Mini-Reviews: Dragon, Austen, Venom

Naomi Novik, His Majesty’s Dragon

When naval captain Will Laurence captures a French ship with a coveted dragon egg aboard, his life is turned upside-down. He bonds with the baby dragon, Temeraire, which means he must give up his naval career to become an aviator — a way of life completely different from what Laurence is used to. But his newfound friendship with Temeraire carries him through, and the two of them will have an important role to play in England’s ongoing war with France. I’ve read several books in this series, but I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed them! The concept (Napoleonic Wars plus dragons) is right up my alley, and I adore both Laurence and Temeraire as characters. I can’t wait to read about their further adventures in subsequent books! 

Lucy Worsley, Jane Austen at Home

This biography is a breezy and entertaining look at Jane Austen’s life through the lens of the homes she lived in. It also explores how the concepts of home and domesticity informed her work. As an enthusiastic Janeite, I enjoyed this book, although if you’ve read other Austen biographies you don’t particularly need to read this one. It appears reasonably well cited; there are numbered endnotes, and Worsley quotes many primary sources. She speculates quite a bit about motives and emotions (as she herself admits in the introduction), and I occasionally found her interpretations farfetched. Overall, though, a good read, especially for those who haven’t read other books on Austen’s life and work.

Kristin Burchell, Court of Venom

Badriya never wanted to become the queen’s poisoner, but she has no choice. The malicious Queen Solena will kill her if she refuses, and the city is surrounded by a wasteland full of witches and demons, making it impossible for her to run away. But when a neighboring prince arrives as a potential suitor for the queen, Badriya may finally get the chance to pursue a different life. This novel reads like a standard YA fantasy (though it’s marketed as adult); the heroine is an outsider with special powers who eventually has to fight for justice. It’s entertaining enough, but not particularly unique. I didn’t like how the book kept jumping between past and present; I think it was supposed to generate suspense, but instead it just made the world-building confusing and hard to follow. Overall, while I certainly didn’t hate this book, I wouldn’t particularly recommend it either.

Mini-Reviews: Falling, Shoe, Kiss

Lois McMaster Bujold, Falling Free

Space engineer Leo Graf doesn’t want to be a hero; he just wants to keep his head down and do his job. But his latest assignment involves genetically engineered humans called quaddies — they have a second pair of arms instead of legs, which makes them excellent workers in a zero-gravity environment. When Leo learns how the quaddies are exploited and what their eventual fate will be, he decides to take action. I enjoyed this competently written sci-fi adventure, but I wasn’t blown away. Parts of it feel dated now (understandably, since it was published in the ’80s), and the story and characters aren’t particularly unique. Still, the book does raise some interesting moral questions, and I’m excited to continue with the series!

Julie Murphy, If the Shoe Fits

Aspiring fashion designer Cindy has just graduated from design school, but now she’s at a loose end and feeling creatively blocked. Due to her stepmother’s connections, she is offered a place on Before Midnight, a Bachelor-esque reality show. Cindy is skeptical, but she thinks it could be an opportunity for her to publicize her name and brand, as well as break some ground by being a plus-size woman on a show full of thin beauties. But when she unexpectedly falls for the guy on the show, she has to figure out how much of their relationship is actually real. This novel, loosely based on Disney’s Cinderella, is a cute, quick read, but nothing about it really stood out to me. The love interest doesn’t have much personality, so I wasn’t invested in the romance. It’s a fine read if you like the premise, but definitely not a keeper for me.

Mary Balogh, Only a Kiss

Percy Hayes is the Earl of Hardford, but despite acceding to the title two years ago, he’s never been to the Hardford estate; located in the “wilds of Cornwall,” it’s a world away from his carefree, pleasure-filled life in London. Indeed, when he finally visits the estate on a whim, he runs into a bewildering set of problems and responsibilities. He also meets the beautiful but cold Imogen, Lady Barclay, and finds himself unwillingly attracted to her. But she carries deep emotional wounds from the Napoleonic Wars, in which her husband was tortured and killed, and she’s seemingly impervious to Percy’s charm. Can he convince her to open her heart? This sixth book in the Survivors’ Club series is one of my favorites. I loved seeing Percy’s normal charm and poise desert him in his conversations with Imogen, and his growth as he embraces his responsibilities is very satisfying. Definitely one of the strongest books in the series, in my opinion!

