Review: What Happens in London

what happens in londonJulia Quinn, What Happens in London

After serving in the army during the Napoleonic Wars, Sir Harry Valentine now works as a translator for the War Office. It’s not particularly dangerous (which is just how he likes it), but it does require a certain amount of secrecy. So when Harry notices that his beautiful neighbor seems to be watching him, he knows there’s a slight chance she could be a threat. Meanwhile, Lady Olivia Bevelstoke is intrigued by her new neighbor, since rumors are flying about the mysterious gentleman who hardly ever goes out into society. When he catches her watching him, she is mortified — especially because, when they finally meet in public, he directly confronts her about it. However, Harry and Olivia’s initial dislike of each other soon turns into friendship and, inevitably, romance. But will a rival suitor, who may also be a spy for Napoleon, come between them?

When I want a light, fluffy Regency romance with minimal angst, I turn to Julia Quinn, and this book delivered pretty much what I expected. I found it a very enjoyable read, particularly because both Harry and Olivia are such nice, normal people. No tortured rakes or unconventional bluestockings here! Don’t get me wrong; those types of characters can be fun to read about, too, but they do tend to be overrepresented in historical romance. By contrast, Harry and Olivia are both fairly conventional, which I found refreshing. There’s plenty of humor in the book, too, mostly surrounding the lurid gothic novel that Harry presents to Olivia. There’s a fantastic scene in which Harry’s cousin Sebastian reads the book aloud to an assortment of spellbound listeners, and it’s an absolute delight. The plot does go off the rails a bit toward the end, with a tonally jarring kidnapping, but at least that storyline wraps up quickly. Overall, I doubt this book will stay with me for a long time, but it was certainly a fun read, and I’d recommend it to fans of historical romance.

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Review: The Penguin Pool Murder

penguin pool murderStuart Palmer, The Penguin Pool Murder

When schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers, a “spinster” of 39, takes her third-grade class to the New York Aquarium, she expects nothing more than an educational outing for her students. But first she thwarts a pickpocket by tripping him with her umbrella, and then she discovers a dead body in the penguin tank. Not the sort of person to miss a chance to investigate, Miss Withers quickly befriends Inspector Oscar Piper, the policeman in charge of the murder case. Through a combination of usefulness (she takes shorthand notes of the initial witness statements) and sheer stubbornness, she is allowed to accompany Piper throughout the investigation. Suspicion immediately falls on the dead man’s wife and her former lover, who were both at the aquarium on the fateful day; but Miss Withers isn’t convinced, and her intelligence and determination eventually enable her to solve the case.

I enjoyed this mystery, although it’s a fairly typical example of the Golden Age detective novel. There are a few creative touches — such as one of the penguins swallowing a key piece of evidence — and I enjoyed the repartee between Miss Withers and Inspector Piper, although I wish their relationship had been a bit more fleshed out. In fact, I wanted more character development all around, but that does tend to be a weakness of mysteries from this era, and I wouldn’t quibble so much if the plot had been more inventive. But instead everything unfolds pretty much as expected, from spurious confessions to various motive-related revelations to a second death. I also guessed the murderer’s identity fairly early on. The final chapter, in which the solution is explained, does contain one delightful surprise, which I won’t spoil. But all in all, this book isn’t particularly special — which doesn’t mean it’s not a good read! It just doesn’t deviate much from the traditional formula, so if you’re looking for something with a lot of surprises, this may not be the book for you.

Review: Speak Easy, Speak Love

speak easy, speak loveMcKelle George, Speak Easy, Speak Love

This debut novel is a YA retelling of Much Ado about Nothing set in the 1920s. Hero Stahr and her father Leo run a speakeasy called Hey Nonny Nonny on Long Island, with the help of Pedro “Prince” Morello. Benedick Scott is an aspiring novelist who chafes under his privileged upbringing and finds a sympathetic home at Hey Nonny Nonny. So does Beatrice Clark, Hero’s cousin, who wants to be a doctor despite her gender and her poverty. Margaret Hughes, the speakeasy’s resident jazz singer, longs for success on a bigger stage — almost as much as she longs for Prince’s standoffish brother, John — but her black skin may stop her from achieving either dream. As these characters fight to keep Hey Nonny Nonny up and running, they must deal with parental pressures, misunderstandings, dangerous bootleggers, and falling in love.

