Monthly Archives:: May 2018

Review: ‘The Kydd Inheritance’ by Jan Jones

May 23, 2018 Review 0

Here’s the premise: Nell’s father has died suddenly, her brother has disappeared and is believed dead on his way home from India, and her mother is away with the fairies much of the time. Meanwhile, her uncle is mismanaging the estate, the money for Nell’s season has vanished and the only suitor is one she wouldn’t dream of accepting. And then a mysterious stranger arrives, and starts behaving in an odd manner. What’s a girl to do? Why, resort to deception and subterfuge, that’s what.

I don’t remember now why I picked up this book. Maybe I read about it somewhere, or tripped over it on Amazon as I bounced around the ‘also boughts’ from one book to another. Something drew my eye, but for the first few chapters, I couldn’t for the life of me see why. The situation was not terribly original, the mystery didn’t seem to be too difficult to work out, and I could see pretty much how things were going to go. There were flashes of something more hidden beneath the surface, but it didn’t set me on fire.

But then everything shifted up a gear, as if the author had suddenly got into her stride, and the thing exploded into the most glorious fun. There are moments in this book that will stay with me for ever, such as ‘Cousin Jane’ going out for the evening – positively delicious. The dialogue sparkles in best Georgette Heyer-style, the minor characters are delightfully eccentric and the principals are wonderful. The romance comes slowly to the boil, in quite the best way, the hero is swoon-worthy and the heroine is feisty and intelligent without being too modern.

For sticklers for historical accuracy (like me), this seemed to me to be resoundingly well researched, and with a writing style that effectively captures the era without tripping up the modern reader. The only off note was the heroine setting off to do her ‘marketing’. As a Brit, I’ve never encountered this expression, and find it hard to believe that any gently-brought-up young lady would actually go food shopping (that’s what servants were for). The heroine also seems to make a lot of her own clothes, but I suppose she had been reduced to a poverty-stricken state.

The climax is less silly and more plausible than in many other Regencies (translation: it was pretty silly, in a lot of ways, but by this point in the book I was sufficiently invested that I didn’t mind). And then the book ended in the best possible way – with the villain routed, a thoroughly believable HEA, a big kiss and me with a huge grin on my face. Highly recommended. Five stars.

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Review: ‘Venetia’ by Georgette Heyer

May 22, 2018 Review 0

Hooray for a heroine who is smart, resourceful and knows her own mind right from the start! So many of Heyer’s heroines somehow don’t recognise their own feelings until the hero sweeps them into his manly arms and kisses them thoroughly, but Venetia is not of that type. She sees her soul-mate in Damerel almost at once, and isn’t the slightest bit deterred by his rakish past. In fact, at the end of the book, her urgency in wanting to get back to him is as much driven by fear that he will take another mistress as anything else.

Venetia is twenty five, and has lived secluded all her adult life, firstly by the vagaries of her eccentric father, and later by the need to deputise for her absent brother, the heir to the estate, and her highly intellectual younger brother, who has a leg damaged by childhood illness. She is pursued by two dogged swains. One is a suitable and worthy but deadly dull man, who never respects Venetia enough to believe her when she says she doesn’t want to marry him. In fact, he never believes anything she says, because he’s a man and he knows better. The other is very young, suffering from over-romantic calf-love.

Into this state of stasis drops the owner of the neighbouring, much neglected, estate, Lord Damerel, a renowned rake and ne’er-do-well. As is very commonplace in these stories, his every action within the confines of the book are perfectly respectable (with one exception – his first meeting with Venetia). But from then onwards, he lives a blameless, not to say generous and open-hearted, life, setting his estate in order, taking Venetia’s hard-to-manage brother in hand and behaving with perfect propriety towards Venetia herself. It’s claimed that his objective is to seduce her, but frankly he never steps outside the bounds of propriety once, so it’s hard to believe.

The romance in this book is one of the most natural and charming that Heyer ever wrote. These two are perfect friends, getting along so well that you wonder quite how they can ever be kept apart. But kept apart they are, and for that stupid old chestnut of a reason, ‘the heroine’s own good’. Fortunately, Venetia discovers the truth and, being a resourceful lady, sets about securing her own happiness with great determination. My eyebrows rose at her journey all alone on the mail coach, and there’s just a touch of deus ex machina in the way she resolves her difficulty, but whatever.

