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-Reviews: Crystal, Mad, Major

Sharon Shinn, Wrapt in Crystal

Cowen Drake is a Moonchild (essentially a space cop) who’s been sent to the planet of Semay to investigate a string of murders. All the victims are priestesses, but they belong to two different religious sects: the Triumphantes, who serve their goddess via joy and pleasure, and the Fideles, who favor a more austere approach to worship. Nothing else seems to connect the victims, so Cowen has to dig deep to find suspects and motives. As he investigates, he also wrestles with his own feelings about religion and is drawn to both Jovieve, the leader of the Triumphantes, and Laura, a Fidele nun. I really liked how this book skillfully blends the genres of fantasy, police procedural, and romance. The exploration of religious faith is also thoughtful and interesting. If the premise appeals to you, I’d definitely recommend this one!

Mhairi McFarlane, Mad about You

Harriet is a wedding photographer but has no interest in marriage for herself. So when her boyfriend of two years proposes (in front of his obnoxious family, no less!), she knows she has to end things — which means she needs a new living situation ASAP. She ends up renting a room from Cal, but as she grows closer to him, her past relationships affect her present, and she must ultimately confront an abusive ex-boyfriend. I think the marketing of this book is terribly misleading — while there is a very sweet romance in it, this novel is primarily about Harriet working through the trauma of an abusive relationship. At least a third of the book is about her experiences with the abuser, so if that’s a tough topic for you, I would urge you to steer clear! That said, I stayed up way too late to finish this one; I found it very compelling, and I liked Harriet’s humorous narrative voice (her friends were a hoot as well!). I think this is one of McFarlane’s best books and would recommend it to those who like women’s fiction — with the caveat that the subject matter is heavy and hard to read at times.

Jennifer Echols, Major Crush

Virginia is proud of being the first female drum major at her Alabama high school. Too bad she has to share the position with Drew, a cute but cocky boy whose leadership style clashes with her own. The band director threatens to demote them both unless they can stop their constant arguing; but the more time they are forced to spend playing nice, the more complicated their relationship grows. I wasn’t expecting much from this teen romance, and indeed, a lot of the plot elements are a bit half-baked and confusing. But I’ve read and enjoyed some of Echols’s later work, and there are definite signs of her talent here too. Mr. Rush, the irascible band director, is a delight, and Virginia and Drew’s tumultuous relationship feels pretty true to teenage life. So while the book is definitely not a keeper for me, I did enjoy it more than I thought!

Mini-Reviews: Solo, Confinement, Remember

Linda Holmes, Flying Solo

Laurie’s Great Aunt Dot has recently died, so Laurie returns to her Maine hometown to go through Dot’s things and sell the house. When Laurie discovers a potentially valuable wooden duck among Dot’s possessions, she investigates its background and learns some new information about Dot’s life. She also reflects on her own circumstances — like Dot, she is single and childless by choice — and considers rekindling a romance with her first love. If you want a lot of drama and excitement in your books, this one isn’t for you; it’s very quiet and doesn’t have much plot (aside from a charming little heist!). But the dialogue and characterization shine — Laurie and her friends feel and sound like real people. There is a romantic subplot, but I would definitely not characterize the book as a romance. Overall, I mildly liked this novel, but it’s not destined to be a favorite. I prefer Holmes’s previous book, Evvie Drake Starts Over.

Anna Dean, A Place of Confinement

In this fourth installment of the series, Dido Kent is acting as a companion to her Aunt Manners, a rich invalid, and staying at yet another country estate. One of the other houseguests, a young lady, has gone missing and is thought to have eloped; later, a man with a mysterious connection to the estate is murdered. The chief suspect for both incidents is Tom Lomax, the son of the man Dido loves, so she is determined to prove his innocence by discovering what really happened. As with the other books in this series, this is a well-written historical mystery that (unlike many other historical mysteries) feels true to its time. The plots can get a bit convoluted, with a few too many side characters. Also, I don’t think the author planned for this book to be the last, but the series-long arc ends in a good place, so it’s a reasonably satisfying finale. Overall, if the “Jane Austen + mystery” concept appeals to you, I’d definitely recommend the series!

