Matt Haig, The Humans
Professor Andrew Martin, a mathematician at Cambridge University, has just proved the Riemann hypothesis, an action that represents a huge breakthrough with dramatic consequences for the improvement of human science and technology. Unfortunately, his discovery has come to the attention of an alien race that, believing all humans are motivated by violence and greed, will do anything to prevent it from going public. Therefore, one of the aliens is sent to Earth to invade the professor’s body, destroy the proof of the Riemann hypothesis, and kill anyone who might know about the discovery — including the professor’s wife and troubled teenage son. At first, the alien is eager to complete his mission; but the more time he spends on Earth, the more he comes to understand and even love the humans around him.
I went into this book knowing very little about it, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it! Matt Haig has a light, playful style but doesn’t shy away from more serious moments, as when the alien narrator begins to feel the tension between his growing empathy with the humans and his own cultural values. I liked that the book is a sort of philosophical thought experiment, exploring how the human race might look to an intelligent but emotionally detached outsider, and ultimately considering the question of what it means to be human. Oddly, I found the human culture on display in this book to be a bit off-putting . . . for example, the fact that Andrew Martin’s son is named Gulliver rubbed me the wrong way. But overall, this is a fun read with a good mixture of levity and thoughtfulness.
Lucy Parker, Making Up
Trix Lane is a confident, talented circus performer whose daring aerial acrobatics have won her a major role in a popular and long-running London show. But some of her spark has dimmed lately, in the wake of an emotionally abusive relationship that shook her confidence. Now she has the opportunity to get an even bigger role in the show, but she’s not quite sure she can do it. And her anxiety isn’t helped when she learns that Leo Magasiva has just been hired to do makeup for the show. Leo and Trix have a fraught past, and whenever they meet, they can’t seem to help antagonizing each other. But beneath their sarcastic banter is an undeniable attraction, and when they begin to explore their true feelings for one another, Trix is surprised to discover how compatible they really are. But will their fledgling relationship be able to survive new misunderstandings and competing career goals?
I adore Lucy Parker’s contemporary romances, and this one is no exception. I love the enemies-to-lovers trope when it’s done well, which it definitely is here; I especially loved the nods to Much Ado about Nothing (my favorite Shakespeare play, not surprisingly!). I have to admit, though, I didn’t adore this book quite as much as I did Act Like It and Pretty Face. I think it’s because the overall tone is a little more somber, and there isn’t quite as much witty banter. (That’s understandable, of course, given that Trix is recovering from her ex’s abusive treatment.) I also find that I can’t remember very many incidents in the book. Both Leo and Trix do change throughout the novel, but their development is largely internal, not necessarily tied to specific plot events. Don’t get me wrong — I still really liked this book! It’s just a bit quieter than Parker’s previous novels. But I still love her and can’t wait until her next book, The Austen Playbook, comes out!
Deanna Raybourn, City of Jasmine
Famed aviatrix Evangeline Starke is in the midst of a big publicity stunt, flying her plane over the seven seas of antiquity. This trip is motivated by her need for money, her thirst for adventure, and her subconscious desire to move past the death of her husband, Gabriel, which occurred five years before. But when Evie receives a mysterious — and apparently current — photo of Gabriel, she is determined to discover whether he is still alive, and if so, what really happened to him five years ago. Her search takes her to the ancient city of Damascus, where various European countries are carving up the region into strategically advantageous states, and into the heart of the desert itself. What she finds is a priceless relic, ethnic tensions, life-threatening dangers, and possibly a second chance at love.
Something has happened to me in the way I react to Deanna Raybourn’s books. When I first read Silent in the Grave, I remember really loving it and being eager to read the rest of the series. I loved the combination of 19th century historical detail, mystery, and romance, which, as I recall, was fairly unique in my experience at the time. I think the issue is that, as time has passed, I’ve read a lot more books; I’ve become a more sophisticated consumer and have read more widely in the various genres I like. As a result, Raybourn’s brand of historical fiction no longer seems particularly unique or special to me. She has good plots and some funny lines, but her characters are pretty typical for the genre, and I’m not fond of the rugged alpha males she tends to use as heroes. This particular novel is quite entertaining, and I really can’t point to anything wrong with it; it just didn’t really excite me, and I’ve already removed it from my shelves.
Charles Finch, Home by Nightfall
***Warning: Slight spoilers for previous books in this series.***
In this ninth installment of the Charles Lenox series, the Victorian gentleman-sleuth is happy that his fledgling detective agency is beginning to thrive. He is especially excited about the recent disappearance of a famous German pianist who had been performing in London. Hoping to be hired to assist the police, Charles eagerly reads the newspaper reports and spins theories to explain the disappearance. But his attention is split between this mystery and his brother Edward, who is grieving the recent death of his wife Mary. Charles offers to keep Edward company at his country estate, only to run into more strange occurrences: a break-in, several thefts, and an unsettlingly cryptic drawing. Now Charles must work to solve two mysteries, and he soon realizes that in both cases, nothing is as it seems.
