Mini-Review: Falling, Shoe, Kiss

Lois McMaster Bujold, Falling Free

Space engineer Leo Graf doesn’t want to be a hero; he just wants to keep his head down and do his job. But his latest assignment involves genetically engineered humans called quaddies — they have a second pair of arms instead of legs, which makes them excellent workers in a zero-gravity environment. When Leo learns how the quaddies are exploited and what their eventual fate will be, he decides to take action. I enjoyed this competently written sci-fi adventure, but I wasn’t blown away. Parts of it feel dated now (understandably, since it was published in the ’80s), and the story and characters aren’t particularly unique. Still, the book does raise some interesting moral questions, and I’m excited to continue with the series!

Julie Murphy, If the Shoe Fits

Aspiring fashion designer Cindy has just graduated from design school, but now she’s at a loose end and feeling creatively blocked. Due to her stepmother’s connections, she is offered a place on Before Midnight, a Bachelor-esque reality show. Cindy is skeptical, but she thinks it could be an opportunity for her to publicize her name and brand, as well as break some ground by being a plus-size woman on a show full of thin beauties. But when she unexpectedly falls for the guy on the show, she has to figure out how much of their relationship is actually real. This novel, loosely based on Disney’s Cinderella, is a cute, quick read, but nothing about it really stood out to me. The love interest doesn’t have much personality, so I wasn’t invested in the romance. It’s a fine read if you like the premise, but definitely not a keeper for me.

Mary Balogh, Only a Kiss

Percy Hayes is the Earl of Hardford, but despite acceding to the title two years ago, he’s never been to the Hardford estate; located in the “wilds of Cornwall,” it’s a world away from his carefree, pleasure-filled life in London. Indeed, when he finally visits the estate on a whim, he runs into a bewildering set of problems and responsibilities. He also meets the beautiful but cold Imogen, Lady Barclay, and finds himself unwillingly attracted to her. But she carries deep emotional wounds from the Napoleonic Wars, in which her husband was tortured and killed, and she’s seemingly impervious to Percy’s charm. Can he convince her to open her heart? This sixth book in the Survivors’ Club series is one of my favorites. I loved seeing Percy’s normal charm and poise desert him in his conversations with Imogen, and his growth as he embraces his responsibilities is very satisfying. Definitely one of the strongest books in the series, in my opinion!

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! 

Mini-Reviews: Escape, Graduate, Vacation

Mary Balogh, The Escape

Book 3 of the Survivors’ Club series focuses on Sir Benedict Harper, who sustained extensive injuries to his legs in the Napoleonic Wars and was told he’d never walk again. After years of grit and perseverance, Ben can walk for short distances and with the aid of canes, but he’ll never return to the military career he loved. At a loose end, he meets the widowed Samantha McKay and agrees to be her escort as she flees from her controlling in-laws. They are attracted to each other but don’t see a future together, so they agree to a brief, no-strings affair — but of course, their growing feelings for each other complicate their relationship. So far, this series just keeps getting better, and I think Ben and Samantha are my favorite couple yet. Still, I’m not sure I’ll remember very much about the book in a few weeks, so it’s probably not a keeper.

My edition of this book also contains a short story/novella, The Suitor. It tells the story of Philippa Dean, the young woman who is presented to Viscount Darleigh as a potential bride at the beginning of The Arrangement. Darleigh perceived her as irritating and dimwitted, but The Suitor tells the story from her point of view — and gives her a happy ending of her own. This story did nothing for me; it’s so short that I didn’t have time to get invested in the romance or characters. It’s definitely skippable even if you’re normally a series completist.

Naomi Novik, The Last Graduate

It’s El’s senior year, and despite being stuck in a magic school full of creatures that are trying to kill her, things are looking pretty good. She has an alliance lined up for graduation, she has friends, and she even has a (maybe, sort of) boyfriend. But then the Scholomance starts making El’s life even more miserable than usual, and it seems to be singling her out. Is it trying to kill her, or turn her into the dark sorceress she’s supposedly destined to become? Or is it sending a different message entirely? I loved the first book in this series, and this installment is just as entertaining and exciting. There’s still a ton of exposition and world-building, which seems a bit strange for the second book in a series, but it’s leavened by El’s delightfully grumpy voice. The ending is arguably a huge cliffhanger, and I’m dying to find out what happens next! Fans of A Deadly Education won’t be disappointed by this sequel.

