Emma: movie (2020)

Posted October 16, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Just what the world needs, another adaptation of Emma. I have four already, and I’m sure there are others.

What I liked:

  • Johnny Flynn naked and not just for the obvious reason! It was lovely to see a Regency gentleman getting dressed with his valet’s assistance.
  • Seeing Mrs Goddard’s schoolgirls out in their red cloaks, two by two.
  • Miranda Hart as Miss Bates. I didn’t think anyone could improve on the many previous incarnations of Miss Bates but her Box Hill moment was superb.
  • Bill Nighy as Mr Woodhouse. I didn’t expect to like him at all, but he actually worked very well as an old fusspot with his fear of draughts everywhere, even though he wasn’t actually ill.
  • The music. Aptly frivolous.
  • Emma and Mr Knightley’s dance at the ball, where he, in particular, very visibly and believably falls in love. I’ve complained in reviews of other versions about the age disparity and the creepiness of him falling in love with a girl he’s known since she was a baby, but Johnny Flynn is hot enough to overcome the creepiness factor, and having him suddenly notice her as a woman and realise that she’s all grown up now is brilliant. Much, much better than the worrying suspicion that he’s actually been in love with her since she was twelve. Ick! I didn’t like him running after Emma’s carriage, though. Silly.

What I disliked:

  • The nosebleed! Ugh. I see what they were aiming for, but still… ugh.
  • The costumes. Emma’s were too stylised and stiff, I hated the corkscrew curls and Johnny Flynn’s shirt points were way too high. I wanted to see his face! Mrs Elton’s hair was anachronistic but it worked well for her. What was the matter with Mr Elton’s vestments? He looked as if he was about to take off. I did like the way Harriet’s hair gradually copied Emma’s, though.
  • Isabella and John. Two whiny by half.
  • The conflation of the ball and Harriet’s attack by the gypsies. I get the point of it, to interrupt a potential declaration from Mr Knightley, but it was so far out of line with the book that it threw me completely.
  • Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax got rather short shrift in this production, sacrificed to too much time spent on poor Miss Taylor’s wedding, and too much froth generally. The Bates ladies, too, weren’t as much in the forefront as usual.

Overall:

I’ve heard very mixed reviews of this but although I don’t think it’s the definitive version (which in my view has yet to be made), I liked the freshness of the approach and the light-hearted tone.

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Review: War and Peace (BBC TV series, 1972, 2016)

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

A tale of two TV adaptations, both by the BBC but more than forty years apart, both excellent in their way, but different, very different. War and Peace is not an easy book to bring to the screen – it’s so big, for starters, with a huge cast and an odd combination of soapy romantic difficulties and the backdrop of massive battles. There’s a philosophical undertone, too, that’s difficult to portray. The 1972 version makes a fair effort to capture everything, while the 2016 version cherry picks and goes for the emotional jugular.

BBC TV series 1972

This is, in many ways, the definitive adaptation of War And Peace, with twenty episodes, a cast of thousands, amazingly well-realised set-pieces like the Battle of Borodino and the burning of Moscow, and a stellar cast, including a young but already brilliant Anthony Hopkins. I dread to think what it must have cost. It covers the years 1805 up to the 1812 retreat from Moscow, with an 1820 epilogue to show who married whom.

I’ve never been a huge fan of war stories of any sort, and the fact that all of this is true makes it far, far worse. The sheer numbers involved (50,000 at least dead at Borodino, for instance) is horrifying. Historian Gwynne Dyer compared the carnage at Borodino to “a fully-loaded 747 crashing, with no survivors, every 5 minutes for eight hours.” To say that the program portrays this devastation well is, I suppose, a compliment. Certainly the scale of the thing was portrayed brilliantly, with no expense spared. The soldiers’ camps were fully constructed, not just the usual group of men huddled round a campfire, and the battle lines sprawled across the open plains (it was filmed in Serbia, apparently). When the armies marched, we saw long snaking lines of men and wagons.

The peace parts were far more to my taste, and here again no expense was spared. The ballroom scenes were crowded and filled with life and colour, the costumes were gorgeous and the houses of the Russian aristocracy were suitably grand. The two families of the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys are the contrasting backdrops. The Rostovs are the over-spending and easy-going provincials, a charmingly happy bunch, opening their house to any passing friends of friends and going smilingly broke. The Bolkonskys are old aristocracy, rich, eccentric and reclusive. In the middle of these two is Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate-turned-legal son of a vastly wealthy man, a drifting and aimless young man looking for some meaning to his life. Andrei Bolkonsky is the weary-of-the-world cynic looking for a higher purpose. Natasha Rostova is the full-of-life girl they both fall in love with.

