Mini-Reviews: Christmas novellas

Connie Willis, Take a Look at the Five and Ten

Ori isn’t looking forward to the holiday season with her obnoxious relatives. She especially dreads seeing Grandma Elving, who tells the same story — about how she worked at Woolworth’s one Christmas in the 1950s — over and over again, in mind-numbing detail. But at Thanksgiving dinner, her stepsister’s new boyfriend, Lassiter, seems fascinated by Grandma Elving’s story. He thinks it may be a traumatic flashbulb memory, and he wants to include Grandma Elving in an experiment to uncover the root cause of this trauma. Ori drives Grandma Elving to and from the research lab and ends up assisting Lassiter in his experiment. But she doesn’t expect to fall for him, nor to discover that his hypothesis may be entirely wrong. I love Connie Willis, and this is another great Christmas story from her, although I must confess it’s not my favorite — I think that might be All Seated on the Ground. But I’d still recommend this one, especially to fans of her work!

Kate Clayborn, Missing Christmas

I’ve been meaning to read more Kate Clayborn ever since I read and loved Love Lettering back in January. This novella is loosely tied to her Chance of a Lifetime series, but it can definitely stand alone as well. Kristen and Jasper are friends and business partners, but Jasper has always wanted more. He’s crazy about her, but he doesn’t want to make a move that would jeopardize their friendship and partnership. Unfortunately, one kiss changes everything, and then they end up stuck in a snowy, romantic cabin over the holidays. I liked this story but didn’t feel the same magic I felt with Love Lettering. Maybe Clayborn just does better with a full-length novel. Still, I did enjoy this one and will continue to read more by the author.

Jackie Lau, One Bed for Christmas

Another holiday romance novella, this one centering on happy-go-lucky Wes Cheng and competent, driven Caitlin Ng. Wes has been in love with Caitlin since their college days, but he hasn’t made a move because he doesn’t feel worthy of her. But when a snowstorm knocks the power out at Caitlin’s place, she asks Wes if she can stay with him for a few days, and sparks start to fly between them. I’m not sure why I didn’t connect with this story more; both the main characters are likable, and I usually enjoy the friends-to-lovers trope. Maybe I was a little frustrated by Wes…I just wanted him to COMMUNICATE already! The novella was also a bit too racy for me, but obviously others’ mileage will vary. Overall, I didn’t hate this one but didn’t particularly like it either, and I won’t seek out more by this author.

Mini-Reviews: Never, Alice, Bargain

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go

On the threshold of a big change in her life, narrator Kathy looks back on her youth at Hailsham, a prestigious British boarding school, and on her friends Ruth and Tommy, whom she met there. As Kathy tells her story, it slowly becomes obvious that there is something different about Hailsham and its students. But only now, as an adult, does Kathy truly understand how her experiences at Hailsham have shaped the course of her life. I really liked the first 75 percent of this book, but I felt it petered out toward the end. The meat of the book is the relationships between Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy, which I found complex, interesting, and poignant. The speculative-fiction elements of the book, by contrast, didn’t interest me much, and because the ending has to deal with those elements, I think it’s not as strong as the rest of the novel. Still, I did like the book overall and would recommend it to fans of The Remains of the Day.

Kate Quinn, The Alice Network

In 1947, American coed Charlie Sinclair is desperate for some news of her cousin Rose, who has lost touch with her family after the war. Charlie’s search leads her to Eve Gardiner, a curmudgeonly older woman who agrees to help her for a price; but Charlie soon learns that Eve has an ulterior motive. In 1915, the young and pretty Eve is recruited as a British spy. She is sent to a small town in France to pose as a waitress in a restaurant popular with the occupying German troops. The book switches between Charlie’s story and Eve’s until their two quests converge in the late 1940s. I enjoyed this book — it’s well written with an exciting plot and likable characters — but I didn’t LOVE it, and honestly I’m not sure why. I definitely think that fans of historical fiction would enjoy it!

