Review of “Witchmark” (The Kingston Cycle #1) by C.L. Polk

Polk, C.L. Witchmark. New York: Tor.com/Tom Doherty and Associates, 2018.

Paperback | $15.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1250162687 | 318 pages | Historical Fantasy

5 stars

Witchmark came highly recommended by a book club friend or two as a romance-adjacent fantasy with an m/m romance, and some recent conversation on Twitter in response to some hostile reviews for the forthcoming sequel regarding the shift in protagonist (despite said book not even finished and available to reviewers yet) inspired me to pick up the book even sooner than I originally planned.

This book had such an engaging plot, and was so fast-paced. I also liked that, while it’s not the most complicated fantasy in terms of worldbuilding and magic, it feels both easy to comprehend due to the historical influences and also well-drawn enough to be distinct at the same time.

Miles and Tristan are both fabulous characters, and especially Miles, given that he’s the protagonist and narrator. I loved the exploration of his conflicts as far as his family is concerned. And their romance…there are some pretty cute moments between them, and it balances out the darker atmosphere of the mystery plot and the world war.

This book was utterly enjoyable, and I will definitely be reading the sequel. I would recommend this to fans of great historically-inspired fantasy.

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Review of “Duchess by Design” (The Gilded Age Girls Club #1) by Maya Rodale

Rodale, Maya. Duchess by Design. New York: Avon Books, 2018.

Mass Market Paperback | $7.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062838803 | 371 pages | Historical Romance

5 stars

I was a little unsure what to think when I first heard about Duchess by Design, because on the one hand, I am all for more Gilded Age-set historicals, but at the same time, I was dismayed that it was still about a duke and a working class girl. But taking into account the historical background, I bought it, held onto it (like many other books for the past year), and when I finally did pick it up, I went into it with an open mind.

And it just blew me away. I tend to be way more wary of books with a hero with a ton of privilege, and a heroine with almost none, but it seems like Rodale, whether intentionally or not, took this into account when crafting the characters. Kingston in particular impressed me, and how she created a character who is a bit out-of-touch with modern ideas and the plight of the lower classes, but not only gives him a believable character arc, but manages to make him endearing from page one. Sure, he has his dense moments, but they only make him a more sympathetic character.

And Adeline is also compelling. While there is a little of “the lower class heroine puts the aristocratic hero in his place,” I didn’t doubt for a second that Adeline lacked agency, even if she did have a lot to lose if things went south. And the chemistry between Adeline and Kingston developed so beautifully in spite of all the obstacles.

I also love the strong focus on female friendship and support of one another as a major subplot in this novel, which I anticipate will be a standout part of the series as a whole. I found it fascinating seeing how the ringleader, Harriet, and the other Ladies of Liberty helped to fund Adeline’s shop when she ended up in a tough spot. And the fact that the trend of dresses with pockets played a somewhat significant role didn’t hurt either.

On the whole, I love this new direction Rodale is taking, and from her authors’ notes and the resources she lists on her website, as well as just the sheer depth of the text itself, it’s clear she embedded a lot of real history into the book. I recommend this to all historical romance readers, especially those hankering for more of the Gilded Age.

Review of “Isle of Blood and Stone” (Tower of Winds #1) by Makiia Lucier

Lucier: Makiia. Isle of Blood and Stone. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2018.

Hardcover | $17.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0544968478 | 390 pages | YA Fantasy

4.5 stars

I randomly heard about Isle of Blood and Stone mentioned on BookTube, and it’s been on my radar ever since, and once I heard it was a nominee for the YALSA Top Ten, I was even more interested. And upon finishing it, I definitely feel it’s worth the hype. I love that it’s a YA fantasy with a somewhat original concept and a rich, historically inspired setting, and while it does have subtle romance, it doesn’t overwhelm the plot or feel shoehorned in just for the sake of it.

While there were quite a few characters, and it did take a little bit to get to know them, I ended up really becoming invested in them through the adventures they went on and the revelations uncovered along the way.

