Never Trust a Pirate (Playful Brides #7) by Valerie Bowman

This seventh entry in Valerie Bowman’s “Playful Brides” series is supposedly based on The Scarlet Pimpernel. The hero is Cade Cavendish, twin of Rafe Cavendish from Book 4, The Irresistible Rogue, previously reviewed here.

Never Trust a Pirate front cover (St. Martin’s Paperbacks)

THE PLOT: Cade has always been the black sheep of the family. For a while, his twin believed he was dead. Now Cade is back in London, staying with Rafe and his wife, Daphne, and involved in some scheme. Rafe is afraid that his brother is up to no good, but is he really?

Danielle LaCrosse is half-English, half-French, and all out for revenge. As a spy, she’s perfectly placed as Daphne’s maid in the Cavendish household. She catches Cade’s attention, though, and sparks fly. There’s danger for everyone along with some twin mix-ups. And who really is the mysterious Black Fox?

TWO CENTS: I really enjoyed the first “Playful Brides” books, and I think my favorite entries in the series are the ones that play more heavily off their source material. I didn’t like Book 6 as much as much, and its connection to Pygmalion was really thin. I’m not terribly fond of this new book, either, and I feel like its basis in The Scarlet Pimpernel is limited to having a mysterious character with a color for a name. It doesn’t help that Pimpernel is one of my favorite stories, so I was really excited about this book, and feel pretty let down by its lack of similarity to Pimpernel. Not that I expect these books to be the same as their sources, but look at my favorite in the series, Book 3, The Unlikely Lady (previously reviewed here). There were just enough elements of Much Ado About Nothing to make the connection clear. If the ad copy hadn’t said Never Trust a Pirate was based on Pimpernel, I’d never know it.

For me, the biggest problem with this book isn’t necessarily with the couple, but with the very light treatment of them as spies. If you’re used to reading, say, Joanna Bourne’s “Spymaster” series, you’ll be a little underwhelmed by the technique and seriousness of these spies. If Joanna Bourne is too dark for you, and you’re more interested in lighter romance, you may really enjoy this book.

Despite its lightness, part of me felt that I never quite caught up with what was happening in this story, and I think it’s because the waters are deliberately muddied so the reader doesn’t really understand what’s going on. I get that there’s supposed to be a big surprise reveal, and you’re not really supposed to know who is sharking who until the last minute, but that part just didn’t build for me. Also, I feel like the huge reveal was built on a cheat, so at the end I was all like, “Wait a minute…but didn’t it say…” I get it, the author wanted the reader to be surprised. But I was just mostly confused. Maybe it’s just me?

COVER NOTES: The cover in and of itself is very attractive. Its look is similar to the new tone set by Book 6, The Legendary Lord. One color scheme, couple in an embrace. The deep blue is very pleasing. However, I AM going to call the publisher, St. Martin’s, out on one thing: this book essentially shares a cover with two other books! If you want to see what I mean, check out the covers for Amelia Grey’s Last Night with the Duke and Kerrigan Byrne’s forthcoming The Scot Beds His Wife. All three have the same blue shade, the same font for author name, the same font for book title, clinch couples, and even similar backgrounds on Pirate and Scot. Back in the day, I knew of people who didn’t necessarily recognize authors or book titles; they just picked up romances based on their covers. If these sort of customers still exist, I can see them passing over two of the other books after buying one, believing they’re all the same book. This would just seem to be a business mistake. Make these books stand out from one another!

BOTTOM LINE: Again, I would not recommend this as an intro to Valerie Bowman, or to the “Playful Brides” series. Yes, it can stand on its own as a story, but a lot of the earlier entries are much stronger, in my opinion. Read it if you’re already in the series, but otherwise, start with Book 1.

TEACUP RATING: Three out of five teacups.

ON SALE DATE: Available May 2, 2017, in paperback and eformats.

