I received a complimentary ARC of this book via Netgalley but all opinions provided are my own.
Ghostly visions of the past. A dangerous magical mirror and pearl. Family secrets coming to light like monsters in a bedroom. *Sings These are a few of my favorite things. To read about.
Nicola Cornick’s House of Shadows was a delightfully eerie surprise when I discovered it nestled deep in my Kindle history the other day. Told from different perspectives—historical and present-day—and containing the gothic and romantic elements that I adore in Susanna Kearsley & Kate Morton’s books, House of Shadows had me enraptured from the word go to the final, satisfying lines.
I’ll try to keep the plot’s description simple though Cornick grandly pulls off a big story. Part of the book surrounds Queen Elizabeth Stuart, a 17th-century monarch who’s been sent off to royal exile and dreams of a better world, one she and her husband hope to create through the use of a magical mirror and pearl. And then we have Holly Ansell in the present-day, whose brother Ben is missing, and who runs into other mysteries as she looks for him: like the aforementioned mirror and pearl, the diary of a courtesan she discovers on her search (that’s the novel’s third perspective), and the ghostly visions she keeps seeing as she lives and works in the village her brother was last in.
House of Shadows reads like a detective novel of sorts, with Holly on the search for her brother, feeling like every clue she solves in this larger mirror & pearl historical mystery is taking her closer to finding him. Cornick’s historical descriptions are lush and lovely and her depictions of complicated women interesting and astute. I love how she captures different personalities in this book and how she not only makes aha connections between the characters but also links them to moments in time. These women feel the weight of their personal (and sometimes global) histories, and that’s part of what makes them so compelling to watch—and root for.
Like Morton’s books, Cornick’s features a “historical” romance and a “contemporary” one. I had some slight issues with the pacing of the contemporary one but then it turned suspenseful in the way that I adore.
House of Shadows is a scrumptious treat, and one I heartily recommend as we run headlong into fall. Give me all the ghost stories (with romance and magic and mayhem!).
4.5 out of 5 stars
Thanks to Edelweiss+ for my complimentary ARC of this book. All opinions provided are my own.
The Magnolia Sword—a Mulan re-telling written by the inimitable Sherry Thomas—is a kick to the senses. It’s an evocative trip to ancient China told in the voice of a very resourceful, very brave woman, Mulan.
Mulan follows the dictates of her father and lives her public life in the guise of her long-dead twin brother. She’s the person who’ll represent her family in the long-held duel between her family and an enemy family, the Pengs, to determine which family will win a set of coveted blades, and she’s the person from her family who volunteers for the draft when soldiers come calling for men to protect their Empire.
No one can know her secret or she risks bringing dishonor on her family and making them lose the reduced possessions they have left. But it’s hard to keep a secret like this in the army when quarters are tight and conditions are rough, and the princeling who leads her into war might be the same man she’s responsible for dueling at home.
Sometimes hidden identity stories get kind of ridiculous because the author might attempt to maintain a story’s suspense by allowing her/his characters to look naïve/silly/incapable of seeing what’s right in front of them forgodssake. But I love how Thomas does it in The Magnolia Sword: how Mulan is questioning and skeptical regarding the identity of the princeling without being overly paranoid; how some questions are answered fairly soon but others are left in mystery until the end.
The revelations unfold in a way that makes sense for Mulan’s character, just as they make sense in terms of the princeling’s.
And speaking of the princeling, his characterization is divine. I never knew how much we need to read about heroes who are physically strong/willing to take on almost any threat and also freely admit their many fears until the princeling. His sensitivity—and my response to it—was at times surprising and feels refreshing.
Thomas’s powerful depiction of women in the story—chief among them Mulan—is even more nuanced. Some of them can nurse grudges as faithfully as they can nurse children. I love how astutely Thomas chooses when to put Mulan’s specific insecurities/pride/worries regarding her identification as a woman and her set of circumstances at the forefront, and when to put them in the background.
Mulan’s eyes are repeatedly opened throughout The Magnolia Sword and we’re reminded of truths with her. This book tells the story most of us (many of us?) have heard before, about a woman-soldier in disguise who fights for her empire, but it’s also a story about how words have an impact and how language and history matter, whether we’re talking on a personal level or a global.
In the end, The Magnolia Sword has flash and adventure and quite a lot of sweetness, but it also has the gorgeous impact--the whatagreatwriter moments--that I’ve come to associate with reading a Thomas book.
4.25 out of 5 stars.
(A note that felt out of place earlier in my review: I also appreciated how diverse the story is relationship-wise, and how Thomas doesn’t shy away from at least the suggestion of same sex relationships among men and relationships among people of different classes.)
I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley but all opinions provided are my own.
