Mini-Reviews: Summer, Ruined, Celia’s

Ellis Peters, The Summer of the Danes

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

Alyssa Everett, Ruined by Rumor

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

D.E. Stevenson, Celia’s House

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

Mini-Reviews: Complaint, Traveled, Autumn

Hannah March, The Complaint of the Dove

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

Jen DeLuca, Well Traveled

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

Anne Gracie, The Autumn Bride

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

Mini-Reviews: Rogue, Widening, Carnation

Virginia Heath, Never Rescue a Rogue

Giles Sinclair and Diana Merriwell have delighted in vexing each other ever since his best friend married her sister. Everyone thinks their teasing banter is masking a mutual attraction, but they both vehemently deny it. Yet when Giles finds himself in trouble, it’s Diana he turns to for help, and eventually they’ll have to admit to themselves — and each other — that their friends were right all along. There’s a lot in this book that requires suspension of disbelief (Giles might be illegitimate but no one knows! Diana is secretly a hard-hitting investigative journalist!). But if you can roll with the implausibilities of the plot, as well as the characters’ modern attitudes and language, this is a fun book. I liked it more than the first in the series, and I’ll definitely seek out book #3 when it comes out.

W. Bolingbroke Johnson, The Widening Stain

This vintage mystery novel, originally published in 1942, is set in a fictional university library. A French professor is found dead in the stacks, apparently having fallen off a high ladder. But Gilda Gorham, the library’s head cataloger, suspects foul play — especially when another member of the faculty is later strangled and a priceless manuscript goes missing. I liked this book well enough; the writing style is brisk and humorous, gently satirizing the world of academia and providing several limericks (of varying quality) as a bonus. The mystery itself isn’t terribly satisfying, as the motive hinges on some dubious psychology. But still, I found it an enjoyable read and a pretty good start to 2023.

Lauren Willig, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation

It’s 1803, and the Scarlet Pimpernel (who’s a real person in this universe) has inspired several other heroes with flowery names to spy against Napoleon. Lord Richard Selwick, a.k.a. the Purple Gentian, is on a mission to thwart Bonaparte’s invasion of England when he meets Amy Balcourt, an impetuous young lady who wants to join the Gentian’s league. As Amy and the Gentian fall in love, Richard struggles with when and how to reveal his true identity. I’m really glad I decided to revisit this series, because this book is a delightful romp of a historical romance that doesn’t take itself too seriously. If you’re looking for historical accuracy and period-appropriate dialogue and manners, this is not the book for you. But if you’re in the mood for some light-hearted, swashbuckling fun, I would definitely recommend it! Now I’m really looking forward to book #2, as I remember it being one of my favorites in the series.

Mini-Reviews: Kiss, Corner, Matzah

Lisa Berne, You May Kiss the Bride

Gabriel Penhallow is bored witless by the young ladies he meets in Society, but he knows it’s his duty to marry, so he decides to propose to the beautiful but insipid Cecily Orr. While visiting the Orrs, however, he comes across Livia Stuart, whose straightforward nature both irritates and attracts him. An impulsive kiss forces Gabriel and Livia into a hasty betrothal, but a true romance develops as they spend more time together. This is a pretty stereotypical historical romance, with a stuffy, imperious hero and a feisty, unconventional heroine. That said, I do like that formula and I enjoyed the book. It’s a bit different from The Worst Duke in the World (which I also enjoyed) — less frivolous in tone, and with more explicit sexytimes. Overall, I’d consider reading more by the author, but I’m not racing out to do so.

Elizabeth Cadell, The Corner Shop

Lucille Abbey is a highly competent, efficient woman who runs a secretarial business. When three of her best secretaries quit a particular job within the first day, Lucille decides to see for herself why this job is so difficult. She encounters an absentminded, impolite professor and an uninhabitable cottage; but despite her initial antipathy, she decides to stay and put things in order. Later, in Paris, she encounters the professor again and gets mixed up in an art theft. This is a light, pleasant read that I enjoyed for its sharp character observations and satisfying romance. The plot has a few too many coincidences but resolves well, though I wanted the art thief to get more of a comeuppance! Overall, I liked this more than Any Two Can Play and will likely reread it at some point.