Emily Henry, People We Meet on Vacation

Poppy and Alex used to be BFFs who took exciting vacations together every summer. But they haven’t really spoken since their ill-fated trip to Croatia two years ago. Now Poppy hopes to rekindle their friendship, so she invites him on one last summer trip. But to move forward, both she and Alex will have to be honest about their feelings and what they truly want. Emily Henry has gotten a lot of good buzz, and I can see why. This is a really well-written, entertaining contemporary romance with some first-class banter. The friends-to-lovers trope isn’t always my favorite, because I wonder why they won’t just act on their feelings, but in this case I understood what was keeping Poppy and Alex apart. They love each other but want very different things out of life. The resolution to that conflict felt a bit pat, but I didn’t mind too much because I just wanted them to be together already! Definitely recommended for fans of this trope, and I’m putting Beach Read on my TBR immediately.

Mini-Reviews: Poison, Jeweled, Walk

Robin Stevens, Poison Is Not Polite

Hazel Wong and her best friend Daisy Wells encounter another mystery while visiting Daisy’s country home over the Easter holiday. Various other houseguests arrive, including Mr. Curtis, an odious “friend” of Daisy’s mother’s. Hazel and Daisy are convinced he’s up to no good, and they decide the Detective Society must investigate. But when he suddenly dies after drinking a cup of tea, the girls realize they may have another murder to solve. I quite enjoyed this novel; Hazel is an endearing narrator and protagonist, and her “outsider” perspective on Daisy’s upper-class English family yields a lot of fun moments. The mystery plot is less successful; it’s not fair play, and the solution is not very satisfying. But it’s also surprisingly morally ambiguous for a middle-grade book, which I found interesting. So I liked this one overall and will probably continue with the series at some point.

Sharon Shinn, Jeweled Fire

This book picks up right where Royal Airs left off: Princess Corene has departed Welce for the neighboring nation of Malinqua, where she hopes to make a marriage alliance with one of the three potential heirs. But as she navigates the treacherous court with the help of her loyal bodyguard, Foley, she discovers a sinister plot against herself and the other potential brides-to-be. This book was a definite improvement over Royal Airs; Corene is a flawed but fascinating heroine, the plot is full of political intrigue, and there’s a brand-new setting and new characters to explore. Because of that, we don’t see many of the characters from previous books, but we still hear a fair amount about them. Overall, I enjoyed this one and look forward to picking up the fourth and final book in the series.

Katherine Center, How to Walk Away

Margaret is about to start living the life she’s always wanted: she’ll shortly be starting a high-powered job, and her boyfriend Chip just proposed. But everything changes when a tragic accident sends her to the hospital with an injured spinal cord, and the doctors aren’t sure if she’ll ever walk again. As Margaret tries to cope with her new reality, her relationships with her family and with Chip also change, for better and for worse. As with Things You Save in a Fire, I found this book very addictive and compelling. Margaret’s experience feels true to life, and the book doesn’t sugarcoat her emotional or physical difficulties. There’s a lovely romance that keeps things from getting too bleak, and the ending is uplifting but not unrealistically so (except for the too-sweet epilogue). I’ll definitely search out more books by this author!

Last, Hypothesis, Woodsman

Peter Lovesey, The Last Detective

When the body of an unknown woman is recovered from a lake near Bath, Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond is on the case. Diamond is an old-school detective who distrusts newfangled (in 1991) technology such as computers, DNA evidence, and microwaves. He’s also on thin ice with his department after a formal inquiry into his behavior toward a suspect in a previous case. When the dead woman is identified and the police arrest their chief suspect, Diamond thinks they’ve got the wrong person, but he’ll have to continue investigating solo to find the real killer. I thought this book was just fine. The mystery itself was interesting (although I didn’t really buy the solution), and I liked how the novel incorporates first-person narratives from a couple of the suspects. But I found Diamond an obnoxious character, and I don’t particularly want to read any more books that feature him. So, I’m glad I finally read this one so that I can take it off my shelves.

