Mini-Reviews: Summer, Ruined, Celia’s

Ellis Peters, The Summer of the Danes

In the summer of A.D. 1144, Brother Cadfael and his former assistant, Mark, travel to Wales on a diplomatic mission. But they’re soon caught up in larger events including a Welsh civil war, a murdered envoy, a runaway girl, and a possible Danish invasion. This book is a bit different from the rest of the Cadfael series in that Cadfael is actually a pretty minor character; he observes the action but doesn’t really participate. There is a murder, but Cadfael doesn’t solve it — in fact, it happens near the beginning of the book but then is largely forgotten till the end, when the guilty party confesses. Most of the story involves the warring Welsh princes, real historical figures Owain Gwynedd and his rebellious brother Cadwaladr. While I did enjoy the book, it’s definitely more historical fiction than mystery, and I wanted more Cadfael!

Alyssa Everett, Ruined by Rumor

Roxana Langley has been engaged to a dashing soldier for five years. Even though he’s spent most of that time away fighting in the Napoleonic wars, Roxana remains devoted to him and excited for their wedding. So when he suddenly breaks off the engagement, she’s devastated and turns to her neighbor Alex, the Earl of Ayersley, for comfort. Alex has been hopelessly in love with Roxana for years, so when she rushes into his arms he can’t help but kiss her — and when he learns they were observed, he immediately offers marriage. But both he and Roxana have trouble discerning each other’s feelings and communicating their own. I bought this e-book on impulse and am so glad I did, because I really enjoyed it! Alex and Roxana are both kind, well-meaning people who want to make the best of their marriage of convenience, and their obstacles make sense given their characters. I’d highly recommend this book to fans of historical romance and will definitely be seeking out more books by Alyssa Everett!

D.E. Stevenson, Celia’s House

This gentle family saga follows the Dunne family of Dunnian in Scotland. Contrary to all expectations, Celia Dunne decides to leave the Dunnian estate to her great-nephew Humphrey, his wife Alice, and their three small children. The only condition is that, upon Humphrey’s death, the house will go not to his son, Mark, but to a future daughter named Celia. Despite this odd request, Humphrey accepts the inheritance and lives there happily with his family. As the years pass and the children grow, many changes come to Dunnian, including war, friendship, heartbreak, and romance. I very much enjoyed this quiet novel; it’s practically a retelling of Mansfield Park, but with the sharper edges softened (no Mrs. Norris character, and the Dunne parents aren’t silly or negligent). Nothing much happens in terms of plot, but it’s very pleasant to sink into the soothing, slow-paced world of the novel. Recommended if you like this type of thing; it’s one of the better Stevenson novels I’ve read.

Mini-Reviews: Thief, Mischief, Normal

Emily Gee, Thief with No Shadow

I recently reread Gee’s The Laurentine Spy and quite enjoyed it, so I decided to dust off this book too. The plot is tricky to summarize, but it involves sinister magical creatures, a stolen necklace, and a curse. Melke and Bastian hate each other at first; he needs the necklace to break the curse, but she stole it to save her brother’s life. When they’re forced to spend time together as her brother heals, they begin to understand one another better. I found this book very compelling and stayed up too late last night to finish it. But at the same time, I’m not sure I actually liked it that much. I love an enemies-to-lovers romance, but Bastian is so furious and straight-up mean for most of the novel that it’s hard to accept him as a hero. There’s also some weird sex stuff in the book; not all of it is consensual, and some of it involves nonhuman magical creatures. Granted, the book knows this is icky, not sexy, but it’s still unpleasant to read about! So, while I’d consider reading more by this author, I don’t think this particular book is for me.

Manda Collins, A Lady’s Guide to Mischief and Mayhem

Lady Katherine Bascomb owns and writes for a London newspaper. Her latest article criticizes Scotland Yard for negligence in investigating a series of shocking murders, and the article causes lead investigator Andrew Eversham to be taken off the case. But when Kate later stumbles on another dead body, and the methods are similar to those of the previous murders, Eversham is assigned to the new case. He and Kate work together to discover the killer and navigate a growing attraction to each other. I really liked the premise of this book, with its blend of historical romance and mystery, but for me the execution fell flat. Kate and Andrew are 21st-century characters in period dress, and I just didn’t find them believable. The mystery plot is also disappointing; the villain’s motive is ridiculously farfetched. I don’t plan to continue this series, but considering how many others I’m trying to catch up with, that’s not necessarily a bad thing!

