Review of "The Borgia Confessions" by Alyssa Palombo

Palombo, Alyssa. The Borgia Confessions. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2020.

Paperback | $16.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1250191205 | 432 pages | Historical Fiction

5 stars

I received an ARC through a Goodreads Giveaway, and am voluntarily posting a review. All opinions are my own.

I didn’t know much beyond the myths about the Borgia family prior to picking up The Borgia Confessions, but I was glad to have the opportunity to read this book after enjoying Alyssa Palombo’s previous release, The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel, which I also got through a GR Giveaway. And I enjoyed this one just as much, if not more.

Palombo’s depiction of Cesare is a great example of the difference between a “likable” protagonist and a “sympathetic” one. Cesare, like others in his family, and, as Palombo’s author’s note points out, many families during the Renaissance, is concerned with both self-preservation and consolidation of power, while also indulging in the vices that the position affords him. So, while I don’t agree with many of his choices, it’s easy to understand many of them when put into a historical context, and the more brutal ones you can’t justify in that way, like his actions where his brother Juan are concerned, can be justified on a more human level.

I enjoyed the contrast of Maddalena’s character and the life she had as a servant with little power. However, even with her station, I did like the contrast between her early encounter with Juan (Giovanni), which is reminiscent of the horror stories you hear when it comes to power imbalances between the nobility and those in service and the more blurred lines of the relationship that develops in the romance between Cesare and Maddalena, where, while he clearly goes to extreme lengths to achieve his ambitions, he treats her with love, respects her boundaries, and even entrusts her with important work related to advancing the family’s position at one point.

It’s also interesting to get more insight into Lucrezia, as she’s the one who is the most maligned in my opinion, as historical women often are. I loved seeing her through both Cesare’s and Maddalena’s eyes, as someone who, like the others in her family, did seek out passion in the wrong places at times, but was far from the malicious poisoner that she’s been made out to be, but rather a very dutiful daughter and sister, and generous mistress to her servants.

This is a delightfully rich and passionate historical novel about an incredibly scandalous historical family that I think gives some of the key players a more nuanced portrayal. I recommend it to all lovers of historical fiction.

Preorder here: https://amzn.to/2uoXsob

Review of "Owner of a Broken Heart" (Richardson Sisters #1) by Cheris Hodges

Hodges, Cheris. Owner of a Broken Heart. New York: Dafina Books, 2020.

eBook | $7.59 ($7.99 Print) | ISBN-13: 978-1496728840 | 384 pages | Contemporary Romance

4 stars

I received an ARC through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

I requested Owner of a Broken Heart completely randomly, in the interest of reading more diverse authors, and the blurb sounded promising. I really enjoy family-centered series, where that is a focus just as much as the individual member’s love story, and that works very well here.

The relationship between Nina and her family is, of course, wonderful. I love how it focuses on her personality juxtaposed against theirs, with them being particularly protective of her in the midst of her continued disasters with love, and the concern she may be moving on too fast with someone new. I particularly liked the dynamic with Alex, who plays the biggest supporting role, as the sister who lives and works in the family bed-and-breakfast while the others pursue their own thing. She’s very much a mama-bear while Nina is pursuing her new relationship with Clinton, and while it takes her a while to warm up to him, it felt earned when she did.

I also found Clinton compelling, given his situation of having difficulties with his father and idolizing the Richardson girls’ father, with the question of his loyalties forming a central part of his arc for the book. While there was never really a question in my mind about what he would choose, the antagonist of his arc still presented a realistic enough challenge that the issue felt present and not something that could be overcome too easily.

However, one of the things that comes up in Clinton and Nina’s relationship a lot over the course of the book is their respective trust issues. When his connection to someone seeking to buy out the Richardson B&B is revealed, it forms a somewhat natural conflict. However, there’s also the issue of him thinking she’s still hung up on her sort-of-ex (it’ll make sense once you read the book), and they have a blowup over that, even though she’s only shown signs of wanting to be rid of him. I expected her to have issues, but him? And over something where he doesn’t even have real reason to suspect her?

This is still a promising start to a series, with plenty of hints as to what the other sisters’ stories may entail, so I’m excited to see where it goes. I recommend this to anyone looking for a contemporary romance with a strong focus both on the romance and the importance of family.

Buy it here: https://amzn.to/3aFFsGP

Review of "American Fairytale" (Dreamers #2) by Adriana Herrera

Herrera, Adriana. American Fairytale. Toronto: Ontario: Carina Press, 2019.

Mass Market Paperback | $8.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1335215963 | 361 pages | Contemporary Romance

Adriana Herrera continues to prove herself as a rising star in diverse romance, and one with the potential for lasting staying power, with the release of American Fairytale, a second book that packs just as much of a punch as her debut. While we shift focus to Camilo “Milo” and Tom, this book also has Herrera’s hallmarks of a diverse and lovable cast and a balanced focus on both a sweet love story and weightier issues facing Latinx people, especially immigrants.

I also enjoyed the subversion of one of my least favorite tropes in this one, with Thomas being a self-made billionaire. But not only is his business rooted in his own family’s immigrant experience (he comes from a mixed White/Latinx family), he is a genuinely kind person with a focus on family, but he is for the most part self-aware of the power imbalance, even if he does have some blind spots he needs to work through later in the book due to his inattention that ruined a prior relationship.

I could understand Milo’s reservations, especially given the possibly professional implications, with Tom being a donor for his organization, and struggling to negotiate that with his feelings. But I like that, like the first book, the issues are always confronted in that moment, and it’s never something they let fester, even if it does take some bigger gestures, particularly towards the end, to truly demonstrate their commitment.

Herrera also has a great way of balancing (occasionally filthy) humor with the more serious stuff, and this one is no exception. One of my favorite bits was when Milo sent Tom a video of him participating in one of the organization’s dancing classes, complete with a text exchange showing how “excited” Tom was getting.

This a wonderful second book, and I can’t wait to check out book three and everything else to come from Adriana Herrera. And if you love diverse contemporaries with large casts of characters, and a lot of humor and heart, this book is for you.

Buy it here: https://amzn.to/36czPwb

Review of "Lady Clementine" by Marie Benedict

Benedict, Marie. Lady Clementine. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Landmark, 2020.

Hardcover | $26.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1492666905 | 322 pages | Historical Fiction

4 stars

After having read Stephanie Barron’s book about Winston Churchill’s mother last year, I was excited to read Marie Benedict’s Lady Clementine, to get to know his wife, since I heard she played a role in supporting him throughout his career when doing some further reading on him and his family. And while, narratively, the story does feel a little uneven, jumping around at times (although I understand the necessity to cover roughly half a century) and sometimes feeling a little slow, I enjoyed this one, and feel like Benedict managed to more or less engage me with her subject.

Benedict captures Clementine’s growth as a person and the impact her growing political involvement has in her complex marriage with Churchill. I enjoyed insight into what how their respective dysfunctional families bonded them, but also admired the way she maintained her marriage to Winston, in spite of political differences.

This is another solid Marie Benedict book, highlighting a largely uncelebrated historical woman who played an important role in history. I recommend this to all lovers of historical fiction.

Buy it here: https://amzn.to/2R6veHn

Review of "The Heiress Effect" (Brothers Sinister #2) by Courtney Milan

Milan, Courtney. The Heiress Effect. [United States]: Courtney Milan, 2013.

eBook | $4.99 (also part of the $9.99 Brothers Sinister Box Set) | 978-1937248154 |280 pages | Victorian Romance

5 stars

Thus far, Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister series can more or less be summed up with the words “consistently brilliant.” Building on the backstory of The Governess Affair and Oliver’s introduction as a supporting character in The Duchess War, The Heiress Effect fleshes him out, adding to what we know about his backstory, who, inspired by his past, wants to become involved in politics to give the common people a voice. The struggle between “ambition vs. love” that was a thread in his father’s story is key to his narrative as well, as he falls for someone completely unsuitable.

I already liked Oliver as seen from Robert’s perspective, but I like him as a character in his own right as well. I like that he wants to make something of himself to make things better for others. And while he does have a bit of short-sightedness, feeling he can’t be with Jane, even telling her so in a somewhat cavalier manner, I felt like he grew to the point of understanding that what she means to him is more important than having an impeccable reputation.

Jane is a wonderful heroine. It was great seeing how she was sure of who she was, and that she actually embraced being a failure in society, to the point of exaggerating it. And when the reason for rejecting convention, her relationship with her sister, whose well-being she fears for in the care of their uncle, I truly admired her.

I also like that Milan managed to balance a secondary romance plot without the book feeling too bulky, or without deviating from the central plot with Oliver and Jane. Emily is such a wonderful character, who is determined to live her life to the fullest in spite of having epilepsy, and I loved the romance she had with Anjan.

And speaking of which…I love Milan’s dedication to adding diversity in her books in a way that is respectful to the various cultures and/or identities she’s writing about. In this case, Anjan is an incredibly well-written character, and it led to me learning something about the real life inspiration for his character as well.

This is a wonderful second full novel in the Brothers Sinister series, and I heartily recommend it to any historical romance fan who hasn’t picked it up yet.

The Heiress Effect: https://amzn.to/3amlCQv

Brothers Sinister Box Set: https://amzn.to/2FZgmEn

(Sort of) Review of "An Uncommon Woman" by Laura Frantz

Frantz, Laura. An Uncommon Woman. Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2020.

Paperback | $15.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0800734954 | 377 pages | Historical Romance/Christian Fiction

I received a complimentary copy as a part of the Revell Reads Blog Tour Program, in exchange for an honest review.

That said, this won’t be much of a review, as while one of the conditions of the program is posting a review, I didn’t have to finish the book. And I made the mistake of requesting thi book out of excitement to read more by the author, without reading the blurb, even when I received the book in the mail. It was only when I finally picked it up to read that alarm bells started going off, what with the recent resurgence of discussion around proper representation of diverse voices in romance novels due to the RWA scandal, and the lingering memory of some unfortunate titles in the “inspirational” category receiving mainstream attention.

I suspect Frantz had good intent, having flipped to the back of the book and looked at her author’s note. But it is a bit disconcerting to see her perspective is primarily a scholarly one, so it comes off as another white author wanting to write about something “exotic, but not too exotic,” a problem that has plagued romance for a long time. This holds a lot of weight when you consider the fact that her hero and a supporting character both are essentially white people who were “captured” and lived among the “Indians,” with the plot set to see the heroine captured as well (I didn’t get that far…and I got almost two hundred pages in).

And the plot and characters were so lacking in…really…anything, which made the issues I had with the rep stand out even more. The one positive I guess is that she mastered the time period language, but when it’s juxtaposed with “time period accurate” everything else, it just falls super flat.

In short, don’t recommend. But like some of the other problematic Christian romances (or really any Christian romances, this seems to be the sort of book that appeals very specifically to their target demographic.

Review of "A Delicate Deception" (Regency Impostors #3) by Cat Sebastian (+ Affiliate News)

Sebastian, Cat. A Delicate Deception. New York: Avon Impulse, 2019.

eBook | $3.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062820679 | 384 pages | Regency Romance

3.5 stars

I included the first two Regency Impostors books on my “best of 2019,” simply under the series title, with some anticipation that I would be able to talk about A Delicate Deception as highly. However, while I enjoyed elements of this, like the unapologetic queerness of the two leads and the fact the absolutely adorable development of their relationship, other parts fell a little flat.

Cat continues to create such scrumptious male characters. I love the exploration of Sydney’s grief over the losses he’s experienced, and his presentation as grumpy withotu being annoying, a failing in the characterization of many a grumpy hero.

I also like that, in Amelia, he was paired with someone who also was a bit closed-off, and seeing them interact with that in common is interesting and outside the norm, since romance usually tries to play up opposing personalities. My favorite chapters have to be the two consisting solely of their correspondence. While it’s not really the “thing” anymore, if it had been an epistolary work, I would not have objected.

However, the plot meandered, to the point of me struggling to follow it. There are some fun elements, like a bit of family dynamics, and the discussion of Amelia’s historical novels (a bit I also enjoyed in A Duke in Disguise), but there didn’t seem to be a ton of direction for the story overall.

If anything, the characters are amusing and they saved me from being truly bored. Cat Sebastian has rapidly become an autobuy, and one or two disappointments have not put me off an author that frequently writes such entertaining stories. I recommend this if you are a more character-focused reader, and you are ready to become invested in the hijinks of these unique characters, because that alone makes it somewhat worth it.

Also, final note: I recently registered to become an Amazon Affiliate! So, if by chance you haven’t gotten this book yet, and are interested in trying it, I’d appreciate the support.

Buy the book here: https://amzn.to/30pWx2x

Review of "A Duke a Dozen" (The Survivors #6) by Shana Galen

Galen, Shana. A Duke a Dozen. [United States]: Shana Galen, 2019.

Paperback | $14.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1687469892 | 421 pages | Regency Romance

4 stars

After the age-gap relationship where the hero was older in the previous book, it was a nice touch to have an older heroine this time around in A Duke a Dozen. And as has become the hallmark of this series, we get a good balance of some light-hearted moments (although the focus is much more on the romance over the friendship this time around, with the story taking the characters away from London and the Draven Club), emotional reckoning, and a dash of suspense.

While Phin isn’t my favorite of the Survivors (I still have a soft spot for Draven, after the previous book), I enjoyed seeing him trying to reckon with the new expectations, due to the “accidents” the befell his older brothers, leaving him saddled with the title. And while he initially came to Annabel out of suspicion, I love how kindly he treated her, as a contrast to her late husband.

I truly felt for Annabel, however. A bad arranged marriage is nothing new to historical romance, as it wouldn’t have been uncommon during this time period, but it’s the little touches that made her experience unique. The way her husband made her unable to properly experience pleasure was moving, but even more so was the sad fate for her daughter, who was the impetus for her seeking Phin’s help.

The mystery does feel a tad obvious in this one, and, admittedly, I almost forgot it was important with everything else going on, so were it not for the last-minute resolution by the end, I may not have missed that detail

This is another great installment in a wonderful series, and I can’t wait for the next one releasing in just under a month as of this writing. I recommend this to fans of Regency romances.

Review of "Faker" by Sarah Smith

Smith, Sarah. Faker. New York: Jove, 2019.

