Mini-Reviews: English, Havana, Watch

English WitchNext Year in HavanaOne to Watch

Loretta Chase, The English Witch

This book is the sequel to Isabella, which I read and enjoyed a few months ago, and the villain of that book is now the hero. Basil Trevelyan has been away from England for several years, working for a prosperous merchant and doing the odd job for the British government along the way. Now, at his aunt’s behest, he must rescue the beautiful Alexandra Ashmore, first from peril in Albania and then from an unwanted engagement in England. Though Basil is by nature a womanizer whose first goal is to pursue his own pleasure, he begins to develop genuine feelings for Alexandra. The fun of this book is watching Basil (1) recognize that he is capable of feeling actual love, not just desire, and (2) hilariously fail every time he tries to articulate his feelings. I’d recommend this book (as well as Isabella) to those who enjoy their historical romance on the lighter side, with lots of plot and minimal angst.

Chanel Cleeton, Next Year in Havana

In 1958, Elisa Perez is the daughter of a wealthy Cuban family. Despite unrest throughout the country and popular discontent with Batista’s regime, her life is mostly occupied with suitors and social engagements. But when she falls in love with Pablo, an intense and dedicated revolutionary, Elisa must rethink what it means to be loyal to her country. In the present day, Elisa has just passed away in Miami, and her granddaughter Marisol is returning to Cuba to lay Elisa’s ashes to rest. Marisol is excited to visit her family’s homeland but soon realizes that her Cuban American identity is more complex than she realized. There’s nothing wrong with this book, but it never really grabbed me and took me a long time to finish. I found the historical background about Cuba fascinating — and sadly new to me, since I learned basically nothing about the country in school — but the individual characters and circumstances weren’t compelling. That said, Cleeton wrote a follow-up book featuring Elisa’s sister Beatriz, and I might be curious enough to seek that one out at some point.

Kate Stayman-London, One to Watch

Bea Schumacher is a plus-sized fashion blogger with a certain amount of internet fame. But when she writes a drunken rant criticizing the lack of body diversity on a Bachelor-style reality show, her piece goes viral, and she is unexpectedly offered the chance to become the next season’s star. Twenty-five men will compete for her affection on camera, and at the end of the season, she’ll become “engaged” to the winner. Bea agrees, but she’s hesitant; despite her efforts to accept her body, she knows that the world isn’t always kind to fat people, and she doubts whether any of the men on the show will truly be interested in her. But as the show is filmed, she finds both rejection and affirmation in surprising places. I enjoyed this book a lot! It’s fun and entertaining–a perfect beach read–but as a plus-sized woman myself, I also found Bea incredibly relatable. It was great to see her overcome her doubts and insecurities to find a happy ending. Definitely recommended if you think the premise sounds fun!

Mini-Reviews: Q, Manners, Shades

QMurder Is Bad MannersWell of Shades

Beth Brower, The Q

Quincy St. Claire has put her heart and soul into The Q, a popular publication owned by her Great-Uncle Ezekiel. When Ezekiel dies, she expects to inherit The Q, but she soon discovers that there are conditions attached to the inheritance. She must complete 12 undisclosed tasks within a year, or she’ll lose The Q; and she’ll be supervised in these tasks by James Arch, Ezekiel’s solicitor, whom Quincy thoroughly dislikes. This is a self-published novel, and it shows a bit; the plot tends to meander, and there are several intriguing characters on the sidelines whose stories should have been more developed. But I really enjoyed this book nonetheless; it’s part romance, part coming-of-age tale as Quincy learns what’s really important in life. The setting is great, and I’d love to read more books set in this world! I am definitely interested in reading more by Brower.

Robin Stevens, Murder Is Bad Manners

In a British boarding school in the 1930s, Hazel Wong stands out for being the only student from Hong Kong. Luckily, she’s best friends with Daisy Wells, a quintessentially English girl whose good looks and pleasant demeanor distract everyone — well, everyone but Hazel — from the fact that she’s also highly intelligent. Daisy and Hazel have formed a secret detective society, but so far their cases have been mundane and easy to solve. That is, until Hazel discovers the body of their science teacher on the floor of the gymnasium! I really enjoyed this book; not only is the mystery surprisingly satisfying for a middle-grade novel, but I also loved Hazel and was fascinated by her relationship with Daisy. They may be best friends, but Hazel is often relegated to the role of sidekick. Fortunately, she starts to realize this and to come into her own more as the book goes on. Overall, I liked this a lot and will definitely plan to continue with the series.

