Mini-Reviews: Deadly, Margins, Victory

T.A. Willberg, Marion Lane and the Deadly Rose

Marion Lane, now a second-year apprentice at Miss Brickett’s underground society of investigators, has been assigned to a new case: A serial killer dubbed The Florist is branding his victims with a rose before murdering them. But Marion is also dealing with problems inside the agency, including the emergence of a club with sinister motives and an anonymous tip that one of the first-years is not to be trusted. I was underwhelmed by the first book in the series, but I was hoping that this installment would flesh out the world and characters a bit more. Unfortunately, Marion and her friends still don’t feel like real people to me; all the focus is on a confusing plot whose stakes are never really clear. I believe at least one more book is planned, and I may end up reading it despite myself, but I wouldn’t actually recommend the series.

Melissa Ferguson, Meet Me in the Margins

Savannah is an assistant editor at a literary publishing house, but she secretly aspires to be a writer herself. After leaving her manuscript unattended in the office, she comes back to find that someone has scribbled highly critical notes in the margins. At first Savannah is offended, but when someone she trusts gives her the same feedback, she admits that her mystery editor might be onto something. As she trades notes and stories with the mystery editor, she also grows closer to her new boss, Will. But what will happen if she has to choose between them? This is a cute contemporary romance, even if the mystery editor’s identity is immediately obvious. But Savannah is relatable, her love interest is appealing, and I bought the romance. There is a significant family conflict in Savannah’s life, too, and I wish that had been fleshed out more; the resolution felt way too pat. Still, this book was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and I’d consider reading more by the author.

Naomi Novik, Victory of Eagles

After the events of Empire of Ivory, Temeraire has been exiled to the dragon breeding grounds, while Laurence is languishing in prison, awaiting execution for treason. But when Napoleon’s long-feared invasion of England finally occurs, Laurence and Temeraire reunite to fight against the French. I think this is one of the stronger books in the series, perhaps because there’s no “travelogue” element; the book is set entirely in Britain. I also like the historical details in this installment, including real historical figures like Wellesley and Talleyrand. Also, it’s great to see Temeraire exert some personal agency as he leads a group of (somewhat recalcitrant) dragons into battle. And finally, the emotional stakes are high in this book, which makes it a particularly compelling read. I hope subsequent books in the series will live up to it!

Mini-Reviews: Empire, Letter, Errant

Naomi Novik, Empire of Ivory

Laurence and Temeraire have finally made it home to England, only to learn that the vast majority of British dragons have contracted a mysterious and deadly illness. They journey to Africa in the desperate hope of finding a cure, but they encounter several difficulties, including being captured by a hostile African tribe. I’m continuing to enjoy this series, although the pacing of this book is pretty uneven. But the series’ strength is world-building, not plot; I love being immersed in this alternate-19th-century universe, and Novik excels at portraying the language and attitudes of the period. She’s more convincing than most historical fiction authors, in my opinion. Looking forward to the next installment, especially since this one ends with a real heartbreaker!

Suzanne Allain, Miss Lattimore’s Letter

Sophie Lattimore is a keen observer of people, and when she sees a well-known bachelor about to make a disastrous marriage, she decides to send him some anonymous advice. Her interference unexpectedly results in two happy marriages, giving Sophie (whose identity is of course revealed) a reputation as a matchmaker. But when the handsome and charming Sir Edmund Winslow approaches Sophie about finding him a bride, she doesn’t know what to do — especially since she’d like to marry Sir Edmund herself! This is a light, breezy Regency romance that I read in an afternoon. I liked it and would recommend it to fans of the genre, especially those who prefer to avoid steamy scenes (nothing more explicit than kissing here). But it’s definitely not a book I feel tempted to keep and re-read.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Miles Errant

In “The Borders of Infinity,” Miles infiltrates a Cetagandan POW camp and engineers a miracle. In Brothers in Arms, the Dendarii mercenaries have cash flow problems, and Miles has trouble juggling his Admiral Naismith and Lord Vorkosigan personas. Also, he gets kidnapped and has to foil yet another plot against Barrayar. Mirror Dance switches gears somewhat, following Mark as he tries to liberate the clones from Jackson’s Whole, with disastrous results. There is some dark stuff here — the end of Mirror Dance is particularly tough to read — but in my opinion, the two full-length novels in this volume are the best in the series so far. Loved seeing Aral and Cordelia again (and Ivan, of course!), and I can’t wait to see what happens next with Miles, Mark & co.!

