Lucy Parker, Making Up
Trix Lane is a confident, talented circus performer whose daring aerial acrobatics have won her a major role in a popular and long-running London show. But some of her spark has dimmed lately, in the wake of an emotionally abusive relationship that shook her confidence. Now she has the opportunity to get an even bigger role in the show, but she’s not quite sure she can do it. And her anxiety isn’t helped when she learns that Leo Magasiva has just been hired to do makeup for the show. Leo and Trix have a fraught past, and whenever they meet, they can’t seem to help antagonizing each other. But beneath their sarcastic banter is an undeniable attraction, and when they begin to explore their true feelings for one another, Trix is surprised to discover how compatible they really are. But will their fledgling relationship be able to survive new misunderstandings and competing career goals?
I adore Lucy Parker’s contemporary romances, and this one is no exception. I love the enemies-to-lovers trope when it’s done well, which it definitely is here; I especially loved the nods to Much Ado about Nothing (my favorite Shakespeare play, not surprisingly!). I have to admit, though, I didn’t adore this book quite as much as I did Act Like It and Pretty Face. I think it’s because the overall tone is a little more somber, and there isn’t quite as much witty banter. (That’s understandable, of course, given that Trix is recovering from her ex’s abusive treatment.) I also find that I can’t remember very many incidents in the book. Both Leo and Trix do change throughout the novel, but their development is largely internal, not necessarily tied to specific plot events. Don’t get me wrong — I still really liked this book! It’s just a bit quieter than Parker’s previous novels. But I still love her and can’t wait until her next book, The Austen Playbook, comes out!
Deanna Raybourn, City of Jasmine
Famed aviatrix Evangeline Starke is in the midst of a big publicity stunt, flying her plane over the seven seas of antiquity. This trip is motivated by her need for money, her thirst for adventure, and her subconscious desire to move past the death of her husband, Gabriel, which occurred five years before. But when Evie receives a mysterious — and apparently current — photo of Gabriel, she is determined to discover whether he is still alive, and if so, what really happened to him five years ago. Her search takes her to the ancient city of Damascus, where various European countries are carving up the region into strategically advantageous states, and into the heart of the desert itself. What she finds is a priceless relic, ethnic tensions, life-threatening dangers, and possibly a second chance at love.
Something has happened to me in the way I react to Deanna Raybourn’s books. When I first read Silent in the Grave, I remember really loving it and being eager to read the rest of the series. I loved the combination of 19th century historical detail, mystery, and romance, which, as I recall, was fairly unique in my experience at the time. I think the issue is that, as time has passed, I’ve read a lot more books; I’ve become a more sophisticated consumer and have read more widely in the various genres I like. As a result, Raybourn’s brand of historical fiction no longer seems particularly unique or special to me. She has good plots and some funny lines, but her characters are pretty typical for the genre, and I’m not fond of the rugged alpha males she tends to use as heroes. This particular novel is quite entertaining, and I really can’t point to anything wrong with it; it just didn’t really excite me, and I’ve already removed it from my shelves.
Kathleen A. Flynn, The Jane Austen Project
Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane live in a near-future world where time travel is well established as a scientific research tool. Their first mission is to travel to 1815, where they will retrieve Jane Austen’s personal letters (many of which were destroyed after her death) and her manuscript of “The Watsons,” which, according to a recent discovery, she actually did complete. To achieve this goal, Rachel and Liam will pose as members of the gentry and try to become part of the Austens’ social circle. But the more they get to know Jane and her family, the more Rachel and Liam begin to have scruples about their actions. Additionally, they start to worry about the possibility of changing history and the even scarier possibility that they may not be able to leave 1815. And of course, the deepening of their relationship to each other may have far-reaching consequences in both 1815 and their own time.
