Top Ten Tuesday: New and noteworthy

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We’re almost halfway through 2019, which means it’s time to start looking ahead to the second half of the year. Below are my top ten nine upcoming releases in publication order. They range from graphic novels to romance, new-to-me authors to old favorites, but what they have in common is that I’m excited to read them all!

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1. Linda Holmes, Evvie Drake Starts Over (6/25) — Right out of the gate I’m cheating, because the book comes out on June 25, which is technically in the first half of the year. But it hasn’t come out yet, so I’m still counting it! This romance has been blurbed by the likes of Rainbow Rowell, and it’s been described as “quirky,” “warm,” and “hilarious.” Sounds like my cup of tea, for sure.

2. Abbi Waxman, The Bookish Life of Nina Hill (7/9) — This book is about an introverted heroine who works in a bookstore and is being romantically pursued by her bar trivia nemesis. Yes, this is relevant to my interests!

3. Kristan Higgins, Life and Other Inconveniences (8/6) — I’m a big Kristan Higgins fan, although I’ve been a little wary of her switch from the romance genre to straight-up women’s fiction. The synopsis of this latest novel doesn’t mention a love story at all, which is somewhat disappointing, but I’m still going to give it a try.

4. Rainbow Rowell, Pumpkinheads (8/27) — I’ve had this one on my wishlist for at least a year. I love Rainbow Rowell and am really eager for this graphic novel about two high schoolers who work in a pumpkin patch every fall. Maybe I’ll save it for a crisp autumnal day…or maybe I’ll devour it as soon as it comes out!

5. Alix E. Harrow, The Ten Thousand Doors of January (9/10) — This one just sounds really cool: it involves a neglected girl and a magical book, and it sounds like it might have a creepy gothic feel. In other words, perfect fall reading!

6. Mhairi McFarlane, Don’t You Forget about Me (9/10) — McFarlane is one of my favorite chick-lit authors, and I know I can expect humor, romance, and a charming narrative voice from all her books. This one appears to feature a second-chance romance, which isn’t my favorite trope, but I remain optimistic.

7. Jessie Mihalik, Aurora Blazing (10/1) — The sequel to Polaris Rising, which I read and enjoyed earlier this year. And based on the few glimpses we got of this couple in the first book, I’m excited to read their story! If you like a few spaceships and some intergalactic politicking in your romance novels, this series may be for you.

8. Erin Morgenstern, The Starless Sea (11/5) — So, I’m one of those strange people who didn’t absolutely love The Night Circus, but I’m still very intrigued by Morgenstern’s second novel! The marketing blurb on Amazon calls it “a timeless love story set in a secret underground world — a place of pirates, painters, lovers, liars, and ships that sail upon a starless sea.” Sounds good to me!

9. Maggie Stiefvater, Call Down the Hawk (11/5) — I’m a little nervous about this book, because I really liked the Raven Cycle and thought Stiefvater concluded the story in a fitting and satisfying way. But if she’s going to continue to follow the fortunes of Ronan Lynch and his family, I’m certainly going along for the ride, at least for the time being.

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Are you also looking forward to any of these books? What other upcoming releases should I add to my to-read list?

Review: A Counterfeit Betrothal / The Notorious Rake

Counterfeit Betrothal : Notorious RakeMary Balogh, A Counterfeit Betrothal / The Notorious Rake

This volume contains two Regency romance novels, each on the shorter side. In A Counterfeit Betrothal, debutante Lady Sophia is upset that her parents, Marcus and Olivia, have been estranged for 14 years, though they were once desperately in love. She concocts a ridiculous scheme to reunite them: by betrothing herself to an unsuitable man, she hopes her parents will unite to find a society-approved way of breaking the engagement. But Sophia gets more than she bargained for with her incorrigible fiancé; meanwhile, Marcus and Olivia must move past an old argument to repair their relationship. In The Notorious Rake, a chance encounter brings the respectable Mary, Lady Mornington, together with the dissipated Lord Edmond Waite. He soon begins to pursue her, hoping to make her his mistress. Mary resists but is confused by her attraction to him. The more she gets to know him, the more she begins to hope that he will reform his rakish ways.

