Banquet of Lies ~ Michelle Diener

  • Title: Banquet of Lies
  • Author: Michelle Diener
  • Genre: Historical
  • Format: Paperback
  • Source: Library
  • Reviewed by: Olga Godim
  • Rating: 4 out of 5

Description:  LONDON, 1812: Giselle Barrington is living a double life, juggling the duties of chef with those of spy catcher. She must identify her father’s savage killer before the shadowy man finds her and uncovers the explosive political document her father entrusted to her safekeeping.

Posing as a French cook in the home of Lord Aldridge, Giselle is surrounded by unlikely allies and vicious enemies. In the streets where she once walked freely among polite society, she now hides in plain sight, learning the hard lessons of class distinction and negotiating the delicate balance between servant and master.

Lord Aldridge’s insatiable curiosity about his mysterious new chef blurs the line between civic duty and outright desire. Carefully watching Giselle’s every move, he undertakes a mission to figure out who she really is—and, in the process, plunges her straight into the heart of danger when her only hope for survival is to remain invisible.

Review:  I loved this novel – the characters, the tightly woven plot, the tension thrumming in the air, and the fast pacing. A historical thriller, set in 1812, the book also includes a romantic element.

In the beginning of the story, twenty-one-year-old Gigi, the only daughter of a famous British folklorist, is at a society ball in Stockholm. She witnesses her father’s murder by a traitor and knows the killer would be after her next, hunting for an important political document. Fleeing for her life, she arrives in London – to hide and decide what to do. The rest of the story consists of the deadly cat-and-mouse game Gigi and the murderer play with each other. He wants to find her and the document to avoid exposure. She wants to protect the document and survive in the process.  

I like Gigi. A smart and proud girl, she is brave one moment, scared the next. Balancing between grief for her father, fear and loneliness, she has no kin to turn to. Unable to go home, where surely the villain would be waiting, she has to fend for herself in the unforgiving streets of London, and she still finds strength and determination in her heart to help others, less fortunate. Her compassion feels boundless, and her intellect and poise are formidable. An all-together admirable heroine, plucky and emotional, she is nonetheless vulnerable, and some of her decisions are surprisingly silly, leading to more complications in her already entangled predicament. In short – she is alive, the best compliment I could pay to a writer.

The other characters are less so, but the male protagonist, Lord Aldridge, is portrayed skillfully enough to satisfy even the harshest critics. Personally, I’m indifferent to him. I think male characters are not the author’s forte, while her female protagonists are always first class.

Of course there are problems in this novel too; that’s why 4 stars instead of 5 stars. One of the problems concerns the writing. It is terse, almost devoid of adjectives, which some readers might enjoy but I find a tad dry. It’s adequate to convey the non-stop action, but the descriptions suffer, minimized to rare and puny one-liners. For me, that’s a flaw; I like an occasional verbal arabesque or a lovely metaphor enlivening the narration, but that’s my personal opinion.  

Another problem – the romance line seems alien to the plot, tucked in to satisfy the marketing department. The story doesn’t need it and wouldn’t suffer if it was removed.

Other than these two minor hitches, the rest is almost perfect.  Once I started reading this book, I couldn’t put it down. This is the third novel by this writer I’ve read, and they’re getting progressively better. Everything she writes in the future would definitely be on my automatic to-read list.

Well done!

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Unveiled ~ Courtney Milan

  • Title: Unveiled
  • Author: Courtney Milan
  • Series: Turner #1
  • Genre: Historical Romance
  • Format: e-book
  • Source: Own copy
  • Reviewed by: Erica
  • Rating: 5 out of 5

Description:  Ash Turner has waited a lifetime to seek revenge on the man who ruined his family–and now the time for justice has arrived. At Parford Manor, he intends to take his place as the rightful heir to the dukedom and settle an old score with the current duke once and for all. But instead he finds himself drawn to a tempting beauty who has the power to undo all his dreams of vengeance….

Lady Margaret knows she should despise the man who’s stolen her fortune and her father’s legacy–the man she’s been ordered to spy on in the guise of a nurse. Yet the more she learns about the new duke, the less she can resist his smoldering appeal. Soon Margaret and Ash find themselves torn between old loyalties–and the tantalizing promise of passion….

