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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: A Wicked Game by Kate Bateman

Publication Date: December 27, 2022

Synopsis:

If there’s one thing impossible for a Davies to resist, it’s a challenge from a Montgomery. . .

A teasing bet.

Shipwrecked and imprisoned thanks to an incorrect map, Captain Morgan Davies has returned to London to exact sweet revenge on the cartographer responsible for his suffering. He’s also vowed to claim the winner’s prize―three kisses―in the bet he made with his long-time nemesis, the prickly, smart-mouthed Harriet Montgomery. His incarceration has clarified his feelings for her, but convincing the infuriating woman he wants to marry her is going to be his greatest challenge yet. When Harriet’s revealed to be the very mapmaker he seeks, Morgan decides to combine revenge and seduction into one delightful package. . .

A dangerous enemy.

Harriet’s always wanted witty scoundrel Morgan, and now he’s back; as handsome and as taunting as ever. She has enough on her plate dealing with her father’s failing eyesight and a rival mapmaker copying her work to play wicked games with a dastardly Davies―however tempting he might be. But when a threat from Morgan’s past puts them both in danger, Harry discovers that she and Morgan might not be enemies at all . . .

My Review:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Maybe I’m out of practice reading romance novels, but I was disappointed in this one. The previous books in this series had more plot, as I recall; this one was nothing but seduction and foreplay from the first page. The conflict seems to be that each of them wants the other but thinks they have to convince the other to want them. Which would be fine but… I don’t know. The writing isn’t quite up to the standards of the other books. Or maybe it’s so focused on the bedroom scenes and seduction that everything else suffers. I was willing to forgive it its flaws at first because there was a hint of plot beyond the seduction, but as it progressed I became more and more bored. And the writing became full of his “masculine” this and her “feminine” that and his large body looming over her and it just. Is not my style. At all. I finally gave up when I passed the 50% mark and no plot had shown up to distract from the seduction.

I did enjoy some of the banter and rivalry and one-up games Morgan and Harriet played, and the flashbacks to when they were younger, but I think this book could have been far, far better with some plot. There was a hint of some, in the beginning, with the maps and the treasure and the revenge… but it all gets swept away by lust. Since I don’t actually read romance books for the bedroom scenes (and prefer to skip them most of the time), this book wasn’t it for me.

I also never connected with either Harriet or Morgan. They both felt really flat to me and I was never convinced of their chemistry. They didn’t have a lot to their personalities or motivations except lust for each other which left it all feeling sort of hollow.

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

ARC Review: The Gentleman’s Book of Vices by Jess Everlee

Publication Date: November 29, 2022

Synopsis:

Is their real-life love story doomed to be a tragedy, or can they rewrite the ending?

London, 1883

Finely dressed and finely drunk, Charlie Price is a man dedicated to his vices. Chief among them is his explicit novel collection, though his impending marriage to a woman he can’t love will force his carefully curated collection into hiding.

Before it does, Charlie is determined to have one last hurrah: meeting his favorite author in person.

Miles Montague is more gifted as a smut writer than a shopkeep and uses his royalties to keep his flagging bookstore afloat. So when a cheerful dandy appears out of the mist with Miles’s highly secret pen name on his pretty lips, Miles assumes the worst. But Charlie Price is no blackmailer; he’s Miles’s biggest fan.

A scribbled signature on a worn book page sets off an affair as scorching as anything Miles has ever written. But Miles is clinging to a troubled past, while Charlie’s future has spun entirely out of his control…

Carina Adores is home to romantic love stories where LGBTQ+ characters find their happily-ever-afters.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I really enjoyed this. Charlie and Miles and their friends and found family were interesting characters that were fun to spend time with, and the plot was consistent with my expectations. The grumpy/sunshine trope is one of my favorites, and Miles is very grumpy and Charlie very sunshine (on the surface, at least) so I enjoyed their dynamic quite a bit.

I appreciated that although Charlie and Miles’ sexual preferences were talked about and insinuated, the actual scenes were closed door. I may be in the minority, but I prefer closed door sex scenes for any gender pairing. I read romance for… the romance. Not the sex.

