Mini-Reviews: Fire, Hollow, Duke

Katherine Center, Things You Save in a Fire

Cassie Hanwell loves being a firefighter in Austin, Texas; she’s extremely good at her job and is happy to devote her whole life to it. So she’s not thrilled when she is forced to transfer to a small town in Massachusetts to care for her estranged mother during a health crisis. The local fire department is old, outdated, and all male, so Cassie knows she’ll have to struggle to be accepted. As Cassie battles her colleagues’ hostility and resists her mother’s attempts at reconciliation, she grows as a person and decides who she really wants to be. I really liked this book and stayed up far too late to finish it! I found Cassie extremely sympathetic, and I loved how tough and competent she was. There’s also a sweet romance that I was completely on board for. I did feel the ending was a bit too neatly tied up in a bow — and this is coming from someone who likes tidy endings! — but aside from that, I enjoyed this book and look forward to reading more by Katherine Center.

Sherry Thomas, The Hollow of Fear

***Warning: SPOILERS for previous books in the series!***

In this third installment of the Lady Sherlock series, Charlotte Holmes faces her most difficult case yet. Lady Ingram, who disappeared after the events of A Conspiracy in Belgravia, has now been found — dead, in the icehouse on Lord Ingram’s country estate. Of course, Lord Ingram is the prime suspect; everyone knew that he and his wife were estranged, and rumors are swirling about a romance between him and Charlotte. As Scotland Yard builds its case against Lord Ingram, Charlotte works incognito to discover what really happened. I’m very much enjoying this series, and this book is no exception. Though I guessed some elements of the mystery, other plot twists were genuinely shocking. There is a point at which the narrative doubles back to fill in some blanks about earlier events, which I found irritating — it’s the kind of gimmick that would work better in a movie, I think. But otherwise, I liked this book a lot and look forward to seeing what happens next with Charlotte and her friends!

Grace Burrowes, My One and Only Duke

Quinn Wentworth is a convicted murderer awaiting execution. Jane Winston is a minister’s daughter visiting Newgate prison. She’s widowed, pregnant, and desperate to get away from her sanctimonious father, so Quinn proposes marriage. He can provide money for her and the child to live on, and because he’s soon to die, she won’t be stuck with him for long. Jane agrees to the deal, only to be shocked when Quinn is discovered to be the heir to a dukedom and pardoned at the last minute. Now Quinn and Jane must decide whether and how to make their marriage work; but Quinn is determined to find whoever framed him for murder and take his revenge. I found this book mildly enjoyable, but the stakes are pretty low. There aren’t really any obstacles to Quinn and Jane’s romance, and the mystery plot of who framed Quinn doesn’t get a lot of time “on page” either. Basically, I never got emotionally invested in the story or characters. This is the first book in a series, and I am mildly interested in a few of the secondary characters, so I may continue with the series at some point — but I’m not in a big hurry to do so.

Mini-Reviews: Women, Coconut, Belle

Madeleine St. John, The Women in Black

This novel follows the lives of four women who all work at Goode’s department store in 1950s Sydney, Australia. Patty, in her mid-30s, is married but unhappily childless, and her husband Frank is oblivious to her emotional turmoil. Fay is around 30 and has been going out with men for years, but somehow none of them seem to want to marry her. Lisa, a temporary hire for the Christmas season, dreams of going to university and becoming a poet, but her strict father won’t hear of it. And Magda, a glamorous Slovenian immigrant, is adjusting to a culture very different from her own. I loved this book and devoured it in a single sitting. It’s light and charming and slyly funny, and I became invested in the stories of all four women. I especially loved Magda, who enjoys the finer things in life and is generous in sharing them. There’s a bit of romance, but the main focus is on women’s experiences and relationships. The book reminds me a bit of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, but with a slightly more satirical edge. I expect to revisit it often and would recommend it as a great comfort read!

Amy E. Reichert, The Coincidence of Coconut Cake

Milwaukee restaurateur Lou Johnson is having a run of terrible luck. First her fiancé cheats on her; then, that very night, food critic Al Waters samples her cooking — which is subpar because of her distress over the breakup — and writes a scathing review. The day the review comes out, Lou goes to a bar to drown her sorrows and meets Al. They’re attracted to each other and soon strike up a romance. The only problem is, he doesn’t realize she owns the restaurant he panned, and she doesn’t know he’s the hostile reviewer because he writes under a pen name. I’m a sucker for a You’ve Got Mail story, and this is a fun one that made me want to visit Milwaukee and eat some fried cheese curds immediately. I never quite believed in Lou and Al as characters; they seemed like stock types rather than real people to me. But I liked the setting and the overall cheerful, Hallmark-esque vibe of this novel, so I’d consider trying more by this author.