Paperback | $16.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1984805423 | 327 pages | Contemporary Romance

5 stars

I hadn’t heard much buzz around Faker as I had some of the other 2019 trade cartoon cover books, so, on the one hand, I was happy to go in mostly blind, but on the other, I did have some doubts about why it wasn’t worth promoting…especially looking back on the books that did get promoted that I didn’t like.

And I now feel like people have been sleeping on this one. Granted, I do have some biases, when it comes to the material. While it’s not the setting, I love that the heroine, Emmie, grew up in Hawaii (although she grew up in Kona, a place I’m only marginally familiar with), and seeing discussions of the environment and the culture, not to mention the food (finally, someone who actually knows what a spam musubi is!) is always great to see in mainstream fiction published for the wider U.S. (and occasionally world) market.

And while I did have my doubts about the premise, as enemies-to-lovers could go either way for me, I ended up liking it. I liked seeing Emmie succeed in a traditionally male-dominated field and the exploration of having to “fake” a tougher persona as a result. And the way it plays into her evolving relationship with Tate, especially given some of the later revelations regarding his initial hostility, is incredibly well done.

This is a great rom-com, with a great infusion of culture and an awesome cast of characters that I hope will spawn sequels/spinoffs. I would recommend this to rom-com lovers and those looking for good Filipino-American rep in romance.

Review of "The Prince of Broadway" (Uptown Girls #2) by Joanna Shupe

Shupe, Joanna. The Prince of Broadway. New York: Avon Books, 2020.

Mass Market Paperback | $7.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062906830 | 376 pages | Historical Romance–Gilded Age

4.5 stars

I had mixed feelings going into The Prince of Broadway. On the one hand, revenge plots have never worked out for me. But on the other hand, both the blutb and many people promoting it suggested it would turn out differently, so I gave it a chance, with full faith in Joanna Shupe to make the premise work.

And it does. While Clay does do a bit of lying by omission, he is for the most part fairly blunt about his intent to Florence from their first encounter, and he does his best not to involve her, even though, inevitably, it does, because, well, it is her family and it also impacts her own dreams. And I love how, in spite of his hatred for her father, he sees Florence as her own person, and even if it starts as him helping her to get on her father’s nerves, he encourages her in her dreams to run a casino.

And Florence is my favorite Shupe heroine to date. I love her determination to make her own living, in defiance of the traditional expectations of the time period, a topic that she discusses with both her father and grandmother. And the inclusion of the fact that she doesn’t want marriage (minor spoiler alert: she doesn’t get married) or children is wonderful, and reminds me a lot of the conversations going on recently, both with redefining what we think of as “historically accurate” and rethinking the idea that “HEA =/= ‘marriage and babies.'”

And the secondary characters…while I wasn’t sure what to make of the dad character in The Rogue of Fifth Avenue, I grew to like him more in this one, in part because it illustrates how proud he is of his daughters, even if he did go overboard to protect him, as well as the similarities he shares with Florence. And Florence’s grandmother is a gem for supporting her dream of opening a casino, as well as being incredible in this one scene between her and Clay. I hope they’ll both still be a part of the next book.

This is a delightful book that surprised me by turning a loathed trope on its head and made it work. I recommend this to historical romance lovers, especially those looking for more of the Gilded Age.

Review of "Lord of the Last Heartbeat" (The Sacred Dark #1) by May Peterson

Peterson, May. Lord of the Last EHeartbeat. Toronto, Ontario: Carina Press/Harlequin, 2019.

eBook | $4.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1488025102 | 351 pages | Fantasy Romance

5 stars

I picked up Lord of the Last Heartbeat because I happen to follow May Peterson on Twitter, and she also recently withdrew this title from the RITAs in the midst of the ongoing RWA kerfuffle. And, although I didn’t plan it this way when I started it, I read it on her birthday, and was pleasantly surprised by the serendipity.

This is an excellent debut fantasy romance, with an incredibly sensual writing and a beautiful romance in the midst of darkness. The fantasy elements in particular are super interesting, with inclusion mythical creatures like sirens and witches. I really enjoyed the twist on Mio’s character being the siren son of a witch who wishes to stop being used to further her ends.

He finds a great romantic partner in Rhodry, a cursed moon-soul, and their developing relationship was at turns sweet, sometimes sensual, and occasionally quite dark. But the relationship at its core is one of acceptance, especially of Mio’s gender identity, and that facet in particular is wonderful to read, especially since it’s likely very personal to Peterson’s own journey.

This is a wonderful fantasy romance that hits all the right notes, and Peterson is a great rising talent who I can’t wait to read more from. I recommend this to to fantasy romance lovers, especially those looking for a new and more inclusive take on the genre.

Review of "Sweet Talkin' Lover" (Girls' Trip #1) by Tracey Livesay

Livesay, Tracey. Sweet Talkin’ Lover. New York: Avon Books, 2020.

Mass Market Paperback | $7.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062979544 | 363 pages | Contemporary Romance

4 stars

There’s been a lot of discourse about small town/Hallmark-y romance being overwhelmingly white lately, and it’s made me realize, not knowing much about the genre, how problematic it is. However, Sweet Talkin’ Lover is a standout book that attempts to diversify the genre, doing so with great success, highlighting both the fun things (the book is set around a Harvest Festival and all the related activities that come with it) and the darker elements that tend to get ignored, like the racism the black heroine faces from some people in town.

I enjoyed the relationship building between Caila and Wyatt. While there is tension between them due to their opposing positions (and it does come to a head toward the end), I loved seeing their feelings grow for one another. The stakes behind the decisions they have to make are so important, and I loved seeing them navigate that in a way that didn’t actively seek out to hurt the other person, even prior to falling for one another.

I did feel a little let down that the relationship between Caila and her friends was more peripheral, especially given how the friendship was promoted as a big part of the series. I hope, given the glimpses we’re given, that it will be stronger element in later books, and it simply had to be sidelined because of it was necessary for the plot in this one.

I enjoyed this one, and look forward to reading more of Livesay’s work. I recommend this to someone looking for a fun interracial small-town romance that’s the perfect mix of sweet and sexy.

Review of "The Soldier's Scoundrel" (The Turner Series #1) by Cat Sebastian

Sebastian, Cat. The Soldier’s Scoundrel. New York: Avon Impulse, 2016.

EBook | $3.99 USD | ISBN-13: 977-0062642486 | 336 pages | Regency Romance

4 stars

At long last, I’ve finally went back and picked up Cat Sebastian’s historical romance debut, The Soldier’s Scoundrel. And while I think she’s only improved with time, this one has all her signature charm.

There’s a saying I heard not too long ago that you can make a problematic trope less so by “making it gay,” and while I feel it also requires some nuance to understand LGBTQ+ issues (which Sebastian demonstrates), this is a great case of that maxim proving true. This story follows a gentleman and scoundrel, with a fall into love that works much more than many heterosexual cross-class romances, for getting rid of the double standards, while also exploring the issues facing gay men in this time period.

I loved seeing Jack get past his biases toward the nobility through his relationship with Oliver, making this a great transition from dislike to love that can be hard to get right without either being too far gone to be forgivable or just feeling petty.

This is a strong start from an author who has now become one of my favorite authors. I recommend this for those looking for good LGBTQ+ rep in historical romance.

Review of "The Thief of Lanwyn Manor" (The Cornwall Novels #2) by Sarah E. Ladd

Ladd, Sarah E. The Thief of Lanwyn Manor. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2020.

EBook | $8.99 USD ($15.99 USD Print) | ISBN-13: 978-0785223269 | 352 pages | Christian Fiction/Regency Romance

I received an ARC of this book through Netgalley to read in exchange for a fair review.

The Thief of Lanwyn Manor is the second in Sarah E. Ladd’s latest series, the Cornwall novels, but, as is typical of the author’s style, while there are small connections you appreciate if you read in order, the stories completely stand alone and the characters of book one have almost nothing to do with this book.

And admittedly, I’m kind of glad, as while that first book was ok, it was one of her weaker efforts, and very cliche, while this one is more of a return to form. The constant is that the setting of Cornwall remains beautifully realized, and the story feels atmospheric, while exploring a different nefarious deed that hasn’t been treaded to the point where it’s become a stereotype.

Isaac in particular is great, with his concern for those working in the mine he and his family own. Ladd’s books have slowly begun to focus more on the issues of the working class in this period (an aspect I also loved in her previous stand alone book, The Weaver’s Daughter), and she does so in a way that left me feeling enlightened and reflecting on the issues in comparison to today.

I really enjoyed the romantic tension in this one, especially as Julia grows closer to Isaac, in spite of his brother initially seeming like a more ideal suitor. This also leads to great character development between the brothers as well, especially given Matthew has a connection to the things going on.

There is a mystery, but while Ladd’s build-up is fantastic, as noted with the development of setting in terms of Gothic atmosphere, the reveal is a little underwhelming and predictable, and now that I’ve grown as a reader, I can recognize that as a flaw in many of her books, where it’s less “aha!” when you put the pieces together, and more “but of course it is.”

This is not my favorite Sarah Ladd title, but I still enjoyed it for the most part. I recommend it to people looking for a sweet read that also has a thread of suspense.

Review of "Lady Derring Takes a Lover" (The Palace of Rogues #1) by Julie Anne Long

Long, Julie Anne. Lady Derring Takes a Lover. New York: Avon Books, 2019.

eBook | $5.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062867476 | 384 pages | Regency Romance

4 stars

I had mixed experiences with Julie Anne Long’s previous work, really enjoying one of the middle books in the Pennyroyal Green series when I first got into romance but not feeling compelled to continue, then being put off entirely by the early books. With Lady Derring Takes a Lover, Long appears to have mastered her craft since those earlier books, as while there is a lot of setup, it’s balanced well with a much more engaging love story.

In terms of that setup, I really enjoyed the friendship between Delilah and Angelique. They begin the book as the widow and former mistress, respectively, of the same man, and while it could have led to animosity, I enjoyed seeing them bond over the poor circumstances Lord Derring left them in. I feel like female friendships aren’t given as much emphasis as male ones in romance, and to have it come from a situation like this is so refreshing.

While the romance takes its time to start, once it does, it’s swoonworthy. I loved seeing Delilah discovering pleasure for the first time, as well as what it means to be cared for. And Tristan, who is usually more contained, is attracted to her almost immediately, allowing him to let his guard down.

The one major plot point I found a little out of place was the mystery. It presents an opportunity for Tristan and Delilah to make contact, as it centers on Lord Derring, but other than that, it feels rather underwhelming. However, I did enjoy how it provided context to the work Tristan does.

This is a great start to a new series from a well-loved author who I’m hoping to give more of a chance going forward. I recommend this to those looking for more historical romances that prominently feature female friendships, especially between unlikely people.

Review of "Brightly Burning" by Alexa Donne

Donne, Alexa. Brightly Burning. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.

Hardcover | $17.99 USD |ISBN-13: 978-1328948939 | 394 pages | YA Science Fiction

3 stars

I had Brightly Burning on my radar for a while, and FINALLY had time to get to it. The idea of “Jane Eyre in space” intrigued me, and while it’s not the perfect book, I enjoyed it for the most part.

The best part of the book is the way it reimagines the romance. I’ve mentioned in previous Jane Eyre retelling reviews how much the Jane/Rochester romance bothers me, so I’m always up for a version that makes it less creepy. And this one is. I loved the tension between Stella and the slightly broody, but still likable Captain Hugo. They have a great slow-burn relationship that I was rooting for throughout, and without a lot of the major complications of their classic counterparts.

As a sci-fi book, my feelings are a bit…mixed… in terms of the world building. I enjoyed some of it, like the idea that they’re looking back a couple hundred years in the future on stuff that is still relatively modern to us. But it contradicts itself quickly, with the idea that Stella would leave an engineering job to become a governess of all things. It’s stated in the blurb, but I would have liked some further explanation as to why a futuristic society incorporated some concepts from Ye Olden Days, while seeming farther advanced in others.

This is a fun concept, but it could have done with some fine-tuning. I’m hoping Donne’s forthcoming Austen-inspired book will have sorted out some of these issues. But it’s a fun retelling that you don’t have to have read the classic to understand, and one I would recommend to someone looking for a fun YA sci-fi romanc.

Review of "Unraveled" (Turner #3) by Courtney Milan

Milan, Courtney. Unraveled. [United States]: Courtney Milan, 2011.

Mass Market Paperback | $8.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1536983678 | 325 pages | Victorian Romance

4 stars

Unraveled is my least favorite in the Turner series, but that doesn’t mean it’s not objectively a good book…I just preferred elements of the previous two more. While it’s an earlier book of hers, Milan already showed signs of mastering her craft with an awareness of the unique heroes and heroines she wanted to write, and self-publishing giving her an avenue to have full creative control.

I love the depth she gave to Smite’s work as magistrate, likely drawing somewhat on her own legal background, without the story feeling too heavy handed and bashing the reader over the head with legal-speak. And while he’s another emotionally scarred hero, I like that, while he presents himself as being a bit emotionally detached, it’s not something he lets define him, which is particularly obvious when he makes a statement about not being “broken.”

A hallmark of Milan’s stories seems to be perfectly balancing the romance with family dynamics, and that’s the case here as well, especially given Smite’s uneasy relationship with Ash, due to what happened in the past. However, there’s also adorableness, particularly between him and Mark and a certain puppy…

I enjoyed seeing him bond with Miranda, first physically, then emotionally. I wasn’t massively drawn to Miranda herself, although I admired her dedication to the young boy in her care, and how that factored into the relationship between her and Smite.

While not one of my personal favorites, I can’t deny there’s quite a bit to love here. And while I don’t know that I’d start here with Courtney Milan, I would recommend it to someone who is exploring her backlist a bit more, perhaps after reading at least the other two novels in the series.

Review of "Misleading Miss Verity" (Regency Brides: Daughters of Aynsley #3) by Carolyn Miller

Miller, Carolyn. Misleading Miss Verity. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2019.

Paperback | $15.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0825445910 | 342 pages | Christian Fiction/Regency Romance

5 stars

Misleading Miss Verity is a bittersweet goodbye to Carolyn Miller’s Regency Brides world, as it seems she’s going in a new direction with her next book. And as such, I’m glad this is a good book to send the series off on.

This story, like many of her books, is rich in character growth. While it was hard to know what to expect from Verity, given her peripheral role as a side character in her sisters’ books, I liked her emotional journey toward growing in faith in God in a way that didn’t feel forced. I also like that she’s independent minded, and despite initial difficulties, finds someone who respects that.

