Mini-Reviews: Name, Dark, Bellfield

Lauren Kate, By Any Other Name

Book editor Lanie is thrilled when she gets a promotion that will allow her to work with her literary idol, romance author Noa Callaway. Callaway is a pseudonym, and the public doesn’t know the author’s real identity, but Lanie pictures a worldly middle-aged woman who will become her mentor and friend. Of course, the truth is entirely different, and when a shocked Lanie meets the real “Noa,” her discovery causes her to reevaluate her entire life. I think this book has charm and potential, but I didn’t understand Lanie’s strong emotional reaction to Noa’s true identity. (My own thought was, “What’s the big deal?”) I also wanted more depth from the romance; Lanie and her love interest only spend a few days together on-page. So overall, I was disappointed, but I’d potentially try another book by the author.

Cece Louise, In a Dark, Dark Wood

Desperate to save her family from starving, miller’s daughter Calia impersonates a princess who is betrothed to Prince Brone of nearby Ebonwood. When Calia arrives at Ebonwood Castle, she encounters many mysteries and secrets, not least the personality of her reclusive fiancé. But even as she and Brone grow closer, something — or someone — at Ebonwood threatens the safety of both Calia and the entire kingdom. This YA fantasy romance is a decent read, though a bit simplistic and predictable. It borrows elements from Beauty and the Beast and from gothic romances such as Jane Eyre and Rebecca. I thought it was fine, though I won’t be racing to read the other books in the series.

Anna Dean, Bellfield Hall

Intelligent, observant “spinster” Dido Kent encounters two mysteries while visiting Bellfield Hall. First, her niece Catherine asks her to find her fiancé, Richard, who disappeared shortly after their engagement was announced. Then a woman is found shot on the grounds of the estate, and it looks like the killer must be someone living at Bellfield. Are the two incidents somehow connected? There are a lot of historical mysteries set in the early 19th century, and they vary widely in quality. I’m happy to say that I think this is one of the best I’ve read. The mystery itself is a little convoluted, but the writing style and atmosphere are spot-on, and Dido is an entertaining sleuth. I’m excited to continue with the series!

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: Met, Folly, Red

Sophie Cousens, Just Haven’t Met You Yet

Laura is a journalist whose latest assignment is to tell the romantic story of how her parents first met. For research, she travels to the Channel Island of Jersey, where it all began — and en route, a suitcase mix-up leads her to her own potential soulmate. But as she spends more time in Jersey, she learns that both her parents’ love story and her own romantic destiny are more complicated than she thought. I enjoyed this one; it’s entertaining and well written, and despite the focus on romance, I think it does a good job of portraying the complexity of relationships. That said, I didn’t fall in love with the book the way I was hoping to…though I now definitely want to visit the Channel Islands!

Josi S. Kilpack, Lord Fenton’s Folly

Charles, Lord Fenton, has been behaving badly — so badly, in fact, that his father plans to disinherit him. To avoid this fate, Charles agrees to his parents’ long list of conditions, including a demand that he marry before the end of the Season. At his mother’s encouragement, he proposes to Alice, an old friend of the family who (unbeknownst to him) has been infatuated with him for years. But when she learns why he proposed, she becomes angry and bitter. Can Charles and Alice recover from such a bad start and make their marriage work? This was a pleasant, PG-rated Regency romance, but I wanted to see a bit more of Charles and Alice together. They seemed to go from mean bickering to trust and love pretty quickly. I wouldn’t mind trying another book by this author, but it’s not a high priority for me.

June Hur, The Red Palace

In 1758 Korea, Hyeon has risen from humble beginnings to become a palace nurse. But when four women are murdered in a single night and Hyeon’s beloved teacher is the prime suspect, she risks her position — and her life — to find the real killer. Along the way she teams up with handsome police inspector Eojin and becomes embroiled in the horrifying intrigues of the palace. This book is fast-paced with a likable protagonist, and I enjoyed the unique (to me) setting. It all felt a little insubstantial, and the mystery wasn’t particularly satisfying, but I did like the book overall. I doubt I’ll seek out more by this author, though.