Rachel Bloom, I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are

I’m a huge fan of the TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which is an insightful, at times painful exploration of mental illness wrapped in a musical comedy. So I was excited to read Rachel Bloom’s memoir — she co-created and starred in the show and was also one of the writers and composers. But to my disappointment, the book doesn’t focus much on the show; instead, it delves deep into Rachel’s awkward childhood, her experiences with bullying, her love of musical theater, and her struggles with depression and anxiety. Still, there were things I enjoyed about this book — the chapter that’s presented as a musical (which you can hear Rachel perform on her website!) is a particular delight. But I also thought some of the humor was a bit labored, and overall I just didn’t like the book as much as I was hoping to.

Mini-Reviews: Complaint, Traveled, Autumn

Hannah March, The Complaint of the Dove

Robert Fairfax is a tutor tasked with introducing his pupil, 19-year-old Matthew Hemsley, to the sights and experiences of London. They go to the theater, where Matt immediately becomes infatuated with popular actress Lucy Dove. When Lucy is later stabbed to death, Matt is arrested for the murder. But Fairfax is convinced Matt is innocent and decides to find the real killer before Matt is hanged. I really enjoyed this well-written mystery, especially its unique 1760 setting. The book brings the era to life without sounding like a research dump. I also found Fairfax a likable and interesting sleuth, and I’m looking forward to continuing with the series! This author also writes historical fiction under the name Jude Morgan, and I like those books as well.

Jen DeLuca, Well Traveled

Louisa “Lulu” Malone is a corporate attorney, but she’s been feeling burned out and dissatisfied with her life. After one too many “urgent” texts on a Saturday, she impulsively quits her job and decides to travel the Renaissance Faire circuit with her friend Stacey and a band called The Dueling Kilts. Lulu embraces her new life but views it as temporary and isn’t sure what comes next. She also finds herself falling for Dex MacLean, guitarist of the Dueling Kilts and notorious ladies’ man. She doesn’t trust his flirtatious behavior, but as she gets to know him better, she discovers there’s more to him than meets the eye. This book was fine but honestly a bit meh. I always enjoy the Ren Faire setting of these books, but Lulu’s conflict felt a bit too paint-by-numbers, if that makes sense. Dex was also a pretty flat character; the romance really took second place to Lulu’s own character development. It’s not a bad read by any means, but not one I’d particularly recommend either.

Anne Gracie, The Autumn Bride

This series opener introduces the “Chance sisters,” four young women whose poverty and orphaned state have left them extremely vulnerable. A chance meeting with an elderly widow, Lady Beatrice Davenham, changes their fortunes: she agrees to take in the four girls and claim them as her nieces. Of course, Lady Beatrice’s actual nephew, Max, knows the girl are impostors, and he’s determined to figure out what they’re hiding. But as a romance grows between him and the eldest sister, Abby, he also learns that all four girls are in grave danger. I’ve actually already read The Winter Bride, book #2 in this series, and loved it, so I’m happy to report that I really enjoyed this one as well! The setup is of course ridiculous, but Max and Abby are both delightful (albeit not particularly unique) characters, and I loved snarky Aunt Bea as well. I could have done without the suspense plot, but overall I really liked this one and am thrilled to have discovered Anne Gracie!

Mini-Reviews: Key, Midnight, Birds

Lia Louis, The Key to My Heart

Since the tragic death of her husband, Russ, two years ago, Natalie has been struggling. Once a professional pianist, now she can only play at the dilapidated public piano in St. Pancras station, where she can be anonymous and ignored. When a mysterious person starts leaving sheet music there for Natalie — music that has special meaning for her and Russ — she tries to discover who’s responsible. Along the way, she slowly begins to work through her feelings of guilt and loss. I enjoyed this one; despite the sad premise and the very realistic-feeling portrayal of grief, the book has an uplifting and even sometimes humorous tone. A romance eventually develops, but the novel’s main focus is Natalie’s personal growth. I’d recommend this one if you like your women’s fiction with a little gravitas, though Dear Emmie Blue is still my favorite book by this author.