The character bonds are what stand out. The aforementioned friendship/possible romance between Elias and Mercedes is beautiful, and I love how she’s often the one saving him! It’s so nice to see a healthy relationship highlighted in YA once in a while, since it seems like the most notable ones are somewhat toxic.

This is definitely a great example of a YA fantasy done right, and would love to see more in the same vein. And I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who loves a good fantasy novel, regardless of whether they like YA or not.

Review of “What a Lord Wants” (Capturing the Carlisles #5) by Anna Harrington

Harrington, Anna. What a Lord Wants. New York: NYLA, 2019.

Paperback | $14.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1798484678 | 309 pages | Regency Romance

3.5 stars

What a Lord Wants is a nice conclusion(?) to the Carlisles’ series, although I admit at first I completely forgot how this was meant to be a Carlisles’ book in the first place. Thankfully, this is explained for the most part, and, due to having the loosest connection to the other books (with the exception of book 3, with this book’s heroine and that one being sisters), it can more or less stand alone.

This book felt oddly paced to me at first, and I found myself boggled at my lack of investment in comparison to others’ glowing reviews for it. I could feel the romantic tension right away, but I wasn’t sure I connected with Dom or Eve until at least halfway through the book. There were things I enjoyed, like being enmeshed in the world of art at the time, and I liked that Eve, in spite of being enveloped in scandal, was unafraid of risking another when she found herself in one, but still, I was fully prepared to drag my way through it, which would not do any favors toward my perspective on the current stale state of the genre.

But somewhere after that halfway point, it got better for me, and I started to formulate what was wrong, along with seeing things be solved for me. And the crux of the issue was Dom’s dual persona. I’m not the biggest fan of heroes who put up walls for whatever reason, and while I found it to be a new take, it did not endear me to him, especially since I felt the solution to his problems of lacking inspiration so obvious. But as things progressed, I found myself warming to him somewhat, and a pivotal moment concerning a letter he receives from a past love moved me and showed a moment of revelation and growth, particularly as it’s revealed that the woman’s father (also his former mentor who instilled the “art before all else” way of thinking) also eventually found love that altered his perspective,c and I found that beautiful and poetic.

While I did not find it as enjjoyable as I had hoped, having really liked or even loved quite a few of Harrington’s other books, I feel it’s mostly me and my funk with historicals lately, and I would not dissuade anyone from picking it up, especially if they have consistently loved Harrington’s work in the past and also really love historicals.

Review of “Creation in Death” (In Death #25) by J.D. Robb

Robb, J.D. Creation in Death. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2007.

Hardcover | $25.95 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0399154362 | 337 pages | Romantic Suspense

3.5 stars

Creation in Death was one of the installments in the series I felt a bit more mixed on, once again due more to my own personal investment in the case and all its layers. But it did not detract from the things I love about the series, which is seeing the cast alternately working together and clashing as they try to crack the case, although there did seem to be a bit of a tonal shift on both fronts.

And on that front, I think it was great to see something of Eve and Feeney’s past working together on a case when the same killer strikes again. The series has shown wonderful growth and depth for a lot of character bonds even as they’re being tested, and this was no different, and it was one of the standout parts of the book.

The case felt a little scattered, and I didn’t feel too invested at first, especially since I didn’t really get a sense of where it was going, with obvious suspects. But I do feel like Robb/Roberts brought it all together at the end in a satisfying way, and it felt a bit less predictable than some of the prior entries in a sense due to the style change.

Despite it being one of the less enjoyable installments from my perspective, I still think it’s a great fast-paced ride, and well worth reading for any fan of the series who is still working their way through them.

Review of “Believe in Me” (The Worthingtons #6) by Ella Quinn

Quinn, Ella. Believe in Me. New York: Kensington, 2019.

Mass Market Paperback | $7.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1420145205 | 374 pages | Regency Romance

3 stars

I admit I sadly did not have high hopes for Believe in Me, after having difficulties with its predecessor. And while this one also fell a little flat, I do feel like this one is marginally better.