I also enjoyed seeing Anthony adjusting to his new role of laird of Dungally. I thought it was great to see him apply his desire to help people and undo the legacy of carlessness sowed by the previous laird. I love that he was just a good person, and while there was some misleading going on, it was with good intent.

Like all the Regency Brides books, there is a great sense of place, particularly when the characters are in Scotland. She immerses the reader in the scenery, language, and customs, so it feels like you’re there. She also presents something a little bit closer to her home, with some scenes in New South Wales at the beginning, and I think it’s fascinating to see a writer depict the history of their homeland in one of their books.

This is a great book, and I recommend it to fans of inspirational historical romance.

Review of "The Wicked Redhead" (The Wicked City #2) by Beatriz Williams

Williams, Beatriz. The Wicked Redhead. New York: William Morrow, 2019.

Hardcover | $26.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062660312 | 406 pages | Historical Fiction

4 stars

The Wicked Redhead, the long-awaited sequel to a prior Beatriz Williams release, The Wicked City (2017), came out as people were talking about it once again being the Twenties, and while I can do without some of the darker and more tragic elements (both depicted here and not), it is exciting to have a book likely marketed specifically to tap into this heightened excitement, especially one with an already established set of characters.

This time around, the story feels much more cohesive, with the connections between the two arcs being much more obvious, beyond the tenuous one that was established at the outset. Both Ella and Gin are dealing with situations related to expectations of love and domesticity, albeit in different ways: Gin rebels against the idea due to seeing what childbirth did to her mother; Ella resists the idea of having a child conceived with her unfaithful ex-husband.

I enjoying the journey with both leads. Gin’s story takes up more page time, and while I enjoyed seeing her go on her dangerous adventure, I wish there had been more of Ella. She is so much more interesting this time around with the exploration of family dynamics, from the fact that the father who raised her isn’t her biological father to the decisions she is forced to make about Patrick and the baby and Hector, that I coudln’t help but want more from her arc.

I hope we haven’t seen the last of Gin or Ella (the endings of both arcs suggest there’s more to come!), and that it won’t be quite as long of a wait till the next installment. And I recommend this to historical fiction lovers and those who love layeres stories with family drama and adventure.

2019 Wrap-Up

I took my elaborate notes this year, to make a note of all the different challenges I was imposing on myself, as well as just to have more precise (for the most part) genre stats, to supplement the Goodreads data. 

I read 426 books in 2019 (# pages). I was weird about counting DNFs this year, so while some that I got a ways into are included in this number, many are not. Also, not the page number may not be accurate, as Goodreads page counts occasionally differ from the actual book, especially for self published books. 

Other Goodreads stats:

Shortest Book: Mating Habits by Catherine Stein (52 pages)

Longest Book: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson (1,258 pages, mass market edition)

Most Popular Book: Becoming by Michelle Obama

Least Popular Book: Mating Habits by Catherine Stein

Average rating: 4.2 stars

Highest Rated Book: Mating Habits by Catherine Stein (5.00 average)

2019 Challenges/Goals

  1. Goodreads Goal: Started at 250, due to expectations of life changes at the end of last year reducing reading time. Ending up raising the goal to 300, gradually increasing it higher and higher until I read . At the end, I read 426. 
  2. Read no more than 50 books with duke heroes: A “for my sanity”/motivational goal to continue to move outside what I typically read…also a hallmark of the fact that I’ve grown to hate more Romancelandia dukes. Read 14, although historical romance is still a dominant genre for me. 
  3. Read at least 120 books by AoC: I fell short of this goal at 105, and also did not increase the goal as much as I had originally hoped as my GR goal increased. However, I still feel like I was exposed to a bunch of authors I had not previously tried, as well as keeping up with some I had read before. 
  4. Complete all the prompts for Robin Covington’s Diverse Reading Challenge: I did well with this, reading multiple books for most of the categories, and discovering several OwnVoices creators, such as April Daniels, Robin Talley, and Alexis Hall, as well as continuing to read some authors that were familiar to me, like Alyssa Cole, Helen Hoang, and Sherry Thomas. 
  5. Read more genres: While I was and still remain heavily devoted to historical fiction, both romance and non-romance, I made a point of stepping outside my comfort zone this year, selecting a number of genres I was interested in trying or reading more of: 
    1. Erotic Romance: 4. I’ve always tended more toward lower heat, but I was curious to know whether erotic romance could work for me, and to be more informed about the distinction between that and erotica. I read four books that I consider erotic romance, and while it’s still not my go-to genre, I tend to like when there’s substance to it, as with For Real by Alexis Hall. One of my picks was also a novella, Sweet Surrender by Naima Simone,  and I’m not certain I want to try that length or shorter again, although I’m not opposed to trying another of her books. 
    2. Paranormal Romance:  This was a tough one, as I don’t like alpha heroes, yet I foolishly set this goal to see if there were any that were an exception. Unfortunately, I largely read within my comfort zone, sticking to historical paranormal and steampunk, with one exception: the novella, “Lola Flannigan” by Ella Drake. The number is also inflated, due to the inclusion of the In Death series, due to their technical classification as Futuristic Romance.
    3. Romantic Suspense: My experience with the genre thus far has been the In Death series and some one-offs, including some by Nora Roberts. I didn’t venture out much, with the exception of Jennifer L. Armentrout’s Moonlight Sins
    4. Contemporary Romance: I did really well with this, in large part due to the  number of diverse contemporaries I was interested in this year. 
    5. Women’s Fiction/Chick Lit/Non-Romantic Contemporary: I did pick up some books in this genre this year, but I wasn’t as invested in non-romantic (or romance as subplot) contemporaries. Many of the ones I did pick up were due to the new trend of cross-promotion of these with romance (thank you, cartoon covers?) or once again due to the racial diversity, but I still feel like I’m aware of where my tastes are with these now. 
    6. Science Fiction: Prior to this year, I was mostly interested in Star Wars and that was as far as I got with sci-fi…and that’s more sci-fantasy, anyway. But while I did read more Star Wars, I also read more sci-fi (and sci-fantasy) that wasn’t associated with that juggernaut. From the first two books by Jessie Mihalik to Sangu Mandanna to Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy, I found books that excited me. Not to mention Brandon Sanderson, who writes just as good sci-fi as he does fantasy. 
    7. Mystery/Thriller: I definitely picked up an assortment of these this year, with mixed results. This is the year I became really jaded with historical mysteries, unfortunately, and I haven’t found a ton of contemporary mysteries that appeal to me a ton either. 
  6. Do monthly mini-challenges, related to a theme for the month/season: I definitely did better at this earlier in the year. I did a Bookish Bingo and Black History theme for February (the latter also was sort of overlapping with Blackathon, but not completely).  I participated in the Rereadathon in March, but ended up only reading one book. I participated in the Asian Readathon in May, completing every challenge except the graphic novel. I did Pride Month reading in June, covering L, G, B, T, and P. June-August were also occupied by  Ripped Bodice Bingo, where I got a few Bingos. 

Stats

Books by AoC Read: 105

New-to-me authors tried this year: 184

DNFed: 44 books

Genre Breakdown: 

Historical Romance

  • Regency: 78
  • Victorian: 41
  • American (includes all American settings, like Gilded Age and Historical Western: 23
  • Other (non-popular, niche settings): 8
  • Medieval: 2

Historical Fiction: 70

Christian Fiction: 30

Contemporary Romance: 46

Erotic Romance: 4

Paranormal Romance: 

  • Paranormal: 17
  • Steampunk: 10
  • Sci-fi/Futuristic: 35
  • Fantasy: 1

Romantic Suspense: 37

Contemporary/Women’s Fiction: 18

Fantasy: 63

Science Fiction: 31

Magical Realism: 1

Mystery/Thriller: 19

Horror: 1

Nonfiction: 

  • Biography/Autobiography/Memoir: 12
  • Self-Help: 1
  • Anthologies: 15
  • Literary Criticism: 1

