Author: Mary Kingswood

Review: An Embroidered Spoon by Jayne Davis

Posted January 14, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 2 Comments

The third full-length novel from this new author, and it’s another corker. I don’t think I’ve ever read a Regency romance set in Wales before, but Davis skilfully creates the backdrop and the array of characters, both the aristocratic and the not-quite-gentry.

Here’s the premise: Izzy Farrington, the daughter of a baron, is packed off to an impoverished spinster aunt in Wales to reflect upon her wilful refusal of several respectable offers of marriage, in the hope that her miserable surroundings will bring her to her senses. But Aunt Eugenia isn’t quite what she expected, and although she finds life very different in Wales, after some amusing mishaps, she begins to find much to interest her. One particular interest is Rhys Williams, a businessman who draws Izzy into his world of wool and sheep-breeding and all manner of intriguing subjects previously unknown to a gently brought up daughter of the aristocracy.

This part of the book is a delight, evoking a totally convincing corner of the Regency world (Wales is portrayed as a wonderfully romantic place, while also wet, wild and windswept!), and both Izzy’s reaction to her new situation, and the reactions of her new relations and friends are very believable. The story takes a more conventional twist when Izzy’s father, Lord Bedley, discovers that spinster Aunt Eugenia is actually married, and to a solicitor (the horror!), and whisks Izzy back to London to be respectably courted again.

But while this could have been a dull transition to conventional Regency tropes, the author gives the reader an unusual but brilliantly portrayed insight into the utterly stifling life of a young lady. Izzy is provided with every material comfort, and surrounded by friends and family who all (in their various ways) want the best for her, but she has no freedom whatsoever. Cut off from the man she was falling in love with, and not even sure yet of her own heart, she has no way to see him or even convey a message to him. She is chaperoned wherever she goes. The governess will report any untoward conversation with a stranger. The servants will be fired if they help her. Even her correspondence is opened by her father (and yes, this is completely true to the era). And, worst of all, she’s constantly pressured to accept one of the suitors her parents approve of. How she manages, despite all these restrictions, to avoid an unwanted betrothal, communicate with Rhys and decide her future for herself take up the rest of the book, and beautifully done it is too.

The minor characters are all wonderfully drawn, but the star of the show is Izzy herself, an intelligent and resourceful girl who starts off on completely the wrong foot in her new home, but quickly learns to adapt. Another wonderful read from Jayne Davis. Highly recommended. Five stars.

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Review: Phoebe by Martha Keyes

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

A short and sweet free story from one of my new favourite authors. Phoebe is awaiting the return of the man she loves from his tour of the continent. Without a formal betrothal, she wasn’t able to write to him, but every day she wrote a line or two in a year-long letter. Now she awaits his arrival at a ball, with the letter heavy in her reticule. But before he appears, she overhears dreadful news – he’s enamoured of a woman he met he France. So when she finally meets him again, to save her pride she makes up an attachment to another man.

And so the stage is set for a story that’s based entirely on that time-honoured plot, the Great Misunderstanding. We know this because we can see inside the head of lover George, and know that he’s stayed faithful to Phoebe and he’s bewildered and hurt by her seeming defection. Fortunately, Phoebe’s sensible enough not to let George leave again without at least showing him her letter, and the story is short enough that matters get resolved speedily.

I have some very minor quibbles. I’d have preferred the letter to play a bigger role in the resolution than it did, purely for the symmetry, and I felt there was too much explanation at the end of things which the reader already knows and don’t need to be spelt out. There would have been more tension, too, if we hadn’t known exactly what George was feeling. But the romance ended beautifully, and the writing is excellent, as always. Four stars.

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Review: Duel of Hearts by Diane Farr

Posted December 12, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is an oddball one, completely wacky and wild, but very, very funny. Lilah Chadwick and Lord Drakesley (Drake) meet in inauspicious circumstances – at a country coaching inn, squabbling over the only available carriage for hire. Both are determined to have it and not prepared to yield, so when they discover that they are bound for the same place, they do the only sensible thing and share the carriage.

They soon find that they have even more in common, for Lilah’s father is planning to marry Drake’s cousin, a wedding that they will both do anything to stop. Naturally, they set aside their differences and join forces to separate the two, so that Lilah can have her beloved father all to herself again, and Drake can marry his childhood sweetheart.