Mini-Reviews: Escape, Graduate, Vacation

Mary Balogh, The Escape

Book 3 of the Survivors’ Club series focuses on Sir Benedict Harper, who sustained extensive injuries to his legs in the Napoleonic Wars and was told he’d never walk again. After years of grit and perseverance, Ben can walk for short distances and with the aid of canes, but he’ll never return to the military career he loved. At a loose end, he meets the widowed Samantha McKay and agrees to be her escort as she flees from her controlling in-laws. They are attracted to each other but don’t see a future together, so they agree to a brief, no-strings affair — but of course, their growing feelings for each other complicate their relationship. So far, this series just keeps getting better, and I think Ben and Samantha are my favorite couple yet. Still, I’m not sure I’ll remember very much about the book in a few weeks, so it’s probably not a keeper.

My edition of this book also contains a short story/novella, The Suitor. It tells the story of Philippa Dean, the young woman who is presented to Viscount Darleigh as a potential bride at the beginning of The Arrangement. Darleigh perceived her as irritating and dimwitted, but The Suitor tells the story from her point of view — and gives her a happy ending of her own. This story did nothing for me; it’s so short that I didn’t have time to get invested in the romance or characters. It’s definitely skippable even if you’re normally a series completist.

Naomi Novik, The Last Graduate

It’s El’s senior year, and despite being stuck in a magic school full of creatures that are trying to kill her, things are looking pretty good. She has an alliance lined up for graduation, she has friends, and she even has a (maybe, sort of) boyfriend. But then the Scholomance starts making El’s life even more miserable than usual, and it seems to be singling her out. Is it trying to kill her, or turn her into the dark sorceress she’s supposedly destined to become? Or is it sending a different message entirely? I loved the first book in this series, and this installment is just as entertaining and exciting. There’s still a ton of exposition and world-building, which seems a bit strange for the second book in a series, but it’s leavened by El’s delightfully grumpy voice. The ending is arguably a huge cliffhanger, and I’m dying to find out what happens next! Fans of A Deadly Education won’t be disappointed by this sequel.

Emily Henry, People We Meet on Vacation

Poppy and Alex used to be BFFs who took exciting vacations together every summer. But they haven’t really spoken since their ill-fated trip to Croatia two years ago. Now Poppy hopes to rekindle their friendship, so she invites him on one last summer trip. But to move forward, both she and Alex will have to be honest about their feelings and what they truly want. Emily Henry has gotten a lot of good buzz, and I can see why. This is a really well-written, entertaining contemporary romance with some first-class banter. The friends-to-lovers trope isn’t always my favorite, because I wonder why they won’t just act on their feelings, but in this case I understood what was keeping Poppy and Alex apart. They love each other but want very different things out of life. The resolution to that conflict felt a bit pat, but I didn’t mind too much because I just wanted them to be together already! Definitely recommended for fans of this trope, and I’m putting Beach Read on my TBR immediately.

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: Decoy, Counting, Companion

Dawn Cook, The Decoy Princess

Tess has grown up believing she’s the crown princess of Constenopolie. But on the eve of her betrothal to a neighboring prince, she learns that she’s actually a decoy, installed at the palace to ensure that the true princess (who has grown up in hiding) won’t be assassinated. No sooner has she learned this shocking news than there’s a palace coup, in which the king and queen are killed and Tess must flee to avoid the same fate. Pursuing her is Jeck, a captain of the guard in the new regime, who has plans for her back at the palace. And then there’s Duncan, an attractive card sharp who wants her to team up with him and leave Constenopolie to its fate. I really liked the premise of this book and found it a fun, action-packed read. But while the main plot of this book is resolved, there are an awful lot of loose ends, from Tess’s surprising magical abilities to her romantic destiny. There is a sequel, Princess at Sea, and I’m eager to read it so that I can find out what happens! But on its own, this book isn’t totally satisfying, so I wouldn’t recommend it as a stand-alone.

