Mini-Reviews: Birds, Artists, Masque

Katie Cotugno, Birds of California

Ten years ago, Fiona St. James starred on a successful TV show, but she had a very public breakdown (shoplifting, public intoxication, etc.) that caused the show’s cancelation. Now she’s no longer acting, just trying to avoid the limelight. Meanwhile, her former costar Sam Fox is still struggling to make it in Hollywood, so when his agent calls him about a potential reboot, he’s eager to sign on. He just needs to convince Fiona to get on board, which she absolutely refuses to do. But the more time Sam and Fiona spend together, the closer they reluctantly grow. I really enjoyed this book, with caveats. It’s well written and the characters are relatable, though not always likable. But I wish there had been more resolution to a lot of the storylines: What about Sam’s relationship with his family? How will his career turn out? Fiona decides to publicly reveal the cause of her breakdown, but what happens in the aftermath of that decision? While I bought the central romance, I wanted more about the rest of the characters’ lives. So, I do recommend the book, but be forewarned that the lack of resolution in some areas is frustrating!

Ngaio Marsh, Artists in Crime

When Inspector Roderick Alleyn meets talented painter Agatha Troy, he’s immediately drawn to her, but she doesn’t seem to like him. They’re destined to meet again, however, when a murder occurs in the midst of an art class Troy is teaching. The victim, a model, is stabbed by a dagger that’s been hidden under the chair she was posing on, and it seems only one of the artists could have placed the dagger there — but which one? And can Alleyn maintain his impartiality as an investigator if he’s fallen in love with one of the suspects? This is another enjoyable installment of the Alleyn series; I feel like, six books in, his character is finally starting to gel. The mystery is fair play, and of course I enjoyed the element of romance as well. I’ll definitely be continuing with the series!

Lauren Willig, The Masque of the Black Tulip

This second book in the Pink Carnation series features Henrietta Selwick, Richard’s younger sister, and Miles Dorrington, his best friend. A dangerous French spy known only as the Black Tulip has recently arrived in London, and both Miles and Henrietta are trying to discover the spy’s identity. They’re also beginning to have confusing feelings for one another; their longtime friendship suddenly seems to be taking a romantic turn. Can they work together to capture the Black Tulip and, more importantly, realize they’re in love? As with the first book in the series, this is a fun historical romp with a charming central romance. Miles is a particularly delightful hero, endearing in his obliviousness. The spying stuff was not as interesting to me (especially given the fact that both Miles and Henrietta seem extremely incompetent), but I still had a good time with this one!

Mini-Reviews: Summer, Ruined, Celia’s

Ellis Peters, The Summer of the Danes

In the summer of A.D. 1144, Brother Cadfael and his former assistant, Mark, travel to Wales on a diplomatic mission. But they’re soon caught up in larger events including a Welsh civil war, a murdered envoy, a runaway girl, and a possible Danish invasion. This book is a bit different from the rest of the Cadfael series in that Cadfael is actually a pretty minor character; he observes the action but doesn’t really participate. There is a murder, but Cadfael doesn’t solve it — in fact, it happens near the beginning of the book but then is largely forgotten till the end, when the guilty party confesses. Most of the story involves the warring Welsh princes, real historical figures Owain Gwynedd and his rebellious brother Cadwaladr. While I did enjoy the book, it’s definitely more historical fiction than mystery, and I wanted more Cadfael!

Alyssa Everett, Ruined by Rumor

Roxana Langley has been engaged to a dashing soldier for five years. Even though he’s spent most of that time away fighting in the Napoleonic wars, Roxana remains devoted to him and excited for their wedding. So when he suddenly breaks off the engagement, she’s devastated and turns to her neighbor Alex, the Earl of Ayersley, for comfort. Alex has been hopelessly in love with Roxana for years, so when she rushes into his arms he can’t help but kiss her — and when he learns they were observed, he immediately offers marriage. But both he and Roxana have trouble discerning each other’s feelings and communicating their own. I bought this e-book on impulse and am so glad I did, because I really enjoyed it! Alex and Roxana are both kind, well-meaning people who want to make the best of their marriage of convenience, and their obstacles make sense given their characters. I’d highly recommend this book to fans of historical romance and will definitely be seeking out more books by Alyssa Everett!

