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: Stitches, Murders, Light

Olivia Atwater, Ten Thousand Stitches

Euphemia “Effie” Reeves is sick of feeling invisible and insignificant. As a maid in a noble house, she is either ignored or mistreated by the family. When she falls for the youngest son of the house, she knows a relationship between them would be impossible, but she can’t help wishing for it anyway. Luckily, she has an ally in the faerie Lord Blackthorn, who is determined to pursue virtue by being kind to the powerless. Unluckily, despite his good intentions, his interference often does more harm than good. When Effie’s dream finally seems to be within reach, she discovers that her desires have changed. Like Atwater’s previous book, [Half a Soul], this is a charming fantasy romance with some social satire baked in. I especially loved Lord Blackthorn’s enthusiastic efforts to help, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that they usually led to disaster. Recommended for fans of the genre!

Elizabeth Daly, Murders in Volume 2

Rare manuscript expert Henry Gamadge once again plays detective when Miss Vauregard, a member of one of New York’s most prestigious old families, asks him to discover the true identity of a mysterious young woman who has ingratiated herself with the family patriarch (and holder of the purse strings). As Gamadge investigates, he becomes convinced that the woman is working with someone in the family; things get even worse when the patriarch is murdered and Gamadge himself is the most likely suspect! I enjoyed this novel, which is well plotted and contains such intriguing elements as a hundred-year-old unsolved mystery, a cult, and possible travel to and from the fourth dimension. This is also the book in which Henry Gamadge falls in love, and I would have liked a bit more development of the romance. But overall, I liked this book and will definitely continue with the series.

Connie Willis and Cynthia Felice, Light Raid

Sometime in the future, North America is engaged in a civil war, and 17-year-old Ariadne has been evacuated to neutral territory. But when her parents’ letters become less frequent and stop telling her anything specific, Ari knows that something must be wrong. She flees her foster home to return to HydraCorp, the large and powerful company where her parents live and work, only to discover that her father is falling apart and her mother is in jail for treason. Outraged, Ari intends to prove her mother’s innocence, but she is thwarted by the mysterious Joss Liddell, who is as irritating as he is attractive. As Ari investigates the situation at HydraCorp, she discovers a secret so big that it could change the course of the war. I never felt like I fully understood the world of this novel — the book doesn’t spend any time on exposition — and I’m still not sure what the war is actually about. But I did enjoy this book; it’s action-packed and full of plot twists, and there’s also a fun YA romance. I liked Ari’s narrative voice; she reads as immature sometimes, but that makes sense since she’s a teenager. Overall, while I don’t think this book is as good as Connie Willis’s solo stuff, it’s still an entertaining read.

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: Reading, Jeeves, Enchantment

Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

In this short volume, literature professor Jacobs speaks to people who would like to be readers but feel too busy or intimidated to try, and to people who once were readers but aren’t any longer. He champions the idea that reading can and should be a pleasure, not an obligation. His slogan is “Read at whim” — that is, what you actually enjoy, not what you or others think you ought to read. He discusses the perils of the reading list, the specific joys of rereading, and the notion that different kinds of texts can be read with different types of attention. I think this book is probably preaching to the choir for most of us, but I still found it very interesting, and I liked Jacobs’s friendly and humorous tone. Recommended for current and aspiring readers!

P.G. Wodehouse, How Right You Are, Jeeves

Affable, dimwitted Bertie Wooster gets into scrape after scrape while visiting his Aunt Dahlia in the country. Fellow guests include Roberta “Bobbie” Wickham, a beautiful redhead who is pretending to be Bertie’s fiancée while actually being engaged to his friend Kipper; famous mystery novelist Adela Cream and her playboy son Willie; Aubrey Upjohn, the menacing former headmaster of Bertie’s preparatory school; and Sir Roderick Glossop, a celebrated brain scientist currently posing as Aunt Dahlia’s butler. Naturally, complications ensue, and Bertie must call Jeeves back from his annual vacation to sort out the mess. Wodehouse is always good for the soul, and I found myself chuckling my way through this novel. A fun and breezy lark to kick off the year with!

