Tanabe, Karin. The Diplomat’s Daughter. New York; Washington Square Press, 2017. ISBN-13: 978-1-5011-1047-4. $16.00 USD.
The Diplomat’s Daughter is a moving story that provides more depth to the narrative of racism, ostracism, and persecution during World War II. And while some of this was common knowledge, due to having been taught about it in history classes, I found I learned a lot more with an in-depth look at what happened and its emotional impact on those involved.
Along with the impact of experiencing the atrocities firsthand, I found myself growing personally invested in the relationships Emi had with both Christian and Leo, and wondered how it would all be resolved. And while I found some resolution in that regard, I expected more from the ending, which was building up to a big romantic conclusion, only to end just as the actual romantic reunion is about to occur. While I am aware that this is not necessarily a romance novel, I felt a bit cheated, after having gone through over 400 pages of the characters dealing with constant injustice. While the open-ended ending might work for some, it felt a bit anticlimactic, and I needed more assurance that there really would be a satisfactory ending.
Ashley, Jennifer. Death Below Stairs. New York: Berkley, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-399-58551-7. $15.00 USD.
Jennifer Ashley once again proves she is a versatile writer with Death Below Stairs, a first (of a sort) into something new for her. And while the book does have its shortcomings, this is a solid book on its own and as a first in series.
However, despite its declaration of being the first book, there was a lot in terms of the relationship between Kat and Daniel I felt I missed out on due to not having read the prequel novella, A Soupçon of Poison. However, as I got to know the characters in this book, I came to love them, even if some of their actions seem a little bit improbable. Despite it not being primarily a romance, I liked the beginnings of a romantic arc between Kat and Daniel, and look forward to where it goes next. I also liked that Ashley examines class differences in a different way than she or any other historical author I have read has done before. As a cook, Kat has relative freedom and mobility if something tragic should happen, but women like Lady Cynthia are dependent on their relatives with no proper way to earn their livelihood.
The mystery element brought together a number of plot threads, like the plight of a maid in a household at the hands of their master, the relationship between longtime servants with the family, and the contentious relationship between the British government Ireland. All of these factors played roles in the case, but even as each plot thread unfurled, I found myself still unaware of who was behind the murder until the end, which I attribute to skillfull use of misdirection.But the ultimate resolution for the culprit, while ultimately a little unfair, felt in keeping with the established arc for their character.
Reisz, Tiffany. The Night Mark. Don Mills, Ontario: MIRA Books, 2017. ISBN-13: 978-0-7783-2855-1.
In my continuing quest to read as many of the RITA finalists that I could find, I picked up The Night Mark with no expectations, as I was unfamiliar with Tiffany Reisz. And this choice paid off, as I quickly fell in love with the story, and its unique take on time travel that I had not read before, tying in elements around reincarnation and the concept of destiny, and working with the parallels and contrasts between the lives of Faye and Faith.
I love the theme of eternal love transcending death that recurs throughout the book, which further establishes the characters in both the past and the present. I also love how the relationship between Faye/Faith and Carrick grew, from the initial attraction to him due to his resemblance to her late husband from the present to forming a genuine connection with him for himself.
The secondary characters are also wonderful, and I love how some of the major secondary characters reflect the differences between past and present, and how we’ve come in terms of tolerance. Father Pat is one of the most entertaining Catholic priests I’ve ever read about, and the way he talks about the contradiction of being a gay priest, and how much more accepting modern day is was incredibly poignant. I also loved the narrative of Dolly’s issues as a black woman who was also deaf, and being able to see how things would unfold for her and eventually her family as well as time progressed.
Alexander, Tamera. To Wager Her Heart. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017. ISBN-13: 978-0310349686. $15.99 USD.
The final book in Tamera Alexander’s Belle Meade Plantation is as wonderful as many of her other books I’ve read, and with this being the final book in this series, I lament saying goodbye to lovely extended cast of characters, especially Uncle Bob and the rest of the employees at Belle Meade, although I expect, based on the introduction I got in Christmas at Carnton, that I will enjoy that series as it comes out just as much.
Once again, Alexander does not shy away from realistic depictions of social issues at the time, with this book focusing on the efforts of the real-life freedmen’s school Fisk University. With her Tennessee plantation series featuring heroines who are incredibly forward-thinking, I was pleased to meet Alexandra, who goes against her father’s wishes and gives up everything she has known to help with the university, and ultimately finds success.
