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!

Mini-Reviews: Fly, Wrong, Arrangement

Frances Hardinge, Fly by Night

In this quirky, somewhat dark fantasy novel, 12-year-old Mosca Mye runs away from her village and teams up with wordsmith/con man Eponymous Clent. The two of them get caught in a vast web of political intrigue, with factions including a mad duke, a slew of would-be monarchs, some sinister and powerful guilds, and the fanatical Birdcatchers. This book seemed like it would be right up my alley — the summary had me at “Eponymous Clent” — but I actually found it a somewhat difficult read. It was hard to keep track of the various factions, who was in league with whom, the good guys vs. the bad guys…and of course, all that kept changing as the story went on! Everything does eventually come together, so the book ends on a high note, but overall I didn’t like it as much as I was expecting to.

Elan Mastai, All Our Wrong Todays

It’s 2016, and in Tom Barren’s world, it’s the glorious future imagined by 1950s science fiction: there are jetpacks and hover cars, not to mention completely realistic sex robots. But Tom is miserable — his mother recently died, his genius father hates him, and he’s just permanently lost the woman he loves. As the book’s cover copy says, “What do you do when you’re heartbroken and have a time machine? Something stupid.” This book is very clever, and I simultaneously enjoyed its cleverness and found it annoying. The novel tries to be a fun futuristic romp while also examining serious philosophical questions such as: If you travel back in time and alter reality so that billions of people who would have been born now aren’t, how morally guilty are you? I found the book most interesting when it grapples with these big questions, but it never really resolves them. Instead, the denouement is just a lot of dizzying time-travel hijinks that I couldn’t follow and didn’t really care about. So, full points to this one for a unique reading experience, but it didn’t entirely work for me.

Mary Balogh, The Arrangement

Vincent Hunt, Viscount Darleigh, is blind as a result of wounds sustained in the Napoleonic Wars. His large, loving family is determined to take care of him, but he feels smothered by their constant concern. When they start pressuring him to marry, it’s the last straw: Vincent runs away to get some distance and time to think. During this time, he meets Sophia Fry, a poor young woman whose family neglects her and cruelly refers to her as “the Mouse.” To rescue her from an untenable situation, Vincent offers marriage but proposes that they can separate after a year if they want to. Of course, we all know that’s not going to happen! I liked this book; both Vincent and Sophia are endearing characters, and I enjoyed their shared sense of humor. There aren’t really any external obstacles to their relationship, but they each have some realistic baggage that makes them guarded with each other at first. Overall, this one was an improvement on The Proposal, and I look forward to continuing with the Survivors’ Club series.

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: 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: 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.

Mini-Reviews: Inheritance, There, Naturalist

Charles Finch, The Inheritance

Victorian gentleman-sleuth Charles Lenox is once again on the case when he receives a troubling letter from an old school friend, Gerald Leigh. Leigh’s life is in danger, but he’s not sure why; it could be for the £25,000 he’s inherited from a mysterious benefactor, or it could be connected to his scientific discoveries, which are important enough that the Royal Society of London has taken notice. As Lenox tries to discover who’s after Leigh and why, he also deals with tension both at his detective agency and in his marriage. It had been a while since I’d checked in with this series, and it was nice to catch up with Lenox and his friends again. The mystery itself was fine, but at this point I’m far more invested in the characters. The next book in the series is technically a prequel, following Lenox’s very first case. I’m not sure if I care about the prequels…I might skip them and pick back up again with the current timeline. For anyone who’s kept up with this series, will I be missing anything if I take that approach?

Pat Murphy, There and Back Again

Do you love The Hobbit but wish it had more spaceships? Then this is the book for you! As the title indicates, this book is a retelling of The Hobbit set in a futuristic, space-faring society. Bailey Beldon is perfectly content with his quiet life in the asteroid belt. He has no desire for adventure, but when he discovers an undelivered message pod from the powerful Farr clone family, adventure finds him nonetheless. I thought this was a well done and creative retelling; it follows all the major story beats of The Hobbit quite closely, but with a sci-fi spin. Bailey’s encounter with the Gollum equivalent is particularly good (not coincidentally, one of the best chapters in the original book too). A fun read for Tolkien fans, though a bit unnecessary — why not just reread the original?

