Mini-reviews: Winter, Wed, Spy

Winter in JuneKathryn Miller Haines, Winter in June

In this installment of the Rosie Winter series, Rosie and her best pal Jayne have joined the USO, and they’re headed for the South Pacific to entertain the troops. There, Rosie gets involved in various forms of trouble, from disagreements with the local WAAC corps to mysterious thefts of military supplies to an inevitable murder investigation. In the meantime, she’s also looking for her ex-boyfriend Jack, who was rumored to have resurfaced in the South Pacific. It’s been years since I read the first two books in this series, and I think I’ve just lost my taste for it. I couldn’t remember who one character was at all, although he was apparently a big part of the first book. And I didn’t find Rosie consistent as a character, although I did still find her voice fairly enjoyable. I’ll read the fourth and final book in this series, just to see how everything turns out, but this series is not a keeper for me.

Someone to WedMary Balogh, Someone to Wed

Wren Hayden longs for the companionship of marriage, but a “disfiguring” birthmark on her face has led her to become a recluse. Nevertheless, she thinks her large fortune might be enough to induce someone to marry her. Alexander Westcott has unexpectedly inherited an earldom, along with the debts and huge financial responsibilities that go with it. He knows he must marry a rich wife, but Wren’s forthright proposal shocks and troubles him. He agrees to test the waters, hoping that at least friendship and respect can grow between them. But can Wren overcome her insecurities and be open to the possibility of a real relationship? I really felt for Wren in this book, and I liked that she and Alex aren’t immediately attracted to one another. In fact, he has to overcome some revulsion — not so much from the birthmark, but from Wren’s cold demeanor toward him. Their relationship is not romanticized, if that makes sense; it felt plausible and real. Another winner from Balogh!

Spy Wore RedAline, Countess of Romanones, The Spy Wore Red

This is a fast-paced, entertaining memoir that reads more like a spy thriller. Aline Griffith was a young woman working as a model in New York, when a chance encounter with a US intelligence operative propelled her into the world of espionage. The book covers her training and her first assignment in Spain, where she must get close to various people suspected of being German spies. The narrative has everything an espionage lover could wish for: code names, double agents, assassination attempts, and even a bullfight or two! Highly recommended for people who like spy novels or who are interested in WW2-era intelligence work.

Mini-reviews: Silver, Dark, Mammoth

Spinning SilverNaomi Novik, Spinning Silver

I won’t hide the ball here: this is my favorite book of 2018. I read it in September, but I should probably have waited until now because it is a perfect book to read in wintertime, with biting cold temperatures and the constant threat of snow. I loved all three of the novel’s heroines, especially Miryem, who is cold and uncompromising and unlikable and not ashamed of it. I loved the creative take on the Rumpelstiltskin story. I loved how all the main characters have hidden depths to them, and I loved the development of the two romances. I’ll admit that the pacing is slow, especially in the beginning, but that just gave me time to soak in the lush descriptions of the wintry village and to get to know the characters a little better. I highly recommend this book to fans of fantasy, especially if you loved Uprooted!

Dark Days ClubAlison Goodman, The Dark Days Club

In this Regency fantasy novel, Lady Helen Wrexhall learns of the existence of Deceivers, demons who survive by stealing energy from living humans. She also learns that she is a Reclaimer, a human capable of spotting and killing Deceivers (who take human form and are thus able to hide in plain sight). Initiating her into these mysteries is the Dark Days Club, a society of Reclaimers led by the broodingly handsome Lord Carlston. But Lady Helen isn’t sure she wants to accept her newfound destiny, and she soon finds herself torn between two worlds. I liked the premise of this book (Regency fantasy is my catnip!), and the writing style is quite good, but I just didn’t find myself very interested in the Deceivers or in Lady Helen’s struggle. I may read the sequel at some point, but I didn’t love this one as much as I was hoping to.

MammothJill Baguchinsky, Mammoth

Natalie is a plus-size fashion blogger and dinosaur enthusiast who is ecstatic when she wins a prestigious paleontology internship. But when she gets there, she has to deal with professional and personal insecurities, as well as disillusionment with her scientist hero. She also meets some new people who aren’t what they seem and finds herself in the midst of a love triangle (or polygon). As a fellow plus-size person, I both related and didn’t relate to Natalie. Some of her insecurities felt very real to me, but she also had this weird habit of guessing other people’s weight, which is not something I have ever done. It seems like something a thin person would assume a fat person would do, if that makes sense. So I have mixed feelings about that plotline, although I do think it’s great to see more plus-size main characters in fiction! As for the internship drama, I wasn’t very compelled by it. So, not a bad read, but not a great one either.

Mini-reviews: Sleep, Magpie, Bookshop

Big SleepRaymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

I haven’t read widely in the hardboiled mystery genre, but I don’t tend to love dark books, so I was a bit apprehensive about trying this one. But I actually really enjoyed the voice of this book — it’s funny and descriptive and uses startlingly apt metaphors. The plot is exciting and twisty, highlighting the governmental and societal corruption of 1930s Los Angeles in a grim yet matter-of-fact way. Philip Marlowe is a flawed protagonist, to say the least, and the book’s portrayal of women is ugly, albeit true to its time. But all in all, I’m interested to read more of Raymond Chandler in the future.

