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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: An Atlas of Lost Kingdoms: Discover Mythical Lands, Lost Cities and Vanished Islands by Emily Hawkins

Publication Date: October 4, 2022

Synopsis:

On this quest around the world, you will discover lost kingdoms, phantom islands, and even legendary continents once sought by explorers but now believed to be mythical.

For centuries, people have dreamed of finding the lost worlds of Atlantis, El Dorado, and the Seven Cities of Gold. As well as shedding light on these famously elusive places, this atlas contains maps and captivating illustrations to illuminate lesser-known destinations, from the lost island of Hy-Brasil to the desert city of Zerzura. You will learn about rich mythologies from different cultures, from the Aztecs to the ancient Britons, from the Greek legends to Japanese folklore.
 
Most of the places in this book have never been found, but within these pages you will succeed where the adventurers of the past were thwarted. Learn about ancient maps, age-old manuscripts, and cryptic carvings that reveal clues to the whereabouts of these lost kingdoms. The journey will transport you to thoroughly other-worldly places.

From Emily HawkinsNew York Times bestselling author of Oceanology—comes this whimsical blend of myth and history, fact and fantasy. This lavish volume will fire the imaginations of young adventurers everywhere.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This is an absolutely stunning book and I would have *devoured* it as a child. I still devoured it as an adult, but I wish I’d had it available when I was obsessed with explorers and lost cities as a child.

The illustrations are gorgeous. The colors are vivid and make the cities and kingdoms seem real and as if they might pop off the page. Or as if you could sink into them and do some exploring of your own. The composition of the illustrations draw your eye around the page.

The cities and kingdoms are spread out across the globe and the book is organized into sections by continent. Each section begins with a map of that region with all of the probable locations of the cities and kingdoms laid out in relation to one another which is very helpful in getting an overview and general idea of where each is located, especially for kids who may not be well-versed in geography and might be confused if they are simply said to be in Yemen, Ethiopia, Mongolia, etc.

I love how the text is parceled out in boxes and banners that overlay the illustration, with some text written on the illustrations themselves in bite-size chunks. It breaks up the details and information and makes it seem easier to read and understand. This is a definite plus in a book for kids.

I recognized many of the names of the lost cities and kingdoms as well as the names of many of the explorers. Some I even recognized from books my kiddo and I are reading. I came away feeling like I’d been on an adventure and learned a whole lot on the way.

I especially like how each entry felt thoroughly researched and was broken into two parts: the mythology and legend of the place in question, and then the expeditions and evidence for or against it being a real place. It didn’t diminish the importance of the cities and kingdoms in the mythology or religion of any peoples, but it also gave a reality check so kids don’t come away thinking everything mentioned in it is a real discoverable place.

10/10 would absolutely recommend and I am pre-ordering a copy for my kiddo for Christmas right now.

*Thanks to NetGalley and Quarto Publishing Group – Wide Eyed Editions for providing an e-arc for review.

Audio ARC DNF Review: Last of the Talons by Sophie Kim

Publication Date: September 27, 2022

Synopsis:

After the destruction of her entire Talon gang, eighteen-year-old Shin Lina—the Reaper of Sunpo—is forced to become a living, breathing weapon for the kingdom’s most-feared crime lord. All that keeps her from turning on her ruthless master is the life of her beloved little sister hanging in the balance. But the order to steal a priceless tapestry from a Dokkaebi temple incites not only the wrath of a legendary immortal, but the beginning of an unwinnable game…

Suddenly Lina finds herself in the dreamlike realm of the Dokkaebi, her fate in the hands of its cruel and captivating emperor. But she can win her life—if she kills him first.

Now a terrible game of life and death has begun, and even Lina’s swift, precise blade is no match for the magnetic Haneul Rui. Lina will have to use every weapon in her arsenal if she wants to outplay this cunning king and save her sister…all before the final grain of sand leaks out of the hourglass.

Because one way or another, she’ll take Rui’s heart.

Even if it means giving up her own.

My Review:

Rating: 1 out of 5.

