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: 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: 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: 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: 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?)