Magpie MurdersAnthony Horowitz, Magpie Murders

This book has gotten a lot of good buzz, including a lot of comparisons to Agatha Christie, so I was excited to read it. Ultimately, though, I have mixed feelings about it. There are two mysteries for the price of one. First, an editor is reading the manuscript of famous mystery writer Alan Conway’s latest novel, but the last chapters are missing. What happened to them, and where is Conway now? Second, of course, there’s the mystery within Conway’s novel, which involves two deaths that may or may not be related. I was much more interested in the second mystery than the first; I found the editor tiresome, Conway odious, and none of the other characters in that story memorable. But I did think the solution to the second mystery (within Conway’s novel) was pretty ingenious. Basically, I enjoyed the puzzle but could have done without all the meta stuff.

Bookshop on the CornerJenny Colgan, The Bookshop on the Corner

I’m now officially a fan of Jenny Colgan. This book is pure wish-fulfillment fantasy, but it’s also well-written and charming — the perfect read if you’re looking for something light and uplifting. When main character Nina gets laid off from her job, she decides to follow her dream of opening a mobile bookstore. I think a lot of us bookish folks can relate! Nina also, naturally, finds herself torn between two suitors…I wanted to roll my eyes at the saccharine predictability of it all, but the romance actually did work for me, so I won’t complain too much! A lovely comfort read, and I’ll continue to seek out more books by Jenny Colgan.

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.

Mini-Reviews: The 13 Clocks; Chalice

13 ClocksJames Thurber, The 13 Clocks (illustrated by Marc Simont)

This odd little book is like nothing I’ve ever read. A sort of fable or fairytale for adults, it’s the story of a wicked duke who is keeping captive the beautiful Princess Saralinda, and of the noble prince who must complete an impossible task in order to rescue her. Good ultimately triumphs over evil, yet the overall mood is creepy and melancholy. Neil Gaiman was the perfect choice to write the short introduction, because his writing gives me a similar (though even darker) vibe. I would definitely recommend this to anyone, and I think it will be even more interesting on a reread.

***

ChaliceRobin McKinley, Chalice

Robin McKinley is an author onto whom I imprinted sometime in my late elementary or middle school years. Novels such as The Blue Sword, Beauty, and The Outlaws of Sherwood were my introduction to the fantasy genre, and they remain some of my all-time favorite books. Chalice was written several years later, and while I still bought and read it immediately, I remember not loving it as much as McKinley’s other books. Because of my memory of that disappointment, I’d never reread it until now, but I appreciated it more this time around. I loved the protagonist, Mirasol, and her stubborn attempts to do her duty in an unusual situation. It was a pleasure to sink into the lush descriptions and slow unfolding of the story. It is a very slow-moving book, which might put off some people; but if you like McKinley’s style of writing, you’ll like this one.

Top 10 Shows to Binge-Watch

TTT-NEW

Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve done a Top Ten Tuesday list! But since I love to binge-watch shows, this week’s topic is perfect for me. Below is a list of 10 shows that I really enjoy and that I think would be great for bingeing. I’ve tried to pick shows that are (1) available on a streaming service and (2) not a huge time commitment.

1. Agent Carter (Hulu, 18 hour-long episodes) — This show is the only thing I care about in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It has a kickass female protagonist who fights Nazis and sexism and looks great doing it! It somehow manages to be both dark and funny, and the Peggy/Jarvis friendship is honestly one of my favorite fictional relationships.

2. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon Prime, 8 hour-long episodes) — If you love Gilmore Girls, certain aspects of this show may seem familiar: they both star funny, fast-talking brunettes who fight to maintain their independence in the face of familial and societal pressure. But with this show, Gilmore creator Amy Sherman-Palladino is fully unleashed. There’s swearing and partial nudity and a production budget that allows for an amazing soundtrack, costumes to die for, and gorgeous shots of 1950s New York. It looks like season 2 will drop sometime this fall, so make sure you’re ready!

3. Firefly (Hulu, 14 hour-long episodes) — It has a cult following for a reason! Science fiction meets Westerns in this show about a renegade spaceship captain and his ragtag crew, who are just trying to survive in a world full of obstacles, including the murderous Reavers and the sinister galactic governing body known as the Alliance. Plus, there is Joss Whedon’s trademark banter and some truly iconic, lovable characters!

4. Lovesick (Netflix, 22 half-hour episodes) — This show was originally titled Scrotal Recall, and I remember being somewhat appalled when Netflix suggested it to me. But I gave it a try at my friend’s urging, and I’m so glad I did! The premise is that the main character (Dylan) has chlamydia, so he needs to contact all of his past sexual partners. The show moves backward and forward in time to show what happened in those relationships, and it also follows Dylan’s fumbling quest for love in the present. For me, the secondary characters steal the show, particularly Dylan’s BFF Luke.

