate their emotions. Woyzeck may have also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He served with a regiment of troops from Mecklenburg during Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Russia in 1812, during which he would’ve seen terrible things. And yet, court records show that Woyzeck was—as far as the medical science of 1821 and 1824 could tell—of sound mind when his crime occurred.

W. is a challenging read. The multiple timelines, the senseless violence, and the ethical questions about mitigating factors mean that this book is difficult to read in several senses of the word. But I don’t think that readers who are curious about historical true crime, justice, or mental health should be put off. This book is packed with food for thought. I also very much appreciated Sem-Sandberg’s handling of the historical material. W. is a skillful blend of fact and fiction that brings to life a story that, apart from fans of Büchner’s play, is almost entirely forgotten.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The City of Incurable Women, by Maud Casey

Maud Casey’s The City of Incurable Women brings me back to an old fascination of mine: the women incarcerated at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital after being diagnosed with hysteria and other related maladies. Casey’s unusual book blends contemporary photos and doctors’ notes with fictional passages that give voice to women who bore their society’s expectations of their gender and their projected fears of women who broke those expectations. This is not an easy book to read—due to the subject matter and the experimental writing style—but I found it fascinating.

Most of the book (outside of the parts excerpted from actual historical documents) is narrated by a collective “I,” made up of real and imagined inmates of the Salpêtrière. Sometimes an “I” will separate from the pack to tell her story; one of these “I”s is the famous Louise Augustine Gleizes. These stories are sometimes tales of child labor and sexual abuse that end with the Salpêtrière when the “I” can’t take it anymore and she snaps. Others are stories of women who suffer from genuine mental illness. These stories were even more heartbreaking to me, since the late 1800s offered very little hope of relief, much less a cure.

Jean-Martin Charcot and other doctors make brief appearances. Their paternalistic writings—when seen in contrast with the words of their patients—are show up for the hyper-rational nonsense they are. It seems like these men only diagnosed based on physical symptoms and the words of whoever brought the women to the Salpêtrière in the first place. Charcot pre-dated Freud somewhat, but it appears that it never occurred to anyone to actually ask these women about their thoughts and feelings. It’s astounding how Charcot and his colleagues wildly theorized about the causes of symptoms like catalepsy, impressive feats of sleeping, strange facial expressions, or acts of destruction without any repeatable kind of evidence. It’s also astounding to me that it never occurred to these geniuses that some of their patients might have been playing up to the doctors’ expectations for the perks.

Reading a fictional account of the women of the Salpêtrière (in The Mad Women’s Ball) and this semi-fictional account make me want to read a fully non-fictional version, but preferably one that focuses on women like Gleizes. But given the fact that so many of the women only appear in the historical record in Charcot and the other doctors’ (and possibly some police reports), books like Casey’s might be the best way to try and understand what their lives might have been like.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

A Salpêtrière diagnosed with “hysterical yawning,” c. 1890 (Image via Wikicommons)

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, by M.R. James

I decided to kick off the spooky season with a century-old collection from M.R. James, a medievalist and archaeologist who did a bit of writing on the side. I’ve heard James’s name tossed around with that of other old masters of scary like Algernon Blackwood and others, so I was hoping for some classic chills with Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (Wikipedia entry, with additional links to free copies of the collection). These stories gave me a window into what readers found scary 117 years ago—and showed me that writers have really raised the stakes since this book hit the shelves.

Many of the stories follow a similar arc. They’re framed as tales retold by our unnamed narrator by his various friend and colleagues. These friends (most with connections to Cambridge University) travel to various places around Europe to look at collections of rare documents, obscure cathedrals, and poking into stories that might have a grain of truth. They might get a warning from someone local who knows better, but maybe not. Either way, when the sun goes down, something terrible happens in the night that nearly frightens the life out of the friend. As soon as the light comes back, the friend heads for the hills.

Although the stories in this collection are not as terrifying as what contemporary writers (especially horror movie writers) are coming up with these days. But this doesn’t mean that I didn’t like Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. I appreciated the way that James builds up tension by putting us into crypts and lonely tavern rooms alongside all those scholars who messed with things that were hidden, bricked up, or buried for centuries. These stories are the kind you tell around the campfire, slowly, so that the audience slowly freaks out until the end of the story delivers a cathartic moment of escape. Some of the standouts in this collection are “Number 13,” “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” and “Lost Hearts.”

