Mini-Reviews: Byline, Chilbury, Swans, Duet

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Jill Orr, The Good Byline — When Riley Ellison learns that her childhood best friend Jordan has committed suicide, she’s both grieved and shocked. Jordan’s mother asks her to write the obituary, so Riley begins to investigate Jordan’s life. She soon becomes convinced that Jordan didn’t kill herself, and she teams up with a local journalist to discover the truth. Meanwhile, in an attempt to get over being dumped by her long-term boyfriend, she subscribes to an online dating service, with entertaining results. I have to say, I enjoyed the chick lit aspects of this novel much more than the mystery aspects—Regina H., Personal Romance Concierge, was a delight! But the mystery was very predictable, and I didn’t buy Riley’s somewhat indifferent reaction to her former BFF’s death. I’d consider reading a future book in the series, but I won’t be waiting with bated breath.

Jennifer Ryan, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir — An epistolary novel set in an English village during World War II is obviously going to be right up my alley! The book is narrated by five girls and women from the village, who cope with their fear and grief by singing in an all-female choir. The not-so-subtle theme is that the women have finally found a way to raise their voices, exert their power, and make decisions for themselves. I wasn’t quite gripped by all of the characters—I loved Mrs. Tilling but didn’t care so much for Venetia and Kitty—so I didn’t absolutely love this book, but it’s still a very good read for fans of WWII novels.

Four Swans, TheOur Dark Duet

Winston Graham, The Four Swans — ***Warning: spoilers for previous books in the Poldark series***

In book #6 of the series, the Poldarks and the Warleggans maintain an uneasy truce. Demelza is drawn to a young naval officer who has fallen in love with her. Caroline and Dwight struggle in the early days of their marriage. Elizabeth and George confront the elephant in the room, Valentine’s paternity. Osborne Whitworth continues to be the worst. Drake tries to get over Morwenna, and Sam Carne falls in love with an unsuitable woman. Meanwhile, parliamentary elections are held in Truro, with surprising results. This series is still going strong, and I’m eager to see what happens next. I do find the books a bit too long, and they’re easy for me to put down. Still, I have to keep reading to see what (hopefully) terrible fate will befall Ossie!

Victoria Schwab, Our Dark Duet — ***Warning: spoilers for This Savage Song***

After the events of This Savage Song, Kate and August have gone their separate ways. Kate is hunting monsters in Prosperity, while August is desperately trying to defend the few humans left in Verity from the monsters — especially Sloan, who somehow survived the events of the previous book and who now has grand ambitions. This is a very good conclusion to This Savage Song; it provides a dark but satisfying ending, and I also found it a quick, absorbing read. I didn’t really like the introduction of Kate’s friends from Prosperity — they should have been either more important to the plot or cut altogether. Also, there’s a bit too much gore and violence for my liking. But people who enjoy dark fantasy should definitely pick up this duology, and fans of the first book won’t be disappointed.

Review: On Second Thought

on-second-thoughtKristan Higgins, On Second Thought

After years of being single, Kate has finally found happiness with her new husband, Nathan. Their only marital problem so far is that Kate hasn’t yet gotten pregnant. Meanwhile, Kate’s half-sister Ainsley has been with her boyfriend Eric ever since college, and he’s dragging his feet about proposing to her, but she remains convinced that he’s “the one.” But the lives of both women change forever when Nathan dies in a tragic accident. Now a devastated Kate must deal with her grief — a horrible situation made even harder by her discovery that Nathan may have been hiding something from her. Meanwhile, the shock of Nathan’s death leads Eric to break up with Ainsley, who is blindsided by the loss of the future she’d been imagining for years. As both Kate and Ainsley try to move forward, they turn to each other for support and begin to forge a closer relationship.

