Mini-Reviews: Throne, Beloved, Marion

Naomi Novik, Throne of Jade

Former naval captain Will Laurence and dragon Temeraire are now fast friends and inseparable companions. But because Temeraire is an extremely rare and valuable Chinese dragon, China is demanding him back. So Laurence and Temeraire are forced to travel to the imperial court to placate the emperor and prevent the Chinese from allying with France. This book is a worthy continuation of His Majesty’s Dragon, fleshing out the global political situation and contrasting English and Chinese treatment of dragons. I enjoyed watching Temeraire mature a bit and start to question the English way of doing things. Looking forward to book 3!

Mary Balogh, Only Beloved

George, the Duke of Stanbrook, has helped the other six Survivors to heal from their war wounds and find true love. But he has never truly coped with his own pain and loss: his son died in the Napoleonic Wars, and his wife took her own life soon afterward. Now George is lonely and decides to remarry, but his chosen wife is determined to help him finally confront and heal from his tragic past. This isn’t one of my favorite installments of the Survivors’ Club series, but I still enjoyed it. I like Balogh’s style, and it’s refreshing to see historical romance protagonists in their 30s and 40s. The book takes an oddly melodramatic turn toward the end, and the last few chapters are a bit cloying, with all the blissfully married Survivors and their babies. But it’s still worth a read, especially if you’ve enjoyed the rest of the series.

T.A. Willberg, Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder

Marion Lane is an apprentice at a mysterious private detective agency that operates beneath the streets of London. When one of her colleagues is murdered and her mentor is accused of the crime, Marion decides to investigate. But she uncovers some troubling secrets about the agency’s history and isn’t sure whom she can trust. I really liked the world of this novel (shadowy secret society + crime fighting + cool steampunk gadgets!), but I wish it had been more developed. The novel is almost entirely focused on plot, to the detriment of character development and world building. I also found myself oddly sympathetic to the villain! I’m interested enough to read book 2 in the series, but I hope the setting and characters will be more fleshed out.

Mini-Reviews: Honor, Astrological, Siren

Lois McMaster Bujold, Cordelia’s Honor

In Shards of Honor, Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan are on opposite sides of a war, but they must band together to survive on a strange planet, suppress a mutiny (him), escape from captivity multiple times (her), and prevent a civil war on Aral’s home planet of Barrayar. That last task continues in Barrayar, as Aral becomes regent for the four-year-old emperor and Cordelia adjusts to an alien politics and culture. I really enjoyed revisiting these two books, which are an exciting blend of sci fi, action, and romance. I love the moral complexity of this world: Cordelia, Aral, and the others are doing their best, but they often have to make impossible choices with heartbreaking consequences. I’m now even more excited to continue with the series!

Silvia Zucca, An Astrological Guide for Broken Hearts

Alice Bassi is unlucky in love, so when her new friend Tio suggests that she should date only men with compatible astrological signs, she figures it’s worth a try. But even after studying her star chart and horoscopes, she jumps from one disastrous relationship to the next — and the man she’s most drawn to may be the worst possible choice. I picked up this book because I enjoyed the Netflix series of the same name; it’s a cute romcom set in Milan, and the actors made the main characters likable. In the book, though, Alice is flaky and inconsistent, and her main love interest is a dishonest jerk. So unfortunately, I wouldn’t recommend this one…but if you like the premise, the TV series is better!

Mimi Matthews, The Siren of Sussex

Evelyn Maltravers is determined to make her first London Season a success. She plans to impress society with her excellent horsemanship, so she employs gifted tailor Ahmad Malik to design her an eye-catching riding habit. Ahmad is immediately inspired by Evelyn — and attracted to her. But a romance between himself and someone of Evelyn’s class is impossible, especially with the added obstacle of his half-Indian heritage. I always enjoy Mimi Matthews’s books, and this one is no exception. Evie and Ahmad are both such likable characters, determined to do their best for each other. And the impediments to their romance are handled thoughtfully and seriously. There’s some obvious sequel bait with Evelyn’s new London friends, and I can’t wait for the next book to come out this fall! 

Mini-Reviews: Shell, Fiancée, Time

Nicholas Blake, Thou Shell of Death

When legendary airman Fergus O’Brien receives a series of threatening letters, he asks private detective Nigel Strangeways to come to his Christmas house party, where he’s invited all the people he suspects of being the letter writer. He hopes Nigel will discover the author’s identity and prevent any violence from occurring, but unfortunately O’Brien is indeed shot the day after Christmas. Now Nigel and the police must work together to discover the killer — a task that is complicated by a few more bodies, not to mention Nigel’s growing attachment to one of the suspects. I enjoyed this book very much. It’s well written with a touch of sly humor, and while the mystery’s solution is wildly dramatic and implausible, I do think it’s fairly clued. I’m definitely interested in reading more of the Nigel Strangeways books.