So, I started this volume last night, intending to read just a few chapters — and stayed up until 3 a.m. to finish both novels! Mary Balogh isn’t Georgette Heyer; her style isn’t as light and witty, and she certainly writes more sexual content (though it’s not on the super explicit end of the spectrum). But she may be the next best thing! I very much enjoy reading about her complex characters, most of whom have experienced significant troubles in their lives and need healing as well as love. I will say, I was a bit disappointed in A Counterfeit Betrothal, which sounded like a fake relationship story (my favorite!) but turned out to be a second-chance romance (not my favorite), focusing much more on Marcus and Olivia’s story than on Sophia’s. It was still well-written and entertaining, though! And I was very pleasantly surprised by The Notorious Rake, because I usually don’t find reformed-rake stories very appealing or convincing. But in this case, while Edmond starts out as a truly despicable character, he genuinely does grow and change throughout the book. All in all, I really enjoyed both books and look forward to my next Balogh!

Review: Field Notes on Love

Field Notes on LoveJennifer E. Smith, Field Notes on Love

Hugo Wilkinson is feeling trapped. He loves his parents and his five siblings, but he’s never particularly enjoyed the notoriety that comes with being a sextuplet. Now all six of them are heading off to their hometown university in the fall, but Hugo is beginning to wonder if it’s truly the right path for him. On top of everything else, he was supposed to be going on a romantic train trip across America with his girlfriend this summer, but she’s just dumped him, and all the tickets and hotels are in her name. Now Hugo is stuck — unless he can find another girl named Margaret Campbell who’d be willing to go with him. Meanwhile, Mae (full name Margaret) Campbell is an aspiring filmmaker in need of a little adventure. She decides to take Hugo up on his offer, and as they travel across the country together, their immediate connection deepens into something that surprises them both.

As someone who finds the idea of traveling across America by train both appealing and romantic, of course I couldn’t resist this book! And as I expected, it was a fun and charming read, although not particularly substantial. I think the book spends a little too much time setting up the plot, trying to make the whole scenario plausible, when in reality we all know it’s implausible and are perfectly willing to suspend our disbelief — otherwise we wouldn’t have picked up the book in the first place! I also didn’t quite buy into Mae’s internal conflict, which is about learning to let her guard down and be vulnerable — but the book never explains why she’s so guarded to begin with. Hugo’s conflict, about balancing his family’s expectations with his own wants and needs, was much more believable for me. I did like the sweet romance and the uniqueness of the road trip, but ultimately this isn’t a book I will ever revisit.

Review: My Sister, the Serial Killer

My Sister, the Serial KillerOyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer

Have you heard this one before? Two girls walk into a room. The room is in a flat. The flat is on the third floor. In the room is the dead body of an adult male. How do they get the body to the ground floor without being seen?” This quote from early in the novel basically sums up its premise: Korede’s little sister, Ayoola, has been killing her boyfriends, and Korede protects her by scrubbing the crime scenes and disposing of the evidence. Ayoola claims she’s justified in her killings — that the men attacked her, and she was just defending herself. But Korede is beginning to have doubts; and when Ayoola starts flirting with the object of Korede’s desire, Korede must decide whether to reveal Ayoola’s secrets or remain loyal to her sister at all costs.

This book certainly has an eye-catching title and hook, but it’s not really a serial killer book at all. We get very little insight into Ayoola’s motives or feelings about what is happening. Rather, this is a book about sisters, and it’s a fascinating study of Korede’s complex relationship with Ayoola. I completely understood Korede’s feelings: her frustration at not understanding her sister; her jealousy that Ayoola is beautiful and desired by men, even the man Korede herself loves; her protectiveness and loyalty despite the monstrosity of Ayoola’s actions. I also enjoyed the writing style; Korede’s deadpan narration gives a lightness to the grim subject matter. I don’t think plot is this novel’s strong point. Despite the high body count, nothing really happens. But overall, this was a fun and thought-provoking read for me, and I would definitely try another book by this author.

Review: Good Riddance

Good RiddanceElinor Lipman, Good Riddance

“Daphne Maritch doesn’t quite know what to make of the heavily annotated high school yearbook she inherits from her mother, who held this relic dear. Too dear. The late June Winter Maritch was the teacher to whom the class of ’68 had dedicated its yearbook, and in turn she went on to attend every reunion, scribbling notes and observations after each one—not always charitably—and noting who overstepped boundaries of many kinds. In a fit of decluttering (the yearbook did not, Daphne concluded, “spark joy”), she discards it when she moves to a small New York City apartment. But when it’s found in the recycling bin by a busybody neighbor/documentary filmmaker, the yearbook’s mysteries—not to mention her own family’s—take on a whole new urgency, and Daphne finds herself entangled in a series of events both poignant and absurd.” (Summary from Amazon.com.)

