Serena’s Review: “Half a Soul”

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Book: “Half a Soul” by Olivia Atwater

Publishing Info: Orbit, June 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Ever since she was cursed by a faerie, Theodora Ettings has had no sense of fear or embarrassment – a condition which makes her prone to accidental scandal. Dora hopes to be a quiet, sensible wallflower during the London Season – but when the strange, handsome and utterly uncouth Lord Sorcier discovers her condition, she is instead drawn into dangerous and peculiar faerie affairs.

If Dora’s reputation can survive both her curse and her sudden connection with the least-liked man in all of high society, then she may yet reclaim her normal place in the world. . . but the longer Dora spends with Elias Wilder, the more she begins to suspect that one may indeed fall in love, even with only half a soul.

Review: I was so excited when I received an ARC of this book from Orbit (thank you!). The book description alone checks so many personal favorites of mine that it’s kind of ridiculous. It’s also been a while since I’ve read a good faerie story, so I was particularly excited to revisit this fantasy fan favorite topic.

As a young girl, Theodora Ettings, or Dora, fell prey to a malicious faerie curse. In the blink of an eye, she lost half of her soul and along with it all the sharper edges of emotion. As a young lady, while unconcerned herself with others’ dismay, Dora recognizes that her strange ways and habit of blurting out whatever she is thinking will likely prohibit her from every finding her own marriage match. She’s content, however, to simply help her beloved cousin and make a home with her as a slowly aging spinster. But life takes an unexpected turn when she stumbles into a strange mystery leaving children cursed in a comatose state. Also on the case is the prickly and antisocial Lord Sorcier. As they work closely together, each begins to question their pre-established views of their own futures.

In my opinion, the biggest question with any historical work, be it fantasy, mystery, what have you, is whether the author has a decent handle on the language of the time. Poor word choice, stuttered style, and anachronisms are the surest way to immediately lose me as a reader with this type of book. Immediately, I was relieved to find that not only did this author have a solid handled on this aspect of the story, but she was adept at inserting witty turns of phrase and leaning on some of the inherent ridiculousness of pairing faeries and magic with proper Regency language. This clever writing style was present across prose and dialogue, and there were several laugh-out-loud moments for me during this read.

I also really enjoyed Dora and the effect her curse has on her life and her interactions with the people around her. If you try and think to hard about how the curse truly works with limiting her emotions, you can likely run into a brick wall of confusion, as we do see Dora forming strong attachments to characters throughout the book. But given the explanation that Dora herself gives at one point, I thought it made enough sense for me. Plus, I was having too much fun with the way her curse was playing out on the page, as well as the slow-burn romance that was developing between her and Elias, the Lord Sorcier, to ever feel the need to question or complain.

The mystery around the children was interesting as well. Through this portion of the story, the author shines a clear light on the terrible working/living conditions of the poor living in London at this time. Not only did she highlight the challenges facing this population, but she neatly described the vast distance (partly physically, but mostly through intentional looking away) between the classes and the unwillingness of those living a comfortable life to turn their eyes to the despair surrounding them. There was also a pretty great twist towards the end of this mystery which really added to the story as a whole.

This was a light-hearted, fast-reading romantic fantasy. Fans of Regency romance are sure to enjoy it, as well as those who want a more playful look at faeries and faerie courts. I loved the heck out of this book, and now am even more excited to check out the next one coming out from this author later this summer!

Rating 9: A purely joyful reading experience all around!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Half a Soul” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on Regency Fantasy Books.

Book Club Review: “Payback’s A Witch”

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We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Romance”, in which we each picked a book that is a romance, or has elements that fit romance tropes to a T. For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Payback’s A Witch” by Lana Harper

Publishing Info: Berkley, October 2021

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Romance Trope: Hometown Return

Book Description: Chilling Adventures of Sabrina meets The L Word in this fresh, sizzling rom-com by Lana Harper.

Emmy Harlow is a witch but not a very powerful one—in part because she hasn’t been home to the magical town of Thistle Grove in years. Her self-imposed exile has a lot to do with a complicated family history and a desire to forge her own way in the world, and only the very tiniest bit to do with Gareth Blackmoore, heir to the most powerful magical family in town and casual breaker of hearts and destroyer of dreams.

But when a spellcasting tournament that her family serves as arbiters for approaches, it turns out the pull of tradition (or the truly impressive parental guilt trip that comes with it) is strong enough to bring Emmy back. She’s determined to do her familial duty; spend some quality time with her best friend, Linden Thorn; and get back to her real life in Chicago.

On her first night home, Emmy runs into Talia Avramov—an all-around badass adept in the darker magical arts—who is fresh off a bad breakup . . . with Gareth Blackmoore. Talia had let herself be charmed, only to discover that Gareth was also seeing Linden—unbeknownst to either of them. And now she and Linden want revenge. Only one question stands: Is Emmy in? But most concerning of all: Why can’t she stop thinking about the terrifyingly competent, devastatingly gorgeous, wickedly charming Talia Avramov?

Kate’s Thoughts

I was the book club member to finish off our Romance cycle, and I knew exactly what I wanted us to read when we decided on the theme this time around. I had my eye on “Payback’s a Witch” by Lana Harper around the time it came out, so this was the perfect opportunity. I picked it because I kind of like the whole ‘return to your hometown and discover/rediscover love’ trope, and this one has that, but also Sapphic Witches! How could I NOT pick it?

And for the most part I enjoyed it! I thought that Harper built and created a pretty well done mythology and background for the town of Thistle Grove and the magical people who live there, with a clear history and some clear systems in place. I liked how that combined with the small town politics of low key feuding families as well, and how that enters into our main plot as Emmy returns home to find that her ex has been cheating on Linden, her childhood best friend, with Talia Avramov, her childhood semi-crush, and they decide to prevent him from winning the big tournament that determines the family power in town. It’s rudimentary but that’s fine, because it flows well and is enjoyable as it all plays out.

In terms of characters, I thought that Emmy was fine, but I REALLY loved Talia, her love interest. She checks all my boxes: she’s cool, she’s snarky, she has a heart of gold under a biting exterior, and her family is the family that is basically the necromancing communicators with the dead. I MEAN COME ON! Emmy and Talia have pretty okay chemistry (admittedly there isn’t that much sexytimes in this book, as one member was quite irked by), and while some of their stumbling blocks are a bit silly a little conflict makes a romance more high stakes. And besides, two witches falling in love is always going to get high marks from me.