Mary Balogh, Remember Love

The Wares of Ravenswood are a tight-knit family, beloved in their community — until the estate’s heir, Devlin, discovers a shameful secret about his father and publicly denounces him. In the ensuing scandal, Devlin is banished from Ravenswood and spends six years in Europe fighting Napoleon’s forces. When he eventually returns, he must mend his broken relationships with his family and with his first love, Gwyneth. I’m a Mary Balogh fan, but this book is not her best. The pre-scandal section drags on forever and introduces far too many characters, most of whom don’t play a significant role in the story. I also disagreed with Devlin’s initial actions, so I found it hard to warm up to him later. Further, the book is so focused on setting up the series’s world and characters that the romance takes a backseat. I never felt the connection between Devlin and Gwyneth or cared about them as a couple. That said, I do love this author and will plan to continue with the series, hoping future books are better.

Mini-Reviews: Archangel, Shy, Ladies

Sharon Shinn, Archangel

Gabriel, an angel who intercedes with the god Jovah on behalf of the people of Samaria, needs a wife to sing the annual Gloria required by the god. But when he asks an oracle for the name and location of his fated bride, he is dismayed to learn that Jovah has chosen Rachel, a slave and the daughter of peasants. Rachel is equally angry at the news, thinking she will be going from one type of slavery to another. As Gabriel and Rachel unwillingly comply with the god’s will, they slowly inch closer together, but a power grab from an ambitious rival angel may tear them apart — and cause the destruction of the whole land of Samaria. I found the world of this novel jarring at first, as it borrows names and concepts from the Hebrew Bible but uses them in a very different context. But ultimately I did enjoy the story and the romance between Gabriel and Rachel (although her continued defiance gets a bit frustrating at times). Recommended if you like the author or you’re interested in the premise, but I don’t plan to continue with the series.

Sarah Hogle, Twice Shy

Maybell is down on her luck, stuck in an unfulfilling job and recently catfished by someone she thought was a friend. Things seem to improve when she inherits a huge old house and hundreds of acres of land from her great-aunt — until she discovers that Wesley, the taciturn groundskeeper, is an equal inheritor with his own plans for the property. As they work together to fix up the house and grounds, Maybell and Wesley grow closer, but their emotional baggage may keep them apart. I enjoyed this book overall, but I have some quibbles. The novel mentions serious issues like child neglect and severe anxiety/panic attacks, yet it never takes the time to really engage with them. Instead, the focus is on lighthearted renovation projects, treasure hunts, and romance — which I like in theory, but in this case they’re tonally jarring. Also, Maybell’s personality and narrative style are impossibly twee, which bothered me at times even though I have an above-average twee tolerance. All that said, though, I did like the book and would consider reading more by the author.

Lauren Edmondson, Ladies of the House

This modern retelling of Sense and Sensibility shifts the story to the DC political world. When Senator Gregory Richardson dies of a heart attack — in bed with his 20-something mistress — his wife Cricket and daughters Daisy and Wallis are left to deal with the scandal and the ensuing loss of their credibility and social standing. When more details of her father’s shady past come to light, Daisy must decide whether to speak up or keep silent. I’m of two minds about this book. It’s a successful retelling in that it realistically transposes most of the events of the original book to a modern setting; but at the same time, I think it totally misses the spirit of the original! Daisy is no Elinor Dashwood; instead of being the steadfast, unselfish character who keeps her family afloat, she spends most of the book wallowing and makes some shockingly unethical decisions. I also wasn’t a fan of the author’s dismissive attitude toward people who don’t agree with her politically. To be fair, I was never reluctant to pick up the book, and I found it a quick read, but overall I was disappointed with this one.

