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: Proposal, Peculiar, Royal

Mary Balogh, The Proposal

This is the first book in the Survivors’ Club series, which centers around seven individuals who have endured wounds (both physical and mental) in the Napoleonic Wars. Hugo Emes, the son of a merchant, is lauded as a war hero, but he feels guilty for leading his men into a deadly battle which few survived. He is looking for a practical, capable wife of his own class; too bad he’s instead drawn to the beautiful, aristocratic, and (he thinks) flighty and arrogant Gwendoline, Lady Muir. Gwen is similarly attracted, despite finding Hugo coarse and uncompromising. Together they must decide whether and how to make a relationship work. I always enjoy Balogh’s romances; she writes about people who have been through some hard life experiences and who find peace and healing as well as love. I found Hugo’s bluntness and social awkwardness endearing, and I liked Gwen as well (although I felt she was less interesting than Hugo). Overall, this novel didn’t blow me away, but I enjoyed it quite a bit and will certainly continue with the series.

Ashley Weaver, A Peculiar Combination

In this World War II mystery, safecracker Ellie McDonnell is caught stealing jewelry; but instead of arresting her, her captor, Major Ramsey, offers her a deal. Ramsey is with British intelligence, and he needs Ellie’s expertise to break into the safe of a suspected German spy. But when Ellie and Ramsey discover the suspect dead and the contents of the safe missing, they must team up to find what was stolen and uncover the murderer. This is a fun book that combines mystery, period detail, and a hint of romance. It’s not life-changing, but I found it a solid, enjoyable read. The main mystery is solved, but since this is a series opener, there are a lot of loose ends, including a love triangle and a mystery involving Ellie’s dead mother. I’m definitely intrigued enough to read the next book when it comes out!

Sharon Shinn, Royal Airs

Rafe Adova lives in the slums of Chialto, the capital city of Welce, where he makes a precarious living by playing cards. A chance encounter with Princess Josetta, however, changes his destiny. As Rafe and Josetta get to know each other better, they fall in love; but the intrigues of Chialto’s court and the mystery of Rafe’s identity may keep them apart. I found this sequel to Troubled Waters somewhat disappointing, mostly because the main characters are so dull. Rafe is a charming card sharp for approximately one chapter, and then he becomes a boring nonentity. Josetta’s main traits are disliking court life and being a saintly do-gooder (she runs a homeless shelter in the slums). However, the book picks up with some exciting plot toward the end, and there are many interesting secondary characters (as well as the welcome return of the main players from the first book). So I’ll continue with the series even though this book fell a bit flat.

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: Lady, Flight, Velocipede

Eliza Casey, Lady Takes the Case

The lady of the title is Lady Cecilia Bates, the daughter of an old, aristocratic family that has fallen on hard times. To keep the estate functioning, her brother, Patrick, needs to marry a rich woman; luckily, American heiress Annabel Clarke has agreed to attend their house party. All seems to be going according to plan until one of the other guests, a famous explorer, is poisoned over dinner. When Patrick appears to be the police’s main suspect, Cecilia decides to launch her own investigation, along with Annabel’s intelligent maid, Jane, and a little help from Jane’s cat. I liked this book and think it would appeal to fans of Downton Abbey, but I think the setting and characters are definitely more interesting than the mystery. I’m not sure I care enough to read the sequel; another book in a similar vein is Alyssa Maxwell’s Murder Most Malicious, and I’d rather continue with Maxwell’s series.

Jean-Pierre Gibrat, Flight of the Raven

I’m not generally a big graphic novel fan; I’m not a very visual person, and my tendency is to go straight for the text without really absorbing the illustrations. But this GN drew me in with its World War II setting, French Resistance heroine, and cat burglar hero, not to mention the absolutely gorgeous art! The overarching plot — in which the heroine, Jeanne, searches for her missing sister and worries about a traitor within her Resistance cell — is not particularly well fleshed out, but it’s really just an excuse for her to team up with the cat burglar and the other quirky characters she meets along the way. Overall, I did like this and would recommend it to people who enjoy both historical fiction and graphic novels.

