Mini-Reviews: Acting, Trip, Wisteria

Adele Buck, Acting Up

Cath and Paul have been best friends since college, and they also work together: Paul is a regional theater director, and Cath is a stage manager. Cath has been in love with Paul for years, but she’s never made a move for fear of ruining their friendship and professional relationship. Now they’re putting on a new play, and Cath’s nemesis Susan has been cast as the lead actress. Susan’s spiteful behavior irritates everyone but also forces some long-buried feelings into the open. I really wanted to love this book — I do community theater myself, so I was hoping for a lot of behind-the-scenes drama and hijinks. But the book focuses much more on Cath’s and Paul’s inner turmoil, and I found their conflict frustrating. One honest conversation could have solved everything! And I couldn’t figure out why Cath was so reluctant to share her feelings…it seemed like she should have had some traumatic backstory to explain the extent of her fear, but she didn’t (at least not on page). Overall, this book was OK but not what I wanted it to be.

Beth O’Leary, The Road Trip

Addie and Dylan used to be in love, but they broke up two years ago and haven’t spoken since. Now they’re both going to a mutual friend’s wedding, and when Dylan wrecks the car he’s driving, he and his best friend Marcus hitch a ride with Addie, her sister Deb, and another random wedding guest who needed a ride. The book jumps between the present-day road trip and the story of Addie and Dylan’s relationship in the past. I couldn’t put this book down, and I was surprised by how much it affected me emotionally. At the same time, though, I wasn’t necessarily rooting for Dylan and Addie to work things out! Their relationship seems based primarily (solely?) on physical attraction, and they don’t function particularly well as a couple. I also couldn’t relate to Dylan and Marcus, who are basically “poor little rich boys” distracting themselves from real life with sex, drugs, and their parents’ money. The book attempts to make them sympathetic by giving them some shallow backstory and (in Dylan’s case) a cartoonishly villainous father, but it doesn’t quite work. I did like the book overall, but I’m still deciding whether it’s a keeper for me. Oh, and notwithstanding the cover, it’s definitely more of a drama than a comedy.

India Holton, The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels

Miss Cecilia Bassingthwaite is a proper young Victorian lady, and also a pirate. In fact, she’s a junior member of the Wisteria Society, England’s most prestigious and fearsome league of piratical ladies. When another Society member hires an assassin to kill her, Cecilia thinks she’s finally made it: now the Society will have to take her seriously and promote her to senior membership. But things start to go wrong when the assassin, Ned Lightbourne, turns out to be dangerously attractive and charming. Then the villainous Captain Morvath, an evil pirate and even worse poet, kidnaps the rest of the Society, leaving only Cecilia to save the day. Hijinks ensue, complete with flying houses, literary allusions, ghosts, thievery, and a touch of romance. This book won’t be for everyone; it’s a ridiculous romp in which the rules don’t make sense, there’s very little character development, and the tone is gleefully ahistorical. To enjoy it, you have to let the silliness wash over you — and be someone who appreciates Brontë references and dick jokes in equal measure. Honestly, I loved it! Can’t wait for the sequel next year!

Mini-Reviews: Inheritance, There, Naturalist

Charles Finch, The Inheritance

Victorian gentleman-sleuth Charles Lenox is once again on the case when he receives a troubling letter from an old school friend, Gerald Leigh. Leigh’s life is in danger, but he’s not sure why; it could be for the £25,000 he’s inherited from a mysterious benefactor, or it could be connected to his scientific discoveries, which are important enough that the Royal Society of London has taken notice. As Lenox tries to discover who’s after Leigh and why, he also deals with tension both at his detective agency and in his marriage. It had been a while since I’d checked in with this series, and it was nice to catch up with Lenox and his friends again. The mystery itself was fine, but at this point I’m far more invested in the characters. The next book in the series is technically a prequel, following Lenox’s very first case. I’m not sure if I care about the prequels…I might skip them and pick back up again with the current timeline. For anyone who’s kept up with this series, will I be missing anything if I take that approach?

Pat Murphy, There and Back Again

Do you love The Hobbit but wish it had more spaceships? Then this is the book for you! As the title indicates, this book is a retelling of The Hobbit set in a futuristic, space-faring society. Bailey Beldon is perfectly content with his quiet life in the asteroid belt. He has no desire for adventure, but when he discovers an undelivered message pod from the powerful Farr clone family, adventure finds him nonetheless. I thought this was a well done and creative retelling; it follows all the major story beats of The Hobbit quite closely, but with a sci-fi spin. Bailey’s encounter with the Gollum equivalent is particularly good (not coincidentally, one of the best chapters in the original book too). A fun read for Tolkien fans, though a bit unnecessary — why not just reread the original?

