Author: Mary Kingswood

Review: Mary Bennet and the Shades of Pemberley by Joyce Harmon

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

I’m ashamed to admit that I was slightly disappointed by this. Not by the plot or the characters or the writing, which were well up to scratch. No, I’d got myself invested in the possibility of a romance for Mary with a certain handsome young lord, and he wasn’t even in this book. Instead, we got a dashing military man as potential love interest. Which of course may be shaping up to be a love triangle, but…

Well, never mind about the romantic angle, or lack of it. That’s just me. Here’s the premise: Mary Bennet, the over-educated but under-talented middle sister from Pride And Prejudice has here been re-imagined as a young lady with a very special talent indeed: Mary, it transpires, is a magician. This she discovered in book 1 of the series, and in books 2 and 3, as her ability is undergoing training by the secret Order of St George, she tripped over various dastardly plots which her skills, with a bit of help from other magicians and a few familiar faces from P&P, were able to resolve. Now she’s heading off to see Darcy and Lizzie at Pemberley and blow me down if there isn’t something odd going on there, too. As one character put it, why can’t you just go on holiday like everyone else?

Like any self-respecting ancestral pile, Pemberley has a couple of resident ghosts, but the problem here is that there seem to be random extra ghosts popping up all over the place. A couple of cavaliers are duking it out on the lawn, there’s a well-bred Norman lady spinning in the drawing room, and (rather delightfully) an opera dancer is in the ballroom. Elizabeth can see these ‘shades’ (hence the book’s title; geddit?), even though no one else can, and it’s driving her almost to the point of a nervous breakdown.

Happily, our newly-fledged magician can see them too, and sets about, in her sensible, systematic way, to find out more about them, discover how they got there, and maybe even get them back to where they came from. This is a lot of fun, and the very different characters of the ghosts definitely add to it. It has to be said that the challenges are not very great and Mary seems to succeed with some of her self-appointed tasks almost too easily. There is a villain, but this too is easily spotted. So this is perhaps the gentlest story yet of this series.

But drama and out-of-nowhere plot twists aren’t at all what this series is about, since it’s three parts P&P, two parts cozy mystery and one part Harry Potter. Neither the language nor the characters are strictly true to the books, but they’re terrific fun and I recommend them to anyone who would like a little added magic in their Jane Austen. A good four stars, and here’s hoping that a certain handsome lord turns up in a future book.

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Review: Mary Bennet and the Beast of Rosings Park by Joyce Harmon

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

I love this series so, so much! After the Bingley Codex and the Wickham Artifact, now we have the Beast of Rosings Park, and although it doesn’t quite have the punch-the-air awesomeness of the previous book, it’s still a terrific outing for our Pride and Prejudice bluestocking with surprising hidden talents. The premise is that bookish Mary Bennet has discovered that she has magical abilities, and has been whisked off to London and the basement of the British Museum to be trained to use her new abilities. Anyone who always suspected there was more to Mary than met the eye or who likes a little magic in their Regency, this is the series you’ve been waiting for.

After her efforts at the end of book 2 (Jupiter Bennet!!! That made me laugh so hard), Mary is recovering at home from her overdose-of-magic induced infirmity, because magic always has a cost. The story is that she caught Amazonian Fever from an artifact at the British Museum, and there’s a delightful moment when the local doctor is fascinated by her previously unknown illness and wants to research her and write the details up for his fellow medics. It’s a challenge for Mary and her magician minder, Mrs Courtland, to put him off. I love these little touches of realism.

After a stay with the Bingleys in book 1, and then with the Gardiners and Wickhams in book 2, here we are at Hunsford parsonage with Mr and Mrs Collins, and the irrepressible Lady Catherine de Burgh. The author keeps these characters fairly close to their P&P characters, but, as with Mary herself, there are some characters that are not quite as per the book, including Anne de Burgh and her governess/chaperon, Mrs Jenkins. I loved the way they were developed, but I won’t spoil the surprise by giving anything away. There’s an array of minor characters, too, and now that Mary has a sizable dowry (courtesy of the Prince Regent after the book 2 incident), she’s surprisingly popular. Her illness prevents her from dancing, but luckily her health improves enough to see her scampering about the countryside well before the end of the book, so that she can participate in monster-hunting expeditions. I’m also not going to say anything about the monster. This unravels in a slightly more predictable way than in previous books, but it was still fun, and gave Mary the opportunity for some creative magic.