Anthony Hopkins as Pierre is utterly brilliant, a faultless performance that captures his youthful hi-jinks, disillusioned marriage, search for a purpose to his life and final achievement of peace perfectly. Alan Dobie as Andrei comes across as rather snobbish and coldly efficient, clever but without much humanity. Not sure if that was intentional or not. Morag Hood as Natasha had the most difficult role for she was required to cover the ages from around thirteen or so up to twenty, her natural liveliness muted by age and experience. I would say that she suited the older parts much, much better. My memory of watching this when it was first shown was that I thought her sadly miscast for the part, but now I think she did rather a good job under difficult conditions.

All the other characters were excellent too. I particularly liked Angela Down as Maria Bolkonskya, Frank Middlemass as Kutuzov and David Swift as a very convincing Napoleon Bonaparte. Donald Douglas, who played Tsar Alexander, looked exactly like the famous portrait of the Tsar. I felt sorry for Fiona Gaunt, who played Helene, Pierre’s wife, whose acting talents were rendered irrelevant by costumes that displayed her other assets in full measure. No wonder Pierre was so distracted that he was mesmerised into marriage. Any man would have been.

The 20-episode format allowed the script to do full justice to the length of the books, and if the war episodes felt a little too long and the peace ones too short, that was probably just me. This was an excellent attempt to make the definitive TV version of the film and I think it succeeds pretty well.

BBC TV series 2016

Alas and alack, the remake of the definitive version is always going to be… difficult, shall we say. The 1972 version had 20 45-minute episodes, a cast of literally thousands, a budget I don’t even want to think about and (the clincher) Anthony Hopkins as Pierre. This one is 6 1-hour episodes and no amount of creative juggling is going to make it feel anything other than rushed. Add to that the need to show every death in extended glory, and the result feels like War and Peace: the Cliff Notes edition. Moments like the Rostovs departure from Moscow, which took an entire episode in the original, was just a few minutes here. People met, fell in love and were married almost instantly. There was very little time to do more than touch base with the main events of the book, and none at all for the deeper philosophical musings. Significant characters like the Tsar, Napoleon and Kutuzov were reduced to walk-on roles.

Having said all that, I enjoyed it pretty well anyway. There seemed to be more emphasis on the peace parts of the story, which suited me a lot better than the endless shots of men dying in a variety of unpleasant ways. The balls and other social events were lovely, and the homes of the aristocrats were absolutely spectacular. The Russian winter felt very authentic. The acting was uniformly excellent, although I didn’t feel that anyone particularly stood out. Greta Scacchi, maybe. My only (mild) grumble was Paul Dano as Pierre Bezukhov, whose quirky features took me a while to get used to. He just didn’t feel like Pierre to me, but I realise that’s a highly personal reaction. His acting, particularly in the later episodes, was perfect, however.

Ultimately, there was nothing at all wrong with this. It’s a perfectly workable update on the original, condensed and brought into line with modern sensibilities, with more gore, more of the ‘feels’, and less actual plot. The original is much better, though, in almost every way.

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Review: A Respectable House by Jan Jones

Posted October 1, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

A fantastic story! Two damaged people brought together by circumstances and learning to trust again, a wonderful, if unconventional, romance and a whole heap of danger threatening, all set during race week at Newmarket. This is book 6 of the Newmarket series and book 2 of the Furze House Irregulars series, and although it helps to have read the earlier books, it isn’t necessary.

Here’s the premise: seven years earlier, Catherine (Kitty) Bowman eloped to marry Simon Eastwick, and quickly discovered she’d made a hideous mistake. Simon is a crook through and through, and caught up with the evil underworld boss known as Flint. Now Simon’s dead, but Kitty’s nightmare isn’t over, because Flint is after her. With the aid of her sister and friends, she escapes London to hide away in Newmarket.

Helping her is cynical rake Nicholas Dacre, living a privileged life as a gentleman but also taking risks uncovering crime. Helping Kitty opens his eyes to a different, much less privileged, world without a multitude of servants at one’s beck and call. And of course Kitty opens his heart, too.

I liked both hero and heroine. Kitty’s resourceful and down-to-earth. Despite her upper-class upbringing, she’s spent years struggling to manage with little money and a cruel, negligent husband and she’s lost any pretensions to gentility. Her story is utterly heart-breaking, but her spirit isn’t broken in the least. Nick’s the dependable man she’s never known, but he has his own tragic history. The way these two circle round to an accommodation is brilliant. It’s unorthodox, but it’s perfect for their characters and histories.

