Posts By: Mary Kingswood

Review: ‘The Weaver Takes A Wife’ by Sheri Cobb South

August 16, 2017 Review 0

This book was a complete delight – right up until the point where it descended into stupidity and farce. The premise: Mr Ethan Brundy is a Lancashire mill-owner, formerly in the work-house, now fabulously wealthy but still showing a strong accent and appalling dress sense. Lady Helen Radley is the sharp-tongued daughter of the impoverished Duke of Reddington that Brundy falls in love with across a crowded theatre. Arranged marriage ensues.

Brundy is a glorious character, impossible to dislike, quite impervious to the snubs of the ton. Helen is less admirable but she gradually comes to appreciate his good qualities. When he visits his mill in Manchester, she misses him and accompanies him on his next visit, finding herself impressed with his methods and the way his workers love him. There’s a degree of idealisation in the portrayal of so many well-scrubbed and happy workers, and Lady Helen’s transformation from shrew to loving wife is a little too rapid for plausibility, but the charm of the characters and the amusing ways they deal with their peculiar situation overcome any deficiencies at this point.

The main characters’ gradually growing rapport would make enough of a story, but then the author spoils it by throwing in some melodramatic business with a villain, a debt, a necklace and a great deal of implausible creeping about at night, ending with Brundy acting entirely out of character. I’d hoped he could come up with some clever way to deal with the villain but no. Great characters, beautifully written, but the ridiculous farce keeps it to three stars.

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Review: Loving The Marquess: Suzanna Medeiros

August 13, 2017 Review 0

This one has an unusual premise: the hero has a potentially fatal and inheritable illness. He’s being pressured to marry and provide himself with an heir, but he doesn’t want to father a child himself. His solution is to marry an impoverished local woman who won’t be in a position to refuse his solution to this dilemma: to ask his best friend to do the fathering.

So far, so intriguing. But there’s a lot that grated on me. For instance, the heroine, Louisa Evans and her younger brother and sister live in a small cottage alone. As in, no servants. The brother spends much of his day taking lessons from the local vicar, the sister is tinkering in the garden, and the heroine earns a few bob sewing nice dresses for the daughter of the family who reduced them to penury. Erm… so who carries buckets of coal around the house? Blackleads the grates? Cooks the meals? Feeds the chickens and the pig? Scrubs the pans? Heats all that water for the weekly bath? Carries water in from the well, for that matter? Who sweeps the carpets (on their knees, with a dustpan and brush, and yes, it needed to be done every day because of all that coal dust)? A little light sewing? I don’t think so.

I also get very tired of this trope that a man (a marquess!) can be railroaded into marrying by a determined grandmother – or anyone, really. No, really he can’t, and can we not for once have a hero who stands up to his relations’ manipulations and tells them where they get off. He holds all the cards, after all, and could turf granny out of the house if he so chooses (which was normal practice anyway – that’s what dower houses were invented for).

Anyway, our two protagonists get married amidst a welter of historical inaccuracies which we’ll gloss over, and the marquess introduces his bride to society at the grand ball granny’s organised, thinking he’s going to announce his betrothal. One up to the marquess. But then they spend the wedding night at the bride’s cottage, for reasons which are unclear to me. I’d imagined that this was intended to create privacy so that his friend can deflower the bride, but no. So I don’t really know what the point of that was, except as an plot-driven excuse to throw the newly-weds into greater intimacy and test the marquess’s resolve not to sire an heir himself. Because of course, he has one of his turns and they end up in bed together and – resolve duly tested.

The illness runs through the whole book, popping up at convenient moments and disappearing when it might disrupt the resolve-testing (because, yes, the marquess’s resolve is tested multiple times, in fairly graphic detail), and if there’s a single reader who’s surprised by the revelations surrounding the illness, I’d be astonished. Some of the last chapter drama was telegraphed almost from the start. But the tricky situation between the marquess, his wife and the friend roped in to father the heir is nicely done, although I did think a lot of unnecessary angst could have been avoided if they’d all sat down right away and had a nice chat over a cup of tea. However, it works well enough.

