Review: Imprudent Lady by Joan Smith

Posted January 5, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

A curious one. On the one hand, this has the liveliest banter between hero and heroine I’ve ever come across – they really are a good match for each other! On the other hand, our hero and heroine are both complete idiots in some ways, he because he fails to recognise that he’s falling in love, and she because she’s constantly overstepping the bounds of propriety, even when she should know better.

Here’s the premise: Prudence Mallow is the impoverished daughter of a deceased clergyman, living a quiet life in London with her widowed mother and her eccentric Uncle Clarence. A chance opportunity to earn a little money copying the work of authors gives her the idea of writing her own novels, which slowly begin to find success and she starts to mingle with other writers. One of them is the handsome rake, Lord Dammler, whose improbably adventurous poems of his world travels have made him the toast of London.

Having a common publisher, naturally the two are thrown together and… well, that’s it, really. Lord Dammler decides he likes Prudence’s books and the lady herself, and starts squiring her about town in his carriage and taking her to balls and the like. And this is where I take issue with both of them, because this is highly improper behaviour. She has a mother who should be chaperoning her at all times, unless she’s in an open carriage, and she absolutely shouldn’t ever be attending a ball with only an unrelated male as her escort. No way. Not even as a twenty-four year old spinster who wears a cap.

Now, to some extent this is all part of the plot. Dammler thinks she’s older and more worldly-wise than she is, and Prue’s throwaway lines, entirely in innocence, are misinterpreted as either great wit or double entendres or both, so she gets something of a reputation as a bit of an original. However, Dammler is better versed in the beau monde than she is, and should be protecting her from these traps. Instead, he treats her very much as he would a male friend, talking about subjects that no single lady should ever be exposed to, and although he sometimes recognises this, it never stops him. And Prue’s mother and uncle seem to unwittingly conspire to push her out into this racy literary and social whirl.

I’m going to be honest, I never really liked Dammler very much. I have no idea how old he’s supposed to be, although I got the impression that he’s still quite young, not far off Prue’s age, but he seems very immature for a man who’s been right round the world, and is a marquis, to boot. He seems to think it’s fine to drive around with Prue during the day, and then spend the evening with his multitude of paramours. Not only is he unbothered by Prue seeing him with his lightskirts, he even tells her about them. Not really hero behaviour. There’s a very silly (and predictable) incident at an inn, where he behaves badly and storms off in a huff like a rebellious teenager. And then at the end, when he’s finally seen the light, having told all and sundry that he’s going to marry Prue, the one person he neglects to tell is Prue herself. So there are several perfectly stupid chapters when he’s swanning around Bath trying to demonstrate that he’s a reformed character while she’s mystified as to why he’s behaving quite out of character.

I think this is meant to be a kind of Georgette Heyer-lite, but it never quite worked that way for me, despite the sly little references (restorative pork jelly, anyone?). Given that Prue is clearly based on Jane Austen and Dammler is a sort of Byron-alike, there are references a-plenty for aficianados, but combined with the references to Almack’s and the various patronesses, a bit-part for the Duke of Clarence, drives in the park and so on, it all felt a bit tired and old-fashioned.

What saves it is two things. Firstly, the banter is superb, both very clever and genuinely funny. And secondly, there’s good old Uncle Clarence. For a side character, he has the sort of towering comic role played by Jonathan Chawleigh in A Civil Contract, in other words, a character who dominates every scene he’s in. And of course this is Joan Smith, so it’s all beautifully written and creates a very believable Regency setting. Since, despite all my grumbles, I read it avidly, I’m going to be generous and round up to four stars.

I have to say though that books of this age (it’s more than forty years old) are a bit of a gamble, and this is not just Joan Smith, it’s true of the entire genre in that era. Sometimes, even when they’re stars of their time, they feel slightly out of kilter to my modern ears. But interesting reads, nonetheless.

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Review: A Faithful Proposal by Jennie Goutet

Posted December 23, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is one of those books where it would be very easy to dislike either the hero or the heroine – or both! The hero is a bit of a goody two-shoes, a pious clergyman with egalitarian ideals and a burning desire to improve the lot of his parishioners, who hates the frivolity of the beau monde. The heroine is a society butterfly, only happy in the swirl of entertainments and gossipy chatter that is London, and very disparaging of country life (and country parsons). But fortunately, the parson has an Achilles heel in the shape of his meddlesome brother, and the socialite is discovered to have a more compassionate side. They are both more human and more redeemable than they appear at first.

