Month: June 2019

Review: Band Sinister by K J Charles

Posted June 18, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I adored this book. Absolutely adored it. It’s stuffed full of wildly outrageous characters, the situation is implausible and there are a great many modern sensibilities shoehorned into Regency characters but none of that mattered, because towering over all that is the most glorious love story I’ve read for a long time. And it’s also intelligent and witty and a joy to read. What’s not to like?

Here’s the premise: shy, innocent Guy and his sparky sister Amanda are living in seclusion after a scandal. When Amanda breaks her leg in a riding accident, she’s forced to recuperate at the home of Sir Philip Rookwood, where he’s hosting a group of his disreputable friends. But the disreputable friends turn out to be artists and scientists and other intelligentsia, and Guy finds them fascinating. And the most fascinating of them all is Sir Philip himself, who is equally fascinated by Guy.

So yes, this is an m/m romance with a shedload of sex, so if that’s not your thing, steer clear.
However, the sex is (in many ways) less interesting than the cautious way the two men inch their way towards an understanding, and the experienced Philip leads the virginal Guy towards a relationship that’s far, far more than just sex. Most of the book is simply talking, as Guy attempts to work out exactly what he wants. As he gradually becomes more confident of his own wishes, he is not the only one who’s learning and opening up to new experiences. And let’s not forget the backdrop to this, for here we are in the Regency where homosexual acts carried the death penalty. The choices here are not at all straightforward.

The dramatic climax (so to speak) is a little over the top, but by that point I was quite happy to go along with it. If you don’t mind a lot of blokeish sex, I highly recommend this for the larger-than-life characters, the sparkling wit and the unconventional setting. This is as far from the traditional Regency of balls and Almacks and stupid misunderstandings as it’s possible to get. It’s clever and funny and a fine love story to boot. I found it an absolute delight. Five stars.

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Review: Cousin Kate by Georgette Heyer

Posted June 12, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 2 Comments

I’ve reread almost all of Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels in the order she wrote them and, with the exception of the two with a war setting (Spanish Bride and An Infamous Army), which I abandoned as not my thing, I’ve enjoyed them all. Until now. Cousin Kate is an odd mixture of light romance and Gothic suspense with very dark undertones which somehow fails on both counts. Having read droves of Heyers that were essentially light-hearted, if very elegant, fluff, this was quite a shock to the system.

Here’s the premise: Kate Malvern is an impoverished orphan struggling to make her way as a governess. When the son of the house shocks his family by proposing, she finds herself out on her ear and running back to her former nurse for shelter while she looks for another position. But Sarah, the nurse, secretly writes to Kate’s only known relative, Lady Broome, who descends at once and sweeps Kate off to her stately pile, Staplewood, where she lives with her elderly and frail baronet husband, her highly-strung son Torquil, and a resident doctor. Lady Broome showers Kate with kindness and gifts, but Kate suspects that she wants something in return and feels that all is not well at Staplewood…

The first part of the book is all Gothic mysteriousness. Lady Broome is suffocatingly kind, but somehow cold. Sir Timothy is an old dear obviously surrendering mastery to his dominant wife. Torquil the beautiful adolescent son is oddly moody. The doctor and the servants seem resolutely determined to convince Kate that everything’s wonderful. And somehow Kate, who’s as bright as a button in other ways, never seems to notice how odd the household is, or if she does, she explains it away to herself or accepts whatever explanation she’s given. The average reader (by which I mean me) is saying: oh, come on, girl! Get a grip.

Into the midst of this spookiness drifts the Broome cousin and next heir, Philip, who seems to have wandered in from another story altogether. In a proper Gothic suspense novel, he would make the heroine fall head over heels in love with him, and then make her suspect him of trying to off Torquil, who stands between him and the baronetcy. Philip handily accomplishes the first part in a matter of days, but resolutely refuses to play the part of apparent villain. There are very brief mentions of certain ‘accidents’ that befell (or almost befell Torquil) for which he blamed Philip, but these are never substantiated, are set down as the products of an excitable imagination and eventually are forgotten about altogether.

