Author: Mary Kingswood

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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Review: Playing To Win by Diane Farr

Posted September 19, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

An interesting and unusual premise: Trevor Whitlatch is sent to recover a debt for a friend from a famous courtesan. She surprises him by offering him her own illegitimate daughter to settle the debt. As soon as he sees her, Whitlatch agrees to the deal. Why? Well, because she’s beautiful, of course, and, given her heritage, she’s destined to end up as a courtesan herself, so why shouldn’t he be her patron? After all, he’s a connoisseur, she’s in no position to complain and he’s very determined.

Clarissa, however, is equally determined to avoid her mother’s fate in life. She’s been educated, so she feels that a life as a governess would suit her. She’s not foolish enough to aspire to marriage to a respectable man, thanks to her mother, but she wants to earn her keep honestly. Whitlatch is quite happy to allow her the time to accept his new offer – after all, the chase makes the inevitable outcome all the more rewarding – but he finds himself flummoxed by his new charge at every turn. She is nothing like he’d expected, even his servants treat her like a lady and gradually he finds himself falling under her spell.

This book was previously published as ‘Fair Game’, and to be honest, I feel that was a better title for it. It captures perfectly the vulnerability of Clarissa – she’s as defenceless as a deer in the hunter’s sights, but her strength of character, and her essential innocence and goodness shine through. The ending isn’t a surprise, naturally, but it’s nicely done. A beautifully written book with two great characters at its heart, an interesting dilemma and a soupcon of humour. Five stars.

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Review: The Lonely Lord by Audrey Harrison

Posted August 18, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is an author I’ve been meaning to catch up with for a while, but this is the first book of hers I’ve got round to reading and it was an interesting one. There are not many authors with the nerve to tackle a hero like Anthony Russell, the Earl of Lever. He’s a man completely uncomfortable in social settings, never knowing the right thing to say, honest to the point of bluntness and oblivious to the subtle nuances of conversation. The author sets it down to a neglectful childhood, but I’d have said it was some variant of autism myself. Whatever the cause, Anthony is very believably portrayed.

And in Julia Price, we have another unusual character – not the customary debutante, nor even the almost-on-the-shelf spinster, but a widow with a young son. And not a rich widow, either, for Julia is virtually destitute, dependent on her grandmother’s charity. And there’s one more element to Julia’s life that makes her unusual, for her husband was a violent man. So we have two very interesting characters, and a highly original pairing for a Regency novel.

This was my second book on the trot to feature Bath as a backdrop, and again the author makes the city and its attractions very believable. Less believable (to me) is the premise that Anthony has to marry before his thirtieth birthday or lose a large part of his fortune. I understand the plot benefits of such a deadline, but anyone reading a regular diet of Regency romances would imagine that all fathers of the era were devoted to wildly eccentric wills. However, be that as it may, the author at least understands the legal constraints, so the title and entailed fortune are still Anthony’s, but if he fails in this task, his younger step-brother will be a great deal better off. His step-mother conforms to the conventions of wicked step-mothers everywhere by doing her level best to ensure that her own son inherits as much as possible.

And so the stage is set, and, once Julia’s grandmother and Anthony’s grandfather meet up and rekindle an old friendship, it’s only a matter of time before the two principals are hurtling towards the altar. Naturally there are a few wrinkles along the way, driven by minor characters and Julia’s son, but the eventual outcome is never in doubt. Julia’s abusive husband almost comes between them at one point but this is easily swept aside. In fact, I felt too little was made of her history, and perhaps it could have been used to add an additional layer of depth to the story. The real obstacle – Anthony’s social awkwardness – is really the only thing keeping them apart. I’m not sure that the way Anthony rises to the challenges before him at the end of the book is completely convincing, but by that point I was willing to go along with it and cheer him on.

There were a few niggles with the writing – not complaints, but stylistic choices of the author’s that didn’t quite sit right with me. For instance, a line like, ‘“I wouldn’t do that,” he warned…’ instead of the cleaner ‘he said’. Sometimes that felt like repetition, and I found it distracting. And too often we’d be told that it was the first time a character had said or done something, which felt too much like telling instead of showing for my taste. Purely a personal preference issue, though, and otherwise the writing was excellent. I only spotted one historical inaccuracy, in a mention of legal adoption – not a thing until well after the Regency. Informal adoption was commonplace, but there was no legal process for it until 1926. But that’s a minor detail.

This was an interesting and brave story from Audrey Harrison, which I enjoyed despite a few minor niggles and will certainly be reading more of her work in the future. A good four stars.

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Review: The Fortune Hunters by Carola Dunn

Posted August 18, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

What a great read! This has the glories of Regency Bath as a backdrop, two delightful main characters, an array of interesting side characters and some lovely humour.

