Mini-Reviews: Thief, Mischief, Normal

Emily Gee, Thief with No Shadow

I recently reread Gee’s The Laurentine Spy and quite enjoyed it, so I decided to dust off this book too. The plot is tricky to summarize, but it involves sinister magical creatures, a stolen necklace, and a curse. Melke and Bastian hate each other at first; he needs the necklace to break the curse, but she stole it to save her brother’s life. When they’re forced to spend time together as her brother heals, they begin to understand one another better. I found this book very compelling and stayed up too late last night to finish it. But at the same time, I’m not sure I actually liked it that much. I love an enemies-to-lovers romance, but Bastian is so furious and straight-up mean for most of the novel that it’s hard to accept him as a hero. There’s also some weird sex stuff in the book; not all of it is consensual, and some of it involves nonhuman magical creatures. Granted, the book knows this is icky, not sexy, but it’s still unpleasant to read about! So, while I’d consider reading more by this author, I don’t think this particular book is for me.

Manda Collins, A Lady’s Guide to Mischief and Mayhem

Lady Katherine Bascomb owns and writes for a London newspaper. Her latest article criticizes Scotland Yard for negligence in investigating a series of shocking murders, and the article causes lead investigator Andrew Eversham to be taken off the case. But when Kate later stumbles on another dead body, and the methods are similar to those of the previous murders, Eversham is assigned to the new case. He and Kate work together to discover the killer and navigate a growing attraction to each other. I really liked the premise of this book, with its blend of historical romance and mystery, but for me the execution fell flat. Kate and Andrew are 21st-century characters in period dress, and I just didn’t find them believable. The mystery plot is also disappointing; the villain’s motive is ridiculously farfetched. I don’t plan to continue this series, but considering how many others I’m trying to catch up with, that’s not necessarily a bad thing!

Rachel Bloom, I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are

I’m a huge fan of the TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which is an insightful, at times painful exploration of mental illness wrapped in a musical comedy. So I was excited to read Rachel Bloom’s memoir — she co-created and starred in the show and was also one of the writers and composers. But to my disappointment, the book doesn’t focus much on the show; instead, it delves deep into Rachel’s awkward childhood, her experiences with bullying, her love of musical theater, and her struggles with depression and anxiety. Still, there were things I enjoyed about this book — the chapter that’s presented as a musical (which you can hear Rachel perform on her website!) is a particular delight. But I also thought some of the humor was a bit labored, and overall I just didn’t like the book as much as I was hoping to.

Mini-Reviews: Key, Midnight, Birds

Lia Louis, The Key to My Heart

Since the tragic death of her husband, Russ, two years ago, Natalie has been struggling. Once a professional pianist, now she can only play at the dilapidated public piano in St. Pancras station, where she can be anonymous and ignored. When a mysterious person starts leaving sheet music there for Natalie — music that has special meaning for her and Russ — she tries to discover who’s responsible. Along the way, she slowly begins to work through her feelings of guilt and loss. I enjoyed this one; despite the sad premise and the very realistic-feeling portrayal of grief, the book has an uplifting and even sometimes humorous tone. A romance eventually develops, but the novel’s main focus is Natalie’s personal growth. I’d recommend this one if you like your women’s fiction with a little gravitas, though Dear Emmie Blue is still my favorite book by this author.

Sylvia Izzo Hunter, The Midnight Queen

Gray Marshall, a student of magick at Oxford’s Merlin College, has just been framed for a crime he didn’t commit. His pompous, disagreeable tutor forces him to retreat to the tutor’s country estate till the scandal blows over. Gray resents this change in his circumstances — that is, until he befriends the tutor’s daughter, Sophie. They soon discover that the plot against Gray is part of a much larger scheme that could throw the entire kingdom into turmoil; meanwhile, Sophie learns some surprising truths about her identity. I originally read this book in 2014 but couldn’t remember a thing about it, so I decided to reread it before continuing with the series, and I’m so glad I did! I loved the fantastical alt-Regency setting, Sophie and Gray are both wonderfully likable characters, and the plot is intriguing (albeit a bit slow-moving). In short, I loved this book and am so glad I decided to tackle this series this year!