Christina Dudley, The Naturalist

Joseph Tierney is a naturalist studying English flora and fauna at the behest of the Royal Society. He’s staying with a country family to work on his research, and he’s found an excellent assistant in a local boy, Arthur Baddely, who is just as interested in the natural world as Joseph himself. But “Arthur” is actually Alice Hapgood, a daughter of the local squire, who leaps at the opportunity to do some real scientific work — and to spend more time with the attractive Joseph. I’d rate this Regency romance OK to fine. I don’t enjoy plots that hinge upon a Big Secret that the reader already knows and has to wait for the characters to catch up to. I also thought the characters weren’t fleshed out beyond stock types, and the writing is clunky in places. The central romance is rather endearing, though, and I did find it a quick read that held my attention. Still, this one isn’t a keeper, and I doubt I’ll seek out more by this author.

Mini-Reviews: Fiction, Companion

Mimi Matthews, A Convenient Fiction

This third book in the Parish Orphans of Devon series focuses on Alex Archer, the orphan who ran away in boyhood and hasn’t been heard from since. He’s been living abroad and has made a small fortune through gambling. Now he’s determined to marry a rich English heiress; but instead of his intended target, he finds himself more drawn to her friend, Laura Hayes. Laura lives with her invalid brother and elderly aunt, and she’s barely holding things together. The last thing she needs is to fall for the attractive Alex, especially since she knows he’s a fortune hunter. But as Laura’s and Alex’s feelings grow, they must each contemplate a different future from the one they envisioned. This might be my favorite book in the series, and I think it comes down to the characters. I loved Laura right away; she’s strong and independent without being implausibly anachronistic, and she tries so hard to do right by her family. Alex is harder to like at first, since both his past actions and his plan to marry an heiress aren’t exactly sympathetic. But he’s so starved for love that I couldn’t help but warm up to him! So I’d definitely recommend this book to fans of the genre, especially if you like brooding heroes and the marriage-of-convenience trope.

Mimi Matthews, The Winter Companion

Again, I enjoyed A Convenient Fiction so much that I had to move on immediately to the fourth and final book in the series! The hero is Neville Cross, who sustained a head injury as a child that has left him with a speech impediment. Though he can think and write fluently, he has trouble with talking, and therefore he is more comfortable with animals than with people. He works in his friend Justin’s stables and has more or less made peace with his isolated, predictable life. That is, until he meets lady’s companion Clara Hartwright at Justin’s Christmas house party. Clara is beautiful and kind, and she bonds with Neville over her ancient pug dog. But she has dreams beyond being a lady’s companion, and they will eventually take her out of Neville’s life — unless he can find the courage and strength to go after what he really wants. This is the last book in the Parish Orphans of Devon series, and it’s a very satisfying finale. The Christmas party setting allows all four orphans and their love interests to reunite, and some of the memorable side characters from previous books also reappear. (I really need a novella telling Teddy Hayes’s story!) Neville’s speech impediment is handled sensitively, and thankfully he is not magically cured by love. So all in all, I really liked both this book and the whole series, and I look forward to reading more by Matthews!

Mini-Reviews: College, Scholar

Caroline Stevermer, A College of Magics

Faris Nallaneen is the future duchess of Galazon, but until she is of age, her wicked uncle acts as regent. He’s decided to get her out of the way by sending her to Greenlaw, an all-female college with an unusual curriculum. Faris is reluctant at first, but she eventually makes friends, learns unexpected skills, and even discovers a unique magical destiny. After her time at Greenlaw, she must find a way to balance her magical responsibilities with her duties as the duchess of Galazon. I feel like that’s a very boring summary of a very fun book! It’s a quasi-Edwardian fantasy of manners, which is a subgenre I didn’t even know I needed in my life. At one point, Faris’s friend Jane turns an assassin’s bomb into a fashionable hat and then wears it, which gives you an idea of the tone. The magic in the book is not really explained or described in depth, so those who love detailed world-building might be disappointed. But overall, I liked it a lot — so much so that I immediately proceeded to read the sequel!

Caroline Stevermer, A Scholar of Magics

This book is set in the same world as A College of Magics and focuses on Faris’s friend, Jane Brailsford. Jane is now a teacher at Greenlaw and a powerful magician, and she’s been tasked with convincing the new warden of the west to take up his duties. Her mission takes her to Glasscastle, an all-male magical university in England, which takes a very different approach to magic than Greenlaw. There she meets Samuel Lambert, an American sharpshooter who’s been recruited to help Glasscastle with a special weapon for the top-secret Agincourt Project. When Lambert’s work and Jane’s mission collide, they team up to protect the future warden of the west and to discover the true nature of the Agincourt Project. This is another fun romp through an alternate 20th-century England, and I liked it as much as its predecessor. But it took me a long time to read, and I think that’s because of the pacing: nothing much actually happens until at least halfway through the book (and possibly more like two-thirds). Nevertheless, I still enjoyed spending time with these characters in this world!