Mini-Reviews: Bodyguard, Dog, Fortune-Hunting

Katherine Center, The Bodyguard

Hannah is an “executive protection agent,” a.k.a. a bodyguard, whose job is her whole life. But her latest assignment is less than ideal: the client is Jack Stapleton, a famous (and incredibly handsome) actor who has been receiving threats from a stalker. He doesn’t want to worry his sick mother by telling her he’s in danger, so he asks Hannah to pose as his girlfriend. Inevitably, their fake relationship starts feeling a bit too real for Hannah. I have really loved some of Katherine Center’s books, but this one fell flat for me. I never quite bought Hannah as a character, and I didn’t believe she was as good at her job as she claimed to be. The obstacles to the romance also seemed a bit contrived. It’s not a bad read by any means — I tore through virtually the whole thing in a day — but it’s not a keeper for me.

Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog

It’s 2057, and time travel is possible, but there are two laws that govern it: you can’t change the course of history (no killing Hitler), and you can’t bring anything back with you (such as ancient treasures or priceless works of art). That is, until historian Verity Brown returns from a trip to the Victorian era with a cat. No one knows how this could have happened, and everyone is terrified that Verity might have destroyed the space-time continuum. The only hope is to send fellow historian Ned Henry back in time to replace the cat before anyone notices it’s missing. But of course, complications immediately ensue. This is one of my all-time favorite books: it has everything from time travel and chaos theory to romance and Agatha Christie references, not to mention historical trips to the Victorian era and World War II. I can understand why the book may not be for everyone — there’s a lot of miscommunication, which can be stressful, and perhaps a bit too much going on. But I love it too much to be rational about its flaws, and I always want everyone to read it!

Sophie Irwin, A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting

Kitty Talbot desperately needs to marry a rich man. She and her four younger sisters live in a crumbling country cottage, from which they will soon be evicted unless Kitty can come up with the money to pay the mortgage. She convinces a friend of her deceased mother’s to launch her in London society, and she soon zeros in on a target: the young, wealthy, and smitten Archibald de Lacy. Archie’s older brother, Lord Radcliffe, sees through Kitty’s scheme and is determined to prevent the match. Yet the more their opposing goals throw them together, the more they actually enjoy each other’s company. The plot of this Regency romance is nothing new, but I found it great fun! Kitty’s single-minded determination (combined with the subtlety of a sledgehammer) makes her a unique heroine, and I loved the development of her relationship with Radcliffe. I’d definitely recommend this book to historical romance fans, and I’ll be interested to read more by the author.

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: Tongues, No-Show, Viscount

Naomi Novik, Tongues of Serpents

This installment of the series finds Laurence and Temeraire exiled to Australia, where they are tasked with delivering dragon eggs to support the fledgling colony of New South Wales. They also get roped into exploring the interior of the continent while simultaneously pursuing a group of smugglers. Along the way, one of the precious eggs is stolen, and they experience the harsh realities of the Australian wilderness. While it’s always nice to spend time with Laurence and Temeraire, this is my least favorite installment in the series so far. Nothing happens to advance the overall plot; the characters mostly just wander around being hungry, tired, and/or lost. The middle stretch of the book, where the group is slogging through the uninhabited portion of the continent, is especially yawn-inducing. Hopefully things will pick up in the next book!

Beth O’Leary, The No-Show

This novel centers around three women who all get stood up on Valentine’s Day by the same man, Joseph Carter. Siobhan, a tough but overwhelmed life coach, sees him once a month for no-strings-attached sex, but she’s starting to want more. Miranda, a pragmatic tree surgeon, is excited about her new boyfriend. Jane, a shy, book-loving volunteer at a charity shop, is at first happy to be “just friends” with him, but she eventually develops deeper feelings. As all three women move forward in their relationships with Joseph, many secrets are revealed and past traumas resurface. A plot twist near the end explains Joseph’s behavior, but whether this book will work for you largely depends on whether you can deal with hating him for most of the novel. I personally did feel he was redeemed in the end, but I can see how others wouldn’t. And I still found much of the book frustrating, believing he was a terrible cad and thinking all three women deserved better! Siobhan, Miranda, and Jane are all wonderful characters, though, and I enjoyed getting to know them throughout the novel. So overall I did like this one — it’s probably my second-favorite O’Leary novel after The Flatshare — but I feel cautious about recommending it.