I enjoyed this book overall, but I definitely think some parts were more successful than others. The premise is certainly an interesting one if you love Jane Austen, and overall I think the portrayal of Jane and her family was very well done. The book evokes the 1815 setting very well; it feels like the reader is also a time traveler, being immersed into this bygone era for the first time. I was particularly tickled by one scene where Jane catches Rachel looking through her private papers and accuses her of being a French spy! That said, the novel gives short shrift to the time travel element; it doesn’t explain how it works or what the “rules” are, and the future consequences of Rachel and Liam’s actions in 1815 are wrapped up very quickly. Finally, I wasn’t particularly invested in the romance. While Rachel and Liam are both pleasant enough, I never really got a sense of what made them tick. Ultimately, I did like the book, but I don’t think it’s one I’ll ever need to reread.
Leslie Cohen, This Love Story Will Self-Destruct
Eve is a music writer who thrives on emotion, creativity, and chaos. She dates edgy, brooding musicians, and she’s not attracted to anyone who isn’t a little bit broken. In short, she’s the last person who would want to be in a stable, long-term relationship—especially with someone like Ben. Ben is a civil engineer who values order, logic, and direct communication. A girl like Eve would drive him crazy. Of course, this novel is their love story, and it traces their relationship from college acquaintances to a one-night stand and beyond. But of course, there are many obstacles in their path: Eve is emotionally guarded due to her father’s abandonment and a family tragedy, while Ben is keeping a secret relevant to that same tragedy. And then there’s the matter of Eve’s ex-boyfriend Jesse, one of the aforementioned brooding musicians, who comes back into her life at the worst possible time. Will these obstacles force Eve and Ben apart, or is their connection strong enough to bring them back to each other?
I have deeply mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I found it compelling enough that I read most of it in one sitting and stayed up way too late as a result. On the other hand, I found myself (metaphorically) rolling my eyes a lot. I recently saw this quote in a commentary on the Morning News Tournament of Books: “The only books I refuse to read are those about twenty-somethings living in New York.” And while I don’t have that same rule myself, I completely understood what that commentator meant as I was reading this book. This is a novel that positions itself as a romantic comedy—the cover compares the author to Nora Ephron—but it has none of the lightness, humor, or joy I’d expect from a rom-com. Rather, the whole thing is just kind of dreary. I did find Eve’s journey somewhat interesting; she’s a character who has been telling herself a certain narrative about who she is, and she eventually discovers that her narrative is flawed and that it can change. At the same time, she annoyed me more often than she intrigued me. Ben is a more likable character, but that’s only because he doesn’t have much of a personality. Overall, I’m not quite sure who this book is for: whether you want a rom-com or a literary depiction of New York, I think there’s better stuff out there.
Ashley Poston, Heart of Iron
Ana was raised an outlaw on the spaceship Dossier, under the rough but loving care of the infamous Captain Siege and her crew. She remembers nothing of her life before the Dossier found her; the only connection to her past is her Metal (robot), D09, who also happens to be her best friend. When D09 starts to malfunction, Ana is so desperate to save him that she’ll even steal the coordinates for the long-lost spaceship Tsarina, which is rumored to have the information she’ll need to repair D09. But her plan goes wrong when Robb, an Ironblood (upper class) boy who has his own reasons for seeking the Tsarina, gets the coordinates first. Now Ana and Robb find themselves on the same side as they search for answers. Meanwhile, the Iron Kingdom needs a new leader, since a rebellion several years ago killed the entire royal family. Robb’s corrupt brother Erik is next in line, but legend has it that one of the murdered emperor’s children may have survived after all. . . .
This book was originally pitched as “Anastasia meets Firefly,” and since I love both of those things, I figured I’d be the ideal reader for this novel! Unfortunately, that didn’t turn out to be the case, but I want to emphasize that my problems with the book are very specific and may not be problems for another reader! It’s certainly a fun read overall, with a nice blend of outer space action and political intrigue. But for me, the book is missing the elements I was hoping for based on the premise. My favorite aspects of Anastasia are the con angle and the enemies-to-lovers romance, neither of which are present in this book. Instead, one of the main plot lines is a romance between a human and a robot, and I just couldn’t get past it. I think the discussion about artificial intelligence and consciousness is absolutely fascinating, but there’s not much debate about it in the novel; rather, all the “good” characters simply accept D09’s humanity, which just left me with a lot of questions and frustration. Also, I found the Firefly elements to be a little superficial: yes, there’s a ragtag crew of space pirates/adventurers, but only a few of them get any significant characterization. In short, all I can say is that this book didn’t deliver what I was hoping for based on the premise. But again, that has a lot to do with my own subjective expectations, and I expect that many other readers will love it!
