Mini-Reviews: Bridesmaid, Design, Terra

Katy Birchall, The Secret Bridesmaid

Sophie Breeze has made a career out of being the perfect bridesmaid: she’s hired to pose as a friend of the bride and unobtrusively organize all the wedding arrangements. When the mother of a famous socialite hires her, Sophie is thrilled to be involved with such a high-profile event. But the bride, Lady Cordelia, is notoriously difficult and resists her every step of the way. Can Sophie work her magic and befriend the hostile Lady Cordelia, or will the bride’s petty antics force her to quit? This is a fun, breezy book that I enjoyed quite a bit. It’s entirely predictable, but I liked the book’s emphasis on female friendship (although there is a charming romance in the background as well). I also related to Sophie and enjoyed her character arc, as she learns to set boundaries and stick up for herself. Recommended for fans of the genre, and I’ll look out for more books by this author.

Renee Patrick, Design for Dying

It’s 1937, and beauty queen Lillian Frost dreams of working in the movies, but for now she’s employed at a department store in Los Angeles. When a former friend and roommate, struggling actress Ruby Carroll, is found dead, Lillian is caught up in the murder investigation — especially when she realizes that Ruby’s corpse is wearing a Paramount movie costume. In the course of her sleuthing, she meets several Hollywood personalities, including soon-to-be-famous costume designer Edith Head, who helps her solve the mystery. If you like historical mysteries, I think this is a good one. Lillian’s voice is sharp and colorful, much like the dialogue of a 1930s film. The Hollywood cameos are a bit contrived, but cinephiles may enjoy all the references. Overall, I liked the book enough to continue with the series at some point.

Connie Willis, Terra Incognita

This book is a collection of three previously published novellas. In Uncharted Territory, a group of explorers surveys a newly discovered planet, while they also navigate the complexities of sex and love in human (and alien) relationships. In Remake, a man falls for a woman whose ambition is to dance in the movies, even though (in this alternate yet eerily prescient reality) no one makes live-action movies anymore, let alone musicals, and everything is done with CGI. And in D.A., a young woman is admitted to a prestigious and extremely competitive academy in outer space, which is strange since she didn’t even apply. I enjoyed all three of these novellas, but for me Remake is the standout. It’s romantic and melancholy, heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful. If you’re a lover of classic movies and Fred Astaire, it’s a must-read! 

Mini-Reviews: Cheerfully, Scotsman, Unquiet

AJ Pearce, Yours Cheerfully

Despite World War II raging on, things are looking up for Emmy Lake. She’s in love, she and Bunty are friends again, and her work at Woman’s Friend has just gotten a lot more interesting. The British government wants more women to get involved in war work and is asking the press to promote this agenda. But when Emmy talks to some of the female factory workers, she’s dismayed by the obstacles they face, especially the lack of child care during work hours. Emmy is determined to help, but will her efforts do more harm than good? This is another charmer from AJ Pearce, and fans of Dear Mrs. Bird should enjoy it. I do think this one’s a bit more lightweight and less impactful than the first book, but if a third installment is planned, I’ll definitely seek it out!

Evie Dunmore, Portrait of a Scotsman

Harriet Greenfield is a sheltered upper-class girl and aspiring painter who dreams of marrying a kind Mr. Bingley type. Instead she finds herself in a compromising position with Lucian Blackstone, a brooding Scot with a shady past and a terrible reputation. When the two are forced to marry, they reluctantly recognize a mutual attraction, but Harriet doesn’t trust Lucian, and Lucian only wants Harriet to further his own ambitions. I enjoyed this book while reading it, but upon reflection I think it’s just okay. Lucian is a pretty standard tortured, brooding hero, and Harriet is spoiled and obnoxious. The book was a bit too steamy for me, though obviously others’ mileage will vary, and I also felt the narrative got tediously preachy about the plight of women and laborers. On the other hand, I thought the portrayal of an inter-class marriage was realistic and well done. So, this wasn’t the book for me, but I’ll still probably read the next installment of the series when it comes out.

