Fiction

THE RUNAWAY DUCHESS by Joanna Lowell

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Lavinia had no choice but to marry the elderly, lecherous duke–not after the duke she was supposed to marry jilted her, exposed a family scandal, and had her father arrested. With her family disgraced and no skills to earn money except by marrying it, she grits her teeth and trudges down the aisle. But it’s what the wedding night holds that she truly dreads: not only being forced to share a bed with her loathsome husband but what that husband might do when he discovers he is not her first lover. So when a young botanist stops her on the train platform, mistaking her for a new colleague, she flees her honeymoon–and her past life.

Neal’s future wife is nothing like he expected. She more closely resembles a Society debutante than an intrepid explorer; he can hardly imagine her doing all the daring feats she describes in her memoirs. But he still fully intends to ask her to marry him after their stint collecting plants in Cornwall is complete. Surely she, too, will be looking for a like-minded, intellectual spouse. And if she agrees to be his bride, they can be married to fulfill his mother’s hopes for him before she succumbs to her cancer. As his professional relationship with his bold explorer deepens, however, Neal is in for more surprises, perhaps the biggest of which is that he is falling in love–and for reasons he never would have imagined.

Lowell made a bold choice to cast one of her previous book’s villains as her heroine–but it payed off! She matched her deeply flawed heroine with a seemingly perfect hero, only to subvert our expectations for both and somehow make us love them more. With this book, Lowell proves that the acclaim her debut earned was not a fluke. She is a new star in the historical romance genre.

LOVE AT FIRST SPITE by Anna E. Collins

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Dani does not regret playing paintball in her wedding dress on the day that should have been her wedding. She does regret running into Wyatt Montego, the most intimidating architect at the firm where she works, while drunk at the bar afterward and managing to get paint on his probably-expensive shirt. And of course that wouldn’t have happened if she had realized how self-centered, controlling her ex was before getting engaged to him, buying a house with him, and then suffering the humiliation of being cheated on with their realtor.

But once she sobers up, Dani realizes that the house might provide her with the perfect opportunity for revenge. Since her ex-fiance refused to let her buy the adjacent lot for studio space, she could buy it now and build some giant monstrosity on it to block his view. She could use all her skills as an interior designer to make it exactly the sort of house he’d hate. She just needs an architect to design it. Enter Wyatt Montego. Apparently not bearing any sort of grudge for the paint-on-the-shirt incident, Wyatt stuns Dani by volunteering to design the house for free. Of course they’ll have to keep their relationship professional since they work for the same firm. But that won’t be too difficult since Wyatt isn’t exactly the most personable man in the world (however gorgeous he might be) and there’s no way he could be interested in Dani.

Right?…

This steamy RomCom was tons of adorable fun. The Pride and Prejudice vibe was intentional (several reverences to Bridget Jones) and well-executed, and the Spite House was an original concept with the potential to inspire vengeful glee in anyone who can relate to Dani’s frustration with being constantly undermined by her ex. I highly recommend this novel to fans of the genre and the enemies-to-lovers and workplace romance tropes.

FORTUNE FAVORS THE DUKE by Kristin Vayden

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When the Duke of Wesley died, he tore a hole in the lives of his loved ones–both the remarkable, business-minded woman he had planned to marry and the scholarly brother who had to give up his position at Cambridge to succeed his brother as Duke. The first time Catherine and Quin encounter one another in Hyde Park, the meeting is marked by the mutual pain of loss. But as fortune continues to throw them together, their feelings quickly shift from grief to friendship, and then–to their mutual guilt–desire. When a meddling relative tries to wrestle control of Catherine’s finances, Quin is only too eager to help her outsmart her cousin and the crone of a chaperone he has assigned her. Unfortunately, collaborating will make it that much more difficult to keep the promises they made to themselves to honor the late Duke’s memory by staying out of one another’s arms.

This is the Brother’s Sinister read-alike I’ve been waiting for! It actually captured some of my favorite elements of both Brother’s Sinister and Bridgerton: the snarky, scholarly, Cambridge-centric friend group and the unconventional heroine from the former and the strong yet meddling female relatives and elderly eccentrics of the latter. Add hilarious banter and a few sexy moments in a library, and I was sold. I highly recommend this one to fans of Courtney Milan, Sherry Thomas, Joanna Lowell, and Julia Quinn.

