Mini-Reviews: Ideal, Castle, Midnight

Mary Balogh, The Ideal Wife

Miles Ripley, the new earl of Severn, is being pressured by his mother and sisters to marry the girl of their choosing. But he isn’t eager to give up his bachelor lifestyle for a woman who will manage his life and expect his constant attention. His ideal wife will be drab and demure, someone he can send off to his country estate and forget about. Enter Abigail Gardiner, a distant connection who needs a reference from the earl to get a job. When Miles meets the seemingly plain and quiet Abby, he impulsively offers marriage instead — and the desperate Abby accepts. But as this is a romance novel, they both get more than they bargained for. After enjoying A Precious Jewel, which features Miles’s best friend and takes place during the same time period, I wanted to read Miles’s story too. And while this isn’t the most memorable or surprising Regency romance, it’s still quite a good read, with a slight Heyeresque flavor to the plot. If you’re a Balogh fan, this one is worth reading.

John Dickson Carr, Castle Skull

A famous actor is murdered in a spectacularly grisly fashion, shot and then set aflame on the battlements of the sinister Castle Skull in Germany. French policeman Inspector Bencolin and his friend Jeff Marle (the Watson) are asked to investigate. Several of the actor’s acquaintances are present at a house party, and it seems one of them must be the killer. But as Bencolin outwits a rival detective to discover the murderer, he also unearths Castle Skull’s darkest secrets. This is my first novel by Carr, and it’s a bit melodramatic for my taste; it leans really hard into the “dark and stormy night” stuff and wants to be both a mystery and a horror novel. Still, the plot holds together surprisingly well (though the characters aren’t terribly lifelike), and I’m interested to read more by the author, especially since he seems to be regarded as the master of the impossible crime.

Elisa Braden, Once upon a Midnight Kiss

This is a short, sweet novella about antiquities dealer Andrew Farrington and his secretary, Euphemia Sinclair. Euphemia has gone to Scotland to retrieve a family heirloom, but it seems only a married woman can claim it. Andrew steps in to volunteer as the groom, and while neither he nor Euphemia is sure how the other person feels, they soon come to an understanding. I’m torn about this one…all the stuff with the Scottish villagers and the possible magic (?) is boring and irrelevant, and the sex scene contains some extremely purple prose. But the banter and dialogue between Andrew and Euphemia totally charmed me, and I would happily have read several more scenes of them just talking and interacting with each other. So, I think I would recommend this one if you can get it free or cheap; I believe it’s free on Kindle Unlimited right now.

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: 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.

Mini-Review: Storms, Evans, Wonderful

Susanna Kearsley, Season of Storms

Struggling actress Celia Sands is suddenly offered the role of a lifetime: she’ll play the lead in a famously unstageable play, written by a rich Italian in the early 1920s for his mistress, who was also named Celia Sands. Moreover, the performances will take place at the playwright’s own villa, which is now owned by his grandson. When Celia arrives at the villa, she encounters several dramatic personalities, solves a mystery involving stolen antiquities, falls in love, and possibly even communicates with a ghost. I liked this one — the Italian setting spoke to my wanderlust, and as a community theater participant, I also enjoyed the details about staging the play. There’s a slight historical story that runs parallel to the contemporary events, but it’s pretty negligible in terms of both interest and page time. The book is slow-paced and not particularly exciting, but I enjoyed spending time in its world.

Agatha Christie, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?

Bobby Jones is golfing on a course located near the edge of a cliff. When he hears a cry of surprise, he goes to investigate and discovers that a man has fallen over the edge. By the time Bobby reaches the man to offer help, it’s too late: he’s dying. But just before he breathes his last, he utters the mysterious phrase, “Why didn’t they ask Evans?” That simple question plunges Bobby into a series of sinister events, which lead him to suspect that the man didn’t accidentally fall off the cliff — he was pushed! So Bobby and his friend Lady Frances “Frankie” Derwent decide to investigate in hopes of finding both the murderer and the mysterious Evans. I like this book a lot; it combines a twisty mystery plot with the feel of a fun caper, plus a bit of romance thrown in. I’d also recommend the recent adaptation, which can be streamed on BritBox.

