Mini-Reviews: Sapphire, Scandalous, Red, Silver

Singapore SapphireSlightly ScandalousRed NecklaceSilver Blade

A.M. Stuart, Singapore Sapphire

I love a historical mystery, and this book’s uncommon setting of 1910 Singapore intrigued me, so I decided to give it a try. Overall, I liked but didn’t love it. Protagonist Harriet Gordon is a widow living with her brother and eking out a meager living as a typist. She’s been hired to type Sir Oswald Newbold’s memoirs, but after only a day of work, the man’s throat is cut. Inspector Robert Curran is on the case, and while he and Harriet get off to a bad start, they soon become friendly as they work together to solve the mystery. I think the mystery itself hangs together well, but it definitely takes a backseat to the setting and characters. It was interesting to get a glimpse of Singapore at this point in time, which was home to so many different cultures, both Asian and European. But if you’re looking for a novel with diverse characters, this isn’t it — there are a few Asian secondary characters, but they’re quite two-dimensional and have no impact on the story. Overall, I’m curious enough to give the next book a try, but this one fell a bit flat for me.

Mary Balogh, Slightly Scandalous

This third book in the Bedwyn saga focuses on Lady Freyja Bedwyn, who is much bolder and more direct than the typical Regency lady. Having grown up with four brothers, she can shoot and ride and box with the best of them. She’s also in no hurry to marry; most of the fashionable society men bore her, and she’s still not over a former flame who recently married someone else (as told in A Summer to Remember, though you don’t need to read that book to understand this one). But when Joshua Moore, marquess of Hallmere, proposes a fake betrothal, Freyja agrees to the scheme, not realizing that there is more to Josh than meets the eye. I continue to enjoy the Bedwyn books, and this might be my favorite so far! Freyja hasn’t been particularly likable in the previous books, but this novel gave her much more dimension. And the roguish Joshua, whose carefree manner and bad reputation hide his true goodness, is a hero after my own heart. The book does have some moments of cheesiness, but overall I liked it a lot and look forward to more of the Bedwyns. I find myself more and more excited for Wulfric’s book!

Sally Gardner, The Red Necklace and The Silver Blade

This YA fantasy duology set during the French Revolution focuses on Yann, a Gypsy boy with unusual gifts, and Sido, an aristocratic girl with a neglectful father. They meet in The Red Necklace when Yann’s theater troupe performs at Sido’s father’s house, and they are immediately drawn to one another. But when the troupe falls afoul of the powerful and evil Count Kalliovski, Yann must flee the country. Later, when Kalliovski sets his sights on Sido as a bride, Yann returns to rescue her. In The Silver Blade, Yann continues to rescue aristocrats from the guillotine, while Sido waits in England. But his plans are once again thwarted by Kalliovski, who wants Yann’s magic for himself. I found these books enjoyable enough — loved the French Revolution setting and the Pimpernel-esque elements — but didn’t like that they spend just as much time (if not more) on the villain as on the heroes. As a result, Yann and Sido don’t have much dimension; I wanted more time with them and less time describing just how evil Kalliovski is. I’m glad I read these books, but now they can leave my shelves to make room for something new!

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!

Review: A Modest Independence

Modest IndependenceMimi Matthews, A Modest Independence

This second installment of the Parish Orphans of Devon series follows Thomas Finchley and Jenny Holloway, both of whom first appeared in The Matrimonial Advertisement. Tom is a London solicitor, and his job is his life; it was his ticket out of the orphanage and his escape from a life of poverty. His clients must always come first, even before his own needs and wants. Meanwhile, Jenny has just received a small fortune that enables her to quit her job as a ladies’ companion. She yearns to see the world and is eager to set sail for India, where she hopes to find news of an old flame who reportedly died in an uprising. Tom and Jenny are powerfully attracted to each other, but they want such different things that a romance seems out of the question. But when Tom spontaneously accompanies Jenny on her trip to India, their feelings for each other grow and intensify. Will they be able to find a way to be together despite pursuing their very different dreams?

I really enjoyed The Matrimonial Advertisement and was excited to continue with the series, but this book suffered a bit by comparison. First of all, I don’t think it stands alone very well; Tom and Jenny’s story definitely began in the first novel, and that context is important as their relationship grows in this book. Secondly, Tom’s actions occasionally rubbed me the wrong way. For example, he decides to escort Jenny to India and hires Indian servants for her without her knowledge or consent. His motives are good — he knows her journey will be more difficult and dangerous if she travels alone — but I didn’t like that he makes these decisions without consulting Jenny first. Finally, the conflict is very repetitive and became frustrating for me. Nearly all the conversations between Tom and Jenny deal with the same problem: she doesn’t want to be tied down by marriage, while he isn’t cut out for a life of adventure. And after all the hand-wringing, the solution seems almost too easy. But while I was disappointed in this book, it wasn’t a bad read by any means, and I definitely plan to continue with the series!

