Review of “The Vanished Bride” (Bronte Sisters Mystery #1) by Bella Ellis

Ellis, Bella. The Vanished Bride. New York: Berkley, 2019.

Hardcover | $26.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0593099056 | 292 pages | Historical Mystery

4 stars

I have enjoyed some of the Bronte sisters’ books, and find their lives rather fascinating, so my interest was piqued by the idea of The Vanished Bride, which imagines them as amateur detectives. And while it can be a little on-the-nose at times with the references to their works, I think this is a fairly solid and imaginative historical mystery.

I love Ellis’ imagining of what they were like, and truly felt for them, given their brother’s general uselessness, even though he does play some part in the investigation. There’s a bit where he tries to tell Anne that, since she’s the youngest, she should stay behind, and while I saw the logic in it, I rolled my eyes at his general incompetence at life.

The book also has feminist themes, but all are drawn from history in some regard. One is obviously the fact that the expectations for Branwell and his sisters differed widely, yet they were the ones hustling, while he failed and would continue to fall deeper into dissipation. And Ellis includes Patrick Bronte’s expression of the belief that a female acquaintance not marry without financial security, in spite of the fact she has found herself with child out of wedlock, which she notes has a historical basis.

The mystery itself also reflects the sad fate of many women during this period as property of their husbands with few rights of their own. I like how it started with a suggestion of nefarious behavior, especially given that there isn’t even a body, atypical for a murder mystery, and while there was violence going on, it wasn’t what I expected. I guess it’s definitely more on the cozy mystery side, and considering I typically prefer a much grittier mystery, I still found this one satisfying.

This is a great tribute to the Bronte sisters, and given the standards of some of the literary fanfiction out there (I’ve read many, including at least one about the Brontes), it’s one of the better ones. I recommend it to those who love their books (provided you don’t go in expecting a Gothic tale on the level of their novels).

Review of “Not a Mourning Person” (Potions and Passions #2) by Catherine Stein

Stein, Catherine. Not a Mourning Person. [United States]: Cathertine Stein, 2019.

Paperback | $14.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1949862065 | 352 pages | Victorian Romance/Paranormal Romance/Steampunk

5 stars

Not a Mourning Person is an absolutely delightful second full-length installment of the Potion and Passions series, it’s just as brilliant as the others. And while the heroes were the standouts in the prior books (not that the heroines aren’t memorable), I was very much reading this one to see how Rachael developed from the sort-of “mean girl” she was in the last book, especially in the aftermath of her husband’s mysterious passing, and her lack of good memories of him, as hinted at in the title. In the hands of a lesser author, I feel like Rachael could have been very one-note, but I like that, in addition to actively flouting convention with her more ostentatious behavior, there is a vulnerability to her, especially as she finds herself falling in love with Avery, and is uncertain, given the trials they’ve faced, whether he loves her.

And of course, Avery is another winning Stein hero. I love how in some ways he is very much the opposite of Rachael, such as preferring scholarly pursuits and not necessarily being a social person, but I love that they bond over said scholarship, with them being brought together due to his warrior love poems. And as the story progresses, I loved seeing her take on a literary project of her own and seeing it come to fruition.

This one also has the strongest arc of suspense of the series, with both the hopes of breaking a Cantrell family curse and a related hunt for a murderer, with a shockingly personal revelation as to the killer’s identity.

I This is a great book in what’s shaping up to be fabulous romance series, from an author I hope I can keep up with in the future. I very much recommend this one in particular to romance fans who love either steampunk or a somewhat unlikely heroine.

Review of “The Earl on the Train” (Potions and Passions #0.5) by Catherine Stein

Stein, Catherine. The Earl on the Train. [United States]: Catherine Stein, 2018.

Paperback | $9.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1949862034 | 198 pages | Victorian Romance/Paranormal Romance

5 stars

Despite being billed as a “Potions and Passions Novella,” The Earl on the Train is one of those in-between long novella/short novel books, that I was both able to finish almost in one sitting, but also felt like there was meat to the story a lot of novellas lack that make reviews for them harder to write, especially since the average novella speeds up the relationship development considerably.

That is not the case here. Once again, Stein crafts relatable characters on a globe-trotting adventure, full of perfumes and growing passions. Nick is yet another lovable hero, and his dynamic with Ida was fun. And while the idea of falling for someone before you really know their name can be something of turnoff for me, Nick seems to suffer from the very “me” trait of not being able to remember people’s names at times, and it’s executed in a rather adorable way, with him even nicknaming Ida “Berries.” I also liked the deeper exploration into addiction in the context of the potions, and I felt it was executed in a very believable way.

