Review: The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle by Jennifer Ryan

Review: The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle by Jennifer RyanThe Wedding Dress Sewing Circle by Jennifer Ryan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance, World War II
Pages: 411
Published by Ballantine Books on May 31, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Three plucky women lift the spirits of home-front brides in wartime Britain, where clothes rationing leaves little opportunity for pomp or celebration—even at weddings—in this heartwarming novel based on true events, from the bestselling author of The Chilbury Ladies' Choir.After renowned fashion designer Cressida Westcott loses both her home and her design house in the London Blitz, she has nowhere to go but the family manor house she fled decades ago. Praying that her niece and nephew will be more hospitable than her brother had been, she arrives with nothing but the clothes she stands in, at a loss as to how to rebuild her business while staying in a quaint country village.
Her niece, Violet Westcott, is thrilled that her famous aunt is coming to stay—the village has been interminably dull with all the men off fighting. But just as Cressida arrives, so does Violet's conscription letter. It couldn't have come at a worse time; how will she ever find a suitably aristocratic husband if she has to spend her days wearing a frumpy uniform and doing war work?
Meanwhile, the local vicar's daughter, Grace Carlisle, is trying in vain to repair her mother's gown, her only chance of a white wedding. When Cressida Westcott appears at the local Sewing Circle meeting, Grace asks for her help—but Cressida has much more to teach the ladies than just simple sewing skills.
Before long, Cressida's spirit and ambition galvanizes the village group into action, and they find themselves mending wedding dresses not only for local brides, but for brides across the country. And as the women dedicate themselves to helping others celebrate love, they might even manage to find it for themselves.

My Review:

Eustace Westcott was dead, to begin with. And it seems to be a relief for all concerned, especially his family. His deceased presence turns out to be a bigger blight on the lives of everyone who knew him than the war. Even the local pub still boasts “a certain ditty written in the men’s lavatory” proclaiming that “Eustace Westcott should stick his precious checkbook up a certain part of his anatomy.”

His estranged sister, the famous – or infamous in the late Eustace’s mind – fashion designer Cressida Westcott would certainly agree. She only attended his funeral to make absolutely certain the blighter was dead.

But speaking of that war, when the London Blitz takes out both her house and her design house in the same night, Cressida’s not sure where to go or what to do. She’s lost everything except the clothes on her back, the designs in her head, and a reputation in the fashion industry that she’s spent the last 20 years building. Those will see her through – but first she needs a place to live and regroup.

She never thought she’d go back home to Aldhurst. In fact, she’d sworn she wouldn’t. But Eustace is dead and she can at least hope that his two children, now adults themselves, haven’t turned into carbon copies of their not-so-dear old dad. Or that there’s still time for her to help them become functional human beings now that his oppressive influence over their lives has been removed.

What she finds in the old family pile is a second chance. A chance to get to know the village and its people – and become one of them. A chance to find family again by helping her niece and nephew see that their father’s ideas and influence are holding them back from living their own lives instead of repeating all the restrictions of his.

All the restrictions he tried to impose on Cressida and utterly failed at.

Cressida has a chance to explore a bit of the road not taken and let herself have as much of it all as could ever be possible – not in spite of the war but because of it.

Escape Rating A: I was looking for, not exactly a comfort read as most of my comfort reads start with murder, but rather a comfortable read for the end of this week. It’s kind of surprising that led me to World War II, not exactly a comfortable time for ANYONE, but this actually fit the bill quite nicely. I adored one of the author’s previous books, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, and was expecting more of the same – interesting characters who grow and change in a heartwarming story of the British homefront during World War II. And I was expecting a female-centric story because, well, the war.

And all of that is exactly what I got. With bells on!

The story revolves around three women, Cressida Westcott, her niece Violet Westcott, and the woman cressida mentors in Aldhurst, Grace Carlisle. All of their lives have been knocked off their original courses by World War II, but the war also gives each of them a chance to change a course that they thought was set. Hopefully for the better.

Cressida’s change is a driving force in what happens, which is fitting because Cressida herself has always been a driving force in her own life. While her return to Aldhurst allows her to see the place with fresh eyes, her trip back home doesn’t change who she has become in all the years between.

She’s still a driven woman, determined to be in the top echelon of fashion design – and succeeding on her own terms. What her return to Aldhurst allows her to do is to open herself up to new experiences and new friendships. She is still who she has always been, but becoming part of the village – something she was not allowed to do when she was growing up – reminds her that in addition to making a living she also needs to make a life.

Violet and Grace are both in their 20s, and each has planned a certain life for themselves based on what they’ve been taught, what they’ve been told, what they’ve always believed in the “right thing to do.” Violet is honestly a selfish, self-involved little bitch, an upper class twit who believes that marrying a title is her due and that she’s entitled to all the privileges that come with her family’s wealth and status without ever working for them.

Grace is her opposite, the daughter of the local vicar, selflessly devoting herself to the village and parish work, never asking a thing for herself. She’s been shouldering much of her father’s caretaking of the village in the years since her mother died, and everyone else’s need for her has become her life. To the point that she’s planning to marry a clergyman herself, believing that it’s her best chance of recreating the happy family that raised her before her mother’s death.

Violet just needs to grow up – and for that to happen she needs to break out of a role that is designed to keep her childlike and uneducation. Conscription into war work forced Violet to see herself and the world around her with her own eyes, and it’s the making of her.

But it’s Grace’s transformation from colorless drudge to fashion design apprentice that gives the story its heart and its heartbreak. Her involvement with Cressida begins with her engagement, and her desire to wear her mother’s rather moth-eaten wedding gown on her own ‘special’ day.

It’s not just a wish out of love and nostalgia, it’s a necessity. Under wartime clothing rationing, there is no material available for new wedding dresses. There’s little available for repairing old ones, either. But with Cressida’s vast design experience and Grace’s eye for the best ways of ‘making mend and making do’ there’s a chance to make it happen.

Even though the process of design and exploration finally makes Grace wake up and realize that it shouldn’t happen for her – or at least it shouldn’t happen for her with the man she’s currently engaged to marry.

Whether Grace gets to wear the dress herself or not, out of her mother’s old dress both a new dress and a grand idea, The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle of the title, are born. The dress that Violet’s mother gave to Grace’s mother eventually becomes THE dress for many young women of Aldhurst and beyond, in an act of sisterhood that is carried not just around the country, but all the way back home to where it began.

The dress is beautiful on every woman who wears it. And the story of how it came to be is every single bit as lovely.

Review: Mr. Clarke’s Deepest Desire by Sophie Barnes

Review: Mr. Clarke’s Deepest Desire by Sophie BarnesMr. Clarke's Deepest Desire (Enterprising Scoundrels #2) by Sophie Barnes
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical romance, Victorian romance
Series: Enterprising Scoundrels #2
Pages: 180
Published by Sophie Barnes on November 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

When an earl's daughter falls for a businessman in this secret identities Regency romance, she risks more than heartbreak when his connection to her past threatens her reputation...

How can he build a future with a woman whose father ruined his life?

Having recently suffered the death of her father, Rosamund Parker faces an uncertain future. Intent on retaining her independence, she plans to invest her modest inheritance. But the man whose help she seeks is as infuriating as he is handsome. For reasons she can't comprehend, he's set on thwarting her at every turn, even as he tempts her with kisses she ought not want.

