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Blog Blitz and Arc Review: A Love by Design by Elizabeth Everett (The Secret Scientists of London #3)

Welcome to my stop on the A Love by Design Blog Blitz with Berkley Publishing. (This is also posted on my Tumblr book, art, & fandom blog Whimsical Dragonette.)

Publication Date: January 17, 2023

Synopsis:

You couldn’t design a better hero than the very eligible and extremely charming Earl Grantham. Unless, of course, you are Margaret Gault, who wants nothing to do with the man who broke her youthful heart.

Widowed and determined, Margaret Gault has returned to Athena’s Retreat and the welcoming arms of her fellow secret scientists with an ambitious plan in mind: to establish England’s first woman-owned engineering firm. But from the moment she sets foot in London her plans are threatened by greedy investors and–at literally every turn–the irritatingly attractive Earl Grantham, a man she can never forgive.

George Willis, the Earl Grantham, is thrilled that the woman he has loved since childhood has returned to London. Not as thrilling, however, is her decision to undertake an engineering commission from his political archnemesis. When Margaret’s future and Grantham’s parliamentary reforms come into conflict, Grantham must use every ounce of charm he possesses–along with his stunning good looks and flawless physique, of course–to win Margaret over to his cause.

Facing obstacles seemingly too large to dismantle, will Grantham and Margaret remain forever disconnected or can they find a way to bridge their differences, rekindle the passion of their youth, and construct a love built to last?

About the Author:

Elizabeth Everett lives in upstate New York with her family. She likes going for long walks or (very) short runs to nearby sites that figure prominently in the history of civil rights and women’s suffrage. Her series is inspired by her admiration for rule breakers and belief in the power of love to change the world.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I loved many things about this novel. First would have to be the characters. It was fun to revisit the characters of Athena’s Retreat, and I loved seeing George and Arthur “fighting” (in other words: expressing best-friendship) about George’s increasingly ridiculous gifts for Violet & Arthur’s baby. I loved George as a character in general – he was so sweet and funny and had an absolute heart of gold. He cared and was trying to do good with the title he’d never wanted. I loved Margaret as well, though she was a bit pricklier and also incredibly stubborn. If she’d let people in and asked for help earlier in the novel I wouldn’t have been so frustrated at her decisions… though it also would have meant there would be less story. She is strong and bold and determined and yes, stubborn. I also loved the bit we get of Sam, who I remember loving in the previous book.

This novel really drove home the ‘rich and powerful men want to control and dominate women and will do anything to undermine them and keep them from succeeding and keep the status quo’ point from previous books — a point which really hits close to home after watching the events of the past few years unfolding. Much like the real-world events, the events of the novel were infuriating and had me rooting for Maragaret and her friends to prove themselves.

The romance was sweet and one of my favorite kinds — a second-chance romance between childhood friends / crushes. It was easy to get behind it because George was so very gone on Margaret. He was so in awe of her engineering brain and determined spirit and it was so refreshing, with all the terrible men in the story. They all wanted to crush her beneath their boots for the audacity of being a woman with ideas, and he just wanted to worship her for it. It was clear that Margaret loved him as well — she just had to get past her stubborn self-reliant independence.

The one thing I could have done without was the sex scenes. There weren’t too many — three, I think? — but they were very… detailed. Luckily they weren’t vital and I could skim them (slowing down to read the dialogue in case it advanced the plot, which it occasionally did). And for me, three sex scenes is three too many. I know I’m in the minority here, and in fact I saw some reviewers lamenting that there weren’t enough sex scenes — which, how? — so I’m going to chalk it up to just the average romance reader apparently liking to read about sex a lot more than I do and not let it impact my rating.

Margaret also dragged the stubborn independence thing on a liiiiiiittle bit too long, in my opinion, and it bogged down the middle 40% of the book. I think some tightening of the plot there would go a long way toward making this flow better and feel more consistent.

Overall though I really loved it. I love stories with smart women and men with hearts of gold, and this delivered that beautifully.

*Thanks to NetGalley and Berkeley for providing an early copy for review.

Favorite Quotes:

The work came first. She mustn’t ever forget when everyone abandoned her, the work was always there.

A Love by Design by Elizabeth Everett

As the sun battled to punch through the haze of coal smut hanging in the damp London air, Grantham sat in shadows, jealous of the lone shaft of light that fell through the window and landed on Margaret’s left cheek.

A Love by Design by Elizabeth Everett

Everything would be fine if you do the work. Do not aim too high, do not set yourself out to be noticed. If you were a woman in a man’s world, moving forward meant bending to their desires or just doing the work.

A Love by Design by Elizabeth Everett

Yes, and imagine what they would think if Margaret failed? If they learned she spent every day unsure of her talents and worried about exposure? Shouldn’t she feel like a role model if she was going to be one?

A Love by Design by Elizabeth Everett

“I have always loved her,” he said. “I breathe her and bleed her, and if you open me up, my heart is the shape of Margaret Gault. I have loved her from the moment she knocked me to the ground; a blow from which I have never tried to recover. Of course I love her.”

A Love by Design by Elizabeth Everett

Whether that step leads you to where you were always meant to be depends on how you define courage. Is it the tenacity to forge ahead no matter the obstacles, or the ability to ask for help when those obstacles seem insurmountable?
Or is it both?

A Love by Design by Elizabeth Everett

Excerpt:

Maggie had returned.

Of course, she was now known as Madame Margaret Gault.

Try as he might, Grantham could never twist his tongue around the name.

Almost his whole life, he’d called her Maggie.

His Maggie.

From upside down, he watched as she turned the corner of the carriage house, the wind unfurling the hem of her simple bronze pelisse. A brown capelet hung about her shoulders, and a matching muff hid her hands. Catching sight of him, she paused, tilting her head so he caught a glimpse of lush auburn curls peeking out from beneath her tea-colored bonnet trimmed with bright red berries. Margaret’s fair skin showed no hint of the freckles that had once plagued her every summer, and thick brown lashes shielded her hazel eyes.

She was unusually tall for a woman; nevertheless, she moved with effortless grace, and not even the blazing clash of colors adorning Violet next to her could detract from her beauty.