I was really looking forward to this one because it sounds amazing. I love reading books grounded in other cultures’ mythologies, and Korean mythology is one I haven’t really had much experience with. The cover is gorgeous and promises a magical fantasy adventure. The synopsis brings to mind stories like Six of Crows. Sadly, the execution fell far short.

The writing could use some polishing. Everything is described endlessly, using the biggest words possible and five where one would do. It’s sprinkled lavishly with curse words that just feel unnecessary. I’m all for cursing, just, it has to make sense. Our ‘living breathing weapon’ and skilled assassin of an mc just isn’t. She reads much younger than the stated 18, is constantly getting herself in trouble with her impulsive actions (partially forgiveable because of trauma), and never actually does any killing or shows any skill, only talks about how awesome she is at it or gives a brief overview of things she’s done in the past. The closest she gets to showing her skill is entering a building and opening a chest. And not even a human chest, before you ask. Like. That’s about as much effort as she puts into the ‘steal the priceless tapestry’ escapade. Walk in, notice the dust, info dump a bit, open the chest, walk out. Mission complete. (yawn.)

She doesn’t get along with any of the other women. An awfully lot of time is spent describing how she started / continued smoking. Yes, this leads into memories of her trauma from her family dying but… it’s still sort of weird and abrupt.

The first-person present tense is my least favorite to read but it can be done well. Sadly, I did not find that to be the case here. She just reads as annoying. Also the moment she described her “shit-eating grin” I knew it was not going to improve. And it didn’t.

The instant the eventual love interest enters the scene you can clock him as the love interest. He might as well come with a flashing neon sign proclaiming it. If the detailed description of his appearance wasn’t enough, there’s the bad boy sarcastic sense of humor and the enigmatic interaction and disappearance. Like what even was the point except to go ‘hey, love interest here!’?

The narrator was ok, although her male voices were not very believable and her reading of the main character made her seem younger than she was supposed to be. I maybe enjoyed her performance less than I would have enjoyed reading the text as I was unable to skim the info-dump-y bits or the places where the descriptions dragged on.

I do think that anyone who loves Sara J. Maas’ romances – ACOTAR especially – will probably love this. It seems to be much more focused on the romance with the fantasy used more as set dressing. It also gives major ACOTAR vibes which could be part of why I reacted so negatively to it – I enjoyed ACOTAR initially but hearing about it over and over in facebook book groups and spending some time reflecting on it lowered my enjoyment of the series dramatically.

After thinking some more about what it was that didn’t work for me here, I think I’ve figured out why I was so disappointed with this book. The cover, narrator’s voice, and initial writing of the main character all led me to believe this would be a middle-grade fantasy adventure with the narrator being around 11-12 years old. So the swearing and the smoking felt really jarring when I encountered them, because they definitely wouldn’t be in a middle-grade book. And then it took a hard turn into fantasy romance with some major ACOTAR vibes which my initial impression of middle-grade fantasy did NOT prepare me for.

*Thanks to NetGalley and Recorded Books for providing an audio arc for review.

Audio Arc Review: Fraternity by Andy Mientus

Publication Date: September 20, 2022

Synopsis:

A queer, dark academia YA about a mysterious boarding school, a brotherhood that must stay in the shadows, and an ancient evil that could tear it all apart.

In the fall of 1991, Zooey Orson transfers to the Blackfriars School for Boys hoping for a fresh start following a scandal at his last school. However, he quickly learns that he isn’t the only student keeping a secret. Before he knows it, he’s fallen in with a group of boys who all share the same secret, one which they can only express openly within the safety of the clandestine gatherings of the Vicious Circle––the covert club for gay students going back decades. But when the boys unwittingly happen upon the headmaster’s copy of an arcane occult text, they unleash an eldritch secret so terrible, it threatens to consume them all.

A queer paranormal story set during the still-raging AIDS crisis, Fraternity examines a time not so long ago when a secret brotherhood lurked in the shadows. What would Zooey and his friends do to protect their found family?

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This started slowly but little by little it picked up steam until I was on the edge of my seat. It hits hard, blending magic and all-too-real topics in a way that feels wholly natural and right. This wouldn’t be the same book if you removed the witchcraft and black magic, and it wouldn’t be the same book if you removed the talk of AIDS and conversion therapy and queerness and race. It’s queer and it’s unapologetic and it’s set so specifically in time. I was too young in 1991 to pay attention to the news, but even growing up later in the 90s I felt a sense of kinship with these characters and a sense of recognition.

