Masks, Knight, Souls

Masks and ShadowsHonor's KnightOur Souls at Night

Stephanie Burgis, Masks and Shadows

This novel, set at the Palace of Esterháza in 1779, centers around a group of musicians and a fateful opera performance. Carlo Morelli, a castrato famous throughout Europe, is one of the prince’s guests. Another is Charlotte von Steinbeck, an accomplished pianist whose sister Sophie is the prince’s mistress. As Charlotte and Carlo slowly grow closer, the prince’s opera troupe is rehearsing a new opera by Franz Joseph Haydn, and an assassination plot is brewing that includes the use of dark magic. The various plot lines converge at the opera’s opening performance. I really enjoyed this book — it’s the perfect combination of historical fantasy, political intrigue, and romance. Some of the magical elements were a bit too dark for me, but overall I found the novel very compelling. I’m glad the RandomCAT inspired me to finally read it!

Rachel Bach, Honor’s Knight

This book picks up where Fortune’s Pawn left off: after the climactic battle in that book, Devi’s memory has been wiped, so she can’t remember anything about either the battle or her love affair with Rupert. All that’s left is a strong feeling of revulsion toward him and a sense of confusion about the other crew members. Between that, her visions of small glowing blobs that are apparently invisible to everyone else, and some sort of disease or parasite that periodically turns her limbs black, Devi has more than enough to worry about. This book is a good sequel to Fortune’s Pawn; it explains a lot of the mysterious loose ends from that book and nicely sets up the final book in the trilogy. I also appreciated the character development for Devi, who finds herself having to make complex moral choices for the first time in her life. I’m looking forward to reading the third book sometime later this year.

Kent Haruf, Our Souls at Night

Addie and Louis, both in their 70s, have lived on the same street in Holt, Colorado, for many years. They’ve known each other casually but have never been close friends. Now, however, Addie has a proposition for Louis: she wants him to sleep with her. Not to have sex, but merely to sleep in the same bed, keep each other company, and have someone to talk to at night. Louis is surprised but agrees to the scheme, and the rest of the book deals with the fallout. This isn’t my usual type of book at all — indeed, when I realized that there were no quotation marks, I almost gave up right then — but I’m glad I persevered. This is a lovely but melancholy book about all the ordinary, mundane things that make up a life. There’s no plot to speak of; the book just follows Addie and Louis as they pursue their unconventional relationship, with both positive and negative results. I really liked this one and would highly recommend it!

Mini-Reviews: English, Havana, Watch

English WitchNext Year in HavanaOne to Watch

Loretta Chase, The English Witch

This book is the sequel to Isabella, which I read and enjoyed a few months ago, and the villain of that book is now the hero. Basil Trevelyan has been away from England for several years, working for a prosperous merchant and doing the odd job for the British government along the way. Now, at his aunt’s behest, he must rescue the beautiful Alexandra Ashmore, first from peril in Albania and then from an unwanted engagement in England. Though Basil is by nature a womanizer whose first goal is to pursue his own pleasure, he begins to develop genuine feelings for Alexandra. The fun of this book is watching Basil (1) recognize that he is capable of feeling actual love, not just desire, and (2) hilariously fail every time he tries to articulate his feelings. I’d recommend this book (as well as Isabella) to those who enjoy their historical romance on the lighter side, with lots of plot and minimal angst.

Chanel Cleeton, Next Year in Havana

In 1958, Elisa Perez is the daughter of a wealthy Cuban family. Despite unrest throughout the country and popular discontent with Batista’s regime, her life is mostly occupied with suitors and social engagements. But when she falls in love with Pablo, an intense and dedicated revolutionary, Elisa must rethink what it means to be loyal to her country. In the present day, Elisa has just passed away in Miami, and her granddaughter Marisol is returning to Cuba to lay Elisa’s ashes to rest. Marisol is excited to visit her family’s homeland but soon realizes that her Cuban American identity is more complex than she realized. There’s nothing wrong with this book, but it never really grabbed me and took me a long time to finish. I found the historical background about Cuba fascinating — and sadly new to me, since I learned basically nothing about the country in school — but the individual characters and circumstances weren’t compelling. That said, Cleeton wrote a follow-up book featuring Elisa’s sister Beatriz, and I might be curious enough to seek that one out at some point.