Here’s the premise: Anna Tunstall is to join her friend, Emily Leatham, at the village of Avebury, in Wiltshire. On the way, she is attacked by highwaymen and knocked out. Harry Aston, the pious clergyman, happens upon her prostrate form and naturally sets out to rescue her. And when her eyes flutter open, he’s smitten (with this lovely line): ‘When she raised her clear eyes to his and he saw the answering gleam of fun, Harry knew the end to his bachelor days had come. He was done for.’ But of course she’s an earl’s sister and destined, she’s sure, for a life as a political wife, and he’s a lowly rector of a country parish. Or is he?

At first, things chug along rather nicely, with Harry pursuing his suit steadily, and Anna succumbing to his charm and finding out that he’s not as bad as she’s thought, for a parson. There’s still a huge difference in personalities, she wavers back and forth and they seem to be drawn to each other by physical attraction more than anything else, but it seems to be working out. And then comes the huge spanner in the works – Harry’s big brother arrives, complete with fancy title, and the secret of Harry’s identity is out (this is not a spoiler; his family is mentioned in the blurb). And naturally Anna’s far from pleased that he didn’t tell her.

The rest of the book is a succession of misunderstandings, more wavering from Anna and mischief-making from big brother, together with a number of dramatic upheavals to do with friend Emily and Harry’s cook, with everything resolved in an improbable sequence at the end, including the highwaymen. I feel there was rather too much drama thrown in, but never mind.

I was a bit surprised by the church scene, where the parishioners were locked out of the church, there appeared to be stables for the gentry’s carriages, and the rector arrives by curricle. Even when I was a child, church doors were never, ever locked, and the rectory would normally have been right next door to the church, a very short walk away. I’ve never heard of a church with its own stables. There were a few other oddities like this that had me puzzled, but nothing that spoiled the story for me.

It was a little disappointing that, after choosing such an unusual setting for this book, so little was made of it. Avebury is a unique place, sitting pretty much in the middle of a huge and spectacular stone circle, but the stones were barely mentioned and Avebury felt like just another generic English village. At least the author resisted the temptation to have the main characters go haring off to London for part of the time, which I half expected as a way of pointing up the different natures of hero and heroine. It would have been interesting to see Anna back in her more usual environment, and see her growing disenchantment with the shallowness of society life.

The romance ends in fine style, although I confess I’m not too sure that this is a match made in heaven. How will Anna cope as a country parson’s wife? I don’t really see it, somehow, and she’s sharp-tongued enough to make his life miserable if she’s discontented with her lot. But I’m an optimist, so let’s go with the happy ever after.

There’s nothing terribly unexpected here, but it’s very readable, and kept me turning the pages voraciously. Both hero and heroine grew on me over the course of the book, despite their flaws, and I enjoyed the unusual setting, a parson hero who’s genuinely devout, and a heroine who was forced to face up to her true nature. Four stars.

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Review: Much Ado About You by Eloisa James

Posted December 23, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Well. My first Eloisa James and I’m not at all sure what to make of it. It’s a bit of a muddle, the main characters are swamped by side stories, there’s not a drop of common sense in any of them, it veers from farce to tragedy and back again and then ties up the ending so swiftly I almost blinked and missed it. And despite all that, I read it avidly, and found it (mostly) great fun, if I didn’t think too deeply about any of it.

Here’s the premise: an impoverished horse-mad Scot has died and left his four unmarried daughters (Tess, Annabel, Imogen and Josie) to the guardianship of an equally horse-mad casual acquaintance, who happens to be the Duke of Holbrook. He good-naturedly takes them on, a little surprised to find they’re grown up and not the nursery babes he was expecting, and sets about finding them husbands. He has two of his equally horse-mad friends staying with him, the Earl of Mayne and Lord Maitland, both of them dissolute and as horse-mad as he is, and a fourth turns up, fabulously wealthy Lucius Felton. So now we have four men and four women…

It isn’t quite as simple as that, naturally, and there’s quite a lot of manoeuvring before the pairs start to settle down. In fact, it’s quite a long time before it becomes clear just who the principal pair is, since all the characters get their full share of screen time, and this does tend to make the main romance feel rather more perfunctory than it should be.

