Mini-Reviews: Isabella, Taken, Scandal

IsabellaNot to Be TakenFirst Comes Scandal

Loretta Chase, Isabella

I’ve liked all of Loretta Chase’s traditional Regencies, and this is no exception. Isabella Latham considers herself an old maid at 26, but she arrives in London for the Season with her two young cousins and is surprised when she acquires multiple suitors. The most notable are Edward Trevelyan, the earl of Hartleigh, and his charming cousin Basil. Isabella is attracted to both men, but they both seem to have ulterior motives: Edward needs a wife to help raise his ward, the young daughter of his deceased best friend, and Basil has his eye on Isabella’s fortune. Naturally Isabella ends up with the right man, and naturally the spurned suitor gets his own book, The English Witch, which I’m looking forward to reading sometime soon! I’ll be interested to see how Chase redeems his character, because he certainly did some morally dubious things in this book.

Anthony Berkeley, Not to Be Taken

I adore Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case, so I was excited to try another one of his mysteries. But overall, I was a bit disappointed. While this book is well written, the style is entertaining, and the mystery plot hangs together well, there’s nothing particularly special or surprising about it. It’s a classic murder in a small English village, and only one of the victim’s closest friends could have done it. I did find the story entertaining while reading it, especially near the end, when the narrator gives three or four false solutions before revealing the true one. But unlike The Poisoned Chocolates Case, this one is not a keeper. I’ll happily read more by Berkeley in the future, though!

Julia Quinn, First Comes Scandal

I think of Julia Quinn as the perfect choice for historical romance with some sweet, silly fun and minimal angst. But the last few books of hers that I’ve read have been a bit “meh,” including this one. The heroine is Georgiana Bridgerton, who is forcibly abducted by one of her suitors and therefore “ruined,” even though nothing actually happened. The hero, Henry Rokesby, is a medical student who’s not particularly interested in marriage. But the Rokesbys and Bridgertons have been neighbors and close friends for many years, so Henry’s father convinces him to propose to Georgiana and salvage her reputation. I liked the premise and the fact that the book is very light on conflict, but the style got on my nerves. I felt like Quinn was trying too hard to be clever, and I also found a lot of the dialogue distractingly anachronistic. So I wouldn’t recommend this one unless you’re a Quinn completist.

Review: A Modest Independence

Modest IndependenceMimi Matthews, A Modest Independence

This second installment of the Parish Orphans of Devon series follows Thomas Finchley and Jenny Holloway, both of whom first appeared in The Matrimonial Advertisement. Tom is a London solicitor, and his job is his life; it was his ticket out of the orphanage and his escape from a life of poverty. His clients must always come first, even before his own needs and wants. Meanwhile, Jenny has just received a small fortune that enables her to quit her job as a ladies’ companion. She yearns to see the world and is eager to set sail for India, where she hopes to find news of an old flame who reportedly died in an uprising. Tom and Jenny are powerfully attracted to each other, but they want such different things that a romance seems out of the question. But when Tom spontaneously accompanies Jenny on her trip to India, their feelings for each other grow and intensify. Will they be able to find a way to be together despite pursuing their very different dreams?

I really enjoyed The Matrimonial Advertisement and was excited to continue with the series, but this book suffered a bit by comparison. First of all, I don’t think it stands alone very well; Tom and Jenny’s story definitely began in the first novel, and that context is important as their relationship grows in this book. Secondly, Tom’s actions occasionally rubbed me the wrong way. For example, he decides to escort Jenny to India and hires Indian servants for her without her knowledge or consent. His motives are good — he knows her journey will be more difficult and dangerous if she travels alone — but I didn’t like that he makes these decisions without consulting Jenny first. Finally, the conflict is very repetitive and became frustrating for me. Nearly all the conversations between Tom and Jenny deal with the same problem: she doesn’t want to be tied down by marriage, while he isn’t cut out for a life of adventure. And after all the hand-wringing, the solution seems almost too easy. But while I was disappointed in this book, it wasn’t a bad read by any means, and I definitely plan to continue with the series!

