Mini-Reviews: Birds, Artists, Masque

Katie Cotugno, Birds of California

Ten years ago, Fiona St. James starred on a successful TV show, but she had a very public breakdown (shoplifting, public intoxication, etc.) that caused the show’s cancelation. Now she’s no longer acting, just trying to avoid the limelight. Meanwhile, her former costar Sam Fox is still struggling to make it in Hollywood, so when his agent calls him about a potential reboot, he’s eager to sign on. He just needs to convince Fiona to get on board, which she absolutely refuses to do. But the more time Sam and Fiona spend together, the closer they reluctantly grow. I really enjoyed this book, with caveats. It’s well written and the characters are relatable, though not always likable. But I wish there had been more resolution to a lot of the storylines: What about Sam’s relationship with his family? How will his career turn out? Fiona decides to publicly reveal the cause of her breakdown, but what happens in the aftermath of that decision? While I bought the central romance, I wanted more about the rest of the characters’ lives. So, I do recommend the book, but be forewarned that the lack of resolution in some areas is frustrating!

Ngaio Marsh, Artists in Crime

When Inspector Roderick Alleyn meets talented painter Agatha Troy, he’s immediately drawn to her, but she doesn’t seem to like him. They’re destined to meet again, however, when a murder occurs in the midst of an art class Troy is teaching. The victim, a model, is stabbed by a dagger that’s been hidden under the chair she was posing on, and it seems only one of the artists could have placed the dagger there — but which one? And can Alleyn maintain his impartiality as an investigator if he’s fallen in love with one of the suspects? This is another enjoyable installment of the Alleyn series; I feel like, six books in, his character is finally starting to gel. The mystery is fair play, and of course I enjoyed the element of romance as well. I’ll definitely be continuing with the series!

Lauren Willig, The Masque of the Black Tulip

This second book in the Pink Carnation series features Henrietta Selwick, Richard’s younger sister, and Miles Dorrington, his best friend. A dangerous French spy known only as the Black Tulip has recently arrived in London, and both Miles and Henrietta are trying to discover the spy’s identity. They’re also beginning to have confusing feelings for one another; their longtime friendship suddenly seems to be taking a romantic turn. Can they work together to capture the Black Tulip and, more importantly, realize they’re in love? As with the first book in the series, this is a fun historical romp with a charming central romance. Miles is a particularly delightful hero, endearing in his obliviousness. The spying stuff was not as interesting to me (especially given the fact that both Miles and Henrietta seem extremely incompetent), but I still had a good time with this one!

Mini-Reviews: Summer, Ruined, Celia’s

Ellis Peters, The Summer of the Danes

In the summer of A.D. 1144, Brother Cadfael and his former assistant, Mark, travel to Wales on a diplomatic mission. But they’re soon caught up in larger events including a Welsh civil war, a murdered envoy, a runaway girl, and a possible Danish invasion. This book is a bit different from the rest of the Cadfael series in that Cadfael is actually a pretty minor character; he observes the action but doesn’t really participate. There is a murder, but Cadfael doesn’t solve it — in fact, it happens near the beginning of the book but then is largely forgotten till the end, when the guilty party confesses. Most of the story involves the warring Welsh princes, real historical figures Owain Gwynedd and his rebellious brother Cadwaladr. While I did enjoy the book, it’s definitely more historical fiction than mystery, and I wanted more Cadfael!

Alyssa Everett, Ruined by Rumor

Roxana Langley has been engaged to a dashing soldier for five years. Even though he’s spent most of that time away fighting in the Napoleonic wars, Roxana remains devoted to him and excited for their wedding. So when he suddenly breaks off the engagement, she’s devastated and turns to her neighbor Alex, the Earl of Ayersley, for comfort. Alex has been hopelessly in love with Roxana for years, so when she rushes into his arms he can’t help but kiss her — and when he learns they were observed, he immediately offers marriage. But both he and Roxana have trouble discerning each other’s feelings and communicating their own. I bought this e-book on impulse and am so glad I did, because I really enjoyed it! Alex and Roxana are both kind, well-meaning people who want to make the best of their marriage of convenience, and their obstacles make sense given their characters. I’d highly recommend this book to fans of historical romance and will definitely be seeking out more books by Alyssa Everett!