NEXT UP IN THE SERIES: Book 8, The Right Kind of Rogue, will release October 31, 2017, and feature Hart and Meg, who we met in The Legendary Lord, and will be based (somewhat?) on Romeo and Juliet. It’s a romance, so I very much doubt the couple will die.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Murder in a Cornish Alehouse (Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries #3) by Kathy Lynn Emmerson

The third book in this Elizabethan-era mystery series fills in some history for our main character, Rosamond Jaffrey. (Books 1 and 2 in the series, Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe and Murder in the Merchant’s Hall, were previously reviewed here and here.)

Murder in a Cornish Alehouse front cover (Severn House)

THE PLOT: Rosamund and her husband Rob are finally enjoying some happy marital time when Rosamund gets word that her stepfather has died. Although she had never reconciled with her mother or stepfather after eloping with Rob, Rosamund sets off for Cornwall to pay her respects. Her mother, who is both wacky and wildly unpleasant, claims that her husband was actually murdered, not just killed in a horseback-riding accident.

Rosamund doesn’t believe it at first, but a few of Walsingham’s agents are flitting around, and pirates are mentioned. Then a second murder takes place, and Rosamund is on the case. Is piracy the problem, or are pirates actually working for the Crown? Is there a Catholic uprising in the works? And why do Rosamund and Rob keep getting pulled back into Walsingham’s spy network despite a desperate desire to get out?

MY TWO CENTS: I have to admit, I don’t think I’d recommend this book as a stand-alone read. Although the mystery part is only covered in this book, you just get a lot more out of it if you’ve read the other books. You probably get even more if you’ve read the “Face Down” mysteries featuring Rosamund’s stepmother, but I still haven’t gotten around to those. (I DID, however, find the short story in which Rosamund and Rob eloped. It’s called “Any Means Short of Murder” and can be found free on Kathy Lynn Emerson’s website, or this handy link here.) 

I was a little confused by all the characters, which makes it difficult to try to figure out who the murderer is. I don’t know why I had a hard time in this book; I haven’t had difficulty following the other two mysteries. But every time I picked it back up, I had to think, “Now wait, WHO is this guy again?” I also felt that the ending was rushed. Suddenly, it was just over with very little wrap-up. Maybe it will lead directly into Book 4?

Although I enjoyed it, I didn’t enjoy it as much as the first two books. I tend to think this is more of a “middle story” and a stepping stone to the next adventure. I wonder if we’ll see some of these characters in expanded roles later (I don’t want to elaborate, because…murder mystery.)

COVER NOTES: This cover is totally different from the headless woman covers of the first two books. I usually hate it when series covers go a completely different direction midstream, but I really like the Cornish alehouse! Maybe the headless woman covers tended to make readers think these books were more romantic historical fiction, so this is an attempt to break that perception.

BOTTOM LINE: A must-read if you’re following the series as Rosamund and Rob are continuing to develop. But I wouldn’t recommend reading it before the other two in the series, or as a stand-alone. Start with Book 1, Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe

TEACUP RATING: Three-and-a-half out of five teacups.

ON SALE DATE: Available now in hardcover and eformats.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Hunted by Meagan Spooner

I have not yet read Meagan Spooner’s “Skylark” series, but I have read her “Starbound” series with Amie Kaufman and loved it. I’m always up for a fairy-tale retelling, especially a Beauty and the Beast retelling. And with the live-action movie about to release, B&B mania is on!

Hunted front cover (HarperTeen)

Hunted front cover (HarperTeen)

THE PLOT: Yeva is the daughter of a merchant in a Russian village. When her father loses everything, he moves Yeva and her sisters back to his hunting lodge in the forest. Then he loses his mind hunting a fantastic Beast of some sort and Yeva sets out to find him. Unfortunately she finds that her father has been killed by the Beast, who then captures Yeva.

The Beast is under a curse and needs a skilled hunter to break it. He thought Yeva’s father might be that person, but realizes it might be Yeva herself. The Beast thinks that if Yeva believes he killed her father, she’ll be motivated to hone her hunting skills by her desire for revenge against the Beast.