Along the way, there are some lovely minor characters to spice things up. I particularly loved Molly (a respectable house, indeed!) and Kitty’s young daughter. The villain was pretty obvious from an early stage, but the denouement was still deliciously dramatic. My only complaint, and it’s a very minor one, is that there are a huge number of characters from previous books in the series popping up throughout. I couldn’t remember much about them, and would have liked perhaps a sentence or two more about some of them to remind me. However, there’s a full list at the front of the book and my leaky memory didn’t make any difference to my enjoyment of the story.

One word of warning: there’s nothing terribly graphic here but there’s quite a lot of off-screen sex going on outside of marriage, prostitution and some discussion of sexual and physical abuse. This is entirely in keeping with the characters’ connections with London crime rings, but this is not a fluffy traditional Regency of ball gowns and marriage prospects. It is, however, a very realistic look at the darker side of Regency life, a story that’s less often in the spotlight and although parts of it are very moving, it’s not at all a grim, depressing read. I loved every minute of it, the romance is wonderful and Jan Jones’ writing is, as always, word perfect. Five stars.

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Review: The Truth About Miss Ashbourne by Joanna Barker

Posted September 4, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This was the author’s first publication, and as such it has some quirks, but it’s a very enjoyable read, with a hero who’s just lovely. The heroine was less likable at first, but she grew on me.

Here’s the premise: Juliana Ashbourne is the daughter of a sailor and a woman who ran away from her wealthy family to marry him. With her mother dead and her father not home from sea, Juliana is forced to earn her living as a governess in London, but with hopes of one day saving enough money to open a school (on a governess’s salary? Hmm). But one day she is summoned to a solicitor’s office, to discover that her estranged grandfather has recently died and left her a fortune. All she has to do is to spend a month at the family estate, Havenfield.

So immediately Juliana abandons her post as governess and rushes off to Havenfield to claim her inheritance and start her school, right? Well, no. She storms out in a huff and immediately has an argument with a random passing stranger, then goes back to her governessing. It is only when the lecherous husband makes a move on her and the lady of the house shouts at her for trying to emancipate her little girl with feminist ideals, that Juliana is fired and forced to pack up and head for Havenfield.

The mail coach drops her off at the front door of Havenfield (because it’s an unusually obliging mail coach) and there’s no one about. When it starts to rain, she drags her box to the shelter of the stable where she immediately has an argument with the groom she finds there. And here’s one of those quirks I mentioned. Why is she so argumentative, in fact downright rude? Considering that she’s been brought up in a middle class family and earned her living as a governess, civility and outright deference would have been baked into her very bones from birth. At this stage, I found it quite hard to like her, and I was really trying to. I like a spirited heroine as much as the next reader, but Juliana veers beyond mere spiritedness.

Fortunately the groom is none other than our hero, Mr William Rowley, coincidentally also the man she argued with in London, who responds to her rudeness with gently teasing banter, and not only doesn’t take offence at it but is seemingly rather drawn to her right from the start. I liked William very much, he was even-tempered and good humoured, and never showed any impatience with her. A perfect gentleman. I couldn’t quite understand why Juliana found him so irritating, because to my mind he was sweet and very funny. I wished she had seen the gentle side of him much earlier, because it made her seem curiously humourless.

The rest of the family, grandmother, aunt and cousin, are (mostly) kind to Juliana, although I wondered why on earth they didn’t do something about providing decent clothes for her, instead of leaving her to scrabble round for something to wear for the ball. Because of course there was a ball and an unwanted suitor and a rival for William’s affection and all the usual.

For a while, nothing very much happens rather slowly, but in the last third or so of the book the romance kicks into a higher gear. There are some wonderful moments between our two not very star-crossed lovers, but I particularly loved the first kiss – totally swoon-worthy, after she finally, finally says what she feels. Lovely scene.

There are a few Americanisms and anachronisms, but nothing too drastic, although I hope this gets made into a movie some day so that I can watch the heroine jump aboard a horse and ride off astride while wearing evening dress. Seriously, I want to know just how she does that. More noticeable for me as a Brit was the lack of any sense of place. Havenfield itself felt generically British (with echoes of Julianne Donaldson’s Edenbrooke), but I had no idea where in Britain it was except that it was a day’s coach drive from London. It made it feel rather unrooted. That didn’t spoil my enjoyment, however.

An excellent well-written debut Regency, with a charming hero, a realistic family and a perfect kiss. Only the argumentative heroine keeps it to four stars.

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Review: The World’s A Stage by Joyce Harmon

Posted August 22, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 1 Comment

I’ve never read a Joyce Harmon book yet that I didn’t love, and here’s another one. Beautifully written, clever and, best of all, funny, this was just a pleasure to read from start to finish.

