Mini-Reviews: Golden, Holidays, Undertaking

Francis Spufford, Golden Hill

It’s November 1746, and Richard Smith has just arrived in the small town of New York. He visits a countinghouse and produces a note for 1,000 pounds — a huge sum. The denizens of New York don’t know what to make of him: Is he simply a rich man planning to explore the pleasures of a new place? Or is he some kind of fraud, spy, or scoundrel? As Smith explores the city, he gets into various kinds of financial, political, and romantic trouble, but it’s not till the end of the novel that his true purpose is revealed. I really enjoyed this book, which apes the picaresque adventures and digressive style of 18th-century novels. It does a good job of pointing out the social ills of the period (such a slavery) without being anachronistic or preachy. It’s also just plain fun to follow the possibly roguish Smith around and try to figure out what he’s up to, though the ending is a bit of a heartbreaker. But I’d still heartily recommend this book to historical fiction fans!

David Sedaris, Holidays on Ice

This book is a collection of holiday-themed stories and essays, some of them autobiographical and most previously published elsewhere. “SantaLand Diaries” chronicles the time Sedaris worked as a Macy’s elf, “Christmas Means Giving” follows two families as they compete to see who can best demonstrate the true meaning of the season, and “Jesus Shaves” sheds some light on different cultures’ Easter traditions. These short works contain some hilarious moments, but frankly, a lot of them are dark and depressing. One story ends with the murder of a baby, while in another, parents sell their children to a pedophile. So if you’re looking for light, fun stories to get you in the holiday spirit, I’d recommend skipping this one! But if you’re of a more cynical disposition during this time of year, then it could be just the thing for you. For me, it was a mixed bag and probably not a keeper.

Megan Bannen, The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy

This book is a weird but winning genre mashup of romance, fantasy, and Western. Hart Ralston is a marshal in a fantasy world similar to our own, but with zombielike creatures called drudges; his job is to kill them and take their bodies to the nearby undertakers. One such undertaker is Mercy Birdsall, who loves her job but is desperately trying to keep the family business afloat, despite a sick father and uninterested brother. Hart and Mercy fight constantly, but their mutual antagonism is concealing very different feelings, which emerge when they become anonymous penpals. So basically, the book is The Shop around the Corner/You’ve Got Mail with a bit of zombie action and a Western flavor…which sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it totally does! I didn’t need quite as much world-building and would have preferred more of a buildup to the romance, but overall I loved this one and would recommend it if the premise sounds appealing.

Mini-Reviews: Cryoburn, Rather, Cold

Lois McMaster Bujold, Cryoburn

In this installment of the Vorkosigan saga, Miles is investigating possible skulduggery on the planet Kibou-Daini, on which people generally choose to be cryogenically frozen instead of dying. The corporations that do the freezing then assume control of their frozen patrons’ assets and political votes. Now these cryocorps are trying to expand their business onto Komarr, which makes it Miles’s problem, and he soon uncovers and foils yet another dastardly scheme. I’ll admit, I didn’t totally follow the plot of this novel, but I did enjoy Miles’s antics and the characters he meets on Kibou, especially young animal lover Jin Sato. It’s also interesting that, while much of this series is about the creation of life (uterine replicators, Cetagandan genetic manipulation), this book pivots to examine death. I’m eager to read the next (and final) book in the series, but I’m also sad that it’s coming to an end!

Allison Ashley, Would You Rather

Noah and Mia have been best friends since childhood, but despite a long-simmering mutual attraction, they’ve never tried to take the relationship farther. Now Mia has the opportunity to go back to school and pursue her dream career, but to do that she’ll need to quit her job — which she can’t do, because she has a rare kidney disease and can’t afford to lose her health insurance. Noah suggests a marriage of convenience so that Mia can be covered under his insurance, but complications ensue as they both try to navigate a fake relationship with very real feelings. This is a quick and enjoyable read with a lot of angsty mutual pining. I liked that both Noah and Mia had problems outside the relationship that weren’t magically fixed, but I also really wanted them both to get some therapy! But I liked this one overall, and I’m kind of hoping for a sequel featuring side characters Graham and Claire.

