Fiction

THE NO-SHOW by Beth O’Leary

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Valentine’s Day is perhaps the worst possible day to be stood up. Unfortunately, that’s what happened to Siobhan, Miranda, and Jane. They don’t know each other. In fact, they don’t have much in common at all. Siobhan is a life coach who is nursing a broken heart and was looking forward to a night of passion with the hot date she sees every time she happens to be in London. Miranda lives a dangerous life as a tree surgeon and was looking forward to a quiet lunch with her boyfriend. Quiet, charity shop volunteer Jane isn’t planning to date again ever, actually, but was really hoping her friend would show up to the engagement party as her fake date so her coworkers would stop trying to set her up. But Valentine’s Day comes and goes, leaving all three women cursing the name of the man who stood them up:

Joseph Carter.

It’s Miranda who first starts to suspect that there’s something going on with Carter. Whether it’s an unexplained receipt or his mother letting slip the name Siobhan–and the fact that he seems to evade some of her most innocent questions… Could the thoughtful man she’s been seeing all this time really be a cheater? Meanwhile, Siobhan and Jane are finding their resolves to never fall in love again weaken in the face of Joseph’s charms. But there is more going on than any of them can see, and before the next Valentine’s Day rolls around, secrets are going to show up in a big way.

This is a well-crafted, moving contemporary love story about three women and one man all struggling to be true to themselves and their feelings. A heads up: if you are turned off by stories about cheating, you should know first and foremost that there is more to this story than meets the eye (or shows up in the premise on the back cover) but also that the tension throughout the majority of the book surrounding the alleged cheating makes for a stressful read if that’s not your cup of tea. So if that’s you, skip this one and pick up any other of Beth O’Leary’s fabulous books. But I will say as someone who does not like books about cheating myself, the resolution of this story (the whole last third, really) was deeply satisfying, heartwarming, and beautiful. So I do recommend this book to fans of sweet contemporary romance and “women’s fiction” provided that stories about cheating are not a major trigger for you.

FINDING GRACE by Janis Thomas

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Grace knows Louise will come rescue her from the mental hospital. It’s the whole reason she came to New York and stood up on that bridge in her underwear–to get her estranged daughter’s attention. Because the voices in Grace’s head are adamant. Someone is in danger, and this time, it’s the daughter Louise hasn’t seen since she was a baby.

Melanie has been happy in her latest foster home. Happier than she was in any of the others, anyway. Her foster mom is a little weird, but her foster dad is great. And so far she’s been able to hide the messages that come to her through the voice that writes in her journal using her hand. But the latest message sends a chill up her spine and makes her wonder whether it’s finally time to let her foster parents–or at least someone in on her secret.

Because… someone is coming…

This novel sits at an unusual intersection between psychological thriller and contemporary fiction (or “women’s fiction”). The early chapters of the book focus on multigenerational family dysfunction between Louise, her estranged mother, her late grandmother, and the daughter she gave up, while the nebulous and possibly fictitious danger hinted at by the voices in several characters’ heads keeps this thriller from being truly thrilling until well into the second half. As a result, this novel is most likely to find its readers among fans of both contemporary stories of family dysfunction and psychological thrillers who will find the beginning as captivating as the final third.

BUSINESS NOT AS USUAL by Sharon C. Cooper

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Dreamy doesn’t plan to work for her micromanaging boss forever. Soon, she’ll have completed her college degree (a little later than planned, but life happens), and then she’ll be on her way to launching her own business. Once she wins the lottery, of course. And after all the years she’s been playing, that’s got to happen soon.

But meeting multimillionaire venture capitalist Karter Redford throws all her plans into disarray–especially that plan where she wasn’t going to date anyone for a while, and certainly not another rich elite like the ex that shredded her heart and her self-confidence. Even though they both have a policy of not mixing dating with business, Dreamy and Karter keep winding up in one another’s paths, and the attraction is mutual and impossible to ignore. Could it be that finding one another was something more than coincidence? As they each wrestle with their own doubts and insecurities, they might just have to accept that a love like theirs isn’t blind luck. It might just be fate.

This romance is adorable, funny, and plenty steamy. The hero and heroine are well developed and easy to love. Because they are so easy to love, their romance itself comes fairly easily with only a handful of external obstacles, none of which come from lies or mistreatment by either of the partners. This is a novel for the romance reader who is not looking for angst and suspense but instead for a lighthearted plot that is gentle on the emotions and full of smiles.

TO MARRY AND TO MEDDLE by Martha Waters

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Julian’s proposition is perfectly logical. By gaining a respectable wife, he will be able to shake off some of the scandal that surrounds his operating a theater business. And by marrying, Emily will no longer be a pawn of her father, who plans to insist on her engagement to the loathsome man who holds his gambling debts. The marriage will be convenient to both of them.

