Mini-reviews: Duke, Christmas, Memorial

Duke in Shining ArmorLoretta Chase, A Duke in Shining Armor

This book is the first in a series starring a trio of dukes known as Their Dis-Graces. Ripley, Ashmont, and Blackwood have been friends since childhood, and together they’ve drunk, gambled, and whored their way through London society. Now Ashmont is getting married, but the bride — bookish, practical Olympia Hightower — is having second thoughts. When she runs away on the wedding day, it’s up to best man Ripley to track her down and return her to Ashmont. The trouble is, the more time Ripley spends with Olympia, the more he wants her for himself. I really enjoy Loretta Chase’s writing, especially her humor, but this book was not the right book for me. I really don’t like the “reformed rake” trope, and Ripley is such a stereotypical alpha-male hero. (That said, the humor makes him somewhat more bearable.) But I’ll still be reading more Loretta Chase, and perhaps even more in this series…Blackwood’s marital difficulties, a tiny side plot in this book, sound intriguing!

A Lot Like ChristmasConnie Willis, A Lot Like Christmas

This collection of Christmas-themed short stories with a speculative-fiction twist is a revised and expanded edition of Miracle and Other Christmas Stories. I still stand by my review of that book, but here are my comments on the new stories:

  • “All about Emily” — A sly take on the movie All about Eve featuring an aging Broadway actress and a robot who wants to be a Rockette. A fun one for fans of musicals and old movies.
  • “All Seated on the Ground” — The aliens have arrived, but no one can figure out what they want. The clue may reside in a Christmas carol, so protagonist Meg teams up with choir director Calvin to solve the mystery. A lovely and romantic meditation on “peace on earth.”
  • “deck.halls@boughs/holly” — I liked this funny rom-com about the effects of technology, especially the internet, on Christmas. It’s futuristic and over the top, of course, but the story does a great job of presenting different views on the issue — with a charming romance thrown in!
  • “Now Showing” — Lindsay really wants to see a particular movie, but she keeps being thwarted by circumstance. It seems like the universe is conspiring against her . . . and according to her ex-boyfriend Jack, that’s exactly what is happening. I really liked this playful homage to romantic-suspense-adventure movies such as How to Steal a Million, French Kiss, and Romancing the Stone.
  • “Just Like the Ones We Used to Know” — Thanks to climate change (or a “discontinuity,” or Armageddon, or . . . ?), places all over the world are having a white Christmas. Places like Los Angeles, and Honolulu, and Jerusalem. The story follows various characters as they deal with the unexpected snowstorm and try to figure out what’s causing it. I thought there were maybe a few too many characters in this one, and at least one storyline was never satisfactorily resolved.

All in all, I’m glad I purchased this one, even though I already own Miracle and Other Christmas Stories. But if you don’t have either book, definitely go with A Lot Like Christmas instead!

Memorial Hall MurderJane Langton, The Memorial Hall Murder

This is the third book in the Homer Kelly mystery series, but it can definitely be read as a stand-alone. The book begins with an explosion that destroys part of Memorial Hall on the campus of Harvard University. A headless body is found in the rubble, and it is soon identified as the corpse of Hamilton Dow, an extremely popular music professor. Homer Kelly, who used to work at the district attorney’s office, happens to be on the scene and decides to investigate. As a mystery, the book is nothing to write home about; the reader is given a lot of information early on, and the perpetrator’s identity isn’t hard to discover. I kept thinking there would be a plot twist to point the finger in a new direction, but it never came. However, the book is fun to read for its playful satire of university life and its prominent featuring of Handel’s Messiah. All in all, I’d consider reading more books in this series.

Mini-reviews: Miracle, Murder, Wired

Miracle on 5th AvenueSarah Morgan, Miracle on 5th Avenue

Eva Jordan, who owns an event-planning company with her two best friends, has been hired to decorate a swanky Manhattan apartment for Christmas. Little does she know that the owner — wildly successful (and handsome) mystery writer Lucas Blade — is still in residence. As luck would have it, a severe blizzard hits New York, trapping them in the apartment together. Sunny, optimistic Eva and grumpy, brooding Lucas clash right away, until of course they don’t. But will their very different personalities and priorities put a stop to their growing romance? I liked how honest Eva was about her needs and feelings, but otherwise I thought this book was just okay.

