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!

Mini-Reviews: Name, Dark, Bellfield

Lauren Kate, By Any Other Name

Book editor Lanie is thrilled when she gets a promotion that will allow her to work with her literary idol, romance author Noa Callaway. Callaway is a pseudonym, and the public doesn’t know the author’s real identity, but Lanie pictures a worldly middle-aged woman who will become her mentor and friend. Of course, the truth is entirely different, and when a shocked Lanie meets the real “Noa,” her discovery causes her to reevaluate her entire life. I think this book has charm and potential, but I didn’t understand Lanie’s strong emotional reaction to Noa’s true identity. (My own thought was, “What’s the big deal?”) I also wanted more depth from the romance; Lanie and her love interest only spend a few days together on-page. So overall, I was disappointed, but I’d potentially try another book by the author.

Cece Louise, In a Dark, Dark Wood

Desperate to save her family from starving, miller’s daughter Calia impersonates a princess who is betrothed to Prince Brone of nearby Ebonwood. When Calia arrives at Ebonwood Castle, she encounters many mysteries and secrets, not least the personality of her reclusive fiancé. But even as she and Brone grow closer, something — or someone — at Ebonwood threatens the safety of both Calia and the entire kingdom. This YA fantasy romance is a decent read, though a bit simplistic and predictable. It borrows elements from Beauty and the Beast and from gothic romances such as Jane Eyre and Rebecca. I thought it was fine, though I won’t be racing to read the other books in the series.

Anna Dean, Bellfield Hall

Intelligent, observant “spinster” Dido Kent encounters two mysteries while visiting Bellfield Hall. First, her niece Catherine asks her to find her fiancé, Richard, who disappeared shortly after their engagement was announced. Then a woman is found shot on the grounds of the estate, and it looks like the killer must be someone living at Bellfield. Are the two incidents somehow connected? There are a lot of historical mysteries set in the early 19th century, and they vary widely in quality. I’m happy to say that I think this is one of the best I’ve read. The mystery itself is a little convoluted, but the writing style and atmosphere are spot-on, and Dido is an entertaining sleuth. I’m excited to continue with the series!

Mini-Reviews: Empire, Letter, Errant

Naomi Novik, Empire of Ivory

Laurence and Temeraire have finally made it home to England, only to learn that the vast majority of British dragons have contracted a mysterious and deadly illness. They journey to Africa in the desperate hope of finding a cure, but they encounter several difficulties, including being captured by a hostile African tribe. I’m continuing to enjoy this series, although the pacing of this book is pretty uneven. But the series’ strength is world-building, not plot; I love being immersed in this alternate-19th-century universe, and Novik excels at portraying the language and attitudes of the period. She’s more convincing than most historical fiction authors, in my opinion. Looking forward to the next installment, especially since this one ends with a real heartbreaker!

Suzanne Allain, Miss Lattimore’s Letter

Sophie Lattimore is a keen observer of people, and when she sees a well-known bachelor about to make a disastrous marriage, she decides to send him some anonymous advice. Her interference unexpectedly results in two happy marriages, giving Sophie (whose identity is of course revealed) a reputation as a matchmaker. But when the handsome and charming Sir Edmund Winslow approaches Sophie about finding him a bride, she doesn’t know what to do — especially since she’d like to marry Sir Edmund herself! This is a light, breezy Regency romance that I read in an afternoon. I liked it and would recommend it to fans of the genre, especially those who prefer to avoid steamy scenes (nothing more explicit than kissing here). But it’s definitely not a book I feel tempted to keep and re-read.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Miles Errant

In “The Borders of Infinity,” Miles infiltrates a Cetagandan POW camp and engineers a miracle. In Brothers in Arms, the Dendarii mercenaries have cash flow problems, and Miles has trouble juggling his Admiral Naismith and Lord Vorkosigan personas. Also, he gets kidnapped and has to foil yet another plot against Barrayar. Mirror Dance switches gears somewhat, following Mark as he tries to liberate the clones from Jackson’s Whole, with disastrous results. There is some dark stuff here — the end of Mirror Dance is particularly tough to read — but in my opinion, the two full-length novels in this volume are the best in the series so far. Loved seeing Aral and Cordelia again (and Ivan, of course!), and I can’t wait to see what happens next with Miles, Mark & co.!