5. Galavant (Netflix, 18 half-hour episodes) — Imagine a show that’s The Princess Bride meets Monty Python and the Holy Grail . . . and it’s a musical! If that premise appeals to you, you’ll love Galavant. It’s delightfully silly (the peasants are AMAZING), the songs are extremely catchy, and the whole thing is an instant mood-lifter. Also, Vinnie Jones is in it, and he sings, and it’s glorious.

6. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Netflix, 44 hour-long episodes) — Okay, so three seasons of an hour-long show is a pretty long binge, but trust me, it’s worth it! It has become one of my all-time favorite shows, and it’s totally unique: a musical romantic comedy that gleefully demolishes rom-com tropes, all while exploring issues of feminism and mental illness.

I feel like I need to give a couple caveats, though . . . first, the show does go to some pretty dark places, especially around the middle of the third season, which might be triggering for some. Second, one of the main actors leaves the show at the beginning of season 2, which means that character makes a fairly abrupt exit. You may be tempted to stop watching, but resist the temptation! There are better days ahead!

7. The Good Place (Netflix, 25 half-hour episodes) — Season three premieres this month, so you need to binge this one ASAP if you’re not caught up! It’s highly serialized, so you really do need to see it from the beginning. The premise is that Eleanor Shellstrop has died and gone to “the good place,” but she’s there by mistake. She has to hide the fact that she doesn’t belong in the good place, while also trying to become a better person by studying ethics. It’s a very clever show that’s perfectly cast; Ted Danson in particular is a delight.

8. Happy Endings (Hulu, 57 half-hour episodes) — Another fairly long binge, but I had to mention it because I’m actually binge-watching it right now! It’s a hangout comedy in the vein of Friends or How I Met Your Mother, but it focuses almost exclusively on jokes and banter rather than getting into heavier romantic storylines like Ross/Rachel or Ted/Robin. Which, as someone who basically wanted to murder Ted Mosby by the end of HIMYM, I appreciate!

9. Cougar Town (Hulu, 102 half-hour episodes) — Yes, this is a very long binge, but I think I did it it less than a month because I found the show so entertaining! It’s similar in tone to Scrubs, another show I love — which makes sense, because it has the same showrunner and some of the same actors. The show quickly veers away from its terrible “Courteney Cox is a cougar” premise and becomes a fun hangout comedy that explores adult friendships. Also: penny can!

10. Great News (Netflix, 23 half-hour episodes) — If you loved 30 Rock, you should give this show a try! Briga Heelan (whom I like and would enjoy seeing in more things) stars as a young TV producer trying to move up in her career. But hijinks ensue when her helicopter mom gets a job as an intern on the show. The premise is a bit of a throwback, but the show’s bizarre sense of humor keeps it from feeling dated.

***

So, have you binged any of these shows? Are there any you would disagree with? What’s on your must-binge list?

It’s time for Readers Imbibing Peril!

RIP 13

Even though it will be summer for at least another month here, I’m SO ready for fall — that hint of chill in the air, the smell of the leaves, the jackets and scarves and cozy evenings curled up in blankets. And to get into the autumnal spirit, I’m signing up for RIP 13!

The “rule” is to read at least one book, between September 1 and October 31, that fits into at least one of the following genres: mystery, suspense, thriller, dark fantasy, gothic, horror, and supernatural. But the true goal is to have fun reading and share that fun with others!

With that in mind, here are some books I might read in the next two months that would qualify:

  • Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik (dark fantasy)
  • Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (mystery)
  • The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (mystery)

If you’re also doing this challenge, what are you planning to read? What are some of your favorite books from these genres? Or if dark and spooky reads aren’t your jam, what books get you in the mood for fall?

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.

Review: This Side of Murder

This Side of MurderAnna Lee Huber, This Side of Murder

It’s 1919, and war widow Verity Kent is on her way to an engagement party. Her late husband, Sidney, had been close friends with the groom, and they had fought together in the war. Nevertheless, Verity isn’t particularly excited about this party, but she has a specific reason for going: she has received an anonymous note implying that Sidney was involved in treasonous activity during the war. Verity is outraged — she knows Sidney would never do such a thing — and she wants to identify and expose the letter-writer. But when Verity arrives at the party, she learns that all the male guests knew Sidney from the war; in fact, they all served in the same battalion. Then one of the men turns up dead, and Verity is convinced that the murder is connected to the battalion’s actions during the war. To solve the mystery, Verity must investigate her husband’s past, but what she discovers is more shocking than she ever imagined.

I’m always on the lookout for historical mysteries set in the period between the two world wars. Ever since my tween self’s obsession with Agatha Christie, I’ve enjoyed books set in this era, especially if they also involve murder and skulduggery. So I was predisposed to like this book, and I did find it fairly enjoyable. Verity Kent is a somewhat stereotypical heroine, in that she is beautiful, highly competent, and forward-thinking enough to be appealing to contemporary readers. She’s fine, but I wasn’t particularly engaged with her character. However, I do have to give the author credit for surprising me, both regarding the evildoer’s identity and regarding certain romantic plot elements. I’m not entirely on board with how the romance turned out, but I’m intrigued to see what might happen in future books! So while this book didn’t blow me away, I liked it enough that I plan to seek out the sequel, Treacherous Is the Night.