The characters are distinct and well-rounded. They can be summed up in a few descriptors, or so it seems, though they are revealed over the course of the book to be more than they first appear. I enjoyed the multiple POVs, which helped me feel closer to each boy.

The villains are monstrous (in more ways than one) and the monstrous future they were pushing toward felt all-too-real, especially in light of recent events. We may be a far cry from shadowy political cults and the AIDS epidemic… but in many ways we aren’t.

This is not a happy book, and it’s not an easy one to read. There is bullying and intolerance and bigotry and evil. But there is also friendship and queer joy and community and love.

I took a while to warm up to the characters and story, and I even questioned whether I wanted to continue a few times. But by about 40% in I was thoroughly hooked and for the last several hours of the audiobook I couldn’t tear myself away from the story.

The audiobook narrators were really excellent and delivered a gripping and emotional performance. The voices they used for each character were believable and felt right, and I was more invested in the story than I would have been if I were reading it to myself.

I’m not often a fan of an author narrating their own book because they so rarely deliver a riveting performance — it’s a different skillset, narrating a book rather than writing it. But in this case Andy Mientus did a fabulous job and I highly recommend getting the audiobook version.

*Thanks to NetGalley and Recorded Books for providing an audiobook arc for review.

Favorite Quotes:

She took one of us on each arm and, as we walked to our seats, I felt the kinds of looks I used to get at Blackfriars and had an unexpected pang of nostalgia. In a weird way, I’d missed feeling like a freak. Being a freak alone is tough, but being a freak arm-in-arm with your fellow freaks can feel pretty punk.

Fraternity by Andy Mientus

If we’ve learned anything this past year, it’s that history lets us carry the work of those who came before us forward so that we might finish it.

Fraternity by Andy Mientus

Arc & Audio ARC Review: Aces Wild: A Heist by Amanda DeWitt

Publication Date: September 13, 2022

Synopsis:

What happens in Vegas when an all-asexual online friend group attempts to break into a high-stakes gambling club? Shenanigans ensue.

Some people join chess club, some people play football. Jack Shannon runs a secret blackjack ring in his private school’s basement. What else is the son of a Las Vegas casino mogul supposed to do?

Everything starts falling apart when Jack’s mom is arrested for their family’s ties to organized crime. His sister Beth thinks this is the Shannon family’s chance to finally go straight, but Jack knows that something’s not right. His mom was sold out, and he knows by who. Peter Carlevaro: rival casino owner and jilted lover. Gross.

Jack hatches a plan to find out what Carlevaro’s holding over his mom’s head, but he can’t do it alone. He recruits his closest friends—the asexual support group he met through fandom forums. Now all he has to do is infiltrate a high-stakes gambling club and dodge dark family secrets, while hopelessly navigating what it means to be in love while asexual. Easy, right?

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This was so much fun! I was drawn into the story immediately and immediately sympathetic to the main character. He was sarcastic, self-deprecating, funny, and a very believable teenager — some of my favorite things in a protagonist. He made a lot of very realistic, very bad decisions, especially early on when he felt like he was alone and his world was falling apart. Sometimes he even knew they were bad decisions and he still made them. He was a very realistic teenager, in other words.

I LOVE that the entire crew he pulls together for his heist are ace. It’s such a fun detail, and so relatable – not having friends in your immediate surroundings but connecting with people all over the country on fanfiction forums and then forming a chat support group for ace people? Definitely felt familiar, which drew me in even more. I almost felt like I was a member of the group and in on their shenanigans.

The heist itself sometimes took a backseat to the family and friend group drama, but I’m ok with that. There was still plenty of heist action there, but I was there for the character interactions anyway as I generally prefer character driven to plot driven stories. I love love loved the characters. They were all such individuals, with unique characteristics and mannerisms that didn’t feel forced at all. They felt like real people you might find anywhere. Well, they felt like real teenagers that you might meet at the outskirts of the school social scene, which is where I’ve always been the most comfortable. In short – I wanted to be their friend too. They were very obviously my people.