2021 Vintage Mystery Challenge Wrap-Up

One of my favorite reading challenges is the Vintage Mystery Challenge at My Reader’s Block. The 2021 challenge was Vintage Mystery Scattergories, in which participants had to read at least eight books that fit within various categories. I ended up reading nine books, all from the Golden Age era (pre-1960):

  1. Mavis Doriel Hay, Death on the Cherwell — Murder Is Academic
  2. Dorothy L. Sayers, Busman’s Honeymoon — Amateur Night
  3. Elizabeth Daly, Murders in Volume 2 — Murder by the Numbers
  4. Ellery Queen, The Chinese Orange Mystery — Colorful Crime
  5. Charlotte Armstrong, The Unsuspected — Book to Movie
  6. John Rowland, Murder in the Museum — Scene of the Crime
  7. Ngaio Marsh, Death in Ecstasy — Leave It to the Professionals
  8. Francis Duncan, So Pretty a Problem — Jolly Old England
  9. Mavis Doriel Hay, The Santa Klaus Murder — Malicious Men

My favorite of these, by far, was Busman’s Honeymoon, which might even be my favorite of all the Lord Peter Wimsey books. I also really liked The Unsuspected. I didn’t hit any real duds, although I’d probably say Murder in the Museum was my least favorite because I don’t remember much about it now. Anyway, this challenge was a pleasure as always, and I’m looking forward to starting my 2022 challenge soon!

Mini-Reviews: Promise, 25, Santa

Mary Balogh, Only a Promise

The fifth installment of the Survivors’ Club series focuses on Ralph Stockwood, who is tormented with guilt because he encouraged his three best friends to fight in the Napoleonic Wars; they all died while he survived. As a result, he has completely shut down emotionally and believes himself incapable of love, though as the heir to a dukedom it’s his duty to marry and produce an heir. His godmother’s companion, Chloe Muirhead, proposes a marriage of convenience, since he needs a wife and he’s her only chance of a husband. I enjoyed this book a lot but find I don’t have much to say about it. Only Enchanting is still my favorite in the series so far, but this one is definitely worthwhile if you enjoy Regency romance.

Poppy Alexander, 25 Days ’til Christmas

Single mom Kate has been struggling ever since her husband’s death four years ago. She works a terrible job for low pay, her son Jack may have special educational needs, and her mother-in-law is slowly succumbing to dementia in an expensive assisted living facility. Attempting to focus on the positive, Kate decides to do one special Christmas thing with Jack every day in the month leading up to Christmas. Along the way she connects with the handsome and sensitive Daniel, but will she be able to take a chance on love again? I hoped this would be a cute Christmas romance, but it’s just so dreary; both Kate and Daniel are pretty miserable until the very end of the book, and it’s not fun to see Kate getting constantly beaten down by life. If you’re looking for an upbeat holiday read, this is not the one!

Mavis Doriel Hay, The Santa Klaus Murder

This is a standard English country house murder with a Christmas twist: the family patriarch has arranged for one of his guests to pose as “Santa Klaus,” but the patriarch is then killed during the festivities. Was the man dressed as Saint Nick the murderer? Suspicion abounds, especially when a second Santa suit is found. I liked this book fine; I enjoy the author’s writing style, and the mystery is fair play, although the murderer doesn’t get a huge amount of page time. My biggest complaint is that none of the characters were particularly likable or interesting, so reading the book was like being stuck in a house with a lot of mildly unpleasant people. I did like the novel overall, though, and it was a fun seasonal read.

