Mini-Reviews: Rogue, Widening, Carnation

Virginia Heath, Never Rescue a Rogue

Giles Sinclair and Diana Merriwell have delighted in vexing each other ever since his best friend married her sister. Everyone thinks their teasing banter is masking a mutual attraction, but they both vehemently deny it. Yet when Giles finds himself in trouble, it’s Diana he turns to for help, and eventually they’ll have to admit to themselves — and each other — that their friends were right all along. There’s a lot in this book that requires suspension of disbelief (Giles might be illegitimate but no one knows! Diana is secretly a hard-hitting investigative journalist!). But if you can roll with the implausibilities of the plot, as well as the characters’ modern attitudes and language, this is a fun book. I liked it more than the first in the series, and I’ll definitely seek out book #3 when it comes out.

W. Bolingbroke Johnson, The Widening Stain

This vintage mystery novel, originally published in 1942, is set in a fictional university library. A French professor is found dead in the stacks, apparently having fallen off a high ladder. But Gilda Gorham, the library’s head cataloger, suspects foul play — especially when another member of the faculty is later strangled and a priceless manuscript goes missing. I liked this book well enough; the writing style is brisk and humorous, gently satirizing the world of academia and providing several limericks (of varying quality) as a bonus. The mystery itself isn’t terribly satisfying, as the motive hinges on some dubious psychology. But still, I found it an enjoyable read and a pretty good start to 2023.

Lauren Willig, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation

It’s 1803, and the Scarlet Pimpernel (who’s a real person in this universe) has inspired several other heroes with flowery names to spy against Napoleon. Lord Richard Selwick, a.k.a. the Purple Gentian, is on a mission to thwart Bonaparte’s invasion of England when he meets Amy Balcourt, an impetuous young lady who wants to join the Gentian’s league. As Amy and the Gentian fall in love, Richard struggles with when and how to reveal his true identity. I’m really glad I decided to revisit this series, because this book is a delightful romp of a historical romance that doesn’t take itself too seriously. If you’re looking for historical accuracy and period-appropriate dialogue and manners, this is not the book for you. But if you’re in the mood for some light-hearted, swashbuckling fun, I would definitely recommend it! Now I’m really looking forward to book #2, as I remember it being one of my favorites in the series.

Mini-Reviews: Kiss, Corner, Matzah

Lisa Berne, You May Kiss the Bride

Gabriel Penhallow is bored witless by the young ladies he meets in Society, but he knows it’s his duty to marry, so he decides to propose to the beautiful but insipid Cecily Orr. While visiting the Orrs, however, he comes across Livia Stuart, whose straightforward nature both irritates and attracts him. An impulsive kiss forces Gabriel and Livia into a hasty betrothal, but a true romance develops as they spend more time together. This is a pretty stereotypical historical romance, with a stuffy, imperious hero and a feisty, unconventional heroine. That said, I do like that formula and I enjoyed the book. It’s a bit different from The Worst Duke in the World (which I also enjoyed) — less frivolous in tone, and with more explicit sexytimes. Overall, I’d consider reading more by the author, but I’m not racing out to do so.

Elizabeth Cadell, The Corner Shop

Lucille Abbey is a highly competent, efficient woman who runs a secretarial business. When three of her best secretaries quit a particular job within the first day, Lucille decides to see for herself why this job is so difficult. She encounters an absentminded, impolite professor and an uninhabitable cottage; but despite her initial antipathy, she decides to stay and put things in order. Later, in Paris, she encounters the professor again and gets mixed up in an art theft. This is a light, pleasant read that I enjoyed for its sharp character observations and satisfying romance. The plot has a few too many coincidences but resolves well, though I wanted the art thief to get more of a comeuppance! Overall, I liked this more than Any Two Can Play and will likely reread it at some point.

