Review: What Happens in London

what happens in londonJulia Quinn, What Happens in London

After serving in the army during the Napoleonic Wars, Sir Harry Valentine now works as a translator for the War Office. It’s not particularly dangerous (which is just how he likes it), but it does require a certain amount of secrecy. So when Harry notices that his beautiful neighbor seems to be watching him, he knows there’s a slight chance she could be a threat. Meanwhile, Lady Olivia Bevelstoke is intrigued by her new neighbor, since rumors are flying about the mysterious gentleman who hardly ever goes out into society. When he catches her watching him, she is mortified — especially because, when they finally meet in public, he directly confronts her about it. However, Harry and Olivia’s initial dislike of each other soon turns into friendship and, inevitably, romance. But will a rival suitor, who may also be a spy for Napoleon, come between them?

When I want a light, fluffy Regency romance with minimal angst, I turn to Julia Quinn, and this book delivered pretty much what I expected. I found it a very enjoyable read, particularly because both Harry and Olivia are such nice, normal people. No tortured rakes or unconventional bluestockings here! Don’t get me wrong; those types of characters can be fun to read about, too, but they do tend to be overrepresented in historical romance. By contrast, Harry and Olivia are both fairly conventional, which I found refreshing. There’s plenty of humor in the book, too, mostly surrounding the lurid gothic novel that Harry presents to Olivia. There’s a fantastic scene in which Harry’s cousin Sebastian reads the book aloud to an assortment of spellbound listeners, and it’s an absolute delight. The plot does go off the rails a bit toward the end, with a tonally jarring kidnapping, but at least that storyline wraps up quickly. Overall, I doubt this book will stay with me for a long time, but it was certainly a fun read, and I’d recommend it to fans of historical romance.

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Mini-reviews: Duke, Christmas, Memorial

Duke in Shining ArmorLoretta Chase, A Duke in Shining Armor

This book is the first in a series starring a trio of dukes known as Their Dis-Graces. Ripley, Ashmont, and Blackwood have been friends since childhood, and together they’ve drunk, gambled, and whored their way through London society. Now Ashmont is getting married, but the bride — bookish, practical Olympia Hightower — is having second thoughts. When she runs away on the wedding day, it’s up to best man Ripley to track her down and return her to Ashmont. The trouble is, the more time Ripley spends with Olympia, the more he wants her for himself. I really enjoy Loretta Chase’s writing, especially her humor, but this book was not the right book for me. I really don’t like the “reformed rake” trope, and Ripley is such a stereotypical alpha-male hero. (That said, the humor makes him somewhat more bearable.) But I’ll still be reading more Loretta Chase, and perhaps even more in this series…Blackwood’s marital difficulties, a tiny side plot in this book, sound intriguing!

A Lot Like ChristmasConnie Willis, A Lot Like Christmas

This collection of Christmas-themed short stories with a speculative-fiction twist is a revised and expanded edition of Miracle and Other Christmas Stories. I still stand by my review of that book, but here are my comments on the new stories:

  • “All about Emily” — A sly take on the movie All about Eve featuring an aging Broadway actress and a robot who wants to be a Rockette. A fun one for fans of musicals and old movies.
  • “All Seated on the Ground” — The aliens have arrived, but no one can figure out what they want. The clue may reside in a Christmas carol, so protagonist Meg teams up with choir director Calvin to solve the mystery. A lovely and romantic meditation on “peace on earth.”
  • “deck.halls@boughs/holly” — I liked this funny rom-com about the effects of technology, especially the internet, on Christmas. It’s futuristic and over the top, of course, but the story does a great job of presenting different views on the issue — with a charming romance thrown in!
  • “Now Showing” — Lindsay really wants to see a particular movie, but she keeps being thwarted by circumstance. It seems like the universe is conspiring against her . . . and according to her ex-boyfriend Jack, that’s exactly what is happening. I really liked this playful homage to romantic-suspense-adventure movies such as How to Steal a Million, French Kiss, and Romancing the Stone.
  • “Just Like the Ones We Used to Know” — Thanks to climate change (or a “discontinuity,” or Armageddon, or . . . ?), places all over the world are having a white Christmas. Places like Los Angeles, and Honolulu, and Jerusalem. The story follows various characters as they deal with the unexpected snowstorm and try to figure out what’s causing it. I thought there were maybe a few too many characters in this one, and at least one storyline was never satisfactorily resolved.

All in all, I’m glad I purchased this one, even though I already own Miracle and Other Christmas Stories. But if you don’t have either book, definitely go with A Lot Like Christmas instead!