Review: I really cannot fault Courtney Milan. In all her novels I have read so far she has consistently delivered an engaging read with believable characters, and stories with just that little extra twist to them that turns them into a breath of fresh air in the romance genre.

This novel had Mills & Boon plastered all over it (Harlequin for the US people). To me that normally means that you get an entertaining few hours which won’t blow you away, and which will give you a few moments of mild annoyance because the characters don’t talk to each other when they would clearly resolve all their differences by doing so. Once you finish reading it you stick it in the pile of books to give to your friends to read, or to a charity shop, because they’re not books to read more than once. When you consider that standard, this book stood head and shoulders above that.

The book has some of the standard romance tropes. Our hero, Ash Turner, takes one look at our heroine, Margaret Dalrymple, and decides that she will be his. Except then you find out that this is how Ash works. He has an instinct for things, a way of knowing that this is what he needs to do right now, because it will bring him profit. It has taken him from his impoverished origins to his current status as successful businessman. He is also a distant relative of the Duke of Parford, a man who once refused the help Ash required to save his sick sister, and ever since then Ash has sworn revenge on the callous man who condemned his sister to die.

This revenge is made easy by the fact that the Duke has married twice, and never bothered to have the first marriage annulled. Ash exposes this fact, thereby instantly demoting Parford’s three children to bastards. As the only remaining relative the Dukedom will revert to him, provided that Parliament does not decide to pass a bill to legitimise Parford’s children. One of those children, Parford’s daughter Margaret, has remained behind on the estate in the disguise of a servant so she can spy on Ash and discover incriminating evidence that will harm his case before the Lords.

It is an intriguing premise, and sets an intricate backdrop for the developing attraction between Ash and Margaret. Ash is a complicated man, driven by his instincts and a burning desire to give his two brothers the best possible life, even if his brothers don’t appear to be too bothered about it. He also loathes Parford and his sons, and never stops to think what bastardy will mean to young men who are used to the luxuries of nobility.

Margaret, in turn, is determined to hate the usurper, but finds herself unable to resist his relentless ability to be liked. She is also torn between loyalty to her brothers and her growing realisation that Ash would probably be a better Duke than her eldest brother will be. Not just that; Ash treats her like she matters, when from her father she gets nothing but contempt, and from her brothers little more than absentminded affection.

The motivations of these characters are utterly believable, and the resolution is nothing short of perfect. An absolute gem of a romance which will not disappoint.


A Study in Silks ~ Emma Jane Holloway

  • Title: A Study in Silks
  • Author: Emma Jane Holloway
  • Series: The Baskerville Affair #1
  • Genre: Steampunk, Fantasy, Paranormal Romance
  • Format: ebook
  • Source: Review copy
  • Reviewed by: DarthVal
  • Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Description:  Evelina Cooper, the niece of the great Sherlock Holmes, is poised to enjoy her first Season in London’s high society. But there’s a murderer to deal with—not to mention missing automatons, a sorcerer, and a talking mouse.

In a Victorian era ruled by a council of ruthless steam barons, mechanical power is the real monarch, and sorcery the demon enemy of the empire. Nevertheless, the most coveted weapon is magic that can run machines—something Evelina has secretly mastered. But rather than making her fortune, her special talents could mean death or an eternity as a guest of Her Majesty’s secret laboratories. What’s a polite young lady to do but mind her manners and pray she’s never found out?

But then there’s that murder. As Sherlock’s niece, Evelina should be able to find the answers, but she has a lot to learn. And the first decision she has to make is whether to trust the handsome, clever rake who makes her breath come faster, or the dashing trick rider who would dare anything for her if she would only just ask.

Review:  A Study in Silks kicks off a new lightly steampunk series, The Baskerville Affair. I say lightly steampunk, because although the world is powered by steam and clockwork creations abound, the world really does not feel all that different from traditional historical romance. Hmm, romance is not really the right word, either, maybe historical chick lit? Clearly, it is difficult to pin down exactly which category owns this book, and well, defining books by genre has very little practical use, so I’ll move right along.

One can definitely define this book as a mystery. The main character, Evelina Cooper, has an inquisitive mind and a touch of magic, neither of which help her blend into London society any better than her dubious heritage. She is a guest in the family home of her best friend, with whom she is preparing for her introduction to debut into society when a series of mysterious events begin to unfold. Being niece to the illustrious Sherlock Holmes, Evelina, of course, sets out to discover the truth and hopefully protect those close to her.