A good read, well-written and without too many disturbing anachronisms (and what I found was minor and forgivable). Four stars.

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Review: ‘A Grand Gesture’ by Holly Newman

August 11, 2017 Review 0

There’s a lot to like about this book. The heroine, Catherine Shreveton, is sensible and independent-minded without falling into stupidity as soon as a man appeared. She’s a talented horse-breeder and rider, who helps her uncle with his stud farm, which she will inherit. She neither wants nor needs a husband, so when her aunt invites her to enjoy a London season and makes it clear she thinks Catherine is both poor and plain, and this is charity on her part, Catherine determines to play the role imagined for her. This is an inversion of Georgette Heyer’s Arabella, where the heroine is poor but the ton thinks her wealthy. Neither lady is plain, of course, for naturally a Regency romance must have a beautiful heroine.

And a handsome hero, and here is the Marquis of Stefton to fill the breach, but however handsome he may be, he almost stumbled at the first hurdle. A hero has to have some heroic qualities, and while he may fall short at the start of the book, and raise himself to full hero status through some kind of redemption, there are certain actions which put him beyond the pale. One is to stand by while the heroine is harmed in some way, and the other is to mess about with other women. Here our hero comes within spitting distance of both of these failures. Almost the first time we see him is at an inn where the generic villain is attempting to molest our heroine. Leaving aside the question of how long an inn would stay in business if it allowed its paying customers to be (possibly) raped on the premises, the hero’s inaction is inexcusable. Even if she seems to be defending herself pretty well, no gentleman would simply stand by and watch. Later, the hero is on the brink of returning to his mistress, and only fails to bed her by chance. So, not much of a hero.

The bulk of the book consists of the two dancing round each other in London, and this follows the usual pattern of suppressed instalust, with both sides pretending they despise the other. It’s pretty well done, though, with some nice set pieces, and I enjoyed Catherine’s emergence from her drab disguise to become a stylishly dressed beauty.

One quibble on historical accuracy. Generally speaking, very little in this book triggered my over-sensitive pedantry alarm. The writing style, dialogue and historical setting were all very convincing, and (my personal pet peeve) the author mostly got the titles right. Only one made me grind my teeth: why is the Countess of Seaverness called Lady Harth rather than Lady Seaverness? That made no sense to me. However, the other titles seemed fine, so I set it down to some obscure quirk of the British Peerage, an institution which has more exceptions to the rules than normal cases.

A good traditional Regency, well-written, with no sex scenes that I can recall. Four stars.

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Contemporary romance review: ‘Just Good Friends’ by Rosalind James

July 15, 2017 Review 0

This one just didn’t do it for me. I liked the opening, with Kate running from a murderous stalker, and the early scenes between Kate and Koti, our hero and heroine, sparkled with genuine antagonism. Their fights were good fun! But before too long they’re all over each other, the fights get further and further apart, and I began to lose interest.

The characters are more interesting than hesitant Hannah and perfect Drew from the first book in the series (review here). These two are far from perfect! Kate is quick to fire up at the merest hint of a slight, and Koti is the arrogant, spoilt, gorgeous, entitled rugby player. He has a certain roguish charm, but he’s also a heart-breaker, and he has to do a lot of growing up in this book.

So the foundation for the story was solid, but once the flirting stopped and they got horizontal, the story went downhill fast. I like some steam as much as the next girl, but some of the sex scenes here felt gratuitous, and I couldn’t quite reconcile multiple-orgasm Kate with guilty-about-masturbating Kate. How does that work? Plus, she was pretty free and easy and *trusting* for a girl just recovering from a stalker.

Then once past the half way point, we began to get deep into Maori culture and New Zealand history, and I kind of zoned out. This is interesting stuff, but it felt clunky dumped like this in the middle of the story, and especially so towards the end, when I was just waiting for the long-expected event signalled right at the beginning.

Not a bad book, and I liked the characters, but it wasn’t as easy a read as the first book, and I skimmed quite a bit to get to where something – anything – was happening. Three stars.