Sylvia Izzo Hunter, The Midnight Queen

Gray Marshall, a student of magick at Oxford’s Merlin College, has just been framed for a crime he didn’t commit. His pompous, disagreeable tutor forces him to retreat to the tutor’s country estate till the scandal blows over. Gray resents this change in his circumstances — that is, until he befriends the tutor’s daughter, Sophie. They soon discover that the plot against Gray is part of a much larger scheme that could throw the entire kingdom into turmoil; meanwhile, Sophie learns some surprising truths about her identity. I originally read this book in 2014 but couldn’t remember a thing about it, so I decided to reread it before continuing with the series, and I’m so glad I did! I loved the fantastical alt-Regency setting, Sophie and Gray are both wonderfully likable characters, and the plot is intriguing (albeit a bit slow-moving). In short, I loved this book and am so glad I decided to tackle this series this year!

Sarah Addison Allen, Other Birds

This quiet, magic-infused novel centers around the inhabitants of the Dellawisp, an old condo building tucked away in the small town of Mallow Island, South Carolina. The residents are estranged sisters Lizbeth and Lucy, artist Charlotte, chef Mac, newcomer Zoey, and building manager Frasier. They all have difficult pasts and are all keeping secrets. But as they slowly get to know one another, they discover friendship, love, and the strength to let go of their (sometimes literal) ghosts. I’m a Sarah Addison Allen fan, and this book delivers her trademark evocative writing and sympathetic yet flawed characters. There are POV chapters for almost every character, which feels like a bit too much…but I’m also not sure whose POV I’d want to take out. I really liked this one overall and would recommend it if you’re in the mood to sink into a slow-paced, magical world.

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: Jole, Moriarty, Daughter

Lois McMaster Bujold, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

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

This book, the last installment of the Vorkosigan saga (at least for now), comes full circle to focus once again on Cordelia. Three years after Aral’s death, she is contemplating the next stage of her life. Meanwhile, Admiral Oliver Jole is at a similar crossroads. He has a complicated history with both Aral and Cordelia, but when he and Cordelia truly talk to each other for the first time since Aral’s death, their relationship begins to change in unexpected ways. I’m of two minds about this book. I liked being back in Cordelia’s POV, and Oliver is also very likable and sympathetic, though he’s basically a brand-new character (he pops up once or twice in passing, in previous books). But viewing this as the final book in the series, I think it falls short. There’s not much Miles, and no Ivan or Mark at all. Plus, I think the series is just as much about Barrayar as it is about Miles and the other characters; it’s the story of a planet’s slow growth and change for the better, and I wanted to see more resolution of that arc. This is still a good novel, but it’s not one of my favorite installments of the series.

Sherry Thomas, Miss Moriarty, I Presume?

Charlotte Holmes faces her most dangerous case yet when Moriarty himself offers her a job. His daughter has gone to live at an isolated religious commune in Cornwall, and he claims to be worried about her well-being. He wants Charlotte to infiltrate the commune and report back on his daughter’s health and habits. Though Charlotte knows Moriarty isn’t telling the full truth, she agrees to investigate in the hope of discovering his hidden agenda. I really want to like this series more than I do, but the truth is, I’ve lost interest. Like the last few installments, this book really drags, plot-wise, and a lot of new characters are introduced only to be ultimately dismissed as irrelevant. I no longer care about the Charlotte/Lord Ingram romance, which seems pretty static at this point, and Moriarty just isn’t working for me as a villain. I’m current with the series now, but I doubt I’ll read the next book when it comes out.

