Kiss of Steel, by Bec McMaster

Totally enjoyable vampire romance. Blade is a terrific character: I especially like that he's in a difficult, in-between space neither of the gutter nor of the Echelon, no longer fully human but not yet completely turned. His cockney speech gives him a rough, dangerous edge, and he carries a angry chip on his shoulder, a sense of shame, a bitterness that reminded me of another one of my favorites, Catherine Lloyd's WINDEMERE HALL.

Gunpowder Alchemy, by Jeannie Lin

Everything changed for Jin Soling and her family when the Emperor executed her father, a master engineer, for his failure to defend the Qing Empire from the English ‘devil ships.’ Soling sets off on a quest which involves her in Imperial and rebel plots, testing her loyalties as she struggles to figure out whom she can trust and which side she is on.

Fresh, wonderfully imaginative, packed full of adventure and intoxicating, restrained passion. An absolutely delight. I immediately bought the next book in the series!

Fallen Star, by Susannah Nix

Go behind the scenes on a movie shooting in New Orleans, where you’ll meet Grace, a script supervisor, and Scott, the incredibly hot but also deeply troubled movie star looking to redeem himself in this Enemies-to-Friends romance.

One of Nix’s gifts as an author is that she’ll also take you behind the glamour, into these characters’ hearts. They feel like real people, with real struggles, who are each trying to figure out how to connect on a deep level. The appeal at first glance might be the ‘eye-candy’ hot bod, but it’s the small things—when he grazes her knuckles with his thumb or finds just the right spot behind her ear—that make my heart race!

The Bride Wore Dead, by E. M. Kaplan

The subtitle of this is “An Un-Cozy, Un-Culinary” mystery, and it is truly refreshing and original. Josie Tucker is a food critic, desperately struggling with her finances and her health when she gets roped into being a last minute stand-in bridesmaid, only to later learn the bride ends up dead on the honeymoon—was it an accident or murder? The bride’s mother enlists Josie and sends her on a quest for the truth.

Josie is a smart, bitingly funny, flawed but engaging protagonist, and the book is full of fantastic, memorable characters who feel real. I finished this first book and immediately bought the next book in the series!

The House of Silk, by Anthony Horowitz

From the creator of Foyle’s War, a marvelous Sherlock Holmes novel, in the style of Conan Doyle. Horowitz has all the elements you’d expect in a classic Holmes and has absolutely nailed the style. There’s a clever plot that weaves together two mysteries, memorable characters, and puzzles. What surprised me was that my favorite parts were where Horowitz carefully colored outside the lines in the narration—reflecting on the humanitarian problem of childhood poverty in London in 1890, which the Baker Street Irregulars brings up, but Conan Doyle never “saw” because it was simply part of the backdrop of his life. Horowitz also spares quick, more compassionate asides for characters like Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson, remarking that while she appears in his narratives, he regrets never taking the time to know her. I thought these “blind spots” Horowitz has the sensitivity to see were quite touching and made the novel something better than just another mystery.

A Test of Wills, by Charles Todd

Ian Rutledge returns from WWI a shattered man, attempting to carry on, haunted by the voice of a man whose execution he ordered. But the idyllic English countryside still harbors death, and Rutledge pursues the case, uncovering relationships and secret tragedies that go back to the war and before in this English village.

I enjoyed this period mystery very much, which is more grave than a “cozy,” but not as grim as Rennie Airth. There are several nice twists along the way that I didn’t see coming, and I loved the attention to setting, particularly the description of the country and the gardens. A TEST OF WILLS is the first book in the Ian Rutledge series. “Charles Todd,” the mother-son writing team, also have a separate Bess Crawford mystery series which follows a WWI nurse that I’m looking forward to reading.

River of Darkness, by Rennie Airth

A perfectly executed serial killer thriller, set in the English countryside post-WWI.

Having survived the trenches, a physically and emotionally scarred John Madden takes up his work again as Inspector with Scotland Yard to pursue a killer who came out of the war with a taste for blood. It’s grim, and stomach-turning, as one would expect a serial killer thriller to be, but I loved the procedural and the early forensics. The last half in particular is an edge-of-your-seat-turning-pages. I love the 1921 setting, and it was really fresh and original to see a mystery set in this place and period that isn’t an Agatha Christie-style manor house “cozy.” River of Darkness is the first in the Inspector Madden series.

