Mini-Reviews: Deadly, Margins, Victory

T.A. Willberg, Marion Lane and the Deadly Rose

Marion Lane, now a second-year apprentice at Miss Brickett’s underground society of investigators, has been assigned to a new case: A serial killer dubbed The Florist is branding his victims with a rose before murdering them. But Marion is also dealing with problems inside the agency, including the emergence of a club with sinister motives and an anonymous tip that one of the first-years is not to be trusted. I was underwhelmed by the first book in the series, but I was hoping that this installment would flesh out the world and characters a bit more. Unfortunately, Marion and her friends still don’t feel like real people to me; all the focus is on a confusing plot whose stakes are never really clear. I believe at least one more book is planned, and I may end up reading it despite myself, but I wouldn’t actually recommend the series.

Melissa Ferguson, Meet Me in the Margins

Savannah is an assistant editor at a literary publishing house, but she secretly aspires to be a writer herself. After leaving her manuscript unattended in the office, she comes back to find that someone has scribbled highly critical notes in the margins. At first Savannah is offended, but when someone she trusts gives her the same feedback, she admits that her mystery editor might be onto something. As she trades notes and stories with the mystery editor, she also grows closer to her new boss, Will. But what will happen if she has to choose between them? This is a cute contemporary romance, even if the mystery editor’s identity is immediately obvious. But Savannah is relatable, her love interest is appealing, and I bought the romance. There is a significant family conflict in Savannah’s life, too, and I wish that had been fleshed out more; the resolution felt way too pat. Still, this book was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and I’d consider reading more by the author.

Naomi Novik, Victory of Eagles

After the events of Empire of Ivory, Temeraire has been exiled to the dragon breeding grounds, while Laurence is languishing in prison, awaiting execution for treason. But when Napoleon’s long-feared invasion of England finally occurs, Laurence and Temeraire reunite to fight against the French. I think this is one of the stronger books in the series, perhaps because there’s no “travelogue” element; the book is set entirely in Britain. I also like the historical details in this installment, including real historical figures like Wellesley and Talleyrand. Also, it’s great to see Temeraire exert some personal agency as he leads a group of (somewhat recalcitrant) dragons into battle. And finally, the emotional stakes are high in this book, which makes it a particularly compelling read. I hope subsequent books in the series will live up to it!

Mini-Reviews: Fake, Skulls, Moving

Jenn P. Nguyen, Fake It Till You Break It

Mia and Jake have known each other forever; they live in the same neighborhood, and their mothers are best friends. In fact, their moms would love them to date each other, but they just don’t get along. To stop the maternal matchmaking for good, Mia and Jake decide to fake a short relationship and a spectacular breakup. But as they pretend to fall in love, they’re surprised to develop real feelings for each other. I love the fake-dating trope, and this was a cute read, but it’s quite predictable and not particularly unique. Still, a fun bit of fluff to pass an afternoon.

Chris Wooding, The Ace of Skulls

In the final installment of the Ketty Jay series, civil war has erupted between Vardia’s Coalition government and the Awakeners. Darian Frey just wants to stay out of it; he’s more concerned with finding his former fiancée (and current sky pirate), Trinica, so he can finally tell her how he feels. But of course, the crew of the Ketty Jay get drawn into the war despite themselves — and when the Awakeners unleash their secret weapon, Frey and his friends may be the only ones who can stop it. I was disappointed by a few loose ends, and I was also shipping two characters who didn’t get together, alas! But overall, this is a satisfying ending to a really fun series. If you enjoy sci-fi adventure stories and found families, or if you just really miss the TV show Firefly, I’d definitely recommend these books!

Agatha Christie, The Moving Finger

Jerry and his sister Joanna are visiting the tranquil English village of Lymstock, but their stay is soon disrupted by a spate of malicious anonymous letters that circulate through the village. When the letters lead to suicide and murder, Jerry attempts to solve the poison pen mystery, with a late-game assist from Miss Marple. I hadn’t read this Christie novel in a while, and it’s one of my favorites! The mystery is really clever and the characterization is strong. Of course, I also enjoyed the romantic elements of the plot. 🙂 Granted, Miss Marple fans will be disappointed because she’s barely in the book; she basically just comes in at the end to deliver the solution. But I’d still highly recommend this one to Christie lovers!

