Review: The Bookish Life of Nina Hill

Bookish Life of Nina HillAbbi Waxman, The Bookish Life of Nina Hill

Nina Hill has a quiet, predictable life, and she likes it that way. She works in an independent bookstore in LA’s Larchmont Village and runs a book club for young female readers. She has some friends in her coworkers and her weekly pub trivia team, but her favorite activity is staying home and reading. Everything changes, however, when Nina learns that her father, whom she never knew, has died and left her something in his will. He’s also left her an assortment of relatives: stepmothers, siblings, aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces. Most of them are eager to welcome Nina with open arms, but Nina is uncomfortable with suddenly having a family, and she isn’t sure if she can — or even wants to — incorporate them into her life. Then there’s the issue of her trivia nemesis, Tom, whom Nina initially dismisses as a dumb jock; they have nothing in common but their love of trivia, yet they also find each other infuriatingly attractive. But can they make a relationship work despite their differences?

I enjoyed this book while I was reading it, but I find I don’t have much to say about it a few weeks later. I do remember the writing style; while I normally like plain, unobtrusive prose, this book definitely has a cheeky, quirky style that I mostly enjoyed. On the other hand, the actual plot fell flat for me. The big conflict is supposed to be that Nina is extremely introverted and is thus uncomfortable with her brand-new family. But the thing is, she’s not all that uncomfortable, and everyone accepts everyone else pretty much right away. One of her aunts is hostile at first and kicks up a fuss about the will, but Nina isn’t bothered by it, and eventually the aunt comes around. The romance with Tom is also pretty dull, although to be fair, the book isn’t primarily a romance. I think my biggest issue is that I expected Nina to be more bookish and more introverted than she was. She seemed to perceive herself as incredibly unusual, but her levels of bookishness and introversion are pretty common among readers, at least in my experience! So maybe I was just a little let down by the premise. Overall, this was a good-not-great book for me, but I’d consider reading more by Waxman.

Review: Evvie Drake Starts Over

Evvie Drake Starts OverLinda Holmes, Evvie Drake Starts Over

Eveleth “Evvie” Drake has been essentially hiding in her home ever since her husband, Tim, died in a car crash. Everyone in the small town of Calcasset, Maine, loved Tim and assumes that Evvie is isolating herself because of grief. Only Evvie knows that Tim had a dark side and that on the day of his death, she was actually in the process of leaving him. Now she’s having trouble making decisions about her life, so when her best friend Andy suggests that she take in a tenant, she goes along with it. Meanwhile, Dean Tenney is a major league baseball pitcher who suddenly can’t pitch anymore. He’s tried everything he can think of to get his mojo back, to no avail. Now that his career as a baseball player is apparently over, he needs to get out of town and figure out what to do next. When he rents the apartment attached to Evvie’s house, the two gradually become friends and maybe more. But will their respective baggage keep them apart?

I really enjoyed this book, although it’s not quite what I was expecting. I think I was anticipating a light and fizzy rom-com, but this book has a quieter, more contemplative feel. While the relationship between Evvie and Dean drives the plot, most of the conflicts they face are internal. Both of them are in a place where their lives have changed unexpectedly, and they’re floundering as they try to figure out what’s next. And while their growing affection makes them happier, it doesn’t magically fix everything in their lives — something I really appreciated about this book. The characters and conflicts are utterly grounded in reality, and I found both Evvie and Dean very relatable. I believed that these characters genuinely like each other and that their love will last because it’s based on a true friendship. All in all, I liked this book and would definitely recommend it to people who enjoy their romance on the realistic side.

Review: Arcanos Unraveled

Arcanos UnraveledJonna Gjevre, Arcanos Unraveled

Anya Winter is an adjunct professor at Arcanos Hall, a magical university hiding in plain sight in Madison, Wisconsin. As a mere hedge witch, she’s neither powerful nor prestigious, but she doers have a talent for knitting magical artifacts. She also seems to have a talent for getting into trouble: first the magical shield protecting Arcanos from the mundane world is sabotaged, then Anya’s student needs help hiding a dead body, and finally Anya is blamed for the shield’s malfunction and banished from Arcanos altogether. In order to reclaim her place at the university, she’ll need to figure out what’s really going on, even if it means teaming up with a mysterious, frustrating, and handsome engineer named Kyril. Together, they uncover a nefarious plot that will have consequences for the entire magical world.

I found this book an enjoyable read, but there was a little bit too much going on for my taste. Or rather, the book keeps offering glimpses of interesting things — how the knitting magic works, for instance, or what is the broader political situation in Anya’s world — but never really develops them. I don’t normally read for setting, but I would have appreciated some more world-building here. Also, a few plot threads are never satisfactorily resolved: for example, what became of the woman in the red leather dress? There’s a bit of a romance between Anya and Kyril, but it feels very superficial (he’s so annoying! Yet so handsome!). There’s also Anya’s ex-boyfriend, who is such an obvious slimeball that it made me doubt Anya’s intelligence. Overall, I liked the premise and the basic outline of this book, but I wanted more from it.

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: The Proposal

ProposalJasmine Guillory, The Proposal

Nikole Paterson is at an LA Dodgers game with her boyfriend Fisher. She’s been seeing him casually for about five months, but she doesn’t consider their relationship particularly serious. So she’s shocked when Fisher urges her to look at the JumboTron just as it’s flashing a proposal to her, from him — and her name isn’t even spelled correctly! Nik is completely mortified; luckily, Carlos Ibarra is sitting just a couple rows behind her, sees the whole thing, and decides to help extricate her from the situation. Grateful for the save, Nik invites Carlos for a drink with her and her friends. Then they start texting each other, and soon they’re getting to know each other (and, ahem, “know” each other) and spending a ton of time together. Neither one of them is looking for a serious relationship, but as they grow closer despite themselves, they realize they’ve accidentally fallen in love.