Margaret Rogerson, An Enchantment of Ravens

Isobel is an extremely gifted painter, which means her work is in high demand among the fair ones. But when Rook, the autumn prince himself, requests her to paint his portrait, she makes a fatal mistake: she paints human sorrow in his eyes, which is both alien and scandalous to the fair ones. To clear his reputation and defend his throne, Rook whisks Isobel away to fairyland, where they encounter many perils and slowly come to a deeper understanding of each other. Yes, this book is YA, and it’s a bit dramatic and angsty at times, but I still really enjoyed it! I loved the magical portrayal of the fairy world, and I wish there were a series of books set in the various fairy courts. Isobel is a strong and practical heroine, and I couldn’t help but enjoy the sulky, emotionally oblivious Rook as well. I also loved Rogerson’s Sorcery of Thorns, and I really hope she comes out with another book soon!

Mini-Reviews: Cherwell, Vanity, Field

Mavis Doriel Hay, Death on the Cherwell

Four students at Oxford’s (fictional) all-female Persephone College meet to discuss the formation of a club in opposition to the college’s unpopular bursar. During their meeting, they spot a canoe floating down the Cherwell river — with the bursar’s drowned corpse inside. The girls are questioned by the police and, realizing they and their fellow students might be suspects, decide to launch their own investigation. I enjoyed this Golden Age mystery, although I wanted more undergraduate hijinks; most of the book has a light, humorous tone, but the final few chapters are quite somber. It’s interesting that this book was published in the same year as Gaudy Night, another mystery novel set at an Oxford women’s college. Gaudy Night is clearly the superior novel, but Death on the Cherwell works well as a less weighty counterpoint.

Kevin Kwan, Sex and Vanity

Lucie Tang Churchill has never felt accepted by her family; as someone with half Chinese and half European ancestry, she doesn’t quite fit in with either side. As a result, she’s always striven for perfection in every aspect of her life. But when she meets the quiet, handsome, unsuitable George Zao at her cousin’s wedding, Lucie is attracted to him and soon feels her perfect life spinning out of control. This novel is a breezy update of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, and while I love the original, I wasn’t quite as impressed by the retelling. It’s a fun read — I especially enjoyed the author’s snarky footnotes — but I couldn’t relate to the characters’ ultra-wealthy, jet-setting lifestyle. The book is filled with name-dropping of people, places, and luxury brands I’ve never heard of. I found Lucie shallow and didn’t understand what George saw in her. Overall, I think this book would make a fun beach read, especially for people who enjoy reading about yachts and couture clothing and hip restaurants. I see the appeal of it, but I definitely prefer Forster’s original novel!

Ellis Peters, The Potter’s Field

In this installment of the Brother Cadfael series, the abbey is given a tract of land known as the Potter’s Field. As the brothers begin to plow the field, they unearth the skeletal remains of an unknown woman. She is most likely the wife of one of the brothers, who deserted her to pursue his religious vocation. Could Brother Ruald be responsible for her death? Brother Cadfael and Hugh Beringar investigate to discover the woman’s identity and find out what happened to her. I love this series because, even though there’s always at least one mysterious death, the overall tone is very gentle and peaceful. Justice always prevails, and usually Cadfael helps a pair of young lovers get together, as he does in this book. It’s the perfect antidote to the anxieties of modern life, and I’d definitely recommend the whole series.

Mini-Reviews: Longbourn, Dates, Half, Wrong

Tracy Kiely, Murder at Longbourn

In this cozy contemporary mystery, Elizabeth Parker goes to visit her Aunt Winnie, who owns a bed and breakfast called the Inn at Longbourn on Cape Cod. Aunt Winnie is hosting a New Year’s Eve murder mystery party — but disaster strikes when one of the guests is really murdered. Because the dead man wanted to force Aunt Winnie to sell the inn to him, she becomes the police’s prime suspect. Confident that her aunt is innocent, Elizabeth does some amateur sleuthing to find the real killer. I don’t normally read contemporary cozies, but this was a pleasant read that kept me turning the pages. I enjoyed the nods to Pride and Prejudice (yes, there are a Darcy and a Wickham for our heroine to choose from) and to Agatha Christie (characters named Jackie and Linnet!). I may continue with the series, since the books are available at my local library.