I always enjoy Kristan Higgins’ contemporary romance novels, and even though this one isn’t quite as focused on romance, I still really liked it! I saw a few reviews that complained it’s depressing because it focuses so much on grief, and I can certainly understand that point of view. But to me, the story felt very hopeful and uplifting, because it’s about how both sisters are able to cope with the great pain and loss in their lives. I loved the relationship between Kate and Ainsley, who aren’t particularly close in the beginning of the book but eventually come to understand and appreciate one another. They both become more confident in their own lives, too, both professionally and in other family relationships. Of course, there is some romance in the novel as well, which I thoroughly (and predictably) enjoyed. I’d recommend this book to fans of romance or women’s fiction who don’t mind a slightly weightier premise.

Review: The Glimpses of the Moon

glimpses-of-the-moon-theEdith Wharton, The Glimpses of the Moon

In the glittering whirl of 1920s New York society, Nick Lansing and Susy Branch are intelligent but impoverished: they survive by living off the generosity of their richer friends. They fall in love with each other and decide to marry, but they agree that if either of them gets a chance to make a better financial match, they’ll divorce amicably. At first the marriage is very successful, and Nick and Susy are able to live off their friends’ extravagant wedding gifts. But when one of their friends lets them stay at her Italian villa during the honeymoon, they soon discover that she requires an ethically dubious favor in return. This favor drives a wedge between Nick and Susy — a wedge that widens even further when a titled Englishman and a rich heiress present themselves as alternative romantic options. In the end, will love or money prevail?

I don’t have much to say about this book except that I really loved it! Wharton’s prose is flawlessly precise, and she has an immense talent for evoking a character’s complete emotional state with a few subtle, well-chosen words. I actually found this book a bit stressful to read at times, because I cared about Nick and Susy so much, and I really wanted their marriage to work out despite the obstacles in their way. I liked the fact that no one is really a villain in the book, not even the wealthier romantic possibilities who are hoping that the marriage will break up. That said, Wharton does include some wonderfully biting satire about the upper classes and the frivolity and emptiness of their lifestyle. I’d recommend this book to anyone, especially those who love comedies of manners and the classics.

Review: Can I See You Again?

can-i-see-you-againAllison Morgan, Can I See You Again?

Bree Caxton owns a successful matchmaking business in California, and her first book is about to be published. So when her boyfriend of four years breaks up with her out of the blue, she panics: not only is she heartbroken on a personal level, but who wants to buy a book about love from someone whose own love life is a mess? Bree needs her book to sell big, both for her own career and for her grandmother, who is about to be evicted from her longtime home. Desperate, Bree asks one of her clients, Nixon Voss, to pose as her boyfriend in public interviews. Surprisingly, Nixon agrees, and the more time they spend together, the more Bree wonders whether they have a real connection. But will Bree’s determination to launch a bestseller — and the sudden reappearance of her ex — end their relationship before it begins?

As I frequently mention on this blog, “fake relationship becomes real” is one of my favorite romance tropes, so I was intrigued by the premise of this book. Sadly, I wasn’t particularly wowed by the execution. The central conflict — Bree needs her book to make the NYT bestseller list so that her grandma won’t lose her house — just seemed too farfetched. In what universe would that plan actually work? I also wasn’t particularly invested in Bree’s relationship with Nixon, for some reason. Maybe they don’t spend enough time together in the book? Or maybe neither character is developed well enough for me to see why they’re so right for each other. I did like that Nixon has some semblance of a personality, but as I said, he’s really not in the book that much; the primary focus is on Bree’s professional life and her relationship wth her grandma. Overall, while this book isn’t terrible, I don’t think it’s particularly interesting or memorable.

Review: Crosstalk

crosstalkConnie Willis, Crosstalk

In a near-future society, people are looking for ever more efficient ways to communicate and connect with each other. A new experimental procedure, the EED, allows couples to feel each other’s emotions and thus (theoretically) strengthen their relationship. Briddey Flannigan is thrilled when her boyfriend Trent asks her to get an EED with him, but her nosy family doesn’t like the idea, nor does her reclusive colleague C.B. Nevertheless, Briddey goes ahead with the procedure, only to discover that something has gone terribly wrong — she’s now connected to C.B., not Trent. Moreover, she doesn’t just sense his emotions; she seems to be able to read his mind. Now, with C.B.’s help, Briddey must figure out why this connection occurred and learn how to break it, before the negative effects of their telepathic connection cause irreversible damage.