Mini-Reviews: Scandal, Death, Enchanting

Do You Want to Start a ScandalDeath on a Friday AfternoonOnly Enchanting

Tessa Dare, Do You Want to Start a Scandal

This Regency romance is the story of Charlotte Highwood, who has been nicknamed “the Desperate Debutante” because of her mother’s aggressive matchmaking efforts. Her mother’s latest target is Piers Brandon, Lord Granville; so Charlotte seeks him out at a house party to reassure him that she doesn’t wish to marry him. This strategy backfires immediately when the two are found in a compromising position — they accidentally interrupt a lovers’ tryst, but everyone else believes they are the lovers. Charlotte decides to clear her good name by unmasking the real lovers. But of course, the more time she and Piers spend together, the more they fall in love. This book was fine, although I found the comic style a little forced and overwrought. Not bad, but not particularly recommended.

Richard John Neuhaus, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross

I chose this book at the beginning of Lent as an appropriate spiritual read. As the subtitle suggests, each chapter is inspired by one of the seven last words of Jesus from the cross. Each “word” provides a jumping-off point for the author, a Catholic priest, to discuss various aspects of his faith. Sadly, since I read this a while ago, I don’t remember a lot of the details! But I do remember the chapter on “I thirst” being particularly interesting because it discussed the question of universal salvation (is it possible that everyone will be saved?). I’d say the book is geared more toward intellectual than devotional purposes. Overall, the book gave me a lot of food for thought, and I definitely plan to reread it in the future.

Mary Balogh, Only Enchanting

I’ve yet to be disappointed by a Balogh book, and this Regency romance is no exception. It’s part of the Survivors’ Club series, about a group of people who have been deeply wounded (physically, emotionally, or both) in the Napoleonic Wars, but it can be read as a stand-alone novel. The hero, Flavian, has returned from the war with a head injury that left gaps in his memory. When he is thrown together with Agnes, a widow living a quiet rural life, he impulsively proposes to her, and together they are able to fill in some of the blanks in Flavian’s memory — and fall in love in the process. That makes it sound like love magically cures Flavian’s mental injuries, which isn’t the case…I feel like I’m not describing the plot terribly well! But I really liked the book and will continue reading more in this series.

Mini-Reviews: Witch, Scarlet, Homicide

Water Witch*Study in Scarlet WomenHome Sweet Homicide

Cynthia Felice and Connie Willis, Water Witch

I’m a huge Connie Willis fan, so I had high hopes for this book, especially because it also contains some of my favorite elements: con artists, a missing princess, and a sci-fi/romance combo. But overall I found it pretty underwhelming. I really liked the kernel of the story, but I wanted it to be fleshed out a lot more, especially the characterization. The romance essentially comes out of nowhere, and I never really felt like I got to know the hero at all. That said, I really liked a twist involving one of the secondary characters, who came to be a lot more important than I initially expected. Overall, I didn’t like this as much as Willis’s solo work, but I already own two more Willis/Felice collaborations, so I’ll definitely read them at some point.

Sherry Thomas, A Study in Scarlet Women

I’d heard great things about the Lady Sherlock series but was hesitant to dive in, fearing that the books wouldn’t live up to the hype. But I was pleasantly surprised — I really enjoyed this book, which recasts literature’s most famous detective as Charlotte Holmes, a Victorian woman whose brilliant mind is constrained by the social rules of her time. So she decides to leave home and forge her own path. Meanwhile, of course, she solves several murders by realizing that they are all connected. I loved this take on a Holmesian character; Charlotte has a brilliant deductive mind but also really enjoys fashion, and her style is surprisingly ornate and gaudy. I also loved that the book, while sympathetic to Charlotte, also shows her flaws and the negative consequences of some of her decisions. I will definitely continue with the series sooner rather than later!

Craig Rice, Home Sweet Homicide

I found this mystery novel delightful. It’s about three children (ages 8 to 14, I believe) whose mother is a popular mystery novelist. When their neighbor is murdered in real life, the kids are ecstatic — now Mother might get some new material for her books, and the publicity is bound to be good for business. Plus, the handsome detective working the case looks like excellent stepfather material, though Mother doesn’t seem to agree. The children team up to solve the mystery with the help of their friends and neighbors; the result is a farcical romp that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Mini-reviews: Henrietta’s, Matrimonial, Austen

Henrietta's WarMatrimonial AdvertisementAusten Escape

Joyce Dennys, Henrietta’s War: News from the Home Front 1939-1942

I greatly enjoyed this charming epistolary novel, which is both written and set during World War II. The titular Henrietta writes to her childhood friend Robert, who is off fighting somewhere in France, and describes daily life in her rural English village. Despite the constant presence of the war in the background, Henrietta mostly focuses on the mundane, humorous aspects of life. A pleasant and uplifting book.

