Mini-Reviews: Copy, Vintage, Earl

Derville Murphy, A Perfect Copy

Daisy is hoping to auction off an old family portrait painted by a famous artist. But then Ben shows up with an identical painting, claiming the subject is one of his ancestors. Is one of the paintings a fake? Daisy and Ben team up to find out, and their research uncovers the surprising history of two Jewish sisters, Rosa and Lena, who leave their impoverished Eastern European village in the 1860s to seek better opportunities in Vienna, Paris, and London. The book alternates between the historical and present-day timelines, which worked fine for me, as I was equally interested in both. The plot is exciting and full of drama, though the characterization is a bit weak and the writing style is clunky at times. Overall, I liked this book fine, and it was certainly a quick read, but I’m not tempted to try more by the author.

Ngaio Marsh, Vintage Murder

Inspector Alleyn is on vacation in New Zealand and falls in with a touring theater company. The actors invite him to their performance and an afterparty, where tragedy strikes and the company’s owner (and husband of the leading lady) is killed, seemingly by accident. But Alleyn immediately suspects murder and cooperates with the local police to solve the crime. This is a solid but unremarkable Golden Age mystery, where the solution hinges on disproving an alibi — with information the reader doesn’t obtain until quite late in the novel. So there’s not a lot of forward motion to the plot; it’s mostly just Alleyn and his colleagues interviewing all the suspects. But I liked the New Zealand setting and the positive (for its time) representation of a Maori character. Overall, a decent read but not one I’d strongly recommend.

Susanna Craig, Who’s That Earl

Thomas Sutherland has spent the past seven years as an intelligence officer in the Caribbean. But now he’s been ordered home to Scotland, where he has unexpectedly inherited an earldom. When he arrives at his crumbling estate, he’s shocked to find that the tenant in residence is none other than his former sweetheart, Jane Quayle. Thomas and Jane are immediately attracted to one another, but they are both keeping secrets and are unsure whether they can trust each other. This was a reasonably fun and well-written romance, but the series is called “Love and Let Spy,” and there is a sad lack of spying! I also didn’t quite buy Thomas and Jane’s romance; they seem to rekindle it awfully quickly after a seven-year separation. But I tend not to like second-chance romances in general, so fans of the trope may enjoy it more. Overall I liked this one but didn’t love it, and I don’t think I’ll continue with the series.

Mini-Reviews: Tongues, No-Show, Viscount

Naomi Novik, Tongues of Serpents

This installment of the series finds Laurence and Temeraire exiled to Australia, where they are tasked with delivering dragon eggs to support the fledgling colony of New South Wales. They also get roped into exploring the interior of the continent while simultaneously pursuing a group of smugglers. Along the way, one of the precious eggs is stolen, and they experience the harsh realities of the Australian wilderness. While it’s always nice to spend time with Laurence and Temeraire, this is my least favorite installment in the series so far. Nothing happens to advance the overall plot; the characters mostly just wander around being hungry, tired, and/or lost. The middle stretch of the book, where the group is slogging through the uninhabited portion of the continent, is especially yawn-inducing. Hopefully things will pick up in the next book!

Beth O’Leary, The No-Show

This novel centers around three women who all get stood up on Valentine’s Day by the same man, Joseph Carter. Siobhan, a tough but overwhelmed life coach, sees him once a month for no-strings-attached sex, but she’s starting to want more. Miranda, a pragmatic tree surgeon, is excited about her new boyfriend. Jane, a shy, book-loving volunteer at a charity shop, is at first happy to be “just friends” with him, but she eventually develops deeper feelings. As all three women move forward in their relationships with Joseph, many secrets are revealed and past traumas resurface. A plot twist near the end explains Joseph’s behavior, but whether this book will work for you largely depends on whether you can deal with hating him for most of the novel. I personally did feel he was redeemed in the end, but I can see how others wouldn’t. And I still found much of the book frustrating, believing he was a terrible cad and thinking all three women deserved better! Siobhan, Miranda, and Jane are all wonderful characters, though, and I enjoyed getting to know them throughout the novel. So overall I did like this one — it’s probably my second-favorite O’Leary novel after The Flatshare — but I feel cautious about recommending it.