Juliet Marillier, The Well of Shades

I read the first two books in the Bridei trilogy years ago, and I finally decided to pick up this final installment. It focuses mainly on Faolan, Bridei’s trusted spy and assassin, who is on the road once again on a mission for Bridei. Things quickly go wrong when Faolan meets Eile, a 16-year-old girl who is clearly trapped in an abusive household. Faolan helps Eile and her daughter to escape, then decides they must travel with him so that he can keep them safe. Meanwhile, intrigue surrounds Bridei’s court once again: one of his biggest allies seems to have betrayed him; his trusted adviser, Broichan the druid, has disappeared; and a group of Christian monks is asking to live in Bridei’s lands, threatening their traditional way of life. I’m glad I finally finished this series, especially because Faolan was one of my favorite characters and I wanted to see a happy resolution for him. I really liked the Faolan/Eile chapters, but I found some of the other sections less interesting, especially everything involving Broichan. Still, I enjoyed the book overall, and it’s reminded me how much I like Juliet Marillier in general!

Mini-Reviews: Steal, Jane, Wicked

Cold StealJane Austen SocietySlightly Wicked

Alice Tilton, Cold Steal

Leonidas Witherall is returning home from a trip around the world, and he’s looking forward to some peace and relaxation. But of course, he’s immediately embroiled in a mystery when he witnesses suspicious activity on a train. Then he is kidnapped by one of his fellow travelers; and when he finally escapes, he discovers the dead body of a local woman in his house! This book, like the previous installments in the series, is pure farce and a lot of fun. But some scenes, where all the characters are talking at cross-purposes and no one is explaining anything, actually stressed me out a bit! The mystery is definitely secondary to the farce; barely any time is spent on actual detection. Still, I enjoy this series and will continue with it at some point. One quick note: I think it would be helpful to read at least book 2, The Cut Direct, before reading this one, as several of the characters are recurring.

Natalie Jenner, The Jane Austen Society

This book, set in 1950s Chawton, is about a group of very different people who are united by their love of Jane Austen and their desire to preserve her legacy. At this time, Chawton is much like any other English village; while some tourists do show up looking for the house where Austen lived, there’s no official effort to preserve her home or other items of historical value. So the self-appointed Jane Austen Society decides to lead this effort. In the meantime, of course, the various society members become entangled in Austen-esque stories of their own. I found this book a pleasant, enjoyable read, but I’m having trouble remembering a lot of the details. It definitely didn’t affect me emotionally in the way that The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society did…perhaps that’s an unfair comparison, but the similar titles and time periods made a connection between the two books in my mind. Overall, though, I did like the book and think it’s a great escapist read for Austen fans!

Mary Balogh, Slightly Wicked

This second book in the Bedwyn series focuses on Judith Law, the daughter of an impoverished clergyman who is destined to live with her aunt as a “poor relation.” But Judith secretly yearns for adventure — and when a chance encounter with the dangerously attractive Rannulf Bedwyn gives her the opportunity to experience a sexual relationship, she takes it. After all, she’s unlikely ever to marry, and this may be her only chance. But when she arrives at her aunt’s home, she is dismayed to learn that Rannulf is in the area visiting his grandmother, and what was meant to be a one-night stand quickly becomes much more complicated. I didn’t enjoy this book as much as other Balogh novels that I’ve read. The premise didn’t do anything for me, and I didn’t particularly connect to Rannulf as a hero; other than his good looks and wealth, I couldn’t see what Judith saw in him. There’s also some cringeworthy dialogue, in the first love scene especially. I still liked the book enough to finish it in two days, but I’m definitely hoping the series improves with subsequent books.

Mini-Reviews: Pawn, Undateable, Desperate

Fortune's PawnUndateableDesperate Fortune

Rachel Bach, Fortune’s Pawn

Devi Morris is a space mercenary whose dream is to join her home planet’s most elite fighting force. In order to gain the necessary qualifications and experience, she signs onto the crew of the Glorious Fool, a spaceship with a reputation of getting into trouble. But Devi has no idea just how much trouble is in store for her. I really enjoyed this book, which is sci-fi with a prominent romantic subplot. It’s not groundbreaking, just a really solid example of this type of story. I’m also very intrigued by the plot developments at the end of the book, so I’m definitely planning to read the rest of the trilogy!