For she was a beauty, Margaret Gault. Once wild and graceless, she’d bloomed into a woman of elegant refinement.

A woman who was more than met the eye.

A woman who would rather feast on glass than give him the time of day.

For eleven years, the first day of summer meant Margaret would be waiting for him beneath the willow where they first met. She and Violet attended the Yorkshire Academy for the Education of Exceptional Young Women together. While Violet came home to her large, affectionate-and very loud-family, Margaret had no one waiting for her at home. Her father had died of a stroke when she was ten and her mother had little interest in Margaret’s whereabouts or well-being.

Violet and Grantham had been Margaret’s family. The three of them had been the best of friends until one hot afternoon when Margaret had smiled a certain way and the ground went out beneath his feet. A year later he was soldiering in Canada and Margaret lived in Paris and their summers together were nothing but a memory he pulled around himself like a blanket on cold lonely nights.

“Good afternoon, Grantham,” Violet greeted him, seemingly unaffected by his headfirst dive into her rosebushes. She wore a shocking yellow day dress beneath a burgundy velvet paletot and atop her head sat a garish blue bonnet topped with a life-sized stuffed parrot.

Swallowing a barrelful of curses, Grantham tried wriggling out of the bushes, every single thorn piercing his flesh a hundredfold as Margaret stared without saying a word.

“Ahem.” He cleared his throat as he managed to get to his feet despite being trapped in the center of one of the bushes. As he pulled a branch from his hair, a shower of wrinkled brown rose petals drifted down his shoulders. “You are especially . . . vibrant today, Violet. I brought this for Baby Georgie.”

He thrust the torn, dirtied rabbit at Violet, who received it with a bemused air. One of the buttons had come off and the silk was stained green and brown.

“Madame Gault,” he said, bowing to Margaret. “So lovely to see you again.”

No matter how strongly Grantham willed it, Margaret did not speak to him in return. Instead, she bent her knee a scant inch in a desultory curtsey, her lush mouth twisted like the clasp of a coin purse, no doubt to hold inside the names she was calling him in her head. He had a good idea what some of them were, considering he most likely had taught them to her.

Grantham hadn’t seen Margaret for thirteen years until their reunion-if one could call it that-a year and a half ago in the small parlor of Athena’s Retreat. He hadn’t exactly met the moment then, either-although to be fair, there’d been a hedgehog involved. The handful of times he encountered her since, she’d avoided meeting his eyes with her own, as though he were an inconsequential shadow cast by their past.

Someone to be dismissed.

Someone who had broken her heart and whom she would never forgive.

“See who is come to live in England for good.” Violet linked her arm with Margaret’s and beamed at her friend.

This was news.

When Margaret had come to stay at Athena’s Retreat a year and half ago to complete an engineering project for her father-in-law’s firm, Grantham had hoped she’d stay but she returned to Paris after three months. He’d asked Violet if Margaret might ever return, but Violet had doubted it.

“She’s one of the only women engineers in Europe with an excellent reputation. Why give up a dream hard fought to come back to England and fight all over again?” Violet had asked.

Something had changed, however, and now Margaret was home.

His heart leapt in his chest and the bitter orange flavor of hope flooded his mouth.

“Clean yourself up and come inside for tea,” Violet said to him now.

Margaret did not echo the invitation. Instead, she tightened her hold on a stylish carpet bag and accompanied Violet and Arthur into the building.

There are moments in life when the world shifts as though a door has opened somewhere out of sight. Whether a person runs toward that opened door or not depends on how fast they’re stuck in place. Grantham considered for a moment how painful it would be to get himself unstuck.

Although the tangle of branches in front of him twisted menacingly, he pulled a deep breath of resolution into his lungs alongside the scents of rosehips and crushed greenery. Gritting his teeth, he made his way through the thorns toward the open door.

Excerpted from A Love by Design by Elizabeth Everett Copyright © 2023 by Elizabeth Everett. Excerpted by permission of Berkley. All rights reserved. 

ARC & Audio ARC Review: Infamous by Lex Croucher

Publication Date: March 21, 2023

Synopsis:

22-year-old aspiring writer Edith ‘Eddie’ Miller and her best friend Rose have always done everything together-climbing trees, throwing grapes at boys, sneaking bottles of wine, practicing kissing . . .

But following their debutante ball Rose is suddenly talking about marriage, and Eddie is horrified.

When Eddie meets charming, renowned poet Nash Nicholson, he invites her to his crumbling Gothic estate in the countryside. The entourage of eccentric artists indulging in pure hedonism is exactly what Eddie needs in order to forget Rose and finish her novel.

But Eddie might discover the world of famous literary icons isn’t all poems and pleasure . . .

My Review:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I really enjoyed this book, although there were many places where it dragged a bit and felt too-long. I also don’t know that I would call it “the best laugh-out-loud Regency romp of 2022” as it is advertised. There were funny moments, but a lot of it was more Eddie being painfully oblivious to what was going on around her. She’s so in her head and fixated on the idea of being a published writer – as well as in complete denial about how she feels about Rose – that she doesn’t really see what’s happening until it’s (metaphorically) hit her across the head a few times.

Poor long-suffering Rose stands by Eddie faithfully until she has to take a stand (which, good for her) and even then Eddie doesn’t wake up to what’s going on. Really, Eddie has a lot of growing up to do in this book before she becomes a likeable character. I was constantly tempted to shake Eddie and go “oh, come on!”

Nash was an excellent villain. He at first seemed fun and playful, and the scene with him charming Eddie’s entire outlandish oddball family was endearing. Nash’s charming of everyone takes on a darker cast, however, as the book progresses and his true character comes to light. As with everything else, his true character comes to light MUCH later for Eddie than for everyone else, as she is again painfully oblivious and in complete denial. She’s fixated on the idea that he can get her published and all else is seemingly easy for her to ignore.

The ‘house party’ adventure gets wilder and stranger the longer it goes on, and I felt a lot of secondhand embarrassment at Eddie’s refusal to see what’s happening around her. Or maybe it’s just a willingness to overlook just about anything with the dangling possibility of a book deal.