I liked but didn’t love Guillory’s previous novel, The Wedding Date, and I find myself having a similar reaction to this book. It’s definitely a fun read, and both Nik and Carlos are likable characters whom I wanted to succeed and be happy. But as in The Wedding Date, there’s very little conflict: this is a book about nice people who are almost uniformly nice to each other. Now, I enjoy books with minimal angst and characters who communicate well; but Nik and Carlos’s relationship is so drama-free that it’s a little boring to read about, honestly. A lot of interesting conflicts lurk beneath the surface — Carlos’s belief that he has to be the rock his family depends on, for example, or Nik’s past relationship with an emotionally abusive man — but they’re barely touched on in the novel. Instead, the only obstacle between them is that they both want a casual fling, then realize they have Feelings. So while I found this a pleasant enough read, I definitely wanted more in terms of dramatic tension.

Review: Crazy for You

crazy for youJennifer Crusie, Crazy for You

Thirty-something Quinn McKenzie is stuck in a rut. She has great friends, she likes her job as a high school art teacher, and she’s dating the football coach, whom everyone in town recognizes as a total catch. But she still wants a change, and change arrives in the form of an adorable stray dog. Quinn wants to adopt the dog, but her boyfriend doesn’t. This small disagreement soon leads to a much bigger fight, and Quinn begins to realize that her seemingly great life is based on her always sacrificing what she wants for the sake of other people. Her friends and family are initially horrified at the change in Quinn, but she eventually inspires them to make changes in their own lives. In the most exciting change of all, Quinn is beginning to look at her longtime friend Nick in a whole new light, but it seems her old life isn’t quite ready to let her go. . . .

I’ve found Jennifer Crusie’s books to be somewhat hit-or-miss, but this one was definitely a hit for me! I don’t think it’s a book for everyone, though, for several reasons. There’s quite a bit of profanity and a few pretty graphic sex scenes, so if those elements would bother you, steer clear. Also, and more importantly, there is stalking and violence against women in this book, which makes it quite a bit darker than I was expecting. However, all that said, I liked this book a lot, and it’s almost entirely due to the relationship between Quinn and Nick. I love a friends-to-lovers romance, especially when one or both of the people involved are very reluctant to act on their feelings for fear of ruining the friendship. In this case, I totally bought into the romantic tension between these characters and was rooting for them all the way. So this book worked really well for me, but I realize not everyone will feel the same!

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.

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.

Review: The Napoleon of Crime

Napoleon of CrimeBen Macintyre, The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief

Ben Macintyre’s enthusiasm for larger-than-life historical figures is evident once again in this biography of Adam Worth, one of the most notorious thieves and con artists of the late 19th century. Worth began his criminal career as a pickpocket but soon established himself as a gang leader, gaining notoriety through planning a series of successful bank jobs. Eventually Worth set up shop in London, where he created a public persona as a wealthy English gentleman, which he was able to maintain for decades even while continuing his criminal activities. His crowning achievement was the theft of Gainsborough’s famous portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Worth’s criminal genius, plus his short stature, prompted a Scotland Yard detective to dub him the “Napoleon of the criminal world” — a phrase famously used to describe the ultimate fictional criminal mastermind, Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis Moriarty.

I’m a big fan of Ben Macintyre’s books about World War II-era espionage, so I was excited to try this book even though it has a different subject matter. I’m not sure if it was the different focus or the fact that I was extremely busy in real life at the time, but I just couldn’t get into this book the same way I did with Operation Mincemeat, for example. I think Macintyre overstates his thesis, which is that Worth was the real-life inspiration for Moriarty; the evidence that exists really doesn’t seem very conclusive. Also, he focuses a lot on Worth’s theft of the Gainsborough painting and engages in some psychological speculation about Worth’s supposed obsession, which according to Macintyre had a sexual component. In this area, there really seems to be NO evidence supporting the book’s claims! I did find the interactions between Worth and William Pinkerton (yes, one of those Pinkertons) to be very interesting and would have loved the book to focus more on that relationship. Overall, the book is entertaining enough, but I didn’t like it as much as I expected to.

Review: Ghostly Echoes

ghostly echoesWilliam Ritter, Ghostly Echoes

This third installment of the Jackaby series focuses on Jenny Cavanaugh, the resident ghost of 926 Augur Lane. She was brutally murdered 10 years ago, and now she is finally ready for her friends Jackaby and Abigail to investigate. As they begin to research the case, they realize that Jenny’s murder may be connected to recent disturbing events in New Fiddleham. Their investigation leads them to the eerie pale man who lurked at the edges of Beastly Bones, to a group of scientists with a sinister plan, and even to the Underworld itself. Meanwhile, Jenny continues to grow in confidence, even as she grapples with the question of what will happen to her when her murder is finally solved. Abigail’s mettle is tested as never before, and glimpses of Jackaby’s mysterious past are finally revealed.

I read this book a couple months ago, and I’m afraid I may not be remembering the plot very clearly; no doubt my summary has left some things out. But this is an exciting installment of the series, pulling together some of the plot threads from earlier books and setting the stage for a magical showdown in the fourth and final novel. I liked that we finally get a little insight into Jackaby’s past and some of the more unusual aspects of his personality, and it was also nice to learn more about Jenny, who is a fairly minor character in the first two books. The solution to the murder mystery is very clever, but I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that it ties into a much larger story arc that won’t be resolved until book four. The first two books in the series are much more episodic, but this one definitely can’t be read as a stand-alone novel. However, I’m certainly intrigued enough to pick up The Dire King and see how everything turns out!