I’d never read anything by Elinor Lipman before, but a combination of the plot summary and cute cover interested me enough to pick it up. Unfortunately, I didn’t find it very enjoyable, mainly because I didn’t connect with any of the characters or understand the decisions they made. For example, why does Daphne go along with Geneva’s filmmaking plan sometimes and resist at other times? Also, the characters all seem very two-dimensional. Geneva is presented as a talentless nightmare (which is how Daphne sees her), and that characterization is never given more nuance. Daphne’s father is “the nicest guy in the world,” and that statement is never questioned. I kept wanting some depth, some irony, some surprise, but none ever came. As for the “mystery” of the yearbook, in one sense the solution is incredibly predictable, but in another sense June’s obsession with the class of ’68 is never actually explained. I did breeze through the book in about three hours, but that’s really the only positive thing I have to say about it.

Review: Verdict of Twelve

Verdict of TwelveRaymond Postgate, Verdict of Twelve

This Golden Age mystery (originally published in 1940) uses a unique method to tell its story. The book opens with the information that someone is on trial for murder, and it focuses on the swearing-in of the jury. It gives a short sketch of each juror’s life, the various obstacles they’ve faced, their political opinions, how the world perceives them, and how they view the task they’re about to undertake. One juror, for example, is distracted by problems at his job and only wants to finish the business as quickly as possible. Another is a grieving widow whose husband was killed in an anti-Semitic attack, and his murderer was never brought to justice. Only after giving these psychological portraits of the jurors does the novel describe the actual case, which centers around a woman who is accused of murdering her nephew and ward. By focusing on the jurors’ backgrounds and biases, the book provides a nuanced, cynical view of law and justice.

I was very interested in the premise of this novel and found it a fascinating read. Many Golden Age mysteries tend to focus on plot, and the characters are often flat and two-dimensional. But this book is just the opposite; the characters are extremely well defined, while the mystery plot is quite simple and is given comparatively little attention. I thought the psychological studies of the jurors were very well done and convincing, though for me, the descriptions of the accused woman and her nephew were even more interesting. The final scene in the jury room is almost anticlimactic after all the intense buildup. It’s interesting to see who originally votes “guilty” and “not guilty,” but there is no real drama in reaching the verdict. The novel’s ending is fantastic: it reveals what really happened but also ends on an ambiguous, somewhat chilling note. Overall, I’d definitely recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the premise!

Review: The Austen Playbook

Austen PlaybookLucy Parker, The Austen Playbook

West End actress Freddy Carlton is at a crossroads in her career. Her family has been extremely influential in the theater world for generations: her grandmother wrote one of the most important plays of the 20th century, and her father was an extremely talented actor. But Freddy would much rather do light-hearted musical comedies than the serious dramatic roles her father is pushing her toward. So she’s thrilled to be cast in The Austen Playbook, an interactive TV special that combines various Austen characters and plots with a murder mystery. Too bad it will be filmed at the estate of James Ford-Griffin, London’s harshest theater critic, who has given Freddy a few negative — yet oddly perceptive — reviews in the past. But as Freddy and Griff get to know each other, they are surprised to discover a mutual attraction. They also discover a shocking secret that may have devastating consequences for Freddy’s career.

I was expecting to adore this book, and I did! I’m a huge Lucy Parker fan and have loved all her books so far, but this one had so many features that appealed to me: a grumpy hero, an English country house party (well, rehearsal), a juicy mystery, and a little Jane Austen flavor. I adored Griff — he may be my favorite Parker hero yet! — and Freddy’s bubbly personality is the perfect foil for his uptight, reserved one. I also enjoyed uncovering the literary/theatrical mystery along with Griff and Freddy, which was interesting in its own right and also provided most of the obstacles to the romance. I do think there was possibly too much going on; because of Freddy’s career/family angst, the mystery, and the romance, the production of The Austen Playbook wasn’t as much of a focus as I wanted it to be. I also found the romantic scenes to be a little more explicit than in Parker’s previous books, which I personally didn’t need. But those minor quibbles aside, I really enjoyed this installment of the London Celebrities series and can’t wait for the next one!