Mini-Reviews: Winter, Brass, Princess

Anne Gracie, The Winter Bride

Freddy Monkton-Coombes doesn’t want to get married and studiously avoids respectable young ladies, but at the request of his best friend he takes the Chance sisters under his wing. Damaris Chance is beautiful, aloof, and independent, and she also has no interest in matrimony. But when Freddy needs a fake fiancée to appease his disapproving parents, Damaris agrees to help him in return for the deed to a cottage. The more time they spend together, the more they discover an inconvenient mutual attraction. This was my first book by Anne Gracie, but it won’t be my last! The plot is nothing unusual for a Regency romance (well, except for the heroine’s extremely melodramatic past), but I really loved both Damaris and Freddy, and I could see what made them right for each other. There’s quite a bit of good dialogue and banter, too, which always helps! This is book 2 in a series, but I was able to follow along just fine, and I’m interested in reading the other books now. Here’s hoping I’ve found a new historical romance author to enjoy!

Elizabeth Chatsworth, The Brass Queen

A debutante/arms dealer and a cowboy/secret agent team up to rescue a group of kidnapped scientists in this light steampunk romp. The blurb compares it to series such as Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate and Genevieve Cogman’s Invisible Library, and I’d say those comparisons are pretty fair; if you enjoy those series, you’ll probably like The Brass Queen too. It’s almost too insubstantial, and I admit I skimmed most of the sci-fi world-building stuff. But it kept me turning the pages and was a welcome distraction from some real-life stress, so I’d recommend it for fans of the genre.

Dawn Cook, Princess at Sea

***Warning: Spoilers for The Decoy Princess***

Decoy princess Tess has helped her “sister,” the true princess, reclaim the throne of Costenopolie. Now she’s been appointed ambassador to a neighboring kingdom, but on the journey out, her ship is captured by pirates, and she and her sister are both held for ransom. To escape, Tess must use all her ingenuity, as well as the magical powers she’s just beginning to understand. She must also choose between two suitors, card sharp Duncan and captain of the guard Jeck. This was a fun, entertaining fantasy novel, but it’s not a keeper for me. I was glad to see the love triangle resolved, though the book still feels open-ended enough for a sequel. Since this one was published back in 2006, however, that seems unlikely.

Matched, Twice, Eight

Jen DeLuca, Well Matched

Single mom April has always kept herself to herself, but like everyone else in Willow Creek, MD, she knows Mitch Malone. He’s friends with everybody, not to mention the town eye candy, particularly when he dons his kilt (and little else) for the annual Renaissance Faire. Now Mitch needs a date for a family event and asks April to be his fake girlfriend. She agrees reluctantly — and is horrified to develop real feelings for the charming, handsome, nine-years-younger Mitch. I’ve enjoyed all the books in this series, particularly for the Ren Faire setting, so it’s disappointing that we don’t really get any Faire action until more than halfway through the book. I also wanted more of the fake-dating plot, but it only lasts for a chapter or two before April and Mitch hop into bed. I still found this a pleasant read overall — April’s snark is fun, and Mitch is a sweetheart — but it’s probably my least favorite book in the series.

Richard Osman, The Man Who Died Twice

Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim, and Ron are on the case again when Elizabeth’s ex-colleague and ex-husband, Douglas, comes to her for help. There’s £20 million in diamonds missing, and the criminal to whom they “belong” blames Douglas for their disappearance. So the Thursday Murder Club decides to help by hiding Douglas and trying to find the diamonds themselves. Meanwhile, Ibrahim is mugged, and the others want revenge. Local police Chris and Donna help out while also attempting to take down a drug dealer.

The first book in this series was a delight, and I enjoyed this one at least as much, if not more — the plot seems to hang together a little better, despite the many (perhaps too many) different storylines. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud lines and a few poignant moments, and I loved spending time with these characters again. I want to be Joyce when I grow up! Highly recommended if you enjoy light mysteries with a lot of plot, though you should definitely read The Thursday Murder Club first.