I like how the ‘being ace’ aspect was handled, as well as the tentative love story. It was sweet and realistic and believable… and familiar. Aside from the whole heist thing, it could have been me and my friends in high school and college.

That sense of familiarity, of belonging, made me love this book 1000x more than I would have based solely on the plot. Obviously not everyone is going to feel this sentimental about the book and characters, but I think a lot of people will really see themselves here and feel seen.

Las Vegas was an excellent choice of setting because the glitter and glamour made an excellent contrast to the seriousness of the beginning and then an excellent background and distraction during the plotting and executing of the heist itself. I’ve never been to Las Vegas, but after reading this I feel like I was there. The descriptions didn’t ever try to take over the story like in some books, but I still felt like everything was very grounded in a specific place and could even almost see it playing out in my head. in fact I did see it that way – I have very specific visual memories of events in the book. It was like watching a movie. Ocean’s 11, but with teenagers.

The audiobook was narrated flawlessly and I love the narrator and the choices he made for the different voices and the way he told the story. Just perfect all around. I bumped the speed up to 2x because he spoke a little slowly for my taste – many people do – and it was still perfectly clear and easy to understand and all the emotion came through easily.

*Thanks to NetGalley, Peachtree Teen, and Recorded Books for providing an e-arc and audio arc for review.

Audio ARC Review: Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy: No Guts, No Glory by M.K. England

Publication Date: November 2, 2021

Synopsis:

The official prequel novel to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, the hotly anticipated action-adventure game developed by Eidos-Montréal and published by Square Enix.

Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax the Destroyer, Rocket Racoon and Groot. They’re the Guardians of the Galaxy, turning a tidy profit as heroes for hire—or, they will be if Peter Quill can get his act together. After he botches the most critical part of their latest mission—getting paid—his newly assembled crew is close to ditching him for good. Now he needs a big payday, fast.

When an old acquaintance shows up offering a whole lot of units for a field trip to Peter’s past, it’s a no-brainer. Thirteen years ago, Peter fought the Chitauri alongside the Resistance on Mercury to prevent an invasion of Earth. Now it’s time to go back. The old Resistance base has a squatter, and it’s up to the Guardians to ‘gently escort’ them off the premises… and unmask a wartime traitor while they’re at it.

But war is heavy, man, and the Galactic War screwed up each of the Guardians in their own special ways. The brand-new team is barely hanging together, and the mission brings up all kinds of bad memories. It’s make or break time for the Guardians, and they do so love breaking things…

Just hopefully not each other.

My Review:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

I somehow missed the “official prequel to the blockbuster video game” on the cover of this. As I haven’t played the game, I think I am missing key details that would make me care more about the events within the book. Additionally, I haven’t seen the Guardians of the Galaxy and related Marvel movies (just the trailers) — which means I’m missing a LOT of key details and most importantly, the characters’ canon personalities and interactions. I requested this solely because I have loved everything MK England has written and I assumed I would love this as well, despite not being familiar with the franchise. I have read other books and fanfictions of franchises I am unfamiliar with and loved them in the past. However this… missed the mark for me.

I liked the plot all right, but I didn’t really care about any of the characters. Additionally, it was confusing with the way it was structured. It is divided into sections that alternate between the present and the past, 12 years earlier. I listened to the audio, which made it very difficult to flip back and check whether I was in the present or the past. I think the confusion stemmed mostly mostly from the fact that both feature Peter getting into scrapes, fighting for his life, etc but with a different set of crewmates each time. The characters weren’t distinct enough for me to easily tell which scenario I was in sometimes, especially with similar battle scenes and running from the enemy scenes in each. Also they were all — especially Peter AKA Star Lord — a little annoying. He was very much a bumbling fool who is eternally optimistic and somehow always comes out on top while everything and everyone around him falls to pieces and I’m not really a fan of that character type.