Matthew Clarke needs funding for his locomotive business, but he'll not accept it from the Earl of Stoneburrow's daughter. As far as Matthew's concerned, that entire family can go hang. Unfortunately, Lady Rosamund seems to pop up wherever he goes. Ignoring the fire she stirs in him becomes an increasing challenge. But surrendering to it could prove disastrous. It could in fact ruin both their lives...

My Review:

Mr. Clarke’s Deepest Desires, the second book in the Enterprising Scoundrels series after Mr. Donahue’s Total Surrender (I sense a theme in the titles, don’t you?) is a delightfully frothy bit of Victorian romance with some dark notes in the background. And a whole heaping helping of insta-lust in the lush foreground.

A part of me wants to make some terrible puns about Rosamund Parker and her need to have her engines overhauled – or at least her ashes hauled, but that’s not where this story begins. In a perverse way it began way back when, when her late, lamented, dear old dad couldn’t resist forcing their housemaid to haul his – will she or nill she. And of course he fired her when she informed him that she was carrying the inevitable consequence of his actions.

Now he’s dead and buried, and the mourning period has just officially ended. The reading of his will has left his daughter in a bit of a fix of a different sort. As the daughter (and only child) of an Earl, she knew she would not inherit his title or the entailed estate. But she expected a bit more than 500 pounds. Not per annum, but in total. Along with a binding clause that her uncle, the new Earl, was not permitted to maintain or support her.

(If you’re curious, that’s just over $60,000 in today’s dollars. A more-than-decent one year’s salary, but not nearly enough for a relatively young woman to live off of for the rest of her life.)

Rosamund, who does want to marry, also wants to have enough time going about the selection process to ensure that she makes a choice that satisfies both her head and her heart. So, instead of rushing into anything or anyone she plans to invest most of her money and life off the income from her investment while she makes a considered choice.

It’s a sensible plan, which makes sense. Because Rosamund is a very sensible woman. Also a very intelligent one.

But her plans go up almost literally in smoke when she meets Matthew Clarke, the owner of A&C Locomotive. Because Rosamund and Matthew strike more sparks from each other than any one of his engines do when they screech their brakes. Not that either of them can manage much of anything except almost literally screeching at each other.

Matthew’s mother was the housemaid that Rosamund’s father forced into his bed and then out the door, leaving both mother and 12-year-old Matthew destitute. Matthew refuses to take Rosamund’s investment money – no matter how much he actually needs it. He’s still carrying that grudge – and is an absolute ass about it to Rosamund even though she has no clue what he’s so angry about.

After all, she was all of 10 at the time and it’s not exactly a subject that any father would raise with his own daughter – particularly not in the Victorian Era!

But Rosamund is determined to invest in the burgeoning railroad industry, and Matthew still does need investors. Which means that they keep meeting – and meeting – and meeting at various gatherings of industry executives and potential investors. The more often they run into each other, the more sparks that fly – no matter how little Rosamund wants to believe the truth about her beloved father.

The push-pull of their relationship, the way that they hate each other but still want each other desperately, is hot enough to fuel a locomotive or ten without the use of coal. All they need to do is give in – before they make a mistake that will haunt the rest of their lives.

Escape Rating B+: One of the things that I really enjoy about the Enterprising Scoundrels series is that the heroes all work for a living. Admittedly it’s work among the wealthy and powerful, and they’ve done well for themselves, but it’s still real work that gives them real purpose. This is a series where happiness is not just the province of the idle rich to the point where it openly questions whether the idle rich are all that happy.

Matthew Clarke is an especially delicious hero in this mold because he’s a self-made man who has not either lost the threads of his humanity or obtained his wealth outside the law. Both of which are not uncommon backgrounds for heroes of historical romances.

What made this book downright refreshing is that even the bounder who tries to interfere with the romance between Rose and Matthew is really after Rose for her prodigious intellect and genius ideas, while her truly delectable person is icing on the cake of her splendid brain and not the other way around.

But speaking of that bounder, he’s not really a villain – at least not in the bwahaha sense that often happens. He’s out for himself and he does take advantage of a situation, but he doesn’t make the situation and he’s just not evil. Selfish and self-centered, but not beyond human reason.

So I didn’t leave this book, as I did Mr. Donohue’s Total Surrender, with the feeling that there were too many characters who did not receive the desserts they had so richly earned. If there is a villain in this piece it’s Rosamund’s father, and he’s already having that discussion with his Maker when the story begins.

I do have to say that I found the blurb for the book a bit deceptive. This isn’t really a story of secret identities. Rosamund and Matthew know exactly who each other is. She doesn’t know that he and his mother were once in service to her family – at least not at the beginning – but his business success wipes out most of that stigma. They do end up on the wrong end of a lot of social opprobrium, but it’s as a result of their actions in the present and not some hidden secret in either of their pasts.

While I’m not personally satisfied with the amount of groveling Matthew does over that incident, he does manage to screw his courage to the sticking point and fix things before it’s too late – with a whole lot of professional assistance from his soon-to-be bride. Which makes for happy endings all around – as they certainly deserved.

Review: The Belle of Belgrave Square by Mimi Matthews + Giveaway

Review: The Belle of Belgrave Square by Mimi Matthews + GiveawayThe Belle of Belgrave Square (Belles of London, #2) by Mimi Matthews
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Belles of London #2
Pages: 432
Published by Berkley on October 11, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

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 his sights set 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 his affairs. But the more she learns of the beastly former hero, the more intrigued she becomes…

My Review:

The first book in the Belles of London series, The Siren of Sussex, introduced readers to four Victorian heroines who cared more for their horses, and the equestrienne skills required to master them, than for the marriage mart that was supposed to have been every young lady’s dream.

Not that the romantic heroes of the series, at least so far, are any more conventional than the heroines have so far proven to be.

The second book in the series’ case in point, presumed wallflower Julia Wychwood – with her dowry of 50,000 pounds, and reluctant fortune hunter and Crimean War veteran Captain Jasper Blunt.

But neither of them is exactly what they appear to be on the surface, as Julia and Jasper discover – very nearly to their cost – after it is too late to get out of their hasty marriage. Probably too late, anyway.

A problem which hinges on one of the many, many secrets that have either been kept from them or that they are keeping from each other. Any one of which could break them. Or their marriage. Or both.

Escape Rating B: In a review of another work of historical fiction, I said that “it seems as if behind every successful woman there’s either a rotten first husband, a harridan of a mother, or both.” I forgot about just how selfish and/or profligate fathers can be in attempting to doom their daughters to dependency or failure. I was definitely remiss.

Because Julia Wychwood has both the harridan of a mother and the selfish, self-indulgent cruelty of a father to contend with. And as the story begins she is not contending terribly well at all.

Her parents, both wealthy hypochondriacs, quite literally plan on marrying Julia off to a rich man who will keep her in London, near to their home in Belgrave Square, so that she can continue to be their unpaid attendant, verbal punching bag and slave for the rest of her life.

What makes the first third of this book hard to read is that she doesn’t fight back, in spite of being of age and having an inheritance of her own that is not dependent on her father. Because she is so beaten down that she can’t imagine getting out from under.