Julia Quinn, The Viscount Who Loved Me

Anthony, Viscount Bridgerton, is convinced he will die young, just like his beloved father. He knows it’s his duty to marry and sire an heir, but he has no interest in falling in love, which would make him want to fight his (perceived) fate. So he decides to court Edwina Sheffield, society’s reigning beauty; but to win her favor, he must also charm Kate, Edwina’s older sister. Kate refuses to be charmed — she knows Anthony is a rake and can’t approve of him as a suitor for her beloved sister. But ironically, the more Kate and Anthony butt heads, the more they are drawn to each other, until Anthony wonders whether he may have chosen the wrong sister. This book is pure Regency fluff, but I must say I really enjoyed it! Anthony and Kate are wonderful, separately and together, and I loved their chemistry and banter. I’m very curious to see how Bridgerton season 2 compares! (I watched the first season and had mixed feelings…it was oddly joyless for a romance adaptation, no?)

Mini-Reviews: Gentleman, Hanks, Nettle

Anna Dean, A Gentleman of Fortune

While visiting her cousin in Richmond, “spinster” sleuth Dido Kent comes upon another mystery: A wealthy widow in the neighborhood suddenly dies, and her attending physician suspects foul play. Her nephew and heir is the most likely suspect, but Dido thinks he may be innocent, and she soon uncovers a number of other possible motives among the widow’s neighbors. This is a worthy follow-up to book #1 in the series, and I’m continuing to enjoy Dido’s character and voice. I also think the Austen-esque setting and language is well done, though the book is perhaps a little too beholden to Emma. I wasn’t a huge fan of all the plot developments and felt especially sorry for one character; I hope he comes back and gets a happier ending in the next book! Despite my quibbles, I did like this book and look forward to the next one, especially to see what will happen in Dido’s personal life.

Kerry Winfrey, Waiting for Tom Hanks

Annie is an aspiring screenwriter and devotee of classic rom-coms, dreaming of having the perfect meet-cute with a Tom Hanksian hero. She’s thrilled when she gets the opportunity to work on an actual movie set, but less thrilled when she butts heads with the lead actor, Drew Danforth. Drew may be handsome, but he’s also shallow and frivolous — or so Annie thinks. When will she realize that she’s stumbled into her very own romantic comedy? Yes, this book is predictable, and Annie is frustratingly slow to acknowledge Drew’s good points (come on, doesn’t she recognize the classic enemies-to-lovers trope?). But the novel brims with warmth, charm, and plentiful movie references that filled me with joy and nostalgia. I would definitely recommend this book to rom-com fans, and I’m delighted that there’s a sequel featuring two of the secondary characters!

T. Kingfisher, Nettle & Bone

Marra is the youngest princess of a tiny kingdom sandwiched between two aggressive neighbors. In a bid for political protection, her older sister Kania is married off to the prince of the Northern Kingdom. When Marra learns that the prince is abusing Kania, she decides he must be stopped and assembles a motley crew of misfits to help her on her quest. This was my first book by T. Kingfisher, but it definitely won’t be my last! I loved the world of this novel, with its dark twist on fairy tale tropes. I also loved Marra, who is not particularly brave or strong or talented; she’s just an ordinary woman, in over her head but doing her best. There are impressive (and not-immediately-impressive) magical women, a whisper of romance, a demon-possessed chicken, and a dog made of bones — what more could you ask for? Highly recommended for fantasy fans, and I’m so glad I have more books by this author on my e-reader!

Mini-Reviews: Lovers, Two, Only

Emily Henry, Book Lovers

Nora loves her life as a successful literary agent in New York, and she (mostly) embraces her reputation as a ruthless, career-focused ice queen. But when her sister, Libby, proposes a month-long vacation in a small North Carolina town, Nora reluctantly agrees. Libby hopes Nora will embrace the Hallmark atmosphere and have a fling with a local carpenter or lumberjack. But instead, Nora keeps running into Charlie, a professional acquaintance who is also staying in town. They have a strong connection, but will their emotional baggage keep them apart? I’m of two minds about this book. It’s well-written, with great banter and a compelling romance. But I wasn’t a fan of how Nora’s narration keeps skipping back in time to talk about her history with Libby and their mother. It takes focus from the current-day events, which I found much more interesting. I also thought the conflict with Libby was a bit of a letdown — there’s a mystery that builds throughout the book, and when the reveal finally comes, I was like, “Really, that’s it?” I would still definitely recommend this novel to fans of contemporary romance, but I didn’t completely love it the way I was hoping to.

Elizabeth Cadell, Any Two Can Play

Natalie Travers moves to the English village of Downing to help her brother, whose wife has abandoned him and their one-year-old twins. Natalie thinks her stay will be temporary, but she soon realizes that hiring servants to look after the twins and keep house will be harder than she anticipated. While she searches, she makes friends with the quirky residents of the village and gets involved with local landowner Henry Downing. This is a quiet, soothing story about ordinary people in a small country village where nothing much happens — in other words, an excellent stress-reducing read! I did think the romance was a bit lackluster, but overall I enjoyed this one. It was the only Cadell book available at my public library, but I’m hoping I can track down a few others, perhaps at used bookstores.