The four sisters are a mixed bunch. Tess, the eldest (and our heroine) is the pragmatic mother figure to her wayward siblings. Annabel is the coldly mercenary one, determined to marry a title, or at least someone very, very rich, having grown up with a father who reduced them to abject poverty. Imogen is the passionate one who’s already in love with Maitland and won’t be deterred from marrying him even though he shows little interest in her and is already betrothed. And fifteen-year-old Josie is the quirky, outspoken one (and by far the most interesting, to my mind).

Of the men, only Rafe, the duke, shows any individuality. He’s in his mid-thirties, still grieving for his older brother, not remotely interested in marriage and spending his idle life, brandy glass in hand, perpetually slightly tipsy. But he’s so good-humoured and genial, and his conversations with Tess were so full of charm, that I half hoped that he was the one she would end up with.

But no. When Mayne randomly decides to marry her (why, why, why? This never made sense), she tamely decides she’ll go along with it, even though it comes out of nowhere. When he begins flirting at the breakfast table ‘Tess put down her crumpet and prepared to be courted.’ Well, OK. I can see that she feels an obligation to her sisters to marry well, but why rush into it after no more than a couple of days’ acquaintance? Especially when she’s already been kissed by the darkly alluring Lucius and feels… well, something for him. But he doesn’t speak up, she accepts Mayne and in no time flat the bishop in the family has arrived, special licence in pocket, and Tess still doesn’t say, hang on a minute… And then things happen, and it’s Lucius she ends up marrying, and Tess tamely goes along with that, too, but at least this time she actually wants to. And all the time, passionate Isobel is off causing mayhem.

When I write it all out like this, it makes even less sense than it did when I was reading it. And you know what? It doesn’t matter a bit, because it’s lively and funny and I never knew quite what was coming next and I just rolled along with it. I didn’t particularly like any of the characters very much, except for Rafe the tipsy duke and Josie the sharp-tongued one, although Lucius grew on me somewhat. Tess I never really got, though, because she was just too doormat-ish to start with and then once she was married she turned into a voracious sex kitten (because yes, there’s a fair amount of sex in this).

Historical stuff? This is not the book to go to for a deeply immersive and period-accurate recreation of the Regency. The characters have supper instead of dinner, lace cuffs which went out of fashion at least twenty years earlier, dine a la russe (individual dishes) rather than a la francais (everything out on the table), and there’s the usual haziness about titles and special licences. Lucius makes his money from ‘playing the market’, which I’m not convinced was a thing in those days (people tended to invest in companies on a long-term basis), but the London stock exchange was in existence, so perhaps.

But again, none of these grumbles really mattered. I enjoyed the read right from the first chapter (where kindly Rafe is stocking the nursery with four of everything so that his four wards never have to wait for their turn, and is amusingly discombobulated to discover they’re all grown up) to the romantic and familial resolution. A fun book, although I’m not sure I care enough about the rest of the ensemble to read more of the series. Four stars.

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Review: Guinea-Gold Hair by Florrie Boleyn

Posted December 23, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This was a delightful surprise. Most Regencies focus on the upper classes, the gentry and nobility, and servants are merely background characters, but not here. The star of the show is Jenny, the daughter of a miller, who goes off to the local big house as a nursery maid to tide her family over a patch of bad harvests. The daughter of the house, Miss Marianne, takes a shine to Jenny, and whisks her off to London to be her lady’s maid for her come-out. Jenny finds herself helping her mistress to evaluate the possibilities of three very different suitors, Geoffrey the steady rural gentry, purse-pinching Percy and the suave, sophisticated but rather dangerous Lord Vincent. Meanwhile, Jenny herself is making eyes at Thomas, one of the grooms.

The opening chapters, at the mill and then Jenny’s early days at Walcott Manor, are beautifully and lovingly evoked, with a huge amount of convincing period detail. It’s so rare to see the lives of the working classes drawn with so much conviction. The London scenes were a little less sure. The soot-grimed buildings and street atmosphere were well done, but I don’t believe for one minute that the family’s rented house (’one of the smaller townhouses’) would have had its own ballroom. Only the grandest houses could manage that. Most people either rented assembly rooms (you could rent Almack’s!) or threw open doors to make one large room out of two or three smaller ones.