D.E. Stevenson, Celia’s House

This gentle family saga follows the Dunne family of Dunnian in Scotland. Contrary to all expectations, Celia Dunne decides to leave the Dunnian estate to her great-nephew Humphrey, his wife Alice, and their three small children. The only condition is that, upon Humphrey’s death, the house will go not to his son, Mark, but to a future daughter named Celia. Despite this odd request, Humphrey accepts the inheritance and lives there happily with his family. As the years pass and the children grow, many changes come to Dunnian, including war, friendship, heartbreak, and romance. I very much enjoyed this quiet novel; it’s practically a retelling of Mansfield Park, but with the sharper edges softened (no Mrs. Norris character, and the Dunne parents aren’t silly or negligent). Nothing much happens in terms of plot, but it’s very pleasant to sink into the soothing, slow-paced world of the novel. Recommended if you like this type of thing; it’s one of the better Stevenson novels I’ve read.

Mini-Reviews: Thief, Mischief, Normal

Emily Gee, Thief with No Shadow

I recently reread Gee’s The Laurentine Spy and quite enjoyed it, so I decided to dust off this book too. The plot is tricky to summarize, but it involves sinister magical creatures, a stolen necklace, and a curse. Melke and Bastian hate each other at first; he needs the necklace to break the curse, but she stole it to save her brother’s life. When they’re forced to spend time together as her brother heals, they begin to understand one another better. I found this book very compelling and stayed up too late last night to finish it. But at the same time, I’m not sure I actually liked it that much. I love an enemies-to-lovers romance, but Bastian is so furious and straight-up mean for most of the novel that it’s hard to accept him as a hero. There’s also some weird sex stuff in the book; not all of it is consensual, and some of it involves nonhuman magical creatures. Granted, the book knows this is icky, not sexy, but it’s still unpleasant to read about! So, while I’d consider reading more by this author, I don’t think this particular book is for me.

Manda Collins, A Lady’s Guide to Mischief and Mayhem

Lady Katherine Bascomb owns and writes for a London newspaper. Her latest article criticizes Scotland Yard for negligence in investigating a series of shocking murders, and the article causes lead investigator Andrew Eversham to be taken off the case. But when Kate later stumbles on another dead body, and the methods are similar to those of the previous murders, Eversham is assigned to the new case. He and Kate work together to discover the killer and navigate a growing attraction to each other. I really liked the premise of this book, with its blend of historical romance and mystery, but for me the execution fell flat. Kate and Andrew are 21st-century characters in period dress, and I just didn’t find them believable. The mystery plot is also disappointing; the villain’s motive is ridiculously farfetched. I don’t plan to continue this series, but considering how many others I’m trying to catch up with, that’s not necessarily a bad thing!

Rachel Bloom, I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are

I’m a huge fan of the TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which is an insightful, at times painful exploration of mental illness wrapped in a musical comedy. So I was excited to read Rachel Bloom’s memoir — she co-created and starred in the show and was also one of the writers and composers. But to my disappointment, the book doesn’t focus much on the show; instead, it delves deep into Rachel’s awkward childhood, her experiences with bullying, her love of musical theater, and her struggles with depression and anxiety. Still, there were things I enjoyed about this book — the chapter that’s presented as a musical (which you can hear Rachel perform on her website!) is a particular delight. But I also thought some of the humor was a bit labored, and overall I just didn’t like the book as much as I was hoping to.

Top Ten Tuesday: New-to-Me Authors in 2022

This week’s topic is another look back at 2022, this time to think about the best new-to-you authors you discovered last year. I didn’t fall in love with that many new authors, and I’ve only read one book by most of the folks on my list, but all 10 are authors I’d like to read more by. So, without further ado (and in no particular order), here they are:

1. Virginia HeathNever Fall for Your Fiancée caught my eye because of the catchy title and fake relationship trope (one of my favorites!), and I enjoyed it enough to continue with the Merriwell Sisters series. I may wade into her backlist when I’m looking for something light and insubstantial.

2. Claudia GrayThe Murder of Mr. Wickham is one of the few Austen spinoffs I’ve really enjoyed, and I’m excited to read the sequel when it comes out this year!

3. Kerry Winfrey — I was so delighted by the author’s voice (and love of rom-coms) in Waiting for Tom Hanks that I read two more Winfrey books in 2022!

4. T. Kingfisher — An author I’ve been hearing great things about for years, and I’m so glad I finally gave her a try!  Both Nettle and Bone and Bryony and Roses are magnificent.

5. Susanna Craig — I’m a sucker for historical romance that involves espionage, so when the first few books in her Love and Let Spy series went on sale as e-books, I snapped them up! So far I’ve read and enjoyed the first two, and I’m looking forward to book #3, Better Off Wed.

