Review: The Element of Fire

Element of FireMartha Wells, The Element of Fire

In a quasi-Renaissance fantasy world, the kingdom of Ile-Rien is in a precarious position. King Roland is young and weak, completely under the thumb of his conniving cousin, who has his own plans for the throne. Roland’s mother Ravenna still wields much of the throne’s power, but her health is deteriorating, and many of those at court (including the evil cousin) are now her enemies. In addition to these domestic intrigues, Ile-Rien is now under threat from a foreign sorcerer, Urbain Grandier, who is rumored to be a powerful and dangerous dark magician. Thomas Boniface, captain of the Queen’s Guard and Ravenna’s former lover, is charged with finding Grandier and thwarting whatever plans he may have against Ile-Rien. Thomas also finds himself dealing with Roland’s half-fay half-sister Kade, who returns to court after a years-long absence with unknown motives. Amid the complex allegiances of the court — in which it soon becomes apparent that at least one traitor is at work — whom, if anyone, can Thomas trust? And when Grandier finally makes his move, will Thomas be able to stop him before it’s too late?

I first read this book in (I think) 2009, and I enjoyed it so much that I bought four other books set in the world of Ile-Rien. But for some reason, I never read any of those sequels, and since it’s been more than a decade, I wanted to refresh my memory of the first book. I’m happy to say that I still really enjoyed it! It strikes me as a quintessential classic fantasy novel, with tons of political intrigue, sorcery, and fay magic thrown in for good measure. I really like that, instead of the quasi-medieval setting of most fantasy novels, this book evokes more of a Renaissance feel, with pistols and gunpowder beginning to supplement (though not yet replace) swords as the dominant weapons. I also liked the main characters a lot, particularly Thomas and Kade. They share a cynical, bantering sense of humor that makes their interactions particularly enjoyable; but when the chips are down, they also share a deep courage and sense of loyalty. The plot is action-packed and exciting, and the world-building is vivid. In short, I’m really glad I reread this one, and I look forward to reading a few more of the Ile-Rien books this year!

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: Under a Dancing Star

Under a Dancing StarLaura Wood, Under a Dancing Star

In 1930s England, 17-year-old Beatrice Langton longs to be a scientist, but her parents have a different plan in mind for her: because she’s their only child, and they no longer have the money to maintain the estate, she must marry a rich aristocrat and restore the family fortunes. But Bea’s “outrageous” behavior at an ill-fated dinner party gives her life a new direction when her parents decide to send her to her uncle’s home in Italy. Far from being chastised, Bea is thrilled — especially when she arrives in Italy to find that her uncle and his bohemian fiancée are essentially living in an artists’ commune. She is soon enjoying the freedom of her new life, with one exception: one of the artists, Ben, is as argumentative and obnoxious as he is handsome. But when their friends dare them to embark upon a summer romance, Bea reluctantly agrees. If nothing else, it will be an interesting experiment, and she’ll gain some much-desired life experience. But when their pretend relationship becomes all too real, will their very different backgrounds keep them apart?

Much Ado about Nothing is my favorite Shakespeare play, so I’m game to read any and all retellings, especially if they’re set in interesting historical periods! This one takes place in the 1930s, so I couldn’t help but compare it with Speak Easy, Speak Love, which is another Much Ado retelling set in the 1920s. I absolutely adored Speak Easy, Speak Love, and I must admit that this book suffers a bit by comparison. It’s a light, fun read, and I enjoyed the chemistry between Bea and Ben, but to me it lacked the substance of Speak Easy, Speak Love. It’s also not as good a retelling of Much Ado — it focuses on the Beatrice and Benedick story but jettisons the Hero/Claudio plot entirely, merely keeping a few of the character names. I did love the way this book subtly paraphrased some of the most famous lines from the play, rather than quoting them outright; I thought that was a great way to pay homage to the original play while still keeping the language appropriate for the characters’ ages and the time period. Overall, I enjoyed this book and would read more by Laura Wood, but if you’re looking for a YA Much Ado retelling set in the early 20th century, I’d definitely recommend Speak Easy, Speak Love instead!

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.

Review: Snowspelled

SnowspelledStephanie Burgis, Snowspelled

In a fantasy world analogous to 19th-century England, upper-class men are expected to be magicians, while upper-class women are destined to be politicians. But Cassandra Harwood has always had a thirst for magic, and her passionate determination got her all the way to the Great Library, the premier training ground for young magicians. She even found love there with the equally passionate and hardworking Wrexham. But a spell gone horribly wrong has deprived Cassandra of her ability to cast magic, not to mention her social standing and her fiancé. Now, four months after this tragic incident, Cassandra is snowed in at a house party with the high-society people she’s been trying to avoid, including her ex-fiancé. To make matters worse, the snowstorm seems to be magical in origin, and Cassandra is tricked into making a bargain with an arrogant elf-lord to discover who is causing it. If she fails, the consequences will be dire for both herself and her nation, as the age-old treaty between humans and elves will be broken. Can Cassandra discover the culprit and sort out her personal life before it’s too late?