Here’s the premise: brother and sister Jessica and Sir Nathan Franklin are in financial difficulties. The lease is up on their home and farm, their new landlord wants more money to renew than they can afford and it looks like they’ll have to move out. But there’s one last throw of the dice: if they sell some hideous family jewels, they can afford a few weeks in Bath, putting on a bit of a show, and perhaps one of them will be able to make a wealthy marriage. Matthew Walsingham has a similar problem. Having just been disinherited, he finds his way to Bath to look for a rich heiress. And when Jessica and Matthew meet and feel an instant attraction, it seems as if they’ve both found just what they were hoping for.

Their romance plays out with a background of traditional Bath activities – the Assembly Room, the Pump Room, walks in Sydney Gardens, picnics, outings and a dunking in the canal. Well, OK, that last part is a bit different, but it was a delightful scene, so no complaints on that score. There are a number of side stories going on as well as our main couple, plus Nathan’s own romantic difficulties, and to be honest, I felt as if there was too much extraneous business and too many characters, not to mention that some of them felt rather cliched.

However, our hero and heroine are delightful, with some splendid banter and it’s obvious that they’re made for each other. Some Regencies feature characters who are so much at odds that one fears for their future happiness, but not these two. I liked that the author didn’t hesitate to address the difficulties of the premise head on. In the Regency, honour was everything, and it really isn’t honourable to pretend to be wealthy to entice a rich marriage partner. Matthew and Jessica both have the problem of deciding just when and how to confess that they’re not what they seem, and Nathan has a different problem – having fallen for an actual heiress, he looks like the sneaky fortune hunter he is, but no longer wants to be. How they extract themselves from these tangled issues is the heart of the story, and it’s rather nicely done.

The two main romances are wrapped up beautifully, the writing and historical accuracy are faultless and an honourable mention for the eccentric Miss Tibbett, the former governess now promoted to aunt status for the Bath visit, and constantly disappearing to examine Roman remains. She was a plot device, of course, but an enjoyable one. A lovely book. Five stars.

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Review: Honey-Pot by Mira Stables

Posted August 6, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

After two very enjoyable reads from Mira Stables, this one was a slight disappointment. The writing, the historical accuracy and the romance were well up to scratch, but there were elements that I found concerning.

Here’s the premise: Letty Waydene is more or less betrothed to Lucian Staneborough, but she’s deeply suspicious that society belle Russet Ingram is trying to tempt him away from her. She asks her guardian, James Cameron, to do something about it. So he does. He kidnaps Russet and holds her a prisoner at his remote country estate.

Wait a minute… he kidnaps her? Yep. Initially she’s confined to one locked room, but when she makes a risky bid to escape, he gradually allows her a little more freedom. Now, I’m all for a hero being masterful and macho, but there’s a clear line between that and aggressively domineering, and it seems to me that the hero clearly crosses it here. He does soften somewhat as the story progresses, but then there’s a moment towards the end of the book when he has another outbreak of one-sided decision-making. Of course, this was first published in 1979 (forty years ago!) when things were very different, so I make allowances, but it still left a nasty taste in my mouth, and if this would bother you, best avoid.

The other oddity in this book is the extraordinarily convoluted backstories the characters have. Much of this seemed like pure plot contrivance – Russet’s wealth, and the father pensioned off to Italy because reasons, so that Russet can be just setting out on a journey there when she’s kidnapped and so won’t be missed. And then there were James’s Indian servants, whose purpose seemed to be to increase Russet’s isolation in captivity because they couldn’t speak much English. A more serious weakness is James’s complete failure to verify his ward’s story. She tells him Russet is a problem and he immediately jumps to intervene, ending in the drastic step of kidnapping her. That seems to display a sad assessment of his flighty ward’s character.

Really, all these problems should have counted against the book more than they ultimately did, but it’s so well-written and the romance is so beautifully developed that I managed to overlook most of them. Still, that kidnapping keeps it to four stars.

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Review: The Byram Succession by Mira Stables

Posted August 6, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

After the success of Stranger Within The Gates, I moved straight on to this one, to find a very different but equally enjoyable tale. The premise is an old one – two cousins doing the season, one a raving beauty, the other passable. One a fashionably ninny, the other more thoughtful. One a spoilt, spiteful brat, the other a pleasantly-mannered girl. Well, she’s the heroine, so of course she is. But Thea has something often lacking in such heroines – an unexpectedly acquired and rather large fortune. But, as is the way in Regency romances, the fortune is not to be mentioned to avoid the dire prospect of fortune hunters. The fact that this also deters otherwise respectable suitors, like the impoverished heir to a dukedom, is never considered.

The said heir to the dukedom isn’t terribly impoverished (it’s hard to dissipate a dukedom-sized fortune), but his parents would like him to marry some money all the same, to replenish the family coffers. So when he comes across an accident on the road, and helps a self-possessed young lady to rescue the fallen curricle driver and the injured horse, he’s politely interested in her but not enough to consider her for the role of future duchess.