Paula Byrne, Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice

The idea for this book came from an 18th-century English portrait of two young women — one white, one black — who are portrayed as equals, almost as sisters. The black woman was Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of an English naval captain and an African slave. She grew up in the house of her great-uncle, the Earl of Mansfield, who happened to be the Lord Chief Justice and who decided several cases that would be crucial to the antislavery movement in Britain. It’s a fascinating story, but unfortunately, there’s very little about Dido in the historical record, and consequently very little in the book! Instead, Byrne focuses on the English slave trade, the status of black individuals in London, the Earl of Mansfield’s legal career, etc. It’s all interesting, but I was hoping for more biography, less history. The book does have numbered endnotes, many of which cite primary sources, yet Byrne also editorializes a fair amount. I’d say it’s more of a popular history than a scholarly one. Overall, I’d recommend it for people who are interested in the period. Apparently there’s also a movie about Dido, called Belle, which I’m interested in watching now.

Here is the portrait of Dido and her cousin, Elizabeth Murray:

Mini-Reviews: Honeymoon, List, Garden

Dorothy L. Sayers, Busman’s Honeymoon

Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane are finally getting married, and they’ve decided to spend their honeymoon at Talboys, a house in Harriet’s childhood neighborhood that she’s always loved and that Peter has purchased for her. They’ve made arrangements for the turnover with Noakes, the previous owner, but when they arrive on their wedding night, Noakes is nowhere to be found. Eventually Peter and Harriet discover Noakes’s dead body in the cellar, and all signs point to murder. As they assist the local police in solving the mystery, they also adjust to their new reality as a married couple. This might be my favorite Wimsey story yet. The mystery is more satisfying than many of Sayers’s others; there are multiple plausible suspects and some well-placed clues. But the subtitle of the novel is “a love story with detective interruptions,” and the real meat of the story is Peter and Harriet’s relationship, as they learn more about each other and figure out how to combine two very independent lives. This book also fleshes out two recurring characters, Bunter and the Dowager, in a satisfying way. A wonderful ending to the series, in my opinion, although Sayers newbies shouldn’t start here.

Suzanne Allain, Mr. Malcolm’s List

Jeremy Malcolm, the wealthy and handsome younger son of an earl, is widely regarded as the catch of the season. He wants to find a suitable bride, but none of the women he’s met has checked off every item on his list of requirements for a wife. When Julia Thistlewaite, one of the young ladies he rejects, discovers the existence of the list, she is outraged and asks her friend Selina Dalton for help. Selina will come to London and capture Mr. Malcolm’s heart by pretending to have every quality on the list, but will then reject him for not meeting her own standards. Selina is reluctant to go along with the scheme, especially when she meets Mr. Malcolm and finds herself extremely attracted to him. This Regency romance is fine but lacks depth. It’s extremely fast-paced, leaving little time for character or relationship development. Overall, I thought it was just okay.

Jules Wake, Covent Garden in the Snow

Tilly loves her job as a makeup artist at the London Metropolitan Opera Company, but she’s a disaster with technology. When she inadvertently sends a computer virus to her entire contact list, she’s forced to work with the new IT director, Marcus, to gain some computer literacy. Marcus looks like a slick corporate type, and Tilly immediately decides that he has nothing useful to teach her. But she also feels an unwanted attraction, and the more time they spend together, the more she comes to like and appreciate him. This was a cute read; I enjoyed the backstage theatrical setting, and Marcus is an appealing hero (perhaps a bit too perfect). But Tilly drove me CRAZY. She’s laughably bad at technology — so much so that I couldn’t take her seriously as a professional adult. She also puts up with way too much from her feckless fiancé, who has to betray her trust in multiple very significant ways before she’s finally ready to end the relationship. And she’s completely awful to her family for no discernible reason. Yes, she does grow toward the end of the book, but by then I was already too annoyed with her. Overall, I liked some aspects of this book, and it was a quick and entertaining read, but the frustrating heroine prevented me from fully enjoying it.