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Book review: ‘Forgotten and Remembered’ by Bree Wolf

July 5, 2017 Review 0

Here’s the premise: a widower with a small daughter decides to marry again in order to provide the child with a mother. His bride, Rosabel, is chosen without a word being exchanged between them, on the basis that she has a way with children. She accepts because he’s a duke and why wouldn’t she? But she has trouble coming to terms with her new role and he has trouble overcoming the past.

I struggled to finish this book, skimming the latter half, but let me say right now that lots of people love this book, and all the author’s other books, so I’m in a very small minority. That’s OK, I’m used to it. I’ll come to why I didn’t finish it in a moment, and it gets pretty ranty, so you have been warned.

Firstly, what I did like. The author can write, there’s no doubt about that, and I can see what she was aiming for here. The new wife is lifted straight from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, the second wife who hasn’t a clue why the guy married her and is too timid to ask, who is terrified of the servants and feels unworthy and unwanted. There’s even a parallel to Mrs Danvers in Miss Rigsby, the daughter’s governess, who bosses the new wife (a duchess!) around dreadfully.

But Rosabel discovers her role as mother to the poor neglected daughter, and learns to be a lioness protecting her cub. I didn’t find her transition particularly believable, but I was in full-on ranty mode by then, so maybe that coloured my judgement. And of course the husband finally unbuttons enough to fall in love and there are some nice, if long-drawn-out, scenes where they eventually get it together.

So… onto the ranty stuff, and I apologise to the author for this, since she tried to warn me, but, mea culpa, I took her words at face value, and that was my big mistake.

In the ‘From the author’ section for this book on Amazon, she says that she’s not aiming for “complete historical accuracy”. Further, she says: “Let me be clear: I am not saying I completely ignore historical facts. Not at all. I always strive to capture the flair of the times I write about. However, I occasionally bend the rules a little to allow my characters to experience something that would otherwise be denied to them. For example, if I need my characters to waltz, then does it truly matter if the waltz was only introduced to English society a few years later? To me, it doesn’t. After all, it is about the opportunities it creates. However, if it matters to you, then allow me to offer some friendly advice: do not read my books for you will only be disappointed. This post is meant as a guide to help potential readers decide if my books would suit them because I know how annoying it is to read a book that was not meant for you.”

Now, I’m all in favour of this. Extreme pedantry has no place in a book where the objective is light-hearted entertainment to while away a few hours in a pleasant manner. It’s the relationship between the characters that matters more than the precise style of gown worn or the date a certain object was introduced or invented, and if authors wish to gloss over the exact details to minimise wordiness and get on with the story, that’s absolutely fine. I have no problem with characters waltzing a little earlier than they should have done, or a heroine stepping out without a chaperon if the plot needs her to bump into the hero.

But (you knew there was a ‘but’ coming, didn’t you?) this should never, ever be an excuse to just skip the research and write a story about modern people who happen to wear bonnets and breeches. Besides, a very modest amount of googling elicits enough authentic-sounding snippets to make for a convincing read. It’s not hard, for instance, to look up the correct forms of address, and work out that dukes and duchesses are addressed as ‘your grace’ and ‘Duke/Duchess’, and never as ‘my lord’ or ‘my lady’. The author got this partly correct, but I cringed every time the hero and heroine addressed each other as ‘my lord’ and ‘my lady’.

Other aspects are harder to get right, but the information is out there, and it’s frankly lazy to make no effort to discover the ways in which Regency society differed from our own. Consider the betrothal and wedding, for instance. The hero talks to the heroine’s uncle, and he agrees to the marriage, without any involvement from the heroine. Wrong. The hero might ask permission to pay his addresses first, but then he makes his offer to the lady herself, who accepts or rejects him. Yes, she has the choice, always. Then there’s the two-week engagement. Wrong (unless the hero’s about to go off to war or for some other time-constrained reason). You don’t want people thinking there’s been some hanky-panky in the orangery, and besides, it takes a while to organise an entire new wardrobe for a soon-to-be-duchess, which is what would be needed, both for the requirements of rank and also because she’s now a married woman – very different clothes. Long engagements weren’t usual, but a few months wasn’t out of order, and, to be honest, I didn’t really see the need for haste in the story.