6. Sophie Irwin — More historical romance! I really liked A Lady’s Guide to Fortune Hunting and am eager to read her next book, which is coming out this summer.

7. Sarah Mayberry — I was very pleasantly surprised by Her Favorite Rival (too steamy for my taste, but well written with great characters), so I’m interested in checking out some of her other contemporary romances.

8. Megan BannenThe Undertaking of Hart and Mercy was one of my favorite books of 2022, and I’m so interested to see what she’ll do next! I loved the mix of fantasy, romance, and quirky charm.

9. John Dickson Carr — Interestingly, this is the only male author on my list! Castle Skull was maybe not the ideal book for me (a little more horror/gothic than traditional mystery), but I am definitely eager to read more of Carr’s books! He’s supposed to be the master of the locked room/impossible crime, which intrigues me.

10. Lynn Painter — I quite liked Better Than the Movies and already have both The Do-Over and The Love Wager on my TBR list!

Mini-Reviews: Complaint, Traveled, Autumn

Hannah March, The Complaint of the Dove

Robert Fairfax is a tutor tasked with introducing his pupil, 19-year-old Matthew Hemsley, to the sights and experiences of London. They go to the theater, where Matt immediately becomes infatuated with popular actress Lucy Dove. When Lucy is later stabbed to death, Matt is arrested for the murder. But Fairfax is convinced Matt is innocent and decides to find the real killer before Matt is hanged. I really enjoyed this well-written mystery, especially its unique 1760 setting. The book brings the era to life without sounding like a research dump. I also found Fairfax a likable and interesting sleuth, and I’m looking forward to continuing with the series! This author also writes historical fiction under the name Jude Morgan, and I like those books as well.

Jen DeLuca, Well Traveled

Louisa “Lulu” Malone is a corporate attorney, but she’s been feeling burned out and dissatisfied with her life. After one too many “urgent” texts on a Saturday, she impulsively quits her job and decides to travel the Renaissance Faire circuit with her friend Stacey and a band called The Dueling Kilts. Lulu embraces her new life but views it as temporary and isn’t sure what comes next. She also finds herself falling for Dex MacLean, guitarist of the Dueling Kilts and notorious ladies’ man. She doesn’t trust his flirtatious behavior, but as she gets to know him better, she discovers there’s more to him than meets the eye. This book was fine but honestly a bit meh. I always enjoy the Ren Faire setting of these books, but Lulu’s conflict felt a bit too paint-by-numbers, if that makes sense. Dex was also a pretty flat character; the romance really took second place to Lulu’s own character development. It’s not a bad read by any means, but not one I’d particularly recommend either.

Anne Gracie, The Autumn Bride

This series opener introduces the “Chance sisters,” four young women whose poverty and orphaned state have left them extremely vulnerable. A chance meeting with an elderly widow, Lady Beatrice Davenham, changes their fortunes: she agrees to take in the four girls and claim them as her nieces. Of course, Lady Beatrice’s actual nephew, Max, knows the girl are impostors, and he’s determined to figure out what they’re hiding. But as a romance grows between him and the eldest sister, Abby, he also learns that all four girls are in grave danger. I’ve actually already read The Winter Bride, book #2 in this series, and loved it, so I’m happy to report that I really enjoyed this one as well! The setup is of course ridiculous, but Max and Abby are both delightful (albeit not particularly unique) characters, and I loved snarky Aunt Bea as well. I could have done without the suspense plot, but overall I really liked this one and am thrilled to have discovered Anne Gracie!

Mini-Reviews: Key, Midnight, Birds

Lia Louis, The Key to My Heart

Since the tragic death of her husband, Russ, two years ago, Natalie has been struggling. Once a professional pianist, now she can only play at the dilapidated public piano in St. Pancras station, where she can be anonymous and ignored. When a mysterious person starts leaving sheet music there for Natalie — music that has special meaning for her and Russ — she tries to discover who’s responsible. Along the way, she slowly begins to work through her feelings of guilt and loss. I enjoyed this one; despite the sad premise and the very realistic-feeling portrayal of grief, the book has an uplifting and even sometimes humorous tone. A romance eventually develops, but the novel’s main focus is Natalie’s personal growth. I’d recommend this one if you like your women’s fiction with a little gravitas, though Dear Emmie Blue is still my favorite book by this author.

