Winston Graham, Demelza
***Warning: spoilers for Ross Poldark.***
This second novel in the Poldark saga begins with Demelza giving birth to her and Ross’s first child, a baby girl named Julia. Uneasy at the thought of her lower-class, illiterate relatives mixing with Ross’s family and friends among the gentry, Demelza decides to hold two different parties for Julia’s christening. Of course, this plan goes terribly awry and ends in social disaster — the first of many situations in this novel where Demelza struggles with her new position in society as Ross’s wife. Meanwhile, low copper prices are causing trouble for Ross and the other mine owners, and many of the mine workers are facing dire poverty. Desperate, Ross joins a risky scheme that would give mine owners more control over copper prices, but the Warleggans are formidable enemies to this project. Personal tragedies, reversals of fortune, and love affairs gone wrong (or right) all play a part in this novel, but ultimately it’s the strength of Ross and Demelza’s relationship that gets them through it all.
I enjoyed this continuation of the Poldark series, which I think is a little more eventful and interesting than the first book. One of my favorite aspects of this novel is the portrayal of Ross and Demelza’s marriage. It’s a strong relationship but definitely not a perfect one: they argue, keep secrets from each other, and frequently become trapped in misunderstandings that a little honest communication could have prevented. But I love that Demelza isn’t afraid to speak her mind and that Ross genuinely respects her, notwithstanding her lower-class origins. I also liked the introduction of a few new characters, particularly Dwight Enys, a forward-thinking young doctor who becomes a fast friend of the Poldarks. Overall, this book got me excited about reading the entire series this year, and I’d definitely recommend it to fans of historical fiction or period dramas.
Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows, My Lady Jane
This novel is a highly fictionalized version of the events surrounding Lady Jane Grey’s accession to the throne of England, where she ruled for only nine days. The story begins as teenage king Edward VI learns that he is dying. He names his best friend Jane as his successor, which immediately makes her a highly desirable bride to the ambitious men at court. Although Jane is not particularly interested in marriage or becoming queen, she is forced to marry Gifford, the son of Edward’s most trusted counselor. Of course, Jane and Gifford don’t get along at first, but soon they must work together when she finds out that Gifford is an Edian, a person with the magical ability to turn into an animal. In fact, he can’t control this power, so he spends all his daylight hours as a horse. Jane and Gifford must conceal this politically dangerous secret and figure out how to control his power — all while navigating the perils surrounding the English monarchy.
When this book first came out, I refused to read it despite its popularity because of the terrible cover. But then I started reading reviews comparing it to things like The Princess Bride and Monty Python. And then I read the dedication — “For everyone who knows there was enough room for Leonardo DiCaprio on that door” — and I was hooked. This book is a fun and funny romp through Tudor history, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Of course, those who are looking for realistic historical fiction from this era should definitely look elsewhere; the actual historical situation is just a springboard for the characters’ completely fantastical adventures. I really enjoyed the main characters, especially Edward, whose main complaint about dying is that he hasn’t ever kissed a girl. The plot does get a bit hectic toward the end, but by then I was happy to go along for the ride. Overall, I liked this book a lot, and now I’m interested in trying some of the authors’ solo works.
Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
In a universe where space travel is common and humans mingle with aliens of various species, Rosemary Harper is about to join the crew of the Wayfarer, a spaceship whose job is essentially to facilitate interplanetary travel by punching wormholes through space. When Rosemary boards the Wayfarer, she meets a wildly diverse crew that nevertheless manages to live in (mostly) harmony. There’s Sissix, the lizardlike alien pilot; Kizzy and Jenks, the chatty engineers; Ashby, the captain; and Lovelace, the ship’s artificial intelligence system. They all embrace Rosemary as one of their own, even when they discover that she’s hiding a big secret from her past. But when the Wayfarer is hired for a particularly dangerous job, peace is threatened both among the crew and within the whole galaxy.