Kate Stayman-London, One to Watch

Bea Schumacher is a plus-sized fashion blogger with a certain amount of internet fame. But when she writes a drunken rant criticizing the lack of body diversity on a Bachelor-style reality show, her piece goes viral, and she is unexpectedly offered the chance to become the next season’s star. Twenty-five men will compete for her affection on camera, and at the end of the season, she’ll become “engaged” to the winner. Bea agrees, but she’s hesitant; despite her efforts to accept her body, she knows that the world isn’t always kind to fat people, and she doubts whether any of the men on the show will truly be interested in her. But as the show is filmed, she finds both rejection and affirmation in surprising places. I enjoyed this book a lot! It’s fun and entertaining–a perfect beach read–but as a plus-sized woman myself, I also found Bea incredibly relatable. It was great to see her overcome her doubts and insecurities to find a happy ending. Definitely recommended if you think the premise sounds fun!

Mini-Reviews: Steal, Jane, Wicked

Cold StealJane Austen SocietySlightly Wicked

Alice Tilton, Cold Steal

Leonidas Witherall is returning home from a trip around the world, and he’s looking forward to some peace and relaxation. But of course, he’s immediately embroiled in a mystery when he witnesses suspicious activity on a train. Then he is kidnapped by one of his fellow travelers; and when he finally escapes, he discovers the dead body of a local woman in his house! This book, like the previous installments in the series, is pure farce and a lot of fun. But some scenes, where all the characters are talking at cross-purposes and no one is explaining anything, actually stressed me out a bit! The mystery is definitely secondary to the farce; barely any time is spent on actual detection. Still, I enjoy this series and will continue with it at some point. One quick note: I think it would be helpful to read at least book 2, The Cut Direct, before reading this one, as several of the characters are recurring.

Natalie Jenner, The Jane Austen Society

This book, set in 1950s Chawton, is about a group of very different people who are united by their love of Jane Austen and their desire to preserve her legacy. At this time, Chawton is much like any other English village; while some tourists do show up looking for the house where Austen lived, there’s no official effort to preserve her home or other items of historical value. So the self-appointed Jane Austen Society decides to lead this effort. In the meantime, of course, the various society members become entangled in Austen-esque stories of their own. I found this book a pleasant, enjoyable read, but I’m having trouble remembering a lot of the details. It definitely didn’t affect me emotionally in the way that The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society did…perhaps that’s an unfair comparison, but the similar titles and time periods made a connection between the two books in my mind. Overall, though, I did like the book and think it’s a great escapist read for Austen fans!

Mary Balogh, Slightly Wicked

This second book in the Bedwyn series focuses on Judith Law, the daughter of an impoverished clergyman who is destined to live with her aunt as a “poor relation.” But Judith secretly yearns for adventure — and when a chance encounter with the dangerously attractive Rannulf Bedwyn gives her the opportunity to experience a sexual relationship, she takes it. After all, she’s unlikely ever to marry, and this may be her only chance. But when she arrives at her aunt’s home, she is dismayed to learn that Rannulf is in the area visiting his grandmother, and what was meant to be a one-night stand quickly becomes much more complicated. I didn’t enjoy this book as much as other Balogh novels that I’ve read. The premise didn’t do anything for me, and I didn’t particularly connect to Rannulf as a hero; other than his good looks and wealth, I couldn’t see what Judith saw in him. There’s also some cringeworthy dialogue, in the first love scene especially. I still liked the book enough to finish it in two days, but I’m definitely hoping the series improves with subsequent books.

Mini-Reviews: Pawn, Undateable, Desperate

Fortune's PawnUndateableDesperate Fortune

Rachel Bach, Fortune’s Pawn

Devi Morris is a space mercenary whose dream is to join her home planet’s most elite fighting force. In order to gain the necessary qualifications and experience, she signs onto the crew of the Glorious Fool, a spaceship with a reputation of getting into trouble. But Devi has no idea just how much trouble is in store for her. I really enjoyed this book, which is sci-fi with a prominent romantic subplot. It’s not groundbreaking, just a really solid example of this type of story. I’m also very intrigued by the plot developments at the end of the book, so I’m definitely planning to read the rest of the trilogy!

Sarah Title, The Undateable

This is a cute romance focusing on Melissa “Bernie” Bernard, a feminist and somewhat frumpy academic librarian. When her student assistant gets engaged via a flash-mob proposal, Bernie’s disapproving reaction is caught on camera and immediately becomes a viral meme. That meme gets the attention of Colin Rodriguez, who works for an online fashion magazine and is looking for a story that will make his job secure. When they team up to do a story about the Disapproving Librarian going on a series of blind dates, they discover an inconvenient mutual attraction. This is a fun book with a very enjoyable heroine; and while the hero isn’t quite as fleshed out, I like that he comes to appreciate Bernie’s quirkiness. They each grow as they learn to understand the other’s point of view, which is a feature I always like in a romance. Worth reading if you like the premise.