Once again, I must give praise to Quinn’s dedication to getting the details of the period correct, and also introducing readers to lesser known facts about the Regency era in a fun and engaging way. The concept and overall execution of the idea of a woman who is more interested in pursuing higher education is a unique one for the time period, but it is great to know that it was not outside the realm of possibility for those with connections and the means to travel, as Augusta did.

And the situation led to some great development of her as a character in the context of the extended Worthington family as well. It was great to see the determined Augusta appealing alternately to her more traditionally minded mother, who hopes to see her married off, and her brother Matt, who is slightly more open to the idea. It led to some great moments of development to see how everyone progressed in the three-year time jump since the last book’s events.

The romance felt a little more lackluster to me, which is unfortunate, as on paper, it seemed like it could easily have been one of my favorites, due to the slightly slow-burn nature of the relationship and how things start off with Phinn and Augusta being friends first, and them being well-suited to each other due to both being intelligent. But it was one of those books where I felt like the conflicts were resolved a bit too quickly, and then there was a lot of slow-moving travel scenes. It helped to illustrate the scenery and what it would have been like to actually make the trip, but it did little else but make me wonder how much longer it would be until something happened.

On the whole it is a fairly decent entry, although it does make me question whether this series has gone on a bit too long. There are numerous other family members left, so we’ll see if Ella Quinn can write something a bit more engaging for the next family member. And in the meantime, I do still feel it’s worth reading, even if primarily for the heroine’s arc alone. As I noted previously, Ella Quinn’s adherence to accuracy is pretty much unrivaled, and she is an author I would recommend for those looking for a historical that will both entertain and educate, this one is for you.

Review of “Red Seas Under Red Skies” (Gentlemen Bastards #2) by Scott Lynch

Lynch, Scott. Red Seas Under Red Skies. New York: Bantam, 2007.

Hardcover | $23.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0553804683 | 558 pages | Fantasy

4 stars

Red Seas Under Red Skies is a great second entry in the Gentlemen Bastards series, once again standing out for its terrific character and relationship development. If the book has any flaws, the plot didn’t feel as engaging or as high-stakes as the first one. But it is still more or less solid and enjoyable. And I admire Scott Lynch for trying to take his characters and world in a bit of a different direction, while keeping them recognizable to the reader.

Locke and Jean remain a fabulous pair to follow, focusing on the ins and outs of their friendship, from the more light-hearted banter to the more heartwarming “friendship” moments, like an interaction that perfectly encapsulates the meaning of a true friend that has become like family.

It was also refreshing to see the introduction of some strong, but well-drawn female characters in Ezri and Zamira, and I was even more floored when I did a bit of digging into this book (mostly just perusing reviews on Goodreads to see others’ opinions) and found a link to a post with Scott Lynch’s fabulous response to “fans” regarding “political correctness” by the inclusion of these characters. Even independent of the post itself, it’s great to see him including women in prominent roles, especially in a pirate setting, as that not only felt a little lacking in the last book, but women pirates are an element of pirate lore that has long fascinated me.

I once again think it’s a great book that fantasy fans will enjoy, even if it isn’t your standard high-magic, large world story. If you love great character depth and relationships, it’s definitely worth giving these books a try.

Review of “The Accidental Beauty Queen” by Teri Wilson

Wilson, Teri. The Accidental Beauty Queen. New York: Gallery Books, 2018.

Paperback | $16.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1501197604 | 293 pages | Women’s Fiction/Chick Lit

4 stars

The Accidental Beauty Queen was a random find while perusing my library’s catalog, looking for other books with librarian characters. Upon reading the blurb and some reviews, I was intrigued and thought it had a fun premise.

It ended up being a fun read, with a combination of a lot of fun things. While it is a little on-the-nose at times, and the author clearly wears her influences very close to her chest, from Miss Congeniality and beauty pageants to Harry Potter and Jane Austen geek-dom, to the point of borrowing elements from all of the above, some to a greater degree than others, it’s still a great read if you go in prepared for a light read and nothing particularly groundbreaking.