Tashie Bhuiyan, Counting Down with You

High school junior Karina Ahmed is under a lot of pressure. Her Bangladeshi parents are strict and focused on her academic achievements, expecting that she’ll become a doctor one day. Karina is more interested in English than STEM, but she’s afraid to admit this to her parents. She’s also a bit of a nonentity at school, but that all changes when her English teacher asks her to tutor the most notorious and good-looking boy in her grade, Ace Clyde. Ace turns out to be different from what Karina expected: he’s thoughtful and sensitive and dealing with his own family issues. As their relationship deepens, will Karina find the courage to go after what she really wants? This book was a cute, fast read, but I must admit I didn’t love it. I think Ace is just too good to be true; I can’t imagine an actual teenage boy being that sweet and emotionally fluent. Also, I couldn’t figure out what made him interested in Karina initially; she’s smart and funny and kind, but how would he know any of those things based on her mousy public persona? It seemed unrealistic and more like a wish-fulfillment trope. But fans of teen romance may like this one more than I did; maybe I’m just getting crotchety in my old age!

Ann Granger, The Companion

Left penniless when her father dies, Elizabeth Martin takes a job in London as companion to her late godfather’s wife, Mrs. Parry. Lizzie soon learns that Mrs. Parry’s previous companion, Madeleine Hexham, recently left without warning and hasn’t been seen since. Mrs. Parry and her friends think Madeleine ran off with a man, but Lizzie worries that something more sinister has happened. Meanwhile, Scotland Yard Inspector Ben Ross is investigating the murder of an unknown young woman who turns out to be Madeleine. When he and Lizzie meet in the course of the investigation, they team up to discover the killer. I quite enjoyed this Victorian mystery. There are times when the author’s research shows a little too much, but the wealth of detail also contributes to a believable setting. Lizzie is an outspoken, independent woman, but not implausibly so for her time. The book strikes a good balance between the mystery plot and social commentary, and there’s a hint of romance as well. I’ll look out for subsequent books in this series.

Mini-Reviews: Premeditation, Skeptics, Summer

Tirzah Price, Pride and Premeditation

This YA historical novel is a spin on Pride and Prejudice: Lizzie Bennet dreams of being a barrister, but since such a career is unheard of for a woman, she’s currently an unpaid assistant at her father’s law firm. She hopes that scoring a big client for the firm will convince Mr. Bennet to hire her; when the rich and socially prominent Mr. Bingley is accused of murdering his brother-in-law Mr. Hurst, Lizzie hopes Bingley will be that client. Unfortunately, Bingley is already represented by the arrogant Mr. Darcy, but that won’t stop Lizzie from doing some investigating of her own. The writing style is a bit clunky (too modern, too American), and Lizzie annoyed me sometimes — she’s much more headstrong and obnoxious than the original Elizabeth Bennet. But I did enjoy the book’s creative way of integrating P&P’s characters into a murder mystery plot. It’s a fun, fast read, so I’d recommend it if the premise interests you. I think a series is planned, so I may check out the sequels too.

Christina Pishiris, Love Songs for Skeptics

Zoë Frixos has what many people would consider a dream job: she’s a music journalist at a respected London magazine. But the magazine is in trouble, and the only hope of saving it is to score an interview with famous yet reclusive rock star Marcie Tyler. In her quest to get the interview, Zoë keeps butting heads with Marcie’s publicist, Nick Jones, who is as arrogant and hostile as he is (frustratingly) attractive. Meanwhile, Zoë also has to sort out her personal life, as her childhood best friend and first love, Simon, has just moved back to town. This book was published in January 2021, but it feels like a throwback to the chick-lit heyday of the ‘90s. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — I enjoyed Zoë’s first-person POV, the predictable career and relationship angst, and the musical references peppered throughout. I didn’t particularly buy the romance, though. Because we never get the hero’s POV, he remains pretty opaque, and I couldn’t figure out what drew him to Zoë. Overall, not bad but not great — it was worth the $2.99 sale price I paid for the e-book, but I’m glad I didn’t pay full price.