Sherry Thomas, Murder on Cold Street

In this installment of the Lady Sherlock series, Charlotte Holmes’s ally Inspector Treadles is arrested for the murder of two men with ties to his wife’s business. The evidence is wildly incriminating, but Mrs. Treadles insists her husband is innocent, so Charlotte and her friends must try to discover alternate suspects and motives. Meanwhile, Lord Ingram finally decides to act on his feelings for Charlotte, which leads her to reexamine her own emotions. This book was fine, but at this point I’m reading for the characters and relationships rather than the mystery plots. Charlotte & co. spend a lot of time interviewing witnesses, and in the end the solution isn’t terribly complex. I’m getting a bit weary of Moriarty as a shadowy background villain who seems to have a connection to every aspect of Charlotte’s life, and I hope he’ll get some actual character development in the next book. Once I get current with the series this year, I may not care enough to pursue future installments.

Mini-Reviews: Rogue, Song, Jewel

Amberley Martin, The Rogue and the Peasant

Esme is a peasant, but her mother always told her she’d be a queen someday. So when a noble lady arrives at her cottage to whisk her off to Finishing School, Esme assumes it’s time to fulfill her destiny — but being kidnapped doesn’t seem like part of the plan. Meanwhile, the kidnapper, Rory, has his own problems: He’s paying off a debt to a sinister Fairy Godmother, and he’s literally haunted by his father’s ghost. When Esme and Rory begin to work together, they learn that their fates are intertwined in surprising ways. Based on the book’s cover copy, I thought this was going to be a romance, and it definitely 100% is not. I also thought the author’s influences were a little too obvious — there’s a whole chapter that basically rips off the movie Labyrinth. But I did like Esme and Rory as characters, and the book subverts traditional fairy tale narratives in interesting ways. Overall, it’s a decent fantasy read, just not what I was expecting.

Kerry Winfrey, Just Another Love Song

Fifteen years ago, Sandy and Hank were high school sweethearts, determined to leave their small town of Baileyville, Ohio, and pursue their dreams. Now Hank has achieved his goal of becoming a famous musician, but Sandy stayed in Baileyville. While she’s mostly content with her life, she regrets the way things ended with Hank, especially since no other man she’s dated has measured up. When Hank comes back to town, Sandy is forced to confront her unresolved feelings. I loved Kerry Winfrey’s first book, Waiting for Tom Hanks, and I really enjoy her warm, funny writing style. But I didn’t love this one quite as much, mostly because I don’t tend to like second-chance romances. I also thought the book’s dramatic tension vanished around the halfway point, when Sandy and Hank have an honest conversation that eliminates most of the conflict. But I did like the book overall and will definitely keep reading more by this author.

Mary Balogh, A Precious Jewel

Sir Gerald Stapleton has no interest in marriage; past experience has taught him that women can’t be trusted, and he feels himself too dull and ordinary to inspire love. But he doesn’t want to do without female companionship altogether, so he occasionally visits a high-class brothel. When he meets Priscilla, one of brothel’s employees, he is drawn to her — and when another client abuses her, Gerald impulsively decides to make her his mistress. But the more time they spend together, the more complicated their relationship grows. I was fascinated by this book’s premise and by the unconventional protagonists, a beta-male hero and a prostitute heroine. While I found Gerald unlikable at times and Priss too much of a doormat, I was also able to sympathize with both characters and root for them to figure things out. I’m not exactly sure how I’d rate this book, but it’s certainly a memorable one!

Mini-Reviews: Duke, Brain, Behold

Jane Ashford, The Duke Who Loved Me

James Cantrell has just inherited a dukedom, and with it a mountain of responsibilities. Desperate to avoid these, he proposes to Cecelia Vainsmede, a longtime friend whose competence and organizational skills will surely allow him to ignore his new duties. But Cecelia is in love with James (unbeknownst to him) and is hurt by his casual proposal. Her refusal piques James’s curiosity and interest — especially when a rival suitor appears on the scene. But James needs to grow up before he can figure out what he truly wants. Ashford’s books have been hit or miss for me, but I quite liked this one! James is definitely a flawed character, but I appreciated his growth throughout the book. The main obstacle to the romance is poor communication, which is frustrating at times but relatable and realistic. The ending is very abrupt and I wanted more resolution, but otherwise I liked this one and would recommend it to fans of the genre.