He is himself the interest of the above-mentioned spoilt brat, Tina, who has decided it’s her destiny to be a duchess and so sets out to cajole, entice and charm Lord Skirlaugh, and when that doesn’t have the desired effect, she resorts to scheming and plotting instead. This makes a nice change from the wicked cousin trying to improve his chances of inheriting, which seems to be the commonest Regency villain. Tina isn’t actually wicked, she’s simply self-centred and oblivious to the consequences of her actions.

I liked both Skirlaugh and Thea. He’s a bit cynical, and sensitive about his facial scars (are they a war wound? I don’t remember). She’s refreshingly different from the usual society debutante, and their romance felt nicely believable. The ending is a little bit contrived but by that point I was so invested in these two that I didn’t mind. A well-written story with the ring of Regency authenticity about it. My only (very mild) grumble is that I don’t know Lord Skirlaugh’s exact rank. As the heir to a duke, he’s likely to be a marquess, but it’s never said explicitly. Highly recommended for those looking for a solid traditional read. Five stars.

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Review: Stranger Within The Gates by Mira Stables

Posted August 6, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This was a very pleasant surprise. It’s an old book, previously released in 1976, and now available in ebook form, so it’s very much old school. That means it’s pretty wordy with not a huge amount of action and the characters conform to the expectations of the day – the hero is a domineering rake and the heroine is delightfully feminine and demure… no, wait. These two are nothing like that at all, both being intelligent and mature, and thank goodness for a story about an older-than-average couple.

Robert Develyn married badly and went off adventuring in foreign parts when his wife ran off with someone else. Now she’s dead and at the age of forty, he’s returned to England to settle into rural retirement and raise his young daughter. He’s been left an estate in Kent, but he hasn’t seen it or its previous owner for donkey’s years and he finds that a few things have changed.

For one thing, there’s a new house just inside the gates, inhabited by the household of one Miss Francesca Thornish, past the age of looking for a suitor and eccentric enough to enjoy dressing up in men’s clothes when she feels like it. She is thus when Robert first encounters her. He thinks she’s an idle gatekeeper, and she thinks he’s excessively rude, and so they get off on quite the wrong foot.

But the rest of the book chronicles their slow progress towards grudging respect, tolerance, liking and eventually love. This is, to my mind, quite the best kind of romance, and there’s no silliness, no misunderstandings, just two sensible people, set in their ways, slowly coming to realise that their lives have utterly changed.

Both characters are interesting, but Francesca is fascinating. She’s something I thought was impossible – a Regency heroine who has all the independence of spirit of a modern woman yet is completely true to her era. When she does put on a pretty gown and become the lady of society, the effect is heightened by knowing what she’s like the rest of the time. She’s a pattern-card of respectability only when and if she chooses to be, and nobody forces her to do anything she doesn’t want to do. And while we’re on the subject of characters, a round of applause for the deceased Earl of Finmore, the previous owner of Robert’s new estate and Francesca’s protector, who (despite being dead) is one of the liveliest characters in the book.

The end is complicated by some contrived business with the horse and a not very plausible villain, but by this point it didn’t matter. This is a lovely, old-fashioned Regency that I highly recommend. Five stars.

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Review: None So Blind by Sarah J Waldock

Posted August 2, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is a new author to me, recommended to me by one of my readers, and this book is a delight. The heroine is spirited and intelligent, the hero is charming and gentlemanly, the villain is suitably horrible and the story unwinds entertainingly. And this is a story with a difference, for Penelope is blind, having succumbed to measles as a child. Her siblings all died, but she survived and is determined not to let her blindness hold her back. So off she goes to London to have her season, and good for her.

The hero, Guy (Lord Shawthorpe), newly returned from overseas to claim his barony, is that staple of the Regency romance, the rake and all-round bad boy who actually turns out to have had one or two flings in his youth, but is now settling down with reformist fervour to manage his estate. After a wobbly first meeting with Penelope, he transforms into the perfect gentleman, and from then on the romance runs on predictable rails, with only that overworked obstacle, the Great Misunderstanding, to keep them apart. They both think the other isn’t interested, and in her case, there’s some justification for it, since she has no access to facial expressions to clue her in. She has to work entirely by words, and it’s easy to see how, in the polite society of the Regency, where showing any kind of emotion is terribly bad form, the nuances of attraction might be lost.

On the plus side, Penelope’s blindness, and the balancing intensity of her other senses, is beautifully employed as an integral part of the plot. She can’t see the faces or gestures or clothing of her numerous suitors, but she can judge them very well by their voices, their words and how well they adapt to her lack of sight. But ultimately, it’s their opinions and attitudes that sink them and that’s exactly as it should be.