First Casualty, by Ben Elton

A terrific WWI book, panoramic in scope, that begins with Inspector Dan Kingsley, disgraced and thrown in prison for being a contentious objector, who finds himself unexpectedly sprung, given a new identity and shipped off to the Western Front to investigate the murder of an officer. It was fascinating, fun, surprising, sometimes funny, and I really, really enjoyed it. There is an absolutely hilarious scene in Chapter 36 in which the British soldiers are trying to work out how the war started and what they’re doing in it.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

Absolutely extraordinary. You'd have to be half-mad to come up with a plot this brilliantly convoluted, and if the author had gone insane in the process of pulling it off, I think you'd have to excuse him. Not only does Bishop, tasked with solving the murder, switch bodies each day, the days are intercut, jumping back and forth in time, so that he's continually running into (or having to avoid) earlier and later versions of himself. Not to mention the additional players in this high-stakes chess game. Nothing, literally nothing is as it seems in this breathtakingly clever mystery.

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

I got hooked on the Jason Isaac’s mystery series, “Case Histories” (2011), on Amazon Prime Video, and was fascinated to read the original, which is similar, but very different, particularly in the way events are laid out. I adore nonlinear fiction and delayed decoding (small details whose significance is only revealed later), and I really liked this about the book, which I found innovative. Book 1 contains three cases, jumping back and forth in time, hopping point of view, and it was a delightful brain-scramble to keep up. I loved that about this.

That said, I feel like the book needs a warning label: If you can relate to these characters (like I did), you should probably not be reading this book. There is an existential darkness, a chronic depression and sense of ugliness, that mires all of them, which spilled over into my day-to-day life while I was reading it. The end is satisfyingly optimistic in a way that I enjoyed at the time, but the morning after feels improbable and contrived. I am interested in reading the next books in the series, but not sure that I should….

I do highly, unqualifiedly, recommend the TV adaptation, which is gritty, but not nearly as bleak.

Operation Phoenix, by Susan Hayes

I enjoyed this Second Chance romance when Nova Task Force commander, Dax Rossi, is sent to take over the investigation of a theft at an isolated planetary base where DNA samples of fallen soldiers are stored in a cryogenic vault and butts heads with an old flame, agent Lieutenant Trinity West, assigned to protect the base.

There’s an intriguing mystery plot, great action, and a really satisfying relationship. Had a blast. Look forward to reading more in the Nova Force series by this author!

Arabian Days, by Barbara Russell

A delightful YA adventure through a magical world set in Babylon, around the time of the Persian Wars, but with dragons and steam-powered flying carpets, magical mirrors and mechanical butterflies. Ashur, who has lost his family, disfigured in battle, and taken into slavery, is suffering from an unusual curse and unable to race any more after a terrible accident. Chloe is a Spartan warrior, turned spy, turned thief, to recover a lost treasure for her king, when her life becomes entangled with Ashur’s. Now both of them are on a mission to track down Ashur’s evil doppelganger. But binding him will turn out to be a lot more difficult than either of them think.

Russell does it again, with sweet, courageous characters and a fantastical world that is bursting with imagination! Loved it. Didn’t want this story to end!

Broken, by Melony Paradise

Alyssa has a good job as the personal assistant to Kayn, the commander of the alien race, the Szu’Kara, who stepped in after the devastating Resource Wars on Earth. She’s had a crush on the handsome alien for years, and not long ago, they’ve taken their relationship to another level, during which Kayn initiated her in a heaven-like mystical experience, a foretaste of where the Szu’Kara promise all humanity will go when they are ready.

It all looks (and feels) much too good to be true, as Alyssa discovers when she accidentally ends up pregnant—are their species even compatible? And how will Kayn react to the news? And why is she now being treated differently? As the threads of deception begin to unravel, Alyssa quickly discovers her friends and enemies are not who she thought as she struggles to reconcile the Kayn she thinks she loves with what she’s being told about him. Her feelings are complicated by her growing attraction to Sebastian, the leader of the rebel movement, as the book hurtles toward its shocking, gut-punch of a conclusion.

Figments, by Toni Burnley

“I’ve spent my whole life trying to understand reality.”

This is one of those extraordinary, wildly original, brilliant books where you have to be willing to trust the various narrative threads will all come together in the end (and they do!). It’s a dazzling ride that touches on everything from quantum tunneling, to mind/body dualism, the possibility of reincarnation, Shakespeare, Existentialism, multiple personalities, and the problem of how we know what is true? I was completely fascinated.