Mini-Reviews: Stocks, Glass, Mayhem

Georgette Heyer, Death in the Stocks

The rich but disagreeable Arnold Vereker is stabbed to death, and his body is found in the stocks on the village green. Suspicion centers around the dead man’s half-siblings, Kenneth and Antonia, as well as their shady love interests. Scotland Yard is assisted by Giles Carrington, the Vereker family’s attorney, though he has a personal interest in the case as well. I adore Heyer’s romances but have been less impressed with her mysteries overall. This is one of the few I kept after my initial read, but upon rereading I thought it was just okay. The Verekers are supposed to be likable and entertaining, but they annoyed me this time around, and the romance was barely sketched in. It’s a decent read if you like Golden Age mysteries, but it’s no longer a keeper for me.

Caroline Stevermer, The Glass Magician

Thalia Cutler is a stage magician on the vaudeville circuit, but when a dangerous trick goes wrong, she discovers that she also has real magical powers. But until she learns to control them, she’s in grave danger and must take shelter with a friendly family that has similar powers. Meanwhile, one of Thalia’s onstage competitors is murdered, and her mentor is arrested for the crime, so she must discover the real killer. I wanted to love this book, but it didn’t have the same spark that A College of Magics and A Scholar of Magics did for me. It felt very much like book 1 of a series, with incomplete world-building and storylines that aren’t resolved. I don’t know if a sequel is planned, but I’m not especially interested in it, unfortunately.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Miles, Mystery, and Mayhem

In Cetaganda, Miles and his cousin Ivan travel to Cetaganda to attend a state funeral, only to become entangled in political intrigue and murder. In Ethan of Athos, Ethan leaves his all-male planet and is forced to team up with that most mysterious and dangerous of creatures, a woman (and hey, it’s Elli Quinn from The Warrior’s Apprentice!). And in the novella Labyrinth, the Dendarii Mercenaries’ simple mission to pick up a scientist from Jackson’s Whole goes awry. I’m still really enjoying this series, although the characters trump the plots, for me. I adore Miles and have a huge soft spot for Ivan as well! Also, I find it interesting how much of this series (at least so far) is about gender, sexual politics, and reproduction. Looking forward to seeing what happens next!

Mini-Reviews: Killing, Wish, Scales

Lee Child, Killing Floor

In this series opener, former military cop Jack Reacher walks into the small town of Margrave, Georgia, and is promptly arrested for murder. Reacher didn’t kill anyone (not recently, anyway), but in the course of proving his innocence to the local police, he gets drawn into the search for the real murderer despite himself. Along the way, Reacher uncovers an international criminal operation and puts his skills as a trained killer to good use. This type of thriller isn’t my usual fare, but I’m glad I gave it a try. The book is a real page-turner and Reacher is a compelling character. Despite the overall darkness and violence of the plot, there are some moments of humor (such as when Reacher feels the need to explain that Oxford, England, is a university town). I’m not invested in reading the entire series, but I’d certainly pick up another Reacher novel, and I’ve put the Amazon Prime TV series on my watchlist.

Katherine Center, What You Wish For

Samantha Casey loves her job as a librarian at an idyllic independent elementary school. When the school’s beloved principal suddenly dies, Sam is devastated — especially when she learns that his replacement is Duncan Carpenter, the man she had a hopeless crush on when they worked together at another school four years ago. But when Duncan arrives, he’s cold and authoritarian and rigid, not at all the fun-loving guy Sam remembers. Nevertheless, as they battle for the future of the school, sparks fly between them. I’ve really enjoyed Katherine Center’s books in the past, but I didn’t quite fall in love with this one. Aspects of Sam’s character irritated me, and I wanted more romance and less school politics. Still, I stayed up way too late reading this book and will definitely continue to follow the author.

Stephanie Burgis, Scales and Sensibility

Practical, penniless Elinor Tregarth tries to endure her cousin Penelope’s constant abuse and belittling, but eventually she can’t take it anymore and runs away, bringing Penelope’s mistreated dragon with her. Little does Elinor know that the dragon has magical powers: when she wishes to be as beautiful, confident, and respected as London society’s most fashionable leader, the dragon’s power makes her look just like the society woman. In disguise, Elinor is free to plan her future, stand up to her cousin, and perhaps even catch the eye of a handsome stranger. This is a cute bit of magical Regency froth, and while it’s less substantial than Burgis’s excellent Masks and Shadows, I still enjoyed it very much. I’ll definitely pick up the sequel when it comes out this fall!