Sarah Addison Allen, Other Birds

This quiet, magic-infused novel centers around the inhabitants of the Dellawisp, an old condo building tucked away in the small town of Mallow Island, South Carolina. The residents are estranged sisters Lizbeth and Lucy, artist Charlotte, chef Mac, newcomer Zoey, and building manager Frasier. They all have difficult pasts and are all keeping secrets. But as they slowly get to know one another, they discover friendship, love, and the strength to let go of their (sometimes literal) ghosts. I’m a Sarah Addison Allen fan, and this book delivers her trademark evocative writing and sympathetic yet flawed characters. There are POV chapters for almost every character, which feels like a bit too much…but I’m also not sure whose POV I’d want to take out. I really liked this one overall and would recommend it if you’re in the mood to sink into a slow-paced, magical world.

Mini-Reviews: Jole, Moriarty, Daughter

Lois McMaster Bujold, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

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

This book, the last installment of the Vorkosigan saga (at least for now), comes full circle to focus once again on Cordelia. Three years after Aral’s death, she is contemplating the next stage of her life. Meanwhile, Admiral Oliver Jole is at a similar crossroads. He has a complicated history with both Aral and Cordelia, but when he and Cordelia truly talk to each other for the first time since Aral’s death, their relationship begins to change in unexpected ways. I’m of two minds about this book. I liked being back in Cordelia’s POV, and Oliver is also very likable and sympathetic, though he’s basically a brand-new character (he pops up once or twice in passing, in previous books). But viewing this as the final book in the series, I think it falls short. There’s not much Miles, and no Ivan or Mark at all. Plus, I think the series is just as much about Barrayar as it is about Miles and the other characters; it’s the story of a planet’s slow growth and change for the better, and I wanted to see more resolution of that arc. This is still a good novel, but it’s not one of my favorite installments of the series.

Sherry Thomas, Miss Moriarty, I Presume?

Charlotte Holmes faces her most dangerous case yet when Moriarty himself offers her a job. His daughter has gone to live at an isolated religious commune in Cornwall, and he claims to be worried about her well-being. He wants Charlotte to infiltrate the commune and report back on his daughter’s health and habits. Though Charlotte knows Moriarty isn’t telling the full truth, she agrees to investigate in the hope of discovering his hidden agenda. I really want to like this series more than I do, but the truth is, I’ve lost interest. Like the last few installments, this book really drags, plot-wise, and a lot of new characters are introduced only to be ultimately dismissed as irrelevant. I no longer care about the Charlotte/Lord Ingram romance, which seems pretty static at this point, and Moriarty just isn’t working for me as a villain. I’m current with the series now, but I doubt I’ll read the next book when it comes out.

Carol Berg, Daughter of Ancients

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

The evil Lords of Zhev’Na have been defeated, but their followers, the Zhid, still remain to wreak havoc on Avonar. Meanwhile, a beautiful young woman claims to be the daughter and true heir of D’Arnath, held captive by the Lords in an enchanted sleep for a thousand years. She seems to be truthful and well-meaning, but is she hiding darker secrets? Gerick decides to find out, but his mission becomes complicated by his attraction to her. This final book in the Bridge of D’Arnath series is a satisfying conclusion in which all the main characters end up where they should, and there’s a nice romantic subplot as well. The ending drags on a bit, but overall I quite enjoyed both this book and the series as a whole. I’m glad I finally decided to tackle it this year, though it’s not one I plan to reread.

Mini-Reviews: Golden, Holidays, Undertaking

Francis Spufford, Golden Hill

It’s November 1746, and Richard Smith has just arrived in the small town of New York. He visits a countinghouse and produces a note for 1,000 pounds — a huge sum. The denizens of New York don’t know what to make of him: Is he simply a rich man planning to explore the pleasures of a new place? Or is he some kind of fraud, spy, or scoundrel? As Smith explores the city, he gets into various kinds of financial, political, and romantic trouble, but it’s not till the end of the novel that his true purpose is revealed. I really enjoyed this book, which apes the picaresque adventures and digressive style of 18th-century novels. It does a good job of pointing out the social ills of the period (such a slavery) without being anachronistic or preachy. It’s also just plain fun to follow the possibly roguish Smith around and try to figure out what he’s up to, though the ending is a bit of a heartbreaker. But I’d still heartily recommend this book to historical fiction fans!