But once she is wed, Emily finds that she is no longer content to be the perfect, respectable lady, caring for the household and the whims of the man who controls her life. She wants to be helpful to her husband in more ways than by entertaining the ladies of the ton. She wants to take an active role in her husband’s work. Julian is horrified–the entire point of the marriage was to pull his theater out of scandal, not embroil it in more! But the only thing more inconvenient to their marriage of convenience would be if Julian and Emily actually fell in love…

Waters is quickly becoming one of my favorite Regency Romance authors! She hits the tropes spot on for a fun, devourable read. Heroine and plot are both more subdued in this novel compared with the previous two of the series, but Violet and Diana and their much-aggrieved gentlemen make substantive appearances in the novel’s most hilarious scenes. (Diana and Jeremy’s wedding is quite spectacular.) I recommend this title to fans of the genre, especially the “Marriage of Convenience” trope.

A DUKE, THE SPY, AN ARTIST, AND A LIE by Vanessa Riley

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Felton knows immediately that the landscape of Port Royal his friend found in Covent Garden was painted by his estranged wife–and now he has some idea of where to search for her. He doesn’t blame Cecilia for leaving him, not after he accused her of infidelity with his father. But since realizing that he was actually in love with the beautiful woman he married to save his own life when a spy mission turned deadly, he has been desperate to find her.

But Cecilia has been back on the island of her birth searching for her own family–her true family. Marriage to Felton was nothing like the adventure he promised. With him gone for months at a time on missions and most of his family discriminating against her for the color of her skin, her artistically-minded father-in-law was her only defender and source of happiness. Her husbands accusations were merely final blow to a marriage that was already dying. But when she finds her free-born sister, who was sold into enslavement by Felton’s cousin, just in time for her to die in her arms, Cecilia realizes she may have to return to her estranged husband. Because a former spy might be the only person who can help her achieve her greatest desire: revenge.

All Regency romances stretch the historical truth, embellishing the “Marriage Mart” into a ton where Dukes are plentiful and “love matches” abound. Riley allows Black characters to into that world–not only through the romanticized history of marriage in the peerage but also in the historical realities for people of color in Regency England: the tens of thousands of free Black people as well as the free and enslaved people Black people in colonized Jamaica. Riley’s romances are more history-laden than most historical romances, and her writing style is more literary, so be prepared for a slower but richer read. I highly recommend all three of Riley’s Rogues and Remarkable Women books to fans of Regency Romance novels and to fans of the Netflix series “Bridgerton.”

THE LOVE HYPOTHESIS by Ali Hazelwood

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Olive wishes she had actually paused to look at the random guy in the hallway before smashing him against the wall and kissing him. Her intentions were good. Her best friend was walking by, and if she saw her hanging around the lab at night when she was supposedly on a date, she’d know Olive had lied about dating someone. Which means she wouldn’t be willing to date Olive’s ex. Which would be unfortunate because they were clearly meant for each other. But as unfortunate as that situation might have been, it couldn’t hold a candle to the complete and utter disaster of kissing Dr. Adam Carlsen, Known Ass.

Young biologist superstar Dr. Carlsen may be an expert in making Ph.D. candidates cry and occasionally drop out of the Stanford Biology department, but he is for some reason really nice about the kiss. And actually, really nice in general. Not only does he not file a sexual harassment lawsuit, but he actually agrees to keep fake-dating Olive for her friend’s benefit. But neither of them foresees the gossip storm that will overtake them–a Ph.D. student betraying her cohort by voluntarily dating the most hated faculty advisor at Stanford. And even worse than Olive betraying her friends, her heart may be about to betray her.

This book is so, so worth the hype! I read it in a day–and then I read it again! It is swoony and emotional with thoroughly developed characters you can’t help but fall in love with (hero/heroine and secondary), and the science lab world-building is intricate and thoroughly-integrated with the plot. Although it is a workplace romance, it is NOT supervisor-employee (different labs, different projects, different specialties), and the power disparity is immediately and thoroughly addressed. It hits all the right notes for its tropes without feeling like a cookie-cutter romance. This is one of my new favorites and I can’t recommend it highly enough!

THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEWOMAN WITCHES by India Holton

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There are no such things as witches. Charlotte Pettifer certainly isn’t one. And she certainly hasn’t been selected as the future leader of the secret League of Gentlewoman Witches because no such organization exists because witches don’t exist. And if they did exist, their future leader would certainly be discrete enough not to mount her broom in St. James’ Square in broad daylight and fly over the crowded streets just to escape a confrontation with a despicable and distressingly attractive Irish pirate.