And so the stage is set for these two to fight and squabble and battle their way to the realisation that what they thought they wanted and what they actually want may be two very different things. Now, none of this should work at all. Lilah and Drake have to be utterly oblivious and (quite frankly) stupid not to see what is right under their noses, which everyone else can see perfectly well. Much of what happens is so over-the-top that it ought to be unbelievable and ridiculous. And yet, somehow, the author pulls it off magnificently. I rolled my eyes and wanted to bang their heads together several times per chapter, but I still loved this book. Realistic it isn’t, but it’s very, very funny. Five stars.

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Review: The Difficult Life of a Regency Spinster: Harriet by Susan Speers

Posted November 25, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Susan Speers is one of my must-read authors, and although her books vary from the electrifying to the rather dull, they are always different. I just never know what’s going to turn up next, and that’s a large part of what makes this series so fascinating. This one veers slightly to the dull end of the spectrum, but it’s still a fine read, a cut above most Regencies and well worth the more than a year’s wait since Georgette.

For those who enjoyed Felicity, this is a direct follow-on to that book, showing what happened after the death of Laurence (Laurie) Dashiell. Felicity herself has only a minor role, since the focus here is on plain Harriet Welles, the vicar’s spinster sister, and Peregrine Dashiell, the new heir to Lavender Hill, Laurie’s home. Perry is an American, raised to poverty but taking to life as a country gentleman with surprising aplomb. In fact, the major problem with this book is that the main characters are just too good – there are no flaws to be worked out, no conflict between them and, to be honest, no real obstacle to their romance. This is the dull part of the story, and although it’s pleasing to watch them realise their feelings and the resolution was lovely, I would have liked a lot more ups and downs before they reached that point.

Fortunately, there is an array of more interesting characters to liven things up. Harriet’s sister, Jewel (Julia), for instance, Peregrine’s African friend and the Romany child all added some welcome spice to the otherwise bland plot. And I very much approved of the author’s resolution for the villain of Felicity, Dart, which was both creative and showed a deep understanding of human nature, as well as being very satisfying. The subplot with the brother was a little too predictable, however, although I enjoyed it.

A couple of historical hiccups that I noticed. The vicar’s financial difficulties were a recurring theme, but in England, once a living is given to a clergyman, it’s his for life and the income comes from fixed tithes from the parish. The local landowner has the gift of the living (ie the right to bestow it on a man) but he doesn’t actually pay the incumbent. The other point concerns the maid who’s a slave. Slavery had been abolished in England by the Regency and technically a slave is free the moment he or she sets foot on English soil. However, that would have to be settled in the courts, and I actually preferred the solution the author arrived at. Both these points are very trivial and didn’t spoil the story for me in the slightest.

The real downfall for this book is the terrible punctuation, and this is a recurring problem in the series. There are a few editing errors and Americanisms, although these were not major issues, but the wayward punctuation was a constant irritant. If the author could bring herself to let a proofreader loose on the final draft, these books would be enormously improved. Without this, I’d have given the book five stars, but as it is, I can’t really give it more than four. Now on to I (Imogen? Isobel? Irene?) and let’s hope it’s less than a year to wait for it.

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Review: Mary Bennet and the Wickham Artifact by Joyce Harmon

Posted November 21, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

So. Much. Fun. I absolutely loved this book, almost from beginning to end. Almost? Well, there were a few moments early on when I feared that it was going to get bogged down in a lot of Harry Potter-esque magic school descriptions, with all the action pushed to the last few chapters, which is probably perfect for some readers but not me. Happily, things warmed up pretty quickly and there were some tremendous goings-on that had me cheering wildly. And the ending was twelve shades of awesome.

