Month: February 2020

Review: Katherine by Jenny Hambly

Posted February 21, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 3 Comments

This is the third book by this author, and it’s another assured and enjoyable read. Heroine Katherine is a calm and sensible woman, and hero Harry is an irrepressible rogue, and if this is a little more conventional an outing than Rosalind and Sophie, that’s not a problem in the slightest.

Here’s the premise: Katherine’s brother, for whom she’s kept house for several years, has recently married and Katherine’s feeling a bit in the way of her rather crotchety and newly pregnant sister-in-law. She accepts her brother’s commission to travel to a neglected part of his estate to restore it to order. The house, Helagon in Cornwall, is not quite falling down, but needs more work than she’d foreseen. A tricky problem. Meanwhile, wild boy Harry, Viscount Treleven, has returned to his former home after five years in exile, determined to be a good landlord and settle down just a little. Needless to say, these two find themselves unwilling and somewhat antagonistic neighbours…

I liked Katherine very much. Her awkward position, having her role as mistress of the house usurped by the new wife, who naturally wants everything her own way, must have been a very common one in Regency times, and most women didn’t have the option of another estate to run away to. Most such women would have simply dwindled away to become the poor relation, or else hastily accepted the first suitable offer, so Katherine is lucky to avoid those fates, but her position is still a difficult one. Even when Helagon is fully restored, it would be considered quite odd for a single woman to live there, even with a companion for respectability. But Katherine doesn’t dwell on her future, throwing herself into the business of renovation with practical spirit, as with everything. Her first meeting with Harry is very much in that vein, after he has seemingly been shot by a poacher and she briskly deals with his injury.

Harry isn’t quite the lighthearted flirt he appeared to be in the previous book, where his humour lightened the tone considerably. That’s inevitable, perhaps, in the book where he meets his match and the roguishness has to give way to more serious considerations. There’s also his duties as landlord, especially one who’s been absent for some years, to weigh him down, and a neighbour who isn’t as friendly as he might be. However, I did miss the lightness just a little.

Of the side characters, I particularly liked Harry’s younger sister Henrietta, painfully shy and recovering from a not very enjoyable London season. Katherine’s advice on the proper management of flirtatious comments was one of the highlights of the book. Lord and Lady Hayward were fun characters, too. The villain is dealt with with suitable panache.

There’s nothing terribly unexpected in the way the story unravelled, but it was a fine read nevertheless, and I liked Harry’s scruples at the end – realising that his history as a flirt meant that he had to be absolutely sure of his own mind before speaking. A good four stars.


Review: Captain Kempton’s Christmas by Jayne Davis

Posted February 16, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

My second Christmas novella on the trot, and it’s another good one, and (surprise!) another second chance romance. I still don’t really get the whole Regency Christmas thing, and would have enjoyed the story just as much if it were set in midsummer, but whatever.

Here’s the premise: our hero and heroine meet and fall in love one summer, but there’s no time to formalise things. He’s a naval lieutenant, and is called back to his ship after only a fortnight. He asks her to wait for him, and she agrees, but… the next he hears, she’s married someone else. Several years later, they meet up again at a Christmas house party. He’s now a captain and she’s widowed, but naturally things aren’t that simple. He’s resentful and jealous of her husband, and she’s just about given up hope of a reconciliation. And so they dance around each other, being stiffly polite and really, I just wanted to bang their heads together. Would it be so hard for him to ask about her husband? Would it be so hard for her to unbend a little?

There were a fair few flashbacks in this as the story gradually unfolds, and although I thought the characters weren’t perhaps quite as sensible as they might have been, there were reasons for their hesitation (villainy ahoy!). I liked both hero and heroine, her reasons for marrying were excellent and the ending was terrific. As always with this author, the Regency feel was spot on. A good four stars.


Review: Goodwill for the Gentleman by Martha Keyes

Posted February 16, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

A lovely second-chance romance by one of my new favourite authors. I’ve never quite understood the appeal of Christmas romances, especially in the Regency which really didn’t make a big deal of the holiday season (it became huge in the Victorian era) but the author makes a convincing case for it here, since the heroine has German ancestry and therefore has the whole Christmas tree tradition. With or without the Christmas tree (with naked candles! Yikes! Mr Health and Mr Safety would NOT approve!), the whole snowed-up setting works perfectly for this particular story.