Mimi Matthews, The Matrimonial Advertisement

Last year I read Matthews’s novella, A Holiday by Gaslight, and enjoyed it so much that I wanted to seek out some of her full-length novels. This one, the first in her Parish Orphans of Devon series, is a “proper” Victorian romance (i.e., no explicit content) that centers around a marriage of convenience. Justin needs a wife to manage his remote, secluded estate, and Helena needs a safe place to hide from her past. The book definitely justified my high expectations, and I can’t wait to continue with the series!

Katherine Reay, The Austen Escape

I’ve read one other book by Reay, Dear Mr. Knightley, and I wasn’t a huge fan. But when I got this novel as a gift, I decided to give the author another chance. Unfortunately, I didn’t like this book either — something about the writing style just grates on my nerves. I also found the heroine obnoxious and unsympathetic, and I have no idea what her love interest saw in her. I was frankly appalled by one major plot point: the heroine’s best friend, who has a history of mental health issues, starts to believe she’s living in Jane Austen’s time…and nobody seems to think this is something that needs immediate medical attention! So all in all, I wasn’t a fan, and I’m pretty sure I’m done with this author.

Review: Snowspelled

SnowspelledStephanie Burgis, Snowspelled

In a fantasy world analogous to 19th-century England, upper-class men are expected to be magicians, while upper-class women are destined to be politicians. But Cassandra Harwood has always had a thirst for magic, and her passionate determination got her all the way to the Great Library, the premier training ground for young magicians. She even found love there with the equally passionate and hardworking Wrexham. But a spell gone horribly wrong has deprived Cassandra of her ability to cast magic, not to mention her social standing and her fiancé. Now, four months after this tragic incident, Cassandra is snowed in at a house party with the high-society people she’s been trying to avoid, including her ex-fiancé. To make matters worse, the snowstorm seems to be magical in origin, and Cassandra is tricked into making a bargain with an arrogant elf-lord to discover who is causing it. If she fails, the consequences will be dire for both herself and her nation, as the age-old treaty between humans and elves will be broken. Can Cassandra discover the culprit and sort out her personal life before it’s too late?

I’ve read and enjoyed books by Stephanie Burgis before, and I’m a sucker for anything that can be described as “Jane Austen plus magic,” so this novella seemed right up my alley. And I did enjoy it overall, but now I find myself remembering more of its flaws. I think the main problem, for me, was the heroine. Cassandra is one of those protagonists who is incredibly stubborn, convinced of her own rightness, and unwilling to compromise. All of her problems in the story are of her own making, particularly the mess of her relationship with Wrexham. I did like Wrexham, and I enjoyed the banter between them, but it frustrated me that they’re both such poor communicators, especially since they were once engaged to each other. Cassandra does grow and change in the course of the story, but it was too little, too late for me. Also, as with many novellas, the short length doesn’t leave much room for nuance in the plot or characters. The world of the story is interesting, and I actually wouldn’t mind reading a full-length novel in this setting, but I feel like I didn’t get to see enough of the world. All in all, I’m not giving up on this author, but I think I’ll stick to her full-length novels instead.

Review: A Holiday by Gaslight

Holiday by GaslightMimi Matthews, A Holiday by Gaslight

Sophie Appersett is the elder daughter of an impoverished noble family. Her father has squandered the family fortune, including Sophie’s dowry, on modernizations to the estate, such as the implementation of gaslight. As a result, Sophie knows it’s her duty to marry money, even if means looking outside her own class for a husband. Edward Sharpe is a prosperous tradesman whose fortune is large enough to overcome his lack of gentility. But although he’s asked Sophie’s father for permission to court her, he shows no sign of being in love with her. In fact, Ned is interested in Sophie, but he doesn’t want to commit any breaches of etiquette in his courtship, so he takes refuge in silence. Frustrated, Sophie decides to break things off — but a further conversation with Ned convinces her to try once more. He’ll attend her family’s extravagant Christmas party, and they will both make an effort to know one another better. But will their fledgling relationship survive the obstacles presented by their respective families?