Graphic Novels: 1

Best of 2019

  1. The Duchess War, Courtney Milan: I officially discovered Courtney Milan this year, and while there were some hits and some misses, particularly as I started with her early work, this book, her breakout into self-publishing, is a winner. I quickly fell in love with Robert, a duke who wants to abolish the aristocracy, and Minerva, a wallflower running from a scandalous past. And in addition to a remarkable romantic arc, the book has the setup for a great family story that carries over multiple books in the Brothers Sinister, and I can’t wait to delve into them all. 
  2. An Unconditional Freedom, Alyssa Cole: The entire Loyal League series is masterful, but I have a special place in my heart for this one, because of the marvelous character development, highlighting some of the complex issues of the Civil War, like the PTSD experienced by those once enslaved and the identity issues children born of slave-owner “relationships” faced. My heart ached for Daniel, but loved that he was able to turn his experience into a positive one through his work in the Loyal League. As for Janeta, I applaud Cole for approaching a topic that could be controversial with such sensitivity, depicting her growth from someone expected to be loyal to her father and the Confederacy to finding a new cause in the Loyal League. 
  3. Forbidden, Beverly Jenkins: Beverly Jenkins is a freaking romance legend, and while I haven’t read much from her as of yet, I’m glad I got to this one, as well as some of her other recent historicals, this year, especially given the recent adaptation news for this book. I love the way the love story was interspersed with some hard-hitting issues of Black history, discussing concepts like Passing, postwar racial tensions, and political activism in a way that doesn’t feel overly preachy, but allows you to feel like you’re learning while also engrossed in a good story. 
  4. A Notorious Vow, Joanna Shupe: One of my favorite Joanna Shupe books, if not my absolute favorite. Shupe delved into Deaf culture to create her hero, Oliver, especially when it came to the battle over the usage of sign language, and later, the battle to prove his mental competence. He is paired with the perfect heroine in Christina, who deals with social anxiety, which is something I have personal experience with. I loved this twist with two reclusive protagonists who must challenge themselves in order to prove their love, and Shupe’s depth of care in writing them is wonderful. 
  5. Regency Impostors series by Cat Sebastian: While I haven’t read book 3 yet, due to the print release not being until the end of January, I’ve enthusiastically loved the first two installments. While I’ve loved a couple of her m/m books, I am glad she expanded her repertoire to include non-binary and bisexual representation, especially given the conversations around the vast preference for m/m in mainstream LGBTQ romance over the other letters. Unmasked by the Marquess not only features a subversive twist on the woman-dressed-as-a-man with the non-binary lead Robin, as they fall for a grumpy, forward thinking (in regards to sexuality and gender identiy) marquess.  A Duke in Disguise demonstrates an understanding what it means to be bi: attracted to both men and women, and the fact that you end up with the opposite sex doesn’t mean you’re not also attracted to men. But it also doesn’t mean that the HEA is any less possible, especially as Verity and Ash are absolutely perfect for one another. All of Cat’s books debunk the myth that “HEAs for LGBTQ+ people are historically inaccurate!” but I very much recommend these for their charm and excellent depiction of a spectrum of queer characters. 
  6. The Bashful Bride, Vanessa Riley: Despite not being a fan of most power imbalances, I love the idea of a “fan” meeting their favorite celebrity, and Vanessa Riley’s take on this idea in the Regency era is wonderful. While sweet on the surface, I love how Riley also includes some of her talent for incorporating tough issues in a way that doesn’t feel heavy-handed. Actor Arthur Bex’s involvement with the abolitionist movement and exposure of the prejudices Black people faced in Regency England are compelling additions to the plot, as these two carve out a relationship together. 
  7. Dare to Love a Duke, Eva Leigh: While I have enjoyed almost everything Eva Leigh has put out on some level (honorable mention to  this year’s release, My Fake Rake), this one may be her best work, and one I’ll probably always recommend to friends. I love the sex positivity of this story, with the courtesan heroine, Lucia, and the progressive duke Thomas, especially the way he respects her throughout, which is surprisingly rare in a genre that was sold to me as largely being sex positive, but also contains pearl-clutchers (case in point: the awful Smart Bitches review). 
  8. How to Love a Duke in Ten Days, Kerrigan Byrne: Kerrigan Byrne can be a bit hit-or-miss for me, due to how heavily she focuses on bad boys, but this one hit it out of the park for me. The hero is by her own admission, “one of the good ones,” with his biggest hurdle being a bit of misogyny, in keeping with the time period expectations. But it’s his pairing with Alexandra Lane that makes the story work. I loved the emphasis on Alexandra’s dark past, with an extended prologue highlighting her sexual assault and her retaliation, leading to her to carry around a lot of guilt and shame, which can be bleak for some, especially if you don’t go in prepared for it, however it is not gratuitous, and I love how it informs the rest of the narrative. But her bravery in spite of everything she’s experienced, as well as the hints provided about the experiences of her friends, prove this is going to be a dark, heroine focused series that ultimately sees them put their lives back together. And the way she and Piers overcome the obstacles to their love, especially once he comes to realize the truth, is absolutely beautiful. 
  9. For Real, Alexis Hall: I had no idea what I was getting into with this one, but I’m glad I took the chance. I tend to stay away from BDSM on principle, because while I’m not opposed to it, I feel like a Fifty Shades-esque setup with the alpha dom and the sweet submissive would be more common, although I admit I’m not that knowledgeable on the subject and am open to be proven wrong. Enter For Real, and it’s older, jaded sub and younger, somewhat inexperienced dom. That worked well, because I loved how well Laurence and Toby worked as romantic leads. The sexy and kinky bits were also juxtaposed by more tender moments as well, like Toby making breakfast the morning after their first night together, which is the first moment I feel like I thought this book might be something I could enjoy. 
  10. The Bride Test, Helen Hoang: Helen Hoang makes the list for the second consecutive year! Once again, I love how she uses her personal experiences as inspiration for her romances, this time not only featuring a major character on the autism spectrum in the lovably awkward hero, Khai, but also an immigrant heroine in Esme, reflective of her mother’s experience. With a good mix of hilarity (Khai getting the “sex talk” from Michael and Quân!) and heart, while this one took a little longer to become invested in than its predecessor, once I fell, I fell hard. 
  11. Ayesha at Last, Uzma Jalaluddin: It is a truth universally acknowledged that Islamophobia is a major issue, and this book tackles that with a light touch, through the format of a loose retelling of Pride and Prejudice. I was moved by the exploration of Khalid’s experience as a conservative Muslim working for a firm in Toronto, and the marginalizations he faces in this environment. This is juxtaposed with the relationship he develops with the independent Ayesha, who he thinks, in  a comedy of errors, his her cousin and his betrothed. There is some of the traditional Lizy/Darcy dynamic between them, but with a fresh twist, to suit the new setting and concepts Jalauddin is working with, and she pulls it off masterfully. 
  12. There’s Something About Sweetie, Sandhya Menon: This book presents body positivity done right. Sweetie is confident in who she is, and a great athlete, defying a common stereotype of overweight people. While it does also contain a narrative of her overly critical mother, I love that she doesn’t let this bother her too much, especially as she’s made up her mind to pursue a relationship with Ashish. Ashish is also great once I got over seeing him in the shadow of his brother Rishi from the previous book. While he does have a bit of growth to go through, particularly in terms of figuring out where things stand with his ex, I like that he liked Sweetie from their first meeting, seeing what they had in common (their shared love of sports) over preconceived notions about her weight. 
  13. Singapore Fling, Maida Malby: Maida Malby presents another feast for the senses with the second installment in her Carole Diem Chronicles, with great sense of place from scenery descriptions to the lush food porn. And her leads, Aidan and Maddie, are two confident people at the top of their game professionally, who come together wonderfully, complementing each other perfectly. And of course there’s a lot of heart with the plot centering around the importance of family, especially found family. 
  14. The Right Swipe, Alisha Rai: Romance has grappled with power dynamics and consent in different ways over the years, particularly in the wake of MeToo, but the latest release from Alisha Rai represents one of the best depictions of the issues modern women face, quite fittingly through the use of dating apps. Starting with Rhiannon and Samson who meet on an app, and things end up going wrong when he ghosts her, their affiliation with rival apps leads them to collide again, in a beautiful exploration of their feelings, as well as the difficulties business women face working alongside male colleagues in industries like this one. 
  15. Get a Life, Chloe Brown, Talia Hibbert: An absolutely adorable book that’s also not afraid to be a bit sexy. I loved Chloe and Red, and how the book sees them work on “getting a life” in different ways, with her not letting her disability hold her back from seizing the day, and Red confronting the imposter syndrome sowed by an abusive ex, as Chloe helps him with a website meant to advertise his art. 
  16. Not a Mourning Person, Catherine Stein: Catherine Stein’s character development is at its best here, as she writes about the somewhat “difficult” and scandalous Rachael. I felt for her as she came into her own, and really enjoyed her (unlikely at first) romance with the scholarly Avery. 
  17. Meet Me in Monaco, Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb
  18. Ribbons of Scarlet, Kate Quinn, Stephanie Dray, Laura Kamoie, Sophie Perinot, Heather Webb, E. Knight: In recent years, I’ve found I love collaborative novels, and this one, while I thought it seemed ambitious and too good to be true at first, came through on its promise. The six authors demonstrate the breadth of their historical knowledge, presenting the perspectives of six women from the French Revolution, with various backgrounds, from Royalist to moderate/intellectual to radical, the sections weaving seamlessly into each other to show the evolution of the French Revolution from one moved by democratic principles to the darkness of the Reign of Terror. Every moment is touchingly told, and you feel like you’re there with these historical figures. 
  19. Milady, Laura L. Sullivan: At long last, Milady gets to tell her story, and I love the way Sullivan does it in a way that pays tribute to the awesomeness of her character, showing that she wasn’t just painted as a villain because men write the history books, but in some ways by her own design. The history given for her pre-Three Musketeers feels plausible, as do the scenes that are set alongside the book, showing how different her perspective was from that of the “heroes” of the original tale. 
  20. Jane Steele, Lyndsay Faye: It’s Jane Eyre, but she’s a serial killer. It does get complicated, in that this Jane references the original, so it’s a very self-aware retelling. But that’s part of the charm. One of the best parts of the book is the way her killer nature (even if it is mostly in defense of herself and other vulnerable women) helps to put her on a more even footing with the Rochester substitute, Charles Thornfield. With his own dark past, the Jane/Rochester pairing was unequal on multiple levels, including their differences in morality, their respective positions of boss and employee, and their class differences, and the ending only somewhat fixes this. But serial killer Jane and Thornfield are a match from their first meeting, and were much easier to root for as a result.  
  21. The Brilliant Death, Amy Rose Capetta: This is stunning and original take fantasy. Taking influence from Italian culture, not only is the world beautiful, but the concept of the magic is wonderful, and the way it plays into the protagonist’s exploration of the fluidity of their own gender. 
  22. The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Theodora Goss: The first in absolutely fun series, I loved seeing Goss’s take on the many Gothic heroines, several of whom either got unpleasant endings in the original classic stories or played supporting roles to the male protagonists. Seeing them band together to solve mysteries and rescue one another from hijinks is great, but perhaps even more memorable is the style of the book (and its sequels), with the action interrupted by the characters telling the story in a way that is not as annoying as you might initially expect, given the hilarity of their commentary. 
  23. Dreadnought, April Daniels: While superhero stories still aren’t my cup of tea, I like this twist on it, incorporating the experiences of a transgender teen, complete with the magic transition to become their preferred gender. While containing all the hallmarks of a superhero origin story, including gaining powers and ingratiating oneself into the superhero “community,” it also highlights the real life bigotry many transgender teens like Danny face, especially from their own families, determined to impose traditional gender norms on them, and juxtaposes that with the introduction of a few positive, accepting friends with whom Danny can be herself. 
  24. The True Queen, Zen Cho: Finally, Zen Cho released the follow-up to Sorcerer to the Crown, and it strikes the right balance between being a great new adventure and providing all the elements readers loved the last time. Once again, her version of Regency London is diverse, and it’s wonderful to both spend time with familiar characters and meet more new ones. And there’s an f/f romance in this one! 
  25. Once and Future, Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy: Genderbent and very queer-positive, Capetta and McCarthy’s take gives King Arthur a much-needed makeover. No longer is it about doomed, faithless love, but a happy queer relationship in the face of great, world-shattering odds. And the twists on it, like Merlin’s de-aging process showing his evolution into a more modern and very different wise mentor, are so much fun. 
  26. Stepsister, Jennifer Donnelly: I love fairy tale retellings, but very rarely do they surprise and move me. This one did. While there’s nothing wrong with the traditional Cinderella story, I like the exploration of why the evil stepsisters would do the things they did, even if it meant losing themselves in the process. And ultimately, Cinderella and Isabelle really aren’t that different in terms of the societal pressures, and to see them come together is truly rewarding. 
  27. Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson: While any of his series could easily qualify (and I am inclined to award honorable mentions to Mistborn and Warbreaker), I feel like the sheer epicness of this series merits its choice as my Sanderson pick. While not flawless (especially some aspects of Oathbringer), this series has his best character work, with broken people reflecting on their dark pasts in such a relatable way, juxtaposed against a world that is gritty and intense, without delving into the elements of grimdark that some fantasy has been embracing. 
  28.  Shelter in Place, Nora Roberts: Arguably one of Nora Roberts’ best books, for its deviation from her typical formula to one that focuses on the issue first, and the romance second, but still makes the romance feel impactful. The relevance of the issue the story centers on (a shooting in a mall and its aftermath) is startling, and I was moved by how these people came together, with two of the people involved finding each other years later and finding love. And, of course, the psyche of her villain is dark and chilling, leaving me stunned at their depravity. 
  29. Unmarriageable, Soniah Kamal: Yet another of the three P&P retellings that came out this year, this one is much more beat-for-beat in its rendition, while also demonstrating the parallels between the cultures of Regency England and contemporary Pakistan, in regards to women and marriage. It’s frequently been said that Austen’s themes are universal/timeless, and the number of loose modern adaptations prove this. But the story of Alys and Darsee is arguably  the closest modernP&P adaptation to the source material, with the obvious exception of the trappings of setting.
  30. The Marriage Clock, Zara Raheem: This is a book that came to me at a time when I very much needed it, as it provided perspective on a simialr siutaiton to the one the heroine is facing in the book going on in my own life. I empathized with her as her family tried to push their expectations on her, even though my situation was occurring in a different cultural contect. And while I had read several books with South sian heroines this year, including others on this list, that dealt with the trope of familial expectations of marriage, and appreciated them in different ways, it was nice to have one that blatantly was about it being fine for the heroine to end up single by the end, with the possibility that she might find love in her own time, and not be subjected to the titular “clock” society put her under. 

Top 10 New Author Discoveries This Year

I made it a habit of trying a tom of new authors, especially those that were highly recommended and sounded interesting to me. Here are the top ten (in no particular order, for the most part) authors I discovered this year that wowed me. To qualify, I had to pick up multiple books by them this year, with a minimum of two. 

  1. Brandon Sanderson: I have read all but a few of his previous YA books and his Middle Grade Alcatraz series at this point, so Sanderson is likely the author I most eagerly embraced in 2019. With an approachable, yet engaging style, he has consistently put out good quality work, to the point when even his lesser efforts, like Elantris and Mistborn era 2 are still memorable. And his engagement with fans regarding his progress is impeccable, allowing them insight into ongoing projects through his blog (in particular the yearly State of Sanderson posts), as well as consistent engagement on Twitter, as well as willingness to appear on readers’ and reviewers’ YouTube channels (a major one for many on Fantasy BookTube was his appearance on Daniel Greene’s channel). 
  2. Amy Rose Capetta: While I discovered Capetta through her collaboration with her partner, Cori McCarthy, Once & Future, a queer sci-fi King Arthur retelling, I came to embrace Capetta’s love for a variety of genres, while still centralizing queerness. Their genderfluid fantasy, The Brilliant Death, is a masterpiece, and 
  3. Catherine Stein: To start with, she’s pretty much an awesome person for sending me copies of all her books up to this point.
  4. Beverly Jenkins: She’s one of those authors I’m kicking myself for putting off for so long, in part because she was and is such a trailblazer in Black romance. While her older books are hard to find, I enjoyed her last historical series, am waiting with bated breath for book two in her current series, and am so happy to see that she’s getting some love on the adaptation front, as mentioned with the news about Forbidden. 
  5. Theodora Goss: While she only has the one novel series, about the Athena Club, I thoroughly enjoyed these quirky books. As a bit of a literature nerd, I loved seeing familiar characters from a new perspective, both through their exciting adventures and through the silly comments they make while putting together the books of their adventures. 
  6. Courtney Milan: Technically not completely new-to-me, as I read a novella by her late last year. But I read three full novels and an additional novella (in Hamilton’s Battalion) by her this year, and while it was a bit of a rocky start, beginning with her debut, Proof by Seduction, I did eventually make it to The Duchess War, arguably considered one of her best, and, as noted, one of my favorites this year as well, and I anticipate to continue reading her backlist very soon. 
  7. Alexis Hall: Like Capetta, Alexis Hall tends to write all over the place genre wise, although all of his books feature LGBTQ+ characters, so I was excited to experience two very different books from him this year: the erotic gay contemporary, For Real, featured in my top ten, and the queer Sherlockian fantasy, The Affair of the Mysterious Letter. Both are fabulous, with the former delving into a BDSM relationship in an unexpected way, and the latter being a fun romp with 
  8. Abigail Wilson: While she’s walking in familiar territory, with a combination of the Regency world and Gothic atmosphere, and writing inspirational romance (albeit with understated Christian themes, compared to some of her peers), I think she has a lot of promise, based on her two releases this year. Her stories feel reminiscent of the classics, like Austen and Bronte, and fellow inspirational historical authors like Julie Klassen, but she is very much bringing her own thing to the genre with page-turning romantic mysteries that had me invested in their plots completely. 
  9. Kristen Callihan: I was so excited to dive into her Darkest London series, which I had heard about, but didn’t really feel the urge to dive into until now. While some of the books are inevitably better than others, her world building is wonderful, and her characters, for the most part, are compelling. And while she’s moved onto contemporary, and I’m interested in trying those too, I’m anxious to see another historical paranormal from her again. 
  10. Scott Lynch: While he only has the three books in the Gentlemen Bastards series to his name thus far (with a fourth due out at some point), the series is still impressive even in its unfinished state, and I’m impressed with his character work, focusing on the friendship between a ragtag band of thieves. And while his style takes some getting used to, I found it makes the series memorable, as you really get to explore the characters through examinations of their past and present.

2020 Goals

  1. Goodreads Goal: My productivity is highly linked to my schedule, and while I’m hoping to work on building up some other skills, like getting back into novel writing after letting it slide, I anticipate I will continue to have a pretty open schedule. Thus, I’m planning to make my “starter” goal 300, akin to my productivity while in school. 
  2. Reading Log: I kept all my stats this year in a single doc file (I suck and  could never get a handle on Excel/Sheets), but I ran into hiccups as the doc got bigger and bigger and would constantly run into loading issues (on top of other computer issues). Thus, for 2020, I’ve decided to switch to keeping my reading logs monthly, which is also more in keeping with what some of my friends in book groups have been doing with their reading journals, and will result in more accurate stats, until I can hopefully figure out the spreadsheet business.
  3. Keep reading diverse authors (with priority to looking for more ownvoices works): I improved a lot this year, as I noted, but I think I can still do better to seek out some of the truly underrepresented voices outside of mainstream publishing.  
  4. Do as many of the prompts for the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge as possible. 
  5. Read two indie/self-published books per month (but aim for more): An idea I got from BookTuber Merphy Napier, who tries to make this a priority. I recently got my first eReader (a Nook Glowlight), so that should solve some of the access issues I had with self-published authors in the past. It also goes hand-in-hand with the previous goal, as I think one of the reasons I fell short this year is that, even with my growing self-awareness of my reading choices, publishing is still largely white and cishet. 
  6. Diversify blog content: While reviews are still going to be the main focus, I do enjoy more topical posts, and would like to make a habit of doing them, although I do still want to focus most on hot-button issues. I do also anticipate, with my access to eBooks, that my approach to reviewing novellas will change, so would like to do a “Novella Round-Up” on occasion, possibly monthly, but it depends on my reading choices. 

Holiday Novellas Wrap-Up

In honor finally getting an eReader (Nook Glowlight 3), I stocked up on a lot of eBooks, including free and discounted holiday books. I tried to get to some of the holiday themed ones, in light of not really having much holiday reading prior to Christmas. I also think it solves the issue of how to post and share my novella reviews, since most are too short to justify individual posts. Note that, while most books will be related to the holiday season, there are a few that aren’t for…reasons. 