Venetia’s family, even the always absent heir, Conway, is steeped in selfishness. The father withdrew into seclusion, trapping Venetia with him. The older brother is both selfish and indolent, one of those people who just never knuckles down to doing anything that might make him the slightest bit uncomfortable. The younger brother is immersed in his books, to the point of barely noticing the existence of his sister. And the mother – well, let’s just say she was pretty selfish, too. So it comes as no surprise that when it come to the crunch, Venetia decides to be selfish, too, and grab her happiness by the scruff of its neck, regardless of her family. And of course Damerel has always been selfish, too. I do wonder whether he will reform or not. The two have this delightful discussion at the end of the book, and I’m not at all sure whether this is serious, or only partly serious or all in fun:

‘You’d know about my orgies!’ objected Damerel.
‘Yes, but I shouldn’t care about them, once in a while. After all, it would be quite unreasonable to wish you to change all your habits, and I can always retire to bed, can’t I?’
‘Oh, won’t you preside over them?’ he said, much disappointed.
‘Yes, love, if you wish me to,’ she replied, smiling at him. ‘Should I enjoy them?’
He stretched out his hand, and when she laid her own in it, held it very tightly. ‘You shall have a splendid orgy, my dear delight, and you will enjoy it very much indeed!’

The final scenes are lovely, and there’s the usual array of wonderful minor characters to enjoy. This is more wordy and introspective than many Heyers, and I didn’t find either of the two suitors worthy of the amount of words expended on them, but never mind. A terrific heroine, a charming and un-rake-like hero and a wonderful romance – five stars.

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Review: ‘Snow Angel’ by Mary Balogh

May 22, 2018 Review 0

One of the things that Mary Balogh does brilliantly is to take a wildly unusual situation, toss her characters into it and leave them to sink or swim accordingly. In this case, Rosamund and Justin meet entirely by chance on the road in the middle of a snowstorm. She has just quarrelled with her brother and sets out to walk – somewhere, anywhere. He is trying to recover something from a planned week of pre-wedding debauchery where all the other participants have cried off. They escape the snow in a hunting lodge, and, since she’s a widow curious about sex with a younger man, and he was expecting a week of sex anyway, they retire to the bedroom pretty quickly. And then, a month later, they meet up at a house party where he is expected to propose to her niece. How very awkward.

Of course, this requires some sleight of hand. How could she not know who he is? Because he fails to introduce himself properly, that’s how. He tells her he’s Justin Halliday instead of the Earl of Wetherby, and frankly, there’s no way on earth he would ever do that unless, for some unfathomable reason, he was deliberately intending to deceive her. So already there’s some suspension of disbelief involved. Then there’s the sex aspect, and while he might not worry too much about a possible pregnancy, the fear of an illegitimate child was great enough to make most respectable women think twice about it. And I don’t believe for one moment that Regency women were sufficiently knowledgeable about ovulation to use it as a contraceptive device. This is a time when medical practices revolved around balancing the humours in the body, and bleeding the sick with leeches and cutting. So telling him that she’s unlikely to get pregnant is hugely implausible.

So the house party goes along merrily, and Justin is too committed to draw back, but his intended has been given the freedom of choice. If she had half a brain in her head, she would have told him she was in love with someone else. I get that there was a huge weight of expectation there for a marriage which had been planned for years, but the whole business was drawn out to the nth degree, and seemed quite silly to me. And meanwhile Justin and Rosamund are busy trying to keep their hands off each other, and not succeeding terribly well.

Naturally, everything gets resolved satisfactorily in the end, but not because of anything the hero or heroine did. I would have liked to see more emphasis on the absolute impossibility of the hero backing out of his engagement under Regency societal rules, because without that he just looks like a wimpy dithery sort of guy, trying to string both women along and unable to summon up the gumption to do what’s necessary.

This is as well-written as all Balogh’s books, and I loved the premise and the sex-fuelled first half, but the flaws in the plot and the long-drawn-out second half keep it to four stars.

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Review: ‘Perception and Illusion’ by Catherine Kullmann

May 22, 2018 Review 0

This book made me uncomfortable. One of the tropes I dislike intensely in any kind of book, although it’s particularly prevalent in Regencies, is the misunderstanding between hero and heroine. If the entire plot could be resolved if they just sat down and discussed it over a cup of tea, then it’s usually an epic fail for me. This book has two qualities that make it compelling despite this, however. One is that it’s beautifully written, every word pulling its weight. The other is that the mix-ups are actually believable. And the final clincher is that, given the title, this is exactly what the story is about, so it’s a bit unfair to quibble.