Mini-Reviews: Fake, Skulls, Moving

Jenn P. Nguyen, Fake It Till You Break It

Mia and Jake have known each other forever; they live in the same neighborhood, and their mothers are best friends. In fact, their moms would love them to date each other, but they just don’t get along. To stop the maternal matchmaking for good, Mia and Jake decide to fake a short relationship and a spectacular breakup. But as they pretend to fall in love, they’re surprised to develop real feelings for each other. I love the fake-dating trope, and this was a cute read, but it’s quite predictable and not particularly unique. Still, a fun bit of fluff to pass an afternoon.

Chris Wooding, The Ace of Skulls

In the final installment of the Ketty Jay series, civil war has erupted between Vardia’s Coalition government and the Awakeners. Darian Frey just wants to stay out of it; he’s more concerned with finding his former fiancée (and current sky pirate), Trinica, so he can finally tell her how he feels. But of course, the crew of the Ketty Jay get drawn into the war despite themselves — and when the Awakeners unleash their secret weapon, Frey and his friends may be the only ones who can stop it. I was disappointed by a few loose ends, and I was also shipping two characters who didn’t get together, alas! But overall, this is a satisfying ending to a really fun series. If you enjoy sci-fi adventure stories and found families, or if you just really miss the TV show Firefly, I’d definitely recommend these books!

Agatha Christie, The Moving Finger

Jerry and his sister Joanna are visiting the tranquil English village of Lymstock, but their stay is soon disrupted by a spate of malicious anonymous letters that circulate through the village. When the letters lead to suicide and murder, Jerry attempts to solve the poison pen mystery, with a late-game assist from Miss Marple. I hadn’t read this Christie novel in a while, and it’s one of my favorites! The mystery is really clever and the characterization is strong. Of course, I also enjoyed the romantic elements of the plot. 🙂 Granted, Miss Marple fans will be disappointed because she’s barely in the book; she basically just comes in at the end to deliver the solution. But I’d still highly recommend this one to Christie lovers!

Mini-Reviews: Stocks, Glass, Mayhem

Georgette Heyer, Death in the Stocks

The rich but disagreeable Arnold Vereker is stabbed to death, and his body is found in the stocks on the village green. Suspicion centers around the dead man’s half-siblings, Kenneth and Antonia, as well as their shady love interests. Scotland Yard is assisted by Giles Carrington, the Vereker family’s attorney, though he has a personal interest in the case as well. I adore Heyer’s romances but have been less impressed with her mysteries overall. This is one of the few I kept after my initial read, but upon rereading I thought it was just okay. The Verekers are supposed to be likable and entertaining, but they annoyed me this time around, and the romance was barely sketched in. It’s a decent read if you like Golden Age mysteries, but it’s no longer a keeper for me.

Caroline Stevermer, The Glass Magician

Thalia Cutler is a stage magician on the vaudeville circuit, but when a dangerous trick goes wrong, she discovers that she also has real magical powers. But until she learns to control them, she’s in grave danger and must take shelter with a friendly family that has similar powers. Meanwhile, one of Thalia’s onstage competitors is murdered, and her mentor is arrested for the crime, so she must discover the real killer. I wanted to love this book, but it didn’t have the same spark that A College of Magics and A Scholar of Magics did for me. It felt very much like book 1 of a series, with incomplete world-building and storylines that aren’t resolved. I don’t know if a sequel is planned, but I’m not especially interested in it, unfortunately.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Miles, Mystery, and Mayhem

In Cetaganda, Miles and his cousin Ivan travel to Cetaganda to attend a state funeral, only to become entangled in political intrigue and murder. In Ethan of Athos, Ethan leaves his all-male planet and is forced to team up with that most mysterious and dangerous of creatures, a woman (and hey, it’s Elli Quinn from The Warrior’s Apprentice!). And in the novella Labyrinth, the Dendarii Mercenaries’ simple mission to pick up a scientist from Jackson’s Whole goes awry. I’m still really enjoying this series, although the characters trump the plots, for me. I adore Miles and have a huge soft spot for Ivan as well! Also, I find it interesting how much of this series (at least so far) is about gender, sexual politics, and reproduction. Looking forward to seeing what happens next!