And of course, Ida is fabulous…I love that she uses her parasol as a weapon! It’s nice that, with a hero who has slightly calmer interests, we have a heroine who can readily defend herself…although the that’s not to say Nick doesn’t lack strength where it counts, but rather that they complement each other very well.

I enjoyed this one, and found it just as fun and charming as How to Seduce a Spy. This is marketed as something a loosely related prequel to that book, but you are welcome to read it any order you like. But I definitely recommend this one in particular for a fun, , short, fast read that will let you try out a new author (should you choose to start here), and the series so far in general to fans of magic-infused historical romance.

Review of “Beguiled by a Baron” (The Heart of a Duke #14) by Christi Caldwell

Caldwell, Christi. Beguiled by a Baron. [United States]: Christi Caldwell, 2017.

Paperback | $10.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1547203475 | 252 pages | Regency Romance

4.5 stars

Beguiled by a Baron is definitely one of the better Christi Caldwell titles I have read. And something I did notice about the Heart of a Duke “world,” as opposed to the interconnected “world” of her other series, is up to this point, at least, there isn’t quite as much interconnectedness, at least not as much as there have been in her Sinful Brides and Wicked Wallflowers, where the latter is a direct sequel to the former, and reading in order helps the character relationships make more sense. While neither hero nor heroine appears to be new to the HoaD world, having prior connections that date back to at least the previous book in the series, these connections are explained well enough that I had no issue reading this as a stand-alone.

And the story in its own right is probably one of the most compelling as well, right up there with books two and three in the Sinful Brides series. I was particularly drawn to the mention of the heroine, Bridget’s, disability, in the blurb, and felt it was portrayed in a realistic way, especially considering the time period. I also love that, despite being raised in isolation, she isn’t naive, due to her family circumstances, and every choice she makes is to protect her son, Virgil, from her awful brother.

And Vail may just be my new favorite Caldwell hero. While he does deal with a hefty amount of angst, as Caldwell’s heroes often do, I love that he is truly good at heart to those he loves, and would do anything for them, making him a great counterpart for Bridget, even if at first it doesn’t seem that way, due to her reluctantly about to steal from him. Even when he is wounded by her betrayal, he trusts her word that she did it for a reason of desperation instead of malice, and marries her to give her his protection, doubling down on it once he learns the full truth.

The one (minor) flaw is with the characterization of Bridget’s brother the marquess. While I don’t expect to feel any sympathy for a villain, he did feel more cartoonishly evil than flesh-and-blood person. I do understand that sometimes people are just awful, but I would have liked to get some inkling of his motivations beyond being evil for the sake of it.

This is my current favorite Christi Caldwell book, although that could change if and when I manage to read more of her extensive backlist. However, at the moment, I recommend this as one of the essential Caldwell books that all historical romance lovers should read.

Review of “The Downstairs Girl” by Stacey Lee

Lee, Stacey. The Downstairs Girl. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019.

Hardcover | $17.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1524740955 | 374 pages | YA Historical Fiction

5 stars

I heard about The Downstairs Girl on BookTube, when one of the BookTubers I watch on occasion mentioned it being on her list of anticipated summer releases, followed by a reasonably positive review from her, and others online.,And the premise appealed to me immediately, promising to deal with racial issues and women’s suffrage in the late 19th century American South.

And I found it was both a reasonably entertaining read and one that further delved into aspects I knew a bit about, educating me about another perspective on them. I knew about the surge of Asian immigrants in the latter half of the nineteenth century, but I knew about it more from a localized perspective, with the lens of the Hawaii plantations with some insight of the West Coast Asian immigrant experience, including the broad implications of the Chinese Exclusion Act. But I knew little about immigration in this period to the South, and the startling, but suddenly very obvious, fact that they did this due to the abolition of slavery. As a a result, I found it fascinating how it delved into the issues of segregation, just as much as it did suffrage.

Jo has a strong voice, and I love how she is so forthright in her opinions. Her column in particular makes up the best part of the novel. I also loved the relationships throughout the book, like that with her adoptive father, Old Gin, and her friend, Noemi.

This is a wonderfully engrossing, leisurely paced historical fiction novel that will leave you with an understanding of racial issues, and is recommended for all lovers of historical fiction.

Review of “How to Seduce a Spy” (Potions and Passions #1) by Catherine Stein

Stein, Catherine. How to Seduce a Spy. [United States]: Catherine Stein, 2018.