She also depicts the tragedies surrounding train accidents, and I love how she puts real obstacles in the way of Alexandra being on common ground with Sylas, as she holds his father responsible for the train accident that caused her fiance’s death. But I also love how they didn’t spend the bulk of the book bickering. I did find the romance this time around a little less believable than in some of Alexander’s prior books, with the chemistry not being as evident as it was in some of the other books in the series. There also didn’t seem to be a build-up to her feelings for Sylas overtaking her feelings for her dead fiance, especially since she spent most of the book mourning him and modeling her life on some of the things he valued. However, since she and Sylas have fairly good camaraderie in a non-romantic sense, I don’t think it takes away too much from the overall story, especially given everything else the book deals with.
Oliveras, Priscilla. Her Perfect Affair. New York: Kensington, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-1-4201-4429-1. $4.99 USD.
I quickly came to identify with Rosa’s character when I read the first book, His Perfect Partner, so I was super excited to read her book. And despite the tagline and the blurb focusing a lot on her “walk on the wild side,” I was glad to see that the story focused more on the consequences of this wild encounter in a way that felt realistic, and like nothing I had ever read before. This includes the stakes beyond just possibly a job at a Catholic school, but instead for her it’s losing the opportunity to work in a place that she has felt connected to since she herself was a student, through her own love of books. As a book lover and librarian-in-training, this sentiment spoke to me. I also love that it touched on a real-life complication that some pregnant women deal with, which had previously been documented in the news in connection to Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. While seeing a prominent real-life figure go through it has helped provide some awareness about the condition, I admire Oliveras for portraying what it is like to live with in a more intimate way.
I already liked Jeremy from the first book, and I grew to love him even more this time around, even if he kept going about trying to be in Rosa’s and his child’s life the wrong way. I loved the complexities that made up his character, from his family’s past, which informed his initial reaction to finding out he was going to be a father, to his present family dynamics, which inform his current career choices as the black sheep of the family. I ended up loving some of the moments when he ended up easing up on the insisting he be part of her life and letting her call the shots a bit, especially when he ended up being her nursemaid for a while when she had severe morning sickness.
Linden, Caroline. My Once and Future Duke. New York: Avon Books, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-06-267292-6. $7.99 USD.
I’ve long been a Caroline Linden fan, but some of her recent work, particularly the novella she released last year, was not my cup of tea. And while I did find myself enjoying this one a lot more, it is by no means a perfect book, although it is an incredibly well-written, entertaining story.
There were good things. I enjoyed the idea of the heroine being the one engaged in slightly scandalous behavior and the hero being the one who’s more strait-laced, and appreciate that Linden found a way to do this that felt believable from a historical standpoint. I also did like that the characters were nuanced and their motivations and backstories felt realistic and made me understand them, even if I didn’t always agree with their actions (which was definitely the case with the duke practically abducting Sophie at one point). And even though they seem like an unlikely pair, Jack and Sophie do work well as a couple and complement each other.
Where it falls apart for me is the lack of real originality in and my general distaste for the story of duke (especially those who constantly trumpet about how they can get everything they want, but their mother’s or society’s demands make clear they can’t) falling in love with someunsuitable woman. While some writers can pull it off and make the story their own, I just didn’t feel it here, even though the characters and their romance was fine aside from that factor. The additional cliche of throwing in the misunderstanding that he’s going to marry someone else and instead of sensibly going to him to resolve it, she goes to someone who we know (and she should know, based on past events) has a romantic interest in her for answers irked me a little too much.
However, it is still a decent book by Caroline Linden, and I love that she brought some of her older characters from her first few published books (which I have yet to read) back, and will be setting more stories within that “world.”
Kilpack, Josi. All That Makes Life Bright. Salt Lake: Shadow Mountain, 2017. ISBN-13: 978-1-62972-341-9. $15.99 USD.