Sharon Shinn, Unquiet Land

Leah Frothen has spent the past five years spying for Welce in a foreign land—and recovering from some traumatic life events. Now she’s returned to find (and possibly claim) the daughter she left behind, but her spying days are not quite behind her. Welce is in the midst of some tricky negotiations with a neighboring country, and Leah must befriend the foreign delegation in order to gain useful information. But what she learns is deeply disturbing, especially when it might affect her newfound relationship with her daughter. I liked this book fine, but I do think the series has run its course. Leah is a likable enough heroine, and I enjoyed her character arc and her romance (though both began in the previous book, Jeweled Fire). The plot was pretty dull, however, and I thought everything with the daughter was simplistic and contrived. Overall, a decent but unexceptional read.

Mini-Reviews: Escape, Graduate, Vacation

Mary Balogh, The Escape

Book 3 of the Survivors’ Club series focuses on Sir Benedict Harper, who sustained extensive injuries to his legs in the Napoleonic Wars and was told he’d never walk again. After years of grit and perseverance, Ben can walk for short distances and with the aid of canes, but he’ll never return to the military career he loved. At a loose end, he meets the widowed Samantha McKay and agrees to be her escort as she flees from her controlling in-laws. They are attracted to each other but don’t see a future together, so they agree to a brief, no-strings affair — but of course, their growing feelings for each other complicate their relationship. So far, this series just keeps getting better, and I think Ben and Samantha are my favorite couple yet. Still, I’m not sure I’ll remember very much about the book in a few weeks, so it’s probably not a keeper.

My edition of this book also contains a short story/novella, The Suitor. It tells the story of Philippa Dean, the young woman who is presented to Viscount Darleigh as a potential bride at the beginning of The Arrangement. Darleigh perceived her as irritating and dimwitted, but The Suitor tells the story from her point of view — and gives her a happy ending of her own. This story did nothing for me; it’s so short that I didn’t have time to get invested in the romance or characters. It’s definitely skippable even if you’re normally a series completist.

Naomi Novik, The Last Graduate

It’s El’s senior year, and despite being stuck in a magic school full of creatures that are trying to kill her, things are looking pretty good. She has an alliance lined up for graduation, she has friends, and she even has a (maybe, sort of) boyfriend. But then the Scholomance starts making El’s life even more miserable than usual, and it seems to be singling her out. Is it trying to kill her, or turn her into the dark sorceress she’s supposedly destined to become? Or is it sending a different message entirely? I loved the first book in this series, and this installment is just as entertaining and exciting. There’s still a ton of exposition and world-building, which seems a bit strange for the second book in a series, but it’s leavened by El’s delightfully grumpy voice. The ending is arguably a huge cliffhanger, and I’m dying to find out what happens next! Fans of A Deadly Education won’t be disappointed by this sequel.

Emily Henry, People We Meet on Vacation

Poppy and Alex used to be BFFs who took exciting vacations together every summer. But they haven’t really spoken since their ill-fated trip to Croatia two years ago. Now Poppy hopes to rekindle their friendship, so she invites him on one last summer trip. But to move forward, both she and Alex will have to be honest about their feelings and what they truly want. Emily Henry has gotten a lot of good buzz, and I can see why. This is a really well-written, entertaining contemporary romance with some first-class banter. The friends-to-lovers trope isn’t always my favorite, because I wonder why they won’t just act on their feelings, but in this case I understood what was keeping Poppy and Alex apart. They love each other but want very different things out of life. The resolution to that conflict felt a bit pat, but I didn’t mind too much because I just wanted them to be together already! Definitely recommended for fans of this trope, and I’m putting Beach Read on my TBR immediately.

