Review of "Veiled in Smoke" (The Windy City Saga #1) by Jocelyn Green

Green, Jocelyn. Veiled in Smoke. Bloomington, MN: Bethant House, 2020.

eBook | $10.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0764233302 | 416 pages | Historical Fiction/Christian Fiction

3.5 stars

I received an ARC through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

I had never read Jocelyn Green before, but the premise of Veiled in Smoke appealed to me, even though, to my shame, I knew next to nothing about the Great Chicago Fire prior to picking this book up. Thus, this book proved to be a learning experience, in addition to being a fairly captivating story.

I enjoyed the family element at the center of the story, especially with the two daughters, Sylvie and Meg, concerned about the health of their father, Stephen, who was a POW in the war. Stephen is by far the most intriguing, well-written and at times tragic character, because given the state of his physical and mental health and the poor understanding some medical professionals had of it at the time, there are some scenes when he’s in the asylum which go to some pretty dark places.

The plot surrounding the girls surviving in the aftermath of the Fire without him, especially as he’s been implicated in a murder of someone close to him is interesting, and I loved seeing them and reporter Nate begin to put all the pieces together. And I felt the lead-up to the identity of the killer was well done, especially as they are not who they present themselves as.

I did have some issues becoming invested in Meg and Sylvie themselves. Apart from their love for their father, I didn’t find much to recommend in them. I mean, Meg is an artist, a point she makes light of at one point by pointing out the irony that she shares a name with Meg in Little Women, but identifies more with Amy. It’s this and other literary allusions the two make that had me lost for the majority of the book. While, t the end, it is revealed in a discussion question to be choice made to highlight the different forms of the written word, given that letter writing and news articles also play a role in the story, I didn’t feel this was conveyed well.

This is a pretty good story about a historical event I’m glad to have learned just a bit more about. I recommend it to those looking for well-researched historical fiction with a bit of suspense.

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Review of "Gods of Jade and Shadow" by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Moreno-Garcia, Silvia. Gods of Jade and Shadow. New York: Del Rey, 2019.

Hardcover | $26.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0525620754 | 338 pages | Historical Fantasy

3 stars

I heard a bit of buzz about Gods of Jade and Shadow, although not as much, hence why I put it off. But the recent controversy surrounding the appropriating of the Mexican experience for trauma porn in a white author’s book inspired me to seek this one out instead, in hopes of uplifting an ethnically Mexican author instead.

And while I didn’t love this book, there’s a lot of potential. There’s a great premise inspired by Mayan mythology, set in the Jazz Age. It’s promoted as a ethereal fairy tale type story, and while that in some way plays against it in my opinion, it also works in terms of also feeling quite evocative, especially as the setting is so richly described

I also enjoyed Cassiopea’s character arc, for the most part. While the archetypes will feel familiar, and in some cases juvenile, as this is about her coming-of-age, I felt it worked reasonably well.

However, it’s also stylistically odd. Some describe it as too slow, others too fast, and I found I had the same experience. Given that experience, the ending felt a little anticlimactic. And the narrative makes use of omniscient POV often, and it results in feeling more distant from the characters and story.

I’m still not 100% sure how I feel about this book. I feel like this story was kind of just “ok,” but it hasn’t put me off trying more of Moreno-Garcia’s work, especially if the execution is a bit more even. I tend to think this is one of those “love it or hate it” sorts of books because it is simultaneously “juvenile” and stylized. But if you’re interested in fantasy that evokes a fairy tale feel and/or Mayan myths, perhaps this will be the book for you.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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 "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 "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 "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.