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.

Review: The Humans

humans.jpgMatt Haig, The Humans

Professor Andrew Martin, a mathematician at Cambridge University, has just proved the Riemann hypothesis, an action that represents a huge breakthrough with dramatic consequences for the improvement of human science and technology. Unfortunately, his discovery has come to the attention of an alien race that, believing all humans are motivated by violence and greed, will do anything to prevent it from going public. Therefore, one of the aliens is sent to Earth to invade the professor’s body, destroy the proof of the Riemann hypothesis, and kill anyone who might know about the discovery — including the professor’s wife and troubled teenage son. At first, the alien is eager to complete his mission; but the more time he spends on Earth, the more he comes to understand and even love the humans around him.

I went into this book knowing very little about it, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it! Matt Haig has a light, playful style but doesn’t shy away from more serious moments, as when the alien narrator begins to feel the tension between his growing empathy with the humans and his own cultural values. I liked that the book is a sort of philosophical thought experiment, exploring how the human race might look to an intelligent but emotionally detached outsider, and ultimately considering the question of what it means to be human. Oddly, I found the human culture on display in this book to be a bit off-putting . . . for example, the fact that Andrew Martin’s son is named Gulliver rubbed me the wrong way. But overall, this is a fun read with a good mixture of levity and thoughtfulness.

Review: Heart of Iron

Heart of IronAshley 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!

Mini-reviews: Inevitable, Ready, Loving, Duke

That Inevitable Victorian ThingReady Player One

E.K. Johnston, That Inevitable Victorian Thing — This alt-historical novel is set in a version of the Victorian era in which technology has greatly advanced, leading to innovations such as a computer that predicts a person’s optimal spouse based on his or her genetic code. In this world, heir to the throne Margaret travels to Canada, posing as a commoner to have one last hurrah before she must submit to a computer-arranged marriage. There she meets Helena and August, who have been unofficially promised to each other for years but who both harbor shocking secrets.

I have mixed feelings about this book. I think it succeeds best when it focuses on the changing relationships among the three main characters (if you’re wondering whether there’s a queer love triangle, the answer is yes). On the other hand, I found myself in a situation where I actually wanted more world-building! The book contains some fascinating ideas about how the world might have been different if things had gone differently in the actual Victorian era, but I wish those ideas had been developed more. Also, I think there’s one significant plot weakness: about halfway through the novel, a big secret is revealed about Helena, but the implications of that secret are never really addressed. Not a bad book, by any means, but I didn’t like it nearly as much as I wanted to.

Ernest Cline, Ready Player One — I have to say, I did not enjoy this book at all! I know it’s very popular, and I can see how it would appeal to lovers of ’80s geek culture, but it is emphatically not the book for me. The protagonist, Wade, is a smug know-it-all who thinks he’s better than everyone else because of his dedication to memorizing the minutia of ’80s movies, music, and video games. He’s the kind of guy who will judge you for not knowing some obscure piece of trivia and claim that you’re not a “true fan” of whatever thing. I honestly can’t remember the last book I read whose protagonist annoyed me so much! That said, the overall concept — sort of The Matrix meets The Westing Game — is fun; it just doesn’t make up for the insufferable “hero,” in my opinion.

Loving Cup, TheDuke and I, The

Winston Graham, The Loving Cup — In the 10th Poldark book, Clowance makes a decision about her future; Jeremy struggles with his obsessive, unrequited love for Cuby; and tensions between Valentine and George finally come to a head. I’m so behind on reviews that I’ve actually finished the series now, so I can’t quite remember which events happened in this book versus others. I do remember Jeremy’s ultimate decision regarding Cuby, which was based on TERRIBLE advice from Ross! I also didn’t love the continued presence of Stephen Carrington, who starts to rehabilitate himself only to fall even more spectacularly. Still, I really enjoyed the series overall, and this installment did some important place-setting for the final two books.

Julia Quinn, The Duke and I — I’d read one Julia Quinn book previously (Just Like Heaven) and enjoyed it, so I decided to try this first book in her famous Bridgerton series. It’s a fun, quick read, but for me it never rose above somewhat mindless entertainment. For one thing, I’m not a huge fan of the “notorious rake is reformed by the love of a good woman” plotline. For another, I didn’t quite know what to make of the hero’s personal history, which basically amounts to serious verbal and emotional abuse from his father. Clearly this backstory is meant to make the hero more interesting and to create an obstacle in the plot; but the book generally has such a lighthearted tone that the backstory seems incongruous and almost inappropriate. All that said, I do enjoy some nice Regency fluff every now and then, so I’ll probably read more by this author…but maybe I’ll try one of her other series!

