Month: September 2019

Review: Isabel by Martha Keyes

Posted September 22, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I loved Wyndcross, the predecessor to this book, so I knew right from the start that I would love this, too, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a very different story, in many ways a more conventional Regency romance, complete with that time-honoured plot-device, the fake betrothal, and perhaps it doesn’t quite reach the sublime heights of Wyndcross, but that was a very high bar.

Isabel Cosgrove, our heroine, had a walk-on role in the previous book, but it’s not necessary to have read that one first. This book picks up Isabel’s story in London in the midst of the shared season for her and her sister, up from Dorset for the occasion, and Isabel is suffering in comparison with the beautiful Cecilia. Our hero, Charles Galbraith, is in thrall to one of the ton’s incomparables, Julia Darling, who is a flighty piece, seeming to have lost interest in him in favour of another eligible. So Charles does what any young man would do when spurned by the woman he loves – he goes off and gets blind drunk, so drunk that he ends up in a wager with Isabel’s father, and wins her hand in marriage.

Now, there’s a lot to take on board here. Superficially it makes both Charles and Mr Cosgrove look like idiots. Charles is not only throwing away any possibility of Julia changing her mind again and coming back to him, he’s also binding himself for life to a woman he barely knows. And as for Mr Cosgrove, he looks like the world’s worst father for agreeing to such a wager in the first place (although, to be fair, he does have a better reason for his actions than mere drunken caprice). But Charles doesn’t, and the author sets herself quite a challenge here – from such an unpromising beginning, to make Charles into a sympathetic and heroic character. It’s a testament to her skill that she achieves this splendidly.

Fortunately for the reader inclined to dislike drunken Charles (ie me), sober Charles turns out to be a charming and honourable man, who immediately makes Isabel an offer in form. Which she rejects, even though she’s had the hots for him for years, because she doesn’t want a resentful husband, constantly mooning over his lost love and trying not to show it. Which is terribly decent of her. I’m not sure I could ever be quite so noble and self-sacrificing as the typical Regency heroine.

But she has a cunning plan. If she and Charles pretend to be betrothed for a while, it will make Julia jealous enough to return to Charles, and by that time Isabel’s beautiful younger sister will have achieved the expected stellar match and their father will be too pleased to be angry with Isabel. Now, there are more holes in this scheme than a sieve. I don’t know why it is, but whenever Regency characters get into a pickle, one of them is sure to say: I know, let’s pretend to be engaged! That’ll totally work! Which makes me want to bang their heads together and say: Guys, this is a terrible idea, don’t do it, OK? But they never listen.

So off they go with their fake betrothal, and of course all sorts of complications ensue, as expected. There’s a fairly dodgy subplot with a cute ingenue, who’s both naive and worldly-wise all at the same time, and the usual dastardly villain, and everything builds to a grand climax, which is good, dramatic stuff. But it’s the romance that steals the show here, and it’s my favourite sort, the slow build of two sensible and intelligent people towards their inevitable destiny. The denouement is delicious.

Niggles? Not many. Apart from a few anachronisms (a Regency hero who feels the need to ‘get out of his own head’?) and a plot that occasionally felt as if it was held together with chewing gum and string, this book was a delight. There was humour, some fun side-characters (I particularly liked gossipy plotter Mary) and a swoon-worthy hero. Isabel was a great heroine, and if her plan went a little awry, her intentions were the best, and I liked her a lot. I had some reservations about the premise and how drunken Charles would redeem himself, but the author pulled it off magnificently, so I can’t give this less than five stars. Looking forward to the next book about Isabel’s beautiful younger sister.

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Review: The Wicked Baron by Mary Lancaster

Posted September 20, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 1 Comment

This was a whole lot of fun – well written, plausible, with some great characters and (hooray!) set away from the usual Regency hotspots of London and Bath. And funny. I do like a book that makes me laugh.

Here’s the premise: Gillie Muir is struggling to make ends meet after her father’s death. Genteel card parties and some cooperation with the local smugglers mean she’s just holding on, but it’s difficult and she’s gradually being ostracised by good society. But newly-fashionable spa town Blackhaven in Cumberland attracts some odd characters, and when Lord Wickenden (known as the Wicked Baron) arrives, Gillie’s world is torn apart. In an echo of Heyer’s ‘Faro’s Daughter’, the baron has arrived to detach Gillie from a suitor whose mother thinks him unsuitable. He needn’t have bothered, for Gillie has no interest in the suitor. The wicked baron is another matter, however…

There’s a lot going on in the background here, what with the smuggling and some other undercover business (trying to avoid spoilers here) and various romantic entanglements. The heart of the book, however, is Gillie and Lord Wickenden. He starts by trying to bed her directly, then tries to woo her more subtly and ends up entirely entangled in her affairs and revealing a much more generous nature. Gillie, on the other hand, falls instantly in love and that can only end badly… can’t it? I confess to astonishment at the number of inventive ways and places and situations the baron exploited to steal a kiss from Gillie, but it felt completely in character for him, and I totally understand why Gillie fell for him.

The ending is suitably dramatic and my only complaint is that, even when our hero and heroine have reached what appears to be an unshakable accommodation, the author throws up yet more bumps on their road to a HEA. I felt Gillie was being pretty silly at the end there, and in fact her judgement was a bit suspect in other ways, too. However, she’s a fine independent lady and a good match for the wicked baron, so I forgive her.

The historical accuracy is almost impeccable, apart from a few trivial errors. For those who like their Regencies totally sex-free, there is one tasteful but graphic sex scene and a certain amount of impassioned kissing and general lusting.

I loved this book, and since I had the smarts to pick up the first four books of the series as a box set, I’ve got plenty more of Mary Lancaster’s work to enjoy. Highly recommended. Five stars.

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Review: Playing To Win by Diane Farr

Posted September 19, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

An interesting and unusual premise: Trevor Whitlatch is sent to recover a debt for a friend from a famous courtesan. She surprises him by offering him her own illegitimate daughter to settle the debt. As soon as he sees her, Whitlatch agrees to the deal. Why? Well, because she’s beautiful, of course, and, given her heritage, she’s destined to end up as a courtesan herself, so why shouldn’t he be her patron? After all, he’s a connoisseur, she’s in no position to complain and he’s very determined.

Clarissa, however, is equally determined to avoid her mother’s fate in life. She’s been educated, so she feels that a life as a governess would suit her. She’s not foolish enough to aspire to marriage to a respectable man, thanks to her mother, but she wants to earn her keep honestly. Whitlatch is quite happy to allow her the time to accept his new offer – after all, the chase makes the inevitable outcome all the more rewarding – but he finds himself flummoxed by his new charge at every turn. She is nothing like he’d expected, even his servants treat her like a lady and gradually he finds himself falling under her spell.

This book was previously published as ‘Fair Game’, and to be honest, I feel that was a better title for it. It captures perfectly the vulnerability of Clarissa – she’s as defenceless as a deer in the hunter’s sights, but her strength of character, and her essential innocence and goodness shine through. The ending isn’t a surprise, naturally, but it’s nicely done. A beautifully written book with two great characters at its heart, an interesting dilemma and a soupcon of humour. Five stars.

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