This is, thankfully, one of those books where the reader is in no doubt of being in the Regency. There are no anachronisms, errors of title, twenty-first century informality or incorrect behaviour. One nice touch is that Penelope’s grandma, having been raised in the more robust Georgian age, frequently lapses into language that’s far saltier than the mealy-mouthed Regency. There’s a wonderful sense of history, as the characters discuss the fashions of earlier times, and there’s an amusing discussion as to whether the pleasure for men of wearing a swirling cape outweighed all the lace and frills of the Restoration era. But my favourite character by far is Guy’s ex-sailor manservant, who uses nautical slang everywhere, describing a ball as ‘fleet manoeuvres under full sail’, which is quite delicious.

The plot gets fairly silly towards the end as the villain becomes cartoonishly more and more outrageous, and sadly the romance is settled in a slightly perfunctory manner on the very last page, although as this is very much in the spirit of Georgette Heyer I can’t complain too much. My only real grumble about the book is the terrible editing. There aren’t many outright typos, thankfully, but wayward punctuation, comma splices and poor formatting should have been addressed by a final proof read. Had those errors been less egregious, I’d probably have found this a five star read. Even so, I highly recommend this to anyone looking for a well-written, true-to-the-era traditional read with no bedroom scenes. Four stars.

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Review: The Death of Lyndon Wilder by E A Dineley

Posted July 17, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 2 Comments

This is such an old-fashioned style of book. That’s not a complaint, merely an observation. Not only is it slow as molasses, with a great deal of descriptive writing, but it uses the omniscient point of view (where the author jumps from head to head to give the inner perspective of all the principal characters). Done badly, this can be appallingly dizzying to read, but here it’s merely disconcerting, since it’s so unusual in a modern Regency.

The early chapters are, quite frankly, dull, with none of the characters being terribly likable. Lord and Lady Charles are sunk in grief for their dead elder son and heir, the estate going to rack and ruin around them. Grand-daughter Lottie is neglected, left to amuse herself by baiting governesses. New governess Miss Arbuthnot is tediously clever at finding amusing ways to teach Lottie, while hiding some unspecified secret of her own. There’s also a local widow, her wounded soldier brother and her rather oddball son, none of them very interesting.

But into this dismal setting arrives the younger son and new heir, Thomas, forced to leave his chosen military career to minister to his parents’ declining years, the neglected estate and his niece, now his ward. Major Wilder is the unpromising and little-regarded son who’s now grown into a self-confident man with a soldier’s air of authority. He immediately makes his presence felt by bringing his dogs into the house despite his mother’s antipathy, by insisting that Lottie and Miss Arbuthnot eat dinner with the family and by simply being there, doing as he sees fit, without regard to the hyper-sensitivity of his mother or the apathy of his father. I liked him at once.

For a while the book chugs along swimmingly, and these odd characters wormed their way into my brain and I couldn’t quite forget about them. Even when I’d set the book down to do something more urgent, like eating, I’d be thinking about them, and I began to understand all the five star reviews. But… There’s always a but, isn’t there? The ‘but’ in this case involves two characters from the Arbuthnot family who are, quite frankly, caricatures of the most cartoonish kind.

But then most of the characters are one-trick ponies. The mother sunk in grief for her dead perfect son. The apathetic father. The stolid and inarticulate soldier. The sensible governess. The widow on the lookout for a new husband. And so on. They never progress beyond these simple characteristics, and they certainly never rise above them or become more rounded, more mature people. And they are all of them utterly, utterly selfish, or at least careless of the feelings of others. I was waiting for Thomas and his mother to reach an accord of some sort, but they never did. I would have liked to see a little more compassion.

As for the romance, we’re never given much reason for why they fell in love, except that perhaps they’re the only two halfway sensible characters in the whole book. No, I tell a lie, Thomas’s friend who helps him over a little difficulty at the end is definitely sensible, and possibly more interesting than all the rest put together. His story is told in the next book in the series.

While there are definite weaknesses in the plotting and characterisation, the book is so firmly rooted in the Regency era that it’s almost possible to imagine it was written then. This is so rare these days that I forgive the author for all that head-hopping and selfishness and something wanting in the characterisations. There are some detailed and highly convincing flashbacks to Thomas’s time as a soldier, as he finds out about his brother’s death, and while some of the plot contrivances stretch credulity a little, the characters respond to them in perfect keeping with the mores of the era. Quite an achievement. And the book is funny, and not in a forced, whimsical way, but with moments of laugh out loud humour that I loved. Most of the funny lines came from grand-daughter Lottie, it has to be said, and she had the finest moment in the book, with her comment on stoutness. Priceless.

Highly recommended for those who like to immerse themselves in excellent writing, and a slowly-building story which is not just in the common way. Four stars.

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