Mini-Reviews: Stocks, Glass, Mayhem

Georgette Heyer, Death in the Stocks

The rich but disagreeable Arnold Vereker is stabbed to death, and his body is found in the stocks on the village green. Suspicion centers around the dead man’s half-siblings, Kenneth and Antonia, as well as their shady love interests. Scotland Yard is assisted by Giles Carrington, the Vereker family’s attorney, though he has a personal interest in the case as well. I adore Heyer’s romances but have been less impressed with her mysteries overall. This is one of the few I kept after my initial read, but upon rereading I thought it was just okay. The Verekers are supposed to be likable and entertaining, but they annoyed me this time around, and the romance was barely sketched in. It’s a decent read if you like Golden Age mysteries, but it’s no longer a keeper for me.

Caroline Stevermer, The Glass Magician

Thalia Cutler is a stage magician on the vaudeville circuit, but when a dangerous trick goes wrong, she discovers that she also has real magical powers. But until she learns to control them, she’s in grave danger and must take shelter with a friendly family that has similar powers. Meanwhile, one of Thalia’s onstage competitors is murdered, and her mentor is arrested for the crime, so she must discover the real killer. I wanted to love this book, but it didn’t have the same spark that A College of Magics and A Scholar of Magics did for me. It felt very much like book 1 of a series, with incomplete world-building and storylines that aren’t resolved. I don’t know if a sequel is planned, but I’m not especially interested in it, unfortunately.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Miles, Mystery, and Mayhem

In Cetaganda, Miles and his cousin Ivan travel to Cetaganda to attend a state funeral, only to become entangled in political intrigue and murder. In Ethan of Athos, Ethan leaves his all-male planet and is forced to team up with that most mysterious and dangerous of creatures, a woman (and hey, it’s Elli Quinn from The Warrior’s Apprentice!). And in the novella Labyrinth, the Dendarii Mercenaries’ simple mission to pick up a scientist from Jackson’s Whole goes awry. I’m still really enjoying this series, although the characters trump the plots, for me. I adore Miles and have a huge soft spot for Ivan as well! Also, I find it interesting how much of this series (at least so far) is about gender, sexual politics, and reproduction. Looking forward to seeing what happens next!

Mini-Reviews: Killing, Wish, Scales

Lee Child, Killing Floor

In this series opener, former military cop Jack Reacher walks into the small town of Margrave, Georgia, and is promptly arrested for murder. Reacher didn’t kill anyone (not recently, anyway), but in the course of proving his innocence to the local police, he gets drawn into the search for the real murderer despite himself. Along the way, Reacher uncovers an international criminal operation and puts his skills as a trained killer to good use. This type of thriller isn’t my usual fare, but I’m glad I gave it a try. The book is a real page-turner and Reacher is a compelling character. Despite the overall darkness and violence of the plot, there are some moments of humor (such as when Reacher feels the need to explain that Oxford, England, is a university town). I’m not invested in reading the entire series, but I’d certainly pick up another Reacher novel, and I’ve put the Amazon Prime TV series on my watchlist.

Katherine Center, What You Wish For

Samantha Casey loves her job as a librarian at an idyllic independent elementary school. When the school’s beloved principal suddenly dies, Sam is devastated — especially when she learns that his replacement is Duncan Carpenter, the man she had a hopeless crush on when they worked together at another school four years ago. But when Duncan arrives, he’s cold and authoritarian and rigid, not at all the fun-loving guy Sam remembers. Nevertheless, as they battle for the future of the school, sparks fly between them. I’ve really enjoyed Katherine Center’s books in the past, but I didn’t quite fall in love with this one. Aspects of Sam’s character irritated me, and I wanted more romance and less school politics. Still, I stayed up way too late reading this book and will definitely continue to follow the author.