Jean Meltzer, The Matzah Ball

Rachel is a Jewish woman with a shameful secret: She loves Christmas and is, in fact, a best-selling author of Christmas romance novels. But now her publisher is asking for a Hanukkah romance, and Rachel is at a loss — for her, Hanukkah just doesn’t have the same magic. Hoping for inspiration, she decides to attend a high-profile Hanukkah celebration called the Matzah Ball . . . but to get a ticket, she’ll need a favor from Jacob Greenberg, her summer camp first-love-turned-nemesis. If you would like to learn more about being Jewish in America during Christmastime, or about living with an invisible illness (Rachel has chronic fatigue syndrome), you’ll like this book. But if you’re looking for a believable, relatable romance, look elsewhere. Rachel and Jacob were 12 years old when they fell in “love,” and after only one meeting as adults, they’re thinking about each other in terms of love and long-term commitment. I just couldn’t buy it, and I wouldn’t recommend the book unless Rachel’s specific attributes and situation in life really resonate with you.

Mini-Reviews: Lady, Flight, Velocipede

Eliza Casey, Lady Takes the Case

The lady of the title is Lady Cecilia Bates, the daughter of an old, aristocratic family that has fallen on hard times. To keep the estate functioning, her brother, Patrick, needs to marry a rich woman; luckily, American heiress Annabel Clarke has agreed to attend their house party. All seems to be going according to plan until one of the other guests, a famous explorer, is poisoned over dinner. When Patrick appears to be the police’s main suspect, Cecilia decides to launch her own investigation, along with Annabel’s intelligent maid, Jane, and a little help from Jane’s cat. I liked this book and think it would appeal to fans of Downton Abbey, but I think the setting and characters are definitely more interesting than the mystery. I’m not sure I care enough to read the sequel; another book in a similar vein is Alyssa Maxwell’s Murder Most Malicious, and I’d rather continue with Maxwell’s series.

Jean-Pierre Gibrat, Flight of the Raven

I’m not generally a big graphic novel fan; I’m not a very visual person, and my tendency is to go straight for the text without really absorbing the illustrations. But this GN drew me in with its World War II setting, French Resistance heroine, and cat burglar hero, not to mention the absolutely gorgeous art! The overarching plot — in which the heroine, Jeanne, searches for her missing sister and worries about a traitor within her Resistance cell — is not particularly well fleshed out, but it’s really just an excuse for her to team up with the cat burglar and the other quirky characters she meets along the way. Overall, I did like this and would recommend it to people who enjoy both historical fiction and graphic novels.

Emily June Street, The Velocipede Races

In an invented world similar to late Victorian England, velocipede racing is both a popular sport and the only socially acceptable way for upper-class men to earn money. Women, of course, don’t participate and are not even supposed to ride velos in private. Nevertheless, Emmeline Escot has always dreamed of racing, and she’s determined not to let social conventions get in her way. Complications ensue, however, when she is inadvertently “compromised” by a rich stranger and forced to marry. I picked up this book knowing very little about it, so I’m happy to say I enjoyed it! But I think my favorite parts were honestly the interactions between Emmeline and her new husband; their relationship interested me a lot more than the descriptions of velo racing, and I found Emmeline’s obsession with the races a little tedious. Still, I think this one is worth reading if you like historical romance with a strong (and not terribly subtle) feminist message.

Mini-Reviews: Premeditation, Skeptics, Summer

Tirzah Price, Pride and Premeditation

This YA historical novel is a spin on Pride and Prejudice: Lizzie Bennet dreams of being a barrister, but since such a career is unheard of for a woman, she’s currently an unpaid assistant at her father’s law firm. She hopes that scoring a big client for the firm will convince Mr. Bennet to hire her; when the rich and socially prominent Mr. Bingley is accused of murdering his brother-in-law Mr. Hurst, Lizzie hopes Bingley will be that client. Unfortunately, Bingley is already represented by the arrogant Mr. Darcy, but that won’t stop Lizzie from doing some investigating of her own. The writing style is a bit clunky (too modern, too American), and Lizzie annoyed me sometimes — she’s much more headstrong and obnoxious than the original Elizabeth Bennet. But I did enjoy the book’s creative way of integrating P&P’s characters into a murder mystery plot. It’s a fun, fast read, so I’d recommend it if the premise interests you. I think a series is planned, so I may check out the sequels too.

