4 stars, crime & mystery, historical, romance

Think of England

34715257Title: Think of England
Author: KJ Charles

England, 1904. Two years ago, Captain Archie Curtis lost his friends, fingers, and future to a terrible military accident. Alone, purposeless and angry, Curtis is determined to discover if he and his comrades were the victims of fate, or of sabotage.

Curtis’s search takes him to an isolated, ultra-modern country house, where he meets and instantly clashes with fellow guest Daniel da Silva. Effete, decadent, foreign, and all-too-obviously queer, the sophisticated poet is everything the straightforward British officer fears and distrusts.

As events unfold, Curtis realizes that Daniel has his own secret intentions. And there’s something else they share—a mounting sexual tension that leaves Curtis reeling.

As the house party’s elegant facade cracks to reveal treachery, blackmail and murder, Curtis finds himself needing clever, dark-eyed Daniel as he has never needed a man before…

Rating4star

I had not planned to buy any new books for a while but then I read the author’s post about the inspiration for this book and just couldn’t resist. I did grow up with the Edgar Wallace-movies and still love them. Now I only know Wallace’s mystery stories that involve beautiful heiresses and dastardly villains who are after their fortune and I don’t know any of his spy-stories (or any of the other authors she mentions as inspiration) and Think of England is clearly a spy story.  Admittedly, not a genre I would have picked up normally and the blurb also made expect something that it would eventually turn into a more ‘conventional’ mystery (with a murdered country house guests) that just had some connection with the treason/spy part.

It didn’t. But that doesn’t mean I regret reading this book. Rather the opposite: I had a lot of fun. The plot is fast-paced and takes the characters from one seemingly hopeless situation to the next while never going so far that you wonder how any human can cope with all that. But during all that, there was still time for the characters to develop their feelings for each other without it feeling rushed.

The way the book handled the issue that ‘true’ Edwardian pulp fiction tends to be rather full of homophobia, racism and various other-isms was also done very well. Neither is Curtis the single person in the whole novel who miraculously is tolerant of everything (as some historical fiction tends to do with their main characters) nor is he full of the worst prejudices that magically disappeared once he met Daniel. He starts off with a fair share of them but the circumstances soon force him to reconsider them. And he doesn’t just go ‘Well, Daniel is a foreigner but also a good guy so clearly everything I ever thought about foreigners being cowardly and evil is wrong.’ It’s a process that takes much of the book (and a lot of the time in which he isn’t occupied with escaping from mortal danger he spends reevaluating all the things he so far accepted without question).

The only downside to this is that while the scenes with Curtis and Daniel were intense and the development of their relationship believable there also weren’t that many of them and I really wished there had been more. And especially with the teasing at the end that they might have more adventures together, it’s a bit disappointing that this is a standalone. There’s certainly potential to develop their relationship further but alas…

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This is also part of the 16 Tasks of the Festive Season

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Book themes for Hanukkah: Any book whose main character is Jewish (Daniel)

As well as:

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Tasks for Bodhi Day: Perform a random act of kindness. I tweeted the author to tell her how much I had enjoyed the book. Because I know reviews are a great way to help authors and I always try to write them in a way that they are also helpful to other readers who are trying to decide if they should pick up the book or not. But sometimes it’s just nice to tell an author how much you enjoy what they’re doing.

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4 stars, historical

The Secret Diary of a Princess

10755502Title: The Secret Diary of a Princess
Author: Melanie Clegg

The dramatic and often tragic years of Marie Antoinette’s early life told in her own words. This book for young adult readers follows her privileged childhood and adolescence in the beautiful palaces of Vienna as the youngest and least important of the daughters of the all-powerful Empress Maria Theresa of Austria and invites the reader to share the long journey, both emotional and physical that ended with her marriage to the Dauphin Louis of France at Versailles.

This is the unforgettable story of a charming, fun-loving and frivolous young girl, destined for greatness, coming of age in one of the most magnificent and opulent courts that the world has ever seen.

