Mini-Reviews: Rival, Weaver, Scandal

Sarah Mayberry, Her Favorite Rival

Audrey Mathews and Zach Black are both smart, talented, and ambitious — and since they work in the same office, they’re each other’s biggest competition. But when they’re paired on an important project, they also discover a mutual admiration and attraction. As they struggle with whether to act on their feelings, a new manager comes in and immediately starts restructuring and laying people off. Will their newfound romance jeopardize their careers? I really enjoyed this rivals-to-lovers story, which is reminiscent of The Hating Game (though this version came out first!) but with more emotionally mature main characters. Audrey and Zach actually communicate pretty well and act like adults, even when they’re at odds. They both have excellent reasons for their devotion to work and their reluctance to commit to a relationship. The book is too sexually explicit for my taste, but otherwise I really liked it, and I am definitely interested in trying more by this author!

Carol Berg, The Soul Weaver

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

Karon and his Preceptors have finally come up with a plan to free their enslaved brethren and defeat the Lords of Zhev’Na, but a traitor in their midst ruins everything at the last minute. Reluctantly, Karon concludes that Gerick must be responsible and therefore that he must be killed. To escape — and to prevent himself from inadvertently hurting anyone else — Gerick flees to a mysterious world called the Bounded, whose strange inhabitants want to make him their king. With the help of old friends and new, Gerick must confront his demons and accept his true destiny. I’m continuing to enjoy this series, although Gerick’s time in the Bounded felt like a bit of a side adventure. I also wanted more of Seri, who’s somewhat sidelined in this installment. Still, I liked it overall and am eager to see how things turn out in the final book!

Loretta Chase, Last Night’s Scandal

Peregrine Dalmay has just returned from a long archaeological expedition in Egypt, and he wants nothing more than to go back. But his capricious parents have decided he must instead repair the family’s crumbling castle in Scotland — and if he refuses, they’ll cut him off. Peregrine’s old friend, the scandalous Lady Olivia, has a Plan and is determined to help. As they fix up the (possibly haunted) castle and argue, they also fall in love, but can they have a future together when they’re so different? I had high hopes for this book after meeting Peregrine and Olivia as teenagers in Lord Perfect, but I found it a bit of a letdown; there was too much plot and not enough development of the romance. The characters’ internal struggles didn’t really make sense to me and needed more fleshing out. Still, it’s not a bad read, and I have certainly enjoyed my foray into Loretta Chase’s backlist! But for me, Lord Perfect is the best of this series and the only one I feel compelled to keep.

Mini-Reviews: Cryoburn, Rather, Cold

Lois McMaster Bujold, Cryoburn

In this installment of the Vorkosigan saga, Miles is investigating possible skulduggery on the planet Kibou-Daini, on which people generally choose to be cryogenically frozen instead of dying. The corporations that do the freezing then assume control of their frozen patrons’ assets and political votes. Now these cryocorps are trying to expand their business onto Komarr, which makes it Miles’s problem, and he soon uncovers and foils yet another dastardly scheme. I’ll admit, I didn’t totally follow the plot of this novel, but I did enjoy Miles’s antics and the characters he meets on Kibou, especially young animal lover Jin Sato. It’s also interesting that, while much of this series is about the creation of life (uterine replicators, Cetagandan genetic manipulation), this book pivots to examine death. I’m eager to read the next (and final) book in the series, but I’m also sad that it’s coming to an end!

Allison Ashley, Would You Rather

Noah and Mia have been best friends since childhood, but despite a long-simmering mutual attraction, they’ve never tried to take the relationship farther. Now Mia has the opportunity to go back to school and pursue her dream career, but to do that she’ll need to quit her job — which she can’t do, because she has a rare kidney disease and can’t afford to lose her health insurance. Noah suggests a marriage of convenience so that Mia can be covered under his insurance, but complications ensue as they both try to navigate a fake relationship with very real feelings. This is a quick and enjoyable read with a lot of angsty mutual pining. I liked that both Noah and Mia had problems outside the relationship that weren’t magically fixed, but I also really wanted them both to get some therapy! But I liked this one overall, and I’m kind of hoping for a sequel featuring side characters Graham and Claire.