I mean, the house practically falls down around their ears and no one bats an eyelash. To say that the people in Nash’s orbit are strange is… an understatement.

I found the cast of weirdos to be quite wonderful, however. I’ve always been drawn to the outcasts and those who buck the strictures of society, so I did appreciate the bohemian outlook they had. And I liked them all the way to the end – it’s just Nash (and to a lesser extent his wife) that gets revealed to be more terrible every day.

The ending was cathartic after the mess that went down, and after Eddie’s eyes are opened to a few things. Eddie still isn’t my favorite character, but I did like her more by the end, even though I don’t think she does enough to earn Rose’s forgiveness.

The writing was really beautiful and evocative, and the audiobook performance was great. The narrator did a fabulous job capturing everyone’s mood and personality, and the voices the narrator chose were perfect for the characters.

*Thanks to NetGalley, St. Martin’s Press, and Bonnier UK Audio for providing an early copy for review.

Best Books of 2022 — In Which I Fail Spectacularly to Compile a “Top Ten” List.

Image: Goodreads Year in Books 2022 – 166 Books read.

I read 166 books in 2022. Yes, some of them were shorter books: several middle-grade books and a few advanced review copies of picture books. Most were novels, though few were truly giant tomes. I really enjoyed most of them.

Which is to say, trying to pick the “top ten” was excruciating and an exercise doomed to failure. So… I cheated. Or rather, I modified the goal. Thus I present to you… my top 10 42 books read in 2022 (and even that is fudging things a bit as there are a few instances here of me using a single book to stand in for the entire series if I read the entire series in 2022 and didn’t want my list to balloon uncontrollably) organized like so:

  • Top 18 (Non-Romance) Books read 2022
  • Top 9 Romances read 2022
  • Top 9 Nonfiction Books Read With Kiddo 2022
  • Top 6 Fiction Books Read With Kiddo 2022

And just for funsies:

  • Song of the Year 2022

I have linked to the goodreads page for each book (and the youtube page for the song). Obviously these are all recommendations as well.

Best (Non-Romance) Books read 2022
(Part 1)

Best (Non-Romance) Books read 2022
(Part 2)

Best Romances read 2022

Best Nonfiction Books Read With Kiddo (8) 2022

Best Fiction Books Read With Kiddo (8) 2022

Aaaaaand, just for funsies:

Song of the Year 2022

ARC Review: How to Win a Wallflower by Samara Parish

Publication Date: December 13, 2022

Synopsis:

A wallflower will put everything on the line . . .

When John Barnesworth inherits unexpectedly, he abandons his solitude and returns to London to settle his brother’s affairs, only to discover his estates are crumbling and he is now betrothed to his brother’s unpleasant fiancée. Her dowry might save him from ruin, but at what cost? His only hope lies with the vivacious, charming Lady Charlotte Stirling, whose audacious solution to John’s troubles might actually work. If only he can keep his feelings for her out of the equation . . .


Lady Charlotte Stirling knows she can’t fall for John. He’s her brother’s best friend, he’s engaged to her mortal enemy, and he wants to return to America. Not to mention he’d never survive in her bustling social life. She can, however, try to solve his money problem. But the closer she gets to ensuring his freedom, the harder it is to let him go . . .

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I had a disappointing experience with a historical romance immediately prior to reading this, after not picking one up for awhile, and I was afraid I had lost my taste for the genre. I picked this one up hesitantly but flew through it in a day. I am happy to report that I have not, in fact, lost my taste for the genre — it was just that one book.

I had greatly enjoyed Samara Parish’s previous installation in this series, and I’m happy to say that I greatly enjoyed this one as well.

This time we have an unconventional Viscount, ill at ease with his newly acquired title, who would rather spend his time holed up in a solitary cabin with nothing but his myriad inventions to keep him company. He is scornful of and greatly dislikes society, and it is him the ‘wallflower’ in the title refers to — not Lady Charlotte. He is gentle and kind and good and it was wonderful to get a softer, more intellectual hero.

Lady Charlotte is a social butterfly who spends her time helping others. Making clothing for orphans, chairing comittees, drawing wallflowers into the social scene, helping her brother forge political connections… She has her work cut out for her in convincing John that he should make a bit of an effort with society, but as they embark on a wild scheme to acquire enough money to save John’s crumbling estates and her brother’s neck, they learn that though seemingly too different they fit together perfectly.

There are obstacles, of course, not least of which is Charlotte’s older brother — one of John’s few closest friends — who seems determined to keep them apart as he doesn’t think they will suit.

Some of the events strain credulity but I was completely engrossed in the twists and turns of the story and loved every minute. It reminded me of some of Georgette Heyer’s whirlwind, ridiculous plots. I greatly appreciated that the spice didn’t overwhelm the story or plot.

I would definitely recommend this if you are a historical romance fan, especially if you like unconventional heros and heroines – it ticked all the boxes for me.

*Thanks to NetGalley and Forever for providing an early copy for review.

Blog Tour & ARC Review: The Belle of Belgrave Square by Mimi Matthews

Publishing Date: October 11, 2022

Welcome to the Belle of Belgrave Square book tour with Berkley Publishing Group. (This blog tour post is also posted on my Tumblr book, art, & fandom blog Whimsical Dragonette.)

Synopsis:

A London heiress rides out to the wilds of the English countryside to honor a marriage of convenience with a mysterious and reclusive stranger.

Tall, dark, and dour, the notorious Captain Jasper Blunt was once hailed a military hero, but tales abound of his bastard children and his haunted estate in Yorkshire. What he requires now is a rich wife to ornament his isolated ruin, and he has set his sights on the enchanting Julia Wychwood.
 
For Julia, an incurable romantic cursed with a crippling social anxiety, navigating a London ballroom is absolute torture. The only time Julia feels any degree of confidence is when she’s on her horse. Unfortunately, a young lady can’t spend the whole of her life in the saddle, so Julia makes an impetuous decision to take her future by the reins—she proposes to Captain Blunt.
 