Susanna Kearsley, A Desperate Fortune

I’ve read a few of Kearsley’s books before, and I liked but didn’t love them. Still, I decided to give this one a try because it contains a lot of elements I enjoy: codebreaking, espionage, and Jacobites. And I’m so glad I read it, because I absolutely loved it! Mary Dundas is part of a Jacobite family living in exile in France. She yearns for adventure, and finds it when her brother claims her for a mission to camouflage the identity of a fellow Jacobite who is being hunted by the English. Meanwhile, in the present day, Sara is hired to decrypt Mary’s encoded diary. Both Mary and Sara travel, learn more about themselves and the world, and find romance. I should note that Sara has Asperger syndrome, and I thought this aspect of her character was portrayed well — but I don’t really know much about it, so perhaps someone with more expertise would have a different opinion. Overall, I really loved this book and may have to rethink my stance on Kearsley in general!

Mini-Reviews: Necromancer, Dimple, Scrapbook

Death of the NecromancerWhen Dimple Met RishiScrapbook of Frankie Pratt

Martha Wells, The Death of the Necromancer

This gaslamp fantasy follows Nicholas Valliarde, otherwise known as Donatien, the leader of a notorious criminal enterprise in the city of Vienne. He has one goal: to ruin the life of the Count of Montesq, who had Nicholas’s foster-father executed on a false charge of necromancy. In the middle of a heist that would further this goal, however, Nicholas runs into an unexpectedly life-threatening situation and soon learns that a real necromancer may be at work in the city. I really enjoyed this novel, especially the setting, which is like a fantastical version of 18th-century France. There’s also a really great friendship that arises between Nicholas and the police inspector who’s been tracking his criminal alter-ego. I will definitely continue with the Ile-Rien series, although this one stands alone quite well.

Sandhya Menon, When Dimple Met Rishi

Dimple and Rishi are Indian American teens who have never met, but their parents are friends and have tentatively arranged a marriage between them. Rishi knows about the arrangement and is happy about it; he loves his family and his culture, and he trusts his parents to choose an appropriate wife for him. Dimple, on the other hand, is more interested in computer coding than marriage, and she’s desperate to attend a prestigious summer program — one that Rishi happens to be attending also. When they meet, Dimple is enraged to discover the marriage arrangement. But the more she gets to know Rishi, the more she ends up liking him. This is a cute YA rom-com with insight into a culture I know little about. I recommend it if the premise intrigues you!

Caroline Preston, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt

This “novel in pictures” tells the story of Frances “Frankie” Pratt, an ambitious American girl who leaves her hometown to attend college, then travel to New York and Paris in hopes of becoming a writer. The book purports to be Frankie’s scrapbook of these eventful years of her life, with just a few sentences of narration on each page. The photos are of authentic 1920s artifacts — advertisements, ticket stubs, postcards, and the like — and I was very impressed by the author’s dedication to finding these artifacts and creating a story around them. That said, the scrapbook conceit is the cleverest part of the book; the plot and characters are all fairly two-dimensional. Still, this is a fun, quick read that would appeal to people who enjoy scrapbooking or are fascinated by the 1920s.

Mini-Reviews: Forgotten, Kiss, Single

Forgotten GardenIt's in His KissLast Single Girl

Kate Morton, The Forgotten Garden

It took me a while to get through this book, and I think I’m still digesting it somewhat. It tells the stories of four different women. First, Nell is found on a dock in Brisbane, Australia, in 1913. She is raised by a loving family, but when her father finally tells her that she was adopted, she feels compelled to research the mystery of her past. In 2005, Nell passes away, and her granddaughter Cassandra inherits the mystery, as well as a decaying cottage on the coast of Cornwall. She eventually travels to England to see the cottage and piece together what really happened to Nell. Finally, the book jumps to 1900 and details the lives of Eliza Makepeace, a poor orphan with a gift for storytelling, and Rose Mountratchet, a privileged and beloved young woman who befriends Eliza. As the book shifts back and forth between all these different perspectives, the true story of Nell’s origins finally emerges. I thought the mystery was interesting, I liked the writing style, and the main characters were sympathetic; but for me, the pacing was just too slow. I genuinely do think it’s a good book, but I’m not sure I will pick up anything else by Kate Morton.