I’m huge Connie Willis fan, so I had high expectations for this book, and I’m happy to say I wasn’t disappointed! This novel has just as much humor and romance as her other light novels, with an added dash of commentary on the negative aspects of incessant communication. I really enjoyed the little asides about past scientific research into telepathy, as well as the speculation that famous historical figures who heard voices (most notably Joan of Arc) might actually have been telepathic. I do think the plot had a few too many twists and turns at the end; the book’s length could have been trimmed somewhat. But I was having such a ball following Briddey and C.B.’s story that I barely noticed at the time! To be fair, the book does have its flaws, which I think the NPR review covers quite well — I can definitely see the reviewer’s point. But I still loved the book, and I would definitely recommend it to Willis fans! Newcomers to her work might want to start with To Say Nothing of the Dog or Doomsday Book (although the latter is much darker) instead.

Mini-Reviews #11: December, part 1

I can’t believe it’s already New Year’s Eve…time to finish up those 2016 (mini) reviews before 2017 arrives!

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Carl Hiaasen, Skink: No Surrender — Teenager Richard teams up with the idiosyncratic Skink (former governor, current homeless eco-warrior) to find Richard’s missing cousin Malley. There’s no particular mystery about what happened to her, but the fun is in the journey, as rule-follower Richard finds his worldview enlarged by Skink’s more reckless lifestyle. Overall, while this isn’t really my kind of book, I did enjoy it and may read more by the author. I believe Skink is a recurring character in Hiaasen’s novels, and I’d like to know more of his backstory.

Kristan Higgins, Somebody to Love — Another light, charming contemporary romance from Kristan Higgins. Although most of her books are not serialized, this one borrows the location (and a few characters) from Catch of the Day, and it also features the couple from The Next Best Thing. Having read those two books, I enjoyed seeing how the various fictional worlds overlapped. That said, I don’t think you’d miss anything important if you haven’t read the other two books. I always enjoy Higgins’ books, but this one isn’t destined to be one of my favorites.

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Donna Moore, Old Dogs — If you enjoy heist movies, you should definitely check out this book, which involves two priceless historical artifacts: solid gold dog statues. Main characters Letty and Dora are aging ex-hookers who hope to enjoy a lavish retirement by stealing the dogs from a museum exhibit. The trouble is, they’re not the only ones after the dogs…. While I didn’t find this one laugh-out-loud funny, it does include plenty of entertaining mishaps, mistaken identities, and mad schemes of vengeance. Definitely worth reading if the word “caper” appeals to you!

Georgette Heyer, Envious Casca — So far, I’ve found Heyer’s mysteries to be a bit hit-or-miss, but I think this is her best one yet! It’s an English country house murder set at Christmas. Of course, there’s a big family party, and of course, everyone has a reason to wish the estate’s owner dead. The novel is very well plotted, and the solution to the mystery is (in my opinion) utterly convincing. Even if you’ve tried another Heyer mystery and didn’t particularly like it, I’d urge you to give this one a try!

Mini-reviews #10: A mixed bag

I’m still so far behind on both reading and reviewing. I’m still hoping to read six more books in December, but with just two weeks left, I’m not sure how possible that is! At any rate, I can at least try to catch up with the review backlog:

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J.L. Carr, A Month in the Country — This quiet, deceptively simple novel is about a World War I veteran who spends a summer restoring a medieval mural in a village church. Nothing much happens, plot-wise, but the narrator (now an old man) remembers this summer as one of the only times in his life when he was truly happy. I really enjoyed this book, which contains some subtle humor despite its overall tone of melancholy, and I’m interested in reading more by Carr.

Kate Parker, The Vanishing Thief — I should have loved this book, which is about a female bookseller in the Victorian era who is also a member of a secret society of detectives. Unfortunately, I wasn’t a fan of the writing style, which I found choppy and clumsy, nor was I interested enough in any of the characters to continue with the series. The author does have another mystery series set in the 1930s, which I might try, but I’ll definitely be going in with more moderate expectations.

