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.

Mini-Reviews: Goddess, Deceit, Bryony

Tessa Dare, Goddess of the Hunt

Lucy Waltham has been in love with her brother’s friend Sir Toby Aldridge for ages, but he still sees her as a little girl. To make Toby notice her, Lucy decides to practice her seduction skills on another of her brother’s friends, Jeremy Trescott. Appalled by her scheme to chase Toby, Jeremy resolves to stop her by any means necessary — even if it means letting her seduce him instead. Despite the farfetched plot, this book is enjoyable Regency fluff with likable main characters. I read most of it in one sitting and regret nothing! This author has been hit or miss for me, but I’d definitely recommend this book for fans of historical romance with some heat.

Ashley Weaver, The Key to Deceit

Just weeks after her first espionage mission, Electra “Ellie” McDonnell is once again summoned by Major Ramsey to help with a case. A dead woman has been recovered from the Thames, and Ramsey suspects her of spying for the Germans. He needs Ellie’s lock-picking skills to open a locket found on the woman’s body. What they discover points to a dangerous spy ring that is sending photos of strategic London locations to the Nazis. As Ellie and her criminal associates help pursue the spy ring, she also continues her investigation into her mother’s past — and finds herself torn between old friend Felix and the antagonistic but attractive Ramsey. I’m enjoying this series for its blend of mystery, WWII setting, and romance, and I’m eager for the next installment to come out (probably not till next year, alas!). If you enjoy these genres, I’d definitely recommend the series, although you should start with book #1, A Peculiar Combination.

T. Kingfisher, Bryony and Roses

I’m a sucker for Beauty and the Beast retellings, and this is a great one! When Bryony gets trapped in a snowstorm and is about to freeze to death, she suddenly finds herself on a path to a secluded manor house infused with magic and inhabited by a Beast. At first she resents being trapped in the manor house, but she gradually learns that the Beast is a prisoner as well, and she sets out to discover how to break the house’s sinister enchantments. The strength of this retelling is in the characters, especially Bryony: she’s pragmatic, stubborn, funny, and a devoted gardener who is determined to grow things herself, without the help of the magical house. I loved her snarky interactions with the Beast as they get to know each other better. If you love fairy tale retellings, I’d highly recommend this one, and I’m excited to continue exploring T. Kingfisher’s work!

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: Smallbone, Komarr, Feather

Delia Sherman, The Evil Wizard Smallbone

Twelve-year-old Nick Reynaud runs away from an abusive home and is taken in by the Evil Wizard Smallbone. He’s unable to leave the property, and Smallbone has an irritating tendency to transform him into various animals, but Nick begins to thrive in his new life despite these drawbacks — and even learns some magic himself. When a competing evil wizard threatens Smallbone and his people, Nick decides to take action. I enjoyed this quirky middle-grade fantasy novel. It’s clever and fun but also doesn’t shy away from some darker realities. I didn’t fall in love with the book, but I definitely think it would be a great read for its target age group.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Komarr

Miles officially begins his career as Imperial Auditor by investigating the possible sabotage of Komarr’s solar mirror; without the mirror, Komarr’s terraforming project will experience severe setbacks, which will be politically difficult for Barrayar as well as disastrous for Komarr itself. As Miles uncovers a fraudulent scheme and a sinister Komarran plot, he also falls for Ekaterin Vorsoisson, the unhappily married wife of the bureaucrat with whom he’s staying. So, in other words, typical Miles! I feel like this series has really hit its stride now, and I loved this installment. It was great to get some chapters from Ekaterin’s point of view, though her relationship with Tien makes for difficult reading at times. I am SUPER excited for A Civil Campaign now!

Joyce Harmon, A Feather to Fly With

Arthur Ramsey, the Duke of Winton, is far more interested in his scientific pursuits than in high society. But he knows he must eventually marry, so he asks his gregarious best friend for help in navigating the intricacies of flirting and courtship. Meanwhile, unconventional (and highly unsuitable) Cleo Cooper has her own reasons for embarking on a London Season, and they don’t include matrimony. But when Arthur and Cleo meet, their mutual attraction threatens to upend their future plans. The front cover of this book calls it “a sparkling romantic romp in the classic Regency tradition,” and I’d say that’s spot on. I especially liked the adorably nerdy Arthur and his struggles to learn society’s unspoken rules. It’s not a particularly deep book, but it is a fun read if you like this kind of thing!

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.