In exchange for her dowry and her hand, Jasper must promise to grant her freedom to do as she pleases. To ride—and to read—as much as she likes without masculine interference. He readily agrees to her conditions, with one provision of his own: Julia is forbidden from going into the tower rooms of his estate and snooping around in his affairs. But the more she learns of the beastly former hero, the more intrigued she becomes….

Author Bio:

USA Today bestselling author Mimi Matthews writes both historical nonfiction and award-winning proper Victorian romances. Her novels have received starred reviews in Library JournalPublishers Weekly, and Kirkus, and her articles have been featured on the Victorian Web, the Journal of Victorian Culture, and in syndication at BUST Magazine. In her other life, Mimi is an attorney. She resides in California with her family, which includes a retired Andalusian dressage horse, a Sheltie, and two Siamese cats. Learn more online at mimimatthews.com.

Author Photo by Vicki Hahn 2021

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I loved this so much. I loved the first as well but I had reservations about it – not so here. Everything about this story was historical romance perfection. I had a smile on my face the entire time I was reading.

The romance was swoony, the characters beautifully written, the struggles and misunderstandings relatable, and the closed-door romance a big plus for me. I also really loved the use of the Bluebeard story – and the way the expectations arising from that were flipped. It was also really well-written – I had no problems at all with the writing like I often do with romances.

The plot felt familiar to me but I think this was a combination of having read the preview at the end of the previous book and also that it just hits every historical romance beat to perfection. This makes it somewhat predictable but isn’t that one of the main selling points of romances? I like that they’re cozy and predictable and follow a familiar pattern. I also am a huge fan of almost all of the tropes used in this book so that probably contributed as well.

The children were adorable in their wildness and reluctance to open up, and also in the sweet way they responded to Julia. Captain Blunt was broody and cold for a reason and as he opened up and showed his true self I couldn’t help but love him. I was SO happy to see Julia learn to stand up for herself and believe in herself and her worth. I also really appreciated seeing her anxiety – I really felt for her because I, too, have extreme anxiety and would generally prefer to be reading a book. Every part of this novel just made me so happy, I was reluctant to put it down and wanted the story to go on forever.

I highly recommend this.

*Thanks to NetGalley and Berkley Publishing for providing an e-arc for review.

Favorite Quotes:

In a novel she was safe. Her throat didn’t close up and her palms didn’t grow damp. She could experience things in a way that didn’t overwhelm her.

The Belle of Belgrave Square by Mimi Matthews

“Laws are made by men and, therefore, fallible. Justice is something greater. Most of us—the poorest and the weakest—won’t see it on this side of the grave. But sometimes, on rare occasions, someone manages to balance the scales. It can be difficult to reconcile it with the law. That doesn’t negate the rightness of it.”

The Belle of Belgrave Square by Mimi Matthews

Non-exclusive Excerpt:

Cossack tossed his head at something in the distance.

Julia’s gloved hands tightened reflexively on the reins. She squinted down the length of the Row at the rider coming toward them. “Easy,” she murmured to Cossack. “It’s just another horse.”

An enormous horse. Bigger and blacker than Cossack himself.

But it wasn’t the horse that made Julia tense in her sidesaddle. It was the gentleman astride him: a stern-faced, battle-scarred ex-military man.

Captain Blunt, the Hero of the Crimea.

Her mouth went dry as he approached. She was half-tempted to bolt. But there was no escaping him. She brought Cossack down to a trot and then to a walk.

She’d met the captain once before. It had been at Lady Arundell’s spring ball. Viscount Ridgeway, a mutual acquaintance of theirs, had introduced him to Julia as a worthy partner. In other circumstances, the interaction might have been the veriest commonplace-a few polite words exchanged and a turn about the polished wood dance floor.

Instead, Julia had gawped at Captain Blunt like a stricken nitwit. Her breath had stopped and her pulse had roared in her ears. Afraid she might faint, she’d fled the ballroom before the introduction had been completed, leaving Captain Blunt standing there, his granite-hewn features frozen in a mask of displeasure.

It had been one of the most mortifying experiences of Julia’s life.

And that was saying something.

For a lady prone to panicking in company, mortifications were a daily occurrence. At the advanced age of two-and-twenty, she’d nearly grown accustomed to them. But even for her, the incident at Lady Arundell’s ball had marked a new low.

No doubt Captain Blunt thought her actions had had something to do with his appearance.

He was powerfully made. Tall, strong, and impossibly broad shouldered. Already a physically intimidating gentleman, he was made even more so by the scar on his face. The deep, gruesome slash bisected his right eyebrow and ran all the way down to his mouth, notching into the flesh of his lip. It gave the impression of a permanent sneer.

Rather ironic that he was hailed as a hero. In looks, there seemed nothing heroic about him. Indeed, he appeared in every way a villain.

“Miss Wychwood.” He removed his beaver hat, inclining his head in a bow. His hair was a lustrous raven black. Cut short to his collar, it was complemented by a pair of similarly short sideburns edging the harsh lines of his jaw. “Good morning.”

She scarcely dared look him in the face. “Good morning.”

He didn’t reply. Not immediately. He was studying her. She could feel the weight of his stare. It set off a storm of butterflies in her stomach.

Ride on, she wanted to say. Please, ride on.

He didn’t ride on. He seemed intent on making her squirm.

She suspected she knew why. She’d never apologized to him for her behavior at the ball. There’d been no opportunity.

Perhaps he wanted her to suffer for embarrassing him?

If that was the case, Julia was resigned to take her medicine. Heaven knew she deserved it.

She forced herself to meet his gaze. The butterflies in her stomach threatened to revolt. Goodness. His eyes were the color of hoarfrost-a gray so cold and stark it sent an icy shiver tracing down the curve of her spine. Every feminine instinct within her rose up in warning. Run, it said. Flee.

But this wasn’t Lady Arundell’s ballroom.

This was Hyde Park. Here in the open air, mounted on Cossack, she wasn’t the same person she was at a ball or a dinner dance. For one thing, she wasn’t alone. She had a partner-and an imposing one, at that. Cossack lent her his strength and his stature. Made her feel nearly as formidable as he was. It’s why she was more confident on horseback.

