Book review: Beguiling Beauty by Sherry Thomas

Beguiling the Beauty (Fitzhugh Trilogy, #1)Beguiling the Beauty by Sherry Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first book I’ve read by this author (who seems to have a remarkable writing range, from fantasy to mysteries to historical romances). I found myself quite taken by this story, despite some significant flaws. Without trying to reveal spoilers (although it *is* a romance, after all), the basic plot is hero falls in love with heroine at first sight, hero learns of heroine’s perfidy and reveals it publicly, heroine swears revenge, and the couple lives happily ever after. 🙂
The author’s best writing happens during the period when the heroine is seeking her revenge. The somewhat unrealistic (even for a romance!) plot device results in an authentic and gripping romance that is the highlight of the book. The book weakens after the revenge subplot predictably blows up in the heroine’s face, and the ending, while highly satisfactory from a romance novel point of view, seems to happen at breakneck speed and without the subtlety of the rest of the book. (It’s almost as if the author realized she was in danger of going over her page limit and had to end the book sooner rather than later.)
The presence of the secondary characters who are clearly in line for their own novels is somewhat distracting, as they are almost forcibly inserted into certain parts of the book without any need for their existence.
But the book totally redeems itself during the period when the hero and heroine are discovering each other’s true selves. There is heartfelt romance and a deft and subtle touch in revealing it.
I am not so in love with the secondary characters in this book that I plan on reading the rest of the trilogy, but I will definitely be trying her other books, in particular the Lady Sherlock Holmes books. She’s definitely an author worth keeping an eye out for!

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Book review: Setting the Table by Danny Meyer

Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in BusinessSetting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business by Danny Meyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Danny Meyer has created an extremely successful restaurant empire that includes restaurants as varied as The Modern (in MOMA), Union Square Cafe, Blue Smoke, and Shake Shack. In his book, he relates how he built his restaurant business and what he thinks the keys to success are.
While the author’s background is definitely in the restaurant and hospitality business, his outlook and his philosophy, not to mention the rules he has for his business, are applicable to all businesses (and non-profits). The Union Square Hospitality Group (the name of Danny Meyer’s business) focuses on treating its employees well, attracting and retaining customers, being community-oriented, and delivering an excellent product. All of this, the author believes, results in a profitable business model.
The results speak for themselves. The restaurants in his portfolio all have a reputation for excellent food and outstanding customer service. The author discusses how he looks for “a hospitality heart” when hiring employees.
I am generally not a fan of business books, but this one is well-written, straightforward, and thoughtful. In particular, I like how the author presents his philosophy and gives concrete examples of how that philosophy creates a successful business model. (This goes much further than “the customer is always right.”). In fact, the author states explicitly that even when the customer is not right, focusing on giving the customer a positive experience still is the correct approach.
Anyone who believes in emphasizing customer satisfaction, especially those in service-oriented businesses would benefit from reading this book. Heads of non-profits—where care and feeding of their donors is key to thriving—should also read this book. I highly recommend it! (Which, given that it is a business book, is unheard of!)

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Book review: A Promise of Fire by Amanda Bouchet

A Promise of Fire (Kingmaker Chronicles #1)A Promise of Fire by Amanda Bouchet
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an unusual cross-genre book–part fantasy and part romance. There is deeper character development and more sparkling dialogue than you find in most fantasy novels. The author also takes care in developing her world, although much of it is by inference and implication rather than narrative. The advantage of this, of course, is that the novel moves much faster, and you learn about the character at the same time you learn about the world.
The story is told in first person by the heroine, Cat. She is an accomplished, snarky, and flawed character. I liked her immensely. The hero, Griffin, too, is very appealing. I also like that the romance is turned on its head, and it’s Cat who is reluctant to move the relationship forward, rather than Griffin. The secondary characters are well-developed and have their own personalities, especially Griffin’s team.
The weakness of most cross-genre books is that it does a mediocre job of both genres, and it’s the combination that makes such a book unique. The length of this book enables the author to treat each genre with the attention it deserves, so that fantasy and romance readers are both satisfied. And if you’re like me and love both genres equally, this book is deeply satisfying. Or, as satisfying as a swords-and-knives bodice ripper can be. (Which is, to say, quite a bit.) I am looking forward to reading the second book in this series!