Loretta Chase, Miss Wonderful

Alistair Carsington, the third son of a wealthy earl, has accumulated a mountain of debt. His father has given him six months to either get a job or marry an heiress; pursuing the former path, Alistair travels to Derbyshire to promote his friend’s scheme to build a canal. Unfortunately, he encounters opposition from Mirabel Oldridge, the 31-year-old “spinster” daughter of a local landowner, who is dead set against the canal. They are immediately attracted to one another but must find a way to resolve their differences before they can marry. I’d actually read this book before, but I didn’t remember much about it — and I’ll likely forget it all again in a month or two. It’s a solid, fairly well written Regency romance, but I didn’t get emotionally invested in the romance or its obstacles. I recently bought all the Carsington books and so will continue with the series, but I hope subsequent books are more engaging.

Mini-Reviews: Consequence, Eight, Crucible

Anna Dean, A Woman of Consequence

Dido Kent finds herself in the middle of another mystery when a young lady utters the words “I saw her,” then falls from the tower of a ruined abbey. Rumors suggest that the injured girl was referring to the Grey Nun, the abbey’s ghost, but Dido suspects there is a more mundane explanation. Shortly after this incident, renovations to the local estate uncover the skeleton of a woman who went missing from the area 15 years ago. Was it suicide, accident, or murder? I’m continuing to enjoy this series; the books are well written, with several nods to Jane Austen thrown in without being too annoyingly obvious. I also liked the development of Dido’s relationship with her maybe-suitor, William Lomax. The plot was a little too convoluted for me, but otherwise I enjoyed this one, and I’m interested to see how everything will wrap up in the fourth and final book.

Craig Rice, Eight Faces at Three

When a rich old woman is found stabbed in her home, suspicion immediately falls on her niece, Holly, who had both motive and opportunity to kill the old woman. But if she’s guilty, why did she make all the beds in the house on the night of the murder — and why did she stop all the clocks at 3:00? Holly’s lawyer, John J. Malone, is on the case, assisted by his friend Jake Justus and eccentric heiress Helene Brand. As a mystery, I’m not sure this book is entirely successful; it’s not quite fair play, and some of the “twists” are obvious from early on. But it’s just so much fun! The witty one-liners and snappy banter among the three sleuths are a joy to read, and I was happy to be along for the increasingly drunken ride. If you love movies like The Thin Man, I highly recommend this book, and I’ll certainly be seeking out more by Craig Rice.

Naomi Novik, Crucible of Gold

In book #7 of the series, Laurence and Temeraire are reinstated as members of the British Aerial Corps and ordered to Brazil, where they must help defend the Portuguese colony against France and its Tswana allies (last seen burning slave ports in Empire of Ivory). Along the way, they encounter many disasters including shipwreck, mutiny, capture, and a detour across the vast and possibly hostile territory of the Incas. I must admit, I’m losing my enthusiasm for this series. I still love the main characters and the superb writing style, but I’m a little burned out on the plots, which are unevenly paced and don’t always seem to further the overall arc of the series. That said, I will certainly continue to the end of the series and hope all turns out well for Laurence, Temeraire, and their friends!

Mini-Reviews: Copy, Vintage, Earl

Derville Murphy, A Perfect Copy

Daisy is hoping to auction off an old family portrait painted by a famous artist. But then Ben shows up with an identical painting, claiming the subject is one of his ancestors. Is one of the paintings a fake? Daisy and Ben team up to find out, and their research uncovers the surprising history of two Jewish sisters, Rosa and Lena, who leave their impoverished Eastern European village in the 1860s to seek better opportunities in Vienna, Paris, and London. The book alternates between the historical and present-day timelines, which worked fine for me, as I was equally interested in both. The plot is exciting and full of drama, though the characterization is a bit weak and the writing style is clunky at times. Overall, I liked this book fine, and it was certainly a quick read, but I’m not tempted to try more by the author.