Stephanie Burgis, Scales and Sensibility

Practical, penniless Elinor Tregarth tries to endure her cousin Penelope’s constant abuse and belittling, but eventually she can’t take it anymore and runs away, bringing Penelope’s mistreated dragon with her. Little does Elinor know that the dragon has magical powers: when she wishes to be as beautiful, confident, and respected as London society’s most fashionable leader, the dragon’s power makes her look just like the society woman. In disguise, Elinor is free to plan her future, stand up to her cousin, and perhaps even catch the eye of a handsome stranger. This is a cute bit of magical Regency froth, and while it’s less substantial than Burgis’s excellent Masks and Shadows, I still enjoyed it very much. I’ll definitely pick up the sequel when it comes out this fall!

Mini-Reviews: Scoundrels, Powder, Stranger

Loretta Chase, Lord of Scoundrels

Sebastian, Lord Dain, has a deservedly terrible reputation, and he enjoys living down to it. Jessica Trent is concerned when her dimwitted brother enters Dain’s orbit, and she is determined to make Dain back off. Of course, he intends to do no such thing, but their ensuing arguments are complicated by a strong mutual attraction. This book is full of DRAMA and over-the-top emotions; both Dain and Jess behave ridiculously at times. Nevertheless, I found it all very compelling! Chase is a good writer, and there are some real human emotions grounding all the craziness. My only other complaint is that the book is too steamy for me, but obviously that’s very subjective. So I prefer Chase’s traditional Regencies, but I’m still glad I read this one!

Naomi Novik, Black Powder War

After the events of Throne of Jade, Laurence and Temeraire are about to leave China and return to England. But a last-minute order redirects them to Istanbul to pick up three dragon eggs that the Ottoman Empire has sold to the British government. On their journey they face the hazards of bad weather, feral dragons, and a guide with dubious loyalties; once they arrive in Istanbul, even greater dangers await. This series is still going strong; I really enjoyed the plot development in this installment, especially Laurence and Temeraire’s experiences with the Prussian troops. I’m also excited for the introduction of new characters such as Tharkay and Iskierka. Looking forward to book 4!

Jane Ashford, Married to a Perfect Stranger

John and Mary got married after a very brief acquaintance, mostly to please their families. Almost immediately, John, an employee of the Foreign Office, left for a two-year diplomatic mission to China. Now he’s returned, but when he and Mary meet again, they have both changed in many ways. They butt heads at first but are also intrigued by these new versions of each other. As they get reacquainted, Mary develops her talent for drawing and John struggles to advance in his career. This was a pleasant but unremarkable Regency romance. I did like that the protagonists aren’t aristocrats; John and Mary both have some wealth, but they aren’t part of high society, and John realizes that his lack of social connections may harm his career. But the story is a bit bland, and there’s a suspense subplot that never really goes anywhere. I’m open to reading more by Jane Ashford, but I won’t be expecting a 5-star read.

Mini-Reviews: Throne, Beloved, Marion

Naomi Novik, Throne of Jade

Former naval captain Will Laurence and dragon Temeraire are now fast friends and inseparable companions. But because Temeraire is an extremely rare and valuable Chinese dragon, China is demanding him back. So Laurence and Temeraire are forced to travel to the imperial court to placate the emperor and prevent the Chinese from allying with France. This book is a worthy continuation of His Majesty’s Dragon, fleshing out the global political situation and contrasting English and Chinese treatment of dragons. I enjoyed watching Temeraire mature a bit and start to question the English way of doing things. Looking forward to book 3!

