Latest ARC Reads: November 2017

This post offers quick reviews of the latest ARCs I've read. #spon | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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*Note: I received these books for review consideration. All opinions are my own. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

River Rising

Weeks after his parents disappear on a hike, engineer Adam Carson, 27, searches for answers. Then he discovers a secret web site and learns his mom and dad are time travelers stuck in the past. Armed with the information he needs to find them, Adam convinces his younger siblings to join him on a rescue mission to the 1880s.

While Greg, the adventurous middle brother, follows leads in the Wild West, Adam, journalist Natalie, and high school seniors Cody and Caitlin do the same in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Like the residents of the bustling steel community, all are unaware of a flood that will destroy the city on May 31, 1889.

River Rising is the first book in a new series by John Heldt (whose previous books I’ve reviewed herehere, here, here, here, and here). In this series, the Carson siblings must travel back in time to the 1880s in order to rescue their parents, who are stuck in the past.

If you’ve read any of Heldt’s previous books, you’ll have a good idea of the flavor of this book. There is plenty of romance and peril as the family tries to blend into their new surroundings and track down their missing parents.

The book feels slow to begin, and everyone falling in love gets a bit too sentimental for me. But I liked how both the siblings and their parents are portrayed as they travel through time to try to find each other, and I especially enjoyed the historical fiction elements (the flood in Johnstown and its aftermath was fascinating and heartbreaking). If you’re looking for a sweet, escapist romance with a bit of history tucked inside, you might enjoy this book.

Another One Bites the Crust

Champagne and ball gowns, fairy lights and music… Oxford summer balls are one of the highlights of the calendar and tearoom sleuth Gemma Rose is looking forward to taking a break and slipping into something gorgeous for the evening. But when the night ends with a celebrity chef murdered by his own whisk, Gemma finds herself plunged into a new mystery—and the nosy Old Biddies keen to help with the investigation!

But trouble is also brewing at her quaint Cotswolds tearoom: between fighting claims that she’s serving “fake” custard tarts and stopping her little tabby, Muesli, from being catnapped, Gemma has her hands full—and that’s before she has to fend off an amorous Italian. To top it all, her boyfriend Devlin’s mother is coming to visit and Gemma is anxious to make a good impression… although Mrs O’Connor isn’t quite what she expected!

I really liked this installment in the Oxford Tearoom series (you can see previous reviews here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Gemma finally meets Devlin’s mother, who is much different than Gemma expected her to be, and tries to solve the murder of a famous chef who was electrocuted before a show at Oxford. Plus, there’s a lot of cute Muesli, Gemma’s mischievous cat.

This latest book in the series gives readers more of Gemma and Devlin’s relationship, which I love. The characters in this series make the stories shine, and I love the times when we get to zoom in on specific relationships. And as always, the mystery is interesting and engaging without being gory or scary. A wonderful cozy mystery to spend an afternoon with.

Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics

Dan Harris’s book 10% Happier is the book that got me into meditation in the first place, so I was excited to find out that he had written a new book filled with practical tips for meditating. Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics offers helpful, practical ideas that will help overcome the reluctance of those who want to get into meditation but aren’t into the more “woowoo” aspects. 

Dan wrote this book with the help of his friend, meditation teacher Jeff, as they toured the country in a bus and talked to widely varying groups about meditation. Everyone from former juvenile delinquents to the military to news and radio personalities gets a mention, so no matter what your hangups about meditation, the authors have advice for you. The book is also filled with short meditations that you can try out for yourself.

I enjoyed this book, and if you’re interested in meditation but don’t want to get all mystical about it, you should definitely pick it up.

Fried Green Tomatoes and Little Beach Street Bakery: A Comparison

A comparison of Fried Green Tomatoes and The Little Beach Street Bakery--they have more in common than you think. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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In today’s post, I’m going to do a little bit of a comparison, rather than separate reviews for these two books. As I was thinking about Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe and Little Beach Street Bakery, I realized that they actually have a lot in common–and that the reasons I loved one book are the shortcomings of the other. One is a modern-day classic; the other is a book that was hugely popular a couple of years ago.

Each of these books centers itself around two important aspects: location and food. Fried Green Tomatoes exists mainly at the Whistle Stop Cafe, the center of small town Alabama life for a tight-knit community. Little Beach Street Bakery is on a small island off the coast of England, where a recently divorced woman tries to put her life back together by baking.