Mini-Reviews: Missed, Morning, Clowns

Lindsey Kelk, In Case You Missed It

At age 32, Ros Reynolds is unemployed and has just moved back in with her parents after three years away. Despite these setbacks, she’s looking forward to reconnecting with her former friend group, not to mention her ex-boyfriend Patrick. But she’s dismayed to learn that nothing is quite the same it used to be, and that by clinging so hard to the past, she might be missing out on a better future. This is an enjoyable British chick-lit novel that made me chuckle out loud several times. It’s not groundbreaking, and I wanted more development of the romance, but overall it’s a fun read if you enjoy this kind of book.

Laura L. Sullivan, Love by the Morning Star

On the eve of World War II, two young women arrive at the grand English estate of Starkers. Hannah, a half-Jewish refugee from Germany, is a distant relative of the family and hopes to stay with them until she can reunite with her parents. Anna, the daughter of a British fascist, is supposed to pose as a kitchen maid to spy on the family. But a mix-up sends Hannah to the kitchen and Anna to the main house — a misunderstanding with dramatic consequences, especially when both girls become involved with the handsome heir to the estate. I liked a lot of things about this book; Hannah is a delightful heroine, and the general tone reminded me of Eva Ibbotson, one of my all-time favorite comfort authors. But the big misunderstanding dragged on so long that it became completely unbelievable, and I was so frustrated that nobody figured it out! So I think I’ll say goodbye to this one and reread Ibbotson instead.

Leo Bruce, Case with Four Clowns

Former policeman Sergeant Beef and his Watson, detective novelist Lionel Townsend, receive a tip that a murder will shortly occur in a traveling circus in Yorkshire. But when they arrive at the circus to investigate, they soon discover enough animosity and jealousy to make every member of the circus a potential victim — or killer. I really liked the first Sergeant Beef book, Case for Three Detectives, but this one was a big disappointment. The murder doesn’t happen until the last 30 pages, so most of the book is just Beef and Townsend talking to the circus people. There are some funny bits where Townsend gets meta (he “vaguely wonders” something and then comments that it is appropriate for him, as the Watson, to vaguely wonder). But overall, I wouldn’t recommend this one, unless you are super into the circus setting.

Mini-Reviews: Throne, Beloved, Marion

Naomi Novik, Throne of Jade

Former naval captain Will Laurence and dragon Temeraire are now fast friends and inseparable companions. But because Temeraire is an extremely rare and valuable Chinese dragon, China is demanding him back. So Laurence and Temeraire are forced to travel to the imperial court to placate the emperor and prevent the Chinese from allying with France. This book is a worthy continuation of His Majesty’s Dragon, fleshing out the global political situation and contrasting English and Chinese treatment of dragons. I enjoyed watching Temeraire mature a bit and start to question the English way of doing things. Looking forward to book 3!

Mary Balogh, Only Beloved

George, the Duke of Stanbrook, has helped the other six Survivors to heal from their war wounds and find true love. But he has never truly coped with his own pain and loss: his son died in the Napoleonic Wars, and his wife took her own life soon afterward. Now George is lonely and decides to remarry, but his chosen wife is determined to help him finally confront and heal from his tragic past. This isn’t one of my favorite installments of the Survivors’ Club series, but I still enjoyed it. I like Balogh’s style, and it’s refreshing to see historical romance protagonists in their 30s and 40s. The book takes an oddly melodramatic turn toward the end, and the last few chapters are a bit cloying, with all the blissfully married Survivors and their babies. But it’s still worth a read, especially if you’ve enjoyed the rest of the series.

T.A. Willberg, Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder

Marion Lane is an apprentice at a mysterious private detective agency that operates beneath the streets of London. When one of her colleagues is murdered and her mentor is accused of the crime, Marion decides to investigate. But she uncovers some troubling secrets about the agency’s history and isn’t sure whom she can trust. I really liked the world of this novel (shadowy secret society + crime fighting + cool steampunk gadgets!), but I wish it had been more developed. The novel is almost entirely focused on plot, to the detriment of character development and world building. I also found myself oddly sympathetic to the villain! I’m interested enough to read book 2 in the series, but I hope the setting and characters will be more fleshed out.