Jenny Bayliss, The Twelve Dates of Christmas

Thirty-four-year-old Kate Turner lives in a small English village with few opportunities to meet single men. So as the holiday season approaches, she decides to sign up for the Twelve Dates of Christmas, a local matchmaking event where she’ll go on 12 dates with 12 different men in the hope of finding romance. Naturally, some dates are better than others, and a few are downright awful; but as Kate tries to envision a future with these men, she must also confront her feelings for her long-time best friend, Matt. This was a fun, light, predictable book that I enjoyed, although it’s not necessarily a keeper for me. Still, I’d recommend it to those looking for a cute holiday read.

Olivia Atwater, Half a Soul

After a dangerous encounter with a faerie as a child, Dora Ettings has been left with half a soul. As a result, she has trouble feeling and processing emotions, which makes her prone to socially embarrassing situations. When Dora and her family travel to London for the Season, she just wants to avoid getting into trouble. But the Lord Sorcier takes an interest in her case, and he and Dora soon find themselves working together to combat a plague with a mysterious connection to Faerie. I’m a sucker for the “magical Regency” genre, and I greatly enjoyed this book. Can’t wait to pick up the next in the series! Definitely recommended if the premise appeals to you.

Cecilia Grant, A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong

In this Regency Christmas novella, Andrew Blackshear is on the way to buy his sister a Christmas present when he comes across the beguiling Lucy Sharp, who happens to be the daughter of the man he came to meet. After a series of accidents, Andrew ends up driving Lucy to a house party, but even more misfortunes arise, forcing them to spend multiple nights together. Andrew values propriety and self-control above all, but he can’t help being wildly attracted to Lucy. The more time they spend together, the more they consider whether they are compatible enough for marriage. I liked this novella and especially enjoyed how Andrew and Lucy both came to appreciate each other’s good points. A cozy little story to end the year with!

Mini-reviews: Diadem, Conspiracy, Dangerous

Jean Merrill, The Girl from the Diadem

Actress Belle Barclay is losing her voice, which means her career is ending and she needs to plan for her future. An opportunity drops into her lap when the young Earl of Orsett offers to hire her for one last acting job: she’ll accompany him to a house party, posing as his love interest, so that his parents, appalled by the prospect of an actress as their daughter-in-law, will permit him to marry his penniless childhood sweetheart instead. Of course, complications ensue, and the house party descends into a farce of miscommunications and unrequited loves. Belle congratulates herself on being above the fray, only to discover that she’s fallen in love with the worst possible man. This short novel is a delightful Edwardian romp, and while it’s not quite as good as Heyer or Wodehouse, it feels a bit like a combination of the two. Definitely recommended if you can find a copy — I had to buy a used one in pretty bad condition from Thriftbooks, but it was worth it!

Sherry Thomas, A Conspiracy in Belgravia

I really liked the first Lady Sherlock novel when I read it earlier this year, and this second installment in the series is equally good. Charlotte Holmes has left her family to live independently with Mrs. Watson, and she works as a consulting detective under the name of the fictional Sherlock. Her latest client comes as a surprise, however: Lady Ingram needs her help to locate an old flame, who turns out to have ties to Charlotte herself. When Charlotte takes the case, she discovers that it’s much more complicated than she originally assumed — not least because she is secretly helping the wife of the man she loves. The plot thickens wonderfully in this book, and I can’t wait to continue with the series and see what new twists and turns will arise! I highly recommend this series, but you really need to start with the first book, A Study in Scarlet Women.

Mary Balogh, Slightly Dangerous

In this final book of the Bedwyn saga, we finally get Wulfric’s story. The Duke of Bewcastle has always prided himself on his propriety, his detachment, and the competent performance of his duty. But now that all his siblings are married and gone, he finds himself lonely and vaguely dissatisfied. He impulsively accepts an invitation to a friend’s house party, where he meets the widowed Christine Derrick. She is outgoing, fun-loving, and always getting into some improper scrape — in other words, just the sort of woman to repulse the Duke of Bewcastle. But much to his surprise and chagrin, Wulf is drawn to Christine, and she to him. But can two such different personalities ever compromise enough to form a lasting relationship? This book is Balogh’s take on the Pride and Prejudice formula, and as such I enjoyed it immensely. Wulf is a man after my own heart — I love an uptight, emotionally repressed hero who gradually learns to unbend a little. I wasn’t 100% sold on Christine at first, but as the book went on, and especially after she met the other Bedwyns, she won me over. I probably won’t keep every book in this series, but this one will stay on my shelves for the foreseeable future!