Readers who like little jolts of scary—especially when it comes along with a side of academic curiosity—will like Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. Readers who need something stronger to get their hearts racing might need to stick with horror written in this century rather than the last.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

The Peculiarities, by David Liss

Thomas Thresher is the sort of person who, if I met him in real life, I would have nothing to do with. He’s a child of privilege who’s never had to work very hard in his life. He’s used to having fun and feels very put upon having to work as a junior clerk at the family bank. He feels even more put upon because his blustering older brother demands that he marry a woman he’s never met before. He struck me, at first, as the kind of useless, rich man who likes to get his way. My first impression of him was not sweetened with his casual Victorian-era anti-Semitism. But, over the course of The Peculiarities, by David Liss, Thomas started to win me over with his stubborn determination to uncover secrets and put things right.

Thomas doesn’t make a very good impression on many of the people he meets at the beginning of the novel. Miss Feldstein doesn’t like his casual sexism. His boss at the bank doesn’t like his inability to keep his mouth shut. And his brother really doesn’t like him, but we don’t really learn why until much later in The Peculiarities, when Thomas’s investigations start to bear fruit. The only people who actually seem to like Thomas are the wolfwomen he meets in the East End and the one and only Aleister Crowley…but that comes after Thomas starts poking around at the bank and finds some financial peculiarities. The financial peculiarities led Thomas to new friends, but also to a mystery involving the Peculiarities—the supernatural phenomena that have appeared around the world that have caused people to transform, women to give birth to rabbits à la Mary Toft, and strange creatures to messily kill people in the poorer districts of London.

Aleister Crowley in his Golden Dawn regalia, c. 1910
(Image via Wikicommons)

All of those plot threads—plus Thomas’s attempts to stop his own transformation and not marry Miss Feldstein—take Thomas to the East End, to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and to a trio of mysterious women (including Miss Feldstein) who might be able to help him unravel all the threads. All of these threads (and the women) push Thomas to grow into something more than a young man with a big allowance and too much time on his hands. He also started to shed his Victorian notions of proper behavior for women and the stereotypes about Jewish people. Thank goodness.

Because of my initial reaction to Thomas, I wasn’t sure I would like The Peculiarities all that much. I’m not averse to unlikeable characters, not as long as they have some kind of redeeming features or are interesting in some other way. But I’m glad I stuck with the novel. Liss’s supernatural reinvention of London was highly original and very entertaining. Crowley had me laughing every time the egotistical pervert showed up. Most of all, I love that The Peculiarities never went where I expected. I appreciate a story that never makes anything simple.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Mad Women’s Ball, by Victoria Mas

Trigger warning for rape.

In the nineteenth century, a woman could be diagnosed with hysteria for an array of symptoms that range from hallucinations, epilepsy, and depression to irritability, menstrual pain, or doing too much/too little of something that bothered the men in her life. Hysteria could get a woman locked away for life in the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and other places until doctors were able to differentiate illness and mental disorders from normal behavior. This terrifies me and fascinates me, so a book like Victoria Mas’s The Mad Women’s Ball (smoothly translated by Frank Wynne) is my equivalent of watching a horror movie. I get chills. I wonder what I would do. Then I recommend it to other people so that I can spread the feeling around.

Historically, Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot studied women with hysteria and other illnesses (or not) at the notorious Paris hospital, the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital. His practice involved “lectures,” during which patients would be hypnotized so that they would perform muscle contractures, paralysis, and other physical symptoms of their “illness.” I’m using a lot of danger quotes here because Charcot’s actions and patient diagnoses were perfectly acceptable at the time. Now, in the twenty-first century, we know a lot more about mental illness, conversion disorders, human behavior, etc. Also, we have medical ethics that would prevent Charcot’s lectures/performances. Charcot is a tertiary character in The Mad Women’s Ball. Two of the main characters, however, share names with one of Charcot’s most famous patients, Louise Augustine Gleizes.

Geneviève Gleizes is the head nurse of one of the wards at Salpêtrière. She maintains order on the ward with a firmness that masks a surprising brittleness. At first, Geneviève is a rock, but it isn’t long before we start to see that she’s suppressing grief for her deceased sister. Then there’s Louise, Charcot’s patient du jour, who performs at his lectures in an effort to become famous. Sort of. Lastly, we meet Eugénie. I’m not sure if she’s based on a historical figure. I wouldn’t be surprised if Eugénie, who sees ghosts, was based on one of the many women who had successful careers contacting the other side during the height of the Spiritualist craze. Eugénie and Geneviève immediately put each other’s backs up. Geneviève is offended when Eugénie claims to see and hear Geneviève’s sister. Eugénie just wants to get out of the Salpêtrière and Geneviève represents everything that’s holding her prisoner.