Characters straddle the gray line in Kaylea Cross’s Vengeance series, and I love it. They’re not perfect, but they’re ultimately good people…who kill bad guys.
Listen, sometimes you want to read a book about leads who can rescue hostages, protect themselves, plot deviously for a good end, and oh yeah, fall in love. If that’s the case, sink into your favorite reading chair (the one your husband still makes fun of from college), pull up your favorite blanket (the one you’ve hidden from your dogs and kids), pull your snacks in close (the ones you’ve hidden from your dogs and kids), and start reading one of Kaylea Cross’s Vengeance books.
Covert Vengeance is the second book in Cross’s aforementioned series, and it had me captivated from the very first motorcycle chase. Once a government-sanctioned assassin, now an assassin running from the government (and others), Amber Brown believes she made a huge mistake. Members of her former team betrayed her, and out of revenge, she slowly turned them over to the Bad Guys one by one. But one of those team members might not have been guilty after all. Now Amber wants to rescue her from her kidnappers.
Hitman-with-a-conscience Jesse Cordova is hired by a mysterious person to kill Amber, but he trusts his instincts and accepts a job to help her with her rescue mission instead. Good thing he does, because Amber is very impressive and obviously has a heart, although the government program that trained her to be a ruthless assassin tried to crush that out of her.
Jesse pretty much immediately has feelings for Amber, but Amber’s not willing to commit. Then there’s the fact that someone is trying to kill Amber, and well, you can see how a romance between them would be difficult…but thank God, not impossible.
Covert Vengeance is wonderfully done with fantastic (and I don’t think I’m over-stating it?) action sequences. Cross is one of the best romantic suspense novelists I’ve read at writing physical scenes that are detailed without losing a sense of pace. Everything is fast, fast, fast, pretty violent at times, and overall cinematic.
But Cross doesn’t keep every scene at an 11, and that’s part of what makes this book so great. She writes confessional moments sensitively, drawing the characters closer together and allowing the reader to see the heart carried around in each character's impressively muscled physiques. It might be difficult to imagine how a book about a hitman and assassin could be sweet and tender, but it works here, mainly because it’s obvious they care about right and wrong and they’re both looking for a place to land (although Amber would probably deny that with every breath in her body).
In case it’s not clear: I’m a huge fan of Cross’s Vengeance series, of how she writes formidable women (and men), how she shows that being physically fierce and having a heart aren’t incompatible, and how she crafts books where great passion and (eventually love) are possible--even inevitable--with the right person…like your deadly-with-any-remotely-sharp-object soulmate.
5 out of 5 stars.
I received a complimentary ARC of this book from Netgalley but all opinions provided are my own.
Love on Lexington Avenue is an adorable tale of opposites attract turned maybe-not-so-opposites attract after all, and I love it so. It’s a feel-good story with a super romantic ending, undeniably written by that dazzling writer of (mostly) Manhattanites—Lauren Layne—and it gave me allllll the HEA feels (which we can all agree is of paramount importance these days, am I right?).
We met Claire Hayes and Scott Turner in the start of Lauren Layne’s Central Park Pact series. At the beginning of Love on Lexington Avenue, the second book in said series, Claire’s been a widow of her cheating-husband for a year, about to embark on a major house renovation with the rude but highly skilled contractor she just hired, Scott Turner.
The initial chemistry between Claire and Scott is delightful in the way of classic movies where the hero and heroine keep jabbing at one another, neither one of them afraid to be as honest and least-“charming” as possible when they are, in actuality, very likable people. But Claire seems stuffy and overly opinionated to contractor Scott, and Scott seems abrasive and needlessly generous with his abrasive opinions to Claire, and it’s all very wonderful to readers like me who thrive off those kinds of verbal foreplay.
What adds another dose of complexity to the romantic plot is that neither Claire nor Scott want anything serious (marriage is a big no no), and despite their attraction to each other, neither thinks sleeping with the other sounds like a good idea either. Until it does…
The conflicts in Love on Lexington on Lexington are believable, true to the characters, and meaningful without being too heavy on angst, and that makes me a very happy woman. Claire and Scott and their wants/fears/needs grabbed onto my heart and I ached for their HEA without feeling like I was being led through a gauntlet of emotional torture. That felt like kind of an ideal reading experience, especially on a Monday afternoon while my toddler was sleeping.
For those of you (greedy wenches like me) wondering about the steam level, Love on Lexington Avenue is sexy without being as overt as most of Layne’s previous books. There’s one scene in particular that gave me that red-cheeked-swoony-stomach feeling.
The only thing that I missed is some of Scott’s direct engagement with his past with Claire. He’s pretty tight-lipped throughout Love—a source of frustration for Claire—and I wanted more of those specific walls to come down.