Christina Dudley, The Naturalist

Joseph Tierney is a naturalist studying English flora and fauna at the behest of the Royal Society. He’s staying with a country family to work on his research, and he’s found an excellent assistant in a local boy, Arthur Baddely, who is just as interested in the natural world as Joseph himself. But “Arthur” is actually Alice Hapgood, a daughter of the local squire, who leaps at the opportunity to do some real scientific work — and to spend more time with the attractive Joseph. I’d rate this Regency romance OK to fine. I don’t enjoy plots that hinge upon a Big Secret that the reader already knows and has to wait for the characters to catch up to. I also thought the characters weren’t fleshed out beyond stock types, and the writing is clunky in places. The central romance is rather endearing, though, and I did find it a quick read that held my attention. Still, this one isn’t a keeper, and I doubt I’ll seek out more by this author.

Mini-Reviews: Fiction, Companion

Mimi Matthews, A Convenient Fiction

This third book in the Parish Orphans of Devon series focuses on Alex Archer, the orphan who ran away in boyhood and hasn’t been heard from since. He’s been living abroad and has made a small fortune through gambling. Now he’s determined to marry a rich English heiress; but instead of his intended target, he finds himself more drawn to her friend, Laura Hayes. Laura lives with her invalid brother and elderly aunt, and she’s barely holding things together. The last thing she needs is to fall for the attractive Alex, especially since she knows he’s a fortune hunter. But as Laura’s and Alex’s feelings grow, they must each contemplate a different future from the one they envisioned. This might be my favorite book in the series, and I think it comes down to the characters. I loved Laura right away; she’s strong and independent without being implausibly anachronistic, and she tries so hard to do right by her family. Alex is harder to like at first, since both his past actions and his plan to marry an heiress aren’t exactly sympathetic. But he’s so starved for love that I couldn’t help but warm up to him! So I’d definitely recommend this book to fans of the genre, especially if you like brooding heroes and the marriage-of-convenience trope.

Mimi Matthews, The Winter Companion

Again, I enjoyed A Convenient Fiction so much that I had to move on immediately to the fourth and final book in the series! The hero is Neville Cross, who sustained a head injury as a child that has left him with a speech impediment. Though he can think and write fluently, he has trouble with talking, and therefore he is more comfortable with animals than with people. He works in his friend Justin’s stables and has more or less made peace with his isolated, predictable life. That is, until he meets lady’s companion Clara Hartwright at Justin’s Christmas house party. Clara is beautiful and kind, and she bonds with Neville over her ancient pug dog. But she has dreams beyond being a lady’s companion, and they will eventually take her out of Neville’s life — unless he can find the courage and strength to go after what he really wants. This is the last book in the Parish Orphans of Devon series, and it’s a very satisfying finale. The Christmas party setting allows all four orphans and their love interests to reunite, and some of the memorable side characters from previous books also reappear. (I really need a novella telling Teddy Hayes’s story!) Neville’s speech impediment is handled sensitively, and thankfully he is not magically cured by love. So all in all, I really liked both this book and the whole series, and I look forward to reading more by Matthews!

Mini-Reviews: Fire, Hollow, Duke

Katherine Center, Things You Save in a Fire

Cassie Hanwell loves being a firefighter in Austin, Texas; she’s extremely good at her job and is happy to devote her whole life to it. So she’s not thrilled when she is forced to transfer to a small town in Massachusetts to care for her estranged mother during a health crisis. The local fire department is old, outdated, and all male, so Cassie knows she’ll have to struggle to be accepted. As Cassie battles her colleagues’ hostility and resists her mother’s attempts at reconciliation, she grows as a person and decides who she really wants to be. I really liked this book and stayed up far too late to finish it! I found Cassie extremely sympathetic, and I loved how tough and competent she was. There’s also a sweet romance that I was completely on board for. I did feel the ending was a bit too neatly tied up in a bow — and this is coming from someone who likes tidy endings! — but aside from that, I enjoyed this book and look forward to reading more by Katherine Center.

