Book Review: The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Tor
Publication Date: October 11th, 2022
Pages: 368 paperback
Source: NetGalley

The Spare Man is a stylish mystery by Hugo, Locus, and Nebula award-winning author Mary Robinette Kowal set on an interplanetary liner between Earth and Mars.

Tessa Crain, one of the richest women in the world, is on her honeymoon on an interplanetary space liner, cruising between Earth and Mars. But she’s traveling incognito, and someone has targeted her new husband as the perfect person to frame for murder.

The Thin Man in space. Murder on a starliner. What’s not to love?

I liked it, but I didn’t love it, unlike Kowal’s Glamourist and Lady Astronaut series. The heroine, Tesla Crane, frankly annoyed me. There was not enough of the lightness of The Thin Man, but there were constant references to drinking, occasionally witty banter, and, of course, the obligatory adorable dog, Gimlet.

I wanted to like Tesla. She survived a horrific accident and suffers from chronic pain, and suffers from PTSD. I admit, I’m not sure how I’d behave were my husband to be implicated in a murder while we were on our honeymoon, but she states that she refrains from using her fame to bully people, and then does precisely that. She puts herself in danger unnecessarily, and seems more to luck into puzzling things out than in actual deduction. The red herrings were more pink, and the story dragged in places.

This book will appeal to many readers, but it just didn’t work for me.

Book Review: Getaway With Murder (Mountain Lodge Mystery #1) by Diane Kelly

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Genre: Cozy Mystery
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication Date: October 26th, 2021
Pages: 304, mass market paperback
Source: NetGalley

As if hitting the half-century mark wasn’t enough, Misty Murphy celebrated her landmark birthday by amicably ending her marriage and investing her settlement in a dilapidated mountain lodge at the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains. With the old inn teetering on both a bluff and bankruptcy, she must have lost her ever-loving mind.

Luckily, handyman Rocky Crowder has a knack for rehabbing virtual ruins and for doing it on a dime, and to Misty’s delight, the lodge is fully booked on opening night, every room filled with flexible folks who’d slipped into spandex and ascended the peak for a yoga retreat with plans to namastay for a full week. Misty and her guests are feeling zen—at least until the yoga instructor is found dead.

With a killer on the loose and the lodge’s reputation hanging in the balance, Misty must put her detective-skills to the test. Only one thing is as clear as a sunny mountain morning—she must solve the crime before the lodge ends up, once again, on the brink.

Misty has, at 50, decided to divest herself of her husband and acquire a lodge in the Blue Ridge Mountains. This, despite her lack of experience or education in the hospitality industry, seems to be trending toward success until the leader of a yoga group is found dead on the property. Along with the predictable hunky handyman named Rocky, Misty investigates to clear the lodge and keep anyone else from ending up in corpse pose.

It was okay. Misty is likeable enough, but a lot of the story seemed improbable and just added either because it was expected or because it was necessary to force the plot. Misty gets divorced at midlife, check. She buys a lodge to reinvent her life, check. The lodge is by a diner that, despite being miles from other businesses, enjoys a good amount of business. That’s pretty convenient. The hunky handyman ends up moving into one of the spare rooms because his house is overcrowded. This gives them opportunities to flirt. Check.

The murderer is someone you won’t expect, and much like Misty’s reasons for ditching her husband, the murderer’s reasons don’t really make sense or seem strong enough to warrant their actions.

But I think the most unlikely thing for me was that, despite the fact that Misty had decades of memories of having visited the lodge with her family, she only was reminded of her husband once. Also, she seems to have divorced her kids, too. There’s no mention of her contacting either her ex or her two sons until the murder occurs, and then she just texts them. Maybe it’s just me, but that really didn’t seem realistic to me.

It’s not a bad book, it’s just not my cup of tea, and I don’t think I’ll be visiting the lodge again.

Book Review: A Dark and Starless Forest by Sarah Hollowell

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Genre: Young Adult Contemporary Fantasy
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: September 14th, 2021
Pages: 320, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

When her siblings start to go missing, a girl must confront the dark thing that lives in the forest—and the growing darkness in herself—in this debut YA contemporary fantasy for fans of Wilder Girls.