Mini-Reviews: Forgotten, Kiss, Single

Forgotten GardenIt's in His KissLast Single Girl

Kate Morton, The Forgotten Garden

It took me a while to get through this book, and I think I’m still digesting it somewhat. It tells the stories of four different women. First, Nell is found on a dock in Brisbane, Australia, in 1913. She is raised by a loving family, but when her father finally tells her that she was adopted, she feels compelled to research the mystery of her past. In 2005, Nell passes away, and her granddaughter Cassandra inherits the mystery, as well as a decaying cottage on the coast of Cornwall. She eventually travels to England to see the cottage and piece together what really happened to Nell. Finally, the book jumps to 1900 and details the lives of Eliza Makepeace, a poor orphan with a gift for storytelling, and Rose Mountratchet, a privileged and beloved young woman who befriends Eliza. As the book shifts back and forth between all these different perspectives, the true story of Nell’s origins finally emerges. I thought the mystery was interesting, I liked the writing style, and the main characters were sympathetic; but for me, the pacing was just too slow. I genuinely do think it’s a good book, but I’m not sure I will pick up anything else by Kate Morton.

Bria Quinlan, It’s in His Kiss and The Last Single Girl

Last year I read Worth the Fall, book 2 in Bria Quinlan’s Brew Ha Ha series, and was unexpectedly charmed by it. So I picked up these two e-books when they were on a free deal; It’s in His Kiss is a prequel novella, and The Last Single Girl is book 1. The novella is about Jenna, a YA writer who needs her character to have a first kiss, but it’s been a long time since Jenna experienced one herself. She meets handsome, arrogant Ben while doing “research,” but her beautiful frenemy seems to be competing with her for his attention. Book 1 has all new characters: Sarah, a girl who needs a New Year’s Eve date and meets a bunch of online suitors in a coffee shop, ends up hitting it off with John, the shop’s owner, instead. These were decent quick reads, but I didn’t find the same spark that I did with Worth the Fall. On the upside, I managed to read them both in a single night!

Mini-Reviews: Midwife’s, Check, Talking

Midwife's ApprenticeCheck Me OutTalking as Fast as I Can

Karen Cushman, The Midwife’s Apprentice

Catherine, Called Birdy was one of my favorite books as a child, but I don’t think I’d ever read The Midwife’s Apprentice by the same author. It’s about a young girl in medieval England who is completely alone; she begins the novel by sleeping in a dung heap to keep warm. But the village midwife eventually takes her in as a servant/apprentice, and the girl’s life improves somewhat. Eventually she learns enough about midwifery to make herself useful, makes a friend, and even gets a name of her own: Alyce. But when Alyce makes a mistake in her work, she runs away, certain that everyone will hate her. Will she ever find a place she truly belongs? I was charmed by this book and wish I had read it as a child; while it’s not a keeper for me now, I would definitely recommend it to elementary schoolers!

Becca Wilhite, Check Me Out

I really liked the premise of this book, with its librarian heroine and Cyrano vibes, but the execution was disappointing. Twenty-four-year-old Greta loves her job and her BFF Will, but she hasn’t managed to find romance yet. That is, until she meets dreamy Mac in the poetry section, and he sweeps her off her feet with his good looks and romantic texts. The trouble is, in person he’s not as sweet or witty as he is in print. Meanwhile, the library is in danger of shutting down, so Greta embarks on a series of fundraising schemes to save it. I thought the library-related stuff was interesting, and the book did a good job of covering the complexities of the situation (community benefits vs. budget, historical value of the library vs. need for a modern, accessible space). But the romance was frustrating for me; I felt Greta was clueless and shallow, and her descriptions of Will (who is overweight) were downright cruel at times. Overall, I was disappointed in this book and wouldn’t recommend it.