The premise is that eldest son and heir Hugh Warrilow was expected to marry the neighbours’ eldest daughter, Lucy Caldwell, but he disgraced himself by jilting her and running off to join the army. Now, three years later, he’s returned home, determined to set matters right and try to forget the reason for the jilting – that he was in love with Lucy’s sister Emma. For her part, Emma will never forgive Hugh for what he did, and now they’re snowed up together at his home…

There’s nothing unexpected about this story which unfolds delightfully. Both Hugh and Emma were perfectly believable and sympathetic characters, and their gradual rapprochement was a joy to watch. I loved the sledges in the snow, and also the parlour game snapdragon (a new one to me). I felt there was rather too much angsty backstory squeezed in, what with the war widow, the survivor and the brother’s betrothal issues, but that’s not really a complaint because they all serve to increase Hugh’s guilt. I would have liked, too, for Hugh himself to have confessed all to Emma, instead of leaving it to others to enlighten her, but again, not a complaint.

A couple of very trivial niggles. When Hugh comes home unannounced, there are no servants to greet him and he carries his own luggage into the house and simply walks into the dining room. I found that a real stretch. There would at the very least have been grooms or kitchen staff around, and where was his valet or batman? And then he sits down to join the others for dinner, a place already set (they were psychic!) and without changing out of his travel-stained clothes into evening dress. Um, no. Also, one character is described as a ‘country barrister’. Barristers are the top-ranked lawyers, who put the case in the highest courts, so they’re based in the cities. A country lawyer would be an attorney, whose work is the boring transfer of bits of land or flocks of sheep. Totally trivial niggles, which didn’t spoil my enjoyment at all.

A great read. Five stars.


Review: Rags To Riches Wife by Catherine Tinley

Posted February 16, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 2 Comments

It’s always a pleasure to discover a new-to-me author with a sure grasp of the Regency era, with language to match, and an engrossing, slowly-developing romance between two interesting characters. It’s even more fun if there’s a bucket-load of class differences to be worked out, with all the unexpected conflicts and confusions along the way.

Here’s the premise: Jane Bailey is comfortable in her position as a lady’s maid to a countess, when a stranger arrives to invite her to meet her long-lost grandfather. Jane’s father was estranged from the family when he married a servant, and when he died, Jane and her mother struggled to survive. Jane’s not sure she wants to disrupt her quiet life by meeting Mr Millthorpe but she agrees to a two week visit. That means five days travelling by carriage with the stranger, Mr Millthorpe’s great-nephew, Robert Kendal, who just happens to be handsome and so, so easy to like. As attraction develops into friendship and then to something more, they find themselves struggling to keep their feelings in check, and not always succeeding.

Mr Millthorpe turns out to be the typical irascible and domineering old gentleman so beloved of Georgette Heyer (think Mr Penicuik from Cotillion). Of the other residents, the second wife and some of the servants are hostile towards Jane, while Robert’s widowed mother is friendly. I liked this variety of responses, which is also found amongst the neighbouring families; it felt perfectly realistic and in line with their characters, rather than a convenient plot device. The gradual revealing of Jane’s history and her place in the family is beautifully managed. It could so easily have felt contrived, but the sequence of bombshells emerges in a very natural way, and all the characters react believably. This is a hard act to pull off, so kudos to the author.

Jane has the most difficult adjustment to make. From being a lady’s maid, constantly at the beck and call of her mistress, now she’s wearing silk, dining with the family and has her own maid to wait on her. And yet she expects that she will return to her employment at the end of the visit. Then there are her growing feelings for Robert to consider – she’s a servant, he’s the heir to everything, so there can be no question of marriage, can there? She thought she knew her place in the world, but now she just doesn’t know where she belongs, upstairs or down, family or servant.

Robert has an easier time of it, although I laughed when his answer to every setback was a fast gallop on his horse! A much better response than a temper tantrum! There were times when I just wanted him to sit down and talk to Jane, but he wasn’t an articulate man. Instead, he showed his love by protecting and supporting her when she needed it, and standing back to let her shine when she didn’t. He quickly learnt to respect her confidence in situations where she had some expertise, and I loved this exchange after she had taken charge following an accident:

‘Miss Bailey, you are an extremely managing female.’
‘Thank you, Mr Kendal.’
‘That was no compliment.’
‘Oh, I know.’