At least, she’d always been so before.

“How do you do?” she asked.

“Very well.” His voice was deep and commanding, with a growl at the edge of it. A soldier’s voice. The kind that, when necessary, could be heard across a battlefield. “And yourself?”

“I’m enjoying our spell of fine weather,” she said. “It’s excellent for riding.”

He flicked a glance over her habit. Made of faded black wool, it did nothing to emphasize the contours of her figure. Rather the opposite. It obscured her shape, much as the net veil on her short-brimmed riding hat obscured her face. His black brows notched into a frown.

She suppressed a flicker of self-consciousness. Her clothing wasn’t meant to attract attention. It was meant to render her invisible. But it hadn’t-not to him.

The way he looked at her . . . Hades might have regarded Persephone thus before dragging her down to hell to be his unwilling bride.

And everyone knew Captain Blunt was looking for a wife.

If one believed the prevailing rumors, it was the sole reason he’d come to town. He was on the hunt for a vulnerable heiress he could spirit back to his isolated Yorkshire estate. An estate that was said to be haunted.

“You ride often at this time of day?” he asked.

“Whenever I can,” she said. “Cossack is glad for the exercise.”

“You handle him well.”

Some of the tightness in her chest eased at the compliment. “It’s not difficult.” She stroked Cossack’s neck. “He may look imposing, but he’s a lamb underneath. The biggest creatures often are in my experience.”

Captain Blunt’s own mount stamped his gigantic hooves as if in objection to her statement.

She gave the great beast an interested look. He was built like a medieval warhorse, with a broad chest, heavy fetlocks, and a thickly waving mane and tail. “What do you call him?”

“Quintus.”

“And is he-“

“A brute through and through,” Captain Blunt said. “Sometimes, Miss Wychwood, what you see is precisely what you get.”

Excerpted from The Belle of Belgrave Square by Mimi Matthews Copyright © 2022 by Mimi Matthews. Excerpted by permission of Berkley. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

ARC Review: Nobody’s Princess by Erica Ridley

Publication Date: July 26, 2022

Synopsis:

A fun and feminist Regency romp from a master of the genre hailed as “a delight” by Bridgerton author Julia Quinn.

Nothing happens in London without Graham Wynchester knowing. His massive collection of intelligence is invaluable to his family’s mission of aiding those most in need. So when he deciphers a series of coded messages in the scandal sheets, Graham’s convinced he must come to a royal’s rescue. But his quarry turns out not to be a princess at all… The captivating Kunigunde de Heusch is anything but a damsel in distress, and the last thing she wants is Graham’s help.

All her life, Kuni trained alongside the fiercest Royal Guardsmen in her family, secretly planning to become her country’s first Royal Guardswoman. This mission in London is a chance to prove herself worthy without help from a man, not even one as devilishly handsome as Graham. To her surprise, Graham believes in her dream as much as she does, which makes it harder to resist kissing him…and falling in love. But how can she risk her heart if her future lies an ocean away?

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Now that I’ve finished the full book, I can say that it was everything I was hoping and more. I absolutely loved every second I spent with the Wynchesters, of course, and Kunigunde makes an excellent addition. I wish I could be a Wynchester, but reading about them is a close second. They are my favorite fictional family — the Bridgertons don’t even come close.

This book is fiercely feminist, with Kunigunde determined to be the first female Royal Guard of Balcovia, and equally determined to accept no help from anyone to get there. Over her time with the Wynchesters she learns the value of family, friendship, and that having people on your side to help isn’t a weakness at all.

I really like how Erica Ridley took two characters with ambitions and goals that are diametrically opposed and brings them around to the same side eventually with the realization that it’s ok to let go of long-held dreams in order to reach for something better. I also really appreciate that both parties here opted for new dreams over old ones. It felt very balanced.

I also really appreciate the many issues that are touched on here. They carry weight with the story and feel organic and not forced at all. Slavery, racial equality, feminism, the plight of factory workers, cruel factory owners, lazy aristocracy, the frustrating slowness of Parliament and legislative change, chronic illness, child labor, mistreated animals… I’m sure I missed some. The Wynchesters tackle all of these.

One of my favorite things about this book is how Kunigunde spends time with each of the Wynchester siblings and comes to appreciate them and care for them all. It’s not just a romance between her and Graham, it involves the whole family. She has secret painting projects with Marjorie and they teach one another sign language and Balcovian. She terrorizes the university bullies with Elizabeth. She trains with Graham. She steals an antbear with Jacob, she watches Parliament with Chloe, she attends the reading circle with Philippa, she talks costumes with Tommy… and she opts to put off her own reconnaissance mission to help the Wynchesters on their mission to save a town of impoverished factory workers from their cruel factory owner.

The involvement of the Wynchester siblings doesn’t diminish the romance between Kunigunde and Graham, which is terribly swoony. Even though they are both rather pig-headed about the whole thing, they do eventually end up on the same page and it was delightful going on that journey with them.

Elizabeth once again stole my heart in this book as my favorite secondary character, and I cannot wait to read her story because it is bound to be epic. And feature a LOT of swords.

*thanks to NetGalley and Forever (Grand Central Publishing) for providing an e-arc for review.

Favorite Quotes:

Kuni did not want her day saved. She would do the saving of days, thank you very much. The entire point of this mission was to prove how capable she was on her own without help, especially from a man. An Englishman.

“Welcome to England,” Graham said. “Our natural condition is proud and offended.”

“Anything worth doing starts with falling,” he said cheerfully.

If anyone could learn to leap atop a narrow beam during the free moments of a four-week reconnaissance mission in a foreign country, that person would be Kunigunde.

A very low possibility. Very, very low. She absolutely, positively, probably would rebuff him if he tried. Maybe.

“It’s not murder if the villain deserves to have his blood spilled,” Elizabeth protested.

She shoved the cane away and turned to face Elizabeth Wynchester. “I am not going to sit around your house sewing decorative samplers”

Elizabeth stared at her. “Why would anyone pick up a needle when they could pick up a sword?”

“Shall we return to your home?”

