Mini-Reviews: Duke, Brain, Behold

Jane Ashford, The Duke Who Loved Me

James Cantrell has just inherited a dukedom, and with it a mountain of responsibilities. Desperate to avoid these, he proposes to Cecelia Vainsmede, a longtime friend whose competence and organizational skills will surely allow him to ignore his new duties. But Cecelia is in love with James (unbeknownst to him) and is hurt by his casual proposal. Her refusal piques James’s curiosity and interest — especially when a rival suitor appears on the scene. But James needs to grow up before he can figure out what he truly wants. Ashford’s books have been hit or miss for me, but I quite liked this one! James is definitely a flawed character, but I appreciated his growth throughout the book. The main obstacle to the romance is poor communication, which is frustrating at times but relatable and realistic. The ending is very abrupt and I wanted more resolution, but otherwise I liked this one and would recommend it to fans of the genre.

Ali Hazelwood, Love on the Brain

Bee Königswasser has just landed her dream job as the lead neuroscientist on a NASA project. Unfortunately, her co-leader is also her grad school nemesis, Levi Ward, who has always treated her with cold disdain. When Bee starts the job, she’s plagued by workplace sexism and office politics, but Levi is an unexpected ally, and eventually Bee discovers that he never actually hated her at all. As with the author’s previous book, The Love Hypothesis, I found this novel compulsively readable, though some aspects of it didn’t ring true for me. For example, I love a hero who pines after the heroine, but the extent of Levi’s pining did not feel realistic. I also found Bee’s various cutesy quirks annoying at times, and the ending took a weird turn into straight-up melodrama. Still, I’d recommend this one if you like the premise and don’t mind a steamier contemporary romance.

Francis Duncan, Behold a Fair Woman

Mordecai Tremaine is a bit burned out on his hobby of detection, so he’s taking a vacation to visit some friends on a (fictional) Channel Island. At first he’s happy to enjoy the beaches and mingle with the other vacationers, but he soon begins to notice tense relationships and suspicious activity at an old mill. When one of his new acquaintances is murdered, Tremaine helps the local police to solve the mystery. Like the other books I’ve read by this author, I found this one solid but unspectacular. The pacing felt a bit off: the murder doesn’t happen until about halfway through, and then all the various strands of the mystery finally come together about two pages from the end. I wanted a bit more resolution, I think. So, I’m not enthusiastically recommending it, but it was still a decent read.

Mini-Reviews: Solo, Confinement, Remember

Linda Holmes, Flying Solo

Laurie’s Great Aunt Dot has recently died, so Laurie returns to her Maine hometown to go through Dot’s things and sell the house. When Laurie discovers a potentially valuable wooden duck among Dot’s possessions, she investigates its background and learns some new information about Dot’s life. She also reflects on her own circumstances — like Dot, she is single and childless by choice — and considers rekindling a romance with her first love. If you want a lot of drama and excitement in your books, this one isn’t for you; it’s very quiet and doesn’t have much plot (aside from a charming little heist!). But the dialogue and characterization shine — Laurie and her friends feel and sound like real people. There is a romantic subplot, but I would definitely not characterize the book as a romance. Overall, I mildly liked this novel, but it’s not destined to be a favorite. I prefer Holmes’s previous book, Evvie Drake Starts Over.

Anna Dean, A Place of Confinement

In this fourth installment of the series, Dido Kent is acting as a companion to her Aunt Manners, a rich invalid, and staying at yet another country estate. One of the other houseguests, a young lady, has gone missing and is thought to have eloped; later, a man with a mysterious connection to the estate is murdered. The chief suspect for both incidents is Tom Lomax, the son of the man Dido loves, so she is determined to prove his innocence by discovering what really happened. As with the other books in this series, this is a well-written historical mystery that (unlike many other historical mysteries) feels true to its time. The plots can get a bit convoluted, with a few too many side characters. Also, I don’t think the author planned for this book to be the last, but the series-long arc ends in a good place, so it’s a reasonably satisfying finale. Overall, if the “Jane Austen + mystery” concept appeals to you, I’d definitely recommend the series!