Lia Louis, Eight Perfect Hours

When Noelle is stranded in a snowstorm with Sam for several hours, they share an unexpectedly deep connection. Then they keep bumping into each other, which feels like fate. But they’re both involved with other people, and Noelle is also dealing with some past baggage and family problems. Are they two ships passing, or are they destined to be together? This is a pleasant enough chick lit novel, but it made very little impression on me. I’m not really a fan of the “we’re in love because it’s fate” concept, and Noelle and Sam’s relationship just wasn’t that interesting to me. Sam in particular seems like a standard Ideal Guy without much actual personality. I’m disappointed because I really liked Louis’s previous book, Dear Emmie Blue. But unfortunately, I wouldn’t recommend this one.

Mini-Reviews: Bridesmaid, Design, Terra

Katy Birchall, The Secret Bridesmaid

Sophie Breeze has made a career out of being the perfect bridesmaid: she’s hired to pose as a friend of the bride and unobtrusively organize all the wedding arrangements. When the mother of a famous socialite hires her, Sophie is thrilled to be involved with such a high-profile event. But the bride, Lady Cordelia, is notoriously difficult and resists her every step of the way. Can Sophie work her magic and befriend the hostile Lady Cordelia, or will the bride’s petty antics force her to quit? This is a fun, breezy book that I enjoyed quite a bit. It’s entirely predictable, but I liked the book’s emphasis on female friendship (although there is a charming romance in the background as well). I also related to Sophie and enjoyed her character arc, as she learns to set boundaries and stick up for herself. Recommended for fans of the genre, and I’ll look out for more books by this author.

Renee Patrick, Design for Dying

It’s 1937, and beauty queen Lillian Frost dreams of working in the movies, but for now she’s employed at a department store in Los Angeles. When a former friend and roommate, struggling actress Ruby Carroll, is found dead, Lillian is caught up in the murder investigation — especially when she realizes that Ruby’s corpse is wearing a Paramount movie costume. In the course of her sleuthing, she meets several Hollywood personalities, including soon-to-be-famous costume designer Edith Head, who helps her solve the mystery. If you like historical mysteries, I think this is a good one. Lillian’s voice is sharp and colorful, much like the dialogue of a 1930s film. The Hollywood cameos are a bit contrived, but cinephiles may enjoy all the references. Overall, I liked the book enough to continue with the series at some point.

Connie Willis, Terra Incognita

This book is a collection of three previously published novellas. In Uncharted Territory, a group of explorers surveys a newly discovered planet, while they also navigate the complexities of sex and love in human (and alien) relationships. In Remake, a man falls for a woman whose ambition is to dance in the movies, even though (in this alternate yet eerily prescient reality) no one makes live-action movies anymore, let alone musicals, and everything is done with CGI. And in D.A., a young woman is admitted to a prestigious and extremely competitive academy in outer space, which is strange since she didn’t even apply. I enjoyed all three of these novellas, but for me Remake is the standout. It’s romantic and melancholy, heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful. If you’re a lover of classic movies and Fred Astaire, it’s a must-read! 

Mini-Reviews: Cheerfully, Scotsman, Unquiet

AJ Pearce, Yours Cheerfully

Despite World War II raging on, things are looking up for Emmy Lake. She’s in love, she and Bunty are friends again, and her work at Woman’s Friend has just gotten a lot more interesting. The British government wants more women to get involved in war work and is asking the press to promote this agenda. But when Emmy talks to some of the female factory workers, she’s dismayed by the obstacles they face, especially the lack of child care during work hours. Emmy is determined to help, but will her efforts do more harm than good? This is another charmer from AJ Pearce, and fans of Dear Mrs. Bird should enjoy it. I do think this one’s a bit more lightweight and less impactful than the first book, but if a third installment is planned, I’ll definitely seek it out!

Evie Dunmore, Portrait of a Scotsman

Harriet Greenfield is a sheltered upper-class girl and aspiring painter who dreams of marrying a kind Mr. Bingley type. Instead she finds herself in a compromising position with Lucian Blackstone, a brooding Scot with a shady past and a terrible reputation. When the two are forced to marry, they reluctantly recognize a mutual attraction, but Harriet doesn’t trust Lucian, and Lucian only wants Harriet to further his own ambitions. I enjoyed this book while reading it, but upon reflection I think it’s just okay. Lucian is a pretty standard tortured, brooding hero, and Harriet is spoiled and obnoxious. The book was a bit too steamy for me, though obviously others’ mileage will vary, and I also felt the narrative got tediously preachy about the plight of women and laborers. On the other hand, I thought the portrayal of an inter-class marriage was realistic and well done. So, this wasn’t the book for me, but I’ll still probably read the next installment of the series when it comes out.