I enjoyed “Payback’s a Witch” and I absolutely intend to continue in the series! BRING ON MORE AVRAMOVS, PLEASE!

Serena’s Thoughts

I can basically repeat all of Kate’s thoughts and opinions, only tone down the excitement one slot for me. It was still a fun read, but I knew going in that it probably wasn’t going to be totally for me. I think partly because I’m the exact opposite of Kate in my romance trope preferences, with the “home town returnee rediscovers their ex/crush” theme being one of my less favorites. I just have a hard time with all the glossed up nostalgia over home-towns. I haven’t lived in mine for over twenty years now, but I do go back every year. And while I love visiting and have happy memories of the place, I also have no qualms in saying that if I met any of my exes or crushes from when I lived there, I’m sure they would be totally different people, just like I am now.

That said, Talia was an awesome love interest, so regardless of the the trope itself, she worked well as a partner for Emmy. Like Kate, I very much enjoyed her more than Emmy. I had a hard time taking Emmy too seriously, honestly, as I felt her reactions to leaving and then coming home to be overblown. I mean, your highschool ex cheated, like ten years ago, move on! Gain some self-respect and perspective as an adult!

I did like what we got for the magical elements as well. This was a more fun take of the magical families battling than the battle royale that I fairly recently read in “All of Us Villains.” The various families and there different styles of magic was very “four houses of Hogwarts,” but so many things in fantasy are derivative of the bigger titles that that can hardly be a complaint.

Overall, this was a fun quick read. For me, the main character held that book back the most, but she was made up for by her love interest. I probably won’t continue with the series, but fans of fantasy romance, especially those looking for a saphic romance should definitely check this one out.

Kate’s Rating 8: Super fun, super witchy, super creative. I really enjoyed this book and man oh MAN is Talia just the best.

Serena’s Rating 7: Purely subjective rating as this wasn’t really my type of book to begin with, but Talia and the magical houses were definite bonuses.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the town of Thistle Grove? Did you think it was well conceived?
  2. What were your thoughts on the magical systems and mythology in this book?
  3. Emmy left Thistle Grove with little intention to return, but when she did she made connections with people and places. If you don’t live in your home town anymore, how do you think it would be to return?
  4. Did you like the relationship between Emmy and Talia? What did or didn’t work for you?
  5. The four magical families who run Thistle Grove all have distinct magical abilities and connections. Which family would you want to be a part of?
  6. Were there any characters you’d want to follow in future books in the series?

Reader’s Advisory

“Payback’s a Witch” is included on the Goodreads lists “Sapphic Witchy, Ghostly Books”, and “Popsugar 2022 #16: A Book About Witches”.

Serena’s Review: “Where the Lost Wander”

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Book: “Where the Lost Wander” by Amy Harmon

Publishing Info: Lake Union Publishing, April 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: The Overland Trail, 1853: Naomi May never expected to be widowed at twenty. Eager to leave her grief behind, she sets off with her family for a life out West. On the trail, she forms an instant connection with John Lowry, a half-Pawnee man straddling two worlds and a stranger in both.

But life in a wagon train is fraught with hardship, fear, and death. Even as John and Naomi are drawn to each other, the trials of the journey and their disparate pasts work to keep them apart. John’s heritage gains them safe passage through hostile territory only to come between them as they seek to build a life together.

When a horrific tragedy strikes, decimating Naomi’s family and separating her from John, the promises they made are all they have left. Ripped apart, they can’t turn back, they can’t go on, and they can’t let go. Both will have to make terrible sacrifices to find each other, save each other, and eventually… make peace with who they are.

Review: Great authors are hard to come by. It’s especially exciting when you come across one who excels in one of your favorite genres. But the magical unicorn great author is one who seems able to write excellent novels in almost any genre! Authors like Sylvia Moreno Garcia and Naomi Novik come to mind. Amy Harmon turns out to be yet another of those authors. Everything she writes is a solid, individual piece of art, and yet she flits from genre, time period, and theme with the ease of an author who has written twenty books of the same ilk before. It’s so impressive. All of this to say, I was very excited when I saw she had written a historical novel about the Oregon Trail. There aren’t too many books out there (at least that I’ve found) that tackle this period of time, so I was excited to see what Harmon had to bring, knowing full well that she was more than up to the task of delivery something great once again!

Like others who came before them, Naomi and her family brave the dangers of the long trip out West on the promise of a new life to be found by the end. For Naomi, a young widow, this opportunity to begin again is precious to her. But like all travelers of the trail, Naomi and her family need the benefits offered by a knowledgeable guide. For this, they turn to John Lowry, a half Native American man whose familiarity with the territory is sure to help their journey run smoothly. Along the way, Naomi and John feel themselves drawn closer and closer together. But disaster and tragedy strike, and, now separated, John and Naomi must fight to return to each other.

So, beyond being excellent, I think I can also say that Harmon always writes books that will pull at the heartstrings in some way or another. As much as I’ve loved all of her books, this one included, I haven’t managed to get through any of them without tearing up. And this one had big time tears! Not to say that this is a bad thing. Indeed, it speaks to the power of Harmon’s writing that you will quickly find yourself so immersed in this world and story that the sheer power of will found in our main characters is enough to pull at your heart. Not to mention the very real dangers and tragedies they each must face in the course of this story.

Harmon doesn’t shy away from portraying the harsh realities of this time and place (she also has an excellent author’s note at the end about her own family’s history and her approach to researching and writing this story.) For his part, John clearly doesn’t fit into either of his parents’ worlds. Not that of his Native American mother with whom he only lived the first few years of his life. Nor the white settlers who continually side eye him even though he has lived and worked alongside them his entire adult life. There was no neat solution or simplistic “good” or “bad” guys. Instead, Harmon took a nuanced look at the life and experience of an individual in this role. For her part, Naomi’s life is not straightforward either. She’s a young woman (though widowhood does offer a certain sort of freedom) in a time period where she has very little agency over her life and choices. Instead, she must work within the strict options given to her, often having to make heartbreaking decisions just to survive.

The romance itself was lovely. It was a slow-burn romance, and we had plenty of time to get to know both John and Naomi individually. And then they are separated, and we have to get to know them once again when they must rise to the challenges set before them. When they come together again, it’s bittersweet and lovely. Like I said, there’s a lot of tragedy in this book, but the for its part, the romance itself is completely satisfying.