Mini-reviews: Fête, Tide, Red, Battle

Fête Worse Than Death, AAngry Tide, The

Dolores Gordon-Smith, A Fête Worse than Death — Jack Haldean, former World War I pilot and current crime writer, becomes involved in a real murder investigation when an old wartime acquaintance turns up at the village fête and is later found dead in the fortune teller’s tent. Jack is convinced that the man’s death is somehow connected to a mysterious scandal from the war, and his investigation soon reveals that the commonly believed version of events is not the whole story. I quite enjoyed this book — Jack is a likable and sympathetic main character, and I appreciated the fact that he was willing to work with the police rather than against them. There’s also a good supporting cast that I suspect will recur in later books. Overall, I think this is a very solid start to a historical mystery series, and I’m glad that my library has several more of the books!

Winston Graham, The Angry Tide — ***Warning: spoilers for previous Poldark books.***

It’s funny — a number of dramatic events occur in this book, but nevertheless I feel like it’s a little short on plot! Ross is now a member of Parliament, which he has conflicting feelings about. He also makes yet another terrible impulsive decision, hurting Demelza but surprising no one. Ossie continues to be the world’s actual worst human being. Pascoe’s bank is in trouble, thanks to Warleggan skulduggery. Drake considers marriage. All in all, I’m happy with where things are at the end of this book and intrigued to see what will happen next!

Red-Rose Chain, AArabella and the Battle of Venus

Seanan McGuire, A Red-Rose Chain — Just as things are looking up for Toby and the gang, the Kingdom of Mists receives a declaration of war — and for some reason, the queen thinks Toby is the perfect person to stop said war from happening. Toby is appointed ambassador to the neighboring Kingdom of Silences and must find a way to convince King Rhys not to invade. But when Toby and her entourage arrive in Silences, they are shocked to discover various secrets the king is hiding. I’m a longtime fan of this series, and this book was a fun read as well, but I think my enthusiasm is beginning to wane. I’m still definitely invested enough to stick with the series until the end; I think I read somewhere that the 12th book will be the last. But I won’t be too upset when it’s over — it’s starting to feel like the characters are nearing the end of their journeys.

David D. Levine, Arabella and the Battle of Venus — ***Warning: spoilers for Arabella of Mars.***

This sequel to Arabella of Mars is just as much swashbuckling fun as the first book. Arabella learns that her beloved Capitan Singh has been captured by the French and imprisoned on Venus. She is determined to rescue him, so she obtains passage to Venus with roguish privateer Daniel Fox. When she arrives on the French-occupied planet, she sees how brutally the English prisoners and native Venusians are treated, and she hatches a daring escape plan under the very nose of Napoleon himself. I’m really enjoying this series and will definitely continue if and when a third book is released!

Mini-Reviews: Girl, Prince, Single, Throne

Who's That Girl?Prince in Disguise

Mhairi McFarlane, Who’s That Girl? — This novel follows Edie, a young professional whose personal and professional lives are simultaneously ruined when she attends her coworkers’ wedding and the groom spontaneously kisses her. Of course, everyone blames Edie for the catastrophe, so her sympathetic boss sends her on a remote assignment to ghostwrite the autobiography of a hot young actor. The book is primarily a romance, but it also spends a lot of time on Edie’s dysfunctional family and on her growth as an individual. For me, this is another winner by Mhairi McFarlane, and I eagerly await her next book.

Stephanie Kate Strohm, Prince in Disguise — Sixteen-year-old Dylan has always felt invisible beside her beautiful older sister, Dusty. And when Dusty — a Miss America competitor — falls in love with a genuine Scottish lord, she becomes the subject of a reality TV show that documents their courtship. Dylan is less than thrilled about being constantly followed by cameras, even if it does mean she gets to spend Christmas in Scotland. But when she meets an adorably geeky British boy, things start to look up…until the drama (both real and manufactured) surrounding the TV show threatens to ruin everything. If you like your contemporary romance with British accents, secret passageways, and kissing in barns, this is definitely the book for you! In a word, it’s adorable, and I’d definitely recommend it to fans of YA contemporaries!

