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: Cryoburn, Rather, Cold

Lois McMaster Bujold, Cryoburn

In this installment of the Vorkosigan saga, Miles is investigating possible skulduggery on the planet Kibou-Daini, on which people generally choose to be cryogenically frozen instead of dying. The corporations that do the freezing then assume control of their frozen patrons’ assets and political votes. Now these cryocorps are trying to expand their business onto Komarr, which makes it Miles’s problem, and he soon uncovers and foils yet another dastardly scheme. I’ll admit, I didn’t totally follow the plot of this novel, but I did enjoy Miles’s antics and the characters he meets on Kibou, especially young animal lover Jin Sato. It’s also interesting that, while much of this series is about the creation of life (uterine replicators, Cetagandan genetic manipulation), this book pivots to examine death. I’m eager to read the next (and final) book in the series, but I’m also sad that it’s coming to an end!

Allison Ashley, Would You Rather

Noah and Mia have been best friends since childhood, but despite a long-simmering mutual attraction, they’ve never tried to take the relationship farther. Now Mia has the opportunity to go back to school and pursue her dream career, but to do that she’ll need to quit her job — which she can’t do, because she has a rare kidney disease and can’t afford to lose her health insurance. Noah suggests a marriage of convenience so that Mia can be covered under his insurance, but complications ensue as they both try to navigate a fake relationship with very real feelings. This is a quick and enjoyable read with a lot of angsty mutual pining. I liked that both Noah and Mia had problems outside the relationship that weren’t magically fixed, but I also really wanted them both to get some therapy! But I liked this one overall, and I’m kind of hoping for a sequel featuring side characters Graham and Claire.

Sherry Thomas, Murder on Cold Street

In this installment of the Lady Sherlock series, Charlotte Holmes’s ally Inspector Treadles is arrested for the murder of two men with ties to his wife’s business. The evidence is wildly incriminating, but Mrs. Treadles insists her husband is innocent, so Charlotte and her friends must try to discover alternate suspects and motives. Meanwhile, Lord Ingram finally decides to act on his feelings for Charlotte, which leads her to reexamine her own emotions. This book was fine, but at this point I’m reading for the characters and relationships rather than the mystery plots. Charlotte & co. spend a lot of time interviewing witnesses, and in the end the solution isn’t terribly complex. I’m getting a bit weary of Moriarty as a shadowy background villain who seems to have a connection to every aspect of Charlotte’s life, and I hope he’ll get some actual character development in the next book. Once I get current with the series this year, I may not care enough to pursue future installments.

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: Guardians, Belle, Flowers

Carol Berg, Guardians of the Keep

***Warning: SPOILERS for book #1 in the series.***

After the events of Son of Avonar, Karon/D’Natheil is staying with his mentor, Dassine, to see if his dual memories can be restored without overthrowing his reason altogether. Meanwhile, Seri returns to Comigor to fulfill her brother’s dying wish. She expects to stay only a short time, but she finds everything in disarray and her nephew, Gerick, strangely hostile. When Gerick later disappears, Seri and Karon join forces to find the missing boy, and the trail eventually leads to the land of the evil Lords of Zhev’Na. Like its predecessor, this book is a solid, enjoyable fantasy novel. The story is told primarily by Seri, Karon, and Gerick in turn, and this device gives varied and interesting perspectives on the book’s events. I especially liked the chapters in the land of Zhev’Na, which were dark and disturbing at times but also full of dramatic tension. I’m intrigued to see where the series goes from here!

Mimi Matthews, The Belle of Belgrave Square

Captain Jasper Blunt is hailed as a war hero, but he is also the object of sinister rumors involving illegitimate children and a crumbling, possibly haunted estate. He needs a wife with a large dowry to fund the necessary estate repairs, and he’s soon drawn to the anxious, bookish heiress Julia Wychwood. Julia is attracted to Jasper as well, but she is reluctant to pursue a relationship because of his dubious character. When circumstances force them together, Julia is willing to make the best of things, but she soon realizes that Jasper is keeping many secrets from her. I’m a huge Mimi Matthews fan and was excited about the Beauty and the Beast-esque plot of this novel, but while I did enjoy the book overall, I didn’t love it quite as much as I wanted to. I figured out Jasper’s secrets pretty early on, and it was frustrating that he kept them from Julia for so long. The plot also reminded me of Matthews’s earlier novel, The Matrimonial Advertisement, but I liked that version better. I still did like this book a lot, though, and I’m eager to continue with the series!

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Flowers of Vashnoi

This novella is set in the region of Vorkosigan Vashnoi, which was nuked by the Cetagandans during their invasion of Barrayar and is still highly radioactive. Ekaterin and Enrique Borgos have developed insects that might be able to consume radioactive materials and convert them into non-harmful substances, so they’re experimenting on a small plot of land within Vashnoi. But when some of the insects go missing, Ekaterin gets an upsetting crash course on her responsibilities as Lady Vorkosigan. This is my least favorite of the Vorkosigan novellas, which doesn’t mean it’s not good — it is! Bujold is always a good writer, and I liked the focus on Ekaterin’s POV. But it doesn’t do much to advance the overall series plot, and I also felt some of the events and themes were a retread of The Mountains of Mourning. So I don’t think you’re missing too much if you skip this one, though it will still be of interest to Vorkosigan enthusiasts.

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!