The premise is that our hero, Hugo, and heroine, Lallie, meet at a house party and are instantly attracted in a restrained, Regency way. But circumstances, and a villainous father, conspire to force them to rush into marriage perhaps rather sooner than they otherwise would. Things begin well, but when they go up to town, she’s drawn away by his older sisters, he feels left out, and there’s an abandoned mistress thrown into the mix as well. And gradually, despite the best intentions of both, they drift apart and everything goes wrong.

In some ways, this reminded me of Georgette Heyer’s April Lady, where husband and wife are in love with each other, but never actually say so (until the end of the book, at least). But in that book, the hero was somewhat older than his wife, so his stupidity was less excusable. Here, the two are much of an age, although both are old enough to be sensible. To be fair, they both grew up in oddball households without an easy relationship with siblings of a similar age, so perhaps their awkward dealings are understandable.

This is a very wordy book, so there’s a lot of angst worked out in lengthy dialogues, and over-long analysis sometimes of who thought what and when. There are also an enormous number of characters that, frankly, I couldn’t keep track of. That’s a realistic representation of the intertwined Regency aristocracy, but it does make for a confusing read. The research here is spot on, although I could have done with a touch less of it on the page. There seemed to be a lot of situations that the author felt the need to explain at length, which could easily have been glossed over. It slowed the book down a great deal in the middle parts.

I liked both Hugo and Lallie a great deal. Hugo is very much my kind of hero, a thoroughly nice man with good manners and no terrible habits, and although he’s had a mistress for a while, he gave her up before courting Lallie. Besides, it was the intimacy of life with his mistress that propelled him towards matrimony, which is a nice comment on Regency men – the mistress as an immature stage in his life. I was disappointed though, that he lost his temper so spectacularly at crucial moments. Regency men were all about public restraint, whatever they did in private, so I’m not sure he would ever have spoken so rudely to anyone, especially not to his wife. And I’m still not quite sure why the two of them couldn’t simply have said what they wanted, instead of seething in silent resentment or assuming they knew what the other person wanted. But that was the story, so whatever.

Of the other characters, most were well-meaning, if not quite angelic. There were only two villains, and sadly they fell into the caricature moustache-twirling variety, and seemed to be there purely to propel the plot along the correct path. I have to confess, however, that the stratagem of the father arranging a marriage to an obnoxious man to keep hold of the daughter’s fortune, causing her to run away, is not one I can cavil at, having used exactly the same device in one of my own books. My own heroine had no already-interested Hugo to bump into, but she went through something of the same ups and downs with her husband as Lallie.

One aspect of the book I liked very much was the attitude of the loyal retainers at Hugo’s family estate when he arrived with his new bride. The little knots of people waiting to watch the carriages go by, and curtsying and bowing to the new mistress, and the lodgekeeper’s daughter presenting a posy as they leave are charming touches. So many authors of Regency works forget about the lower orders altogether, but here’s a reminder that the servants and tenant farmers and local suppliers and craftsmen were intimately involved with the local great family. It was their miniature version of royalty! So kudos to the author for that.

An interesting book, a little different from the usual. The misunderstandings that drive the plot and some characterisation wobbles would be a three star for me, but the excellent writing and depth of research brings it up to four stars.

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TV series reviews: Emma (1972) and Emma (2009)

May 3, 2018 Review 0

1972 version: RADA has a lot to answer for. They’re the ones who produced all those cut-glass accents so beloved of the BBC and its ‘received pronounciation’, who taught actors and actresses how to enunciate on stage to catch the audience in the upper balcony. Which is lovely for a stage production, but doesn’t work at all in a TV production. Doran Godwin’s Emma grated on my ears every time she opened her mouth. She looked the part, certainly, but her voice and the lack of expression sometimes in her face all came directly from live theatre.

This is, really, my main complaint about the whole show. It’s just too stilted and rigid to be believable. Most scenes are managed as if they were on stage, with the principals speaking and everyone else more or less immobile. Even the ballroom scene isn’t particularly animated. Compare this with the busy scenes in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, where the minor characters are conducting little vignettes in the background constantly.

Of the other characters, I liked John Carson as Mr Knightley, although he seemed a little too old for Emma, and for the first five and a half episodes, I thought he was too avuncular ever to make a credible lover. But when it came to the proposal scene, he pulled it off very well (or as well as this stilted version can manage). Miss Bates was excellent, too, with just the right level of constant chattering. Her performance when Emma comes to apologise after Box Hill, when Miss Bates is too distraught over Jane to care about any slight to herself, was probably the finest piece of acting in the whole series.