Sherry Thomas, Murder on Cold Street

In this installment of the Lady Sherlock series, Charlotte Holmes’s ally Inspector Treadles is arrested for the murder of two men with ties to his wife’s business. The evidence is wildly incriminating, but Mrs. Treadles insists her husband is innocent, so Charlotte and her friends must try to discover alternate suspects and motives. Meanwhile, Lord Ingram finally decides to act on his feelings for Charlotte, which leads her to reexamine her own emotions. This book was fine, but at this point I’m reading for the characters and relationships rather than the mystery plots. Charlotte & co. spend a lot of time interviewing witnesses, and in the end the solution isn’t terribly complex. I’m getting a bit weary of Moriarty as a shadowy background villain who seems to have a connection to every aspect of Charlotte’s life, and I hope he’ll get some actual character development in the next book. Once I get current with the series this year, I may not care enough to pursue future installments.

Mini-Reviews: Lady, Eligible, Shawl

Loretta Chase, Not Quite a Lady

Often accused of being heartless, Darius Carsington is an unrepentant rake. He’s not interested in women apart from the physical pleasure they can bring him — that is, until he meets Lady Charlotte Hayward, who doesn’t quite seem to fit into any of the categories of women he’s used to. As he becomes better acquainted with her, Darius is disturbed and confused by his growing attraction. But Charlotte has a secret that makes her determined to avoid romance, even with the dangerously appealing Darius. I’ll admit, I have a fondness for romance novel heroes whose conflict is essentially, “I’m having a feeling and I don’t like it!” Darius’s struggle to resist his attraction to Charlotte is both amusing and endearing. I also liked Charlotte and was rooting for her to heal from her painful past, even if the resolution to that story felt a bit pat. Overall, this novel wasn’t quite as much my catnip as Lord Perfect, but I did really enjoy it and look forward to the next Carsington book!

Veronica Henry, An Eligible Bachelor

Guy Portias, heir to a manor house in the Cotswolds, has just gotten engaged to beautiful actress Richenda Fox. But they’ve only known each other a short time, and there are several obstacles that might prevent their union: Richenda’s keeping a secret about her past, Guy’s mother doesn’t seem too keen on her future daughter-in-law, and local girl Honor begins helping out at the manor—and getting closer to Guy in the process. The novel ultimately bounces among several characters connected with the manor and the larger neighborhood, who variously search for excitement, purpose, redemption, and love. I first read this book years ago and remembered liking it; this time around, I found it enjoyable but not particularly amazing. The overall tone is breezy and light, as you’d expect from an early-aughts British chick lit novel, but there’s also a very upsetting (though brief) description of the rape of a 14-year-old girl that I was not prepared for! Aside from that, it’s a fun, undemanding read that I’d recommend if you like the genre.

Elizabeth Mansfield, The Girl with the Persian Shawl

Kate Rendell is a strong woman who isn’t afraid to speak her mind. So when Harry Gerard, Lord Ainsworth, shows up unannounced to buy a painting from her — a family heirloom, no less — she doesn’t hesitate to tell him off. But she regrets her actions when she encounters Harry again and finds herself unwillingly attracted to him. The interest seems mutual, but Kate’s beautiful cousin Deirdre may throw a wrench into their romance. I picked up this book at a library sale because I dimly recalled that Mansfield wrote Regency romances with no explicit sexual content. My memory was accurate, but the book was mediocre at best. Kate is fairly obnoxious and jumps to a lot of ridiculous conclusions. Harry is appealing enough but rather two-dimensional. So unfortunately, I wouldn’t particularly recommend this book and have no interest in reading anything else by the author.

Mini-Reviews: Guardians, Belle, Flowers

Carol Berg, Guardians of the Keep

***Warning: SPOILERS for book #1 in the series.***

After the events of Son of Avonar, Karon/D’Natheil is staying with his mentor, Dassine, to see if his dual memories can be restored without overthrowing his reason altogether. Meanwhile, Seri returns to Comigor to fulfill her brother’s dying wish. She expects to stay only a short time, but she finds everything in disarray and her nephew, Gerick, strangely hostile. When Gerick later disappears, Seri and Karon join forces to find the missing boy, and the trail eventually leads to the land of the evil Lords of Zhev’Na. Like its predecessor, this book is a solid, enjoyable fantasy novel. The story is told primarily by Seri, Karon, and Gerick in turn, and this device gives varied and interesting perspectives on the book’s events. I especially liked the chapters in the land of Zhev’Na, which were dark and disturbing at times but also full of dramatic tension. I’m intrigued to see where the series goes from here!

