Top Ten Tuesday: What draws me to a book

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This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic is one of my all-time favorites: the top 10 things that make me want to read a book. Why do we love the books we love? What makes us add some books to our TBR list and not others? What plots, tropes, and topics appeal to us so strongly that, when we encounter them in a book, we feel like that book has been written just for us? These are questions I love to think about, although I’m far from having answers to them! Still, here are 10 things that always excite me about a book and compel me to learn more, in no particular order.

1. Anything related to Jane Austen — This one is obvious, but I’m always going to be drawn to Austen-related books! Whether it’s a retelling, a new biography, or a piece of literary criticism, I’m definitely going to at least learn more about it — that is, if I don’t buy it right away!

2. Epistolary novels — I love a good epistolary novel, and I think it’s because I enjoy character-driven books and don’t really care about setting. Novels in letters (or emails, texts, etc.) naturally don’t spend a lot of time on descriptions of scenery; everything is dialogue and character development.

3. Fake relationships — This is probably my very favorite romance trope, although I’m not sure I can explain why! I think it’s a great way to set up romantic tension in which the conflict is mostly internal. It all comes down to whether the characters will be brave enough to reveal their true feelings.

4. Thieves and con artists — There’s just something about protagonists who cheerfully bend or break the rules for the sake of a greater good. They’re super charming and compelling to me, even if I wouldn’t necessarily agree with them in real life.

5. Magical Regency — As a diehard Austen fan (see #1), the day I learned that there are books that combine an Austen-esque world with magic was one of the greatest days of my life!

6. Historical mysteries — I’ve been an Agatha Christie fan since I was about 12, and I love mystery novels that aren’t too gory but instead focus on the puzzle of whodunit and why. Combine that type of mystery with an interesting historical setting — especially the 19th century or the Golden Age of detective fiction — and my interest is definitely piqued.

7. Spies — Give me all the twists and turns of a plot filled with espionage, double-crosses, and people keeping secrets!

8. World War II — The past few years have seen a real boom in the number of books set during World War II, especially from the Allied perspective in Europe. While part of me wants to shun anything too trendy, a larger part of me just wants to keep ’em coming!

9. Music and musicians — As an amateur musician myself, I’m always intrigued when I learn about characters who play music, either professionally or as a hobby. It’s especially satisfying when an author describes the experience of playing (or hearing) music in a way that rings true to me.

10. Happy endings — This is a bit simplistic, since I have also really loved some books with sad endings. But in general, I read for pleasure, so I prefer endings that are emotionally satisfying: the murderer is caught, the lovers end up together, the quest is fulfilled. I do see the value in reading difficult books that make you think and engage with the hard aspects of reality; but given the choice, I’ll go for the happy ending almost every time.

In creating this list, it was fun for me to refer back to the last time this topic came up . . . turns out, my list hasn’t changed all that much! What are some of your favorite topics or tropes in books? Do you agree or disagree with anything on my list?

Top 10 Tuesday: Spring TBR

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This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic is 10 books on our spring TBR lists. These days, I’m trying not to plan out my reading in advance; I’ve been choosing books by whim, and I’m really liking it! But here are 10 books that I’ve bought recently, have put on hold at the library, or intend to buy and read as soon as possible:

1. Jasmine Guillory, The Proposal — I didn’t fall in love with The Wedding Date like so many others did, but I enjoyed it enough that I’m intrigued for this follow-up novel featuring one of its supporting characters.

2. Soniah Kamal, Unmarriageable — A Pride and Prejudice retelling set in modern-day Pakistan = sold!

3. Elinor Lipman, Good Riddance — I haven’t read any Elinor Lipman before, and I was honestly drawn to this book because of the cute cover. But I do like a good romantic comedy, so I’m excited to try this one.

4. Sophie Kinsella, I Owe You One — I’ve found Kinsella to be hit or miss, but the synopsis of this one sounds intriguingly similar to I’ve Got Your Number, my favorite of her books to date.

5. Jessica Khoury, Last of Her Name — If a novel is marketed as some sort of Anastasia retelling, I’m obviously going to read it!

6. Zen Cho, The True Queen — I loved Sorcerer to the Crown and have been waiting for this sequel for what feels like forever!

7. Tracey Garvis Graves, The Girl He Used to Know — I was lucky enough to win an ARC of this book, which is about a second-chance romance featuring a neurodiverse heroine. The publication date is April 2.

8. Lucy Parker, The Austen Playbook — This one doesn’t come out via e-book until April 22 (or April 30, if you wait for the mass market paperback), but I NEED IT NOW OMG. I adore this series of contemporary romance novels, and this one features a grumpy hero and an Austen-related plot!