Review: Last of Her Name

Last of Her NameJessica Khoury, Last of Her Name

Stacia Androvna has grown up happy on a fringe planet near the edge of the galaxy. She’s never paid much attention to politics, although she knows that things have been fairly bleak since the revolution that overthrew the Leonovan empire. Still, she never expected that the unrest in the galaxy would affect her — until the direktor Eminent himself, the leader of the revolutionary government, shows up on her planet claiming that she is a Leonovan princess. Stacia doesn’t believe it, but she knows she must escape or die. Now on the run with her childhood friend Pol, she is determined to save the rest of her loved ones, especially her best friend Clio. But the direktor Eminent will do whatever it takes to capture Stacia, and there are also Loyalist forces hoping to find and use her for their own ends. Is Stacia really the princess, and if so, will she be able to use what little power she has to save her friends?

I adore the Anastasia animated movie and was excited to read a book that sounded like a sci-fi take on that story. Unfortunately, the plot of the novel is quite different; while the setup is clearly based on the execution of the Romanovs during the Russian Revolution, the rest of the plot is essentially an action movie set in space. Which I have no problem with, but it’s not what I was expecting or hoping for. The book is a fast read that’s jam-packed with plot, which definitely kept me turning the pages. Some of the twists were very clever, although some went a bit too far for my taste — it kept feeling like the book should end, and then there would be yet another attack/betrayal/reversal of fortune. I didn’t really connect to the characters, but maybe that’s my issue and not the book’s; all these spunky YA SFF heroines are starting to feel the same to me, so I found Stacia rather two-dimensional. Overall, I liked this book fine, but I was a bit underwhelmed.

Review: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely FineGail Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

Thirty-year-old Eleanor Oliphant lives a quiet, routine life. She works in an office — the accounts receivable department of a graphic design company — and usually spends her weekends alone with a book and a couple liters of vodka. She doesn’t much care for her coworkers, and she has no friends, which is just how she likes it. Other people are often too rude or stupid to be congenial companions. But Eleanor’s life begins to change when she meets unprepossessing IT guy Raymond, and the two of them help an old man, Sammy, who has fallen in the street. As Eleanor interacts more with Raymond, Sammy, and their friends and family, she slowly begins to imagine a different life for herself. But when a tragedy from her past resurfaces, it becomes evident how very far from “fine” Eleanor really is.

I keep wanting to describe this book as “light” because it’s a fast read with an engaging style, but the subject matter is absolutely brutal. Honeyman does a painfully vivid job of portraying loneliness — I think it’s no accident that the heroine’s name is Eleanor, because she is definitely one of “all the lonely people.” She’s far from likable at times; she’s aloof and judgmental and can be downright mean to well-intentioned people. But as the story slowly reveals Eleanor’s past and the way she has isolated herself just to survive, I couldn’t help but pity her and root for her to change and grow. I also loved her friendship with Raymond; it’s obvious to the reader when he is hurt or confused by her (although she herself doesn’t perceive it), but he is always patient and kind. Overall, I thought this was an excellent novel with unexpected depth and an uplifting, but still realistic, ending. Highly recommended.

Review: Unmarriageable

UnmarriageableSoniah Kamal, Unmarriageable

This retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in contemporary Pakistan tells the story of the five Binat sisters, whose mother is desperate for them to marry well and thus raise their family’s social status. But the second sister, Alysba Binat, is a staunch feminist who would rather keep her career and independence than submit to a husband. When the entire family is invited to a lavish society wedding, Alys’s older sister Jena catches the eye of “Bungles” Bingla, a rich and handsome bachelor. But Bungles’s friend, the even richer and more handsome Valentine Darsee, is not so impressed with Alys. His dismissive behavior infuriates her, and she promptly writes him off as unmarriageable. But as Alys gets to know Darsee better, all while trying to balance familial and cultural expectations with her own desires, she slowly revises her first impression of him.

This novel is a very faithful and competent retelling of Pride and Prejudice, and I enjoyed experiencing the familiar story in a completely new-to-me setting. But I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to be taking away from this book. It occasionally touches on British colonialism and how it affected—and continues to affect—Pakistani culture; one character even talks explicitly about how English literature is still seen as superior to native literature; and yet this very novel puts Pakistani characters into an English narrative. And rather than subverting or critiquing that narrative, the novel follows the plot of P&P almost exactly. Maybe the point is that Austen’s novels address universal human concerns, which I’m certainly not going to argue with, but it makes the premise of this book a little less interesting, in my opinion. Also, I was annoyed that Alys is an English teacher, intimately familiar with the works of Jane Austen, yet she somehow doesn’t realize that she’s living out the plot of P&P. That said, I actually did enjoy this book, and I think it’s one of the better retellings out there. . . . I just wanted a little bit more from it.