Mini-Reviews: Blue, Sorcerer, Queen, Rogue

Lia Louis, Dear Emmie Blue

Emmie has been best friends with Lucas for years — ever since he found the balloon she released into the air when they were just 16. More recently, Emmie’s feelings have deepened into love; so when Lucas invites her to a special birthday dinner and says he has something important to ask her, she’s convinced that he wants to start a romantic relationship. But he actually asks her to be his “best woman” at his upcoming wedding. Emmie is crushed and must now reevaluate her relationship with Lucas and his family, who have always loved her more than her own negligent mother ever did. This book is enjoyable women’s fiction with a romantic subplot (which I loved, even if it was a bit predictable!), but it touches on some heavier themes — not only Emmie’s relationship with her parents, but also a traumatic incident from her past. This book isn’t a keeper for me, but I liked it quite a bit and will look for more books by Louis.

Zen Cho, Sorcerer to the Crown / The True Queen

I was just as delighted by Sorcerer to the Crown on this reread as I was the first time I read it. It’s set in an alternate Regency universe in which England’s magic is disappearing, and the Sorcerer Royal, a man of African descent, must team up with a magically gifted woman to get it back. The sequel, The True Queen, deals with sisters from the island nation of Janda Baik, which has been colonized by the English: one of them is lost in Fairyland, and the other must rely on English magicians for help to find and retrieve her. I love the combination of an Austen-esque setting, mystery, fantasy, and romance, so I really enjoyed both books (perhaps the first a smidge more than the second). Most authors writing in this time period don’t get the style or voice quite right, but I think Zen Cho really nails it! The books are also more diverse than many works of historical fiction set in this period, featuring queer characters and people of color. Definitely recommended if the premise interests you!

Evie Dunmore, A Rogue of One’s Own

This sequel to Bringing Down the Duke focuses on Lady Lucinda Tedbury, an ardent suffragist whose sole focus is convincing Parliament to pass an act allowing married women to own their own property. In pursuit of this goal, Lucie and her friends are trying to buy a London printing press to disseminate their ideas; but they are thwarted by Tristan Ballentine, a notorious rake who has just purchased a 50 percent share in the business. Lucie has known Tristan for years and has always viewed him as weak and contemptible; but the more they’re forced to work together, the more she adjusts her opinion of him. I didn’t enjoy this book as much as the first in the series, largely because I don’t like the “reformed rake” trope and also didn’t find Lucie a very interesting heroine. I think the series is a bit schizophrenic so far; it tries to be a serious examination of feminism, but it also has to hit all the beats of a historical romance novel, and I feel like the split focus detracts from both goals. That said, I’m interested enough to continue with the third book when it comes out next year.

Mini-Reviews: Switch, Liturgy, Book

Beth O’Leary, The Switch

Leena Cotton has always been driven, but since her sister Carla died more than a year ago, she’s completely thrown herself into her work. But when an anxiety attack causes her to ruin an important meeting, her boss insists on her taking two months of paid leave. Meanwhile, Leena’s grandmother, Eileen, has lived most of her life in a tiny Yorkshire village. Her husband has recently left her, and now Eileen yearns to have the adventures she missed out on as a young woman. So Leena and Eileen decide to switch places: Leena will use her sabbatical to rest in the country, while Eileen will go to London and explore the world of online dating for senior citizens. The premise of this novel might be a little farfetched, but who cares when it yields such delightful results? I really enjoyed both women’s stories, but Eileen totally steals the show: she knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to go after it! I loved her benevolent meddling and the fact that, as a 79-year-old woman, she’s allowed to find love and have adventures. Definitely recommended if you’re looking for something fun and pleasant in your life right now!

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy

Anyone who’s ever been to a Catholic mass will know that it follows a very specific, structured order called the liturgy. This book explains the “why” behind various liturgical practices and also talks about the philosophy of liturgy itself. I found it very interesting, though heavy going at times, and I definitely received some new insights on why certain liturgical rules exist — for example, that churches should be oriented to the east — and why they are important. I would definitely recommend this book for people who are interested in the subject and who already have some knowledge of Catholic liturgical practices. It wouldn’t be a good introductory work, however!