Lauren Graham, Talking as Fast as I Can: From “Gilmore Girls” to “Gilmore Girls” and Everything in Between

A fun celebrity memoir by Lauren Graham, best known for her roles as Lorelai Gilmore on Gilmore Girls and Sarah Braverman on Parenthood. As a huge Gilmore fan and someone who has always admired Lauren Graham, I was definitely the target audience for this book, and I enjoyed it overall. It doesn’t delve very deeply into Gilmore Girls, which I was a little disappointed by, but upon reflection it makes sense: Gilmore was legendary for its long hours and demanding showrunner who expected every line to be word-perfect, so it makes sense that Graham would be reticent about the probable difficulties of working on the show. She obviously feels much more warmly about Parenthood, a show I stopped watching after season 1. Still a worthwhile read for fans of either show, and Graham has a funny, likable voice. But Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Mindy Kaling’s two memoirs are still my favorites in this genre.

Mini-Reviews: Scandal, Death, Enchanting

Do You Want to Start a ScandalDeath on a Friday AfternoonOnly Enchanting

Tessa Dare, Do You Want to Start a Scandal

This Regency romance is the story of Charlotte Highwood, who has been nicknamed “the Desperate Debutante” because of her mother’s aggressive matchmaking efforts. Her mother’s latest target is Piers Brandon, Lord Granville; so Charlotte seeks him out at a house party to reassure him that she doesn’t wish to marry him. This strategy backfires immediately when the two are found in a compromising position — they accidentally interrupt a lovers’ tryst, but everyone else believes they are the lovers. Charlotte decides to clear her good name by unmasking the real lovers. But of course, the more time she and Piers spend together, the more they fall in love. This book was fine, although I found the comic style a little forced and overwrought. Not bad, but not particularly recommended.

Richard John Neuhaus, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross

I chose this book at the beginning of Lent as an appropriate spiritual read. As the subtitle suggests, each chapter is inspired by one of the seven last words of Jesus from the cross. Each “word” provides a jumping-off point for the author, a Catholic priest, to discuss various aspects of his faith. Sadly, since I read this a while ago, I don’t remember a lot of the details! But I do remember the chapter on “I thirst” being particularly interesting because it discussed the question of universal salvation (is it possible that everyone will be saved?). I’d say the book is geared more toward intellectual than devotional purposes. Overall, the book gave me a lot of food for thought, and I definitely plan to reread it in the future.

Mary Balogh, Only Enchanting

I’ve yet to be disappointed by a Balogh book, and this Regency romance is no exception. It’s part of the Survivors’ Club series, about a group of people who have been deeply wounded (physically, emotionally, or both) in the Napoleonic Wars, but it can be read as a stand-alone novel. The hero, Flavian, has returned from the war with a head injury that left gaps in his memory. When he is thrown together with Agnes, a widow living a quiet rural life, he impulsively proposes to her, and together they are able to fill in some of the blanks in Flavian’s memory — and fall in love in the process. That makes it sound like love magically cures Flavian’s mental injuries, which isn’t the case…I feel like I’m not describing the plot terribly well! But I really liked the book and will continue reading more in this series.

Mini-Reviews: Prim, Reading, Headliners

Awakening of Miss PrimI'd Rather Be ReadingHeadliners

Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera, The Awakening of Miss Prim (trans. Sonia Soto)

This is a strange little novel about a young woman, Prudencia Prim, who applies for a position as a private librarian in a remote French village. A modern woman herself, she is initially shocked by the villagers’ old-fashioned beliefs and behavior. But she soon observes the happiness and prosperity of those around her, and with the help of her enigmatic employer, she comes to see the merits of their way of life. I think this book is aimed at a very particular audience, namely a certain subdivision of Catholics who are huge fans of G.K. Chesterton. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’d say this book is probably not for you! Even as part of the target audience, I still found it a little much.

Anne Bogel, I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life

I’m a big fan of Anne Bogel’s podcast, What Should I Read Next? So when I found her book at a library sale, I snatched it up! The essays are fun — nothing particularly new or memorable, but bibliophiles and fans of the author should enjoy them. A fun read, but not a keeper for me.