I’d read a lot of great reviews of this book, and I saw some comparisons to Firefly, so I was really hoping to love it. Unfortunately, I guess I’m in the minority on this one, because it honestly did nothing for me. The worldbuilding is excellent; the various alien species are well drawn, and the author obviously had fun exploring the cultural differences between her main characters. But the plot is practically nonexistent until the very end of the novel, when it’s finally revealed why this job is so dangerous and what’s at stake for the main characters. I also didn’t particularly care about any of the characters, and again I think it’s because there are no stakes; I don’t know what these characters want or what obstacles stand in their way. Finally, there’s an interspecies sexual encounter that I found distasteful, but of course other people’s mileage may vary. Overall, the great worldbuilding wasn’t enough to save this novel for me, and I won’t be reading the rest of the trilogy.
Kristan Higgins, On Second Thought
After years of being single, Kate has finally found happiness with her new husband, Nathan. Their only marital problem so far is that Kate hasn’t yet gotten pregnant. Meanwhile, Kate’s half-sister Ainsley has been with her boyfriend Eric ever since college, and he’s dragging his feet about proposing to her, but she remains convinced that he’s “the one.” But the lives of both women change forever when Nathan dies in a tragic accident. Now a devastated Kate must deal with her grief — a horrible situation made even harder by her discovery that Nathan may have been hiding something from her. Meanwhile, the shock of Nathan’s death leads Eric to break up with Ainsley, who is blindsided by the loss of the future she’d been imagining for years. As both Kate and Ainsley try to move forward, they turn to each other for support and begin to forge a closer relationship.
I always enjoy Kristan Higgins’ contemporary romance novels, and even though this one isn’t quite as focused on romance, I still really liked it! I saw a few reviews that complained it’s depressing because it focuses so much on grief, and I can certainly understand that point of view. But to me, the story felt very hopeful and uplifting, because it’s about how both sisters are able to cope with the great pain and loss in their lives. I loved the relationship between Kate and Ainsley, who aren’t particularly close in the beginning of the book but eventually come to understand and appreciate one another. They both become more confident in their own lives, too, both professionally and in other family relationships. Of course, there is some romance in the novel as well, which I thoroughly (and predictably) enjoyed. I’d recommend this book to fans of romance or women’s fiction who don’t mind a slightly weightier premise.
Edith Wharton, The Glimpses of the Moon
In the glittering whirl of 1920s New York society, Nick Lansing and Susy Branch are intelligent but impoverished: they survive by living off the generosity of their richer friends. They fall in love with each other and decide to marry, but they agree that if either of them gets a chance to make a better financial match, they’ll divorce amicably. At first the marriage is very successful, and Nick and Susy are able to live off their friends’ extravagant wedding gifts. But when one of their friends lets them stay at her Italian villa during the honeymoon, they soon discover that she requires an ethically dubious favor in return. This favor drives a wedge between Nick and Susy — a wedge that widens even further when a titled Englishman and a rich heiress present themselves as alternative romantic options. In the end, will love or money prevail?
I don’t have much to say about this book except that I really loved it! Wharton’s prose is flawlessly precise, and she has an immense talent for evoking a character’s complete emotional state with a few subtle, well-chosen words. I actually found this book a bit stressful to read at times, because I cared about Nick and Susy so much, and I really wanted their marriage to work out despite the obstacles in their way. I liked the fact that no one is really a villain in the book, not even the wealthier romantic possibilities who are hoping that the marriage will break up. That said, Wharton does include some wonderfully biting satire about the upper classes and the frivolity and emptiness of their lifestyle. I’d recommend this book to anyone, especially those who love comedies of manners and the classics.
Allison Morgan, Can I See You Again?