Derry and her eight siblings live in an isolated house by the lake, separated from the rest of the world by an eerie and menacing forest. Frank, the man who raised them after their families abandoned them, says it’s for their own good. After all, the world isn’t safe for people with magic. And Derry feels safe—most of the time.

Until the night her eldest sister disappears. Jane and Derry swore to each other that they’d never go into the forest, not after their last trip ended in blood, but Derry is sure she saw Jane walk into the trees. When another sibling goes missing and Frank’s true colors start to show, feeling safe is no longer an option. Derry will risk anything to protect the family she has left. Even if that means returning to the forest that has started calling to Derry in her missing siblings’ voices.

As Derry spends more time amidst the trees, her magic grows more powerful . . . and so does the darkness inside her, the viciousness she wants to pretend doesn’t exist. But saving her siblings from the forest and from Frank might mean embracing the darkness. And that just might be the most dangerous thing of all.

A Dark and Starless Forest is a solid novel that falls prey to some typical issues in a debut novel.

The two biggest issues I found in the novel were the pacing and the themes. The pacing dragged in the middle and it seemed Hollowell wasn’t quite sure what she needed to have Derry do. The plot needed to have Derry act in a certain way, so she did, but it didn’t necessarily make sense with the events happening in said plot. The sense of urgency at having two of her sisters missing never quite sticks, since Derry and the rest of her siblings are mostly unable to go out and look for them and so have to continue living their lives as normal. Although Derry does ignore this rule, her forays into the forest become more about growing her magical powers than it does finding her sisters. Hollowell does try to explain in the story why the siblings mostly have to stay in the house, but it’s not quite good enough reasoning.

The themes were close to being pinned down, but another draft of the novel would have made them clearer. Derry is surrounded by two main enemies: Frank, her adoptive father who’s teaching her and her siblings how to control their magic for possibly dark purposes, and the forest that surrounds the house they live in. The atmosphere of the house was claustrophobic and oppressive, but the forest lacked the same danger and darkness. Hollowell clearly tries to state that both Frank and the forest want to use the girls for their own ends, but she doesn’t quite get there in regards to the forest.

Derry is a character that some readers will probably dislike, as she’s mostly passive and reacts to things instead of causing things to happen, and she’s avoidant of the facts staring her in the face. However I was fine with this, as Derry is living in a situation that’s almost a cult. Her family is completely cut off from the rest of the world, and whatever they know about it, they learn from Frank. Frank is emotionally abusive and gaslights the siblings often, and Derry, as a sixteen year old girl who’s had to view Frank as a parental figure, is realistic in her reluctance to realize and accept that Frank is dangerous and harmful.

While the bond between Derry and most of her siblings is evident, the siblings themselves are too numerous and subsequently their characters fall to the wayside. A couple stand out, like Elle, Jane, and Winnie, while others were little more than names and attributes. I do applaud Hollowell for making her cast a good representation of diversity, but some of that was integrated into the novel better than others, such as Brooke’s deafness being dealt with by all the siblings using ASL for a good chunk of the novel.

Personally, I will say that as a fat woman, it was a relief to read about a fat main character and never have her weight come up as anything other than a neutral description of herself. There are no fat jokes, no one harms her because she’s fat or uses her fatness to harm her. Derry simply exists as a fat girl, and that was wonderful.

There was enough that I liked in A Dark and Starless Forest that I’ll likely read what Hollowell writes next. Most of the problems in this novel are either debut issues or stylistic choices that some readers may not gel with, such as the worldbuilding beyond the house and the forest being thin to non-existent. Readers looking for a richly detailed contemporary fantasy won’t find it here, but they will find a story about a girl discovering her magic and saving her siblings from an abusive man, and that’s a story worth reading even with the issues.

Book Review: Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Genre: Young Adult Thriller
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Publication Date: June 1st, 2021
Pages: 432, hardcover
Source: Library

When two Niveus Private Academy students, Devon Richards and Chiamaka Adebayo, are selected to be part of the elite school’s senior class prefects, it looks like their year is off to an amazing start. After all, not only does it look great on college applications, but it officially puts each of them in the running for valedictorian, too.