Lucy Parker, Headliners

Lucy Parker is an auto-buy author for me; I really love her contemporary romances set in the London entertainment world. In this one, protagonists Sabrina and Nick are rival TV presenters who are forced to work together to revive their network’s struggling morning show. If you enjoy enemies to lovers, this book is a great example! I especially liked how Sabrina and Nick resolve their conflicts like adults; there are no stupid misunderstandings or secrets kept for no reason. I note that, while this book can technically stand alone, it does refer back frequently to the events of the previous book, The Austen Playbook. Definitely recommended for romance fans, although my favorite Parker books remain her first two, Act Like It and Pretty Face.

Mini-reviews: Henrietta’s, Matrimonial, Austen

Henrietta's WarMatrimonial AdvertisementAusten Escape

Joyce Dennys, Henrietta’s War: News from the Home Front 1939-1942

I greatly enjoyed this charming epistolary novel, which is both written and set during World War II. The titular Henrietta writes to her childhood friend Robert, who is off fighting somewhere in France, and describes daily life in her rural English village. Despite the constant presence of the war in the background, Henrietta mostly focuses on the mundane, humorous aspects of life. A pleasant and uplifting book.

Mimi Matthews, The Matrimonial Advertisement

Last year I read Matthews’s novella, A Holiday by Gaslight, and enjoyed it so much that I wanted to seek out some of her full-length novels. This one, the first in her Parish Orphans of Devon series, is a “proper” Victorian romance (i.e., no explicit content) that centers around a marriage of convenience. Justin needs a wife to manage his remote, secluded estate, and Helena needs a safe place to hide from her past. The book definitely justified my high expectations, and I can’t wait to continue with the series!

Katherine Reay, The Austen Escape

I’ve read one other book by Reay, Dear Mr. Knightley, and I wasn’t a huge fan. But when I got this novel as a gift, I decided to give the author another chance. Unfortunately, I didn’t like this book either — something about the writing style just grates on my nerves. I also found the heroine obnoxious and unsympathetic, and I have no idea what her love interest saw in her. I was frankly appalled by one major plot point: the heroine’s best friend, who has a history of mental health issues, starts to believe she’s living in Jane Austen’s time…and nobody seems to think this is something that needs immediate medical attention! So all in all, I wasn’t a fan, and I’m pretty sure I’m done with this author.

Review: Love Lettering

Love LetteringKate Clayborn, Love Lettering

Meg Mackworth, the “Planner of Park Slope,” has a thriving business in which she creates unique, hand-lettered planners, journals, and calendars for her clients. She’s reasonably successful and Instagram-famous, and now a major stationery brand is interested in hiring her, which would be a big step forward in her career — if only she weren’t completely creatively blocked. To make matters worse, Meg is unexpectedly confronted by a professional faux pas she made about a year ago, when she hid the word “mistake” in a wedding program she designed. The would-be groom, Reid Sutherland, noticed the pattern and has sought out Meg looking for answers. An unlikely friendship grows between them as Reid accompanies Meg on various walks around New York City, searching for inspiration in the city’s wealth of hand-lettered signs. But their relationship can only be temporary, since Reid hates the city and plans to move soon. Can Meg convince him to fall in love with New York — and with her — before it’s too late?

I feel I’ve done a horribly inadequate job of describing this book, which is so much more compelling than I’ve made it sound! Most of what I mentioned above is the setup; the meat of the book is the slow development of Meg and Reid’s relationship. It’s a joy to see them fall in love in such a simple, quiet way, without a lot of unnecessary drama or conflict. The book is told exclusively from Meg’s point of view, so the reader gets to know Reid the same way she does, relying on every little comment, look, or gesture to figure out what he’s thinking. Some readers might be annoyed by this, but I actually really liked it! Reid is definitely my type of hero — a bit Darcy-esque in his directness and occasional awkwardness. I will say, I didn’t love the last section of the book, in which a big external conflict suddenly arises to threaten Meg and Reid’s relationship. I couldn’t figure out what purpose it served, other than to provide the obligatory “It almost didn’t work out!” story beat before the ultimate resolution. But overall, I loved this book and resented every time I had to put it down! Definitely recommended for fans of contemporary romance.