This is definitely a challenging read, so readers picking it up should be prepared to read some darker themes, both of violence against women as well as death. But all of the tragedy is balanced with beauty and a clear-eyed look at life during this time period. Fans of historical fiction, specifically the time of the Oregon Trail, should definitely check this one out!

Rating 8: Beauty and heartbreak are equally balanced in this lovely work of historical fiction.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Where the Lost Wander” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Historical Fiction 2020 and Amazing Books that are Barely Known.

Serena’s Review: “Phoenix Unbound”

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Book: “Phoenix Unbound” by Grace Draven

Publishing Info: Ace Books, September 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Every year, each village is required to send a young woman to the Empire’s capital – her fate: to be burned alive for the entertainment of the masses. For the last five years, one small village’s tithe has been the same woman. Gilene’s sacrifice protects all the other young women of her village, and her secret to staying alive lies with the magic only she possesses.

But this year is different.

Azarion, the Empire’s most famous gladiator, has somehow seen through her illusion, and is set on blackmailing Gilene into using her abilities to help him escape his life of slavery. And unknown to Gilene, he also wants to reclaim the birthright of his clan.

To protect her family and village, she will risk everything to return to the Empire and burn once more.

Review: For the most part, I’ve really loved Grace Draven’s books. Nothing has quite lived up to “Radiance,” but it’s definitely a win when I’ve read a good number of books from one author and never actively disliked any of them. This trilogy (comprised of three stand-alone books set in the same world with overlapping characters) is due to be finished up this coming November, so I thought it was a great time to dive in and set myself up to review that last book when it comes out (if all goes well with the first two books, of course!) And I’ll say, if the second one is like the first, I’m definitely already excited for November to come!

It is the Empire’s cruel tradition: each year, every village must sacrifice one of its women to travel to the capitol and be sacrificed on the pyre for the entertainment of the masses. But one village has been able to escape that fate, for they have a fire witch, a woman blessed with fire abilities and able to survive this doom. Only to have to relive the horror each and every year. But this time, when Gilene travels to the city to meet her fate, she is unmasked by the famous gladiator, Azarion, and he has a deal for her: together, they will escape this awful place and he will reclaim his birthright. But Gilene knows that whatever this man promises, she must return to her village before another girl is sent to her death.

Honestly, I didn’t really look at the book description too much for this one before I went in. Part of that is due to my general comfort level with the author: Draven regularly writes romantic fantasy that is approachable and entertaining. The other part was…I don’t know, laziness? Either way, it made the reading experience interesting. For one thing, I’ll say this book was darker than I had expected. Yes, said skipped book description mentions the fact that women are regularly burned alive in some sadistic festival every year. But it fails to mention that the same women are offered to the gladiators the night before for their entertainment. Thus, our heroine’s yearly horrendous experience includes not only walking to her “death” with other women who she knows won’t survive the experience like she will, but she must also allow herself to be assaulted every year. And her magical abilities do nothing to lessen this part of her ordeal. So yes, that’s a dark thought. Even more so since Gilene is not the first fire witch of her village, and she doesn’t expect to be the last.

Her entire journey, even once she has escaped with Azarion, is about her single-minded focus on returning to her village to spare another innocent woman this fate. And knowing that another girl will be born who will have to be trained to take up this horrific mantle after Gilene becomes too old to accomplish it. Her courage in the face of this reality is incredible, but we also see her grapple with the anger that would come in belonging to a village that so fully takes advantage of her abilities. It’s a tough balance, because Gilene acknowledges the lack of real choice before her people, but also simmers with rage that her existence is so reduced to this object of torment to spare others who spend the rest of the year uncomfortably looking away from her with shame. It’s a very interesting exploration of humanity under the pressure of terrible choices.

I also really liked the romance at the heart of this story. It’s a true slow-burn, enemies-to-lovers story. While Gilene and Azarion aren’t necessarily true enemies in the basic sense of the world, they do have opposing goals and spend much of the first half of the book at odds with one another. Their growth to understand and care for each other feels natural and a product of the journey they take together. Each has been brutalized by the cruel Empress and her regime, but that alone isn’t enough to form a lasting relationship. Indeed, in some ways, each is less trusting than they would be due to the nature of their experiences. The growth and slow-gained love for one another is beautiful and heart-warming.

The story also doesn’t take the easy way out in its solutions for the problems thrown at our main characters. The world they live in is brutal, and the power structures they are up against are strong and persistent. I really liked the bittersweet nature of the final fourth of the book. There were no easy solutions presented, and each character remained true to themselves and their goals, neither sacrificing their core essence just because of their romance. But it also ended in a very satisfying way. I can also see easily who the next character will be in the second book, and am very excited to read her story! Fans of Grace Draven or romantic fantasy should definitely check this one out!

Rating 8: A bit darker than I expected, but with two strong main characters and a swoon-worthy romance, this one is definitely a win!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Phoenix Unbound” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Slow Burn Romances that are not YA or Erotica and Fantasy Romance

Book Club Review: “The Roommate”

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We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Romance”, in which we each picked a book that is a romance, or has elements that fit romance tropes to a T. For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “The Roommate” by Rosie Danan

Publishing Info: Berkley, September 2020

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Romance Trope: Forced Proximity

Book Description: House Rules: Do your own dishes.
Knock before entering the bathroom.
Never look up your roommate online.

The Wheatons are infamous among the east coast elite for their lack of impulse control, except for their daughter Clara. She’s the consummate socialite: over-achieving, well-mannered, predictable. But every Wheaton has their weakness. When Clara’s childhood crush invites her to move cross-country, the offer is too much to resist. Unfortunately, it’s also too good to be true.

After a bait-and-switch, Clara finds herself sharing a lease with a charming stranger. Josh might be a bit too perceptive—not to mention handsome—for comfort, but there’s a good chance he and Clara could have survived sharing a summer sublet if she hadn’t looked him up on the Internet

Once she learns how Josh has made a name for himself, Clara realizes living with him might make her the Wheaton’s most scandalous story yet. His professional prowess inspires her to take tackling the stigma against female desire into her own hands. They may not agree on much, but Josh and Clara both believe women deserve better sex. What they decide to do about it will change both of their lives, and if they’re lucky, they’ll help everyone else get lucky too.

