MURDER ON BLACK SWAN LANE by Andrea Penrose

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The Earl of Wrexford is used to being skewered by the press. His “ungentlemanly” interest in chemical experimentation and his scandalous liaisons with members of the opposite sex lend themselves to artistic satire. But the cartoonist A.J. Quill rankles him. It’s more than the tone of Quill’s cartoons–it’s how disturbingly accurate his information is. It’s almost as though Quill is following him around, although Wrexford is sure he would have noticed such surveillance.

Charlotte is good at what she does. Since taking over her husband’s artistic pseudonym after his death, she has managed to keep the creditors at bay and to support herself and the two young urchins she’s taken under her wing–who also happen to supply her with the juiciest gossip for her cartoons. But when their inside information leads her to a murder scene, she ends up embroiled in a mystery involving not just her husband’s mysterious past, but the one man she’s hoped most to avoid: the Earl of Wrexford.

This Regency mystery series has a secret society, a handful of comic characters, and a touch of romantic tension. I wouldn’t recommend it to pure romance readers, however, since the romantic moments are fleeting and unfulfilled. This will more likely appeal to readers of historical mysteries who like unconventional heroes/heroines, over-the-top premises, and a bit of suspense.

DARK MATTER by Blake Crouch

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Jason’s life is absolutely perfect. He married the woman of his dreams. He has a son whom he loves. A job he enjoys. Of course, he wonders what life could have been like if he hadn’t given up his ambitious scientific experimentation on parallel universes. But every life has compromises. There’s no way of knowing what might have happened had he made different choices, so why waste time thinking about it?

At least that’s what Jason believed. When he is abducted by a mystery man and knocked unconscious, he wakes up in a world eerily similar to his own except that his life is not his life. He is not married to Daniela. His son doesn’t even exist. This is the alternate reality in which Jason Dessen pursued his line of scientific inquiry and found a way to jump between parallel universes. The Jason of this world has abducted him and stolen his life. And now Jason will do anything to find a way home and take it all back.

DARK MATTER is fast-moving, dark, and suspenseful with killer twists that keep you guessing. The squiffy science might disappoint diehard sci-fi fans (as it did several of my book-clubbers), but DARK MATTER will delight thriller readers. I certainly enjoyed it!

THE DUCHESS WAR by Courtney Milan

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Minnie has worked hard to leave her past behind and carve out a new life for herself. It starts with her new identity: Miss Wilhelmina Pursling, an unfortunate orphan, soon to be engaged to a repulsive but respectable gentleman. But when a local military official accuses her of writing seditionist pamphlets urging workers to unionize, her carefully maintained fiction comes under too much scrutiny. Her only hope is to find and confront the true author of the pamphlets and convince him to either stop writing or confess. But when the author–the handsome, charismatic, kindhearted Duke of Clermont–announces that he plans to combat her attempts at blackmail with an attempt to win her love, Minnie realizes that she may have underestimated her opponent–and her own susceptibility to his charms.

The first of one of my favorite romance quartets (THE BROTHER’S SINISTER), this novel immerses readers in Victorian England and introduces us to a funny, witty, interesting group of friends that will continue to delight us for three more books (plus some novellas). A must-read for historical romance fans!

THE CUCKOO’S CALLING by Robert Galbraith

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Robin is thrilled when the temp agency assigns her to a private detective’s office. Detective work was always a secret dream of hers. But Cormoran Strike isn’t exactly the glamorous private eye she imagined. Having recently split up with his fiancee, he is living on a camp bed in his office, dining on Pot Noodle, and putting off the inevitable day when he’ll have to make a visit to the doctor to have the increasingly painful stump of his amputated leg examined. Also, he’s broke. And if he doesn’t get a case soon, he’ll face the wrath of already impatient creditors.

But Strike’s luck turns when John Bristow enters his office. Though supermodel Lula Landry’s death was thoroughly covered by the police–and the press–Bristow doesn’t believe that his adopted sister committed suicide. He peppers Strike with alternate conspiracy theories and begs him to take the case. Although Strike doubts to find anything, he doesn’t have the heart–or the money–to turn Bristow down. And as he and Robin begin to methodically reexamine the evidence, they gradually realize that not only was Lula Landry murdered, but other lives may be in danger as well.

Obviously Rowling (aka Galbraith) is a phenomenal writer, but in this novel she proves mastery not only of characters and prose but of the mystery genre. Meticulously plotted, with plenty of clues and plenty of misdirection, THE CUCKOO’S CALLING has all of the information you need to solve the mystery ahead of the big reveal, but presents that information in such a way that the resolution will very likely come as a surprise. It has a gradual start, but keep reading–it’s worth it!

This is an excellent audiobook as well.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS by Agatha Christie –and– MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

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The bottom line: the film is good, but the book is better.

Renowned Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is traveling on the Orient Express when a murder occurs. He quickly determines that the victim, an American, was traveling under an assumed name and was really the infamous gangster Cassetti, responsible for the murder of an infant in America years earlier. With the train stopped due to an avalanche, Poirot has a captive group of suspects–each more suspicious than the last–and begins to interview them, methodically as is his custom, to determine which among them is the murderer.

While enjoyable, the film was not a stand-out. The cast is star-studded (and it’s convenient to have Johnny Depp in a role where you’re supposed to hate him) but ultimately, the film stepped a bit too far over the line toward melodrama. I blame Branagh. What I love from an Agatha Christie mystery is the suspense drawn out through carefully plotted revelations, perfectly dropped clues, and an overabundance of sinister characters to suspect. This was all certainly present in the film, and the acting was good. But we really didn’t need a gunfight. Just sayin’.