Emily June Street, The Velocipede Races

In an invented world similar to late Victorian England, velocipede racing is both a popular sport and the only socially acceptable way for upper-class men to earn money. Women, of course, don’t participate and are not even supposed to ride velos in private. Nevertheless, Emmeline Escot has always dreamed of racing, and she’s determined not to let social conventions get in her way. Complications ensue, however, when she is inadvertently “compromised” by a rich stranger and forced to marry. I picked up this book knowing very little about it, so I’m happy to say I enjoyed it! But I think my favorite parts were honestly the interactions between Emmeline and her new husband; their relationship interested me a lot more than the descriptions of velo racing, and I found Emmeline’s obsession with the races a little tedious. Still, I think this one is worth reading if you like historical romance with a strong (and not terribly subtle) feminist message.

Mini-Reviews: Graces, Proposal, News

D.E. Stevenson, The Four Graces

The titular four graces are the four daughters of Mr. Grace, the vicar of the village of Chevis Green. They’re all pretty and intelligent, though Liz is the most outgoing, Sal is the most bookish, and Tilly is the shyest. (Addie, the youngest, is barely on page.) The girls are quite happy until the arrival of Aunt Rona, who’s snobbish and oblivious and determined to “manage” them all. As they wonder how to deal with her, they also take part in village life and consider their futures, especially after the arrival of two potential suitors. I always enjoy D.E. Stevenson’s books, and this one was a pleasant, low-stakes read, despite being set during World War II. I didn’t engage with it quite as much as I did with [Miss Buncle’s Book], although that could be partly because I have a cold at the moment. But I did enjoy the book and will likely revisit it at some point.

Melanie Dickerson, A Viscount’s Proposal

This Regency romance centers around Leorah, a spirited young lady who defies convention, and Edward, an uptight politician who hopes to become prime minister one day. Naturally, they dislike each other immensely, but their feelings change as they get to know one another better. Meanwhile, someone is trying to kill Edward, but no one knows who or why. This was my first book by this author, and I was underwhelmed. The setting doesn’t really ring true (I suspect a lot of historical details are wrong), and the writing style is awkward and inauthentic. The “mystery” plot is paper-thin, and I was expecting more because this book is part of the Regency Spies of London series. There is literally no spying at all! This is a quick read but a bland one, and I won’t be seeking out more books by Dickerson.

Paulette Jiles, News of the World

Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd has lived through three wars and raised two daughters, but now he may face his toughest challenge yet. Johanna Leonberger is a 10-year-old white girl who was captured by Kiowa warriors four years ago and has been living among their people ever since. She’s just been “rescued,” and Captain Kidd is tasked with taking her to her relatives near San Antonio. But Johanna views the Kiowa as her people and doesn’t want to leave. Moreover, there are many dangers along the way, including Kiowa and Comanche raiders, the US Army, hostile townspeople, and opportunists exploiting the lawless American West of the 1870s. I loved this book! The writing style is sparse yet evocative, and the slow evolution of the captain’s relationship with Johanna is touching in its restraint. The book manages to include a lot of interesting history without being too expository or preachy. I would strongly recommend this to lovers of historical fiction, and I know I’ll be seeking out more of Jiles’s books!

Mini-Reviews: Secret, Pretty, Shell

Jennifer Kincheloe, The Secret Life of Anna Blanc

In 1907 Los Angeles, Anna Blanc is a wealthy debutante who seemingly has the world at her feet, but she chafes under her father’s strict upbringing and longs for excitement. When she stumbles upon an opportunity to become a police matron for the LAPD, she jumps at it, even though it means using a fake name and lying to everyone in her life. When women from the local brothels start dying, allegedly by suicide, Anna is convinced they’re really being murdered. She investigates with the help of handsome but skeptical Officer Joe Singer, learning about some of life’s harsh realities along the way. This is a book I found both enjoyable and frustrating. It moves along at a quick clip, Anna’s internal monologue can be amusing, and Officer Singer is a delight. Unfortunately, Anna is also insufferable — she’s such a thoughtless, spoiled brat! The book tries to redeem her by having her solve the mystery, but to me, that doesn’t make up for how recklessly and selfishly she often behaves. Your mileage may vary; maybe I’m being harsh because I know how deeply she would irritate me in real life. But for me, the obnoxious heroine means I won’t be continuing with this otherwise promising series.