Christmas is my favorite holiday, and I’m already starting to get into the spirit of things, although I’m desperately trying to wait until after Thanksgiving to break out my Christmas music! So this holiday-set romance novella was bound to catch my eye, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I loved the premise, which has a sort of marriage-of-convenience flavor (one of my favorite tropes!) but even better because the hero and heroine are actually honest with each other, almost from the very beginning! They communicate well, and almost all the conflict is driven by Sophie’s truly appalling father and his determination to bleed Ned dry in order to improve Appersett House. I like that the book engages with the technological and scientific innovations of the Victorian period; in addition to gaslight, indoor plumbing and the theories of Charles Darwin are also mentioned. My one complaint is that the characterization is a little flat, especially for the secondary characters, but that’s understandable given the length of the story (only about 160 pages in the print version). Overall, I really liked this one and will definitely seek out the author’s full-length novels!

Review: Bringing Down the Duke

Bringing Down the Duke.jpgEvie Dunmore, Bringing Down the Duke

It’s 1879, and Oxford University has just opened its door to female students. Annabelle Archer is eager to take her place among them, especially when the alternative is acting as an unpaid servant for her male cousin and his family. She has received a scholarship from the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, so in return for her tuition, she must become involved with the women’s suffrage movement, targeting men of influence in Parliament who might be convinced to vote in their favor. But when Annabelle takes the fight to Sebastian Devereux, the duke of Montgomery, she takes on more than she bargained for. Sebastian is certainly a man of influence, but he is also cold, calculating, and intimidating. Annabelle manages to insinuate herself into Sebastian’s household, but her mission is complicated by the powerful attraction she feels for the duke. The attraction is mutual, but Annabelle’s station in life is so far below Sebastian’s that a happy outcome seems impossible.

The cover of this book is somewhat misleading (although I personally like it!); the story is much less of a romp than the cover indicates, and despite the cartoon-y art, it is a romance novel with some fairly explicit sex scenes. I also think the book’s description is a little misleading, in that it makes it sound like the women’s suffrage movement is going to be a big focus of the plot. But aside from Annabelle’s attendance at a few meetings, and one rally that serves as a plot point, that aspect of the book is not very prominent. So if you’re imagining a book filled with kickass suffragettes earnestly debating political issues, you’ll be disappointed. Nevertheless, I think the book works very well as a romance. Annabelle and Sebastian have an intense and believable chemistry, and their class differences pose a very real obstacle to their relationship. I liked that they both, especially Sebastian, kept trying to find a way to make things work, instead of passively bemoaning their fate. The secondary characters aren’t as well rendered, but they’ll probably be more fleshed out in the inevitable sequels. Overall, I really enjoyed this book and would definitely read more by Dunmore.

Review: Doctor Thorne

Doctor ThorneAnthony Trollope, Doctor Thorne

The Greshams of Greshamsbury have long been one of the most important and well-respected families in their county, but the present squire’s mismanagement of the estate has forced him to sell part of the land and borrow heavily against the rest. As a result, the Greshams are in serious financial difficulties, and the only way to overcome them (in their eyes) is for the young Greshams to marry money. This duty is especially important for Frank Gresham, the oldest son and heir to the estate. Unfortunately, Frank has already fallen in love with Mary Thorne, the niece of the village doctor. Mary has no fortune, and the circumstances of her birth are unknown to all but Doctor Thorne; she may not even be his legitimate niece. So the Gresham family — especially Frank’s mother, Lady Arabella — is determined to discourage the match and find Frank a rich wife. But when a surprising turn of events makes Mary the possible heir to a large fortune, Doctor Thorne must decide how much he can legitimately reveal, knowing that Mary’s happiness may depend on whether or not she gets the inheritance.

I’ve only read a couple of books by Anthony Trollope, but I really enjoy his writing style. He’s like Dickens but funnier, and the prose style is one of the most enjoyable elements of this novel. There’s some wonderful satire of the upper classes, as represented by the de Courcys (Lady Arabella’s relatives) and the Duke of Omnium, who can’t be bothered to talk to the guests at his own dinner party. I also learned a fair amount about parliamentary elections in the 19th century, and it seems that in some ways, not much has changed! Further, I found the book interesting in its treatment of money versus breeding. The Greshams are proud of their status as landed gentry and look down on those who are “in trade,” but they’re also willing to compromise their principles if the tradesmen are wealthy enough. I suspect that their attitude reflects a broader cultural shift. As for the characters, Frank and Mary are fairly two-dimensional, but Doctor Thorne is more complex and interesting. The plot is well constructed, but everything that happens is telegraphed ahead of time and therefore predictable. I liked the book, but I’d recommend it more for the style and the social insights than for the story. I would also recommend the Julian Fellowes adaptation, which is currently free to stream on Amazon Prime!