Kate’s Thoughts

I thought that this book had some good jumping off points for our book club discussion, which is good! But I think that part of that is because it seemed like it wasn’t overall well loved by our members. I fell into that camp as well. But I’ll start with what I did like, and there are two things that stand out for me. Firstly, I liked how this book tried to show that porn actors and actresses, and sex workers in general, are people who are doing a job and who deserve not to be dehumanized or stigmatized because of it. I liked that Josh enjoys his job, views it as a business that he excels at, and didn’t fall into any pitfalls of being shamed for his profession. Along with that, I liked that his acting partner and on again, off again girlfriend Naomi was ALSO a well thought out and interesting character, when she easily could have been used as a contrast to Clara and depicted in negative ways. Overall, I felt like Danan was doing her best to address sex positivity and the importance of remembering sex workers are people and deserve rights and respect, and not to be mistreated or shunned because of their profession. I also liked Naomi a lot as a character. As mentioned above, she isn’t used as a snide or antagonistic villain, and she was probably the most interesting character in the book.

I guess that kind of brings up the things that didn’t work as well. I thought that “The Roommate”, while setting out what it wanted to do, was kinda ho hum in other ways. Clara was fine as a main character, Josh was fine too, but neither of them were super interesting to me. I wasn’t terribly invested in their relationship, and I wasn’t terribly invested in the conflict that they met along the way. The sex scenes were serviceable and were written pretty well, but I didn’t get the kind of fun buildup I like in romance novels (however this is probably more about preference: like I’ve said in the past, I like a slow burn build up and a lot of cute and snarky banter).

I think that “The Roommate” does what it wants to do. I would have liked more oomph and chemistry between the main characters.

Serena’s Thoughts

Once again, I agree with everything Kate has already laid out. I think this book had lofty goals attempting to address sex positivity and destigmatize sex work. However, even here, I feel like the book brushed up alongside some of these issues but then didn’t really get into some of the real challenges. For example, there are a lot of factors that go into sex workers being forced into situations where they’re pushed back their comfort levels. Much of this has to do with power structures and stigmatization. However, here, we pretty much just had a “big bad” who, once dealt with, cleared the way to smooth sailing ahead. Likewise, Josh is conveniently not working when he meets Clara and then transition into a different role by the end of the book. So the author neatly sidesteps the issue of addressing sex workers who still work in the industry but are part of a committed, monogamous relationship.

Also, like Kate said, neither of the characters were particularly enthralling. I didn’t actively dislike either of them, but I never felt invested in their individual arcs or their romance as a couple. The “romance,” such as it was, felt more like falling in lust than falling in love. By the end, yes, they get there. But like Kate said, without the buildup, it’s harder to really feel any satisfaction when the romance is settled by the end of the book.

Kate’s Rating 6: I feel like it sets out to do what it wants to do, and I liked the sex positivity. But overall it was kinda lackluster.

Serena’s Rating 6: Not for me. The romance lacked any real connection and while I liked some of the topics tackled, I think there were some other missed opportunities.

Book Club Questions

  1. Did you think that the forced proximity trope in this story worked well within this context?
  2. Did this book subvert any romance tropes (forced proximity or not) in ways that you liked?
  3. Besides Naomi, were there any side characters that you would have liked to see more of? Any that you’d read another book about?
  4. What did you think of Clara and Josh’s business idea of porn that teaches about giving women pleasure during sex? Do you think there would be a market for it?
  5. What were your thoughts on how this book handled the themes of sex work and sex workers? Do you think it would make people think differently about sex work?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Roommate” is included on the Goodreads lists “Radical Romance”, and “My Favorite Trope”.

Next Book Club Book: “Payback’s a Witch” by Lana Harper

Serena’s Review: “When a Princess Proposes”

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Book: “When a Princess Proposes” by Kerrelyn Sparks

Publishing Info: Kensington Books, April 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: All Princess Eviana needs is an escape. Possessed of an unfortunate and unusual Embraced gift, which she’s been banned from using, she required no training. Now, her overprotective parents want her to wed. As a result, the palace is crammed with obnoxious noblemen. . . . Until Quentin, the enigmatic eagle shifter and royal spy, maneuvers several of the unsuitable suitors into revealing their most embarrassing secrets before the court. Finally, Eviana has an excuse to free herself. If only her family knew the blow that’s shaken her: golden-eyed Quentin’s refusal to let her near . . .

Heroic, but low born, Quentin’s infatuation with Eviana is as inappropriate as it is unshakable. He must keep away from her, for his own sake. But after a series of suspicious deaths, and the princess’s narrow escape from kidnapping, Quentin knows that only together can they expose the danger stalking Aerthlan’s Embraced. On foot, in disguise, they’ll need trust and quick wits to uncover the vicious conspiracy closing around them. But finding the truth might break down their own defenses as well . . .

Review: I’m always trying to strike a balance between epic fantasy, often full of dark, depressing wars and political machinations, and the light-hearted fare to be found on the other side of the spectrum. I stumbled upon this book while browsing NetGalley one day, and thought it was just the sort of lighter read I was in the mood for. I realized that it was the third book in a series, but it seemed the sort of series that focused on new characters and stories with each book, so I thought it safe enough to jump in without reading the others first. And, while it turned out this was actually something like the fifth book in this series/world, it was still a fun enough read on its own, if not really what I was hoping for it would be.

The Embraced are those born on a particular day of the year, and with this date comes a magical gift. No one knows what their gift may be, whether it will be useful or silly, but the Embraced all have something. It is Princess Eviana’s curse that when her gift shows itself it’s of the sort that her over-protective parents see as more of a threat than a blessing. As such, Eviana has been kept home with her main social opportunities being only the ever-constant search for a betrothed. For his part, master spy Quentin has loved Evian from afar. While he knows that he is unworthy of her hand, he also knows that these supposed suitors are even worse. So when he reveals some of their duplicitousness, Quentin and Eviana’s paths finally overlap. Soon they find themselves on a greater adventure than either could have imagined.

So, like I said, I knew this was a book in the middle of a series when I picked it up. But, being a romantic fantasy series, I quickly noticed that there had to be far more than three books out already. And that’s because you could spot the previous couples around every single corner! It became a sort of game, picking out the various couples that featured as main characters in the other books. And while this book wasn’t really my favorite in the end, some of these other characters did intrigue me. So, who knows? Maybe I’ll go back and check out their stories.