I rather liked the three suitors, but especially Lord Vincent, who for all his rakish and bad-boy ways was definitely hot, even if (sadly) not marriage material. We don’t see much of Marianne’s hectic social whirl, it’s all second-hand, as she describes events to Jenny afterwards. We also don’t see much of Marianne’s mother, who should be watching her daughter like a hawk and patently isn’t, and it’s Jenny who ends up as Marianne’s confidante and adviser, and acting as a go-between for Marianne and her suitors.

Now, none of this is realistic, of course. The very idea of taking an untutored country girl to London for anything as important as a girl’s first season is bonkers, no matter how well she dresses Marianne’s hair. Nor is it sensible for the maid to set about evaluating suitors. That’s what Marianne’s mother was supposed to be there for. And I wasn’t at all comfortable with Jenny’s behaviour sometimes. Exchanging kisses for money is a very slippery slope. However, this is more of a fairy tale than a realistic Regency, so I can cut it some slack.

The ending, despite some hiccups along the way, is the terribly implausible but heart-warming expected happy ending, where everyone gets a prize, even the miller. I felt a bit sorry for the original lady’s maid back at the Manor, who was left behind when everyone else went off to London, uncertain of her future, and with a ‘follower’ that she would probably have to wait years to marry. Jenny certainly seemed to have all the luck. There’s no actual sex depicted, but the characters do get quite hot and bothered (Jenny is a country girl, after all, not a simpering miss).
A beautifully written and original Regency-with-a-difference which I loved, marred only by a bit of wayward punctuation and a few typos. Five stars.

Finally, I loved this postscript by the author (with sentiments I share!):

‘Dear Reader, I do hope you enjoyed this book. If you did enjoy it, then I would be so grateful if you would leave a review. If you didn’t enjoy it, then I would be so grateful if you wouldn’t. Florrie’

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Review: Georgianna by Jenny Hambly

Posted November 29, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 2 Comments

I really think that Jenny Hambly gets better and better with every book. I’ve always enjoyed her work, but there’s a polish to her writing now that makes the story shine. This is a classic story of a daughter failing to follow the wishes of her family and being sent away in disgrace, to find that she blossoms in the new setting and finds out who she really is. And (naturally) finds true love, of course.

Here’s the premise: we met Lady Georgianna Voss in book 1 of the series (Marianne) leaving Miss Wolfraston’s Seminary for Young Ladies with her two friends. Marianne was the hoydenish one, and Charlotte the quiet, timid one. Georgianna is the repressed one, browbeaten by her domineering and impossible-to-please mother, and ignored by her largely absent father. Her younger brother is the apple of her mother’s eye, while Georgianna is never meek enough or dutiful enough to please her mother. When she refuses the eligible but dull man her mother has chosen for her, she is banished to the home of her aunt in the Lake District.

I have to say that Lady Westbury (her mother) is a real piece of work. She’s trapped in a loveless marriage herself and she seems determined to force Georgianna into the same unhappy state. I really felt for Georgianna, whose home life is so unhappy that she’s nauseous when she arrives home, and whenever she’s summoned to see her mother. And yet she has the confidence to speak up for herself, even though she’s terrified.

The aunt, Lady Colyford, is a different kettle of fish altogether. She lives in eccentric semi-wildness by Buttermere lake with her two companions, one slightly bonkers and the other more practical. In this self-sufficient all-female environment, Georgianna thrives and begins to blossom.

Our hero, meanwhile, is Alexander Knight, unexpectedly heir to a dukedom after his older brother drowned in Buttermere. When a local girl claims that her child was fathered by the brother, Alexander sets out incognito to uncover the truth about it, and of course the complications arising from that are not hard to see.
There’s one other character of significance – Lord Allerdale, the wild pal that Alexander’s brother was visiting when he drowned, and the last person to see him alive. Needless to say, he takes an interest in Georgianna, and leaves her with an interesting dilemma – should she choose the smooth but rather ramshackle Lord Allerdale, who’s a suitable match for her? Or should she settle for the unassuming Mr Knight, seemingly well below her station in life, but very much on her wavelength?