Sarah Title, The Undateable

This is a cute romance focusing on Melissa “Bernie” Bernard, a feminist and somewhat frumpy academic librarian. When her student assistant gets engaged via a flash-mob proposal, Bernie’s disapproving reaction is caught on camera and immediately becomes a viral meme. That meme gets the attention of Colin Rodriguez, who works for an online fashion magazine and is looking for a story that will make his job secure. When they team up to do a story about the Disapproving Librarian going on a series of blind dates, they discover an inconvenient mutual attraction. This is a fun book with a very enjoyable heroine; and while the hero isn’t quite as fleshed out, I like that he comes to appreciate Bernie’s quirkiness. They each grow as they learn to understand the other’s point of view, which is a feature I always like in a romance. Worth reading if you like the premise.

Susanna Kearsley, A Desperate Fortune

I’ve read a few of Kearsley’s books before, and I liked but didn’t love them. Still, I decided to give this one a try because it contains a lot of elements I enjoy: codebreaking, espionage, and Jacobites. And I’m so glad I read it, because I absolutely loved it! Mary Dundas is part of a Jacobite family living in exile in France. She yearns for adventure, and finds it when her brother claims her for a mission to camouflage the identity of a fellow Jacobite who is being hunted by the English. Meanwhile, in the present day, Sara is hired to decrypt Mary’s encoded diary. Both Mary and Sara travel, learn more about themselves and the world, and find romance. I should note that Sara has Asperger syndrome, and I thought this aspect of her character was portrayed well — but I don’t really know much about it, so perhaps someone with more expertise would have a different opinion. Overall, I really loved this book and may have to rethink my stance on Kearsley in general!

Mini-Reviews: Groomsmen, Glass, Death

Just One of the GroomsmenGlass OceanShare in Death

Cindi Madsen, Just One of the Groomsmen

This is a cute friends-to-lovers romance set in the small town of Uncertainty, Alabama. Addie Murphy has always been “one of the guys” — literally, because all her best friends since childhood are male. But one of them, Tucker Crawford, has just moved back to town after a few years away, and he’s starting to see Addie differently. The feeling is mutual, but both Tucker and Addie are hesitant to act on their attraction, fearing that they’ll ruin their friendship, irrevocably change the friend group, and become the talk of their small and gossipy town. This book was fun and lighthearted, and I liked that the obstacle to the romance was realistic yet simple. It felt like the book equivalent of one of the better Hallmark movies. I’d definitely consider reading more by this author.

Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, and Karen White, The Glass Ocean

This historical novel focuses on three characters whose destinies are intertwined as they all sail from America to England on the Lusitania‘s final voyage. Caroline Hochstetter is a rich Southern belle torn between her husband, a business-preoccupied industrialist, and her longtime friend Robert Langford. Robert is also aboard the ship, pursuing both Caroline and secret knowledge to aid the British — or is it the Germans? And Tessa Fairweather is a con artist hoping to pull off one last job, but she soon learns that the stakes are higher than she realized. There’s also a contemporary framework narrative involving one of Robert’s descendants and an author hoping to use the story for a book. I really enjoyed this novel, especially the historical parts. What’s not to love about romance and intrigue aboard ship? Highly recommended for fans of historical fiction!

Deborah Crombie, A Share in Death

I discovered something about myself while reading this book: I don’t generally enjoy contemporary mysteries! I love the Golden Age writers such as Agatha Christie, with their puzzle plots and limited selection of suspects. I like their orderliness and clarity, whereas more modern mysteries seem to embrace ambiguity and loose ends. That said, I really enjoyed this particular contemporary mystery; though it was written and set in the ‘90s, it feels very much like a Golden Age throwback, in which a hotel employee is murdered, and the killer must be one of the guests or other employees of the hotel. My one quibble is that protagonist Duncan Kincaid seems to spark a mutual romantic interest with every woman he meets — but I believe a particular love interest will emerge in future books. I’m looking forward to continuing with the series!

Mini-Reviews: Sacred, Nursing, Swan

Sacred Wood and Major Early EssaysNursing Home MurderMurder on Black Swan Lane

T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood and Major Early Essays

Despite its shortness, this book was a real challenge for me. It’s a collection of essays by T.S. Eliot about literary criticism, mostly focusing on specific critics and their (rare) success and (common) failures. Since I hadn’t heard of, much less read, the vast majority of these critics, I found most of Eliot’s arguments extremely hard to follow. On the other hand, I do think reading this book was good for me — the mental equivalent of strenuous exercise. But this is probably the type of book best read in a college course, with a professor and other students on hand to help make sense of it.