First, here’s a quick summary of Fried Green Tomatoes, in case you’ve somehow missed out on reading it or seeing the movie:

It’s first the story of two women in the 1980s, of gray-headed Mrs. Threadgoode telling her life story to Evelyn, who is in the sad slump of middle age. The tale she tells is also of two women — of the irrepressibly daredevilish tomboy Idgie and her friend Ruth, who back in the thirties ran a little place in Whistle Stop, Alabama, a Southern kind of Cafe Wobegon offering good barbecue and good coffee and all kinds of love and laughter, even an occasional murder. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

Basically, this book explores life in the South during the 1930s and 1940s, as well as the life of a woman in the 1980s. This involves race relations, gender roles, midlife crises, and relationships with those who are different from you. But the book never becomes preachy (many of the main characters make questionable decisions), and each of the characters, from Idgie and Ruth to their friends and family to the elderly Mrs. Threadgoode and her unlikely friend Evelyn, is unique and flawed in a lovable way. I thought this book was lovely.

Meanwhile, here’s what happens in Little Beach Street Bakery:

Amid the ruins of her latest relationship, Polly Waterford moves far away to the sleepy seaside resort of Polbearne, where she lives in a small, lonely flat above an abandoned shop.

To distract her from her troubles, Polly throws herself into her favorite hobby: making bread. But her relaxing weekend diversion quickly develops into a passion. As she pours her emotions into kneading and pounding the dough, each loaf becomes better than the last. Soon, Polly is working her magic with nuts and seeds, olives and chorizo, and the local honey-courtesy of a handsome local beekeeper. Drawing on reserves of determination and creativity Polly never knew she had, she bakes and bakes . . . and discovers a bright new life where she least expected it. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This book is much more centered around a romance rather than around the relationships of a cast of characters, and that basic premise already makes me less inclined to enjoy this book. I picked up this book because I had heard it described as a great summer read, light and enjoyable. But I didn’t quite feel that way about it.

While Fried Green Tomatoes centers around the Whistle Stop Cafe, its proprietors, and the many people–both locals and out of towners–who spend time there, Little Beach Street Bakery focuses more on the broken relationships in the isolated town of Polbearne. Polly has to fight with her landlady, who is desperate to cling to her monopoly on baked goods, as well as struggling with her attraction to a couple of the men she meets on the island.

While Polly eventually finds love and fulfillment in her new life, Little Beach Street Bakery never has the warmth and humor that I got from Fried Green Tomatoes. Its characters are more forgettable and less quirky–something I really missed. And although there is less talk about food in Fried Green Tomatoes than in Little Beach Street Bakery, that’s really my only complaint. Both books offer up their respective settings as important pieces of the story, but whereas the setting of Little Beach Street Bakery is cold and forbidding, just like its weather, Fried Green Tomatoes takes a cue from the warmth of a summer in the South and imbues the story with that feeling.

I’m not saying that Little Beach Street Bakery is a bad book. I enjoyed reading it, and I can see why it became so popular. But it can’t compare to the wonderful characters, setting, and quirky but heartwarming story of Fried Green Tomatoes.

Mystery Roundup, October 2017

Today I'm reviewing all the latest mystery books I've read. It's a wide variety for different ages and settings. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’m a big fan of mysteries of all kinds, and in today’s post I’m reviewing a wide variety of mystery novels. There are standalones and series; MG, YA, and adult books; and settings from Australia to London to Singapore. There’s something for everyone here! (Summaries via Goodreads.com)

Aunty Lee’s Delights

After losing her husband, Rosie Lee could easily have become one of Singapore’s “tai tai,” an idle rich lady devoted to mah-jongg and luxury shopping. Instead she threw herself into building a culinary empire from her restaurant, Aunty Lee’s Delights, where spicy Singaporean home cooking is graciously served to locals and tourists alike. But when a body is found in one of Singapore’s beautiful tourist havens, and when one of her wealthy guests fails to show at a dinner party, Aunty Lee knows that the two are likely connected.

The murder and disappearance throws together Aunty Lee’s henpecked stepson Mark, his social-climbing wife Selina, a gay couple whose love is still illegal in Singapore, and an elderly Australian tourist couple whose visit-billed at first as a pleasure cruise-may mask a deeper purpose. Investigating the murder is rookie Police Commissioner Raja, who quickly discovers that the savvy and well-connected Aunty Lee can track down clues even better than local law enforcement.