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Joseph Bruchac, Code Talker — This YA novel is told from the perspective of Ned Begay, a Navajo man who enlists in the Marines as a teenager and becomes a “code talker” during World War II. Although the writing style is a bit simplistic at times, the book presents a good introduction to the Navajo code talkers, and it made me want to read a lot more about them! I was also very touched by the book’s dedication:

This book is dedicated to those who have always, in proportion to their population, volunteered in the greatest numbers, suffered the most casualties, won the most Purple Hearts and decorations for valor, and served loyally in every war fought by the United States against foreign enemies, from the American Revolution to Afghanistan and Iraq–to the American Indian soldier.

Emma Mills, This Adventure Ends — I loved this book! It’s a YA contemporary novel that, while it contains a (very cute!) romance, primarily focuses on friendship. Main character Sloane has always been something of a loner, but when the charismatic Vera reaches out to her, she suddenly finds herself in the midst of a very tight-knit friend group. I found Sloane very relatable, though not always likable, and I really enjoyed all aspects of the story. Definitely recommended for people who like YA contemporaries — this is a fantastic example of the genre.

Mini-Reviews #9: Readathon reviews

With this batch of mini-reviews, I’m once again caught up with my backlog. I read three of the four books during the October 24-hour readathon, hence the title of this post. 🙂

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Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle — Merricat Blackwood, her sister Constance, and her Uncle Julian are the last remnant of a once-prominent family. They live in a decrepit, isolated old house, and they don’t associate with any of the people in the nearby town. The novel’s sinister atmosphere is augmented by the suspicion that seven years ago, Constance deliberately poisoned the rest of her family. I’m no fan of horror, but I found this to be a very well-written, creepy but not too scary book. I may even read some more Shirley Jackson in the future.

Eva Ibbotson, Which Witch? — I’ve been a fan of Ibbotson’s YA/adult novels for years now, but this was my first experience reading one of her books for children. It was just as delightful as I expected it to be, telling the story of a dark wizard who holds a competition to determine which witch will be his bride. Beautiful and kind Belladonna would love to be the winner, but her magic is inescapably good. How will she convince Arriman the Awful that she’s his perfect match?

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Teresa Medeiros, Goodnight Tweetheart — The plot of this romance novel is essentially “Boy meets girl on Twitter.” As such, the book is inescapably dated, but I must admit I enjoyed it anyway! It had some good banter and some sweet moments…overall, a pleasant escapist read. It’s not a new favorite or anything, but it’s definitely a fun way to spend an evening (or, in my case, the middle of the night!).

Leigh Bardugo, Crooked Kingdom — If you loved Six of Crows, which I didCrooked Kingdom will not disappoint! The twists and turns of the plot kept me hooked, and I loved the fact that Kaz was always one step ahead of his enemies. And as with the previous book, I was completely invested in these characters and rooting for them all to achieve their goals. I especially liked that this book gave more attention to Jesper and Wylan, the two characters who were least fleshed out in Six of Crows. There was also a very welcome appearance by Nikolai, my favorite character in the Grisha trilogy, which leads me to believe that Bardugo isn’t done with this world yet!

Mini-Reviews #8: Losing steam

The last few months of the year always seem to fly by — I can’t believe it’s the middle of November already! Much as I love Christmas and all the hoopla leading up to it, I’m feeling a little burned out this year. I’m behind on reviews again, and I don’t feel particularly enthusiastic about catching up. So it’s back to mini-reviews for the time being, and I think I’m going to stick with this format until the end of 2016. Hopefully I’ll be ready to come back in January with renewed enthusiasm! In the meantime, here are some thoughts on the books I’ve read recently:

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Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, The Most Beautiful Book in the World (trans. Alison Anderson) — This collection of eight “novellas”/short stories is an interesting meditation on womanhood and the passage of time. Most of the stories have a melancholic aspect, as the (almost always) female protagonists cope with issues like aging, infidelity, illness, and just plain unhappiness. All the same, I enjoyed these stories, particularly “Odette Toulemonde,” which is probably the most uplifting in the bunch. The only one that stood out to me in a negative way was “Intruder,” which has a gimmicky ending. Definitely worth reading if the description sounds interesting to you!