Bria Quinlan, It’s in His Kiss and The Last Single Girl

Last year I read Worth the Fall, book 2 in Bria Quinlan’s Brew Ha Ha series, and was unexpectedly charmed by it. So I picked up these two e-books when they were on a free deal; It’s in His Kiss is a prequel novella, and The Last Single Girl is book 1. The novella is about Jenna, a YA writer who needs her character to have a first kiss, but it’s been a long time since Jenna experienced one herself. She meets handsome, arrogant Ben while doing “research,” but her beautiful frenemy seems to be competing with her for his attention. Book 1 has all new characters: Sarah, a girl who needs a New Year’s Eve date and meets a bunch of online suitors in a coffee shop, ends up hitting it off with John, the shop’s owner, instead. These were decent quick reads, but I didn’t find the same spark that I did with Worth the Fall. On the upside, I managed to read them both in a single night!

Mini-Reviews: Midwife’s, Check, Talking

Midwife's ApprenticeCheck Me OutTalking as Fast as I Can

Karen Cushman, The Midwife’s Apprentice

Catherine, Called Birdy was one of my favorite books as a child, but I don’t think I’d ever read The Midwife’s Apprentice by the same author. It’s about a young girl in medieval England who is completely alone; she begins the novel by sleeping in a dung heap to keep warm. But the village midwife eventually takes her in as a servant/apprentice, and the girl’s life improves somewhat. Eventually she learns enough about midwifery to make herself useful, makes a friend, and even gets a name of her own: Alyce. But when Alyce makes a mistake in her work, she runs away, certain that everyone will hate her. Will she ever find a place she truly belongs? I was charmed by this book and wish I had read it as a child; while it’s not a keeper for me now, I would definitely recommend it to elementary schoolers!

Becca Wilhite, Check Me Out

I really liked the premise of this book, with its librarian heroine and Cyrano vibes, but the execution was disappointing. Twenty-four-year-old Greta loves her job and her BFF Will, but she hasn’t managed to find romance yet. That is, until she meets dreamy Mac in the poetry section, and he sweeps her off her feet with his good looks and romantic texts. The trouble is, in person he’s not as sweet or witty as he is in print. Meanwhile, the library is in danger of shutting down, so Greta embarks on a series of fundraising schemes to save it. I thought the library-related stuff was interesting, and the book did a good job of covering the complexities of the situation (community benefits vs. budget, historical value of the library vs. need for a modern, accessible space). But the romance was frustrating for me; I felt Greta was clueless and shallow, and her descriptions of Will (who is overweight) were downright cruel at times. Overall, I was disappointed in this book and wouldn’t recommend it.

Lauren Graham, Talking as Fast as I Can: From “Gilmore Girls” to “Gilmore Girls” and Everything in Between

A fun celebrity memoir by Lauren Graham, best known for her roles as Lorelai Gilmore on Gilmore Girls and Sarah Braverman on Parenthood. As a huge Gilmore fan and someone who has always admired Lauren Graham, I was definitely the target audience for this book, and I enjoyed it overall. It doesn’t delve very deeply into Gilmore Girls, which I was a little disappointed by, but upon reflection it makes sense: Gilmore was legendary for its long hours and demanding showrunner who expected every line to be word-perfect, so it makes sense that Graham would be reticent about the probable difficulties of working on the show. She obviously feels much more warmly about Parenthood, a show I stopped watching after season 1. Still a worthwhile read for fans of either show, and Graham has a funny, likable voice. But Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Mindy Kaling’s two memoirs are still my favorites in this genre.

Mini-Reviews: Mask, Winter, Unlimited

Grey MaskWinter of the WitchDetection Unlimited

Patricia Wentworth, Grey Mask

Charles Moray has just returned to England after four years abroad. When he reaches his home, he is surprised to find that it is unlocked and that a secret meeting is taking place inside. He learns that the intruders are members of a criminal organization led by an unknown man in a grey mask. He also sees Margaret Langton — the woman he once loved, who broke off their engagement right before the wedding with no explanation — enter the house and speak with Grey Mask. Charles decides not to go to the police but to investigate the matter himself. He and Margaret eventually team up to save a beautiful young heiress who is in danger from the gang and to discover the identity of Grey Mask. I thought this book would be somewhat cheesy and campy, but in fact I really enjoyed it! I will definitely read more by Patricia Wentworth; this is technically the first book in the Miss Silver series, but Miss Silver is a pretty marginal character in this installment.

Katherine Arden, The Winter of the Witch

I loved the first two books in this trilogy, The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, and this book was a fitting conclusion to the series. I love the setting, which is essentially a magical version of medieval Russia that contains various elements of Russian folklore. I also really like that the series doesn’t shy away from consequences: although Vasilisa is a sympathetic heroine, sometimes her choices have unexpected or unintended effects on those close to her. It’s a morally complex universe where no one is completely good or evil, and I liked that the book has some sympathy for even the most destructive characters. My only complaint is that the novel is a bit slow-moving, but if you liked earlier books in the series, you should definitely read this last installment!