I really enjoyed this mystery. A blog reader told me about this series when I asked for suggestions for diverse mysteries, and this book really fit what I was looking for. The Singapore setting is wonderful, and so is Aunty Lee. I know practically nothing about Singapore, so reading about their food, their culture, and their daily lives (with the addition of murder, of course) was fascinating. I can’t wait to read the next book in the series!

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Murder Most Austen

A dedicated Anglophile and Janeite, Elizabeth Parker is hoping the trip to the annual Jane Austen Festival in Bath will distract her from her lack of a job and her uncertain future with her boyfriend, Peter.

On the plane ride to England, she and Aunt Winnie meet Professor Richard Baines, a self-proclaimed expert on all things Austen. His outlandish claims that within each Austen novel there is a sordid secondary story is second only to his odious theory on the true cause of Austen’s death. When Baines is found stabbed to death in his Mr. Darcy costume during the costume ball, it appears that Baines’s theories have finally pushed one Austen fan too far. But Aunt Winnie’s friend becomes the prime suspect, so Aunt Winnie enlists Elizabeth to find the professor’s real killer. With an ex-wife, a scheming daughter-in-law, and a trophy wife, not to mention a festival’s worth of die-hard Austen fans, there are no shortage of suspects.

I picked up Murder Most Austen on a whim (and because it cost fifty cents!). I was expecting something forgettable and bland, a mystery that covers well-trodden ground. What I found was surprisingly fresh and fun. There is enough Jane Austen here for fans to enjoy, but the novel never becomes stale by relying too heavily on Austen’s well-known stories and characters. This book isn’t as saccharine as many cozy mysteries are, but it’s certainly not scary or gory. If you’re looking for a light but interesting mystery with a bit of Jane Austen flair, this book might be for you!

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Poison is Not Polite

Schoolgirl detectives Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are at Daisy’s home, Fallingford, for the holidays. Daisy’s glamorous mother is throwing a tea party for Daisy’s birthday, and the whole family is invited, from eccentric Aunt Saskia to dashing Uncle Felix. But it soon becomes clear that this party isn’t about Daisy after all—and she is furious. But Daisy’s anger falls to the wayside when one of their guests falls seriously and mysteriously ill—and everything points to poison. It’s up to Daisy and Hazel to find out what’s really going on.

With wild storms preventing everyone from leaving, or the police from arriving, Fallingford suddenly feels like a very dangerous place to be. Not a single person present is what they seem—and everyone has a secret or two. And when someone very close to Daisy begins to act suspiciously, the Detective Society does everything they can to reveal the truth…no matter the consequences.

It has been a long time since I read the first book in this middle grade series, but this is a good follow up. Poison is Not Polite takes the form of a classic English country house mystery (think Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles), but it feels fresh and new because of the main characters–two young girls who are spending their school holiday at the house. Daisy and Hazel, along with their two school friends, take it on themselves to solve the murder of the unpleasant man who was invited to the house. But the deeper they dig, the closer they get to digging up some family secrets that Daisy may not want to know, after all.

For a MG mystery, this book doesn’t shy away from the unpleasantness of murder (or of the secrets that families sometimes try to hide, or of the casual racism that Hazel experiences). Still, it remains mostly lighthearted. I’m looking forward to seeing what mystery this Detective Society solves next.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Husband’s Secret

Imagine that your husband wrote you a letter, to be opened after his death. Imagine, too, that the letter contains his deepest, darkest secret—something with the potential to destroy not just the life you built together, but the lives of others as well. Imagine, then, that you stumble across that letter while your husband is still very much alive. . . .

Cecilia Fitzpatrick has achieved it all—she’s an incredibly successful businesswoman, a pillar of her small community, and a devoted wife and mother. Her life is as orderly and spotless as her home. But that letter is about to change everything, and not just for her: Rachel and Tess barely know Cecilia—or each other—but they too are about to feel the earth-shattering repercussions of her husband’s secret.

