Month: July 2020

Review: An Affair in Winter by Jess Michaels

Posted July 28, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This was a whole heap of fun, but it does require switching off the logical part of the brain and just rolling with it, so to speak. Which is appropriate, since there’s a great deal of rolling going on between the two main characters right from the start. In fact, the whole book is a succession of sex scenes loosely held together by thin strands of plot.

Here’s the premise: widow Rosalinde Wilde is travelling to join her sister who is shortly to be married to an earl, a loveless but pragmatic marriage. Rosalinde is determined to ensure that nothing happens to stop the wedding, for reasons of her own. But the journey is hit by an unseasonable snowstorm (in October? I’d love to know what part of Britain this is, but I don’t recall seeing any mention of a county). Forced to seek shelter, she finds herself stranded at a crowded roadside inn for the night. And there she meets a mysterious but exceptionally handsome man. And she’s an exceptionally beautiful woman… so the inevitable one-night-stand ensues. And the next day they inevitably discover that they are bound for the same place. He is the groom’s brother, and is determined to stop the wedding taking place. Just as determined as Rosalinde, in fact.

So there we are with two characters who hate each other’s guts because they’re on opposite sides of the wedding drama, yet who can’t set eyes on each other without melting into puddles of lust, which they are powerless to resist. Of course they are. It’s hard to imagine any real-world people who could be sworn enemies yet unable to keep their hands off each other, but this all comes back to the matter of switching off the logical part of the brain I mentioned. So they fight and then fall into bed, and sometimes they fall into bed and then fight, and so it goes. In the background are the soon-to-be-happy couple, who are dizzyingly indifferent to each other, Rosalinde’s highly unpleasant grandfather who has engineered the marriage and isn’t about to let anything spoil his plans, thank you very much, and a few minor characters.

The story unfolds pretty much as any regular reader of Regencies could have foretold, but that isn’t a criticism. Yes, it’s cliched and predictable and the multitude of sex scenes got boring pretty quickly, but I still enjoyed this much more than I expected. Despite a few triggers to my pedantometer (two cousins vying for a dukedom? The huge wedding with a multitude of guests?), the Regency atmosphere was evoked very well, although I had to laugh at the number of times characters were strolling about outdoors in the evening, despite that life-threatening snowstorm earlier! The implausibilities pile up rather towards the end of the book, but with my brain switched off I enjoyed it pretty well and got thoroughly swept up in the family shenanigans. Four stars.


Review: The Awakening Heart by Dorothy Mack

Posted July 27, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is the third book I’ve read by Dorothy Mack, who is releasing a mass of books from the 90s. This one was published in 1993, and it’s a deeply traditional style of story – wordy and introspective rather than passionate, and very much focused on the London season. For anyone yearning for the wordsmithery of Heyer, this may very well be what you’re looking for. Those who enjoy the lighter, dialogue-heavy modern style may find it a bit heavy, however.

Here’s the premise: Dinah Elcott has been raised by a neglectful father and a semi-invalid aunt in the country, in seclusion. Her physical needs cared for, she’s never known open affection, so she’s grown into a reserved, rather detached young lady, her only joy her painting. When her father wants her to spend a season in London, he tempts her with the prospect of art lessons while she’s there. Her sponsor into society, Natasha Talbot, is delighted to spend the lavish sum Dinah’s father provides for clothes and introduce her to society. And there to help is her husband’s brother, Charles Talbot, a man with the jaded air and acerbic tongue of the cynic, with whom Dinah instantly falls out.

These two made for a fascinating couple. Both of them are in a sense set apart from society, Dinah because she’s never been taught how to interact with others and doesn’t care enough to try, and Charles because he’s deliberately created an uncaring persona as a shield. Both of them hide their true feelings very successfully, and I very much enjoyed watching them mellow and open themselves up to the possibility of love.

I have to confess that I was disappointed by the romantic denouement, most of which is explained in a lengthy narrative so that we are told of their change of feelings but never really see it developing. There are very few moments where Charles, for instance, who is the first to appreciate his own heart, begins to behave in a more lover-like way towards Dinah. In fact, he is very generous towards her right from the start, both with his efforts to help her develop her artistic talent and the time he devotes to squiring her about town and dancing attendance on her at social functions. The significant moment where he suddenly realises he loves her is told after the event in a fairly dry style. This is very much in keeping with the era in which it was written, and is modelled on Georgette Heyer’s own style, but to the modern reader it feels a little flat.

One word of warning. Several of the minor characters seem to have some kind of history that suggests their stories were told in earlier books. This doesn’t spoil the read, but if you like to read everything in sequence, it would be worth seeking out the earlier books. But for those looking for an old-fashioned Regency who don’t mind the wordiness, this presses all the buttons. Elegantly written, with two unusual characters at its heart, as well as some well-drawn minor characters, it’s an excellent read. Four stars.