I’ve read and enjoyed books by Stephanie Burgis before, and I’m a sucker for anything that can be described as “Jane Austen plus magic,” so this novella seemed right up my alley. And I did enjoy it overall, but now I find myself remembering more of its flaws. I think the main problem, for me, was the heroine. Cassandra is one of those protagonists who is incredibly stubborn, convinced of her own rightness, and unwilling to compromise. All of her problems in the story are of her own making, particularly the mess of her relationship with Wrexham. I did like Wrexham, and I enjoyed the banter between them, but it frustrated me that they’re both such poor communicators, especially since they were once engaged to each other. Cassandra does grow and change in the course of the story, but it was too little, too late for me. Also, as with many novellas, the short length doesn’t leave much room for nuance in the plot or characters. The world of the story is interesting, and I actually wouldn’t mind reading a full-length novel in this setting, but I feel like I didn’t get to see enough of the world. All in all, I’m not giving up on this author, but I think I’ll stick to her full-length novels instead.

Review: A Summer to Remember

Summer to RememberMary Balogh, A Summer to Remember

Kit Butler, Viscount Ravensberg, was once a respectable army officer, but now he’s one of London’s most notorious rakes. His father wants him to come home, accept his responsibilities as heir, and marry the woman his family has chosen for him. Kit rebels from this fate and decides to choose his own wife; but she must be so thoroughly respectable that his family couldn’t possibly object to her. Lauren Edgeworth fits the bill nicely: she’s not only beautiful but a perfectly proper lady. She finds Kit’s behavior shocking, yet she’s also intrigued by his mischievous attempts to provoke her. She won’t consent to a real marriage — ever since she was left at the altar a year ago, she’s been determined to remain a spinster — but eventually she agrees to a fake engagement. She’ll accompany Kit to his home and help to heal the estrangement between him and his family. But in return, she wants a summer to remember. Of course, the longer Kit and Lauren spend together, the fonder they grow of each other. But their love may not be enough to overcome past wounds and present insecurities.

Mary Balogh has quickly become one of my go-to historical romance authors, but I must confess that I didn’t love this book quite as much as some of her others. I think it’s largely because I didn’t find Kit remotely charming or fun in the beginning; rather, I thought he was pushing Lauren out of her comfort zone far too aggressively, almost to the point of harassing her. Balogh does course-correct fairly early in the novel, making Kit realize that he’s been treating Lauren as an object rather than as a fellow human being, but I felt that the transition was abrupt and the motivation for the change was unclear. The premise of the book is a bit thin as well — I didn’t understand what Lauren was actually hoping to get out of her summer with Kit, given that she was planning to live in Bath as a spinster afterwards. However, I liked that both characters are dealing with a lot of emotional pain, but they react in completely opposite ways, Lauren by adhering strictly to society’s rules and Kit by breaking them altogether. So I did warm up to both main characters eventually, and I ended up enjoying this opposites-attract romance quite a bit. I’ll definitely continue to read more by Balogh!

Review: The Bookshop on the Shore

Bookshop on the ShoreJenny Colgan, The Bookshop on the Shore

Single mom Zoe is at the end of her rope. She adores her four-year-old son, Hari, but is concerned that he still hasn’t started talking; he’s silent even when he cries. Zoe is also struggling financially, and Hari’s father Jaz is too busy chasing his dream of being a DJ to help out with child support. Fortunately, Jaz’s sister Surinder has a solution: her friend Nina needs help with her mobile bookshop in the Scottish highlands, and there’s also a live-in nanny position that Zoe could take to supplement her income and have a place to stay. Desperate, Zoe agrees, but she soon finds that both jobs are more difficult than she’d anticipated. Nina has very specific ideas about the right way to run the bookmobile, and some of Zoe’s innovations don’t go over very well. And at the “big house” where Zoe is to be the new nanny, she finds three out-of-control children who don’t want to listen to her, while their single father Ramsey seems to be totally disconnected from his children’s lives. The longer Zoe perseveres, however, the more successful she becomes, and the more she grows to love her new life. But when Jaz suddenly reenters the picture, she must decide where she truly belongs.