Ali Hazelwood, Love on the Brain

Bee Königswasser has just landed her dream job as the lead neuroscientist on a NASA project. Unfortunately, her co-leader is also her grad school nemesis, Levi Ward, who has always treated her with cold disdain. When Bee starts the job, she’s plagued by workplace sexism and office politics, but Levi is an unexpected ally, and eventually Bee discovers that he never actually hated her at all. As with the author’s previous book, The Love Hypothesis, I found this novel compulsively readable, though some aspects of it didn’t ring true for me. For example, I love a hero who pines after the heroine, but the extent of Levi’s pining did not feel realistic. I also found Bee’s various cutesy quirks annoying at times, and the ending took a weird turn into straight-up melodrama. Still, I’d recommend this one if you like the premise and don’t mind a steamier contemporary romance.

Francis Duncan, Behold a Fair Woman

Mordecai Tremaine is a bit burned out on his hobby of detection, so he’s taking a vacation to visit some friends on a (fictional) Channel Island. At first he’s happy to enjoy the beaches and mingle with the other vacationers, but he soon begins to notice tense relationships and suspicious activity at an old mill. When one of his new acquaintances is murdered, Tremaine helps the local police to solve the mystery. Like the other books I’ve read by this author, I found this one solid but unspectacular. The pacing felt a bit off: the murder doesn’t happen until about halfway through, and then all the various strands of the mystery finally come together about two pages from the end. I wanted a bit more resolution, I think. So, I’m not enthusiastically recommending it, but it was still a decent read.

Mini-Reviews: Crystal, Mad, Major

Sharon Shinn, Wrapt in Crystal

Cowen Drake is a Moonchild (essentially a space cop) who’s been sent to the planet of Semay to investigate a string of murders. All the victims are priestesses, but they belong to two different religious sects: the Triumphantes, who serve their goddess via joy and pleasure, and the Fideles, who favor a more austere approach to worship. Nothing else seems to connect the victims, so Cowen has to dig deep to find suspects and motives. As he investigates, he also wrestles with his own feelings about religion and is drawn to both Jovieve, the leader of the Triumphantes, and Laura, a Fidele nun. I really liked how this book skillfully blends the genres of fantasy, police procedural, and romance. The exploration of religious faith is also thoughtful and interesting. If the premise appeals to you, I’d definitely recommend this one!

Mhairi McFarlane, Mad about You

Harriet is a wedding photographer but has no interest in marriage for herself. So when her boyfriend of two years proposes (in front of his obnoxious family, no less!), she knows she has to end things — which means she needs a new living situation ASAP. She ends up renting a room from Cal, but as she grows closer to him, her past relationships affect her present, and she must ultimately confront an abusive ex-boyfriend. I think the marketing of this book is terribly misleading — while there is a very sweet romance in it, this novel is primarily about Harriet working through the trauma of an abusive relationship. At least a third of the book is about her experiences with the abuser, so if that’s a tough topic for you, I would urge you to steer clear! That said, I stayed up way too late to finish this one; I found it very compelling, and I liked Harriet’s humorous narrative voice (her friends were a hoot as well!). I think this is one of McFarlane’s best books and would recommend it to those who like women’s fiction — with the caveat that the subject matter is heavy and hard to read at times.

Jennifer Echols, Major Crush

Virginia is proud of being the first female drum major at her Alabama high school. Too bad she has to share the position with Drew, a cute but cocky boy whose leadership style clashes with her own. The band director threatens to demote them both unless they can stop their constant arguing; but the more time they are forced to spend playing nice, the more complicated their relationship grows. I wasn’t expecting much from this teen romance, and indeed, a lot of the plot elements are a bit half-baked and confusing. But I’ve read and enjoyed some of Echols’s later work, and there are definite signs of her talent here too. Mr. Rush, the irascible band director, is a delight, and Virginia and Drew’s tumultuous relationship feels pretty true to teenage life. So while the book is definitely not a keeper for me, I did enjoy it more than I thought!