Amanda Sellet, By the Book

In this cute YA romance, Mary Porter-Malcom is a socially awkward teenager who’s accumulated most of her knowledge of the world from classic literature. As you might suspect, she’s not terribly popular; but when she overhears a group of girls discussing a notorious “cad” at their high school, Mary can’t help but share her opinion and cite the novels that support her theory. In gratitude, the girls accept Mary into their friend group. But as they apply Mary’s literary wisdom to their other relationships and potential romances — and as Mary starts to fall for the cad herself — she risks losing both her friends and her crush. I liked the premise of this novel and thought it was executed fairly well, but it panders a little too much to its target audience of bookish teen girls. The romance is predictable but fine, and I liked that Mary’s friendships are at least as important to her as her love life. A fun book, but not a keeper for me.

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: Brittany, Thing, Diamonds

Assignment in BrittanyJust One Damned Thing after AnotherDiamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend

Helen MacInnes, Assignment in Brittany

Martin Hearne, a British intelligence agent, has just been given a new assignment. He happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to Bertrand Corlay, a Frenchman recuperating in an English hospital after the evacuation of Dunkirk. His job will be to impersonate Corlay and go “home” to the village of Saint-Déodat in Brittany, where he will research the movements of the occupying German troops. Of course, complications ensue as Hearne meets Corlay’s family, shelters an American journalist, and has several unpleasant run-ins with the Nazis. His situation becomes even more precarious when he realizes that the real Corlay hasn’t been entirely truthful with him. I really enjoyed this suspenseful and entertaining book. It’s all the more remarkable because the novel was published in 1942, when the outcome of the war was far from certain. Definitely recommended for fans of spy and/or World War II novels.

Jodi Taylor, Just One Damned Thing after Another

When Madeleine “Max” Maxwell is recruited to join the St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research, she gets a lot more than she bargained for: the historians of St. Mary’s “investigate major historical events in contemporary time” — in other words, time travel! Max embraces the concept wholeheartedly and soon proves herself adept at her new job. But when a trip to the late Cretaceous goes horribly wrong, Max learns that another group of time travelers is wreaking havoc with history, and the St. Mary’s gang will have to stop them in order to protect both the past and the future. This book is a fun romp, although Max is one of those heroines who’s annoyingly good at everything. I found the present timeline hard to follow; the book starts with Max arriving at St. Mary’s, but it seems like several months (or years?) pass without really being acknowledged. There’s also a graphic sex scene that I could have done without. Despite these quibbles, though, I did enjoy the book and will most likely continue with the series.

Jenny Colgan, Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend

This chick lit novel is about Sophie Chesterton, a shallow socialite whose life is upended when her father dies, and the terms of his will state that she must earn her own living for six months before receiving her inheritance. Sophie moves into a dirty flat in South London with four guys, attempts to pursue her interest in photography, and falls for not one but two of her roommates. Normally I really enjoy Jenny Colgan’s novels, but this one was disappointing. Sophie does grow throughout the book, but she’s so awful in the beginning that it’s hard to completely buy her redemption. I also didn’t find the romance angle satisfying; the outcome seemed to come out of the blue, so that I had no chance to become invested. I still recommend Colgan’s books in general, but this one just wasn’t for me.

Review: Would Like to Meet

Would Like to MeetRachel Winters, Would Like to Meet

Evie Summers has been an assistant at a film agency for several years, hoping one day to be promoted to agent. For now, though, her hands are full with the agency’s most important client, a critically acclaimed screenwriter who has been contracted to write a romantic comedy but who keeps missing his deadlines. In an effort to motivate him, Evie proposes an experiment to prove that people can fall in love the way they do in romantic comedies. She’ll use the meet-cute methods of famous romcoms to get someone to fall in love with her, and in return, the screenwriter will deliver his script. Of course, Evie’s various attempts at a meet-cute generally end in disaster; luckily, she has her friends and a sympathetic single dad named Ben to help her out. As she continues to struggle in her career and her love life, she gradually realizes that real love may have been right in front of her all along.

I enjoyed reading this book; it’s a fun, quick page-turner with a satisfying romantic comedy built into it. But I must say, I found a lot of Evie’s decisions frustrating, to say the least! She puts up with incredibly bad treatment from her boss, reasoning that if she just hangs in there a little longer, he’ll eventually promote her — but it’s immediately obvious that he never will. At one point, she seems to be torn between two suitors, but it’s painfully clear that one of them is just using her. There’s a big “twist” near the end of the book involving Evie’s written record of her meet-cutes, but I saw it coming a mile away. Basically, I felt sorry for Evie, but I didn’t have a lot of respect for her because she kept making such terrible choices. Also, I found her friend group a bit stereotypical, including a gay BFF and a super-type-A bridezilla. I did like the romance a lot and almost wish it had been more of a focus in the book. Overall, this is a cute chick lit novel that I’d recommend as a breezy beach or airplane read.

