The Monday List: Books with a Surprise Romance

the monday list

I’ve been having a fantastic time putting together my Curated Bookshelf every month, but there are some themes where I just can’t find 12 books for it (yet). So I’ve decided to share these shorter lists on Mondays (most Mondays, at least). I hope you enjoy!

As last week’s List indicated, I’m not much of a romance novel reader. I prefer romance to be mixed into other genres. But I still don’t go for the romance in particular, so subgenres like Fantasy Romance aren’t really my thing. Actually, I usually avoid those because it goes heavier on the romance than I would prefer, and steamy scenes are not something I enjoy reading. What I do enjoy, though, are romances built into the story so it adds something, but I’m not subjected to more of it than I would like. I also enjoy romances where I wasn’t expecting one in the first place. Those surprising romances can be a lot of fun.

Play the Fool by Lina Chern

play the fool lina chern

For Katie True, a keen gut and quick wit are just tools of the trade. After a failed attempt at adulting in Chicago, she’s back in the suburbs living a bit too close to her overbearing parents, jumping from one dead-end job to the next, and flipping through her tarot deck for guidance. Then along comes Marley.

Mysterious, worldly, and comfortable in her own skin, Marley takes a job at the mall where Katie peddles Russian tchotchkes. The two just get each other. Marley doesn’t try to fix Katie’s life or pretend to be someone she’s not, and Katie thinks that with Marley’s friendship, she just might make it through this rough patch after all. Until the day when Katie, having been encouraged by Marley to practice soothsaying, reads the cards for someone who stumbles into her shop. But when she sneaks a glance at his phone, she finds more than intel to improve her clairvoyance. She finds a photo. Of Marley. With a gunshot wound to the head.

The bottom falls out of Katie’s world. Her best friend is dead? Who killed her? She quickly realizes there are some things her tarot cards can’t foresee, and she must put her razor-sharp instincts to the ultimate test. But Katie’s recklessness lands her in the crossfire of a threat she never saw coming. Now she must use her street smarts and her inner Strength card to solve Marley’s murder—or risk losing everything.

I expected this one to be primarily a murder mystery with some tarot thrown in. It was fun watching Katie stumble after her friend’s killer, especially considering she’s a pro at making a mess of her life and not always doing what she should. She’s a complete disaster. But she also ends up working closely with police detective Jamie and the relationship that blooms between them walks the line of friendship and romance. I wasn’t expecting it, but absolutely loved it and now I think they’ll definitely be together in the future.

Fate Accompli by Keith R. Fentonmiller

Fate Accompli by Keith R. Fentonmiller

Fate had one job. And she bungled it . . . badly.
Now only a cursed hatter and a tormented water nymph can fix the damage.

Tuscany, 1603

Andolosia Petasos dreams of being the next Da Vinci. Only Fate has cursed him to make hats.

It’s not Andolosia’s fault. After all, a Greek ancestor stole Hermes’ teleportation hat and brought down all of Olympus. And the gods don’t easily forgive that sort of thing.

In Olympus, Moira strives to weave a future that will fix the heavenly disaster. The very one she created.

Meanwhile, the rich and powerful Sansone de Medici hires Andolosia to create a fantastical hat. A job that will change the hatter’s life.

At de Medici’s Florentine palazzo, Andolosia encounters the feisty Carlotta Lux. She claims de Medici has kidnapped her because she is descended from Daphne, the legendary water nymph. Of course Andolosia has no choice but to rescue her using Hermes’ hat. But instead of gratitude, she is furious. Carlotta had been within inches of killing her captor.

Because Sansone de Medici is not who he seems. He is driven by a supernatural urge that demands he never gives up the chase.

And Andolosia and Carlotta can’t run far enough to escape him.

This was a fun romp through Italy and Greek mythology. It’s about two people who both come from cursed families and as they head out on their adventure escaping a man out to kill them, their relationship starts to grow and grow. The romance was a surprise, but very sweet. I liked that it never became a focus, but was instead just two people who gradually came to care for each other.

Rise of the Shadow by Michael Webb

rise of the shadow michael webb

The action packed, plot-twisting second volume of the Shadow Knights Trilogy:

After tasting financial success and the Shadow Knights’ power, Veron lost everything. Now, trapped in slavery, jealous servants and harsh justice threaten his ability to fulfill his destiny. Caught between secrets he cannot divulge and attention from the master’s daughter, Chelci, Veron must choose between following the rules or following his heart as he fights to rise again.

Meanwhile, King Bale searches to kill the young shadow knight, and Veron’s old friend Brixton is the only one who knows where he is. Will the lure of power entice Brixton to turn on him again? His first betrayal nearly cost Veron everything. A second would cost him his life.

