Mini-Review: Falling, Shoe, Kiss

Lois McMaster Bujold, Falling Free

Space engineer Leo Graf doesn’t want to be a hero; he just wants to keep his head down and do his job. But his latest assignment involves genetically engineered humans called quaddies — they have a second pair of arms instead of legs, which makes them excellent workers in a zero-gravity environment. When Leo learns how the quaddies are exploited and what their eventual fate will be, he decides to take action. I enjoyed this competently written sci-fi adventure, but I wasn’t blown away. Parts of it feel dated now (understandably, since it was published in the ’80s), and the story and characters aren’t particularly unique. Still, the book does raise some interesting moral questions, and I’m excited to continue with the series!

Julie Murphy, If the Shoe Fits

Aspiring fashion designer Cindy has just graduated from design school, but now she’s at a loose end and feeling creatively blocked. Due to her stepmother’s connections, she is offered a place on Before Midnight, a Bachelor-esque reality show. Cindy is skeptical, but she thinks it could be an opportunity for her to publicize her name and brand, as well as break some ground by being a plus-size woman on a show full of thin beauties. But when she unexpectedly falls for the guy on the show, she has to figure out how much of their relationship is actually real. This novel, loosely based on Disney’s Cinderella, is a cute, quick read, but nothing about it really stood out to me. The love interest doesn’t have much personality, so I wasn’t invested in the romance. It’s a fine read if you like the premise, but definitely not a keeper for me.

Mary Balogh, Only a Kiss

Percy Hayes is the Earl of Hardford, but despite acceding to the title two years ago, he’s never been to the Hardford estate; located in the “wilds of Cornwall,” it’s a world away from his carefree, pleasure-filled life in London. Indeed, when he finally visits the estate on a whim, he runs into a bewildering set of problems and responsibilities. He also meets the beautiful but cold Imogen, Lady Barclay, and finds himself unwillingly attracted to her. But she carries deep emotional wounds from the Napoleonic Wars, in which her husband was tortured and killed, and she’s seemingly impervious to Percy’s charm. Can he convince her to open her heart? This sixth book in the Survivors’ Club series is one of my favorites. I loved seeing Percy’s normal charm and poise desert him in his conversations with Imogen, and his growth as he embraces his responsibilities is very satisfying. Definitely one of the strongest books in the series, in my opinion!

Mini-Reviews: Promise, 25, Santa

Mary Balogh, Only a Promise

The fifth installment of the Survivors’ Club series focuses on Ralph Stockwood, who is tormented with guilt because he encouraged his three best friends to fight in the Napoleonic Wars; they all died while he survived. As a result, he has completely shut down emotionally and believes himself incapable of love, though as the heir to a dukedom it’s his duty to marry and produce an heir. His godmother’s companion, Chloe Muirhead, proposes a marriage of convenience, since he needs a wife and he’s her only chance of a husband. I enjoyed this book a lot but find I don’t have much to say about it. Only Enchanting is still my favorite in the series so far, but this one is definitely worthwhile if you enjoy Regency romance.

Poppy Alexander, 25 Days ’til Christmas

Single mom Kate has been struggling ever since her husband’s death four years ago. She works a terrible job for low pay, her son Jack may have special educational needs, and her mother-in-law is slowly succumbing to dementia in an expensive assisted living facility. Attempting to focus on the positive, Kate decides to do one special Christmas thing with Jack every day in the month leading up to Christmas. Along the way she connects with the handsome and sensitive Daniel, but will she be able to take a chance on love again? I hoped this would be a cute Christmas romance, but it’s just so dreary; both Kate and Daniel are pretty miserable until the very end of the book, and it’s not fun to see Kate getting constantly beaten down by life. If you’re looking for an upbeat holiday read, this is not the one!

Mavis Doriel Hay, The Santa Klaus Murder

This is a standard English country house murder with a Christmas twist: the family patriarch has arranged for one of his guests to pose as “Santa Klaus,” but the patriarch is then killed during the festivities. Was the man dressed as Saint Nick the murderer? Suspicion abounds, especially when a second Santa suit is found. I liked this book fine; I enjoy the author’s writing style, and the mystery is fair play, although the murderer doesn’t get a huge amount of page time. My biggest complaint is that none of the characters were particularly likable or interesting, so reading the book was like being stuck in a house with a lot of mildly unpleasant people. I did like the novel overall, though, and it was a fun seasonal read.