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Book review: Blythe by John Kramer

BlytheBlythe by John Kramer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have no idea how to classify this book–it’s as if the author of The Hunger Games trilogy went drinking with Friedrich Hayek (“The Road to Serfdom”) and C.S. Lewis, and they all decided to write a novel together (while drinking). 🙂
The book is all about faith and freedom and redemption, and, yet, it is about none of these things. I have concluded that it is one of those rare books where you get out of the book what you put in, only with your thoughts more deeply developed and your words more lyrically written.
I realize my review is somewhat cryptic, but the book defies classification and is one of those books that stays with you long after you’ve finished it. It isn’t the kind of book I normally read, and it’s not always a comfortable read (intentionally so). Even with those caveats, I really enjoyed it, and it will keep me thinking for quite a while.
If you’re looking for something out of the ordinary to get your mind to go down roads it doesn’t normally travel, I highly recommend “Blythe” to get those brain cells going!

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Book review: The Partner Track by Helen Wan

The Partner TrackThe Partner Track by Helen Wan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a loosely autobiographical story of a Chinese-American woman trying to make partner in a prestigious New York law firm and how the deck is stacked against those who aren’t white, male, and privileged. (At least, that’s the book’s premise.)
There are some moments in the book that resonated with me (such as the times when folks confused the Asian female lawyers or the times that the main character is mistaken for a secretary), and those moments are both illuminating and bittersweet. But the book also portrays the main character as without fault in any of the unfolding events. And the final humiliating straw–the emotional crux of the novel–made no sense to me at all.
That being said, the book is well-written and an easy read with moments of poignancy. However, it would have been a more interesting read had there been more nuance and shades of gray. Not every white privileged male is a jerk and not every minority is deserving of advancement. It would have been nice to see more than cardboard cutouts of stereotypes. The book was good, but it could have been so much more than it was.

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Book review: Heresy by Sharan Newman

Heresy (Catherine LeVendeur, #8)Heresy by Sharan Newman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the eighth in the Catherine LeVendeur mystery series. Overall, the series is fabulous. It is fabulous not only because of the depth and accuracy of the historical research but also because the series depicts the lives and conditions of Jews during the Middle Ages. This interesting (and often heartbreaking) perspective is unusual, especially for a mystery series, and fascinating. The author doesn’t presume to apologize for the attitudes she describes (and, indeed, there is no apology needed–facts are facts), nor does she attempt to modernize the characters’ outlook.
This particular mystery is interesting because one of the main characters is Astrolabe, the son of Abelard and Heloise. As someone whose mind is not suited to deep philosophical or theological debate (which I discovered when reading Abelard’s writings for a college course many years ago), I was relieved to learn that neither was Astrolabe’s. 🙂
The mystery itself is not the strongest part of this particular book (historical mysteries often have this issue), but the discussion about the religious factions, Astrolabe (and Heloise’s) places in the world, and the ramifications of the Crusade are knowledgeably described and well-integrated into the story.
The main character, Catherine herself, is a delightfully imperfect person, and the secondary characters–all of whom you have gotten to know throughout the series–continue to grow and deepen.
I highly recommend this series and this book. The series is best read in order.