Murder for ChristmasFrancis Duncan, Murder for Christmas

A quintessential English country house mystery in which Father Christmas himself (as portrayed by one of the house party) is murdered. Naturally, all the characters seem to have a motive, and amateur detective Mordecai Tremaine just happens to be on the scene to solve the case. I really liked the atmosphere and writing style of this novel, although I’ll admit to being somewhat disappointed by the resolution of the mystery. It does make logical sense; it just didn’t turn out the way I would have preferred. Still, I’m definitely interested in trying more of the Mordecai Tremaine novels!

Wired LoveElla Cheever Thayer, Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes

A charmingly old-fashioned story about a young woman who falls in love with someone she “meets” on the telegraph wire, before ever seeing her correspondent in person. Naturally, complications ensue! I really enjoyed the fact that this is the same plot as You’ve Got Mail written more than 100 years earlier. I also liked the main romance, but I was extremely indignant at the fates of some of the secondary characters (poor Quimby and Jo!). So, not quite as satisfying as I’d have liked, but I still enjoyed this short book overall.

Mini-reviews: Alterations, Hitman, Temptation

AlterationsStephanie Scott, Alterations

I adore the movie Sabrina (the original, starring Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart), so I was excited to come across this YA contemporary retelling. Unfortunately, I think the concept was better than the execution…or maybe I’ve just outgrown this particular type of novel, with its focus on teen drama and the prom as the pinnacle of human existence. I did like the main character’s personal journey as she gets a prestigious fashion internship and grows in confidence. But I was less interested in the love triangle, although there are a few cute scenes. Overall, I’m left with a strong desire for more Sabrina-inspired books!

Agnes and the HitmanJennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer, Agnes and the Hitman

Part romantic comedy, part gangster movie, this novel is about a food writer named Agnes who accidentally finds herself a target of the local mafia. As a result, her “connected” friend Joey hires a hitman, Shane, to look after her. They are instantly attracted to one another, but their romance is complicated by real estate fraud, several attempts on Agnes’s life, and a flamingo-themed wedding from hell. I didn’t expect this farcical mash-up of genres to be so enjoyable, but I was utterly charmed by it! The plot sweeps along at a dizzying pace, as does the rapid-fire banter, and it’s all great fun. Highly recommended if the idea of a modern screwball comedy appeals to you!

Season for TemptationTheresa Romain, Season for Temptation

After seeing a lot of praise for Theresa Romain over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, I was excited to try her debut novel. But I wasn’t as impressed as I wanted to be. The plot is quite typical for a Regency romance: the hero needs to marry quickly, proposes to a proper and elegant lady, then falls in love with the lady’s unconventional younger sister instead. Both the hero and heroine are likable, and it’s a pleasant enough read. I also like that the original fiancée gets some character development and is not just a two-dimensional model of propriety. But the writing was occasionally clunky, and I just didn’t see anything exceptional about the book. Not one for the keeper shelf, but I’ll consider trying more by the author — if I can get them from the library!

Review: Miracle and Other Christmas Stories

Miracle and Other Christmas StoriesConnie Willis, Miracle and Other Christmas Stories

This collection of holiday-themed short stories is, in essence, Connie Willis’ love letter to Christmas. In the introduction she professes her great love for all aspects of the season, and that love is very evident in the eight stories collected here. In “Miracle,” a young woman discovers her heart’s true desire with the help of “Miracle on 34th Street,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and the Spirit of Christmas Present. In “Newsletter,” a woman notices that everyone around her is suddenly acting kind and polite. Is it because of the Christmas spirit, or something more sinister? (Hint: the latter.) And in my personal favorite story, “Inn,” an alto in the church choir lets a homeless couple into the church, only to discover that it’s Mary and Joseph, lost in space and time on their way to Bethlehem. The genres in this collection range from romantic comedy to murder mystery, but each story deals with expectations that are turned upside-down, unexplained mysteries, and more than a few miracles.