9. Jennifer E. Smith, Field Notes on Love — I’m so intrigued by the premise of this one, which is that a guy and girl who are complete strangers take a cross-country train trip together. Pub date is May 5.

10. Beth O’Leary, The Flatshare — Another adorable premise: a man and a woman share an apartment but are never there at the same time (she works during the day, he works nights and weekends). Yet they forge a relationship by leaving each other notes — how cute is that?! Sadly, the release date isn’t until May 28, so I have to wait.

Well, that’s a nice long list of romance and “fun” books! Did anyone else notice a theme (intentional or otherwise) with their picks? What are you reading this spring, and what should I be adding to my list?

Review: Reflections on the Psalms

Reflections on the PsalmsC.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms

“In this wise and enlightening book, C. S. Lewis—the great British writer, scholar, lay theologian, broadcaster, Christian apologist, and bestselling author of Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, The Chronicles of Narnia, and many other beloved classics—examines the Psalms. As Lewis divines the meaning behind these timeless poetic verses, he makes clear their significance in our daily lives, and reminds us of their power to illuminate moments of grace.” (Summary from Amazon.com.)

As the title indicates, this book is a collection of C.S. Lewis’s reflections on the psalms. His thoughts aren’t presented in a systematic way; he doesn’t go through every psalm in order, for example. Instead, he discusses some themes that struck him personally in his reading and prayer. The end result is somewhat disjointed — I think this is one of Lewis’s lesser-known works for a reason — but I still found plenty of food for thought. His ideas about some of the psalms’ more surprising elements, such as the cursing of one’s enemies, make a lot of sense. He also discusses how 20th-century Christian interpretations might differ from (or, from his perspective, enhance) the psalmists’ original intention. Overall, I’m glad I read this, especially since Psalms is one of my favorite books in the Bible, but I’d recommend that newcomers to Lewis start elsewhere.

Review: A Rogue of Her Own

Rogue of Her OwnGrace Burrowes, A Rogue of Her Own

Charlotte Windham hates London “society” life and has suffered through too many seasons of being envied by other women (because of her titled connections) and dodging the proposals of fortune hunters. Meanwhile, Lucas Sherbourne is a commoner whose substantial wealth has gained him entrance into society, but he is still acutely aware of his lower status in the eyes of the aristocrats surrounding him. The two decide to embark upon a marriage of convenience: Charlotte will have a wealthy husband and a secluded Welsh estate to call home, while Lucas will benefit from marrying into a noble family. Of course, there’s no question of love; but as Lucas tries to jump-start a new coal mine and Charlotte gives her spending money to “fallen” women, they find themselves turning to each other for support and understanding.

I find myself very confused about this book, because the things I really liked about it are also the things I disliked about it! For example, I liked that the book has a lot of plot (trouble with the coal mine, Charlotte’s charitable giving, the backstory of why she’s so passionate about helping women in trouble), but I also felt that the romance suffered because of it. I also liked that both Lucas and Charlotte have friends and family who support them; I especially enjoyed the development of Lucas’s friendship with his aristocratic neighbors. But again, those relationships almost felt more central than the romance. I also thought some of the plot twists and turns were a little melodramatic. Overall, I liked this book for having characters with their own interests and lives outside of one another…but I think I wanted a little more of them together, too! That said, I’d definitely be willing to try another book by Grace Burrowes.

Review: Polaris Rising

Polaris RisingJessie Mihalik, Polaris Rising

Ada von Hasenberg is a princess on the run. The universe is ruled by a Consortium of noble Houses, of which the von Hasenberg family is one of the most powerful. As a result, Ada’s duty is to marry for her House’s political advantage, but rather than accept her fate, she’s determined to carve her own path. Unfortunately, she’s captured by a mercenary ship and forced to share a cell with Marcus Loch, the so-called Devil of Fornax Zero. Loch is said to have butchered his regiment in a past military action, so he has a price on his head almost as big as Ada’s. Now, Ada and Loch must work together to escape captivity — but when her fiancé, the son of a rival House, comes looking for her, Ada begins to suspect that more than a marriage is at stake. To figure out what’s going on, she’ll need Loch’s help, even though she’s finding it harder and harder to fight her attraction to him.

I found it hard to summarize this book because it’s chock full of plot. All you really need to know is that this is a very entertaining, page-turning sci-fi/romance adventure, and I really enjoyed it. Ada is a strong heroine, but not one of the obnoxious variety; she’s not incredibly amazing at everything, nor does she rush into decisions without thinking carefully about them first. One of my favorite details was how she always (smartly) checks for bugs and tracking devices when she enters an unfamiliar environment. I also found the overall plot compelling, albeit a little predictable. I wasn’t as enthralled with the romance — Loch is a pretty stereotypical alpha male (although not a jerk, which is nice!), and since the book is only told from Ada’s point of view, I felt I didn’t get a good insight into what makes him tick. Their relationship doesn’t seem to be based on anything more than physical attraction, so it fell a little flat for me. Nevertheless, this was a really fun read for me, and I look forward to reading the next book in the series when it comes out this fall!

