Month: February 2019

Review: Miss Serena’s Secret by Carolyn Miller

Posted February 25, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This was a difficult book for me to rate. On the one hand, it’s well written, it feels realistically steeped in the Regency era and I was definitely rooting for the two lovers. But on the other hand… boy, was it slow, and the on again/off again between the protagonists got old really quickly. I much prefer a couple who know their own minds and go after what they want, rather than a lot of existential angsting.

So this follows directly after the first book in this series, Winning Miss Winthrop, so we get to see our happy couple from last time around billing and cooing, holding hands under the table, gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes and generally behaving in twenty first century ways. Well, whatever. Some readers like that, but personally I prefer my Regency characters to behave like proper Regency characters and not display affection openly.

This time around, the lead characters are the sister and friend of the previous couple. Serena is the cool as ice, just out of the seminary young lady with artistic talent. Harry is the ne’er do well heir to an earldom, with roguish charm and tendencies towards mistresses and gambling. There’s a lot of strait-laced disapproval of poor Harry from his family, his friends and from Serena, all of which got on my nerves rather. He doesn’t seem to have stepped beyond the normal bounds for a young man of means in that era, so although I can understand that his family wanted him to settle down, it seemed a bit much to regard him as unredeemable. Especially when he’s so charming (yes, I confess I have a thing for roguish charm, and Harry’s very funny with it, always a plus).

For various implausible reasons, the two are thrown together at Harry’s family home in Derbyshire, and for even more implausible reasons, Harry is told not to exert his considerable charm on Serena. But naturally they begin to fall in love anyway, and why not? She’s a young lady of breeding and good family, he’s the heir to an earldom and (despite all the posturing about his reputation) he’s extremely eligible. So the author’s ingenuity is tested rather to find ways to keep the two apart. Serena has both an unfortunate previous encounter with a male tutor at her school, which has put her off men, plus a medical condition. Harry has a former lover amongst other problems, but none of this is insuperable if people would just talk to each other, instead of stoically putting up with things in silence. And as for the whole shenanigans with the painting at the exhibition, it just seemed over the top to me.

Both the main characters seemed too driven by the opinions of other people. Serena was very contrary, not making any protest about her art master’s behaviour, then giving in too readily to the idea of exhibiting her painting, even though it must have been obvious there would be problems. And at other times, she was quite determined to do her own thing. Harry seemed weak at times, and needed regular chats from his friends to stiffen his backbone. I could see what the author was trying to achieve, but her efforts to bring drama to the plot often served only to weaken her characters.

However, the book is well written, Serena’s artwork is very well described and it will appeal to anyone who likes a slow-building romance with lots of (minor) obstacles for the characters to angst about. The Christian theme is less intrusive than in the first book. But for me, the contrivances of the plot and the dithering main characters keep this to three stars.

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Review: Winning Miss Winthrop by Carolyn Miller

Posted February 25, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I got off on the wrong foot with this, misunderstanding the opening scenes pretty comprehensively. Too many random names, unexplained relationships and (frankly) comments which made no sense. When a baron dies, there is never the least question of who will inherit the title. The rules were laid down at the time the barony was created and simply can’t be changed, so no one would be in any doubt about it. Eventually, I restarted, discovered the family tree at the beginning and thereafter got on rather better, but still… the heir is never going to be a surprise. Nor that the widow and unmarried daughters will move to the dower house, and live on cabbage soup forever more. Such was the way of the Regency world – the male heir got everything, everyone else got crumbs.

So here’s the plot. Stop me if you’ve heard this before. The hero and heroine have some deeply buried history. Met, fell in love, split up because reasons. Now they meet again, still in love, but somehow they both think the other hates them. And needless to say, it takes the entire book for the reasons to emerge and for them to work out their misunderstandings, when really, if they had a jot of sense they would say: we’re both of age, no obstacles now, what do you say we give it another go? Or at least talk about it, and not rush off making plans with some other person altogether. I must have read this theme a score of times, and it still makes me want to bang their heads together. For the woman, it’s difficult with the constraints of Regency life, but a man of independent means should be perfectly capable of deciding what he wants in a wife, and reaching out for it.