Josi S. Kilpack has once again introduced me to a historical figure who somehow managed to pass me by, yet managed to make the story come to life and improve my understanding of them beyond the mere footnote it was before. I was impressed with how Kilpack interpreted the many factors in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s literary and political development, and that, unlike many of the other prominent female authors in history, who spent most, if not all, of their lives unmarried and childless, she was a married woman and, as a result had to struggle to balance motherhood with indulging her creative spirit. And as Kilpack’s introduction makes clear, this factor makes her all the more relatable to many of the female writers of today, who are balancing families and writing…and sometimes a day job as well.
Working with and playing with the historical record, Kilpack also does a wonderful job showing the evolution of Harriet and Calvin’s relationship in their first year or so of marriage. And even though their lives were eventful, as indicated by the timeline at the end of the book and many outside sources, Kilpack’s isolating this time period and showing the happy resolution to their problems there, as well as a snapshot of their future, helps to provide a different definition of the happily-ever-after than in many purely fictional historical romances.
Robb, J.D. Portrait in Death. Berkley Books, 2003. ISBN-13: 9780739433508. $7.99 USD (Price for paperback edition; hardcover edition is out of print).
This joins some of the previous 5-star rated installments in the series as among the best, both in terms of the unfolding of the case and the interplay between the characters. In terms of the former, while the killer does deserve punishment without question, it is exciting to delve into the psyche of the killer and explore what motivated these killings in the name of preserving their light. And something I’ve found to be a challenge in reading these books is really feeling the true depth of the lives lost beyond typical human sadness about death, even when people close to them express their thoughts about what kind of people they were. But with one of the deaths here, it was not the case, as the personal connection we (and Eve) has with the victim’s family beforehand means that the death is an even greater loss, even if the victim was only mentioned for the first time in this book.
And while the personal stuff was not largely connected to the case this time around, it was probably one of the most enjoyable. After countless books of seeing Roarke being cool and collected, with only a few occasions of being affected by his past, it is great to see him truly tested by a deeper exploration of his past. And while Eve has occasionally done sweet things for Roarke in the prior books, it was wonderful to see her being the one to comfort and support him, even to the point of taking time away from her investigation.
Alexander, Tamera. Christmas at Carnton. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2017. ISBN-13: 978-0310293248. $12.99 USD.
In a wonderful introduction to her forthcoming Carnton series, Tamera Alexander once again poignantly weaves the fact and fiction to present a nuanced portrayal of the Civil War and what the South fought for, at great loss to themselves. And while the shorter length of the story does mean that the romance between Aletta and Jake feels a little bit rushed, especially given the losses Aletta endured so recently at the opening of the book. But it does not detract from the growth that they both go through.
Jake in particular really grew, going from someone who had one purpose in life that injury had now rendered impossible to pursue, to someone who was able to find purpose in other things. And through Aletta and the other women, you see an example of the fact that, despite the fact that women weren’t able to go off and fight in the war, they were, in the men’s absence, doing a lot of fighting of their own, which indicates their potential to be more than just homemakers.
Lin, Jeannie. The Lotus Palace. Don Mills, Ont.: Harlequin HQN, 2013. ISBN-13: 978-0-373-77773-0. $7.99 USD.
Despite my initial (incredibly misguided) misgivings based on the blurb, I found that I loved The Lotus Palace. Not only was it a great romance, but it was chock-full of rich historical detail about the environment of the Tang Dynasty, with a strong focus on the pleasure quarter, Pingkang Li. And while some of the practices concerning courtesans do vary from their Western counterparts that I’ve read about, I was glad the story also touched on the fact that many of these women, including Yue-ying and her sister, Mingyu, did not enter the trade by choice, but had it forced upon them.
I was also skeptical about whether this cross-class romance would work, given that on the surface, Yue-ying and Bai Huang are so different. But even if it does run to some of the familiar cliches, like her being different than any other woman he’s been with, I did feel like the romance was a genuine one that goes beyond the sexual component, despite the fact that she spends quite a bit of the book in the role as his mistress. And in exploring the complexities of the relations between Chinese men and their wives and concubines, this adds a new perspective that does not exist in Western cross-class romances.
I was intrigued by the mystery element, but I did feel like there wasn’t as much time spent on it as I expected there would be. Even though it is more a romance than a mystery, the chapters after the solving of the mystery felt a little tedious, and I only read on for the sake of finding out how Yue-ying and Bai Huang would get their HEA. It was ultimately rewarding, but it was a little too long.