An unlikely friendship grows up between them, but Yeva still can’t forgive the Beast for her father’s death. She may find, though, that killing the Beast just leads to another level of the puzzle.

MY TWO CENTS: This is a fairly complete retelling of the original Beauty and the Beast tale with some additions and twists. The similarities: Yeva’s father’s ruin ultimately leads to her relationship with the Beast. Yeva has two sisters, although they are not presented as selfish compared to Yeva’s goodness. When Yeva leaves the Beast, she is delayed in her return by her family, and ultimately is spurred to return when she dreams of him.

There are differences, too. The story, set in Russia, is very grounded in Russian fairy tales. The tale of the wolf, and then the firebird, add dimension to the story.

The story is told primarily third person from Yeva’s POV. Every chapter starts with a short first-person intro from the Beast, but everything else is Yeva.

Really, all the characters are very likable: Yeva, her family, her pets, her sister’s suitor, and her own suitor. None have evil intentions or act out of selfishness (some almost muddle things up out of unselfishness!) The Beast is interesting…is he good? evil? both?

COVER NOTES: You don’t see Yeva’s face; instead, the emphasis is on her as the hunter. The green and gold are very eye-catching. The arrow in the title is a nice touch. I’d pick this up at the bookstore.

BOTTOM LINE: I enjoyed this fairy tale retelling, which will also appeal to fans of Katniss.

TEACUP RATING: Four out of five teacups.

ON SALE DATE: Available March 14, 2017, in hardcover and eformats.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

 

The Duke (Victorian Rebels #4) by Kerrigan Byrne

Kerrigan Byrne’s fourth Victorian romance is my favorite so far (yes, even more so than The Highwayman, reviewed here).

The Duke front cover (St. Martin's Paperbacks)

The Duke front cover (St. Martin’s Paperbacks)

THE PLOT: By day, Imogen Pritchard is a nurse struggling to support her mother and younger sister. By night, she becomes Ginny, a barmaid working to pay off her dead father’s gambling debts. Imogen refuses to prostitute herself like the other barmaids until the night a young duke stops in the tavern on the way to his family’s estate. Cole Talmage, a younger son, never wanted to be the duke, but now he’s all that’s left of his family. When the duke shows interest in Ginny, her boss insists she spend the night with him (convincing her by threatening her young sister). Their subsequent encounter leaves a lasting effect on both of them.

Fast forward to three years later. Cole and Imogen have had one additional encounter when Cole, a spy, was brought home from enemy territory with one hand cut off. Imogen was his nurse at the hospital, but between “Ginny’s” wig and makeup and his own fevered delirium, he didn’t recognize her. Now, though, Cole is obsessed with finding Ginny while crossing verbal swords with his neighbor, a widowed countess. The countess (also Imogen) is running a social rehabilitation program out of her mansion that sets Cole’s teeth on edge. He can’t convince the exasperatingly independent woman how dangerous her plans are…until it becomes apparent that a serial killer’s attacks have all revolved around her.

MY TWO CENTS: My summary may sound pretty convoluted, but the twists and turns are what made this book so very enjoyable to me. Plus I love that dramatic irony…the reader knows the whole time exactly where “Ginny” is, and Cole turns himself inside out trying to find her, all the while falling in love with her alter ego.  Whom he dislikes intensely. But doesn’t really.

I really rooted for Imogen. You’ve got to hand it to her; she gets out of one scrape after another. Sometimes it’s through her own intelligence and willpower, and sometimes it’s because she’s shown kindness to people who then help her when she needs it.

My only real disappointment with this book is that I figured out almost immediately who the killer was. I would have rather have been shocked at the end, but then, there are some characters who I think deserve their own books and therefore couldn’t serve as the killer. (That’s all I’m going to say to avoid spoilers.)

All of the couples from the previous three books play strong supporting roles. We also get a bit more on Morely, whose book is coming next (see below).

