Welcome back to Lightning Reviews! The following three reviews are a little longer than our standard mini reviews, but also didn’t warrant a dedicated full-length review. There’s a holiday historical romance, a romantic suspense category Harlequin, and historical fantasy with Mexican folklore. Enjoy!
The Earl’s Christmas Pearl
author: Megan Frampton
I know we shouldn’t judge books by covers but I took one look at the gorgeous cover of The Earl’s Christmas Pearl and thought, “A) I want that dress, B) I also want that suit, and C) yep, I’m definitely reading it.” Luckily for me, this cover didn’t lead me astray and I enjoyed most of this sweet Christmas novella about a duke’s daughter and a grumpy Welsh earl with a Welsh corgi (who should’ve definitely been on the cover. Come on, Avon art department!).
What’s the story about? There’s not much plot but it’s still fun. Grumpy earl who needs love and Christmas cheer so they won’t be grumpy anymore (well, at least not to their partner)! Aristocratic and unassuming heroine who yearns to fall in love! So much holiday decorating (holly and ribbons and trees, oh my)! Forced proximity via snow! Kissing lessons to provide joy to curmudgeon earls! Meddling mothers who want their children to get married!
If I had to use a metaphor to describe this novella, it would be this: me snuggled in my sloth-climbing-a-candy-cane holiday sweater and sipping oversweet peppermint hot chocolate while Bing Crosby croons from an old-timey radio and the cat tries to jump on the Christmas tree (I do not own an old-timey radio, but you grasp my point). The Earl’s Christmas Pearl is the epitome of an ideal Christmas romance to me, and its festiveness made it feel as though I was experiencing all of my favorite parts of the holiday.
However, it’s also a lot of fluff and almost no angst, which is where the story weakens for me. There is nothing wrong with an excess of gooey marshmallow fluff; I just don’t think I was in the right mood for it. I’m the type of reader who requires some relationship conflict that makes me a little worried for their future HEA. And if there isn’t enough conflict, I get bored. As a result, something crucial seemed missing by the time I finished. But if you’re in the mood to curl up by the fireside and treat yourself to a festive and fluffy novella, then I promise that The Earl’s Christmas Pearl does exactly what it says on the Christmas cookie tin.
Gods of Jade and Shadow
author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Gods of Jade and Shadow is an exquisite wonder of a novel. Set in 1920s Mexico, Casiopea Tun accidentally frees the Mayan god of death from his prison when she unlocks a mysterious box in her grandfather’s room. Hun-Kamé’s power is limited until he recovers his missing jade necklace and missing body parts: his left eye, ear, and index finger. Unfortunately for Casiopea, a shard entered her body when she freed Hun-Kamé, tying them inseparably. Until he attains his full powers, his existence depends on drawing power from Casiopea to survive. For both their sakes, they need to find the missing objects or else risk Hun-Kamé killing Casiopea eventually. And so begins a fantastical cross-country road trip that will change both their lives forever.
My only complaint is that I didn’t enjoy it when the point-of-view switched to Casiopea’s cousin (I found him to be a far less interesting narrator than Casiopea). Despite this small criticism, I adored everything else. I’ve never wanted to sink into the pages of a book and reappear into the book’s setting so badly. Every line was crafted with the utmost care to create a vivid rendering of the Mexican Jazz Age and Mayan mythology. The stylistic choice to emphasize telling over showing heightens the fairytale quality.
Moreno-Garcia’s prose is a mirage: I objectively know that these are words on paper, but it feels like my grandmother is narrating Casiopea’s adventure to me. The words leap off the pages and straight into my ears. I read Gods of Jade and Shadow on paper, but I imagine that the “telling instead of showing” technique would translate remarkably well in an audiobook. So many cultures around the world (including the Maya) have a rich oral tradition, and this lush prose is an homage to that Mayan tradition.
I’ve been singing praises, but I have to end with one very important warning. The problem with being a dedicated romance reader is you have to wear a hazard suit when venturing out to other genres. It’s a cold, ruthless, and unforgiving world outside of Romancelandia. Whenever I spend too much time outside of the genre, I inevitably scurry back to bask in the warmth of the HEA. But every once in a blue moon, I find a non-romantic ending that I enjoy. Today is that blue moon.
Do not read this book with the expectation of a romantic HEA. Well-seasoned romance readers will want the main characters to end up together; they have undeniable chemistry and Arrogant Immortal/Headstrong Human Girl is a familiar pairing to us all. But I promise you that the non-romantic ending is satisfactory and perfectly fitting for this evocative 1920s Mexican fairytale. Adjust your expectations before reading, and you won’t feel betrayed at the end. There’s a touch of melancholy and longing that permeates the entire novel, but it ends with a premonition of hope. That’s all I can want in any fantasy novel.
author: Delores Fossen
CW/TW: Kidnapping, murder, stalking, the usual myriad evils of a serial killer.
You know those paint by numbers pictures where number-by-number you recreate the Mona Lisa? The result is an imperfect version of a masterpiece. It’s not high art, but it’s still a satisfying exercise and, when framed, makes a lovely addition to a wall, even if only a bathroom wall. This novel is an imperfect version of a masterpiece, with a few wildcards thrown in – silver eyes, a gold lame dress – just a few surprising tweaks.
Gemma Hanson is a self-defined “failed” profiler. Before the book opens, Gemma was working to track down a serial killer, only to realise that the serial killer was her assistant, Eric Lang. In the big showdown at Serenity Inn (insert side eye here) Eric reveals himself as the killer and allegedly kills two people, one of whom is Kellan Slater’s father. In the melee, Gemma is shot three times. This doesn’t stop her from feeling guilty for not identifying the murder sooner. Here lies the main tension between Gemma and Kellan: Gemma’s “failure” resulted in the murder of Kellan’s dad. So while they had been lovers before, this incident now stands between them. In the aftermath, Kellan takes up the reins as Sheriff (the position held by his father) and Gemma goes into witness protection because Eric is apparently very determined to kill her.
In the cold light of day, that summary seems ridiculous, but in the INTENSITY of the book, it makes a kind of sense. Because so much has taken place before the book opens, you hit the adrenaline rollercoaster hard right away. To the book’s credit, that rollercoaster just keeps on going. This novel revels in High Drama which fits given the circumstances, but if you’re looking for nuance, well, maybe skip this one.
If you’ve gone a little cross-eyed trying to keep track of the various characters in this summary, then you’ve hit upon one of my main criticisms of this book: a little too much detail, which can be difficult to keep track of. I haven’t even mentioned the (potentially dirty) FBI agent and his long-term lover. Oh, and the lover is Gemma’s ‘handler’ in Witness Protection… so, yes, it’s a big ol’ mess.
Despite my rather faint praise, I did keep reading the book. I didn’t switch it out for another or DNF it (something I have done to countless books). That this book kept me interested and kept me reading says a lot for the creativity and ingenuity of the plot. It can be difficult for a book to be truly unique and original to me in the romantic suspense genre – I read a lot of it. “It’s my fault your dad died” was a whole new kind of conflict to have between the main characters. And to plot such a twisty-bobcat-pretzel plot with no (obvious) plot holes is a feat in itself. 99% of the time I had no idea what was going to happen next. It must be said that there might well be plot holes, but I was focused on trying to keep track of who did what to whom and where. It’s a bit like driving on a deeply rutted gravel road. The faster you go, the smoother the ride. In this case, don’t look down, keep your eyes forward and surrender to the ride.
Great literature it is not, but competent escapism it certainly is.