Mini-Reviews: Rogue, Song, Jewel

Amberley Martin, The Rogue and the Peasant

Esme is a peasant, but her mother always told her she’d be a queen someday. So when a noble lady arrives at her cottage to whisk her off to Finishing School, Esme assumes it’s time to fulfill her destiny — but being kidnapped doesn’t seem like part of the plan. Meanwhile, the kidnapper, Rory, has his own problems: He’s paying off a debt to a sinister Fairy Godmother, and he’s literally haunted by his father’s ghost. When Esme and Rory begin to work together, they learn that their fates are intertwined in surprising ways. Based on the book’s cover copy, I thought this was going to be a romance, and it definitely 100% is not. I also thought the author’s influences were a little too obvious — there’s a whole chapter that basically rips off the movie Labyrinth. But I did like Esme and Rory as characters, and the book subverts traditional fairy tale narratives in interesting ways. Overall, it’s a decent fantasy read, just not what I was expecting.

Kerry Winfrey, Just Another Love Song

Fifteen years ago, Sandy and Hank were high school sweethearts, determined to leave their small town of Baileyville, Ohio, and pursue their dreams. Now Hank has achieved his goal of becoming a famous musician, but Sandy stayed in Baileyville. While she’s mostly content with her life, she regrets the way things ended with Hank, especially since no other man she’s dated has measured up. When Hank comes back to town, Sandy is forced to confront her unresolved feelings. I loved Kerry Winfrey’s first book, Waiting for Tom Hanks, and I really enjoy her warm, funny writing style. But I didn’t love this one quite as much, mostly because I don’t tend to like second-chance romances. I also thought the book’s dramatic tension vanished around the halfway point, when Sandy and Hank have an honest conversation that eliminates most of the conflict. But I did like the book overall and will definitely keep reading more by this author.

Mary Balogh, A Precious Jewel

Sir Gerald Stapleton has no interest in marriage; past experience has taught him that women can’t be trusted, and he feels himself too dull and ordinary to inspire love. But he doesn’t want to do without female companionship altogether, so he occasionally visits a high-class brothel. When he meets Priscilla, one of brothel’s employees, he is drawn to her — and when another client abuses her, Gerald impulsively decides to make her his mistress. But the more time they spend together, the more complicated their relationship grows. I was fascinated by this book’s premise and by the unconventional protagonists, a beta-male hero and a prostitute heroine. While I found Gerald unlikable at times and Priss too much of a doormat, I was also able to sympathize with both characters and root for them to figure things out. I’m not exactly sure how I’d rate this book, but it’s certainly a memorable one!

Mini-Reviews: Wedding, Avonar, Perfect

Jennifer Ryan, The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle

This historical novel focuses on three women whose lives change during World War II: Cressida, a successful fashion designer whose London home and studio are both destroyed in the Blitz; Violet, an aristocratic young woman whose ambition to marry a titled gentleman is thwarted by her wartime duties; and Grace, a vicar’s daughter who rethinks her decision to marry a man she doesn’t love. All three women grow, discover something new about themselves, and find love. I thought this novel was fine; the main characters are ultimately likable, and the romances are enjoyable if not particularly deep. But the writing style is clunky and simplistic, and the story beats are quite predictable. Overall, I thought this was OK, but fans of light WWII novels can do better.

Carol Berg, Son of Avonar

Seri is a noblewoman by birth, but she has lived in self-imposed exile for 10 years after suffering grievous losses in her former life. When she encounters a desperate fugitive, she hides him from the authorities but discovers that he cannot speak and doesn’t even know his own identity. The book alternates between the present, in which Seri investigates the fugitive’s background, and the past, in which she falls in love with a sorcerer even though magic is forbidden in her country. The two storylines eventually converge, but the vast majority of the book is introducing the main characters and setting up the world of the series. It’s solid, well-written epic fantasy, but I wasn’t a fan of all the jumping back and forth in time (nor of the frequent mentions of Seri’s flame-colored hair). Things pick up near the end of the book, but the first half is a bit of a slog. Still, I like the characters, and the story is shaping up well, so I’m curious to see what will happen in subsequent books!

Loretta Chase, Lord Perfect

Benedict, eldest son of the Earl of Hargate, knows his duty and always obeys society’s rules. But a chance meeting with Bathsheba Wingate and her wayward daughter, Olivia, upsets his carefully regimented life. When Olivia runs off in pursuit of treasure with Benedict’s frustrated nephew in tow, Benedict and Bathsheba must work together to rescue the fugitives, while fighting an attraction that can only end in disaster for them both. This is the Loretta Chase book I was waiting for! I love a duty-bound, uptight, emotionally repressed hero, and it’s a delight to watch Benedict slowly unravel. I also enjoyed Bathsheba’s practicality, wit, and determination to gain respectability for herself and her daughter. It’s just a really fun read, full of romantic tension, and it has me excited to read Olivia’s book soon!