Rating4star

I may not be very clever but I always know what will most please people and that, I think, is far more important.

Novels in diary-format are usually not my thing. I just can’t suspend my disbelief enough to believe that someone would tell their diary in detail about their own family history or anything else they already know perfectly well. Thankfully, this book manages to avoid this pretty well. Sure, there are bits that you would not normally find in a real diary but that are only a few sentences at a time and not pages and pages about the history of the Habsburg dynasty. It also sounds believable like the voice of a young girl without being annoying (something not many authors can pull off).

At the same time, I’m beginning to realize that historical novels featuring real historical people as main characters are not really for me. Especially cases like this. The Secret Diary of a Princess begins when Marie Antoinette is nine years and ends with her wedding at fourteen. During that time, things happen to her and she has no influence over any of those things. Because children of her age rarely have, princesses at that even less (and daughters of Maria Theresia definitely not). I’m aware of all of these things but in a book that reads like fiction a part of me will always expect something – well fictional – to happen. Anything that would stop the plot from going to A to B in a straight line. But since Marie Antoinette’s life wasn’t fiction that doesn’t happen. And so I ended up being somewhat unsatisfied at the end even though I enjoyed the book. But in the future, I guess I’ll stick with historical novels that feature characters that can do whatever they like ;).


This is a read as part of 16 Tasks of the Festive Season

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Book themes for Christmas: Read a book whose protagonist is called Mary, Joseph (or Jesus, if that’s a commonly used name in your culture) or any variations of those names.

16 tasks, 4 stars, romance

Hamilton’s Battalion: A Trio of Romances

36242916 Title: Hamilton’s Battalion: A Trio of Romances
Authors: Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Alyssa Cole

Love in the time of Hamilton…

On October 14, 1781, Alexander Hamilton led a daring assault on Yorktown’s defenses and won a decisive victory in America’s fight for independence. Decades later, when Eliza Hamilton collected his soldiers’ stories, she discovered that while the war was won at Yorktown, the battle for love took place on many fronts…

Let me begin with a confession: I have in total listened to perhaps 2 Minutes of the Hamilton Musical. When all my friends on Tumblr started gushing about it I looked it up, started listening to the first song, went ‘OK that is hip-hop, I’ll skip that song and listen to the second…which is also hip-hop…so that is a hip-hop musical? Thanks but no thanks.’ Because that is not my genre at all. And then I just tried to ignore it. Only that was impossible because it was suddenly everywhere. On every social media site, I frequented people kept yelling Hamilton lyrics, made fanart, combined the lyrics with other fandoms. Even blacklisting and muting did only so much. I just could not escape.

Don’t get me wrong: I have absolutely no problem with people enjoying things I dislike, but if you get bombarded with something you absolutely don’t care about you can get…let’s say very annoyed. Eventually, the hype died down and I found other things to get annoyed at. I still had no intention of reading this book. Also because I assumed it would require historical knowledge about Hamilton beyond ‘He gets shot, doesn’t he?’

But then the gushing on social media started. Not quite as inescapable as for the musical but still very loud. And there was talk of a cross-dressing Jewish heroine and a mixed-race gay couple which both piqued my interest. So I asked one of the gushers if people who ran away screaming from the musical would still understand the stories (I did not phrase it quite like this) and was told that no deep historical knowledge was requred.

So here I am.

Bloody Hamilton.


Rose Lerner: Promised Land

Donning men’s clothing, Rachel left her life behind to fight the British as Corporal Ezra Jacobs–but life catches up with a vengeance when she arrests an old love as a Loyalist spy.

At first she thinks Nathan Mendelson hasn’t changed one bit: he’s annoying, he talks too much, he sticks his handsome nose where it doesn’t belong, and he’s self-righteously indignant just because Rachel might have faked her own death a little. She’ll be lucky if he doesn’t spill her secret to the entire Continental Army.