In the last book, there were teeny tiny hints of a romantic future for Mary with a certain handsome young lord, and I was thrilled to see him turn up again here, even though the romance really isn’t progressing very fast. No, let’s be honest, it’s not progressing at all. Sigh. Still, I’m optimistic. Book 4, the Shades of Pemberley, may possibly be the final book of the series, so fingers crossed for a happy ending for Mary. I can’t wait.

For anyone expecting Austen-esque writing or a strict adherence to canon, this book probably isn’t for you, but for anyone else, it’s delightful and I highly recommend the whole series (which should probably be read in order). Five stars.

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Review: The Convenient Marriage by Georgette Heyer

Posted March 11, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 5 Comments

This is my first time reading this early Heyer, set in the Georgian (pre-Regency) era of hooped skirts, wigs and face patches. I hate the costumes, so that part of it fell flat for me, but otherwise the customs and manners are very much the same as the Regency.

Here’s the premise: the very eligible Earl of Rule is about to offer for the eldest Winwood sister, a pragmatic match based on suitability which will also rescue the Winwoods from the doom of heavy gambling debts and impoverishment. But Miss Winwood is in love with a soldier, and the middle sister is determined not to sacrifice herself on the altar of matrimony, so the youngest Winwood sister, Horatia (Horry) puts herself forward as the wife for Rule. She’s seventeen, he’s thirty-five, so it will be a marriage of convenience – won’t it?

For anyone who’s read Heyer’s later work, April Lady, this is essentially the same plot, except that Horry and Rule aren’t nearly as silly as Nell and Cardross. Rule, being older and wiser, understands that his young wife has to find her place in society before she can engage with him as his equal, and Horry is resourceful and (moderately) sensible. This is still one of those stories that would be a great deal shorter if the protagonists simply sat down and talked things over, but at least the final catastrophe is not one of Horry’s making. And it has to be said that her brother and his friends are very, very funny in their efforts to rescue her from said catastrophe and keep her from being cast off in disgrace by Rule.

The tone is a little strange. There’s a duel which feels very, very serious, and I did wonder whether the villain was actually going to be allowed to die at one point. There’s also the whole question of ravishment, or rape, as we would call it these days, which fortunately Horry evades (I believe I mentioned before that she’s a resourceful lady). And there’s the strange matter of Horry not knowing that her husband is actually besotted with her, and wouldn’t dream of divorcing her, or believing trumped-up stories about her (he’s far wiser than Cardross in April Lady, who actually believes the worst of his wife; Rule is a much, much more likable character). Horry even seems at one point to be afraid of him, although that’s not uncommon for a Heyer heroine. It also felt very odd to me that husband and wife could lead such wildly separate lives, although that was very much true to the era.

But most of the book is light-hearted, not to say frivolous, and while I’d have preferred a bit more of the romance, that’s my standard complaint with Heyer so it’s hardly worth mentioning. Enjoyable, on the whole, even if hero and heroine aren’t an obviously made-for-each-other pairing. Four stars.

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Review: Someone to Love by Mary Balogh

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

A Mary Balogh book is always worth reading, but this is the first of her recent books that I’ve tried and I’m pleased to see that the standard hasn’t slipped at all.

This has one of the most riveting premises I’ve come across: the Earl of Riverdale has just died, and to everyone’s shock, it’s discovered that he has been married twice. His first marriage produced a previously unknown daughter, Anna Snow, raised in an orphanage in Bath, while his second marriage, with a son and two daughters, was contracted bigamously. Anna Snow, now the Lady Anastasia Westcott, has inherited a huge fortune, a cousin has taken the title and entailed estates, and the expected heirs are bastards and get nothing.