Review: Miss Grimsley’s Oxford Career

Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand:Miss Grimsley's Oxford CareerCarla Kelly, Miss Grimsley’s Oxford Career

Miss Ellen Grimsley is the second daughter of a respectable country gentleman, and her destiny is to marry an equally respectable country gentleman and fulfill her womanly duties as wife and mother. But Ellen would much rather be a scholar and an explorer, traveling the world and making maps of far-off places. When her forward-thinking aunt gets her a place at Miss Dignam’s Select Female Academy, in the very town of Oxford, Ellen is thrilled — but she soon discovers that the classes are only in “feminine” subjects like French and embroidery. So when her brother Gordon, who’s flunking his Shakespeare course at Oxford, asks for her help, Ellen can’t resist writing his papers and even dressing as a man to attend lectures at the university. Obviously she can’t continue this charade for long without being caught; but luckily, the person who catches her is the kind and scholarly Jim Gatewood, who encourages her intellectual curiosity and converses with her as an equal. But when Jim professes his love for her and proposes marriage, Ellen is hesitant to give up her dreams, even for love.

Since this book came in the omnibus with Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand, which I liked, I decided to give this one a try too. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much. The plot is rather muddled, and too many of the events strain credibility. For example, how does Ellen manage to fool everyone (or indeed anyone) in her male disguise? The book mentions that Gordon’s tutor is old and practically blind, but were there no other students nearby? Then there’s Ellen’s roommate, Fanny Bland, who is sometimes cruel and sometimes kind, without any real explanation for these fluctuating moods. Finally, the central conflict between Ellen and Jim seems to come down to Ellen’s own obtuseness. Despite her affection for, friendship with, and attraction to Jim, she refuses to see that she’s in love with him and turns down his repeated proposals of marriage. Near the very end of the book, there’s a hint that Ellen turns him down because she fears giving up her dreams of an independent life. That would have been a more interesting conflict to explore, but the book doesn’t dig into it at all, merely giving Ellen an abrupt change of heart just before the novel ends. Overall, a disappointing read — but at least I was able to finish it before the end of the year!

Review: Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand

Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand:Miss Grimsley's Oxford CareerCarla Kelly, Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand

Roxanna Drew is at the end of her rope. After the death of her husband the vicar, she must find a new home for herself and her two young daughters. Her late husband’s brother is willing to provide this home, but only if she agrees to become his mistress. Revolted by the suggestion, Roxanna decides to rent the dower house of a nearby estate instead, but her brother-in-law’s nefarious schemes are far from over. Meanwhile, the estate’s owner, Fletcher Rand, Lord Winn, has problems of his own. He is shunned by most of society because he publicly divorced his wife after discovering her many infidelities. His family urges him to marry again and produce an heir, but Winn is reluctant to trust another woman — that is, until he meets Roxanna while on a tour of his estates. Winn is immediately attracted to her and quickly befriends both herself and her children. But when circumstances force them into a marriage of convenience, they must learn whether they can truly rely on each other.

As I’ve become more familiar with the romance genre, I’ve encountered Carla Kelly’s name multiple times as a respected author of traditional Regencies, and this particular novel is often praised as one of her best. I wasn’t quite as impressed as I wanted to be, but I did enjoy this book very much and have already begun another of Kelly’s novels. Both Roxanna and Winn struck me as mature adults who are doing their best in their respective difficult situations. I especially liked Winn because, while he’s slightly curmudgeonly at first, he’s not brooding or selfish like many other romance heroes. He shows his love for Roxanna by always putting her and her family’s needs before his own, but his sense of humor keeps him from being annoyingly perfect. There’s not much plot beyond the initial setup, and I found the writing style a bit clunky and some of the dialogue anachronistic. I also wasn’t convinced by the evil brother-in-law’s repentance in the end. But overall, I did like this one and will definitely read more by the author.