Then Nathan shares a secret of his own, one that changes everything…

Rating4star

Is there any way a story like this could not have been awesome? Jewish heroine dresses up as a man to fight in a war and stumbles over her husband whom she left years ago and now they get a second chance at romance. That is everything I never knew I wanted.

I think I might enjoy stories about couples who separated and find each other again even more than stories about couples falling in love for the first time. Especially if they are so well-written as this one. There is no idiotic misunderstanding that drove them apart the first time. It is clear that they did not fit together back then. There were genuine feelings but they also didn’t understand the other person well enough to really spend their whole life together. By the time they meet again they have grown out of this. They realize why things that weren’t a big deal for them were very important for the other one. And while I see Nathan as being the one who is more to blame for the relationship ending badly I wouldn’t describe him as a jerk who suddenly finds redemption. He was never deliberately hurtful, he only talked without thinking and never considered that others might feel differently than himself.

What did bother me was that there was no resolution for the storyline with Nathan’s mother. She was seriously sabotaging their relationship the first time around because she considered Rachel an unfitting match for her son and it is clear that she will have even more reasons to disapprove of her once they get back together. Yet, there is only a vague promise that they will deal with her and then no further mention. Considering how big a deal they made about her interference that is very unsatisfying.

Oh and yes. There was also a battle. I admit I was mostly confused because my knowledge of that period of history boils down to ‘the war of independence happened and then America was independent’ and I wager that the target demographic of that book, drawn in by the Hamilton in the title knows a bit more about that period than I do. It is not vital that you know every little detail about the battle of Yorktown but more than nothing is definitely helpful.


Courtney Milan: The Pursuit of…

What do a Black American soldier, invalided out at Yorktown, and a British officer who deserted his post have in common? Quite a bit, actually.

* They attempted to kill each other the first time they met.
* They’re liable to try again at some point in the five-hundred mile journey that they’re inexplicably sharing.
* They are not falling in love with each other.
* They are not falling in love with each other.
* They are…. Oh, no.

Rating5star

This story was simply lovely and laugh-out-loud hilarious and still, the serious parts did not feel out of place. While the main story is about two guys on a road trip from hell (walk from hell?) during which they try not to strangle each other. (Though I would say Henry was in bigger danger of being strangled) it is also a story about a privileged white guy and a black ex-slave. And while Henry did have his share of tragedy in his past, he never really considered the things John had to go through. And John tells him that without any sugarcoating.


Alyssa Cole: That Could Be Enough

Mercy Alston knows the best thing to do with pesky feelings like “love” and “hope”: avoid them at all cost. Serving as a maid to Eliza Hamilton, and an assistant in the woman’s stubborn desire to preserve her late husband’s legacy, has driven that point home for Mercy—as have her own previous heartbreaks.

When Andromeda Stiel shows up at Hamilton Grange for an interview in her grandfather’s stead, Mercy’s resolution to live a quiet, pain-free life is tested by the beautiful, flirtatious, and entirely overwhelming dressmaker.

Andromeda has staid Mercy reconsidering her worldview, but neither is prepared for love—or for what happens when it’s not enough.

Rating: 2star

The final novella was sadly disappointing. I already considered not finishing it because I hated pretty much everything about the beginning. First, there’s Mercy whose inner monologue is so world-weary and full of repeated ‘love is a scam’ assurances that I wanted to tell her that the gloomy noir fiction PIs are in a different aisle. Then Andromeda appears and her beauty gets described in three pages of purple prose. She then starts ‘flirting’ with Mercy and by that she means ignoring her boundaries, making her uncomfortable and finding it extremely amusing. Oh and she takes advantage of the fact that Mercy’s boss has ordered her to stay with Andromeda to drag her to places she doesn’t want to go. How charming.

Towards the middle, I got my hopes up a bit because Andromeda seemed to realize that Mercy needs some breathing space but instead of developing that point further we get some utterly ridiculous obstacles and in the end, Mercy has to learn that all was her fault and apologize. Because people who have been hurt badly totally still have to expect the best of everybody. Always.