Christina Pishiris, Love Songs for Skeptics

Zoë Frixos has what many people would consider a dream job: she’s a music journalist at a respected London magazine. But the magazine is in trouble, and the only hope of saving it is to score an interview with famous yet reclusive rock star Marcie Tyler. In her quest to get the interview, Zoë keeps butting heads with Marcie’s publicist, Nick Jones, who is as arrogant and hostile as he is (frustratingly) attractive. Meanwhile, Zoë also has to sort out her personal life, as her childhood best friend and first love, Simon, has just moved back to town. This book was published in January 2021, but it feels like a throwback to the chick-lit heyday of the ‘90s. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — I enjoyed Zoë’s first-person POV, the predictable career and relationship angst, and the musical references peppered throughout. I didn’t particularly buy the romance, though. Because we never get the hero’s POV, he remains pretty opaque, and I couldn’t figure out what drew him to Zoë. Overall, not bad but not great — it was worth the $2.99 sale price I paid for the e-book, but I’m glad I didn’t pay full price.

Jessica Brockmole, At the Edge of Summer

When 15-year-old Clare Ross’s father dies, she is taken in by her parents’ old friends in France, Monsieur and Madame Crépet. At first she’s shy, grief-stricken, and lonely; but when the Crépets’ son Luc comes home from university for the weekend, Clare finds an unexpected friend. Their relationship deepens over the course of the summer, but eventually Clare moves out to live with her grandfather, and she and Luc can only be close via letters. Then World War I intervenes, but of course they are destined to meet again. I liked this book; it’s sweet and a little sad but ultimately hopeful. The main characters are endearing, particularly Luc. But the love story was almost too romantic for me, verging on the sappy. And I would have liked a little more plot; despite Luc’s wartime experiences and Clare’s travels, not a lot actually happens. Overall, this is an enjoyable read, but like Brockmole’s previous book, Letters from Skye, I didn’t love it.

Mini-Reviews: College, Scholar

Caroline Stevermer, A College of Magics

Faris Nallaneen is the future duchess of Galazon, but until she is of age, her wicked uncle acts as regent. He’s decided to get her out of the way by sending her to Greenlaw, an all-female college with an unusual curriculum. Faris is reluctant at first, but she eventually makes friends, learns unexpected skills, and even discovers a unique magical destiny. After her time at Greenlaw, she must find a way to balance her magical responsibilities with her duties as the duchess of Galazon. I feel like that’s a very boring summary of a very fun book! It’s a quasi-Edwardian fantasy of manners, which is a subgenre I didn’t even know I needed in my life. At one point, Faris’s friend Jane turns an assassin’s bomb into a fashionable hat and then wears it, which gives you an idea of the tone. The magic in the book is not really explained or described in depth, so those who love detailed world-building might be disappointed. But overall, I liked it a lot — so much so that I immediately proceeded to read the sequel!

Caroline Stevermer, A Scholar of Magics

This book is set in the same world as A College of Magics and focuses on Faris’s friend, Jane Brailsford. Jane is now a teacher at Greenlaw and a powerful magician, and she’s been tasked with convincing the new warden of the west to take up his duties. Her mission takes her to Glasscastle, an all-male magical university in England, which takes a very different approach to magic than Greenlaw. There she meets Samuel Lambert, an American sharpshooter who’s been recruited to help Glasscastle with a special weapon for the top-secret Agincourt Project. When Lambert’s work and Jane’s mission collide, they team up to protect the future warden of the west and to discover the true nature of the Agincourt Project. This is another fun romp through an alternate 20th-century England, and I liked it as much as its predecessor. But it took me a long time to read, and I think that’s because of the pacing: nothing much actually happens until at least halfway through the book (and possibly more like two-thirds). Nevertheless, I still enjoyed spending time with these characters in this world!

Mini-Reviews: Gentleman, Goodbye, First

Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow

In 1922, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is arrested and tried for the crime of being an aristocrat. But because he once wrote a poem with a revolutionary message, he isn’t immediately killed; instead, he is sentenced to house arrest for life in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel. As Alexander lives out his days in the Metropol, he befriends a variety of people, including hotel employees, Party officials, a beautiful actress, and (most significantly) a solemn young girl named Nina. Despite the turbulent political situation in the country as a whole, this novel focuses on one man’s life as he adapts to extraordinary circumstances. Like everyone else, I loved this book! The pace is slow, and there aren’t many dramatic events, but it felt like real life to me. There are some delicious satirical jabs at the broader political situation in Russia/the USSR, but the novel focuses primarily on Alexander’s own experiences. I would definitely recommend this to anyone who enjoys historical fiction!

Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, and Karen White, All the Ways We Said Goodbye

This is one of those historical novels with multiple storylines set in three different time periods. In 1914, Aurélie de Courcelles abandons her luxurious life with her mother at the Paris Ritz and runs to her father’s ancestral home, which is later invaded by German soldiers. In 1942, Daisy Villon is primarily concerned with keeping herself and her children safe in occupied France, but she is eventually drawn into the resistance effort and an illicit love affair. And in 1964, Babs Langford travels from England to Paris in search of information about her deceased husband’s war years. Overall, I liked this book and found it entertaining; there’s a lot of drama and excitement to keep the pages turning, and I do love a good WW2 spy plot. On the other hand, the plot twists and “reveals” are quite predictable. And while I liked all three stories, I think they were a little much for one book; perhaps the authors should have eliminated the 1964 story and focused on the other two in greater depth. As I said, I enjoyed the book overall, but I didn’t like it as much as these authors’ previous book, The Glass Ocean.

Kate Clayborn, Love at First

Nora Clarke loves her Chicago apartment building; her happiest childhood memories were spent there with her grandmother, and she’s known and loved her neighbors all her life. So when the building’s owner dies and his nephew, Will Sterling, inherits it, Nora is terrified that things will change. In fact, Will has no interest in owning or living in the building, so he decides to rent out his uncle’s unit to short-term tenants. Aghast, Nora is determined to stop him; but the more time she spends trying to persuade Will, the more she is attracted to him. I was a bit nervous about this book since I enjoyed Love Lettering so much, but thankfully I ended up loving this one too! I liked that the characters actually move on from the apartment conflict pretty quickly; they each come to understand the other’s position and are both willing to compromise. The real obstacles to their relationship are their fears and insecurities, which I found very realistic. I was rooting so hard for Will and Nora, and I enjoyed the quirky secondary characters as well (Will’s buttoned-up boss might be my favorite). And as with Love Lettering, I adored Kate Clayborn’s writing style. Fans of contemporary romance with minimal drama, where people actually deal with their problems like adults, should definitely check out this author!

Mini-Reviews: Blue, Sorcerer, Queen, Rogue

Lia Louis, Dear Emmie Blue

Emmie has been best friends with Lucas for years — ever since he found the balloon she released into the air when they were just 16. More recently, Emmie’s feelings have deepened into love; so when Lucas invites her to a special birthday dinner and says he has something important to ask her, she’s convinced that he wants to start a romantic relationship. But he actually asks her to be his “best woman” at his upcoming wedding. Emmie is crushed and must now reevaluate her relationship with Lucas and his family, who have always loved her more than her own negligent mother ever did. This book is enjoyable women’s fiction with a romantic subplot (which I loved, even if it was a bit predictable!), but it touches on some heavier themes — not only Emmie’s relationship with her parents, but also a traumatic incident from her past. This book isn’t a keeper for me, but I liked it quite a bit and will look for more books by Louis.

Zen Cho, Sorcerer to the Crown / The True Queen

I was just as delighted by Sorcerer to the Crown on this reread as I was the first time I read it. It’s set in an alternate Regency universe in which England’s magic is disappearing, and the Sorcerer Royal, a man of African descent, must team up with a magically gifted woman to get it back. The sequel, The True Queen, deals with sisters from the island nation of Janda Baik, which has been colonized by the English: one of them is lost in Fairyland, and the other must rely on English magicians for help to find and retrieve her. I love the combination of an Austen-esque setting, mystery, fantasy, and romance, so I really enjoyed both books (perhaps the first a smidge more than the second). Most authors writing in this time period don’t get the style or voice quite right, but I think Zen Cho really nails it! The books are also more diverse than many works of historical fiction set in this period, featuring queer characters and people of color. Definitely recommended if the premise interests you!