I was into it, but not really, I guess? Like I cared enough to keep listening, but not enough to choose to listen over doing/reading other things. I actually listened to half of this and then put it down for eight months and by the time I decided to give it a second chance, I’d forgotten enough details that I had to start over from the beginning. This should have made it easier to tell whether I was in the present or past in any given scene, but they still blurred together for me. I realized eventually that I was having trouble distinguishing between Gamora (present) and Ko-Rel (past) in their interactions with Peter. At 80% in I can’t really tell you the point of it all. Things keep happening but they don’t make any impact on me. I’m in the midst of the plot twist / confrontation with the enemy and I think I’m going to put it down again because I have other things to read that will hopefully hold my attention more.

I think this would go over well with fans of the movies and games franchises as well as those who like an emphasis on space action/battle scenes and not so much character development.

The narrator was fairly good and did a decent job giving the characters different voices (except for some of his female voices which were difficult to tell apart, possibly contributing to my confusion.) I found his voice a bit on the annoying side, though I don’t know how much of it was his voice and how much of it was his voicing of Peter as the POV character (who I also found annoying). He also tended toward the dramatic, but that’s understandable given the amount of battles and narrow escapes and arguments between the (very dysfunctional) characters.

*Thanks to NetGalley and Dreamscape Media (Marvel) for providing an audio arc for review.

Blog Tour & Arc Review: Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn

Publishing Date: September 6, 2022

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

Synopsis:

Older women often feel invisible, but sometimes that’s their secret weapon.

They’ve spent their lives as the deadliest assassins in a clandestine international organization, but now that they’re sixty years old, four women friends can’t just retire – it’s kill or be killed in this action-packed thriller.

Billie, Mary Alice, Helen, and Natalie have worked for the Museum, an elite network of assassins, for forty years. Now their talents are considered old-school and no one appreciates what they have to offer in an age that relies more on technology than people skills.

When the foursome is sent on an all-expenses paid vacation to mark their retirement, they are targeted by one of their own. Only the Board, the top-level members of the Museum, can order the termination of field agents, and the women realize they’ve been marked for death.

Now to get out alive they have to turn against their own organization, relying on experience and each other to get the job done, knowing that working together is the secret to their survival. They’re about to teach the Board what it really means to be a woman–and a killer–of a certain age.

Author Bio:

New York Times and USA Today bestselling novelist Deanna Raybourn is a 6th-generation native Texan. She graduated with a double major in English and history from the University of Texas at San Antonio. Married to her college sweetheart and the mother of one, Raybourn makes her home in Virginia. Her novels have been nominated for numerous awards including two RT Reviewers’ Choice awards, the Agatha, two Dilys Winns, a Last Laugh, three du Mauriers, and most recently the 2019 Edgar Award for Best Novel. She launched a new Victorian mystery series with the 2015 release of A CURIOUS BEGINNING, featuring intrepid butterfly-hunter and amateur sleuth, Veronica Speedwell. Veronica has returned in several more adventures, most recently AN IMPOSSIBLE IMPOSTOR, book seven, which released in early 2022. Deanna’s first contemporary novel, KILLERS OF A CERTAIN AGE, about four female assassins on the cusp of retirement publishes in September 2022.

Author Photo taken from Goodreads

My Review:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This book was very good. I wasn’t sure what to expect, having never read a Deanna Raybourn book, and I was pleasantly surprised. The story whizzed along at a good clip, the characters were for the most part well-developed and interesting. The pacing was breathless as they raced against time to carry out heists and murder the men who are trying to murder them.

I came to really appreciate Billie, as it was in her POV for the most part, but I did feel that the other three women blurred together a bit and weren’t as distinct as I would have liked.

I very much approve of the casual inclusion of LGBT+ characters and relationships. That always makes a book feel much more friendly, and it was done so naturally that I barely even registered it.

I also really really appreciate that the main characters were ‘women of a certain age’ and (despite being expert assassins) they felt very authentic. There were many mentions of the plans having to be adapted to their older bodies. Despite it, they still kicked ass. They were competent and capable AND dealing with things like hot flashes and muscles and stamina that weren’t what they once were. It made for such a nice contrast to the usual teenagers/twenty-something protagonists I usually read about.

I wasn’t sure at first if I was going to like it. There were a few issues I had with it:

The placement of the ‘past’ sections was sometimes jarring and I occasionally got confused about where and when they were. I did become more used to this as I went along, but it took me out of the flow of the story on more than one occasion.