Note: this book is one of the ARCs I picked up at Book Expo America, and the projected publication date is December 19.

It's Not You- 27 (Wrong) Reasons You're SingleBehind the Throne

Sara Eckel, It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single — If you’re a single woman over a certain age, chances are you’ve received a lot of well-meaning advice about how to find a mate: “You’re too picky.” “You’re too independent.” “You have low self-esteem.” The problem with this advice, according to Eckel, is that it assumes there is something wrong with you, when in reality, meeting the right person is largely a matter of luck. You can increase your odds by, say, participating in group activities that you enjoy, putting more effort into your appearance, or joining an online dating site. But none of this can guarantee that you’ll meet your match. Ultimately, Eckel’s point is that there is nothing wrong with you; you just haven’t met the right person yet. It’s a consoling message, and the writing is often witty and relatable, so I’d recommend the book for its target demographic.

K.B. Wagers, Behind the Throne — Hail Bristol has spent the past several years making a name for herself as one of the toughest, most dangerous gunrunners in the galaxy. But she’s actually a runaway princess of the Indranan Empire, and when her sisters are assassinated by unknown perpetrators, Hail becomes the reluctant heir to the throne. To do her duty, she must return to her home planet and familiarize herself with Indrana’s political situation and the intrigues of the court. She soon realizes that this job may be her toughest one yet. I found this to be an entertaining sci-fi novel, but I didn’t become invested enough in the characters to really love it. I do think the world building is very creative, and the political intrigue is compelling. Overall, this was a good but not great book for me.

Mini-Reviews: Seated, Useful, Moon, Devotion

All Seated on the GroundUseful Woman, A

Connie Willis, All Seated on the Ground — What if the aliens finally arrived, but all they did was sit there and look disapproving? That’s the premise of this delightful novella, in which the protagonist is tasked with finding a way to communicate with the aliens. She soon discovers that the key may lie within a Christmas carol, so she enlists the help of a choir director, and together they race against time to find out what the aliens want. It’s an extremely fun ride, and I definitely recommend it, especially if you love Christmas music!

Darcie Wilde, A Useful Woman — In Regency England, Rosalind Thorne has been clinging to her precarious position in society ever since her father caused a scandal by fleeing his creditors and abandoning his family. She manages to be useful to prominent society matrons by investigating and silencing any potential scandals that may threaten their positions. So when a murder occurs in Almack’s, the sanctum sanctorum of London’s elite, Rosalind becomes involved in the investigation. She also finds herself drawn to both her childhood sweetheart, who is now a lord, and the enterprising Bow Street Runner assigned to the case. Obviously I’m going to read any novel whose premise is “murder at Almack’s,” but I liked this book so much more than I was expecting to! I would definitely recommend it to anyone who’s interested in the premise, and I will be seeking out the sequel ASAP.

Black Moon, TheDevotion of Suspect X, The

Winston Graham, The Black Moon — More fun and games with the Poldarks and Warleggans. A new source for conflict between the families is the budding romance between Elizabeth’s cousin Morwenna Chynoweth, who now lives at Trenwith as Geoffrey Charles’s governess, and Drake Carne, Demelza’s brother. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will say that this is not one of the more cheerful endings in the series. Luckily there are still seven books to go!

Keigo Higashino, The Devotion of Suspect X (trans. Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander) — This Japanese crime novel is a take on the inverted mystery, in which we know whodunit from the beginning, so the main interest of the story is seeing how the investigator solves the crime. Yasuko is a single mother who, when her ex-husband repeatedly harasses her and violently assaults her daughter, kills him in the heat of the moment. Her neighbor Ishigami, a brilliant mathematician, helps her to conceal the crime. I was (and still am) confused about why Yasuko needed to cover up the killing, since she was acting in immediate fear for her daughter’s life; I don’t know anything about Japanese law, but isn’t there some kind of “defense of others” argument that would apply? Aside from that, I really enjoyed the book, especially the back-and-forth between Ishigami and Dr. Manabu Yukawa, who assists the police with their investigation. I’m definitely interested in reading more by this author.