Shortly after the announcement is made, though, someone who goes by Aces begins using anonymous text messages to reveal secrets about the two of them that turn their lives upside down and threaten every aspect of their carefully planned futures.

As Aces shows no sign of stopping, what seemed like a sick prank quickly turns into a dangerous game, with all the cards stacked against them. Can Devon and Chiamaka stop Aces before things become incredibly deadly?

There were aspects of this I really liked, but there were two big things that kept breaking my suspension of disbelief: 

1. Where are the parents? We have a reasoning for Devon’s mother not really being present in the story, but what about Chiamaka’s parents? Chiamaka reasons that her white Dad, who wouldn’t even protect her from his family’s racism, won’t be much help and of course she doesn’t want her parents to know about what she’s done, but her mother is almost forgotten and there’s no reason given for why. It feels like this was originally written with Chiamaka and Devon in college, that’s how little their parents are around. If Niveus really wanted to ruin their lives, why wouldn’t they pull their parents in as well? 

2. The ending was fine, but it suffers from the same flaw as in Get Out‘s ending: Once you think about where things go from there, it sort of falls apart. I couldn’t buy that Niveus and the Aces wouldn’t somehow pin the events of the ending on Chiamaka and Devon, that they were beaten by this one thing that happened. I do understand what the author was going for (an institution built on racism and white supremacy can’t be salvaged, and the only way forward is scorched Earth) but it wasn’t well thought out. 

At times I got the feeling I was reading a draft of the novel. The main plot was mostly pinned down, but everything else sort of fell by the wayside, including Chiamaka and Devon’s relationship, the setting, and the fact that the author had to very obviously make the parents disappear in order to get the plot to do what it needed to do. 

The atmosphere was appropriately claustrophobic and sinister, and I liked both Devon and Chiamaka’s characters. Their voices were distinct from each other, and their stories on their own stand up well. Their relationship just never clicked for me, especially not to the point that the author took them to in the ending. It seemed as if they mostly tolerated each other because they had to, and I couldn’t see them being in contact after the events of the book. 

Ace of Spades has a lot of good things going for it, but the execution was sloppy. I look forward to what Àbíké-Íyímídé does in the future, as I think once she has more experience writing books, the issues I had in this book will disappear.

Book Review: The Bookshop of Second Chances by Jackie Fraser

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Genre: Women’s fiction
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: May 4th, 2021
Pages: 448, trade paperback
Source: NetGalley

A woman desperate to turn a new page heads to the Scottish coast and finds herself locked in a battle of wills with an infuriatingly handsome bookseller in this utterly heartwarming debut, perfect for readers of Evvie Drake Starts Over.

Thea Mottram is having a bad month. Her husband of nearly twenty years has just left her for one of her friends, and she is let go from her office job–on Valentine’s Day, of all days. Bewildered and completely lost, Thea doesn’t know what to do. But when she learns that a distant great uncle in Scotland has passed away, leaving her his home and a hefty antique book collection, she decides to leave Sussex for a few weeks. Escaping to a small coastal town where no one knows her seems to be exactly what she needs.

Almost instantly, Thea becomes enamored with the quaint cottage, comforted by its cozy rooms and shaggy, tulip-covered lawn. The locals in nearby Baldochrie are just as warm, quirky, and inviting. The only person she can’t seem to win over is bookshop owner Edward Maltravers, to whom she hopes to sell her uncle’s antique novel collection. His gruff attitude–fueled by an infamous, long-standing feud with his brother, a local lord–tests Thea’s patience. But bickering with Edward proves oddly refreshing and exciting, leading Thea to develop feelings she hasn’t felt in a long time. As she follows a thrilling yet terrifying impulse to stay in Scotland indefinitely, Thea realizes that her new life may quickly become just as complicated as the one she was running from.

Thea goes North, and discovers that sometimes, a book CAN be judged by its cover in Jackie Fraser’s The Bookshop of Second Chances.