Mini-Reviews: Worst, Weather, Jackal

Lisa Berne, The Worst Duke in the World

After the death of his first wife, Anthony Farr is expected to remarry and provide a “spare” to ensure the succession. But Anthony has no interest in remarrying because his first marriage was miserable. He just wants to be a good father to his heir, Wakefield, and possibly win the “fattest pig” award at the local harvest festival. But when he meets newcomer to the neighborhood Jane Kent, their mutual attraction tests Anthony’s resolve. This book is very silly, and I think some people will find the tone off-putting, but I must admit the humor (mostly) worked for me! There’s very little conflict, so most of the book is just Anthony and Jane spending time together and being silly and infatuated. I even liked Wakefield, and I don’t usually enjoy precocious children in fiction. I’m interested in trying more by Lisa Berne when I want a pleasant, low-stakes read.

Rachel Lynn Solomon, Weather Girl

Ari loves being a meteorologist at the local TV station, but she doesn’t love the disruption caused by her boss and the station director, ex-spouses who are constantly arguing in the office. Ari and her sympathetic colleague Russell decide to try and get the exes back together, hoping this will result in a better work environment. But when sparks fly between Ari and Russell as well, they have trouble opening up to each other. I loved the premise of this contemporary romance, which is very reminiscent of the (adorable) Netflix movie “Set It Up,” but overall I thought the book was just fine. I didn’t click that much with Ari or Russell, so I wasn’t particularly invested in the romance. A perfectly OK book, just not the right book for me.

Chris Wooding, The Iron Jackal

After the events of The Black Lung Captain, Darian Frey is a minor celebrity, and he and his crew are unusually disaster-free. They’ve just been hired by Frey’s once and (possibly) future lover, Trinica Dracken, to steal an ancient and valuable Samarlan relic. But what should be a simple train job quickly gets complicated when the relic puts a curse on Frey. This is another solid installment of the Ketty Jay series, though I think it’s my least favorite so far; the plot meanders a bit and drags on a little too long. But it was good to learn more about Silo’s backstory and to see the characters, especially Frey, continue to grow. I’m definitely looking forward to reading the next (and final) book in April!

Mini-Reviews: Honor, Astrological, Siren

Lois McMaster Bujold, Cordelia’s Honor

In Shards of Honor, Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan are on opposite sides of a war, but they must band together to survive on a strange planet, suppress a mutiny (him), escape from captivity multiple times (her), and prevent a civil war on Aral’s home planet of Barrayar. That last task continues in Barrayar, as Aral becomes regent for the four-year-old emperor and Cordelia adjusts to an alien politics and culture. I really enjoyed revisiting these two books, which are an exciting blend of sci fi, action, and romance. I love the moral complexity of this world: Cordelia, Aral, and the others are doing their best, but they often have to make impossible choices with heartbreaking consequences. I’m now even more excited to continue with the series!

Silvia Zucca, An Astrological Guide for Broken Hearts

Alice Bassi is unlucky in love, so when her new friend Tio suggests that she should date only men with compatible astrological signs, she figures it’s worth a try. But even after studying her star chart and horoscopes, she jumps from one disastrous relationship to the next — and the man she’s most drawn to may be the worst possible choice. I picked up this book because I enjoyed the Netflix series of the same name; it’s a cute romcom set in Milan, and the actors made the main characters likable. In the book, though, Alice is flaky and inconsistent, and her main love interest is a dishonest jerk. So unfortunately, I wouldn’t recommend this one…but if you like the premise, the TV series is better!

Mimi Matthews, The Siren of Sussex

Evelyn Maltravers is determined to make her first London Season a success. She plans to impress society with her excellent horsemanship, so she employs gifted tailor Ahmad Malik to design her an eye-catching riding habit. Ahmad is immediately inspired by Evelyn — and attracted to her. But a romance between himself and someone of Evelyn’s class is impossible, especially with the added obstacle of his half-Indian heritage. I always enjoy Mimi Matthews’s books, and this one is no exception. Evie and Ahmad are both such likable characters, determined to do their best for each other. And the impediments to their romance are handled thoughtfully and seriously. There’s some obvious sequel bait with Evelyn’s new London friends, and I can’t wait for the next book to come out this fall! 