Here’s the premise: Mary Bennet (yes, that Mary Bennet) discovered that she has magical capabilities in the first book of the series (Mary Bennet and the Bingley Codex). Now she’s been whisked off to London to the Order of St George, tucked away in secret parts of the British Museum, to be instructed properly in magical abilities of various sorts. Because her ability wasn’t discovered until she was an adult, she hasn’t grown up knowing the correct way of doing things, so her efforts are sometimes rather unorthodox, and – oh joy! – her mentors actually encourage her free thinking and creativity. This is very much an improvement on the conventional person-with-new-abilities trope, where the mentors try to shoehorn her into the proper ways, with the result that uncontrolled magic breaks out at inopportune moments. Of course, there’s still much to learn, so she does some herbology (here we are in Harry Potter mode again – I half expected care of magical creatures to turn up next), and – even more joy! – battle magic! I do love me some battle magic.

Out in the muggle – sorry, non-magical world, we have some familiar characters. Mary is staying with Aunt and Uncle Gardiner, and who should also be staying but Lydia and Wickham, the latter recovering from an injury received at Waterloo. Wickham’s survival seems to be due to a mysterious Egyptian amulet, which he thinks merely deflected a bullet, but which Mary recognises as a magical artifact. And shortly thereafter, mayhem breaks out as an ancient form of evil is let loose and the race is on to save the world and so forth.

There was so much to enjoy in this book. I loved some of the curiosities in the museum basement, such as Mr Philpott, and the oh-so-useful Doors. I loved the little vignettes of Lydia and Wickham. I loved the small but significant role for Prinny (the Prince Regent). I loved the teaching of basic self-defence as well as battle magic (how sensible). And – oh joy of joys! – is that a love interest for Mary hoving into view? I appreciate that, if so, it will develop over the course of multiple books, but I shall be sadly disappointed if she doesn’t walk off with her charming young lord in the end.

I won’t say anything about the defeat-the-bad-guy ending except that it was a true punch-the-air moment, leaving me with a huge grin on my face. This is a wonderful read, highly recommended for anyone who thought the one thing lacking in Jane Austen’s work was a little magic, or anyone who suspected there was more to Mary Bennet than the whiny, priggish bluestocking she appeared to be in Pride and Prejudice. Five stars, and there are at least two more books in the series to look forward to: Mary Bennet and the Beast of Rosings Park, and Mary Bennet and the Shades of Pemberley. I can’t wait.

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Review: Lady of Quality by Georgette Heyer (1972)

Posted October 12, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

The very last book in my project to reread all Heyer’s Regency novels in the order they were written. This is very far from her best work, and sadly it’s actually a rehash of what I personally regard as her most entertaining book, Black Sheep, but with far less likable protagonists, less humour, and a much sketchier plot. Even so, I found a lot to like about it.

Here’s the plot: Annis Wychwood is beautiful, rich and determinedly single at twenty nine. While returning to her Bath home, she happens upon a broken-down gig, and offers help to the young lady stranded at the side of the road. Lucilla is running away from an arranged marriage – with the equally reluctant bridegroom, Ninian, who nobly offered to see her to safety. Annis offers Lucilla a temporary home and sets about finding suitable amusements for the girl. Lucilla may be an orphan, but she isn’t unprotected, and her uncle and guardian, Oliver Carleton, the rudest man in London, arrives to sort things out.

The two are immediately at loggerheads, and most of the humour in the book comes from their spirited exchanges. I think this was meant to be a collision between the perfect manners of the lady of quality versus the complete lack of manners of the gentleman, but since she was often almost as rude as he was, it didn’t work too well. There was also a great deal of rehashing of the current state of play of the various side characters (a problem with Charity Girl, as well), which drags everything down to a snail’s pace, and, quite frankly, nothing very much happens very slowly anyway. Nevertheless, the book was short enough and funny enough that I didn’t mind it.

The romance is, fortunately, one that builds from the moment the two protagonists meet, which for me is far better than being bolted on as an afterthought. It wasn’t a completely convincing romance, because they seem rather a mismatched pair, but I won’t quibble over that. The side plots were pretty silly, and the resolution even sillier, but that’s a classic Heyer strategy. On the whole, Black Sheep does it far, far better, but it was still an amusing and (mostly) charming read, I liked Maria Farlow’s long, rambling monologues, the ingenue and young buck (Lucilla and Ninian) were not in the least stupid, and I very much enjoyed Annis’s sister-in-law, who was thrilled when the household succumbed to sickness and she was able to spend all day caring for her baby. A lovely woman. Four stars.

