Review: Worth the Fall

worth the fallBria Quinlan, Worth the Fall

This romantic comedy follows the misadventures of Kasey Lane, who loses her job, her boyfriend, and her apartment all in the same week. Luckily, she stumbles upon the Brew Ha Ha café, where she meets a bubbly writer named Jenna and her boyfriend Ben, who take Kasey under their wing and help her find a new place to live. They also introduce her to their friend group, including attractive policeman Max Darby, who just so happens to have seen Kasey at some of her lowest moments. As Kasey starts to put her life back together, she’s adamant that she wants to be single and figure things out for herself, yet she finds herself drawn to Max. But if she pursues a relationship, will she just be repeating her past mistakes?

This is a book that definitely requires some serious suspension of disbelief. Kasey is some kind of marketing professional who is great at her job (we are told), is fired through no fault of her own, yet somehow can’t find another job. Despite having no money (we are told), she secures a great apartment in an expensive part of town. She instantly becomes BFFs with a woman she randomly meets in a coffee shop. But despite all that, I actually enjoyed this book a lot! Kasey is a likable character who comes to greater self-knowledge in the course of the book. And I loved the development of her relationship with Max! They start out a bit hostile to each other but soon embark on a friendship (complete with banter) that is off-the-charts adorable. Overall, I liked this book and will look for the rest in the Brew Ha Ha series (this is book 2 but can definitely be read as a stand-alone!).

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Review: Crooked Heart

Crooked Heart.jpgLissa Evans, Crooked Heart

In this novel set during World War II, Noel Bostock is a precocious 10-year-old boy who lives with his strong, intelligent godmother, Mattie. But his life changes dramatically when Mattie begins to exhibit signs of dementia, just as children are being evacuated from London under the threat of bombing. Noel is sent to the country to live with Vera Sedge, a middle-aged woman desperately trying to make ends meet, who only takes him in for the sake of the small government stipend she’ll receive. Vera plans to make some money by pretending to collect donations for the war effort, but her high-strung, panicky nature makes her fairly unsuccessful — until Noel shocks her by offering to help.

I love a good World War II novel, and this is one of the most unique ones I’ve read so far. What makes it different is that the main characters are not heroes. In fact, what Vera and Noel do in this book is pretty despicable: they lie to people, playing on their feelings of patriotism and compassion, and steal their money. Even without their illegal scheme, neither character is particularly likable at first. But somehow this book peels back their layers and makes them understandable, even sympathetic. Both Vera and Noel are completely alone and very guarded as a result, but this novel shows them slowly coming closer together. I enjoy “found family” narratives, and this one definitely qualifies! So I would recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in the period or the premise.

Also, this book has no epigraph, but I’m fairly certain the title is from the W.H. Auden poem “As I Walked Out One Evening”: “You shall love your crooked neighbour / With your crooked heart.” Which perfectly sums up the theme of the book, in my opinion!

Review: Hotshot Doc

hotshot docR.S. Grey, Hotshot Doc

Bailey Jennings is perfectly content with her life. Maybe she hasn’t had a date in years, but she loves working as a surgical assistant (specializing in spinal surgery) and taking care of her younger sister, Josie. But when her wonderful boss announces he’s retiring, Bailey panics: she’ll either have to retrain in a new speciality or work for the cold, arrogant — and extremely handsome — Doctor Matthew Russell. Bailey and Matt’s professional relationship gets off to a rocky start, but they are surprised (and dismayed) to discover a mutual attraction. Can they find a way to pursue a relationship without jeopardizing either of their careers?

This contemporary romance novel is a fun read, with some good banter and likable main characters. Bailey is scrappy and strong, and her relationship with Josie is very sweet. Matt is a bit of a jerk at first, but his rudeness arises from his passion for his work and his high standards for himself as well as others. So I really liked each character individually, but the romance itself didn’t quite work for me. It just felt very generic, especially once Bailey and Matt got together. I thought their workplace romance would generate some interesting conflict, but it’s honestly pretty smooth sailing once they act on their feelings. All in all, a pleasant read that I’d recommend to fans of workplace romances, but it didn’t blow me away.

