Thursday, July 25, 2019

The Spice King

The Spice King (Hope and Glory #1)
By Elizabeth Camden
Published by Bethany House
Release Date: September 3, 2019

Annabelle Larkin needs to somehow turn her temporary position at the Smithsonian into a full-time position, so when she's assigned to contact Gray Delacroix, a successful businessman whose spice empire and the plant collection that supports it are legendary, to try to gain access to his plants, she pursues the assignment wholeheartedly.
Gray has no intention of letting the Smithsonian anywhere near his plants--but Annabelle turns out to be a different story. He's quickly enamored by her and beings courting her. Little does he know how letting her into his life will change everything--but not in the ways he anticipated.
Annabelle cares for Gray, but she's also a loyal American, and when she's approached by government officials who insist they need her help to keep her country safe, rooting out spies who could hurt their country in the delicate situation following the Spanish-American war, she can't say no--even if it means ruining her chance for love to do so.

This was a really unique piece of historical fiction. It was really interesting to see Gray's business pursuits and the development of spices that we take for granted in our day, particularly alongside the government aspect, with the Smithsonian wanting information and the Department of Agriculture wanting to start regulating the growing business. Saying a book talks about the beginning of the fight for food safety and ingredient labels, that might not make it sound very appealing, but it was really fascinating, which I think shows Camden's talent for taking a unique part of history and making it engaging so that readers find themselves totally caught up in something that they didn't think they'd ever find that interesting. (I expected the "spice" aspect of the book to be the thing I liked least, but I really enjoyed it!) The political setting, with the brief look at the aftermath of the Spanish-American war, was also something Camden made me want to know more about. The plot was good, with suspense and action and family dynamics, and moved along well. I definitely want to read the next book in the series to see how things play out for certain characters.

What didn't work quite as well for me was the romance, particularly on Annabelle's side. I just didn't see her feelings being developed enough. Gray's feelings were shown more than hers were, but I just didn't ever get a good sense of chemistry between them. They worked well on projects--sometimes because they antagonized each other!--but I would have liked a stronger romantic feel.
The other thing that fell a little short for me was the Christian aspect. There was very little that came through about Christian beliefs (and the biggest part of that was very close to the end of the book), to the point that I actually double-checked to make sure this really was being put out by Bethany House.
So, with that said, if you're mainly interested in historical fiction, this an excellent choice. If you're looking for a great romance or a book with overt Christianity, this might not be the best choice. For me, it's interesting enough that I'll give it 3.5 stars and I want to continue with the series.

I read an ARC provided by the publisher via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Lady and the Highwayman

The Lady and the Highwayman
By Sarah M. Eden
Published by Shadow Mountain
Release date: September 3, 2019

As the headmistress of a girls' school, Elizabeth Black needs to be all this is prim and proper in order to maintain support for her school. Her job as a "silver-fork" author, writing for the upper classes in Victorian society--is acceptable. Her secret career as the author Penny Dreadfuls--cheap, sensational stories--is not and must remain a secret or it will threaten everything she has worked for.
When Fletcher Walker, another successful Penny Dreadful author, starts sniffing around, trying to find out who the mysterious author "Mr. King" is, Elizabeth figures "helping" him with his search will enable her to guarantee he never finds out that she is Mr. King. She quickly becomes interested in more than just keeping her secret, however; rumor has it that Fletcher belongs to a secret group of penny dreadful authors, the Dread Penny Society, who work to fight for the poor and working-class and whose ideals seem in line with Elizabeth's own, and Elizabeth is intrigued by the possibility that such a society exists. More than that, though, she's intrigued by Fletcher himself--and he seems equally interested in her.

I read an ARC of this novel in July; just over halfway through the year, I"m going to say not only is this one of my picks for the Best Books of 2019, but it's my personal favorite out of everything I've read this year. I have read a lot of terrific books this year, but there is something about this one that just captured my heart beyond what any other book has done.

So, what did I love about it?
Fletcher, for starters. Oh, how I love a good romantic hero, and I've got a special spot in my heart for a rough-around-the-edges-with-a-heart-of-gold hero, which Fletcher totally is. Having risen from the gutters, he doesn't try to be something he's not, and I love it. He's genuine and gritty while also being compassionate and smart and frankly, pretty stinking sexy!

What else? Elizabeth, of course! I love that she's smart and strong and capable. I love that she doesn't shy away from danger but follows her heart and her conscience and helps those around her. I also really liked that she's confident. And I love that she holds her own with Fletcher and that, despite being "higher class" than he is, never, ever treats him that way but genuinely sees him and his worth.

I also love the secondary characters--Elizabeth's fellow teacher Ana and various members of the Dread Penny Society were great characters and I really, really hope that this book is the first in the series and we'll get to know these characters on a deeper level in future books.

What else did I love? The writing! I am NOT one for long (especially flowery) descriptions. I love snappy dialogue (particularly if it makes me laugh!) and Sarah Eden is a master of that style. The dialogue was terrific and moved the story along well. There were many times when I laughed--I'm smiling now as I write this just thinking about some of those great moments! (Ah! I loved the flirting between Fletcher and Elizabeth! So much fun!) The plot was fun and moved along well and kept my interest the entire time.

I also really liked the setting. I don't read many Victorian novels, but I'll definitely read more if Sarah Eden is the author! I liked seeing more about the society, how it was still very, very divided but there were some pushes toward more equality and educating the poor and things like that.

Something else that was neat was that included in the book were two Penny Dreadfuls--one written by "Mr. King" and one written by Fletcher. It was cool having two extra stories worked into the larger story and was a clever way of showing aspects of Victorian society.

So, basically, I loved the entire thing. With several months left in the year, there is the possibility that another book could steal the "favorite book of the year" title from this one, but it's going to take one heck of a book to be able to do that because I absolutely adored this book.

5 stars and one of my picks for the best books of 2019!

 I read an ARC provided by the publisher via #NetGalley. All opinions are my own.