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.

Mini-Reviews: Tongues, No-Show, Viscount

Naomi Novik, Tongues of Serpents

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

Beth O’Leary, The No-Show

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

Julia Quinn, The Viscount Who Loved Me

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

Mini-Reviews: Gentleman, Hanks, Nettle

Anna Dean, A Gentleman of Fortune

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

Kerry Winfrey, Waiting for Tom Hanks

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

T. Kingfisher, Nettle & Bone

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

Mini-Reviews: Wickham, Memory, Business

Claudia Gray, The Murder of Mr. Wickham

This is a hard book to describe without spoiling all of Jane Austen’s novels, but I will do my best! It’s 1820, and most of Austen’s main characters are gathered together at a house party. When George Wickham shows up uninvited, it becomes clear that many of the characters have reasons (both financial and personal) to dislike him. So when Wickham is bludgeoned to death with a blunt instrument, nearly everyone is a suspect, and two of the young guests (children of Austen’s characters) team up to solve the mystery. As an Austen superfan, I greatly enjoyed this! I think the author did a good job of portraying Austen’s characters and the problems they might face after years of marriage. I also loved the two young sleuths, especially the appealingly direct (and presumably neurodivergent) Jonathan. I was fine with the solution to the mystery, though it’s only revealed because the guilty party confesses. My only other complaint is that the romantic subplot isn’t resolved, and it makes me wonder whether there will be a sequel. If so, I’ll certainly check it out!

Lois McMaster Bujold, Memory

As is the case with many books in the series, Miles kicks off this one by doing something stupid — something that endangers both himself and all the Dendarii under his command. He then lies to Illyan about it, which gets him kicked out of the Barrayaran military. Now that Miles has torpedoed his career before turning 30, what will he do next? It sounds like I’m judging Miles harshly, but actually I relate to him in this book. He’s reached that point of adulthood where he’s realizing his life hasn’t turned out the way he thought it would, and he has to figure out how to move forward. There’s also some plot stuff (Miles investigates a possible attack on ImpSec), but the focus is really on developing Miles’s character and setting up a new direction for the series. I’m excited to see where things go next!

Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford, Business as Usual

Twenty-something Hilary Fane is determined not to be idle while waiting to marry her doctor fiancé, so she decides to move to London for a year and get a job. She lands at Everyman’s Department Store, where she is bad at writing labels but surprisingly good at improving the store’s library system. She also gains a new empathy for working-class people as she experiences their hardships firsthand — and realizes that her fiancé may not be the best match for her. This is a pleasant slice-of-life epistolary novel set in the 1930s, and I enjoyed my glimpse into this particular world. Hilary is an engaging and humorous character, though not always aware of her privilege in being able to choose to work or not. But I mostly liked her, and I also liked both the setting and the romantic elements. Recommended if you enjoy this type of thing!

Mini-Reviews: Lovers, Two, Only

Emily Henry, Book Lovers

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

Elizabeth Cadell, Any Two Can Play

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

Jenny Holiday, One and Only

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

Mini-Reviews: Deadly, Margins, Victory

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

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

Melissa Ferguson, Meet Me in the Margins

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

Naomi Novik, Victory of Eagles

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

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: Fake, Skulls, Moving

Jenn P. Nguyen, Fake It Till You Break It

Mia and Jake have known each other forever; they live in the same neighborhood, and their mothers are best friends. In fact, their moms would love them to date each other, but they just don’t get along. To stop the maternal matchmaking for good, Mia and Jake decide to fake a short relationship and a spectacular breakup. But as they pretend to fall in love, they’re surprised to develop real feelings for each other. I love the fake-dating trope, and this was a cute read, but it’s quite predictable and not particularly unique. Still, a fun bit of fluff to pass an afternoon.

Chris Wooding, The Ace of Skulls

In the final installment of the Ketty Jay series, civil war has erupted between Vardia’s Coalition government and the Awakeners. Darian Frey just wants to stay out of it; he’s more concerned with finding his former fiancée (and current sky pirate), Trinica, so he can finally tell her how he feels. But of course, the crew of the Ketty Jay get drawn into the war despite themselves — and when the Awakeners unleash their secret weapon, Frey and his friends may be the only ones who can stop it. I was disappointed by a few loose ends, and I was also shipping two characters who didn’t get together, alas! But overall, this is a satisfying ending to a really fun series. If you enjoy sci-fi adventure stories and found families, or if you just really miss the TV show Firefly, I’d definitely recommend these books!

Agatha Christie, The Moving Finger

Jerry and his sister Joanna are visiting the tranquil English village of Lymstock, but their stay is soon disrupted by a spate of malicious anonymous letters that circulate through the village. When the letters lead to suicide and murder, Jerry attempts to solve the poison pen mystery, with a late-game assist from Miss Marple. I hadn’t read this Christie novel in a while, and it’s one of my favorites! The mystery is really clever and the characterization is strong. Of course, I also enjoyed the romantic elements of the plot. 🙂 Granted, Miss Marple fans will be disappointed because she’s barely in the book; she basically just comes in at the end to deliver the solution. But I’d still highly recommend this one to Christie lovers!

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!