“Must we?” Elizabeth lifted her cane. “I have good days and bad days. On bad days, I can’t move. On good days, ’tis the villains who had better step out of my way. This is a good day. I don’t want to waste a moment of it.”

…the presence of maids or footmen registered about as much as the individual mullions on the windows. Without them, the whole thing would fall apart, but no one ever exclaimed in wonder at well-functioning mullions. Royals looked right through the painstakingly crafted glass to the view on the other side.

“We can take our trained geldings!”

Kuni sent a suspicious glance toward Jacob. “Are they… messenger homing horses?”

The Wynchesters had taught her that family was more than blood. Family was anywhere you were treated like family. Anywhere you were welcomed, and cherished, and loved.

ARC Review: The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes by Cat Sebastian (The Queer Principles of Kit Webb #2)

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Publishing Date: June 7, 2022

Synopsis:

Cat Sebastian returns to Georgian London with a stunning tale of a reluctant criminal and the thief who cannot help but love her.

Marian Hayes, the Duchess of Clare, just shot her husband. Of course, the evil, murderous man deserved what was coming to him, but now she must flee to the countryside. Unfortunately, the only person she can ask for help is the charismatic criminal who is blackmailing her—and who she may have left tied up a few hours before…

A highwayman, con artist, and all-around cheerful villain, Rob Brooks is no stranger to the wrong side of the law or the right side of anybody’s bed. He never meant to fall for the woman whose secrets he promised to keep for the low price of five hundred pounds, but how could he resist someone who led him on a merry chase all over London, left him tied up in a seedy inn, and then arrived covered in her husband’s blood and in desperate need of his help?

As they flee across the country—stopping to pick pockets, drink to excess, and rescue invalid cats—they discover more true joy and peace than either has felt in ages. But when the truth of Rob’s past catches up to him, they must decide if they are willing to reshape their lives in order to forge a future together.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This book is EVERYTHING. I live and breathe books and I would be happy to never read another book and just live in this one. It’s that good. But more than that it’s the perfect book for me. Like Cat Sebastian knew it’s been rough lately and wrote it just for me. I’m predicting it makes it at least into my top 5 books this year.

It’s a cleverly disguised Robin Hood and Marian book. It’s the perfect Robin Hood and Marian book. I want to paper my walls in quotes from this book (and I probably highlighted enough to do just that – a full 11 single-spaced pages of them!!) and just live in this story from now on. Is this because I love Robin Hood stories? Yes, partly. But also I love queer love stories and Cat Sebastian’s writing in general, and the Queer Principles of Kit Webb in particular, so this was just the happy convergence of all of my favorite things.

This is an excellent queer love story. Both leads are bisexual and Marian is probably some flavor of asexual and the dynamic is very much a dominant/aggressive/in charge Marian and a submissive Rob who only wants to please her. That stable scene! She pins him against the wall! Flip the gender status quo of historical romance why don’t you? I LOVE it.

I love how Marian is the prickly and closed-off and responsible one in this relationship, and Rob is friendly and charming and is distracted by kittens. And, now that I think of it, this is yet another case of me falling completely for a grumpy / sunshine trope.

Another reviewer pointed out that this book in a nutshell is ‘disaster bisexuals’ and ‘be gay do crime’ with a side of ‘eat the rich’ and if that isn’t Marian and Rob I don’t know what is. I can’t top that as a description.

I see hints of future books of ‘be gay do crime’ and i just want to say YES PLEASE. And baby Eliza will be raised by four doting queer parents and immersed in planning of heists before she can talk. I desperately want more books in this world, with these people.

*Thanks to NetGalley and Avon and Harper Voyager for providing an e-arc for review.

Favorite Quotes:

**Note: I highlighted literally 11 single-spaced pages of quotes so obviously I can’t include them all here. I have consolidated as much as possible but it will still be rather long. But trust me – you want to read these. They will absolutely make you want to read this book.

Although, if you don’t want to read them, that’s fine too. This is the last section of the review for a reason.

What a trick it was to be able to say I beg your pardon in a way that meant fuck off and die, and to look serene and saintly while saying it.

The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes by Cat Sebastian

The memory made him feel both wistful and somehow homesick, in the way that happy memories too often did.

The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes by Cat Sebastian

“I think we’re still in the cave, hitting one another with sticks,” Rob went on. “I know that I broke the law when I stole from those arseholes at the tavern this afternoon. But how is what I did any different from putting poor men into debtors’ prison? What I did is comparatively gentle. A targeted tax on rich men who behave badly. It’s very civilized, actually.”

The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes by Cat Sebastian

He was lost, and he had been from about the first time she sent him a scathing letter –what kind of person did that to a man who held her future in the palm of his hand? – and followed it up with trivia about that Italian fellow and his peculiarly organized version of hell.

The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes by Cat Sebastian

“In the winter, you can imagine that the land could become anything. In the summer, all that’s left is for winter to come.”

Rob had never heard anyone express anything of the sort and didn’t know what to say, or even to think, beyond reflecting that if anyone were to enjoy an uninterrupted view of mud and dirt it would have to be Marian.

The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes by Cat Sebastian

She moved so slowly and deliberately it was as if she were inventing the concept of kissing right there on the spot, as precisely as if she were counting change in the marketplace. He kissed her back with none of those qualities, with nothing but profligacy.

The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes by Cat Sebastian

He wore rainwater and mud the way other men wore silk coats, only better, and she wanted him.

The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes by Cat Sebastian

And now he was looking at her as if she were a cake, if cakes were also religious icons, and she was possessed of a mortifying certainty that she was looking at him in precisely the same deranged manner.

The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes by Cat Sebastian

Rob knew better than most that sometimes nothing could salve your conscience. You just had to live with the guilt and find other ways to be the kind of person you wanted to be.

The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes by Cat Sebastian

But when she looked at him, what she felt wasn’t attraction. Or it wasn’t only that. It was a bright spark, something warm and glowing that took up residency in her chest and refused to budge. It was something like contentment, only sharp and with teeth. It was the urge to wrap her hand around his arm and not let go. It was the knowledge that he would let her.