Review: The Golden Tresses of the Dead

Golden Tresses of the DeadAlan Bradley, The Golden Tresses of the Dead

***Warning: SPOILERS for previous books in the series***

Flavia de Luce is at it again in this 10th book of the series. Her older sister Feely is finally getting married, and Flavia is surprised to find that she has mixed emotions about Feely’s leaving Buckshaw. But her inner turmoil soon becomes the least of Flavia’s concerns when, at the reception, she discovers a human finger in the wedding cake. Of course, Arthur W. Dogger and Associates are on the case — and of course, a second mystery presents itself soon afterward, involving a famous homeopathic doctor and two female missionaries who have recently returned from West Africa. As Flavia investigates, with the help of faithful Dogger and annoying cousin Undine, she realizes that the two cases may be connected.

Is it just me, or did the mystery plot of this book make even less sense than usual? One character dies in the novel, but I don’t think we ever find out for sure who the murderer was or how the killing took place. Another dies off-page, and it’s not actually clear what the cause of death was — murder, natural causes, something else? Maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention, but I felt like there were a lot of loose ends with this plot. Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed the book for Flavia’s voice and her relationships with the other characters, particularly Dogger. I also like the fact that she’s slowly gaining more self-awareness as she grows up, and I hope to see that trend continue in subsequent books. So I actually did like this novel overall, but it’s not a book (or series, really) to read for the mystery.

Review: True Love at the Lonely Hearts Bookshop

True Love at the Lonely Hearts BookshopAnnie Darling, True Love at the Lonely Hearts Bookshop

Despite her job at a bookstore specializing in romantic fiction, Verity Love is happy being single. But her well-meaning friends continue to set her up with every single man they know, and Verity’s tired of it—so tired, in fact, that she’s invented a fake boyfriend to deter their matchmaking. When her friends insist on meeting him, however, she quickly realizes she needs a real person to substantiate her scheme. Enter Johnny, a handsome stranger who also wouldn’t mind having a fake girlfriend to prevent being set up by his own interfering friends. Verity and Johnny agree to be each other’s dates to various social functions for one summer, at the end of which they’ll amicably part ways. But of course, the more time they spend together, the more blurry the boundaries of their relationship become.

Every chapter of this book begins with a quote from Pride and Prejudice, which immediately told me that I’d either love it or hate it. I’m happy to say that I mostly loved it, although occasionally the book does get a bit too twee and cutesy for its own good. But I really liked and related to Verity as a character; she’s an extreme introvert who needs alone time to recharge, but with her large, loving-but-noisy family, she never gets enough of it. As an introvert myself (though definitely not to Verity’s level), I empathized with her when she just couldn’t handle any more socializing. I also love a good “fake relationship” plot, so I was on board for Verity and Johnny’s romance. I was very pleasantly surprised by the writing style as well, give or take a minor copyediting error. Overall, this novel is just the charming, fun romance I was hoping for, and I’m definitely interested in reading the other books in this series at some point.

Review: King of Scars

King of ScarsLeigh Bardugo, King of Scars

***Warning: SPOILERS for the Grisha trilogy and the Dregs duology!***

Nikolai Lantsov, King of Ravka, is trying to lead his country in the wake of its devastating civil war. But he faces threats of invasion by the powerful Shu and the Grisha-hating Fjerdans, the rise of a new cult that worships the Darkling as a saint, plus the possibility that Kerch might call in Ravka’s staggering debts. And then there’s the fact that Nikolai is sharing his body with a demon that hungers for human flesh. Hoping to rid himself of the monster inside him, Nikolai and his Grisha general, Zoya, travel to the heart of the Fold to perform an ancient—and possibly deadly—ritual. Meanwhile, Nina Zenik is a Ravkan agent helping to rescue Grisha from Fjerda. She’s also grieving the death of Matthias, but she finds a new purpose when she discovers a new atrocity the Fjerdans are committing against Grisha women. As Nikolai, Zoya, and Nina encounter various surprises, reversals, and betrayals, who will be left standing in the end?