Sherry Thomas, The Hollow of Fear

***Warning: SPOILERS for previous books in the series!***

In this third installment of the Lady Sherlock series, Charlotte Holmes faces her most difficult case yet. Lady Ingram, who disappeared after the events of A Conspiracy in Belgravia, has now been found — dead, in the icehouse on Lord Ingram’s country estate. Of course, Lord Ingram is the prime suspect; everyone knew that he and his wife were estranged, and rumors are swirling about a romance between him and Charlotte. As Scotland Yard builds its case against Lord Ingram, Charlotte works incognito to discover what really happened. I’m very much enjoying this series, and this book is no exception. Though I guessed some elements of the mystery, other plot twists were genuinely shocking. There is a point at which the narrative doubles back to fill in some blanks about earlier events, which I found irritating — it’s the kind of gimmick that would work better in a movie, I think. But otherwise, I liked this book a lot and look forward to seeing what happens next with Charlotte and her friends!

Grace Burrowes, My One and Only Duke

Quinn Wentworth is a convicted murderer awaiting execution. Jane Winston is a minister’s daughter visiting Newgate prison. She’s widowed, pregnant, and desperate to get away from her sanctimonious father, so Quinn proposes marriage. He can provide money for her and the child to live on, and because he’s soon to die, she won’t be stuck with him for long. Jane agrees to the deal, only to be shocked when Quinn is discovered to be the heir to a dukedom and pardoned at the last minute. Now Quinn and Jane must decide whether and how to make their marriage work; but Quinn is determined to find whoever framed him for murder and take his revenge. I found this book mildly enjoyable, but the stakes are pretty low. There aren’t really any obstacles to Quinn and Jane’s romance, and the mystery plot of who framed Quinn doesn’t get a lot of time “on page” either. Basically, I never got emotionally invested in the story or characters. This is the first book in a series, and I am mildly interested in a few of the secondary characters, so I may continue with the series at some point — but I’m not in a big hurry to do so.

Mini-reviews: Diadem, Conspiracy, Dangerous

Jean Merrill, The Girl from the Diadem

Actress Belle Barclay is losing her voice, which means her career is ending and she needs to plan for her future. An opportunity drops into her lap when the young Earl of Orsett offers to hire her for one last acting job: she’ll accompany him to a house party, posing as his love interest, so that his parents, appalled by the prospect of an actress as their daughter-in-law, will permit him to marry his penniless childhood sweetheart instead. Of course, complications ensue, and the house party descends into a farce of miscommunications and unrequited loves. Belle congratulates herself on being above the fray, only to discover that she’s fallen in love with the worst possible man. This short novel is a delightful Edwardian romp, and while it’s not quite as good as Heyer or Wodehouse, it feels a bit like a combination of the two. Definitely recommended if you can find a copy — I had to buy a used one in pretty bad condition from Thriftbooks, but it was worth it!

Sherry Thomas, A Conspiracy in Belgravia

I really liked the first Lady Sherlock novel when I read it earlier this year, and this second installment in the series is equally good. Charlotte Holmes has left her family to live independently with Mrs. Watson, and she works as a consulting detective under the name of the fictional Sherlock. Her latest client comes as a surprise, however: Lady Ingram needs her help to locate an old flame, who turns out to have ties to Charlotte herself. When Charlotte takes the case, she discovers that it’s much more complicated than she originally assumed — not least because she is secretly helping the wife of the man she loves. The plot thickens wonderfully in this book, and I can’t wait to continue with the series and see what new twists and turns will arise! I highly recommend this series, but you really need to start with the first book, A Study in Scarlet Women.

Mary Balogh, Slightly Dangerous

In this final book of the Bedwyn saga, we finally get Wulfric’s story. The Duke of Bewcastle has always prided himself on his propriety, his detachment, and the competent performance of his duty. But now that all his siblings are married and gone, he finds himself lonely and vaguely dissatisfied. He impulsively accepts an invitation to a friend’s house party, where he meets the widowed Christine Derrick. She is outgoing, fun-loving, and always getting into some improper scrape — in other words, just the sort of woman to repulse the Duke of Bewcastle. But much to his surprise and chagrin, Wulf is drawn to Christine, and she to him. But can two such different personalities ever compromise enough to form a lasting relationship? This book is Balogh’s take on the Pride and Prejudice formula, and as such I enjoyed it immensely. Wulf is a man after my own heart — I love an uptight, emotionally repressed hero who gradually learns to unbend a little. I wasn’t 100% sold on Christine at first, but as the book went on, and especially after she met the other Bedwyns, she won me over. I probably won’t keep every book in this series, but this one will stay on my shelves for the foreseeable future!