Mimi Matthews, The Belle of Belgrave Square

Captain Jasper Blunt is hailed as a war hero, but he is also the object of sinister rumors involving illegitimate children and a crumbling, possibly haunted estate. He needs a wife with a large dowry to fund the necessary estate repairs, and he’s soon drawn to the anxious, bookish heiress Julia Wychwood. Julia is attracted to Jasper as well, but she is reluctant to pursue a relationship because of his dubious character. When circumstances force them together, Julia is willing to make the best of things, but she soon realizes that Jasper is keeping many secrets from her. I’m a huge Mimi Matthews fan and was excited about the Beauty and the Beast-esque plot of this novel, but while I did enjoy the book overall, I didn’t love it quite as much as I wanted to. I figured out Jasper’s secrets pretty early on, and it was frustrating that he kept them from Julia for so long. The plot also reminded me of Matthews’s earlier novel, The Matrimonial Advertisement, but I liked that version better. I still did like this book a lot, though, and I’m eager to continue with the series!

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Flowers of Vashnoi

This novella is set in the region of Vorkosigan Vashnoi, which was nuked by the Cetagandans during their invasion of Barrayar and is still highly radioactive. Ekaterin and Enrique Borgos have developed insects that might be able to consume radioactive materials and convert them into non-harmful substances, so they’re experimenting on a small plot of land within Vashnoi. But when some of the insects go missing, Ekaterin gets an upsetting crash course on her responsibilities as Lady Vorkosigan. This is my least favorite of the Vorkosigan novellas, which doesn’t mean it’s not good — it is! Bujold is always a good writer, and I liked the focus on Ekaterin’s POV. But it doesn’t do much to advance the overall series plot, and I also felt some of the events and themes were a retread of The Mountains of Mourning. So I don’t think you’re missing too much if you skip this one, though it will still be of interest to Vorkosigan enthusiasts.

Mini-Reviews: Bullet, Art, Enclaves

Richard Osman, The Bullet That Missed

The Thursday Murder Club is back at it, this time investigating the cold case of a murdered journalist. But things heat up when a prisoner connected to the journalist’s last big story is found dead in her cell. Meanwhile, Elizabeth faces a threat from a mysterious “Viking” who attempts to blackmail her into killing a former associate. New romances blossom for Ron and Donna, Stephen’s memory loss worsens, and Ibrahim becomes Connie Johnson’s psychiatrist. As with previous installments of the series, this novel is a lot of fun and treats its quirky characters — even the criminals — with warmth and charity. The plot does get a little overwrought toward the end, but I still liked the book a lot and will certainly continue with the series.

Sherry Thomas, The Art of Theft

In this installment of the Lady Sherlock series, the maharani of a small Indian kingdom — and an old flame of Mrs. Watson’s — needs help. She’s being blackmailed and needs to recover some sensitive letters, which are currently hidden in the frame of a valuable painting that will soon be auctioned off at a French chateau. So Charlotte Holmes & co. decide to infiltrate the auction and steal the painting so they can retrieve the letters, but of course everything is more complicated than it seems. I love a good heist story, so I was predisposed to enjoy this book, but I have mixed feelings. The pacing feels off; not much happens until about 75% of the way through, and then it’s plot twist after plot twist. I also find myself getting frustrated with Charlotte and Lord Ingram, since the obstacles to their romance seem pretty flimsy at this point. On the other hand, I did like seeing the whole gang (i.e., everyone I care about) together, and I’m invested in what happens to these characters. So I’d still recommend the series, but you definitely need to start with book one!

Naomi Novik, The Golden Enclaves

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

At the end of The Last Graduate, El graduated, saved the entire student body, and sent a huge percentage of the world’s mals spinning into the void. But none of that matters to her right now, because Orion voluntarily stayed behind to get eaten by a maw-mouth. Devastated, El doesn’t know what to do with herself, until she learns that enclaves around the world are being attacked, and her unique powers may be their only hope. Meanwhile, she decides she needs to put Orion out of his misery, which means she’s not quite done with the Scholomance after all. I’ve enjoyed this series and think this last book is a fitting conclusion. As with the Temeraire series, there are pacing issues, and some developments came out of nowhere. The plot takes some very dark and dramatic turns, but I was satisfied with how things turned out. I’d recommend this trilogy if the premise appeals to you, but you definitely need to read it in order!