Jean Meltzer, The Matzah Ball

Rachel is a Jewish woman with a shameful secret: She loves Christmas and is, in fact, a best-selling author of Christmas romance novels. But now her publisher is asking for a Hanukkah romance, and Rachel is at a loss — for her, Hanukkah just doesn’t have the same magic. Hoping for inspiration, she decides to attend a high-profile Hanukkah celebration called the Matzah Ball . . . but to get a ticket, she’ll need a favor from Jacob Greenberg, her summer camp first-love-turned-nemesis. If you would like to learn more about being Jewish in America during Christmastime, or about living with an invisible illness (Rachel has chronic fatigue syndrome), you’ll like this book. But if you’re looking for a believable, relatable romance, look elsewhere. Rachel and Jacob were 12 years old when they fell in “love,” and after only one meeting as adults, they’re thinking about each other in terms of love and long-term commitment. I just couldn’t buy it, and I wouldn’t recommend the book unless Rachel’s specific attributes and situation in life really resonate with you.

Mini-Reviews: Ideal, Castle, Midnight

Mary Balogh, The Ideal Wife

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

John Dickson Carr, Castle Skull

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

Elisa Braden, Once upon a Midnight Kiss

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

Mini-Reviews: Rival, Weaver, Scandal

Sarah Mayberry, Her Favorite Rival

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

Carol Berg, The Soul Weaver

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

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

Loretta Chase, Last Night’s Scandal

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

Mini-Reviews: Lady, Eligible, Shawl

Loretta Chase, Not Quite a Lady

Often accused of being heartless, Darius Carsington is an unrepentant rake. He’s not interested in women apart from the physical pleasure they can bring him — that is, until he meets Lady Charlotte Hayward, who doesn’t quite seem to fit into any of the categories of women he’s used to. As he becomes better acquainted with her, Darius is disturbed and confused by his growing attraction. But Charlotte has a secret that makes her determined to avoid romance, even with the dangerously appealing Darius. I’ll admit, I have a fondness for romance novel heroes whose conflict is essentially, “I’m having a feeling and I don’t like it!” Darius’s struggle to resist his attraction to Charlotte is both amusing and endearing. I also liked Charlotte and was rooting for her to heal from her painful past, even if the resolution to that story felt a bit pat. Overall, this novel wasn’t quite as much my catnip as Lord Perfect, but I did really enjoy it and look forward to the next Carsington book!

Veronica Henry, An Eligible Bachelor

Guy Portias, heir to a manor house in the Cotswolds, has just gotten engaged to beautiful actress Richenda Fox. But they’ve only known each other a short time, and there are several obstacles that might prevent their union: Richenda’s keeping a secret about her past, Guy’s mother doesn’t seem too keen on her future daughter-in-law, and local girl Honor begins helping out at the manor—and getting closer to Guy in the process. The novel ultimately bounces among several characters connected with the manor and the larger neighborhood, who variously search for excitement, purpose, redemption, and love. I first read this book years ago and remembered liking it; this time around, I found it enjoyable but not particularly amazing. The overall tone is breezy and light, as you’d expect from an early-aughts British chick lit novel, but there’s also a very upsetting (though brief) description of the rape of a 14-year-old girl that I was not prepared for! Aside from that, it’s a fun, undemanding read that I’d recommend if you like the genre.

Elizabeth Mansfield, The Girl with the Persian Shawl

Kate Rendell is a strong woman who isn’t afraid to speak her mind. So when Harry Gerard, Lord Ainsworth, shows up unannounced to buy a painting from her — a family heirloom, no less — she doesn’t hesitate to tell him off. But she regrets her actions when she encounters Harry again and finds herself unwillingly attracted to him. The interest seems mutual, but Kate’s beautiful cousin Deirdre may throw a wrench into their romance. I picked up this book at a library sale because I dimly recalled that Mansfield wrote Regency romances with no explicit sexual content. My memory was accurate, but the book was mediocre at best. Kate is fairly obnoxious and jumps to a lot of ridiculous conclusions. Harry is appealing enough but rather two-dimensional. So unfortunately, I wouldn’t particularly recommend this book and have no interest in reading anything else by the author.

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.