This is definitely a more light-hearted fantasy story. There’s a lot of emphasis placed on characters with only the lightest touches on world-building and magic systems. More than anything, the Embraced reminded me of those with Graces in “Graceling.” The same random gifts bestowed on seemingly random people, some of them being immensely popular and some ridiculous to the point of uselessness. In this world, however, and with the known factor of the Embraced, the story lost me almost immediately with Eviana and her gift. I won’t spoil what it is, though it does come out pretty early on. But I will say that it’s of the sort that could in no way be the most powerful or most dangerous gift that has ever come about. It is definitely powerful, but its advantages seem to pretty clearly outweigh any supposed concerns there could be over it. All of this immediately makes the entire premise of the book a big question mark: that her parents have restricted her choices and life so drastically over this supposedly dangerous gift.

It may seem like I’m harping on a small bit of the book, but ultimately, this book lives and dies by its small moments. The plot itself is very straight forward and simple, which leaves a lot of room to think about these minor flaws. On top of the weirdness around her abilities, I struggled to really connect with either Eviana or Quentin. Everything felt too shallow and too low stakes. I never felt any true concern for either of them or any true investment in the various conflicts thrown their way. They’re perfectly fine characters, but that’s a “fine” in the most dull sense of the word: nothing offensive but nothing to inspire either.

The writing was fine in a similar sense. While the story flowed well enough, the style lacked any sense of flair and unique voice. Instead, it felt very standard and bland. Like the characters, I never felt myself feeling particularly invested in the outcome of the various plot points we move through the story. Honestly, I’m struggling to come up with much more to say about this book, so I’ll just leave it here. This author has quite a few books out, so there are definitely readers out there who will connect with this. And for those looking for a light-hearted romantic fantasy, maybe this will be for you. But for me there was just something crucial missing from the book.

Rating: Fine writing. Fine characters. Fine story. But with three “fine’s” comes a pretty poor reading experience, in my book.

Reader’s Advisory:

“When a Princess Proposes” can be found on these Goodreads lists: Humorous Paranormal Books.

Book Club Review: “Beach Read”

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We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Romance”, in which we each picked a book that is a romance, or has elements that fit romance tropes to a T. For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Beach Read” by Emily Henry

Publishing Info: Berkley, May 2020

Where Did We Get This Book: We own it.

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Romance Trope: Enemies to Lovers

Book Description: A romance writer who no longer believes in love and a literary writer stuck in a rut engage in a summer-long challenge that may just upend everything they believe about happily ever afters.

Augustus Everett is an acclaimed author of literary fiction. January Andrews writes bestselling romance. When she pens a happily ever after, he kills off his entire cast.

They’re polar opposites. In fact, the only thing they have in common is that for the next three months, they’re living in neighboring beach houses, broke, and bogged down with writer’s block.

Until, one hazy evening, one thing leads to another and they strike a deal designed to force them out of their creative ruts: Augustus will spend the summer writing something happy, and January will pen the next Great American Novel. She’ll take him on field trips worthy of any rom-com montage, and he’ll take her to interview surviving members of a backwoods death cult (obviously). Everyone will finish a book and no one will fall in love. Really. 

Serena’s Thoughts

I hardly ever read contemporary fiction. I almost never read “women’s fiction” (I’ll avoid the soapbox I have about that term, but ugh!). That being the case, I was a bit cautious going in to this bookclub pick seeing as it seemed to fit neatly under both of those genres. But I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: this is why bookclubs are so great! I ended up really enjoying this book, and I never would have discovered it if I had been left to my own devices!

There was quite a lot to like about this book. The romance, of course, is central to the story, and right off the bat, I was pretty invested in both of these characters and the relationship developing between the two of them. While I think January might have been a bit naïve about some of her encounters with Gus in college, we were all a bit dumb then, so I guess I’ll give her a pass. I really liked the idea of them attempting to write in each others genres as a way for their bond to slowly develop over a period of summers. It gave the author all the excuses she needed to throw the two together in various great situations.

I’ll also liked the exploration of the secondary plot, that of January learning to understand the life of her recently-deceased father and some of the hurtful choices he made that she only recently discovered. It was a really excellent look at the strange relationship that is built up between parents and children where it’s only when the child grows into an adult that they fully begin to understand that their parents are fully realized people too, complete with their own histories and flaws. The story is definitely tackling a more complicated and challenging aspect of the mistakes people make, but I think the author managed to do it in a way that didn’t overly villainize any of the people involved. Truly impressive!

Overall, I really liked this book. I’m definitely planning on checking out other books from her, including the one coming out very soon!

Kate’s Thoughts

I’m the person who is a bit more picky about the kind of romance fiction I read, and in general I am actually more inclined to pick up contemporary/’women’s’ fiction than one might expect. I don’t know if it was just the right moment in my year’s reading journey, or if it was the fact I do gravitate more towards the genre, but “Beach Read” really hit all the right notes for me! I honestly hadn’t really heard of this book or even Emily Henry outside of a mention here or there online (this is one of the downsides of no longer working my circulation position on a permanent basis; I’m not nearly as up to date on genres I don’t usually look for because I’m not processing holds or shelving as often as I used to be!). And now I have both bought her book “People We Meet on Vacation” AND have an eARC of “Book Lovers” on my Kindle. Consider me a fan.

Like Serena, I thought that Henry did a good job of setting up the perfect slow burn romance because of the setting, scenario, and circumstances our characters find themselves in. January is grappling with a personal loss and some unpleasant revelations that came with it, and Gus is dealing with writer’s block and his own life changes. They’re both wounded and raw, and it makes for some really fun snappy moments between them (though honestly January is more of the aggressor in this ‘enemies to lovers’ story). I really liked their banter, the dialogue flowing quickly and well and in a very entertaining way. It’s the kind of enemies to lovers story that doesn’t feel kinda weird as their animosity is mostly placed in mutual insecurity and stubbornness (though to be fair, I also love legit enemies to lovers stories when the footing is even. I was a HUGE Spuffy shipper back in the day because of this).

I also liked some of the darker things that Henry tackled, as it never really felt like it was out of place or hokey. The pain that January is dealing with in regards to her father and his personal choices/failings is palpable and understandable, and as for Augustus while we don’t really get as much insight into him, we do get to see some of the darker aspects of his work, specifically the cult aspect of this book he was intending to write. I was worried that Henry would make it a little bit overdramatic or even laughable, even in an unintentional way, but at the end of the day she pulls out the trauma and pain of this side group without making it derail the lovely and sweet story at hand. And it is lovely and sweet.

“Beach Read” was a lot of fun and very enjoyable! Like Serena I’m eager to see what else Henry has in store for the contemporary romance audience!

Serena’s Rating 9: Lives up to its name: a “beach read” that will make any contemporary romance lover aching for more!

