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: Name, Dark, Bellfield

Lauren Kate, By Any Other Name

Book editor Lanie is thrilled when she gets a promotion that will allow her to work with her literary idol, romance author Noa Callaway. Callaway is a pseudonym, and the public doesn’t know the author’s real identity, but Lanie pictures a worldly middle-aged woman who will become her mentor and friend. Of course, the truth is entirely different, and when a shocked Lanie meets the real “Noa,” her discovery causes her to reevaluate her entire life. I think this book has charm and potential, but I didn’t understand Lanie’s strong emotional reaction to Noa’s true identity. (My own thought was, “What’s the big deal?”) I also wanted more depth from the romance; Lanie and her love interest only spend a few days together on-page. So overall, I was disappointed, but I’d potentially try another book by the author.

Cece Louise, In a Dark, Dark Wood

Desperate to save her family from starving, miller’s daughter Calia impersonates a princess who is betrothed to Prince Brone of nearby Ebonwood. When Calia arrives at Ebonwood Castle, she encounters many mysteries and secrets, not least the personality of her reclusive fiancé. But even as she and Brone grow closer, something — or someone — at Ebonwood threatens the safety of both Calia and the entire kingdom. This YA fantasy romance is a decent read, though a bit simplistic and predictable. It borrows elements from Beauty and the Beast and from gothic romances such as Jane Eyre and Rebecca. I thought it was fine, though I won’t be racing to read the other books in the series.

Anna Dean, Bellfield Hall

Intelligent, observant “spinster” Dido Kent encounters two mysteries while visiting Bellfield Hall. First, her niece Catherine asks her to find her fiancé, Richard, who disappeared shortly after their engagement was announced. Then a woman is found shot on the grounds of the estate, and it looks like the killer must be someone living at Bellfield. Are the two incidents somehow connected? There are a lot of historical mysteries set in the early 19th century, and they vary widely in quality. I’m happy to say that I think this is one of the best I’ve read. The mystery itself is a little convoluted, but the writing style and atmosphere are spot-on, and Dido is an entertaining sleuth. I’m excited to continue with the series!

Mini-Reviews: Killing, Wish, Scales

Lee Child, Killing Floor

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

Katherine Center, What You Wish For

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

Stephanie Burgis, Scales and Sensibility

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

Mini-Reviews: Met, Folly, Red

Sophie Cousens, Just Haven’t Met You Yet

Laura is a journalist whose latest assignment is to tell the romantic story of how her parents first met. For research, she travels to the Channel Island of Jersey, where it all began — and en route, a suitcase mix-up leads her to her own potential soulmate. But as she spends more time in Jersey, she learns that both her parents’ love story and her own romantic destiny are more complicated than she thought. I enjoyed this one; it’s entertaining and well written, and despite the focus on romance, I think it does a good job of portraying the complexity of relationships. That said, I didn’t fall in love with the book the way I was hoping to…though I now definitely want to visit the Channel Islands!

Josi S. Kilpack, Lord Fenton’s Folly

Charles, Lord Fenton, has been behaving badly — so badly, in fact, that his father plans to disinherit him. To avoid this fate, Charles agrees to his parents’ long list of conditions, including a demand that he marry before the end of the Season. At his mother’s encouragement, he proposes to Alice, an old friend of the family who (unbeknownst to him) has been infatuated with him for years. But when she learns why he proposed, she becomes angry and bitter. Can Charles and Alice recover from such a bad start and make their marriage work? This was a pleasant, PG-rated Regency romance, but I wanted to see a bit more of Charles and Alice together. They seemed to go from mean bickering to trust and love pretty quickly. I wouldn’t mind trying another book by this author, but it’s not a high priority for me.