The action scenes – which, to be fair, were a large chunk of the book – were just a tad too clinical. They read almost like newspaper reports. I don’t know if this is just a style common to thrillers – I haven’t read many of them. I feel like the simple language and not-flowery writing are a staple of the genre, but I’m not sure about the descriptions of fight scenes. As the book progressed this bothered me less and less, however, so it might have improved or I might have gotten used to it.

One thing that did bother me consistently through the book was that it was a tad vulgar for my tastes. I do appreciate the bluntness with which things not normally talked about are discussed among the women, but there were so many instances of descriptions of sexual harassment from their targets (which they had to put up with with a smile which definitely made the targets unsympathetic very quickly). Even more off-putting to me (and more common within the story) was the way that the (many) murders were described. Not just how they looked, but how they felt, how they sounded, how they smelled… I get that they are assassins and yes, they do kill a lot of people over the course of the book, but I just didn’t want that much familiarity with the deaths.

I did appreciate the very feminist slant to it all, and the way the men’s casual sexism was used to increase support for the women. Also the way that the four of them used the ‘old women are invisible’ idea to their advantage in order to further their schemes.

The story was very compelling and I found it difficult to put down. I would also probably read it again and will definitely be recommending it to others.

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

Favorite Quotes

And every job was a chance to prove Darwin’s simple maxim. Adapt or die. We adapted; they died.

Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn

Three old women, nodding their heads like the witches in Macbeth. I’d known them for two-thirds of my life, those impossible old bitches. And I would save them or die trying.

Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn

Women are every bit as capable of killing as men.

Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn

ARC Review: The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-Jones (e-ARC and audiobook ARC)

Publication Date: August 16, 2022

Synopsis:

Once upon a time, the kingdoms of Wales were rife with magic and conflict, and eighteen-year-old Mererid “Mer” is well-acquainted with both. She is the last living water diviner and has spent years running from the prince who bound her into his service. Under the prince’s orders, she located the wells of his enemies, and he poisoned them without her knowledge, causing hundreds of deaths. After discovering what he had done, Mer went to great lengths to disappear from his reach. Then Mer’s old handler returns with a proposition: use her powers to bring down the very prince that abused them both.

The best way to do that is to destroy the magical well that keeps the prince’s lands safe. With a motley crew of allies, including a fae-cursed young man, the lady of thieves, and a corgi that may or may not be a spy, Mer may finally be able to steal precious freedom and peace for herself. After all, a person with a knife is one thing… but a person with a cause can topple kingdoms.

The Drowned Woods—set in the same world as The Bone Houses but with a whole new, unforgettable cast of characters—is part heist novel, part dark fairy tale.

My Review:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

I wanted to love this one. In fact, I expected to love it like I loved the Bone Houses. But I just…. didn’t.

It *should* be everything I like. Set in the same world as Bone Houses, a heist with magic, characters with mysterious pasts… But it just felt flat.

I tried reading the book and listening to the audiobook and neither one could keep my interest. In fact, it sent me into a bit of a slump where I just couldn’t bring myself to pick up any book because I dreaded returning to this one. It just felt like a slog?

I’m finally calling it and DNFing at 60% of the way through. I mean, if you’re 60% into a standalone heist novel and you’re still slooooowly introducing characters / gathering the crew and none of them have been fleshed out enough to have personalities (and you can barely remember their names and certainly not what they look like) and you have almost no idea about the bigger picture or more than the sketchiest details about the characters’ pasts or the heist itself then that’s a problem.

The one thing I did like was the relationship between Mer and her former mentor. There is obviously fondness there on both sides, mixed with quite a bit of mistrust on Mer’s and a tendency for her mentor to go into teacher mode and/or fail to disclose critical pieces of his plot so that Mer has to follow him with a dose of blind faith.

In the end, too much is kept a mystery both from the characters themselves and from the reader. Mysterious pasts and gifts and magic and plans can intrigue the reader. But if so much is kept in the dark that all you can do is stumble around hoping to figure out what the heck is going on, it does not make for a pleasant reading experience.