Memorial Hall MurderJane Langton, The Memorial Hall Murder

This is the third book in the Homer Kelly mystery series, but it can definitely be read as a stand-alone. The book begins with an explosion that destroys part of Memorial Hall on the campus of Harvard University. A headless body is found in the rubble, and it is soon identified as the corpse of Hamilton Dow, an extremely popular music professor. Homer Kelly, who used to work at the district attorney’s office, happens to be on the scene and decides to investigate. As a mystery, the book is nothing to write home about; the reader is given a lot of information early on, and the perpetrator’s identity isn’t hard to discover. I kept thinking there would be a plot twist to point the finger in a new direction, but it never came. However, the book is fun to read for its playful satire of university life and its prominent featuring of Handel’s Messiah. All in all, I’d consider reading more books in this series.

Mini-reviews: Alterations, Hitman, Temptation

AlterationsStephanie Scott, Alterations

I adore the movie Sabrina (the original, starring Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart), so I was excited to come across this YA contemporary retelling. Unfortunately, I think the concept was better than the execution…or maybe I’ve just outgrown this particular type of novel, with its focus on teen drama and the prom as the pinnacle of human existence. I did like the main character’s personal journey as she gets a prestigious fashion internship and grows in confidence. But I was less interested in the love triangle, although there are a few cute scenes. Overall, I’m left with a strong desire for more Sabrina-inspired books!

Agnes and the HitmanJennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer, Agnes and the Hitman

Part romantic comedy, part gangster movie, this novel is about a food writer named Agnes who accidentally finds herself a target of the local mafia. As a result, her “connected” friend Joey hires a hitman, Shane, to look after her. They are instantly attracted to one another, but their romance is complicated by real estate fraud, several attempts on Agnes’s life, and a flamingo-themed wedding from hell. I didn’t expect this farcical mash-up of genres to be so enjoyable, but I was utterly charmed by it! The plot sweeps along at a dizzying pace, as does the rapid-fire banter, and it’s all great fun. Highly recommended if the idea of a modern screwball comedy appeals to you!

Season for TemptationTheresa Romain, Season for Temptation

After seeing a lot of praise for Theresa Romain over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, I was excited to try her debut novel. But I wasn’t as impressed as I wanted to be. The plot is quite typical for a Regency romance: the hero needs to marry quickly, proposes to a proper and elegant lady, then falls in love with the lady’s unconventional younger sister instead. Both the hero and heroine are likable, and it’s a pleasant enough read. I also like that the original fiancée gets some character development and is not just a two-dimensional model of propriety. But the writing was occasionally clunky, and I just didn’t see anything exceptional about the book. Not one for the keeper shelf, but I’ll consider trying more by the author — if I can get them from the library!

Mini-reviews: Winter, Wed, Spy

Winter in JuneKathryn Miller Haines, Winter in June

In this installment of the Rosie Winter series, Rosie and her best pal Jayne have joined the USO, and they’re headed for the South Pacific to entertain the troops. There, Rosie gets involved in various forms of trouble, from disagreements with the local WAAC corps to mysterious thefts of military supplies to an inevitable murder investigation. In the meantime, she’s also looking for her ex-boyfriend Jack, who was rumored to have resurfaced in the South Pacific. It’s been years since I read the first two books in this series, and I think I’ve just lost my taste for it. I couldn’t remember who one character was at all, although he was apparently a big part of the first book. And I didn’t find Rosie consistent as a character, although I did still find her voice fairly enjoyable. I’ll read the fourth and final book in this series, just to see how everything turns out, but this series is not a keeper for me.

Someone to WedMary Balogh, Someone to Wed

Wren Hayden longs for the companionship of marriage, but a “disfiguring” birthmark on her face has led her to become a recluse. Nevertheless, she thinks her large fortune might be enough to induce someone to marry her. Alexander Westcott has unexpectedly inherited an earldom, along with the debts and huge financial responsibilities that go with it. He knows he must marry a rich wife, but Wren’s forthright proposal shocks and troubles him. He agrees to test the waters, hoping that at least friendship and respect can grow between them. But can Wren overcome her insecurities and be open to the possibility of a real relationship? I really felt for Wren in this book, and I liked that she and Alex aren’t immediately attracted to one another. In fact, he has to overcome some revulsion — not so much from the birthmark, but from Wren’s cold demeanor toward him. Their relationship is not romanticized, if that makes sense; it felt plausible and real. Another winner from Balogh!