Carol Berg, Daughter of Ancients

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

The evil Lords of Zhev’Na have been defeated, but their followers, the Zhid, still remain to wreak havoc on Avonar. Meanwhile, a beautiful young woman claims to be the daughter and true heir of D’Arnath, held captive by the Lords in an enchanted sleep for a thousand years. She seems to be truthful and well-meaning, but is she hiding darker secrets? Gerick decides to find out, but his mission becomes complicated by his attraction to her. This final book in the Bridge of D’Arnath series is a satisfying conclusion in which all the main characters end up where they should, and there’s a nice romantic subplot as well. The ending drags on a bit, but overall I quite enjoyed both this book and the series as a whole. I’m glad I finally decided to tackle it this year, though it’s not one I plan to reread.

Mini-Reviews: Ideal, Castle, Midnight

Mary Balogh, The Ideal Wife

Miles Ripley, the new earl of Severn, is being pressured by his mother and sisters to marry the girl of their choosing. But he isn’t eager to give up his bachelor lifestyle for a woman who will manage his life and expect his constant attention. His ideal wife will be drab and demure, someone he can send off to his country estate and forget about. Enter Abigail Gardiner, a distant connection who needs a reference from the earl to get a job. When Miles meets the seemingly plain and quiet Abby, he impulsively offers marriage instead — and the desperate Abby accepts. But as this is a romance novel, they both get more than they bargained for. After enjoying A Precious Jewel, which features Miles’s best friend and takes place during the same time period, I wanted to read Miles’s story too. And while this isn’t the most memorable or surprising Regency romance, it’s still quite a good read, with a slight Heyeresque flavor to the plot. If you’re a Balogh fan, this one is worth reading.

John Dickson Carr, Castle Skull

A famous actor is murdered in a spectacularly grisly fashion, shot and then set aflame on the battlements of the sinister Castle Skull in Germany. French policeman Inspector Bencolin and his friend Jeff Marle (the Watson) are asked to investigate. Several of the actor’s acquaintances are present at a house party, and it seems one of them must be the killer. But as Bencolin outwits a rival detective to discover the murderer, he also unearths Castle Skull’s darkest secrets. This is my first novel by Carr, and it’s a bit melodramatic for my taste; it leans really hard into the “dark and stormy night” stuff and wants to be both a mystery and a horror novel. Still, the plot holds together surprisingly well (though the characters aren’t terribly lifelike), and I’m interested to read more by the author, especially since he seems to be regarded as the master of the impossible crime.

Elisa Braden, Once upon a Midnight Kiss

This is a short, sweet novella about antiquities dealer Andrew Farrington and his secretary, Euphemia Sinclair. Euphemia has gone to Scotland to retrieve a family heirloom, but it seems only a married woman can claim it. Andrew steps in to volunteer as the groom, and while neither he nor Euphemia is sure how the other person feels, they soon come to an understanding. I’m torn about this one…all the stuff with the Scottish villagers and the possible magic (?) is boring and irrelevant, and the sex scene contains some extremely purple prose. But the banter and dialogue between Andrew and Euphemia totally charmed me, and I would happily have read several more scenes of them just talking and interacting with each other. So, I think I would recommend this one if you can get it free or cheap; I believe it’s free on Kindle Unlimited right now.

Mini-Reviews: Golden, Holidays, Undertaking

Francis Spufford, Golden Hill

It’s November 1746, and Richard Smith has just arrived in the small town of New York. He visits a countinghouse and produces a note for 1,000 pounds — a huge sum. The denizens of New York don’t know what to make of him: Is he simply a rich man planning to explore the pleasures of a new place? Or is he some kind of fraud, spy, or scoundrel? As Smith explores the city, he gets into various kinds of financial, political, and romantic trouble, but it’s not till the end of the novel that his true purpose is revealed. I really enjoyed this book, which apes the picaresque adventures and digressive style of 18th-century novels. It does a good job of pointing out the social ills of the period (such a slavery) without being anachronistic or preachy. It’s also just plain fun to follow the possibly roguish Smith around and try to figure out what he’s up to, though the ending is a bit of a heartbreaker. But I’d still heartily recommend this book to historical fiction fans!