Mary Balogh, Remember Love

The Wares of Ravenswood are a tight-knit family, beloved in their community — until the estate’s heir, Devlin, discovers a shameful secret about his father and publicly denounces him. In the ensuing scandal, Devlin is banished from Ravenswood and spends six years in Europe fighting Napoleon’s forces. When he eventually returns, he must mend his broken relationships with his family and with his first love, Gwyneth. I’m a Mary Balogh fan, but this book is not her best. The pre-scandal section drags on forever and introduces far too many characters, most of whom don’t play a significant role in the story. I also disagreed with Devlin’s initial actions, so I found it hard to warm up to him later. Further, the book is so focused on setting up the series’s world and characters that the romance takes a backseat. I never felt the connection between Devlin and Gwyneth or cared about them as a couple. That said, I do love this author and will plan to continue with the series, hoping future books are better.

Mini-Review: Storms, Evans, Wonderful

Susanna Kearsley, Season of Storms

Struggling actress Celia Sands is suddenly offered the role of a lifetime: she’ll play the lead in a famously unstageable play, written by a rich Italian in the early 1920s for his mistress, who was also named Celia Sands. Moreover, the performances will take place at the playwright’s own villa, which is now owned by his grandson. When Celia arrives at the villa, she encounters several dramatic personalities, solves a mystery involving stolen antiquities, falls in love, and possibly even communicates with a ghost. I liked this one — the Italian setting spoke to my wanderlust, and as a community theater participant, I also enjoyed the details about staging the play. There’s a slight historical story that runs parallel to the contemporary events, but it’s pretty negligible in terms of both interest and page time. The book is slow-paced and not particularly exciting, but I enjoyed spending time in its world.

Agatha Christie, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?

Bobby Jones is golfing on a course located near the edge of a cliff. When he hears a cry of surprise, he goes to investigate and discovers that a man has fallen over the edge. By the time Bobby reaches the man to offer help, it’s too late: he’s dying. But just before he breathes his last, he utters the mysterious phrase, “Why didn’t they ask Evans?” That simple question plunges Bobby into a series of sinister events, which lead him to suspect that the man didn’t accidentally fall off the cliff — he was pushed! So Bobby and his friend Lady Frances “Frankie” Derwent decide to investigate in hopes of finding both the murderer and the mysterious Evans. I like this book a lot; it combines a twisty mystery plot with the feel of a fun caper, plus a bit of romance thrown in. I’d also recommend the recent adaptation, which can be streamed on BritBox.

Loretta Chase, Miss Wonderful

Alistair Carsington, the third son of a wealthy earl, has accumulated a mountain of debt. His father has given him six months to either get a job or marry an heiress; pursuing the former path, Alistair travels to Derbyshire to promote his friend’s scheme to build a canal. Unfortunately, he encounters opposition from Mirabel Oldridge, the 31-year-old “spinster” daughter of a local landowner, who is dead set against the canal. They are immediately attracted to one another but must find a way to resolve their differences before they can marry. I’d actually read this book before, but I didn’t remember much about it — and I’ll likely forget it all again in a month or two. It’s a solid, fairly well written Regency romance, but I didn’t get emotionally invested in the romance or its obstacles. I recently bought all the Carsington books and so will continue with the series, but I hope subsequent books are more engaging.

Mini-Reviews: Goddess, Deceit, Bryony

Tessa Dare, Goddess of the Hunt

Lucy Waltham has been in love with her brother’s friend Sir Toby Aldridge for ages, but he still sees her as a little girl. To make Toby notice her, Lucy decides to practice her seduction skills on another of her brother’s friends, Jeremy Trescott. Appalled by her scheme to chase Toby, Jeremy resolves to stop her by any means necessary — even if it means letting her seduce him instead. Despite the farfetched plot, this book is enjoyable Regency fluff with likable main characters. I read most of it in one sitting and regret nothing! This author has been hit or miss for me, but I’d definitely recommend this book for fans of historical romance with some heat.

Ashley Weaver, The Key to Deceit

Just weeks after her first espionage mission, Electra “Ellie” McDonnell is once again summoned by Major Ramsey to help with a case. A dead woman has been recovered from the Thames, and Ramsey suspects her of spying for the Germans. He needs Ellie’s lock-picking skills to open a locket found on the woman’s body. What they discover points to a dangerous spy ring that is sending photos of strategic London locations to the Nazis. As Ellie and her criminal associates help pursue the spy ring, she also continues her investigation into her mother’s past — and finds herself torn between old friend Felix and the antagonistic but attractive Ramsey. I’m enjoying this series for its blend of mystery, WWII setting, and romance, and I’m eager for the next installment to come out (probably not till next year, alas!). If you enjoy these genres, I’d definitely recommend the series, although you should start with book #1, A Peculiar Combination.