David Sedaris, Holidays on Ice

This book is a collection of holiday-themed stories and essays, some of them autobiographical and most previously published elsewhere. “SantaLand Diaries” chronicles the time Sedaris worked as a Macy’s elf, “Christmas Means Giving” follows two families as they compete to see who can best demonstrate the true meaning of the season, and “Jesus Shaves” sheds some light on different cultures’ Easter traditions. These short works contain some hilarious moments, but frankly, a lot of them are dark and depressing. One story ends with the murder of a baby, while in another, parents sell their children to a pedophile. So if you’re looking for light, fun stories to get you in the holiday spirit, I’d recommend skipping this one! But if you’re of a more cynical disposition during this time of year, then it could be just the thing for you. For me, it was a mixed bag and probably not a keeper.

Megan Bannen, The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy

This book is a weird but winning genre mashup of romance, fantasy, and Western. Hart Ralston is a marshal in a fantasy world similar to our own, but with zombielike creatures called drudges; his job is to kill them and take their bodies to the nearby undertakers. One such undertaker is Mercy Birdsall, who loves her job but is desperately trying to keep the family business afloat, despite a sick father and uninterested brother. Hart and Mercy fight constantly, but their mutual antagonism is concealing very different feelings, which emerge when they become anonymous penpals. So basically, the book is The Shop around the Corner/You’ve Got Mail with a bit of zombie action and a Western flavor…which sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it totally does! I didn’t need quite as much world-building and would have preferred more of a buildup to the romance, but overall I loved this one and would recommend it if the premise sounds appealing.

Mini-Reviews: Rival, Weaver, Scandal

Sarah Mayberry, Her Favorite Rival

Audrey Mathews and Zach Black are both smart, talented, and ambitious — and since they work in the same office, they’re each other’s biggest competition. But when they’re paired on an important project, they also discover a mutual admiration and attraction. As they struggle with whether to act on their feelings, a new manager comes in and immediately starts restructuring and laying people off. Will their newfound romance jeopardize their careers? I really enjoyed this rivals-to-lovers story, which is reminiscent of The Hating Game (though this version came out first!) but with more emotionally mature main characters. Audrey and Zach actually communicate pretty well and act like adults, even when they’re at odds. They both have excellent reasons for their devotion to work and their reluctance to commit to a relationship. The book is too sexually explicit for my taste, but otherwise I really liked it, and I am definitely interested in trying more by this author!

Carol Berg, The Soul Weaver

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

Karon and his Preceptors have finally come up with a plan to free their enslaved brethren and defeat the Lords of Zhev’Na, but a traitor in their midst ruins everything at the last minute. Reluctantly, Karon concludes that Gerick must be responsible and therefore that he must be killed. To escape — and to prevent himself from inadvertently hurting anyone else — Gerick flees to a mysterious world called the Bounded, whose strange inhabitants want to make him their king. With the help of old friends and new, Gerick must confront his demons and accept his true destiny. I’m continuing to enjoy this series, although Gerick’s time in the Bounded felt like a bit of a side adventure. I also wanted more of Seri, who’s somewhat sidelined in this installment. Still, I liked it overall and am eager to see how things turn out in the final book!

Loretta Chase, Last Night’s Scandal

Peregrine Dalmay has just returned from a long archaeological expedition in Egypt, and he wants nothing more than to go back. But his capricious parents have decided he must instead repair the family’s crumbling castle in Scotland — and if he refuses, they’ll cut him off. Peregrine’s old friend, the scandalous Lady Olivia, has a Plan and is determined to help. As they fix up the (possibly haunted) castle and argue, they also fall in love, but can they have a future together when they’re so different? I had high hopes for this book after meeting Peregrine and Olivia as teenagers in Lord Perfect, but I found it a bit of a letdown; there was too much plot and not enough development of the romance. The characters’ internal struggles didn’t really make sense to me and needed more fleshing out. Still, it’s not a bad read, and I have certainly enjoyed my foray into Loretta Chase’s backlist! But for me, Lord Perfect is the best of this series and the only one I feel compelled to keep.

