Mini-Reviews: Bodyguard, Dog, Fortune-Hunting

Katherine Center, The Bodyguard

Hannah is an “executive protection agent,” a.k.a. a bodyguard, whose job is her whole life. But her latest assignment is less than ideal: the client is Jack Stapleton, a famous (and incredibly handsome) actor who has been receiving threats from a stalker. He doesn’t want to worry his sick mother by telling her he’s in danger, so he asks Hannah to pose as his girlfriend. Inevitably, their fake relationship starts feeling a bit too real for Hannah. I have really loved some of Katherine Center’s books, but this one fell flat for me. I never quite bought Hannah as a character, and I didn’t believe she was as good at her job as she claimed to be. The obstacles to the romance also seemed a bit contrived. It’s not a bad read by any means — I tore through virtually the whole thing in a day — but it’s not a keeper for me.

Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog

It’s 2057, and time travel is possible, but there are two laws that govern it: you can’t change the course of history (no killing Hitler), and you can’t bring anything back with you (such as ancient treasures or priceless works of art). That is, until historian Verity Brown returns from a trip to the Victorian era with a cat. No one knows how this could have happened, and everyone is terrified that Verity might have destroyed the space-time continuum. The only hope is to send fellow historian Ned Henry back in time to replace the cat before anyone notices it’s missing. But of course, complications immediately ensue. This is one of my all-time favorite books: it has everything from time travel and chaos theory to romance and Agatha Christie references, not to mention historical trips to the Victorian era and World War II. I can understand why the book may not be for everyone — there’s a lot of miscommunication, which can be stressful, and perhaps a bit too much going on. But I love it too much to be rational about its flaws, and I always want everyone to read it!

Sophie Irwin, A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting

Kitty Talbot desperately needs to marry a rich man. She and her four younger sisters live in a crumbling country cottage, from which they will soon be evicted unless Kitty can come up with the money to pay the mortgage. She convinces a friend of her deceased mother’s to launch her in London society, and she soon zeros in on a target: the young, wealthy, and smitten Archibald de Lacy. Archie’s older brother, Lord Radcliffe, sees through Kitty’s scheme and is determined to prevent the match. Yet the more their opposing goals throw them together, the more they actually enjoy each other’s company. The plot of this Regency romance is nothing new, but I found it great fun! Kitty’s single-minded determination (combined with the subtlety of a sledgehammer) makes her a unique heroine, and I loved the development of her relationship with Radcliffe. I’d definitely recommend this book to historical romance fans, and I’ll be interested to read more by the author.

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! 

Mini-Reviews: Winter, Brass, Princess

Anne Gracie, The Winter Bride

Freddy Monkton-Coombes doesn’t want to get married and studiously avoids respectable young ladies, but at the request of his best friend he takes the Chance sisters under his wing. Damaris Chance is beautiful, aloof, and independent, and she also has no interest in matrimony. But when Freddy needs a fake fiancée to appease his disapproving parents, Damaris agrees to help him in return for the deed to a cottage. The more time they spend together, the more they discover an inconvenient mutual attraction. This was my first book by Anne Gracie, but it won’t be my last! The plot is nothing unusual for a Regency romance (well, except for the heroine’s extremely melodramatic past), but I really loved both Damaris and Freddy, and I could see what made them right for each other. There’s quite a bit of good dialogue and banter, too, which always helps! This is book 2 in a series, but I was able to follow along just fine, and I’m interested in reading the other books now. Here’s hoping I’ve found a new historical romance author to enjoy!

Elizabeth Chatsworth, The Brass Queen

A debutante/arms dealer and a cowboy/secret agent team up to rescue a group of kidnapped scientists in this light steampunk romp. The blurb compares it to series such as Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate and Genevieve Cogman’s Invisible Library, and I’d say those comparisons are pretty fair; if you enjoy those series, you’ll probably like The Brass Queen too. It’s almost too insubstantial, and I admit I skimmed most of the sci-fi world-building stuff. But it kept me turning the pages and was a welcome distraction from some real-life stress, so I’d recommend it for fans of the genre.

Dawn Cook, Princess at Sea

***Warning: Spoilers for The Decoy Princess***

Decoy princess Tess has helped her “sister,” the true princess, reclaim the throne of Costenopolie. Now she’s been appointed ambassador to a neighboring kingdom, but on the journey out, her ship is captured by pirates, and she and her sister are both held for ransom. To escape, Tess must use all her ingenuity, as well as the magical powers she’s just beginning to understand. She must also choose between two suitors, card sharp Duncan and captain of the guard Jeck. This was a fun, entertaining fantasy novel, but it’s not a keeper for me. I was glad to see the love triangle resolved, though the book still feels open-ended enough for a sequel. Since this one was published back in 2006, however, that seems unlikely.

Mini-Reviews: Cheerfully, Scotsman, Unquiet

AJ Pearce, Yours Cheerfully

Despite World War II raging on, things are looking up for Emmy Lake. She’s in love, she and Bunty are friends again, and her work at Woman’s Friend has just gotten a lot more interesting. The British government wants more women to get involved in war work and is asking the press to promote this agenda. But when Emmy talks to some of the female factory workers, she’s dismayed by the obstacles they face, especially the lack of child care during work hours. Emmy is determined to help, but will her efforts do more harm than good? This is another charmer from AJ Pearce, and fans of Dear Mrs. Bird should enjoy it. I do think this one’s a bit more lightweight and less impactful than the first book, but if a third installment is planned, I’ll definitely seek it out!

Evie Dunmore, Portrait of a Scotsman

Harriet Greenfield is a sheltered upper-class girl and aspiring painter who dreams of marrying a kind Mr. Bingley type. Instead she finds herself in a compromising position with Lucian Blackstone, a brooding Scot with a shady past and a terrible reputation. When the two are forced to marry, they reluctantly recognize a mutual attraction, but Harriet doesn’t trust Lucian, and Lucian only wants Harriet to further his own ambitions. I enjoyed this book while reading it, but upon reflection I think it’s just okay. Lucian is a pretty standard tortured, brooding hero, and Harriet is spoiled and obnoxious. The book was a bit too steamy for me, though obviously others’ mileage will vary, and I also felt the narrative got tediously preachy about the plight of women and laborers. On the other hand, I thought the portrayal of an inter-class marriage was realistic and well done. So, this wasn’t the book for me, but I’ll still probably read the next installment of the series when it comes out.

Sharon Shinn, Unquiet Land

Leah Frothen has spent the past five years spying for Welce in a foreign land—and recovering from some traumatic life events. Now she’s returned to find (and possibly claim) the daughter she left behind, but her spying days are not quite behind her. Welce is in the midst of some tricky negotiations with a neighboring country, and Leah must befriend the foreign delegation in order to gain useful information. But what she learns is deeply disturbing, especially when it might affect her newfound relationship with her daughter. I liked this book fine, but I do think the series has run its course. Leah is a likable enough heroine, and I enjoyed her character arc and her romance (though both began in the previous book, Jeweled Fire). The plot was pretty dull, however, and I thought everything with the daughter was simplistic and contrived. Overall, a decent but unexceptional read.

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!