Everything else felt like sunshine and strawberry lemonade, cupcakes and HEA to me.
I received a complimentary copy of this ARC via Netgalley but all opinions provided are my own.
Wow wow wow.
Not the most skillful beginning to a review, but that’s honest to God how I felt when I finished the last line of Kerrigan Byrne’s historical romance How to Love a Duke in Ten Days. Byrne’s books are so immersive, so luxuriously written, that each one feels like an experience, a journey that you’ve taken with the characters from one deep emotion to another.
Her books don’t just toy with darkness. They’re unafraid to tackle the most challenging of topics, and in the case of the opening chapter of How to Love a Duke, it’s Lady Alexandra Lane’s rape by the headmaster at her school when she’s 17. Ten years later, Alexandra is an accomplished Doctor of archaeology who avoids putting herself into one on one situations with men, who has no intentions of marrying ever, and who is struggling with how to figure out the best solution—any solution—to her blackmail problem.
When she sees the possibility of a marriage of convenience to a duke, she takes it, even though Piers Atherton is also known as the Terror of Torcliff and is unabashed about his desire to marry for revenge.
Byrne’s books are swimming in feelings. The passion is at a whole different level on every front—the characters lust and fight and desire powerfully—they want things they shouldn’t and sometimes their best impulses war with their worst. She’s a brilliant writer, crafting a story that’s bold and atmospheric and characters that are forged in the fire of suffering, without everything feeling too dour.
How to Love a Duke has this distinctive style, but it also has a lightness that made it my favorite of her books despite the many passages that are sad, disturbing, and difficult to read. In some of her other work, I’ve sometimes felt like the women were more passive than I would like—I didn’t doubt their strength or their love stories but I had flickers of worry that they were being used too much for redemptive purposes.
But the female friendship in How to Love a Duke is critical to the story itself, and there’s no denying that Alexandra and her friends, the Red Rogues, are brave, intelligent, and resourceful, willing to do nearly anything to fight back against the people who have hurt them and who would continue hurting them. I can’t wait to see where their beautifully fierce friendship goes next (that Epilogue!).
Then there’s Piers, who’s entertaining, devoted, and honest with Alexandra, who's occasionally stupid when it comes to matters regarding her, but who isn’t afraid to admit to his mistakes. His weakness for Alexandra, juxtaposed with how terrifying he can be to others, is purely lovely. Their maddening sexual tension kept me engrossed (slooooow burn, anyone?!) and I was so relieved to finish the book in one day so that I wouldn’t be held in suspense any longer.
Finally, the ending is exquisite. There’s no doubting the HEA of this one, folks.
This was a 5 star read for me and I’m so excited about the rest of the series. It’s sure to be luscious and lusciously dark, and by the time of its release I should be emotionally recovered enough to read it 😉.
This book includes a fairly detailed description of Alexandra’s rape and then very frequent flashbacks to the incident, as well as descriptions of Alexandra’s present physical, emotional, and mental response to being touched by men (the Duke in particular).
She kind of hated to be such a mom cliché, but honestly: would you look at these floors?!
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I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author but all opinions provided are my own.
Sink or Swim’s Jiya Dalal has always wanted (1) to fly and (2) her best friend Andrew Prince, but she has neither. Now she’s in her late twenties and ready to do whatever it takes to get closer to her dreams, even if that means letting go of the man she’s loved since she was a child.
This book is about choosing to act, really. The choice to follow passions/to accept oneself/to take a chance on someone/to let go of guilt, like the ferocious kind that Andrew Prince has been carrying around, when life says it might be easier to live with the status quo.
But Jiya and Andrew have both reached the point of no return in Sink or Swim, and yearning forever isn’t going to work anymore because Bailey’s books are ultimately happy and hopeful, dammit. Bailey shows us, this is what happens when people have finally had enough, when they’ve decided to take their happiness from the world no matter what that little voice in their head says and I love how that freeing results in something beautiful.
Jiya and Andrew’s decisions to reject the status quo—even when it wants to hold on with two grasping hands—took me through all the emotions, from the tortured to the boundlessly happy. Because the past has a tight grip in this book, especially when it manifests itself in the form of a very real villain *spits on his grave* who keeps showing up at the most inopportune times. But you can’t keep a good (amazing) romance writer down, and the ending of this book—the final chapters—are stunning, destined to be re-read and skimmed when I need a quick HEA fix in the future.
I’ll also be skimming the insanely sexy parts of Sink or Swim, because we’re talking Tessa Bailey here. I love how she writes a variety of sexual dynamics in her books and how hard she pushes the limits. I’ve often been surprised by them and by what’s intrigued me and what I find a little personally off-putting. It sounds silly to say to read these books for educational reasons, but…maybe read these books for educational reasons.