Jessica Brockmole, At the Edge of Summer

When 15-year-old Clare Ross’s father dies, she is taken in by her parents’ old friends in France, Monsieur and Madame Crépet. At first she’s shy, grief-stricken, and lonely; but when the Crépets’ son Luc comes home from university for the weekend, Clare finds an unexpected friend. Their relationship deepens over the course of the summer, but eventually Clare moves out to live with her grandfather, and she and Luc can only be close via letters. Then World War I intervenes, but of course they are destined to meet again. I liked this book; it’s sweet and a little sad but ultimately hopeful. The main characters are endearing, particularly Luc. But the love story was almost too romantic for me, verging on the sappy. And I would have liked a little more plot; despite Luc’s wartime experiences and Clare’s travels, not a lot actually happens. Overall, this is an enjoyable read, but like Brockmole’s previous book, Letters from Skye, I didn’t love it.

Mini-Reviews: Ecstasy, Hana, Impossible

Ngaio Marsh, Death in Ecstasy

This fourth installment of the Inspector Roderick Alleyn series centers around the members of a neopagan religion, the House of the Sacred Flame. During one of its rituals, devout initiate Cara Quayne drinks from a ceremonial goblet and immediately collapses — not from spiritual ecstasy, as some of the worshippers believe, but from cyanide poisoning. Alleyn is on the case, assisted by his colleague Inspector Fox and his journalist friend Nigel Bathgate. Their investigation uncovers various dirty little secrets about the cult and eventually leads them to the murderer. The mystery plot was clever and fairly clued (though I didn’t guess the killer’s identity), and I enjoy Marsh’s writing style, especially the banter between the investigators. But I wasn’t a huge fan of the cult setting — the novel paints it as completely sordid and unpleasant, and I felt that way while reading. Nevertheless, I’ll definitely continue with the series at some point.

Uzma Jalaluddin, Hana Khan Carries On

Hana Khan is the 24-year-old daughter of Indian Muslim immigrants to Toronto. Her family is having a rough time: her father is recovering from a car accident, her older sister is having a difficult pregnancy, and the family’s halal restaurant is struggling. When a rival halal restaurant threatens to move into the neighborhood, Hana is horrified and determined to stop it — never mind that the owner’s son, Aydin, is surprisingly cute and fun to talk to. Hana is also struggling at work; she dreams of producing her own radio show, but for now she’s an unpaid intern, and her (white) boss isn’t interested in her ideas unless they’re stereotypical stories about Muslims. Will Hana be able to follow her dreams, help her family, and maybe even find love? I really enjoyed this light, fun novel, although there is quite a lot going on (I didn’t even mention the small You’ve Got Mail subplot!). Hana is a relatable character whose voice I really enjoyed, and it was nice to see her grow throughout the novel. I should note that the plot does include an Islamophobic attack on Hana and her friends, which is tough to read. But the book is ultimately joyful and uplifting, and I would definitely recommend it to fans of romantic comedies!

Maggie Stiefvater, Mister Impossible

After the events of Call Down the Hawk, Ronan, Hennessy, and Bryde are running from the Moderators and making a plan to strengthen the power of the ley lines. Jordan has discovered the existence of sweetmetals, artifacts that can keep dreams awake even if their dreamers die; Declan joins her in her quest to create one. Matthew is processing the fact that he’s a dream and not a “real” person. Carmen has been working with the Moderators but eventually comes to a crossroads. OK, so none of that summary will make sense unless you’ve read Call Down the Hawk, and possibly the Raven Cycle as well. It’s book 2 of a planned trilogy, and storylines are not resolved; rather, the book ends by setting up the final conflict that will play out in book 3. I’ll admit, much as I love Ronan, I found his story the least compelling; I was much more interested in Declan (my unexpected favorite!), Jordan, and Matthew. But I’m a big fan of Stiefvater’s writing and general vibe, so I enjoyed this book and can’t wait to see how everything turns out!