Mini-Reviews: Poison, Jeweled, Walk

Robin Stevens, Poison Is Not Polite

Hazel Wong and her best friend Daisy Wells encounter another mystery while visiting Daisy’s country home over the Easter holiday. Various other houseguests arrive, including Mr. Curtis, an odious “friend” of Daisy’s mother’s. Hazel and Daisy are convinced he’s up to no good, and they decide the Detective Society must investigate. But when he suddenly dies after drinking a cup of tea, the girls realize they may have another murder to solve. I quite enjoyed this novel; Hazel is an endearing narrator and protagonist, and her “outsider” perspective on Daisy’s upper-class English family yields a lot of fun moments. The mystery plot is less successful; it’s not fair play, and the solution is not very satisfying. But it’s also surprisingly morally ambiguous for a middle-grade book, which I found interesting. So I liked this one overall and will probably continue with the series at some point.

Sharon Shinn, Jeweled Fire

This book picks up right where Royal Airs left off: Princess Corene has departed Welce for the neighboring nation of Malinqua, where she hopes to make a marriage alliance with one of the three potential heirs. But as she navigates the treacherous court with the help of her loyal bodyguard, Foley, she discovers a sinister plot against herself and the other potential brides-to-be. This book was a definite improvement over Royal Airs; Corene is a flawed but fascinating heroine, the plot is full of political intrigue, and there’s a brand-new setting and new characters to explore. Because of that, we don’t see many of the characters from previous books, but we still hear a fair amount about them. Overall, I enjoyed this one and look forward to picking up the fourth and final book in the series.

Katherine Center, How to Walk Away

Margaret is about to start living the life she’s always wanted: she’ll shortly be starting a high-powered job, and her boyfriend Chip just proposed. But everything changes when a tragic accident sends her to the hospital with an injured spinal cord, and the doctors aren’t sure if she’ll ever walk again. As Margaret tries to cope with her new reality, her relationships with her family and with Chip also change, for better and for worse. As with Things You Save in a Fire, I found this book very addictive and compelling. Margaret’s experience feels true to life, and the book doesn’t sugarcoat her emotional or physical difficulties. There’s a lovely romance that keeps things from getting too bleak, and the ending is uplifting but not unrealistically so (except for the too-sweet epilogue). I’ll definitely search out more books by this author!

Last, Hypothesis, Woodsman

Peter Lovesey, The Last Detective

When the body of an unknown woman is recovered from a lake near Bath, Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond is on the case. Diamond is an old-school detective who distrusts newfangled (in 1991) technology such as computers, DNA evidence, and microwaves. He’s also on thin ice with his department after a formal inquiry into his behavior toward a suspect in a previous case. When the dead woman is identified and the police arrest their chief suspect, Diamond thinks they’ve got the wrong person, but he’ll have to continue investigating solo to find the real killer. I thought this book was just fine. The mystery itself was interesting (although I didn’t really buy the solution), and I liked how the novel incorporates first-person narratives from a couple of the suspects. But I found Diamond an obnoxious character, and I don’t particularly want to read any more books that feature him. So, I’m glad I finally read this one so that I can take it off my shelves.

Ali Hazelwood, The Love Hypothesis

PhD student Olive Smith needs to convince her best friend that she’s on a date (a totally farfetched premise, but just go with it), so she panics and kisses the first guy she sees. Unfortunately, that just happens to be Dr. Adam Carlsen, one of Stanford’s most prestigious professors and a known jerk. Olive is mortified, but Adam is oddly calm about the whole situation; and when she needs to keep up the charade that they’re dating, he agrees to be her fake boyfriend. Soon Olive is falling for him, but she fears her feelings are one-sided. I’m a sucker for the fake relationship trope, so I was primed to enjoy this book, and overall I really did! Olive is relatable, Adam is dreamy, and their interactions (particularly at the beginning of the book) are adorable. I wasn’t totally satisfied by the ending; I wanted more of Adam’s perspective, and in general I wanted them both to communicate better. But I still devoured this book in one sitting, and I think fans of contemporary romance will really enjoy it!

(N.B. I’d give it a 3/5 on the steaminess scale; there’s one pretty graphic sex scene.)