Seanan McGuire, Discount Armageddon
Verity Price is a cocktail waitress and aspiring professional ballroom dancer living in New York City. But she’s also a cryptozoologist who studies the paranormal inhabitants of Manhattan — everything from ghouls to bogeymen, shapeshifters to the Tooth Fairy. To Verity, cryptids are part of the natural order and should be left alone unless they start harming humans. But not everyone sees it that way, particularly the Covenant of St. George, an ancient order sworn to exterminate all cryptids. Now a member of the Covenant, Dominic de Luca, has arrived in New York; and between his rigid views and his attractive physique, he’s trouble for Verity in more ways than one. Not to mention that there are rumors of a dragon — a species long assumed to be extinct — sleeping underneath the city, and someone seems to be trying to wake it up.
I’m a longtime fan of Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye series, but I haven’t been as enthusiastic about the last few books. So I guess it’s not surprising that I wasn’t a huge fan of this novel either. If you love Toby, you’ll also love Verity; she’s the same type of tough woman who will toss off quip after quip while she’s kicking the bad guy’s ass. But for me, the two characters feel almost too similar, and I’m over the schtick. I do think the world-building is very creative, and it was fun to read about the different types of cryptids and their various abilities. I also enjoyed the romance between Verity and Dominic, although every beat of it is predictable. I wish there had been more ballroom dancing, honestly; it would have been a fun distraction from the main plot, which involves a snake cult (!) and several trips into Manhattan’s sewer system. Maybe I’m being unfair to this book because I’m getting a bit burned out on the author, but I’m not particularly interested in continuing with the series.
Lois Austen-Leigh, The Incredible Crime
Prudence Pinsent enjoys her position as the daughter of the Master of Prince College, Cambridge. She socializes with the various professors, Fellows, and their wives, and she loves a good rugby match. One day she travels into the countryside to visit her cousin, Lord Wellende, and to enjoy a few days’ hunting on his estate. En route, she encounters an old acquaintance who happens to be a coast guard inspector. He reveals that a nasty new drug is being smuggled into England, and the central distributor is operating out of Cambridge. Moreover, he suspects that Lord Wellende, whose estate is on the coast, may also be involved. He asks Prudence to keep her eyes and ears open while she visits her cousin, but she insists that Wellende couldn’t possibly be involved in drug smuggling. However, the longer she stays at Wellende’s estate, the more she is forced to admit that something fishy is going on. Meanwhile, she finds romance in an unlikely place.
I enjoyed this book for its bright, lively voice, but I must say that the plot is very scattered! Cambridge actually isn’t a huge part of the story, but the scenes set there feel more like a satire of academia than anything else. The drug smuggling is the main plot, but it’s not a traditional mystery in the sense of fair cluing, multiple suspects, alibis, and the like. There is a suspicious death in the book, but it happens almost at the end of the novel and is resolved fairly quickly. Then there’s the romantic element, which I (somewhat surprisingly) was not a fan of and which felt very tacked on. My overall impression is that the book isn’t sure what it’s trying to be. I think it’s best to approach the novel as a period piece — the style is enjoyable, there are some lovely descriptions of the countryside, and some of the minor characters are great fun. But it’s not particularly satisfying as a mystery, and I’m not sure whether I’ll end up keeping my copy.
Jasmine Guillory, The Wedding Date
Alexa Monroe gets into an elevator in a swanky San Francisco hotel. At first she doesn’t even notice that the elevator is already occupied, but when it gets stuck due to a temporary power outage, she finds herself making conversation with the handsome, outgoing Drew Nichols. Alexa and Drew have undeniable chemistry, and eventually Drew makes an unusual proposal: he’s supposed to be a groomsman in the wedding of his ex-girlfriend, and he needs a date. Alexa agrees to be his fake girlfriend, but the sparks that fly between them at the wedding are very real. But their fledgling romance is hindered by distance and their busy careers — he’s a pediatric surgeon in L.A., she’s the mayor of Berkeley’s chief of staff — and by Drew’s fear of commitment. Can they overcome these obstacles to make a relationship work?