Julia Quinn, The Viscount Who Loved Me

Anthony, Viscount Bridgerton, is convinced he will die young, just like his beloved father. He knows it’s his duty to marry and sire an heir, but he has no interest in falling in love, which would make him want to fight his (perceived) fate. So he decides to court Edwina Sheffield, society’s reigning beauty; but to win her favor, he must also charm Kate, Edwina’s older sister. Kate refuses to be charmed — she knows Anthony is a rake and can’t approve of him as a suitor for her beloved sister. But ironically, the more Kate and Anthony butt heads, the more they are drawn to each other, until Anthony wonders whether he may have chosen the wrong sister. This book is pure Regency fluff, but I must say I really enjoyed it! Anthony and Kate are wonderful, separately and together, and I loved their chemistry and banter. I’m very curious to see how Bridgerton season 2 compares! (I watched the first season and had mixed feelings…it was oddly joyless for a romance adaptation, no?)

Mini-Reviews: Gentleman, Hanks, Nettle

Anna Dean, A Gentleman of Fortune

While visiting her cousin in Richmond, “spinster” sleuth Dido Kent comes upon another mystery: A wealthy widow in the neighborhood suddenly dies, and her attending physician suspects foul play. Her nephew and heir is the most likely suspect, but Dido thinks he may be innocent, and she soon uncovers a number of other possible motives among the widow’s neighbors. This is a worthy follow-up to book #1 in the series, and I’m continuing to enjoy Dido’s character and voice. I also think the Austen-esque setting and language is well done, though the book is perhaps a little too beholden to Emma. I wasn’t a huge fan of all the plot developments and felt especially sorry for one character; I hope he comes back and gets a happier ending in the next book! Despite my quibbles, I did like this book and look forward to the next one, especially to see what will happen in Dido’s personal life.

Kerry Winfrey, Waiting for Tom Hanks

Annie is an aspiring screenwriter and devotee of classic rom-coms, dreaming of having the perfect meet-cute with a Tom Hanksian hero. She’s thrilled when she gets the opportunity to work on an actual movie set, but less thrilled when she butts heads with the lead actor, Drew Danforth. Drew may be handsome, but he’s also shallow and frivolous — or so Annie thinks. When will she realize that she’s stumbled into her very own romantic comedy? Yes, this book is predictable, and Annie is frustratingly slow to acknowledge Drew’s good points (come on, doesn’t she recognize the classic enemies-to-lovers trope?). But the novel brims with warmth, charm, and plentiful movie references that filled me with joy and nostalgia. I would definitely recommend this book to rom-com fans, and I’m delighted that there’s a sequel featuring two of the secondary characters!

T. Kingfisher, Nettle & Bone

Marra is the youngest princess of a tiny kingdom sandwiched between two aggressive neighbors. In a bid for political protection, her older sister Kania is married off to the prince of the Northern Kingdom. When Marra learns that the prince is abusing Kania, she decides he must be stopped and assembles a motley crew of misfits to help her on her quest. This was my first book by T. Kingfisher, but it definitely won’t be my last! I loved the world of this novel, with its dark twist on fairy tale tropes. I also loved Marra, who is not particularly brave or strong or talented; she’s just an ordinary woman, in over her head but doing her best. There are impressive (and not-immediately-impressive) magical women, a whisper of romance, a demon-possessed chicken, and a dog made of bones — what more could you ask for? Highly recommended for fantasy fans, and I’m so glad I have more books by this author on my e-reader!

Mini-Reviews: Lovers, Two, Only

Emily Henry, Book Lovers

Nora loves her life as a successful literary agent in New York, and she (mostly) embraces her reputation as a ruthless, career-focused ice queen. But when her sister, Libby, proposes a month-long vacation in a small North Carolina town, Nora reluctantly agrees. Libby hopes Nora will embrace the Hallmark atmosphere and have a fling with a local carpenter or lumberjack. But instead, Nora keeps running into Charlie, a professional acquaintance who is also staying in town. They have a strong connection, but will their emotional baggage keep them apart? I’m of two minds about this book. It’s well-written, with great banter and a compelling romance. But I wasn’t a fan of how Nora’s narration keeps skipping back in time to talk about her history with Libby and their mother. It takes focus from the current-day events, which I found much more interesting. I also thought the conflict with Libby was a bit of a letdown — there’s a mystery that builds throughout the book, and when the reveal finally comes, I was like, “Really, that’s it?” I would still definitely recommend this novel to fans of contemporary romance, but I didn’t completely love it the way I was hoping to.