Jane Ashford, The Bargain

When the Prince Regent believes he’s being haunted by the ghost of actress Bess Harding, he calls on Lord Alan Gresham for help. Alan is the sixth son of a duke, but he has no taste for high society; he’d rather be conducting scientific experiments at Oxford than mingling with the prince’s crowd and hunting for a nonexistent ghost. But Alan’s scientific investigation is complicated by Ariel Harding, Bess’s daughter, who is desperately seeking a reason for her mother’s suicide. Passionate, headstrong, and emotional, Ariel is a menace to Alan’s logical and orderly life. Too bad he also finds her infuriatingly attractive. I wasn’t sure I would like this book at first — Alan is SUCH a jerk in his attitude toward women. To him, they’re all flighty, hysterical, and incapable of logical reasoning. But he eventually realizes the error of his ways, including that Ariel is not the only woman capable of rational thought, so he won me over by the end. I also loved how Alan’s relationships with his brothers change throughout the book, and how Ariel helps them all with their romantic difficulties. I almost wanted a sequel by the end! Recommended for fans of Regency fluff, and I might try more by this author in the future.

Mini-Reviews: Puzzle, Viscount, Sparrow

Patrick Quentin, A Puzzle for Fools

Broadway producer Peter Duluth has been drinking his life away ever since the tragic death of his wife two years ago. Now he’s hit rock bottom and checked himself into a sanatorium to dry out. When he hears a creepy voice talking about murder late one night, he initially thinks he’s imagined it — until a couple of the other patients mention a similar experience. Then a member of the staff is murdered, and while the police are officially investigating, Peter decides to do a little sleuthing of his own. This is my first book by Patrick Quentin, and I’d definitely consider reading more. It’s a solid Golden Age mystery with a perfect sinister setting. The only thing I didn’t particularly like was the romance, which was quite superficial. Still, I’ll keep my eye out for more Peter Duluth mysteries.

Mimi Matthews, The Viscount and the Vicar’s Daughter

Like A Rogue of One’s Own, this novella is a Victorian romance featuring the “reformed rake” trope, and the rake is even named Tristan! This book’s Tristan shows up at an annual country house party that is known for being exceptionally racy, where he unexpectedly befriends Valentine March, a vicar’s daughter who is attending the house party as a lady’s companion. When Tristan and Valentine are caught in a passionate embrace in the conservatory, Tristan does the honorable thing and offers marriage. But Valentine, despite her attraction to Tristan, isn’t sure she wants to marry a man with his unsavory reputation. I liked this novella more than A Rogue of One’s Own, but the many similarities made me feel like I was reading the same book again! I did enjoy this one more, but it’s definitely not my favorite by Mimi Matthews. Still, I look forward to trying some more of her full-length novels.

Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow

The premise of this novel caught my fancy immediately: humans have discovered intelligent life on another planet, and the Jesuits (an order of Catholic priests) are spearheading the mission to make contact with these life forms and learn about their culture. The novel starts in 2060, and Fr. Emilio Sandoz is the sole survivor of that mission; he has returned to Earth badly damaged, both physically and spiritually. The book then jumps back and forth in time, giving the backstory on Emilio and his companions and describing what happened on the alien planet and its aftermath. The novel is epic in scope, and I’m frankly still digesting it. Overall, I think it’s wonderfully done, although it takes a while to get going — we don’t actually meet the aliens until about 2/3 of the way through the book. So it’s not quite an action-packed sci fi story; but as an examination of faith, of human goodness and human frailty, and of the complexity of relationships, this novel has a lot to say and gave me a lot to think about.