There’s a lot to like in this charming, romantic novel, but for some reason I just wasn’t feeling it. Both Alexa and Drew are likable characters (albeit somewhat generic), and I loved that they both had jobs and friends and lives outside of the romance. I was especially happy that, contrary to the usual rom-com trope, Drew’s friend Carlos isn’t a dirtbag and actually gives Drew good advice about his relationship! I also enjoyed the detail that this is an interracial relationship — Alexa is black, Drew is white — and that it impacts the plot without being a Huge Issue. I think my problem was that the main conflict is a little banal. Drew’s afraid of commitment, but we never really learn why. The long-distance factor is supposedly an obstacle, but Drew and Alexa don’t try to convince each other to move, nor do they struggle with the idea of moving themselves. It just seemed odd to me that these obstacles aren’t explored in greater depth. So overall, this was a fun read, but nothing particularly special for me.
V.E. Schwab, A Gathering of Shadows
***Warning: SPOILERS for A Darker Shade of Magic***
Four months after the events of A Darker Shade of Magic, Delilah Bard is living her dream of being a pirate — well, privateer, technically — on the ship Night Spire under Captain Alucard Emery. She is also exploring her magical abilities under Alucard’s tutelage, while keeping her thieving skills as sharp as her knives. Meanwhile, Kell and Rhy are struggling with the aftermath of Kell’s decision to bind their lives together. The upcoming Essen Tasch — a competition between the best magicians of Arnes and its neighboring lands — provides an outlet for Kell’s frustration and also draws hordes of people to Red London, including a certain pirate-thief and her swashbuckling captain. But unforeseen dangers threaten Kell, Rhy, and Lila, and strange things are afoot in White London. . . .
I really enjoyed A Darker Shade of Magic, but for some reason it took me a really long time to pick up the second book in the series. I don’t know what I was waiting for, because this book definitely lives up to its predecessor! I love the world of this series, and the plot — especially once everyone starts to converge on Red London for the Essen Tasch — kept me riveted. I also enjoyed watching the three main characters grow and change; it was particularly nice to get inside Rhy’s head for a bit and see that he’s more than just a pleasure-loving wastrel. I also liked seeing Lila get what she’s always wanted, only to discover that maybe she wants something different now. Fair warning, this book does end on a cliffhanger, so I’m glad I already have A Conjuring of Light on my shelves! I can’t wait to see what happens next and how everything turns out. I’d definitely recommend this series to fantasy lovers!
Kristan Higgins, Now That You Mention It
By all appearances, Nora Stuart has a great life: she’s a successful doctor living in Boston with her gorgeous boyfriend. But when said boyfriend dumps her while she’s in the hospital recovering from a car accident, she decides to reevaluate her life. She returns to her hometown of Scupper Island, Maine, to recover from her injuries, but in doing so she opens a lot of old wounds. Her relationship with her mother has always been distant, and the townspeople in general haven’t forgiven her for “stealing” a college scholarship from golden boy Luke Fletcher. As Nora starts to rebuild her life, she strives to mend fences, with mixed results. But with the help of a few new friends — and a possible new romance — she eventually feels ready to embrace life again.
Overall, I really loved this book. I found Nora very relatable and likable — in fact, almost too likable and sweet, given how much crap she’s gone through in her life. The chapters that describe her high school experience are downright heartbreaking, and I couldn’t help being angry at nearly every other character because they didn’t give her the love she so desperately needed. Also, there’s one absolutely horrifying scene in which she is the victim of a home invasion; her attacker attempts to rape and murder her, and it’s a very, very hard scene to read. On the one hand, I think it’s important to confront the reality that this happens to women all the time, and it should be disturbing and terrifying. On the other hand, I’m not exactly looking for that in my light fiction, you know? Except for that scene, though, the book is a compelling and ultimately uplifting read. Recommended for fans of women’s fiction with some weight to it.