Review: The Road to Rushbury by Martha Keyes

Posted July 24, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

A new Martha Keyes book is always a thrill, and this one was another excellent read, a gentle, straightforward romance set away from the usual Regency settings of London, Bath and great country houses in a very small village in Yorkshire. It has one of the best opening lines I’ve come across in the genre: ‘Ten thousand. That was the number of pins Georgiana Paige estimated she’d had stuck in her hair since her coming out eight years ago.’ And there in a nutshell is the premise for the story. After eight seasons in the marriage mart of London, Georgiana is firmly on the shelf. When an opportunity arises, she accepts her spinsterhood, abandons the London season to her younger sister and decamps to become a companion to her aunt in Yorkshire.

The setting is very different from anything she’s experienced before, and initially she encounters suspicion and outright hostility from the villagers, but she rises to the challenge and, having criticised the state of the roads in the neighbourhood, volunteers to become the local Surveyor of Roads, and see about putting them right. Her guide in this endeavour is the local vicar, Samuel Derrick, who is one of the most overtly hostile of the villagers, having developed a great dislike of selfish gentry after a bad experience, but he is gradually won over by her determination and complete lack of the arrogance he’d expected.

The romance between them is (in my view) the best kind, where they slowly get to know each other and learn to appreciate the other’s good qualities, and this element of the book is stellar. The road-building and the interactions with the mostly wholesome and apple-cheeked villagers, particularly the hard-pressed weaver family, the Reeds, I found slow going.

I also wondered a little about the seeming glamorisation of hand-crafting, when the Reeds didn’t seem to be doing too well on it, and the demonising of the industrialisation of the industry, a process which was certainly disadvantageous to many workers, but also reduced the price of cottons and woollen fabrics, and benefited many. I would have liked to see a little more discussion of the two sides of the story (and there are always two sides; industrialisation wasn’t just about profit). But instead Georgiana instantly accepts that change is a bad thing, and the local land-owners are turned into villains for wanting to develop the village a bit.

After the halfway point, things speed up considerably, and after taking several days over the early chapters, the latter ones kept me up until the small hours, just to see how the ingenious Georgiana would resolve the difficulty and get her man, because it all seemed to be impossible for a while. The ending is a bit ‘with one bound they were free’, but it didn’t matter by that point, and the romantic denouement was delightful, with a nice twist to it.

If I have a complaint at all, it’s that the two main characters were a bit too perfect. Samuel had his prejudices, but otherwise he seemed to spend his life helping the poor and preaching well-received sermons, while Georgiana seemed to have no visible flaws at all, winning over all the villagers (with the possible exception of Lady Whatsit at the big house!). She was just a thoroughly nice person, and I would have liked to see a bit more fire from her. It would have been nice to see more of the aunt, too, who seemed to be merely a convenient plot device to draw Georgiana to Rushbury and then be more or less ignored. I do think she could have done more to intervene when the crisis hit and Georgiana was obviously very unhappy.

As always with Martha Keyes, this is a beautifully written tale. My favourite line was this, of clouds: ‘inching along at the leisurely pace of clouds that had nowhere to go.’ The research was excellent (I never knew there was such a post as Surveyor of Roads), and the romance is lovely. Not the most dramatic read ever, but very enjoyable nevertheless (it reminds me a bit of Lark Rise to Candleford, where nothing much happens very slowly, but in the most pleasant way). Four stars.


Review: Playing With Fire by Jayne Davis

Posted July 10, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 2 Comments

Well, that was awesome. Jayne Davis is my favourite kind of author, partly because I never know what she’s going to come up with next and partly because she allows the story to expand and grow and unfurl its petals in whatever way feels right. So many authors constrain their characters to conform to the needs of the plot, but Davis’s tales always feel completely natural and organic, as if they were always meant to be. This one starts with a tense escape from revolutionary France, morphs into a first London season, complete with visits to the mantua-maker, drives in the park and assorted suitors, veers off into a brilliantly funny piece of trickery worthy of Georgette Heyer, lurches back into tension again and then ends with a delicious romantic denouement. Utterly wonderful.

Here’s the premise: Phoebe Deane is the little-regarded poor relation, living with her aunt and uncle, who are French emigres. When her aunt and cousin decide to return to their chateau to recover some possessions, Phoebe accompanies them, but it’s 1793, the revolution is in full swing, aristocrats are not welcome and Phoebe can’t make her aunt understand the urgency of escaping as quickly as possible. Her aunt’s arrogant manners soon get them into trouble, but they find help from an unlikely source.