It’s only when the hypochondriacs bring in a quack doctor who bleeds her half to death that the penny finally drops that she isn’t even safe in her parents’ household. Their plan is to bleed her into insensibility so that she can be declared unfit and they can marry her off to a man they know will at least verbally abuse her just as much as they do.

It’s hard to read about Julia becoming increasingly downtrodden – particularly when it becomes known that she has options she isn’t exercising.

But that’s where Blunt comes in. He tried to do the honorable thing and marry her with her father’s permission, which was denied because Blunt intends to take Julia to his estate in the Yorkshire moors. A place where she’ll be much, much happier. She hates the London Season for a myriad of reasons that only begin with her acute social anxiety.

It’s when he finally manages to literally sweep Julia off her feet, in the most romantic fashion possible, that the story lifts itself up – right along with Julia’s health and spirits – and runs off with the reader’s heart. Because it’s when they are away from London that they are able to see all the problems that their hasty marriage has led them into – and to see a way out of those problems together.

Once they finally begin telling each other the truth.

As a reader, I have to say that Julia’s helplessness in that first third of the story hit a whole bunch of triggers for me – to the point where if this hadn’t been for a tour I would have DNF’d the book.

But I hung on because so many people love this series so much, and there were so many interesting features in the first book that I kept going to see if I could find the charm that others have found. And I have to say that I did.

In the first third of the story Julia has no agency, which is hard to read. At that point she finally takes her life into her own hands – no matter how much those hands happen to be trembling with weakness from blood loss at the time – and proposes marriage to Blunt and asks him to rescue her because she is temporarily incapacitated and rightfully afraid to stay another minute.

And who can blame her?

But once they are out of that terrible house the story takes off too. They have a lot to learn about each other, and they’ll need to grow together, but they have a solid friendship as well as a growing attraction to build upon.

Once they get all of the secrets between them out of the way.

Most of those secrets are fairly obvious to the reader pretty early on, but that doesn’t detract from the story at all. It’s the reveal of those secrets to each other that is key, not whether the reader has figured it out beforehand. Especially considering that those secrets are real and important and not just misunderstandammits. We understand the reason they were kept and empathize with how difficult it is to finally let them go.

One of the fun parts of the story is the way that literature and fairy tales are woven into the romance without ever taking it over. Julia is very much Belle to Jasper’s Beast, but that’s not the only trope that gets woven into the story.

In the end, The Belle of Belgrave Square is a charming Victorian romance about learning to face one’s tormentors, standing on one’s own two feet AND finding the right person to stand with you. It’s about planting yourself where you belong and blooming there. And it’s about doing the right thing rather than the easy thing – and taking the lumps for it.

While I had my doubts at the beginning, by the end I was all in for this one. To the point where I’m very curious to see where the series goes in its next entry, The Lily of Ludgate Hill, coming out in January of 2024.

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

Mimi has generously offered a fabulous giveaway that book tour participants can add to their post and on social media. Here are the details:

Giveaway period: October 3 – October 30

Terms & Conditions:

Giveaway hosted by Mimi Matthews. No Purchase Necessary. Entrants must be 18 years or older. Open to US residents only. All information will remain confidential and will not be sold or otherwise used, except to notify the winner and to facilitate postage of the book to the winner. Void where prohibited.

Giveaway Details:

1 winner (selected at random by Rafflecopter) receives a paperback copy of The Belle of Belgrave Square, signed and annotated by the author with personal comments, underlining of her favorite lines, and other highlights by Mimi Matthews. 

Giveaway is open from 12:01 am Pacific time 10/03/22 until 11:59pm Pacific time on 10/30/22. 

The winner will be announced on Mimi’s blog on 10/31/22.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: The Siren of Sussex by Mimi Matthews

Review: The Siren of Sussex by Mimi MatthewsThe Siren of Sussex (Belles of London, #1) by Mimi Matthews
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance
Series: Belles of London #1
Pages: 400
Published by Berkley on January 11, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Victorian high society’s most daring equestrienne finds love and an unexpected ally in her fight for independence in the strong arms of London’s most sought after and devastatingly handsome half-Indian tailor.
Evelyn Maltravers understands exactly how little she’s worth on the marriage mart. As an incurable bluestocking from a family tumbling swiftly toward ruin, she knows she’ll never make a match in a ballroom. Her only hope is to distinguish herself by making the biggest splash in the one sphere she excels: on horseback. In haute couture. But to truly capture London’s attention she’ll need a habit-maker who’s not afraid to take risks with his designs—and with his heart.
Half-Indian tailor Ahmad Malik has always had a talent for making women beautiful, inching his way toward recognition by designing riding habits for Rotten Row’s infamous Pretty Horsebreakers—but no one compares to Evelyn. Her unbridled spirit enchants him, awakening a depth of feeling he never thought possible.
But pushing boundaries comes at a cost and not everyone is pleased to welcome Evelyn and Ahmad into fashionable society. With obstacles spanning between them, the indomitable pair must decide which hurdles they can jump and what matters most: making their mark or following their hearts?

My Review:

Ahmad Malik has a dream. His dream is to open his own exclusive dressmaking establishment. He has the talent, the training, the ambition and the drive to succeed. But he needs capital, he needs a patroness, and he needs to be twice as good as anyone else because he’s an immigrant, and because he’s of mixed race.

And he has to pretend that he doesn’t hear or see all of the slurs and outright verbal abuse that is all-too-frequently heaped upon him because of those last two facts.

Evelyn Maltravers, on the other hand, has a plan. She has arrived in London from tiny Combe Regis at the age of 24, very nearly on the shelf, to have her delayed season and secure a marriage to some prosperous member of the ton. Because that marriage will provide a secure future for not just herself but also her three younger sisters and their widowed mother. She has barely five months to find a match or her family faces financial ruin.

Her only assets are her bluestocking self, her ability to ride any horse ever born, her stallion Hephaestus – and her unfailing drive to succeed in whatever she sets out to accomplish whether either her methods or her motives are precisely within the bounds of proper social norms – or not.

Ahmad designs exquisite – even fashion-forward – riding habits for the beautiful and notorious Pretty Horsebreakers. Who may or may not be prettier than Evelyn, but are absolutely nowhere near her perfection on a horse. She’s sure that Ahmad can design a habit for her that will make her the talk of the town.

He’s sure that her riding habits – and all of the other commissions he carries out among both the ton and the demimonde – will provide him with the patronage he needs to fulfill his dream.

The one thing neither of them plans on is falling in love – with each other.

Escape Rating B: There is just so much to love in The Siren of Sussex. It’s absolutely charming. I loved the role reversal as well as the trope-tweaking. So much trope-tweaking.

Usually the bluestocking heroine gets discovered in all her bluestocking glory and there’s some kind of gorgeous-reveal. Here, the bluestocking – who refuses to let herself be pigeonholed that way – doesn’t so much have a beauty-reveal as a talent and expertise reveal that forces the hero to see the beauty she already has for himself.

It was also terrific to have the female be of a higher social class than the male. Not to mention that there are no dukes to be seen. Anywhere at all. There just aren’t or weren’t nearly as many as historical romance might lead one to believe. And other people deserve HEAs just as much if not a bit more than aristos.

So YAY for someone who works for a living being the focus of a romance and getting their HEA without turning out to be either a lost or hidden duke or earl.