I have mixed feelings about the use of Sherlock Holmes within the books. Other than solidifying Evelina’s natural inclination toward solving mysteries, I am not sure that it really serves much purpose in progressing the plot of the story. It almost feels as if the author is trying to create the effect of the celebrity cameo, a device which I find trite. Perhaps Holloway intends to use this relation as a resource in future books. Only times will tell.

For a book that is not really a romance, the story relies heavily another over-used trope, the love triangle. Throughout the book, Evelina finds herself torn between her affections for her BFF’s brother and someone from her questionable past. Both characters are depicted as intelligent, dashing, and full-of-life. They are also both a bit full of themselves and prove themselves unworthy of Evelina by the end of the book. I truly hope that Ms. Holloway does not try to use them as potential romantic interests in future books. I feel that both kind suitors leave behind burnt bridges in regards to Evelina’s affections. I have to admit that I love this. It is refreshing to read a story where the female lead is not defined by finding her true and everlasting love by the end of the book. Well done, Ms. Holloway.

Going back to the mystery, it is pretty ambitious, if a little convoluted. I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt, considering this book is clearly also setting up deep intrigue for books to come. I appreciate that the author was unwilling to scrimp on the complexity of the story in favor of world building. I do so love a good enigmatic plot.

No matter how good the plot, it will remain unsatisfying without decent characters. Evelina is a character that I can like. She is smart, resourceful, and independent. I look forward to following her adventures as they unfold throughout the series. I also think there is more to her sidekick, er, I mean BFF.

My overall impression of the book was favorable. I am definitely interested to see where the author takes the series from here.

**Disclaimer: Reviewer was provided with a digital advance review copy of this book by the publisher via Net Galley.

Sometimes a Rogue ~ Mary Jo Putney

  • Title: Sometimes a Rogue
  • Author: Mary Jo Putney
  • Series: Lost Lords #5
  • Genre: Historical Romance
  • Format: ebook
  • Source: Review copy
  • Reviewed by: DarthVal
  • Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Description:  Sometimes…

Even the most proper young lady yearns for adventure. But when the very well bred Miss Sarah Clarke-Townsend impulsively takes the place of her pregnant twin, it puts her own life at risk. If the kidnappers after her sister discover they’ve abducted Sarah instead, she will surely pay with her life…

A Rogue…

Rob Carmichael survived his disastrous family by turning his back on his heritage and becoming a formidable Bow Street Runner with a talent for rescuing damsels in distress. But Sarah is one damsel who is equal to whatever comes. Whether racing across Ireland with her roguish rescuer or throwing herself into his arms, she challenges Rob at every turn.

Review:  Every now and then I find myself in what I call Pride and Prejudice mood, where I crave a book with some romantic longing. During these times, I seek out what I like to think of as smart historical romance, books written with enough humor and adventure to hold my interest while quenching my occasional thirst for romance. Ms. Putney’s Lost Lord series is one of my go-to sources to satisfy this craving. I do so love an underdog, therefore the concept of a group of young men who were societal outcasts held some appeal for me. I have also come to appreciate the adventure and light humor of this series. Sometimes a Rogue is the fifth book in the Lost Lords series.

Taken by force, Sarah Clarke-Townsend, the twin sister of the heroine from the first book in the series, struggles to find means of escape. Meanwhile, Bow Street Runner, Rob Carmichael is determined to rescue Sara and return her safely to her family. Of course, sparks fly but they know they cannot be together. She is a woman of quality and he is the disowned black sheep of the family who has neither title nor wealth to offer her. Or does he? Dum, dum, dum duuuummmmm! Not the least predictable plot ever written, yet there is plenty of room to add some adventure into this lovey dovey romp.

It sounds like the perfect prescription for my P&P condition. Alas, the execution is quite lackluster. This book portrays two characters who really like each other a lot, and eventually realize they love one another. Where is the tension and yearning? Sigh, maybe the adventure makes up for the lack of chemistry? Not so much. The adventure is fine, just not overly daring or action-packed. It gets sidetracked by family and personal issues that seem to be, well, anti-climactic.

I do want to clarify that I am not saying that this is a bad book. It just does not pack the same punch as the others within the series. It just feels like the author was phoning it in a bit. The result is a book that is just ok. I do not regret reading it. After all, Ms. Putney is not the first author to publish a book that fails to measure up to the rest of the series. I’ve experienced enough humor and adventure in the previous books, that I shan’t hold this one against her.