Spy Wore RedAline, Countess of Romanones, The Spy Wore Red

This is a fast-paced, entertaining memoir that reads more like a spy thriller. Aline Griffith was a young woman working as a model in New York, when a chance encounter with a US intelligence operative propelled her into the world of espionage. The book covers her training and her first assignment in Spain, where she must get close to various people suspected of being German spies. The narrative has everything an espionage lover could wish for: code names, double agents, assassination attempts, and even a bullfight or two! Highly recommended for people who like spy novels or who are interested in WW2-era intelligence work.

Mini-reviews: Silver, Dark, Mammoth

Spinning SilverNaomi Novik, Spinning Silver

I won’t hide the ball here: this is my favorite book of 2018. I read it in September, but I should probably have waited until now because it is a perfect book to read in wintertime, with biting cold temperatures and the constant threat of snow. I loved all three of the novel’s heroines, especially Miryem, who is cold and uncompromising and unlikable and not ashamed of it. I loved the creative take on the Rumpelstiltskin story. I loved how all the main characters have hidden depths to them, and I loved the development of the two romances. I’ll admit that the pacing is slow, especially in the beginning, but that just gave me time to soak in the lush descriptions of the wintry village and to get to know the characters a little better. I highly recommend this book to fans of fantasy, especially if you loved Uprooted!

Dark Days ClubAlison Goodman, The Dark Days Club

In this Regency fantasy novel, Lady Helen Wrexhall learns of the existence of Deceivers, demons who survive by stealing energy from living humans. She also learns that she is a Reclaimer, a human capable of spotting and killing Deceivers (who take human form and are thus able to hide in plain sight). Initiating her into these mysteries is the Dark Days Club, a society of Reclaimers led by the broodingly handsome Lord Carlston. But Lady Helen isn’t sure she wants to accept her newfound destiny, and she soon finds herself torn between two worlds. I liked the premise of this book (Regency fantasy is my catnip!), and the writing style is quite good, but I just didn’t find myself very interested in the Deceivers or in Lady Helen’s struggle. I may read the sequel at some point, but I didn’t love this one as much as I was hoping to.

MammothJill Baguchinsky, Mammoth

Natalie is a plus-size fashion blogger and dinosaur enthusiast who is ecstatic when she wins a prestigious paleontology internship. But when she gets there, she has to deal with professional and personal insecurities, as well as disillusionment with her scientist hero. She also meets some new people who aren’t what they seem and finds herself in the midst of a love triangle (or polygon). As a fellow plus-size person, I both related and didn’t relate to Natalie. Some of her insecurities felt very real to me, but she also had this weird habit of guessing other people’s weight, which is not something I have ever done. It seems like something a thin person would assume a fat person would do, if that makes sense. So I have mixed feelings about that plotline, although I do think it’s great to see more plus-size main characters in fiction! As for the internship drama, I wasn’t very compelled by it. So, not a bad read, but not a great one either.

Review: Why Earls Fall in Love

Why Earls Fall in LoveManda Collins, Why Earls Fall in Love

In this Regency romance, Georgina Mowbray is a war widow eking out a living as Lady Russell’s paid companion. Despite the fact that much of Lady Russell’s family regards her as the help, Georgie is quite content with her situation; it’s a vast improvement over life with her husband Robert, who was violent and abusive toward her. So she certainly has no intention of getting involved with Lady Russell’s attractive nephew, the Earl of Coniston, even when he begins to show an interest in her. Though Georgie soon finds herself drawn to Con, she cannot bring herself to trust him, or any man, after what Robert put her through. But when a secret from Georgie’s past threatens her safety, Con is determined to protect her from harm—and to give her the love she truly deserves.

I enjoyed this book while reading it, but ultimately it’s not one I plan to keep. I read it just a couple months ago, and I’ve already forgotten most of the salient details. I was annoyed by the fact that this isn’t really a stand-alone novel; although I knew it was book 2 in a trilogy, I expected to be able to follow the plot (most romance novels, even in a series, can be read as stand-alones). But in this case, you really need to know what happened in book 1, because there’s a big suspense plot in this book that is almost entirely based on previous events. (There’s a prologue that is meant to catch you up, but I still felt like I was missing a lot.) Also, Con seems to fall for Georgie awfully quickly . . . if I’m remembering correctly, he’s a rake who pretty much immediately gives up his rakish ways for her. So overall, this book was fine, but I don’t feel compelled to seek out more books by the author.