I’ve come to rely on Jenny Colgan for sweet, uplifting books with a hint of romance, and this book delivers on all fronts. It’s sort of a sequel to The Bookshop on the Corner, which focuses on Nina and the opening of her mobile bookshop, but it can be read as a stand-alone. I was in Zoe’s corner from the opening scene, where she’s sitting in a doctor’s office and describing all the times she cries in a given week. I was immediately hoping for good things to happen to her and excited to watch her overcome the various obstacles in her path. She’s a very likable heroine, hardworking and determined to do her best in any given situation. Sure, the actual plot isn’t terribly believable, nor is it unique; of course Zoe will eventually win over the difficult children and find her way to professional and romantic success. I also thought the precocious youngest child was completely implausible, but he was so entertaining that I didn’t mind. I should note that there is some depiction of mental illness in the book (including self-harm), which seems a bit dark for the overall tone of the novel. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this one a lot and look forward to my next Colgan book.

Review: A Holiday by Gaslight

Holiday by GaslightMimi Matthews, A Holiday by Gaslight

Sophie Appersett is the elder daughter of an impoverished noble family. Her father has squandered the family fortune, including Sophie’s dowry, on modernizations to the estate, such as the implementation of gaslight. As a result, Sophie knows it’s her duty to marry money, even if means looking outside her own class for a husband. Edward Sharpe is a prosperous tradesman whose fortune is large enough to overcome his lack of gentility. But although he’s asked Sophie’s father for permission to court her, he shows no sign of being in love with her. In fact, Ned is interested in Sophie, but he doesn’t want to commit any breaches of etiquette in his courtship, so he takes refuge in silence. Frustrated, Sophie decides to break things off — but a further conversation with Ned convinces her to try once more. He’ll attend her family’s extravagant Christmas party, and they will both make an effort to know one another better. But will their fledgling relationship survive the obstacles presented by their respective families?

Christmas is my favorite holiday, and I’m already starting to get into the spirit of things, although I’m desperately trying to wait until after Thanksgiving to break out my Christmas music! So this holiday-set romance novella was bound to catch my eye, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I loved the premise, which has a sort of marriage-of-convenience flavor (one of my favorite tropes!) but even better because the hero and heroine are actually honest with each other, almost from the very beginning! They communicate well, and almost all the conflict is driven by Sophie’s truly appalling father and his determination to bleed Ned dry in order to improve Appersett House. I like that the book engages with the technological and scientific innovations of the Victorian period; in addition to gaslight, indoor plumbing and the theories of Charles Darwin are also mentioned. My one complaint is that the characterization is a little flat, especially for the secondary characters, but that’s understandable given the length of the story (only about 160 pages in the print version). Overall, I really liked this one and will definitely seek out the author’s full-length novels!

Review: Don’t You Forget about Me

Don't You Forget about MeMhairi McFarlane, Don’t You Forget about Me

Thirtysomething Georgina Horspool is somewhat lost in life. She’s just been fired from a terrible waitressing job, only to walk in on her boyfriend cheating on her with his assistant. She’s also dealing with her judgmental mother and sister, who never miss an opportunity to criticize her life choices and who are having a field day with these latest crises. So when Georgina’s brother-in-law gives her a tip about a newly renovated pub that’s hiring bartenders, she jumps at the chance of gainful employment. Unfortunately, one of the owners of the pub is Lucas McCarthy, Georgina’s first love — and her first heartbreak. Back in high school, when they were paired together for a class assignment, Georgina fell hard for Lucas, and she could have sworn that the feeling was mutual. But a brutal incident at the end-of-year dance drove them apart, and they haven’t talked since. Now Lucas is smart, successful, and handsomer than ever . . . but he doesn’t even remember Georgina. As she wrestles with her complicated feelings about Lucas, Georgina also finds the strength to stand up for herself and mend the various relationships in her life.

Mhairi McFarlane has become one of my go-to authors for British “chick lit” with emotional depth. While Georgina’s situation is by no means unique in the genre — single, underemployed, dealing with family problems and low self-esteem — I found her both likable and relatable, and I was immediately rooting for her to overcome the various challenges in her life. I was drawn to her funny, self-deprecating voice and her vibrant personality that emerges when she’s hanging out with her friends. I also really enjoyed the development of her relationship with Lucas, which plays a prominent role in the story. I’m not usually a fan of second-chance romances, but the plot really worked for me here, in part because the reasons for their initial breakup are so understandable. (I don’t want to spoil the plot, but the incident at the end-of-year dance does involve sexual trauma [not perpetrated by Lucas], so be warned if you’re sensitive to that issue.) Lucas in particular didn’t handle things well, but I ultimately forgave him because (1) he was young and stupid and (2) he gives very good grovel in the end. Overall, if you like this genre, I’d definitely recommend this book, as well as McFarlane’s other novels.