The backgrounds of Ahmad and his sister Mira also provided a way for the author to make more than a few pointed observations about the treatment of people of color in general and half-Indians in particular in England during the Victorian era without getting preachy or infodumping or going into lecture mode. Ahmad is an intelligent man, he has a lot of thoughts, and downright teeth-clenching, fist-making observations about the way he’s treated, along with the aching awareness that he can’t act on those thoughts without it resulting in consequences that will make the situation immediately and personally a whole lot worse. At least in the moment. But it was important for both the character and the story that the crap he puts up with on a daily basis was never swept under the rug by the story or the character.

In spite of everything I just said, I gave this a B rating and not an A, and by this point you might be wondering why. I kind of am too.

There’s so much about this story to love, but I just didn’t. It’s charming, it makes a lot of good and interesting points along the way to its HEA, but it just didn’t compel me to keep reading. I liked it but I didn’t fall in love – even though the characters certainly did. The story is kind of a slow build, and the romance is very much a slow burn. It’s clear early on that they are interested in each other, but there are a lot of external barriers in the way and it takes them more than a bit of a while to get there. Although this is a relatively clean romance in that there’s lots of obvious longing and eventually kissing but they keep getting interrupted.

It may be that this just wasn’t what I was in the mood for. Because it is lovely and charming and just didn’t move me the way I expected it to. Although it did find the historical underpinnings – no pun intended – absolutely fascinating.

So I have high hopes for the second book in the series, The Belle of Belgrave Square when it comes out this fall.

Review: Remember Love by Mary Balogh

Review: Remember Love by Mary BaloghRemember Love (Ravenswood, #1) by Mary Balogh
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance, regency romance
Series: Ravenswood #1
Pages: 400
Published by Berkley on July 12, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The undisputed queen of Regency romance is back with a brand-new story perfect for fans of Bridgerton.
The handsome and charismatic Earl of Stratton, Caleb Ware, has been exposed to the ton for his clandestine affairs—by his own son.
As a child, Devlin Ware thought his family stood for all that was right and good in the world. They were kind, gracious, and shared the beauty of Ravenwood, their grand country estate, by hosting lavish parties for the entire countryside. But at twenty-two, he discovered his whole world was an elaborate illusion, and when Devlin publicly called his family to account for it, he was exiled as a traitor.
So be it. He enlisted in the fight against Napoleon and didn’t look back for six years. But now his father is dead, the Ware family is broken, and as the heir he is being called home. It’s only when Gwyneth Rhys—the woman he loved and then lost after his family banished him—holds out her hand to help him that he is able make the difficult journey and try to piece together his fractured family.
It is Gwyneth’s loyalty, patience, and love that he needs. But is Devlin’s war-hardened heart even capable of offering her love in return?

My Review:

Humphrey Westcott, Earl of Riverdale and Caleb Ware, Earl of Stratton must have been bosom buddies. Possibly literally. Certainly they seem to have been cut from the same despicable cloth. Both were wealthy aristocrats who lived a lie and expected everyone around them to go along with that lie rather than face up to the uncomfortable truth.

Westcott hid his perfidy until after his death, which makes the shocking opening of the Westcott series, Someone to Love, all that much more upsetting. But at least Westcott didn’t require that others go along with his false front because he kept his secret very well hidden indeed.

Caleb Ware, very much on the other hand, needed admiration, approval and even applause from all those who surrounded him. He projected the image of a loving husband and father with a perfect family because he needed people to love him at every turn. Not that there weren’t plenty of men in his position who lived lives completely separate from the wives and families and didn’t care about the winks and nods that followed in their wake.

But Ware needed to have it all. A perfect family at his country home, and a mistress or two, or three, in London. When he brought his current mistress to his country estate and flaunted his affair in front of his friends and family he expected everyone to turn the same blind eye that they always had. And when one member of his family refused to turn that blind eye, and refused to sweep the entire tawdry incident under the rug for the sake of peace and not rocking the family boat – he likewise refused to take responsibility for his actions. And the rest of the family punished the young man who could not stand idly by after learning that his oh-so-perfect father, his hero, had feet of clay up to the knees – or perhaps a bit higher.

And that’s what kicks this story into a higher gear – that the expected pattern of the lives of not just the Earl and his heir are knocked off course – but that the entire family’s future is irrevocably altered over the course of one disastrous night.

The aftermath of which makes for a much more fascinating – and occasionally dangerous – life than anyone would have expected for the heir to an earldom – and for the woman he once expected to be his bride.

Escape Rating A-: The Ravenswood series is off to a heartbreaking but eventually heartwarming and redemptive start in this opening entry in the series. It has the potential for all the elements that made the Westcott series so fascinating, with Devlin Ware’s condemnation of his father’s behavior and his family’s complicity drastically altering ALL their lives.

What makes the initial break in the story such a huge change is that it encompasses both Devlin’s sharply learned lesson that his father is not worthy of being anyone’s hero, and that the rest of his family would rather keep lying to themselves and each other than try to fix what’s broken. That Caleb Ware is the one who behaved so very badly but Devlin Ware is the one who gets punished for it puts the hypocrisy of the whole mess on disgusting display.

But Caleb eventually does get his just desserts, while Devlin immediately gets a commission in the infantry. During the worst of the fighting of the bitter Napoleonic Wars. From one perspective, it’s the making of him, while in the other it represents the shattering of his heart into pieces so tiny that Devlin is no longer certain he even possesses such an organ.

The heartbreak for Devlin’s family is that the only way he can survive the hell of his war is to compartmentalize his feelings for his family and reject all contact with any of them – except for his father’s bastard son who is serving as his batman. It’s a cold, hard, bitter road that he walks – but he does survive it.

Only to return home after Napoleon’s surrender, two years after his father’s death, to do his duty yet again and pick up the reins of the earldom that he has inherited. He has done his best to cut his family out of his heart, but Devlin Ware is a man who has always done his duty – and taking up the mantle of the Earl of Stratton is his duty.

Once Devlin is back in the place he once called home, doing his best to fit himself into the place that is his duty, he tries to convince himself that it is out of duty alone and not the emotions he swears he’s no longer capable of feeling. He eventually learns that duty does not have to mean burden, and that if he allows himself to feel all the things that he locked away during his war, his peace can be filled with not just true peace, but also real love and belonging.

In the end I enjoyed Remember Love because it is a story where the life that’s supposed to happen gets pushed aside for a life that is harder and darker but in the end much more real, and that’s the same thing that made the Westcott series so fascinating. Young Devlin, before he left, was a bit of a prig. He meant well and generally did well but could really be a self-righteous young man. He’s much more interesting when he’s much less sure of things – as well as a whole lot more approachable and loveable.

Gwyneth Rhys, the heroine of this romance, doesn’t pine. She doesn’t wallow. But what she does is know herself, her strengths, her weaknesses and those situations up with which she will not put. She is not going to change to suit a man, but she does deal pragmatically with the life she has.

The character who turned out to be a complete surprise was Devlin’s mother, the Dowager Countess. The woman who did her best not to know about her husband’s frequent infidelities until he brought them to her very door. At first, she seems weak in that she didn’t protest her husband’s affairs and actually participated in her son’s banishment. It’s only when she acknowledges to Devlin that she did the best she could with the cards she was dealt because women were forced to lie all the time to survive. She lied to herself because that is what she and women like her were trained to do practically from the cradle.