So many moments to savour… I loved the moment when Jane is treated to the services of a lady’s maid for the first time. I loved Robert going off to find a lost letter for Jane. I loved that the second wife eventually softens towards Jane. I loved the little details about the mourning customs. And my inner grammar pedant cheered wildly at this line: ‘He had used to tell her tales…’ Had used to… wonderful!

This is a lovely, straightforward Regency, with no side excursions into dramatic villainy, just two people tiptoeing their way through the minefield of family relationships towards a well-deserved and romantic happy-ever-after. There’s no graphic on-screen sex, but we’re left in no doubt that it happens off-screen and there are plenty of heated moments and passionate kisses along the way. The wedding-night scene is handled very tastefully. A great read, beautifully written, and highly recommended. Five stars.


Review: The Best Intentions by Candice Hern

Posted February 12, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I got off on slightly the wrong foot with this, since I wasn’t at all sure to begin with which characters were the hero and heroine, but once I’d got that straight, it was all plain sailing. For anyone who’s perpetually looking for a Georgette Heyer replacement, this is very much in that style – amusing, frothy and with a grand finale where most of the characters are chasing each other around the countryside. It doesn’t quite have Heyer’s sparkling wit and sizzling side characters, but then what does?

Here’s the premise: the widowed Earl of Strickland (Miles) has decided that he really must remarry, if only for the sake of his two small daughters. His sister helpfully invites a suitable widow as a house guest, and Charlotte is seemingly everything he’s looking for – beautiful, refined, ladylike and clearly happy to become a countess. But accompanying her is her younger half-sister, Hannah, who’s the exact opposite – unsophisticated, accident-prone and never happier than when studying Saxon ruins. And she certainly doesn’t want a husband, even so charming a one as the earl.

Now this chugs along very pleasantly. Hannah gets into scrape after scrape, which the rather starchy earl finds amusing rather than shocking. She gets along like a house on fire with the children, too, which he’s pleased about. And the widow, despite being exactly the sort of woman he’d thought he wanted, somehow leaves him cold. Even so, it takes him a long, long time to realise what it is he does want.

I liked both Miles and Hannah very much. He’s a bit stuffy, what with all that weight of family history on his shoulders, but he unbends beautifully with Hannah, and she’s a delight, especially when she’s gets all excited about Saxon history and architecture. They both feel very real. I wish I could say the same about the other characters. The children, especially the older one, are a bit too precocious, I was terrified every time the toddler was left with the eight-year-old twins (near the lake! Eek!) or simply ignored, and most of the other adults blur together in my mind. The side romance felt too perfunctory for words, and could have been left out altogether without in any way impinging on the story.

The biggest problem is the widowed older sister, Charlotte. She comes across as such a cold, mercenary person, who enticed her first husband, a much older man, into matrimony, and is now set on doing the same thing with Miles, even though she doesn’t particularly like him, and certainly doesn’t have any affinity for his children. She’s also pretty horrible to Hannah, which Hannah takes rather well, in fact. I would have liked to see Charlotte either get a proper comeuppance, or else get her own romance. Either would have worked.

Some niggles. No earl, now or in the Regency, would ever address his small daughter as ‘pumpkin’. I wasn’t too sure about ‘poppet’ either. He’s such a stuffy character that I couldn’t see him having pet names for them at all. There are some logistics oddities – Epping in Northamptonshire? When did it move from Essex? And I wondered greatly at the huge number of horses the earl must have had sitting around in his stables just waiting for the time when his guests would need to take out four separate vehicles.

Nevertheless, this is a delightful read, very resonant of Heyer, with a heroine trying (and frequently failing) to be demurely ladylike and a stiff-necked earl learning to unbend and laugh again. There’s no sex, just a bit of tongue-tangling kissing. Four stars.