I wasn’t prepared for how much I would love this book. The premise sounded fun, but I thought at best I’d get a lighthearted romp — or, more likely, it would all go horribly wrong. I didn’t expect to care so deeply about these characters, to be so moved by their stories, or to be so invested in their relationships. But I adored this book, and I’m very sure it will be on my “best of 2019” list a year from now! The writing style is sharp and inventive — Beatrice, for example, is described as “a clock-throwing ruin of a girl,” and how could you not love her after that description? I loved the central romance between Beatrice and Benedick, which unfolds with agonizing, delicious slowness. As in Shakespeare’s original, the joy comes from their teasing banter and mutual respect for each other’s intelligence. The book deviates from the play somewhat with the secondary characters, but I thought all the changes made sense and enhanced the story the author was telling. In short, I loved (LOVED) this book and would definitely recommend it to anyone who likes the premise!

Mini-reviews: Duke, Christmas, Memorial

Duke in Shining ArmorLoretta Chase, A Duke in Shining Armor

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

A Lot Like ChristmasConnie Willis, A Lot Like Christmas

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

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

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

Memorial Hall MurderJane Langton, The Memorial Hall Murder

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

Mini-reviews: Miracle, Murder, Wired

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

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

Murder for ChristmasFrancis Duncan, Murder for Christmas

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

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

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

Mini-reviews: Alterations, Hitman, Temptation

AlterationsStephanie Scott, Alterations

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

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

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

Season for TemptationTheresa Romain, Season for Temptation

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

Mini-reviews: Winter, Wed, Spy

Winter in JuneKathryn Miller Haines, Winter in June

In this installment of the Rosie Winter series, Rosie and her best pal Jayne have joined the USO, and they’re headed for the South Pacific to entertain the troops. There, Rosie gets involved in various forms of trouble, from disagreements with the local WAAC corps to mysterious thefts of military supplies to an inevitable murder investigation. In the meantime, she’s also looking for her ex-boyfriend Jack, who was rumored to have resurfaced in the South Pacific. It’s been years since I read the first two books in this series, and I think I’ve just lost my taste for it. I couldn’t remember who one character was at all, although he was apparently a big part of the first book. And I didn’t find Rosie consistent as a character, although I did still find her voice fairly enjoyable. I’ll read the fourth and final book in this series, just to see how everything turns out, but this series is not a keeper for me.

Someone to WedMary Balogh, Someone to Wed

Wren Hayden longs for the companionship of marriage, but a “disfiguring” birthmark on her face has led her to become a recluse. Nevertheless, she thinks her large fortune might be enough to induce someone to marry her. Alexander Westcott has unexpectedly inherited an earldom, along with the debts and huge financial responsibilities that go with it. He knows he must marry a rich wife, but Wren’s forthright proposal shocks and troubles him. He agrees to test the waters, hoping that at least friendship and respect can grow between them. But can Wren overcome her insecurities and be open to the possibility of a real relationship? I really felt for Wren in this book, and I liked that she and Alex aren’t immediately attracted to one another. In fact, he has to overcome some revulsion — not so much from the birthmark, but from Wren’s cold demeanor toward him. Their relationship is not romanticized, if that makes sense; it felt plausible and real. Another winner from Balogh!

Spy Wore RedAline, Countess of Romanones, The Spy Wore Red

This is a fast-paced, entertaining memoir that reads more like a spy thriller. Aline Griffith was a young woman working as a model in New York, when a chance encounter with a US intelligence operative propelled her into the world of espionage. The book covers her training and her first assignment in Spain, where she must get close to various people suspected of being German spies. The narrative has everything an espionage lover could wish for: code names, double agents, assassination attempts, and even a bullfight or two! Highly recommended for people who like spy novels or who are interested in WW2-era intelligence work.

Mini-reviews: Silver, Dark, Mammoth

Spinning SilverNaomi Novik, Spinning Silver

I won’t hide the ball here: this is my favorite book of 2018. I read it in September, but I should probably have waited until now because it is a perfect book to read in wintertime, with biting cold temperatures and the constant threat of snow. I loved all three of the novel’s heroines, especially Miryem, who is cold and uncompromising and unlikable and not ashamed of it. I loved the creative take on the Rumpelstiltskin story. I loved how all the main characters have hidden depths to them, and I loved the development of the two romances. I’ll admit that the pacing is slow, especially in the beginning, but that just gave me time to soak in the lush descriptions of the wintry village and to get to know the characters a little better. I highly recommend this book to fans of fantasy, especially if you loved Uprooted!

Dark Days ClubAlison Goodman, The Dark Days Club

In this Regency fantasy novel, Lady Helen Wrexhall learns of the existence of Deceivers, demons who survive by stealing energy from living humans. She also learns that she is a Reclaimer, a human capable of spotting and killing Deceivers (who take human form and are thus able to hide in plain sight). Initiating her into these mysteries is the Dark Days Club, a society of Reclaimers led by the broodingly handsome Lord Carlston. But Lady Helen isn’t sure she wants to accept her newfound destiny, and she soon finds herself torn between two worlds. I liked the premise of this book (Regency fantasy is my catnip!), and the writing style is quite good, but I just didn’t find myself very interested in the Deceivers or in Lady Helen’s struggle. I may read the sequel at some point, but I didn’t love this one as much as I was hoping to.