Mini-Reviews: Falling, Shoe, Kiss

Lois McMaster Bujold, Falling Free

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

Julie Murphy, If the Shoe Fits

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

Mary Balogh, Only a Kiss

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

Mini-Reviews: Bridesmaid, Design, Terra

Katy Birchall, The Secret Bridesmaid

Sophie Breeze has made a career out of being the perfect bridesmaid: she’s hired to pose as a friend of the bride and unobtrusively organize all the wedding arrangements. When the mother of a famous socialite hires her, Sophie is thrilled to be involved with such a high-profile event. But the bride, Lady Cordelia, is notoriously difficult and resists her every step of the way. Can Sophie work her magic and befriend the hostile Lady Cordelia, or will the bride’s petty antics force her to quit? This is a fun, breezy book that I enjoyed quite a bit. It’s entirely predictable, but I liked the book’s emphasis on female friendship (although there is a charming romance in the background as well). I also related to Sophie and enjoyed her character arc, as she learns to set boundaries and stick up for herself. Recommended for fans of the genre, and I’ll look out for more books by this author.

Renee Patrick, Design for Dying

It’s 1937, and beauty queen Lillian Frost dreams of working in the movies, but for now she’s employed at a department store in Los Angeles. When a former friend and roommate, struggling actress Ruby Carroll, is found dead, Lillian is caught up in the murder investigation — especially when she realizes that Ruby’s corpse is wearing a Paramount movie costume. In the course of her sleuthing, she meets several Hollywood personalities, including soon-to-be-famous costume designer Edith Head, who helps her solve the mystery. If you like historical mysteries, I think this is a good one. Lillian’s voice is sharp and colorful, much like the dialogue of a 1930s film. The Hollywood cameos are a bit contrived, but cinephiles may enjoy all the references. Overall, I liked the book enough to continue with the series at some point.

Connie Willis, Terra Incognita

This book is a collection of three previously published novellas. In Uncharted Territory, a group of explorers surveys a newly discovered planet, while they also navigate the complexities of sex and love in human (and alien) relationships. In Remake, a man falls for a woman whose ambition is to dance in the movies, even though (in this alternate yet eerily prescient reality) no one makes live-action movies anymore, let alone musicals, and everything is done with CGI. And in D.A., a young woman is admitted to a prestigious and extremely competitive academy in outer space, which is strange since she didn’t even apply. I enjoyed all three of these novellas, but for me Remake is the standout. It’s romantic and melancholy, heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful. If you’re a lover of classic movies and Fred Astaire, it’s a must-read! 

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: Lady, Flight, Velocipede

Eliza Casey, Lady Takes the Case

The lady of the title is Lady Cecilia Bates, the daughter of an old, aristocratic family that has fallen on hard times. To keep the estate functioning, her brother, Patrick, needs to marry a rich woman; luckily, American heiress Annabel Clarke has agreed to attend their house party. All seems to be going according to plan until one of the other guests, a famous explorer, is poisoned over dinner. When Patrick appears to be the police’s main suspect, Cecilia decides to launch her own investigation, along with Annabel’s intelligent maid, Jane, and a little help from Jane’s cat. I liked this book and think it would appeal to fans of Downton Abbey, but I think the setting and characters are definitely more interesting than the mystery. I’m not sure I care enough to read the sequel; another book in a similar vein is Alyssa Maxwell’s Murder Most Malicious, and I’d rather continue with Maxwell’s series.

Jean-Pierre Gibrat, Flight of the Raven

I’m not generally a big graphic novel fan; I’m not a very visual person, and my tendency is to go straight for the text without really absorbing the illustrations. But this GN drew me in with its World War II setting, French Resistance heroine, and cat burglar hero, not to mention the absolutely gorgeous art! The overarching plot — in which the heroine, Jeanne, searches for her missing sister and worries about a traitor within her Resistance cell — is not particularly well fleshed out, but it’s really just an excuse for her to team up with the cat burglar and the other quirky characters she meets along the way. Overall, I did like this and would recommend it to people who enjoy both historical fiction and graphic novels.

Emily June Street, The Velocipede Races

In an invented world similar to late Victorian England, velocipede racing is both a popular sport and the only socially acceptable way for upper-class men to earn money. Women, of course, don’t participate and are not even supposed to ride velos in private. Nevertheless, Emmeline Escot has always dreamed of racing, and she’s determined not to let social conventions get in her way. Complications ensue, however, when she is inadvertently “compromised” by a rich stranger and forced to marry. I picked up this book knowing very little about it, so I’m happy to say I enjoyed it! But I think my favorite parts were honestly the interactions between Emmeline and her new husband; their relationship interested me a lot more than the descriptions of velo racing, and I found Emmeline’s obsession with the races a little tedious. Still, I think this one is worth reading if you like historical romance with a strong (and not terribly subtle) feminist message.