Ngaio Marsh, Vintage Murder

Inspector Alleyn is on vacation in New Zealand and falls in with a touring theater company. The actors invite him to their performance and an afterparty, where tragedy strikes and the company’s owner (and husband of the leading lady) is killed, seemingly by accident. But Alleyn immediately suspects murder and cooperates with the local police to solve the crime. This is a solid but unremarkable Golden Age mystery, where the solution hinges on disproving an alibi — with information the reader doesn’t obtain until quite late in the novel. So there’s not a lot of forward motion to the plot; it’s mostly just Alleyn and his colleagues interviewing all the suspects. But I liked the New Zealand setting and the positive (for its time) representation of a Maori character. Overall, a decent read but not one I’d strongly recommend.

Susanna Craig, Who’s That Earl

Thomas Sutherland has spent the past seven years as an intelligence officer in the Caribbean. But now he’s been ordered home to Scotland, where he has unexpectedly inherited an earldom. When he arrives at his crumbling estate, he’s shocked to find that the tenant in residence is none other than his former sweetheart, Jane Quayle. Thomas and Jane are immediately attracted to one another, but they are both keeping secrets and are unsure whether they can trust each other. This was a reasonably fun and well-written romance, but the series is called “Love and Let Spy,” and there is a sad lack of spying! I also didn’t quite buy Thomas and Jane’s romance; they seem to rekindle it awfully quickly after a seven-year separation. But I tend not to like second-chance romances in general, so fans of the trope may enjoy it more. Overall I liked this one but didn’t love it, and I don’t think I’ll continue with the series.

Mini-Reviews: Fake, Skulls, Moving

Jenn P. Nguyen, Fake It Till You Break It

Mia and Jake have known each other forever; they live in the same neighborhood, and their mothers are best friends. In fact, their moms would love them to date each other, but they just don’t get along. To stop the maternal matchmaking for good, Mia and Jake decide to fake a short relationship and a spectacular breakup. But as they pretend to fall in love, they’re surprised to develop real feelings for each other. I love the fake-dating trope, and this was a cute read, but it’s quite predictable and not particularly unique. Still, a fun bit of fluff to pass an afternoon.

Chris Wooding, The Ace of Skulls

In the final installment of the Ketty Jay series, civil war has erupted between Vardia’s Coalition government and the Awakeners. Darian Frey just wants to stay out of it; he’s more concerned with finding his former fiancée (and current sky pirate), Trinica, so he can finally tell her how he feels. But of course, the crew of the Ketty Jay get drawn into the war despite themselves — and when the Awakeners unleash their secret weapon, Frey and his friends may be the only ones who can stop it. I was disappointed by a few loose ends, and I was also shipping two characters who didn’t get together, alas! But overall, this is a satisfying ending to a really fun series. If you enjoy sci-fi adventure stories and found families, or if you just really miss the TV show Firefly, I’d definitely recommend these books!

Agatha Christie, The Moving Finger

Jerry and his sister Joanna are visiting the tranquil English village of Lymstock, but their stay is soon disrupted by a spate of malicious anonymous letters that circulate through the village. When the letters lead to suicide and murder, Jerry attempts to solve the poison pen mystery, with a late-game assist from Miss Marple. I hadn’t read this Christie novel in a while, and it’s one of my favorites! The mystery is really clever and the characterization is strong. Of course, I also enjoyed the romantic elements of the plot. 🙂 Granted, Miss Marple fans will be disappointed because she’s barely in the book; she basically just comes in at the end to deliver the solution. But I’d still highly recommend this one to Christie lovers!

Mini-Reviews: Stocks, Glass, Mayhem

Georgette Heyer, Death in the Stocks

The rich but disagreeable Arnold Vereker is stabbed to death, and his body is found in the stocks on the village green. Suspicion centers around the dead man’s half-siblings, Kenneth and Antonia, as well as their shady love interests. Scotland Yard is assisted by Giles Carrington, the Vereker family’s attorney, though he has a personal interest in the case as well. I adore Heyer’s romances but have been less impressed with her mysteries overall. This is one of the few I kept after my initial read, but upon rereading I thought it was just okay. The Verekers are supposed to be likable and entertaining, but they annoyed me this time around, and the romance was barely sketched in. It’s a decent read if you like Golden Age mysteries, but it’s no longer a keeper for me.