T. Kingfisher, Bryony and Roses

I’m a sucker for Beauty and the Beast retellings, and this is a great one! When Bryony gets trapped in a snowstorm and is about to freeze to death, she suddenly finds herself on a path to a secluded manor house infused with magic and inhabited by a Beast. At first she resents being trapped in the manor house, but she gradually learns that the Beast is a prisoner as well, and she sets out to discover how to break the house’s sinister enchantments. The strength of this retelling is in the characters, especially Bryony: she’s pragmatic, stubborn, funny, and a devoted gardener who is determined to grow things herself, without the help of the magical house. I loved her snarky interactions with the Beast as they get to know each other better. If you love fairy tale retellings, I’d highly recommend this one, and I’m excited to continue exploring T. Kingfisher’s work!

Mini-Reviews: Consequence, Eight, Crucible

Anna Dean, A Woman of Consequence

Dido Kent finds herself in the middle of another mystery when a young lady utters the words “I saw her,” then falls from the tower of a ruined abbey. Rumors suggest that the injured girl was referring to the Grey Nun, the abbey’s ghost, but Dido suspects there is a more mundane explanation. Shortly after this incident, renovations to the local estate uncover the skeleton of a woman who went missing from the area 15 years ago. Was it suicide, accident, or murder? I’m continuing to enjoy this series; the books are well written, with several nods to Jane Austen thrown in without being too annoyingly obvious. I also liked the development of Dido’s relationship with her maybe-suitor, William Lomax. The plot was a little too convoluted for me, but otherwise I enjoyed this one, and I’m interested to see how everything will wrap up in the fourth and final book.

Craig Rice, Eight Faces at Three

When a rich old woman is found stabbed in her home, suspicion immediately falls on her niece, Holly, who had both motive and opportunity to kill the old woman. But if she’s guilty, why did she make all the beds in the house on the night of the murder — and why did she stop all the clocks at 3:00? Holly’s lawyer, John J. Malone, is on the case, assisted by his friend Jake Justus and eccentric heiress Helene Brand. As a mystery, I’m not sure this book is entirely successful; it’s not quite fair play, and some of the “twists” are obvious from early on. But it’s just so much fun! The witty one-liners and snappy banter among the three sleuths are a joy to read, and I was happy to be along for the increasingly drunken ride. If you love movies like The Thin Man, I highly recommend this book, and I’ll certainly be seeking out more by Craig Rice.

Naomi Novik, Crucible of Gold

In book #7 of the series, Laurence and Temeraire are reinstated as members of the British Aerial Corps and ordered to Brazil, where they must help defend the Portuguese colony against France and its Tswana allies (last seen burning slave ports in Empire of Ivory). Along the way, they encounter many disasters including shipwreck, mutiny, capture, and a detour across the vast and possibly hostile territory of the Incas. I must admit, I’m losing my enthusiasm for this series. I still love the main characters and the superb writing style, but I’m a little burned out on the plots, which are unevenly paced and don’t always seem to further the overall arc of the series. That said, I will certainly continue to the end of the series and hope all turns out well for Laurence, Temeraire, and their friends!

Mini-Reviews: Copy, Vintage, Earl

Derville Murphy, A Perfect Copy

Daisy is hoping to auction off an old family portrait painted by a famous artist. But then Ben shows up with an identical painting, claiming the subject is one of his ancestors. Is one of the paintings a fake? Daisy and Ben team up to find out, and their research uncovers the surprising history of two Jewish sisters, Rosa and Lena, who leave their impoverished Eastern European village in the 1860s to seek better opportunities in Vienna, Paris, and London. The book alternates between the historical and present-day timelines, which worked fine for me, as I was equally interested in both. The plot is exciting and full of drama, though the characterization is a bit weak and the writing style is clunky at times. Overall, I liked this book fine, and it was certainly a quick read, but I’m not tempted to try more by the author.