To be honest, there isn’t anything terribly unexpected here. Allerdale turns out to be roguish but not beyond the pale, Georgianna resourcefully rescues herself from difficulties, sensible girl that she is, and Mr Knight is fortuitously revealed as being of a rank that even Mama must approve. In some ways, it would have made a more interesting story if she had really fallen in love with a mere gentleman, instead of a future duke, but there we are. This is not that story.

To round things off, the question of the illegitimate child is resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, and there are resolutions and rapprochements for several minor characters, to tie everything up with a whole array of neat little bows. And the romance ends in fine style. There aren’t too many emotional fireworks here, but that is totally in keeping with Georgianna’s character. I loved watching her find her own strength of character, and face up to her mother at the end, and Alexander is definitely my sort of hero. I also loved the well-evoked setting of Buttermere. I’ve never been there but I could visualise it perfectly. A quiet but eminently enjoyable story. Five stars.

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Review: Love And Friendship (2016 movie)

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

This is based on Jane Austen’s early work, Lady Susan, which I’ve never read, so I’ve no idea how faithful it is to the original. Reviews have been mixed, to say the least, and although I’ve watched it twice now, I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. It’s rather enamoured of its own cleverness (each of the characters is introduced with a witty little description, but there are far too many of them for this to be helpful for anyone who’s not read the book), but it’s utterly beautiful to look at, so when the whole thing gets overwhelming, the confused viewer can simply sit back and enjoy the spectacle.

Here’s the plot: impoverished widow Lady Susan Vernon is living a hand-to-mouth existence bouncing around the homes of various relatives, while trying to marry off her daughter, Frederica. When she is turfed out of one home because of a fling with her hostess’s husband (very bad manners!), she lands up at Churchill, the home of her husband’s brother. Here she meets her husband’s brother’s wife’s brother (are you keeping up?), Reginald deCourcy, and sets out ostensibly to attach him to her daughter, but actually succeeding in making him fall for her. Meanwhile, her daughter’s bonkers suitor, Sir James Martin, arrives in hot pursuit. Oh yes, and there’s an American friend of Lady Susan’s, whose sole purpose seems to be to be the recipient of Lady Susan’s innermost thoughts. Presumably the original was epistolatory, but she feels a bit superfluous here.

Let me say right away that Kate Beckinsale is utterly brilliant as Lady Susan. It helps that she has all Jane Austen’s wit to work with, and in some respects she reminds me of Mary Crawford from Mansfield Park, incredibly clever and witty, but also cynical and horribly self-centred. But charming. Oh so very charming. Reginald is captivated, and who can blame him, but his sister sees right through Lady Susan and tries desperately to steer him away. It takes a major catastrophe to open his eyes to the truth.

Of the rest of the cast, no one particularly stands out, but they were uniformly excellent, so no complaints there. I wondered a little at the American friend’s accent, which veered into Irish to my ears occasionally and sometimes was downright incomprehensible, but it didn’t much matter (see remarks above about enjoying the spectacle). The daughter was amusingly prone to running away, the bonkers suitor was over-the-top silly and the slighted wife was even more over-the-top hysterical, but they were an interesting counterpoint to Lady Susan’s calmly outrageous manoeuvrings, which she made to seem oh so rational and even sensible. Because this is an early work by Austen, the characters are perhaps not as smooth as in her later works, but the neat plotting and her trademark wit are on full display.

The setting is pre-Regency, somewhere in the 1790s, so the women wear beautifully draped fuller skirts and lacy shawls, and spectacular big hats. I was less enamoured with the hairdos, since all the women wore identical styles, married or single, outgoing or demure. The men look very Mr Darcy, which is perfectly acceptable, and the houses are Georgian era, which means classically elegant.

On the whole, I enjoyed this very much, and will certainly watch it again. After another three or four times I might even fully understand what it’s all about. But hey, the spectacle!

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Review: From Time To Time (2009 movie)

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

This is an interesting curiosity, a time-slip story jumping between late World War II England and the Regency era. The plot is simplistic, but the acting is generally superb and it’s a pleasant way to pass an hour and a half.