I thought that Charlie’s tendency to sacrifice himself was fitting considering how much he loves Miles’ books — all smut books, yes, but also all tragedies. Yes, his friends’ interventions were convenient but they were also consistent and believable for the characters. I don’t have a problem with them.

I loved the friendship Charlie and Alma have, even though they’re being forced into marriage to “save themselves.” There’s a real bond there, and it was so nice to *not* have Alma made into a villain. The same could be said about Charlie’s parents. Despite trying to marry him off for his own good, they really do love him.

Miss Jo was wonderful, and I appreciated her even more once she revealed who her husband was. Out of all of the characters in the book, she is the one I think I’d most like to know and read more about.

I prefer to read romances that aren’t based solely on physical attraction, since I value emotional connections more. And this book definitely hit the spot – there were so many sweet and tender moments, and when things looked like they were going to fall apart they felt oh so bittersweet. There were also many humorous moments and moments of joy.

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

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.

ARC Review: Never Ever Getting Back Together by Sophie Gonzales

Publication Date: November 29, 2022

Synopsis:

When their now famous ex-boyfriend asks them to participate in a teen reality show, two eighteen year old girls—one bent on revenge, the other open to rekindling romance—get tangled up in an unexpected twist when they fall for each other instead in Never Ever Getting Back Together by nationally and internationally-bestselling and Indie Next Pick author Sophie Gonzales.

It’s been two years since Maya’s ex-boyfriend cheated on her, and she still can’t escape him: his sister married the crown prince of a minor European country and he captured hearts as her charming younger brother. If the world only knew the real Jordy, the manipulative liar who broke Maya’s heart.

Skye Kaplan was always cautious with her heart until Jordy said all the right things and earned her trust. Now his face is all over the media and Skye is still wondering why he stopped calling.

When Maya and Skye are invited to star on the reality dating show Second-Chance Romance, they’re whisked away to a beautiful mansion—along with four more of Jordy’s exes— to compete for his affections while the whole world watches. Skye wonders if she and Jordy can recapture the spark she knows they had, but Maya has other plans: exposing Jordy and getting revenge. As they navigate the competition, Skye and Maya discover that their real happily ever after is nothing they could have scripted.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This was super cute. It’s funny – I don’t watch reality TV, but I’ve really enjoyed a number of books that center around reality TV shows in the past few years. This one hit all the right notes for me.

I love love loved that it was two girls supposedly competing for a past boyfriend’s heart who really try to take him down and fall in love along the way. They were great together. Their frank ‘yes i dated this guy and this girl and this guy’ coming out to one another was enjoyable because it was very much a “yes, I’m bi, what are you going to do about it?” and very matter-of-fact.

Jordy was the sleaziest sleazeball ever and his part was painful to watch but bearable because you just know that he’ll get his comeuppance in the end. The ‘enemies to lovers’ thing was done well and believable. Maya and Skye were enjoyable and while it was frustrating to watch them at odds with each other over a misunderstanding created by sleazeball Jordy, it was very satisfying when they finally worked things out.

The other girls were very much not in focus for most of the book, so I don’t feel like I have a very good sense of them beyond the barest sketch of personality, but they worked as background characters to better show Maya, Skye, and Jordy.

The way the show played out, and the way we could see Jordy manipulating everyone and pulling them all along was fascinating and kept my interest riveted. I listened to the audio and ended up finishing it in two sittings because I just couldn’t stop listening.

The audiobook narrators did a great job bringing the characters to life. They made Maya and Skye sympathetic, though not without flaws, and made Jordy truly insufferable. They also did a good job making the other characters waver between sympathetic and self-interested.

I loved the way things played out. The misunderstandings and conflict and moment of realization and grand gesture. Not Jordy’s “grand gesture” – his sucked. Maya’s, though, was great. Also the ending was sooooo satisfying.

Thanks to NetGalley, Wednesday Books, and Macmillan Audio 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.