Review: The Proposal by Margaret Evans Porter

Posted February 12, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

There are three or four different books in here, and any one of them, singly, would have worked better for me than the hotch-potch of all of them. There’s the romance between the brooding earl and the demure-but-passionate widow. There’s the mystery of the earl’s past, his sister and her son. There’s the restoration or destruction of the ancient garden surrounding the earl’s castle. There’s the interweaving of real historical personalities, like Samuel Coleridge and Humphrey Repton. And then there’s a murder mystery tossed in for good measure. Too many plots and sub-plots, too many characters, too many secrets and too much wayward characterisation make this an uneven and unsatisfactory tale.

Here’s the premise: Cassian Carysfort, a wealthy wine merchant, unexpectedly finds himself the new Earl of Bevington. He returns to England from Portugal with his widowed sister and her son to claim his inheritance. Deciding to improve the ancient and neglected gardens of his new home, he engages widow Sophie Pinnock to design and supervise the work.

Immediately he’s drawn to Sophie, and here’s the first problem: he decides he’ll have her for his mistress. Never mind that she’s in his employment and living under his roof, never mind that she’s only twenty, never mind that she can’t escape his advances without giving up the work, and never mind, either, that she makes it very clear that she’s not interested. He keeps pressing her (and kissing her, and she, silly girl, kisses him right back). So right from the start he’s a seriously unlikable character. I have no problem with Regency men who aren’t unrealistically virtuous, but when a girl says no, that should be the end of it. And he has an unpleasantly autocratic manner in other respects, too.

Sophie’s not a particularly sympathetic character, either. I was irritated right from the start by her refusal to be honest with Cass, and right the way through she’s concealing things from him, even when she knows perfectly well that it will imperil their relationship. He has far more secrets, it’s true, but his are real and I had some sympathy with him for withholding them, whereas there came a point where she had no reason at all for holding back. And when she begins to suspect him of various things, why not simply ask him? I have no patience with otherwise intelligent characters who simply refuse to talk to each other.

I was suspicious of the castle in Gloucestershire (really?) but it turns out the author’s based Bevington on a real place – Berkeley Castle. I still found it an odd setting for the story, since there are so few habitable castles left in Britain of a size and style to make a sensible house. But there you are, this is one of those stories where the research is very much centre stage, so both castle and gardens are real. You will also meet a number of real characters from the era. I don’t know that these particularly add anything to the story, especially the smallpox innoculation theme, but for those readers who like historical colour, there’s a ton of it here.

The side plots and intrigues didn’t excite me very much. The history of Cass, his sister and her son was blindingly obvious from the start, and the murder mystery wasn’t much of a challenge, either. The resolution with the baronet I found unconvincing. The side characters weren’t terribly interesting (apart from the Welsh gardener – I would have liked to know more about him, but he mainly seemed to be there as a plot device).

If this all sounds very negative, there was still a lot to like about the book. The author can write, for sure, I enjoyed the snippets about the garden, and the settings of Gloucestershire and Clifton, with a little bit of Chiswick, were intriguingly different. The romance unfolds slowly and credibly (once Cass gets past the idea of a mistress), and the multiple sex scenes are nicely done, romantic rather than physical. Overall, I felt the excessive amount of research squeezed in weighed down the story rather than giving it wings. Other readers will no doubt feel differently about it, but I just didn’t care that much about laudanum, smallpox, rose varieties or sherry. For me it’s the characters and the flow of the story that grab me by the scruff of the neck and haul me deep into a book, and somehow this one never did it for me. Not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination, but for me personally, only a three star read.


Review: Promised by Leah Garriott

Posted February 2, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 2 Comments

[Warning: contains some mid-book spoilers, so if you don’t want to know anything apart from the blurb, look away now].

Well, that was different. I’m really torn on how to rate this. On the one hand, there’s an intriguing plot, a set of strong, complex characters and a nicely developed romance. On the other hand, the heroine is almost wilfully obtuse at times, refusing to see what’s under her nose or to ask the obvious questions. I can’t remember the last time I read a Regency romance written in the first person, so we see everything through her imperfect and somewhat immature gaze. As she struggles to understand the emotions and motives of the hero, so the reader is left to wonder, too, which is no bad thing. It does make the actions of some of the characters inexplicable, however.