Ava Reid, The Wolf and the Woodsman

Évike is the only girl in her village with no magic, which makes her an easy target when the fearsome Woodsmen arrive to collect their annual tribute of a young girl to take to the capital. On their journey, Évike encounters many perils and becomes closer to the captain of the Woodsmen, even though his Christian(ish) religion makes her pagan ways abhorrent to him. Once in the capital, Évike is caught up in political turmoil as a fanatical claimant to the throne seeks to remove all Jews (or the in-world equivalents) and pagans from his domain. This book was billed as being similar to [The Bear and the Nightingale] and [Spinning Silver], but in my opinion, it’s a sloppier, angstier, more YA-feeling version of those books. The world-building is interesting but sort of half-baked, and some plot points are left dangling (like Évike’s relationship with her father and his world). Overall, I found it disappointing, and I’d strongly recommend the Arden or Novik books instead.

Mini-Reviews: Fly, Wrong, Arrangement

Frances Hardinge, Fly by Night

In this quirky, somewhat dark fantasy novel, 12-year-old Mosca Mye runs away from her village and teams up with wordsmith/con man Eponymous Clent. The two of them get caught in a vast web of political intrigue, with factions including a mad duke, a slew of would-be monarchs, some sinister and powerful guilds, and the fanatical Birdcatchers. This book seemed like it would be right up my alley — the summary had me at “Eponymous Clent” — but I actually found it a somewhat difficult read. It was hard to keep track of the various factions, who was in league with whom, the good guys vs. the bad guys…and of course, all that kept changing as the story went on! Everything does eventually come together, so the book ends on a high note, but overall I didn’t like it as much as I was expecting to.

Elan Mastai, All Our Wrong Todays

It’s 2016, and in Tom Barren’s world, it’s the glorious future imagined by 1950s science fiction: there are jetpacks and hover cars, not to mention completely realistic sex robots. But Tom is miserable — his mother recently died, his genius father hates him, and he’s just permanently lost the woman he loves. As the book’s cover copy says, “What do you do when you’re heartbroken and have a time machine? Something stupid.” This book is very clever, and I simultaneously enjoyed its cleverness and found it annoying. The novel tries to be a fun futuristic romp while also examining serious philosophical questions such as: If you travel back in time and alter reality so that billions of people who would have been born now aren’t, how morally guilty are you? I found the book most interesting when it grapples with these big questions, but it never really resolves them. Instead, the denouement is just a lot of dizzying time-travel hijinks that I couldn’t follow and didn’t really care about. So, full points to this one for a unique reading experience, but it didn’t entirely work for me.

Mary Balogh, The Arrangement

Vincent Hunt, Viscount Darleigh, is blind as a result of wounds sustained in the Napoleonic Wars. His large, loving family is determined to take care of him, but he feels smothered by their constant concern. When they start pressuring him to marry, it’s the last straw: Vincent runs away to get some distance and time to think. During this time, he meets Sophia Fry, a poor young woman whose family neglects her and cruelly refers to her as “the Mouse.” To rescue her from an untenable situation, Vincent offers marriage but proposes that they can separate after a year if they want to. Of course, we all know that’s not going to happen! I liked this book; both Vincent and Sophia are endearing characters, and I enjoyed their shared sense of humor. There aren’t really any external obstacles to their relationship, but they each have some realistic baggage that makes them guarded with each other at first. Overall, this one was an improvement on The Proposal, and I look forward to continuing with the Survivors’ Club series.

Mini-Reviews: Proposal, Peculiar, Royal

Mary Balogh, The Proposal

This is the first book in the Survivors’ Club series, which centers around seven individuals who have endured wounds (both physical and mental) in the Napoleonic Wars. Hugo Emes, the son of a merchant, is lauded as a war hero, but he feels guilty for leading his men into a deadly battle which few survived. He is looking for a practical, capable wife of his own class; too bad he’s instead drawn to the beautiful, aristocratic, and (he thinks) flighty and arrogant Gwendoline, Lady Muir. Gwen is similarly attracted, despite finding Hugo coarse and uncompromising. Together they must decide whether and how to make a relationship work. I always enjoy Balogh’s romances; she writes about people who have been through some hard life experiences and who find peace and healing as well as love. I found Hugo’s bluntness and social awkwardness endearing, and I liked Gwen as well (although I felt she was less interesting than Hugo). Overall, this novel didn’t blow me away, but I enjoyed it quite a bit and will certainly continue with the series.

