Review: The Famous Heroine / The Plumed Bonnet

Famous Heroine:Plumed BonnetMary Balogh, The Famous Heroine / The Plumed Bonnet

This volume collects two of Balogh’s earlier novels, which each focus on couples who marry first and fall in love later. In The Famous Heroine, Cora Downes, the daughter of a rich merchant, is launched into high society in hopes that she’ll find an aristocratic husband. But Cora is clumsy, outspoken, and ignorant of the rules of this new world. Lord Francis Kneller takes her under his wing, and they become good friends — until he inadvertently “compromises” her and feels honor-bound to marry her. In The Plumed Bonnet, Alistair Munro, the duke of Bridgwater, gives a ride to a hitchhiking young woman out of boredom. Because of her gaudy clothes, he assumes she’s a prostitute and listens with amusement to her unlikely story of misfortune. But when he learns that Stephanie Gray’s story is true, he realizes that he’s ruined her reputation and must marry her to make amends.

I’ve been slowly discovering Mary Balogh’s books and haven’t hit a bad one yet! I didn’t find either of the romances entirely compelling — something prevented me from becoming fully emotionally invested — but these two novels are on the short side, so perhaps there was just less space for character development. And there’s still plenty to enjoy with both of these books. I liked Cora’s frank nature and was amused by Francis’s attitude toward her: bewilderment slowly transforming into delight. They’re a more fun, lighthearted couple than Alistair and Stephanie, but I found Stephanie’s conflict (she’s trying so hard to become duchess material that she begins to lose herself) more interesting. I should note that these two books are actually the third and fourth installments of a series that starts with Dark Angel and Lord Carew’s Bride; the heroes and heroines of those books appear in both of these as well. You don’t HAVE to read the first two books to understand what’s going on, but it would give you some extra context. Overall, I liked these books a lot and will continue my wanderings through Balogh’s backlist.

Review: Ten Things I Love about You

Ten Things I Love about YouJulia Quinn, Ten Things I Love about You

Sebastian Grey occupies an unusual social position: he is the heir apparent to his uncle, the Earl of Newbury, but if the earl marries and has a son, Sebastian gets nothing. The earl hates Sebastian and is therefore desperate to marry a young, fertile bride. His eye falls on Annabel Winslow, who is young enough to be his granddaughter, but whose numerous siblings and wide hips seem to guarantee her ability to produce heirs. Though Annabel is repulsed by the earl, she feels obligated to marry him to gain financial security for her impoverished family. But of course, complications ensue when Sebastian and Annabel meet and are immediately attracted to one another — each without knowing the other’s identity. When they discover their situation, Sebastian initially sees an opportunity to thwart his uncle’s plans; but he soon realizes that his feelings for Annabel are all too genuine.

It’s telling that I read this book a week ago and could barely remember the plot; I had to read some Amazon reviews to refresh my memory. It’s not a bad book, and I can’t point to anything specific that annoyed me about it, but it just didn’t leave much of an impression on me. Earlier this year I read and enjoyed the prequel to this book, What Happens in London, and found Sebastian to be a delightfully fun character. The scene in which he performs a dramatic reading from a lurid gothic novel (of which he is secretly the author) was a highlight of that book. So I was excited to read his story, but I found it underwhelming. We don’t really get to know more about Sebastian as a character. We learn that he’s had insomnia ever since returning from the Napoleonic Wars, and we know that he enjoys writing novels, but neither one of these character traits is really explored. And while Annabel seems perfectly nice, it’s never entirely clear why he falls in love with her. Overall, a very “meh” read.

Review: The Heretic’s Apprentice

Heretic's ApprenticeEllis Peters, The Heretic’s Apprentice

In the summer of 1143, the Benedictine abbey of Saints Peter and Paul in Shrewsbury is preparing for its annual festival in honor of St. Winifred. But the celebrations are somewhat dampened when a young man called Elave arrives with the body of his master, Sir William Lythwood, who died returning from a seven-year pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Elave requests that Sir William be buried at the abbey, but questions from a visiting cleric reveal that the dead man had discussed and possibly even espoused heretical views. Elave hotly defends his master and is accused of being a heretic himself. When his accuser is later found stabbed to death, Elave falls under suspicion for murder as well. Luckily, Brother Cadfael is once again on the case, both to solve the mystery and to help clear Elave’s name of the heresy charge.

It’s always a pleasure to spend some time with Brother Cadfael, and this installment of the series is no different. All the quintessential elements of the formula are there: Cadfael gets involved through his knowledge of herbs and healing, he solves the mystery with the help of Hugh Beringar, and he helps two young lovers get together. I particularly enjoyed the heresy plot of this book; not only was it interesting (at least for me) to think about the theological topics at issue, but I liked the fact that no one was a complete villain. The book clearly intends us to side with Elave, and the cleric who interrogates him is portrayed as being too rigid, yet we later catch a glimpse of his humanity as well. The mystery is well plotted, although I was able to guess the culprit in advance. Overall, this is a series I continue to love, and I’m sorry I only have four books left!

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.