The hero, Jonathan, comes across initially as a paragon of virtue. He spends his time improving the lot of his tenants, helping out his cousins and, in his spare time, starting a village school. Meanwhile, the heroine, Catherine, continues to call him Mr Carlew, even though he’s now Lord Winthrop, which is incredibly rude. However, she otherwise behaves with commendable restraint, especially with her mother, who is completely horrible in the early part of the book.

But then both hero and heroine go off the rails. He decides that the best way to forget Catherine is to marry some pretty young thing at the earliest opportunity, and pays determined court to the first passable girl who turns up. She goes off to Bath where she is openly rude to visitors, who then retaliate by circulating spiteful rumours about her relationship with an elderly man. And to compound the stupid, everyone thinks it’s a great idea to counteract the rumours by setting up a fake engagement with the elderly man. Oh dear.

And then, when things get rough in Bath, Catherine and her mother decamp for home, where the plot veers between melodrama and outright farce, and the hero has to ride to the rescue. And even then, when they’re finally given an opportunity to set things straight, they only half explain and leave several chapters for the romance to finally lurch to its happy ever after. And this is indicative of the whole book – everything was dragged out far too much. The whole plot could have been condensed by about a third to make a much tauter and (to my mind) more readable story. But many people enjoy an expansive Regency so I guess it’s all a matter of taste.

The other characters were more in the nature of caricatures. The two mothers behaved incredibly badly for most of the book, before miraculously becoming sickly-sweet at the end. The hero’s half-sister, Julia, veers between niceness and spoilt brat. The recently-married couple (characters from a previous book?) are uniformly sickly-sweet. The residents of Bath are, for plot reasons, shallow tittle-tattlers to a man (or woman), with the exception of the General, who’s a sweetie pie.

This is a Christian book, so there are numerous references to God, and a degree of preachiness, and this got a bit wearisome after a while. I do appreciate the point that there is a real need for this kind of book, and there are so many Regencies where the main characters are jumping into bed by chapter 3 that a faith-based story is refreshing. However, I sometimes found it hard to see the point. There were times when Catherine’s mother was particularly whiny, and a prayer or the memory of a snippet from the Scriptures helped Catherine stay sane and patient, which was good, but there were many times where she behaved incredibly badly, despite all the prayers and Bible-reading. However, I’m not very familiar with this kind of story, so it may be that there are subtleties that whizzed over my head.

There were a very few historical errors. Whisk(e)y was difficult to get in the Regency, so our hero would have shared a brandy with his friends instead, or possibly Madeira or claret. Adrenaline was unknown (first recorded usage 1893). The letter in an envelope was unlikely; there were occasional hand-made ones, but envelopes weren’t in widespread use until 1840. I learnt a new word – to pang, as a verb – and while this is interesting, I could have wished that Catherine’s heart had panged a little less frequently. Not sure if anyone in Regency times would call a sister ‘poppet’ (it was in use, but it sounds odd to me).

But generally speaking, the historical accuracy was excellent and the writing hard to criticise. I would have liked a little more humour, although at one point there’s a glorious discussion of the etiquette attached to sneezes. I would have loved more of this kind of whimsy. Despite my long list of criticisms, there is nothing at all wrong with this book. It follows a well-worn plot, very close to Persuasion, although with echoes of Pride and Prejudice and Heyer’s Bath Tangle, too, and it’s none the worse for that. It was perfectly readable, and even though I wanted to slap the main characters upside the head, I kept reading avidly to see how they resolved their differences.

And yet… somehow, it didn’t quite work for me. The characters never quite came alive, the dialogue sometimes felt stiff and some of the plot twists felt contrived. Worst of all, I never quite got past the feeling that the hero, at least, ought to have been sensible enough to know what he wanted and go after it, without stupidly getting betrothed to some woman he doesn’t care tuppence about. So ultimately it only gets three stars for me, but I already have the next book in the series (about Catherine’s sister, Serena), so I shall give that a go.

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Review: Lord Blackwell’s Rude Awakening by Julie Tetel Andresen

Posted February 17, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This was a surprising book. I picked it up because it looked like an interesting plot, a pragmatic marriage of convenience between two people from adjoining estates whose circumstances had recently changed. It turned out to be a whole heap of slightly kinky sex, so if discipline and light bondage isn’t your thing – avoid! And then, oddly, the sex was more or less abandoned to focus on more intellectual matters and the burgeoning relationship (outside of the bedroom) between the protagonists. Their conversations sometimes felt like some kind of verbal ping-pong. I have to confess that I’m not at all sure what the author was trying to achieve here, but whatever it was, it whizzed over my head.