AN ACCIDENTAL ODYSSEY by KC Dyer

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Gia has always had a fraught relationship with her Greek father, an emotionally distant professor and notorious philanderer. But when he has a mini-stroke, she’s at his hospital bedside immediately, even though it means blowing off the wedding cake tasting with her wealthy socialite fiance. And then when her father discharges himself from the hospital and runs off to Greece chasing down the archaeological trail of an historical Odysseus–without his medication–Gia surprises her fiance and herself by hopping a plane to chase after him.

Though her fiance was understanding about the cake tasting, he is decidedly less understanding about her unexpected trip. And following a big fight, Gia engages in something she’d never have believed herself capable of–a wild one-night-stand in the janitor’s closet of a Greek bar. When the next morning comes and she patches things up with her fiance, she starts to make plans to head back home and put the whole Greek misadventure behind her. That is, before she visits her father’s dig and discovers that her one-night-stand is in fact her father’s colleague, a young and extremely attractive archaeologist named Raj. Suddenly, Gia is unsure of everything–her relationship with her fiance, her relationship with her father, her career trajectory–and it seems like the only way to sort out her life is to continue on her accidental journey of self-discovery across the Mediterranean.

The second in a loosely-connected series, this novel sits on the border line of contemporary spicy romance and women’s fiction. To me, Gia’s own self-discovery takes the lead with the romance in step just behind, but the romance has a strong presence as well. The idyllic Mediterranean setting and travel theme was especially welcome in the midst of pandemic isolation; reading this book was like a mini-vacation in itself. This will be an excellent choice for book clubs with readers who enjoy either romance or women’s fiction (or both!), especially since the romance, though spicy, lacks explicit sex scenes if members of your book club can’t handle steam.

THE MIDNIGHT HOUR by Elly Griffiths

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Meg isn’t sure why the Detective Inspector brought her along to the crime scene. It may be the 1960s, but women police officers still don’t have many responsibilities. But when they arrive, she learns that the victim’s widow, an elderly actress and feminist, has refused to talk to the male police officers. She is also the primary suspect.

But as the case unfolds, Meg learns that there was a host of people who hated the late stage producer, including at least one of his sons. And she isn’t the only woman on the case. The accused actress has hired former police sergeant and newly-established PI Emma Holmes Stephens to clear her name. The police never collaborate with PIs, but as neither believe that the actress killed her husband, they find themselves on the same side as the DI and Emma’s husband, the superintendent of police, continue to suspect the widow. Unfortunately, as evidence begins to mount up to support the actress’s innocence, the finger points toward Emma’s friend and long-time collaborator, the magician Max Mephisto.

In this series continuation of Griffiths’ popular Brighton detectives, a friendly competition turns desperate as bodies begin to pile up. With a number of detectives on the case, sometimes withholding information from one another, the reader always has a more comprehensive picture of the murder than the detectives, giving us a fair chance to solve the mystery first. But misdirection and an abundance of clues and suspects make the solution tantalizing obscure. As with any series where a beloved character becomes a prime suspect, it is difficult if not impossible to take that possibility seriously. But there were enough other suspects to keep me engaged. I’d recommend this one to fans of police procedural mysteries and historical mysteries with feminist detectives.

DO I KNOW YOU? by Sarah Strohmeyer

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Jane is a rare individual with an almost superhuman ability to recognize people after only seeing them once. It’s an asset in her job for the Department of Homeland Security. Unfortunately, it hasn’t helped her achieve the one thing she cares about: unraveling the mystery of what happened to her sister.

But when she sees the girl who she last saw with her sister–now all grown up and on the arm of the wealthy young man her sister was dating at the time of her disappearance–Jane finally has her first clue to the case. Though the powerful family warns her away, Jane can’t help returning to her hometown in search of answers. Her boyfriend thinks she needs another trip to the psych ward and the wedding-of-the-century is taking place on the wealthy family’s estate, but Jane isn’t going to rest until she finds out what happened to her sister–or dies trying.

With numerous untrustworthy characters–including the protagonist–it’s difficult to figure out the culprit behind the sinister events of this thriller. Plot drives the story, although it is light on physical action. The mystery unfolds gradually through various points-of-view, and the character we’re allowed to get closest to (Jane) is also the most erratic and in many ways, least reliable even though we’re inside her head. The alliances and motivations are so complex, I may have to reread it to untangle them all. Overall, a good addition to an adult thriller collection and a great pick for readers who enjoy plot-driven thrillers that keep you guessing.

