Month: July 2019

Review: The Death of Lyndon Wilder by E A Dineley

Posted July 17, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 2 Comments

This is such an old-fashioned style of book. That’s not a complaint, merely an observation. Not only is it slow as molasses, with a great deal of descriptive writing, but it uses the omniscient point of view (where the author jumps from head to head to give the inner perspective of all the principal characters). Done badly, this can be appallingly dizzying to read, but here it’s merely disconcerting, since it’s so unusual in a modern Regency.

The early chapters are, quite frankly, dull, with none of the characters being terribly likable. Lord and Lady Charles are sunk in grief for their dead elder son and heir, the estate going to rack and ruin around them. Grand-daughter Lottie is neglected, left to amuse herself by baiting governesses. New governess Miss Arbuthnot is tediously clever at finding amusing ways to teach Lottie, while hiding some unspecified secret of her own. There’s also a local widow, her wounded soldier brother and her rather oddball son, none of them very interesting.

But into this dismal setting arrives the younger son and new heir, Thomas, forced to leave his chosen military career to minister to his parents’ declining years, the neglected estate and his niece, now his ward. Major Wilder is the unpromising and little-regarded son who’s now grown into a self-confident man with a soldier’s air of authority. He immediately makes his presence felt by bringing his dogs into the house despite his mother’s antipathy, by insisting that Lottie and Miss Arbuthnot eat dinner with the family and by simply being there, doing as he sees fit, without regard to the hyper-sensitivity of his mother or the apathy of his father. I liked him at once.

For a while the book chugs along swimmingly, and these odd characters wormed their way into my brain and I couldn’t quite forget about them. Even when I’d set the book down to do something more urgent, like eating, I’d be thinking about them, and I began to understand all the five star reviews. But… There’s always a but, isn’t there? The ‘but’ in this case involves two characters from the Arbuthnot family who are, quite frankly, caricatures of the most cartoonish kind.

But then most of the characters are one-trick ponies. The mother sunk in grief for her dead perfect son. The apathetic father. The stolid and inarticulate soldier. The sensible governess. The widow on the lookout for a new husband. And so on. They never progress beyond these simple characteristics, and they certainly never rise above them or become more rounded, more mature people. And they are all of them utterly, utterly selfish, or at least careless of the feelings of others. I was waiting for Thomas and his mother to reach an accord of some sort, but they never did. I would have liked to see a little more compassion.

As for the romance, we’re never given much reason for why they fell in love, except that perhaps they’re the only two halfway sensible characters in the whole book. No, I tell a lie, Thomas’s friend who helps him over a little difficulty at the end is definitely sensible, and possibly more interesting than all the rest put together. His story is told in the next book in the series.

While there are definite weaknesses in the plotting and characterisation, the book is so firmly rooted in the Regency era that it’s almost possible to imagine it was written then. This is so rare these days that I forgive the author for all that head-hopping and selfishness and something wanting in the characterisations. There are some detailed and highly convincing flashbacks to Thomas’s time as a soldier, as he finds out about his brother’s death, and while some of the plot contrivances stretch credulity a little, the characters respond to them in perfect keeping with the mores of the era. Quite an achievement. And the book is funny, and not in a forced, whimsical way, but with moments of laugh out loud humour that I loved. Most of the funny lines came from grand-daughter Lottie, it has to be said, and she had the finest moment in the book, with her comment on stoutness. Priceless.

Highly recommended for those who like to immerse themselves in excellent writing, and a slowly-building story which is not just in the common way. Four stars.

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Review: Mary Bennet and the Bingley Codex by Joyce Harmon

Posted July 9, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Well, this was a whole heap of fun! A Pride and Prejudice sequel with a little light magic thrown in.

Here’s the premise: Jane and Bingley have been married for about a year, and have settled in an estate in Cheshire. After a visit to Longbourn, they take bookish Mary Bennet back with them where she discovers their enormous library and some very peculiar books…

If you always thought there was more to Mary Bennet than meets the eye, this is the book for you. This is not the Mary of P&P, the rather peevish girl who practiced her music and studied books constantly but played very badly and displayed no understanding gleaned from her learning. That was Mary seen through the cynical eyes of her sister Elizabeth. But this is Mary’s own story, and since we’re privy to her inner thoughts, she turns out to be surprisingly intelligent and self-aware and even manipulative at times to get what she wants. I liked her very much.

The middle part of the story got a bit slow, since it was largely about Mary being taught some magical precepts by a pair of mentors. I thought of it as the Harry Potter section, where Mary sort of goes to magic school. If you like your magic explained to you in depth, you’ll enjoy this very much, but I far preferred Mary’s own experiments, or anything where things were happening, rather than sitting around in the library talking. But once Caroline Bingley arrives on a husband-hunting mission (not that she’s being typecast, or anything…), and a suitor emerges for Mary the pace hots up a bit, and then it’s all downhill for the dramatic ride to the finishing line.