Mini-Reviews: Winter, Brass, Princess

Anne Gracie, The Winter Bride

Freddy Monkton-Coombes doesn’t want to get married and studiously avoids respectable young ladies, but at the request of his best friend he takes the Chance sisters under his wing. Damaris Chance is beautiful, aloof, and independent, and she also has no interest in matrimony. But when Freddy needs a fake fiancée to appease his disapproving parents, Damaris agrees to help him in return for the deed to a cottage. The more time they spend together, the more they discover an inconvenient mutual attraction. This was my first book by Anne Gracie, but it won’t be my last! The plot is nothing unusual for a Regency romance (well, except for the heroine’s extremely melodramatic past), but I really loved both Damaris and Freddy, and I could see what made them right for each other. There’s quite a bit of good dialogue and banter, too, which always helps! This is book 2 in a series, but I was able to follow along just fine, and I’m interested in reading the other books now. Here’s hoping I’ve found a new historical romance author to enjoy!

Elizabeth Chatsworth, The Brass Queen

A debutante/arms dealer and a cowboy/secret agent team up to rescue a group of kidnapped scientists in this light steampunk romp. The blurb compares it to series such as Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate and Genevieve Cogman’s Invisible Library, and I’d say those comparisons are pretty fair; if you enjoy those series, you’ll probably like The Brass Queen too. It’s almost too insubstantial, and I admit I skimmed most of the sci-fi world-building stuff. But it kept me turning the pages and was a welcome distraction from some real-life stress, so I’d recommend it for fans of the genre.

Dawn Cook, Princess at Sea

***Warning: Spoilers for The Decoy Princess***

Decoy princess Tess has helped her “sister,” the true princess, reclaim the throne of Costenopolie. Now she’s been appointed ambassador to a neighboring kingdom, but on the journey out, her ship is captured by pirates, and she and her sister are both held for ransom. To escape, Tess must use all her ingenuity, as well as the magical powers she’s just beginning to understand. She must also choose between two suitors, card sharp Duncan and captain of the guard Jeck. This was a fun, entertaining fantasy novel, but it’s not a keeper for me. I was glad to see the love triangle resolved, though the book still feels open-ended enough for a sequel. Since this one was published back in 2006, however, that seems unlikely.

Matched, Twice, Eight

Jen DeLuca, Well Matched

Single mom April has always kept herself to herself, but like everyone else in Willow Creek, MD, she knows Mitch Malone. He’s friends with everybody, not to mention the town eye candy, particularly when he dons his kilt (and little else) for the annual Renaissance Faire. Now Mitch needs a date for a family event and asks April to be his fake girlfriend. She agrees reluctantly — and is horrified to develop real feelings for the charming, handsome, nine-years-younger Mitch. I’ve enjoyed all the books in this series, particularly for the Ren Faire setting, so it’s disappointing that we don’t really get any Faire action until more than halfway through the book. I also wanted more of the fake-dating plot, but it only lasts for a chapter or two before April and Mitch hop into bed. I still found this a pleasant read overall — April’s snark is fun, and Mitch is a sweetheart — but it’s probably my least favorite book in the series.

Richard Osman, The Man Who Died Twice

Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim, and Ron are on the case again when Elizabeth’s ex-colleague and ex-husband, Douglas, comes to her for help. There’s £20 million in diamonds missing, and the criminal to whom they “belong” blames Douglas for their disappearance. So the Thursday Murder Club decides to help by hiding Douglas and trying to find the diamonds themselves. Meanwhile, Ibrahim is mugged, and the others want revenge. Local police Chris and Donna help out while also attempting to take down a drug dealer.

The first book in this series was a delight, and I enjoyed this one at least as much, if not more — the plot seems to hang together a little better, despite the many (perhaps too many) different storylines. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud lines and a few poignant moments, and I loved spending time with these characters again. I want to be Joyce when I grow up! Highly recommended if you enjoy light mysteries with a lot of plot, though you should definitely read The Thursday Murder Club first.

Lia Louis, Eight Perfect Hours

When Noelle is stranded in a snowstorm with Sam for several hours, they share an unexpectedly deep connection. Then they keep bumping into each other, which feels like fate. But they’re both involved with other people, and Noelle is also dealing with some past baggage and family problems. Are they two ships passing, or are they destined to be together? This is a pleasant enough chick lit novel, but it made very little impression on me. I’m not really a fan of the “we’re in love because it’s fate” concept, and Noelle and Sam’s relationship just wasn’t that interesting to me. Sam in particular seems like a standard Ideal Guy without much actual personality. I’m disappointed because I really liked Louis’s previous book, Dear Emmie Blue. But unfortunately, I wouldn’t recommend this one.

Mini-Reviews: Cheerfully, Scotsman, Unquiet

AJ Pearce, Yours Cheerfully

Despite World War II raging on, things are looking up for Emmy Lake. She’s in love, she and Bunty are friends again, and her work at Woman’s Friend has just gotten a lot more interesting. The British government wants more women to get involved in war work and is asking the press to promote this agenda. But when Emmy talks to some of the female factory workers, she’s dismayed by the obstacles they face, especially the lack of child care during work hours. Emmy is determined to help, but will her efforts do more harm than good? This is another charmer from AJ Pearce, and fans of Dear Mrs. Bird should enjoy it. I do think this one’s a bit more lightweight and less impactful than the first book, but if a third installment is planned, I’ll definitely seek it out!

