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.

Review: Last of Her Name

Last of Her NameJessica Khoury, Last of Her Name

Stacia Androvna has grown up happy on a fringe planet near the edge of the galaxy. She’s never paid much attention to politics, although she knows that things have been fairly bleak since the revolution that overthrew the Leonovan empire. Still, she never expected that the unrest in the galaxy would affect her — until the direktor Eminent himself, the leader of the revolutionary government, shows up on her planet claiming that she is a Leonovan princess. Stacia doesn’t believe it, but she knows she must escape or die. Now on the run with her childhood friend Pol, she is determined to save the rest of her loved ones, especially her best friend Clio. But the direktor Eminent will do whatever it takes to capture Stacia, and there are also Loyalist forces hoping to find and use her for their own ends. Is Stacia really the princess, and if so, will she be able to use what little power she has to save her friends?

I adore the Anastasia animated movie and was excited to read a book that sounded like a sci-fi take on that story. Unfortunately, the plot of the novel is quite different; while the setup is clearly based on the execution of the Romanovs during the Russian Revolution, the rest of the plot is essentially an action movie set in space. Which I have no problem with, but it’s not what I was expecting or hoping for. The book is a fast read that’s jam-packed with plot, which definitely kept me turning the pages. Some of the twists were very clever, although some went a bit too far for my taste — it kept feeling like the book should end, and then there would be yet another attack/betrayal/reversal of fortune. I didn’t really connect to the characters, but maybe that’s my issue and not the book’s; all these spunky YA SFF heroines are starting to feel the same to me, so I found Stacia rather two-dimensional. Overall, I liked this book fine, but I was a bit underwhelmed.

Review: Polaris Rising

Polaris RisingJessie Mihalik, Polaris Rising

Ada von Hasenberg is a princess on the run. The universe is ruled by a Consortium of noble Houses, of which the von Hasenberg family is one of the most powerful. As a result, Ada’s duty is to marry for her House’s political advantage, but rather than accept her fate, she’s determined to carve her own path. Unfortunately, she’s captured by a mercenary ship and forced to share a cell with Marcus Loch, the so-called Devil of Fornax Zero. Loch is said to have butchered his regiment in a past military action, so he has a price on his head almost as big as Ada’s. Now, Ada and Loch must work together to escape captivity — but when her fiancé, the son of a rival House, comes looking for her, Ada begins to suspect that more than a marriage is at stake. To figure out what’s going on, she’ll need Loch’s help, even though she’s finding it harder and harder to fight her attraction to him.

I found it hard to summarize this book because it’s chock full of plot. All you really need to know is that this is a very entertaining, page-turning sci-fi/romance adventure, and I really enjoyed it. Ada is a strong heroine, but not one of the obnoxious variety; she’s not incredibly amazing at everything, nor does she rush into decisions without thinking carefully about them first. One of my favorite details was how she always (smartly) checks for bugs and tracking devices when she enters an unfamiliar environment. I also found the overall plot compelling, albeit a little predictable. I wasn’t as enthralled with the romance — Loch is a pretty stereotypical alpha male (although not a jerk, which is nice!), and since the book is only told from Ada’s point of view, I felt I didn’t get a good insight into what makes him tick. Their relationship doesn’t seem to be based on anything more than physical attraction, so it fell a little flat for me. Nevertheless, this was a really fun read for me, and I look forward to reading the next book in the series when it comes out this fall!

Mini-reviews: Duke, Christmas, Memorial

Duke in Shining ArmorLoretta Chase, A Duke in Shining Armor

This book is the first in a series starring a trio of dukes known as Their Dis-Graces. Ripley, Ashmont, and Blackwood have been friends since childhood, and together they’ve drunk, gambled, and whored their way through London society. Now Ashmont is getting married, but the bride — bookish, practical Olympia Hightower — is having second thoughts. When she runs away on the wedding day, it’s up to best man Ripley to track her down and return her to Ashmont. The trouble is, the more time Ripley spends with Olympia, the more he wants her for himself. I really enjoy Loretta Chase’s writing, especially her humor, but this book was not the right book for me. I really don’t like the “reformed rake” trope, and Ripley is such a stereotypical alpha-male hero. (That said, the humor makes him somewhat more bearable.) But I’ll still be reading more Loretta Chase, and perhaps even more in this series…Blackwood’s marital difficulties, a tiny side plot in this book, sound intriguing!

A Lot Like ChristmasConnie Willis, A Lot Like Christmas

This collection of Christmas-themed short stories with a speculative-fiction twist is a revised and expanded edition of Miracle and Other Christmas Stories. I still stand by my review of that book, but here are my comments on the new stories:

  • “All about Emily” — A sly take on the movie All about Eve featuring an aging Broadway actress and a robot who wants to be a Rockette. A fun one for fans of musicals and old movies.
  • “All Seated on the Ground” — The aliens have arrived, but no one can figure out what they want. The clue may reside in a Christmas carol, so protagonist Meg teams up with choir director Calvin to solve the mystery. A lovely and romantic meditation on “peace on earth.”
  • “deck.halls@boughs/holly” — I liked this funny rom-com about the effects of technology, especially the internet, on Christmas. It’s futuristic and over the top, of course, but the story does a great job of presenting different views on the issue — with a charming romance thrown in!
  • “Now Showing” — Lindsay really wants to see a particular movie, but she keeps being thwarted by circumstance. It seems like the universe is conspiring against her . . . and according to her ex-boyfriend Jack, that’s exactly what is happening. I really liked this playful homage to romantic-suspense-adventure movies such as How to Steal a Million, French Kiss, and Romancing the Stone.
  • “Just Like the Ones We Used to Know” — Thanks to climate change (or a “discontinuity,” or Armageddon, or . . . ?), places all over the world are having a white Christmas. Places like Los Angeles, and Honolulu, and Jerusalem. The story follows various characters as they deal with the unexpected snowstorm and try to figure out what’s causing it. I thought there were maybe a few too many characters in this one, and at least one storyline was never satisfactorily resolved.

All in all, I’m glad I purchased this one, even though I already own Miracle and Other Christmas Stories. But if you don’t have either book, definitely go with A Lot Like Christmas instead!

Memorial Hall MurderJane Langton, The Memorial Hall Murder

This is the third book in the Homer Kelly mystery series, but it can definitely be read as a stand-alone. The book begins with an explosion that destroys part of Memorial Hall on the campus of Harvard University. A headless body is found in the rubble, and it is soon identified as the corpse of Hamilton Dow, an extremely popular music professor. Homer Kelly, who used to work at the district attorney’s office, happens to be on the scene and decides to investigate. As a mystery, the book is nothing to write home about; the reader is given a lot of information early on, and the perpetrator’s identity isn’t hard to discover. I kept thinking there would be a plot twist to point the finger in a new direction, but it never came. However, the book is fun to read for its playful satire of university life and its prominent featuring of Handel’s Messiah. All in all, I’d consider reading more books in this series.