Review: In Debt To The Earl by Elizabeth Rolls

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

An odd book, and not my usual cup of tea, since it focuses very much on the seedier side of Regency life, which is not my favourite thing. Fortunately the emphasis is largely on the relationship between the hero and heroine, but the book felt somewhat old-fashioned, with the hero hell-bent on making the heroine his mistress, and the romantic conclusion a long, slow time coming.

The premise is that our hero James, the Earl of Cambourne, is set on retrieving a debt from a card sharp when he discovers that the girl sharing his cheap lodgings is not his mistress but his innocent and surprisingly well-bred daughter, Lucy. Naturally he’s handsome and she’s beautiful (aren’t they always?) so the two have the hots for each other in no time flat. Before long, he’s buying her cake and coal and offering to take her out of poverty and the reach of her flaky father by making her his mistress. Now, on the one hand he never forces the issue and even spends time ‘courting’ her to ensure she’s happy with her choice, but on the other hand, since her father has abandoned her and her options are, essentially, starvation or him, what choice does she have?

The part of the story that focuses on the growing love between the two of them is very much the strongest part of the book. Charles Fox and his supposed mistress, Elizabeth Armistead (in fact, they had been secretly married for some years) are introduced as a way to raise the question of the status of mistresses in Regency society. There’s a telling moment when James and Lucy are at Vauxhall’s and bump into some of his relations. Naturally, he can’t introduce Lucy to the ladies because she’s about to become his mistress, and she begins to realise just what she’s letting herself in for (although considering the alternative is starvation or worse, a little social disapproval seems a small price to pay).

Behind the romance is the nastiness of card sharps and the Regency underworld, where everyone is terrified into loyalty and obedience, and there’s a knife to the throat for anyone who steps out of line. I didn’t enjoy this element of the story but needless to say everything comes right in the end, the bad guys get their comeuppance and James realises at the very, very last minute that he really wants to marry Lucy. Phew. So that’s all right then. Even so, it took him a very long time to get to that point, and I strongly disapproved of his tendency to bed the heroine directly after these moments of high tension, when she was at a low ebb. When a girl’s only just escaped being sold to the highest bidder to be raped, a gentleman should be content to tuck her into bed with a cup of tea and leave her in peace, no matter how much she pleads for something more. And yes, the sex scenes are pretty graphic.

An interesting story, with a spread of believable characters (I particularly liked the pickpocket with the heart of gold, Fitch) and some nicely romantic moments, even if the hero is very slow on the uptake about his own intentions. Four stars.

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Review: His Convenient Marchioness by Elizabeth Rolls

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

This is very much a book of two halves. The early chapters, as the hero and heroine inch towards an accommodation, are charming. The later chapters, as we’re inundated with relatives and drama, I found less successful but still enjoyable, and hooray for an older and wiser couple (he’s fifty and she’s thirty two).

Here’s the plot: Our hero, Hunt (the Marquess of Huntercombe), lost his wife and children to smallpox years ago, and now that his remaining heir has died, he urgently needs to marry and start begetting again. His sisters are pushing him towards newly-out candidates, but the prospect of a bride young enough to be his daughter appals him. How about a widow, one with children already as proof of her fertility? And almost at once he meets a most unlikely prospect, the impoverished widow of a duke’s younger son, living outside good society. He’s strongly attracted to Lady Emma Lacy, and her children, Harry and Georgiana, take to him, so what can go wrong? Only that she refuses him, that’s what. But when her son, now heir to the dukedom, is at risk of being taken from her, she realises she has to have a husband who can protect her children.

So the stage is set for a marriage of convenience, and this aspect of the book is beautifully written and very powerful. Both of them have to learn to make accommodations for their new situation, they both have pasts that haunt them and the children create a whole swathe of unexpected tensions between them. I particularly liked the awkwardness of marital sex with a relative stranger (yes, there are some graphic sex scenes, so avoid if that’s not your thing).

And then there’s the difficulty of re-introducing the scandalous Emma into the upper echelons of society again. But this is where the plot starts to go slightly off the rails. Firstly, there’s a deluge of relations, on his side, on hers and from her husband’s family, who are uniformly hostile towards Emma and hellbent on interfering. It would be lovely if these various families could include at least one or two members who were as friendly and downright normal as Hunt and Emma themselves.

Then there are the left-over characters from what is clearly a previous book in the series, which I hadn’t read. This wasn’t a problem, plotwise, but they were wheeled out with the clear expectation that readers would fall on their necks with cries of joyful recognition, which falls a bit flat when one hasn’t actually read that book. I discovered that I already own it, so I will be reading it, but it was a tad disconcerting, all the same.

And then there’s the drama part of the story. I won’t go into the details of this to avoid spoilers, but to my mind it made zero sense. If the villain had set out with a certain aim, then there were far simpler ways of going about it, and it seemed to me that the threat still existed at the end of the book (but maybe I misunderstood that part, who knows).

Nevertheless, even with the somewhat illogical villainy, the relationship between the main characters was always front and centre, and was strong enough to carry the story. The author’s grasp of the Regency era was exceptionally good, and my only quibble was whether Lady Emma Lacy’s title should actually be Lady Peter Lacy. Not totally sure about that. A great read, with a fine mix of the emotional and the dramatic, with a few humorous interludes as well. A good four stars.

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Review: An Embroidered Spoon by Jayne Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Phoebe by Martha Keyes

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

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

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

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

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Review: Duel of Hearts by Diane Farr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Mary Bennet and the Wickham Artifact by Joyce Harmon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Lady of Quality by Georgette Heyer (1972)

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Charity Girl by Georgette Heyer (1970)

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

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

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

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

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Review: Belle (2013 movie)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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