Alex Westbrook finds himself drawn to help the family, even though it might hamper his own secret mission in France. But he finds that Phoebe is quick-witted and resourceful enough to be a trusted ally, and more than willing to take risks when necessary. So begins an unlikely friendship, but can it ever be anything more? Well, we can guess the answer to that, but there’s a long and winding road to reach it.

I confess that for the first few chapters, I wasn’t sure I was going to like this book. The difficulties in France are so intense and so relentless, that it almost felt like Game of Thrones. What horrible event was coming next? Even though I knew that the protagonists would survive (because romance) it was a little too intense for comfort. However, once Phoebe reached London and dived into the more familiar ground of preparations for the season, it was a lot more comfortable. Phoebe’s a fantastic character – smart and plucky, with a ton of initiative. Sometimes she seemed almost too smart, and a bit too lucky, but that was OK. Alex – well, who could not like Alex? A great hero, who risks everything to save the mysterious redhead, and treats her like a real person not a helpless female who needs a man to tell her what to do and to protect her.

Of the side-characters, some we’ve seen before (this is the third book in the Marstone series), although it’s not necessary to have read them all. I very much like that the three books are spread out over about twenty years, so this one acts as an extended epilogue to the earlier books, for those who enjoy such catchups. The new characters tended to fall into the helpful yokels or villainous villains categories, although some were just plain irritating (Comtesse de Calvac, I’m looking at you). Phoebe’s uncle, the Comte, who had been distant and uninterested before, suddenly and implausibly becomes a sort of fairy-goduncle to Phoebe, and naturally the dowdy poor relation instantly becomes an attractive and desirable potential bride. This was great fun.

But of course, things soon go pear-shaped and we’re off into all sorts of unexpected twists and turns, and all the time the romance is simmering on the back burner, never ever forgotten and gradually coming to the fore. The ending is lovely and perfectly in keeping with the various characters involved, and if some things seemed unnecessarily convoluted, it was all too much fun to quibble over. The only slight complaint I have is that towards the end, some of the dramatic events happen off-screen. I would like to have seen them up close. But it’s a trivial point.

A wonderful read, whether you like thriller-type tension, something more traditional or a quirky mixture – this book has it all! Not to mention a lovely romance, with some swoon-worthy kisses (and nothing more than that). As always with this author, the writing is top-notch with an effortless evocation of the era, in both England and France. Five stars.


Review: A Suitable Match by Jayne Davis

Posted July 10, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Jayne Davis is an interesting writer. Every book she writes is different, and I love that sense of not knowing what I’m going to get when I fire up the Kindle. Her debut, The Mrs MacKinnons, was sharply original and darkly funny. Sauce For The Gander was a more conventional romance with a strong helping of boy’s own adventure. An Embroidered Spoon had the unusual setting (for a Regency) of Wales, coupled with an uncompromising view of the stifling life of a young woman in the era. And here we are with another switch, a straight-down-the-line tale of the kind that Georgette Heyer fans love – fancy gowns, balls, rides in the park, matchmaking and all the paraphernalia of the London season, with a spying sub-plot. It’s all great fun, and if I slightly miss the out-there originality of The Mrs MacKinnons, this is still better than 99% of Regencies on the market these days.

Here’s the plot: Lady Isabella Stanlake is the youngest daughter of the Earl of Marstone. Her sisters and her brother are all married, so now it’s her turn, and her overbearing father isn’t about to give her any freedom to choose for herself. She’ll marry someone he thinks suitable, and there’s an end to it. Her aunt is bribed to bring her out and make sure she toes the line. Fortunately, Bella is a smart and enterprising young lady, and manages to make the most of her season while avoiding the most hideous of the potential husbands on offer.

Her brother would help her find someone to her liking, as he did for her older sisters, but he’s called away on secret business and so he asks his friend, Nick Carterton, to keep an eye on Bella and help her out if she gets into trouble. Nick is dutifully looking for a wife, so he’s doing the season too, and it’s no problem to look after Bella, especially as she turns out to be far more interesting than the terribly dull and worthy young ladies he’s picked out as possible brides. Nick didn’t light any fires for me, but he’s a steady and honourable young man, and if that sounds ever so slightly dull, it also makes him a more realistic hero than most found in modern Regencies.

Alongside the main story were a number of side plots involving spying, blackmail and a man in disguise, plus an intriguing glimpse of the unpleasanter side of Regency life, involving a seamstress who loses her job. Kind-hearted Isabella sweeps in to rescue her, in the process discovering just how difficult life can be for those at the bottom of society. This sort of story teeters on the edge of imposing modern sensibilities on the world of two hundred years ago, but Davis manages to make Isabella’s benevolence believable. Bella’s extremely sheltered upbringing, bordering on imprisonment, means that she has an unsullied if naive approach to the sophisticated world she now finds herself in, and her intelligent if slightly wayward personality inevitably leads her into such situations.