Ngaio Marsh, The Nursing Home Murder

When the Home Secretary contracts acute appendicitis and dies on the operating table, his wife insists that he has been murdered. After all, there’s no shortage of suspects: the man had many political enemies, including one of the nurses who assisted with his operation. Another of the nurses was his mistress, who was devastated when he broke off their relationship. Even the operating surgeon is a suspect, since he’s in love with the mistress himself. Then there are the dead man’s wife and sister, who each inherit a substantial sum under his will. Fortunately, Inspector Alleyn and Sergeant Fox are on the case. I found this a thoroughly enjoyable Golden Age mystery, despite some pejorative discussion of mental illness (referring to it as a “taint” in someone’s heredity, for example). I’m slowly working my way through this series and am glad Ngaio Marsh was so prolific!

Andrea Penrose, Murder on Black Swan Lane

All London society knows about the animosity between the scientifically minded Lord Wrexham and the Reverend Josiah Holworthy. Cartoonist A.J. Quill has even been selling pointed satirical sketches about their feud. So when Holworthy is murdered, Wrexham is the number-one suspect. To clear his name, he hunts down A.J. Quill and discovers that “he” is actually Charlotte Sloane, a poor widow using her artistic talents to earn a meager living. They team up to solve the murder and are soon plunged into a sinister plot involving alchemy. I love a good Regency mystery, so I had high hopes for this book, but I ended up being a little disappointed. It’s not bad, per se, but nothing about it stood out to me, and I doubt I’ll continue with the series.

Mini-Reviews: Ruby, Angel, Bride

Ruby in the SmokeDark Angel : Lord Carew's Bride

Philip Pullman, The Ruby in the Smoke

I greatly enjoyed this historical adventure set in Victorian England. When 16-year-old Sally Lockhart’s father dies under mysterious circumstances, she visits his business partner looking for answers — and stumbles into a sinister plot involving opium and murder. It’s just a really fun, pulpy novel for the MG/YA demographic, and I definitely plan to read the rest of the series!

Mary Balogh, Dark Angel / Lord Carew’s Bride

It’s a testament to how much I enjoy Balogh’s writing that I thoroughly enjoyed Dark Angel, even though it contains some of my least favorite romance tropes: reformed rake and revenge-seduction of the heroine. But the book doesn’t minimize the hero’s (initially) awful behavior or its painful consequences. The heroine doesn’t forgive him too easily, and he fully acknowledges how terrible his actions were. So I was ultimately able to root for the couple and believe in their happy ending.

I also liked Lord Carew’s Bride, though it wasn’t quite as emotionally resonant for me. Samantha has had a terrible experience with love, so she’s determined to keep her many suitors at arms’ length. Then she meets the incognito Lord Carew, who she mistakes for a common landscape gardener. He falls for her immediately, and she accepts his marriage proposal because she feels safe with him — and because the man she once loved is trying to weasel his way back into her life. I liked the hero more than the heroine in this one, but I do think they’re well matched. And I enjoyed seeing the villain get his comeuppance!

Mini-Reviews: Crimson, Still

Crimson BoundStill Life

Rosamund Hodge, Crimson Bound

I was pleasantly surprised by this YA fantasy novel, which is a (very) loose retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. Protagonist Rachelle is a bloodbound, doomed to eventually lose her soul to the evil Devourer at the heart of the forest. In the meantime, she works as the king’s hired killer — until he commands her to guard his son Armand, whom she immediately distrusts because the people revere him as a saint. Yet when Rachelle discovers a possible way to change her destiny and defeat the Devourer, Armand may be her only ally. I liked the juicy plot and (of course) the romance, but my favorite aspect of this book is its unexpectedly serious examination of evil and atonement.

Louise Penny, Still Life

I’ve read so many glowing reviews of this series, so I’m a little afraid to say that I didn’t love this first installment. Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t hate it either. I enjoyed the setting of a small town in Quebec, which is charming without being too idealized. And the mystery plot is interesting; I especially liked how the victim’s art contains a clue to the solution. But for one thing, I thought the book was doing too many things at once: introducing the town, describing the victim and her friends, introducing Inspector Gamache and his team…it was a lot to keep track of, and it was hard to tell which characters would turn out to be important. That’s normal for a series opener, of course, but it still made the book difficult to follow.

I also felt that the victim’s friend group was a little smug and snobbish. They’re mostly wealthy, mostly educated, mostly not originally from the small town…whereas some of the lower-class “townie” characters are painted as villains without one redeeming quality. Finally, I thought Agent Nichol was treated a bit unfairly. I read her as being on the autism spectrum (not understanding social cues, not able to see beyond the literal meaning of what people told her), so even though she unquestionably behaves badly, I wanted Gamache (and the book) to treat her with a little more compassion instead of writing her off as a clueless jerk. All that said, I may try the next book in the series, since it won’t have to do as much work of introducing the world and characters.

