Review: Duels & Deception

Duels & DeceptionCindy Anstey, Duels & Deception

After the death of her beloved father, Lydia Whitfield is determined to keep her family’s estate up and running, but her hot-tempered, alcoholic uncle thwarts her at every turn. Lydia’s only solution is to marry a suitable man who will allow her to run things as she chooses. She already has an unofficial understanding with her neighbor, Lord Aldershot, so all she has to do is draw up the marriage contract. Her plan hits a snag, however, when she meets her lawyer — or rather, her lawyer’s clerk, a handsome young man named Robert Newton. He seems to understand Lydia in a way that no one else does, and she finds herself getting distracted by his broad shoulders and kind brown eyes. Complications ensue when Lydia and Robert are abducted by persons unknown, and they must work together to discover who engineered the kidnapping and why.

I’d previously read another book by this author, Love, Lies and Spies, and while I wasn’t crazy about it, the adorable cover of this novel convinced me to try again. Unfortunately, I enjoyed the cover much more than the book! Even as someone who enjoys a light and fluffy Regency romance, I found this novel utterly insubstantial. The attempts at humor are grating, and the setting is nothing more than window-dressing. The mystery of who kidnapped Lydia and Robert isn’t compelling enough to carry the plot, and a separate storyline involving Robert’s best friend and a duel seems to be completely shoehorned in, with no relevance to the A-story. However, that side story does contain the only marginally interesting character in the book, Robert’s best friend Vincent Cassidy. Perhaps it’s just as well that the author hasn’t written a full novel featuring him, because I’m sure I’d be doomed to disappointment if I read it!

Review: The Golden City

Golden CityJ. Kathleen Cheney, The Golden City

In an alternate-history version of 1902 Portugal, the country has been divided in half because of differing attitudes to the nonhuman creatures living within its borders. In Northern Portugal, the nonhumans are banned from the Golden City and must remain in their own island territories. Oriana Paredes is a sereia (siren), and she is in the Golden City illegally to spy for her people. As a cover, she works as a companion to Lady Isabel Amaral. When she and Isabel are both kidnapped and trapped underwater to die, Oriana’s heritage allows her to survive. She vows to avenge Isabel’s death and teams up with Duilio Ferreira, an aristocrat with selkie blood and ties to the police. As they investigate the kidnapping, they uncover a much larger conspiracy involving government corruption and dark magic. They also begin to fall in love, but many obstacles stand in the way of their relationship.

I enjoy the historical fantasy genre, and the somewhat unusual setting of early-20th-century Portugal inspired me to pick up this book. I liked the book overall, but the world-building is not particularly strong. There are a few passages of exposition near the beginning, in which the author tries to explain the alternate history, the nonhuman races, and the social structure of the Golden City, but it’s all a little confusing and muddled. People who pick up this book because they want to read about selkies and sirens will likely be disappointed, because the novel doesn’t explore the nonhuman cultures in any real depth. On the other hand, people who like “fantasies of manners” will probably enjoy the book overall, as I did. I found the plot a bit overwhelming, but I liked the interactions between Oriana and Duilio, and I look forward to reading more about them in the sequels.

Review: Washington Black

Washington BlackEsi Edugyan, Washington Black

George Washington Black is an 11-year-old slave, born on a sugar plantation in Barbados and doomed to a grueling life working in the cane fields. But when the master’s brother arrives at the plantation, he changes the course of Wash’s destiny. Christopher “Titch” Wilde is a scientist, and he enlists Wash’s help in building and testing a flying machine of his own invention. Titch also teaches Wash to read and encourages his talent for drawing. Eventually, a tragedy at the plantation forces Wash and Titch to flee, and their subsequent adventures take them as far as the Arctic and beyond. As Wash faces an uncertain future, he also ponders his identity as a black man in a hostile world and questions the significance of various relationships in his life.

I enjoyed this book and found it much more of a page-turner than I expected. Wash is a compelling narrator, and I was invested in his fate from the very beginning. His relationship with Titch is the central relationship in the book, and Edugyan does an excellent job of showing its complexity and ambiguity: Titch is kind to Wash and staunchly anti-slavery, yet their interactions are always complicated by their very different social status. However, I found the first half of the book more interesting than the second half; the plot seems to run out of steam, and the ending doesn’t really resolve anything. Which I think is intentional — after all, Wash grows from a boy of 11 to a young man of 18, but at the end of the novel he is just entering into his adult life. But I personally enjoy novels with a bit more resolution and emotional payoff. That said, I still liked the book and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the premise.

Review: A Counterfeit Betrothal / The Notorious Rake

Counterfeit Betrothal : Notorious RakeMary Balogh, A Counterfeit Betrothal / The Notorious Rake

This volume contains two Regency romance novels, each on the shorter side. In A Counterfeit Betrothal, debutante Lady Sophia is upset that her parents, Marcus and Olivia, have been estranged for 14 years, though they were once desperately in love. She concocts a ridiculous scheme to reunite them: by betrothing herself to an unsuitable man, she hopes her parents will unite to find a society-approved way of breaking the engagement. But Sophia gets more than she bargained for with her incorrigible fiancé; meanwhile, Marcus and Olivia must move past an old argument to repair their relationship. In The Notorious Rake, a chance encounter brings the respectable Mary, Lady Mornington, together with the dissipated Lord Edmond Waite. He soon begins to pursue her, hoping to make her his mistress. Mary resists but is confused by her attraction to him. The more she gets to know him, the more she begins to hope that he will reform his rakish ways.