Mini-Reviews: Wasted, Played, Clockwork

Staci Hart, Wasted Words

Cameron Emerson and Tyler Knight have been roommates and good friends for more than a year. Cam is also attracted to Tyler, but she knows they could never be more than friends; they just aren’t a good match. Tyler is an exceptionally handsome ex-football player, the epitome of the popular jock, while Cam is a short, “nerdy” girl who loves comics and doesn’t wear makeup. Of course, that doesn’t stop them from eventually taking their friendship to the next level, but Cam’s insecurities might sabotage their relationship before it truly begins. I wanted to like this book because it’s “inspired by” Jane Austen’s Emma, but I would say the similarities are superficial at best. Cam likes matchmaking and being in control, but that’s really the only Emma-esque aspect of the plot or characters. The writing style isn’t great; the dialogue is unrealistic and the descriptions of love overwrought. I also got very impatient with the conflict, which basically boils down to a lack of communication. I hate when characters who are supposed to be in love won’t TALK to each other! Overall, I was disappointed, and I won’t seek out more by this author.

Jen DeLuca, Well Played

Stacey loves her small town of Willow Creek, Maryland, and she loves her summer job as a bar wench at the local Renaissance Faire, but she’s starting to feel stuck in a rut. When she impulsively emails Dex MacLean, a Faire musician with whom she had a casual fling, she’s just looking to change things up a little. She never expected that they’d end up corresponding throughout the year — or that he would be so sensitive, vulnerable, and caring. When the next Faire season comes around, Stacey is excited to begin a real relationship with Dex, but life has a few big surprises in store. As with the previous book in the series, this is a fun, low-stakes read. It might almost be TOO low-conflict, and I’m not someone who needs a lot of angst in my books! But the main problem is resolved around halfway through, so there’s not a lot going on in the rest of the book. Still, I liked the setting and the characters, and I’m excited to read the next (and final?) book, Well Matched, when it comes out in 2021!

Nancy Campbell Allen, Beauty and the Clockwork Beast

In this gothic, steampunk fairytale, plucky botanist Lucy Pickett goes to visit the estate of the enigmatic Lord Blackwell to care for her cousin, who has married Blackwell’s brother and who has a mysterious illness. Miles, Lord Blackwell, certainly doesn’t need Lucy distracting him from his own problems, particularly the fact that he’s secretly a werewolf. But of course, they are mutually attracted and must work together to discover what’s really going on with Lucy’s cousin and who, among Miles’s friends and neighbors, might be at the bottom of it. I enjoyed this book so much more than I was expecting to! It’s not great literature, but it is fun escapist fiction, and I’m definitely planning to continue with the series!

Mini-Reviews: Puzzle, Viscount, Sparrow

Patrick Quentin, A Puzzle for Fools

Broadway producer Peter Duluth has been drinking his life away ever since the tragic death of his wife two years ago. Now he’s hit rock bottom and checked himself into a sanatorium to dry out. When he hears a creepy voice talking about murder late one night, he initially thinks he’s imagined it — until a couple of the other patients mention a similar experience. Then a member of the staff is murdered, and while the police are officially investigating, Peter decides to do a little sleuthing of his own. This is my first book by Patrick Quentin, and I’d definitely consider reading more. It’s a solid Golden Age mystery with a perfect sinister setting. The only thing I didn’t particularly like was the romance, which was quite superficial. Still, I’ll keep my eye out for more Peter Duluth mysteries.

Mimi Matthews, The Viscount and the Vicar’s Daughter

Like A Rogue of One’s Own, this novella is a Victorian romance featuring the “reformed rake” trope, and the rake is even named Tristan! This book’s Tristan shows up at an annual country house party that is known for being exceptionally racy, where he unexpectedly befriends Valentine March, a vicar’s daughter who is attending the house party as a lady’s companion. When Tristan and Valentine are caught in a passionate embrace in the conservatory, Tristan does the honorable thing and offers marriage. But Valentine, despite her attraction to Tristan, isn’t sure she wants to marry a man with his unsavory reputation. I liked this novella more than A Rogue of One’s Own, but the many similarities made me feel like I was reading the same book again! I did enjoy this one more, but it’s definitely not my favorite by Mimi Matthews. Still, I look forward to trying some more of her full-length novels.

Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow

The premise of this novel caught my fancy immediately: humans have discovered intelligent life on another planet, and the Jesuits (an order of Catholic priests) are spearheading the mission to make contact with these life forms and learn about their culture. The novel starts in 2060, and Fr. Emilio Sandoz is the sole survivor of that mission; he has returned to Earth badly damaged, both physically and spiritually. The book then jumps back and forth in time, giving the backstory on Emilio and his companions and describing what happened on the alien planet and its aftermath. The novel is epic in scope, and I’m frankly still digesting it. Overall, I think it’s wonderfully done, although it takes a while to get going — we don’t actually meet the aliens until about 2/3 of the way through the book. So it’s not quite an action-packed sci fi story; but as an examination of faith, of human goodness and human frailty, and of the complexity of relationships, this novel has a lot to say and gave me a lot to think about.