THOSE WHO LIE by Diane Jeffrey

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Emily doesn’t know why the police are next to her hospital bed. She doesn’t even know why she’s in a hospital bed. But as the memories start to come back, she finds the explanation for the pain in her head and the questions the constable is asking about her argument with her husband. The car accident. She was driving, and Greg is dead.

The suspicions of the police follow her home, along with the confusion from her memory loss. What were she and Greg arguing about when the car crashed? Is it possible she did it on purpose? The only memory that lingers is that they were talking about her abusive father, who died over a decade ago, for whose murder (or voluntary manslaughter) Emily has already served her time. But when Emily begins getting messages from a dead man, she begins to wonder if someone is stalking her–or if maybe she’s losing her mind–again…

This psychological thriller is a page-turner! I wouldn’t call it twisty, but the narrator’s constant withholding of information–and the protagonist’s possible mental illness–keep the suspense high throughout. The timeline jumps from present to past, but dates at the start of each chapter as well as a change in tense help you keep track as you read. I’d recommend this novel to fans of psychological thrillers.

DON’T HATE THE PLAYER by Alexis Nedd

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Emilia’s gaming is the one thing she’s actually good at. Well, actually she’s good at a lot of things, but gaming is the one thing that she’s good at that she actually likes. And that’s kind of why she keeps it a secret. Her field hockey coach mom pushes her in school sports and micromanages her college choices. Her best friend ropes Emilia into serving as VP in her student government campaign. But Emilia’s role as the best DPS player on her anonymous team–that knowledge is just for her.

Until a boy from her past shows up on a rival team at a gaming convention.

Emilia only met Jake a couple times as kids, bonding over gaming, but apparently he remembers her. And if she’s being honest, she remembers him, too. But he goes to her high school, and that’s a huge problem. Jake agrees to keep their friendship on the DL, but the attraction they felt as preteens still lingers. When their secret friendship starts getting tangled in politics and the high stakes gaming competition, will Emilia be willing to let Jake’s friendship go? Or will she finally find the courage to be true to her heart?

Although I think this contemporary YA rom-com will be most appealing to gamers, it has all the elements to make romance lovers swoon and comedy lovers laugh out loud. It sideswipes both the friends to lovers and enemies (or gaming rivals) to lovers tropes while keeping its roots as a character-driven, YA coming-of-age story of a girl who needs to be true to herself when everyone else is pulling her in different directions. A fun, light read for YA rom com fans!

Amazon.com: Don't Hate the Player: 9781547605026: Nedd, Alexis: Books

THE TELLER OF SECRETS by Bisi Adjapon

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Esi’s first experience with sex is the uncomfortable night she spent as a child in the same hotel bed with her father and his mistress. But when not long afterward, she is punished for being sexually assaulted, she figures out that the same rules do not apply to men and women. The disparity is further accentuated when her stepsisters experience brutal consequences for their own sexual choices. As Esi grows older, her sense of wrongness at this inequality grows with her, and she is determined to find a way to break out of the restrictions placed on her gender and take control of her own life.

With a powerful literary style, this novel explores heavy feminist topics through the historical context of 1960s Ghana. The voice, style, and thematic importance of the work set it in the same category as any of the great literature that might be studied in a college English department. This book is for the adult or mature teen reader who is looking for a book to savor and ponder.

AN HEIRESS’S GUIDE TO DECEPTION AND DESIRE by Manda Collins

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After the disastrous end of their betrothal, Caroline was very much looking forward to never seeing Lord Valentine again–and once he stopped working at the newspaper where she wrote her weekly crime column, she thought she might actually manage to avoid him. But when her dear friend Effie is kidnapped, Caro rushes to launch an investigation, only to learn that Effie’s betrothed is actually Val’s cousin. Val isn’t about to sit back while Caro does all the investigating–especially since he fears she might suspect his cousin of being involved in the abduction. Unfortunately, a bit of joint detective work throws them into a compromising position, and with danger mounting and a marriage of convenience on the horizon, Caro and Val may have to finally face their feelings for one another if they are going to survive.

This Victorian romance hits all the necessary notes for the historical romance genre while having a strong thread of mystery and suspense–plus a welcome does of feminism. Characters and events from the previous book feature more prominently in this book than is often the case in historical romance series, therefore I highly recommend reading A LADY’S GUIDE TO MISCHIEF AND MAYHEM first, in order to avoid becoming bogged down in (and confused by) the explication at the start. Although the romance elements are occasionally overpowered by the mystery plot, overall, I believe this book will satisfy most historical mystery readers, especially fans of Amanda Quick.