Mini-Reviews: Rogue, Song, Jewel

Amberley Martin, The Rogue and the Peasant

Esme is a peasant, but her mother always told her she’d be a queen someday. So when a noble lady arrives at her cottage to whisk her off to Finishing School, Esme assumes it’s time to fulfill her destiny — but being kidnapped doesn’t seem like part of the plan. Meanwhile, the kidnapper, Rory, has his own problems: He’s paying off a debt to a sinister Fairy Godmother, and he’s literally haunted by his father’s ghost. When Esme and Rory begin to work together, they learn that their fates are intertwined in surprising ways. Based on the book’s cover copy, I thought this was going to be a romance, and it definitely 100% is not. I also thought the author’s influences were a little too obvious — there’s a whole chapter that basically rips off the movie Labyrinth. But I did like Esme and Rory as characters, and the book subverts traditional fairy tale narratives in interesting ways. Overall, it’s a decent fantasy read, just not what I was expecting.

Kerry Winfrey, Just Another Love Song

Fifteen years ago, Sandy and Hank were high school sweethearts, determined to leave their small town of Baileyville, Ohio, and pursue their dreams. Now Hank has achieved his goal of becoming a famous musician, but Sandy stayed in Baileyville. While she’s mostly content with her life, she regrets the way things ended with Hank, especially since no other man she’s dated has measured up. When Hank comes back to town, Sandy is forced to confront her unresolved feelings. I loved Kerry Winfrey’s first book, Waiting for Tom Hanks, and I really enjoy her warm, funny writing style. But I didn’t love this one quite as much, mostly because I don’t tend to like second-chance romances. I also thought the book’s dramatic tension vanished around the halfway point, when Sandy and Hank have an honest conversation that eliminates most of the conflict. But I did like the book overall and will definitely keep reading more by this author.

Mary Balogh, A Precious Jewel

Sir Gerald Stapleton has no interest in marriage; past experience has taught him that women can’t be trusted, and he feels himself too dull and ordinary to inspire love. But he doesn’t want to do without female companionship altogether, so he occasionally visits a high-class brothel. When he meets Priscilla, one of brothel’s employees, he is drawn to her — and when another client abuses her, Gerald impulsively decides to make her his mistress. But the more time they spend together, the more complicated their relationship grows. I was fascinated by this book’s premise and by the unconventional protagonists, a beta-male hero and a prostitute heroine. While I found Gerald unlikable at times and Priss too much of a doormat, I was also able to sympathize with both characters and root for them to figure things out. I’m not exactly sure how I’d rate this book, but it’s certainly a memorable one!

Mini-Reviews: Wedding, Avonar, Perfect

Jennifer Ryan, The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle

This historical novel focuses on three women whose lives change during World War II: Cressida, a successful fashion designer whose London home and studio are both destroyed in the Blitz; Violet, an aristocratic young woman whose ambition to marry a titled gentleman is thwarted by her wartime duties; and Grace, a vicar’s daughter who rethinks her decision to marry a man she doesn’t love. All three women grow, discover something new about themselves, and find love. I thought this novel was fine; the main characters are ultimately likable, and the romances are enjoyable if not particularly deep. But the writing style is clunky and simplistic, and the story beats are quite predictable. Overall, I thought this was OK, but fans of light WWII novels can do better.

Carol Berg, Son of Avonar

Seri is a noblewoman by birth, but she has lived in self-imposed exile for 10 years after suffering grievous losses in her former life. When she encounters a desperate fugitive, she hides him from the authorities but discovers that he cannot speak and doesn’t even know his own identity. The book alternates between the present, in which Seri investigates the fugitive’s background, and the past, in which she falls in love with a sorcerer even though magic is forbidden in her country. The two storylines eventually converge, but the vast majority of the book is introducing the main characters and setting up the world of the series. It’s solid, well-written epic fantasy, but I wasn’t a fan of all the jumping back and forth in time (nor of the frequent mentions of Seri’s flame-colored hair). Things pick up near the end of the book, but the first half is a bit of a slog. Still, I like the characters, and the story is shaping up well, so I’m curious to see what will happen in subsequent books!

Loretta Chase, Lord Perfect

Benedict, eldest son of the Earl of Hargate, knows his duty and always obeys society’s rules. But a chance meeting with Bathsheba Wingate and her wayward daughter, Olivia, upsets his carefully regimented life. When Olivia runs off in pursuit of treasure with Benedict’s frustrated nephew in tow, Benedict and Bathsheba must work together to rescue the fugitives, while fighting an attraction that can only end in disaster for them both. This is the Loretta Chase book I was waiting for! I love a duty-bound, uptight, emotionally repressed hero, and it’s a delight to watch Benedict slowly unravel. I also enjoyed Bathsheba’s practicality, wit, and determination to gain respectability for herself and her daughter. It’s just a really fun read, full of romantic tension, and it has me excited to read Olivia’s book soon!