Mini-Reviews: Jenny, Alliance, Birdy

Anthony Berkeley, Jumping Jenny

A disagreeable woman dies at a house party, apparently by suicide, but amateur detective Roger Sheringham discovers proof that she was murdered. Yet Roger — along with all the other party guests — believes that she deserved to be murdered, so while his curiosity prompts him to search for the truth, he also works to shield the killer from the police. This novel has an interesting structure, in that you think you know what’s going on by the end of chapter 4, but there are several more twists and turns to the plot. Berkeley is a good writer but cruel to his characters, and I didn’t find a single one of them likable. I thought everyone’s attitude toward the dead woman was pretty horrifying. Yes, she was obnoxious, but everyone hated her so much that I found myself pitying her! All in all, this novel was very clever but a little too mean-spirited for me.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance

Ivan Vorpatril likes to keep his head down and stay as far away from politics as he can. But he gets dragged into a sticky situation when an ImpSec operative asks him to protect a mysterious woman, Tej, and her blue-skinned companion from unknown enemies. Ivan is willing to help, but complications ensue when an emergency forces him to offer Tej the protection of marriage. Ivan is one of my favorite characters in this series, so I was excited to read his book, and fortunately it delivered everything I wanted! More than once I found myself chuckling and affectionately murmuring “Oh, Ivan” (not an exaggeration, I literally did this!). A large chunk of the book is a cozy reunion with beloved series characters; Byerly Vorrutyer makes a welcome return; there’s a lovely exploration of Simon Illyan’s relationship with Ivan; plus a treasure hunt, multiple romances, and a few thrilling heroics. In short, I adored this book, and it’s definitely my favorite of the Vorkosigan saga!

Karen Cushman, Catherine, Called Birdy

Catherine is a 13-year-old girl growing up in the Middle Ages, but she’s not particularly interested in becoming the lady of the manor. She loathes spinning and embroidery, her best friend is Perkin the goat boy, and she’d rather join a circus or go on crusade than get married. But when her father finds her an old, ugly, rude — but rich — suitor, Catherine doesn’t know how to escape her fate. This was one of my favorite books as a child, and I decided to reread it because there’s a new Amazon Prime adaptation coming out today. I was delighted to find that the book really holds up! Catherine’s voice is a joy as she describes her unique thoughts and the various scrapes she gets into. The depiction of life in the Middle Ages is also vivid and compelling. I’m glad I read this book again and discovered that it really is as good as I remembered!

Mini-Reviews: Rogue, Song, Jewel

Amberley Martin, The Rogue and the Peasant

Esme is a peasant, but her mother always told her she’d be a queen someday. So when a noble lady arrives at her cottage to whisk her off to Finishing School, Esme assumes it’s time to fulfill her destiny — but being kidnapped doesn’t seem like part of the plan. Meanwhile, the kidnapper, Rory, has his own problems: He’s paying off a debt to a sinister Fairy Godmother, and he’s literally haunted by his father’s ghost. When Esme and Rory begin to work together, they learn that their fates are intertwined in surprising ways. Based on the book’s cover copy, I thought this was going to be a romance, and it definitely 100% is not. I also thought the author’s influences were a little too obvious — there’s a whole chapter that basically rips off the movie Labyrinth. But I did like Esme and Rory as characters, and the book subverts traditional fairy tale narratives in interesting ways. Overall, it’s a decent fantasy read, just not what I was expecting.