The story chugs along very pleasantly until the final stretch, when all sorts of mayhem breaks out and things get quite dramatic. Bella’s efforts to escape her fate were ingenious (I love a resourceful heroine), but I greatly appreciated that the villains are not exactly stupid either. Kudos to the author for avoiding the trap of making things too easy for the heroine. And then there’s a delightfully twisty ending, that took me very much by surprise. Nicely done. A very well-written traditional Regency, and a good four stars.


Review: The Dream Chasers by Melinda Hammond

Posted July 3, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Having read and enjoyed Autumn Bride, I moved straight on to the sequel, which features many of the same characters but set some twelve or so years later. It was published twenty years after the first book, so there are some disconnects (to my mind) but it wasn’t a problem.

Here’s the premise: wild boy Vivyan Lagallan has reached the grand old age of thirty and decides it’s time to settle down. He proposes to beautiful, respectable and ever so slightly dull Helen Pensford. Returning from his successful suit, a very different sort of lady drops (literally) into his arms, Miss Eustacia Marchant. She’s running away from home in pursuit of the man she’s fallen in love with, Rupert Alleyne. To make things easier on her illicit journey, she dresses in boy’s clothing, but gets into difficulties and ends up stuck in a tree, from which position Vivyan manages to rescue her. And if you think this sounds vaguely familiar, then you’ve probably read Georgette Heyer’s The Corinthian, which has a very similar opening (with shades of Sprig Muslin thrown in, for good measure).

Eustacia is an innocent, and determined to make her way to London, so Vivyan, the reformed wild boy, turns gentlemanly protector to help her to get there safely and without scandal, and then keep an avuncular eye on her. This is a very different Vivyan from the irrepressible scamp of the earlier book. He’s still charming, but now he falls into the role of slightly jaded man-about-town, almost the world-weary older man found in so many Heyer books. It isn’t a problem, but reading this straight after the previous book, it was a bit of a shock.

Needless to say, Rupert Alleyne, the object of Eustacie’s affections, is astonished to find that his casual flirtation has assumed far more serious proportions in her mind. I very much liked the way the author handled this quandary. Rupert could have become the caricature villain at this point, but instead he behaves in a far more believable way.

The plot from this point becomes the standard Regency tangle of two couples engaged to the wrong partners, and at first it seems that those oh-so-restrained Regency manners are going to prevent the happy ending the reader expects. Fortunately, Eustacia is an ingenious little soul, and the way the whole muddle unravels is great fun and (unlike a number of Heyer denouements) doesn’t depend on everyone suddenly turning into morons or forgetting to talk to each other or making wild sacrifices for the heroine’s own good.

Great fun, authentically Regency and very readable in the best traditions of Heyer. Five stars.


Review: Autumn Bride by Melinda Hammond

Posted July 3, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is a short read from a new-to-me writer, one of those who’s been publishing for some years and the earlier books are now available on Kindle. This one was first published in 1983, and like many books of that era, it’s heavily redolent of Georgette Heyer. The language, the faithful Regency setting and even some plot elements recall the great lady, but that’s not a bad thing at all.

Here’s the premise: Caroline Hetton has been effectively abandoned by her mother and her family since her father died, so she’s making her way in the world as a governess, a pretty thankless task in those days. Out of the blue, she’s offered a way out of this situation. A former neighbour has left a property to her heir, Vivyan Lagallan, with the stipulation that he won’t get it until he’s twenty-five, unless he marries sooner. And the will explicitly mentions Caroline as the bride, or another lady equally suitable. It’s hard for a mere governess to turn down such a beneficial opportunity, so Caroline agrees to visit the heir to see if they would suit.

All this is managed by the heir’s older half-brother, Major Lagallan, a stolid, steady sort, very different from the free-spirited Vivyan, who’s reminiscent of Heyer’s character Richmond of Unknown Ajax, or perhaps Ludovic of The Talisman Ring. It’s Vivyan, naturally, who leads everyone into trouble through his reckless ways, but he’s so charming that it’s impossible to dislike him. And while he’s stirring up trouble, Caroline and the stolid major are both realising that perhaps she’s marrying the wrong brother. How they resolve the tangle is the question, and I have to say it’s managed very neatly, if a little implausibly, and with a completely heart-stopping moment along the way. Cleverly done!

The romance is low-key, but that’s in the best traditions of Heyer herself, so I won’t grumble about it. Unlike some reviewers, to me it was always obvious how things were going and to my mind the slowly developing change of feelings is signalled quite clearly, if undramatically. An excellent read in the traditional style, with a great Regency feel. Five stars. You can find this book as part of a ‘four seasons’ boxed set, and if you like Melinda Hammond’s style, she also writes as Sarah Mallory.