*Disclaimer: A free copy of this book was provided to me for review by the publisher through the Net Galley program.

In a Treacherous Court ~ Michelle Diener

  • Title: In a Treacherous Court
  • Author: Michelle Diener
  • Series: Susanna Horenbout and John Parker #1
  • Genre: Historical romance
  • Format: Paperback
  • Source: Library
  • Reviewed by: Olga
  • Rating: 3 out of 5

Description:  An unconventional woman. A deadly enemy. A clash of intrigue, deception, and desire. In 1525, artist Susanna Horenbout is sent from Belgium to be Henry VIII’s personal illuminator inside the royal palace. But her new homeland greets her with an attempt on her life, and the King’s most lethal courtier, John Parker, is charged with keeping her safe. As further attacks are made, Susanna and Parker realize that she unknowingly carries the key to a bloody plot against the throne. For while Richard de la Pole amasses troops in France for a Yorkist invasion, a traitor prepares to trample the kingdom from within.

Who is the mastermind? Why are men vying to kill the woman Parker protects with his life? With a motley gang of urchins, Susanna’s wits, and Parker’s fierce instincts, honed on the streets and in palace chambers, the two slash through deadly layers of deceit in a race against time. For in the court of Henry VIII, secrets are the last to die.

Brilliantly revealing a little-known historical figure who lived among the Tudors, Michelle Diener makes a smashing historical fiction debut.

Review: 

The reviews for this book are divided between 5 stars and 1 star, and so is my opinion. I don’t think it’s a bad novel, but it’s not outstanding either. The story is a historical romantic adventure in the court of young Henry VIII, and the setting alone provides conflict aplenty. It seems that everyone betrays everyone else in that court, so the title is apt. Into that pit of treachery fate throws a young artist Susanna, who arrives from the Netherlands to become the king’s illuminator. Enmeshed in a deadly intrigue she doesn’t understand, with a regicidal plot afoot, she is a helpless pawn, alone in the foreign land. From the moment she steps off the ship, everyone is trying to kill her; and her only ally and protector is John Parker, one of the king’s new men, rich, dangerous and loyal. It’s almost inevitable that these two lonely souls are drawn to each other.  

Good stuff

The book was an absorbing and easy read. The writing flowed, and there were no grammatical or spelling mistakes and no prolonged, boring descriptions either, just action exploding from the first page forward. 

The plot moved very fast, and the tension climbed high. Susanna and Parker barely have time to extricate themselves from one imbroglio, when another one rolls upon them, with almost no respite. The bad guys seem to have an unending supply of minions, disposable and faceless like puppets and just as interchangeable. To defeat the villains, Parker needs not only his formidable swashbuckling skills but his intellect as well.

I was not much impressed with the male protagonist, Parker. He is rather shallow – the king’s wolf, honest and ruthless but somewhat boorish – and his depth, if there is one, is well hidden. But I loved Susanna, the female lead of the story. The choice of a woman artist was interesting on the writer’s part, especially in the 16th century, when a mere female couldn’t be, as a rule, an independent artisan.

Occasionally, Susanna is so caught up in her painting she loses all tracks of time and surroundings. She is depicted as a talented artist and a strong personality, not a helpless maiden, and her courage is amazing. By insisting on being an artist, she defies tradition. Most courtiers (most people, actually) didn’t believe a woman could be a successful artist, neither in real life nor in this book, so Susanna has to constantly battle disdain and disbelief. Her contemplations on the subject and her frustration at not being universally accepted as an artist punctuate the narrative, but although I share the sentiments, I don’t think Susanna’s views are historically correct. The feminist movement didn’t develop until the late 19th century after all.

Bad stuff

The extended epigraphs for every chapter were unnecessary, and their strange, old-fashioned wording made them stand out from the text, like a spattering of junk that should be swept out to clean up the novel. Besides, they were all too long. I didn’t read them beyond the first one. A famous writer (I think it was Elmore Leonard) once said that a writer should leave out the parts the readers tend to skip. These epigraphs qualify.