But of course, Charlotte is a witch and the League’s rightful heir and therefore the only person with the legitimate right to steal the amulet that belonged to the foundress of the League (and, I suppose it must be mentioned, the creator of the spell that gave the pirates the ability to fly their battle houses over London). And when one such pirate steals the amulet for herself, Charlotte does not hesitate to commandeer a pirate’s house to give chase–both to retrieve her amulet and to get a second taste of the delightful freedom of flight. That she happens to commandeer the house of the Irish pirate is purely coincidental. That they appear to have formed an alliance is merely a distortion of the true reality that they are committed enemies who very maliciously kidnapped each other. That they occasionally find themselves locked in a broom closet together, their eyes locked, their bodies pressed close…well, everyone needs a bit of exercise…

Sometimes I skim books. Shameful, but true. But not this book–I couldn’t risk missing a single, hilarious word! From the absurdity of this series’ premise to the banter between the hero and heroine to the wealth of cleverly overturned literary allusions, I was laughing aloud the whole time. Add to that the deliciously steamy romance, thrilling adventure plot, and substantive cameos from the hero/heroine of the previous book, and you have a five star historical romance that you won’t be able to put down. I cannot recommend this series highly enough!

THE VALET’S SECRET by Josi S. Kilpack

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Rebecca Parker has always been a practical woman. She entered the service in an aristocratic household when she needed work, left the service when her daughter was born, and moved in with her father when her husband died. But now, with her daughter grown and in a comfortable position as a baronesses companion and her father’s abuses too severe to be borne, she is ready for a bit of freedom. Still, she never expected that freedom could mean sharing a passionate kiss with a stranger on the side of the road.

The connection between Rebecca and the mysterious valet is mutual and instantaneous. Unfortunately, Kenneth is not a valet–but rather a reluctant heir to an earldom who was seeking a bit of freedom by wandering the countryside in his valet’s clothing. Kenneth knows he should tell Rebecca the truth, but their connection is too strong and the moment passes. But his deception cannot last forever. And when the truth is revealed, will love be enough to lead two practical, duty-bound people to throw off the expectations of their classes and make their fairytale come true?

This sweet (clean) Regency romance is undeniably a Cinderella story (complete with a ball and glass slippers) yet the telling feels fresh and engaging–probably because of the loose connection to the fairytale early on and the twist of the future-earl’s deception. It is also always refreshing to see a mature couple in a Regency romance. Rather than a debutant and the rakish youth, Kilpack gives us a widow and widower in their 40s, both with grown children. As they reconsider the restrictive norms that keep them apart, they are also reconsidering their lives–how they have lived in the past and how they may be ready to break out of their society-dictated boxes and start anew. A fun, quick read for fans of clean historical romance.

LADY ICARUS: BALLOONOMANIA AND THE BRIEF, BOLD LIFE OF SOPHIA BLANCHARD by Deborah Noyes

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A few years before the French revolution, a girl named Marie Madeleine-Sophie was born to a peasant family. Despite the war, her family’s poverty, and the obstacles of gender-inequality, she would grow up to be one of the most famous aeronauts of her generation.

This middle grade nonfiction title delves into a fascinating aspect of French history that was entirely unknown to me. Because little is known about Sophie Blanchard’s childhood, the first 75% of the book focuses on the history of ballooning, the political backdrop of the French Revolution, and the aeronaut who would eventually marry Sophie, Jean-Pierre Blanchard. Therefore, this title is more likely to hook readers who are interested in the history and science of early aviation than those looking for a biography. (Or, since it is a biography, it could be an ideal choice for students who are required to read a biography for class but are more interested in broader histories or science.) Despite the dearth of information about Blanchard’s life before her marriage, Noyes makes sure to include mentions of young Sophie’s age and family situation at the time of significant historical events to speculate as to how they might have affected her. She also includes interesting and useful asides about the science of ballooning and related history and legends. This book will be a solid addition to middle grade nonfiction collections.

GALLANT by Victoria Schwab

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Olivia Prior has no real memories of her parents–nothing but her mother’s journal. She doesn’t even know their names, just that her father is dead and her mother went mad before leaving her on the doorstep of the dismal boarding school where she has grown up. So when the letter arrives–a summons from the uncle she didn’t know she had, back to the family estate she didn’t know existed–the temptation to finally have a real home and family is too great to resist.

Even though her mother’s journal warns her of unnamed dangers within the halls of Gallant.

But the welcome at the manor is not what she expected. Her uncle is dead–and died too long ago to have sent her the mysterious letter–and the only remaining relative, her cousin Matthew, is determined that she should be sent away. Matthew is tortured by violent dreams, and the halls are haunted by ghouls that only Olivia can see. Yet none of that compares to the darkness on the other side of the stone wall in the garden, where a shadowy master of crumbling reflection of Gallant has been waiting for Olivia to arrive…

Atmospheric and horrifying, Schwab’s latest YA sits solidly in the horror genre and is impossible to put down. As you can expect from Schwab’s prose, every word hits like a gunshot, creating an atmosphere and story so immersive that you are as ensnared as her protagonist. This story is a must-read for teen and adult fans of paranormal horror!