I read this for book club (because of course we read it), and honestly, I think everyone else disliked this book more than I did. I hated the book at first–there’s a lot of cheating, family drama, and of course secrets–and most of the characters are very unlikable. But once I got into the story, I couldn’t put it down! Sure, there are some cheesy moments, and if you need a likable character in order to really enjoy a book, this one probably isn’t for you. Still, I can see how The Husband’s Secret became so popular. This would be a good beach read, I think.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Agency series

Rescued from the gallows in 1850s London, young orphan (and thief) Mary Quinn is surprised to be offered a singular education, instruction in fine manners — and an unusual vocation. Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls is a cover for an all-female investigative unit called The Agency, and at seventeen, Mary is about to put her training to the test. Assuming the guise of a lady’s companion, she must infiltrate a rich merchant’s home in hopes of tracing his missing cargo ships. But the household is full of dangerous deceptions, and there is no one to trust — or is there? Packed with action and suspense, banter and romance, and evoking the gritty backstreets of Victorian London, this breezy mystery debuts a daring young detective who lives by her wits while uncovering secrets — including those of her own past.

I read the first book in the Agency series a long time ago, and I remember really enjoying it. But when I re-read the first book, followed by the rest of the series, I felt kind of… meh about it. I forgot how sexist the love interest, James, is and how the writing isn’t very sharp. (To be honest, that’s not the kind of thing that usually bothers me, but there were several instances where I thought, this book could have used another round of edits.)

While I like the idea of this series–a young woman in Victorian London finds freedom in being an undercover spy, despite the restraints on women during that time period–it doesn’t work well for me as it plays out. If you’re going to give me a fictional spy agency which allows women to have more freedom, why don’t you give me at least a couple of characters who also believe in rights for women? This is particularly annoying with James. I think the author is trying to present him as a Darcy-esque character, but while Darcy eventually comes to admire Elizabeth’s quick mind and wit, James continually tries to keep Mary from doing her job in the most patronizing ways possible. I found it very irritating.

I did think that the last book was the best in this series. Mary and James have a much better relationship, and she is able to do more mystery solving than in any of the previous books. In my mind, these books are almost equally balanced between the poor writing and sexist characters and the fun of the mysteries, particularly the last one. I don’t think I’ll be reading this series again.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Classics Roundup, October 2017

Mini reviews of the classics I've been reading lately. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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As you might remember, one of my reading goals this year is to read some of the classics I’ve missed out on along the way. Some of these I’m genuinely excited to read; others are just ones I feel like I should read. Unfortunately, most of the books in this roundup fall into the latter category. (Summaries via Goodreads.com)

Candide

Brought up in the household of a powerful Baron, Candide is an open-minded young man, whose tutor, Pangloss, has instilled in him the belief that ‘all is for the best’. But when his love for the Baron’s rosy-cheeked daughter is discovered, Candide is cast out to make his own way in the world.

And so he and his various companions begin a breathless tour of Europe, South America and Asia, as an outrageous series of disasters befall them – earthquakes, syphilis, a brush with the Inquisition, murder – sorely testing the young hero’s optimism.

I didn’t enjoy this novella. I understand it’s a satire on optimism vs. pessimism, but I just don’t like satire. Sorry, Candide fans. On the bright side, Candide is very short, so at least I didn’t give up a lot of time to finish it.

Rating: Meh

Bartleby the Scrivener

Academics hail it as the beginning of modernism, but to readers around the world—even those daunted by Moby-Dick—Bartleby the Scrivener is simply one of the most absorbing and moving novellas ever. Set in the mid-19th century on New York City’s Wall Street, it was also, perhaps, Herman Melville’s most prescient story: what if a young man caught up in the rat race of commerce finally just said, “I would prefer not to”?

This Melville novella is certainly more interesting than Moby Dick, a book I attempted and DNF’ed about halfway through. The main character says, “I would prefer not to” about everything in his life, and *spoiler* eventually dies in poverty because he has given up on life. It’s interesting to think about, but this is not a book that you’ll feel invested in.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Lady Susan

Beautiful, flirtatious, and recently widowed, Lady Susan Vernon seeks an advantageous second marriage for herself, while attempting to push her daughter into a dismal match. A magnificently crafted novel of Regency manners and mores that will delight Austen enthusiasts with its wit and elegant expression.