The ending let me down too. Throughout the novel, the heroes struggle. They win one encounter after another, but the final relief, the climax, is brought on not by their actions but by a death of someone who never appeared in the story in person. Like a wave of a magic wand: puff, and everyone is happy. I’m simplifying, of course, but not by much. I hate deus ex machina. In my opinion, such endings denote a lazy writer. The heroes should succeed on their own, otherwise their victory is hollow, and all their scrambling and pathos are for naught.     

The romantic line was also vexing, too abrupt and not altogether believable. The heroes first meet under critical conditions and immediately fall under attack. On almost every page, definitely in every chapter, arrows fly, and knives flash, but the protagonists still find the time to couple – a quickie, so to speak.  No gradual building of a relationship, no getting-to-know each other. Just a flare of lust from the first moment, and then suddenly it is love.  

Another objection of mine: the novel is supposed to be historical, but the epoch of Henry VIII is not really reflected in the story, nether does the mandated geographic locale, London, except for some street names and such. Everything that happened could’ve happened the same way in any fantasy or medieval setting. The timing of the action is just a writing on the wall – 1525 – a gauze-thin backdrop, painted with a few rough brushstrokes. 

Despite the flaws mentioned above, I enjoyed this light romp of an adventure. I might read the next story of Susanna and Parker. One day, maybe, if the mood strikes.


My Lady Quicksilver ~ Bec McMaster

  • Title: My Lady Quicksilver
  • Author: Bec McMaster
  • Series: London Steampunk #3
  • Genre: Steampunk, Fantasy, Paranormal
  • Format: ebook
  • Source: Review copy
  • Reviewed by: DarthVal
  • Rating: 4 out of 5

Description:  Determined to destroy the Echelon she despises, Rosalind Fairchild is on seemingly easy mission. Get in. Uncover the secrets of her brother’s disappearance. And get out.

In order to infiltrate the Nighthawks and find their leader, Sir Jasper Lynch, Rosalind will pose as their secretary. But she doesn’t count on Lynch being such a dangerously charismatic man, challenging her at every turn, forcing her to re-evaluate everything she knows about the enemy.

He could be her most dangerous nemesis—or the ally she never dreamed existed.

Review:  I have followed the London Steampunk series from the beginning, so I was thrilled to receive an ARC of My Lady Quicksilver from the publisher through Net Galley. I am a lucky girl to get my hands on it prior to its October release. My Lady Quicksilver takes the reader back into Bec McMaster’s dashing steampunk world full of plots, intrigue, and things that go bump in the night. In this book, the author broadens the circle of characters, focusing the plot outside of the inner circle of Blade, the Lord of underworld.

We’ve met our hero, Sir Jasper Lynch, a rogue blueblood and head of the Nighthawks, in passing in previous books. This time Lynch has been placed front and center as he must either capture the humanist terrorist that plagues London or forfeit his life. However, he finds himself not only distracted by Rosa, an assistant who is clearly more than she seems, but also by nagging doubts about justice within his dark world.

McMaster created a formula that was bound to be explosive. Both Rosa and Lynch are characters that cultivate a controlled, cold, and calculated demeanor that has kept them isolated. Yet both of them are both passionate and idealistic at their core, no matter how much they try to hide it from themselves. Pitting them against one another created so much grey area that it was tough to determine a “right” side.

While the stories are steeped with adventure, the London Steampunk series falls firmly into the paranormal genre. The sexual tension in this book is smoking hot. I have noted that McMaster is very adept at creating chemistry and writing sexy times, thankfully. If I am going to read a romantic plot, I want it to be well-written rather than ridiculous.

The action and mystery in this book is very well-crafted. In fact, in My Lady Quicksilver McMaster actually deepens the political intrigue within her world, which makes me do the happy dance. I am sure future books will still fall into PNR category, but it is the adventure the keeps me coming back.

It helps that the book cover is very eye-catching. The artist has used just enough color to create a feeling of vibrancy within a dark world. Rosa is depicted as sensually dangerous, while Lynch seems a bit aloof (odd, that, until you recognize it is fitting). The overall impression is one of adventure and romance that is well suited to the story contained within.

This was a quick and enjoyable read that is not overly deep, making it well suited as a bubble bath or vacay read. I consider this series a must-read for the paranormal romance crowd. Urban fantasy readers, especially those who like it dark (like me!), save this one for time when you want to lighten it up bit.

*Disclaimer: A free copy of this book was provided to me for review by the publisher through the NetGalley program.