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.

Review: Battle Royal

Lucy Parker, Battle Royal

Talented pastry chefs Sylvie Fairchild and Dominic De Vere have been professional rivals ever since their stint on Operation Cake four years ago. Sylvie was a contestant, Dominic was a judge, and her robotic unicorn cake creation may have gone rogue and hit him in the face. Now they’re competing for the most important job of their careers — a cake for an upcoming royal wedding. Their baking styles (and personalities) couldn’t be more different: Sylvie is all about whimsy and creativity, while Dominic sticks to classic perfection. But as they spend more time together, they discover a surprising mutual attraction and must figure out how to reconcile their romance with their career ambitions.

Lucy Parker is an auto-buy author for me, and I always worry that her latest book won’t live up to my sky-high expectations. Fortunately, in this case the worry was unfounded because I loved this book! While I don’t particularly care about baking shows or British royals, I do adore a grumpy/sunshine pairing, and the relationship between Sylvie and Dominic is every bit as swoony and satisfying as I’d hoped. The first few chapters are a little confusing — lots of characters and backstory to establish — and there’s perhaps a bit too much going on throughout the book. But that’s a tiny quibble that in no way diminishes my overall love for this novel. I already can’t wait for the next one!

Mini-Reviews: Graces, Proposal, News

D.E. Stevenson, The Four Graces

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

Melanie Dickerson, A Viscount’s Proposal

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

Paulette Jiles, News of the World

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

Mini-Reviews: 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: 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: Night, Imaginary, Dress

Mhairi McFarlane, Just Last Night

Don’t let the bright colors and cartoonish art fool you: this is primarily a book about grief. Thirty-something Eve and her three best friends have been inseparable since college; they know, love, and understand each other in a way that no one else can. At the beginning of the novel, one of them dies, and Eve spends most of the book trying to cope with her grief and process the aftermath. She also uncovers a devastating secret that profoundly affects her life, as well as the dynamic of the friend group. There is, in fact, a love story that I quite enjoyed, but it doesn’t really get going until the last third of the book or so, and it seems a bit incongruous with what came before. Nevertheless, I devoured the book in one sitting and stayed up far too late to finish it! So I did like the book overall, although I think I still prefer If I Never Met You.

Robin McKinley, ed., Imaginary Lands

I picked up this short story collection based solely on Robin McKinley’s name, but unfortunately, as with most short story collections, I found it a mixed bag. Below are my thoughts on the individual stories, but my overall opinion is that even if you’re a fantasy lover, you can skip this one.

James P. Blaylock, “Paper Dragons” – This story won the 1986 World Fantasy Award for short fiction, and I have no idea why. Nothing happens! And we’re introduced to a lot of characters and bits of history and mythology that are never fully explained or given context. A frustrating read, for me.

Patricia A. McKillip, “The Old Woman and the Storm” – This one is set at the dawn of time, and it has a very elevated, myth-like style that got on my nerves. I did like the resolution to the story, but overall it just wasn’t my jam.

Robert Westall, “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” – In the early 20th century, a family of American tourists is forced to stay overnight in an English salt-mining town that is slowly sinking into the earth. Probably my favorite story in the bunch, perhaps because of its lively, comedic tone.

Peter Dickinson, “Flight” – A “history” of a fictional empire that repeatedly tries and fails to conquer a stubborn territory whose residents use hang glider-esque devices to fly. The narrative device was my favorite part of this one; it allowed for some fun satire about real-life history and government policy.

Jane Yolen, “Evian Steel” – Sort of a prequel to Arthurian legends. Well-written, but I think I’d have gotten more out of it if I knew more about Arthuriana.

P.C. Hodgell, “Stranger Blood” – Probably the most traditional “high fantasy” story in the collection, set on the borderland of a Great Evil that is going to kill everyone unless our heroes can stop it. I liked this story, but it felt unfinished; if it were expanded into a novel, I’d be curious to read it.

Michael de Larrabeiti, “The Curse of Igamor” – A short fable-like tale with a killer horse and rich bad guys who get their comeuppance. I liked this one.

Joan D. Vinge, “Tam Lin” – A Tam Lin retelling, as the title indicates, and one with a somewhat unsettling ending. I prefer The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope or Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones.

Robin McKinley, “The Stone Fey” – This story has a lot of the things I love about McKinley’s writing — a sympathetic heroine, lovable secondary characters, great animals — but I wanted to know a lot more about the titular stone fey. He’s a catalyst for the story’s action rather than a character in his own right, and I wanted to know what his deal was. I feel like this story is only for McKinley completists like me…and even then, maybe not.

Kate Noble, The Dress of the Season

Harris Dane, Viscount Osterley, is known to Society as “Austere Osterley” for his serious, some might say rigid, demeanor. But that doesn’t stop him from pursuing a lovely widow as his mistress. He purchases a scandalous gown for her, and at the same shop he also buys a pair of gloves for his ward, Felicity Grove. When the packages are sent to the wrong women and Felicity mistakenly receives the dress, scandal erupts, leading to a chain of events neither Harris nor Felicity could have anticipated. I read this cute Regency romance novella in an afternoon. It’s not particularly authentic in terms of writing style, and the short length prevented me from getting very emotionally invested in the characters. But I found it a fun read and would definitely try more by this author.