Now this (no surprise) I loved! If you’ve seen and enjoyed the recent movie based on this book, I’m happy to report that the book is very similar to the movie. This is Jane Austen’s lovely writing in a small package. Highly recommended if you like Jane Austen or epistolary novels in general.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Their Eyes Were Watching God

When Janie, at sixteen, is caught kissing shiftless Johnny Taylor, her grandmother swiftly marries her off to an old man with sixty acres. Janie endures two stifling marriages before meeting the man of her dreams, who offers not diamonds, but a packet of flowering seeds …

I read this book as a teenager, and the only thing I remembered from it was greatly disliking the written dialect (something I still generally dislike). So I decided I should read it again as an adult. I definitely got more out of it this time–Janie’s inner journey, through the three husbands she had, to becoming her own woman who doesn’t allow others to stifle her is the real focus of the book–but it’s still not one of my favorites. (As a side note, I’m very glad I finished reading this book after Hurricane Irma hit. A devastating hurricane produces the climax of this book, and it was crazy reading about the destruction of all the small Florida towns that are near where we live!)

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Othello

In Othello, Shakespeare creates a powerful drama of a marriage that begins with fascination (between the exotic Moor Othello and the Venetian lady Desdemona), with elopement, and with intense mutual devotion and that ends precipitately with jealous rage and violent deaths.

Ugh. (Sorry, Shakespeare fans.) I don’t like tragedies much, and as someone who hasn’t really studied Shakespeare, I found a lot of this hard to understand. I’d much rather watch a Shakespeare play than read one, as I always seem to get a lot more out of it when I have more context. I’m glad I read Othello, but I’m also glad I’m done reading it.

Rating: Meh

ARC: Artemis

Andy Weir's latest book, Artemis, is a great space heist book and a great follow up to The Martian. #spon | Book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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*Note: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley. All opinions are my own.

Jazz Bashara is a criminal.

Well, sort of. Life on Artemis, the first and only city on the moon, is tough if you’re not a rich tourist or an eccentric billionaire. So smuggling in the occasional harmless bit of contraband barely counts, right? Not when you’ve got debts to pay and your job as a porter barely covers the rent.

Everything changes when Jazz sees the chance to commit the perfect crime, with a reward too lucrative to turn down. But pulling off the impossible is just the start of her problems, as she learns that she’s stepped square into a conspiracy for control of Artemis itself—and that now, her only chance at survival lies in a gambit even riskier than the first. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I’m one of the many people who greatly enjoyed Andy Weir’s The Martian, despite my lack of interest in sci fi. Even if you have little or no knowledge about space or science, the book tells an engaging story with interesting characters. Artemis is the same.

Jazz is a petty criminal who gets caught up in a job that’s over her head, and she has to call in every favor she can just to stay alive. She’s funny and flawed, and above all, she’s determined not to be exiled from the moon–the only real home she’s ever known. I loved Jazz’s character and her motley collection of friends (and enemies).

The best words I can use to describe the plot of Artemis are MOON HEIST. That’s not totally accurate, but that’s certainly the feel I got from the story. Again, I’m no scientist, so I have no idea if the technical details of the plot make sense, but even if they don’t, the fast-paced plot kept me engaged the whole time. Who doesn’t want to read about a moon heist?

There is a lot of swearing in this book, if that kind of thing bothers you, and Artemis has much more of a sci fi feel than The Martian did. Still, even though science fiction isn’t really my thing, I enjoyed this book. If you liked Andy Weir’s writing style in The Martian, you might like it too.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Book Series I’ve Finally Finished Reading!

All of the latest book series I've finally finished reading (some of these are all-time favorites!). | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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There are so many book series that I’ve enjoyed and yet took forever to finish reading, and I’ve finally decided to make finishing some of those series a priority. Okay, some of these series are ongoing, but I’ve read all the books that have been published, so I think that’s close enough!

(Please note that, because I’m providing a quick summary of many or all the books in a series, there will be spoilers!)

Flavia de Luce

I’ve read a couple of these books previously (reviews here and here), and I was glad to pick them up again. Flavia is as precocious and irritating as ever, which depending on your point of view is either the whole charm of the series or the reason you hate it.

The latest books in this series are Speaking from Among the Bones, As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, and Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d. I found Speaking from Among the Bones a particularly great continuation of the series, as Flavia actually starts connecting with her sisters, Feely and Daffy, as their lives start changing and Buckshaw is sold.

Unfortunately, I thought the quality of the series started to decline with As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust. Flavia is still a wonderful character, but (*spoiler alert*) the fact that she is sent to a girls’ boarding school that is secretly training her to be a secret agent feels like an unrealistic twist to a *mostly* realistic mystery series.

In Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, Flavia returns to England, where she finds her father in the hospital and a corpse hanging from a door, and the series gets back to normal. I’m hoping that further installments in the series will follow that trend, rather than the out-of-left-field twist in As Chimney Sweepers.

Incorrigible Children

This series is one of my favorite reads of 2017! Penelope Lumley, a young governess in Victorian England, is hired to care for three children with a unique problem–they were literally raised by wolves. Miss Lumley has high expectations for her pupils, and she lovingly guides them through learning both table manners and epic poems.

As the series progresses, it becomes clear that someone is out to get the Incorrigible children, and possibly Miss Lumley, too. As the children and their governess (along with the oblivious Lord Ashton and his spoiled wife) travel throughout England and face various strange and hilarious perils, we uncover more and more of the mystery behind these children.

This series has been described as Jane Eyre meets Lemony Snicket, and I couldn’t agree more. There’s a tongue-in-cheek kind of narration which is very charming, and the series puts a fun twist on Gothic elements. If you like silly, strange MG novels, you’ll like the Incorrigible Children series.

Miss Peregrine

I had to look up a synopsis of the first book before reading the rest of the series because it has been so long since I read it. In case you, like me, need a quick review, here it is: After the dramatic events of the first book, in which Jacob finds out that he is one of a group of peculiar children and discovers that he can see the hollowgasts that are trying to hurt him and his new friends, Jacob and his friends have to fight off hollowgasts and wights in order to get Miss Peregrine back to her human form.

Am I glad I finished this series? Yes, although I won’t remember these books a few months from now. The books are quirky and strange, and the photographs are always a highlight, but I wish they had been a bit more memorable. Still, the sweet ending was worth it for me.

Septimus Heap

Ahhhh I loved this series so much! After reading the first book years ago, I was finally inspired to read the rest of the Septimus Heap series, and I’m soooo glad I did! To me, this was a more lighthearted, MG take on a Harry Potter-esque series. But don’t let that scare you off–there’s enough of a difference between that series and this one that Septimus Heap doesn’t suffer from the comparison.

As the story progresses from Magyk, in which Septimus finds out who his true family is and becomes the apprentice to the wizard Marcia, we go through Flyte, in which Septimus has some growing pains as a wizard; Physik, when Septimus gets sent back in time and Jenna, Nicko, and Snorri attempt to save him; Queste, in which Septimus, Jenna, and Beetle have to rescue Nicko and Snorri from the House of Foryx (and Septimus gets sent on a deadly queste); and Syren, when Septimus, Jenna, Beetle, Wolf Boy, and Lucy all end up on an island with a syren and Tertius Fume tries to release an army of jinn.

So many things happen in those books that it’s difficult to provide a summary–you’ll just have to read them yourself! But the last two books were my favorites by far. in Darke, Septimus and his estranged brother Simon have to team up as a Darke Domaine takes over the Palace and tries to enter the Wizard Tower, despite Marcia’s best efforts. Merrin, Beetle, and many other characters from past books make an appearance as Jenna accidentally joins a witch’s coven and Septimus completes his Darke Week by exploring the Darke Halls and searching for Alther’s ghost. And finally, Fyre, the finale of the series. I loved having all the gang back together, and Septimus gets to finally resolve some of the plot threads that have been hanging for books.

If you like magic, dragons, quirky characters, and plot threads that continue throughout the series and are resolved in a most satisfying fashion, you have to read the Septimus Heap series. I can’t recommend it enough.

Jasper Fforde–Shades of Grey and The Fourth Bear

My latest reads by a favorite author, Jasper Fforde. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I love Jasper Fforde‘s writing, especially his Thursday Next series, and recently I’ve been exploring some of his other novels. These books are both part of different series, and although I didn’t love them the way I love the Thursday Next books, I’m still glad I read them. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Shades of Grey

Part social satire, part romance, part revolutionary thriller, Shades of Grey tells of a battle against overwhelming odds. In a society where the ability to see the higher end of the color spectrum denotes a better social standing, Eddie Russet belongs to the low-level House of Red and can see his own color—but no other. The sky, the grass, and everything in between are all just shades of grey, and must be colorized by artificial means.