The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes by Cat Sebastian

The idea that she was planning to go into mourning for a man she had killed with her own hands, while – regardless of what she said – robbing, extorting, or otherwise dealing feloniously with another man, made Rob feel faintly dizzy.

The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes by Cat Sebastian

“Gentlemen typically don’t extort money from their tenants,” Marian retorted.

“That is precisely what gentlemen do,” he pointed out, exasperated. “It is practically the entire point of gentlemen.”

She opened her mouth as if to protest, then frowned. “Fair.”

The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes by Cat Sebastian

It was a dark day indeed when he wanted to congratulate an aristocrat for simply remembering that servants were human beings.

The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes by Cat Sebastian

In his arms she felt as sharp as a knife and as sure as a promise and he never wanted to take his hands off her.

The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes by Cat Sebastian

And he didn’t try to hold it back, either. His friendship was like a creeping ivy – all one had to do was let it be, and it covered the whole barn.

The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes by Cat Sebastian

From where she lay, she could see at least half a dozen scars on his arms and back. He spoke of them as if he didn’t mind them, and she thought she understood – what were the pair of them, after all, but a collection of things gone wrong and then, slowly, made right again.

The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes by Cat Sebastian

“Well, she did leave me tied to a bed all night,” Rob offered as an explanation.

“It’s how I make all my friends,” said Betty.

The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes by Cat Sebastian

“Running away?” Rob scoffed. “I’m not running away from anything. I’m refusing to participate in inherited wealth.”

The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes by Cat Sebastian

“They’d suit you perfectly well if it were twenty years ago.” He sank into a chair by the fire. “And if you were a provincial spinster who drank tea without any sugar and terrified all the neighborhood children.”

Marian, momentarily impressed with this aesthetic success, preened a little before remembering why she needed to speak to Percy.

The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes by Cat Sebastian

He wore a blue suit of clothes so fine that Rob wanted to set things on fire.

The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes by Cat Sebastian

 It would not, however, accommodate Marian’s father and his household, and indeed the idea of cramming an elderly earl, a highwayman, a baby, the bigamous wife of a duke, and whatever on earth Percy considered himself these days under one roof was too farcical for Marian to take seriously.

The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes by Cat Sebastian

She was certain that most women felt something warmer for their children, something less sharp and jagged. Marian wasn’t much given to warmth, but whatever she felt now – a champagne lightness mixed with the usual knife-sharp protectiveness – felt like enough.

The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes by Cat Sebastian

Her laughter was rare and precious; it was the sound of church bells, the sound of coins dropping into a pocket, and he wanted to save it in a bottle and wear it close to his heart.

The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes by Cat Sebastian

ARC Review: A Lady for a Duke by Alexis Hall

Publication Date: May 24, 2022

Synopsis:

A lush, sweeping queer historical romance from the bestselling author of Boyfriend Material—perfect for fans of Netflix’s Bridgerton, Evie Dunmore, and Manda Collins!

When Viola Caroll was presumed dead at Waterloo she took the opportunity to live, at last, as herself. But freedom does not come without a price, and Viola paid for hers with the loss of her wealth, her title, and her closest companion, Justin de Vere, the Duke of Gracewood.

Only when their families reconnect, years after the war, does Viola learn how deep that loss truly was. Shattered without her, Gracewood has retreated so far into grief that Viola barely recognises her old friend in the lonely, brooding man he has become.

As Viola strives to bring Gracewood back to himself, fresh desires give new names to old feelings. Feelings that would have been impossible once and may be impossible still, but which Viola cannot deny. Even if they cost her everything, all over again.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This was Everything. I am aware that I say that… not infrequently, but when I love things, I really love them. And this… I had high hopes, because lets be honest, I love everything Alexis Hall writes, but this was so much more.

Regency romance? check. Loads of pining? check. Loads of queer and unconventional characters? check.

I’ve read books like that before, of course. Not many, not nearly as many as I would like, but there are some. But I’ve never read one with a trans main character, and I didn’t anticipate how deeply it would hit me, as a nonbinary person who, like Viola, has struggled with my identity and my body and my desire.

Viola Caroll is strong and determined and fierce and deeply, painfully relatable. She is unapologetically herself and I love her for that. Gracewood accepts her and loves her as she is and it’s possibly the most revolutionary idea in the whole book. Most dukes would not be so accepting, I think — although Gracewood has spent his life trying to break free of the idea of what a duke can be so maybe it’s not so surprising. Surprising or not, it makes for a beautiful love story.

This falls more on the angsty side than the humorous side, unlike many of Alexis Hall’s other works, though it is still funny in parts. It’s what I was in the mood for, though, so it worked out. The writing is, as I have come to expect, absolutely gorgeous. I highlighted so many passages, and I know I will be returning to it again. I just hope we get a sequel – Mira’s story would be an excellent candidate.

This book also touches on grief, child abuse, addiction, and chronic pain, and tackles these topics gracefully. The characters are flawed and human and real, even the side characters. And, more than anything, it shows the deep love and acceptance between the characters, despite their flaws. I loved every minute of it.

— update 5/28/22—

I have now listened to the audio arc and can say that the narrator performs the story beautifully, though I had my doubts in the first few minutes. The character voices are distinct and easy to understand and fit the characters’ personalities and the emotion and humor come through perfectly (which is good, because this story is all about a lot of emotion).

*Thanks to NetGalley, Forever (Grand Central Publishing), and Hachette Audio for providing an e-arc and audio arc for review.

Favorite Quotes:

“What other options? Men and women are permitted to interact in three ways: marriage, ruination, and polite indifference.”

“She’s a seventeen-year-old girl. She should be in London, having love affairs with unsuitable young men in a controlled environment. Not stuck in a mouldering fortress miles from anywhere.”

It made Viola feel oddly safe, this reminder that everyone lived their own illusions, chose their own truths, performed their own quiet magic before indifferent crowds.

She turned slowly, in case she scattered into dried leaves and dust.

“Loubear,” whispered Badger. “You have to be quiet when you’re eavesdropping. Otherwise it’s just a logistically difficult conversation.”

Viola was not certain that be virtuous, because vice is too much bother was quite the lesson a young gentleman was meant to be learning in these days of reason and enlightenment, but she let it go.