12/25-The Gentleman’s Guide to Getting Lucky by Mackenzi Lee. (Hardcover), 3 stars: Borrowed from the library prior to receiving my Nook, it was one of the short books I squeezed in between Lady Darby 2 and 3. It’s kind of an extended epilogue taking place after The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, and as the title implies, it surrounds Monty and Percy’s first time. It’s fun, and it’s great to see those characters again, but it’s not exactly the most engaging and substantial story. But then again, I didn’t really expect it to be. 

12/25-Miss Compton’s Christmas Romance by Sophie Barnes (EBook), 4 stars: Sophie Barnes is one of my favorite authors, and, despite it being a shorter story, she still more or less shines. With her now firmly finding her feet in self-publishing, it’s nice to see her exploring the world outside the aristocracy, with both Leonora and Philip being such solid, nice working-class people, and one of many books out there that prove you don’t need pots of money to be happy ever after. 

12/26-The Governess Affair by Courtney Milan (EBook), 5 stars: An excellent an emotionally moving prequel to the Brothers Sinister series. While I understood the gist of it from The Duchess War, reading about the crimes committed against Serena by the previous Duke of Clermont was heartbreaking, as was the fact the Hugo is so sweet. Torn between trying to make something of himself through his work for the duke and his growing love for Serena, I was so deeply invested in his arc, and overjoyed when, of course, love won out. 

12/27-The Lady Always Wins by Courtney Milan (eBook), 3 stars: I couldn’t help but feel a little let done by this one, but I suppose it’s my fault for reading this one so soon after The Governess Affair. There’s nothing wrong with this story, but the emotion here is relatively lacking, and it feels like another standard historical romance. Decent for the genre, but we all know Courtney Milan can and has done better. And the fact that it is a standalone probably also does work against it, not giving me any real reason to care about the characters outside the confines of the story. 

12/28-A Kiss for Midwinter by Courtney Milan (eBook), 4.5 stars: A delightful holiday  story set in the Brothers Sinister world, and following Lydia, Minnie’s friend from The Duchess War. And while it’s still not my favorite Milan, I enjoyed this one, particularly for Jonas, the hero. I like that he’s blunt and doesn’t play games about anything, and he’s very matter-of-fact about sex. Not to mention him being in love with Lydia for years. As for her…a friend compared Lydia’s arc to that of another fictional Lydia, in Pride and Prejudice, and what she could have been, and it definitely works, with her being a relatable lead. And this is another Milan story with a lot of depth to the secondary characters as well, such as Jonas’ father who is battling an illness. 

12/29-The Lady in Red by Kelly Bowen, 4: A fun “bridge” novella between Bowen’s last two series, Season for Scandal and Devils of Dover, I enjoyed the focus on art here, with both Charlotte and Flynn having artistic ambitions, bringing them together. This novella grapples with some deep themes in spite of its length, like the risks Charlotte is taking as both a woman and an aristocrat pursuing her passion and the issues of the class divide motivating Flynn to prove himself and rise above his roots, with an additional hint of a past heartbreak with another aristocratic lady to make things interesting. 

12/30-What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve? By Catherine Stein (eBook), 5 stars: A novella set in the same world as Eden’s Voice, this is a fun steampunk story set around New Year’s Eve (obviously). And while I had a few issues with EV, I liked this one overall as a nice little nugget that’s a lot less overwhelming tech-wise and plot wise. And the couple fall in love in the New York Public Library, where the hero, William, works as a librarian? This is the story I’ve been looking for my whole life (not literally…but it hits all my sweet spots). 

12/31-New York Engagement by Maida Malby (eBook), 5 stars: A novella published between Carpe Diem Chronicles novels that I missed upon first publication, I made sure to snap it up in time to ring in the New Year (and decade, depending on how you count) with. It was a blast to see Krista and Blake’s engagement and her meeting more of his family (as well as finding out the identity of her own father). Malby’s signature blend of sweetness, scrumptiousness (of course there’s food!), and steaminess is all here. 

Review of "Flamebringer" (Heartstone #3) by Elle Katharine White

White, Elle Katharine. Flamebringer. New York: Harper Voyager, 2019.

Paperback | $16.9 USD | INbN-13: 978-0062747983 | 351 pages | Fantasy

4 stars

Flamebringer is the final installment in the Heartstone series, and it’s bittersweet to see it come to an end. It’s also wonderful to marvel at how much development has happened over the course of three books, with book one paying homage to Pride and Prejudice, and the other two books building from there.

Thus, this book is considerably darker than I would’ve expected going in, especially reflecting on the first book. On the one hand, I love that White embraces these epic fantasy stakes, and allows for major consequences and loss, a flaw with many fantasy series where all the important characters survive to the end. But, given the source material, it’s hard not to feel a little betrayed when a character inspired by a beloved major character in a classic is killed off.

But the exploration of the characters and their growth in this one is wonderful, particularly that of the protagonist, Aliza and her husband, Daired, especially as they discover more about his family’s past. One of the moments that really stands out to me is the revelation of the deeper connection between Wydrick and the Daired family, particularly Daired’s own disbelief and shock.

This is a great third installment, and fans of the series and those looking to see characters inspired by beloved classic Austen ones go into a darker, grittier direction will love this.

Review of "A Pursuit of Home" (Haven Manor #3) by Kristi Ann Hunter

Hunter, Kristi Ann. A Pursuit of Home. Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2019.

Paperback | $14.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0764230776 | 380 pages | Christian Fiction/Regency Romance

3 stars

A Pursuit of Home, the final book in Kristi Ann Hunter’s Haven Manor series, feels like such a different book tonally to the other two, and, while part of that could be due to its centering on the character of Jess, who appeared in Hunter’s first book in her prior series, which had an espionage/mystery thread to it, and this book sees a reunion between her and the protagonists of that book, it resulted in the story feeling a bit odd.

A major facet to my diminished interest in this book is the fact that Jess wasn’t a character who made an impact on me the same way she did for others, and when Hunter mentioned bringing her back for this one, I scratched my head. To be fair, you don’t have to have read that previous book to understand it, as the backstory is conveyed well here, but while I find myself usually sympathizing with most heroines, I just found Jess hard to connect with.

Derek is better, in that I at least found him interesting in terms of his scholarly pursuits, and his somewhat awkward personality. I also really enjoyed getting his unique thought process, viewing things as art, including his attraction to Jess.

The plot feels a little all over the place, as while there is a decent amount of intrigue, I found my interest flagging in a way I’ve never felt before with one of her previous books (even the conclusion to her previous series, which I also found uneven). A lot of it just seemed a little half-baked, with too many elements in play at once.

This a case of an author having a lot of great ideas, but stumbling a little trying to bring them all together. There’s elements of a good story in here, and for many it may have worked better, so as always, your mileage may vary. I think if you read Hunter’s previous work, especially if you happen to be a Jess fan, you’ll probably love getting deeper insight into her character and seeing her find her HEA.

Review of "Queen of the Conquered" (Islands of Blood and Stone #1) by Kacen Callender

Callender, Kacen. Queen of the Conquered. New York: Orbit, 2019.

Paperback | $15.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-031645933 | 391 pages | Fantasy

3 stars

Queen of the Conquered is conceptually awesome. Rooted in the idea of giving the African American perspective of slavery to a fantasy novel, this had a lot of potential, especially with its gritter tone and the nuance it discusses in terms of how, like in real life, an oppressed character will choose to be complicit and align themselves with their oppressor.

For the most part, I enjoyed Sigourney’s character arc. She’s not meant to be likable, but I found her thought process morbidly fascinating. For any other flaws, both with her decisions (acting rashly at times) and the other things, which I will get into momentarily, I feel it was worth it for this aspect.

But the world building didn’t feel particularly compelling. While I understand the author’s historical inspiration, I didn’t feel the world was that well developed to be its own thing. Inspiration is absolutely fine, and to be expected, but aside from the map, I didn’t get any sense of the world or its structures.

I also found myself struggling to engage with the story beyond that, particularly towards the end. Some others have noted the writing feels awkward and repetitive, and I felt the same. And despite the darkness of what was going on, I didn’t feel much for anyone apart from Sigourney, except from an objective standpoint.

This was kind of just ok, and I think some of these aspects will mean that it’s going to be a love-it-or-hate-it book for a lot of people. I think if you like stories with unlikable lead characters (a critic compared it toThe Count of Monte Cristo), you’ll probably enjoy this one.

Review of "The Rise of Magicks" (Chronicles of the One #3) by Nora Roberts

Roberts, Nora. The Rise of Magicks. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2019.

Hardcover | $28.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1250123039 | 454 pages | Fantasy/Dystopian

3.5 stars

I was ambivalent about this book’s release to an extent. Not for any reason due to the book itself, as I did enjoy its predecessors and saw its potential. But the dark cloud that is the Macmillan library ebook embargo came into effect shortly before this book’s release, and while I always planned to read the print version which has no borrowing/copy limits, I felt sad for those who didn’t have the option, due to accessibility issues and are stuck waiting around six months, according to OverDrive.

As for The Rise of Magicks itself? It’s pretty solid, both continuing in the different vein Roberts took with the series, while also containing some familiar Roberts flair. One of her signatures is building great relationships, and that’s definitely the case here. While the romance didn’t win me over any more this time around (some of the writing there is pretty cringey), I love the bonds Fallon shares with her family and her mentor, Mallick.

And conceptually, as always, Roberts has all the pieces there. She’s doing something interesting with the familiar light vs. dark concept, and the ultimate fulfillment of the “Chosen One” archetype. And while it never really gets dark enough in execution, it’s still enjoyable nonetheless.

I think if you liked the other books in the trilogy, you will (probably) like this one, particularly if you’re a Nora Roberts diehard. For the most part, I enjoyed it, in spite of some of the issues, and I’m most certainly more critical of her work than some.

Review of "Highland Dragon Warrior" (Dawn of the Highland Dragon #1) by Isabel Cooper

Cooper, Isabel. Highland Dragon Warrior. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2017.

Mass Market Paperback | $7.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1492632030 | 314 pages | Medieval Romance/Paranormal Romance

4 stars

Highland Dragon Warrior is another fun read from Isabel Cooper, exactly what I needed after a couple duds and the current implosion of Romancelandia. While Cooper is writing in a different time period and “world,” she remains consistent with balancing a solid grounding in history, some likable characters, and just pure fun.

One of the things that keeps me from reading most paranormals and medievals is the tendency for the heroes to be alpha jerks. But that is not so for Cathal MacAlasdair. He’s a strong Highland warrior and a dragon shifter, yes. but he never went overboard in terms of possessiveness, and is actually incredibly sweet throughout, as well as being dedicated to taking care of his estate.

And Sophia is great as well. I enjoyed seeing a strong heroine in this era, especially given her many different attributes, like being older, Jewish, and an alchemist. And ultimately the romance between them is just wonderful.

It was fun seeing how these different aspects came into the external plot, even if it did feel a little slow at times. I enjoyed this book for a fun and slightly different light read. I recommend this to people looking for a unique take on paranormal romance, or those who enjoy historical paranormal romance.

Review of "A Grave Matter" (Lady Darby Mystery #3) by Anna Lee Huber

Huber, Anna Lee. A Grave Matter. New York: Berkley Prime Crime, 2014.

Paperback | $16.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0425253694 | 421 pages | Historical Mystery

3 stars

Ugh, another kind-of just-ok installment. A Grave Matter does fix some of the series arc issues of Mortal Arts, but overall, I just wasn’t massively impressed with this one.

The big win is, obviously, the romance coming to fruition, and I’m quite happy there’s some closure earlier on, instead of the increasing trend in mysteries where the two leads pussyfoot around their feelings book after book. There is a great conflict here with Kiera unsure about this growing relationship with Gage, especially given the disaster of her first marriage, and while it’s been done, it’s nive to see that she comes to trust him.

And the idea at the core of the mystery is great. I adore anything to do with the Jacobites, and the tie-in here with the relics of that movement as it was in 1830 is interesting. I just couldn’t bring myself to care about the overall arc of it, with the reveal at the end feels stale and mostly unfulfilling.

I’m undecided at this point what I want to do from here, especially since I seem to be enamored more with Huber’s concepts than her executions, in two different series she’s written. And given that these are somewhat popular books, I would say this could easily be a case of “it’s not you, it’s me.” So, give this series a shot if you like historical mysteries, and perhaps you’ll like them more than I did.

Review of "Mortal Arts" (Lady Darby Mystery #2) by Anna Lee Huber

Huber, Anna Lee. Mortal Arts. New York: Berkley Prime Crime, 2013.

Paperback | $16.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0425253786 | 374 pages | Historical Mystery

2.5 stars

Mortal Arts is somewhat of a sophomore slump. That’s not to say that the plot is lacking, and I personally found the deviation from the standard whodunnit format ambitious and decently done, given Huber was still in her early career when this came out.

Minute historical details clearly are important to her, so I’m glad she delved into some interesting, even heartbreaking, ones here, discussing both the effects of PTSD and the foul nature of “lunatic” asylums in the nineteenth century. Will’s story is truly heartbreaking, and while it resulted in a weaker mystery plot overall, with it being incredibly obvious what had happened, I appreciate this different take for the series so early on.

But the characters (with the exception of Will) were so…lacking…in comparison to the first book. While I found the supporting cast engaging in the first book, they kind of seemed to be just…there…this time around. And while I liked Kiera and Gage’s dynamic in the first book once I got into it a bit more, it seemed like they too didn’t have much purpose (aside from Kiera’s connection to Will), so they seemed to butt heads for no reason.

In short, this wasn’t a great installment in the series, and between the lack of engagement and the holiday festivities, I just didn’t feel like I was missing much by putting it off. I think it’s worth reading within the context of the series, in spite of its flaws, and as an exploration of the aforementioned issues. But here’s hoping that the next one is a bit better.

Review of "Echo After Echo" by Amy Rose Capetta

Capetta, Amy Rose. Echo After Echo. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2017.

Hardcover | $17.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0763691666 | 421 pages | YA Contemporary Romance/Mystery

4 stars

While I’ve only read Amy Rose Capetta’s SFF works so far, I was intrigued by the concept of this f/f murder mystery. And for the most part Capetta is able to move between genres pretty well, with a mystery that comes together at the end (in spite of feeling a bit oddly paced at first) and a romance that’s an absolute delight to read.