Mini-Reviews: Guardians, Belle, Flowers

Carol Berg, Guardians of the Keep

***Warning: SPOILERS for book #1 in the series.***

After the events of Son of Avonar, Karon/D’Natheil is staying with his mentor, Dassine, to see if his dual memories can be restored without overthrowing his reason altogether. Meanwhile, Seri returns to Comigor to fulfill her brother’s dying wish. She expects to stay only a short time, but she finds everything in disarray and her nephew, Gerick, strangely hostile. When Gerick later disappears, Seri and Karon join forces to find the missing boy, and the trail eventually leads to the land of the evil Lords of Zhev’Na. Like its predecessor, this book is a solid, enjoyable fantasy novel. The story is told primarily by Seri, Karon, and Gerick in turn, and this device gives varied and interesting perspectives on the book’s events. I especially liked the chapters in the land of Zhev’Na, which were dark and disturbing at times but also full of dramatic tension. I’m intrigued to see where the series goes from here!

Mimi Matthews, The Belle of Belgrave Square

Captain Jasper Blunt is hailed as a war hero, but he is also the object of sinister rumors involving illegitimate children and a crumbling, possibly haunted estate. He needs a wife with a large dowry to fund the necessary estate repairs, and he’s soon drawn to the anxious, bookish heiress Julia Wychwood. Julia is attracted to Jasper as well, but she is reluctant to pursue a relationship because of his dubious character. When circumstances force them together, Julia is willing to make the best of things, but she soon realizes that Jasper is keeping many secrets from her. I’m a huge Mimi Matthews fan and was excited about the Beauty and the Beast-esque plot of this novel, but while I did enjoy the book overall, I didn’t love it quite as much as I wanted to. I figured out Jasper’s secrets pretty early on, and it was frustrating that he kept them from Julia for so long. The plot also reminded me of Matthews’s earlier novel, The Matrimonial Advertisement, but I liked that version better. I still did like this book a lot, though, and I’m eager to continue with the series!

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Flowers of Vashnoi

This novella is set in the region of Vorkosigan Vashnoi, which was nuked by the Cetagandans during their invasion of Barrayar and is still highly radioactive. Ekaterin and Enrique Borgos have developed insects that might be able to consume radioactive materials and convert them into non-harmful substances, so they’re experimenting on a small plot of land within Vashnoi. But when some of the insects go missing, Ekaterin gets an upsetting crash course on her responsibilities as Lady Vorkosigan. This is my least favorite of the Vorkosigan novellas, which doesn’t mean it’s not good — it is! Bujold is always a good writer, and I liked the focus on Ekaterin’s POV. But it doesn’t do much to advance the overall series plot, and I also felt some of the events and themes were a retread of The Mountains of Mourning. So I don’t think you’re missing too much if you skip this one, though it will still be of interest to Vorkosigan enthusiasts.

Mini-Reviews: Bullet, Art, Enclaves

Richard Osman, The Bullet That Missed

The Thursday Murder Club is back at it, this time investigating the cold case of a murdered journalist. But things heat up when a prisoner connected to the journalist’s last big story is found dead in her cell. Meanwhile, Elizabeth faces a threat from a mysterious “Viking” who attempts to blackmail her into killing a former associate. New romances blossom for Ron and Donna, Stephen’s memory loss worsens, and Ibrahim becomes Connie Johnson’s psychiatrist. As with previous installments of the series, this novel is a lot of fun and treats its quirky characters — even the criminals — with warmth and charity. The plot does get a little overwrought toward the end, but I still liked the book a lot and will certainly continue with the series.

Sherry Thomas, The Art of Theft

In this installment of the Lady Sherlock series, the maharani of a small Indian kingdom — and an old flame of Mrs. Watson’s — needs help. She’s being blackmailed and needs to recover some sensitive letters, which are currently hidden in the frame of a valuable painting that will soon be auctioned off at a French chateau. So Charlotte Holmes & co. decide to infiltrate the auction and steal the painting so they can retrieve the letters, but of course everything is more complicated than it seems. I love a good heist story, so I was predisposed to enjoy this book, but I have mixed feelings. The pacing feels off; not much happens until about 75% of the way through, and then it’s plot twist after plot twist. I also find myself getting frustrated with Charlotte and Lord Ingram, since the obstacles to their romance seem pretty flimsy at this point. On the other hand, I did like seeing the whole gang (i.e., everyone I care about) together, and I’m invested in what happens to these characters. So I’d still recommend the series, but you definitely need to start with book one!