The book is partly an exploration of good and evil. One of the central throughlines is abuse, and there are parts of the book that were so shocking I nearly gave up, but if you keep going, the level of psychological insight and the genius of the work as a whole is absolutely worth it. A stunning book. I would read anything this author writes in the future. Reminded me of Michael Redhill’s BELLEVUE SQUARE and Herman Hesse.

The Boy Who Killed Santa, by Barbara Russell

13-year-old Hau is having a rough year. He’s still adjusting to having a new stepsister and stepfather, and he’s bullied at school. Hau knows he’s different—for one thing, he sees fairies—but it isn’t easy being called a schizo-crepdo and periodically getting beaten up. Sometimes it feels like his best friend Sarah, who is mute and understands being ‘different,’ is the only one who really gets him.

Christmas is the worst, because he can’t but help remember it was on Christmas that he watched Santa kill his father. If only Hau could get his revenge…. Maybe his father would even come back if he could just kill Santa, which is how, one day, Hau finds himself in a strange little bookshop down a strange little alley that he’s never seen on any map.

Things do not, however, go as expected…which is where the book gets even more fun in this hilarious fairy tale holiday mash up!

The Mystery at Falconbridge Hall

What a gem of a book! The author has a total mastery of the details of the turn-of-the-century time period, and the book is rich with detail and historically plausible in a way many period romances are not. This is a ‘Jane Eyre’-type romance that grows between the master and the governess, but I love that it’s a slow-burn, not immediate sparks, which seems to me much more true to life. I love that the action spans both England and Peru, which I wasn’t expecting, but was so bold and fascinating!

Can’t wait to read more by this author!

In the Image of Man, by Mark Long

“Belief is a hard thing to explain. You cannot have a pound of belief or a pint of it. It can be fresh and hot or comfortable and long-standing, but it is the stuff that gives gods their power.”

A roadside tragedy unexpectedly wakens a spark in this whimsical, often funny, definitely thought-provoking speculative novel about the birth and growth of a small god. As it evolves in consciousness, it takes on a name (“Bob”) and slowly cultivates a small band of loyal followers for whom it performs minor miracles in its quest to help them and gather more believers. An imminent deadly threat poses the ultimate test of the new godling’s powers and its relationship to humanity.

The concept is intriguing. For me, the highlight of the book is the human characters, who are drawn with insight and compassion, unique and likeable.

Not Another Family Wedding, by Jackie Lau

NOT ANOTHER FAMILY WEDDING has everything I’d hope for in a romantic comedy—the wedding mishaps, the big crazy family, the woman trying and failing at managing the chaos, and happily-ever-after friends-to-lovers. <SIGH!>

This stands out, however, because the characters are deeply human, and the love scenes are heart-shattering, ego-shattering...just beautiful. I love the heroine, Natalie, because while she’s throwing all this energy into fearing what her family could do wrong, she’s unable to manage her own emotions at a critical point. And I love the hero, Connor, because he’s not the typical ‘alpha’ male. He manages to be supportive and not steal limelight, while still being a multi-dimensional character with his own arc.

And I really appreciated Lau’s style, which is the anti-thesis of ‘big’ cliché scenes. The attraction comes in flickers, rather than a stagy Hollywood ‘Meet Cute.’ The end is heartfelt and satisfying without being a ridiculous, implausible ‘Grand Gesture,’ and you sense these people are going to be happier and together longer because it has been subtle and gradual, understated rather than over-the-top. Just loved it. Promptly bought the next book in the series about Natalie’s cousin Iris. Can’t wait!

An Accidental Love Affair, by Davida Ann Samenski

The last thing North Carolina country-girl and aspiring romance author, Nicole Delancey, expected on her dash through JFK, was to run into British actor and Hollywood “It Boy,” Reese Collins. Literally run into. One black eye and an upgraded ticket to first class later, he’s reading over her latest manuscript, and she’s concocting a clever plan to get him past the paparazzi waiting for him at Heathrow.

For Nicole—once she gets over her first star-struck moment—it’s a kind of embarrassing, once-in-a-lifetime event, but the media isn’t done with her, and neither is Reese, who’s smitten.

This is a rollicking, emotional roller-coaster of ride, from the charming Meet Cute, to hot sex, to misunderstandings and breakups, to more hot makeup sex, all the way to HEA.