Mini-Reviews: Tailors, Sinful, Deadly

Dorothy L. Sayers, The Nine Tailors

Lord Peter and Bunter are trapped by a snowstorm in the town of Fenchurch St. Paul in East Anglia. There, Peter partakes in a bit of New Year’s Eve bell-ringing and learns about a decades-old scandal involving a stolen necklace. Months later, the dead body of a stranger is found in Fenchurch St. Paul’s churchyard, and the town vicar asks Peter to investigate the matter, with tragic results. I liked this installment of the series; it’s a twisty mystery with a few good surprises, although I found the frequent digressions into the theory and technique of bell-ringing tedious. Also, this book isn’t as humorous as many others in the series; it’s a bit darker and moodier. Still, definitely a good read, and I’m happy to be continuing my acquaintance with Lord Peter.

Mary Balogh, Slightly Sinful

***Warning: SPOILERS for Slightly Tempted***

This book overlaps somewhat with the previous Bedwyn book, Slightly Tempted, in which Alleyne Bedwyn goes missing on the day of the Battle of Waterloo and is presumed to be dead. In fact, Alleyne isn’t dead, but he sustained a head injury and now has amnesia — he can’t even remember his name. Fortunately, he is rescued by Rachel York, a beautiful young woman who, having been abandoned by her con artist fiancé, is now living in a brothel. As Alleyne recovers from his other injuries in the brothel, he and Rachel fall in love, but they can’t pursue a relationship until Alleyne discovers his true identity (since he might be married already). Meanwhile, Rachel and her friends from the brothel decide to go to England and force her fiancé to give back the money he stole from them. I was really looking forward to Alleyne’s book, since he’s the lovable rogue of the Bedwyn clan, but I admit I was somewhat disappointed. I think I wanted more of the rest of the Bedwyns, who are necessarily absent for most of this novel. And Rachel was a perfectly fine heroine, but nothing about her really stood out to me. Still not a bad read, but not one of my favorites in the series.

Naomi Novik, A Deadly Education

This book takes place in an alternate reality in which evil beings called maleficaria are devouring all the magically talented children throughout the world. These children’s only hope is to get a place in the Scholomance, a magic school that trains its students in the use of magic and gives them the opportunity to form alliances with each other. But maleficaria are present in the school too, and only the most careful and vigilant students will make it out alive. El (short for Galadriel) is a student in the Scholomance, and she’s trying desperately to hang onto her humanity even though the school wants to turn her into a powerful dark sorceress. Her affinity for evil magic makes her a social outcast — except for Orion Lake, the school’s golden boy, who for some reason keeps trying to help her. This book is nothing like Novik’s Temeraire series or her stand-alone fairy tales, but I absolutely loved it anyway! El’s voice is such fun, and the setting of the Scholomance is fascinating. The book’s pace is actually a bit slow because there’s so much world building, but I didn’t mind that. I’m dying to know what happens next; fortunately, I think the sequel is coming out sometime this summer!

Mini-Reviews: Never, Alice, Bargain

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go

On the threshold of a big change in her life, narrator Kathy looks back on her youth at Hailsham, a prestigious British boarding school, and on her friends Ruth and Tommy, whom she met there. As Kathy tells her story, it slowly becomes obvious that there is something different about Hailsham and its students. But only now, as an adult, does Kathy truly understand how her experiences at Hailsham have shaped the course of her life. I really liked the first 75 percent of this book, but I felt it petered out toward the end. The meat of the book is the relationships between Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy, which I found complex, interesting, and poignant. The speculative-fiction elements of the book, by contrast, didn’t interest me much, and because the ending has to deal with those elements, I think it’s not as strong as the rest of the novel. Still, I did like the book overall and would recommend it to fans of The Remains of the Day.