Review: The Bookshop on the Shore

Bookshop on the ShoreJenny Colgan, The Bookshop on the Shore

Single mom Zoe is at the end of her rope. She adores her four-year-old son, Hari, but is concerned that he still hasn’t started talking; he’s silent even when he cries. Zoe is also struggling financially, and Hari’s father Jaz is too busy chasing his dream of being a DJ to help out with child support. Fortunately, Jaz’s sister Surinder has a solution: her friend Nina needs help with her mobile bookshop in the Scottish highlands, and there’s also a live-in nanny position that Zoe could take to supplement her income and have a place to stay. Desperate, Zoe agrees, but she soon finds that both jobs are more difficult than she’d anticipated. Nina has very specific ideas about the right way to run the bookmobile, and some of Zoe’s innovations don’t go over very well. And at the “big house” where Zoe is to be the new nanny, she finds three out-of-control children who don’t want to listen to her, while their single father Ramsey seems to be totally disconnected from his children’s lives. The longer Zoe perseveres, however, the more successful she becomes, and the more she grows to love her new life. But when Jaz suddenly reenters the picture, she must decide where she truly belongs.

I’ve come to rely on Jenny Colgan for sweet, uplifting books with a hint of romance, and this book delivers on all fronts. It’s sort of a sequel to The Bookshop on the Corner, which focuses on Nina and the opening of her mobile bookshop, but it can be read as a stand-alone. I was in Zoe’s corner from the opening scene, where she’s sitting in a doctor’s office and describing all the times she cries in a given week. I was immediately hoping for good things to happen to her and excited to watch her overcome the various obstacles in her path. She’s a very likable heroine, hardworking and determined to do her best in any given situation. Sure, the actual plot isn’t terribly believable, nor is it unique; of course Zoe will eventually win over the difficult children and find her way to professional and romantic success. I also thought the precocious youngest child was completely implausible, but he was so entertaining that I didn’t mind. I should note that there is some depiction of mental illness in the book (including self-harm), which seems a bit dark for the overall tone of the novel. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this one a lot and look forward to my next Colgan book.

Review: Don’t You Forget about Me

Don't You Forget about MeMhairi McFarlane, Don’t You Forget about Me

Thirtysomething Georgina Horspool is somewhat lost in life. She’s just been fired from a terrible waitressing job, only to walk in on her boyfriend cheating on her with his assistant. She’s also dealing with her judgmental mother and sister, who never miss an opportunity to criticize her life choices and who are having a field day with these latest crises. So when Georgina’s brother-in-law gives her a tip about a newly renovated pub that’s hiring bartenders, she jumps at the chance of gainful employment. Unfortunately, one of the owners of the pub is Lucas McCarthy, Georgina’s first love — and her first heartbreak. Back in high school, when they were paired together for a class assignment, Georgina fell hard for Lucas, and she could have sworn that the feeling was mutual. But a brutal incident at the end-of-year dance drove them apart, and they haven’t talked since. Now Lucas is smart, successful, and handsomer than ever . . . but he doesn’t even remember Georgina. As she wrestles with her complicated feelings about Lucas, Georgina also finds the strength to stand up for herself and mend the various relationships in her life.

Mhairi McFarlane has become one of my go-to authors for British “chick lit” with emotional depth. While Georgina’s situation is by no means unique in the genre — single, underemployed, dealing with family problems and low self-esteem — I found her both likable and relatable, and I was immediately rooting for her to overcome the various challenges in her life. I was drawn to her funny, self-deprecating voice and her vibrant personality that emerges when she’s hanging out with her friends. I also really enjoyed the development of her relationship with Lucas, which plays a prominent role in the story. I’m not usually a fan of second-chance romances, but the plot really worked for me here, in part because the reasons for their initial breakup are so understandable. (I don’t want to spoil the plot, but the incident at the end-of-year dance does involve sexual trauma [not perpetrated by Lucas], so be warned if you’re sensitive to that issue.) Lucas in particular didn’t handle things well, but I ultimately forgave him because (1) he was young and stupid and (2) he gives very good grovel in the end. Overall, if you like this genre, I’d definitely recommend this book, as well as McFarlane’s other novels.