Francis Duncan, So Pretty a Problem

Celebrated painter Adrian Carthallow has been killed; his wife, Helen, confesses to the killing, claiming that she shot him by accident. But the local police are able to disprove her story almost immediately, which raises the question, why did she lie? Amateur sleuth Mordecai Tremaine happens to be vacationing nearby, and he also knows the Carthallows socially, so he’s perfectly placed to investigate the matter. He soon uncovers plenty of motives among the Carthallows’ circle of friends, but who actually pulled the trigger? I’ve read a few of the Mordecai Tremaine books now, and I always enjoy them. There’s nothing particularly original about this one — and I was able to figure out the solution in advance — but I liked the book and will continue to read more in the series.

Rosamunde Pilcher, The Shell Seekers

This is a hard book to describe, because it’s mostly about ordinary people living ordinary lives, without many exciting events or dramatic plot twists. It centers around Penelope Keeling and describes her life, both as a 64-year-old woman in the present (that is, the 1980s, when the book was written) and as a young woman before and during World War II. It also explores the lives of Penelope’s three grown children, who are very different from their mother and from each other. I found this book a slow read but an enthralling one; Penelope is a (mostly) sympathetic character, and I enjoyed how the slow unveiling of her past clarified events in the present. If you like quiet British novels, this is definitely one to pick up.

Mini-Reviews: Acting, Trip, Wisteria

Adele Buck, Acting Up

Cath and Paul have been best friends since college, and they also work together: Paul is a regional theater director, and Cath is a stage manager. Cath has been in love with Paul for years, but she’s never made a move for fear of ruining their friendship and professional relationship. Now they’re putting on a new play, and Cath’s nemesis Susan has been cast as the lead actress. Susan’s spiteful behavior irritates everyone but also forces some long-buried feelings into the open. I really wanted to love this book — I do community theater myself, so I was hoping for a lot of behind-the-scenes drama and hijinks. But the book focuses much more on Cath’s and Paul’s inner turmoil, and I found their conflict frustrating. One honest conversation could have solved everything! And I couldn’t figure out why Cath was so reluctant to share her feelings…it seemed like she should have had some traumatic backstory to explain the extent of her fear, but she didn’t (at least not on page). Overall, this book was OK but not what I wanted it to be.

Beth O’Leary, The Road Trip

Addie and Dylan used to be in love, but they broke up two years ago and haven’t spoken since. Now they’re both going to a mutual friend’s wedding, and when Dylan wrecks the car he’s driving, he and his best friend Marcus hitch a ride with Addie, her sister Deb, and another random wedding guest who needed a ride. The book jumps between the present-day road trip and the story of Addie and Dylan’s relationship in the past. I couldn’t put this book down, and I was surprised by how much it affected me emotionally. At the same time, though, I wasn’t necessarily rooting for Dylan and Addie to work things out! Their relationship seems based primarily (solely?) on physical attraction, and they don’t function particularly well as a couple. I also couldn’t relate to Dylan and Marcus, who are basically “poor little rich boys” distracting themselves from real life with sex, drugs, and their parents’ money. The book attempts to make them sympathetic by giving them some shallow backstory and (in Dylan’s case) a cartoonishly villainous father, but it doesn’t quite work. I did like the book overall, but I’m still deciding whether it’s a keeper for me. Oh, and notwithstanding the cover, it’s definitely more of a drama than a comedy.

