Month: August 2018

Review: Frederica by Georgette Heyer

Posted August 15, 2018 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

After a run of 5* Heyers, this one lost a star for a rash of silliness. Too many of her books depend for their climactic disaster on characters behaving in positively bird-witted ways, without an ounce of common sense, and so it is here. Fortunately, the hero and heroine rise above the foolishness, there’s a lovely slow-build romance going on, too, and the humour is as well-developed as always.

Here’s the premise: the Merriville family descends on London so that beautiful Charis can make her come-out. To ensure this, older sister Frederica calls upon a distant relation, the Marquis of Alverstoke, to help launch Charis into society. Alverstoke is a bored, over-indulged and selfish rake-about-town who is unaccustomed to lifting a finger, even for much closer relations, but the chance to infuriate his own sisters spurs him to agree to hold a ball for Charis, and his sisters’ daughters.

So far, so meh. Alverstoke is, at this point, an unappealing character, entirely self-centred, and Frederica isn’t much better, being an overly managing and verbose spinster, completely caught up in the affairs of her family to the exclusion of any other consideration. But luckily Frederica has three brothers, and the younger two, sixteen-year-old Jessamy and twelve-year-old Felix, are the glorious, and very funny, heart of the book. Felix is obsessed with mechanical devices of all kinds and is charming enough to succeed in dragging a very reluctant Alverstoke on a trip to examine a foundry, amongst other delights. Jessamy is trying to study to be a worthy clergyman, in time, but would really rather be out on horseback. And both of them have a great propensity to get into deep trouble, whereupon they promptly turn to Alverstoke for help.

And so, by very gradual degrees, Alverstoke learns to care for someone other than himself, and Frederica learns to depend on someone other than herself, and by even more gradual degrees they fall in love. We see this more clearly in Alverstoke, and I loved the careful way he protected Frederica from gossip by not paying her too much attention, and being very casual when he’s with her, so that she isn’t seen as merely the latest flirt of a confirmed rake. With the downside, of course, that she never quite realises his intentions and he never quite finds himself in a position to raise the issue.

This aspect of the book is faultless, but of course it wouldn’t be a Heyer without at least one silly ingenue. Here, it’s Charis who fulfils the role, aided and abetted by the handsome but equally empty-headed Endymion, Alverstoke’s heir. They manage to create the usual end-of-book crisis, which is fortunately resolved rather quickly here. An honourable mention at this point to Alverstoke’s secretary, Mr Charles Trevor, who creatively solves every dilemma, and a dishonourable mention for Lufra, the Baluchistan hound, who sadly turned out to be a mere plot device, for he was barely mentioned after his magnificent performance in Green Park. A good four stars.


Review: The Gentleman Physician by Sally Britton

Posted August 11, 2018 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This book was both better and worse than its predecessor. Better, because the historical accuracy was quite impressive – the author has done her homework in a number of areas. Worse, because somehow it lost the freshness and emotional depth I so enjoyed in the first book of the series.

Here’s the premise: Julia Devon is the little-regarded eldest daughter of a most unpleasant social-climbing man. Several years ago, Julia had her season in London, but failed to make the expected spectacular marriage because she fell in love with an unsuitable man. Now she’s twenty-three and heading for permanent spinsterhood. After her younger sister married for love (the story of The Social Tutor) their father is so incensed that he banishes Julia to Bath, to act as poor relation to Lady Heatherton, a cousin. There she meets again her spurned suitor, Nathanial Hastings, now a physician beginning to develop his medical practice.

And so all is in train for a second chance romance, and, to be perfectly honest, this book should have been about five chapters long, because there really were no serious obstacles to their marriage. They are both five years older and wiser, he has a profession which is capable of sustaining a wife, with care, all it required was for him to court her sensibly. But no, that would be too easy, so we have to resort to that time-honoured fudge, the Great Misunderstanding. He believes she never cared for him. She believes he no longer cares for her. And it takes a lot of pushing and shoving from their friends to get past that, and persuade them to open up to each other.

The side plot concerns Lady Heatherton and her husband, a baron, who is dying of consumption. It’s not a particularly cheerful background for a romance, although it was a common enough event in Regency times, being one of the major killers of the era. The process of dying takes much of the book, and the consequences of the death are clearly a setup for a future book, so matters remains unresolved here. Apart from that there is very little else going on. A benevolent widow pops up to offer timely advice and practical help. A couple of friends passed through that I would like to have seen more of, a lively and interesting pair but only bit players here. And one young lady seems to have no function other than to convince Julia that Nathanial is courting someone else, because she is never seen again.

And so to pedant’s corner. My only real complaint in this book is those pesky titles. The baron is Lord Heatherton, never Baron Heatherton and certainly never the Baron of Heatherton (barons aren’t ‘of’ anywhere, although they might be Baron Something of Somewhere). His wife is Lady Heatherton, nothing else. Her intimate friends may call her Virginia but she is never, ever Lady Virginia Macon, or Lady Virginia anything. Like her husband, she is never addressed or described as Baroness. It’s complicated, but there are whole books devoted to spelling out these details.