This is the second in the Shadow Knights trilogy and basically sees our hero Veron enslaved by a wealthy family. Their daughter, though, is none other than the spunky girl who ran away in the first book. She’s returned to her family a different woman and so she and Veron continually cross paths. It was lovely to watch their friendship grow, and I loved just how protective and confused Veron becomes about her. They’re really sweet together, and I liked that it was pretty chaste.

Kiss of Salt by Smita Bhattacharya

Kiss of Salt by Smita Bhattacharya

It was crazy really, for Darya to think she could have some peace and quiet at Heliconia Lane. Yes, it was located in a beautiful corner of South Goa—by the beach, no less—but after her Aunt Farideh disappeared twenty years ago—from this very place—nothing has been the same again. And now her uncle was dead under bizarre circumstances as were two of the neighbors on his street.

What was happening? Was there a murderer on the loose? Why were people dying? Was it connected to her aunt’s disappearance in some way?

And most importantly, was Darya going to be next?

A cozy, Agatha Christie-style whodunnit, Kiss of Salt introduces Darya Nandkarni, an amateur, and accidental detective, who is clever, spirited, resourceful, yet troubled and vulnerable. Her adventures will make you laugh, cry, gape, and marvel, and you won’t be able to put down the book until you’ve solved the mystery along with her in the beautiful side-streets of Goa.

Inspired by Agatha Christie’s novels, this was a deeply atmospheric mystery set in Goa, India. First of all, I loved getting to know a part of India I didn’t know existed. Secondly, I adored Darya and found her interactions with Aaron a lot of fun. There’s clearly an attraction there, one I didn’t even know would be on these pages because, in my limited experience with Christie, there wasn’t a ton of romance. But I liked this romance, and it’s just as lovely in the second book.

Eastover Treasures by Dawn Brotherton

Eastover Treasures by Dawn Brotherton

When Aury and her fellow quilters uncover clues to a potential fortune, will they be able to untangle the mystery in time to save Eastover Retreat Center from financial ruin?

During their annual quilt retreat, gale force winds trap the ladies in a boarded-up manor house. Inside, the sewing sisters discover the diaries of the mistress of Eastover Plantation written during the Civil War and clues she left behind which started as a treasure hunt for her children. Following the clues, Aury takes a journey she never expected.

As she works closely with the owner of the retreat center, they dig up more than treasure when they follow the trail through history. Will it be enough to save Eastover and preserve the history of the plantation?

This is a fun treasure hunt, and literally nothing more. There’s no mystery or villain, just a major storm that trapped a bunch of women and now Aury and Scott, the owner of the plantation they’re stuck at, end up on a treasure hunt and history reveals itself. I thought this would be the start of a cozy mystery series featuring an older woman, so I was surprised it focused on a treasure hunt and a much younger woman. So, of course, I wasn’t expecting any romance. But these two were cute together and worked very well together and I liked that it was just so organic.

Someone Else’s Life by Kevin J. Simington

The thriller Someone Else's Life by Kevin J. Simington

A brilliantly crafted story of a struggling private detective and the cases he works. Much more than a simple detective story, this is a complex portrayal of a good man who is ultimately pushed to extraordinary limits.

A mysterious case of identity switching turns deadly when struggling private investigator, John Targett, becomes involved. As John seeks to unravel one mystery, he is also forced to deal with an escalating menace when he becomes the target of a vicious gang whose path he has crossed. As the twin plots intertwine and the threats escalate, John is forced to take extreme measures to protect his daughter and fight for his own life. Plagued by his own demons and trying to raise his daughter alone, this is a beautifully crafted story of the lengths to which one man will go to protect those he loves. At times tender, filled with sparkling wit and peppered with edge-of-your-seat action, this is a multi-facetted mystery that will satisfy on many levels.

Oh, this was a fun read! John is quite sarcastic so it was fun to read this story from his perspective. He’s a single dad with a teen daughter he absolutely does not understand. As a PI, he gets into the occasional scrape, and it’s thanks to a trip to the ER that he meets a lovely doctor. He isn’t looking for romance, but romance finds him and it was a lot of fun watching him deal with it, his teen daughter, the case he was hired for, and being chased by gang members. I loved how the romance never took over and overpowered the story, but it has one of the best endings ever.

The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez

the spear cuts through water simon jimenez

The people suffer under the centuries-long rule of the Moon Throne. The royal family—the despotic emperor and his monstrous sons, the Three Terrors—hold the countryside in their choking grip. They bleed the land and oppress the citizens with the frightful powers they inherited from the god locked under their palace.