Paperback | $14.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1949862003 | 391 pages | Victorian Romance/Paranormal Romance

5 stars

I received this book from the author as a gift. I was not obliged to provide a review, positive or otherwise. That being said, I have to thank Catherine Stein for gifting me all the current books in her Potions and Passions series, including, of course, this one, How to Seduce a Spy. I truly did enjoy this book and look forward to reading the others very soon.

While I did not know what to expect, beyond something somewhat steampunk, somewhat historical fantasy, I found myself blown away by this magical globe-trotting romp. Stein clearly put a lot of effort into historical and location research, and she manages to incorporate the potions into the Victorian historical world in such a believable way that it doesn’t feel out of place.

I also was quickly won over by the characters and how they aren’t your typical alpha male and naive ingenue. Henry is exactly the type of hero I wish more romance writers would write: both a brave and bold adventurer and a sweet and considerate lover who wears his heart on his sleeve. There’s something so sexy and refreshing about a guy who doesn’t agonize for hundreds of pages about the fact that he can’t be with the person he obviously deeply cares for. I love Elle’s boldness and independence, and I love that she strikes the perfect balance between feeling relatable and also working perfectly within the context of the Victorian era.

This is a delightful Victorian magical romance from a fabulous up-and-coming author that I’d love to see get a lot more love. And I recommend anyone looking for a new steampunk or gaslamp-esque Victorian romance.

Review of “The Gilded Hour” (The Waverly Place Series #1) by Sara Donati

Donati, Sara. The Gilded Hour. 2015. New York: Berkley, 2016.

Paperback | $17.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0425283349 | 757 pages | Historical Fiction

4.5 stars

I picked up Sara Donati’s The Gilded Hour by chance at the library. While I had seen it on a Gilded Age recommended reading list sometime in the past, I didn’t seriously consider picking it up until I saw it on the “New Books” shelf net to the recently released sequel, at which point, instant gratification of a sort won out.

And being in the mood for somewhat epic historical fiction lately, I enjoyed this one. This book is engrossing in the complex politics of the Gilded Age medical field, with a central plot surrounding the death of a woman who performed an illegal abortion, and the involvement of the two female doctors who treated her. I love how delicately Donati dealt with the contradictions of the era, with not only abortion and birth control as hot-button issues, but also the parallel movement of eugenics rising in popularity at the time.

Her two central characters, second cousins Anna and Sophie Savard, are both compelling leads, and seeing how they interact with their society with all this going on given that they are female physicians (as well as Sophie being mixed-race, as fact that is commented on several times, particularly in news articles).

I also very much enjoyed getting to know all the other characters, in particular seeing the relationships between Anna and Sophie and their respective romantic partners flourish, even if Sophie’s romance is doomed to end prematurely due to her sweetheart’s illness.

Despite the length and the unfolding mystery element with the discovery of an abortionist killer, it lurks in the background for the most part, so if there’s one flaw, it’s that the book is a little slow with a lot going on, and there are still several loose ends in the plot which I hope will be given at least some satisfactory answers, at least enough to tide readers over if she plans another series of the scope of the previous one (which I do plan to read in the nesr future), and will be releasing them on a more staggered schedule.

This is an enjoyable read, with its main strength being its grand depiction of the lives of people in Gilded Age society. I recommend this to other fans of epic-length historical fiction.

Review of “The Bookish Life of Nina Hill” by Abbi Waxman

Waxman, Abbi. The Bookish Nina Hill. New York: Berkley, 2019.

Paperback | $16.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0451491879 | 332 pages | Women’s Fiction/Chick Lit

4 stars

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill caught my attention with its title, because as bizarrely common as they are (although perhaps a bit less so in contemporaries, I’m not sure), bookish heroines are still catnip to me. And upon reading the blurb and diving in and learning about Nina’s anxiety, and seeing how well (for the most part) it was depicted, I fell in love with her. While there are some small things I can’t relate to, or find more aspirational at this point in my life (such as working at an indie bookstore!), I loved all her little nerdy quirks, and how they extend beyond books to movies and TV shows too.

I also like that she was given a realistic arc for growth with the revelation of a father and other family she never met, and how her now-deceased father’s life choices at first make him seem a bit heartless, but over time, there’s the revelation that he shares more in common with Nina psychologically, and that he may not be the only one in the family who does so. I like that the book ends with his letter to her inspiring her to make better choices, having learned all this.