Blog Tour: Love on the Brain by Ali Hazelwood

Publication Date: August 23, 2022

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

Synopsis:

LOVE ON THE BRAIN introduces readers to neuroscientist Bee Königswasser, who lives her life by a simple motto: What would Marie Curie do? If NASA offered her the leading role on a neuroengineering project—a literal dream come true after years scraping by on the crumbs of academia—Marie would accept without hesitation. Duh! But the mother of modern physics never had to co-lead alongside an engineer who also happens to be her archnemesis. Levi Ward made his feelings toward Bee very clear in grad school – he hated her, plain and simple. But when Bee is faced with one career dilemma after the next, it seems the tables may be turning. Perhaps it’s her occipital cortex playing tricks on her, but Bee could swear she can see Levi softening into an ally… or maybe even something more?

Author Bio:

Hazelwood draws on her own experience as a professor of neuroscience to capture the cutthroat world of higher education, both “the agony and the ecstasy” of academia. Hazelwood’s stories are also heavily influenced by pop culture as The Love Hypothesis was originally conceived as Star Wars fanfiction. Her novels are perfect for readers who geek out over rom-coms, and for fans of Emily Henry and Helen Hoang.  

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

What I love most about this book – as I did with the Love Hypothesis – is how faithfully Ali Hazelwood portrays academia and science; specifically, what it’s like to be a woman in STEM. It’s even more prominent in this book, and I immediately feel such a kinship with Bee and the other characters. It’s almost visceral, this sense of belonging. Having attended a predominantly male STEM school it’s all so, SO familiar.

I loved the You’ve Got Mail -esque premise, and greatly enjoyed watching it play out. It is inevitable from the beginning what will happen, but it’s the journey that’s the important part in this story. In such a story, everything hangs on the characters. Her characters feel so real, so very human and alive. And the precision with which she skewers certain types of people in STEM is astonishing. I was wholly invested for every moment of the story.

The sex scenes were decent, I think. Not the best I’ve ever read, perhaps, but then I’m not really a good judge of sex scenes, since I’d honestly prefer it if they all disappeared and tend to skim them. I have a feeling that a lot of people will really like them, and that’s what matters. They were different than a lot of the ones I’ve read before which is something.

It’s clear that Ali Hazelwood is very keen on the small woman/hulking dude dynamic which… is not my thing. But again, I’m pretty sure a lot of people will really enjoy it. I personally appreciated Levi’s sensitivity and wit and general decentness more. Contrary to Bee’s initial impression of him, he’s definitely the sort of guy I would want to get to know. Similarly, I really want to get to know Bee. And Rocio and Kaylee and Reike (even though she’s only present through phone calls). And Lily and Penny… basically everyone. They’re unique and chaotic and quirky and charming and just… the sort of people you would want to know and have in your life.

Sometimes when I’m reading I find that the characters’ struggles aren’t really relevant to me, or sometimes not even plausible. Not the case here. I was with these characters every step of the way and firmly on their team through all their struggles and joys. And that is one of the things I love most about reading romance, and why this became an instant favorite.

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

Favorite Quotes:

The real villain is love: an unstable isotope, constantly undergoing spontaneous nuclear decay.

Love on the Brain by Ali Hazelwood

Levi became my sworn archenemy on a Tuesday in April, in my Ph.D. advisor’s office.

Love on the Brain by Ali Hazelwood

Science doesn’t give a shit. Science is reliable in its variability. Science does whatever the fuck it wants. God, I love science.

Love on the Brain by Ali Hazelwood

I take off my sandals and push my legs against the dashboard, hoping Levi won’t take offense at my bright yellow nail polish and my incredibly ugly pinkies. I call them the Quasimotoes.

Love on the Brain by Ali Hazelwood

I now know more about body decomposition and makeup palettes than I thought I ever would, but I regret nothing. This is almost nice.

Love on the Brain by Ali Hazelwood

Rocio rummages in her jeans pocket and offers him an unwrapped, slightly squished red gumball.

“Thank you. This is…” He looks at the gum. “A thing that I now have.”

Love on the Brain by Ali Hazelwood

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.