Review: Someone to Love

Someone to LoveMary Balogh, Someone to Love

The earl of Riverdale has just died, and his family is putting his affairs in order. Obviously his son will inherit the title, the estate, and the bulk of the money. But the late earl also had an illegitimate daughter, Anna Snow, who grew up in an orphanage and is now a teacher there. The earl’s widow wants to give Anna some money, both as a kind gesture and as a way to forestall any future claims on the estate. But the lawyer she employs for this purpose makes a shocking discovery: Anna is actually the earl’s legitimate daughter, and her existence effectively disinherits his widow and his other children. Anna would like to be close to her newfound family, since she was previously alone in the world, but they all resent her for depriving them of their wealth and status. Her only ally is Avery Archer, a friend of the family, who decides to help her acclimate to her new life. But he never expected to be so drawn to her; and Anna never thought she would be so tempted to lose her heart to a (seemingly) shallow leader of society.

I was craving a good romance novel when I saw a review of this one at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did, because I really enjoyed this book! First of all, I think the setup is pretty genius; it may not be the most plausible premise, but it certainly sets up some great conflicts, both for this book and (presumably) for future books in the series. I very much liked Anna as a heroine — she’s confident in herself but also has a deep longing for intimacy and connection that she’s not sure how to express. In this respect, Avery is a great match for her, since he also conceals deep loneliness under a bored and detached facade. I really enjoyed his urbane quips and his witty conversations with Anna, and I loved that he’s not a typical alpha-male hero. My only quibble with the book is Avery’s practice of martial arts, because every time Avery engages in violence in the novel, it’s portrayed as being sexually appealing. Additionally, a somewhat stereotypical “Chinese gentleman” is the source of Avery’s knowledge (see the SBTB review and comments for a great discussion of this). Aside from that, though, I liked this book a lot and will definitely seek out more by Mary Balogh when I want a well-written Regency romance.

Mini-Reviews #12: December, part 2

This is officially my LAST BATCH of reviews for 2016! I’m looking forward to starting next year (aka tomorrow) with a clean slate. These last books are all rereads, and it was lovely to revisit some books I’ve enjoyed in the past!

attachmentssummers-at-castle-auburn

Rainbow Rowell, Attachments — I’ve loved all of Rainbow Rowell’s books, but this one (her first novel) remains my favorite. It’s the story of Lincoln, an Internet security specialist whose job is to monitor all emails sent from company accounts. When the emails of Jennifer and Beth get flagged for “inappropriate” usage, Lincoln has to read them; it’s his job. But before long, he gets caught up in the women’s stories and becomes genuinely interested in learning more about them. Then he begins to fall for Beth…but how can he transform his one-sided crush into an actual relationship?

Sharon Shinn, Summers at Castle Auburn — The first time I read this romantic fantasy novel, I didn’t quite pick up on the romance and felt it was a little abrupt. I don’t know what I was thinking, because this time I was all about the romance! It’s subtle and builds slowly, which is just the way I like it. 🙂 I also really enjoyed the vivid fantasy world, and I liked the fact that the heroine truly grows and changes throughout the novel. Definitely recommended for fans of this genre!

corinthian-thebirth-of-blue-satan-the

Georgette Heyer, The Corinthian — One of Heyer’s excellent Regency romances, featuring a jaded young man and a scrappy girl (dressed as a boy) who’s running away from home. The plot gets a bit convoluted, comprising highwaymen, elopements, and even a murder. But of course, everything turns out right in the end!

Patricia Wynn, The Birth of Blue Satan — I read this book, the first in a series, a few years ago, but for some reason I didn’t continue with the series. Recently I decided I’d like to read book two, but I had to refresh my memory by rereading this one first. As a mystery novel, it’s not particularly strong — the solution basically comes out of nowhere — but I loved the period setting (1715! More novels about Jacobites, please!) and the main characters. I’m definitely looking forward to reading book two and seeing what happens next!

Mini-Reviews #6: Dog days

I can see the light at the end of the tunnel for these mini-reviews! I’ll do this post and one more, and then I should finally be caught up! *sobs with relief*

Murder on the LusitaniaSingle Girl's To-Do List, The

Conrad Allen, Murder on the Lusitania — This is a fairly pedestrian mystery novel set during the Lusitania’s maiden voyage, where ship’s detective George Porter Dillman thinks he’ll have to deal with nothing more exciting than a few thefts. Of course, when an unpopular journalist is murdered on board, Dillman has to investigate–and choose between two women, the beautiful but aloof Genevieve and the happy-go-lucky Ellen. I didn’t particularly like this book, mostly because the characters annoyed me. Dillman is too smug and superior, and Genevieve seems more like a male fantasy than an actual person. The solution to the mystery was fine but seemed to come out of nowhere–or perhaps I just stopped paying attention too soon. Overall, a very “meh” read, and I feel no desire to continue with the series.