I did feel like there were some inconsistencies where the romance (or at least the sexual aspects of it) was concerned. I could understand her reluctance to commit, given the way she was raised without both her biological parents present in her life (although not without love, due to the fact that she did have a nanny), but it seemed a little odd to me that after she and Tom slept together, he was the one more eager to call themselves boyfriend/girlfriend, and while she acquiesced to him, she told someone else they weren’t really serious. It did help the overall conflict, in terms of whether her anxiety would interfere with a relationship, but, were it not for her father’s contradictory example, I would have found it completely unbelievable…and as it is, I’m still not completely sold about it.

But this is otherwise a great contemporary read, with compelling characters and lots of moments chock-full of both humor and heart. I recommend this to fans of rom-coms and bookish leads.

Review of “A Secret Affair” (Huxtable Quintet #5) by Mary Balogh

Balogh, Mary. A Secret Affair. 2010. New York: Dell, 2011.

Mass Market Paperback | $7.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0440245285 | 386 pages | Regency Romance

5 stars

When an author introduces a beloved secondary character with the intent of giving them their HiEA later at the end of a series, it can be hit-or-miss, something I’ve even experienced with Mary Balogh before, as well as other authors. So, I was almost afraid to be drawn into the mysteries surrounding Constantine Huxtable, should his book be more of the same, but I had to know what it was that caused strife between him and Elliott, the hero of First Comes Marriage. And in that regard, A Secret Affair satisfies that curiosity…and much more.

I love that Balogh once again plays with assumptions and one’s rumored reputation vs. the truth, as she has done previously in the series, this time with both Con and Hannah. On Con’s part, I loved delving behind the rakish exterior to gain an understanding of his bond with his late brother, Jonathan, the previous Earl of Merton, and as well as the good he has been doing with the less fortunate. I also found it heartbreaking how Con’s ways of going about this cause ended up leading to the estrangement between him and Elliott, as well as seeing the two come to terms with one another.

On Hannah’s part, I liked that we had another bold heroine, even if she isn’t immediately popular with the other Huxtables. In fact, I really enjoyed how it led to something of a moment of accord between her and Cassandra, due to the parallels in the way each of them found their partner, and their respective bad reputations. I also was moved by Hannah’s reflections of her marriage with the Duke of Dunbarton, and how it wasn’t as sordid and mercenary on her part as society made out, but a marriage of mutual benefit and platonic companionship.

The development from the pursuit of passion to the fall into love feels perfect, especially as these two complex people uncover each other’s secrets and become more comfortable in being vulnerable with each other. It also culminates in one of the most beautiful declarations of love and proposals I can remember reading.

This is a wonderful conclusion to a more or less great series that deserves a lot more love and praise. I recommend any historical romance readers who haven’t given it a chance to pick it up, with a note that, while the plot itself is self-contained, this is one where the four books of character and relationship development make Con all the more lovable.

Review of “Seducing an Angel” (Huxtable Quintet #4) by Mary Balogh

Balogh, Mary. Seducing an Angel. 2009. New York: Dell, 2010.

Mass Market Paperback | $7.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0440244271 | 405 pages | Regency Romance

5 stars

I don’t remember why I stopped in the middle of Mary Balogh’s Huxtable Quintet, especially since I was just getting to the stories about the characters I was most excited about, but I finally found the time to pick up Seducing an Angel after a long time of wanting to, but never having the time. And it may just be my favorite, for the mere fact that has the perfect execution of one of my favorite (and one of the most maligned) tropes: a role reversal where the heroine seeks out the hero’s company for whatever reason, and where she had a dark past and he’s more squishy and sweet.

But Stephen is. He’s grown up some and had a little experience over the course of the series, but he’s still a sweet and open-hearted man, which I always find refreshing in the sea of broody, seemingly heartless rakes. He’s exactly what Cassandra needs to learn to believe in love again, with his patience and kindness to her.

Balogh never shies away from going to some dark places with her characters’ pasts, and I like that she does this just as much for heroines like Cassandra as she does for heroes in other books. And I truly felt for Cassandra’s circumstances being in an abusive marriage, even if it is one that is sadly a common situation in a time period when women had no rights. And I also liked the question around whether she was truly responsible for his death, and while there seem to be lines that even Balogh won’t cross for the heroes and heroines in her historical romances, I still found the justification for it far outstripped the shame attached to her by society due to the assumption.

I loved this one and will probably be starting Con’s book right away. And while this series isn’t talked about as much as some of Balogh’s others, I personally find it among her best work, and would recommend it to any historical romance fans who have not tried her work yet.