Evie Dunmore, A Rogue of One’s Own

This sequel to Bringing Down the Duke focuses on Lady Lucinda Tedbury, an ardent suffragist whose sole focus is convincing Parliament to pass an act allowing married women to own their own property. In pursuit of this goal, Lucie and her friends are trying to buy a London printing press to disseminate their ideas; but they are thwarted by Tristan Ballentine, a notorious rake who has just purchased a 50 percent share in the business. Lucie has known Tristan for years and has always viewed him as weak and contemptible; but the more they’re forced to work together, the more she adjusts her opinion of him. I didn’t enjoy this book as much as the first in the series, largely because I don’t like the “reformed rake” trope and also didn’t find Lucie a very interesting heroine. I think the series is a bit schizophrenic so far; it tries to be a serious examination of feminism, but it also has to hit all the beats of a historical romance novel, and I feel like the split focus detracts from both goals. That said, I’m interested enough to continue with the third book when it comes out next year.

Mini-Reviews: Sapphire, Scandalous, Red, Silver

Singapore SapphireSlightly ScandalousRed NecklaceSilver Blade

A.M. Stuart, Singapore Sapphire

I love a historical mystery, and this book’s uncommon setting of 1910 Singapore intrigued me, so I decided to give it a try. Overall, I liked but didn’t love it. Protagonist Harriet Gordon is a widow living with her brother and eking out a meager living as a typist. She’s been hired to type Sir Oswald Newbold’s memoirs, but after only a day of work, the man’s throat is cut. Inspector Robert Curran is on the case, and while he and Harriet get off to a bad start, they soon become friendly as they work together to solve the mystery. I think the mystery itself hangs together well, but it definitely takes a backseat to the setting and characters. It was interesting to get a glimpse of Singapore at this point in time, which was home to so many different cultures, both Asian and European. But if you’re looking for a novel with diverse characters, this isn’t it — there are a few Asian secondary characters, but they’re quite two-dimensional and have no impact on the story. Overall, I’m curious enough to give the next book a try, but this one fell a bit flat for me.

Mary Balogh, Slightly Scandalous

This third book in the Bedwyn saga focuses on Lady Freyja Bedwyn, who is much bolder and more direct than the typical Regency lady. Having grown up with four brothers, she can shoot and ride and box with the best of them. She’s also in no hurry to marry; most of the fashionable society men bore her, and she’s still not over a former flame who recently married someone else (as told in A Summer to Remember, though you don’t need to read that book to understand this one). But when Joshua Moore, marquess of Hallmere, proposes a fake betrothal, Freyja agrees to the scheme, not realizing that there is more to Josh than meets the eye. I continue to enjoy the Bedwyn books, and this might be my favorite so far! Freyja hasn’t been particularly likable in the previous books, but this novel gave her much more dimension. And the roguish Joshua, whose carefree manner and bad reputation hide his true goodness, is a hero after my own heart. The book does have some moments of cheesiness, but overall I liked it a lot and look forward to more of the Bedwyns. I find myself more and more excited for Wulfric’s book!

Sally Gardner, The Red Necklace and The Silver Blade

This YA fantasy duology set during the French Revolution focuses on Yann, a Gypsy boy with unusual gifts, and Sido, an aristocratic girl with a neglectful father. They meet in The Red Necklace when Yann’s theater troupe performs at Sido’s father’s house, and they are immediately drawn to one another. But when the troupe falls afoul of the powerful and evil Count Kalliovski, Yann must flee the country. Later, when Kalliovski sets his sights on Sido as a bride, Yann returns to rescue her. In The Silver Blade, Yann continues to rescue aristocrats from the guillotine, while Sido waits in England. But his plans are once again thwarted by Kalliovski, who wants Yann’s magic for himself. I found these books enjoyable enough — loved the French Revolution setting and the Pimpernel-esque elements — but didn’t like that they spend just as much time (if not more) on the villain as on the heroes. As a result, Yann and Sido don’t have much dimension; I wanted more time with them and less time describing just how evil Kalliovski is. I’m glad I read these books, but now they can leave my shelves to make room for something new!