Here’s the premise: teenager Tolly is sent to spend Christmas with his grandmother while his mother waits for news of his missing-in-action soldier father. Granny lives in impoverished aristocratic style with her two remaining servants in a crumbling old manor house set in a vast estate, and lo and behold, Tolly immediately starts seeing ghostly apparitions as he moves around the house. At first, it’s just the daughter of the house, Susan, who’s blind, but gradually he starts seeing more of the inhabitants of the Regency house, and discovers that he can travel between the two time periods. Slowly, the story emerges of the events leading up to a terrible fire which destroyed one wing of the house, and how all the family jewels and silver were lost.

Tolly’s adventures are the bulk of the story, but there are little vignettes amongst the other characters that should have added flesh to the bones, but somehow felt simplistic and unfinished. The wife in the Regency era is a case in point. Essentially abandoned by her naval captain husband, despised as a foreigner by the local aristocracy whom she avidly pursues, bored, lonely and miserable, she gets little sympathy from the scriptwriters, who portray her as merely fretful and selfish. Her husband apologises to her, but fails to suggest any solution to the problem. I would have liked a little more depth to her character, and perhaps some reason offered for her behaviour. Maybe she just resents being stuck in the country when he’s away all the time?

The Negro boy is another interesting but underdeveloped character. The captain brings him home to be a sort of guide-person for his blind daughter, to help her get about and describe what she can’t see. Negroes were very popular employees in the Regency, both as page boys and as adult servants, so this is true to the era, and his bravery and initiative in a crisis was nicely drawn, but I felt he fitted too easily into the household of a well-to-do family for a runaway slave. Where did he learn such excellent manners? Again, a little too simplistic.

However, there’s so much to like about this film that it’s churlish to expect perfection. The cast list is stellar, with the likes of Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Pauline Collins, Timothy Spall and Harriett Walter setting the standard. Alex Etel was excellent as the puzzled but game Tolly, and Kwayedza Kureya was a heroic Jacob. I wasn’t convinced by Eliza Hope Bennett as the blind Susan, though, but it’s a difficult role.

The costumes were suitably drab in the wartime scenes and gorgeous in the Regency, and ditto the house. In fact, the manor house was a wonderful character in its own right, just perfect for the story, and the distinction between the polished brightness of the Regency and the faded and decaying wartime version was beautifully done.

If I were giving star ratings for this, it would probably be a three. I enjoyed the acting, the costumes, the settings and the evocation of the two historical eras. I was less enamoured of the plot and character development, but I understand this is based on a book which might bring greater depth to the story. Entertaining but not memorable.

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Review: The Wicked Governess by Mary Lancaster

Posted November 13, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Mary Lancaster’s books are always entertaining, so I knew I’d enjoy this right from the start. There was less in the way of piracy and other shenanigans in this book, which is very much a plus for me, and the romance, while a little insta-lust, is still very well developed.

Here’s the premise: Caroline Grey, the governess at Braithwaite Castle in the previous book, is summarily dismissed for an alleged misdemeanour, finding work at the sinister Haven Hall instead. Her pupil is mute, but not physically, so it’s presumed there’s been some traumatic incident. Also at Haven Hall is the slightly bonkers aunt and the child’s darkly mysterious father, Javan Benedict. When Caroline arrives, the family is very reclusive, so needless to say, she attempts to draw them out into society. They are surprisingly willing (well, the book would be quite dull if they weren’t), and so they are, inch by reluctant inch, rehabilitated.

Caroline is a likable character, and although she’s the wicked governess of the title, there isn’t really anything wicked about her, except in the fevered imaginations of some Blackhaven residents. She does have some family issues, but they aren’t terribly dramatic.

Hero Javan, on the other hand, has a whole shedload of issues. We’re into Beauty and the Beast territory here, since he’s the wounded and scarred beast to Caroline’s beauty. I’m not a huge fan of the instant hots for each other scenario, but it’s something of a feature in Lancaster’s work, so I’m used to it by now. There’s also some fairly physical lusting and one graphic sex scene, so traditionalists beware.