Here’s the premise: Peter Barton is a humble actor who found himself playing the role of a gentleman. I think this happened in a previous book in the series, although I don’t remember it. Anyway, he discovered he was rather convincing at it, and able to make a living by winning regularly at cards. His memory has been sharpened by learning lines, so he finds it easy to remember cards, too (I’m not totally convinced that skill transfers readily, but never mind). So for several years he’s been living a low-key existence on the fringes of London society, but now he’s being pursued by a marriage-minded young lady, and the smallest investigation into his circumstances will reveal what a fraud he is.

Amy Greenlow, on the other hand, is a lady who’s been forced by dire circumstances to become an actress on the stage, taking the name of Amadora. She’s become a great success but she has many men pursuing her in the hopes of making her their mistress, and one of them, the creepy Marquis of Grissam, is very, very determined. It doesn’t take long for Peter to see a solution to both their difficulties if he pretends to be Amy’s protector, thus deterring both their ardent pursuers.

This is a delicious twist on the fake betrothal trope, and of course it isn’t long before the two are falling into scrapes with the deception, and in between times falling in love. I loved both hero and heroine here. They’re both intelligent, resourceful people who find creative ways out of their difficulties, and even at the end, there’s a neat and unexpected twist, which I didn’t see coming even though it was completely in character. And did I mention that it’s laugh-out-loud funny? Here’s just one exchange that I loved:

“Ma’am!” he breathed, “your most humble… devoted… loyal… ardent…”
“A noun, Chilly,” Peter advised lazily. “We could really use a noun right about now.”

A delightful tale, a lovely slow-build romance and an excellent five stars.

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Review: His Grace Endures by Emma Jensen

Posted August 2, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This was a very strange read for me. The plot had so much potential, and yet somehow the author never quite seemed to make things flow smoothly. Or maybe it’s just the odd way the characters behaved, with endless talking but no action, that felt out of kilter. I don’t know.

Here’s the premise: seven years earlier, Deirdre had walked out on her betrothed literally at the altar, and run off to Scotland with his charming friend. Now her soldier husband is dead, and Deirdre has to re-enter society to bring out her husband’s sister. Inevitably she’s going to meet the man she jilted, who is now the powerful Duke of Conovar. Oh yes, and she blames him for her husband’s death. Now, this is all promising stuff, and the early meetings between the two are very tense. He’s surprisingly gracious. She’s surprisingly calm. They try to keep apart and it seems as if that will prevent any explosions of anger or resentment.

But gradually the swirl of rumour and curiosity surrounding them grows, aided by a painting of Deirdre executed by Raeburn (a famous Scottish portraitist), portraying her as the tragic heroine Deirdre of the Sorrows, an Irish tale. Suddenly, Deirdre shifts from being a disgraced jilt to a victim evoking society’s sympathy and Lucas the stiff-necked duke is no longer the dupe but the wicked villain. Things come to a head when they both get drunk and meet at a ball, resulting in a massive outbreak of hostilities. I have to say, this scene is probably the most over-the-top argument I’ve ever read, conducted in full view of half the guests and involving a great many family secrets, holding nothing back.

Naturally for a book of this era (first published 1998), the romantic difficulties are smoothed away only in the last few pages, but before that we get an inordinate amount of back and forth, as Deirdre veers about between overt hostility and something approaching sympathy. I had quite a lot of sympathy for the duke myself, because whenever he manages to inch himself closer to Deirdre she cold-shoulders him again, and starts pouring out her resentment once more. And the poor chap has been in love with her all the time!

But then he’s partly to blame for his own troubles, for no matter how honestly she expresses her dislike to him, he never quite manages to put his own feelings into words, or actions. He simply takes everything she and society throw at him. His Grace endures, indeed. At one point (that monstrous ball scene) she screams at him to show a bit of emotion for once, and I almost punched the air in glee. Yes! Maybe he’ll simply sweep her into his manly arms and kiss her. But no, we weren’t even two thirds of the way through the book so there was no chance.

This is not to suggest that I didn’t enjoy the book. I did, quite a lot, and the little side romance for the sister-in-law, who was unpromisingly immature at the start, was actually rather splendid. The Regency atmosphere was well drawn and there were very few Americanisms, the story intrigued me greatly and I read it pretty much straight through. There’s some lusting and discussion of sex, but nothing on-screen more graphic than a passionate kiss or two. A very readable story, only marred for me by too little actual emotion and too much conversational angsting. Four stars.

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Review: An Affair in Winter by Jess Michaels

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: The Awakening Heart by Dorothy Mack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: The Road to Rushbury by Martha Keyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Playing With Fire by Jayne Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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