COVER NOTES: Very nice color scheme, otherwise matching up fairly well with the other books in this series. I like how the pose completely hides his left hand, making sure there’s no inconsistency with the story.

BOTTOM LINE: I really enjoyed this story-driven romance. It was my favorite of all the “Victorian Rebels” so far. (But I have high hopes for Morely!)

TEACUP RATING: Four-and-a-half out of five teacups.

ON SALE DATE: Available now in paperback and eformats.

NEXT UP IN SERIES (UPDATE/CORRECTION):  The next book, releasing in October, will be The Scot Beds His Wife, about Gavin St. James from The Highlander. Hopefully we will see Inspector Morley’s book, The Rogue Takes a Wife, after that.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

How many Labyrinth fans are out there? Come on, you know you love it. David Bowie singing and dancing with Muppets? A teenage future Oscar-winning actress? What’s not to love???

How many Labyrinth fans also love Phantom of the Opera? or L.J. Smith’s “Forbidden Game” trilogy? If you just bounced up and down in your chair, then put Wintersong on your “to read” list because you’re going to want to check it out.

Wintersong front cover (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Press)

Wintersong front cover (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Griffin)

THE PLOT: In early 1800s Germany, plain Elisabeth (Liesl) Vogler is the oldest of three children. Her sister, Käthe, is gorgeous and has become betrothed to Liesl’s childhood friend and crush. Liesl’s little brother Josef has been groomed by their father as a musical genius, even though it’s Liesl who composes the music he plays so beautifully. Liesl is stuck helping run the family inn while her siblings go on to everything Liesl wants for herself. She used to believe in magic, and often composed music in the Goblin Grove near their home, but now she believes she’s outgrown these tales. Her father has convinced her that a girl simply cannot be talented.

When Käthe is taken by Der Erlkönig, the Goblin King, Liesl fights her way to the Underground to get her sister back. But is it Käthe the Goblin King even wants? What bargain will Liesl strike to save Käthe? Liesl will learn some difficult truths about herself, familial love, and romantic love while she fights for her life. And what will the Goblin King sacrifice to get what he wants most?

MY TWO CENTS: This is a difficult book to review, because I could just say “I loved it!” and leave it at that, but it deserves a bit more scrutiny. First, the author cleverly plays off readers’ possible exposure to the setting of Labyrinth while also painting a vivid picture of the Underground. It’s very lushly written; very descriptive, which I enjoy, but maybe not everyone would.

Also, it’s a very “adult” written book. I don’t mean to say it’s sexually descriptive; it’s not. What I mean is that nothing is black and white. It’s not a fairy tale with a cut-and-dried “they loved each other and all lived happily ever after” ending. Real life and real love is full of difficult choices. You seldom get something valuable without giving up something else. Some younger readers, with their limited life experience, may not “get” everything this book is saying, all the layers and nuances—and, therefore, may not love it. A naive reader might ask, “But if two people really love each other, shouldn’t they be able to work it out?” while more jaded readers will appreciate the difficulties the characters face.

While I’ve mentioned Labyrinth a few times (and anyone would make that connection with the Goblin King), does the book really rely on the movie? No, but there are enough allusions that if you wanted to mentally go there, you could. For example, the Goblin King is described as having different colored eyes, a la David Bowie. He’s described as both a young man and an older yet ageless counterpart. Liesl’s goblin attendants would certainly make fantastic Muppets. Reading about the Underground and the Goblin City might bring certain images to mind.

Anyone who’s read the “Forbidden Game” books will also see a resemblance to Julian (not that there aren’t plenty of Jareth/Julian crossover stories to begin with). Just setting it in the German forest and using the term Der Erlkönig will resonate with anyone familiar with Volume 1, The Hunter. As will some of the Goblin King’s actions. How much does he love? How can he show it?

Finally, there are similarities to The Phantom of the Opera. The Goblin King is drawn to Liesl because of her music, and he’s a powerful yet unloved, unlovable figure living underground. He knows the only way he could make her stay with him is to take someone she loves and make a trade. But Liesl’s choices mid-book will surprise even him. Then there’s that gradual change from monster to someone who learns to love.