 

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This book also is part of my 16 Tasks of the Festive Season challenge:

International Human Rights Day: Read any story revolving around the rights of others either being defended or abused. 

In Promised Land Rachel joins the army because she hopes that having openly Jewish soldiers in the army will lead to Jewish people being treated better in the independent United States than they are in Britain (or any country at the time). A main point in In Pursuit Of… is that the nice words in the Declaration of Independence aren’t really about every man. And while it isn’t the main theme of This Could Be Enough Andromeda does get told that the owner of a property is reluctant to sell it to her because she is unmarried and black.

4 stars, fantasy

An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors (The Risen Kingdoms #1)

31702733Title: An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors
Author: Curtis Craddock
Series:  The Risen Kingdoms #1

A polymath princess and her faithful musketeer must unravel the plot of a thousand-year-old madman in order to save an a foreign kingdom from a disastrous civil war.

Caelum is an uninhabitable gas giant like Jupiter. High above it are the Risen Kingdoms, occupying flying continents called cratons. Remnants of a shattered world, these vast disks of soaring stone may be a thousand miles across. Suspended by magic, they float in the upper layers of Caelum’s clouds. 

Born with a deformed hand and utter lack of the family’s blood magic, Isabelle is despised by her cruel father. She is happy to be neglected so she can secretly pursue her illicit passion for math and science. Then, a surprising offer of an arranged royal marriage blows her life wide open and launches her and Jean-Claude on an adventure that will take them from the Isle des Zephyrs in l’Empire Céleste to the very different Kingdom of Aragoth, where magic deals not with blood, but with mirrors.

Rating4star

“I still think I should-”
“No!” Isabelle rallied against the automatic male assumption that anything she might do, they could do better, even if they had no experience whatsoever.

After the awesome-sounding blurb and the advance praise, I expected a lot from this book and was slightly disappointed in the first few chapters. It infodumps a lot on the world and there is too much magical technobabble for my taste. It also doesn’t need long till my fantasy pet peeve appears: the brutal execution method (described in detail) that shows us just how horrible the world the protagonists live in is. It is pointed out that that method isn’t the norm in the whole country, only the duke that rules over the Isle des Zephyrs is a psychopath but that doesn’t make it much better. I’m very tired of books that begin that way.

I wasn’t grumpy for long, though because the book soon made up for its mediocre start. (And the mustache-twirling villain that is the heroine’s father…who also made sense in context later). We get a math-loving heroine whose life is turned on its head when she is married off to the son of a neighboring country’s king. He’s only the second son but there is pressure on his father to disinherit his firstborn because he refuses to divorce his barren wife.

Isabelle is now thrown into a cesspool of intrigue. Her husband-to-be’s older half-brother and his wife are unsurprisingly not pleased by her. But she also isn’t sure what her groom’s mother wants. Her own son on the throne instead of the son of her husband’s first wife, so much is obvious, but what role does Isabelle play in her schemes? And what about the priest who arranged the marriage? The prince and Isabelle come from different magical bloodlines and the church says those should never mix. Add a few more people with uncertain loyalties and I wished I’d made some notes during reading to keep things straight. (Seriously. Especially during the very grand, very epic and very awesome finale it almost got a bit much).

And what does Isabelle want?
Peace.
That’s right. She knows that any uncertainty about the succession will throw the country into a bloody civil war and she wants to avoid that. And she has only one certain ally in that endeavor: Jean-Claude, a Musketeer that has been more of a father than her actual father and who has now accompanied her to the foreign court.
Of course, Jean-Claude is a King’s Musketeer. And the king of Céleste also has plans for his neighboring country. He and Jean-Claude have some disagreements about the importance of Isabelle for these plans. That leads to some…intense discussions between the two.