I’m going to miss this Beach Kingdom series. These men and women who are effortlessly adorable even as they’re a wee bit tormented. Who make big, rom-com worthy gestures. Who grab a second chance and hold on tight.
Thanks to Netgalley for my complimentary copy of this book. All opinions provided are my own.
If there’s ever a book to get lost in, it’s Jenn Bennett’s The Lady Rogue.
First of all, that title. Second, nearly every other thing about the book.
I’m not kidding: this cross-Asia-and-Europe adventure of thrilling proportion—set in 1937 and featuring an intrepid heroine and hero on the hunt—is so great. The Lady Rogue seems to have been created with maximum entertainment in mind, from the journal excerpts to the legends to the Big Bad Ring itself, and it succeeds beautifully. It’s sassy, smart, and bold, like the heroine herself.
Theodora (Theo) Fox can’t believe it when her father Richard “Damn” Fox abandons her with a companion so that he can search for a magical ring believed to have belonged to Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Dracula. But her father doesn’t return when he’s supposed to. Instead, Richard sends Huxley Gallagher, or Huck, in his stead, with his mysterious journal and warnings about the danger his search has put them all in.
Theo’s great quest takes off with her looking for her father, who is looking for a ring, while she’s accompanied by the young man, Huck, who broke her heart.
Bennett makes these characters come alive. Their motivations, quirks, and insecurities are blissfully and skillfully made clear, and I felt like I came to know them. Also like I would love to read a book written by nearly any one of them, or perhaps join them for tea on a very long train ride.
And you can see history’s charisma in The Lady Rogue, too: it’s in the description of the hotels and trains, the towns Theo and Huck visit, the caravan they stay in, the stretches of wilderness they pass through, and it feels cinematic in nature. Like one of those gorgeous classic films, when everything was done in a big way.
Zingers fly between Theo and Huck but there's also an underlying camaraderie that can't be ignored, even if they were estranged for over a year before the book opens. The book is pretty chaste, but the passionate feeling between Theo and Huck explodes off the page.
I’ve been a huge fan of Jenn Bennett’s YA contemporaries (if you haven’t read them yet, do that already), and I was so excited to see that she was writing YA historical fantasy and that she was super excited about this book. You can sense that excitement—that joy—from beginning to end. The Lady Rogue is fun, even as Theo and Huck are scared (nearly) witless, even as they try to figure out a way out of the messes they’re in.
And I'd follow them every step of the way, because Bennett makes it impossible to do otherwise.
"IF THERE'S ANYTHING WORSE THAN KNOWING YOU'RE OUT OF PLACE, IT'S BEING TOLD YOU FIT IN."
I've seen a quote before about how lucky we are to live in the time of Beyonce. Yes, a million times, yes. But I think we’re also lucky to live in a time where romance novels are so stupendously written, when they’re not afraid of tackling critical national conversations we’re having, when they articulate our most fervent (and most hopeful/lovely) wishes more beautifully than we could have ever hoped, and when they light us on fire with the joy of companionship, love, and sex.
The historical romances I’ve read lately have been particularly insane (in a great way): first, I read Julie Anne Long’s Lady Derring Takes a Lover; then I read Tessa Dare’s The Wallflower Wager; and finishing this triumvirate of books that Left Me Awed is Sarah MacLean’s Brazen and the Beast, which has gotten a lot of hype and is even better than I had hoped.
The heroine of MacLean’s BandB, Hattie, is bold and confident, a real go-getter who’s been battered by the less than nice opinions of others but who gives those opinions a big f you, and Whit is divine, an alpha you don’t want to anger but who also possesses a luscious weakness for a close circle of people, the heroine foremost among them.
Their romance is stellar and MacLean’s writing should be held up as an example of how people should/could write about love. Also being a woman who is constantly critiqued or found wanting. Also how to be brave. On The Voice, the coaches tell the contestants not to stay at a 10 the whole time—to choose when they do a run—and MacLean observes those dynamics, Blake, Adam, Alicia, and Kelly (my favorite coaches)! She’s delicate when she needs to be and can decimate an army of foes when she needs to, and every bit of it is dramatic and suspenseful in the way that the best romances—whether they’re romantic suspense or not—are.
This is a gushing review on par with how I used to attack people with compliments after I had one or two drinks in college, but it’s the truth. Historical romance is for everyone and this book in particular could teach people more than a thing or two.
Hattie and Whit are for the ages (and Nora and Nik too).
About the Author
When my toddler and infant sleep--or are otherwise engaged--I write, read, and eat lots of chocolate.