Review: Amber & Dusk

amber & duskLyra Selene, Amber & Dusk

Although she was abandoned by her parents and raised by strict nuns at the very edge of the Dusklands, Sylvie has always known she’s been destined for great things. She has a legacy — a magical power that marks her as someone of noble birth. Determined to claim the benefits of her legacy, she travels to the heart of the Amber Empire and demands a place at the empress’s court. But despite the court’s aura of magic and luxury, Sylvie soon learns that dark secrets lurk beneath its facade, and she’s not sure whom, if anyone, she can trust. But eventually she decides to take action, and the fate of the entire empire may rest in her hands.

I received this book as a Christmas gift; it’s not something I would necessarily have picked up on my own, but I do enjoy fantasy and political intrigue, so I was happy to give it a try. Unfortunately, I really disliked this book. The plot is fine, though not particularly original, and I liked the detail that every noble’s legacy manifests in a different way. But Sylvie drove me nuts as a protagonist! She’s rude and entitled, she never thinks before she acts, and she does some incredibly dumb things that have horrible consequences for others. I also hated the overly flowery writing style, which set my teeth on edge; you’ll know whether or not it’s for you within the first couple of pages. I should also note that, while there’s not technically a cliffhanger, the book leaves a lot of things open for a sequel . . . but I definitely won’t be reading it!

Review: What Happens in London

what happens in londonJulia Quinn, What Happens in London

After serving in the army during the Napoleonic Wars, Sir Harry Valentine now works as a translator for the War Office. It’s not particularly dangerous (which is just how he likes it), but it does require a certain amount of secrecy. So when Harry notices that his beautiful neighbor seems to be watching him, he knows there’s a slight chance she could be a threat. Meanwhile, Lady Olivia Bevelstoke is intrigued by her new neighbor, since rumors are flying about the mysterious gentleman who hardly ever goes out into society. When he catches her watching him, she is mortified — especially because, when they finally meet in public, he directly confronts her about it. However, Harry and Olivia’s initial dislike of each other soon turns into friendship and, inevitably, romance. But will a rival suitor, who may also be a spy for Napoleon, come between them?

When I want a light, fluffy Regency romance with minimal angst, I turn to Julia Quinn, and this book delivered pretty much what I expected. I found it a very enjoyable read, particularly because both Harry and Olivia are such nice, normal people. No tortured rakes or unconventional bluestockings here! Don’t get me wrong; those types of characters can be fun to read about, too, but they do tend to be overrepresented in historical romance. By contrast, Harry and Olivia are both fairly conventional, which I found refreshing. There’s plenty of humor in the book, too, mostly surrounding the lurid gothic novel that Harry presents to Olivia. There’s a fantastic scene in which Harry’s cousin Sebastian reads the book aloud to an assortment of spellbound listeners, and it’s an absolute delight. The plot does go off the rails a bit toward the end, with a tonally jarring kidnapping, but at least that storyline wraps up quickly. Overall, I doubt this book will stay with me for a long time, but it was certainly a fun read, and I’d recommend it to fans of historical romance.

Review: The Penguin Pool Murder

penguin pool murderStuart Palmer, The Penguin Pool Murder

When schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers, a “spinster” of 39, takes her third-grade class to the New York Aquarium, she expects nothing more than an educational outing for her students. But first she thwarts a pickpocket by tripping him with her umbrella, and then she discovers a dead body in the penguin tank. Not the sort of person to miss a chance to investigate, Miss Withers quickly befriends Inspector Oscar Piper, the policeman in charge of the murder case. Through a combination of usefulness (she takes shorthand notes of the initial witness statements) and sheer stubbornness, she is allowed to accompany Piper throughout the investigation. Suspicion immediately falls on the dead man’s wife and her former lover, who were both at the aquarium on the fateful day; but Miss Withers isn’t convinced, and her intelligence and determination eventually enable her to solve the case.