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Book review: A Presumption of Death by Jill Paton Walsh

A Presumption of Death (Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane, #2)A Presumption of Death by Jill Paton Walsh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am a huge fan of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries by Dorothy Sayers, and I was cautiously optimistic when I discovered that there were additional mysteries written by Jill Paton Walsh based loosely on notes written by Dorothy Sayers. There generally has not been a good track record of sequels of this sort, but the Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane series seems to be an exception.
The mystery set in this book mostly falls to Harriet Vane to solve, but all of your favorite characters are there, from the Dowager Duchess of Denver to Mary and Charles Parker to the current Duke and Duchess of Denver. And, of course, Harriet and Peter.
As for how convincing the book is as a worthy sequel, I think the book holds up pretty well. Think of it as the first carbon copy of the original (I know–I date myself). The book is a strong and clean copy but definitely a derivative of the original. The most notable derivative is the Dowager Duchess. I adore her character and her unique combination of insight and rambling. In this book, she is there but is not quite her original idiosyncratic self, although still quite appealing.
The mystery is a solid Sayers mystery, with interesting secondary characters and the ubiquitous Bunter. All in all, this is a solid addition to the Lord Peter Wimsey canon.

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Book review: Satan’s Lullaby by Priscilla Royal

Satan's Lullaby (Medieval Mystery, #11)Satan’s Lullaby by Priscilla Royal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of my favorite mystery series, and I hoard the author’s books until her next one comes out (I know–it’s a really bad habit). The actual mysteries in the series are somewhat secondary to the quality of the author’s research in the time period and her ability to reflect medieval attitudes on various topics without 21st century judgment.
In this book, the two main characters of the series have to deal with a bishop-to-be who is “auditing” the religious house. This religious house is unusual in that it is run by women, and it is clear that the bishop-to-be is less than thrilled by the fact that women are in charge (since women are naturally inferior, of course).
I enjoyed reading about how deftly this character’s obstinacy and sense of superiority were dealt with in order to solve the murder. The fact that the two main characters were to some extent sidelined gave the author more opportunities to round out the secondary characters in the series, which only adds to the series’s depth.
This is yet another solid addition to the series. If you like mysteries set in medieval times, this is definitely not to be missed! (The series is best read in order.)

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Book review: Mary Russell’s War by Laurie King

Mary Russell's War: And Other Stories of SuspenseMary Russell’s War: And Other Stories of Suspense by Laurie R. King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love this series. I love everything about this series. I love the fact that it’s Sherlock Holmes. I love the fact that Sherlock Holmes found an apprentice worthy of him. I love the fact that the apprentice happens to be female. I love the fact that the books are (mostly) written in her voice. Did I mention that I love this series?
This particular book is a collection of short stories that either help flesh out cryptic details from various other books or add to the depth of particular books. It does NOT work as a standalone book as you will miss much of the context if you haven’t read the other books in the series. (If a female apprentice to Sherlock Holmes appeals to you, start at the beginning with “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.”)
I am generally not a fan of short stories, especially for mysteries, because the length constraint prevents a mystery from properly unfolding. But the author is a gifted writer who can pack several clues within a single sentence. And since the short stories generally happen in between her full-length books, the short stories work.
If you are a fan of the Mary Russell series, this is a very good addition for your collection. And if you haven’t yet discovered this series, what are you waiting for? Head immediately to your nearest bookstore/library for “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice!”

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Book review: Everything Under the Heavens by Dana Stabenow

Everything Under the Heavens (Silk and Song Trilogy, #1)Everything Under the Heavens by Dana Stabenow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I bought this book because it is uncommon to find English language historical fiction books about China. This book takes place in 14th century China, at the end of the reign of Kublai Khan (the grandson of Genghis Khan). The main character is the granddaughter of Marco Polo and, due to a variety of reasons, leaves her home to find her grandfather’s people. She is accompanied by various friends and relatives.
The historical period is interesting enough, and the historical detail is well integrated throughout the book. But I found the writing flat and without depth. And the characters were not interesting enough for me to be deeply invested in their fate. In fact, the story ends on a cliffhanger (which also annoyed me because even in a series, each book should be self-contained enough to stand on its own), but even that is probably not enough for me to read the next one in the series.
I say this with some disappointment, as I was truly hoping I would like the book. And I did enjoy it–it was a fast and easy read of an interesting historical time. Unfortunately, the book just wasn’t compelling enough to entice me to read the next one in the series.

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