Mary Balogh, Only Beloved

George, the Duke of Stanbrook, has helped the other six Survivors to heal from their war wounds and find true love. But he has never truly coped with his own pain and loss: his son died in the Napoleonic Wars, and his wife took her own life soon afterward. Now George is lonely and decides to remarry, but his chosen wife is determined to help him finally confront and heal from his tragic past. This isn’t one of my favorite installments of the Survivors’ Club series, but I still enjoyed it. I like Balogh’s style, and it’s refreshing to see historical romance protagonists in their 30s and 40s. The book takes an oddly melodramatic turn toward the end, and the last few chapters are a bit cloying, with all the blissfully married Survivors and their babies. But it’s still worth a read, especially if you’ve enjoyed the rest of the series.

T.A. Willberg, Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder

Marion Lane is an apprentice at a mysterious private detective agency that operates beneath the streets of London. When one of her colleagues is murdered and her mentor is accused of the crime, Marion decides to investigate. But she uncovers some troubling secrets about the agency’s history and isn’t sure whom she can trust. I really liked the world of this novel (shadowy secret society + crime fighting + cool steampunk gadgets!), but I wish it had been more developed. The novel is almost entirely focused on plot, to the detriment of character development and world building. I also found myself oddly sympathetic to the villain! I’m interested enough to read book 2 in the series, but I hope the setting and characters will be more fleshed out.

Mini-Reviews: Dragon, Austen, Venom

Naomi Novik, His Majesty’s Dragon

When naval captain Will Laurence captures a French ship with a coveted dragon egg aboard, his life is turned upside-down. He bonds with the baby dragon, Temeraire, which means he must give up his naval career to become an aviator — a way of life completely different from what Laurence is used to. But his newfound friendship with Temeraire carries him through, and the two of them will have an important role to play in England’s ongoing war with France. I’ve read several books in this series, but I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed them! The concept (Napoleonic Wars plus dragons) is right up my alley, and I adore both Laurence and Temeraire as characters. I can’t wait to read about their further adventures in subsequent books! 

Lucy Worsley, Jane Austen at Home

This biography is a breezy and entertaining look at Jane Austen’s life through the lens of the homes she lived in. It also explores how the concepts of home and domesticity informed her work. As an enthusiastic Janeite, I enjoyed this book, although if you’ve read other Austen biographies you don’t particularly need to read this one. It appears reasonably well cited; there are numbered endnotes, and Worsley quotes many primary sources. She speculates quite a bit about motives and emotions (as she herself admits in the introduction), and I occasionally found her interpretations farfetched. Overall, though, a good read, especially for those who haven’t read other books on Austen’s life and work.

Kristin Burchell, Court of Venom

Badriya never wanted to become the queen’s poisoner, but she has no choice. The malicious Queen Solena will kill her if she refuses, and the city is surrounded by a wasteland full of witches and demons, making it impossible for her to run away. But when a neighboring prince arrives as a potential suitor for the queen, Badriya may finally get the chance to pursue a different life. This novel reads like a standard YA fantasy (though it’s marketed as adult); the heroine is an outsider with special powers who eventually has to fight for justice. It’s entertaining enough, but not particularly unique. I didn’t like how the book kept jumping between past and present; I think it was supposed to generate suspense, but instead it just made the world-building confusing and hard to follow. Overall, while I certainly didn’t hate this book, I wouldn’t particularly recommend it either.

Mini-Reviews: Winter, Brass, Princess

Anne Gracie, The Winter Bride

Freddy Monkton-Coombes doesn’t want to get married and studiously avoids respectable young ladies, but at the request of his best friend he takes the Chance sisters under his wing. Damaris Chance is beautiful, aloof, and independent, and she also has no interest in matrimony. But when Freddy needs a fake fiancée to appease his disapproving parents, Damaris agrees to help him in return for the deed to a cottage. The more time they spend together, the more they discover an inconvenient mutual attraction. This was my first book by Anne Gracie, but it won’t be my last! The plot is nothing unusual for a Regency romance (well, except for the heroine’s extremely melodramatic past), but I really loved both Damaris and Freddy, and I could see what made them right for each other. There’s quite a bit of good dialogue and banter, too, which always helps! This is book 2 in a series, but I was able to follow along just fine, and I’m interested in reading the other books now. Here’s hoping I’ve found a new historical romance author to enjoy!