June Hur, The Red Palace

In 1758 Korea, Hyeon has risen from humble beginnings to become a palace nurse. But when four women are murdered in a single night and Hyeon’s beloved teacher is the prime suspect, she risks her position — and her life — to find the real killer. Along the way she teams up with handsome police inspector Eojin and becomes embroiled in the horrifying intrigues of the palace. This book is fast-paced with a likable protagonist, and I enjoyed the unique (to me) setting. It all felt a little insubstantial, and the mystery wasn’t particularly satisfying, but I did like the book overall. I doubt I’ll seek out more by this author, though.

Mini-Reviews: Missed, Morning, Clowns

Lindsey Kelk, In Case You Missed It

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

Laura L. Sullivan, Love by the Morning Star

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

Leo Bruce, Case with Four Clowns

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

Mini-Reviews: Honor, Astrological, Siren

Lois McMaster Bujold, Cordelia’s Honor

In Shards of Honor, Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan are on opposite sides of a war, but they must band together to survive on a strange planet, suppress a mutiny (him), escape from captivity multiple times (her), and prevent a civil war on Aral’s home planet of Barrayar. That last task continues in Barrayar, as Aral becomes regent for the four-year-old emperor and Cordelia adjusts to an alien politics and culture. I really enjoyed revisiting these two books, which are an exciting blend of sci fi, action, and romance. I love the moral complexity of this world: Cordelia, Aral, and the others are doing their best, but they often have to make impossible choices with heartbreaking consequences. I’m now even more excited to continue with the series!

Silvia Zucca, An Astrological Guide for Broken Hearts

Alice Bassi is unlucky in love, so when her new friend Tio suggests that she should date only men with compatible astrological signs, she figures it’s worth a try. But even after studying her star chart and horoscopes, she jumps from one disastrous relationship to the next — and the man she’s most drawn to may be the worst possible choice. I picked up this book because I enjoyed the Netflix series of the same name; it’s a cute romcom set in Milan, and the actors made the main characters likable. In the book, though, Alice is flaky and inconsistent, and her main love interest is a dishonest jerk. So unfortunately, I wouldn’t recommend this one…but if you like the premise, the TV series is better!

Mimi Matthews, The Siren of Sussex

Evelyn Maltravers is determined to make her first London Season a success. She plans to impress society with her excellent horsemanship, so she employs gifted tailor Ahmad Malik to design her an eye-catching riding habit. Ahmad is immediately inspired by Evelyn — and attracted to her. But a romance between himself and someone of Evelyn’s class is impossible, especially with the added obstacle of his half-Indian heritage. I always enjoy Mimi Matthews’s books, and this one is no exception. Evie and Ahmad are both such likable characters, determined to do their best for each other. And the impediments to their romance are handled thoughtfully and seriously. There’s some obvious sequel bait with Evelyn’s new London friends, and I can’t wait for the next book to come out this fall! 

Mini-Reviews: Shell, Fiancée, Time

Nicholas Blake, Thou Shell of Death

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

Virginia Heath, Never Fall for Your Fiancée

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

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

Sophie Cousens, This Time Next Year

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

Mini-Reviews: Promise, 25, Santa

Mary Balogh, Only a Promise

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

Poppy Alexander, 25 Days ’til Christmas

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

Mavis Doriel Hay, The Santa Klaus Murder

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

Matched, Twice, Eight

Jen DeLuca, Well Matched

Single mom April has always kept herself to herself, but like everyone else in Willow Creek, MD, she knows Mitch Malone. He’s friends with everybody, not to mention the town eye candy, particularly when he dons his kilt (and little else) for the annual Renaissance Faire. Now Mitch needs a date for a family event and asks April to be his fake girlfriend. She agrees reluctantly — and is horrified to develop real feelings for the charming, handsome, nine-years-younger Mitch. I’ve enjoyed all the books in this series, particularly for the Ren Faire setting, so it’s disappointing that we don’t really get any Faire action until more than halfway through the book. I also wanted more of the fake-dating plot, but it only lasts for a chapter or two before April and Mitch hop into bed. I still found this a pleasant read overall — April’s snark is fun, and Mitch is a sweetheart — but it’s probably my least favorite book in the series.