It makes Devlin think. It makes the reader think. And it makes the reader wonder – or at least this reader wonder – whether or not all that much has really changed.

Remember Love is the first book in the Ravenswood series. Now that Devlin is back home and has found his own HEA, I wonder what will happen next in the slightly altered lives of his family and friends in the coming entries in the series. Hopefully we’ll see sometime next year!

Review: The Roguish Baron by Sophie Barnes

Review: The Roguish Baron by Sophie BarnesThe Roguish Baron by Sophie Barnes
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical romance, holiday romance, regency romance
Series: Diamonds in the Rough #9
Pages: 180
Published by Sophie Barnes on May 24, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

When a rakish scoundrel decides to pursue the woman he loves in this friends to lovers Regency romance, he risks his father's disapproval...and the consequence this will have on his future.

He had to risk losing her so he would realize how much he loved her...

Jack Lancaster, Baron Hawthorne, hasn't been home in four years. He's been too busy running from his emotions. So when he finally does return and discovers his childhood friend, Sophia Fenmore, has gotten engaged, he's not only shocked, but determined to change her mind and make her his.

Sophia has always known Jack was out of her league. But she valued his friendship, until he broke her heart. Now he's back, as eager to charm her as she is to thwart him.For as much as she'd like to believe Jack has changed, she cannot risk taking a chance on a rogue. Unless of course, he proves himself worthy.

A daring forbidden love romance from a USA Today bestselling author

*Previously published as part of The Rogue Who Stole Christmas anthology*

My Review:

The way that the romances are intertwined and misdirected in this latest book in the Diamonds in the Rough series reads like the kind of convoluted plot that Shakespeare would have loved.

The Lancaster children, Jack, Felicity, and Kaitlin, and the Fenmore siblings, Edward and Sophia, grew up together as one romping tangle of friends. But the Lancasters are the offspring of the Earl of Turner, while the Fenmores are the children of the local vicar. There’s an even larger gap in station between Sophia Fenmore and the others, as Sophia is an orphan who was found wrapped in a blanket in the church that the Fenmores’ father is the vicar of. They raised her as their own, but with her origins obscure at best, she’s not quite the social equal of the others.

A difference that makes no difference when they are all children, but drives a wedge in the close friendship between Jack and Sophia when they reach the cusp of adulthood. Not that either of them cares one whit, they are the best of friends even if Sophia is just beginning to understand that she wants more.

But to Jack’s father the Earl, it matters a great deal. To the point where the Earl threatens to cut off Jack’s inheritance if he marries Sophia. Something that Jack hadn’t even thought of up to that point. (The title and the estate are entailed, Jack will inherit those whatever his father wants. But the money is his father’s own to dispose of as he pleases. Inheriting the estate without the money for the upkeep of the stately pile is a recipe for bankruptcy.)

Jack runs away to London for four years, earning enough money to no longer need anything his father doesn’t want to give. He ALSO earns a well-deserved reputation as a rake as he cuts a wide and smiling swath through the female population of London in an attempt to deny his father’s accusation – that he’s in love with Sophia. Even though he is.

Jack returns home to a mess. Sophia is more beautiful than he remembered, and even more captivating. But she’s also engaged to, of all people, her adopted brother Edward. Who is in love with Jack’s sister Felicity. But Edward and Felicity both believe that their love is doomed, that Felicity’s father would never consent to a match between them.

In other words, everyone is being self-sacrificing – except Jack’s father who is still being an ass.

And just when it seems like they’ve all gotten past all of the roadblocks they’ve put in their own way, the truth about Sophia’s origins finally comes to light. And those roadblocks just get higher.

Escape Rating B: The Diamonds in the Rough series has been charming romantic fluff from the very first book, A Most Unlikely Duke (still my favorite in the series) to this 9th book in the series. And this one feels like the last. Not that it doesn’t stand alone, because it most certainly does, but because all of those Diamonds and their equally happy spouses are guests at the wedding that ends this entry in the series. It felt like closure, although I’ll be happy if I’m proven wrong!

The best part of The Roguish Baron isn’t the Baron. It’s Sophia. What made her interesting was that, in spite of some of her over-the-top descriptions of her feelings, her thoughts and actions were very, very pragmatic. And she wasn’t shy about letting Jack know when he’d stepped in it and on them. She doesn’t cry and expect to be patted and soothed, she speaks up and uses her words very clearly and forthrightly.

Her situation in this story is very much “one down”. She’s female in a time and place where she has no rights and her only hope of a comfortable future is to marry and hope that her husband isn’t a brute or a gambler or a spendthrift. And she may not have a say in who she marries, and then she’ll basically be property in the marriage.

Under those circumstances, her acceptance of Edward’s proposal may not be the best of all possible worlds, but it is far, far, far from the worst. With her origins obscured, it may be the only offer she’ll get, and she knows it. Whatever dreams she might have of marrying Jack, she’s not wrong to think that society will look down upon them both and that his father will not be forgiving. She’s doomed before she starts.

Jack loves her and wants her but takes, not so much convincing as beating about with a clue-by-four to get that if they’re going to untangle the mess their in that there are no half-measures. And that if he can’t commit to this course he needs to leave her alone. Which he has a hard time even imagining, let alone actually doing.

The thing that made this work was the way that Jack was forced to grovel, publicly, for the mess he’d made of his life, and the mess he’d very nearly made of both their lives. Sophia may have forgiven him, but he still had to earn back the respect he’d squandered when he was punishing both himself and his father – who honestly didn’t grovel enough.

That Sophia does learn who she came from was lovely, even though it did seem like a bit of deus ex machina. And I have some mixed feelings about whether that was the right way to solve things.

But this was still a lovely, frothy bit of holiday Regency romance. If this is the end of the series, it provides a charming bit of closure to five years of romantic reads. If it turns out there are still more to come, I’d be happy to watch more of these unconventional couples find their HEAs..

Review: When She Dreams by Amanda Quick

Review: When She Dreams by Amanda QuickWhen She Dreams (Burning Cove, #6) by Amanda Quick
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance, paranormal, romantic suspense
Series: Burning Cove #6
Pages: 320
Published by Berkley Books on May 3, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Return to 1930s Burning Cove, California, the glamorous seaside playground for Hollywood stars, mobsters, spies, and a host of others who find more than they bargain for in this mysterious town.
Maggie Lodge, assistant to the reclusive advice columnist known only as Dear Aunt Cornelia to her readers, hires down-but-not-quite-out private eye Sam Sage to help track down the person who is blackmailing her employer. Maggie and Sam are a mismatched pair. As far as Sam is concerned, Maggie is reckless and in over her head. She is not what he had in mind for a client but he can't afford to be choosy. Maggie, on the other hand, is convinced that Sam is badly in need of guidance and good advice. She does not hesitate to give him both.
In spite of the verbal fireworks between them, they are fiercely attracted to each other, but each is convinced it would be a mistake to let passion take over. They are, after all, keeping secrets from each other. Sam is haunted by his past, which includes a marriage shattered by betrayal and violence. Maggie is troubled by intense and vivid dreams--dreams that she can sometimes control. There are those who want to run experiments on her and use her for their own purposes, while others think she should be committed to an asylum.
When the pair discovers someone is impersonating Aunt Cornelia at a conference on psychic dreaming and a woman dies at the conference, the door is opened to a dangerous web of blackmail and murder. Secrets from the past are revealed, leaving Maggie and Sam in the path of a ruthless killer who will stop at nothing to exact vengeance.