Will this book have a sequel? I don’t know. I would certainly welcome a sequel, and I think there’s more story to tell here. It could also stand alone as written.

COVER NOTES: What a beautiful cover! No girl in a floofy dress; just an image that brings to mind Labyrinth (snowglobe), Phantom (rose), and Beauty and the Beast (rose again). The color scheme is fairly stark and wintry.

BOTTOM LINE: I crazy-loved this book. I will buy it in hardcover to keep on my shelf and re-read at the earliest possible opportunity. Whatever this author writes next, I’ll be there to gobble it up.

TEACUP RATING: Five plus out of five teacups.

ON SALE DATE: Available February 7, 2016, in hardcover and eformats.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Beheld (Kendra Chronicles #4) by Alex Flinn

I absolutely loved, loved, loved the last Kendra book, Mirrored (reviewed here). This one is written more of the style of Bewitched with multiple story arcs based on different fairy tales. How did it stack up?

Beheld front cover (HarperTeen)

Beheld front cover (HarperTeen)

THE PLOT: The overarching plot is that Kendra met her true love, James, a wizard, back during the Salem witch trials. James helped save Kendra, but the two were separated. Even though they vowed to wait for each other, centuries go by as they occasionally re-connect only to separate again.

Other than that, the plot is broken into four stories:

1. Little Red Riding Hood/Salem Witch Trials/ Ann Putnam. Lonely Ann is befriended by a talking wolf, and when Kendra spots the two of them together, Ann accuses Kendra of witchcraft before Kendra can accuse her.

2. Rumplestiltskin/ Bavaria, 1812/Cornelia. Cornelia meets handsome Karl at Kendra’s bookstall. Kendra’s assistant is also interested in Cornelia, and probably a much better match, but Cornelia is swept away by the romantic Karl. When Cornelia finds out the truth about Karl and realizes she’s in very big trouble, it’s Kendra’s magic and assistant to the rescue.

3. Cupid and Psyche/London, WWII/Grace (Okay, the ad copy says this is based on the fairy tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon, but I had never heard of that and recognized it as the myth of Cupid and Psyche). When Grace’s brother is reported missing in action, Kendra offers to help find him if Grace will marry cursed Phillip. Of course, Grace cannot see Phillip’s face, and can’t look at him even after they’re married. Grace takes the bargain but is ultimately goaded into breaking her word by her jealous sisters. Now she’s on a quest to get her husband back.

4. The Ugly Duckling/Modern-day Miami/Christopher. Chris and Amanda were best friends throughout childhood, both outcasts of sorts…Amanda an athletic tomboy whose mother was in jail, and Chris a weakling with an absentee father. But will their friendship survive when Kendra’s magic makes Chris a high-school swan?

MY TWO CENTS: It’s a little difficult to compare a book with multiple story arcs to a book like Mirrored, which really only had one story, or two halves of one story. On the whole, I don’t feel like we got a lot more development of Kendra herself in this book, while I enjoyed each of the four sub-stories to varying degrees. I definitely liked the middle two stories better than the first and last. The first story I felt was a bit confusing and maybe unfinished; I half-expected Ann Putnam or her wolf to show up again in one of the later stories. My least favorite was the last, most modern story. I feel like Kendra was all but unnecessary in this story, and the childhood/teenage angst of Chris and Amanda was drawn out way too long. Plus, it didn’t help that Chris became a jerk.

The middle two stories were delightful, though. I think the Rumpelstiltskin story was probably my favorite, although the WWII story about Grace was also intriguing. The heroines of both stories act foolishly and bring at least part of their troubles on themselves, as is the way of good fairy tales. Cornelia is blinded with the idea of romance and can’t see Karl’s true nature, nor that of the one who really does care about her. Grace is perfectly happy in her arrangement until she lets her sisters goad her into breaking the rules. Thankfully, both of them are able to learn from their mistakes.