I quite enjoy this series, so I’m not sure why I waited three and a half years to read this book after reading the previous installment! It was nice to revisit these characters and immerse myself in this world after spending some time away. And I think this might be one of the strongest books in the series. I was able to guess some elements of the countryside mystery, but it still held my interest, and I found the resolution to be very thought-provoking and poignant. I also enjoyed the diversion to the village setting — most of the plot takes place there, although Charles does dash up to London every so often to work on the case of the disappearing pianist. In fact, my main complaint is that the dual mystery plots split the reader’s focus; I would have preferred to stay in the country and follow that case, perhaps leaving the pianist for another book. Still, this is a very good installment of an enjoyable series — well worth reading for fans of historical mysteries!
Eva Ibbotson, The Star of Kazan
Twelve-year-old Annika has never known her parents, but she has grown up surrounded by the love of her kind guardians. Her childhood has been largely carefree: she helps with the cooking and household chores, goes to school, and plays with her friends and neighbors in the little square in Vienna where she lives. But she still dreams of the day when her long-lost mother — who will naturally be beautiful, elegant, and kind — will come looking for her. One day the dream comes true, and Annika is overjoyed when her mother whisks her away to live with her “real” family. But as she spends more time with her biological relatives, she is confused and hurt by their indifference, and she eventually learns that their interest in her may have an ulterior motive.
Ibbotson’s books are the ultimate comfort reads, in my opinion — they’re so sweet and old-fashioned, extolling the virtues of community, kindness, and generosity. This one is geared toward younger readers, which makes some aspects of the plot a little simplistic, particularly the “mystery” of Annika’s newfound relatives and their inconsistent treatment of her. But the book is still very charming, and it paints an absolutely beautiful picture of both Vienna and the Austrian countryside. I’m not normally into books with lots of descriptive details, but this novel really makes me want to visit Austria! I also enjoyed the characters, particularly Annika’s friends Pauline (who is afraid of everything but eventually conquers her fears to help Annika) and Zed (a servant who has a way with horses). Overall, this book hit that happy comfort spot for me, and I would recommend it, along with any of Ibbotson’s other books.
Miles Burton, Death in the Tunnel
When prominent businessman Sir Wilfred Saxonby is found dead in a first-class train compartment, the local police assume that he must have committed suicide. After all, they found the murder weapon, monogrammed with Sir Wilfred’s initials, in the train compartment, and the train employees swear that no one entered or left the compartment except Sir Wilfred himself. But because of the man’s high social status—and the apparent lack of a motive—Scotland Yard is called in. Inspector Arnold is not quite satisfied with the suicide theory, so he in turn asks for the help of his friend Desmond Merrion, an amateur expert in criminology. Together, Arnold and Merrion consider the possibility that Sir Wilfred was murdered and try to discover how it could be done.
This is one of those Golden Age mystery novels that’s all plot and absolutely no character development. The two principal characters are Arnold and Merrion, and all we ever learn about them is that Merrion is more “imaginative” than Arnold, but both are good detectives. They have literally no other character traits — though I believe there are several other books featuring Merrion, so he may be better defined elsewhere. Sir Wilfred is only fleshed out enough to hint at a possible motive for murder, and the three or four suspects are only vaguely differentiated from each other. That said, the plot is actually very ingenious — one of the best mysteries I’ve read in a while from a pure “puzzle” standpoint! Merrion and Arnold piece together their solution in a very logical way, demonstrating how the seemingly impossible crime could have been accomplished. So in the end, the excellent plot made up for the lackluster characterization, for me; your mileage may vary.
C.J. Redwine, The Shadow Queen
In this YA retelling of Snow White, Lorelai Diederich is the princess of Ravenspire, which has been taken over by her wicked stepmother, a powerful sorcerer named Irina. Irina’s dark magic, which steals the lifeblood of Ravenspire itself, has bewitched everyone in the kingdom to obey her without question. Lorelai, her brother Leo, and their faithful servant Gabril are on the run and trying to start a revolution, but without much success. Meanwhile, the neighboring kingdom of Eldr is being overrun by ogres, so Prince Kol is forced to ask for Irina’s help. In exchange, Irina magically compels him to hunt down the fugitive royals and kill them. When Kol and Lorelai eventually do meet, however, they decide to join forces and oust Irina from the throne. But will they be able to overcome her powerful magic?
