Mini-Reviews: Ideal, Castle, Midnight

Mary Balogh, The Ideal Wife

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

John Dickson Carr, Castle Skull

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

Elisa Braden, Once upon a Midnight Kiss

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

Mini-Reviews: Golden, Holidays, Undertaking

Francis Spufford, Golden Hill

It’s November 1746, and Richard Smith has just arrived in the small town of New York. He visits a countinghouse and produces a note for 1,000 pounds — a huge sum. The denizens of New York don’t know what to make of him: Is he simply a rich man planning to explore the pleasures of a new place? Or is he some kind of fraud, spy, or scoundrel? As Smith explores the city, he gets into various kinds of financial, political, and romantic trouble, but it’s not till the end of the novel that his true purpose is revealed. I really enjoyed this book, which apes the picaresque adventures and digressive style of 18th-century novels. It does a good job of pointing out the social ills of the period (such a slavery) without being anachronistic or preachy. It’s also just plain fun to follow the possibly roguish Smith around and try to figure out what he’s up to, though the ending is a bit of a heartbreaker. But I’d still heartily recommend this book to historical fiction fans!

David Sedaris, Holidays on Ice

This book is a collection of holiday-themed stories and essays, some of them autobiographical and most previously published elsewhere. “SantaLand Diaries” chronicles the time Sedaris worked as a Macy’s elf, “Christmas Means Giving” follows two families as they compete to see who can best demonstrate the true meaning of the season, and “Jesus Shaves” sheds some light on different cultures’ Easter traditions. These short works contain some hilarious moments, but frankly, a lot of them are dark and depressing. One story ends with the murder of a baby, while in another, parents sell their children to a pedophile. So if you’re looking for light, fun stories to get you in the holiday spirit, I’d recommend skipping this one! But if you’re of a more cynical disposition during this time of year, then it could be just the thing for you. For me, it was a mixed bag and probably not a keeper.

Megan Bannen, The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy

This book is a weird but winning genre mashup of romance, fantasy, and Western. Hart Ralston is a marshal in a fantasy world similar to our own, but with zombielike creatures called drudges; his job is to kill them and take their bodies to the nearby undertakers. One such undertaker is Mercy Birdsall, who loves her job but is desperately trying to keep the family business afloat, despite a sick father and uninterested brother. Hart and Mercy fight constantly, but their mutual antagonism is concealing very different feelings, which emerge when they become anonymous penpals. So basically, the book is The Shop around the Corner/You’ve Got Mail with a bit of zombie action and a Western flavor…which sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it totally does! I didn’t need quite as much world-building and would have preferred more of a buildup to the romance, but overall I loved this one and would recommend it if the premise sounds appealing.

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: Jenny, Alliance, Birdy

Anthony Berkeley, Jumping Jenny

A disagreeable woman dies at a house party, apparently by suicide, but amateur detective Roger Sheringham discovers proof that she was murdered. Yet Roger — along with all the other party guests — believes that she deserved to be murdered, so while his curiosity prompts him to search for the truth, he also works to shield the killer from the police. This novel has an interesting structure, in that you think you know what’s going on by the end of chapter 4, but there are several more twists and turns to the plot. Berkeley is a good writer but cruel to his characters, and I didn’t find a single one of them likable. I thought everyone’s attitude toward the dead woman was pretty horrifying. Yes, she was obnoxious, but everyone hated her so much that I found myself pitying her! All in all, this novel was very clever but a little too mean-spirited for me.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance

Ivan Vorpatril likes to keep his head down and stay as far away from politics as he can. But he gets dragged into a sticky situation when an ImpSec operative asks him to protect a mysterious woman, Tej, and her blue-skinned companion from unknown enemies. Ivan is willing to help, but complications ensue when an emergency forces him to offer Tej the protection of marriage. Ivan is one of my favorite characters in this series, so I was excited to read his book, and fortunately it delivered everything I wanted! More than once I found myself chuckling and affectionately murmuring “Oh, Ivan” (not an exaggeration, I literally did this!). A large chunk of the book is a cozy reunion with beloved series characters; Byerly Vorrutyer makes a welcome return; there’s a lovely exploration of Simon Illyan’s relationship with Ivan; plus a treasure hunt, multiple romances, and a few thrilling heroics. In short, I adored this book, and it’s definitely my favorite of the Vorkosigan saga!

Karen Cushman, Catherine, Called Birdy

Catherine is a 13-year-old girl growing up in the Middle Ages, but she’s not particularly interested in becoming the lady of the manor. She loathes spinning and embroidery, her best friend is Perkin the goat boy, and she’d rather join a circus or go on crusade than get married. But when her father finds her an old, ugly, rude — but rich — suitor, Catherine doesn’t know how to escape her fate. This was one of my favorite books as a child, and I decided to reread it because there’s a new Amazon Prime adaptation coming out today. I was delighted to find that the book really holds up! Catherine’s voice is a joy as she describes her unique thoughts and the various scrapes she gets into. The depiction of life in the Middle Ages is also vivid and compelling. I’m glad I read this book again and discovered that it really is as good as I remembered!

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.