Elizabeth Cadell, Any Two Can Play

Natalie Travers moves to the English village of Downing to help her brother, whose wife has abandoned him and their one-year-old twins. Natalie thinks her stay will be temporary, but she soon realizes that hiring servants to look after the twins and keep house will be harder than she anticipated. While she searches, she makes friends with the quirky residents of the village and gets involved with local landowner Henry Downing. This is a quiet, soothing story about ordinary people in a small country village where nothing much happens — in other words, an excellent stress-reducing read! I did think the romance was a bit lackluster, but overall I enjoyed this one. It was the only Cadell book available at my public library, but I’m hoping I can track down a few others, perhaps at used bookstores.

Jenny Holiday, One and Only

Practical, organized Jane is a bridesmaid in her close friend’s wedding, and she’s been tasked with a difficult assignment: babysitting the groom’s brother and keeping him out of trouble before the wedding. Cameron has a reputation as a screwup, and he’s lately left the military under shady circumstances. Now he just wants to lick his wounds and enjoy the perks of civilian life, but Jane’s constant presence is getting in the way. That is, until they get to know each other better and realize that their first impressions aren’t accurate. I enjoyed this cute contemporary romance, though I got frustrated with Cam’s “I’m not worthy” mentality at times. I found Jane relatable, and I liked that she and her girlfriends (the bride and other bridesmaids) genuinely love and support each other. There are several steamy scenes in the book, which was a bit overkill for me, but I did like it overall and may end up reading the sequels at some point.

Mini-Reviews: Deadly, Margins, Victory

T.A. Willberg, Marion Lane and the Deadly Rose

Marion Lane, now a second-year apprentice at Miss Brickett’s underground society of investigators, has been assigned to a new case: A serial killer dubbed The Florist is branding his victims with a rose before murdering them. But Marion is also dealing with problems inside the agency, including the emergence of a club with sinister motives and an anonymous tip that one of the first-years is not to be trusted. I was underwhelmed by the first book in the series, but I was hoping that this installment would flesh out the world and characters a bit more. Unfortunately, Marion and her friends still don’t feel like real people to me; all the focus is on a confusing plot whose stakes are never really clear. I believe at least one more book is planned, and I may end up reading it despite myself, but I wouldn’t actually recommend the series.

Melissa Ferguson, Meet Me in the Margins

Savannah is an assistant editor at a literary publishing house, but she secretly aspires to be a writer herself. After leaving her manuscript unattended in the office, she comes back to find that someone has scribbled highly critical notes in the margins. At first Savannah is offended, but when someone she trusts gives her the same feedback, she admits that her mystery editor might be onto something. As she trades notes and stories with the mystery editor, she also grows closer to her new boss, Will. But what will happen if she has to choose between them? This is a cute contemporary romance, even if the mystery editor’s identity is immediately obvious. But Savannah is relatable, her love interest is appealing, and I bought the romance. There is a significant family conflict in Savannah’s life, too, and I wish that had been fleshed out more; the resolution felt way too pat. Still, this book was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and I’d consider reading more by the author.

Naomi Novik, Victory of Eagles

After the events of Empire of Ivory, Temeraire has been exiled to the dragon breeding grounds, while Laurence is languishing in prison, awaiting execution for treason. But when Napoleon’s long-feared invasion of England finally occurs, Laurence and Temeraire reunite to fight against the French. I think this is one of the stronger books in the series, perhaps because there’s no “travelogue” element; the book is set entirely in Britain. I also like the historical details in this installment, including real historical figures like Wellesley and Talleyrand. Also, it’s great to see Temeraire exert some personal agency as he leads a group of (somewhat recalcitrant) dragons into battle. And finally, the emotional stakes are high in this book, which makes it a particularly compelling read. I hope subsequent books in the series will live up to it!