Zara and Eli are such great characters, and I rooted for their romance, even though things seemed precarious at times, in a way that has nothing to do with being gay/bi, but rather the commitments of the theater. It’s refreshing to read about an LGBTQ+ relationship that isn’t so bogged down with the questions of sexuality or familial acceptance, and the hurdle is something else completely unrelated. Capetta, as a queer author, is likely aware of this, and I appreciated their commitment to diversify the types of relationships in LGBTQ+ lit.

And it’s rare these days for me to comment on the prose, unless it’s outright insufferable to get through (which is rare), but I love the stylistic choices made with POV and tense here. I was speaking with someone else about how third person, present tense reminded them of a play, and I realized that, intentional or not, this stylistic choice suited the strong presence of the play in the plot, as well as adding to the urgency of the situation.

While the mystery is a bit more understated than I believed going in, being something of an undercurrent in the larger story of Zara being involved in a play, I did enjoy seeing the payoff at the end, when all was revealed.

I really enjoyed this book, especially having a background in theater in school. I think this would be a great book for others who have some experience in the theater, as well as those looking for an engaging f/f story, with a mystery subplot.

Reiew of "Starsight" (Skyward #2) by Brandon Sanderson

Sanderson, Brandon. Starsight. New York: Delacrote Press, 2019.

Hardcover | $19.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978=0399555817 | 461 pages | YA Science Fiction

4.5 stars

Given my enjoyment of Skyward, I was excited to see where the series would go next. And upon picking up Starsight, I wasn’t disappointed. However, I did find it interesting to note the way the plot made things so structurally different from what you expect from a standard SFF, due to the nature of the plot development. thus far, with this installment focused more on the wider world building, and feeling so thematically different with Spensa on her own and away from the rest of the crew that made the first one so entertaining.

Not that that’s a major drawback, as it’s nice to get more of the world and have a sense of its scope. It also presents an opportunity to Spensa to meet new characters and grow more throughout this one. And with Spensa having a knack for finding trouble, it was fun to see her in a different environment.

Not that it’s devoid of fun interactions in favor of personal growth and challenges, as she’s still accompanied by M-Bot, and he’s even funnier than I remembered, quite possibly one of my favorite Sanderson characters with all of his one-liners.

While it is a bit different stylistically, I think fans of Skyward will enjoy this one, and would recommend it to them, and the series overall to fans of YA sci-fi.

Review of "A Madness of Sunshine" by Nalini Singh

Singh, Nalini. A Madness of Sunshine. New York: Berkley, 2019.

Hardcover | $27.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0593099131 | 314 pages | Mystery

4 stars

I was never a fan of Nalini Singh’s romances, in part because the bulk of her work is paranormal and I’m not a fan of the hero archetypes many paranormal authors fall back on, her included, if some of the reviews if I’ve read are to be believed. But when I heard she was releasing a thriller, I was intrigued, especially when I heard that the setting of A Madness of Sunshine was her native New Zealand.

And the setting is one of the immediate strong points. I knew little about the location prior, except a bit about Maori culture and its linguistic connections to Hawaiian in school. So, it was exciting to soak up more about the landscape and language, especially as Singh showed such care in depicting it, including consulting experts to cover her blind spots.

And while there are occasions where the plot moves a little slowly, it’s more or less an engaging thriller. This is one of those mysteries that does get you to question everyone, especially given the long history some of the threads have.

While it’s not a romance, I did enjoy the romance that developed between the two protagonists, Anahera and Will, especially given how they come together in solving the case. Anahera’s personal connection magnifies her determination to find her old friend, as well as solve the case of the hikers who went nissing before she left town. And Will brings an interesting perspective of being a newcomerto town, playing off returning resident Anahera in an interesting way as well.

This is a great first mystery/thriller for Singh, and I hope not the last, especially if she continues introducing international readers to different parts of New Zealand. I recommend this to fans of mysteries with excellent sense of place.

Review of "The Brilliant Death" by Amy Rose Capetta

Capetta, Amy Rose. The Brilliant Death. 2018. New York: Penguin Books, 2019.

Papeback | $10.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0451478467 | 351 pages | YA Fantasy

5 stars

I picked up The Brilliant Death out of interest in reading more of her work after loving Once and Future, which Capetta wrote with their partner, Cori McCarthy. And while all of their books appealed to me in some way, there was something about a gender-fluid, Italian-inspired fantasy that spoke to me.

And it lived up to my expectations. The world, as some critics have pointed out, feels very much like The Godfather, with the protagonist, Teodora, being from a mafia king’s family. And in some ways, it feels reminiscent of historical fiction, with Teo’s chafing against the patriarchal form of inheritance, with the magic correlating to gender fluidity adding further layers to this.

And Teo herself is a truly great protagonist. The environment she was raised in has made her into a cutthroat, but it never feels like it’s just for the sake of her being a “strong female character,” and I like that she has a highly original arc that makes her compelling lead to follow, as she learns to define who she is, including defining herself outside gender binaries.

And Cielo is a great love interest, doubling as a sort of mentor figure as Teo starts discovering her magic. I enjoyed their somewhat roguish nature, and their romance, in the midst of everything else going on, was so sweet!

This is such a fun book, and I CANNOT wait for the sequel. I recommend this book if you love historical fantasy, or are looking for books with awesome queer representation.

Review of "Lessons After Dark" (Englefield #2) by Isabel Cooper

Cooper, Isabel. Lessons After Dark. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2012.

Mass Market Paperback | $6.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1402264405 | 334 pages | Victorian Romance/Paranorma Romance

3 stars

After trying Isabel Cooper’s first book, No Proper Lady, I decided to continue with the second (and currently last) book in the series, Lessons After Dark. Like book one, it’s charming, and aside from the connection of the Grenvilles now founding a magic school there is not much connection to book one, so you couls easily read this as a stadalone, though I do heartily recommend reading book one as well.

Cooper’s worldbuiling remains solid. I enjoyed the developments of the magic from the first book, and the fact that the couple from the first book are now running a magic school, presenting the opportunity to introduce a set of new characters.

And the leads themselves this time around are decently compelling, especially given their shared history, even if Gareth does harbor animosity toward Olivia a bit longer than I felt was necessary, not to mention Gareth being kind of full of himself at times. And while they did hve chemistry, the trajectory of some of the beats of the romance, with him disliking her with no real reason, soured the romance to an extent for me.

Despite my issues with it, I did still enjoy this fun, light read, and am prioritizing some of Isabel Cooper’s other books to read in the near future, although I’m still hoping that, once she’s done with her Highland Dragon world, she’ll come back and do Englefield #3, as this world is such a delight. And I would recommend it to fans of historical paranormal romance.

Review of "Girls of Storm and Shadow" (Girls of Paper and Fire #2) by Natasha Ngan

Ngan, Natasha. Girls of Storm and Shadow. New York: Jimmy Patterson Books/Little, Brown and Company, 2019.

Hardcover | $18.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0316528672 | 402 pages | YA Fantasy

3 stars

After finishing Girls of Paper and Fire, I wasn’t sure if I really wanted a sequel, both because of some of the issues I had with the portrayal of the blooming of a sexually charged romance in the midst of a situation where both are dealing with sexual assault, and because the story felt pretty self-contained. And while for the most part, I feel like Girls of Storm and Shadow did ok in proving its need for existence, I still feel very mixed, due to it falling into some of the issues of second books in trilogies, of upping the stakes but also feeling rather incomplete.

On the one hand, getting to see the world outside the “court” is great, grasping the wider world consequences of the Demon King’s rule and why it’s important to bring him down.

And I did like seeing more of the characters, especially Wren and the further exploration of her character. While it did mean the introduction of a rival who sort of comes between her and Lei (and I loathe most love triangles!) I enjoyed seeing more of her and the development of her relationship with Lei.

I also felt that the overall plot was going in a somewhat unoriginal direction, even within the confines of YA fantasy, which can be very tropey. A few compared it to the Hunger Games, and while I haven’t read that series, I kind of see similarities to those “bring down the corrupt regime” arcs of the dystopian subgenre, but within a fantasy “skin.”

This is kind of just an “ok” sequel, which, given the way middle books can be, is kind of expected. I’ll probably still read book three, as there’s enough interesting stuff here that I want to know what happens, in hopes that it ends satisfactorily. And I feel like you might like this book a lot more if you enjoyed the first one more.

Review of "Song of the Crimson Flower" (Rise of the Empress #2.5) by by Julie C. Dao

Dao, Julie C. Song of the Crimson Flower. New York: Philomel Books, 2019.

Hardcover | $18.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1524738358 | 272 pages | YA Fantasy

4 stars

I put Song of the Crimson Flower on my TBR without even thinking about it, as the Rise of the Empress duology was so good, I would pretty much read anything Julie C. Dao writes. Imagine my surprise when I found out this was a sort of spinoff of those books…HOW DID I MISS THAT?! That being said, while there are some recurring characters, this story completely stands on its own, and while I heartily recommend reading the duology as well, you can read this one as a standalone.

The fairytale vibe continues in this book, but while the duology was Snow White inspired, this one feels like an original story with a Vietnamese folktale feel, although it features archetypes from familiar stories, like the orphan hero and the curse that needs to be broken through true love.

I wasn’t sure about Lan at first, as she pretty much treats Bao poorly early on, because of his birth. But I did understand where she was coming from to an extent, with her higher status and expectations, and when she agreed to journey with Bao to find the solution to his curse, I felt my respect for her grow a lot more due to my growing understanding of the stakes she faced and her susequent willigness to go against them.

Bao is really sweet throughout, and I rooted for him to find out who his mother was and why she gave him up, and subsequently was torn up for him when I found out the path she had ended up on.

And for those who happened to read the duology, there is the special treat of seeing a key secondary character finally get a happy ending, given how a major part of his arc in those books was him falling in love and losing her.

The main failing of this book is that it is a long novella/short novel, and I did feel like things could have been fleshed out a bit more. However, it was just a lot of fun spending time in this world again, and I hope this isn’t the least time. However, Dao’s splendid world building and character development stands out, and, thus, it makes a great recommendation for fans of YA fantasy.

Review of "The Anatomist's Wife" (Lady Darby Myster #1) by Anna Lee Huber

Huber, Anna Lee. The Anatomist’s Wife. New York: Berkley Prime Crime, 2012.

Paperback | $15.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0425253281 | 357 pages | Historical Mystery

4 stars

I waffled for a long time about whether I wanted to read the Lady Darby Mysteries. I had a sneaking suspicion these were better than the standalone Gothic book I had read, but the fatigue with ongoing singular character arc series, especially those with secondary romance plots, had me wary, until I received a recommendation that made me aware that, unlike the ones that were frustrating me, there actually is progress in the romance over the course of the currently available books.

Kiera is a compelling heroine, even if her situation is not unfamiliar to historical readers. I felt for her when it was described how her late husband married her to utilize her artistic talents for his anatomical work, so that he wouldn’t need to hire someone else to do it, and I didn’t blame her for isolating herself after his death, while also applauding her courage when she found herself confronted with a murdered guest at her sister’s house.

Sebastian Gage took longer to warm up to, and I’m not sure how I feel about him due to his arrogance and insistence he be the one in charge of solving the crime, especially having hints of how things turn out between him and Kiera in later books. But I like that, while things start off a little tense, things come to an accord, and there is still room to grow between them, with the romance not feeling rushed, although the possibility is already there.

The resolution to the mystery did feel a little obvious, especially with some key revelations. There is a decent attempt at misdirection, but it becomes increasingly clear who it is. However, there were a few last-minute twists that I felt saved it from feeling a little too predictable.

This is a great first installment in a historical mystery series, and one which I hope will continue to be intriguing. I recommend any historical mystery fan who hasn’t tried this series yet to pick this one up.

Review of "Blood Heir" by Amelie Wen Zhao

Zhao, Amelie Wen. Blood Heir. New York: Delacorte Press, 2019.

Hardcover | $18.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0525707790 | 452 pages | YA Fantasy

4 stars

Reading Blood Heir after all that’s happened on Book Twitter is something of a surreal experience. While I understand things did get pretty ugly when that controversy was first going on, I respect Zhao’s grace through it all (much more than some of the veteran authors who’ve drawn ire for their response to criticism) and her bravery to go forward with publishing once she’d examined some of the legitimate criticism that probably didn’t contain personal attacks, while acknowledging that a couple of the people who didn’t sink so low as to make it about her instead of the book had valid opinions as well.

That said, is this book worth the hype and publicity it generated due to the scandal? In my opinion, yes, if you love YA fantasy and don’t mind something that’s does tread some familiar tropes. It’s a promising debut, taking some influence from Anastasia (although, make no mistake, it’s not a retelling, but more “inspired by” the story), and while it may inspire some nitpicks from those with more experience with Russian culture and language, I personally felt it was a nice tribute to the culture and to Zhao’s globally-conscious upbringing, especially as she delves into the real-world issue of human trafficking.

While Ana has her “dumb” moments, I did like how she eventually came into her own with her Affinity. And while I’m not as big a fan of Ramson, given he tends toward the “broody hero” type, I like the relationship that develops between them that doesn’t feel over-the-top.

In general, it’s a pretty good book, even if it does lean a bit heavily on tropes from other popular books. I’m excited to see how Zhao continues to grow as an author, both in this series and in any possible future endeavors, as there is a lot of potential here. I recommend this to other fans of YA fantasy.

Review of "Meg & Jo" by Virginia Kantra

Kantra, Viginia. Meg & Jo. New York: Berkley, 2019.

Paperback | $16.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0593100349 | 390 pages |
Women’s Fiction

4 stars

While I am still a little iffy about the need for another Little Women adaptation, I am glad if that movie played any role in the timing of the publication of the excellent Meg & Jo. While I’m pretty sure there have been literary updates to Little Women in recent years, this is the first one I’ve read and I’m pretty sure it’s the first targeted to adults, so I was excited about it.

And this is one of those retellings that strikes the perfect balance of capturing exactly what readers loved about the March sisters, while also changing things to suit the change in time period and to suit Kantra’s personal style. The heart of the book is the relationship between the sisters, with particular emphasis on the bond between Meg and Jo. While the bond between Kantra’s versions of them may owe just as much to other literary sisters (Jane and Elizabeth Bennet are name-dropped in comparison to them), I still enjoyed seeing how they rely on each other, and getting hints of the larger family bonds, which it seems will be discussed further in the forthcoming Beth & Amy.