But that god cannot be contained forever.

With the aid of Jun, a guard broken by his guilt-stricken past, and Keema, an outcast fighting for his future, the god escapes from her royal captivity and flees from her own children, the triplet Terrors who would drag her back to her unholy prison. And so it is that she embarks with her young companions on a five-day pilgrimage in search of freedom—and a way to end the Moon Throne forever. The journey ahead will be more dangerous than any of them could have imagined.

Both a sweeping adventure story and an intimate exploration of identity, legacy, and belonging, The Spear Cuts Through Water is an ambitious and profound saga that will transport and transform you—and is like nothing you’ve ever read before.

The description offers no indication that there’s a romance. It sounds like a brutal fantasy. Indeed, it is brutal and, at some point in the story, someone remarks that this isn’t a love story. But someone else claims it is, so, of course, I had no idea what to believe. As I read on, though, I absolutely believe the second person was right. I adored Jun and Keema together, no matter how fraught and impossible their relationship turned out to be. They were just lovely.

Red Thread of Fate by Lyn Liao Butler

In the wake of a tragedy and fueled by guilt from a secret she’s kept for years, a woman discovers how delicate the thread that binds family is in this powerful novel by Lyn Liao Butler.

Two days before Tam and Tony Kwan receive their letter of acceptance for the son they are adopting from China, Tony and his estranged cousin Mia are killed unexpectedly in an accident. A shell-shocked Tam learns she is named the guardian to Mia’s five-year-old daughter, Angela. With no other family around, Tam has no choice but to agree to take in the girl she hasn’t seen since the child was an infant. 

Overwhelmed by her life suddenly being upended, Tam must also decide if she will complete the adoption on her own and bring home the son waiting for her in a Chinese orphanage. But when a long-concealed secret comes to light just as she and Angela start to bond, their fragile family is threatened. As Tam begins to unravel the events of Tony and Mia’s past in China, she discovers the true meaning of love and the threads that bind her to the family she is fated to have.

Women’s fiction doesn’t always come with romance, and I expected this to be one of those. Tam has just lost her husband and has found herself the guardian of his cousin’s daughter because her husband and his cousin were both killed in an accident. This is a story of motherhood and being Asian American. It’s heartfelt and soft and heavy. I wasn’t expecting the romance at all, but it fit perfectly to allow the story to wrap up in a very sweet way.

Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li

portrait of a thief grace d li

Ocean’s Eleven meets The Farewell in Portrait of a Thief, a lush, lyrical heist novel inspired by the true story of Chinese art vanishing from Western museums; about diaspora, the colonization of art, and the complexity of the Chinese American identity

History is told by the conquerors. Across the Western world, museums display the spoils of war, of conquest, of colonialism: priceless pieces of art looted from other countries, kept even now. 

Will Chen plans to steal them back.

A senior at Harvard, Will fits comfortably in his carefully curated roles: a perfect student, an art history major and sometimes artist, the eldest son who has always been his parents’ American Dream. But when a mysterious Chinese benefactor reaches out with an impossible—and illegal—job offer, Will finds himself something else as well: the leader of a heist to steal back five priceless Chinese sculptures, looted from Beijing centuries ago. 

His crew is every heist archetype one can imag­ine—or at least, the closest he can get. A con artist: Irene Chen, a public policy major at Duke who can talk her way out of anything. A thief: Daniel Liang, a premed student with steady hands just as capable of lockpicking as suturing. A getaway driver: Lily Wu, an engineering major who races cars in her free time. A hacker: Alex Huang, an MIT dropout turned Silicon Valley software engineer. Each member of his crew has their own complicated relationship with China and the identity they’ve cultivated as Chinese Americans, but when Will asks, none of them can turn him down. 

Because if they succeed? They earn fifty million dollars—and a chance to make history. But if they fail, it will mean not just the loss of everything they’ve dreamed for themselves but yet another thwarted at­tempt to take back what colonialism has stolen.

Equal parts beautiful, thoughtful, and thrilling, Portrait of a Thief is a cultural heist and an examination of Chinese American identity, as well as a necessary cri­tique of the lingering effects of colonialism.

This book isn’t for everyone, as reviews have shown people to be divided about it. It’s one part heist and one part all about the Chinese American identity. It follows a group of college-aged Chinese Americans who have been hired by a Chinese corporation to break into museums and steal back Chinese artifacts, but it’s mostly about how these young adults struggle with their identity. Surprisingly, it was also a bit of a struggle between two characters to try not to fall in love, but that’s mostly at the end. It wasn’t woven in very well, but there are some odd hints here and there before it just hits towards the end.

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