SOCIAL DISTANCE. READ TOGETHER.

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There are two reasons I don’t link to big box stores or book sellers when I recommend a book. Of course, I hope my readers will borrow from their local public libraries (as I do!). But I also hope that when readers purchase books, they’ll support independent book shops.

Patronizing local small businesses is more important now than ever. To find a local bookstore near you, check out this handy search: https://www.indiebound.org/indie-store-finder

LITTLE WOMEN by Louisa May Alcott and LITTLE WOMEN (2019)

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In 1860s Massachusetts, four sisters and the boy next door grow up from a childhood of wild imagination and adventure to an adulthood of loss, love, and hope.

So I may be the only American white girl who was not a fan of LITTLE WOMEN as a kid. I mean, I liked most of the first half (the original Book One) but I never, never, never forgave Amy for burning Jo’s book. And I got very bored by Book Two, and also annoyed that Laurie married Amy (because again, SHE BURNED JO’S BOOK) and also super-super-annoyed that Jo married some random middle-aged German guy she just met because just because she was kind of lonely….

But I think that Greta Gerwig either read my childhood mind, or was also me as a child, because her adaptation was everything I wanted it to be. Florence Pugh made me like Amy. Genuinely understand and like her. The chaos of every scene must have been a nightmare to film, but it created such a joyful sense of community and family and connection between the four girls. I was mad at Amy for burning Jo’s book, but I was also mad at Jo for not noticing how much Amy looked up to her and wanted to spend time with her. And I loved the two-pronged solution to the “random German guy” problem: first, introducing him at the beginning of the film so he doesn’t come out of nowhere, and second, crafting an ending where Jo morphs with real-life Alcott, who didn’t believe women (including her character Jo) should have to get married (as she didn’t) but was forced to marry Jo off in the end to make it palatable to contemporary readers. In the film, you can take some delight in the unbelievable, silly, head-over-heels, love-at-first-sight ending because the director has hinted that it’s a fantasy and that the real Jo that you’ve known and loved is actually off somewhere, self-confident and content, living her dreams, publishing her books, and creating this fairytale ending for us to enjoy and for her to roll her eyes at.

P.S. I should note that I actually enjoy much more of Book Two as an adult. Especially now that I have kids. Especially that scene where Meg and John are trying to get their son to go to sleep and John ends up passed out in bed with his kid and Alcott remarks that trying to get a two year old to go to sleep is more exhausting than an entire day of work. Yeah. That. I read that part out loud to my husband. It’s somehow both comforting and discouraging to know that in 200 years of parenthood, nothing has changed….

BOSSYPANTS by Tina Fey

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Through humorous autobiographical vignettes, Tina Fey gives fans a glimpse into her life, including the challenges of being a female comedian in a male-dominated industry, being a working parent, writing 22-episode sitcom seasons, pursuing society’s standards of beauty, and going on a cruise for your honeymoon (she would not recommend the latter). You’ll laugh. You’ll rage at the patriarchy. And if you listen to the audiobook, you’ll be thoroughly entertained for over 5 1/2 hours! Highly recommend.

MY BEAUTIFUL ENEMY by Sherry Thomas

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Catherine (Ying-Ying) Blade didn’t think anything could unsettle her as much as meeting her daughter’s murderer on the voyage to England. She doesn’t know why the assassin was there–whether he might be after the same jade tablets her stepfather sent her to claim–but as she hurled the assassin overboard, she believed she had drowned the last remnants of her painful past with him.

She couldn’t have been more wrong.

Not only did the assassin survive, but the woman she saved from his clutches has a coincidental connection to the English spy that Ying-Ying fell in love with years ago. They never knew each others names in China, but that hadn’t stopped Ying-Ying and Leighton from betraying each other. Ying-Ying had thought her feelings would have softened over time. Truthfully, she believed she had killed Leighton, and from his pronounced limp, she infers that she came close. But seeing him now, with a fiancee on his arm, is almost more than she can bear. And bear it she must because if she has any hope of retrieving the jade tablets–or even surviving her mission–she’s going to need his help.

Set half in England, half in Thomas’ native China, MY BEAUTIFUL ENEMY is a Victorian Romance twist on the Chinese martial arts genre of wuxia. It is one of Thomas’ best, which given the strength of her canon is saying a lot! It is exciting and romantic, suspenseful with breaks of humor. The characters are strong, and the interweaving of cultures beautiful and engaging. A page-turner and a joy to read. Highly recommend to historical romance readers!

WE ARE OKAY by Nina LaCour

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Marin wishes Mabel weren’t coming to visit. She meant to leave her old life completely when she left California. She was supposed to start anew at college. And even though she hasn’t been entirely successful at hiding her grief, at least her new roommate didn’t know the old Marin. Whereas Mabel knows her far too well. What will she think when she sees Marin’s blank white walls, her empty bulletin board? Though she hasn’t spoken to Mabel in months–not since the day she found out her grandfather’s secrets–she knows Mabel will see right through her the minute she walks through the door. And when she does, Marin knows the tragic past she’s been trying to escape will drown her.

Though quiet in plot, this novel is loud in emotion. A deserved Printz Award winner, WE ARE OKAY bathes the reader in an authentic experience of grief and growth, of changing friendships, families, and relationships. Persistent story questions about the nature of the past tragedy provide enough suspense to keep readers turning pages even as the action of the plot itself is gentle and contained. I would highly recommend this book to fans of emotional YA realistic fiction. It’s an exceptional one.