The Mad Women’s Ball rushes by. It plays out over the weeks before the eponymous event, where the wealthy of Paris are invited into Salpêtrière to see the patients dressed up in costumes for their entertainment. The whirlwind plot makes it seem like everything is spiraling out of control just that much faster as the characters lose their grip on their equilibrium. This makes the book sound a lot more grim than I think it is because, while things are falling apart, all three of the primary characters are learning. Louise learns to shed her naiveté. Eugénie learns what it takes to be free. And Geneviève learns to let go of “sanity” so that she can finally feel her emotions. This book is a master class in character development and plotting. And it definitely made me feel the frisson of terror I was expecting at the same time that I marveled at the story.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Une leçon clinique à la Salpêtrière, by Pierre Aristide André Brouillet, 1887. Charcot (the grey-haired man just right of center) is shown with his patient, Marie “Blanche” Wittman, and some of the leading lights of European medicine at the end of the nineteenth century. (Image via Wikipedia)

A Radical Act of Free Magic, by H.G. Parry

H.G. Parry draws her sprawling historical fantasy to an abrupt close in A Radical Act of Free Magic. The first half of the duology, A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians, created a world of suppressed magic that erupted into the French and Haitian Revolutions. Now we see a magically boosted Napoleon attempting to steamroll across Europe. With a kraken. And a dragon.

Where A Declaration had plots running in tandem, connected by a character it would be a spoiler to talk too much about, the plots coalesce geographically in A Radical Act. Fina makes the long journey from Haiti to Great Britain so that most of the action takes place in London or William Pitt’s various residences. There are some amazing set pieces in Egypt and Trafalgar that people who know Regency history will know the significance of. (Sadly, there isn’t one for Waterloo.)

The battles liven up an awful lot of dialogue about what kind of world the various characters want to create. William Wilberforce and Fina cross verbal swords with Pitt about abolition, who keeps putting it off to focus on fighting a war and maintaining power against idiots who would muck it all up. Meanwhile, Napoleon and his (supposed) magical ally are sparring over who will eventually rule over continental Europe. Will there ever be meaningful progress? Or will Fina and Wilberforce have to grudgingly content themselves with gradualism? Will their enemies win and push Great Britain and Europe back into the dark ages? How on earth will our heroes defeat that dragon?

A Declaration gave me high hopes for this duology. I love a solid historical fantasy that blends magic with actual historical events. A Radical Act of Free Magic, however, felt more like a middle book than the second half of a two-book series. Characters are shuffled around so that they’ll be in place for showdowns or whatever the plot cooks up for them. Plans are discussed. Philosophies are delved into. It happens at a fairly leisurely pace that made me think that there was going to be another book after this one for a great big resolution. Also, who brings Napoleon into a book and doesn’t include the Battle of Waterloo? I had fun during parts of this book, but the rushed ending killed a lot of my enjoyment of this book.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Matchmaker’s Lonely Heart, by Nancy Campbell Allen

Not everything I choose to read is an intellectual puzzle or a heartbreaking exploration of human pain. Sometimes I read fun, sweet books like Nancy Campbell Allen’s The Matchmaker’s Lonely Heart. In this book, idealistic Amelie Hampton wrangles her way into gruff detective Michael Baker’s investigation of a possible wife-killer. I realize this doesn’t sound very fun or sweet when I summarize the book that way but, as in so many cozy mysteries, the investigation gives our protagonists something to do while they slowly open their hearts to one another.

Amelie and Michael don’t have the most auspicious meet-cute. Michael catches Amelie spying on the man he is also spying on: Harold Radcliffe. Amelie is hovering outside the cafe where Radcliffe is dining with a young woman Amelie advised from her desk at the Marriage Gazette, where she works for her aunt. She’s there to see if the meeting is going well. Michael is there to learn more about his quarry, who he believes murdered his young wife scant months earlier. When Amelie starts to leave, Michael chases her down. (Amelie frequently describes this as “running to ground” to tease the detective.) Before he quite knows what has happened—he merely intended to find out what Amelie knows about Radcliffe—Amelie has volunteered herself as Michael’s deputy. She’s going to help get Michael closer to Radcliffe by inviting him along to her book club, where Radcliffe is also a member.

The mystery and the romance plots are brisk but not forced. There are enough twists in the mystery to keep things interesting, while the romance plot is punctuated with moments between the protagonists that had me smiling widely at the pair. I won’t say much more about this book; I don’t want to ruin either plot. So I’ll conclude by saying that if you want something that’s a delight to read, you should pick up The Matchmaker’s Lonely Heart.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.