Masks, Knight, Souls

Masks and ShadowsHonor's KnightOur Souls at Night

Stephanie Burgis, Masks and Shadows

This novel, set at the Palace of Esterháza in 1779, centers around a group of musicians and a fateful opera performance. Carlo Morelli, a castrato famous throughout Europe, is one of the prince’s guests. Another is Charlotte von Steinbeck, an accomplished pianist whose sister Sophie is the prince’s mistress. As Charlotte and Carlo slowly grow closer, the prince’s opera troupe is rehearsing a new opera by Franz Joseph Haydn, and an assassination plot is brewing that includes the use of dark magic. The various plot lines converge at the opera’s opening performance. I really enjoyed this book — it’s the perfect combination of historical fantasy, political intrigue, and romance. Some of the magical elements were a bit too dark for me, but overall I found the novel very compelling. I’m glad the RandomCAT inspired me to finally read it!

Rachel Bach, Honor’s Knight

This book picks up where Fortune’s Pawn left off: after the climactic battle in that book, Devi’s memory has been wiped, so she can’t remember anything about either the battle or her love affair with Rupert. All that’s left is a strong feeling of revulsion toward him and a sense of confusion about the other crew members. Between that, her visions of small glowing blobs that are apparently invisible to everyone else, and some sort of disease or parasite that periodically turns her limbs black, Devi has more than enough to worry about. This book is a good sequel to Fortune’s Pawn; it explains a lot of the mysterious loose ends from that book and nicely sets up the final book in the trilogy. I also appreciated the character development for Devi, who finds herself having to make complex moral choices for the first time in her life. I’m looking forward to reading the third book sometime later this year.

Kent Haruf, Our Souls at Night

Addie and Louis, both in their 70s, have lived on the same street in Holt, Colorado, for many years. They’ve known each other casually but have never been close friends. Now, however, Addie has a proposition for Louis: she wants him to sleep with her. Not to have sex, but merely to sleep in the same bed, keep each other company, and have someone to talk to at night. Louis is surprised but agrees to the scheme, and the rest of the book deals with the fallout. This isn’t my usual type of book at all — indeed, when I realized that there were no quotation marks, I almost gave up right then — but I’m glad I persevered. This is a lovely but melancholy book about all the ordinary, mundane things that make up a life. There’s no plot to speak of; the book just follows Addie and Louis as they pursue their unconventional relationship, with both positive and negative results. I really liked this one and would highly recommend it!

Mini-Reviews: Pawn, Undateable, Desperate

Fortune's PawnUndateableDesperate Fortune

Rachel Bach, Fortune’s Pawn

Devi Morris is a space mercenary whose dream is to join her home planet’s most elite fighting force. In order to gain the necessary qualifications and experience, she signs onto the crew of the Glorious Fool, a spaceship with a reputation of getting into trouble. But Devi has no idea just how much trouble is in store for her. I really enjoyed this book, which is sci-fi with a prominent romantic subplot. It’s not groundbreaking, just a really solid example of this type of story. I’m also very intrigued by the plot developments at the end of the book, so I’m definitely planning to read the rest of the trilogy!

Sarah Title, The Undateable

This is a cute romance focusing on Melissa “Bernie” Bernard, a feminist and somewhat frumpy academic librarian. When her student assistant gets engaged via a flash-mob proposal, Bernie’s disapproving reaction is caught on camera and immediately becomes a viral meme. That meme gets the attention of Colin Rodriguez, who works for an online fashion magazine and is looking for a story that will make his job secure. When they team up to do a story about the Disapproving Librarian going on a series of blind dates, they discover an inconvenient mutual attraction. This is a fun book with a very enjoyable heroine; and while the hero isn’t quite as fleshed out, I like that he comes to appreciate Bernie’s quirkiness. They each grow as they learn to understand the other’s point of view, which is a feature I always like in a romance. Worth reading if you like the premise.