D.E. Stevenson, Celia’s House

This gentle family saga follows the Dunne family of Dunnian in Scotland. Contrary to all expectations, Celia Dunne decides to leave the Dunnian estate to her great-nephew Humphrey, his wife Alice, and their three small children. The only condition is that, upon Humphrey’s death, the house will go not to his son, Mark, but to a future daughter named Celia. Despite this odd request, Humphrey accepts the inheritance and lives there happily with his family. As the years pass and the children grow, many changes come to Dunnian, including war, friendship, heartbreak, and romance. I very much enjoyed this quiet novel; it’s practically a retelling of Mansfield Park, but with the sharper edges softened (no Mrs. Norris character, and the Dunne parents aren’t silly or negligent). Nothing much happens in terms of plot, but it’s very pleasant to sink into the soothing, slow-paced world of the novel. Recommended if you like this type of thing; it’s one of the better Stevenson novels I’ve read.

Mini-Reviews: Rogue, Widening, Carnation

Virginia Heath, Never Rescue a Rogue

Giles Sinclair and Diana Merriwell have delighted in vexing each other ever since his best friend married her sister. Everyone thinks their teasing banter is masking a mutual attraction, but they both vehemently deny it. Yet when Giles finds himself in trouble, it’s Diana he turns to for help, and eventually they’ll have to admit to themselves — and each other — that their friends were right all along. There’s a lot in this book that requires suspension of disbelief (Giles might be illegitimate but no one knows! Diana is secretly a hard-hitting investigative journalist!). But if you can roll with the implausibilities of the plot, as well as the characters’ modern attitudes and language, this is a fun book. I liked it more than the first in the series, and I’ll definitely seek out book #3 when it comes out.

W. Bolingbroke Johnson, The Widening Stain

This vintage mystery novel, originally published in 1942, is set in a fictional university library. A French professor is found dead in the stacks, apparently having fallen off a high ladder. But Gilda Gorham, the library’s head cataloger, suspects foul play — especially when another member of the faculty is later strangled and a priceless manuscript goes missing. I liked this book well enough; the writing style is brisk and humorous, gently satirizing the world of academia and providing several limericks (of varying quality) as a bonus. The mystery itself isn’t terribly satisfying, as the motive hinges on some dubious psychology. But still, I found it an enjoyable read and a pretty good start to 2023.

Lauren Willig, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation

It’s 1803, and the Scarlet Pimpernel (who’s a real person in this universe) has inspired several other heroes with flowery names to spy against Napoleon. Lord Richard Selwick, a.k.a. the Purple Gentian, is on a mission to thwart Bonaparte’s invasion of England when he meets Amy Balcourt, an impetuous young lady who wants to join the Gentian’s league. As Amy and the Gentian fall in love, Richard struggles with when and how to reveal his true identity. I’m really glad I decided to revisit this series, because this book is a delightful romp of a historical romance that doesn’t take itself too seriously. If you’re looking for historical accuracy and period-appropriate dialogue and manners, this is not the book for you. But if you’re in the mood for some light-hearted, swashbuckling fun, I would definitely recommend it! Now I’m really looking forward to book #2, as I remember it being one of my favorites in the series.

Mini-Review: Movies, Egg, Better

Kerry Winfrey, Not Like the Movies

Chloe has always indulged in a bit of flirty banter with her boss, Nick. In fact, her best friend, Annie, has just written a screenplay based on that banter and their (alleged) romantic chemistry — and now the screenplay is set to become a blockbuster movie. As the film gets more publicity, Chloe finds herself viewing Nick differently, but she has no interest in pursuing a relationship; she’s too busy caring for her dad, who has Alzheimer’s, and trying to finish her degree. She’s adamant that her real life isn’t a rom-com — but the more time she spends with Nick, the harder it is to deny her feelings. I really adored Annie’s story, Waiting for Tom Hanks, and was excited for this sequel featuring Chloe. Overall, I enjoyed it, though Chloe’s total refusal to acknowledge her feelings for Nick got pretty frustrating! I also wish we’d gotten some chapters from Nick’s POV, but instead we only see him through Chloe’s eyes, and he’s a bit too perfect and forbearing. Still, it’s a good read for romance fans, and Winfrey is an author I definitely plan to keep seeking out.