One thing I loved about Jo’s POV was the way it provided further insight into why Eric Bhaer is the right match for her in this version, as the Professor was in the original. I like that they establish a connection, and in spite of some of the obstacles, come together and he proves himself to her, in spite of her doubts about love. And the aspect of him challenging her creatively to pursue her true goals is a thread that I love was kept in the most wonderful and surprising way.

I admit I enjoyed Meg and John’s relationship a bit more without the forced sense of female domesticity and her actually seeming to care about him consistently in spite of the fact that there are some cracks, as opposed to constantly wanting to fit in with her vapid friends, coming off as rather selfish at times. It was nice to see the modern version of Meg who was happy as a mother, but also wondered if something was missing, and there being this question of whether she and John should try to incorporate aspects of their old lives into their current one.

My one complaint is that I feel like the dad was made to be horrible for no apparent reason. I can see him being absent in the prologue, as he’s fighting in the war, like his classic counterpart, but it just seemed odd to turn an otherwise decent family man into someone who apparently all but abandoned his wife, especially when she’s sick and in the hospital. Yeah, he does still have some redeeming features, particularly seen from Jo’s perspective, as she’s “Daddy’s girl,”but it just seemed like kind of a downer on the rest of it, which otherwise felt like a nice tribute to such well loved characters.

This is more or less a delightful retelling of Little Women, and one I think fans of the original will enjoy. However, it stands on its own, and I would also recommend it to fans of a good sister-focused story that also has strong romantic elements as their first experience (but hopefully not their last) with this amazing story.

Review of "No Proper Lady (Englefield #1) by Isabel Cooper

Cooper, Isabel. No Proper Lady. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2011.

Mass Market Paperback | $6.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-140225952 | 329 pages | Victorian Romance/Paranormal Romance

4 stars

No Proper Lady had been recommended to me a while back, but it languished in Mt. TBR until the events going on in the romance community of the last week led me to conversing a bit with Isabel Cooper on Twitter and finally deciding to finally pick it up.

This book is pure fun, with a twist on the “time traveling modern woman in a historical setting” where she actually goes back in time to stop a villain and change the future. And while there is the familiar trope of her trying to fit in, I love that there’s a further twist in that the hero is also magical.

Joan and Simon are fun characters and have great chemistry, but nothing particularly distinguishes them in my mind as particularly deep. That’s not a major detriment in my mind, as sometimes it’s nice to have a fun, sexy, action-packed romp, but I understand that might not be to everyon;s taste.

This is a great mix of sexy romance and high action, making the perfect light read for those who love historicals and paranormals in equal measure.

Review of "The Bridge to Belle Island" by Julie Klassen

Klassen, Julie. The Bridge to Belle Island. Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2019.

Paperback | $15.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0764218194 | 394 pages | Regency Romance/Christian Fiction

5 stars

A new Julie Klassen book is pretty much always a delight, and The Bridge to Belle Island is no exception. Klassen once again blends the elements of period-drama romance in the vein of Jane Austen with the semi-Gothic mystery of the Brontes, with characters I loved from the first pages and a compelling plot that kept me guessing.

Klassen touches on some tough issues in this one, a common theme for her books, this time featuring a heroine with anxiety as a result of grief and fear as the result of several family deaths. I could relate to Isabelle’s sense of feeling secure in her life on Belle Island, fearing the consequences of venturing out as others in her family did. And while she does eventually venture out and face her fears, it’s merely a small step in what is implied to be a long process of reacquainting herself with the world, with the power of her faith and the support of those close to her.

I liked Benjamin’s journey as a character as well, reconciling pleasing his mentor who he feels he’s disappointed recently and the father with whom he’s never seen eye-to-eye. I love his growth to finding out who is more worthy of his trust and respect, in spite of the difficulties.

I found the mystery compelling, especially as there is much more focus on that plot, with the development of the romance feeling secondary at times. While she typically creates heroes and heroines who don’t have any reason to be suspects in the murder, I love her use of misdirection that even had me suspecting Isabelle at one point, along with everyone else. And when the true reason the clues suggested she could be involved were revealed, I was completely shocked, as well as saddened, with how it played into her anxiety issues. And the reveal of the killer was a clever twist I did not see coming, although, in hindsight, it was set up so well.

Julie Klassen has written another winner, and one I recommend to fans of historical romance and mystery.

Dear Authors, Stop Harassing Reviewers

I am in disbelief at the turn of events over the last week. What started as a somewhat heated, but civil discussion of Balance by Lucia Franco, deeply troubling “romance” book depicting the relationship between a 15 year old gymnast and her 32 year old coach, prompted by its recent inclusion in a romance list on the Frolic website, turned into an attack coordinated by Franco’s rabid fans, resulting in the doxxing and silencing of one of the most vocal critics, another indie author, Scarlett Parrish, which includes, as of this writing, the latest act against her: Franco’s lawyer (who evidence also suggests is her husband) sending her a cease-and-desist. All because she dared to have an opinion that Franco didn’t like, and expressed it openly, and this turn of events coincided with the removal of the book in question (followed later by the rest of the series) from Amazon.

The book’s concept is abhorrent, even if you subscribe to the fact that fiction is separate from reality. This has been used to justify the inclusion of everything from the thousands of dukes and billionaires to the problematic tropes surrounding alphahole heroes, dubious consent, and more, particularly with the rise of dark romance as a subgenre in indie publishing, dealing with taboo subjects. However, even for some of the dark romance authors, the glorification of child rape was going a step too far, which is really saying something. Rachael Denhollander, one of the victims of former gymnastics coach and sexual abuser Larry Nassar, spoke up about the situation in a tweet: ” What we accept as entertainment plays a substantial role in rape culture. We just don’t want to admit it, because then we’d have to give up something we justify liking.”

I recommend consulting Jenny Trout’s post on the matter, as while it took place prior to much of the action against Parrish, Trout does outline many of the issues readers have with the book and the tired arguments Franco’s defenders are using more succinctly than I could, not to mention being much more informed in several areas of this situation. 

But I would like to comment on the insistence that Franco is being “censored” due to the removal of her work from Amazon (and from what I understand, other retailers she decided to sell her work on following the book’s removal, such as Kobo). This occurred, not due to the outcry of the “haters,” but due to the violation of the retailers’ Terms of Service, and the simple fact that she was allowed to even temporarily sell her books anywhere after removal from Amazon is the opposite of censorship. Nonetheless, this “banning” has led to the appropriation of #ireadbannedbooks on Twitter by some of her fans, which is laughable to me, having gone through library school, not to mention done a thesis on collection development and management and selection vs. censorship in relation to romance novels. The very fact that Eden Books (who ironically also have Terms of Service that would normally result in the removal, if not the lack of consideration, of her work), further illustrates this ludicrous nature of their claims. 

But while this is the latest and one of the most brutal examples of authors or their fans going after those who dare critique their work, this is an issue that has been becoming more and more prominent in the book community over the last several years. The Sarah Dessen incident is still fresh in many of our minds, and while it did not go on as long or become as intense as this one is becoming, the common factor is an author and/or their supporters doxxing a critic while simultaneously trying to play the victim. 

And there have been other incidents, with varying shades of ugly, that have shown many authors are thin-skinned and vindictive. From an indie author threatening to kick those who post negative reviews off her review team to the infamous Kathleen Hale incident, it’s becoming increasingly hazardous to be a book reviewer, or even just to speak one’s mind about a book, for fear of retribution from the author or their minions. And with the increasing culture of friendships being fostered between authors and readers, thanks in part to social media, it’s not uncommon to find people who refuse to say anything negative about books, unable (or unwilling) to distinguish between the author and the work. Granted, this can be an issue with critics as well, but that is not the case with any of the aforementioned cases, especially not the Lucia Franco case, where all the personal attacks are one-sided. 

In short, free speech is important. But it goes both ways, and it doesn’t mean freedom from consequences in public discourse when you cross that line to “punish” people for speaking out while citing your own right to free speech. Reviews, good and bad, are a part of being an author, and those who choose this career path need to accept that, especially if they’re writing something with problematic elements. Instead of focusing your energy on spewing hate to these reviewers (and feeling the urge to doxx them or otherwise harm them), you might spend it productively, either ignoring it and continuing to write for the audience that does like your work  or taking a step back to actually think about the criticism in the correct context and how it might encourage you to be better as a writer.

Review of "Internment" by Samira Ahmed

Ahmed, Samira. Internment. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2019.

Hardcover | $17.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0316522694 | 386 pages | YA Dystopian

4 stars

I believe I heard about Internment through YA Book Twitter, and was intrigued at the premise of how it used historical examples of racism and xenophobia in the U.S. to predict the trajectory of the country’s current “handling” of immigration and Islamophobia, particularly as it resonates with my own family history and how other prominent Japanese Americans have spoken out at the disturbing parallels to anti-Asian laws and Japanese internment in light of government decisions like the current crisis at the U.S-Mexico border and the Muslim ban.

And the result is a sometimes bleak, but ultimately hopeful, read, as it depicts Layla, her family, and many others sent to an internment camp simply for their race and religion, and how while they at first endure, some, including Layla, choose to rise up and protest their release.

And Layla as a character is great. She presents a good balance between typical teenager focused on love and friendships and burgeoning resistance fighter, and I liked that Ahmed managed to find a way to get a healthy balance of both.

The one flaw I see is in its world-building and how it hinges on its sense of the “now.” It’s suggested in the blurb and in the note at the end that this is a “very near future” version of the U.S. While Ahmed plays with ideas that do recur due to persistent white supremacy, so the concepts may endure on that strength alone, she writes with the belief that the reader already knows about the state of the United States that led to the events of this book, and while I can assume many people today are aware, it lends itself to the question of whether it will endure the test of time. While I’m sure that’s not the writer’s first concern when writing a book, Margaret Atwood wrote with similar ideas in mind, leading to an enduring and relevant novel that still speaks to many readers, and the dystopian story has come and gone over the years with people being able to revisit those previous publications and still grasp meaning from them. However, I don’t know if that will one hundred percent be the case here.

However, I don’t doubt this is an incredibly important book for the moment, highlighting the issues that we as a nation need to fight against. I recommend it to people looking for hard-hitting YA books that tackle the state of the world today and help provide hope that there is a way to fix it.

Review of "Realm of Ash" (The Books of Ambha #2) by Tasha Suri

Suri, Tasha. Realm of Ash. New York: Orbit, 2019.

Paperback | $16.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0316449755 | 450 pages | Fantasy

5 stars

Tasha Suri is one of my favorite new discoveries this year, and while I wasn’t massively wowed by her debut, I found it enjoyable as a new romantic fantasy with Indian influences. But with Realm of Ash, while the trajectory is slightly different, given the different characters, I felt much more connected to the story and the world.

I enjoyed seeing a new facet to Ambha through the eyes of the widowed Arwa, given that this status comes with a different set of expectations, as well as the different ways other facets of her identity, like her difference of birth and color of her skin contrasted to Mehr’s experience.

I could also empathize with her character growth from someone who feels compelled to make herself small, and there’s this wonderful growth to finding her strength over the course of the story as she’s thrown into the court intrigue and solving the curse on the Empire.

I also was quicker to warm up to her romance with Zahir than I was with the romance in the last book. There was nothing ultimately wrong with that one in the end and both were gradual, but I liked the development of Zahir as a character and counterpart for Arwa in this one, and that made the story much more convincing.

This is a wonderfully sumptuous fantasy with great world building an complex characters. I recommend it to all romantic fantasy fans.

Review of "The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek" by Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal

McLaughlin, Rhett, & Link Neal. The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek. New York: -Crown, 2019.

Hardcover | $26.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1984822130 | 326 pages | Mystery

4 stars

After the success of their autobiographical Book of Mythicality, I wasn’t surprised Rhett and Link were releasing another book, although a novel did seem a little out -of-left-field, even if they were experimented further with more long-form story- based concepts in other media, like their YouTube Premium series. Yet, I tried to go in with few expectations, knowing almost nothing except that they took experience from their childhood as inspiration for this story.

And it ended up being really good, in spite of the odd identity crisis with its marketing, with it feeling sometimes like YA (although I mean that in the best way possible). Rhett and Link, with the help of ghostwriter Lance Rubin, have managed to create a story that is the perfect blend of their humor and a slightly edgier flair that leads the dark turns the plot takes as it’s revealed there’s something sinister going on in Bleak Creek.

And while the two lead male characters, Rex and Leif, are essentially a teenage Rhett and Link, they never feel like over exaggerated self-inserts, but characters based on themselves that have both the recognizable attributes and flaws they have in real life, that also allow the reader to resonate with the characters in-text as much as they do with Rhett and Link in real life. Granted, the self-insertion may not work for everyone, and could result in this not working as a stand-alone piece or the first introduction for a newcomer to Rhett and Link’s material.

However, the supporting cast is also well-drawn, from their friends to the other town residents. The villain has a surprisingly heartbreaking backstory, and while the end does not justify the means, I could relate to his sense of loss and empathize in part with his desire to do what he could to get his loved one back.

This is a fun book that is hopefully the first of many for Rhett and Link (there is minor potenital sequel-bait at the end, so maybe?), and I consider a must-read for all the Mythical Beasts out there.

Review of "Milady" by Laura L. Sullivan

Sullivan, Laura L. Milady. New York: Berkley, 2019.

Paperback | $16.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0451489982 | 366 pages | Historical Fiction

5 stars

I first heard about Milady from Elisabeth Lane when she picked up an ARC and a conference and featured it in a video, finding myself mildly intrigued at a spin on a male-dominated classic told from one of the only female characters, relegated to the role of villain. Subsequently, Dominic Noble’s video summing up the book (uploaded a day after the book released, but given his tremendous backlog of Patreon funded requests, and that this was based on one such request, I’m willing to chock it up to pure coincidence), and it made me realize, just as Laura L. Sullivan did, that the “heroes” of The Three Musketeers are horrible people, even allowing for historical context, and Milady is arguably much more sympathetic, in spite of being cast in the role of villain.