Stunningly imaginative, very funny, tightly plotted, and with sly satirical digs at our own society, this novel is for those who loved Thursday Next but want to be transported somewhere equally wild, only darker; a world where the black and white of moral standpoints have been reduced to shades of grey.

I enjoyed this book for Fforde’s sharp wit and creative world, but it’s much darker than his usual fare. Eddie is a young man growing up in a dystopian society in which your social status is based upon your color perception. There are the usual love across societal boundaries and discovery of governmental secrets that are so typical of dystopian novels, but I’m a fan of those tropes, so it worked for me. I did enjoy Shades of Grey, but I’m not sure I’m going to seek out the rest of the series.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Fourth Bear

The Gingerbreadman—psychopath, sadist, genius, and killer—is on the loose. But it isn’t Jack Spratt’s case. He and Mary Mary have been demoted to Missing Persons following Jack’s poor judgment involving the poisoning of Mr. Bun the baker. Missing Persons looks like a boring assignment until a chance encounter leads them into the hunt for missing journalist Henrietta “Goldy” Hatchett, star reporter for The Daily Mole. Last to see her alive? The Three Bears, comfortably living out a life of rural solitude in Andersen’s wood.

But all is not what it seems. How could the bears’ porridge be at such disparate temperatures when they were poured at the same time? Why did Mr. and Mrs. Bear sleep in separate beds? Was there a fourth bear? And if there was, who was he, and why did he try to disguise Goldy’s death as a freak accident?

A fun addition to the Nursery Crime series. As always, Fforde’s sense of humor will keep you coming back for more, even if the zany mystery doesn’t hold your interest (and it likely will). If you like quirky fairy tale retellings with a dash of mystery, you’ll probably enjoy this series.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

ARC: Witch Chocolate Bites

Note: I received a free copy of this book from the author. All opinions are my own.

When novice witch Caitlyn Le Fey heads to an outdoor cinema festival at a beautiful Cotswolds manor, the last thing she expects is for the evening to end in murder. But when a dead man is found with fang marks in his neck and her old vampire uncle, Viktor, is arrested, Caitlyn must use all her newfound magic powers to clear his name.

Sleuthing isn’t simple, however, with so many strangers arriving at her grandmother’s enchanted chocolate shop: there’s the secretive village tenant with creepy Goth tastes, the inscrutable new butler at Huntingdon Manor–and a charming Frenchman keen to win Caitlyn’s heart. And that’s before she has to master the art of making the perfect chocolate soufflé or deal with a Levitation spell gone horribly wrong! Still, at least she has the help of a friendly English mastiff and her naughty kitten, Nibs, not to mention her sassy American cousin and all the village gossips! (Summary via Goodreads.com)

If you’ve been following this blog for long, you know that I’m a fan of H.Y. Hanna’s cozy mysteries, and I’m lucky enough to be part of her review team. Witch Chocolate Bites is the latest in the Bewitched by Chocolate series (you can see my other reviews of this series here, here, and here), which features Caitlyn, a budding witch who has just discovered her talent for magic, along with a family she never knew she had.

I enjoyed this story more than the others in the series. As always, Caitlyn’s cousin Pomona is a lot of fun, and we got a lot more scenes with Caitlyn and James. Caitlyn’s budding relationship with James is so good, and I can’t wait to see it grow! The magic in this book was even more integral to the story than in the past, which I enjoyed.

If you like cozy mysteries with a touch of the supernatural (and a bit of romance too), you might want to check out this frothy, fun series.

ARC Mini Reviews

Quick reviews of my latest ARCs, including Seven Days of Us. #spon | Book reviews by newberyandbeyond.com
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Note: I received the following books for review consideration. All opinions are my own. All summaries via Goodreads.com

A Tale of Two Kitties

With a well-placed paw on a keyboard or a pointed stare, Kathleen’s two cats, Hercules and Owen, have helped her to solve cases in the past—so she has learned to trust their instincts. But she will need to rely on them more than ever when a twenty-year-old scandal leads to murder…

The arrival of the Janes brothers has the little town of Mayville Heights buzzing. Everyone of a certain age remembers when Victor had an affair with Leo’s wife, who then died in a car accident.

Now it seems the brothers are trying to reconcile, until Kathleen finds Leo dead. The police set their sights on Leo’s son and Kathleen’s good friend Simon, who doesn’t have much of an alibi.