Sylvia Izzo Hunter, The Midnight Queen

Gray Marshall, a student of magick at Oxford’s Merlin College, has just been framed for a crime he didn’t commit. His pompous, disagreeable tutor forces him to retreat to the tutor’s country estate till the scandal blows over. Gray resents this change in his circumstances — that is, until he befriends the tutor’s daughter, Sophie. They soon discover that the plot against Gray is part of a much larger scheme that could throw the entire kingdom into turmoil; meanwhile, Sophie learns some surprising truths about her identity. I originally read this book in 2014 but couldn’t remember a thing about it, so I decided to reread it before continuing with the series, and I’m so glad I did! I loved the fantastical alt-Regency setting, Sophie and Gray are both wonderfully likable characters, and the plot is intriguing (albeit a bit slow-moving). In short, I loved this book and am so glad I decided to tackle this series this year!

Sarah Addison Allen, Other Birds

This quiet, magic-infused novel centers around the inhabitants of the Dellawisp, an old condo building tucked away in the small town of Mallow Island, South Carolina. The residents are estranged sisters Lizbeth and Lucy, artist Charlotte, chef Mac, newcomer Zoey, and building manager Frasier. They all have difficult pasts and are all keeping secrets. But as they slowly get to know one another, they discover friendship, love, and the strength to let go of their (sometimes literal) ghosts. I’m a Sarah Addison Allen fan, and this book delivers her trademark evocative writing and sympathetic yet flawed characters. There are POV chapters for almost every character, which feels like a bit too much…but I’m also not sure whose POV I’d want to take out. I really liked this one overall and would recommend it if you’re in the mood to sink into a slow-paced, magical world.

Top Ten Tuesday: First Half of 2023

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic is our 10 most anticipated books releasing in the first half of 2023. So far, I can only come up with 8 books, but I’m sure I’ll be adding to that number once I look at some other people’s lists! Anyway, here are the new releases for January to June that I’m most excited about, in publication order:

1. Benjamin Stevenson, Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone (January 17) — As a mystery lover, I really can’t resist that title! Plus, I remember reading a very positive review of it (it’s already out in the UK), so I have high hopes!

2. Kate Clayborn, Georgie, All Along (January 24) — I’ve really enjoyed Clayborn’s contemporary romances, so even though second-chance romance is not my favorite trope, I’ve already put this one on hold at my library.

3. Lynn Painter, The Love Wager (March 14) — I enjoyed Painter’s Better Than the Movies enough to try one of her adult titles, and I like the premise of this one: Two people agree to help each other find love, not realizing they are each other’s perfect match.

4. Emily Henry, Happy Place (April 25) — Henry writes some great banter, so I’m excited for her latest romance, even though I’m not sure the setup is for me (a recently broken-up couple pretends to still be together during their friend group’s annual vacation).

5. Ashley Weaver, Playing It Safe (May 9) — I’m really enjoying the Electra McDonnell series of mysteries set during World War II, and I’m excited for this latest installment. I hope there will be some movement on the romance (I’m Team Ramsey)!

6. Claudia Gray, The Late Mrs. Willoughby (May 16) — As a die-hard Austen fan, I usually find the modern sequels and spinoffs underwhelming. But I actually really liked The Murder of Mr. Wickham and am happy to be getting a sequel, especially since (I assume) the author won’t have to service quite as many Austen characters in this installment.

7. Ali Hazelwood, Love, Theoretically (June 13) — I find myself in a strange position with respect to Ali Hazelwood; I don’t think her writing style or brand of romance is really for me, yet I’m still compelled by her books! I’m hoping this one will be a little lighter on the heroine’s quirks and the hero’s giant muscles, but that does seem to be her brand, so we’ll see.

8. Mary Balogh, Remember Me (June 20) — Balogh is one of my favorite historical romance authors, so I’m excited to continue with her latest series. I didn’t love the first installment, Remember Love, but now that the world and characters have been established, I’m hoping this one will be better.

Mini-Reviews: Rogue, Widening, Carnation

Virginia Heath, Never Rescue a Rogue

Giles Sinclair and Diana Merriwell have delighted in vexing each other ever since his best friend married her sister. Everyone thinks their teasing banter is masking a mutual attraction, but they both vehemently deny it. Yet when Giles finds himself in trouble, it’s Diana he turns to for help, and eventually they’ll have to admit to themselves — and each other — that their friends were right all along. There’s a lot in this book that requires suspension of disbelief (Giles might be illegitimate but no one knows! Diana is secretly a hard-hitting investigative journalist!). But if you can roll with the implausibilities of the plot, as well as the characters’ modern attitudes and language, this is a fun book. I liked it more than the first in the series, and I’ll definitely seek out book #3 when it comes out.