Kate Quinn, The Alice Network

In 1947, American coed Charlie Sinclair is desperate for some news of her cousin Rose, who has lost touch with her family after the war. Charlie’s search leads her to Eve Gardiner, a curmudgeonly older woman who agrees to help her for a price; but Charlie soon learns that Eve has an ulterior motive. In 1915, the young and pretty Eve is recruited as a British spy. She is sent to a small town in France to pose as a waitress in a restaurant popular with the occupying German troops. The book switches between Charlie’s story and Eve’s until their two quests converge in the late 1940s. I enjoyed this book — it’s well written with an exciting plot and likable characters — but I didn’t LOVE it, and honestly I’m not sure why. I definitely think that fans of historical fiction would enjoy it!

Jane Ashford, The Bargain

When the Prince Regent believes he’s being haunted by the ghost of actress Bess Harding, he calls on Lord Alan Gresham for help. Alan is the sixth son of a duke, but he has no taste for high society; he’d rather be conducting scientific experiments at Oxford than mingling with the prince’s crowd and hunting for a nonexistent ghost. But Alan’s scientific investigation is complicated by Ariel Harding, Bess’s daughter, who is desperately seeking a reason for her mother’s suicide. Passionate, headstrong, and emotional, Ariel is a menace to Alan’s logical and orderly life. Too bad he also finds her infuriatingly attractive. I wasn’t sure I would like this book at first — Alan is SUCH a jerk in his attitude toward women. To him, they’re all flighty, hysterical, and incapable of logical reasoning. But he eventually realizes the error of his ways, including that Ariel is not the only woman capable of rational thought, so he won me over by the end. I also loved how Alan’s relationships with his brothers change throughout the book, and how Ariel helps them all with their romantic difficulties. I almost wanted a sequel by the end! Recommended for fans of Regency fluff, and I might try more by this author in the future.

Mini-Reviews: Puzzle, Viscount, Sparrow

Patrick Quentin, A Puzzle for Fools

Broadway producer Peter Duluth has been drinking his life away ever since the tragic death of his wife two years ago. Now he’s hit rock bottom and checked himself into a sanatorium to dry out. When he hears a creepy voice talking about murder late one night, he initially thinks he’s imagined it — until a couple of the other patients mention a similar experience. Then a member of the staff is murdered, and while the police are officially investigating, Peter decides to do a little sleuthing of his own. This is my first book by Patrick Quentin, and I’d definitely consider reading more. It’s a solid Golden Age mystery with a perfect sinister setting. The only thing I didn’t particularly like was the romance, which was quite superficial. Still, I’ll keep my eye out for more Peter Duluth mysteries.

Mimi Matthews, The Viscount and the Vicar’s Daughter

Like A Rogue of One’s Own, this novella is a Victorian romance featuring the “reformed rake” trope, and the rake is even named Tristan! This book’s Tristan shows up at an annual country house party that is known for being exceptionally racy, where he unexpectedly befriends Valentine March, a vicar’s daughter who is attending the house party as a lady’s companion. When Tristan and Valentine are caught in a passionate embrace in the conservatory, Tristan does the honorable thing and offers marriage. But Valentine, despite her attraction to Tristan, isn’t sure she wants to marry a man with his unsavory reputation. I liked this novella more than A Rogue of One’s Own, but the many similarities made me feel like I was reading the same book again! I did enjoy this one more, but it’s definitely not my favorite by Mimi Matthews. Still, I look forward to trying some more of her full-length novels.

Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow

The premise of this novel caught my fancy immediately: humans have discovered intelligent life on another planet, and the Jesuits (an order of Catholic priests) are spearheading the mission to make contact with these life forms and learn about their culture. The novel starts in 2060, and Fr. Emilio Sandoz is the sole survivor of that mission; he has returned to Earth badly damaged, both physically and spiritually. The book then jumps back and forth in time, giving the backstory on Emilio and his companions and describing what happened on the alien planet and its aftermath. The novel is epic in scope, and I’m frankly still digesting it. Overall, I think it’s wonderfully done, although it takes a while to get going — we don’t actually meet the aliens until about 2/3 of the way through the book. So it’s not quite an action-packed sci fi story; but as an examination of faith, of human goodness and human frailty, and of the complexity of relationships, this novel has a lot to say and gave me a lot to think about.