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Pictured: How I imagined Jean-Claude and King Leon

Now this book isn’t only about court-intrigue. There is also action (a couple of princes have to be saved after all) but if you don’t think that a scene in which Isabelle has to figure out what’s the right thing to say to her future mother-in-law can be just as tense and exciting as a swordfight you won’t enjoy that book as much as I did. (I enjoyed it a lot, in case that wasn’t obvious…now how long do I have to wait for the next book?)

4 stars, fantasy

Song of the Beast

11338966Title: Song of the Beast
Author: Carol Berg

Brutal imprisonment has broken Aidan McAllister. Once the most famous musician of his generation, celebrated as a man beloved of the gods, his voice is now silent, his hands ruined, his music that offered beauty and hope to war-torn Elyria destroyed. Even the god who nurtured his talent since boyhood has abandoned him. But no one ever told him his crime. To discover the truth, he must risk his hard-bought freedom to unlock the mind of his god and the heart of his enemy.

Rating4star

 

I did not know how to offer love or how to recognize it when it was offered to me, though I was fairly certain it did not come from those who told you in the same breath that they wanted to slit your throat.

One thing I really enjoyed about the Carol Berg books I’d read so far was that romance didn’t play a huge part in them. I don’t mind romance but I get annoyed when people who should be busy saving the world just talk about their heartache. So I was not too happy when both Aiden and Lara spent a lot of time in their POV-chapters talking about their own feelings and how sure they were that the other one could never reciprocate them.
But then both of them had very good reasons to think so, it wasn’t some ridiculous melodrama blown out of proportion. And while especially Lara’s chapters are sometimes really dripping with self-hatred and her ‘I’m sure he can’t stand me’ gets somewhat repetitive I can easily see why she is like that.
Oh well, and the romance has some of my favourite tropes. They have to pretend to be a couple twice. There’s dancing and live-saving and Aidan has to keep calming Lara down because really she just wants to kill people. Exactly my kind of couple. If you have romance in your fantasy, please do it like that.

And then there’s the villains. Or rather the lack of typical fantasy villains. Nobody wants to destroy the world for the evilulz. Nobody wants to kill the king. No foreign power threatens to conquer the country and enslave the people.
The closest thing we get to villains are the dragonriders (and yes, they admittedly don’t have that much depth) but even they don’t want more power than they already have. They just want to keep the power they have. And when that status quo is threatened they are Not Happy. But they are not the main reason for the bad things that happen in this book. The main reason is bad decision making. Some were made by the characters in this book. Some by their ancestors and they are now stuck with them. Admitting that those decisions were bad would lead to disaster. And now they all hope that they can just carry on as before, even if that means making some more bad decisions.

Now there are some things that show it’s the author’s first book. There are some info-dumps early on about the character’s past and the worldbuilding. Through the changing POVs we also get some pieces of information twice and the final battle is somewhat anticlimactic but those are just minor things in an otherwise great book. (And a single-volume fantasy no less! I can’t remember the last time an author managed to fit a whole epic fantasy in a single book).

4 stars, fantasy

The Soul Mirror (Collegia Magica #2)

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Title: The Soul Mirror
Author: Carol Berg
Series: Collegia Magica #2

By order of His Royal Majesty Philippe de Savin-Journia y Sabria, Anne de Vernase is hereby summoned to attend His Majesty’s Court at Merona…

Anne de Vernase rejoices that she has no talent for magic. Her father’s pursuit of depraved sorcery has left her family in ruins, and he remains at large, convicted of treason and murder by Anne’s own testimony. Now, the tutors at Collegia Seravain inform her that her gifted younger sister has died in a magical accident. It seems but life’s final mockery that cool, distant Portier de Savin-Duplais, the librarian turned royal prosecutor, arrives with the news that the king intends to barter her hand in marriage.