Kerry Winfrey, Just Another Love Song

Fifteen years ago, Sandy and Hank were high school sweethearts, determined to leave their small town of Baileyville, Ohio, and pursue their dreams. Now Hank has achieved his goal of becoming a famous musician, but Sandy stayed in Baileyville. While she’s mostly content with her life, she regrets the way things ended with Hank, especially since no other man she’s dated has measured up. When Hank comes back to town, Sandy is forced to confront her unresolved feelings. I loved Kerry Winfrey’s first book, Waiting for Tom Hanks, and I really enjoy her warm, funny writing style. But I didn’t love this one quite as much, mostly because I don’t tend to like second-chance romances. I also thought the book’s dramatic tension vanished around the halfway point, when Sandy and Hank have an honest conversation that eliminates most of the conflict. But I did like the book overall and will definitely keep reading more by this author.

Mary Balogh, A Precious Jewel

Sir Gerald Stapleton has no interest in marriage; past experience has taught him that women can’t be trusted, and he feels himself too dull and ordinary to inspire love. But he doesn’t want to do without female companionship altogether, so he occasionally visits a high-class brothel. When he meets Priscilla, one of brothel’s employees, he is drawn to her — and when another client abuses her, Gerald impulsively decides to make her his mistress. But the more time they spend together, the more complicated their relationship grows. I was fascinated by this book’s premise and by the unconventional protagonists, a beta-male hero and a prostitute heroine. While I found Gerald unlikable at times and Priss too much of a doormat, I was also able to sympathize with both characters and root for them to figure things out. I’m not exactly sure how I’d rate this book, but it’s certainly a memorable one!

Mini-Reviews: Wedding, Avonar, Perfect

Jennifer Ryan, The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle

This historical novel focuses on three women whose lives change during World War II: Cressida, a successful fashion designer whose London home and studio are both destroyed in the Blitz; Violet, an aristocratic young woman whose ambition to marry a titled gentleman is thwarted by her wartime duties; and Grace, a vicar’s daughter who rethinks her decision to marry a man she doesn’t love. All three women grow, discover something new about themselves, and find love. I thought this novel was fine; the main characters are ultimately likable, and the romances are enjoyable if not particularly deep. But the writing style is clunky and simplistic, and the story beats are quite predictable. Overall, I thought this was OK, but fans of light WWII novels can do better.

Carol Berg, Son of Avonar

Seri is a noblewoman by birth, but she has lived in self-imposed exile for 10 years after suffering grievous losses in her former life. When she encounters a desperate fugitive, she hides him from the authorities but discovers that he cannot speak and doesn’t even know his own identity. The book alternates between the present, in which Seri investigates the fugitive’s background, and the past, in which she falls in love with a sorcerer even though magic is forbidden in her country. The two storylines eventually converge, but the vast majority of the book is introducing the main characters and setting up the world of the series. It’s solid, well-written epic fantasy, but I wasn’t a fan of all the jumping back and forth in time (nor of the frequent mentions of Seri’s flame-colored hair). Things pick up near the end of the book, but the first half is a bit of a slog. Still, I like the characters, and the story is shaping up well, so I’m curious to see what will happen in subsequent books!

Loretta Chase, Lord Perfect

Benedict, eldest son of the Earl of Hargate, knows his duty and always obeys society’s rules. But a chance meeting with Bathsheba Wingate and her wayward daughter, Olivia, upsets his carefully regimented life. When Olivia runs off in pursuit of treasure with Benedict’s frustrated nephew in tow, Benedict and Bathsheba must work together to rescue the fugitives, while fighting an attraction that can only end in disaster for them both. This is the Loretta Chase book I was waiting for! I love a duty-bound, uptight, emotionally repressed hero, and it’s a delight to watch Benedict slowly unravel. I also enjoyed Bathsheba’s practicality, wit, and determination to gain respectability for herself and her daughter. It’s just a really fun read, full of romantic tension, and it has me excited to read Olivia’s book soon!

Mini-Reviews: Immunity, Fortnight, Dragons

Lois McMaster Bujold, Diplomatic Immunity

In this installment of the Vorkosigan saga, Miles visits Quaddiespace to smooth over an interplanetary incident before it degenerates into armed conflict. A Barrayaran soldier, part of the military escort of a Komarran trading fleet docking at Graf Station, has disappeared. Was he murdered, and if so, why and by whom? Miles must navigate the various agendas and prejudices of the Barrayarans, Komarrans, and quaddies to find out. I’m still absolutely loving this series, though there’s not enough character interaction in this book for my taste — no Ivan or Mark, and very little Ekaterin. It was nice to see Bel Thorne again, though! And I did find the mystery, which involves bioweapons and Cetagandan genetics, compelling as well. So while this isn’t my favorite installment of the series, I still enjoyed it and am excited to continue — especially since the next book appears to be Ivan-centric!