Ngaio Marsh, Vintage Murder

Inspector Alleyn is on vacation in New Zealand and falls in with a touring theater company. The actors invite him to their performance and an afterparty, where tragedy strikes and the company’s owner (and husband of the leading lady) is killed, seemingly by accident. But Alleyn immediately suspects murder and cooperates with the local police to solve the crime. This is a solid but unremarkable Golden Age mystery, where the solution hinges on disproving an alibi — with information the reader doesn’t obtain until quite late in the novel. So there’s not a lot of forward motion to the plot; it’s mostly just Alleyn and his colleagues interviewing all the suspects. But I liked the New Zealand setting and the positive (for its time) representation of a Maori character. Overall, a decent read but not one I’d strongly recommend.

Susanna Craig, Who’s That Earl

Thomas Sutherland has spent the past seven years as an intelligence officer in the Caribbean. But now he’s been ordered home to Scotland, where he has unexpectedly inherited an earldom. When he arrives at his crumbling estate, he’s shocked to find that the tenant in residence is none other than his former sweetheart, Jane Quayle. Thomas and Jane are immediately attracted to one another, but they are both keeping secrets and are unsure whether they can trust each other. This was a reasonably fun and well-written romance, but the series is called “Love and Let Spy,” and there is a sad lack of spying! I also didn’t quite buy Thomas and Jane’s romance; they seem to rekindle it awfully quickly after a seven-year separation. But I tend not to like second-chance romances in general, so fans of the trope may enjoy it more. Overall I liked this one but didn’t love it, and I don’t think I’ll continue with the series.

Mini-Reviews: Gentleman, Hanks, Nettle

Anna Dean, A Gentleman of Fortune

While visiting her cousin in Richmond, “spinster” sleuth Dido Kent comes upon another mystery: A wealthy widow in the neighborhood suddenly dies, and her attending physician suspects foul play. Her nephew and heir is the most likely suspect, but Dido thinks he may be innocent, and she soon uncovers a number of other possible motives among the widow’s neighbors. This is a worthy follow-up to book #1 in the series, and I’m continuing to enjoy Dido’s character and voice. I also think the Austen-esque setting and language is well done, though the book is perhaps a little too beholden to Emma. I wasn’t a huge fan of all the plot developments and felt especially sorry for one character; I hope he comes back and gets a happier ending in the next book! Despite my quibbles, I did like this book and look forward to the next one, especially to see what will happen in Dido’s personal life.

Kerry Winfrey, Waiting for Tom Hanks

Annie is an aspiring screenwriter and devotee of classic rom-coms, dreaming of having the perfect meet-cute with a Tom Hanksian hero. She’s thrilled when she gets the opportunity to work on an actual movie set, but less thrilled when she butts heads with the lead actor, Drew Danforth. Drew may be handsome, but he’s also shallow and frivolous — or so Annie thinks. When will she realize that she’s stumbled into her very own romantic comedy? Yes, this book is predictable, and Annie is frustratingly slow to acknowledge Drew’s good points (come on, doesn’t she recognize the classic enemies-to-lovers trope?). But the novel brims with warmth, charm, and plentiful movie references that filled me with joy and nostalgia. I would definitely recommend this book to rom-com fans, and I’m delighted that there’s a sequel featuring two of the secondary characters!

T. Kingfisher, Nettle & Bone

Marra is the youngest princess of a tiny kingdom sandwiched between two aggressive neighbors. In a bid for political protection, her older sister Kania is married off to the prince of the Northern Kingdom. When Marra learns that the prince is abusing Kania, she decides he must be stopped and assembles a motley crew of misfits to help her on her quest. This was my first book by T. Kingfisher, but it definitely won’t be my last! I loved the world of this novel, with its dark twist on fairy tale tropes. I also loved Marra, who is not particularly brave or strong or talented; she’s just an ordinary woman, in over her head but doing her best. There are impressive (and not-immediately-impressive) magical women, a whisper of romance, a demon-possessed chicken, and a dog made of bones — what more could you ask for? Highly recommended for fantasy fans, and I’m so glad I have more books by this author on my e-reader!