So, I started this volume last night, intending to read just a few chapters — and stayed up until 3 a.m. to finish both novels! Mary Balogh isn’t Georgette Heyer; her style isn’t as light and witty, and she certainly writes more sexual content (though it’s not on the super explicit end of the spectrum). But she may be the next best thing! I very much enjoy reading about her complex characters, most of whom have experienced significant troubles in their lives and need healing as well as love. I will say, I was a bit disappointed in A Counterfeit Betrothal, which sounded like a fake relationship story (my favorite!) but turned out to be a second-chance romance (not my favorite), focusing much more on Marcus and Olivia’s story than on Sophia’s. It was still well-written and entertaining, though! And I was very pleasantly surprised by The Notorious Rake, because I usually don’t find reformed-rake stories very appealing or convincing. But in this case, while Edmond starts out as a truly despicable character, he genuinely does grow and change throughout the book. All in all, I really enjoyed both books and look forward to my next Balogh!

Review: Kat, Incorrigible

Kat, IncorrigibleStephanie Burgis, Kat, Incorrigible

“In nineteenth-century England, twelve-year-old Kat Stephenson knows she was born to be a magical Guardian and protector of Society—if she can find true acceptance in the secret order that expelled her mother. She’s ready to upend the rigid Order of the Guardians, whether the older members like it or not. And in a Society where magic is the greatest scandal of all, Kat is determined to use her powers to help her two older sisters find their own true loves, even if she has to turn highwayman, battle wild magic, and confront real ghosts along the way! History seamlessly merges with fantasy in this humorous and lively novel.” (Summary from Amazon.com.)

As you know, I’m a sucker for anything that can be described as “Jane Austen plus magic,” and this book delivers on that premise with a fun middle-grade adventure. There are two plots, each in a different genre. Oddly, the Regency romance plot, in which Elissa and Angeline both encounter obstacles on their way to marital bliss, gets most of the emphasis. The fantasy plot, in which Kat discovers her magical abilities and has to figure out what they mean, is somewhat underdeveloped by comparison. But there are (at least) two more books in the series, so hopefully the magical system and Kat’s role in it will become clearer as the series progresses. I think my favorite aspect of the book is the relationship among the three sisters; although they often squabble, they always have each other’s backs when things get tough. All in all, I found this novel charming and look forward to reading the sequels.

Review: A Rogue of Her Own

Rogue of Her OwnGrace Burrowes, A Rogue of Her Own

Charlotte Windham hates London “society” life and has suffered through too many seasons of being envied by other women (because of her titled connections) and dodging the proposals of fortune hunters. Meanwhile, Lucas Sherbourne is a commoner whose substantial wealth has gained him entrance into society, but he is still acutely aware of his lower status in the eyes of the aristocrats surrounding him. The two decide to embark upon a marriage of convenience: Charlotte will have a wealthy husband and a secluded Welsh estate to call home, while Lucas will benefit from marrying into a noble family. Of course, there’s no question of love; but as Lucas tries to jump-start a new coal mine and Charlotte gives her spending money to “fallen” women, they find themselves turning to each other for support and understanding.

I find myself very confused about this book, because the things I really liked about it are also the things I disliked about it! For example, I liked that the book has a lot of plot (trouble with the coal mine, Charlotte’s charitable giving, the backstory of why she’s so passionate about helping women in trouble), but I also felt that the romance suffered because of it. I also liked that both Lucas and Charlotte have friends and family who support them; I especially enjoyed the development of Lucas’s friendship with his aristocratic neighbors. But again, those relationships almost felt more central than the romance. I also thought some of the plot twists and turns were a little melodramatic. Overall, I liked this book for having characters with their own interests and lives outside of one another…but I think I wanted a little more of them together, too! That said, I’d definitely be willing to try another book by Grace Burrowes.

Review: The Golden Tresses of the Dead

Golden Tresses of the DeadAlan Bradley, The Golden Tresses of the Dead

***Warning: SPOILERS for previous books in the series***

Flavia de Luce is at it again in this 10th book of the series. Her older sister Feely is finally getting married, and Flavia is surprised to find that she has mixed emotions about Feely’s leaving Buckshaw. But her inner turmoil soon becomes the least of Flavia’s concerns when, at the reception, she discovers a human finger in the wedding cake. Of course, Arthur W. Dogger and Associates are on the case — and of course, a second mystery presents itself soon afterward, involving a famous homeopathic doctor and two female missionaries who have recently returned from West Africa. As Flavia investigates, with the help of faithful Dogger and annoying cousin Undine, she realizes that the two cases may be connected.