Mary Kelly, The Christmas Egg

A few days before Christmas, a former Russian countess is found dead in her London apartment, and her valuables — including a priceless Fabergé egg — are missing. Inspector Brett Nightingale and Sergeant Beddoes are on the case, and they suspect a particular gang of professional thieves. But the dead woman’s grandson can’t be ruled out, nor can the owner of a jewelry store who was allegedly trying to buy some of her treasures. I liked the writing style of this book and found the characterizations interesting, but I felt like there was a lot of backstory between Nightingale and Beddoes (and also between Nightingale and his wife) that I was missing. Apparently this is book #3 in a series, so maybe those relationships are fleshed out more in previous books. I also don’t think the book works particularly well as a mystery; it’s more of a thriller, with the police planning to trap the bad guys and things going wrong — but it’s not particularly thrilling. Still, I’d try another book by this author if I came across one.

Lynn Painter, Better Than the Movies

This YA contemporary romance is narrated by Liz, a quirky teen who loves romantic comedies. They’re deeply personal to her because they were her late mother’s favorite movies, and now that Liz is a high school senior, she’s hoping to experience her own film-worthy romance. When her childhood crush, Michael, moves back to town, Liz is convinced that he’s her romantic hero. But to get closer to him, she needs the help of Wes, her neighbor and long-time prank war nemesis. As Liz stumbles her way to romantic enlightenment, she also deals with grief and family/friend conflicts. This is a light, fun read in which each chapter begins with a quote from a rom-com. It’s extremely predictable, and Liz’s obtuseness and bad behavior can get frustrating, but I did think the book was cute overall. I’m interested in trying one of the author’s adult romances at some point.

Mini-Reviews: Kiss, Corner, Matzah

Lisa Berne, You May Kiss the Bride

Gabriel Penhallow is bored witless by the young ladies he meets in Society, but he knows it’s his duty to marry, so he decides to propose to the beautiful but insipid Cecily Orr. While visiting the Orrs, however, he comes across Livia Stuart, whose straightforward nature both irritates and attracts him. An impulsive kiss forces Gabriel and Livia into a hasty betrothal, but a true romance develops as they spend more time together. This is a pretty stereotypical historical romance, with a stuffy, imperious hero and a feisty, unconventional heroine. That said, I do like that formula and I enjoyed the book. It’s a bit different from The Worst Duke in the World (which I also enjoyed) — less frivolous in tone, and with more explicit sexytimes. Overall, I’d consider reading more by the author, but I’m not racing out to do so.

Elizabeth Cadell, The Corner Shop

Lucille Abbey is a highly competent, efficient woman who runs a secretarial business. When three of her best secretaries quit a particular job within the first day, Lucille decides to see for herself why this job is so difficult. She encounters an absentminded, impolite professor and an uninhabitable cottage; but despite her initial antipathy, she decides to stay and put things in order. Later, in Paris, she encounters the professor again and gets mixed up in an art theft. This is a light, pleasant read that I enjoyed for its sharp character observations and satisfying romance. The plot has a few too many coincidences but resolves well, though I wanted the art thief to get more of a comeuppance! Overall, I liked this more than Any Two Can Play and will likely reread it at some point.

Jean Meltzer, The Matzah Ball

Rachel is a Jewish woman with a shameful secret: She loves Christmas and is, in fact, a best-selling author of Christmas romance novels. But now her publisher is asking for a Hanukkah romance, and Rachel is at a loss — for her, Hanukkah just doesn’t have the same magic. Hoping for inspiration, she decides to attend a high-profile Hanukkah celebration called the Matzah Ball . . . but to get a ticket, she’ll need a favor from Jacob Greenberg, her summer camp first-love-turned-nemesis. If you would like to learn more about being Jewish in America during Christmastime, or about living with an invisible illness (Rachel has chronic fatigue syndrome), you’ll like this book. But if you’re looking for a believable, relatable romance, look elsewhere. Rachel and Jacob were 12 years old when they fell in “love,” and after only one meeting as adults, they’re thinking about each other in terms of love and long-term commitment. I just couldn’t buy it, and I wouldn’t recommend the book unless Rachel’s specific attributes and situation in life really resonate with you.

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: Immunity, Fortnight, Dragons

Lois McMaster Bujold, Diplomatic Immunity

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

R.C. Sherriff, The Fortnight in September

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

Naomi Novik, League of Dragons

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

Mini-Reviews: Duke, Brain, Behold

Jane Ashford, The Duke Who Loved Me

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

Ali Hazelwood, Love on the Brain

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

Francis Duncan, Behold a Fair Woman

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

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.