Jenny Holiday, One and Only

Practical, organized Jane is a bridesmaid in her close friend’s wedding, and she’s been tasked with a difficult assignment: babysitting the groom’s brother and keeping him out of trouble before the wedding. Cameron has a reputation as a screwup, and he’s lately left the military under shady circumstances. Now he just wants to lick his wounds and enjoy the perks of civilian life, but Jane’s constant presence is getting in the way. That is, until they get to know each other better and realize that their first impressions aren’t accurate. I enjoyed this cute contemporary romance, though I got frustrated with Cam’s “I’m not worthy” mentality at times. I found Jane relatable, and I liked that she and her girlfriends (the bride and other bridesmaids) genuinely love and support each other. There are several steamy scenes in the book, which was a bit overkill for me, but I did like it overall and may end up reading the sequels at some point.

Mini-Reviews: Empire, Letter, Errant

Naomi Novik, Empire of Ivory

Laurence and Temeraire have finally made it home to England, only to learn that the vast majority of British dragons have contracted a mysterious and deadly illness. They journey to Africa in the desperate hope of finding a cure, but they encounter several difficulties, including being captured by a hostile African tribe. I’m continuing to enjoy this series, although the pacing of this book is pretty uneven. But the series’ strength is world-building, not plot; I love being immersed in this alternate-19th-century universe, and Novik excels at portraying the language and attitudes of the period. She’s more convincing than most historical fiction authors, in my opinion. Looking forward to the next installment, especially since this one ends with a real heartbreaker!

Suzanne Allain, Miss Lattimore’s Letter

Sophie Lattimore is a keen observer of people, and when she sees a well-known bachelor about to make a disastrous marriage, she decides to send him some anonymous advice. Her interference unexpectedly results in two happy marriages, giving Sophie (whose identity is of course revealed) a reputation as a matchmaker. But when the handsome and charming Sir Edmund Winslow approaches Sophie about finding him a bride, she doesn’t know what to do — especially since she’d like to marry Sir Edmund herself! This is a light, breezy Regency romance that I read in an afternoon. I liked it and would recommend it to fans of the genre, especially those who prefer to avoid steamy scenes (nothing more explicit than kissing here). But it’s definitely not a book I feel tempted to keep and re-read.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Miles Errant

In “The Borders of Infinity,” Miles infiltrates a Cetagandan POW camp and engineers a miracle. In Brothers in Arms, the Dendarii mercenaries have cash flow problems, and Miles has trouble juggling his Admiral Naismith and Lord Vorkosigan personas. Also, he gets kidnapped and has to foil yet another plot against Barrayar. Mirror Dance switches gears somewhat, following Mark as he tries to liberate the clones from Jackson’s Whole, with disastrous results. There is some dark stuff here — the end of Mirror Dance is particularly tough to read — but in my opinion, the two full-length novels in this volume are the best in the series so far. Loved seeing Aral and Cordelia again (and Ivan, of course!), and I can’t wait to see what happens next with Miles, Mark & co.!

Mini-Reviews: Scoundrels, Powder, Stranger

Loretta Chase, Lord of Scoundrels

Sebastian, Lord Dain, has a deservedly terrible reputation, and he enjoys living down to it. Jessica Trent is concerned when her dimwitted brother enters Dain’s orbit, and she is determined to make Dain back off. Of course, he intends to do no such thing, but their ensuing arguments are complicated by a strong mutual attraction. This book is full of DRAMA and over-the-top emotions; both Dain and Jess behave ridiculously at times. Nevertheless, I found it all very compelling! Chase is a good writer, and there are some real human emotions grounding all the craziness. My only other complaint is that the book is too steamy for me, but obviously that’s very subjective. So I prefer Chase’s traditional Regencies, but I’m still glad I read this one!

Naomi Novik, Black Powder War

After the events of Throne of Jade, Laurence and Temeraire are about to leave China and return to England. But a last-minute order redirects them to Istanbul to pick up three dragon eggs that the Ottoman Empire has sold to the British government. On their journey they face the hazards of bad weather, feral dragons, and a guide with dubious loyalties; once they arrive in Istanbul, even greater dangers await. This series is still going strong; I really enjoyed the plot development in this installment, especially Laurence and Temeraire’s experiences with the Prussian troops. I’m also excited for the introduction of new characters such as Tharkay and Iskierka. Looking forward to book 4!