Then there’s the wedding itself. The bride gets up and has breakfast (wrong), puts on her wedding dress (wrong), is driven to her husband’s house (wrong), there are lots of guests (wrong), he kisses her after the ceremony (very wrong), there’s a dance afterwards (wrong) and speeches (wrong). And the next day, she discovers that her new husband has a daughter – ha ha ha ha ha! He’s a duke, for goodness’ sake, he’s in Debrett’s, his entire lineage back to whatever medieval king first elevated some humble knight is in print, including the name of his dead wife and his daughter. You’d have to be peculiarly dense not to manage to find all that out. And since there’s only a handful of dukes in the entire kingdom, everyone would have known his story anyway. It would have been in all the papers (yes, they had newspapers then, and although they didn’t print society gossip, except in the most oblique way, the death of a duchess would have been widely reported).

None of this is at all difficult to look up, and the fact that the author didn’t bother is not merely disappointing, it’s extremely annoying. I’m not talking here about minor quibbles like whether they would have waltzed in 1805 or not; I’m talking about an author who has very little idea about the Regency era, and hasn’t found it necessary to inform herself. What she should have said in her warning is something like: ‘Any resemblance to any real historical era is entirely accidental.’

I will say, however, that this is far from the worst example I’ve seen. I’ve read of one heroine who lived on a ranch near London, several who travelled on public coaches alone and one earl who held a contest to decide who to appoint as his next heir {eyeroll}, and there’s hardly an author in the Regency genre these days who knows the difference between Lord Smith and Lord Charles (no, they’re not interchangeable).

This is not a bad book, if you don’t mind throwing out almost all attempt at historical accuracy. Sadly, I do mind, but since it’s mostly my own stupid fault that I read the book anyway, despite the author’s warning, I’m not going to give it a star rating or post this review elsewhere. And in future, when an author says: ‘I bend the rules a little’, I shall know to keep well away.

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Contemporary romance review: ‘Cinder & Ella’ by Kelly Oram

July 3, 2017 Review 0

As a romance, this has one of the most depressing openings imaginable. Teenager Ella is texting her best friend, Cinder (named after a famous series of fantasy books), when – bam. Big car accident. Her mother, who was driving, is killed, and Ella suffers terrible injuries, including horrible burns. After eight months, she’s finally well enough to be released into the care of her only remaining family, her father, who left her and her mother when Ella was eight, and his second wife and step-daughters.

To say the transition is difficult doesn’t really come close. As is clear from the title, this is a modern retelling of Cinderella, so the step-sisters and step-mother hate Ella, and the father isn’t very sympathetic either. He insists Ella attend the posh private school the step-sisters attend, even though she’d much rather go to the local public school. Cue all sorts of bullying and general unpleasantness. This part of the book really isn’t a very cheery read.

Meanwhile, her friend Cinder hasn’t a clue what happened to her and is thrilled when she finally makes contact again. But he doesn’t know about her injuries and she doesn’t know that he’s really Brian Oliver, a huge heartthrob actor. He’s trying to escape a bad-boy reputation through a fake engagement to his current leading lady, Kaylee. Cue all sorts of misunderstandings.

Now, there’s a lot that didn’t work for me, especially in the first half of the book. The wicked step-sister trope just doesn’t work in modern times – would anyone really be quite so spiteful to a horribly disfigured and disabled girl? Hard to believe. And in the real world, the school would undoubtedly have been shut down if even half the goings-on had really happened. It just wasn’t credible to me, and it gave me the same sort of queasy feeling that the Dursleys do in Harry Potter. No normal human being is quite so horrible to a child. I also felt a bit unsure about the fact that, disfigured as she is, Ella’s face is untouched. And the only genuinely nice people seemed to be the gay couple and their daughter. And then there’s Brian, pushed around by his own management team, and too wimpy to say no to anything they or his fake fiancee suggest. Plus he’s an arrogant jerk. So not scoring too highly on the likability scale.