Sullivan thus takes the original story and allows Milady to reclaim the narrative in a wonderful way. Splitting between time periods, focusing on her backstory showing how she got to that point, and the “present” showing her version of the events of the original novel, it shows that while she was miscast to lift up D’Artagnan and the Musketeers, it was all by her design, with her use of excellent deception every step of the way to influence their perception of events.

As a result, I really loved the twists she put on the relationships between the characters, especially focusing on the relationships between women to contrast the theme of fraternity in the original. I love the twist that instead of being essentially a tragic figure, Constance (called “Connie” in the novel) is also in league with Milady and is given a better ending, and there’s a couple memorable scenes of them together that show the depth of their friendship.

As for Milady’s romantic life, I enjoyed seeing how she developed from a naive girl more or less who falls in love with someone who doesn’t reciprocate to seizing control of her own sexuality and eventually finding someone who respects her for it…and the fact that he was revealed to have essentially been there all along as well as being a great tie-in with a relationship her character has in the original is wonderful.

This is an absolutely amazing book in its own right, and I love how it pays tribute to the Dumas classic while also acknowledging that some characters deserved way better than they got…and giving it to them. I recommend this to anyone who loves female-centric historical fiction or female-centric retellings of classic novels.

Review of "Unbound by Celeste Bradley and Susan Donovan

Bradley, Celeste, and Susan Donovan. Unbound. 2011. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2012.

Paperback | $14.99 | ISBN-13: 978-1250032645 | 368 pages | Regency Romance/Contemporary Romance

5 stars

I read Breathless last year, completely unaware it was a sequel/spin-off of another book, because it wasn’t marked as such anywhere (although it does stand on its own). And while I was curious to read Unbound, its more salacious nature did put me off a tad.

However, upon finally picking it up when I was bored, I found myself engrossed in both arcs, although, as with Breathless, the historical arc was the stronger of the two. Given that the story revolves around the question of a how an English courtesan ended up becoming an abolitionist in America, I was on the edge of my seat with all the twists and turns as Ophelia took control of her life.

And while not initially drawn to the mysterious “Sir” (or the character who is later revealed to be him under the mask), that was by design, and I found myself awestruck when I found out his identity, especially as he ended up being a key figure from her previous life. And while you don’t get his perspective, I still found his growth from entitled aristocrat into a champion of women’s liberation and equality for all moving.

Piper’s story hits a bit closer to home in some ways, so I found myself living vicariously through her as she came to discover her own sexuality in the least likely of places. And while I also wasn’t wild about Mick initially, as his side of their past relationship came out, I began to see him as a viable partner for Piper. And I love how it’s another way that the two stories align: while the two women are finding their sexuality, the men they love must grow and evolve to become worthy of them.

This is a surprising dual-timeline romance that has a bit of everything: sweet moments and (very) sexy ones, hilarious and emotional, and of course, a good balance between the interwoven historical and contemporary arcs. I recommend it to all romance fans.

Review of "The Number of Love" (The Codebreakers #1)

White, Roseanna M. The Number of Love. Bloomington, MN: Bethany Houise, 2019.

Paperback | $15.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0764231810 | 364 pages | Historical Romance–World War I/Christian Fiction

4 stars

Having loved meeting Margot in A Song Unheard, part of Roseanna M. White’s previous series, I was delighted that she was getting her own book with The Number of Love. And while Lukas and Willa, who I loved from that book, do feature as secondarary characters, this book works well as a stand-alone and entry point into White’s rich Edwardian/World War I world she’s built over the course of her books published with Bethany House.

As with the previous series, White’s research is impeccable, and she presents an aspect of the Great War that is not often written about in novels or discussed in the basic school history the average person likely got on the war, that being the role of the intelligence hub Room 40. It was a great direction to go in, particularly after dealing with aspects of espionage during the war in previous books, and I really enjoyed delving more into a little-discussed part of this major war.

I loved getting to know Margot more. The way she thought with numbers admittedly had me a little out of my depth (a further testament to White’s skill at getting into her characters’ heads, as she admits in the note at the end that she is much the opposite), but I enjoyed her independence and pragmatism, balanced out with compassion for her friends and family.

Drake is also a great character, and wonderful counterpart for Margot. I love when authors switch things up and have the heroines be more governed by logic over emotion, and the more emotional, smitten hero is the one trying to figure out how to appeal to the heroine, and ultimately, while it’s a slow burn, it’s really sweet.

This is another great book by Roseanna M. White, flush with history and romance, and with a dash of suspense. I recommend it to those looking for an engrossing World War I-set historical romance.

Review of "The Seduction of Lady Phoebe" (The Marriage Game #1) by Ella Quinn

Quinn, Ella. The Seduction of Lady Phoebe. 2013. New York: Zebra, 2019.

Mass Market Paperback | $7.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1420147285 | 360 pages | Regency Romance

3.5 stars

Ella Quinn has become one of my favorite historical romance authors due to her Worthingtons series, but I had long lamented not being able to read her other series, The Marriage Game, which she wrote mostly prior to the Worthingtons and was released only in eBook (and I think print-on-demand paperback?). So, I was excited when I heard The Seduction of Lady Phoebe, the first book in that series, was getting a mass-market release, especially given the tie-ins between those two series.

And this book, like many debut books, is indicative of Quinn’s burgeoning talent. with her knack for creating historically realistic characters who are still relatable to the modern reader present in this book. Phoebe is perhaps one of her more daring heroines, with discussions of her forward thinking opinions and quick wit, making her popular with gentlemen.

With Marcus, she manages a difficult feat of redeeming a hero who has behaved inappropriately with the heroine in the past, showing his character growth due to life experience forcing him to grow up. And throughout it all, I love that he loves Phoebe, and works to atone for the wrong he did her, treating her with respect in their present courtship and protecting her from another suitor with nefarious intentions, while also acknowledging her own ability to protect herself.

If there is a flaw with this book, it’s that the pacing is a little uneven, with something intriguing happening on occasion due to some development in their relationship, or as the result of her life being in danger (a major part of the latter half), but I found my investment flagging a bit at times.

However, this is a nice, sweet read that shows the early talent of an author who I’ve come to enjoy. I recommend this to all historical romance lovers looking for a sweet escape with a feisty heroine and a wonderful hero.

Review of "Under Currents" by Nora Roberts

Roberts, Nora. Under Currents. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2019.

Hardcover | $28.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1250207098 | 436 pages | Romantic Suspense

3.5 stars

I was nervous about picking up Under Currents, as while she has deviated from her “formula” a bit in recent books, which I liked (especially Shelter in Place), I heard this was more of a return to the “traditional NR romantic suspense. And upon finally picking it up, I found that they were right, as it contains both the same familiar strengths and weaknesses from some of her previous books.

Roberts knows how to begin with a bang, regardless of the subgenre she’s writing in, and that’s still the case here. The first section, depicting the abuse in Zane’s family is masterfully crafted, perfectly capturing the bravery of Zane and his sister, Britt, as they found a way out of their abusive home, the determination of their aunt Emily, family friend David, and Detective Lee Keller to save them, and the twisted nature of the parents’ relationship with one another.

And the plot thread involving the continued, fatal dysfunction of the parents eighteen years later is equally well written, with Roberts again employing her skill at getting into the mind of a twisted criminal to depict Graham Bigelow’s mad determination to get even with everyone who supposedly ruined his life.

And the romance between Zane and town newcomer Darby is reasonably interesting, especially as they bond over the way they’ve both experienced abuse and survived.

However, Roberts tries to make a point of having both their pasts come back to haunt them in the latter half, and given that her stand alone romantic suspense books are a bit longer than her series books, I did feel like there was a bit too much filler in between these events, as I thought the book could have easily cut off after the Graham situation, given how things settled back to relative normalcy before the crazy ex came back into play. I appreciate a good slow burning plot, but this one feels a bit too slow.

Like many NR books, at least in my opinion, I feel this is a case of having a great idea, but a flawed execution. I’ve heard from other Roberts fans who love it, so of course, your mileage may vary. I do think it is worth checking out if you have more patience for a slow-burn thriller, and also are looking for something that deals with a difficult subject like domestic abuse head-on.

Review of "To Tame a Scandalous Lady" (Once Upon a Scandal #3) by Liana de la Rosa

De la Rosa, Liana. To Tame a Scandalous Lady. Fort Collins, CO: Entangled, 2019.

Paperback | $15.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1699299012 | 288 pages | Regency Romance

2 stars

Like with the previous two in the series, I received a copy from the author, once again, serendipitously, through a giveaway. All opinions are my own.

Yet, I still feel a sense of pain that I didn’t gel with To Tame a Scandalous Lady like I did with the previous two, not because the method of acquisition, but because, as is often the case, I feel bad when I dislike works by authors I’ve built up relationships with.

The one major positive thing about this book is the heroine. Flora is extremely unconventional, but she still never feels out of place in the late-Regency setting, instead offering commentary on the assumption that women’s sole purpose is to marry and have children, ideals which have lessened with time, but remain prevalent today. While I did feel like she didn’t fully grasp how her actions would impact her family’s reputation, which she claimed she did not want to jeopardize, even when her brother tried to explain it to her, I did admire that she took a risk and that she fought back against the idea that her gender and station precluded her from following her passion.

What I truly had difficulty with was Lord Amstead. He never seemed to me to be good hero material, much less a worthy match for Flora. He says at one point hat she probably finds his arrogance appealing due to her own strong character (paraphrasing here), but not only did I not find him appealing (he’s apparently so hot, she remarks on it a ton, but is there something of substance to him?), I rooted for her to kick him to the curb and not take him back when he engaged in the awful double standard of appreciating her talents (both as a horse trainer and bedmate) befoe he knew who she was, and then tried to impose marriage and tradition on her when he found out she was a lady. The latter is understandable, given he has some sense of honor as most gentlemen did where women of their class are concerned, and it’s not right that she deceived him, but the fact that he saw her as less capable as Lady Flora than as William/Flora Grant is a harder hurdle to get past for me.

This is another case of “it’s not you, it’s me,” as arrogant, managing heroes aren’t my cup of tea, and I feel like there could’ve been a way to give Flora a strong hero who was also likable. However, if you like strong heroines and alpha heroes, I would give this a try.

Review of "A Dance Through Time" (MacLeod #1, De Piaget/MacLeod #2) by Lynn Kurland

Kurland, Lynn. A Dance Through Time. 1996. New York: Berkley, 2000.

eBook | $7.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1101653562 | 353 pages | Time Travel Romance

3 stars

I was excited to finally get to read A Dance Through Time (and some of the other early Lynn Kurland books I’m missing) through OverDrive, especially since I remembered Jamie and Elizabeth from a subsequent book I’d read about one of Elizabeth’s brothers. And this book fulfilled my expectations of being yet another fun time travel adventure, if rather flawed.

While I was a little bummed that Elizabeth’s work as a writer doesn’t play a massive role, I suppose it’s par for the course, given the way women’s careers were approached in Kurland’s first book, Stardust of Yesterday. However, I did find her much more palatable than that book’s heroine, and given that Elizabeth does some time traveling instead of meeting Jamie entirely in her own time, I feel like she was competent enough to be able to make the adjustment. However, her character is also where the book does show its age, as while I have nothing against a heroine who wants to preserve her virginity until marriage, I can’t help but feel like that, along with some of her other traits, is something that was done simply because it was expected, and while I have no issue with people making a conscious choice to wait to have sex, it does seem like an worn out trope that even now the genre is having trouble getting rid of.

Jamie…I took a while to warm up to him. He wasn’t overly offensive, per se, but he just wasn’t that compelling either. I blame my lack of attraction to the fetishized Highlander, but I just don’t really get what’s attractive about him.

The plot was interesting enough…I did like that there was equal time spent with Elizabeth becoming accustomed to the 14th century and, later, in a twist, Jamie getting to know a bit about the modern world, with them eventually deciding to live in that time period. There was some action with some evildoing cousin, but this wasn’t that well foreshadowed.

In short, this time travel book, quite ironically, did not age well. And what plot there is is a bit all over the place. However, having read an early Kurland before, I did not go in expecting a masterpiece, and feel like, given the long-standing nature of the de Piaget/MacLeod interconnected universe, she must’ve done something right along the way, and I did like the book that succeeds this one. So, if you are looking for a fun, if dated, time travel escape, give this one a go.

Buy it here: https://amzn.to/3av9n4d

Review of “American Dreamer” (Dreamers #1) by Adriana Herrera

Herrera, Adriana. American Dreamer. Toronto: Ontario: Carina Press, 2019.

Mass Market Paperback $8.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1335006875 | 376 pages | Contemporary Romance

5 stars

I finally picked up American Dreamer recently after seeing a lot of buzz about it over the last several months since its release. And it’s one of the most refreshing books I’ve read in a while. It provides a nuanced look at the Afro-Latinx experience in the U.S. today, highlighting both the issues and showing the way that characters triumph in the face of adversity.

Nesto and Jude are such fully realized characters, and I loved them from the moment they each apeared on the page. Each of them has their hurdles to overcome, and I love that, even though they do have issues that cause problems in their relationship, they ultimately come back together and make it up to one another each time one screws up.

Nesto’s character being a chef with dreams of expanding his food truck business led to a lot of opportunities to showcase Afro-Caribbean cuisine, and this yet another of those books that should have a warning against reading on an empty stomach. And I love that his business has its roots in family and their journey as immigrants from the Dominican Republic. He also has the most adorable relationship with his mother, and she’s probably one of my favorite characters in the book, with how much she supports him.

I was excited about Jude being a librarian, because I feel like I haven’t seen enough of them in romance (I know there’s a ton out there though…it’s just getting to them). And while the importance of his career isn’t as pronounced as Nesto’s, it does play a role, with him taking on an important project at some point in the book.

But what really struck me was how Jude’s arc revolved heavily around familial rejection for being gay, to contradict Nesto’s completely accepting environment. My heart broke when I not only read about his past of being rejected, but saw it come into play in the present when a family emergency causes him to come back into contact with them.

And the supporting cast is great, and I can’t wait to read the rest, to see how the rest of their friends find love. I took a peek at the books currently released, and the one still to come, and I’m already excited.

This is a wonderfully heartfelt book, chock-full with a great sense of culture and community, with a cast of the most endearing characters I’ve read in a while. I recommend it if you’re looking for a great diverse romance.

Buy it here: https://amzn.to/2tvZUZH