But there was a larger loneliness, one that came from inhabiting a space she’d had no choice but to build for herself, only to find that nobody could inhabit it with her.

As though he had become a man in a fable: lain with the wild ocean and woken, salt-stricken, forever changed, upon an unfamiliar shore.

“Suffering isn’t something we earn, Gracewood. It’s something we bear.”

Because that was the truth of trust. It was neither weak nor fleeting. It was steel and fire. And would endure as long as you let it.

Besides, it would not have done to read his sister’s intimate correspondence when there were ladies to do it for him.

The night beyond the city was mild and clear, the landscape a silvered forever—mirror-smooth fields, the ribbon twist of an occasional stream, ash trees, in curly-headed silhouette, cast like images from a magic lantern against the sky.

The night had been long and fraught and could have ended badly in so many ways. Could, in fact, end badly regardless. But still. What a marvel it was. What freedom. To be a woman unabashedly in love beneath a multitude of stars.

ARC Review: To Marry and to Meddle by Martha Waters

Publishing Date: April 5, 2022

Synopsis:

The “sweet, sexy, and utterly fun” (Emily Henry, author of The People We Meet on Vacation) Regency Vows series continues with a witty, charming, and joyful novel following a seasoned debutante and a rakish theater owner as they navigate a complicated marriage of convenience.

Lady Emily Turner has been a debutante for six seasons now and should have long settled into a suitable marriage. However, due to her father’s large debts, her only suitor is the persistent and odious owner of her father’s favorite gambling house. Meanwhile, Lord Julian Belfry, the second son of a marquess, has scandalized society as an actor and owner of a theater—the kind of establishment where men take their mistresses, but not their wives. When their lives intersect at a house party, Lord Julian hatches a plan to benefit them both.

With a marriage of convenience, Emily will use her society connections to promote the theater to a more respectable clientele and Julian will take her out from under the shadows of her father’s unsavory associates. But they soon realize they have very different plans for their marriage—Julian wants Emily to remain a society wife, while Emily discovers an interest in the theater. But when a fleeing actress, murderous kitten, and meddlesome friends enter the fray, Emily and Julian will have to confront the fact that their marriage of convenience comes with rather inconvenient feelings.

With “an arch sense of humor and a marvelously witty voice that rivals the best of the Regency authors” (Entertainment Weekly), Martha Waters crafts another fresh romantic comedy that for fans of Julia Quinn and Evie Dunmore.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I really loved this. Emily’s journey from the perfect untouchable innocent to her true self – determined, fiery, with a quick wit – was so, so very satisfying to watch. Julian was also great. I loved the family dynamics and the message of acknowledging how your upbringing affected you and then growing and asserting your independence.

Emily’s friends were wonderful and I loved their gatherings. And her interactions with Julian, as they both fell in love, were perfection. And the grand gesture at the end? Swoon-worthy.

Really, I just loved it all. I spent the entirety of the book with this huge smile on my face. It was so sweet and swoony and romantic and funny. The perfect romantic comedy. I will be rereading this one for sure and Martha Waters is now a must-read for me.

Thanks to NetGalley and Atria Books for providing an e-arc for review.

Favorite Quotes:

“Can I help you?” he asked her, somewhat grumpily.

“You getting married,” his sister said, quite decisively “is the best thing that has happened in years.”

…really, Frenchmen were very charming; it was a shame His Majesty’s Army had spent so much time trying to kill them over the past twenty years.

Here, a woman could take up space, speak loudly, draw the eyes of a crowd—or, alternately, could slip into a role behind the scenes, quietly doing her work just as well as the men who surrounded her—and Emily found both prospects not shocking but… exhilarating.

He loved her.

And what was truly galling was that it had taken a waistcoat that was an offense to God and man alike to make him realize it.

ARC Review: Love Letters by the Sea by Erica Ridley

Publication Date: April 12, 2022

Synopsis:

What happens when the proprietress of Siren’s Retreat discovers the charming romantic she’s been corresponding with is same villain turning her beloved property into a gaming hell?

When not responding to advice column letters, entrepreneurial widow Mrs. Deborah Cartwright runs bright, beautiful Siren’s Retreat, legendary for helping her lovelorn guests find their perfect match. Deborah experienced love years before, and lightning does not strike twice. Although there might be a light flirtation with a certain anonymous letter-writer she’s definitely not falling for, there’s no time for romance. Not whilst a heartless blackguard is in town to wrest her beloved inn out from under her!

Clever, career-minded Mr. Patrick Gretham is the trusted man-of-business for a powerful lord, who is eager to turn this perfectly situated property wasted on lovebirds into a gambling hell the likes of which no one leaves with their fortunes intact. Over Deborah’s dead body! The beautiful proprietress hates everything Patrick stands for and will fight him every step of the way. Except when they find themselves on opposite sides of a plume. Or falling into each other’s embrace…

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This book was so, so delightful. I put off reading it because I’ve been on a fanfic kick, and it was exactly what I needed today.

Erica Ridley absolutely shines at creating characters that jump off the page and make you fall in love with them. The settings aren’t as important, and fade into the background just because the characters shine so bright.

I love that these aren’t your typical regency debutante and rake. Instead we have a widowed proprietress of an inn (and former opera singer) and a man of business with a soft heart, smile lines around his eyes, and silver at his temples. I love that they fall in love anonymously through letters and in person but are kept apart by being adversaries with seemingly nothing in common. I love the way we can’t help but fall with them.

This was short and sweet and brimming with romance and I smiled so much while reading (a feat, as I am coming down with a cold and feel little like smiling). I will definitely be pulling it out again when I need to be cheered up and reminded of how much I love watching people fall in love. This, right here, is why I read romance novels, and why Erica Ridley is always at the top of my list.

*Thanks to NetGalley, Erica Ridley, and WebMotion for providing an e-arc for review.

Favorite Quotes:

She waited, but he said nothing more. Just gripped her hands and stared at her beseechingly, belligerently, besottedly. As if he were confused and angry and half in love all at the same time and would rather not be any of it.