R.C. Sherriff, The Fortnight in September

This quiet, reflective novel follows the Stevens family as they embark on their annual two-week vacation to the seaside town of Bognor. As they enjoy their holiday, the father thinks about his career’s successes and failures; the mother valiantly hides her fear of the sea from the rest of the family; the 20-year-old daughter experiences an exciting friendship and romance; and the 17-year-old son decides on a new path for his future. This book has no plot to speak of — the main focus is on the characters’ interior lives. The tone is nostalgic and a little sad, as it’s obvious that both the family and the town are irrevocably changing with the passage of time. But it’s also very pleasant (and a refreshing change!) to read about a functional family of people who are fundamentally kind to one another. Definitely recommended if you like this kind of thing.

Naomi Novik, League of Dragons

This final book of the Temeraire series focuses on the last desperate efforts of England and its allies to defeat Napoleon once and for all. The French emperor has a new plan to get the world’s dragons on his side by promising them lands of their own, as well as political and economic rights. Laurence and Temeraire must convince their dragon allies (and even some British dragons) not to defect to Napoleon’s side; meanwhile, a newly promoted Laurence deals with insubordination among the Aerial Corps captains. While I enjoyed this book more than other recent installments of the series, I think it’s a disappointing series finale. So many characters’ fates are left up in the air, and I really wanted to know what happened to Hammond, for example, and Captain Harcourt, and Emily and Demane. The conflict between Laurence and the other captains isn’t resolved either. Granted, I’m a person who likes tidy endings, so maybe others won’t be so bothered by the lack of resolution here. But I wanted more from this book; I feel like the series started strong but ended with a whimper.

Mini-Reviews: Duke, Brain, Behold

Jane Ashford, The Duke Who Loved Me

James Cantrell has just inherited a dukedom, and with it a mountain of responsibilities. Desperate to avoid these, he proposes to Cecelia Vainsmede, a longtime friend whose competence and organizational skills will surely allow him to ignore his new duties. But Cecelia is in love with James (unbeknownst to him) and is hurt by his casual proposal. Her refusal piques James’s curiosity and interest — especially when a rival suitor appears on the scene. But James needs to grow up before he can figure out what he truly wants. Ashford’s books have been hit or miss for me, but I quite liked this one! James is definitely a flawed character, but I appreciated his growth throughout the book. The main obstacle to the romance is poor communication, which is frustrating at times but relatable and realistic. The ending is very abrupt and I wanted more resolution, but otherwise I liked this one and would recommend it to fans of the genre.

Ali Hazelwood, Love on the Brain

Bee Königswasser has just landed her dream job as the lead neuroscientist on a NASA project. Unfortunately, her co-leader is also her grad school nemesis, Levi Ward, who has always treated her with cold disdain. When Bee starts the job, she’s plagued by workplace sexism and office politics, but Levi is an unexpected ally, and eventually Bee discovers that he never actually hated her at all. As with the author’s previous book, The Love Hypothesis, I found this novel compulsively readable, though some aspects of it didn’t ring true for me. For example, I love a hero who pines after the heroine, but the extent of Levi’s pining did not feel realistic. I also found Bee’s various cutesy quirks annoying at times, and the ending took a weird turn into straight-up melodrama. Still, I’d recommend this one if you like the premise and don’t mind a steamier contemporary romance.

Francis Duncan, Behold a Fair Woman

Mordecai Tremaine is a bit burned out on his hobby of detection, so he’s taking a vacation to visit some friends on a (fictional) Channel Island. At first he’s happy to enjoy the beaches and mingle with the other vacationers, but he soon begins to notice tense relationships and suspicious activity at an old mill. When one of his new acquaintances is murdered, Tremaine helps the local police to solve the mystery. Like the other books I’ve read by this author, I found this one solid but unspectacular. The pacing felt a bit off: the murder doesn’t happen until about halfway through, and then all the various strands of the mystery finally come together about two pages from the end. I wanted a bit more resolution, I think. So, I’m not enthusiastically recommending it, but it was still a decent read.