Caroline Stevermer, The Glass Magician

Thalia Cutler is a stage magician on the vaudeville circuit, but when a dangerous trick goes wrong, she discovers that she also has real magical powers. But until she learns to control them, she’s in grave danger and must take shelter with a friendly family that has similar powers. Meanwhile, one of Thalia’s onstage competitors is murdered, and her mentor is arrested for the crime, so she must discover the real killer. I wanted to love this book, but it didn’t have the same spark that A College of Magics and A Scholar of Magics did for me. It felt very much like book 1 of a series, with incomplete world-building and storylines that aren’t resolved. I don’t know if a sequel is planned, but I’m not especially interested in it, unfortunately.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Miles, Mystery, and Mayhem

In Cetaganda, Miles and his cousin Ivan travel to Cetaganda to attend a state funeral, only to become entangled in political intrigue and murder. In Ethan of Athos, Ethan leaves his all-male planet and is forced to team up with that most mysterious and dangerous of creatures, a woman (and hey, it’s Elli Quinn from The Warrior’s Apprentice!). And in the novella Labyrinth, the Dendarii Mercenaries’ simple mission to pick up a scientist from Jackson’s Whole goes awry. I’m still really enjoying this series, although the characters trump the plots, for me. I adore Miles and have a huge soft spot for Ivan as well! Also, I find it interesting how much of this series (at least so far) is about gender, sexual politics, and reproduction. Looking forward to seeing what happens next!

Mini-Reviews: Missed, Morning, Clowns

Lindsey Kelk, In Case You Missed It

At age 32, Ros Reynolds is unemployed and has just moved back in with her parents after three years away. Despite these setbacks, she’s looking forward to reconnecting with her former friend group, not to mention her ex-boyfriend Patrick. But she’s dismayed to learn that nothing is quite the same it used to be, and that by clinging so hard to the past, she might be missing out on a better future. This is an enjoyable British chick-lit novel that made me chuckle out loud several times. It’s not groundbreaking, and I wanted more development of the romance, but overall it’s a fun read if you enjoy this kind of book.

Laura L. Sullivan, Love by the Morning Star

On the eve of World War II, two young women arrive at the grand English estate of Starkers. Hannah, a half-Jewish refugee from Germany, is a distant relative of the family and hopes to stay with them until she can reunite with her parents. Anna, the daughter of a British fascist, is supposed to pose as a kitchen maid to spy on the family. But a mix-up sends Hannah to the kitchen and Anna to the main house — a misunderstanding with dramatic consequences, especially when both girls become involved with the handsome heir to the estate. I liked a lot of things about this book; Hannah is a delightful heroine, and the general tone reminded me of Eva Ibbotson, one of my all-time favorite comfort authors. But the big misunderstanding dragged on so long that it became completely unbelievable, and I was so frustrated that nobody figured it out! So I think I’ll say goodbye to this one and reread Ibbotson instead.

Leo Bruce, Case with Four Clowns

Former policeman Sergeant Beef and his Watson, detective novelist Lionel Townsend, receive a tip that a murder will shortly occur in a traveling circus in Yorkshire. But when they arrive at the circus to investigate, they soon discover enough animosity and jealousy to make every member of the circus a potential victim — or killer. I really liked the first Sergeant Beef book, Case for Three Detectives, but this one was a big disappointment. The murder doesn’t happen until the last 30 pages, so most of the book is just Beef and Townsend talking to the circus people. There are some funny bits where Townsend gets meta (he “vaguely wonders” something and then comments that it is appropriate for him, as the Watson, to vaguely wonder). But overall, I wouldn’t recommend this one, unless you are super into the circus setting.

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.