I enjoyed this mystery, although it’s a fairly typical example of the Golden Age detective novel. There are a few creative touches — such as one of the penguins swallowing a key piece of evidence — and I enjoyed the repartee between Miss Withers and Inspector Piper, although I wish their relationship had been a bit more fleshed out. In fact, I wanted more character development all around, but that does tend to be a weakness of mysteries from this era, and I wouldn’t quibble so much if the plot had been more inventive. But instead everything unfolds pretty much as expected, from spurious confessions to various motive-related revelations to a second death. I also guessed the murderer’s identity fairly early on. The final chapter, in which the solution is explained, does contain one delightful surprise, which I won’t spoil. But all in all, this book isn’t particularly special — which doesn’t mean it’s not a good read! It just doesn’t deviate much from the traditional formula, so if you’re looking for something with a lot of surprises, this may not be the book for you.

Review: Speak Easy, Speak Love

speak easy, speak loveMcKelle George, Speak Easy, Speak Love

This debut novel is a YA retelling of Much Ado about Nothing set in the 1920s. Hero Stahr and her father Leo run a speakeasy called Hey Nonny Nonny on Long Island, with the help of Pedro “Prince” Morello. Benedick Scott is an aspiring novelist who chafes under his privileged upbringing and finds a sympathetic home at Hey Nonny Nonny. So does Beatrice Clark, Hero’s cousin, who wants to be a doctor despite her gender and her poverty. Margaret Hughes, the speakeasy’s resident jazz singer, longs for success on a bigger stage — almost as much as she longs for Prince’s standoffish brother, John — but her black skin may stop her from achieving either dream. As these characters fight to keep Hey Nonny Nonny up and running, they must deal with parental pressures, misunderstandings, dangerous bootleggers, and falling in love.

I wasn’t prepared for how much I would love this book. The premise sounded fun, but I thought at best I’d get a lighthearted romp — or, more likely, it would all go horribly wrong. I didn’t expect to care so deeply about these characters, to be so moved by their stories, or to be so invested in their relationships. But I adored this book, and I’m very sure it will be on my “best of 2019” list a year from now! The writing style is sharp and inventive — Beatrice, for example, is described as “a clock-throwing ruin of a girl,” and how could you not love her after that description? I loved the central romance between Beatrice and Benedick, which unfolds with agonizing, delicious slowness. As in Shakespeare’s original, the joy comes from their teasing banter and mutual respect for each other’s intelligence. The book deviates from the play somewhat with the secondary characters, but I thought all the changes made sense and enhanced the story the author was telling. In short, I loved (LOVED) this book and would definitely recommend it to anyone who likes the premise!

Review: Why Earls Fall in Love

Why Earls Fall in LoveManda Collins, Why Earls Fall in Love

In this Regency romance, Georgina Mowbray is a war widow eking out a living as Lady Russell’s paid companion. Despite the fact that much of Lady Russell’s family regards her as the help, Georgie is quite content with her situation; it’s a vast improvement over life with her husband Robert, who was violent and abusive toward her. So she certainly has no intention of getting involved with Lady Russell’s attractive nephew, the Earl of Coniston, even when he begins to show an interest in her. Though Georgie soon finds herself drawn to Con, she cannot bring herself to trust him, or any man, after what Robert put her through. But when a secret from Georgie’s past threatens her safety, Con is determined to protect her from harm—and to give her the love she truly deserves.

I enjoyed this book while reading it, but ultimately it’s not one I plan to keep. I read it just a couple months ago, and I’ve already forgotten most of the salient details. I was annoyed by the fact that this isn’t really a stand-alone novel; although I knew it was book 2 in a trilogy, I expected to be able to follow the plot (most romance novels, even in a series, can be read as stand-alones). But in this case, you really need to know what happened in book 1, because there’s a big suspense plot in this book that is almost entirely based on previous events. (There’s a prologue that is meant to catch you up, but I still felt like I was missing a lot.) Also, Con seems to fall for Georgie awfully quickly . . . if I’m remembering correctly, he’s a rake who pretty much immediately gives up his rakish ways for her. So overall, this book was fine, but I don’t feel compelled to seek out more books by the author.

