The Last of August by Brittany Cavallaro
(Book 2 of 4 in the Charlotte Holmes series)
Synopsis: Jamie and Charlotte are looking for a winter break reprieve in Sussex after a fall semester that almost got them killed. But nothing about their time off is proving simple, including Holmes and Watson’s growing feelings for each other.
When Charlotte’s beloved Uncle Leander goes missing from the Holmes estate—after being oddly private about his latest assignment in a German art forgery ring—the game is afoot once again, and Charlotte throws herself into a search for answers.
So begins a dangerous race through the gritty underground scene in Berlin and glittering art houses in Prague, where Holmes and Watson discover that this complicated case might change everything they know about their families, themselves, and each other.
My rating: 3/5 dull, underwhelming stars
My review: I zipped through “A Study in Charlotte” in two days. I had to bribe myself with cookies to get through the end of “The Last of August”. It was a mess. What happened? The second book curse, perhaps, or an editor too lenient with her red pen? I’ll do my best to unpack my thoughts without revealing anything too crucial, but here’s an obligatory
~tharr be spoilers ahead~
So I believe firmly in the sandwich method of critique- start with a compliment, critique, end with a compliment- because at the end of the day a human being poured their soul into writing this and pushed it out into the world full of hope and fear. That’s a monumental thing, no matter my opinion on the content itself, and something that should be respected. With that being said, let’s talk about prose. Brittany Cavallaro writes beautifully. She has that rare gift of being able to put into words feelings and thoughts we’ve all had but never been able to communicate properly.
“I tended to spend too much time with my favorite things, loved them too hard until I wore them down. After a while, they became more like a shorthand for who I was and less like things I actually enjoyed.”
Doesn’t that just resonate with something deep inside you? Or what about-
“It’s strange to grieve for your former self, and still I think it’s something that any girl understands. I’ve shed so many skins, I hardly know what I am now—muscle, maybe, or just memory. Perhaps just the will to keep going.”
With just those few short sentences I can feel my brain clicking back through the decades of my life, considering. Who was I? Who am I now? That’s powerful writing.
Now. Onto the meat of the sandwich.
Let’s start with character development. Jamie and Charlotte, after forming such a powerful bond in the first book, completely regressed into non-communicative children. I love angst as much as the next person, but this is the worst type- the type that could be solved if they just freaking talked to each other. Charlotte was working through some trauma and I felt that Jamie was being respectful of that, even though she kept sending him dramatically mixed signals. She would very clearly state through words and actions that she was ready and wanted to try a romantic relationship, then she would lash out at him when he reciprocated. I expect this kind of nonsense from Holmes (who has had the emotional maturity of a toddler pretty consistently throughout all Sherlock reiterations) but watching Jamie devolve as a character was where it all started to go really wrong for me. His insecurity and irrational behavior toward August felt weird and out of character (although this is the same guy who smashed up his bedroom and loves to get into fistfights, so maybe not that far of a stretch).
August Moriarity was written messily. If I squint I can see what the author was trying to do with his character- she wanted to leave it ambiguous about whether or not he was “good” or “bad” until the final reveal to keep us guessing- but the problem with that is it made everything he said feel inauthentic. When the final resolution came I didn’t feel much of anything at all towards him. That’s a nail in the coffin for a book literally named after this character.
Milo- ugh. I can’t go into detail about my annoyance with his character without getting REAL spoilery, but I will just say- don’t write a character consistently one way and then have them jump out of character just to solve or create a plot point. It was surprising, yes, but it once again felt inauthentic. That’s the word I would use to describe every character in this book (except for Charlotte, maybe, who was cruel and mercurial from the start). Such a huge let down after I fell in love with the characterization in book one.
The plot itself… was a mess. In theory, it should have been super interesting. Fraudulent art ring in Berlin, jetting off to Prague, seeing the famed Holmes mansion by the sea… but none of it evoked very much feeling at all. There were a lot of different little threads throughout the story that were supposed to connect together for the “big reveal” but none of it worked. It felt like fifty pages of increasing confusion and boredom, then twenty pages of Charlotte annoyingly taunting the big reveal without actually giving any clue as to what was happening, and then three pages of reveal that left you with the feeling that surely you missed a page somewhere. That couldn’t possibly be it! Not because it came out of nowhere (although it did) or because you were shocked, but because it felt like random words splotched onto a page that didn’t make any sense. Like one of those books written by an AI program.
When I read the first book, the impression I was left with was one of tenderness- that’s how the story and the characters felt to me. There was a common thread tying everything together and the authenticity of the characters drove the narrative, even as it became increasingly unbelievable. We didn’t have that in “The Last of August” and that’s why it didn’t work. The impression I was left with was one of inauthenticity.
On the bright side, there are two more books and the reviews on those are looking much better, particularly the final one (a good sign!) Let’s end on a positive note with some of my favorite quotes from “The Last of August”!
“I like your flat because you grew up here,” she said, looking at me steadily, “and I like eating your dinner because it’s yours, which makes it better than mine. And I like your sister because she’s smart, and she worships you, which means she is very smart. You talk about her like she’s a child, I’ve noticed, but the fact that she’s attempting to explore her nascent sexuality by listening to a lot of droopy-voiced boy sopranos isn’t something you should tease her for. It’s certainly safer than the alternative.”
“Either she could sniff out my lack of a trust fund, or she’d been hoping for a taller, buffer Jamie Watson, one who looked a little more like a volunteer fireman and less like a volunteer librarian.”
“Maybe this is what happened when you built a friendship on a foundation of mutual disaster. It collapsed the second things righted themselves, left you desperate for the next earthquake.”
“As I spoke, I kept an eye on Holmes next to me in the backseat. She was wearing head-to-toe black: collared shirt, trim pants, a pair of black wingtip boots that I sort of wanted for myself. Between her knees, she balanced her small black suitcase with its giant silver clasps. Her straight hair was tucked behind her ears, and I watched her tapping furiously away at her phone, lips pursed. She looked dangerous, delicate. She looked like a whisper made real. She looked like she had a new case to solve.”
(A whisper made real… I love that)
“She smiled at me, that one particular smile I hardly ever saw, the one that could open padlocks, Yale locks, bank vaults, the one that was a trapdoor down into everything. I reached out and touched the tip of her nose. My finger came away white with sugar.”
(There’s a little flash of that tenderness I felt from the first book. I have hope for the series yet.)
If you love mystery, angst, and the progressive investment of falling in love with a new book series, you can find the Charlotte Holmes books here.