Kate’s Rating 9: Charming, snappy, funny, and sweet, “Beach Read” kept me going and had me rooting for a happily ever after.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did we like and dislike about January and Augustus as our main characters? Did they break any stereotypes or tropes?
  2. What did you think of their debate about literary fiction vs romance/women’s fiction? What are your feelings on each genre?
  3. In this book there are mentions of how people sometimes use romance stories as a way to cope with more difficult realities. Do you find that a relatable practice?
  4. What were your thoughts on the side characters? Did anyone stand out in particular?
  5. What are your thoughts on the enemies to lovers trope that was used in this story?
  6. This book talks about happy endings versus ‘happy for nows’ in stories. Do you prefer a solid conclusion of a wrapped up romantic life? Or are more in process romance endings okay for you as a reader?
  7. Would you read more by Emily Henry?

Reader’s Advisory

“Beach Read” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Rom-Com Books”, and “Best Enemies to Lovers”.

Next Book Club Pick: “The Roommate” by Rosie Danan

Serena’s Review: “The War of Two Queens”

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Book: “The War of Two Queens” by Jennifer L. Armentrout

Publishing Info: Blue Box Press, March 2022

Where Did I Get this Book: bought the ebook

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: From the desperation of golden crowns…

Casteel Da’Neer knows all too well that very few are as cunning or vicious as the Blood Queen, but no one, not even him, could’ve prepared for the staggering revelations. The magnitude of what the Blood Queen has done is almost unthinkable.

And born of mortal flesh…

Nothing will stop Poppy from freeing her King and destroying everything the Blood Crown stands for. With the strength of the Primal of Life’s guards behind her, and the support of the wolven, Poppy must convince the Atlantian generals to make war her way—because there can be no retreat this time. Not if she has any hope of building a future where both kingdoms can reside in peace.

A great primal power rises…

Together, Poppy and Casteel must embrace traditions old and new to safeguard those they hold dear—to protect those who cannot defend themselves. But war is only the beginning. Ancient primal powers have already stirred, revealing the horror of what began eons ago. To end what the Blood Queen has begun, Poppy might have to become what she has been prophesied to be—what she fears the most.

As the Harbinger of Death and Destruction.

Previously Reviewed: “From Blood and Ash” and “A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire” and “The Crown of Gilded Bones”

Review: This was another massive book, so as much as I wanted to get my review out as close to the release day as possible, here we are, a few weeks later. It was partly the length. But it’s also partly that I (and a lot of others, it seems!) had a lot of thoughts and feelings about this book, so it’s taken a bit to get my mind in order with what exactly I wanted to say about this book. But, be warned, there will be spoilers for the book in this review, so read on with that in mind. Let’s dive in, shall we?

Casteel finds himself in the last place he ever wanted to be: trapped in a dungeon and in the grasp of the cruel Blood Queen. But he’d do it all again, at least Poppy is free out in the world. For her part, Poppy is lost without Casteel. Newly made queen of a people and country that barely know her, let alone trust her, she knows only that she must save Casteel as soon as possible. She is joined by Kieran, Casteel’s best friend who hurts almost as much as she does with Casteel’s loss. Together, they will work to save their King and overthrow the Blood Queen once and for all.

The way I’m going to review this book is as follows: I’m going to start with a review of the objective state of this book, then move out to my own interpretations, and then briefly discuss the fan reaction. So, first off, my general impression of this book. Anyone who has read my reviews of these books before will note that I’ve always been hesitant to say much in favor of the general quality of the writing and world-building in these books. They’ve all been bloated, poorly edited behemoths of books. I’m not sure if it’s because of the popularity of the series or what, but it seems that the publisher has taken a very hands-off approach to editing this series. This book showed many of the same flaws.

The pacing was snail-paced, with very little happening for huge chunks of time. What we do learn about the world comes through exposition. And there are so many “reveals” about the world and Poppy’s own heritage that it is well past the point of ridiculousness. I will say that I thought there were more actual grammatical/spelling errors in this book than the others. But for the most part, if you’ve read the other books, you’ll know the flaws you’re working with and none of them are improved in this book. Four books in, these flaws of bad world-building and endless secrets begin to feel as if the author just never planned her series. At some point, the story needs to move past the “discovery” phase and into the “action” phase. Either way, none of this is truly shocking. Indeed, I’ve said repeatedly that I’m really only there for the romance. And that’s where we get to the subjective portion.

This book gives us Casteel’s perspective for the first time in the series. And I think this was actually part of the problem. What should have been an exciting addition (finally the heroes perspective!) was actually a flaw that made what was happening in the rest of the story all the more uncomfortable and unlikable. We have Casteel’s thoughts almost entirely focused on Poppy and how glad he is that he is the one locked up and suffering instead of her. And Poppy? Whelp, she’s off sharing a bed with naked Kieran, developing feelings for him, and getting asked why her husband’s best friend is acting like her husband by family friends. Her answer? “It’s complicated.” Yeaahh, it reads pretty bad and checks all my marks for emotional cheating in my book (honestly, bordering on actual cheating with that naked sleeping scene). On there own, these actions are pretty condemnable from a partner who is in an established exclusive relationship. It’s all the worse when contrasted with Casteel’s thoughts of her. So, subjectively, this ruined most of the series for me. Like I said, I was here for the romance, and this effectively crushed that. Even when Poppy and Casteel are reunited, Poppy’s mentally bemoaning Kieran not being around. It’s uncomfortable, unlikable, and decidedly NOT what I want from my “soulmates” romance stories.

And this last bit gets to the general fans reactions and the author’s approach with this series. Look, we here at The Library Ladies believe in “Every book its reader, and every reader their book.” But the converse of that is true: some people make choices of what to read based on what is and what is not in their books. For romance readers, this is almost even more important than for general fiction readers. There is an unspoken but strong understanding between the author and the readers of what they are there for, be it happily ever afters, smut, etc. And this book was marketed, spoken about by the author (she repeatedly said that Cas and Poppy were the main/only relationship for the last several years), and then set up for THREE BOOKS as an exclusive soulmates-style romance.