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Review: Charity Girl by Georgette Heyer (1970)

Posted October 12, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This was a disappointment. Partly because I’ve read this story before- twice! Both The Foundling and Sprig Muslin feature a man chasing round the countryside on behalf of some naive ingenue in trouble (generally self-created), while the romance is a perfunctory affair, more or less ignored until the last chapters. And whereas those books displayed all Heyer’s trademark sparkling wit and amusing side characters, this one was just plain dull. Apart from the opening chapter and a few moments in Harrogate, there was nothing much to raise even a wry smile.

The premise is that Miss Charity Steane, or Cherry for short, has been seemingly abandoned by her ne’er-do-well father, and when her school bills aren’t paid, she is taken in by her aunt as an unpaid drudge, the lot of poor relations everywhere. Cherry decides to run away to her grandfather in London but on the road she is rescued by Viscount Desford and whisked off in his curricle. But there’s a problem: her grandfather is away from home, no one knows where, and Desford clearly can’t take care of the girl himself. What to do, but dump her at the home of his oldest and best friend, Henrietta Silverdale.

And so the plot plays out with our hero and heroine, Desford and Henrietta, hardly ever in the same county, never mind the same room, as Desford traipses here and there after grandpapa, Henrietta tries to keep Cherry on a short leash and both of them have to avoid ending up betrothed to the wrong person. It all comes right in the end, naturally, but boy was it a dry and tedious road to travel. I really do not like a romance where the couple have no inkling of their own feelings until nudged into it by their more knowing friends and relations, whereupon they suddenly discover they’re passionately in love. It just isn’t convincing. One of very few Heyers that I found a real struggle to get through. Three stars.

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Review: Belle (2013 movie)

Posted October 12, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Such an interesting film, and one I was drawn to purely for its research potential, but ended by finding a great deal more. It isn’t entirely satisfactory, sacrificing historical accuracy to dramatic storytelling, but it was nevertheless very enjoyable to watch, and superb in both acting and the lush visual presentation.

The most fascinating aspect for me was that this is based on a true story. The film is inspired by the 1779 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay beside her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, at Kenwood House, which was commissioned by their great-uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, then Lord Chief Justice of England. Very little is known about the life of Dido Belle, who was born in the West Indies and was the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of Mansfield’s nephew. She is found living in poverty by her father and entrusted to the care of Mansfield and his wife, who raised and educated her alongside Elizabeth, and in exactly the same way. Needless to say, Dido’s colour and illegitimacy create tensions within the family, for instance, when she is not allowed to dine with the family when they have guests but is allowed to join then in the drawing room afterwards.

It was interesting to me to compare this even-handed upbringing with the way Fanny was raised in Mansfield Park. In Austen’s work, Fanny was very much the poor relation, despite being the niece of a baronet, and not only treated as such, but expected to know her place. Dido, by contrast, seems to have been treated as an equal, yet when her father dies and leaves her his fortune, there’s a stark contrast between the two cousins. Both have respectable family connections, but Elizabeth, despite being poor, is expected to make a good marriage, whereas Dido, who is rich, has no expectations because she is mulatto (mixed race) and illegitimate.

The romance isn’t entirely satisfactory, but that’s partly because Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays Dido, is something of a blank slate. She’s very lovely, of course, and the costumes show her off to glorious advantage, but she lacks something of the nuances in her performance, so that it’s often hard to know what she’s feeling. I was never terribly clear, to be honest, as to why she became engaged to Oliver Ashford. It’s presumed to be the result of bowing to the conventional wisdom that a woman needs a man to take care of her (and her fortune), but happily she breaks free of this in time for a resolution with clergyman’s son, lawyer and political campaigner John Davinier.

The running theme of slavery, and Lord Mansfield’s verdict on a famous case threads through the whole film. It treads a fine line between the sentimental (Mansfield affected by a dearly-loved mulatto in his own household) and the commercial (the value of slaves as a commodity), and I feel it succeeds pretty well, despite the film’s attempts to over-dramatise what would undoubtedly have been dry legal discussion.
An enjoyable film, not complicated, but beautiful to look at and with some stellar performances from the usual array of talented British actors in side roles.

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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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