There isn’t anything wildly original about the plot, and readers can work out almost from the start how it’s going to go, but it’s nicely done, as always, it feels believably Regency, and there’s enough action to sweep the plot along without overwhelming the romance. I liked Caroline a lot, and although I had less patience with Javan, I understood his reluctance to commit himself. Honourable mentions for Rosa, the mute daughter, who was a wonderful character in her own right, and the mischievous cousin, Richard. I hope we see more of him (and I’m likely to get my wish, because the author loves to bring in characters from previous books).

Great fun, and a nicely written book that fulfils all expectations of the series without becoming boring. Four stars.

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Review: The Wicked Marquis by Mary Lancaster

Posted November 13, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Every Mary Lancaster book is a cracking read, and this is no exception. A spirited heroine, an unusual but very hot hero, a one-look-across-a-crowded-room insta-love (although it was an orchard in this case), loads of passionate kisses and a whole heap of shenanigans of the smuggling/spies/thieves variety. It’s all very entertaining, and for those who enjoyed the first four books in the series, this is more of the same. For myself, I’d have liked a little bit of variety on the basic plot, and there were several loose threads left dangling, but it was still a great read.

Here’s the premise: Lady Serena Conway, sister to the Earl of Braithwaite, has been sent home from London to Blackhaven after the disgrace of jilting a dull but respectable baronet. Stuck at Braithwaite Castle with only her younger sisters and their governess for company, and strictly forbidden from venturing into society, she’s soon bored witless by her captivity. But then she spies an odd looking man from the window, entering the castle’s orchard. And naturally, she rushes out to find out who he is.
He turns out to be the impoverished Marquis of Tamar, although it’s some time before Serena learns who he is, and so we have the amusement of her thinking the scruffy painter who treats her with casual friendship will be shocked when he realises who she is, when in fact she’s shocked to discover he outranks her. But he’s wildly ineligible, being completely broke, and somewhat disreputable.

Needless to say, as is pretty usual with Mary Lancaster’s books, the two are magically drawn to each other from the start, and are soon sharing passionate kisses, described in some detail. But of course there’s always an obstacle, and Tamar’s past soon comes back to haunt them.

There are no fewer than three dramatic subplots – some mysterious goings on in the castle cellar, the theft of some of Tamar’s paintings and a bailiff who’s hanging around him, even though peers of the realm can’t be thrown into a debtor’s prison. The first comes to the boil quite early in the book, the second is very easily solved and the third seemed to fizzle out after the bailiff was given a bit of a talking to. Or maybe I missed a vital point, I don’t know. There were a couple of other dangling threads that puzzled me. One was the cheerful actress who helps Tamar out and seems to be there merely to throw Serena into a bout of jealousy, but he never seemed to explain it properly to her. Again, maybe I missed it. The other weird part was the collection of jewellery dumped on Tamar at an awkward moment. What was that all about? I clearly missed the point of that entirely. But then these books always have so much going on that it’s very easy to get swept up in the excitement and read so fast that details just whizz by.

The romance… I don’t know why, but it didn’t grab me. I’m not a big fan of insta-love, or of well-brought-up young ladies who immediately fall panting into the arms of the most unlikely characters, and somehow, despite the nicely drawn descriptions of Serena’s feelings (the author does this so well), somehow I wasn’t convinced. Perhaps it was because, compared to some of the previous Blackhaven heroines, Serena felt rather ordinary. Or perhaps there was so much else going on that the romance felt a bit rushed. Tamar, on the other hand, is rather a charmer, completely open about his admiration, and so swept up in his obsession that he has to paint her instantly, now, this very minute.

Of the other characters, there are quite a few popping up from the earlier books. It’s not necessary to have read them, but it would have been handy to have a little guide to remind me. The Dowager Countess was the usual type, fairly stiff and a bit domineering. Serena’s brother Braithwaite was an interesting character, although his switch from dead against the marriage to let’s-call-the-banns was breathtakingly swift. I loved the reason for it though (which I won’t spoil the surprise by mentioning). And I loved the children, and long-suffering Miss Grey, their governess.

Another rattling good yarn in this series. Four stars, and since the next book is about the governess, I’m going to have to go straight on to that.