Mini-Reviews: Solo, Confinement, Remember

Linda Holmes, Flying Solo

Laurie’s Great Aunt Dot has recently died, so Laurie returns to her Maine hometown to go through Dot’s things and sell the house. When Laurie discovers a potentially valuable wooden duck among Dot’s possessions, she investigates its background and learns some new information about Dot’s life. She also reflects on her own circumstances — like Dot, she is single and childless by choice — and considers rekindling a romance with her first love. If you want a lot of drama and excitement in your books, this one isn’t for you; it’s very quiet and doesn’t have much plot (aside from a charming little heist!). But the dialogue and characterization shine — Laurie and her friends feel and sound like real people. There is a romantic subplot, but I would definitely not characterize the book as a romance. Overall, I mildly liked this novel, but it’s not destined to be a favorite. I prefer Holmes’s previous book, Evvie Drake Starts Over.

Anna Dean, A Place of Confinement

In this fourth installment of the series, Dido Kent is acting as a companion to her Aunt Manners, a rich invalid, and staying at yet another country estate. One of the other houseguests, a young lady, has gone missing and is thought to have eloped; later, a man with a mysterious connection to the estate is murdered. The chief suspect for both incidents is Tom Lomax, the son of the man Dido loves, so she is determined to prove his innocence by discovering what really happened. As with the other books in this series, this is a well-written historical mystery that (unlike many other historical mysteries) feels true to its time. The plots can get a bit convoluted, with a few too many side characters. Also, I don’t think the author planned for this book to be the last, but the series-long arc ends in a good place, so it’s a reasonably satisfying finale. Overall, if the “Jane Austen + mystery” concept appeals to you, I’d definitely recommend the series!

Mary Balogh, Remember Love

The Wares of Ravenswood are a tight-knit family, beloved in their community — until the estate’s heir, Devlin, discovers a shameful secret about his father and publicly denounces him. In the ensuing scandal, Devlin is banished from Ravenswood and spends six years in Europe fighting Napoleon’s forces. When he eventually returns, he must mend his broken relationships with his family and with his first love, Gwyneth. I’m a Mary Balogh fan, but this book is not her best. The pre-scandal section drags on forever and introduces far too many characters, most of whom don’t play a significant role in the story. I also disagreed with Devlin’s initial actions, so I found it hard to warm up to him later. Further, the book is so focused on setting up the series’s world and characters that the romance takes a backseat. I never felt the connection between Devlin and Gwyneth or cared about them as a couple. That said, I do love this author and will plan to continue with the series, hoping future books are better.

Mini-Reviews: Archangel, Shy, Ladies

Sharon Shinn, Archangel

Gabriel, an angel who intercedes with the god Jovah on behalf of the people of Samaria, needs a wife to sing the annual Gloria required by the god. But when he asks an oracle for the name and location of his fated bride, he is dismayed to learn that Jovah has chosen Rachel, a slave and the daughter of peasants. Rachel is equally angry at the news, thinking she will be going from one type of slavery to another. As Gabriel and Rachel unwillingly comply with the god’s will, they slowly inch closer together, but a power grab from an ambitious rival angel may tear them apart — and cause the destruction of the whole land of Samaria. I found the world of this novel jarring at first, as it borrows names and concepts from the Hebrew Bible but uses them in a very different context. But ultimately I did enjoy the story and the romance between Gabriel and Rachel (although her continued defiance gets a bit frustrating at times). Recommended if you like the author or you’re interested in the premise, but I don’t plan to continue with the series.

Sarah Hogle, Twice Shy

Maybell is down on her luck, stuck in an unfulfilling job and recently catfished by someone she thought was a friend. Things seem to improve when she inherits a huge old house and hundreds of acres of land from her great-aunt — until she discovers that Wesley, the taciturn groundskeeper, is an equal inheritor with his own plans for the property. As they work together to fix up the house and grounds, Maybell and Wesley grow closer, but their emotional baggage may keep them apart. I enjoyed this book overall, but I have some quibbles. The novel mentions serious issues like child neglect and severe anxiety/panic attacks, yet it never takes the time to really engage with them. Instead, the focus is on lighthearted renovation projects, treasure hunts, and romance — which I like in theory, but in this case they’re tonally jarring. Also, Maybell’s personality and narrative style are impossibly twee, which bothered me at times even though I have an above-average twee tolerance. All that said, though, I did like the book and would consider reading more by the author.