COVER NOTES: While this cover matches the style of the other Kendra books, it’s a little dark and murky for my taste. I like the elements of the mirror, straw, and crow; it’s just the colors I don’t like. I like that the title font matches that of the other books (I like when series books look they belong together).

BOTTOM LINE: I didn’t love it the way I did Mirrored, but definitely still a must-read for any Alex Flinn/Kendra fans.

TEACUP RATING: Three-and-a-half to four out of five teacups.

ON SALE DATE: Available now in hardcover and eformats.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

 

The Innkeeper of Ivy Hill (Tales from Ivy Hill #1) by Julie Klassen

I’m so glad that author Julie Klassen mentions the series Cranford in her author’s note, because that’s exactly the feel I was getting out of her new novel. The Innkeeper of Ivy Hill, set in a quaint little English village, is the first in a series!

The Innkeeper of Ivy Hill front cover

The Innkeeper of Ivy Hill front cover (Bethany House)

THE PLOT: Jane Bell is a young widow who inherited the Bell Inn after her husband’s death a year ago. Between mourning John’s accident and her pre-marriage existence as a gentlewoman, Jane hasn’t really given the Bell the attention it deserves, and now she’s in trouble.

The bank informs her that her husband had taken a 15,000-pound loan for improvements to the inn, and nothing has been repaid. Jane had never heard of the loan, has no idea where the money went, and now has three months to convince the bank that the inn, which has been losing business, can become profitable again.

Jane’s mother-in-law, Thora, isn’t sure that Jane is up to the task. As the previous owner of the inn, Thora is not exactly open to change, and she has serious doubts about Jane’s usefulness. Jane’s sly brother-in-law, Patrick, has returned to the inn and offers to take it off her hands; the bank will be more tolerant with a man at the helm. But is Patrick really trying to help? Or does he have his own agenda?

With an attractive new competitor down the road, Jane is going to need help from many village residents, both old friends and new, to keep the inn. Her friends and family will also make discoveries about themselves.

MY TWO CENTS: I realized as I was writing the plot summary that, for brevity’s sake, I was focusing mostly on Jane. This is truly an ensemble cast. Thora gets almost as much time and attention as Jane, and her character is very developed. It would have been easy to make her the crabby, disapproving mother-in-law, but there’s much more to Thora than that. Also, it’s lovely to see a book where a woman in her 50s can change, grow, AND have multiple suitors!

Jane’s friends are also introduced: Mercy, who runs a school with her aunt, and Rachel, who fell out with Jane over a man. The man in question, Sir Timothy, has never married and may still be a suitor for Rachel or Jane. In the meantime, he’s a good friend to both women. Walter Talbot used to work at the inn, but left after his brother died to take care of the family farm. Gabriel Locke, the farrier, does everything he can to help Jane, yet seems to have a mysterious connection to her late husband. Colin McFarland has taken a job at the inn to help his family, despite bad blood between his father and Thora.

Minor characters, including inn employees and various other townspeople, may have smaller roles but don’t seem less developed. Just a few lines of dialogue or a few descriptors paints a picture of these secondary characters and you feel like you know them. Ms. Klassen really makes the little village come to life, and you enjoy the time you’re spending there. I’m excited to see the roles they’ll continue to play as the series goes on.

COVER NOTES: This cover is a little different from Ms. Klassen’s usual covers, but it’s completely appropriate and beautiful. More than the individual, you get a little piece of the village itself. Very nice.

BOTTOM LINE: I loved this book and the setup of the cast of characters. Enjoyed it immensely, will re-read, and will look forward eagerly to the rest of the series.

TEACUP RATING: Five out of five teacups.

ON SALE DATE: Available December 6, 2016, in paperback, hardcover, and eformats.

NEXT UP IN THE SERIES: The Ladies of Ivy Cottage. If you want a spoiler-free description, check out the author’s series page at talesfromivyhill.com. The description is under the Books tab.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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