Apart from this, the author is to be commended for her research. There are lots of nice details here. I particularly liked the clock being stopped when the baron died, and the fake doors on the Royal Crescent. I wasn’t too sure about the doctor and his friend having a luncheon of soup and sandwiches at a Bath teashop, however. Luncheon wasn’t a common meal in the Regency, and were there teashops in those days? And again, supper was used in place of dinner. But these are small details.

The language used is a bit modern, and knocked me out of immersion quite a few times. I’m not sure a Regency physician would say that he wanted to be a ‘hands-on’ doctor, and his medical advice was terribly modern, with all that hand-washing, fresh air and sunshine, but then there are very few writers who have the stomach to write positively about leeches, cupping and the theories of humours. I noticed a smattering of wrongly used words (bore instead of bared, for instance) but it was much better than the first book.

I was looking forward to this story, because Julia was the interesting sister with the mysterious past in the first book. I wanted to see her get her HEA. But in the end it was rather a damp squib, which never really drew me in. The characters were pleasant enough, but too selfless and generous for words, and this was true of most of the minor characters, too. The baron’s younger brother is a fairly cardboard-cutout villain. And in the end, nothing very much happened, and there were no real obstacles to our hero and heroine. However, don’t let my nitpicks put you off. It was still an enjoyable read from an author with real talent, and I recommend it. Four stars.


Review: The Social Tutor by Sally Britton

Posted August 11, 2018 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

There’s lots to love about this, but also some slightly wobbly aspects. On the one hand, the romance is exquisitely well-drawn, perfect in every detail. On the other, the surrounding plot is fairly clunky, and there are some technical issues that interfered with my reading pleasure quite considerably.

Here’s the premise: Miss Christine Devon is the middle daughter of three, now preparing for her debut season in London. Her elder sister, Julia, made a mess of her season, failing to marry the required rich and/or titled man her father demanded. Christine is determined to do better, and meet all her father’s expectations. She wants to make him proud of her. On a neighbouring estate, Thomas Gilbert is the son and heir of a respectable but recently impoverished family, returned from a trip to Italy with a string of mares he hopes to breed. Coincidentally, Christine owns several stallions which she, too, hopes to breed one day.

So the stage is set for a romance based around their common interest in horses. Well, not exactly. Intriguingly, Christine has an unusual problem – she is socially inept, never knowing what to say, and when she does speak, often offending people. She sets the vicar by the ears by arguing theological points with him, and is initially quite oblivious to the general outrage her behaviour creates. But she’s aware that there’s a problem, and, bent on fulfilling her father’s expectations, when she meets Thomas accidentally while out riding, she enlists his help to tutor her in how to converse and flirt with gentlemen.

This part of the story is delicious, and while Christine’s infelicitous attempts to improve her technique lack something of the wit that (say) Georgette Heyer would have given them, they are incredibly true to life (read: I saw my younger self in Christine). Her lack of empathy with those around her, and her habit of saying whatever comes into her head are both endearing and, at the same time, full of pathos.

But of course, while she is learning from Thomas, she is also falling in love, and he with her. The scenes where they oh-so-nearly kiss are breathtaking – well, I was holding my breath, anyway. Excellent writing.

In the background, there are Christine’s two sisters, the younger Rebecca, still trying to walk a fine line between rebellion and conforming to her father’s demanding precepts, and older sister Julia, who seems a bit stuffy at first, but eventually unbends towards Christine. Thomas’s parents are lovely, too, a couple who married for love and are still happy together, and want that for their son, too. As for Christine’s father, I’m not a big fan of the autocratic father as a plot driver, personally, and this is a particularly obnoxious specimen, driven totally by considerations of rank and wealth, and with no interest whatsoever in his daughters’ happiness. If he were not quite so evil, there would be virtually no obstacle to the love match at all, so to my mind he doesn’t quite ring true as a character, he’s more of a plot device, albeit a very common one.

So. To the technical issues, which is just me being my usual pedantic self. The author has done a lot of research into the Regency era, but she’s missing a few of the basics. The one point that rankled most with me was the number of gentlemen who had ‘business associates’ or were ‘away on business’. The distinguishing characteristic of a gentleman is that he does not engage in ‘business’ or trade of any sort. He has an independent income, preferably from the rent on land, but some might be held in funds. He might visit his distant estates, perhaps, but if he says he has business in town, it’s because he’s visiting his lawyer, his banker or his mistress. Younger sons might engage in the most respectable professions, such as the church, law, the army or politics, but the true gentleman and his eldest son, at least, do not undertake any employment. This is an important distinction to make, because Mr Devon wants his daughters to marry well in part to provide him with good quality business connections. Nope. Social connections, yes, but not business.

[ETA: Another review suggests that the heroine’s father is a ‘cit’, that is, someone who runs a business in the City of London. This is an interesting idea, which hadn’t occurred to me. It would totally account for all the time he spends away ‘on business’, as well as his obsession with his daughters marrying money, and preferably a title. It hadn’t occurred to me because the family have all the trappings of the gentry – the country estate and the fact that they’re totally accepted without a qualm by even the aristocracy, which would never, ever happen if the father were really in trade. The Regency was incredibly class-conscious. So it’s not clear to me exactly what the author intended, but as written the signals are rather mixed.]