Jane Ashford, Married to a Perfect Stranger

John and Mary got married after a very brief acquaintance, mostly to please their families. Almost immediately, John, an employee of the Foreign Office, left for a two-year diplomatic mission to China. Now he’s returned, but when he and Mary meet again, they have both changed in many ways. They butt heads at first but are also intrigued by these new versions of each other. As they get reacquainted, Mary develops her talent for drawing and John struggles to advance in his career. This was a pleasant but unremarkable Regency romance. I did like that the protagonists aren’t aristocrats; John and Mary both have some wealth, but they aren’t part of high society, and John realizes that his lack of social connections may harm his career. But the story is a bit bland, and there’s a suspense subplot that never really goes anywhere. I’m open to reading more by Jane Ashford, but I won’t be expecting a 5-star read.

Mini-Reviews: Worst, Weather, Jackal

Lisa Berne, The Worst Duke in the World

After the death of his first wife, Anthony Farr is expected to remarry and provide a “spare” to ensure the succession. But Anthony has no interest in remarrying because his first marriage was miserable. He just wants to be a good father to his heir, Wakefield, and possibly win the “fattest pig” award at the local harvest festival. But when he meets newcomer to the neighborhood Jane Kent, their mutual attraction tests Anthony’s resolve. This book is very silly, and I think some people will find the tone off-putting, but I must admit the humor (mostly) worked for me! There’s very little conflict, so most of the book is just Anthony and Jane spending time together and being silly and infatuated. I even liked Wakefield, and I don’t usually enjoy precocious children in fiction. I’m interested in trying more by Lisa Berne when I want a pleasant, low-stakes read.

Rachel Lynn Solomon, Weather Girl

Ari loves being a meteorologist at the local TV station, but she doesn’t love the disruption caused by her boss and the station director, ex-spouses who are constantly arguing in the office. Ari and her sympathetic colleague Russell decide to try and get the exes back together, hoping this will result in a better work environment. But when sparks fly between Ari and Russell as well, they have trouble opening up to each other. I loved the premise of this contemporary romance, which is very reminiscent of the (adorable) Netflix movie “Set It Up,” but overall I thought the book was just fine. I didn’t click that much with Ari or Russell, so I wasn’t particularly invested in the romance. A perfectly OK book, just not the right book for me.

Chris Wooding, The Iron Jackal

After the events of The Black Lung Captain, Darian Frey is a minor celebrity, and he and his crew are unusually disaster-free. They’ve just been hired by Frey’s once and (possibly) future lover, Trinica Dracken, to steal an ancient and valuable Samarlan relic. But what should be a simple train job quickly gets complicated when the relic puts a curse on Frey. This is another solid installment of the Ketty Jay series, though I think it’s my least favorite so far; the plot meanders a bit and drags on a little too long. But it was good to learn more about Silo’s backstory and to see the characters, especially Frey, continue to grow. I’m definitely looking forward to reading the next (and final) book in April!

Mini-Reviews: Met, Folly, Red

Sophie Cousens, Just Haven’t Met You Yet

Laura is a journalist whose latest assignment is to tell the romantic story of how her parents first met. For research, she travels to the Channel Island of Jersey, where it all began — and en route, a suitcase mix-up leads her to her own potential soulmate. But as she spends more time in Jersey, she learns that both her parents’ love story and her own romantic destiny are more complicated than she thought. I enjoyed this one; it’s entertaining and well written, and despite the focus on romance, I think it does a good job of portraying the complexity of relationships. That said, I didn’t fall in love with the book the way I was hoping to…though I now definitely want to visit the Channel Islands!

Josi S. Kilpack, Lord Fenton’s Folly

Charles, Lord Fenton, has been behaving badly — so badly, in fact, that his father plans to disinherit him. To avoid this fate, Charles agrees to his parents’ long list of conditions, including a demand that he marry before the end of the Season. At his mother’s encouragement, he proposes to Alice, an old friend of the family who (unbeknownst to him) has been infatuated with him for years. But when she learns why he proposed, she becomes angry and bitter. Can Charles and Alice recover from such a bad start and make their marriage work? This was a pleasant, PG-rated Regency romance, but I wanted to see a bit more of Charles and Alice together. They seemed to go from mean bickering to trust and love pretty quickly. I wouldn’t mind trying another book by this author, but it’s not a high priority for me.