My Review:

When I first visited Burning Cove, back in The Girl Who Knew Too Much, I wasn’t expecting it to become a series – but I’m very glad that it did!

Burning Cove is kind of a liminal place, and the 1930s were a liminal time. Burning Cove is in California, a place where dreams are made and lost and found. It is an offshoot of Los Angeles and Hollywood, the heart of all that dream making machinery at a time when movies and their magic were blossoming into their heyday.

While the 1930s were a time when the world was holding its breath. WW1 was in the rearview mirror, but its avatars are men and women in their 30s – in the prime of their powers and their adulthood – no matter what shadows darken their pasts or their futures. But the world is also on the brink of war, at least for those with eyes to see, while the world’s economy is still in shambles, feeding the causes and hatreds of the war about to be born.

Among all those dreams, visions and nightmares, it seems fitting that Burning Cove has become a center of dream powers, dream research and possibly dream control. Or, in this particular entry in the series, fulfilling a couple of con artists’ dreams of avarice.

And onto that stage, in this 6th entry in the series, step Maggie Lodge and Sam Sage. Maggie is a lucid dreamer with a realistically cynical view of the pros and cons of her talent. In control, she can wield it like a weapon, out of control it can be used as a weapon against her. As too many in her past have already attempted.

Sam is a private detective, still reeling from the hard knocks of divorce from a woman he never should have married, and being fired from his job as an LA police detective for being too good and too incorruptible at his job. He also happens to be the only private detective in Maggie’s tiny California town who is sober at 9 in the morning. He’s sure the job, whatever it is, will be better than divorce work.

Maggie hires Sam to investigate the blackmail attempt directed at her employer, the advice columnist known as “Dear Aunt Cornelia” in newspapers all around the country. Cornelia is out of the country on an around the world cruise, leaving Maggie with her house, her column and her checkbook to take care of any business while Aunt Cornelia, AKA Lillian Dewherst, is away from home.

Sam, Maggie and the erstwhile blackmailer converge on Burning Cove, where a dream research conference – or con game – is being held under the auspices of the suspiciously glitzy Guilfoyle Institute.

Maggie’s suspicions are already heightened, as the scientific legitimacy of what is obviously a con game or even a pyramid scheme is being shored up by the participation of a real dream scientist who once attempted to drug Maggie and experiment on her talents under the guise of “therapy”.

Sam is just as suspicious, because the Guilfoyles are so obvious about their intentions to fleece the attendees – at least according to a hunch that is so strong that it might well be a talent on its own.

And because the would-be blackmailer is found dead of a drug injection on opening night.

Escape Rating B+: Burning Cove straddles a whole bunch of genre lines. In a nutshell it’s historical paranormal romantic suspense, with pretty much the entire kitchen sink encompassed by those genres in evidence.

When She Dreams is the 6th book in this series, but I don’t think you need to have read the previous books to get into this one. While a couple of main characters from previous entries in the series turn up as side characters in this book, they are far from the focus and are not an intimate part of any of the events. The true continuing element of this series is the location, and since it neither has any dialog nor participates in any romance, not having visited before isn’t a problem for first time visitors.

The paranormal element to this series, as it is to much of the Jayneverse as the author (Amanda Quick/Jayne Castle/Jayne Ann Krentz) calls it, revolves around Maggie’s dream talent. She’s not the first character in these interconnected worlds to manifest a psychic power related to dreams and nightmares, and I’d be willing to bet she won’t be the last, either.

It’s not like that particular talent isn’t hotly debated in real life, after all.

What makes Maggie, and the other women in Burning Cove so fascinating is her realistic grasp on what it means to be a woman in a man’s world at a time when it’s all too easy for a woman to be overlooked, ignored, or in Maggie’s case, locked up for “her own good” by people who claim to love her and have her best interests at heart.

Maggie is a fighter who comes by her distrust of the world in general and men in particular unflinchingly honestly. She has carved out an independent life for herself against the odds, and she’s determined to maintain that independence, and the reader likes her all the better for it.

Sam is not as interesting a character as Maggie is. Maggie sparkles, and it’s easy to see why Sam is attracted to her, even if we don’t see a whole lot of evidence of that attraction until fairly far into the book. But he is a worthy partner for her in the investigation, and not just because he’s able to reluctantly admit that they are partners whether that’s what he planned on or not.

What does sparkle is the way that Sam and Maggie close in on this case that did not originally look like a whole, entire case. It goes from blackmail to murder to fraud to murder to obsession and then reaches back into the past to yet more murder. Following in Maggie’s footsteps as she and Sam unravel the clues one dark and dangerous step at a time makes for a terrific, page-turning thriller, clinging to the edge of one nightmare after another.

Review: The Bachelor Betrayal by Maddison Michaels

Review: The Bachelor Betrayal by Maddison MichaelsThe Bachelor Betrayal by Maddison Michaels
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: ebook
Genres: historical romance, romantic suspense
Series: Secrets, Scandals, and Spies #2
Pages: 457
Published by Entangled: Amara on February 14, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

He wants justice
Underestimating Marcus Black is the last thing his enemies ever do. After all, the respected Earl of Westwood is a deadly threat… when her Majesty needs him to be. And his only goal is to avenge his brother’s murder. Which would be much easier if the viciously-skilled Lady Kaitlyn Montrose wouldn’t swoop in, knee him in the bollocks, and then run off with his only lead…
She wants revenge
Kat is determined to avenge her beloved uncle’s murder and nothing will stop her. Especially not the devastatingly handsome, and equally lethal Marcus Black. The fact that he’s after the same target is a complication she hadn’t planned on. And as much as she enjoys taunting him, she has a job to do—one that doesn’t include sparring with the infuriating man at every turn. Except Kat has a new plan… one that Marcus will just hate.
Now they’ll have to work together… if they don’t kill each other first
Individually, Marcus and Kat are deadly. If they worked together, they could be unstoppable. But when attraction gets in the way of vengeance, it’s more than hearts on the line. And only one person can win...

My Review:

There are three threads to this story. The part of that braid that we are introduced to first is the revenge story, as Kat Montrose watches her guardian and beloved uncle die on the street after an attack by a foreign agent known only as “The Chameleon”. The second strand of that braid is the instant attraction between Kat and Marcus Black – an attraction that is as inconvenient and inappropriate as it is irresistible.

Last but not least, the central thing that ties those two pieces together is the “Great Game” of power, politics and general one-upmanship that was conducted between the British Empire and the Russian Empire in places and with proxies all around the world, but most especially in Central and South Asia.

It’s the playing of this game of lives, fortunes and futures that eventually resulted in World War I. But at the point of this story in 1884-85, it’s mostly a spy game. A spy game in which Kat, Marcus, Kat’s late uncle AND the Chameleon have all played their parts.

Kat, formally Lady Kaitlyn Montrose, is a spy, a member of Her Majesty’s War Office. So is Marcus Black, the Earl of Westwood. Both were trained by her late uncle in the work. When he was killed, Kat began her search for the Chameleon, intending on taking “an eye for an eye”, the Chameleon’s life for her uncle’s.