Richard Osman, The Man Who Died Twice

Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim, and Ron are on the case again when Elizabeth’s ex-colleague and ex-husband, Douglas, comes to her for help. There’s £20 million in diamonds missing, and the criminal to whom they “belong” blames Douglas for their disappearance. So the Thursday Murder Club decides to help by hiding Douglas and trying to find the diamonds themselves. Meanwhile, Ibrahim is mugged, and the others want revenge. Local police Chris and Donna help out while also attempting to take down a drug dealer.

The first book in this series was a delight, and I enjoyed this one at least as much, if not more — the plot seems to hang together a little better, despite the many (perhaps too many) different storylines. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud lines and a few poignant moments, and I loved spending time with these characters again. I want to be Joyce when I grow up! Highly recommended if you enjoy light mysteries with a lot of plot, though you should definitely read The Thursday Murder Club first.

Lia Louis, Eight Perfect Hours

When Noelle is stranded in a snowstorm with Sam for several hours, they share an unexpectedly deep connection. Then they keep bumping into each other, which feels like fate. But they’re both involved with other people, and Noelle is also dealing with some past baggage and family problems. Are they two ships passing, or are they destined to be together? This is a pleasant enough chick lit novel, but it made very little impression on me. I’m not really a fan of the “we’re in love because it’s fate” concept, and Noelle and Sam’s relationship just wasn’t that interesting to me. Sam in particular seems like a standard Ideal Guy without much actual personality. I’m disappointed because I really liked Louis’s previous book, Dear Emmie Blue. But unfortunately, I wouldn’t recommend this one.

Mini-Reviews: Bridesmaid, Design, Terra

Katy Birchall, The Secret Bridesmaid

Sophie Breeze has made a career out of being the perfect bridesmaid: she’s hired to pose as a friend of the bride and unobtrusively organize all the wedding arrangements. When the mother of a famous socialite hires her, Sophie is thrilled to be involved with such a high-profile event. But the bride, Lady Cordelia, is notoriously difficult and resists her every step of the way. Can Sophie work her magic and befriend the hostile Lady Cordelia, or will the bride’s petty antics force her to quit? This is a fun, breezy book that I enjoyed quite a bit. It’s entirely predictable, but I liked the book’s emphasis on female friendship (although there is a charming romance in the background as well). I also related to Sophie and enjoyed her character arc, as she learns to set boundaries and stick up for herself. Recommended for fans of the genre, and I’ll look out for more books by this author.

Renee Patrick, Design for Dying

It’s 1937, and beauty queen Lillian Frost dreams of working in the movies, but for now she’s employed at a department store in Los Angeles. When a former friend and roommate, struggling actress Ruby Carroll, is found dead, Lillian is caught up in the murder investigation — especially when she realizes that Ruby’s corpse is wearing a Paramount movie costume. In the course of her sleuthing, she meets several Hollywood personalities, including soon-to-be-famous costume designer Edith Head, who helps her solve the mystery. If you like historical mysteries, I think this is a good one. Lillian’s voice is sharp and colorful, much like the dialogue of a 1930s film. The Hollywood cameos are a bit contrived, but cinephiles may enjoy all the references. Overall, I liked the book enough to continue with the series at some point.

Connie Willis, Terra Incognita

This book is a collection of three previously published novellas. In Uncharted Territory, a group of explorers surveys a newly discovered planet, while they also navigate the complexities of sex and love in human (and alien) relationships. In Remake, a man falls for a woman whose ambition is to dance in the movies, even though (in this alternate yet eerily prescient reality) no one makes live-action movies anymore, let alone musicals, and everything is done with CGI. And in D.A., a young woman is admitted to a prestigious and extremely competitive academy in outer space, which is strange since she didn’t even apply. I enjoyed all three of these novellas, but for me Remake is the standout. It’s romantic and melancholy, heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful. If you’re a lover of classic movies and Fred Astaire, it’s a must-read!