Is it just me, or did the mystery plot of this book make even less sense than usual? One character dies in the novel, but I don’t think we ever find out for sure who the murderer was or how the killing took place. Another dies off-page, and it’s not actually clear what the cause of death was — murder, natural causes, something else? Maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention, but I felt like there were a lot of loose ends with this plot. Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed the book for Flavia’s voice and her relationships with the other characters, particularly Dogger. I also like the fact that she’s slowly gaining more self-awareness as she grows up, and I hope to see that trend continue in subsequent books. So I actually did like this novel overall, but it’s not a book (or series, really) to read for the mystery.

Review: The Devil’s Delilah

Devil's DelilahLoretta Chase, The Devil’s Delilah

Delilah Desmond is coming to London to make an advantageous marriage; but because her father is the notorious “Devil” Desmond, she knows being accepted by high society will be an uphill battle. Adding to her difficulties, the Devil has written a highly improper and scandalous memoir; though he’s promised not to publish it until he truly needs the money, Delilah knows that even a whiff of scandal will destroy her matrimonial prospects. When the memoir goes missing, she immediately flies into a panic. Luckily, she has the dependable, albeit absentminded, Jack Langdon to lean on. Jack has always been more comfortable with books than with people, especially women. But Delilah attracts him like no one else, and he’s determined to help her, even though the far more charming Lord Berne has his eye on the young beauty as well.

I’m really enjoying making my way through Loretta Chase’s traditional Regencies. Though she’s not quite Georgette Heyer, she’s definitely the next best thing. But I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as Viscount Vagabond (to which this novel is technically a sequel, though it can be read as a stand-alone). I loved the idea of Jack as a hero — someone who seems bookish and absent-minded but who comes through when it counts. But I felt like his character was a bit inconsistent; he doesn’t spend very much time enjoying his scholarly pursuits because he’s always in turmoil about his feelings for Delilah. I also thought the scenes between Jack and Delilah were quite repetitive; they keep having the same fight over and over, which is frustrating. The book is still a fun, fast read with some witty dialogue — I especially enjoyed the Devil’s character — but it’s not my favorite by Chase.

Review: Dear Mrs. Bird

Dear Mrs. BirdAJ Pearce, Dear Mrs. Bird

In 1940 London, Emmeline Lake is determined to do her bit for the war effort. She volunteers at a local fire station, but she dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent, diving into the midst of the action to get a big story. When she sees an advertisement for a job at the Evening Chronicle, she jumps at the chance, only to realize that she’s actually applied for a job with Mrs. Bird’s advice column at Woman’s Friend magazine. Her main duty is to sort through the letters that come to Mrs. Bird and throw away any that mention “unpleasantness.” But Emmy can’t help thinking that these women ought to be helped; and when Mrs. Bird refuses to respond to their letters, Emmy decides to take matters into her own hands. In the meantime, as bombs continue to fall on London, the war affects the lives of Emmy and her friends in profound ways.

The voice of this novel hooked me from the very beginning. Emmy is young, somewhat naive, and relentlessly cheerful, and I really enjoyed her as a narrator and protagonist. (Her quirky voice may not be for everyone, but you’ll know within the first couple of pages whether it’s for you or not.) I also loved Emmy’s relationship with her best friend Bunty, which turned out to be a much bigger focus of the novel than I was expecting. Even though I love a good romance, it’s refreshing to read a book in which the most significant relationship is a friendship. The secondary characters are also delightful, particularly Emmy’s colleague and mentor, Mr. Collins. (I may or may not have developed a crush on him . . . but sadly, Emmy’s romantic destiny appears to lie elsewhere.) Overall, I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to people who like their World War II fiction on the lighter side, à la The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Review: Murder, Magic, and What We Wore

murder, magic, and what we woreKelly Jones, Murder, Magic, and What We Wore

Miss Annis Whitworth is down on her luck. She and her Aunt Cassia have just learned that her (Annis’s) father has died, leaving them with nothing to live on and forcing them to seek employment. Cassia insists that Annis become a governess, but Annis is determined to escape from such a horrible fate. Instead, she decides to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a spy; but the War Office wants nothing to do with her, even after they learn that she has a magical talent for sewing glamours (illusions) into her garments. Undeterred, Annis decides to use her talent to open a dress shop in a country village, while still sending the War Office information about the various secrets her father had discovered before his death. Little does she know that this knowledge puts her and Cassia in danger, too.

This is a book I really wanted to like. I adore the “magical Regency” setting, and both Caroline Stevermer and Stephanie Burgis — two authors I really like — blurbed it. But my overall impression is that the book is very scattered and confusing. There’s the story about a young woman trying to make her own way in the world, there’s the espionage plot, there’s a fairly prominent subplot involving Annis’s maid, not to mention the magical element — there’s just too much going on. As a result, nothing is developed in much depth, especially the main character. She comes across as extremely flighty and thoughtless, jumping from one half-baked scheme to another. I have no sense of how magic fits into this world. There is some resolution to the spy plot, but Annis doesn’t actually get hired by the War Office until the end of the book! So clearly there’s supposed to be a sequel, but I’m too frustrated to read it when it comes out.