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-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: Blood, Winterfair, Impossible

Naomi Novik, Blood of Tyrants

As the penultimate book in the Temeraire series begins, Laurence washes up on the shores of Japan with no memory of the past several years: He still thinks he’s a naval captain and knows nothing about Temeraire or their joint adventures. When the two finally reunite, Laurence must piece together his past while participating in a diplomatic mission that goes awry and ultimately fighting Napoleon yet again, this time in Russia. I hate to say it, but this series has gotten pretty stale for me. I’m never a fan of an amnesia plot, and it was both tedious and depressing to wait for Laurence to catch up with what the reader already knows. Things pick up when Laurence and Temeraire finally get to Russia to fight Napoleon, but I still found this book pretty dull overall. I hope the final book is more exciting and emotionally satisfying!  

Lois McMaster Bujold, Winterfair Gifts

The viewpoint character of this Vorkosigan novella is Armsman Roic, last seen covered in bug butter (and not much else) in A Civil Campaign. As guests arrive for Miles’s approaching wedding, Roic is fascinated by Sergeant Taura, the bioengineered super-soldier rescued by Miles in Labyrinth—and also Miles’s former lover. As Taura and Roic grow closer, they thwart a plot against Miles and his bride. I quite enjoyed this story and was glad to see Taura find some happiness. I do think Miles’s ex-girlfriends let him off a bit too easily, though! The mystery aspect of the novella is a little weak, and overall this is not the most memorable installment of the series, but it was a fun interlude with a delightful incident involving Ivan and a rabbit sculpture!

Loretta Chase, Mr. Impossible

Daphne Pembrooke’s chief desire in life is to discover how to translate Egyptian hieroglyphs, but the world believes her scholarly brother is the expert and that she is just his assistant. On a research trip to Egypt, her brother is kidnapped for his supposed language skills. Daphne immediately sets out to rescue him, but she needs a man’s help, so she hires the brawny but not particularly brainy Rupert Carsington to be her muscle. As the two search for her brother, they are also irresistibly drawn to one another, but will their love survive the adventure? This book is an enjoyable romp that doesn’t take itself too seriously — at one point the villain feeds two of his underlings to crocodiles, which gives you an idea of the tone. I adore a hero who’s not as dumb as he appears, so I really liked Rupert. Chase does seem to favor insta-lust between her romantic leads, which isn’t my favorite thing (I prefer a slow burn), but if you like your historical romance on the lighter side with a large helping of adventure, this is definitely worth a read!

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: Knife, Lover, Campaign

Gu Byeong-mo, The Old Woman with the Knife (trans. Chi-Young Kim)

Hornclaw is a 65-year-old Korean woman whose ordinary appearance conceals the fact that she’s an extremely competent assassin. Because of her age, she’s worried about slowing down and losing the unique skillset that makes her good at her job. She’s also dealing with a hostile colleague and an assignment she is surprisingly reluctant to complete. As she considers retirement, it soon becomes evident that she may not make it out of her profession alive. I quite enjoyed this book, which isn’t so much a thriller as it is a reflection on aging and human connection (or lack thereof). Hornclaw is a fascinating character, and I was rooting for her despite her job. I would definitely recommend this book if the premise interests you.

Susanna Craig, One Thing Leads to a Lover

British intelligence officer Major Langley Stanhope is on the trail of a French codebook, which has accidentally fallen into the hands of Amanda, a young and attractive widow. Since her much older husband’s death, Amanda has felt stifled by her mother’s constant concern and the attentions of a worthy but dull suitor. When she meets Stanhope, she’s eager to experience an adventure, and their collaboration soon takes a romantic turn. I enjoyed this book more than the first in the series (and it can definitely be read as a stand-alone); the spy plot is a little more prominent, and Amanda and Stanhope are likable characters with good chemistry. I wish the book had delved into Stanhope’s backstory a bit more (there’s a lot there, but it’s pretty glossed over). But if you enjoy light, low-stress historical romances, I’d recommend this one. And the next book features a fake relationship (one of my favorite tropes!), so I’m sure I’ll be reading it soon as well.

Lois McMaster Bujold, A Civil Campaign

This installment of the Vorkosigan series is full of romantic turmoil. Miles loves Ekaterin but doesn’t know how to woo her, since she’s wary of romance after her traumatic first marriage. Mark loves Kareen Koudelka, but she is torn between her Barrayaran roots and her exciting new life on Beta colony. Meanwhile, Emperor Gregor is getting married, and there are two contested seats in the Council of Counts, so Miles & co. have plenty of political drama to deal with as well. As expected, I absolutely loved the romances in this book (that letter from Miles to Ekaterin!), and I was delighted to see more of Mark, Ivan, and the Koudelka girls. I could have done without the butter bug subplot, and the political intrigue was a bit simplistic, but that’s understandable since the book’s main focus is the relationships. I’m excited to continue with the series, particularly to see what happens with Ivan’s love life!

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.