Bree Caxton owns a successful matchmaking business in California, and her first book is about to be published. So when her boyfriend of four years breaks up with her out of the blue, she panics: not only is she heartbroken on a personal level, but who wants to buy a book about love from someone whose own love life is a mess? Bree needs her book to sell big, both for her own career and for her grandmother, who is about to be evicted from her longtime home. Desperate, Bree asks one of her clients, Nixon Voss, to pose as her boyfriend in public interviews. Surprisingly, Nixon agrees, and the more time they spend together, the more Bree wonders whether they have a real connection. But will Bree’s determination to launch a bestseller — and the sudden reappearance of her ex — end their relationship before it begins?
As I frequently mention on this blog, “fake relationship becomes real” is one of my favorite romance tropes, so I was intrigued by the premise of this book. Sadly, I wasn’t particularly wowed by the execution. The central conflict — Bree needs her book to make the NYT bestseller list so that her grandma won’t lose her house — just seemed too farfetched. In what universe would that plan actually work? I also wasn’t particularly invested in Bree’s relationship with Nixon, for some reason. Maybe they don’t spend enough time together in the book? Or maybe neither character is developed well enough for me to see why they’re so right for each other. I did like that Nixon has some semblance of a personality, but as I said, he’s really not in the book that much; the primary focus is on Bree’s professional life and her relationship wth her grandma. Overall, while this book isn’t terrible, I don’t think it’s particularly interesting or memorable.
Julian Fellowes, Belgravia
This novel by the creator of Downton Abbey tells the story of two families, the aristocratic Bellasises and the social-climbing Trenchards, as their paths collide on the eve of Waterloo and again 25 years later. James Trenchard begins the novel as Wellington’s chief supplier, and thus he has some contact with high society despite being a mere tradesman. When his beautiful daughter Sophia catches the eye of Lord Edmund Bellasis, James is certain that a marriage will soon take place, despite the skepticism of Anne, his pragmatic wife. But Edmund tragically dies at Waterloo, and Sophia follows shortly thereafter – but not before giving birth to his child. The Trenchards place the baby with a foster family in an attempt to hush up the scandal, but the secret threatens to emerge when Anne decides to search for Sophia’s child, Charles Pope, now an intelligent young man of 25. When Charles is introduced into society despite his (supposedly) working-class origins, rumors start flying, and several people begin to ask questions about his true identity. What they uncover is a secret that could be dangerous not only to the Trenchards’ social standing, but to the young man’s very life.
I watched Downton Abbey from start to finish, so I was intrigued that its writer, Julian Fellowes, had written a book set during my favorite historical period. However, I was left feeling pretty underwhelmed by this novel. Much as I enjoyed Downton, it often had problems with pacing and with juggling its large ensemble cast, and those same problems are apparent in Belgravia. The “suspense,” such as it is, comes from the question of whether (or when) the scandal of Charles’s birth will be revealed, but since the reader knows the secret from almost the beginning of the novel, it’s not a very compelling question. I also didn’t care at all about most of the secondary characters. The villain of the piece has moments of being interesting, but he’s largely a flat character who only cares about money and social status. And the downstairs characters get very short shrift, in my opinion; while a couple of the servants do play a role in the plot, their characterization is negligible. Overall, I found this book to be very “meh,” although avid Downton Abbey fans may find it worth reading.
Alan Bradley, Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d
Flavia is thrilled to be back in England after her Canadian adventure at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy, but she soon discovers that all is not well at Buckshaw. Her oldest sister Feely is in a fight with her fiancé Dieter, and her annoying cousin Undine won’t leave her alone. Most upsetting of all, her father is sick with pneumonia, and she’s not even allowed to visit him in the hospital. Desperate for a distraction, Flavia agrees to run an errand for the vicar’s wife, delivering a message to the woodcarver who is refurbishing the church. But when Flavia arrives at the woodcarver’s residence, she discovers the man hanging upside-down from his bedroom door, quite dead. Of course, she jumps at the chance to solve another murder, which leads her to uncover a decades-old conspiracy involving a famous author. But as always, Flavia’s investigative skills are so sharp that she finds herself in danger.