Ashley Weaver, A Peculiar Combination

In this World War II mystery, safecracker Ellie McDonnell is caught stealing jewelry; but instead of arresting her, her captor, Major Ramsey, offers her a deal. Ramsey is with British intelligence, and he needs Ellie’s expertise to break into the safe of a suspected German spy. But when Ellie and Ramsey discover the suspect dead and the contents of the safe missing, they must team up to find what was stolen and uncover the murderer. This is a fun book that combines mystery, period detail, and a hint of romance. It’s not life-changing, but I found it a solid, enjoyable read. The main mystery is solved, but since this is a series opener, there are a lot of loose ends, including a love triangle and a mystery involving Ellie’s dead mother. I’m definitely intrigued enough to read the next book when it comes out!

Sharon Shinn, Royal Airs

Rafe Adova lives in the slums of Chialto, the capital city of Welce, where he makes a precarious living by playing cards. A chance encounter with Princess Josetta, however, changes his destiny. As Rafe and Josetta get to know each other better, they fall in love; but the intrigues of Chialto’s court and the mystery of Rafe’s identity may keep them apart. I found this sequel to Troubled Waters somewhat disappointing, mostly because the main characters are so dull. Rafe is a charming card sharp for approximately one chapter, and then he becomes a boring nonentity. Josetta’s main traits are disliking court life and being a saintly do-gooder (she runs a homeless shelter in the slums). However, the book picks up with some exciting plot toward the end, and there are many interesting secondary characters (as well as the welcome return of the main players from the first book). So I’ll continue with the series even though this book fell a bit flat.

Mini-Reviews: Troubled, Corpse, Billionaires

Sharon Shinn, Troubled Waters

In this traditional fantasy novel, protagonist Zoe Ardelay is plucked from obscurity to become the king’s fifth wife, but she escapes that fate, only to discover unsuspected magical powers that grant her a place at court in her own right. She navigates palace intrigues, contemplates her future role in the court, and tries hard not to fall in love with royal advisor Darien Serlast. This book is not particularly groundbreaking, but I really enjoyed it! The magical system, based on keeping the balance between five elements, is creative and informs the world of the novel in interesting ways. Zoe is likable, though sometimes a bit too impulsive, and Darien is a hero after my own heart. Overall, I liked this one a lot and have already checked out the next book in the series, Royal Airs, from my library!

Robert Barnard, Corpse in a Gilded Cage

In this 1980s take on the English country house mystery, working-class Percy Spender has unexpectedly inherited an earldom and a grand estate. He and his wife just want to sell the place and go back to their regular lives, but their children — not to mention the family lawyer — have other ideas. Then Percy is murdered, and with multiple wills cropping up, it seems the investigation will hinge on who actually inherits the fortune. I wasn’t in the mood for this book when I picked it up, but I thought it would at least be a quick read that I could get off my TBR shelves. However, it actually won me over with its humor and satire of the British class system, not to mention this delightful allusion: “Dixie’s voice warbled from bass to soprano, replete with all the outraged disbelief of Lady Bracknell at her most handbageous.” So I think I need to keep the book now! I’d definitely recommend it to fans of this type of mystery.

Annika Martin, Just Not That into Billionaires

Nine years ago, outgoing ballet dancer Francine had a crush on her co-worker, socially awkward but technologically brilliant Benny. She thought he didn’t feel the same way, but after one drunken night, they got married in Vegas. Feeling ashamed the morning after (she’d tried to sleep with him and he’d refused), Francine left town, and she hasn’t talked to Benny since. Now she needs a divorce, but Benny unexpectedly refuses; instead, he insists that she pose as his loving wife, since he’s now a wildly successful billionaire whose personal life is being scrutinized by the press. Despite this ridiculous plot, this book completely sucked me in. Something about the chemistry between Francine and Benny, and their complementary weirdness, and Benny’s endearing awkwardness, really worked for me! However, I also think some people will find Benny an irredeemable jerk, which I completely understand! So this book won’t be for everyone, but I liked it and may try more by this author.