Lauren Edmondson, Ladies of the House

This modern retelling of Sense and Sensibility shifts the story to the DC political world. When Senator Gregory Richardson dies of a heart attack — in bed with his 20-something mistress — his wife Cricket and daughters Daisy and Wallis are left to deal with the scandal and the ensuing loss of their credibility and social standing. When more details of her father’s shady past come to light, Daisy must decide whether to speak up or keep silent. I’m of two minds about this book. It’s a successful retelling in that it realistically transposes most of the events of the original book to a modern setting; but at the same time, I think it totally misses the spirit of the original! Daisy is no Elinor Dashwood; instead of being the steadfast, unselfish character who keeps her family afloat, she spends most of the book wallowing and makes some shockingly unethical decisions. I also wasn’t a fan of the author’s dismissive attitude toward people who don’t agree with her politically. To be fair, I was never reluctant to pick up the book, and I found it a quick read, but overall I was disappointed with this one.

Mini-Reviews: Bodyguard, Dog, Fortune-Hunting

Katherine Center, The Bodyguard

Hannah is an “executive protection agent,” a.k.a. a bodyguard, whose job is her whole life. But her latest assignment is less than ideal: the client is Jack Stapleton, a famous (and incredibly handsome) actor who has been receiving threats from a stalker. He doesn’t want to worry his sick mother by telling her he’s in danger, so he asks Hannah to pose as his girlfriend. Inevitably, their fake relationship starts feeling a bit too real for Hannah. I have really loved some of Katherine Center’s books, but this one fell flat for me. I never quite bought Hannah as a character, and I didn’t believe she was as good at her job as she claimed to be. The obstacles to the romance also seemed a bit contrived. It’s not a bad read by any means — I tore through virtually the whole thing in a day — but it’s not a keeper for me.

Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog

It’s 2057, and time travel is possible, but there are two laws that govern it: you can’t change the course of history (no killing Hitler), and you can’t bring anything back with you (such as ancient treasures or priceless works of art). That is, until historian Verity Brown returns from a trip to the Victorian era with a cat. No one knows how this could have happened, and everyone is terrified that Verity might have destroyed the space-time continuum. The only hope is to send fellow historian Ned Henry back in time to replace the cat before anyone notices it’s missing. But of course, complications immediately ensue. This is one of my all-time favorite books: it has everything from time travel and chaos theory to romance and Agatha Christie references, not to mention historical trips to the Victorian era and World War II. I can understand why the book may not be for everyone — there’s a lot of miscommunication, which can be stressful, and perhaps a bit too much going on. But I love it too much to be rational about its flaws, and I always want everyone to read it!

Sophie Irwin, A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting

Kitty Talbot desperately needs to marry a rich man. She and her four younger sisters live in a crumbling country cottage, from which they will soon be evicted unless Kitty can come up with the money to pay the mortgage. She convinces a friend of her deceased mother’s to launch her in London society, and she soon zeros in on a target: the young, wealthy, and smitten Archibald de Lacy. Archie’s older brother, Lord Radcliffe, sees through Kitty’s scheme and is determined to prevent the match. Yet the more their opposing goals throw them together, the more they actually enjoy each other’s company. The plot of this Regency romance is nothing new, but I found it great fun! Kitty’s single-minded determination (combined with the subtlety of a sledgehammer) makes her a unique heroine, and I loved the development of her relationship with Radcliffe. I’d definitely recommend this book to historical romance fans, and I’ll be interested to read more by the author.