What I absolutely adored was seeing these two sisters grow through observing something of the other, whether it be a facet of the other’s life or their behavior. Charlotte shares the popular opinion that pageants are vapid and dumb, and is very much a stereotype of brains over beauty, but I love how she sees how much good those in the pageant circuit are doing and how hard some (like Ginny) are working to better themselves through trying to earn money for higher education through these competitions. And Ginny learns what it is to be a good person and sister through observing Charlotte.

This is an absolutely adorable book, full of humor and heart. I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for a light-hearted romantic comedy, especially if you love book nerd culture or beauty pageants…or, as the book’s underlying message suggests, both.

Review of “Brentwood’s Ward” (Bow Street Runners #1) by Michelle Griep

Griep, Michelle. Brentwood’s Ward. Uhrichville, OH: Shiloh Run Press, 2015.

Paperback | $13.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-978-1630586799 | 314 pages | Christian Fiction/Regency Romance

3 stars

I won Brentwood’s Ward and the next book in the series, The Innkeeper’s Daughter, in a giveaway from the author around the time of the latter book’s release, and I was excited, as I had just read one of her novellas at the time and Julie Klassen, my gateway author to Christian historical fiction, has long recommended her highly. So, I was a bit disappointed to find that I wasn’t a bit more wowed by this.

I didn’t hate the book. It’s well-paced and fairly original, focusing on Bow Street Runners, and while I’ve seen those before on occasion in historicals, I haven’t seen it nearly enough. And Brentwood is definitely the better of the two main characters in the book. I loved that, in addition to the action-oriented stuff that comes with the profession, Brentwood has concern for taking care of his ailing sister, which motivates him to take on the assignment as Emily’s guardian.

I didn’t really know what to think about Emily. I could kind of empathize with her situation to an extent, but I also found her a bit too spoiled, and while there were moments over the course of the story that led her to grow on me, I never fully warmed up to her.

But I think my real issue was the fact that the romance wasn’t well executed. I didn’t really get the sense, particularly on Brentwood’s end, that he fell in love with her, especially when he declares it out-of-the-blue without convincing romantic buildup. There’s some semblance of tension there, but I didn’t get a real sense that there was a ton of chemistry, and the feelings didn’t feel super genuine. And while the suspense plot was developed reasonably well throughout, towards the end, I found my investment flagging, especially when I started to see it wrapping up a little too easily.

I will definitely be reading the next book to give this author a second chance and decide then if it’s worth it to continue with the forthcoming final (?) book in the series. But I did see this book did get a lot of positive praise from other readers, so I would still recommend it to those who like similar authors like Julie Klassen and Sarah E. Ladd.

Review of “For Real” by Alexis Hall

Hall, Alexis. For Real. Hillsborough, NJ: Riptide Publishing, 2015.

Paperback | $19.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1626492806 | 339 pages | Erotic Romance

4.5 stars

I never would have anticipated prior to this year that I would ever pick up a book like For Real, given my complaints in the past about books with sex scenes (or allusions to sex) too early in the book for my taste. But this one came highly recommended, and I was even encouraged to put some of my qualms about BDSM aside (although admittedly most were fostered by the negative response to the portrayal of BDSM in other, more notable works, like the Fifty Shades series).

So, I was incredibly surprised to find how much I enjoyed this one. And while some of those other books failed to invest me in the sexy bits due to lack of character depth or overall likability, this book was different. Laurie and Toby are both compelling and well-rounded, and neither feels like a stereotype of what a dominant or a submissive is…in large part due to this book completely flipping the roles, and having younger Toby be dominant in the kinky bits.

However, it’s the emotional connection that stands out here. I love those little moments , such as how after spending the night together, Toby makes Laurie breakfast, and you genuinely feel them falling for one another, even if there is this fear, especially on Laurie’s side, that it won’t last.

I do have some minor quibbles with the way the dual first person narrative ended up being executed. You can more or less follow who’s narrating for most of the book, but there’s one chapter when the feelings are super heightened where both perspectives are given, and it felt a little jarring to read a passage from one person’s head, then guess that we’re hopping to the other person’s, and back and forth.

This is, however, for the most part a wonderfully subversive book that I think most romance fans should read, regardless of whether they think they are a fan of BDSM or not