I didn’t spot the villain, but then I never do. I’m constantly surprised when that really nice, friendly character turns out to be an evil so-and-so. The resolution was very neatly done – a satisfying comeuppance. And Caroline Bingley gets a gentler resolution than perhaps she deserves.

There’s no romance at all in Mary’s life, at least not in this book. Since this is the first of a series, I’m optimistic that she’ll meet a charming and handsome young wizard somewhere on her adventures. A pleasant, easy read, with an unexpectedly congenial Mary Bennet, totally canonical Jane, Bingley and Caroline, and some interesting side characters. Four stars. I hope it won’t be too long until the next book in the series.

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Review: In Milady’s Chamber by Sheri Cobb South

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

This book was great fun. It’s very much an Agatha Christie style murder mystery (in the bedchamber with the nail scissors…). The sleuth isn’t exactly an amateur (he’s a Bow Street Runner, a forerunner of the police), but techniques were so under-developed in those days that he might as well be one.

Here’s the premise: Lady Fieldhurst is a failure. Having been married to her viscount husband for six years, she’s failed at the one thing expected of her – the production of an heir. Or any child, really. With the marriage already rocky, she resolves to revenge herself on her unfaithful husband by taking a lover. But there’s a surprise awaiting the would-be lovers when they reach her bedroom – the body of her husband, stabbed in the neck with a pair of her ladyship’s own nail scissors.

Naturally the two fall under suspicion, but the Bow Street Runner sent to investigate the crime, John Pickett, is not exactly unbiased, for he falls instantly under the spell of the beautiful widow. And so begins a very determined search for the real murderer, to ensure that his adored viscountess isn’t wrongfully hanged.

I liked John Pickett very much. He’s rather a gauche, inept fellow, constantly blushing and tripping over things, which is all rather endearing. Despite having some prejudice against the widow’s putative lover, and rich toffs in general, he’s very aware of his biases and tries very hard to compensate for them (not always successfully!). Apparently there’s a prequel that gives his background, but I haven’t read it and didn’t feel I’d missed anything vital. The widow is a less sympathetic character initially, although she unbent somewhat later on, but I never found her particularly likable. She wasn’t unlikable, either, being more of a blank slate for Pickett’s much stronger personality to draw on. But it seems these two will have a whole series together, so I daresay she will blossom into a more rounded character later.

The historical research is (as far as I can tell) absolutely spot on. I know nothing about the Bow Street Runners, but that aspect of the book seems very convincing to me. The only moment that gave me pause is when the dead viscount’s cousin (I think) turns up to claim the title, with a wife who’s already planning to dig up the heroine’s rose garden. I know the widow is acknowledged as barren, and the couple are described as ‘estranged’ but they were still living in the same house, and a pregnancy wasn’t outside the bounds of possibility. It’s crass in the extreme not to give the widow the opportunity to say one way or the other before ordering the new curtains. And even if the couple themselves are that vulgar, others should question their rudeness. However, that was the only (slightly) off note.

The story follows the formula of all such murder mysteries, with a full complement of red herrings and a moment when even our sturdy hero is forced to admit that his lady love might be guilty, before seeing the light just in the nick of time. So no surprises in that direction, but plenty of twists and turns along the way. I didn’t guess the murderer, but then I never do. A nice, gentle story with plenty of humour, always a bonus, and a very entertaining detective. Five stars.

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Review: Wyndcross by Martha Keyes

Posted July 7, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

It’s a rare day when I find a new author I can rave about, but here we are. Martha Keyes’ first full-length Regency romance manages to tick all the boxes – engaging characters, believable situations and a truly authentic setting. The dialogue is sparkling with wit in the best tradition of Georgette Heyer, and the characters all speak and behave in a credibly Regency manner. Awesome.

Here’s the premise: Kate Matcham is in a difficult situation. Her father died trying to stamp out smuggling in Dorsetshire, and her mother remarried a man in trade. Kate’s spending most of her time with her widowed aunt in London, but she’s aware that, with younger sisters growing up, she’s expected to marry well. Her options are limited, though – a marriage of convenience, an offer of a less savoury sort, or the slight possibility of a fortune from her less-than-respectable step-father. She doesn’t want any of them. But then she receives an unexpected invitation to stay with a childhood friend very near to her old home. The only problem? The charming young man she finds herself falling for is earmarked for her friend.

I adore a character who makes me laugh, and William, the aforementioned charming young man, has the most glorious sense of humour. He brings out the best in Kate, and their verbal sparring matches are a delight. There are some other fun characters, too, and (with a couple of minor exceptions) the bad guys are not so much wicked as flailing about trying to do their best, albeit in a fairly misguided way.