But the Chameleon has been avoiding people like Kat for years, all too successfully. No one has ever been able to discover the identity of the elusive assassin. Kat needs a bit of assistance in tracking the Chameleon down. Assistance that she expects to garner in the form of the Earl of Westwood, who should want to avenge her uncle – his mentor – as much as she does.

Westwood has been hunting the Chameleon for far longer than Kat has been looking, and Victor’s death only adds to the reasons for his pursuit. He doesn’t want Kat getting in his way – or honestly working the case at all. Nor does he have any hope of stopping her.

Which doesn’t keep him from trying for entirely too long.

But the Chameleon is working through a hit list of the highest echelons of the War Office. Kat and Marcus will have to work together to stop the decimation of Britain’s intelligence services while war looms on the horizon.

Too bad they’re spending so much time fighting a war with each other to find the source of the threat before it’s nearly too late.

Escape Rating B: I loved the opening of this. The whole idea of a female spy in Victorian England had the potential to be so much fun! And the first scenes, with Kat burgling some papers then decimating the thugs who try to stop her  – was fantastic. That Kat has a burning line of snark for such circumstances was icing on the cake.

But the cake turned out to be more of a cupcake.

Kat is still an utterly fascinating character, and she does continue to kick ass and take names throughout this story. I especially loved her friendship with Livie (heroine of the first book in the series, The Bachelor Bargain) and Etta, and their joint publishing venture to take down the unrepentant asshole noblemen who abused women and didn’t think they’d have to pay for their perfidy. That was excellent. (I haven’t read the first book – yet – but didn’t feel like I’d missed anything essential. Just that I might have missed a good reading time!)

And I can’t say that I didn’t like her budding relationship with Westwood, because that certainly had oodles of passionate potential, which it mostly fulfilled. What fulfilled less, at least for me, was the degree to which he just plain refused to accept that Kat was NEVER going to submit to his protection and was not under any circumstances going to hold herself back from the investigation. Marcus wants Kat to be safe, and takes much too long to acknowledge that safety was about the last thing that Kat was built for.

If he hadn’t been aware of how she was raised and trained – and intimately aware at that because he was trained by the same person – it would have made more sense. His behavior would have been the expected thing for that time and place. But he went into this mess knowing that Kat was absolutely NOT the expected thing so treating her as if she was was going to get him nowhere but an argument. The repetition went on too long, and Kat in particular was a bit too angsty about her developing feelings. She was portrayed as a person of action at every turn and the moody angst just didn’t “feel right”.

On the other hand, the case was a cracking good one – and the solution was nothing like I expected at all. The Chameleon was both clever and totally unexpected, adding a frisson of danger and temptation to the scenario that made the whole thing that much more diabolical and entertaining.

In other words, mixed feelings. The way the romance worked didn’t quite fit the characters of Kat and Marcus as they were drawn, but I was certainly sold on them being meant for each other. I certainly liked this more than enough to consider picking up the previous book in the series, The Bachelor Bargain, the next time I’m in the mood for a romantic spy story.

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Review: Ten Rules for Marrying a Duke by Michelle McLean

Review: Ten Rules for Marrying a Duke by Michelle McLeanTen Rules for Marrying a Duke by Michelle McLean
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: ebook
Genres: historical romance, regency romance
Pages: 289
Published by Entangled: Scandalous on February 14, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Bookish Arabella Bromley never gave a fig for society’s rules—until her sister ran off with a man below her station. Now Arabella is desperate to restore her family’s ruined reputation to favor amongst the ton. She’ll have to marry quickly and well. But in order to carry off her plan, Arabella needs a duke… and she has just the rakish fellow in mind.
The Duke of Whittsley has an ungentlemanly tendency to disregard the rules. Unfortunately, a sense of mischief doesn’t excuse a high-ranking noble from family duty—especially where it concerns producing a son. And that’s where he can’t quite resist Arabella’s distinctly outrageous plan: if he saves her family, she’ll give him an heir.
Now the deal’s been struck. They have one year to achieve their goals and ten iron-clad rules to keep them on track. Like long, scorching kisses and ensuring they’re both exquisitely satisfied. And the only thing that could ruin their plan is the one thing they never planned on: love.

My Review:

If you are easily seduced by witty banter you will surely fall in love with Ten Rules for Marrying a Duke just as thoroughly as Arabella Bromley and Silas, Duke of Whittsley fall in love with each other.

Not that that’s what either of them expects when the story begins. In fact, they outright plan against such a thing. That’s what those rules are for, after all. Creating a partnership rather than a relationship so that they can help each other out of the pickles they have both landed in – and then go their separate ways.

Silas needs an heir, but he doesn’t really want a wife. A wife who will become a permanent part of his life and might very well make demands on him. He’s been turning both a deaf ear and a blind eye to his grandfather’s nearly constant harangues about taking his responsibilities seriously, ceasing his frivolous pursuits, doing his duty by his title, and especially marrying and siring an heir.

Silas does take his responsibilities to his estate seriously. Well, more like semi-seriously, which is how he treats pretty much everything. He recognizes that he will have to marry and have an heir someday but he’s only 30 and not ready to settle down in any form or fashion whatsoever.

Arabella Bromley, on the other hand, thought she was settled. Her father was content for her to settle into the happily bookish spinsterhood she intended to revel in. He’s an introvert just as she is, so he understands her as no one else in the family does. She can’t inherit his title, and neither can her sisters, he has plenty of money to ensure that she will be comfortable even if she never so her bluestocking nature is not a problem.

At least not until her older sister Alice marries their groom, bringing scandal down on all their heads. The invitations to events dry up in the hot wind of gossip blowing through the ton. It’s find for her father, it’s fine for Arabella, and Alice certainly doesn’t care. But their younger sister Anna cares very much. Her Season was cut short due to illness and she expected to have another Season to find a husband and get herself settled.

The entire family is now social poison and Anna won’t be able to make a good match. It’s up to Arabella to concoct a scheme that will allow their family to weather the storm of scandal. All she has to do is convince the Duke of Whittsley to marry her and sponsor her sister back into society.

And that’s where those pesky rules come in. The ten rules they write together in a bit of hilariously embarrassing but utterly necessary one-up-person-ship, in order to hammer out just how they will convince the ton that they are madly in love, rescue her sister AND detail how to handle their lives once they part company after all the deeds are done.

They should have put in a rule about what to do when they both broke the unstated rule of the whole affair – that neither of them was supposed to fall in love with the other.

Escape Rating B: The first half of this book is an absolute delight. The second half was a bit overshadowed by the giant misunderstandammit that takes over the story, but still had plenty of verve left from that first half to carry this reader through to the end.

Arabella’s scheme to marry Silas is a bit contrived. Both in the sense that she has contrived it on a wing and a prayer, and that the entire situation tries so hard to be a meet cute – although it mostly manages to get there.

What carries that day – and the entire first half of the book – is the way that they both approach the possibility of turning this half-baked scheme into a fully-baked reality. On the one hand, they are opposites. Arabella takes pretty much everything seriously, while Silas takes almost nothing seriously.

He enters into the entire scheme because he’s having fun tweaking Arabella into a reluctant smile at every opportunity. It’s the most “real” fun he’s had in a long time.