The premise is an interesting one. Margaret Brinton made an unfortunate engagement two years earlier after falling in love with a man who only wanted her dowry to finance the mistress he was keeping. After she broke it off, he promptly married someone else, and Margaret’s been living down the scandal ever since. Now she’s determined to put the past behind her and find a husband she will never fall in love with, a man who won’t startle her with unpleasant revelations or break her heart. And she has another reason: her brother Daniel wants to marry the sister of the man who betrayed Margaret’s trust, but he won’t do it while she’s still unmarried.

So Margaret decides to attend a matchmaking house party, accompanied by her brother, and I stumbled a bit over this. Well-to-do Regency folks were very well-mannered, and rarely so vulgar as to openly discuss matchmaking or marriage requirements or dowries. There were house parties with matchmaking intentions, of course, because it was everyone’s business to ensure suitable matches were made, but it would be done a lot more subtly than this. I’d have liked a bit more explanation for the party, and why Margaret’s parents sent her there with only her brother for escort, instead of a proper chaperon.

At the first dinner, Margaret is introduced to two men, Mr Northam, who is a charming rogue and a rake, and Lord Williams, a baron, who is less charming but has a nice smile. They are cousins but with some hostility between them, and Margaret becomes the focus of their battle. She sets her sights on capturing Northam as her husband, but Lord Williams seems determined to interfere, before rudely walking out on Margaret’s musical performance, humiliating her. There’s an element of Pride and Prejudice about this, with grumpy Lord Williams in the Darcy role and seductive Northam as Wickham, while Margaret is every bit as prejudiced as Elizabeth Bennet. But when she’s summoned home early, thwarted in her efforts to win Northam, she discovers that her father has promised her hand in marriage to Lord Williams.

This raises a thousand questions in my mind, but principally — why? Why on earth would any sensible father agree to a betrothal to a man who turns up on the doorstep and says, hello, you don’t know me but I’d like to marry your daughter, whom I barely know? I have a lot of problems with Margaret’s parents, but this is the big one. What possible excuse could he give for wanting to marry her? And that’s without even going into the whole business of arranged marriages, which was illegal by Regency times. And another quibble — why did her parents not tell her who they had betrothed her to (and why!), so that she didn’t fall into embarrassing error when he turned up? Why didn’t she ask them why they chose this man?

But betrothed she is, and she feels powerless to refuse, so the grumpy baron comes to stay and proves to be not at all grumpy away from the malign influence of his cousin. The story definitely shifts up a gear at this point as he tries his best to break through her self-imposed barriers. And when he fails, and realises that she really doesn’t want to marry him, he does the honourable thing and releases her from the engagement. So at this point, I’m liking him quite a lot, as he seems to be morphing from grumpy interfering villain to gentlemanly romantic hero.

Unfortunately there’s another outbreak of why why why, when Margaret is basically forced to go and stay at Lord W’s house with her father. Why would her parents do anything so cruel and frankly improper? Why do they not have any other friends and relations they might go to (apparently)? Why does Lord W immediately revert back to his grumpy persona? This is a recurring issue throughout the book, which (quite literally) kept me awake at nights wondering just what was going on in these people’s heads, and most of these questions are left unresolved. Perhaps that’s the author’s intent, to leave such questions as an exercise for the reader, but I found it frustrating.

As you can tell, I was at this point very swept up in the story, reading on long past my bedtime to find out how it ends. I’m happy to report that the final section of the book rises to the occasion beautifully. There’s some very powerful writing, some interesting symbolism concerning the lake, a glorious moment where Margaret lays into her immature brother, and a fine romantic denouement, which is both tender and very funny. The reason for the antagonism between Northam and Lord W is an easily-guessed one which makes them both look very bad in their treatment of Margaret. I was disappointed that the reveal came from Northam. A bit of honesty from Lord W would have helped his cause no end, but there it is.