If the author had wanted to write a polyamory romance, that’s fine! There are readers for it, and I’m sure many would have gobbled it up! Many are probably already loving the series anyways! The problem is what I said before: that’s not what this series set out to be (or at least there’s no rational interpretation of the previous books or author’s statements that could lead you to thinking otherwise). So when devoted fans get to book four and see what looks pretty clearly like emotional cheating and then a polyamory relationship, they’re going to feel misled and cheated by the author. What’s more, I’ll go as far as to say that had the author set out from the beginning to write a polyamory book (beyond the fact that she failed to truly set that up in any real way), this was a truly bad way to go about it. I can’t imagine anyone from that community would like the parallel drawn here between their accepting and consensual love with the kind of emotional cheating that Poppy and Kieran were getting up to behind Casteel’s back and without his knowledge. This is not good representation and instead plays into very negative stereotypes about the entire lifestyle.

This was a huge disappointment for me. Objectively, it has the same flaws as we’ve seen in the rest of the series. Subjectively, the romance was the only reason I was really still here, and that was badly damaged/ruined by the emotional cheating from Poppy. And thirdly, the author seems to have broken a social contract with her readership by creating a soulmates romance story, publicly calling it such for years and writing three books setting that up, and then blindsiding them with a poor representation of a polyamory relationship at best or emotional infidelity at worst.

I’ll probably check out the reviews of the next book when it is released, but I’m probably out. These books were huge time commitments, and I’m the type of romance reader who reads for the happily ever after. And emotional infidelity isn’t it, friends.

Rating 4: A case study in how to turn your rabid fan base against you and misunderstand why they’re there in the first place.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A War of Two Queens” is on several lists, but I think it most deserves to be on this one: Most Disappointing Sequels/Prequels.

Serena’s Review: “A Promise of Fire”

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Book: “A Promise of Fire” by Amanda Bouchet

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Casablanca, August 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat

Book Description: Catalia “Cat” Fisa lives disguised as a soothsayer in a traveling circus. She is perfectly content avoiding the danger and destiny the Gods-and her homicidal mother-have saddled her with. That is, until Griffin, an ambitious warlord from the magic-deprived south, fixes her with his steely gaze and upsets her illusion of safety forever.

Griffin knows Cat is the Kingmaker, the woman who divines the truth through lies. He wants her as a powerful weapon for his newly conquered realm-until he realizes he wants her for much more than her magic. Cat fights him at every turn, but Griffin’s fairness, loyalty, and smoldering advances make him increasingly hard to resist and leave her wondering if life really does have to be short, and lived alone.

Review: This book ended up on my TBR list for a few reasons. For one thing, I’m still on the hunt for a new urban fantasy series to follow. And while this book wouldn’t technically fall into that category, the fast action and quippy heroine is definitely on par with what you find in that subgenre. I’ve also been perusing various romantic fantasy recommendation lists and this book has popped up on a few of them. So I went in with high hopes. Alas, this one was definitely not my cup of tea.

Cat has slowly built up a quiet and unnoticeable life as a soothsayer in the circus. There she has found not only freedom from attention but a found family in the others who don’t quite fit into the world and see the circus as a place of acceptance. But apparently Cat isn’t quite unnoticeable enough, as one day she draws the attention of a warlord who sees her magical abilities for what they are: the power to tell truth from lie. Now, captured and hauled across the kingdom to work for the warlord’s Queen, Cat begins to find her past rising up to catch her once again. Slowly, however, she begins to feel herself drawn to this warlord and his band of merry men. Could there be another future for her?

I was so disappointed with this book. And that’s mostly because when it started out, I was sure I was going to love it! I got through at least of a quarter of it and maybe closer to a third still thinking this. The writing is quick, the action is entertaining, and the dialogue was quippy and funny. Cat herself was immediately likeable and relatable. She seemed like the perfect kind of heroine to lead up a story like this (and did feel very “urban fantasy” like, for what it’s worth). I also had high hopes for Griffin as a love interest. He was definitely holding down the “dark and brooding” fort pretty thoroughly.

But then, as the story continued, it became clear that the dynamic between these two wasn’t going to change in the way I needed it to to enjoy it. The writing began to feel more juvenile. And the twist of the story began to feel so predictable and convenient that I couldn’t help being bothered by it. I almost had whiplash at how fast I went from really gobbling up a book to really struggling to even finish the thing.

I got on a pretty big soapbox when talking to a friend recently about romance novels and how the “problematic” approach to romance as a genre needs to be tempered with the escapism that we always look for in our fiction. Obviously, the terrible situations found in horror and thrillers novels are not something we would approve of in real life. So some of the relationships in romance novels may have elements in them that we wouldn’t love in real life, but because they are romance novels and have an essential promise of safety and love between the characters, it’s essentially a safe place to experience romantic arcs. Alas, this little speech doesn’t work for everything, and shortly after I made it, I came across this book.

Like I said, I wouldn’t not recommend this book because of the “problematic” relationship at its core. Indeed, this is a fairly high rated book on Goodreads. It was only that in my completely objective scale of what I can appreciate about in the traditional “alpha” romantic hero and what I can’t stand, this one fell too far in the negative direction. Obviously, the story starts out with kidnapping, so there’s a power dynamic at play there from the very start. And I was totally fine with that! It was just that as the book went on, I kept waiting for Griffin to essentially realize what he’d done in taking way Cat’s choices and, given his growing respect and love for her, giver her the choice to stay or go. Sadly, that didn’t come. Instead, Cat essentially talked herself into staying based, at least in my observation, on very few truly positive qualities to be found in Griffin and his band. Again and again, Griffin would ignore Cat’s language rebuffing him. We the reader know that she’s into it, but he didn’t come around to any of the respect I need these alpha types to have to keep my scale balanced. This is one of the reasons I’ve liked the “From Blood and Ash” series so far; the hero there has all of the moments of respect and understanding of his heroine that I definitely need to see in my romances.

I also began to be annoyed by Cat’s inner dialogue. Initially, I found her spunky and fun, just the right tone of snark and sarcasm that I like in my action fantasy heroines. But then she said “Ack!” one too many times in her head and…yeah, I couldn’t stop seeing it from then on. I really dislike this writing technique. I’m not sure what it’s meant to add, but it made Cat seem childish and silly. Something I definitely didn’t need from a heroine who is supposed to be standing up to her alpha male captor. Definitely don’t need anything that tips that power imbalance to an even worse degree.

Some of the supposed reveals were also really easy to spot. I don’t think this would have been a problem had I not been already struggling with the romance and Cat’s inner monologue. I didn’t go into this book expecting epic style twists or world-building that shocked and amazed. But on top of the other flaws, these weaker aspects also began to hurt the book more and more as it went.