Mini-Reviews: Isabella, Taken, Scandal

IsabellaNot to Be TakenFirst Comes Scandal

Loretta Chase, Isabella

I’ve liked all of Loretta Chase’s traditional Regencies, and this is no exception. Isabella Latham considers herself an old maid at 26, but she arrives in London for the Season with her two young cousins and is surprised when she acquires multiple suitors. The most notable are Edward Trevelyan, the earl of Hartleigh, and his charming cousin Basil. Isabella is attracted to both men, but they both seem to have ulterior motives: Edward needs a wife to help raise his ward, the young daughter of his deceased best friend, and Basil has his eye on Isabella’s fortune. Naturally Isabella ends up with the right man, and naturally the spurned suitor gets his own book, The English Witch, which I’m looking forward to reading sometime soon! I’ll be interested to see how Chase redeems his character, because he certainly did some morally dubious things in this book.

Anthony Berkeley, Not to Be Taken

I adore Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case, so I was excited to try another one of his mysteries. But overall, I was a bit disappointed. While this book is well written, the style is entertaining, and the mystery plot hangs together well, there’s nothing particularly special or surprising about it. It’s a classic murder in a small English village, and only one of the victim’s closest friends could have done it. I did find the story entertaining while reading it, especially near the end, when the narrator gives three or four false solutions before revealing the true one. But unlike The Poisoned Chocolates Case, this one is not a keeper. I’ll happily read more by Berkeley in the future, though!

Julia Quinn, First Comes Scandal

I think of Julia Quinn as the perfect choice for historical romance with some sweet, silly fun and minimal angst. But the last few books of hers that I’ve read have been a bit “meh,” including this one. The heroine is Georgiana Bridgerton, who is forcibly abducted by one of her suitors and therefore “ruined,” even though nothing actually happened. The hero, Henry Rokesby, is a medical student who’s not particularly interested in marriage. But the Rokesbys and Bridgertons have been neighbors and close friends for many years, so Henry’s father convinces him to propose to Georgiana and salvage her reputation. I liked the premise and the fact that the book is very light on conflict, but the style got on my nerves. I felt like Quinn was trying too hard to be clever, and I also found a lot of the dialogue distractingly anachronistic. So I wouldn’t recommend this one unless you’re a Quinn completist.

Mini-Reviews: Necromancer, Dimple, Scrapbook

Death of the NecromancerWhen Dimple Met RishiScrapbook of Frankie Pratt

Martha Wells, The Death of the Necromancer

This gaslamp fantasy follows Nicholas Valliarde, otherwise known as Donatien, the leader of a notorious criminal enterprise in the city of Vienne. He has one goal: to ruin the life of the Count of Montesq, who had Nicholas’s foster-father executed on a false charge of necromancy. In the middle of a heist that would further this goal, however, Nicholas runs into an unexpectedly life-threatening situation and soon learns that a real necromancer may be at work in the city. I really enjoyed this novel, especially the setting, which is like a fantastical version of 18th-century France. There’s also a really great friendship that arises between Nicholas and the police inspector who’s been tracking his criminal alter-ego. I will definitely continue with the Ile-Rien series, although this one stands alone quite well.

Sandhya Menon, When Dimple Met Rishi

Dimple and Rishi are Indian American teens who have never met, but their parents are friends and have tentatively arranged a marriage between them. Rishi knows about the arrangement and is happy about it; he loves his family and his culture, and he trusts his parents to choose an appropriate wife for him. Dimple, on the other hand, is more interested in computer coding than marriage, and she’s desperate to attend a prestigious summer program — one that Rishi happens to be attending also. When they meet, Dimple is enraged to discover the marriage arrangement. But the more she gets to know Rishi, the more she ends up liking him. This is a cute YA rom-com with insight into a culture I know little about. I recommend it if the premise intrigues you!

Caroline Preston, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt

This “novel in pictures” tells the story of Frances “Frankie” Pratt, an ambitious American girl who leaves her hometown to attend college, then travel to New York and Paris in hopes of becoming a writer. The book purports to be Frankie’s scrapbook of these eventful years of her life, with just a few sentences of narration on each page. The photos are of authentic 1920s artifacts — advertisements, ticket stubs, postcards, and the like — and I was very impressed by the author’s dedication to finding these artifacts and creating a story around them. That said, the scrapbook conceit is the cleverest part of the book; the plot and characters are all fairly two-dimensional. Still, this is a fun, quick read that would appeal to people who enjoy scrapbooking or are fascinated by the 1920s.