Jay Kristoff, Nevernight — I saw a lot of buzz about this book when it came out, but unfortunately it didn’t live up to the hype for me. The story is about Mia Corvere, a young woman seeking revenge after the political murder of her father and subsequent destruction of her family. She decides to seek out the Red Church, essentially a school for assassins, in order to pursue her revenge. Sounds pretty cool, right? Unfortunately, I could not deal with the writing style, which was completely overblown and trying way too hard to be impressive. I realize this is a very subjective criticism, and other readers may love the style, but it was emphatically not for me.

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Alice Tilton, Beginning with a Bash — What a fun Golden Age mystery! This is the first book in the Leonidas Witherall series, in which our detective has to solve a murder that occurred in a used bookstore before an innocent man takes the blame. Along the way, Leonidas — who is almost always called Bill Shakespeare because of his resemblance to the Bard — reconnects with an old flame and becomes embroiled in a feud between two notorious gangs. It’s really more of an adventure story than a mystery; the whodunit takes a backseat to the car chases, secret passageways, and assorted goings-on. There’s also some delightful vintage banter, which makes me mad that there’s no film version starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. I’ll definitely be continuing with this series, and thankfully I already own the next book, The Cut Direct!

Kasie West, P.S. I Like You — “You’ve Got Mail” is one of my favorite movies, so I was excited to read this YA contemporary romance with a similar plot. One day while spacing out in chemistry class, Lily absentmindedly scribbles a lyric from her favorite indie song onto her desk. The next day, she discovers that someone has continued the lyric, and before she knows it, she and her unknown correspondent are trading notes about music and a whole lot more. But when Lily discovers the identity of her pen pal, it’s the last person she would ever expect. I really enjoyed this book, despite its utter predictability and Lily’s annoying inability to see what’s right in front of her. It’s an adorable, light romance, and sometimes that’s just what you need.

Review: The Sky Is Everywhere

sky-is-everywhere-theJandy Nelson, The Sky Is Everywhere

Ever since the sudden, tragic death of her sister Bailey, Lennie has basically shut down. She doesn’t talk to anyone, not even her best friend or her grandmother. Her only consolations are reading Wuthering Heights for the umpteenth time and writing poetry about her sister, which she leaves in bits and pieces all over town. A month after Bailey’s death, Lennie returns to school and band practice on autopilot — that is, until she meets the new kid, Joe, who is both an amazing musician and an impossibly handsome boy. Joe is a shock to her system, and her instant crush on him actually seems to be requited. But Lennie is struggling with several conflicting emotions, including fear and guilt that she is betraying Bailey by continuing to live her life. Then there’s Bailey’s boyfriend Toby, who is turning to Lennie to ease his grief because she’s the only one who understands. As Lennie sorts out her complicated personal life, she also slowly begins to work through her grief.

I really loved Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun, so I had high expectations for this book. Unfortunately, I didn’t love this one quite as much, although I still thought it was a good read. Much as Lennie annoyed me sometimes — she spends a lot of the novel preoccupied by Joe and/or Toby — her actions did seem realistic to me. The romance was ultimately very sweet, but my favorite part of the book was the portrayal of Lennie and Bailey’s relationship. They’re only a year apart, and they’ve always been very close, with Lennie looking up to Bailey as the older and more extroverted sister. But in the aftermath of Bailey’s death, Lennie realizes that Bailey kept some secrets from her. She also learns that her admiration of Bailey has actually prevented her from following her own dreams, because she always felt that Bailey was the one who deserved the spotlight. I thought this relationship was very complex and interesting, and I’m glad Nelson spent so much time on it, although the romantic story was a little thinner as a result. Overall, I would still recommend this book, even though it didn’t quite grab me in the same way that I’ll Give You the Sun did.