David Sedaris, Holidays on Ice

This book is a collection of holiday-themed stories and essays, some of them autobiographical and most previously published elsewhere. “SantaLand Diaries” chronicles the time Sedaris worked as a Macy’s elf, “Christmas Means Giving” follows two families as they compete to see who can best demonstrate the true meaning of the season, and “Jesus Shaves” sheds some light on different cultures’ Easter traditions. These short works contain some hilarious moments, but frankly, a lot of them are dark and depressing. One story ends with the murder of a baby, while in another, parents sell their children to a pedophile. So if you’re looking for light, fun stories to get you in the holiday spirit, I’d recommend skipping this one! But if you’re of a more cynical disposition during this time of year, then it could be just the thing for you. For me, it was a mixed bag and probably not a keeper.

Megan Bannen, The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy

This book is a weird but winning genre mashup of romance, fantasy, and Western. Hart Ralston is a marshal in a fantasy world similar to our own, but with zombielike creatures called drudges; his job is to kill them and take their bodies to the nearby undertakers. One such undertaker is Mercy Birdsall, who loves her job but is desperately trying to keep the family business afloat, despite a sick father and uninterested brother. Hart and Mercy fight constantly, but their mutual antagonism is concealing very different feelings, which emerge when they become anonymous penpals. So basically, the book is The Shop around the Corner/You’ve Got Mail with a bit of zombie action and a Western flavor…which sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it totally does! I didn’t need quite as much world-building and would have preferred more of a buildup to the romance, but overall I loved this one and would recommend it if the premise sounds appealing.

Mini-Reviews: Rival, Weaver, Scandal

Sarah Mayberry, Her Favorite Rival

Audrey Mathews and Zach Black are both smart, talented, and ambitious — and since they work in the same office, they’re each other’s biggest competition. But when they’re paired on an important project, they also discover a mutual admiration and attraction. As they struggle with whether to act on their feelings, a new manager comes in and immediately starts restructuring and laying people off. Will their newfound romance jeopardize their careers? I really enjoyed this rivals-to-lovers story, which is reminiscent of The Hating Game (though this version came out first!) but with more emotionally mature main characters. Audrey and Zach actually communicate pretty well and act like adults, even when they’re at odds. They both have excellent reasons for their devotion to work and their reluctance to commit to a relationship. The book is too sexually explicit for my taste, but otherwise I really liked it, and I am definitely interested in trying more by this author!

Carol Berg, The Soul Weaver

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

Karon and his Preceptors have finally come up with a plan to free their enslaved brethren and defeat the Lords of Zhev’Na, but a traitor in their midst ruins everything at the last minute. Reluctantly, Karon concludes that Gerick must be responsible and therefore that he must be killed. To escape — and to prevent himself from inadvertently hurting anyone else — Gerick flees to a mysterious world called the Bounded, whose strange inhabitants want to make him their king. With the help of old friends and new, Gerick must confront his demons and accept his true destiny. I’m continuing to enjoy this series, although Gerick’s time in the Bounded felt like a bit of a side adventure. I also wanted more of Seri, who’s somewhat sidelined in this installment. Still, I liked it overall and am eager to see how things turn out in the final book!

Loretta Chase, Last Night’s Scandal

Peregrine Dalmay has just returned from a long archaeological expedition in Egypt, and he wants nothing more than to go back. But his capricious parents have decided he must instead repair the family’s crumbling castle in Scotland — and if he refuses, they’ll cut him off. Peregrine’s old friend, the scandalous Lady Olivia, has a Plan and is determined to help. As they fix up the (possibly haunted) castle and argue, they also fall in love, but can they have a future together when they’re so different? I had high hopes for this book after meeting Peregrine and Olivia as teenagers in Lord Perfect, but I found it a bit of a letdown; there was too much plot and not enough development of the romance. The characters’ internal struggles didn’t really make sense to me and needed more fleshing out. Still, it’s not a bad read, and I have certainly enjoyed my foray into Loretta Chase’s backlist! But for me, Lord Perfect is the best of this series and the only one I feel compelled to keep.