Mini-Reviews: Pawn, Undateable, Desperate

Fortune's PawnUndateableDesperate Fortune

Rachel Bach, Fortune’s Pawn

Devi Morris is a space mercenary whose dream is to join her home planet’s most elite fighting force. In order to gain the necessary qualifications and experience, she signs onto the crew of the Glorious Fool, a spaceship with a reputation of getting into trouble. But Devi has no idea just how much trouble is in store for her. I really enjoyed this book, which is sci-fi with a prominent romantic subplot. It’s not groundbreaking, just a really solid example of this type of story. I’m also very intrigued by the plot developments at the end of the book, so I’m definitely planning to read the rest of the trilogy!

Sarah Title, The Undateable

This is a cute romance focusing on Melissa “Bernie” Bernard, a feminist and somewhat frumpy academic librarian. When her student assistant gets engaged via a flash-mob proposal, Bernie’s disapproving reaction is caught on camera and immediately becomes a viral meme. That meme gets the attention of Colin Rodriguez, who works for an online fashion magazine and is looking for a story that will make his job secure. When they team up to do a story about the Disapproving Librarian going on a series of blind dates, they discover an inconvenient mutual attraction. This is a fun book with a very enjoyable heroine; and while the hero isn’t quite as fleshed out, I like that he comes to appreciate Bernie’s quirkiness. They each grow as they learn to understand the other’s point of view, which is a feature I always like in a romance. Worth reading if you like the premise.

Susanna Kearsley, A Desperate Fortune

I’ve read a few of Kearsley’s books before, and I liked but didn’t love them. Still, I decided to give this one a try because it contains a lot of elements I enjoy: codebreaking, espionage, and Jacobites. And I’m so glad I read it, because I absolutely loved it! Mary Dundas is part of a Jacobite family living in exile in France. She yearns for adventure, and finds it when her brother claims her for a mission to camouflage the identity of a fellow Jacobite who is being hunted by the English. Meanwhile, in the present day, Sara is hired to decrypt Mary’s encoded diary. Both Mary and Sara travel, learn more about themselves and the world, and find romance. I should note that Sara has Asperger syndrome, and I thought this aspect of her character was portrayed well — but I don’t really know much about it, so perhaps someone with more expertise would have a different opinion. Overall, I really loved this book and may have to rethink my stance on Kearsley in general!

Review: A Modest Independence

Modest IndependenceMimi Matthews, A Modest Independence

This second installment of the Parish Orphans of Devon series follows Thomas Finchley and Jenny Holloway, both of whom first appeared in The Matrimonial Advertisement. Tom is a London solicitor, and his job is his life; it was his ticket out of the orphanage and his escape from a life of poverty. His clients must always come first, even before his own needs and wants. Meanwhile, Jenny has just received a small fortune that enables her to quit her job as a ladies’ companion. She yearns to see the world and is eager to set sail for India, where she hopes to find news of an old flame who reportedly died in an uprising. Tom and Jenny are powerfully attracted to each other, but they want such different things that a romance seems out of the question. But when Tom spontaneously accompanies Jenny on her trip to India, their feelings for each other grow and intensify. Will they be able to find a way to be together despite pursuing their very different dreams?

I really enjoyed The Matrimonial Advertisement and was excited to continue with the series, but this book suffered a bit by comparison. First of all, I don’t think it stands alone very well; Tom and Jenny’s story definitely began in the first novel, and that context is important as their relationship grows in this book. Secondly, Tom’s actions occasionally rubbed me the wrong way. For example, he decides to escort Jenny to India and hires Indian servants for her without her knowledge or consent. His motives are good — he knows her journey will be more difficult and dangerous if she travels alone — but I didn’t like that he makes these decisions without consulting Jenny first. Finally, the conflict is very repetitive and became frustrating for me. Nearly all the conversations between Tom and Jenny deal with the same problem: she doesn’t want to be tied down by marriage, while he isn’t cut out for a life of adventure. And after all the hand-wringing, the solution seems almost too easy. But while I was disappointed in this book, it wasn’t a bad read by any means, and I definitely plan to continue with the series!