I’m a fan of fairytale retellings, and there’s a lot to enjoy in this novel — a strong heroine, a fast-moving plot, an intriguing fantastical world, and even some dragon shapeshifters! But while I liked the book, nothing about it particularly wowed me. Lorelai and Kol are both entertaining characters, but I feel like I’ve seen them before; feisty heroines with hidden potential and the conflicted heroes who love them are a dime a dozen in YA fantasy. I appreciated the attempt to give Irina some nuance, but all the other characters are fairly one-dimensional, particularly Gabril, who exists only to be a Loyal Servant. The world-building did pique my interest, but I wanted to know more about the magical system (the “rules” aren’t ever quite clear) and how the different countries interact. To be fair, the world is probably fleshed out more in the sequels, and I may end up getting them from the library at some point, but I’m not in a rush.
Kathleen A. Flynn, The Jane Austen Project
Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane live in a near-future world where time travel is well established as a scientific research tool. Their first mission is to travel to 1815, where they will retrieve Jane Austen’s personal letters (many of which were destroyed after her death) and her manuscript of “The Watsons,” which, according to a recent discovery, she actually did complete. To achieve this goal, Rachel and Liam will pose as members of the gentry and try to become part of the Austens’ social circle. But the more they get to know Jane and her family, the more Rachel and Liam begin to have scruples about their actions. Additionally, they start to worry about the possibility of changing history and the even scarier possibility that they may not be able to leave 1815. And of course, the deepening of their relationship to each other may have far-reaching consequences in both 1815 and their own time.
I enjoyed this book overall, but I definitely think some parts were more successful than others. The premise is certainly an interesting one if you love Jane Austen, and overall I think the portrayal of Jane and her family was very well done. The book evokes the 1815 setting very well; it feels like the reader is also a time traveler, being immersed into this bygone era for the first time. I was particularly tickled by one scene where Jane catches Rachel looking through her private papers and accuses her of being a French spy! That said, the novel gives short shrift to the time travel element; it doesn’t explain how it works or what the “rules” are, and the future consequences of Rachel and Liam’s actions in 1815 are wrapped up very quickly. Finally, I wasn’t particularly invested in the romance. While Rachel and Liam are both pleasant enough, I never really got a sense of what made them tick. Ultimately, I did like the book, but I don’t think it’s one I’ll ever need to reread.
William Ritter, Beastly Bones
In this second installment of the Jackaby series, Abigail Rook has finally begun to adjust to life as the assistant of R.F. Jackaby, paranormal detective. However, she still remains interested in her first passion, paleontology, so she is delighted to learn that a relatively nearby scientific dig has unearthed what appears to be a brand-new species of dinosaur. Abigail is eager to travel to the site and participate in the excavation, but Jackaby isn’t interested — until the wife of the site’s landowner dies somewhat mysteriously. Together they travel to the dig and meet up with police officer Charlie Cane, an ally to Jackaby and possibly something more to Abigail. But they immediately run into several challenges, including two rival scientists who each want to claim the discovery, a brash female journalist who keeps getting underfoot, and the apparent theft of some of the bones. And then more people start dying. . . .
It’s been a few years since I read Jackaby, but I was so charmed by it that I always intended to continue with the series. By and large, I enjoyed this installment very much as well. Abigail is a wonderful heroine and narrator, smart and plucky without being The Best at Everything. And Jackaby, between his penetrating intelligence, abrupt demeanor, and genuine fondness for his friends, is a delight — think Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, but more likable. I do think the plot has a bit too much going on — the dueling scientists are fun but don’t really add much to the story. Also, the tone is a little too light considering the high body count, but I suppose that’s to be expected with many books geared toward younger readers. But I liked this book a lot overall and look forward to reading the third installment soon!
Lauren Willig, The English Wife
In the winter of 1899, Bayard van Duyvil and his highborn English wife, Annabelle, are at the pinnacle of New York high society. Wealthy and attractive, with two young children and a brand-new estate, they seem to be the perfect couple — that is, until their Twelfth Night ball, when Bayard is found murdered and Annabelle goes missing. Rumors abound that Annabelle killed her husband, but Bayard’s sister Janie is not convinced. With the help of dashing journalist James Burke, Janie is determined to discover what really happened to Bay and Annabelle. But she soon learns that their relationship was much more complicated than it appeared.
I always enjoy Lauren Willig’s books, but I find that I definitely prefer her light and fluffy Pink Carnation series to her more serious historical novels. I enjoyed the setting of this one, and I liked Janie a lot — I’m always a fan of characters who have to grow into their strength. The romance between Janie and James was also satisfying, albeit quite predictable. However, I wasn’t a huge fan of the secondary narrative, which takes place five years earlier and is told from the point of view of Georgie, an actress who meets Bayard while he’s visiting London. I liked Georgie but disliked Bayard more and more as the story went on. I also found Janie’s story more interesting, so I was annoyed when the book’s focus shifted away from her. Overall, I found this an enjoyable read, but it’s not a keeper for me.