Sharon Shinn, Unquiet Land

Leah Frothen has spent the past five years spying for Welce in a foreign land—and recovering from some traumatic life events. Now she’s returned to find (and possibly claim) the daughter she left behind, but her spying days are not quite behind her. Welce is in the midst of some tricky negotiations with a neighboring country, and Leah must befriend the foreign delegation in order to gain useful information. But what she learns is deeply disturbing, especially when it might affect her newfound relationship with her daughter. I liked this book fine, but I do think the series has run its course. Leah is a likable enough heroine, and I enjoyed her character arc and her romance (though both began in the previous book, Jeweled Fire). The plot was pretty dull, however, and I thought everything with the daughter was simplistic and contrived. Overall, a decent but unexceptional read.

Mini-Reviews: Escape, Graduate, Vacation

Mary Balogh, The Escape

Book 3 of the Survivors’ Club series focuses on Sir Benedict Harper, who sustained extensive injuries to his legs in the Napoleonic Wars and was told he’d never walk again. After years of grit and perseverance, Ben can walk for short distances and with the aid of canes, but he’ll never return to the military career he loved. At a loose end, he meets the widowed Samantha McKay and agrees to be her escort as she flees from her controlling in-laws. They are attracted to each other but don’t see a future together, so they agree to a brief, no-strings affair — but of course, their growing feelings for each other complicate their relationship. So far, this series just keeps getting better, and I think Ben and Samantha are my favorite couple yet. Still, I’m not sure I’ll remember very much about the book in a few weeks, so it’s probably not a keeper.

My edition of this book also contains a short story/novella, The Suitor. It tells the story of Philippa Dean, the young woman who is presented to Viscount Darleigh as a potential bride at the beginning of The Arrangement. Darleigh perceived her as irritating and dimwitted, but The Suitor tells the story from her point of view — and gives her a happy ending of her own. This story did nothing for me; it’s so short that I didn’t have time to get invested in the romance or characters. It’s definitely skippable even if you’re normally a series completist.

Naomi Novik, The Last Graduate

It’s El’s senior year, and despite being stuck in a magic school full of creatures that are trying to kill her, things are looking pretty good. She has an alliance lined up for graduation, she has friends, and she even has a (maybe, sort of) boyfriend. But then the Scholomance starts making El’s life even more miserable than usual, and it seems to be singling her out. Is it trying to kill her, or turn her into the dark sorceress she’s supposedly destined to become? Or is it sending a different message entirely? I loved the first book in this series, and this installment is just as entertaining and exciting. There’s still a ton of exposition and world-building, which seems a bit strange for the second book in a series, but it’s leavened by El’s delightfully grumpy voice. The ending is arguably a huge cliffhanger, and I’m dying to find out what happens next! Fans of A Deadly Education won’t be disappointed by this sequel.

Emily Henry, People We Meet on Vacation

Poppy and Alex used to be BFFs who took exciting vacations together every summer. But they haven’t really spoken since their ill-fated trip to Croatia two years ago. Now Poppy hopes to rekindle their friendship, so she invites him on one last summer trip. But to move forward, both she and Alex will have to be honest about their feelings and what they truly want. Emily Henry has gotten a lot of good buzz, and I can see why. This is a really well-written, entertaining contemporary romance with some first-class banter. The friends-to-lovers trope isn’t always my favorite, because I wonder why they won’t just act on their feelings, but in this case I understood what was keeping Poppy and Alex apart. They love each other but want very different things out of life. The resolution to that conflict felt a bit pat, but I didn’t mind too much because I just wanted them to be together already! Definitely recommended for fans of this trope, and I’m putting Beach Read on my TBR immediately.