The smuggling subplot is not an original one, and the resolution there was fairly melodramatic, but it never felt outrageously contrived and the characters behaved (on the whole) in keeping with their characters. I say ‘on the whole’, because I got a bit twitchy about William keeping Kate in the dark, especially when it’s clear at this point that he’s in love with her. Knowing her history and character, and knowing how dangerous the situation was, not telling her put her at great risk. I would have liked a bit more passion from him, too, especially at the end when they’ve been through some difficult times together. Sweeping her into his manly arms wouldn’t have gone amiss at that point. Sometimes Regency restraint can be carried a tad too far!

As for Kate, she did a great deal of agonising and it took her a long time to realise what was going on with William, both on the smuggling front and emotionally. There’s that Regency restraint again. I’m not a huge fan of hand-wringing heroines, but with Kate it was very understandable, given her background and her presumed unsuitability to marry William, who is the heir to an earldom. But when the two of them did finally manage to set aside that pesky Regency restraint for five minutes and sort themselves out, it was well worth the wait.

On the historical accuracy front, I have virtually nothing to grumble about. The only Americanisms I spotted were a couple of gottens and one or two times Kate gazed ‘out the window’. There were a couple of anachronisms. ‘Empathy’ was first recorded in 1895 and ‘surreal’ in 1936. Trivial stuff. In every other way – dialogue, manners, setting – the author’s grasp of the Regency is very assured, and the wit and sparkle that flies between Kate and William reminded me very much of Georgette Heyer. A wonderful read, highly recommended. Five stars.

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Review: Eleanor by Martha Keyes

Posted July 1, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is a novella-length story as an introduction to this debut author, and it’s a pretty accomplished work for a first timer. The premise is an unusual one. Lawrence Debenham has been browbeaten by his parents for his whole life. Now they’ve bought him a modest estate so that he can assume the responsibilities of a gentleman of property, and settle down with a suitably worthy wife. He is rebelling in the only way he can, by inviting a couple of pleasure-bent friends to join him in a life of idleness, doing anything rather than accede to his parents’ wishes and accept the mantle of duty.
But into this dissolute life appears Eleanor Renwick, her young brother John and a very large dog called Anne. Finding them stranded at the local inn by a broken-down carriage, Lawrence recklessly invites them to stay at his house until the repairs have been completed, and finds himself face to face with Eleanor’s deeply-felt but lightly-borne sense of duty. John (and the dog) help Lawrence to recapture his youth and Eleanor… well, it’s not difficult to see where things are heading with Eleanor, if only Lawrence can set aside his wish to thwart his parents.This is a straightforward little story. There are no dastardly villains, no kidnappings or shady goings-on, all the characters are pleasant, decent sorts and thank goodness for a plot which doesn’t depend on the two main characters misunderstanding each other or failing to communicate. It has to be said that very little happens rather slowly, but what does happen is enjoyable enough. There’s a tendency to describe every single piece of dialogue or gesture or smile, which slows things even more. When the author has got into her stride, I hope she’ll tighten her writing a bit and vary the pace.

On the historical accuracy front, I only have one quibble. A lady finding herself stranded at an inn with only a young brother and a dog as escort is in a bit of a bind, especially if there are no rooms to be had at said inn. What she would never, never do, however, is to go off with a single man to stay at his home. If he were married, or his mother were in residence, it would be acceptable, but a lady staying unchaperoned in a house with only young, single gentlemen and servants is a big no-no. However, it’s the whole premise of the story, so it has to be given a pass.

I liked all the characters. John and the dog are plot devices, but charming ones. Eleanor is a serious type who needed Lawrence’s childlike imagination to lighten her life, and Lawrence needed a dose of her graceful approach to duty to enable him to accept his responsibilities. Both their dilemmas felt real, and if they fell into the romance a little too easily, it was obvious that they were well suited and would be very contented together.

There were a fair few Americanisms (fall instead of autumn, passed instead of died, amongst others), and there were some expressions that felt too modern to me, but otherwise the writing was fine, and mercifully free of typos and wayward punctuation. In the end, Lawrence’s difficulties resolved themselves very easily. I would have liked to have met his parents, having heard them demonised for most of the book. It would have been fun to find out whether they really were as dreadful as Lawrence made out, although there’s a hint that it’s his own fears that made them seem so. It’s a small point, however. The focus of the story is the romance, which builds nicely to a delightful resolution. A pleasant and readable debut. I shall be looking forward to the author’s first full length book. Four stars.

PS I don’t usually comment on covers, since the inside of a book is generally more interesting, but a huge thumbs-up for a cover that features something close to historically accurate clothing rather than a glorified prom gown.

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