But then, after a whole swathe of misunderstandings, our two heroes finally meet at a fantasy convention and this scene is completely awesome and redeemed the book utterly for me. The end of the book is one gigantic weepy-fest, with more and more emotional outpourings from everyone, and yes, it’s all horribly over the top but I loved it. And the fairytale ending was well-nigh perfect. So three stars for the first half and five stars for the second half – four stars overall.

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Contemporary romance review: ‘Just This Once’ by Rosalind James

June 8, 2017 Review 0

I’m not much of a contemporary romance reader, in fact I don’t think I’ve ever read one before, but I’ve seen the author online and love her down-to-earth approach, so I thought I’d see what it is that makes her so successful. And yes, I enjoyed it very much – a nice, easy read that I finished in a couple of days.

The plot’s a simple one: responsible, work-a-holic American, Hannah, takes a holiday to New Zealand to get some much needed relaxation from work. While there, she goes for a dip in the sea and is caught by a rip-tide, only to be rescued by local rugby player, Drew. And not just any rugby player; Drew is captain of the famous All-Blacks, New Zealand’s national team. I wondered for a long time whether Drew was in fact Maori, as many of the All-Blacks are, and the book was maybe half gone before it emerged that he wasn’t. It surprised me that this wasn’t mentioned upfront, to avoid any confusion, but maybe we were just supposed to assume it.

After such a romantic hero-rescues-heroine beginning, it’s not surprising that our lead characters are drawn together by something perilously close to instalust. Drew’s thoughts are quite clear right from the start – he skips from admiring Hannah’s cute behind in shorts to wanting to rip those shorts right off her, and I was a little disappointed at the rapid transition from attraction to sex. I’d have liked at least some indication of deeper feelings, but it felt at first as if all he wanted from her was sex.

From there the romance develops in easy stages. It wouldn’t be quite true to say that nothing happens, because Hannah quits her job and moves to New Zealand, which is quite a big step for an independent lady, but really there are no bumps in the road for this couple. He develops an unswerving devotion to her, for no obvious reason (but then love can be irrational sometimes), and she agonises about every step but then does it anyway, while confidently predicting that it won’t last, he’ll get tired of her, she isn’t worthy, etc. But it does and he doesn’t and… well, that’s about it, really. I’ll leave the question of whether she’s worthy as an exercise for the reader.

I enjoyed this one more than I expected to, and my only real complaint is that Drew is just too perfect. A top sportsman with a perfect physique, a gentleman in bed and everywhere else, strong but caring and so on and so on. I’d have liked a flaw or two to make him more human. But otherwise, a pleasant easy read. Four stars.

Review of the next book in the series: Just Good Friends

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Book review: ‘A Moment of Silence’ by Anna Dean

June 5, 2017 Review 0

I loved everything about this book. It combines two of my favourite genres, Jane Austen and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, in one glorious package, and how can anyone resist that? Dido Kent is a spinster, past the age of any likelihood of marriage, although not past the age of interest in gentlemen. But she’s no romantic heroine, that role being taken here by her niece. When the niece’s fiance disappears, she sends for her aunt to comfort her. But then there’s a murder…

Thereafter, this follows the usual pattern of all country house murder mysteries. Dido doesn’t so much interview suspects as engage in conversation with them. She also rather ingeniously befriends the servants and gains some valuable clues in that way. And she isn’t above a little bit of pretence to inveigle secrets from anyone she thinks may have information. However, even when she’s sleuthing away, she’s never less than a lady and never has to resort to the slightest impropriety of behaviour.

All this is quite delightful, and both the Regency and murder mystery elements work perfectly. The solution to the mystery is ingenious but convincing (the very best kind), and there’s even a perfectly judged happy ever after, although I did wonder just how the final arrangement was going to work out in the long term. But that’s a very minor quibble. An excellent five stars.

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Film review: Mansfield Park (1999)

June 2, 2017 Review 0

Now, this is what happens when people allow modern sensibilities to infuse a story that worked perfectly well when set in its own time: you get a muddled arrangement that makes no sense whatsoever.