Phew, there is a LOT going on in this book, and I think that’s the main reason I didn’t like it as much as I expected to. I adore the character of Nikolai—for me, he’s the best part of the original Grisha trilogy by far—so I was disappointed that he didn’t get more “screen time” in his own book! Instead, half the novel follows Nina’s story, and I have to say, I wasn’t terribly interested in it, especially since it ended up having no relevance to Nikolai’s story. I wish Bardugo had just written two separate books! I did enjoy learning more about Zoya and seeing the events of previous books from her point of view. She’s an intriguing character, and I liked seeing her spar with Nikolai…I just wish there had been more of it! This book also dives deep into the religion and mythology of the Grishaverse, which was interesting but also caused the plot to get lost in the weeds, I think. Overall, I’m a bit irritated with this novel…but I’m sure I’ll still read the sequel when it comes out.

Top Ten Tuesday: Wallflowers

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This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic is an interesting one: 10 books you love that have fewer than 2,000 ratings on Goodreads. I tend to read a lot of backlist and otherwise unpopular books, and it was still hard for me to come up with 10 titles! But I’m glad to have the opportunity to praise some lesser-known books that I really enjoyed. So without further ado, my list is below; the number of Goodreads ratings (as of February 13) is in parentheses after each title.

1. Aline, Countess of Romanones, The Spy Wore Red (1,666) — A delightful memoir that reads like a spy thriller! My review is here.

2. Walker Percy, The Thanatos Syndrome (1,599) — Probably my favorite novel by this author. It’s about a contaminated water supply, a modern-day hermit, and an extremely nasty conspiracy. Fans of Southern literature should definitely check this one out.

3. Loretta Chase, Knaves’ Wager (1,508) — If you’re looking for the next Georgette Heyer…well, nothing is going to quite measure up, but Loretta Chase’s traditional Regencies come pretty close! This is my favorite so far, about a rake who tries to seduce a prim and proper bluestocking, only to find himself (of course) falling in love.

4. Jacques Philippe, Interior Freedom (1,136) — A very short book that explores how people can obtain interior freedom, from the perspective of a Catholic priest. This book made a huge impact on me; my review is here.

5. McKelle George, Speak Easy, Speak Love (773) — Does the idea of a Much Ado about Nothing retelling set in the 1920s appeal to you? If so, you need to pick this one up! I enjoyed it SO much more than I thought I would. My review is here.

6. Emily Gee, The Laurentine Spy (771) — Fans of fantasy and political intrigue will enjoy this book about courtiers (who hate each other) with double lives as spies (who…don’t hate each other). My review is here.

7. Caryl Brahms and S.J. Simon, No Bed for Bacon (180) — The movie Shakespeare in Love is actually based on this hilarious sendup of the Elizabethan era. My review is here.

8. Stephanie Burgis, Congress of Secrets (172) — Historical fiction plus fantasy plus con artists plus romance is totally my catnip. If it’s yours too, check out this book (and author) immediately! My review is here.

9. Leo Bruce, Case for Three Detectives (151) — This ingenious detective novel parodies three of the most famous fictional detectives: Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot, and Father Brown. The book really only works if you’re familiar with these three characters, but if you are, the spoof is absolutely spot-on! My review is here.

10. Patricia Wynn, The Birth of Blue Satan (82) — I really enjoyed this historical mystery set in an unusual time period: the Jacobite rebellions of the early 18th century. It’s the first in a series, and I’m eager to read the rest! My review is here.

Review: The Devil’s Delilah

Devil's DelilahLoretta Chase, The Devil’s Delilah

Delilah Desmond is coming to London to make an advantageous marriage; but because her father is the notorious “Devil” Desmond, she knows being accepted by high society will be an uphill battle. Adding to her difficulties, the Devil has written a highly improper and scandalous memoir; though he’s promised not to publish it until he truly needs the money, Delilah knows that even a whiff of scandal will destroy her matrimonial prospects. When the memoir goes missing, she immediately flies into a panic. Luckily, she has the dependable, albeit absentminded, Jack Langdon to lean on. Jack has always been more comfortable with books than with people, especially women. But Delilah attracts him like no one else, and he’s determined to help her, even though the far more charming Lord Berne has his eye on the young beauty as well.

I’m really enjoying making my way through Loretta Chase’s traditional Regencies. Though she’s not quite Georgette Heyer, she’s definitely the next best thing. But I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as Viscount Vagabond (to which this novel is technically a sequel, though it can be read as a stand-alone). I loved the idea of Jack as a hero — someone who seems bookish and absent-minded but who comes through when it counts. But I felt like his character was a bit inconsistent; he doesn’t spend very much time enjoying his scholarly pursuits because he’s always in turmoil about his feelings for Delilah. I also thought the scenes between Jack and Delilah were quite repetitive; they keep having the same fight over and over, which is frustrating. The book is still a fun, fast read with some witty dialogue — I especially enjoyed the Devil’s character — but it’s not my favorite by Chase.