Anne recognizes that the summoning carries implications far beyond a bleak personal future – and they are all about magic. Merona, the royal city, is beset by plagues of rats and birds, and mysterious sinkholes that swallow light and collapse buildings. Whispers of hauntings and illicit necromancy swirl about the queen’s volatile sorcerer. And a murder in the queen’s inner circle convinces Anne that her sister’s death was no accident. With no one to trust but a friend she cannot see, Anne takes up her sister’s magical puzzle, plunging into the midst of a centuries-old rivalry and coming face-to-face with the most dangerous sorcerer in Sabria. His name is Dante.

Review4star

The people in this book make very reasonable, but also very frustrating decisions. Because of Portier, Anne’s father is wanted for treason. When Anne finds evidence that her father might be innocent after all it’s logical that she doesn’t share it with Portier immediately. On the other hand, it’s also perfectly logical that Portier doesn’t trust the daughter of a known traitor. Especially if he can tell that she’s keeping secrets from him. So in-universe their behavior is completely sensible. Still, as reader, you want to scream Just talk to each other! because you know they both belong to the good guys and could get much further if they just shared their findings. Now, it only takes about a third of the book till they do but it is a very frustrating third…
Especially if that third is otherwise also…not great. By which I don’t mean horrible, just not meeting the high expectations I have of Carol Berg since I started binging her books. Which is complaining on a very high level. It’s just that Anne – the narrator of this book – is very passive at the beginning. She finds out things (mostly more or less by accident) but isn’t able to do much with her knowledge. Again, it makes sense. She’s new at court, doesn’t have any connections and ‘avoid getting killed’ is a rather time-consuming. And people are trying to kill her (or worse), she just has no idea who or why. And, as long as she doesn’t know whom to trust she can only react to things that happen and nothing more.
Now I guess that was my long-winded way of saying that the beginning of this book is a bit long-winded. But once it gets going it really gets going. I went Wow! I did not see that coming! quite often. Only one of the minor villains was disappointing. He was basically the disgusting rapey old man you get in some bad romance novels. Nothing beyond that. Which is a shame because even the irredeemably evil characters in this story manage to have some depth. Only this guy didn’t. Still, he didn’t appear so often that he bothered me too much.
Now for the climax of the story. Well, there was something I did see coming. Or perhaps I should rather say, something that didn’t surprise me. Because while this is a fantasy story with magic and villains that want to destroy the world, it’s also a mystery. So when it obeyed certain mystery rules I wasn’t too surprised. But it was still highly awesome (and there were enough things that I did not see coming). And I wanted to wrap everybody in blankets afterward and give them cookies. My poor, poor babies. OK…I’ll stop now. I just care a lot about these characters…

4 stars, romance

Knit One, Girl Two

Title: Knit One, Girl Two
Author: Shira Glassman

Small-batch independent yarn dyer Clara Ziegler is eager to brainstorm new color combinations–if only she could come up with ideas she likes as much as last time! When she sees Danielle Solomon’s paintings of Florida wildlife by chance at a neighborhood gallery, she finds her source of inspiration. Outspoken, passionate, and complicated, Danielle herself soon proves even more captivating than her artwork…

 

Rating

Clara didn’t know what to say, but she also knew not every silence had to be filled. Sometimes the white spots, those left undyed and natural, were integral to the beauty of a colorway.
Somehow the best way to describe this book is by what it’s not. Because it’s sweet and quirky but not in the way of some books where everything and everybody is just sweet and quirky but has no depth beyond that. It’s also not one of those novellas where I felt that it would have needed more pages. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t have minded spending more time with Clara and Danielle, but their story didn’t need more space. Since it was only about the development of their relationship there were no sideplots that felt rushed. It was also not one of these books that promise knitting on the cover but then desperately also try to appeal to a non-knitting audience by only occasionally mentioning the most basic knitting terms. (Yes I’m side-eying some knitting-mysteries here…) Now I’m not saying that non-knitters won’t enjoy the story. It’s not just about knitting, but knitting is an important part of the story and if you’ve only ever seen yarn in the form of the socks you got from grandma for Christmas, a few things might confuse you a bit.
Overall a very charming read and I want to check out some of the author’s longer works.