Philip is far too nice and non-threatening to play the villain, and insists on being solely the romantic hero. But even here he falls short. He, too, falls head over heels in love within days, but they can’t marry because… um, because… Nope, there isn’t a single obstacle. Dear Aunt Minerva won’t like it, of course, but Philip is independent of her. He has his own house and fortune, he’s a nice, sensible chap and he’s old enough to know his own mind. Kate is gently-brought-up and also old enough to know what she wants, and although she agonises at tedious length about her lack of fortune and connections and other trivia, she never comes close to refusing him outright. To be fair, Heyer obviously recognised the lack of obstacles, because the romance is stitched up midway through the book, but they can’t simply take off and leave dear Aunt Minerva in their dust because… well, because of a fairly cack-handed plot contrivance, actually.

And so the plot builds to the inevitable tragic ending… wait, what? This is Heyer, right, where happy endings are baked in. But not this time. Oh, our low-key hero and heroine get to ride off into the sunset, as expected, but otherwise, the ending is a bit of a downer. All in all, not a particularly enjoyable read. The romance is my least favourite style, the plot was a million miles from the light, fluffy type that’s Heyer’s signature, and even the moments of humour were few and far between. Heyer’s shown she can tackle more demanding relationships in A Civil Contract, and I will always applaud an author for stepping outside her comfort zone and trying something new, but this one was a relative flop for me. Three stars.

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Review: Sophie by Jenny Hambly

Posted June 8, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I thoroughly enjoyed the author’s previous book, her debut publication, so I looked forward to this with some enthusiasm and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a very different story, but that’s all to the good, and it features another spirited and independent heroine.

Sophie, the widowed Lady Lewisham, has just emerged from her year of mourning for her much older husband. It wasn’t a love match. He was in desperate need of an heir, and she was young, beautiful and available, with parents willing to accept a generous settlement to agree to the marriage. But this is not the conventional story of an unwilling bride and an unpleasant husband. Sophie was perfectly willing to do her duty to the benefit of her family, and Edward turned out to be a kind and considerate husband, who encouraged Sophie to read and expand her mind under his aegis. Even though the heir didn’t happen, he ensured that she became independently wealthy after his death.

So Sophie decides that she will continue to expand her mind by travelling to Italy with her companion, Miss Trew, and that was a pretty intrepid thing to do in those days, without a male or three to oversee everything. Naturally things go wrong as they travel, but luckily they encounter an acquaintance from London, Sir Philip Bray, who helps them out. And since he’s as handsome as she is beautiful… romance ahoy.

Needless to say, it’s not quite as simple as all that. Sophie is enjoying her independence (and her fortune!) and has no desire at all to surrender either to a man. And Philip is a confirmed bachelor and something of a rake. He’s happy with his succession of mistresses and has no intention at all of trading them in for a wife. And so the whole plot is the two of them inching towards their HEA, sometimes taking one step forward and two back, and sometimes veering off at a tangent, but always totally, utterly convinced that they aren’t heading for the altar. No way. Absolutely not.

In lesser hands this might have been rather dull. The interchanges between the two principals tended towards the grumpy, with only occasional bursts of romantic tension to counterpoint their wrangling. There are some minor side plots with an Italian family, resolved rather too easily, and a gentle little romance for Miss Trew, but none of that added much to the main story. Only Philip’s friend, Harry, added some much needed animation and humour to spice things up. But when our hero and heroine do break out of the grumpiness and allow the attraction between them to shine through, the result is breathtaking. There are some sublime moments of high emotion to more than compensate for all that crossness.

The author’s other great talent is in descriptive prose, and this book is superb in that respect, with its lush evocations of both the Italian countryside and the English. Her grasp of the Regency is sound enough to make the description of travelling through Italy perfectly believable. And for people, too, the author is able to create an image of a character in just a few well-chosen words. Wonderful stuff.

If I have a complaint, it’s that the romance is too straightforward. Or perhaps it’s the characters themselves who are too straightforward. They are both intelligent, sensible people without any real flaws (apart from grumpiness and an unwillingness to do their duty as hero/heroine of a romance). There are no real obstacles, except for their own personal resistance to the idea of matrimony, and after fighting against it for the whole length of the book, in the end they cave in rather easily when pushed and everything in the garden is rosy. I think I would have preferred them to take things more slowly and cautiously at this point rather than tipping straight into planning the honeymoon. Sophie needed to be absolutely sure that Philip would allow her to continue to grow as a person, and Philip needed to be certain he’d overcome his personal baggage. But I did like that they both seriously considered the idea of not getting married at all, but simply having an affair. A great instance of the author respecting the customs of the Regency, while also respecting the intelligence of her characters.

An excellent book, highly recommended, and I look forward to reading the irrepressible Harry’s story which I feel sure is bound to follow. Five stars.

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