It all works because in spite of coming at the situation from opposite directions they are both witty and intelligent people and determined to give as good as they get in every encounter. Arabella wants to stick to the rules they create while Silas pushes the boundaries of all the rules all the time.

And both of them are having a great time doing it – just as the reader does watching them talk and tease each other into friendship and ultimately marriage. Which is where that misunderstandammit rears its ugly little head.

Because they do the one thing neither ever expected. They fall in love with each other. But all their rules were predicated on that NEVER happening. They want to stay together but each is quite reasonably afraid that if they change the rules and the other isn’t on the same page then they’ll lose the happiness they’ve found. It IS a conundrum.

One that they wallow in just a bit too long. It makes sense that the conversation they need to have is hard to have but…the wallowing turned both of them into just the kind of angst-ridden lovesick fools – emphasis on fool – that they so successfully and entertainingly avoided in the first half.

Howsomever, that second half also brings to light some things that I really liked but don’t see nearly often enough in Regencies in the treatment of that scandalous older sister. Because she hasn’t disappeared from her family’s lives and she isn’t treated like a dirty secret. She’s happy in her marriage, her husband is wonderful, and they’re living in a family house out in the country. Because they’re both happier there not because her family has disowned them.

And when Arabella is having the inevitable crisis, it’s her big sister she turns to for solace, for advice, and for safe harbor from her self-created storm. One gets the definite impression that if it hadn’t been for the youngest sister still wanting to find a husband the entire family would have told the ton to go fly a kite – or whatever the appropriate Regency phrase would have been. And wouldn’t that have made for a delicious story?

I very much liked that the family didn’t do any of the terrible things that happen so often to scandal-prone daughters in Regency romance.

So I adored the first half, had mixed but mostly positive feelings about the second half, and ended the book remembering their witty banter very fondly. If you like romances where the protagonists talk each other into love, watching Arabella and Silas make – and break – those ten rules is a lot of fun.

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Review: Mr. Donahue’s Total Surrender by Sophie Barnes

Review: Mr. Donahue’s Total Surrender by Sophie BarnesMr. Donahue's Total Surrender (Enterprising Scoundrels #1) by Sophie Barnes
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Enterprising Scoundrels #1
Pages: 230
Published by Sophie Barnes on January 25, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Calista Faulkner had a plan: go to England, get married, and save her father from ruin. Instead, she’s now stuck in London, penniless and without the husband she’d pinned her hopes on. Desperate to return home, she seeks employment at a hotel – as a scullery maid – a far cry from the social status she has otherwise been accustomed to. But when a chance encounter with the hotel’s owner, Mr. Donahue, leads to a change in fortune and her acquaintance with him deepens, a new problem arises. For Calista knows she must return home and marry a man she hates in order to save her family’s reputation. But how can she leave behind the man she's falling in love with? How can she marry anyone else?

My Review:

There’s plenty of surrendering to go around in this charming Victorian-era historical romance. Mr. Steven Donahue AND Miss Callista Faulkner both eventually surrender to their happily ever after. But they certainly don’t start there. Or anywhere close.

As the story begins, Donahue is the owner and operator of what would today be called a boutique hotel that is desirably close to the newly built halls of Parliament. Considering that this is a romance, there’s a very apropos joke that applies here. “What do kissing and real estate have in common? The three most important things in both instances are, ‘Location, location, location.”

It’s been a ton of work to rehabilitate what was a dilapidated building, and Donahue has invested a significant amount of money in the endeavor, but the Imperial is a success that he’s rightfully proud of. As the third son of an Earl, it’s up to him to make his own way in life – even if he was born with a bit of the silver spoon in his mouth. He’s turned that silver into something that provides him with an excellent livelihood and a purpose.

Because Donahue isn’t just interested in making money for himself – although he certainly is interested in that. He also prides himself on the well-compensated jobs in excellent working conditions that his hotel – and the others he plans to build around the country – will provide for all the people necessary to make his hotels shine in every way.

That’s where Miss Callista Faulkner steps into the story – very much to her own surprise. She came from her native New York City to marry a gentleman who died while she was en route. She was fleeing a forced marriage to a despicable villain who just might possibly have gotten her father in debt for that very purpose. But her late, would-be bridegroom seems to have been marrying Callista in order to get out from under the unwelcome marriage that his own family was trying to arrange for him. So they didn’t know Callista was coming and wouldn’t have agreed or approved if they had.

Callista has run through or been relieved of the money she came to London with – and she needs to get home. Broke and desperate, she’s applied for jobs all over London only to be rejected at every turn. The Imperial offers her one last chance, but there’s a catch.

There are several catches. The manager is about to turn her down when Donahue intervenes and forces the man to offer her any job that he believes she will suit. Said manager takes his comeuppance out on Callista by offering her a position as a scullery maid, absolutely no training or introduction to the work at all, and refuses to give her a room in the hotel’s generously provided and reasonably appointed staff quarters. She has a cot in the pantry, no lock on the door and is the butt of every joke and blamed for every spilled drink and broken plate that occurs – even when she’s not near the incident. She consoles herself with the money she’s saving for her passage home.

But her mistreatment at the hands of the staff forces Donahue to intervene. He becomes her knight in well-tailored armor, giving her room, board and spending money while thoroughly cleaning out the staff who were much too willing to harass and abuse one of their colleagues. He also pays for her passage back home and even provides her with chaperons for the journey.

While they are both waiting for that journey to take place, however, they have time. Perhaps a little too much of it. More than enough time to discover that they LIKE each other. Not just that they are attracted to each other, but that they are developing a friendship along with possibly more.

Which they don’t have quite enough time to be sure of – at least not if they’re being sensible. And then there’s that odious toad waiting back in New York to claim Callista as payment of her father’s debts.

Donahue has always been sober and sensible – but this is looking like the one time in his life when he’ll be much better served if he throws caution to the winds.

Escape Rating B: Mr. Donahue’s Total Surrender is a light and frothy historical romance with just enough dark undertones to keep the reader – and the characters – on their toes.

One of the things I really enjoyed about this story is that it is a romance of thoughts and feelings and not body parts. Some of that is the period in which it is set, but I loved the way that the protagonists fall in love through spending time together, talking with each other, and just enjoying each other’s company. I did feel the romance, and we did see them fall for each other, but they’re not using sex to cement the relationship and that worked well.

I also liked that Donahue is someone who works for a living. Not that he isn’t rich, and not that his family didn’t give him a damn good start with education and money, but he’s not among the idle rich. We’re seeing more of that in historical romance and I like the trend very much.

The thing that kept this book from being a grade A read instead of a B has to do with comeuppances. There weren’t nearly enough of them. There are several circumstances in the story with villains. Not just the staff of the hotel who harass and abuse Callista, but also a titled brother and sister who are just awful and, top of the ugly pile, the odious schemer who hatched the plan to force Callista to marry him. He’s slime. The hotel staff do get their just desserts, but that was too easy. I would want to see the sour expressions on the part of those awful siblings at the wedding, and I especially wanted to know that Mr. Odious New York got at least a sliver of what should be coming to him. That we don’t discover what happened to him or even just his reaction at getting thwarted felt like a missed opportunity for a bit of catharsis.

But I had a ball – even if there is no actual ball – with Mr. Donahue, Miss Faulkner, and their total surrender to each other.