Ali Hazelwood, The Love Hypothesis

PhD student Olive Smith needs to convince her best friend that she’s on a date (a totally farfetched premise, but just go with it), so she panics and kisses the first guy she sees. Unfortunately, that just happens to be Dr. Adam Carlsen, one of Stanford’s most prestigious professors and a known jerk. Olive is mortified, but Adam is oddly calm about the whole situation; and when she needs to keep up the charade that they’re dating, he agrees to be her fake boyfriend. Soon Olive is falling for him, but she fears her feelings are one-sided. I’m a sucker for the fake relationship trope, so I was primed to enjoy this book, and overall I really did! Olive is relatable, Adam is dreamy, and their interactions (particularly at the beginning of the book) are adorable. I wasn’t totally satisfied by the ending; I wanted more of Adam’s perspective, and in general I wanted them both to communicate better. But I still devoured this book in one sitting, and I think fans of contemporary romance will really enjoy it!

(N.B. I’d give it a 3/5 on the steaminess scale; there’s one pretty graphic sex scene.)

Ava Reid, The Wolf and the Woodsman

Évike is the only girl in her village with no magic, which makes her an easy target when the fearsome Woodsmen arrive to collect their annual tribute of a young girl to take to the capital. On their journey, Évike encounters many perils and becomes closer to the captain of the Woodsmen, even though his Christian(ish) religion makes her pagan ways abhorrent to him. Once in the capital, Évike is caught up in political turmoil as a fanatical claimant to the throne seeks to remove all Jews (or the in-world equivalents) and pagans from his domain. This book was billed as being similar to [The Bear and the Nightingale] and [Spinning Silver], but in my opinion, it’s a sloppier, angstier, more YA-feeling version of those books. The world-building is interesting but sort of half-baked, and some plot points are left dangling (like Évike’s relationship with her father and his world). Overall, I found it disappointing, and I’d strongly recommend the Arden or Novik books instead.

Mini-Reviews: Troubled, Corpse, Billionaires

Sharon Shinn, Troubled Waters

In this traditional fantasy novel, protagonist Zoe Ardelay is plucked from obscurity to become the king’s fifth wife, but she escapes that fate, only to discover unsuspected magical powers that grant her a place at court in her own right. She navigates palace intrigues, contemplates her future role in the court, and tries hard not to fall in love with royal advisor Darien Serlast. This book is not particularly groundbreaking, but I really enjoyed it! The magical system, based on keeping the balance between five elements, is creative and informs the world of the novel in interesting ways. Zoe is likable, though sometimes a bit too impulsive, and Darien is a hero after my own heart. Overall, I liked this one a lot and have already checked out the next book in the series, Royal Airs, from my library!

Robert Barnard, Corpse in a Gilded Cage

In this 1980s take on the English country house mystery, working-class Percy Spender has unexpectedly inherited an earldom and a grand estate. He and his wife just want to sell the place and go back to their regular lives, but their children — not to mention the family lawyer — have other ideas. Then Percy is murdered, and with multiple wills cropping up, it seems the investigation will hinge on who actually inherits the fortune. I wasn’t in the mood for this book when I picked it up, but I thought it would at least be a quick read that I could get off my TBR shelves. However, it actually won me over with its humor and satire of the British class system, not to mention this delightful allusion: “Dixie’s voice warbled from bass to soprano, replete with all the outraged disbelief of Lady Bracknell at her most handbageous.” So I think I need to keep the book now! I’d definitely recommend it to fans of this type of mystery.

Annika Martin, Just Not That into Billionaires

Nine years ago, outgoing ballet dancer Francine had a crush on her co-worker, socially awkward but technologically brilliant Benny. She thought he didn’t feel the same way, but after one drunken night, they got married in Vegas. Feeling ashamed the morning after (she’d tried to sleep with him and he’d refused), Francine left town, and she hasn’t talked to Benny since. Now she needs a divorce, but Benny unexpectedly refuses; instead, he insists that she pose as his loving wife, since he’s now a wildly successful billionaire whose personal life is being scrutinized by the press. Despite this ridiculous plot, this book completely sucked me in. Something about the chemistry between Francine and Benny, and their complementary weirdness, and Benny’s endearing awkwardness, really worked for me! However, I also think some people will find Benny an irredeemable jerk, which I completely understand! So this book won’t be for everyone, but I liked it and may try more by this author.