This is the author’s debut published work, and it shows enormous promise. The talent is there, and although there’s a little unevenness in the characters, there’s some overwriting (’The creamy broth and crushed almonds tasted like resolve and opportunity swirled together in a perfect blend of promise’) and some scenes seemed rather contrived (a carriage accident and who should happen along but Lord W…), it was still an absorbing and page-turning read, and I would have given it four stars but for one thing – the book is riddled with Americanisms. I’m not talking here about spelling differences (honor, parlor, etc) or words like gotten or passes instead of dies, which are commonplace and even I, pedant that I am, don’t much mind. I also don’t quibble over drapes or needlepoint or shimmying (first recorded in 1919; I told you I was a pedant) or vest or entry. I do very much mind American grammar like ‘write me’ instead of ‘write to me’ and ‘must come visit’ instead of ‘must come to visit’ and Parson Andrews instead of Mr (or Dr) Andrews. These cropped up on almost every page and I swear I tripped over every one. And although the English countryside was evoked rather well, I wasn’t convinced of the author’s grasp on Regency customs. I’ve mentioned the matchmaking house party, but Margaret’s issuing of dinner invitations on the fly, and the morning callers at Lord W’s house who came every day also grated.

Now, most readers will either not notice any of this or it won’t bother them, but it bothered me, a lot. I even flipped back to the first chapter at one point to check that the book really was set in England. So although this is an interesting debut with unusual depth, these problems and those pesky unanswered questions keep it to three stars for me.

I received an ARC of this book from Netgalley. The book will be released late February 2020.


Review: Thaw by Anniina Sjöblom

Posted February 2, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This book enchanted me from start to finish. I don’t normally read Jane Austen fan fiction (JAFF), but if it were all up to this standard, I’d never read anything else. The book is an imagining of Pride and Prejudice which veers off even before the Netherfield ball. Elizabeth indulges in one country walk too many, and has to be rescued by Mr Darcy. When rumours start to fly that compromise her reputation, Mr Bennet calls upon Mr Darcy to do the honourable thing – and he does. Now, there must be a million JAFF books that start off with Elizabeth forced into marriage with Darcy by one contrivance or another, but the author makes this feel completely believable.

And here’s the (possibly) unique feature of this book – it’s entirely written in the form of letters from Elizabeth to either Jane or Aunt Gardiner, the two people to whom she can safely confide her innermost feelings. We never see what they write to her, although we get hints of it in her replies, and there is (I think) only one brief letter to another character at the end. So everything depends on the author capturing Elizabeth’s personality accurately, and this she does brilliantly. She recounts scenes that, while not quite the same as those in the book, yet evoke the familiar, and in the sharp-tongued, witty manner with which all P&P fans are familiar. This really feels like Elizabeth writing, and especially so because it captures so much of the wit of Jane Austen. I laughed out loud, a lot. It helps that the author ‘borrows’ little phrases from the lady herself, not all of them from P&P, and thus creates an awesome Easter egg hunt for aficionados (although there’s a full list at the back). The other characters are also true to canon, and Darcy, in particular, is very well drawn.

The development of the romance between our hero and heroine follows the pattern of the original book — strong dislike on Elizabeth’s part, the slow recognition of some good qualities in Darcy, confusion over Wickham’s story, the revelation of the truth of that, and then the disaster of Lydia’s elopement that seems likely to destroy any hope of a happy ending for the two. And this is the clever part, because the author seamlessly weaves in events directly from the original, events that are somewhat modified and some events and characters that are entirely new, and it all feels perfectly natural and as if it could, in fact, have happened in exactly that way. Some things from P&P don’t happen at all here, such as Charlotte Lucas marrying Mr Collins, and others, like Jane’s romance with Bingley, do happen but in a somewhat different way. I found it all very ingenious.

Obviously, the epistolatory style imposes some constraints. There’s no dialogue, and dramatic moments are conveyed solely by Elizabeth’s heartfelt and often very acerbic words. This gives the reader a certain distance from some of the events, but to be honest, I found that being ‘in Elizabeth’s head’, as it were, and hearing everything through her own biases, gave the story a greater intimacy than the original, and Elizabeth’s growing feelings for Darcy and his for her come across much better in this format.

This seems to be the author’s first published work, but I very sincerely hope it won’t be her last. I’ve rarely read such an accomplished debut. There is a very, very small smattering of Americanisms, but the only one that jarred was ‘passes’ instead of ‘dies’. Otherwise, the writing was a near-perfect evocation of Elizabeth’s character and Jane Austen’s style, and a brilliant and convincing variation on the P&P story. Highly recommended. Five stars.