June Hur, The Red Palace

In 1758 Korea, Hyeon has risen from humble beginnings to become a palace nurse. But when four women are murdered in a single night and Hyeon’s beloved teacher is the prime suspect, she risks her position — and her life — to find the real killer. Along the way she teams up with handsome police inspector Eojin and becomes embroiled in the horrifying intrigues of the palace. This book is fast-paced with a likable protagonist, and I enjoyed the unique (to me) setting. It all felt a little insubstantial, and the mystery wasn’t particularly satisfying, but I did like the book overall. I doubt I’ll seek out more by this author, though.

Mini-Reviews: Throne, Beloved, Marion

Naomi Novik, Throne of Jade

Former naval captain Will Laurence and dragon Temeraire are now fast friends and inseparable companions. But because Temeraire is an extremely rare and valuable Chinese dragon, China is demanding him back. So Laurence and Temeraire are forced to travel to the imperial court to placate the emperor and prevent the Chinese from allying with France. This book is a worthy continuation of His Majesty’s Dragon, fleshing out the global political situation and contrasting English and Chinese treatment of dragons. I enjoyed watching Temeraire mature a bit and start to question the English way of doing things. Looking forward to book 3!

Mary Balogh, Only Beloved

George, the Duke of Stanbrook, has helped the other six Survivors to heal from their war wounds and find true love. But he has never truly coped with his own pain and loss: his son died in the Napoleonic Wars, and his wife took her own life soon afterward. Now George is lonely and decides to remarry, but his chosen wife is determined to help him finally confront and heal from his tragic past. This isn’t one of my favorite installments of the Survivors’ Club series, but I still enjoyed it. I like Balogh’s style, and it’s refreshing to see historical romance protagonists in their 30s and 40s. The book takes an oddly melodramatic turn toward the end, and the last few chapters are a bit cloying, with all the blissfully married Survivors and their babies. But it’s still worth a read, especially if you’ve enjoyed the rest of the series.

T.A. Willberg, Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder

Marion Lane is an apprentice at a mysterious private detective agency that operates beneath the streets of London. When one of her colleagues is murdered and her mentor is accused of the crime, Marion decides to investigate. But she uncovers some troubling secrets about the agency’s history and isn’t sure whom she can trust. I really liked the world of this novel (shadowy secret society + crime fighting + cool steampunk gadgets!), but I wish it had been more developed. The novel is almost entirely focused on plot, to the detriment of character development and world building. I also found myself oddly sympathetic to the villain! I’m interested enough to read book 2 in the series, but I hope the setting and characters will be more fleshed out.

Mini-Reviews: Honor, Astrological, Siren

Lois McMaster Bujold, Cordelia’s Honor

In Shards of Honor, Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan are on opposite sides of a war, but they must band together to survive on a strange planet, suppress a mutiny (him), escape from captivity multiple times (her), and prevent a civil war on Aral’s home planet of Barrayar. That last task continues in Barrayar, as Aral becomes regent for the four-year-old emperor and Cordelia adjusts to an alien politics and culture. I really enjoyed revisiting these two books, which are an exciting blend of sci fi, action, and romance. I love the moral complexity of this world: Cordelia, Aral, and the others are doing their best, but they often have to make impossible choices with heartbreaking consequences. I’m now even more excited to continue with the series!

Silvia Zucca, An Astrological Guide for Broken Hearts

Alice Bassi is unlucky in love, so when her new friend Tio suggests that she should date only men with compatible astrological signs, she figures it’s worth a try. But even after studying her star chart and horoscopes, she jumps from one disastrous relationship to the next — and the man she’s most drawn to may be the worst possible choice. I picked up this book because I enjoyed the Netflix series of the same name; it’s a cute romcom set in Milan, and the actors made the main characters likable. In the book, though, Alice is flaky and inconsistent, and her main love interest is a dishonest jerk. So unfortunately, I wouldn’t recommend this one…but if you like the premise, the TV series is better!

Mimi Matthews, The Siren of Sussex

Evelyn Maltravers is determined to make her first London Season a success. She plans to impress society with her excellent horsemanship, so she employs gifted tailor Ahmad Malik to design her an eye-catching riding habit. Ahmad is immediately inspired by Evelyn — and attracted to her. But a romance between himself and someone of Evelyn’s class is impossible, especially with the added obstacle of his half-Indian heritage. I always enjoy Mimi Matthews’s books, and this one is no exception. Evie and Ahmad are both such likable characters, determined to do their best for each other. And the impediments to their romance are handled thoughtfully and seriously. There’s some obvious sequel bait with Evelyn’s new London friends, and I can’t wait for the next book to come out this fall!