Review: Servant of the Crown

Servant of the CrownMelissa McShane, Servant of the Crown

Alison Quinn, Countess of Waxwold, has no use for the trappings of high society; she’s perfectly content to work as an editor at her father’s printing press. So she’s both shocked and resentful when she receives a summons from the palace, commanding her to become a lady-in-waiting to the queen’s mother for the next six months. Refusal is impossible, so Alison is forced to move to the palace and participate in court life. There she catches the eye of Anthony North, the queen’s brother and a notorious womanizer, but she wants nothing to do with him. As she and Anthony are thrown together more and more, however, Alison finds herself letting her guard down. But can she really trust the prince? Meanwhile, something mysterious is going on with the Royal Library, so even when a disastrous incident causes Alison to flee the palace, she must eventually return to set things right — and perhaps find love as well.

I really wanted to love this book, since I thoroughly enjoyed Burning Bright by the same author. But I was disappointed, primarily because I found Alison SO obnoxious at first. For the first half of the novel, she seems to be completely self-obsessed and judgmental. Any time a male character talks to her, she assumes he is only interested in sleeping with her, because she is Just So Gorgeous. I suppose that could be a legitimate problem for some people, but let’s just say I didn’t find it relatable! I also wish the fantasy element had been more fleshed out; this is clearly a fantasy world, but aside from a few mentions of magical Devices, there’s no world-building to speak of. And finally, the book suffers from an identity crisis: the first half is almost entirely a romance, while the second half suddenly becomes all about political intrigue. Happily, I did enjoy the second half a lot more! Alison experiences some much-needed character growth, and the plot is much more interesting. All in all, the book got off to an abysmal start but partially redeemed itself in the end. I already own the next two books in the series, so hopefully the upward trajectory will continue!

Review: My Plain Jane

My Plain JaneCynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows, My Plain Jane

***Warning: This review contains SPOILERS for Jane Eyre!***

In this fractured-fairytale take on Jane Eyre, Jane is a real person, and she and Charlotte Brontë are best friends. Also, she can see dead people: her other BFF, Helen Burns, is a ghost. Jane is currently a teacher at Lowood School, but her unique gifts bring her to the attention of Alexander Blackwood, the star agent of the Royal Society for the Relocation of Wayward Spirits. Alexander’s job is to find and capture ghosts who are causing trouble for humans, and Jane’s abilities will aid him in this task. But Jane inexplicably prefers to be a governess, and she sets off for Thornfield Hall, where she becomes entangled with a certain Edward Rochester. Charlotte, however, would love to become a member of the Society, despite her utter inability to see ghosts. So she teams up with Alexander to follow Jane, hoping to persuade her to join the Society. When they arrive at Thornfield, they soon realize that something is very wrong, but Jane might be too blinded by her feelings for Rochester to see it. . . .

I think this book was written for a very specific audience in mind, which is people who enjoy Jane Eyre but also realize that Mr. Rochester is a deeply flawed character. As one of those people, I found this book very enjoyable! Ghostly Helen Burns is a hilarious Greek chorus, pointing out Rochester’s inconsistent and manipulative behavior to Jane at every turn. For example, it’s pretty cruel of him to act like he’s going to marry Blanche Ingram just to make Jane jealous. He runs extremely hot and cold, sometimes focusing on Jane with special intensity and sometimes completely ignoring her. And then, of course, there’s the whole wife-in-the-attic thing, which this novel turns on its head, making Bertha Rochester a strong and sympathetic character. I also enjoyed Charlotte’s quest to become a member of the Society, as well as her budding romance with Alexander. It’s all a bit lightweight, and not something I necessarily feel a need to ever reread, but it’s great fun if you’re familiar with Jane Eyre.