The other big issue is the matter of titles. This is something that almost all American authors, and a lot of Brits, too, get tangled up with, and it is complicated, true, but the correct forms of address haven’t changed much in the last two hundred years. The Earl of Annesbury, for instance, is addressed as Lord Annesbury, or Annesbury by his friends, or my lord by inferiors. I don’t know where the title Lord Calvert came from, but it’s wrong. And as for the earl mentioned in passing as having two sons, who would both inherit titles, one from the mother – this just made me shudder. It’s not totally impossible, but it’s so wildly improbable as to cause astonishment when mentioned. I also was uncomfortable with Christine being called ‘Miss Christine’ almost constantly. It’s fine when she’s with her sisters, but it would be more normal to call her ‘Miss Devon’ when she’s on her own and there’s no possibility of confusion.

Another Regency blunder concerns the meals. The main meal of the day is dinner (not supper), and it might consist of a single course, all set out on the table before the guests sit down, sweet and savoury dishes together, or there might be two courses, with the table cleared and then reset with another huge collection of dishes. There might also be ‘removes’, with some dishes replaced by others. But no soup course, fish course, etc. That was a Victorian invention. As was afternoon tea. A supper was a light meal served at the end of an evening by those who dined early, or in the middle of a ball. On the other hand, the author has done her research on the waltz, and describes the early form of it very well. Hardly anyone gets this right, so kudos for that (and it’s a terrific scene!).

On the writing, there were a host of Americanisms, like fall for autumn, passed for died, dove instead of dived, and so on, although these don’t matter much. The homophones are worse (words that sound the same but mean something different, like bare for bear, poured over instead of pored over, and ring a peel instead of ring a peal). A good editor should have spotted those.

Well, this has turned into quite an essay, but I hate those reviews that say ‘good/bad historical accuracy/editing/whatever’. I like to know what that means. I hope you do too, or maybe no one will actually read this far, who knows. Deep breath, nearly done.

On the plot clunkiness, I’ve already mentioned that a large part of the plot depends wholly on the autocratic father, but there is another moment at the end which kind of ruined things for me. I won’t mention it because spoiler, but it was a shame, because up until then things had been going along swimmingly. The early annoyances of inaccuracies and the like had faded away, there were scenes of real emotional intensity between the two protagonists and things were well on their way to a possible five stars. But suddenly all the obstacles were airbrushed out of existence, and we tipped straight into the happy ever after at breakneck speed.

Now, I wouldn’t want anyone to mistake this list of problems as an overall criticism of the book. They were problems for me because I’m horribly pedantic that way, but most people won’t even notice them. In every other respects, this is a terrific book, with likable and realistic protagonists, a beautifully developed slow-build romance and a story happily free of side plots, stupidity and sex. The lovers get their long-awaited kiss in the last-but-one chapter and ride off into the (metaphorical) sunset in the most satisfactory way. It’s the first of the series, and possibly the author’s first published work, it’s a refreshingly original and well-written entry into the genre and I highly recommend it, even though for me personally the historical inaccuracies and that plot clunkiness keep it to four stars. I enjoyed it despite all of that, and I’ll certainly try more of the series. The next book is, I believe, about Julia and I really want to see her get her HEA. So, onward.


Review: False Colours by Georgette Heyer

Posted August 5, 2018 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

There’s something magical about an identical twin story, and this one is about as good as they come. Kit Fancot, as the younger brother, has taken up a diplomatic career. When he returns to England, he finds his brother Evelyn has disappeared, while on the brink of a very sudden betrothal. All the lady’s relations have been gathered to meet Evelyn, and to save his brother from embarrassment, Kit agrees to impersonate him.

He scrapes through the meeting and retires to the family estate to hide away until Evelyn turns up again, but the young lady’s formidable grandmother invites herself and her granddaughter to stay with them. This is a crisis, so Kit’s widowed mother invites some starchy relations and one of her beaux to join them. Thus begins one of the most awkward house parties ever, not helped by Kit and the young lady, Cressy, beginning to fall in love.

Of course Evelyn eventually turns up again, having fallen in love himself, and the brothers have to dream up some ingenious way to swap back their identities and pair up with their chosen ladies, without creating a scandal. The whole book is delightful, and one of the funniest Heyers ever. As with many of her tales, the principal characters are perfectly rational people, but the side characters are gloriously over the top.

Lady Denville is clearly based on the outrageously extravagant Duchess of Devonshire, completely dippy about money but so charming that nobody ever minded. Well, except her late husband, who was a hard-nosed sort of bloke and gave her a rotten time. Sir Bonamy Ripple, her vastly overweight but very wealthy admirer, is no doubt based on the Prince of Wales, or Prinny, himself. These two, and the formidable grandmother, provide most of the entertainment, and the dialogue is utterly brilliant. The scene where Lady Denville persuades perpetual bachelor Sir Bonamy to marry her is masterful.

Naturally all’s well that ends well, everyone ends up with the most suitable partner (yes, even Sir Bonamy!) and scandal is averted. Five well-earned stars.