Georgette Heyer, Detection Unlimited

I love Georgette Heyer, but this isn’t one of my favorite of her mysteries. I’m a little surprised that I feel this way, though, because the mystery plot itself is one of her strongest. It’s a simple setup: a universally disliked man is shot in his garden, and everyone seems to have an alibi for the time of death. I thought the solution was clever and hung together well, although I was a bit disappointed in the choice of murderer because I liked that character! But the reason I didn’t totally love this book is that there’s a lot of padding surrounding the mystery plot; most of the book is just descriptions of the various characters and how they interact with one another. And while Heyer is great at characterization, I just wanted the story to go somewhere!

Mini-Reviews: Witch, Scarlet, Homicide

Water Witch*Study in Scarlet WomenHome Sweet Homicide

Cynthia Felice and Connie Willis, Water Witch

I’m a huge Connie Willis fan, so I had high hopes for this book, especially because it also contains some of my favorite elements: con artists, a missing princess, and a sci-fi/romance combo. But overall I found it pretty underwhelming. I really liked the kernel of the story, but I wanted it to be fleshed out a lot more, especially the characterization. The romance essentially comes out of nowhere, and I never really felt like I got to know the hero at all. That said, I really liked a twist involving one of the secondary characters, who came to be a lot more important than I initially expected. Overall, I didn’t like this as much as Willis’s solo work, but I already own two more Willis/Felice collaborations, so I’ll definitely read them at some point.

Sherry Thomas, A Study in Scarlet Women

I’d heard great things about the Lady Sherlock series but was hesitant to dive in, fearing that the books wouldn’t live up to the hype. But I was pleasantly surprised — I really enjoyed this book, which recasts literature’s most famous detective as Charlotte Holmes, a Victorian woman whose brilliant mind is constrained by the social rules of her time. So she decides to leave home and forge her own path. Meanwhile, of course, she solves several murders by realizing that they are all connected. I loved this take on a Holmesian character; Charlotte has a brilliant deductive mind but also really enjoys fashion, and her style is surprisingly ornate and gaudy. I also loved that the book, while sympathetic to Charlotte, also shows her flaws and the negative consequences of some of her decisions. I will definitely continue with the series sooner rather than later!

Craig Rice, Home Sweet Homicide

I found this mystery novel delightful. It’s about three children (ages 8 to 14, I believe) whose mother is a popular mystery novelist. When their neighbor is murdered in real life, the kids are ecstatic — now Mother might get some new material for her books, and the publicity is bound to be good for business. Plus, the handsome detective working the case looks like excellent stepfather material, though Mother doesn’t seem to agree. The children team up to solve the mystery with the help of their friends and neighbors; the result is a farcical romp that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Review: Love Lettering

Love LetteringKate Clayborn, Love Lettering

Meg Mackworth, the “Planner of Park Slope,” has a thriving business in which she creates unique, hand-lettered planners, journals, and calendars for her clients. She’s reasonably successful and Instagram-famous, and now a major stationery brand is interested in hiring her, which would be a big step forward in her career — if only she weren’t completely creatively blocked. To make matters worse, Meg is unexpectedly confronted by a professional faux pas she made about a year ago, when she hid the word “mistake” in a wedding program she designed. The would-be groom, Reid Sutherland, noticed the pattern and has sought out Meg looking for answers. An unlikely friendship grows between them as Reid accompanies Meg on various walks around New York City, searching for inspiration in the city’s wealth of hand-lettered signs. But their relationship can only be temporary, since Reid hates the city and plans to move soon. Can Meg convince him to fall in love with New York — and with her — before it’s too late?

I feel I’ve done a horribly inadequate job of describing this book, which is so much more compelling than I’ve made it sound! Most of what I mentioned above is the setup; the meat of the book is the slow development of Meg and Reid’s relationship. It’s a joy to see them fall in love in such a simple, quiet way, without a lot of unnecessary drama or conflict. The book is told exclusively from Meg’s point of view, so the reader gets to know Reid the same way she does, relying on every little comment, look, or gesture to figure out what he’s thinking. Some readers might be annoyed by this, but I actually really liked it! Reid is definitely my type of hero — a bit Darcy-esque in his directness and occasional awkwardness. I will say, I didn’t love the last section of the book, in which a big external conflict suddenly arises to threaten Meg and Reid’s relationship. I couldn’t figure out what purpose it served, other than to provide the obligatory “It almost didn’t work out!” story beat before the ultimate resolution. But overall, I loved this book and resented every time I had to put it down! Definitely recommended for fans of contemporary romance.