Mini-Reviews: Wickham, Memory, Business

Claudia Gray, The Murder of Mr. Wickham

This is a hard book to describe without spoiling all of Jane Austen’s novels, but I will do my best! It’s 1820, and most of Austen’s main characters are gathered together at a house party. When George Wickham shows up uninvited, it becomes clear that many of the characters have reasons (both financial and personal) to dislike him. So when Wickham is bludgeoned to death with a blunt instrument, nearly everyone is a suspect, and two of the young guests (children of Austen’s characters) team up to solve the mystery. As an Austen superfan, I greatly enjoyed this! I think the author did a good job of portraying Austen’s characters and the problems they might face after years of marriage. I also loved the two young sleuths, especially the appealingly direct (and presumably neurodivergent) Jonathan. I was fine with the solution to the mystery, though it’s only revealed because the guilty party confesses. My only other complaint is that the romantic subplot isn’t resolved, and it makes me wonder whether there will be a sequel. If so, I’ll certainly check it out!

Lois McMaster Bujold, Memory

As is the case with many books in the series, Miles kicks off this one by doing something stupid — something that endangers both himself and all the Dendarii under his command. He then lies to Illyan about it, which gets him kicked out of the Barrayaran military. Now that Miles has torpedoed his career before turning 30, what will he do next? It sounds like I’m judging Miles harshly, but actually I relate to him in this book. He’s reached that point of adulthood where he’s realizing his life hasn’t turned out the way he thought it would, and he has to figure out how to move forward. There’s also some plot stuff (Miles investigates a possible attack on ImpSec), but the focus is really on developing Miles’s character and setting up a new direction for the series. I’m excited to see where things go next!

Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford, Business as Usual

Twenty-something Hilary Fane is determined not to be idle while waiting to marry her doctor fiancé, so she decides to move to London for a year and get a job. She lands at Everyman’s Department Store, where she is bad at writing labels but surprisingly good at improving the store’s library system. She also gains a new empathy for working-class people as she experiences their hardships firsthand — and realizes that her fiancé may not be the best match for her. This is a pleasant slice-of-life epistolary novel set in the 1930s, and I enjoyed my glimpse into this particular world. Hilary is an engaging and humorous character, though not always aware of her privilege in being able to choose to work or not. But I mostly liked her, and I also liked both the setting and the romantic elements. Recommended if you enjoy this type of thing!

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: Fake, Skulls, Moving

Jenn P. Nguyen, Fake It Till You Break It

Mia and Jake have known each other forever; they live in the same neighborhood, and their mothers are best friends. In fact, their moms would love them to date each other, but they just don’t get along. To stop the maternal matchmaking for good, Mia and Jake decide to fake a short relationship and a spectacular breakup. But as they pretend to fall in love, they’re surprised to develop real feelings for each other. I love the fake-dating trope, and this was a cute read, but it’s quite predictable and not particularly unique. Still, a fun bit of fluff to pass an afternoon.

Chris Wooding, The Ace of Skulls

In the final installment of the Ketty Jay series, civil war has erupted between Vardia’s Coalition government and the Awakeners. Darian Frey just wants to stay out of it; he’s more concerned with finding his former fiancée (and current sky pirate), Trinica, so he can finally tell her how he feels. But of course, the crew of the Ketty Jay get drawn into the war despite themselves — and when the Awakeners unleash their secret weapon, Frey and his friends may be the only ones who can stop it. I was disappointed by a few loose ends, and I was also shipping two characters who didn’t get together, alas! But overall, this is a satisfying ending to a really fun series. If you enjoy sci-fi adventure stories and found families, or if you just really miss the TV show Firefly, I’d definitely recommend these books!

Agatha Christie, The Moving Finger

Jerry and his sister Joanna are visiting the tranquil English village of Lymstock, but their stay is soon disrupted by a spate of malicious anonymous letters that circulate through the village. When the letters lead to suicide and murder, Jerry attempts to solve the poison pen mystery, with a late-game assist from Miss Marple. I hadn’t read this Christie novel in a while, and it’s one of my favorites! The mystery is really clever and the characterization is strong. Of course, I also enjoyed the romantic elements of the plot. 🙂 Granted, Miss Marple fans will be disappointed because she’s barely in the book; she basically just comes in at the end to deliver the solution. But I’d still highly recommend this one to Christie lovers!