The audiobook narrator, Moira Quirk, is one of my favorites. She has a great range of character voices and a good grasp of the pronounciation of the various Welsh names. However, even her excellent narration can’t make up for the foggy vagueness that encompasses this novel.

*Thanks to NetGalley, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, and Hachette Audio for providing an e-arc and audio arc for review.

Favorite Quotes:

The third time a customer grabbed her, Mer considered drowning him.

The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-Jones

“Cities like these, with all the people and the iron — both in their blood and all around them —it pushes back the old ways. Makes me wonder how things will fare in the future.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean,” Fane said, “that humanity has a tendency to push into every corner of a place. And with their iron and their armies, it may be only a matter of time until someone like Garanhir turns his attention on Annwvyn.”

The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-Jones

ARC Review: The Modiste Mishap by Erica Ridley

Publication Date: August 26, 2022

Synopsis:

A Regency-set comedic caper featuring a book club of meddling spinsters.

Miss Sybil Stamper is the least fancy member of the reading circle known as The Heist Club. To her friends, bespectacled Sybil is the Queen of Lists, but she’d rather be belle of the ball. When she finally acquires an evening gown, her life looks like it’s falling into place. But when a client’s valuable objects go missing, not only is Sybil’s happy ending in jeopardy—so are the futures of other young ladies just like her!

With the help of the Wild Wynchesters—a uniquely talented family of caper-committing siblings who don’t let “laws” stop them from righting wrongs—Sybil and her club of delightfully bookish spinsters take on the heist of the Season.

PREQUEL TO: NOBODY’S PRINCESS

My Review:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This was super cute. It was a light, quick read, and it kept my interest fairly well. I was not nearly as invested in the story as in the Wynchester novels, though I found my interest increased when the Wynchesters made an appearance. I wouldn’t say that this really stands on its own, but as an addition to the Wynchester series I think it works well. I especially enjoyed the moments where Elizabeth Wynchester came on the scene, and would recommend it for that alone.

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

Favorite Quotes:

“Helping others is what we do.” “When not reading,” Philippa added. “Or talking about reading.”

The Modiste Mishap by Erica Ridley

“I’m not a bluestocking,” said Elizabeth Wynchester. “I’m a bloodthirsty malcontent.”

The Modiste Mishap by Erica Ridley

August Kids Books ARC Review Roundup

The Rainbow Fish and His Friends by Marcus Pfister

Publication Date: October 11, 2022

Synopsis:

Five Rainbow Fish titles in one collection! 

Five Rainbow Fish favorites are now available in one place in this collection that includes—The Rainbow FishRainbow Fish and the Big Blue Whale; Rainbow Fish Discovers the Deep Sea; You Can’t Win Them All, Rainbow Fish; and Good Night, Little Rainbow Fish. The Rainbow Fish and his friends experience the happiness of sharing, discover how to resolve an argument, and how to be a good sport. It is these everyday but important situations that every child experiences and from which they can emerge strengthened.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I had previously read some of the rainbow fish books to my 8-year-old when he was younger (and to my younger brothers growing up), but I hadn’t encountered all of these stories and it was nice to have them all in one volume for ease of reading.

The stories have great messages (that only occasionally shade towards being a bit heavy-handed) and are perfect for introducing many difficult concepts to young children in a fun and memorable way. Messages like sharing and being a good sport and being willing to reach out instead of attacking others out of fear and misunderstandings.

The illustrations are colorful and cheerful and do a great job conveying the message and mood of each story. The text is perfect for reading aloud to children, and also great for kids with a 2nd-to-3rd-grade reading level to practice reading, though they may need help here and there.

I really enjoyed reading through this collection of stories and sharing them with my child. I also really liked the included activities and author’s note at the end, where the author talks about the inspiration for Rainbow Fish.

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

Rainbow Fish and the Storyteller by Marcus Pfister

Publication Date: October 11, 2022

Synopsis:

A sparkling book about tall tales!

When Rainbow Fish meets a new friend, Humbert, he isn’t sure what to think. Humbert tells all kinds of strange stories: Somewhere at the bottom of the ocean there’s a plug!

There’s a blue whale living near here . . . and he’s going to eat up all of our food.