Mini-Reviews: College, Scholar

Caroline Stevermer, A College of Magics

Faris Nallaneen is the future duchess of Galazon, but until she is of age, her wicked uncle acts as regent. He’s decided to get her out of the way by sending her to Greenlaw, an all-female college with an unusual curriculum. Faris is reluctant at first, but she eventually makes friends, learns unexpected skills, and even discovers a unique magical destiny. After her time at Greenlaw, she must find a way to balance her magical responsibilities with her duties as the duchess of Galazon. I feel like that’s a very boring summary of a very fun book! It’s a quasi-Edwardian fantasy of manners, which is a subgenre I didn’t even know I needed in my life. At one point, Faris’s friend Jane turns an assassin’s bomb into a fashionable hat and then wears it, which gives you an idea of the tone. The magic in the book is not really explained or described in depth, so those who love detailed world-building might be disappointed. But overall, I liked it a lot — so much so that I immediately proceeded to read the sequel!

Caroline Stevermer, A Scholar of Magics

This book is set in the same world as A College of Magics and focuses on Faris’s friend, Jane Brailsford. Jane is now a teacher at Greenlaw and a powerful magician, and she’s been tasked with convincing the new warden of the west to take up his duties. Her mission takes her to Glasscastle, an all-male magical university in England, which takes a very different approach to magic than Greenlaw. There she meets Samuel Lambert, an American sharpshooter who’s been recruited to help Glasscastle with a special weapon for the top-secret Agincourt Project. When Lambert’s work and Jane’s mission collide, they team up to protect the future warden of the west and to discover the true nature of the Agincourt Project. This is another fun romp through an alternate 20th-century England, and I liked it as much as its predecessor. But it took me a long time to read, and I think that’s because of the pacing: nothing much actually happens until at least halfway through the book (and possibly more like two-thirds). Nevertheless, I still enjoyed spending time with these characters in this world!

Mini-Reviews: Return, Museum, Time

Megan Whalen Turner, Return of the Thief

***Warning: SPOILERS for previous books in the series!***

This last installment of the Queen’s Thief series finds the kingdoms of Attolia, Eddis, and Sounis banding together to defend themselves against the inevitable Mede invasion. The events are chronicled by Pheris Erondites, grandson of the traitorous baron whose machinations in Attolian politics are far from over. Pheris is physically disabled and mute, but he is also clever and observant. When he becomes one of Eugenides’s attendants, he gets a front-row seat to the action and even finds that he has a role to play. I don’t have much to say about this book, except that it’s a fitting end to a fantastic series. If you’ve loved the previous books, you won’t be disappointed! I did wish Costis and Kamet had a little bit more to do in this installment, since they were the focus of the last one; but that’s a very small complaint about an otherwise wonderful book. This series will definitely live on my keeper shelf to be revisited many times in the future!

John Rowland, Murder in the Museum

Mild-mannered Henry Fairhurst is working in the British Museum Reading Room when he notices that one of his neighbors has fallen asleep. His heavy snoring is attracting attention, so Henry attempts to wake him up — only to discover that the man has stopped breathing and died. When Inspector Shelley of Scotland Yard discovers that the man was poisoned, Henry becomes an important witness and uses his enthusiasm for detection to help Inspector Shelley solve the case. Along the way, they encounter a blackmail scheme, a pair of young lovers, a kidnapping, and more suspicious deaths. I liked the writing style of this book (straightforward and occasionally humorous) and found it a quick and easy read, but I wasn’t terribly excited about the mystery. I’m not sure it’s “fair play,” and the solution didn’t quite satisfy me. I did like that there was one seemingly significant event that turned out to be a coincidence; that doesn’t often happen in detective novels, but it’s very true to life! Overall, this particular book isn’t a keeper for me, but I’d definitely read more by this author.

Diana Wynne Jones, A Tale of Time City

It’s the beginning of World War II, and Vivian Smith is being evacuated from London to the English countryside to escape the Blitz. Her cousin is supposed to meet her at the train station, but instead she is kidnapped by two boys, Jonathan and Sam. They take her to Time City, a place outside history whose residents are tasked with observing history and making sure it doesn’t go off the rails. But something is going wrong, and Jonathan and Sam are convinced that Vivian can somehow put it right — except they’ve kidnapped the wrong Vivian Smith! Diana Wynne Jones can do no wrong, and I enjoyed this time travel adventure, although I found the plot hard to follow at first. Fortunately, everything came together in the end, and I very much enjoyed Vivian’s narrative voice. Recommended for fans of the author.