W. Bolingbroke Johnson, The Widening Stain

This vintage mystery novel, originally published in 1942, is set in a fictional university library. A French professor is found dead in the stacks, apparently having fallen off a high ladder. But Gilda Gorham, the library’s head cataloger, suspects foul play — especially when another member of the faculty is later strangled and a priceless manuscript goes missing. I liked this book well enough; the writing style is brisk and humorous, gently satirizing the world of academia and providing several limericks (of varying quality) as a bonus. The mystery itself isn’t terribly satisfying, as the motive hinges on some dubious psychology. But still, I found it an enjoyable read and a pretty good start to 2023.

Lauren Willig, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation

It’s 1803, and the Scarlet Pimpernel (who’s a real person in this universe) has inspired several other heroes with flowery names to spy against Napoleon. Lord Richard Selwick, a.k.a. the Purple Gentian, is on a mission to thwart Bonaparte’s invasion of England when he meets Amy Balcourt, an impetuous young lady who wants to join the Gentian’s league. As Amy and the Gentian fall in love, Richard struggles with when and how to reveal his true identity. I’m really glad I decided to revisit this series, because this book is a delightful romp of a historical romance that doesn’t take itself too seriously. If you’re looking for historical accuracy and period-appropriate dialogue and manners, this is not the book for you. But if you’re in the mood for some light-hearted, swashbuckling fun, I would definitely recommend it! Now I’m really looking forward to book #2, as I remember it being one of my favorites in the series.

Top Ten Tuesday: 2022 Favorites

It’s been a long time since I’ve done a Top Ten Tuesday post, but I’ve been dying to discuss my favorite reads of 2022 anyway, so this is the perfect opportunity! Below are the top 10 books I read in 2022, not counting rereads. The books weren’t necessarily published in 2022, but I read them all for the first time last year. The list isn’t ranked by my preference; I just listed the books in the order in which I read them, since I find it impossible to crown an absolute favorite.

Based on my recent reading habits, I’m not surpised to see many romances on the list — in fact, I think all the books contain a prominent romantic storyline! Nine of the ten were written by women. One author (T. Kingfisher) appears twice, which means I definitely need to read a lot more of her books! And as usual, I gravitated toward the light, fun, and warm-hearted rather than the bleak and depressing.

So, did you read any of these, and did you like them as much as I did? What trends have you noticed in your own reading recently? And of course, what were your favorite reads of 2022?

1. Mary Balogh, Only a Kiss — One of my favorite installments of the Survivors’ Club series, featuring an extremely charming hero whose charm deserts him in the presence of the heroine.

2. Kerry Winfrey, Waiting for Tom Hanks — A delightful ode to romantic comedies with a lot of great dialogue.

3. T. Kingfisher, Nettle and Bone — Immersive fantasy with excellent characters and strong Robin McKinley vibes. I definitely need to read a lot more by this author!

4. Craig Rice, Eight Faces at Three — A fun and fast-paced The Thin Man-esque mystery. Don’t think too hard about the plot; just enjoy watching the sleuths crack wise and down far too many drinks.

5. T. Kingfisher, Bryony and Roses — One of my favorite Beauty and the Beast retellings, and that’s really saying something!

6. Mhairi McFarlane, Mad about You — Compelling women’s fiction/romance about a woman with a history of bad relationships who falls for the guy she’s renting a room from. One of McFarlane’s best, I think.

7. Loretta Chase, Lord Perfect — A Regency romance with wonderful main characters, especially the hero; I loved watching the duty-bound, uptight, emotionally repressed Benedict slowly unravel as he falls in love!

8. Lois McMaster Bujold, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance — Honestly, I could have populated this entire list with books from the Vorkosigan saga, but I decided to restrain myself and pick only my favorite. I just adore Ivan! Plus there’s a treasure hunt, multiple romances, and a few thrilling heroics, so what’s not to love?

9. Francis Spufford, Golden Hill — A romp of a historical novel set in 1746 Manhattan. It’s so much fun, and so perfect in style and tone, that I can forgive the somewhat heartbreaking ending.

10. Megan Bannen, The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy — A mashup of romance, Western, and zombie novel that seems too weird to work, but it totally does! I loved the Shop around the Corner/You’ve Got Mail aspect of the plot.