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Review: Escapade by Joan Smith

Posted November 13, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

After a couple of reads that just didn’t do it for me, I was relieved to come back to Joan Smith for this delightfully frothy traditional Regency. It’s very old school, of course, being over 40 years old now, but that just emphasises how far tastes have shifted. There’s no existential angst or any of those new-fangled feminist opinions that modern heroines are so fond of. No, this is all about the season and Almack’s and the proper pursuit of every respectable young lady, which is Finding Oneself A Suitable Husband.
Here’s the premise: Ella Fairmont is no longer a debutante, but her aunt hasn’t given up hope, so here she is indulging in another round of London’s Marriage Mart. To make the exercise more palatable, Ella amuses herself by retailing all the society gossip in a snippy little newspaper column, where she poses as ‘Miss Prattle’. The principal object of her vitriolic pen is Patrick, Duke of Clare (although we’re never given a reason why she dislikes him so much). But then the Duke invites Ella and her Aunt Sara to a house party at his country residence in Dorset…

I’ve read a similar tale more than once before, but even if I hadn’t, it would be easy enough to see how things are going to go, and it’s true that there are few surprises. But that’s not what a book like this is all about. If you want shocking twists, go and read a thriller. With a Regency, it’s all about the journey, not the destination, and the journey here is delightful.

First of all, there are a whole array of very silly side characters. The Duke, foolish man, has invited along three of the leading contenders for his hand, for he happens to be one of the most eligible bachelors in the kingdom. Lady Honor is the high-ranking one, without a word to say for herself, utterly confident that the duke is hers by right. Miss Sheridan is the beautiful one, who can think of nothing but her appearance. And Miss Prentiss is the one with a multitude of accomplishments, none of which she has much aptitude for. There are three male friends, too, to make up the numbers and squabble gently over the ladies’ hands, but they blurred together in my mind and I can’t even remember their names.

An honourable mention must go to the duke’s mother, a lovely, sensible lady who’s entirely supportive of her son, and completely different from the usual trope of the harridan dowager duchess. Then there’s Aunt Sara, who’s a bit of a live wire and has some of the best lines in the book.

But the starring roles go to Ella and Patrick, who start off deep in indifference, start to discover that the other is actually more interesting that they’d suspected and needless to say, end up very much in love. Given the date of the book, this is a fairly restrained affair, devoid of real passion, and mostly their growing interest manifests itself in the rising level of banter between them. They are soon on first-name terms, and arousing a certain amount of jealousy in the others.

The duke’s journey to love is steady and rather touching. Once his interest is piqued, he turns his attention on Ella and singles her out very conspicuously. For some reason, never properly explained, everyone assumes he’s just stringing her along, or flirting, or otherwise just amusing himself, but since he doesn’t have a reputation as a rake, it’s hard to see why they would think that. And towards the end, when she seems to blow hot and cold, he pursues her quite determinedly and charmingly.

Ella, however, is harder to fathom. Why did she dislike him so determinedly at first, enough to make him the principal recipient of all her most acid comments in the gossip column? Why, when she starts to realise that he’s actually not as bad as she’d thought, does she not ease off a bit? And why, why why, when she’s written something completely wrong and malicious about him, doesn’t she do the sensible thing and confess? I do get a bit cross with heroines (and heroes) who just refuse to talk things through. And another why – why, for the love of mike, when he proposes to her, albeit in a completely wacky way, doesn’t she at least wonder if he might be serious? And again, talk to the poor man. Give him a chance to explain himself. But I suppose if all heroes and heroines were sensible, rational beings, their stories would be about 20 pages long.

Now if this was all, this would be just another light-hearted Regency romance, nothing special. Fortunately, after a slightly sluggish start, it kicks into a glorious high gear of comedy. The banter between Patrick and Ella is sparkling, with just an edge of hostility, but there’s also a lot of fun in the house party itself, when Ella comes up with some outrageous schemes for the guests to entertain themselves, although I won’t spoil the surprise by telling you what they are.

Needless to say, there are some hiccups on the road to true love, resolved in the last few pages by the hero sweeping the heroine into his manly arms for a thorough kissing. I strongly disapproved of his arrogance (he never for one moment doubts that she’ll marry him) and I wanted him to grovel just a little bit to win her over, but that was very much the norm for that era.

A beautifully written book, with a few very minor historical errors that only extreme pedants like me would even notice, with a charming hero, a spirited and intelligent heroine and a shed-load of laugh-out-loud humour. I loved it. Five stars.

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