India Holton, The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels

Miss Cecilia Bassingthwaite is a proper young Victorian lady, and also a pirate. In fact, she’s a junior member of the Wisteria Society, England’s most prestigious and fearsome league of piratical ladies. When another Society member hires an assassin to kill her, Cecilia thinks she’s finally made it: now the Society will have to take her seriously and promote her to senior membership. But things start to go wrong when the assassin, Ned Lightbourne, turns out to be dangerously attractive and charming. Then the villainous Captain Morvath, an evil pirate and even worse poet, kidnaps the rest of the Society, leaving only Cecilia to save the day. Hijinks ensue, complete with flying houses, literary allusions, ghosts, thievery, and a touch of romance. This book won’t be for everyone; it’s a ridiculous romp in which the rules don’t make sense, there’s very little character development, and the tone is gleefully ahistorical. To enjoy it, you have to let the silliness wash over you — and be someone who appreciates Brontë references and dick jokes in equal measure. Honestly, I loved it! Can’t wait for the sequel next year!

Mini-Reviews: Premeditation, Skeptics, Summer

Tirzah Price, Pride and Premeditation

This YA historical novel is a spin on Pride and Prejudice: Lizzie Bennet dreams of being a barrister, but since such a career is unheard of for a woman, she’s currently an unpaid assistant at her father’s law firm. She hopes that scoring a big client for the firm will convince Mr. Bennet to hire her; when the rich and socially prominent Mr. Bingley is accused of murdering his brother-in-law Mr. Hurst, Lizzie hopes Bingley will be that client. Unfortunately, Bingley is already represented by the arrogant Mr. Darcy, but that won’t stop Lizzie from doing some investigating of her own. The writing style is a bit clunky (too modern, too American), and Lizzie annoyed me sometimes — she’s much more headstrong and obnoxious than the original Elizabeth Bennet. But I did enjoy the book’s creative way of integrating P&P’s characters into a murder mystery plot. It’s a fun, fast read, so I’d recommend it if the premise interests you. I think a series is planned, so I may check out the sequels too.

Christina Pishiris, Love Songs for Skeptics

Zoë Frixos has what many people would consider a dream job: she’s a music journalist at a respected London magazine. But the magazine is in trouble, and the only hope of saving it is to score an interview with famous yet reclusive rock star Marcie Tyler. In her quest to get the interview, Zoë keeps butting heads with Marcie’s publicist, Nick Jones, who is as arrogant and hostile as he is (frustratingly) attractive. Meanwhile, Zoë also has to sort out her personal life, as her childhood best friend and first love, Simon, has just moved back to town. This book was published in January 2021, but it feels like a throwback to the chick-lit heyday of the ‘90s. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — I enjoyed Zoë’s first-person POV, the predictable career and relationship angst, and the musical references peppered throughout. I didn’t particularly buy the romance, though. Because we never get the hero’s POV, he remains pretty opaque, and I couldn’t figure out what drew him to Zoë. Overall, not bad but not great — it was worth the $2.99 sale price I paid for the e-book, but I’m glad I didn’t pay full price.

Jessica Brockmole, At the Edge of Summer

When 15-year-old Clare Ross’s father dies, she is taken in by her parents’ old friends in France, Monsieur and Madame Crépet. At first she’s shy, grief-stricken, and lonely; but when the Crépets’ son Luc comes home from university for the weekend, Clare finds an unexpected friend. Their relationship deepens over the course of the summer, but eventually Clare moves out to live with her grandfather, and she and Luc can only be close via letters. Then World War I intervenes, but of course they are destined to meet again. I liked this book; it’s sweet and a little sad but ultimately hopeful. The main characters are endearing, particularly Luc. But the love story was almost too romantic for me, verging on the sappy. And I would have liked a little more plot; despite Luc’s wartime experiences and Clare’s travels, not a lot actually happens. Overall, this is an enjoyable read, but like Brockmole’s previous book, Letters from Skye, I didn’t love it.