MammothJill Baguchinsky, Mammoth

Natalie is a plus-size fashion blogger and dinosaur enthusiast who is ecstatic when she wins a prestigious paleontology internship. But when she gets there, she has to deal with professional and personal insecurities, as well as disillusionment with her scientist hero. She also meets some new people who aren’t what they seem and finds herself in the midst of a love triangle (or polygon). As a fellow plus-size person, I both related and didn’t relate to Natalie. Some of her insecurities felt very real to me, but she also had this weird habit of guessing other people’s weight, which is not something I have ever done. It seems like something a thin person would assume a fat person would do, if that makes sense. So I have mixed feelings about that plotline, although I do think it’s great to see more plus-size main characters in fiction! As for the internship drama, I wasn’t very compelled by it. So, not a bad read, but not a great one either.

Mini-reviews: Sleep, Magpie, Bookshop

Big SleepRaymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

I haven’t read widely in the hardboiled mystery genre, but I don’t tend to love dark books, so I was a bit apprehensive about trying this one. But I actually really enjoyed the voice of this book — it’s funny and descriptive and uses startlingly apt metaphors. The plot is exciting and twisty, highlighting the governmental and societal corruption of 1930s Los Angeles in a grim yet matter-of-fact way. Philip Marlowe is a flawed protagonist, to say the least, and the book’s portrayal of women is ugly, albeit true to its time. But all in all, I’m interested to read more of Raymond Chandler in the future.

Magpie MurdersAnthony Horowitz, Magpie Murders

This book has gotten a lot of good buzz, including a lot of comparisons to Agatha Christie, so I was excited to read it. Ultimately, though, I have mixed feelings about it. There are two mysteries for the price of one. First, an editor is reading the manuscript of famous mystery writer Alan Conway’s latest novel, but the last chapters are missing. What happened to them, and where is Conway now? Second, of course, there’s the mystery within Conway’s novel, which involves two deaths that may or may not be related. I was much more interested in the second mystery than the first; I found the editor tiresome, Conway odious, and none of the other characters in that story memorable. But I did think the solution to the second mystery (within Conway’s novel) was pretty ingenious. Basically, I enjoyed the puzzle but could have done without all the meta stuff.

Bookshop on the CornerJenny Colgan, The Bookshop on the Corner

I’m now officially a fan of Jenny Colgan. This book is pure wish-fulfillment fantasy, but it’s also well-written and charming — the perfect read if you’re looking for something light and uplifting. When main character Nina gets laid off from her job, she decides to follow her dream of opening a mobile bookstore. I think a lot of us bookish folks can relate! Nina also, naturally, finds herself torn between two suitors…I wanted to roll my eyes at the saccharine predictability of it all, but the romance actually did work for me, so I won’t complain too much! A lovely comfort read, and I’ll continue to seek out more books by Jenny Colgan.

Review: Why Earls Fall in Love

Why Earls Fall in LoveManda Collins, Why Earls Fall in Love

In this Regency romance, Georgina Mowbray is a war widow eking out a living as Lady Russell’s paid companion. Despite the fact that much of Lady Russell’s family regards her as the help, Georgie is quite content with her situation; it’s a vast improvement over life with her husband Robert, who was violent and abusive toward her. So she certainly has no intention of getting involved with Lady Russell’s attractive nephew, the Earl of Coniston, even when he begins to show an interest in her. Though Georgie soon finds herself drawn to Con, she cannot bring herself to trust him, or any man, after what Robert put her through. But when a secret from Georgie’s past threatens her safety, Con is determined to protect her from harm—and to give her the love she truly deserves.

I enjoyed this book while reading it, but ultimately it’s not one I plan to keep. I read it just a couple months ago, and I’ve already forgotten most of the salient details. I was annoyed by the fact that this isn’t really a stand-alone novel; although I knew it was book 2 in a trilogy, I expected to be able to follow the plot (most romance novels, even in a series, can be read as stand-alones). But in this case, you really need to know what happened in book 1, because there’s a big suspense plot in this book that is almost entirely based on previous events. (There’s a prologue that is meant to catch you up, but I still felt like I was missing a lot.) Also, Con seems to fall for Georgie awfully quickly . . . if I’m remembering correctly, he’s a rake who pretty much immediately gives up his rakish ways for her. So overall, this book was fine, but I don’t feel compelled to seek out more books by the author.