Susanna Kearsley, A Desperate Fortune

I’ve read a few of Kearsley’s books before, and I liked but didn’t love them. Still, I decided to give this one a try because it contains a lot of elements I enjoy: codebreaking, espionage, and Jacobites. And I’m so glad I read it, because I absolutely loved it! Mary Dundas is part of a Jacobite family living in exile in France. She yearns for adventure, and finds it when her brother claims her for a mission to camouflage the identity of a fellow Jacobite who is being hunted by the English. Meanwhile, in the present day, Sara is hired to decrypt Mary’s encoded diary. Both Mary and Sara travel, learn more about themselves and the world, and find romance. I should note that Sara has Asperger syndrome, and I thought this aspect of her character was portrayed well — but I don’t really know much about it, so perhaps someone with more expertise would have a different opinion. Overall, I really loved this book and may have to rethink my stance on Kearsley in general!

Mini-Reviews: Chaos, Never, Slightly

Chaos ReigningIf I Never Met YouSlightly Married

Jessie Mihalik, Chaos Reigning

The final book in the Consortium Rebellion trilogy focuses on Cat, the youngest daughter of House von Hasenberg. Her persona is that of a ditzy space princess, but in fact she uses her social capital to gain valuable information for her House. When she’s invited to a house party that is also a prime intelligence-gathering opportunity, her sister Bianca forces her to take two bodyguards — one of whom, Alex, is far too attractive for Cat’s peace of mind. The house party brings unexpected dangers and eventually culminates in news of an open rebellion against the Consortium. I thought this was a fine conclusion to the series, although I enjoyed the first half of the book more than the second. The house party intrigue was a lot more interesting to me than the straightforward space-battle stuff at the end. Overall, I’d recommend this series to people who enjoy action-filled sci-fi romance.

Mhairi McFarlane, If I Never Met You

For women’s fiction with depth, you can’t beat Mhairi McFarlane! I’ve loved several of her books, but this one may be my new favorite. Laurie is a successful lawyer in a prestigious firm, and she’s been in a loving relationship with her boyfriend Dan for more than a decade. So when Dan dumps her out of the blue, she’s completely blindsided; and to make matters worse, he works at the same firm, which means there will be gossip. Meanwhile, Jamie Carter is the office playboy, but he desperately wants to be taken seriously so that he can make partner. He proposes a fake relationship to Laurie: his “commitment” will show the bosses that he’s a responsible adult, while Laurie will avoid the pity of her coworkers and possibly even make Dan realize his mistake. I love a fake relationship, and moreover I just really loved these characters. They’re very different, but they’re able to find common ground as they build a friendship through mutual respect. Highly recommended if you enjoy this genre!

Mary Balogh, Slightly Married

I picked up Balogh’s Slightly Dangerous some time ago because I’d seen many people praise it as their favorite Balogh novel and compare it to Pride and Prejudice. So I obviously had to add it to my TBR pile immediately! But then I was advised to read the entire six-book Bedwyn series — of which Slightly Dangerous is the last book, naturally — so that I could get a complete picture of the hero and his relationship with his family. So I caved and started with the first book, Slightly Married, which is a marriage-of-convenience story. The hero, Aidan Bedwyn, is a military officer who promises a dying soldier that he’ll take care of his sister no matter what. As it happens, the sister, Eve, is about to be forced out of her home unless she marries quickly, so Aidan proposes. I love a good uptight, duty-bound hero, and Aidan is a great example. The more open-hearted and empathetic Eve is a great match for him. I liked this book a lot and will continue to read the series in order.

Mini-Reviews: Brittany, Thing, Diamonds

Assignment in BrittanyJust One Damned Thing after AnotherDiamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend

Helen MacInnes, Assignment in Brittany

Martin Hearne, a British intelligence agent, has just been given a new assignment. He happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to Bertrand Corlay, a Frenchman recuperating in an English hospital after the evacuation of Dunkirk. His job will be to impersonate Corlay and go “home” to the village of Saint-Déodat in Brittany, where he will research the movements of the occupying German troops. Of course, complications ensue as Hearne meets Corlay’s family, shelters an American journalist, and has several unpleasant run-ins with the Nazis. His situation becomes even more precarious when he realizes that the real Corlay hasn’t been entirely truthful with him. I really enjoyed this suspenseful and entertaining book. It’s all the more remarkable because the novel was published in 1942, when the outcome of the war was far from certain. Definitely recommended for fans of spy and/or World War II novels.