Elizabeth Chatsworth, The Brass Queen

A debutante/arms dealer and a cowboy/secret agent team up to rescue a group of kidnapped scientists in this light steampunk romp. The blurb compares it to series such as Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate and Genevieve Cogman’s Invisible Library, and I’d say those comparisons are pretty fair; if you enjoy those series, you’ll probably like The Brass Queen too. It’s almost too insubstantial, and I admit I skimmed most of the sci-fi world-building stuff. But it kept me turning the pages and was a welcome distraction from some real-life stress, so I’d recommend it for fans of the genre.

Dawn Cook, Princess at Sea

***Warning: Spoilers for The Decoy Princess***

Decoy princess Tess has helped her “sister,” the true princess, reclaim the throne of Costenopolie. Now she’s been appointed ambassador to a neighboring kingdom, but on the journey out, her ship is captured by pirates, and she and her sister are both held for ransom. To escape, Tess must use all her ingenuity, as well as the magical powers she’s just beginning to understand. She must also choose between two suitors, card sharp Duncan and captain of the guard Jeck. This was a fun, entertaining fantasy novel, but it’s not a keeper for me. I was glad to see the love triangle resolved, though the book still feels open-ended enough for a sequel. Since this one was published back in 2006, however, that seems unlikely.

Mini-Reviews: Cheerfully, Scotsman, Unquiet

AJ Pearce, Yours Cheerfully

Despite World War II raging on, things are looking up for Emmy Lake. She’s in love, she and Bunty are friends again, and her work at Woman’s Friend has just gotten a lot more interesting. The British government wants more women to get involved in war work and is asking the press to promote this agenda. But when Emmy talks to some of the female factory workers, she’s dismayed by the obstacles they face, especially the lack of child care during work hours. Emmy is determined to help, but will her efforts do more harm than good? This is another charmer from AJ Pearce, and fans of Dear Mrs. Bird should enjoy it. I do think this one’s a bit more lightweight and less impactful than the first book, but if a third installment is planned, I’ll definitely seek it out!

Evie Dunmore, Portrait of a Scotsman

Harriet Greenfield is a sheltered upper-class girl and aspiring painter who dreams of marrying a kind Mr. Bingley type. Instead she finds herself in a compromising position with Lucian Blackstone, a brooding Scot with a shady past and a terrible reputation. When the two are forced to marry, they reluctantly recognize a mutual attraction, but Harriet doesn’t trust Lucian, and Lucian only wants Harriet to further his own ambitions. I enjoyed this book while reading it, but upon reflection I think it’s just okay. Lucian is a pretty standard tortured, brooding hero, and Harriet is spoiled and obnoxious. The book was a bit too steamy for me, though obviously others’ mileage will vary, and I also felt the narrative got tediously preachy about the plight of women and laborers. On the other hand, I thought the portrayal of an inter-class marriage was realistic and well done. So, this wasn’t the book for me, but I’ll still probably read the next installment of the series when it comes out.

Sharon Shinn, Unquiet Land

Leah Frothen has spent the past five years spying for Welce in a foreign land—and recovering from some traumatic life events. Now she’s returned to find (and possibly claim) the daughter she left behind, but her spying days are not quite behind her. Welce is in the midst of some tricky negotiations with a neighboring country, and Leah must befriend the foreign delegation in order to gain useful information. But what she learns is deeply disturbing, especially when it might affect her newfound relationship with her daughter. I liked this book fine, but I do think the series has run its course. Leah is a likable enough heroine, and I enjoyed her character arc and her romance (though both began in the previous book, Jeweled Fire). The plot was pretty dull, however, and I thought everything with the daughter was simplistic and contrived. Overall, a decent but unexceptional read.