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: Blood, Winterfair, Impossible

Naomi Novik, Blood of Tyrants

As the penultimate book in the Temeraire series begins, Laurence washes up on the shores of Japan with no memory of the past several years: He still thinks he’s a naval captain and knows nothing about Temeraire or their joint adventures. When the two finally reunite, Laurence must piece together his past while participating in a diplomatic mission that goes awry and ultimately fighting Napoleon yet again, this time in Russia. I hate to say it, but this series has gotten pretty stale for me. I’m never a fan of an amnesia plot, and it was both tedious and depressing to wait for Laurence to catch up with what the reader already knows. Things pick up when Laurence and Temeraire finally get to Russia to fight Napoleon, but I still found this book pretty dull overall. I hope the final book is more exciting and emotionally satisfying!  

Lois McMaster Bujold, Winterfair Gifts

The viewpoint character of this Vorkosigan novella is Armsman Roic, last seen covered in bug butter (and not much else) in A Civil Campaign. As guests arrive for Miles’s approaching wedding, Roic is fascinated by Sergeant Taura, the bioengineered super-soldier rescued by Miles in Labyrinth—and also Miles’s former lover. As Taura and Roic grow closer, they thwart a plot against Miles and his bride. I quite enjoyed this story and was glad to see Taura find some happiness. I do think Miles’s ex-girlfriends let him off a bit too easily, though! The mystery aspect of the novella is a little weak, and overall this is not the most memorable installment of the series, but it was a fun interlude with a delightful incident involving Ivan and a rabbit sculpture!

Loretta Chase, Mr. Impossible

Daphne Pembrooke’s chief desire in life is to discover how to translate Egyptian hieroglyphs, but the world believes her scholarly brother is the expert and that she is just his assistant. On a research trip to Egypt, her brother is kidnapped for his supposed language skills. Daphne immediately sets out to rescue him, but she needs a man’s help, so she hires the brawny but not particularly brainy Rupert Carsington to be her muscle. As the two search for her brother, they are also irresistibly drawn to one another, but will their love survive the adventure? This book is an enjoyable romp that doesn’t take itself too seriously — at one point the villain feeds two of his underlings to crocodiles, which gives you an idea of the tone. I adore a hero who’s not as dumb as he appears, so I really liked Rupert. Chase does seem to favor insta-lust between her romantic leads, which isn’t my favorite thing (I prefer a slow burn), but if you like your historical romance on the lighter side with a large helping of adventure, this is definitely worth a 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-Reviews: Knife, Lover, Campaign

Gu Byeong-mo, The Old Woman with the Knife (trans. Chi-Young Kim)

Hornclaw is a 65-year-old Korean woman whose ordinary appearance conceals the fact that she’s an extremely competent assassin. Because of her age, she’s worried about slowing down and losing the unique skillset that makes her good at her job. She’s also dealing with a hostile colleague and an assignment she is surprisingly reluctant to complete. As she considers retirement, it soon becomes evident that she may not make it out of her profession alive. I quite enjoyed this book, which isn’t so much a thriller as it is a reflection on aging and human connection (or lack thereof). Hornclaw is a fascinating character, and I was rooting for her despite her job. I would definitely recommend this book if the premise interests you.

Susanna Craig, One Thing Leads to a Lover

British intelligence officer Major Langley Stanhope is on the trail of a French codebook, which has accidentally fallen into the hands of Amanda, a young and attractive widow. Since her much older husband’s death, Amanda has felt stifled by her mother’s constant concern and the attentions of a worthy but dull suitor. When she meets Stanhope, she’s eager to experience an adventure, and their collaboration soon takes a romantic turn. I enjoyed this book more than the first in the series (and it can definitely be read as a stand-alone); the spy plot is a little more prominent, and Amanda and Stanhope are likable characters with good chemistry. I wish the book had delved into Stanhope’s backstory a bit more (there’s a lot there, but it’s pretty glossed over). But if you enjoy light, low-stress historical romances, I’d recommend this one. And the next book features a fake relationship (one of my favorite tropes!), so I’m sure I’ll be reading it soon as well.

Lois McMaster Bujold, A Civil Campaign

This installment of the Vorkosigan series is full of romantic turmoil. Miles loves Ekaterin but doesn’t know how to woo her, since she’s wary of romance after her traumatic first marriage. Mark loves Kareen Koudelka, but she is torn between her Barrayaran roots and her exciting new life on Beta colony. Meanwhile, Emperor Gregor is getting married, and there are two contested seats in the Council of Counts, so Miles & co. have plenty of political drama to deal with as well. As expected, I absolutely loved the romances in this book (that letter from Miles to Ekaterin!), and I was delighted to see more of Mark, Ivan, and the Koudelka girls. I could have done without the butter bug subplot, and the political intrigue was a bit simplistic, but that’s understandable since the book’s main focus is the relationships. I’m excited to continue with the series, particularly to see what happens with Ivan’s love life!