Mini-Reviews: Blue, Sorcerer, Queen, Rogue

Lia Louis, Dear Emmie Blue

Emmie has been best friends with Lucas for years — ever since he found the balloon she released into the air when they were just 16. More recently, Emmie’s feelings have deepened into love; so when Lucas invites her to a special birthday dinner and says he has something important to ask her, she’s convinced that he wants to start a romantic relationship. But he actually asks her to be his “best woman” at his upcoming wedding. Emmie is crushed and must now reevaluate her relationship with Lucas and his family, who have always loved her more than her own negligent mother ever did. This book is enjoyable women’s fiction with a romantic subplot (which I loved, even if it was a bit predictable!), but it touches on some heavier themes — not only Emmie’s relationship with her parents, but also a traumatic incident from her past. This book isn’t a keeper for me, but I liked it quite a bit and will look for more books by Louis.

Zen Cho, Sorcerer to the Crown / The True Queen

I was just as delighted by Sorcerer to the Crown on this reread as I was the first time I read it. It’s set in an alternate Regency universe in which England’s magic is disappearing, and the Sorcerer Royal, a man of African descent, must team up with a magically gifted woman to get it back. The sequel, The True Queen, deals with sisters from the island nation of Janda Baik, which has been colonized by the English: one of them is lost in Fairyland, and the other must rely on English magicians for help to find and retrieve her. I love the combination of an Austen-esque setting, mystery, fantasy, and romance, so I really enjoyed both books (perhaps the first a smidge more than the second). Most authors writing in this time period don’t get the style or voice quite right, but I think Zen Cho really nails it! The books are also more diverse than many works of historical fiction set in this period, featuring queer characters and people of color. Definitely recommended if the premise interests you!

Evie Dunmore, A Rogue of One’s Own

This sequel to Bringing Down the Duke focuses on Lady Lucinda Tedbury, an ardent suffragist whose sole focus is convincing Parliament to pass an act allowing married women to own their own property. In pursuit of this goal, Lucie and her friends are trying to buy a London printing press to disseminate their ideas; but they are thwarted by Tristan Ballentine, a notorious rake who has just purchased a 50 percent share in the business. Lucie has known Tristan for years and has always viewed him as weak and contemptible; but the more they’re forced to work together, the more she adjusts her opinion of him. I didn’t enjoy this book as much as the first in the series, largely because I don’t like the “reformed rake” trope and also didn’t find Lucie a very interesting heroine. I think the series is a bit schizophrenic so far; it tries to be a serious examination of feminism, but it also has to hit all the beats of a historical romance novel, and I feel like the split focus detracts from both goals. That said, I’m interested enough to continue with the third book when it comes out next year.

Mini-Reviews: Ruby, Angel, Bride

Ruby in the SmokeDark Angel : Lord Carew's Bride

Philip Pullman, The Ruby in the Smoke

I greatly enjoyed this historical adventure set in Victorian England. When 16-year-old Sally Lockhart’s father dies under mysterious circumstances, she visits his business partner looking for answers — and stumbles into a sinister plot involving opium and murder. It’s just a really fun, pulpy novel for the MG/YA demographic, and I definitely plan to read the rest of the series!

Mary Balogh, Dark Angel / Lord Carew’s Bride

It’s a testament to how much I enjoy Balogh’s writing that I thoroughly enjoyed Dark Angel, even though it contains some of my least favorite romance tropes: reformed rake and revenge-seduction of the heroine. But the book doesn’t minimize the hero’s (initially) awful behavior or its painful consequences. The heroine doesn’t forgive him too easily, and he fully acknowledges how terrible his actions were. So I was ultimately able to root for the couple and believe in their happy ending.

I also liked Lord Carew’s Bride, though it wasn’t quite as emotionally resonant for me. Samantha has had a terrible experience with love, so she’s determined to keep her many suitors at arms’ length. Then she meets the incognito Lord Carew, who she mistakes for a common landscape gardener. He falls for her immediately, and she accepts his marriage proposal because she feels safe with him — and because the man she once loved is trying to weasel his way back into her life. I liked the hero more than the heroine in this one, but I do think they’re well matched. And I enjoyed seeing the villain get his comeuppance!

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!