Jodi Taylor, Just One Damned Thing after Another

When Madeleine “Max” Maxwell is recruited to join the St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research, she gets a lot more than she bargained for: the historians of St. Mary’s “investigate major historical events in contemporary time” — in other words, time travel! Max embraces the concept wholeheartedly and soon proves herself adept at her new job. But when a trip to the late Cretaceous goes horribly wrong, Max learns that another group of time travelers is wreaking havoc with history, and the St. Mary’s gang will have to stop them in order to protect both the past and the future. This book is a fun romp, although Max is one of those heroines who’s annoyingly good at everything. I found the present timeline hard to follow; the book starts with Max arriving at St. Mary’s, but it seems like several months (or years?) pass without really being acknowledged. There’s also a graphic sex scene that I could have done without. Despite these quibbles, though, I did enjoy the book and will most likely continue with the series.

Jenny Colgan, Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend

This chick lit novel is about Sophie Chesterton, a shallow socialite whose life is upended when her father dies, and the terms of his will state that she must earn her own living for six months before receiving her inheritance. Sophie moves into a dirty flat in South London with four guys, attempts to pursue her interest in photography, and falls for not one but two of her roommates. Normally I really enjoy Jenny Colgan’s novels, but this one was disappointing. Sophie does grow throughout the book, but she’s so awful in the beginning that it’s hard to completely buy her redemption. I also didn’t find the romance angle satisfying; the outcome seemed to come out of the blue, so that I had no chance to become invested. I still recommend Colgan’s books in general, but this one just wasn’t for me.

Mini-Reviews: Witch, Scarlet, Homicide

Water Witch*Study in Scarlet WomenHome Sweet Homicide

Cynthia Felice and Connie Willis, Water Witch

I’m a huge Connie Willis fan, so I had high hopes for this book, especially because it also contains some of my favorite elements: con artists, a missing princess, and a sci-fi/romance combo. But overall I found it pretty underwhelming. I really liked the kernel of the story, but I wanted it to be fleshed out a lot more, especially the characterization. The romance essentially comes out of nowhere, and I never really felt like I got to know the hero at all. That said, I really liked a twist involving one of the secondary characters, who came to be a lot more important than I initially expected. Overall, I didn’t like this as much as Willis’s solo work, but I already own two more Willis/Felice collaborations, so I’ll definitely read them at some point.

Sherry Thomas, A Study in Scarlet Women

I’d heard great things about the Lady Sherlock series but was hesitant to dive in, fearing that the books wouldn’t live up to the hype. But I was pleasantly surprised — I really enjoyed this book, which recasts literature’s most famous detective as Charlotte Holmes, a Victorian woman whose brilliant mind is constrained by the social rules of her time. So she decides to leave home and forge her own path. Meanwhile, of course, she solves several murders by realizing that they are all connected. I loved this take on a Holmesian character; Charlotte has a brilliant deductive mind but also really enjoys fashion, and her style is surprisingly ornate and gaudy. I also loved that the book, while sympathetic to Charlotte, also shows her flaws and the negative consequences of some of her decisions. I will definitely continue with the series sooner rather than later!

Craig Rice, Home Sweet Homicide

I found this mystery novel delightful. It’s about three children (ages 8 to 14, I believe) whose mother is a popular mystery novelist. When their neighbor is murdered in real life, the kids are ecstatic — now Mother might get some new material for her books, and the publicity is bound to be good for business. Plus, the handsome detective working the case looks like excellent stepfather material, though Mother doesn’t seem to agree. The children team up to solve the mystery with the help of their friends and neighbors; the result is a farcical romp that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Review: Aurora Blazing