Review: Battle Royal

Lucy Parker, Battle Royal

Talented pastry chefs Sylvie Fairchild and Dominic De Vere have been professional rivals ever since their stint on Operation Cake four years ago. Sylvie was a contestant, Dominic was a judge, and her robotic unicorn cake creation may have gone rogue and hit him in the face. Now they’re competing for the most important job of their careers — a cake for an upcoming royal wedding. Their baking styles (and personalities) couldn’t be more different: Sylvie is all about whimsy and creativity, while Dominic sticks to classic perfection. But as they spend more time together, they discover a surprising mutual attraction and must figure out how to reconcile their romance with their career ambitions.

Lucy Parker is an auto-buy author for me, and I always worry that her latest book won’t live up to my sky-high expectations. Fortunately, in this case the worry was unfounded because I loved this book! While I don’t particularly care about baking shows or British royals, I do adore a grumpy/sunshine pairing, and the relationship between Sylvie and Dominic is every bit as swoony and satisfying as I’d hoped. The first few chapters are a little confusing — lots of characters and backstory to establish — and there’s perhaps a bit too much going on throughout the book. But that’s a tiny quibble that in no way diminishes my overall love for this novel. I already can’t wait for the next one!

Mini-Reviews: Decoy, Counting, Companion

Dawn Cook, The Decoy Princess

Tess has grown up believing she’s the crown princess of Constenopolie. But on the eve of her betrothal to a neighboring prince, she learns that she’s actually a decoy, installed at the palace to ensure that the true princess (who has grown up in hiding) won’t be assassinated. No sooner has she learned this shocking news than there’s a palace coup, in which the king and queen are killed and Tess must flee to avoid the same fate. Pursuing her is Jeck, a captain of the guard in the new regime, who has plans for her back at the palace. And then there’s Duncan, an attractive card sharp who wants her to team up with him and leave Constenopolie to its fate. I really liked the premise of this book and found it a fun, action-packed read. But while the main plot of this book is resolved, there are an awful lot of loose ends, from Tess’s surprising magical abilities to her romantic destiny. There is a sequel, Princess at Sea, and I’m eager to read it so that I can find out what happens! But on its own, this book isn’t totally satisfying, so I wouldn’t recommend it as a stand-alone.

Tashie Bhuiyan, Counting Down with You

High school junior Karina Ahmed is under a lot of pressure. Her Bangladeshi parents are strict and focused on her academic achievements, expecting that she’ll become a doctor one day. Karina is more interested in English than STEM, but she’s afraid to admit this to her parents. She’s also a bit of a nonentity at school, but that all changes when her English teacher asks her to tutor the most notorious and good-looking boy in her grade, Ace Clyde. Ace turns out to be different from what Karina expected: he’s thoughtful and sensitive and dealing with his own family issues. As their relationship deepens, will Karina find the courage to go after what she really wants? This book was a cute, fast read, but I must admit I didn’t love it. I think Ace is just too good to be true; I can’t imagine an actual teenage boy being that sweet and emotionally fluent. Also, I couldn’t figure out what made him interested in Karina initially; she’s smart and funny and kind, but how would he know any of those things based on her mousy public persona? It seemed unrealistic and more like a wish-fulfillment trope. But fans of teen romance may like this one more than I did; maybe I’m just getting crotchety in my old age!

Ann Granger, The Companion

Left penniless when her father dies, Elizabeth Martin takes a job in London as companion to her late godfather’s wife, Mrs. Parry. Lizzie soon learns that Mrs. Parry’s previous companion, Madeleine Hexham, recently left without warning and hasn’t been seen since. Mrs. Parry and her friends think Madeleine ran off with a man, but Lizzie worries that something more sinister has happened. Meanwhile, Scotland Yard Inspector Ben Ross is investigating the murder of an unknown young woman who turns out to be Madeleine. When he and Lizzie meet in the course of the investigation, they team up to discover the killer. I quite enjoyed this Victorian mystery. There are times when the author’s research shows a little too much, but the wealth of detail also contributes to a believable setting. Lizzie is an outspoken, independent woman, but not implausibly so for her time. The book strikes a good balance between the mystery plot and social commentary, and there’s a hint of romance as well. I’ll look out for subsequent books in this series.