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: Worst, Weather, Jackal

Lisa Berne, The Worst Duke in the World

After the death of his first wife, Anthony Farr is expected to remarry and provide a “spare” to ensure the succession. But Anthony has no interest in remarrying because his first marriage was miserable. He just wants to be a good father to his heir, Wakefield, and possibly win the “fattest pig” award at the local harvest festival. But when he meets newcomer to the neighborhood Jane Kent, their mutual attraction tests Anthony’s resolve. This book is very silly, and I think some people will find the tone off-putting, but I must admit the humor (mostly) worked for me! There’s very little conflict, so most of the book is just Anthony and Jane spending time together and being silly and infatuated. I even liked Wakefield, and I don’t usually enjoy precocious children in fiction. I’m interested in trying more by Lisa Berne when I want a pleasant, low-stakes read.

Rachel Lynn Solomon, Weather Girl

Ari loves being a meteorologist at the local TV station, but she doesn’t love the disruption caused by her boss and the station director, ex-spouses who are constantly arguing in the office. Ari and her sympathetic colleague Russell decide to try and get the exes back together, hoping this will result in a better work environment. But when sparks fly between Ari and Russell as well, they have trouble opening up to each other. I loved the premise of this contemporary romance, which is very reminiscent of the (adorable) Netflix movie “Set It Up,” but overall I thought the book was just fine. I didn’t click that much with Ari or Russell, so I wasn’t particularly invested in the romance. A perfectly OK book, just not the right book for me.

Chris Wooding, The Iron Jackal

After the events of The Black Lung Captain, Darian Frey is a minor celebrity, and he and his crew are unusually disaster-free. They’ve just been hired by Frey’s once and (possibly) future lover, Trinica Dracken, to steal an ancient and valuable Samarlan relic. But what should be a simple train job quickly gets complicated when the relic puts a curse on Frey. This is another solid installment of the Ketty Jay series, though I think it’s my least favorite so far; the plot meanders a bit and drags on a little too long. But it was good to learn more about Silo’s backstory and to see the characters, especially Frey, continue to grow. I’m definitely looking forward to reading the next (and final) book in April!

Mini-Reviews: Met, Folly, Red

Sophie Cousens, Just Haven’t Met You Yet

Laura is a journalist whose latest assignment is to tell the romantic story of how her parents first met. For research, she travels to the Channel Island of Jersey, where it all began — and en route, a suitcase mix-up leads her to her own potential soulmate. But as she spends more time in Jersey, she learns that both her parents’ love story and her own romantic destiny are more complicated than she thought. I enjoyed this one; it’s entertaining and well written, and despite the focus on romance, I think it does a good job of portraying the complexity of relationships. That said, I didn’t fall in love with the book the way I was hoping to…though I now definitely want to visit the Channel Islands!

Josi S. Kilpack, Lord Fenton’s Folly

Charles, Lord Fenton, has been behaving badly — so badly, in fact, that his father plans to disinherit him. To avoid this fate, Charles agrees to his parents’ long list of conditions, including a demand that he marry before the end of the Season. At his mother’s encouragement, he proposes to Alice, an old friend of the family who (unbeknownst to him) has been infatuated with him for years. But when she learns why he proposed, she becomes angry and bitter. Can Charles and Alice recover from such a bad start and make their marriage work? This was a pleasant, PG-rated Regency romance, but I wanted to see a bit more of Charles and Alice together. They seemed to go from mean bickering to trust and love pretty quickly. I wouldn’t mind trying another book by this author, but it’s not a high priority for me.

June Hur, The Red Palace

In 1758 Korea, Hyeon has risen from humble beginnings to become a palace nurse. But when four women are murdered in a single night and Hyeon’s beloved teacher is the prime suspect, she risks her position — and her life — to find the real killer. Along the way she teams up with handsome police inspector Eojin and becomes embroiled in the horrifying intrigues of the palace. This book is fast-paced with a likable protagonist, and I enjoyed the unique (to me) setting. It all felt a little insubstantial, and the mystery wasn’t particularly satisfying, but I did like the book overall. I doubt I’ll seek out more by this author, though.

Mini-Reviews: Missed, Morning, Clowns

Lindsey Kelk, In Case You Missed It

At age 32, Ros Reynolds is unemployed and has just moved back in with her parents after three years away. Despite these setbacks, she’s looking forward to reconnecting with her former friend group, not to mention her ex-boyfriend Patrick. But she’s dismayed to learn that nothing is quite the same it used to be, and that by clinging so hard to the past, she might be missing out on a better future. This is an enjoyable British chick-lit novel that made me chuckle out loud several times. It’s not groundbreaking, and I wanted more development of the romance, but overall it’s a fun read if you enjoy this kind of book.

Laura L. Sullivan, Love by the Morning Star

On the eve of World War II, two young women arrive at the grand English estate of Starkers. Hannah, a half-Jewish refugee from Germany, is a distant relative of the family and hopes to stay with them until she can reunite with her parents. Anna, the daughter of a British fascist, is supposed to pose as a kitchen maid to spy on the family. But a mix-up sends Hannah to the kitchen and Anna to the main house — a misunderstanding with dramatic consequences, especially when both girls become involved with the handsome heir to the estate. I liked a lot of things about this book; Hannah is a delightful heroine, and the general tone reminded me of Eva Ibbotson, one of my all-time favorite comfort authors. But the big misunderstanding dragged on so long that it became completely unbelievable, and I was so frustrated that nobody figured it out! So I think I’ll say goodbye to this one and reread Ibbotson instead.

Leo Bruce, Case with Four Clowns

Former policeman Sergeant Beef and his Watson, detective novelist Lionel Townsend, receive a tip that a murder will shortly occur in a traveling circus in Yorkshire. But when they arrive at the circus to investigate, they soon discover enough animosity and jealousy to make every member of the circus a potential victim — or killer. I really liked the first Sergeant Beef book, Case for Three Detectives, but this one was a big disappointment. The murder doesn’t happen until the last 30 pages, so most of the book is just Beef and Townsend talking to the circus people. There are some funny bits where Townsend gets meta (he “vaguely wonders” something and then comments that it is appropriate for him, as the Watson, to vaguely wonder). But overall, I wouldn’t recommend this one, unless you are super into the circus setting.

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.