Naomi Novik, The Golden Enclaves

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

At the end of The Last Graduate, El graduated, saved the entire student body, and sent a huge percentage of the world’s mals spinning into the void. But none of that matters to her right now, because Orion voluntarily stayed behind to get eaten by a maw-mouth. Devastated, El doesn’t know what to do with herself, until she learns that enclaves around the world are being attacked, and her unique powers may be their only hope. Meanwhile, she decides she needs to put Orion out of his misery, which means she’s not quite done with the Scholomance after all. I’ve enjoyed this series and think this last book is a fitting conclusion. As with the Temeraire series, there are pacing issues, and some developments came out of nowhere. The plot takes some very dark and dramatic turns, but I was satisfied with how things turned out. I’d recommend this trilogy if the premise appeals to you, but you definitely need to read it in order!

Mini-Reviews: Rogue, Song, Jewel

Amberley Martin, The Rogue and the Peasant

Esme is a peasant, but her mother always told her she’d be a queen someday. So when a noble lady arrives at her cottage to whisk her off to Finishing School, Esme assumes it’s time to fulfill her destiny — but being kidnapped doesn’t seem like part of the plan. Meanwhile, the kidnapper, Rory, has his own problems: He’s paying off a debt to a sinister Fairy Godmother, and he’s literally haunted by his father’s ghost. When Esme and Rory begin to work together, they learn that their fates are intertwined in surprising ways. Based on the book’s cover copy, I thought this was going to be a romance, and it definitely 100% is not. I also thought the author’s influences were a little too obvious — there’s a whole chapter that basically rips off the movie Labyrinth. But I did like Esme and Rory as characters, and the book subverts traditional fairy tale narratives in interesting ways. Overall, it’s a decent fantasy read, just not what I was expecting.

Kerry Winfrey, Just Another Love Song

Fifteen years ago, Sandy and Hank were high school sweethearts, determined to leave their small town of Baileyville, Ohio, and pursue their dreams. Now Hank has achieved his goal of becoming a famous musician, but Sandy stayed in Baileyville. While she’s mostly content with her life, she regrets the way things ended with Hank, especially since no other man she’s dated has measured up. When Hank comes back to town, Sandy is forced to confront her unresolved feelings. I loved Kerry Winfrey’s first book, Waiting for Tom Hanks, and I really enjoy her warm, funny writing style. But I didn’t love this one quite as much, mostly because I don’t tend to like second-chance romances. I also thought the book’s dramatic tension vanished around the halfway point, when Sandy and Hank have an honest conversation that eliminates most of the conflict. But I did like the book overall and will definitely keep reading more by this author.

Mary Balogh, A Precious Jewel

Sir Gerald Stapleton has no interest in marriage; past experience has taught him that women can’t be trusted, and he feels himself too dull and ordinary to inspire love. But he doesn’t want to do without female companionship altogether, so he occasionally visits a high-class brothel. When he meets Priscilla, one of brothel’s employees, he is drawn to her — and when another client abuses her, Gerald impulsively decides to make her his mistress. But the more time they spend together, the more complicated their relationship grows. I was fascinated by this book’s premise and by the unconventional protagonists, a beta-male hero and a prostitute heroine. While I found Gerald unlikable at times and Priss too much of a doormat, I was also able to sympathize with both characters and root for them to figure things out. I’m not exactly sure how I’d rate this book, but it’s certainly a memorable one!

Mini-Reviews: Wedding, Avonar, Perfect

Jennifer Ryan, The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle

This historical novel focuses on three women whose lives change during World War II: Cressida, a successful fashion designer whose London home and studio are both destroyed in the Blitz; Violet, an aristocratic young woman whose ambition to marry a titled gentleman is thwarted by her wartime duties; and Grace, a vicar’s daughter who rethinks her decision to marry a man she doesn’t love. All three women grow, discover something new about themselves, and find love. I thought this novel was fine; the main characters are ultimately likable, and the romances are enjoyable if not particularly deep. But the writing style is clunky and simplistic, and the story beats are quite predictable. Overall, I thought this was OK, but fans of light WWII novels can do better.