Review: Battle Royal

Lucy Parker, Battle Royal

Talented pastry chefs Sylvie Fairchild and Dominic De Vere have been professional rivals ever since their stint on Operation Cake four years ago. Sylvie was a contestant, Dominic was a judge, and her robotic unicorn cake creation may have gone rogue and hit him in the face. Now they’re competing for the most important job of their careers — a cake for an upcoming royal wedding. Their baking styles (and personalities) couldn’t be more different: Sylvie is all about whimsy and creativity, while Dominic sticks to classic perfection. But as they spend more time together, they discover a surprising mutual attraction and must figure out how to reconcile their romance with their career ambitions.

Lucy Parker is an auto-buy author for me, and I always worry that her latest book won’t live up to my sky-high expectations. Fortunately, in this case the worry was unfounded because I loved this book! While I don’t particularly care about baking shows or British royals, I do adore a grumpy/sunshine pairing, and the relationship between Sylvie and Dominic is every bit as swoony and satisfying as I’d hoped. The first few chapters are a little confusing — lots of characters and backstory to establish — and there’s perhaps a bit too much going on throughout the book. But that’s a tiny quibble that in no way diminishes my overall love for this novel. I already can’t wait for the next one!

Mini-Reviews: Lady, Flight, Velocipede

Eliza Casey, Lady Takes the Case

The lady of the title is Lady Cecilia Bates, the daughter of an old, aristocratic family that has fallen on hard times. To keep the estate functioning, her brother, Patrick, needs to marry a rich woman; luckily, American heiress Annabel Clarke has agreed to attend their house party. All seems to be going according to plan until one of the other guests, a famous explorer, is poisoned over dinner. When Patrick appears to be the police’s main suspect, Cecilia decides to launch her own investigation, along with Annabel’s intelligent maid, Jane, and a little help from Jane’s cat. I liked this book and think it would appeal to fans of Downton Abbey, but I think the setting and characters are definitely more interesting than the mystery. I’m not sure I care enough to read the sequel; another book in a similar vein is Alyssa Maxwell’s Murder Most Malicious, and I’d rather continue with Maxwell’s series.

Jean-Pierre Gibrat, Flight of the Raven

I’m not generally a big graphic novel fan; I’m not a very visual person, and my tendency is to go straight for the text without really absorbing the illustrations. But this GN drew me in with its World War II setting, French Resistance heroine, and cat burglar hero, not to mention the absolutely gorgeous art! The overarching plot — in which the heroine, Jeanne, searches for her missing sister and worries about a traitor within her Resistance cell — is not particularly well fleshed out, but it’s really just an excuse for her to team up with the cat burglar and the other quirky characters she meets along the way. Overall, I did like this and would recommend it to people who enjoy both historical fiction and graphic novels.

Emily June Street, The Velocipede Races

In an invented world similar to late Victorian England, velocipede racing is both a popular sport and the only socially acceptable way for upper-class men to earn money. Women, of course, don’t participate and are not even supposed to ride velos in private. Nevertheless, Emmeline Escot has always dreamed of racing, and she’s determined not to let social conventions get in her way. Complications ensue, however, when she is inadvertently “compromised” by a rich stranger and forced to marry. I picked up this book knowing very little about it, so I’m happy to say I enjoyed it! But I think my favorite parts were honestly the interactions between Emmeline and her new husband; their relationship interested me a lot more than the descriptions of velo racing, and I found Emmeline’s obsession with the races a little tedious. Still, I think this one is worth reading if you like historical romance with a strong (and not terribly subtle) feminist message.