The story is an interesting one: of three well-brought-up sisters, one married a wealthy baronet, one married a clergyman and one married a poor man, for love. The eldest daughter of the married-for-love sister is taken to live with her cousins at the baronet’s house. The contrast between the impoverished Price family and the wealthy Bertram family at Mansfield Park is very striking. I wondered a little how Mrs Price ever managed to meet and fall in love with quite such a poor man, who would surely not have been within her orbit in the regular way, but maybe this is explained in the book (which I haven’t read in a long time). Suffice it to say that the Price family live in squalor.

The Bertram family at Mansfield Park live a very different life, the usual idleness of the wealthy in those days, with every need met. Fanny, however, as the poor relation, is treated at an unpaid servant. Her two aunts have no affection for her. Lady Bertram is indolent, and Mrs Norris, the clergyman’s wife, lives off the largesse of her richer neighbours, and is concerned only to keep Fanny in her place and make sure she doesn’t get ideas above her station. Sir Thomas barely notices her, and of the four cousins, only Edmund is kind to Fanny. This part of the story is heart-wrenching but it must have been commonplace in that era.

The adult Fanny is the target of the worldly Henry Crawford, who sets out to flirt with her but ends up falling thoroughly in love with her. But Fanny is armoured against his advances by her love for Edmund – unrequited, since he is in love with Henry’s equally worldly sister, Mary. And here is where the original wobbles slightly. Having set up, right from the start, the ghastly consequences of marrying for love without consideration of wealth in Fanny’s own dire family circumstances, yet the moral of the story seems to be – screw that, hold out for a love match anyway. For Fanny rejects the eligible Henry, a marriage which would undoubtedly have lifted her own family out of poverty, and is so determined not to marry without love that she goes back to live with her own family again, sharing their insect-riddled home and actually adding to their burdens. It doesn’t seem to fit with her unselfish nature (but maybe the book explains it better). So, mixed messages, there.

Now, I don’t remember the book well, but I know that Fanny’s sweetness, innocence and good-nature are contrasted strongly with the dissolute and selfish natures of the rest of the family, Edmund excepted. She is shy and retiring in company, never putting herself forward. This is not the sort of heroine to appeal to modern audiences, however, so the scriptwriter has turned her into a feisty, spirited 21st century lass, boisterous and hoydenish, writing quirky novels in private, with Edmund as her audience. She manages (somehow) to also be retiring in company, but even this is jettisoned later in the film when she starts getting snippy with people. It’s very difficult to make a coherent story when you throw out the central tenet, and the entire character of the lead, and this, for me, is why the film fails.

The secondary change from the book is perhaps less problematic. Sir Thomas Bertram’s wealth derives from his plantation in Antigua, worked by slaves, and Fanny is imbued with all the modern antipathy towards the slave trade. This isn’t quite so out of line with the era, for there was a well-established and increasingly vocal anti-slavery movement dating from well before Jane Austen’s time, but whether a quietly-brought-up girl like Fanny would have known anything about it or taken much interest in the subject is moot. More likely she would simply have accepted it as a background part of the world she lived in, and had nothing to do with the politics of the day. Still, it was (probably) a topic for discussion in many households, and Edmund’s comment that they all lived on the wealth of the slave-managed plantation is a good summary of the situation. The book of drawings that Fanny later finds is a completely unnecessary addition to this aspect of the film.

Of the film itself, it’s hard to fault the settings, costumes or casting. The acting was as you’d expect. Perhaps only Harold Pinter, as Sir Thomas Bertram, rose above the general level of competence to put in an outstanding performance.

Overall, it’s possibly a worthy attempt to re-imagine a classic work in a way that appeals to modern audiences, but I can’t say I enjoyed it very much. I feel that more subtlety makes a far stronger point; it’s often only when one sees the accepted attitudes of earlier eras portrayed with unflinching accuracy that one appreciates just how far we’ve come. There’s a lot to be said for playing it straight, when portraying the classics on film or for TV. After all, there’s a good reason why they’re classics, so maybe it’s better not to try to ‘improve’ upon them.

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May 28, 2017 General, The Daughters of Allamont Hall 0

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