Evie Dunmore, Portrait of a Scotsman

Harriet Greenfield is a sheltered upper-class girl and aspiring painter who dreams of marrying a kind Mr. Bingley type. Instead she finds herself in a compromising position with Lucian Blackstone, a brooding Scot with a shady past and a terrible reputation. When the two are forced to marry, they reluctantly recognize a mutual attraction, but Harriet doesn’t trust Lucian, and Lucian only wants Harriet to further his own ambitions. I enjoyed this book while reading it, but upon reflection I think it’s just okay. Lucian is a pretty standard tortured, brooding hero, and Harriet is spoiled and obnoxious. The book was a bit too steamy for me, though obviously others’ mileage will vary, and I also felt the narrative got tediously preachy about the plight of women and laborers. On the other hand, I thought the portrayal of an inter-class marriage was realistic and well done. So, this wasn’t the book for me, but I’ll still probably read the next installment of the series when it comes out.

Sharon Shinn, Unquiet Land

Leah Frothen has spent the past five years spying for Welce in a foreign land—and recovering from some traumatic life events. Now she’s returned to find (and possibly claim) the daughter she left behind, but her spying days are not quite behind her. Welce is in the midst of some tricky negotiations with a neighboring country, and Leah must befriend the foreign delegation in order to gain useful information. But what she learns is deeply disturbing, especially when it might affect her newfound relationship with her daughter. I liked this book fine, but I do think the series has run its course. Leah is a likable enough heroine, and I enjoyed her character arc and her romance (though both began in the previous book, Jeweled Fire). The plot was pretty dull, however, and I thought everything with the daughter was simplistic and contrived. Overall, a decent but unexceptional read.

Mini-Reviews: Escape, Graduate, Vacation

Mary Balogh, The Escape

Book 3 of the Survivors’ Club series focuses on Sir Benedict Harper, who sustained extensive injuries to his legs in the Napoleonic Wars and was told he’d never walk again. After years of grit and perseverance, Ben can walk for short distances and with the aid of canes, but he’ll never return to the military career he loved. At a loose end, he meets the widowed Samantha McKay and agrees to be her escort as she flees from her controlling in-laws. They are attracted to each other but don’t see a future together, so they agree to a brief, no-strings affair — but of course, their growing feelings for each other complicate their relationship. So far, this series just keeps getting better, and I think Ben and Samantha are my favorite couple yet. Still, I’m not sure I’ll remember very much about the book in a few weeks, so it’s probably not a keeper.

My edition of this book also contains a short story/novella, The Suitor. It tells the story of Philippa Dean, the young woman who is presented to Viscount Darleigh as a potential bride at the beginning of The Arrangement. Darleigh perceived her as irritating and dimwitted, but The Suitor tells the story from her point of view — and gives her a happy ending of her own. This story did nothing for me; it’s so short that I didn’t have time to get invested in the romance or characters. It’s definitely skippable even if you’re normally a series completist.

Naomi Novik, The Last Graduate

It’s El’s senior year, and despite being stuck in a magic school full of creatures that are trying to kill her, things are looking pretty good. She has an alliance lined up for graduation, she has friends, and she even has a (maybe, sort of) boyfriend. But then the Scholomance starts making El’s life even more miserable than usual, and it seems to be singling her out. Is it trying to kill her, or turn her into the dark sorceress she’s supposedly destined to become? Or is it sending a different message entirely? I loved the first book in this series, and this installment is just as entertaining and exciting. There’s still a ton of exposition and world-building, which seems a bit strange for the second book in a series, but it’s leavened by El’s delightfully grumpy voice. The ending is arguably a huge cliffhanger, and I’m dying to find out what happens next! Fans of A Deadly Education won’t be disappointed by this sequel.

Emily Henry, People We Meet on Vacation

Poppy and Alex used to be BFFs who took exciting vacations together every summer. But they haven’t really spoken since their ill-fated trip to Croatia two years ago. Now Poppy hopes to rekindle their friendship, so she invites him on one last summer trip. But to move forward, both she and Alex will have to be honest about their feelings and what they truly want. Emily Henry has gotten a lot of good buzz, and I can see why. This is a really well-written, entertaining contemporary romance with some first-class banter. The friends-to-lovers trope isn’t always my favorite, because I wonder why they won’t just act on their feelings, but in this case I understood what was keeping Poppy and Alex apart. They love each other but want very different things out of life. The resolution to that conflict felt a bit pat, but I didn’t mind too much because I just wanted them to be together already! Definitely recommended for fans of this trope, and I’m putting Beach Read on my TBR immediately.

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: 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: 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.