Mini-Reviews: Bodyguard, Dog, Fortune-Hunting

Katherine Center, The Bodyguard

Hannah is an “executive protection agent,” a.k.a. a bodyguard, whose job is her whole life. But her latest assignment is less than ideal: the client is Jack Stapleton, a famous (and incredibly handsome) actor who has been receiving threats from a stalker. He doesn’t want to worry his sick mother by telling her he’s in danger, so he asks Hannah to pose as his girlfriend. Inevitably, their fake relationship starts feeling a bit too real for Hannah. I have really loved some of Katherine Center’s books, but this one fell flat for me. I never quite bought Hannah as a character, and I didn’t believe she was as good at her job as she claimed to be. The obstacles to the romance also seemed a bit contrived. It’s not a bad read by any means — I tore through virtually the whole thing in a day — but it’s not a keeper for me.

Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog

It’s 2057, and time travel is possible, but there are two laws that govern it: you can’t change the course of history (no killing Hitler), and you can’t bring anything back with you (such as ancient treasures or priceless works of art). That is, until historian Verity Brown returns from a trip to the Victorian era with a cat. No one knows how this could have happened, and everyone is terrified that Verity might have destroyed the space-time continuum. The only hope is to send fellow historian Ned Henry back in time to replace the cat before anyone notices it’s missing. But of course, complications immediately ensue. This is one of my all-time favorite books: it has everything from time travel and chaos theory to romance and Agatha Christie references, not to mention historical trips to the Victorian era and World War II. I can understand why the book may not be for everyone — there’s a lot of miscommunication, which can be stressful, and perhaps a bit too much going on. But I love it too much to be rational about its flaws, and I always want everyone to read it!

Sophie Irwin, A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting

Kitty Talbot desperately needs to marry a rich man. She and her four younger sisters live in a crumbling country cottage, from which they will soon be evicted unless Kitty can come up with the money to pay the mortgage. She convinces a friend of her deceased mother’s to launch her in London society, and she soon zeros in on a target: the young, wealthy, and smitten Archibald de Lacy. Archie’s older brother, Lord Radcliffe, sees through Kitty’s scheme and is determined to prevent the match. Yet the more their opposing goals throw them together, the more they actually enjoy each other’s company. The plot of this Regency romance is nothing new, but I found it great fun! Kitty’s single-minded determination (combined with the subtlety of a sledgehammer) makes her a unique heroine, and I loved the development of her relationship with Radcliffe. I’d definitely recommend this book to historical romance fans, and I’ll be interested to read more by the author.

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: Smallbone, Komarr, Feather

Delia Sherman, The Evil Wizard Smallbone

Twelve-year-old Nick Reynaud runs away from an abusive home and is taken in by the Evil Wizard Smallbone. He’s unable to leave the property, and Smallbone has an irritating tendency to transform him into various animals, but Nick begins to thrive in his new life despite these drawbacks — and even learns some magic himself. When a competing evil wizard threatens Smallbone and his people, Nick decides to take action. I enjoyed this quirky middle-grade fantasy novel. It’s clever and fun but also doesn’t shy away from some darker realities. I didn’t fall in love with the book, but I definitely think it would be a great read for its target age group.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Komarr

Miles officially begins his career as Imperial Auditor by investigating the possible sabotage of Komarr’s solar mirror; without the mirror, Komarr’s terraforming project will experience severe setbacks, which will be politically difficult for Barrayar as well as disastrous for Komarr itself. As Miles uncovers a fraudulent scheme and a sinister Komarran plot, he also falls for Ekaterin Vorsoisson, the unhappily married wife of the bureaucrat with whom he’s staying. So, in other words, typical Miles! I feel like this series has really hit its stride now, and I loved this installment. It was great to get some chapters from Ekaterin’s point of view, though her relationship with Tien makes for difficult reading at times. I am SUPER excited for A Civil Campaign now!

Joyce Harmon, A Feather to Fly With

Arthur Ramsey, the Duke of Winton, is far more interested in his scientific pursuits than in high society. But he knows he must eventually marry, so he asks his gregarious best friend for help in navigating the intricacies of flirting and courtship. Meanwhile, unconventional (and highly unsuitable) Cleo Cooper has her own reasons for embarking on a London Season, and they don’t include matrimony. But when Arthur and Cleo meet, their mutual attraction threatens to upend their future plans. The front cover of this book calls it “a sparkling romantic romp in the classic Regency tradition,” and I’d say that’s spot on. I especially liked the adorably nerdy Arthur and his struggles to learn society’s unspoken rules. It’s not a particularly deep book, but it is a fun read if you like this kind of thing!