I’m a big fan of Connie Willis, so I had high expectations for this collection, but I was still pleasantly surprised by how much I loved these stories. I knew I was in for a fun ride when Willis contended that “Miracle on 34th Street” is the best Christmas movie ever made, in defiance of the many lovers of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I also loved the speculative edge to these stories, which really emphasized the wonder of Christmas to me. I mentioned that “Inn” is my favorite story in the bunch, and it’s because Willis managed to re-present the first Christmas story in a new way. It’s easy for that story to become familiar, comfortable, and even dull; but “Inn” reminded me that it’s actually a shocking tale in many ways. My one quibble with the collection is that Willis claimed all her stories would have happy endings, but at least two of them (“In Coppelius’s Toyshop” and “Cat’s Paw”) are quite dark! Nevertheless, I loved this book and think it’s a perfect December read!

Review: The Twelve Clues of Christmas

Twelve Clues of Christmas, TheRhys Bowen, The Twelve Clues of Christmas

‘Tis the season to be jolly, but Lady Georgiana Rannoch is anticipating a bleak, joyless Christmas at her brother’s estate in Scotland. Her sister-in-law Fig has made it abundantly clear that Georgie is an unwelcome burden, so Georgie begins to search for a way to escape for the holidays. Finally, the perfect solution lands in her lap: she is offered a job as social hostess for a large house party at an English country estate. Georgie jumps at the chance to get away from Fig (and make a little money in the process), especially when she learns that her mother will also be staying in the neighborhood. When Georgie arrives at the estate, she discovers that her employer is trying to stage the perfect English Christmas for a diverse group of paying guests. But the seemingly idyllic country village is soon plagued by a string of suspicious deaths. All of them appear to be accidents, but Georgie suspects that they could be murders. But what do the dead people have in common, and who in the village would be clever and ruthless enough to kill them?

I enjoyed this latest installment of the Royal Spyness series. It has all the fluffy fun of previous books, but the mystery is a bit more substantial compared to some of Georgie’s earlier adventures. I’ve always liked the series for its frothy tone and historical trappings, especially Georgie’s run-ins with real historial figures (for example, Noel Coward makes an appearance in this book!). But historically, the mystery plots themselves have been relatively weak. This one was more complex, with several different plot threads that all tied together in the end. Georgie’s personal life also progresses a bit in this installment, as she and Darcy finally profess their love for each other and begin to talk about marriage. I always want more Darcy in these books…he seems to come in for the sole purpose of ruthlessly kissing Georgie in corridors, but there are hints that he’s also involved in some sort of espionage. I’d love him to marry Georgie and take her along on his adventures! The series seems due for some sort of shake-up, and I’m interested to see whether the status quo will change in future installments.

Review: My True Love Gave to Me

My True Love Gave to MeStephanie Perkins, ed., My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Holiday Stories

This anthology of holiday romances contains stories from some of the biggest names in YA right now, including Rainbow Rowell, Kelly Link, Jenny Han, David Levithan, and editrix Stephanie Perkins. All twelve stories involve a romance and a winter holiday, but each one is different. There are Christmas stories and Chanukah stories, real-life settings and fantasy worlds, characters who find love and characters who find themselves. Rainbow Rowell’s “Midnights” tracks the friendship of Mags and Noel over the course of several New Year’s Eves, until the night their relationship changes forever. Jenny Han’s “Polaris Is Where You’ll Find Me” is narrated by the only human who lives at the North Pole. Myra McEntire’s “Beer Buckets and Baby Jesus” involves a bad boy, a preacher’s daughter, and a Christmas pageant gone horribly awry. The variety of stories in this collection guarantees that any lover of the winter holidays will find something in it to enjoy.

Short story collections are usually hit-or-miss for me, but because of the impressive list of contributors to this book, I was hoping for more “hits” than I got. I would say I quite liked about half the stories, with Rowell’s “Midnights” being my favorite by far. By spreading the story over several years, I really got a sense of the depth of Mags and Noel’s relationship, and the climactic scene was pitch-perfect. By contrast, I felt like a lot of the stories actually needed to be full novels in order to make a real impact. For example, “The Girl Who Woke the Dreamer” by Laini Taylor had lovely writing and an interesting world, but because the story is so short, there wasn’t really enough room to develop that world. I was also underwhelmed by Stephanie Perkins’ story, which surprised me because I love her novels! But again, I think the issue is that she didn’t really have enough space to develop her characters and make me care about them. As I said, I did like about half the stories, and I’ll be checking out more work by some of these authors (Kelly Link and Kiersten White in particular), but this is not a must-read collection.