Lindsey Kelk, The Single Girl’s To-Do List — After enjoying Always the Bridesmaid, I had to track down another Lindsey Kelk novel, and this one did not disappoint! Rachel has just been dumped by her long-term boyfriend and has basically forgotten how to be single, so her two best friends create “the single girl’s to-do list” to force her out of her comfort zone. I really liked that Rachel’s friendships were so central in the novel, remaining constant throughout her tumultuous love life. Of course, the ultimate romance comes as no surprise, and I would have liked the hero to be a little more fleshed out. Nonetheless, I liked this book a lot and will continue to read more by Kelk.

CotillionBetween Shades of Gray Blackmoore

Georgette Heyer, Cotillion — One of my very favorite Heyer novels, mainly thanks to its delightful hero, Freddy! He is a wonderfully unconventional leading man: not particularly handsome, not a ladies’ man, not overly burdened with brains. In fact, he reminds me of a slightly more functional Bertie Wooster. But of course, his “street smarts” and kind heart ultimately win the day!

Ruta Sepetys, Between Shades of Gray — This World War II novel centers around an aspect of the war that is sadly often forgotten. The narrator, Lina, is a 15-year-old Lithuanian girl who is abducted one night, along with her mother and brother, by the NKVD. Lina describes the horrible tortures and indignities she and her fellow prisoners suffer, as well as the desperate hope that somehow her father will find her. My favorite thing about this book is that many of the characters are portrayed with some complexity. For example, one of Lina’s fellow prisoners is a cranky old man who constantly complains, yet in the end he manages to do something heroic. Similarly, one of the Soviet guards is deeply conflicted about his cruel actions. But some of the other characters–particularly Lina’s saintly mother–remain annoyingly simplistic. I also wasn’t a fan of the flashbacks to Lina’s carefree earlier life; they were too jarring for me. Still, I liked the book overall, and I think it tells a story that needs to be told.

Julianne Donaldson, Blackmoore — Kate Worthington wants nothing more than to escape her horrible family and go to live in India with her aunt. But her mother refuses to let her go, finally delivering an ultimatum: if Kate wants to go to India, she must first receive–and reject–three marriage proposals. Since Kate is not beautiful and flirtatious like her sister, she despairs at first. But when she is invited to the estate of her old friends, Sylvia and Henry Delafield, she reasons that she can at least try. Of course, she doesn’t expect to fall in love along the way. While this book is extremely predictable, I have to say that I enjoyed it anyway! My biggest complaint is that it takes Kate far too long to realize that her ideal mate is right in front of her, head over heels in love. The Big Misunderstanding could easily have been solved with a little rational communication! I should also note that the book is subtitled “A Proper Romance,” which essentially just means it’s rated PG; there’s nothing explicitly religious or preachy about it. All in all, this was a pleasant read that satisfied my craving for a Regency romance.

Review: In for a Penny

In for a PennyRose Lerner, In for a Penny

The young Lord Nevinstoke, known to his friends as Nev, loves nothing more than a good time, whether it’s drinking with his friends or dallying with his mistress. But when his father dies unexpectedly, Nev suddenly inherits the responsibility of being head of the family, as well as a mountain of crushing debt. With a large estate to repair and no money for the task, his only choice is to marry a rich woman, and heiress Penelope Brown fits the bill nicely. Since Penelope’s father is a tradesman, she is not of Nev’s class, but her money seems a fair trade for his title. Nev and Penelope marry quickly, but despite their growing attraction to each other, they encounter many obstacles. Nev’s estate is in even worse shape than he thought, and he has no knowledge of business matters. His tenants have grown increasingly discontented as the estate has become less prosperous. And meanwhile, Penelope feels uprooted from everything familiar and thrust into a place where she doesn’t belong. Will Nev and Penelope be able to solve these problems and finally find happiness together?

I enjoy a good Regency romance every once in a while, and I’d read that this one is the next best thing to Georgette Heyer. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I do think the book is very well written and often entertaining. I enjoy the “marriage of convenience turns into something more” trope, so I was predisposed to like the plot, and I also liked both Nev and Penelope as characters. Specifically, I was a big fan of how Nev grows and changes throughout the book. He starts out as a careless young man — albeit a likable one — who lives entirely for pleasure. But when he is confronted with his responsibilities for the first time, he takes them seriously and tries to learn all he can. I also sympathized with Penelope quite a bit, as she experiences a lot of insecurity when she marries “above” herself. I did get annoyed at all the misunderstandings between her and Nev, though; every time it seemed like they were finally on the same page, one of them would second-guess the relationship for no good reason. There was also a lot more, ahem, “romance” than I was expecting. But overall, as Regency romances go, this is a fairly enjoyable one.