Debbie Bowen was excellent as the sweet but not terribly bright Harriet Smith, with just the right degree of naive adoration of the lover-of-the-moment. The Eltons were both good, but then that shouldn’t be hard; Mrs Elton, in particular, is a peach of a role. The Westons and Frank Churchill were adequate, and Jane Fairfax was suitably cold initially, and distraught later. I particularly liked her warmth at the end when all was revealed.

I have to mention the costumes. I have no complaint to make of the men, but the women all wore the same style of gown, regardless of rank. Once or twice I spotted Emma and Jane Fairfax wearing identical sleeve designs, and Harriet Smith’s bonnets were just as elaborate as Emma’s, although perhaps she didn’t have quite so many of them, and Emma did have plenty of fur trimmings to her coats and hoods for the cold weather.

All in all, a competent production, which relied rather more on the original words of the book than is common in later productions. These earlier versions are all words and little emotion, whereas the modern ones are largely about the emotions. The 1995 Pride and Prejudice is the one that, in my view, best marries respect for the author’s own words with some liveliness.

2009 version: Where to begin with this? It’s a real curate’s egg of a production, some dire stuff all muddled up with flashes of brilliance. Let’s start with the brilliance.

The opening scene shows (essentially) the whole life story of Emma, Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, showing how all three suffered an early tragedy, but Emma, being rich, got to stay in her luxurious home and grow up unruffled by life, while the other two had to move away and live with strangers. I really liked this view of the three of them, and their deep connection, which I’d never fully realised before.

More brilliance: Jonny Lee Miller is Mr Knightley. He’s old enough to be a convincing brother-figure, yet young and sexy enough to be a convincing love interest. As a character, I’ve always found him to be a grumpy old sod, and there’s something icky about a man who watches a girl grow from baby to adult, and then falls in love with her. Miller gives Mr Knightley enough personality to outweigh his innate grumpy old sodness, and somehow conveys his growing love for Emma without it being the least bit icky.

But the other characters – oh dear. I’m sorry, but I didn’t like Romola Garai’s Emma at all. She seemed too modern, too face-pulling and bouncy, too Essex-girl and not the perfect (if immature) lady she’s meant to be. She is, after all, the most important lady of the neighbourhood, but she acts like a wilful teenager. She was also far too informal – in fact, all the characters were too informal, their bows and curtsies mere gestures. I did like, however, the way Emma displays an obvious affection for Mr Knightley right from the start. She’s always pleased to see him and disappointed when he leaves, and that’s the first step on the road to love.

Tamsin Greig was a very disappointing Miss Bates. Not that there was any deficiency in her acting (she’s an incredibly talented lady) but she was asked to play Miss Bates with pathos rather than irritating stupidity and endless chattering, and while there was a certain underlying truth to that perception, it just makes Emma’s neglect and rudeness inexplicable. And Mrs Bates is rendered more or less catatonic in this production, instead of merely elderly and a bit deaf.

Michael Gambon was, I thought, a little too lively as Mr Woodhouse. Mr and Mrs Elton were fine, but they’re hard roles to get wrong. Harriet Smith was OK, and Frank Churchill I don’t remember at all, so… um, well, not a memorable performance, obviously. Mr and Mrs Weston I loved. Mrs Weston had a lot more screen time than I remember for the role, but it was immediately obvious how well she had filled the role of substitute sister for Emma. And Robert Bathurst can do no wrong (he was lovely in Downton Abbey, too), and made an admirable Mr Weston.

The costumes – I really disliked the costumes. All the women wore pretty much the same styles, with virtually nothing to distinguish Emma’s higher rank and expensive dressmaker from Harriet’s home-made efforts (which in her position they must have been).

There was an odd moment at the Westons’ Christmas party, when Emma ends up in the carriage alone with Mr Elton. In the book, it’s a mix-up, but here John Knightley deliberately gets into the other carriage, leaving Emma with Mr Elton, and I found that an inexplicable decision in a gentleman, to leave his unmarried sister-in-law alone with a man in a closed carriage, even if the man is in the clergy.

But the ball at the inn was delightful. Having recently watched the recreation of the Pride and Prejudice Netherfield Ball in a room not unlike the one used here, it all felt very familiar, and perfectly executed. I loved the energetic dancing, and I adored the romantic Emma-Knightley dance. And was that a waltz??

On the whole, enjoyable, with flashes of brilliance, but a lot of wasted opportunities, too.

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