This was so disappointing. Like I said, it was worse because I was so excited as I was reading the first part of the book. I even had the second one all lined up on my library hold list, that’s how sure I was that I was going to gobble this series up. And then it just tanked. Again, this book has pretty high ratings on Goodreads, and it did have that fun, quick reading style that some (including me at times) love, so this may still be for you. I really think it comes down to your tolerance level with alpha male leading men.

Rating 6: The “hero” of this book was not so heroic in my estimation, and the heroine’s inner dialogue was very cringey at times.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Promise of Fire” is on these Goodreads lists: Slow-burn romance and (strangely) Sci-Fi/Fantasy with Healthy Relationships.

Book Club Review: “Project Duchess”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Romance”, in which we each picked a book that is a romance, or has elements that fit romance tropes to a T. For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Project Duchess” by Sabrina Jeffries

Publishing Info: Zebra, June 2019

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Romance Trope: Grumpy/Sunshine

Book Description: A series of stepfathers and a difficult childhood have left Fletcher “Grey” Pryde, 5th Duke of Greycourt, with a guarded heart, enviable wealth, and the undeserved reputation of a rogue. Grey’s focus on expanding his dukedom allows him little time to find a wife. But when his mother is widowed yet again and he meets the charmingly unconventional woman managing his stepfather’s funeral, he’s shocked to discover how much they have in common. Still, Grey isn’t interested in love, no matter how pretty, or delightfully outspoken, the lady . . .
 
Beatrice Wolfe gave up on romance long ago, and the arrogant Duke of Greycourt with his rakish reputation isn’t exactly changing her mind. Then Grey agrees to assist his grief-stricken mother with her latest “project”: schooling spirited, unfashionable Beatrice for her debut. Now that Beatrice is seeing through Grey’s charms to his wounded heart, she’s having trouble keeping him at arm’s length. But once Grey starts digging into her family’s secrets, she must decide whether her loyalties lie with her family . . . or with the man whose lessons capture her heart . . .   

Serena’s Thoughts

Ostensibly, this book should have been for me. When I do read romance, I generally prefer historical romance, with all of those grand ball scenes and the obsessively weird culture of manners. I find that the overly formal way of moving through life in these books is a nice balance to the actual bodice-ripping romance of them. Sadly, this book wasn’t for me though.

There were a few problems that I had. Firstly, the romance itself doesn’t feel very well built up, with the “hero” pretty much sexualizing the heroine immediately. Obviously, some of this is expected in romance novels, so it’s not the fact that it happened that was the problem. More, it was the fact that it was right off the bat which just immediately set him up in a bad light for me. Beyond that, the book is very “tell-y” with this character in general. We’re told over and over again that he’s this “rake-ish” individual, but we never see any evidence of this “bad boy” persona.

Much of this problem comes down to the fact that the entire book takes place on the family’s country estate. That’s right! There are no grand ball room scenes or society gossip, because the entire story is removed from all of that. Instead, we have only Grey’s family and Beatrice’s brother for any and all social interactions. Not only does it feel limited, but it was very obvious that the author was almost equally devoted to setting up all of these other characters as potential leads in her future books as she was with telling the actual story on hand. It all played against me becoming at all invested in Grey and Beatrice.

I also didn’t love the mystery that was included in this story. Again, this probably should have been a hit for me as, when I do read mysteries, they’re often historical mysteries of just this sort. But here, by cramming the mystery in alongside the romance, the author missed the mark on both. The romance was lukewarm. And the mystery was unappealing. Not only did we always know that the main suspect would be innocent, but the story ends on a cliffhanger in a misguided attempt to get readers to pick up the next book. In my case, that just worked against it. I felt even more put off by the story in not having this resolved. This plot line took up a ton of page time and arguably reduced changes to increase my interest in the romance of the story, the thing most readers who pick up this kind of book will be looking for. Fans of historical romance can likely find better options out there.

Kate’s Thoughts

Okay, we have officially moved into romance territory that I rarely dare to tread. I can count the number of ‘bodice ripper’ romance on one hand, including this one… And I think that the number is 2. MAYBE 3 if we want to be a little loosey goosey with our time periods. And while thus far our book club romances have been mostly contemporary (with one fantasy), I knew a Regency romance would probably have to happen. So I went into “Project Duchess” trying to have an open mind. But by the time I was finished, I realized that this subgenre of romance really… REALLY isn’t for me.

I have a lot of the same thoughts as Serena, from the clunky way that the characters are used, to the telling vs showing, to the isolated setting (though I admit that I had NO idea that this was a thing until it came up in book club; it wasn’t until Serena pointed out that keeping it on a country estate with no dances, urban gossip, or new characters was incredibly limiting. Once she pointed it out I was like ‘oh hey, yeah!!!’). I also thought that giving Beatrice a darker backstory involving her lecherous uncle wasn’t handled super well, as it was there to make her tragic but wasn’t examined in a way that felt healthy. One good fuck probably isn’t going to wash away trauma. I know it’s a romance novel and a little unrealistic storytelling isn’t a crime (in any book really), but it just didn’t sit right with me.

AND I am going to echo my frustration with the mystery. I, being a gal who loves a good murder plot, wanted to know what HAD happened to all of Lydia’s husbands! Once it clicked that we weren’t going to get any answers in this book, as the story was setting up a whole series involving all the boring characters (excluding Gwyn. I liked Gwyn), I was pretty frustrated.

“Project Duchess” was a miss for me. I would say that maybe it’s just because it’s not my genre, but seeing Serena’s review above, it makes me think it’s maybe a miss all around.

Serena’s Rating 6: Not for me, which was a shock considering that, on paper, it should have been right up my alley.

Kate’s Rating 4: I wasn’t expecting too much but was still disappointed.

Book Club Questions

  1. How well do this hero and heroine fit the “grump/sunshine” romance trope?
  2. What did you think about the mystery at the heart of the novel? What predictions do you have going forward?
  3. Beatrice’s history with her uncle is quite dark. How well do you think the book tackled this topic?
  4. What did you think of Beatrice and Greycourt as a couple and the various iterations of their romance that we saw throughout this book?
  5. This is clearly the first book in a set-up series. Will you continue reading? What character are you most interested in reading about next?

Reader’s Advisory

“Project Duchess” is on these Goodreads lists: Romance Heroes and Heroines Over 35! and 2019 Historical Romance.

Find “Project Duchess” at your library using WorldCat or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Next Book Club Book: “Beach Read” by Emily Henry

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