Carol Berg, Son of Avonar

Seri is a noblewoman by birth, but she has lived in self-imposed exile for 10 years after suffering grievous losses in her former life. When she encounters a desperate fugitive, she hides him from the authorities but discovers that he cannot speak and doesn’t even know his own identity. The book alternates between the present, in which Seri investigates the fugitive’s background, and the past, in which she falls in love with a sorcerer even though magic is forbidden in her country. The two storylines eventually converge, but the vast majority of the book is introducing the main characters and setting up the world of the series. It’s solid, well-written epic fantasy, but I wasn’t a fan of all the jumping back and forth in time (nor of the frequent mentions of Seri’s flame-colored hair). Things pick up near the end of the book, but the first half is a bit of a slog. Still, I like the characters, and the story is shaping up well, so I’m curious to see what will happen in subsequent books!

Loretta Chase, Lord Perfect

Benedict, eldest son of the Earl of Hargate, knows his duty and always obeys society’s rules. But a chance meeting with Bathsheba Wingate and her wayward daughter, Olivia, upsets his carefully regimented life. When Olivia runs off in pursuit of treasure with Benedict’s frustrated nephew in tow, Benedict and Bathsheba must work together to rescue the fugitives, while fighting an attraction that can only end in disaster for them both. This is the Loretta Chase book I was waiting for! I love a duty-bound, uptight, emotionally repressed hero, and it’s a delight to watch Benedict slowly unravel. I also enjoyed Bathsheba’s practicality, wit, and determination to gain respectability for herself and her daughter. It’s just a really fun read, full of romantic tension, and it has me excited to read Olivia’s book soon!

Mini-Reviews: Immunity, Fortnight, Dragons

Lois McMaster Bujold, Diplomatic Immunity

In this installment of the Vorkosigan saga, Miles visits Quaddiespace to smooth over an interplanetary incident before it degenerates into armed conflict. A Barrayaran soldier, part of the military escort of a Komarran trading fleet docking at Graf Station, has disappeared. Was he murdered, and if so, why and by whom? Miles must navigate the various agendas and prejudices of the Barrayarans, Komarrans, and quaddies to find out. I’m still absolutely loving this series, though there’s not enough character interaction in this book for my taste — no Ivan or Mark, and very little Ekaterin. It was nice to see Bel Thorne again, though! And I did find the mystery, which involves bioweapons and Cetagandan genetics, compelling as well. So while this isn’t my favorite installment of the series, I still enjoyed it and am excited to continue — especially since the next book appears to be Ivan-centric!

R.C. Sherriff, The Fortnight in September

This quiet, reflective novel follows the Stevens family as they embark on their annual two-week vacation to the seaside town of Bognor. As they enjoy their holiday, the father thinks about his career’s successes and failures; the mother valiantly hides her fear of the sea from the rest of the family; the 20-year-old daughter experiences an exciting friendship and romance; and the 17-year-old son decides on a new path for his future. This book has no plot to speak of — the main focus is on the characters’ interior lives. The tone is nostalgic and a little sad, as it’s obvious that both the family and the town are irrevocably changing with the passage of time. But it’s also very pleasant (and a refreshing change!) to read about a functional family of people who are fundamentally kind to one another. Definitely recommended if you like this kind of thing.

Naomi Novik, League of Dragons

This final book of the Temeraire series focuses on the last desperate efforts of England and its allies to defeat Napoleon once and for all. The French emperor has a new plan to get the world’s dragons on his side by promising them lands of their own, as well as political and economic rights. Laurence and Temeraire must convince their dragon allies (and even some British dragons) not to defect to Napoleon’s side; meanwhile, a newly promoted Laurence deals with insubordination among the Aerial Corps captains. While I enjoyed this book more than other recent installments of the series, I think it’s a disappointing series finale. So many characters’ fates are left up in the air, and I really wanted to know what happened to Hammond, for example, and Captain Harcourt, and Emily and Demane. The conflict between Laurence and the other captains isn’t resolved either. Granted, I’m a person who likes tidy endings, so maybe others won’t be so bothered by the lack of resolution here. But I wanted more from this book; I feel like the series started strong but ended with a whimper.