Mini-Reviews: Consequence, Eight, Crucible

Anna Dean, A Woman of Consequence

Dido Kent finds herself in the middle of another mystery when a young lady utters the words “I saw her,” then falls from the tower of a ruined abbey. Rumors suggest that the injured girl was referring to the Grey Nun, the abbey’s ghost, but Dido suspects there is a more mundane explanation. Shortly after this incident, renovations to the local estate uncover the skeleton of a woman who went missing from the area 15 years ago. Was it suicide, accident, or murder? I’m continuing to enjoy this series; the books are well written, with several nods to Jane Austen thrown in without being too annoyingly obvious. I also liked the development of Dido’s relationship with her maybe-suitor, William Lomax. The plot was a little too convoluted for me, but otherwise I enjoyed this one, and I’m interested to see how everything will wrap up in the fourth and final book.

Craig Rice, Eight Faces at Three

When a rich old woman is found stabbed in her home, suspicion immediately falls on her niece, Holly, who had both motive and opportunity to kill the old woman. But if she’s guilty, why did she make all the beds in the house on the night of the murder — and why did she stop all the clocks at 3:00? Holly’s lawyer, John J. Malone, is on the case, assisted by his friend Jake Justus and eccentric heiress Helene Brand. As a mystery, I’m not sure this book is entirely successful; it’s not quite fair play, and some of the “twists” are obvious from early on. But it’s just so much fun! The witty one-liners and snappy banter among the three sleuths are a joy to read, and I was happy to be along for the increasingly drunken ride. If you love movies like The Thin Man, I highly recommend this book, and I’ll certainly be seeking out more by Craig Rice.

Naomi Novik, Crucible of Gold

In book #7 of the series, Laurence and Temeraire are reinstated as members of the British Aerial Corps and ordered to Brazil, where they must help defend the Portuguese colony against France and its Tswana allies (last seen burning slave ports in Empire of Ivory). Along the way, they encounter many disasters including shipwreck, mutiny, capture, and a detour across the vast and possibly hostile territory of the Incas. I must admit, I’m losing my enthusiasm for this series. I still love the main characters and the superb writing style, but I’m a little burned out on the plots, which are unevenly paced and don’t always seem to further the overall arc of the series. That said, I will certainly continue to the end of the series and hope all turns out well for Laurence, Temeraire, and their friends!

Mini-Reviews: Smallbone, Komarr, Feather

Delia Sherman, The Evil Wizard Smallbone

Twelve-year-old Nick Reynaud runs away from an abusive home and is taken in by the Evil Wizard Smallbone. He’s unable to leave the property, and Smallbone has an irritating tendency to transform him into various animals, but Nick begins to thrive in his new life despite these drawbacks — and even learns some magic himself. When a competing evil wizard threatens Smallbone and his people, Nick decides to take action. I enjoyed this quirky middle-grade fantasy novel. It’s clever and fun but also doesn’t shy away from some darker realities. I didn’t fall in love with the book, but I definitely think it would be a great read for its target age group.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Komarr

Miles officially begins his career as Imperial Auditor by investigating the possible sabotage of Komarr’s solar mirror; without the mirror, Komarr’s terraforming project will experience severe setbacks, which will be politically difficult for Barrayar as well as disastrous for Komarr itself. As Miles uncovers a fraudulent scheme and a sinister Komarran plot, he also falls for Ekaterin Vorsoisson, the unhappily married wife of the bureaucrat with whom he’s staying. So, in other words, typical Miles! I feel like this series has really hit its stride now, and I loved this installment. It was great to get some chapters from Ekaterin’s point of view, though her relationship with Tien makes for difficult reading at times. I am SUPER excited for A Civil Campaign now!

Joyce Harmon, A Feather to Fly With

Arthur Ramsey, the Duke of Winton, is far more interested in his scientific pursuits than in high society. But he knows he must eventually marry, so he asks his gregarious best friend for help in navigating the intricacies of flirting and courtship. Meanwhile, unconventional (and highly unsuitable) Cleo Cooper has her own reasons for embarking on a London Season, and they don’t include matrimony. But when Arthur and Cleo meet, their mutual attraction threatens to upend their future plans. The front cover of this book calls it “a sparkling romantic romp in the classic Regency tradition,” and I’d say that’s spot on. I especially liked the adorably nerdy Arthur and his struggles to learn society’s unspoken rules. It’s not a particularly deep book, but it is a fun read if you like this kind of thing!