Mini-Reviews: Shell, Fiancée, Time

Nicholas Blake, Thou Shell of Death

When legendary airman Fergus O’Brien receives a series of threatening letters, he asks private detective Nigel Strangeways to come to his Christmas house party, where he’s invited all the people he suspects of being the letter writer. He hopes Nigel will discover the author’s identity and prevent any violence from occurring, but unfortunately O’Brien is indeed shot the day after Christmas. Now Nigel and the police must work together to discover the killer — a task that is complicated by a few more bodies, not to mention Nigel’s growing attachment to one of the suspects. I enjoyed this book very much. It’s well written with a touch of sly humor, and while the mystery’s solution is wildly dramatic and implausible, I do think it’s fairly clued. I’m definitely interested in reading more of the Nigel Strangeways books.

Virginia Heath, Never Fall for Your Fiancée

Hugh’s mother is determined to see him wed, but he doesn’t want to get married because he’s afraid he’ll be like his philandering father. His solution? Invent a fake fiancée. It actually seems to work, until his mother announces she’s planning a visit from America to meet his dear Minerva. Desperate, Hugh offers to pay the beautiful but penniless Minerva Merriwell to pose as his fiancée, but complications ensue when he really falls in love with her. I love a good fake-relationship plot, but this one does strain credulity, particularly Hugh’s motivations for creating and persisting in the lie. The book is a breezy, enjoyable read (though not as funny as it wants to be), but I can’t get past the utter ridiculousness of the plot. I may look for the sequel when it comes out, but I’ll borrow it from the library instead of buying.

I also need to complain about the cover for a second. I don’t mind illustrated covers, but I do want the people to look the way they’re described in the book!  Minerva’s hair is described as very dark, “almost black,” and Hugh is supposed to be blond! Not sure what happened there — maybe dark-haired heroes sell better?

Sophie Cousens, This Time Next Year

Minnie Cooper and Quinn Hamilton were both born on January 1, 1990 — but since Quinn came just moments earlier, he became the first ‘90s baby born in the UK. He won notoriety and a large cash prize, while Minnie got nothing. And the same bad luck has dogged her ever since, especially on her birthday. When Minnie and Quinn meet again as adults, she’s strangely drawn to the man she’s resented all her life, but several obstacles threaten their romance. I liked this book a lot; both Minnie and Quinn are sympathetic, and they have real problems that aren’t magically solved by love. The romance is sweet and satisfying, but the characters’ individual growth is equally (if not more) important. I’m excited to try more by this author, and I would definitely recommend this book to chick lit fans.

Mini-Reviews: Promise, 25, Santa

Mary Balogh, Only a Promise

The fifth installment of the Survivors’ Club series focuses on Ralph Stockwood, who is tormented with guilt because he encouraged his three best friends to fight in the Napoleonic Wars; they all died while he survived. As a result, he has completely shut down emotionally and believes himself incapable of love, though as the heir to a dukedom it’s his duty to marry and produce an heir. His godmother’s companion, Chloe Muirhead, proposes a marriage of convenience, since he needs a wife and he’s her only chance of a husband. I enjoyed this book a lot but find I don’t have much to say about it. Only Enchanting is still my favorite in the series so far, but this one is definitely worthwhile if you enjoy Regency romance.

Poppy Alexander, 25 Days ’til Christmas

Single mom Kate has been struggling ever since her husband’s death four years ago. She works a terrible job for low pay, her son Jack may have special educational needs, and her mother-in-law is slowly succumbing to dementia in an expensive assisted living facility. Attempting to focus on the positive, Kate decides to do one special Christmas thing with Jack every day in the month leading up to Christmas. Along the way she connects with the handsome and sensitive Daniel, but will she be able to take a chance on love again? I hoped this would be a cute Christmas romance, but it’s just so dreary; both Kate and Daniel are pretty miserable until the very end of the book, and it’s not fun to see Kate getting constantly beaten down by life. If you’re looking for an upbeat holiday read, this is not the one!

Mavis Doriel Hay, The Santa Klaus Murder

This is a standard English country house murder with a Christmas twist: the family patriarch has arranged for one of his guests to pose as “Santa Klaus,” but the patriarch is then killed during the festivities. Was the man dressed as Saint Nick the murderer? Suspicion abounds, especially when a second Santa suit is found. I liked this book fine; I enjoy the author’s writing style, and the mystery is fair play, although the murderer doesn’t get a huge amount of page time. My biggest complaint is that none of the characters were particularly likable or interesting, so reading the book was like being stuck in a house with a lot of mildly unpleasant people. I did like the novel overall, though, and it was a fun seasonal read.

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.