Virginia Heath, Never Fall for Your Fiancée

Hugh’s mother is determined to see him wed, but he doesn’t want to get married because he’s afraid he’ll be like his philandering father. His solution? Invent a fake fiancée. It actually seems to work, until his mother announces she’s planning a visit from America to meet his dear Minerva. Desperate, Hugh offers to pay the beautiful but penniless Minerva Merriwell to pose as his fiancée, but complications ensue when he really falls in love with her. I love a good fake-relationship plot, but this one does strain credulity, particularly Hugh’s motivations for creating and persisting in the lie. The book is a breezy, enjoyable read (though not as funny as it wants to be), but I can’t get past the utter ridiculousness of the plot. I may look for the sequel when it comes out, but I’ll borrow it from the library instead of buying.

I also need to complain about the cover for a second. I don’t mind illustrated covers, but I do want the people to look the way they’re described in the book!  Minerva’s hair is described as very dark, “almost black,” and Hugh is supposed to be blond! Not sure what happened there — maybe dark-haired heroes sell better?

Sophie Cousens, This Time Next Year

Minnie Cooper and Quinn Hamilton were both born on January 1, 1990 — but since Quinn came just moments earlier, he became the first ‘90s baby born in the UK. He won notoriety and a large cash prize, while Minnie got nothing. And the same bad luck has dogged her ever since, especially on her birthday. When Minnie and Quinn meet again as adults, she’s strangely drawn to the man she’s resented all her life, but several obstacles threaten their romance. I liked this book a lot; both Minnie and Quinn are sympathetic, and they have real problems that aren’t magically solved by love. The romance is sweet and satisfying, but the characters’ individual growth is equally (if not more) important. I’m excited to try more by this author, and I would definitely recommend this book to chick lit fans.

Top Ten Tuesday: New-To-Me Authors

Wow, it’s been forever since I’ve done a Top Ten Tuesday! But I’d like to start participating more regulaly, and this week’s topic is a fun one: ten authors I discovered in 2021 whom I’d like to read more of. It’s always great to discover a new author, especially if he/she has a substantial backlist for me to sink my teeth into!

1. Katherine Center — I love her bright, vibrant book covers so much, and I was delighted to discover that the books themselves are just as enjoyable! I really liked both Things You Save in a Fire and How to Walk Away, and I definitely plan to seek out more of her books.

2. Charlotte Armstrong — I never say no to a vintage mystery, but they tend to vary in quality, so I truly didn’t suspect (pun intended) how much I’d enjoy The Unsuspected! I already have another Armstrong book, The Chocolate Cobweb, on my shelves waiting to be read.

3. Richard Osman — I absolutely devoured the first and second books in the Thursday Murder Club series, and I can’t wait for book #3 to come out!

4. Amor Towles — I’m wary of books that get too much hype, but I truly think A Gentleman in Moscow deserves it all. I’ve already picked up Rules of Civility and hope to get to it soon.

5. Uzma Jalaluddin — I found Hana Khan Carries On a very enjoyable contemporary romance with a new-to-me perspective. Jalaluddin has also written a Pride and Prejudice retelling, Ayesha at Last, so obviously I need to read it as well!

6. India HoltonThe Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels was, for me, sheer delight. The sequel is already on my Amazon wishlist, even though it doesn’t come out until March.

7. Ann Granger — I love a historical mystery, but I feel like a lot of the books out there are pretty cookie-cutter, and the characters are 21st-century people in (not always accurate) period costume. But I really enjoyed Granger’s The Companion and plan to continue with the series.

8. Paulette JilesNews of the World honestly blew me away. I’m a little afraid to try any of her other books, for fear they won’t be as good!

9. Emily Henry — This author has gotten a lot of hype in the past year or two, and after reading People We Meet on Vacation, I can totally see why. I love a smart, well-written rom-com with some truly excellent banter! Henry’s next novel, Book Lovers, comes out in May, and I cannot wait!

10. Anne Gracie — I read a lot of perfectly fine Regency romances, but I hardly ever get excited about a new-to-me author in the genre. However, I loved The Winter Bride so much that I’ve already purchased The Autumn Bride. I really hope I enjoy Gracie’s other books and series as much as TWB!

Mini-Reviews: Dragon, Austen, Venom

Naomi Novik, His Majesty’s Dragon

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

Lucy Worsley, Jane Austen at Home

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

Kristin Burchell, Court of Venom

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

Mini-Reviews: Falling, Shoe, Kiss

Lois McMaster Bujold, Falling Free

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

Julie Murphy, If the Shoe Fits

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

Mary Balogh, Only a Kiss

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

2021 Vintage Mystery Challenge Wrap-Up

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

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

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

Mini-Reviews: Promise, 25, Santa

Mary Balogh, Only a Promise

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

Poppy Alexander, 25 Days ’til Christmas

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

Mavis Doriel Hay, The Santa Klaus Murder

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

Mini-Reviews: Winter, Brass, Princess

Anne Gracie, The Winter Bride

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

Elizabeth Chatsworth, The Brass Queen

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

Dawn Cook, Princess at Sea

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

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