As for the characters, I liked Charlotte very much. She felt like someone I would enjoy knowing, and her huge range of friends and acquaintances, despite rarely leaving the vicinity of her home, felt very realistic to me. Max I cordially disliked. I hated the way he treated his bride, hated his arrogance, and didn’t find his conversion to besotted husband at all believable. I also didn’t find him the least bit attractive. Despite being told how handsome and so forth he is, there was no charm there, and frankly he felt like a world-weary and selfish older man.

The book is well written, although there were a few historical inaccuracies. The author falls into the usual trap of assuming a wedding will be a showy affair, but Regency weddings were generally pretty low key. The bride would just wear her best dress of the moment, rather than a special wedding dress, and certainly not an heirloom dress from a generation ago! But at least it wasn’t white. And no one would ever kiss in public, and certainly not in church, that would be unthinkable. The hero would be very unlikely to drink a single malt (whisky was under all sorts of restrictions at the time, and brandy was the more usual tipple). I somehow don’t think a Regency character would worry about ‘staying on task’.

The oddness of the book keeps it to three stars for me, but it’s an interesting attempt at something out of the usual style of Regencies. I recommend it to anyone who likes something a little different and doesn’t mind the mild kinkiness. It’s a brave and well-crafted attempt at originality, and I enjoyed it despite its quirks.

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Review: The Earl’s Dilemma by Emily Larkin

Posted February 2, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is a book of two halves. The first half is perfect. No, really – absolutely perfect, hitting all the right notes. I laughed, I cried, I gasped, I laughed some more. It was wonderful. The second half, not so much.

Let’s start with the premise, which is usually one that has me rolling my eyes in disbelief – a man must marry before a certain date in order to gain his inheritance. If he doesn’t, he loses it. Yes, that old chestnut. As a rule, the reason for this is specious, at best, and the man in question promptly runs off and proposes to the most improbable person imaginable, who even more improbably accepts him. Even Georgette Heyer had trouble making characters like this sensible (see Friday’s Child, although Heyer’s humour allows her to get away with it, just). But here, the circumstances make it more understandable, and the hero, James, while determined to secure his inheritance, at leasts sets out to marry someone suitable, the sister of his best friend, someone he’s known for years and regards as a comfortable friend.

The heroine, Kate, unfortunately overhears him talking about his plans and his lack of love for her, so although she’s been in love with him for years, she turns him down (another Heyer plot, Sprig Muslin). Instead, she offers to find him a bride, and this part of the book is deliciously funny. Every candidate, James discovers, has some fatal flaw – too tall, too short, too thin, too plump, too much of a chatterbox, too painfully shy, too silly… As he dismisses every possibility, he realises what is wrong with all of them – they are not Kate.

But then Kate comes up with a candidate who is perfect in every way – beautiful, intelligent, sensible. James concedes that she would make a perfect wife, but unfortunately Kate’s brother Harry thinks so too… Oops. This could have turned into a silly Bath Tangle-esque muddle of mismatched pairs, but the characters are sensible people who recognise the problem and behave with maturity, talking their way out of trouble. This is awesome.

However, with the way now clear for the two main characters to realise their love for each other, the author settles for that time-worn obstacle, the misunderstanding. Even though James declares his love for Kate, she refuses to believe him and turns him away, he gets angry and thus we come to part two of the book which is all about sex. We get chapter after chapter of (essentially) foreplay as James decides that the only way to win Kate over is to seduce her. To be honest, the endless I-love-you, I-don’t-believe-you back and forth, and the long-drawn-out seduction got very tedious. I’m OK with the idea that Regency people were just as passionate as modern folk, but the era was all about restraint and using clever conversation to convey emotions. Having dealt with their problems so sensibly in the first half, it was disappointing that common sense went out of the window in the second half. I so wanted James to convince Kate with words, not by ripping her clothes off. But the one sex scene is tastefully done, if implausible.

Apart from this, the book is beautifully written and historically accurate down to the last detail, and I highly recommend it for those who don’t mind a bit of sex in their Regency. For me, the long-drawn-out and unlikely resolution keeps things to four stars.

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