Now there are enough plotholes in this to drive a postchaise and four through, complete with outriders. Since the first wife died a few months after the second, bigamous, marriage, why on earth didn’t the earl find some way to go through a legal marriage ceremony? And since the solicitor in Bath seemingly had all the documents for the first marriage, not to mention the only surviving will, why on earth did he not contact someone when the earl died? I’m sure there are convoluted reasons for this but still…

But the position is wonderful. For Anna, there’s the transition from the Bath orphanage to London society and unimaginable wealth. For the legal family (her grandmother and cousins) there’s the challenge of preparing her for her new role. And for the disinherited family, there’s the adjustment to a life outside society and loss of wealth. It’s all great stuff.

The whole extended family is introduced almost from the start, and a lot of reviews grumble about this – it’s hard to know who on earth everyone is, and how they’re related, especially as they get called by different names (title, or Aunt So-and-so, or Cousin So-and-so in the proper Regency fashion, with no concessions to modern readers). I rather liked this. We get the same confused sense of who-ARE-all-these-people that Anna herself has, and they do gradually sort themselves out as the book goes on. There’s also a family tree, for those who prefer to have everything laid out upfront. The only real point of confusion (for me) was in knowing exactly who the hero was initially, because there was more than one candidate and it wasn’t at all obvious just at first.

Anna is that stalwart of Regency romance, the sturdily independent miss who knows her own value, thank you very much, and isn’t about to be browbeaten by the hectoring of her new relations, no matter how grand they may be. So she allows her hair to be cut, but only a little. She agrees to new clothes, but they are starkly plain rather than fashionably frilly and flounced. You know the sort of thing. I didn’t dislike her, but she seemed to my mind to be a little too modern in her views.

On the other hand, the hero, Avery (who’s a duke, needless to say), is a gloriously true-to-the-Regency character. Balogh doesn’t actually call him a dandy, but that’s probably the nearest description. He’s certainly effete, smaller than average and slender, dressed with elegance and very, very beautiful. He’s also very masculine, and people fear him, an odd but intriguing combination. He acts as if everything bores him, but when Anna happens into view, he finds her anything but boring. Unlike a great many other reviewers, I didn’t mind the martial arts element. It’s just a McGuffin, like any other premise for a plot or character, and if it’s a bit arbitrary, and not terribly plausible, well, that’s in the nature of McGuffins.

The romance is one of my favourite types, where the protagonists topple sideways into it, as much to their own surprise as everyone else’s. There are unexpected kisses, an unexpected (and very public) proposal and an equally unexpected acceptance. And all before anyone is really sure quite what’s going on. It can’t be (can it) love? I really enjoyed Avery, because although he embodies many of the standard qualities of a modern Regency hero (masculine, leader of society, vastly rich, eccentric, dripping with ennui), he’s also very surprising. He sees straight through Anna’s outward confidence to the terrified girl inside who nevertheless has a steel backbone, so when her newfound relations tell her that she absolutely mustn’t leave the house until they have polished her up, what does he do but whisk her straight out to stroll through the park. And then offers to kiss her. No matter the situation, he was never confounded, and also never conventional. Sometimes I laughed out loud at his outrageous behaviour, but of course he can get away with it (see previous comments about leader of society, duke, rich, etc.).

Once the two are married and we’ve got past the obligatory sex scene, things begin to unravel somewhat. I’d have been quite happy to end the book at that point, but no, we have to trawl once more through all the relatives (setting things up for the rest of the series) and then endure a final hiccup between the lovers. I got the point of it – in fact, I got the point a long time before that, when the hero’s childhood secrets were first revealed, but there’s a lot of repetition in the book (the letters to the friend in Bath are particularly annoying in that respect), so we got to hear it all again.

There are any number of problems with this book, and even the historical accuracy is wobbly at times (would a duke really be able to get married as Mr Archer – I doubt it), but Balogh’s writing is as glorious as ever, Avery is a towering character and I just loved how much he surprised me at every turn. Five stars. Mind you, I can’t work up much interest in the embittered disinherited family or the very stereotypical domineering relations, so I doubt I’ll be reading any more of the series, no matter how much I enjoyed this one.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Review: Rags To Riches Wife by Catherine Tinley

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

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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.

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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.

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