Thea’s marriage has dissolved after she discovers her husband has been cheating on her with a family friend. Luckily, she has just inherited her Scottish uncle’s property. She goes up to sort the estate, and decides to stay for a bit and figure out what she wants next. She meets the local curmudgeon, who also owns a secondhand bookshop, when he comes to purchase some books and revalue her uncle’s collection. Thea applies for a job with him, and we see Thea building a new life in the North.

Thea has a good voice, and it’s refreshing to see a middle-aged heroine who isn’t completely hapless and hopeless. Her reactions are what you’d expect from someone in her situation, and she doesn’t wall herself off from others while she grieves her dead marriage.

Now, her love interest and boss, Edward, is a bit lacking in several areas. He and his brother seem to be stuck in adolescence, and I struggled to see what Thea saw in him. He’s rude and the fact that he kept sleeping with his brother’s exes just to get at him would have been enough to put me off.

Somehow, though, I was rooting for Thea and if Edward is her choice, well, at least she’s moving forward. Moderately recommended for lovers of tatty bookshops, irascible Scots, and second chances.

Book Review: Rebel Rose (The Queen’s Council #1) by Emma Theriault

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Genre: Young Adult Historical Fantasy
Publisher: Disney+Hyperion
Publication Date: November 10th, 2020
Pages: 352, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

Happily ever after is only the beginning as Belle takes on the responsibility of becoming queen and learns to balance duty, love, and sacrifice, all while navigating dark political intrigue-and a touch of magic.

It’s 1789 and France is on the brink of revolution. Belle has finally broken the Enchantress’s curse, restoring the Beast to his human form as Prince Adam, and bringing life back to their castle in the province of Aveyon. But in Paris, the fires of change are burning, and it’s only a matter of time before the rebellion arrives on their doorstep.

Belle has always dreamed of leaving her provincial home for a life of adventure. But now she finds herself living in a palace, torn between her roots as a commoner, and her future as a royal. When she stumbles across a mysterious, ancient magic that brings with it a dire warning, she must question whether she is ready for the power being thrust on her, and if being Queen is more than just a title.

Rebel Rose is the first in the Queen’s Council series, an empowering fairy tale reimagining of the Disney Princesses–and the real history behind their stories–like you’ve never seen before.

Rebel Rose starts off strong, but the middle loses its footing and the book doesn’t seem sure of how to achieve a court intrigue plotline. At times the middle portion of the book felt like it was simply filler material until it could get to the third act.

The ending is tight, and I appreciated the inclusion of a Black queer woman, and the further canonization of LeFou as being a gay man. (I also appreciated that it’s made explicit that Gaston was abusive/a bully towards LeFou as well.) 

However, Belle and the Prince (here called Lio) are only in Paris for a brief few days before returning to their own castle to try to get ahead of the danger. Belle also spends a lot of time inside the castle, so the danger never felt very present or very much like a threat. This is mostly solved in the third act where the danger comes to the castle and Belle actually has to deal with it head on, but it was a little late after the meandering second act.

Still, it’s nice to see that Disney is willing to age up their canon, with Bastille Day being an on-the-page event, and even some of the characters cursing. Though I did find it funny that, while violence and cursing are okay, the book is mostly scrubbed of any intimacy past kissing and has only one real subtle nod to sex. (Not that I think we need to read about Disney characters having on-page sex scenes, but the contrast between a dude getting beheaded on page and the chaste kisses Belle and Lio share was a little off-kilter.)

A problem I find in a lot of these Disney books is that the characters simply don’t sound like the ones we saw in the movies. This is still a problem in Rebel Rose, as sometimes the characterization of Belle and the others slipped. I’m willing to cut a little slack in this case, as it can’t have been easy to strike a balance between the somewhat modern language used in the original movie, and the need to have the characters talk like they actually live in the late 18th century France. Still, Belle came across as surprisingly passive here, especially in the aforementioned troubled middle section.

Overall, I’m not sure I’d recommend Rebel Rose. It has its strengths, but I’m not sure they outweigh the faults.