But before Rainbow Fish and his friends panic, they realize that Humbert just likes to make up tall tales. Rainbow Fish and his friends soon come up with an idea that might make them all happy—even Humbert. 

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This was such a cute book! It had a great message about making friends and not telling lies to get their attention. The illustrations were beautiful and I absolutely loved all the bright colors. It was a really fun read and I think it would be great to have in a classroom library.

Kiddo (8) read it with me and enjoyed it a lot. He thought the illustrations were beautiful. He read the text out loud to me and had no problems with understanding it. He also found the idea of a plug at the bottom of the sea very funny.

I especially liked how Rainbow Fish realized Humbert was lonely and worked with him to find a way for him to use his storytelling abilities for good to make friends rather than pushing them away with lies.

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

Mouse and Mole Have a Party by Joyce Dunbar

Publication Date: August 31, 2021

Synopsis:

Every day holds a new surprise for Mole. He just can’t help getting into scrapes – whether picking the first daffodil of Spring, or trimming his lopsided whiskers. But with the help of his friend, Mouse, things generally turn out for the best – especially when he least expects it!

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This was really cute and funny. I read it with my 8-year-old, and he found it amusing. It reminded me a lot of the Frog and Toad books – it has that same bumbling silly vibe. In fact, many of the adventures were reminiscent of ones that Frog and Toad would have gone on. It’s a perfect quick and entertaining read for kids.

The reading level isn’t difficult either, and my 8-year-old had no trouble reading it aloud. So I would recommend it as a fun read-aloud for a 2nd-3rd grade reading level and also as a fun story to read to younger kids.

The illustrations have a sketchy, old-fashioned feel reminescent of the original Winnie the Pooh books, with warm colors that draw you in. There is a lot of humor in the expressions of the animals as well as in the movement of the lines of the illustrations. The illustrations match the tone of the text perfectly and enhance the impact of the story being told.

*Thanks to NetGalley and Star Bright Books for providing an e-arc for review.

Let’s Draw Dragons by How2DrawAnimals

Publication Date: August 16, 2022

Synopsis:

With Let’s Draw Dragons, you can learn to bring your mythological drawings to life, guided by realistic illustrations and step-by-step instructions for a variety of these amazing fantasy creatures.

The easy-to-follow visual and written instructions in this book make it achievable and fun to draw lifelike dragons. Each drawing lesson begins with basic shapes and progresses, step by step, to a finished piece of artwork, making it easy to follow along. You just need to grab a pencil, a piece of paper, and your copy of Let’s Draw Dragons, and then flip to the mythological beast you want to draw. The drawing projects include:


Dragons in different poses
Elemental dragons
Fire-breathing dragon
Flying dragon
Swimming dragon
Sleeping dragon
And more!

The detailed written instructions in this 48-page book also provide tips for placement of details, how to create realistic scales and wings, how to shade, and much more. If you’ve never drawn before, don’t be intimidated. Just start with a few basic shapes and follow the illustrated steps—you’ll be creating your own amazing mythological masterpieces in no time at all! And each time you draw, you should see an improvement in your artistic skills.

Also available from the Let’s Draw series:Let’s Draw Cats, Let’s Draw Dogs, Let’s Draw Favorite Animals, Let’s Draw Wild Animals, Let’s Draw Birds & Butterflies, Let’s Draw Sea Creatures, and Let’s Draw Dinosaurs.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

My experience with how-to-draw books has always been along the lines of “draw 3 circles. Now draw the rest of the dragon and shade it” – resulting in much frustration and a tendency to distrust other how-t0-draw books.

This book, in contrast, has detailed steps that make sense and actually break down the entire drawing process so I feel like I could actually draw the dragons and have them look like … well, dragons.

That doesn’t sound like much – ‘it does what it says on the tin’ and all that – but for me it’s a revolutionary concept. I’m actually very excited about it because I LOVE dragons but have always had difficulty visualizing them and drawing them.

This book breaks the entire body down into easily managed pieces in a way that makes sense to me. I will most definitely be using it and am looking forward to lots of dragon art in my future.

*Thanks to NetGalley and Quarto Publishing Group – Walter Foster Jr for providing an e-arc for review.