Aurora BlazingJessie Mihalik, Aurora Blazing

Bianca von Hasenberg, a daughter of one of the three High Houses in the Consortium (an interplanetary governing body), adopts the public persona of an empty-headed space princess. But she’s actually an extremely gifted intelligence-gatherer with a wide network of informants, usually women she has quietly rescued from bad domestic situations. Thanks to the illicit experiments of her late husband, Gregory, Bianca also has the ability to detect and decode nearly any message sent via technology, no matter how complex its encryption. So when Bianca’s brother Ferdinand — the heir to House von Hasenberg — is kidnapped, she feels compelled to use her expertise to save him. But Ian Bishop, House von Hasenberg’s head of security, is determined to protect Bianca by refusing to let her participate in the investigation. Bianca doesn’t take his orders lying down, however, and soon she’s on the run with an angry, and infuriatingly attractive, Ian in hot pursuit. Eventually, they realize that they will accomplish more by working together, but their fragile trust may not survive all the dangerous ordeals that await them.

I enjoyed the first book in this series, Polaris Rising, and was excited for this sequel, which seemed like it would contain more of my favorite romance tropes—forced proximity, enemies to lovers, grumpy hero, and so on. But while those tropes do exist in the book, they fell flat for me, mostly because the romance definitely takes a backseat to the external plot in this book. It’s almost the halfway point before Bianca and Ian end up on the same spaceship, and even then, there isn’t very much development of their relationship. The turn from enemies to lovers seems very abrupt, and Ian’s shift in demeanor was particularly jarring to me. The character development is clumsy; Bianca and Ian each get a scene where one explains a tragic incident in his/her past to the other, but that’s it. It all feels very rote. I wanted more about Ian’s past, especially how he was able to become the head of House von Hasenberg security before age 30, and I think Bianca’s disastrous marriage should have been explored in more depth too. Plot-wise, there’s plenty of action, as well as fun tech discussions if you’re into that sort of thing. But overall, I’m pretty “meh” on this book. I will probably still read the third one when it comes out next year, though!

Review: The Woman Who Died a Lot

Woman Who Died a LotJasper Fforde, The Woman Who Died a Lot

This seventh book in the Thursday Next series continues the madcap adventures of Thursday Next, her family, and the alternate-reality Swindon that is obsessed with all things literary. Thursday is now middle-aged and struggling with the fact that she’s not as physically resilient as she used to be. She hopes to become the head of a newly reinstated SpecOps 27 (the division of the government dealing with literary crimes), but instead, she’s offered the job of Chief Librarian of Swindon All-You-Can-Eat-at-Fatso’s Drink Not Included Library, a plum assignment that gives her absolute power within the library’s domain. But there’s still plenty of trouble to go around. Her son Friday’s career at the ChronoGuard is halted when time travel is ruled impossible, and he’s now coming to terms with a very different destiny. Meanwhile, the Global Standard Deity is preparing to smite Swindon within a week, unless Thursday’s genius daughter Tuesday can find a way to stop it. Not to mention, the sinister Goliath Corp is up to its usual skulduggery, and more than one person seems to want Thursday dead.

I’m a longtime Fforde ffan, but I haven’t been as impressed by his last few books. Maybe the novelty of his humor has worn off for me, but I was only intermittently amused by this installment. There are still a lot of fun jokes and gags and wordplay, but the whole seems like less than the sum of its parts. The Thursday vs. Goliath stuff was fine, but it felt like a retread of previous books with nothing particularly new to add. The Chronoguard stuff was more interesting — I especially enjoyed the idea that time travel works (or used to work) because someone would invent the technology in the future, and therefore it could be used in the present. I wanted a little more about Thursday’s Librarian gig, but her library-related adventures are fairly peripheral to the main plot. In fact, I’m realizing that there aren’t a lot of literature-related hijinks in this novel. Unlike the first few books, which were constantly jumping into and out of specific literary worlds, this one doesn’t contain many literary allusions at all. Maybe that’s why earlier books in the series worked for me better than the last few. Regardless, I’m glad to be caught up with the Thursday Next series, but I’m also glad that it’s now (as far as I can tell) complete.