I’m a longtime fan of the Flavia de Luce series, so I enjoyed this latest installment. However, I’m starting to feel so sad for Flavia that the books are becoming less fun to read. In the first few books, Flavia and her sisters are constantly fighting, but you get the sense that, deep down, they do care for each other. In this book, the arguments are so mean-spirited and brutal that it’s really no fun to read. Flavia also seems particularly isolated in this book; her father is almost entirely off page, her sisters ignore her when they’re not actively being cruel, and she doesn’t seem to have any friends at all (except the vicar’s wife). The ending of this book seems to indicate an even bleaker future for Flavia, and if that’s the case, the series might actually be too depressing for me to continue. I also didn’t love the mystery in this one, although I was happy to see some interaction between Flavia and her former teacher Mrs. Bannerman. Overall, I found this book somewhat disappointing, and I’m not sure I’ll be continuing with the series (although I may try one more book just to see if things improve).
Sally Thorne, The Hating Game
If Lucy Hutton is certain about anything in her life, it’s that she and Joshua Templeman hate each other. As executive assistants to the co-CEOs of their company, they’ve been professional rivals for years, and each of them knows exactly how to get under the other one’s skin. Now they’re both up for the same promotion, and Lucy is determined to beat out Joshua for the job. If that means spending all her energy in coming up with passive-aggressive ways to annoy him, so be it. But when a particularly vicious argument somehow turns into an explosive kiss, everything changes. As Lucy reevaluates her history with Joshua, she realizes that maybe her intense feelings for him can’t entirely be explained by hatred. And maybe, contrary to her longstanding belief, Joshua doesn’t actually hate her at all. But will Lucy have the courage to change the game?
This book may be a giant predictable cliché, but it’s so well written that I don’t even care! I was so invested in Lucy and Joshua’s relationship, and I loved the pace at which it unfolded. The sexual tension between them is immediately obvious, so the author wisely doesn’t string it out too long; the kiss occurs quite early in the novel. But the heart of the story is the slow, tentative transformation from hate-fueled lust to genuine love and affection. I especially liked seeing Joshua gradually open up to Lucy, revealing the reasons for his former rude behavior. Ultimately, this book exceeded my expectations, which were already pretty high since I’d heard a lot of good things about it. I’d wholeheartedly recommend it to fans of romance, especially those who enjoy the hate-to-love trope. It looks like the author has another book coming out this summer, and I’ll definitely be purchasing it!
Connie Willis, Crosstalk
In a near-future society, people are looking for ever more efficient ways to communicate and connect with each other. A new experimental procedure, the EED, allows couples to feel each other’s emotions and thus (theoretically) strengthen their relationship. Briddey Flannigan is thrilled when her boyfriend Trent asks her to get an EED with him, but her nosy family doesn’t like the idea, nor does her reclusive colleague C.B. Nevertheless, Briddey goes ahead with the procedure, only to discover that something has gone terribly wrong — she’s now connected to C.B., not Trent. Moreover, she doesn’t just sense his emotions; she seems to be able to read his mind. Now, with C.B.’s help, Briddey must figure out why this connection occurred and learn how to break it, before the negative effects of their telepathic connection cause irreversible damage.
I’m huge Connie Willis fan, so I had high expectations for this book, and I’m happy to say I wasn’t disappointed! This novel has just as much humor and romance as her other light novels, with an added dash of commentary on the negative aspects of incessant communication. I really enjoyed the little asides about past scientific research into telepathy, as well as the speculation that famous historical figures who heard voices (most notably Joan of Arc) might actually have been telepathic. I do think the plot had a few too many twists and turns at the end; the book’s length could have been trimmed somewhat. But I was having such a ball following Briddey and C.B.’s story that I barely noticed at the time! To be fair, the book does have its flaws, which I think the NPR review covers quite well — I can definitely see the reviewer’s point. But I still loved the book, and I would definitely recommend it to Willis fans! Newcomers to her work might want to start with To Say Nothing of the Dog or Doomsday Book (although the latter is much darker) instead.