This is a cute cozy mystery about Kathleen and her vaguely magical cats who must attempt to solve a murder in Minnesota that might be connected to the small town’s past. There are all the usual cozy mystery aspects–a handsome police detective boyfriend, lots of small town friends, a local diner–so if you like cozy mysteries in general, you’ll probably like this one. I wished the magical cats had a little more to do with the plot. Maybe their walking through walls and vanishing abilities get more play in other books in this series.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief

For several years Miss Lane was companion, amanuensis, collaborator and friend to the lady known to the Psychical Society only as Miss X – until she discovered that Miss X was actually a fraud.

Now she works with Mr Jasper Jesperson as a consulting detective, but the cases are not as plentiful as they might be and money is getting tight – until a case that reaches across the entirety of London lands in their laps.

This book is like a supernatural version of Sherlock Holmes. Miss Lane, a former psychic researcher, has become disillusioned with the psychic world and joined forces with Mr. Jesperson to focus on more down-to-earth cases. But Miss Lane gets pulled back in when psychics around London start disappearing. The book focuses heavily on the supernatural aspects (yes, psychic powers are real in this book), which I didn’t care for myself. But if you’re interested in a mystery that combines psychic powers and Sherlock Holmes-like deduction, you might check this book out.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Seven Days of Us

It’s Christmas, and for the first time in years the entire Birch family will be under one roof. Even Emma and Andrew’s elder daughter—who is usually off saving the world—will be joining them at Weyfield Hall, their aging country estate. But Olivia, a doctor, is only coming home because she has to. Having just returned from treating an epidemic abroad, she’s been told she must stay in quarantine for a week…and so too should her family.

For the next seven days, the Birches are locked down, cut off from the rest of humanity—and even decent Wi-Fi—and forced into each other’s orbits. Younger, unabashedly frivolous daughter Phoebe is fixated on her upcoming wedding, while Olivia deals with the culture shock of being immersed in first-world problems.  As Andrew sequesters himself in his study writing scathing restaurant reviews and remembering his glory days as a war correspondent, Emma hides a secret that will turn the whole family upside down.

In close proximity, not much can stay hidden for long, and as revelations and long-held tensions come to light, nothing is more shocking than the unexpected guest who’s about to arrive…

This book is packed with drama. There are secrets aplenty, relationship breakups, children from previous relationships, illnesses, deaths, and much more. These events draw a disparate family together during a Christmas quarantine. This book reminded me of Hello from the Gillespies, an old favorite of mine (honestly, I’d recommend that one over Seven Days of Us). Still, this was an enjoyable book, and if you’re looking for some juicy drama with a tidy (but not too tidy) ending, Seven Days of Us is for you.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

ARC: Witch Summer Night’s Cream

A quick review of A Witch Summer Night's Cream by H.Y. Hanna. #spon | Book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received this book from the author for review consideration. All opinions are my own.

Caitlyn Le Fey is looking forward to celebrating Midsummer’s Eve in the tiny English village of Tillyhenge. But when a teenage girl is mysteriously murdered and a priceless love potion goes missing, she and her cousins are plunged into a puzzling mystery.

Is the girl’s death connected to the midnight bonfires at the ancient stone circle? What about the two strangers who recently visited the enchanted chocolate shop belonging to the “village witch”? With her naughty black kitten and toothless old vampire uncle – not to mention the dashing Lord James Fitzroy – all lending a helping hand, Caitlyn sets out to do some magical sleuthing.

But Midsummer’s Eve is fast approaching and spells are going disastrously wrong… Can Caitlyn use her newfound witch powers to find the killer – and maybe even mend a broken heart? (Summary via Amazon.com)

In the latest installment of the Bewitched by Chocolate series (you can see my previous reviews here and here), Caitlyn’s cousin is suspected of murder and Caitlyn has to use her wits and her magic to prove her innocence.

As in previous books, Caitlyn’s relationship with her cousin Pomona is hilarious. Whether they’re debating fashion or chasing murderers, they’re funny and supportive of each other, despite their many differences. There is less information revealed about Caitlyn’s birth family than I would have liked–when will she find out what happened to her birth mother? Why are her grandmother and aunt so reticent? But on the other hand, there is significantly more magic in this book, which was fun.

On the whole, I think this was one of the strongest installments in this series yet. It’s lighthearted and fun with interesting family relationships and a lot of magic.

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