Review: A Marriage Arranged by Mira Stables (1981) [Trad]

Posted August 25, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This was a difficult one to rate. I liked the premise, the characters and the fact that there was no out-and-out villain, only some social spitefulness. On the other hand, the romance was understated, nothing remotely surprising happened and the writing style was as dry as dust. I enjoyed it, on the whole, but a bit of sparkle would have made it so much better. When reading, I frequently feel the urge to slap the characters upside the head, but this is the first time I can remember wanting to slap the author upside the head.

Here’s the premise: Julian (unknown surname) has been deprived of his ancestral home by his father’s profligate ways and sheer spitefulness. Even though he knew that Julian could bring it back into good order, and wanted to do so, he deliberately sold it. So when he dies and Julian inherits the barony, and is wealthy enough in his own right to buy back Wellasford, he makes the journey there to try his luck. The new owner, Mr Morley, won’t sell, but although he’s restored the house to its former glory, he’s been less successful in managing the estate. He realises that Julian has that skill, in spades. And Julian is unmarried, and Morley has a daughter, Anna… And so a marriage is arranged.

So far, so conventional. But both Morley and his daughter are very far from conventional. He’s a historian, who makes his daughter dress up in various historical costumes for his own pleasure, and although she doesn’t mind it and in fact rather relishes being different, it’s still a pretty weird thing to do. He’s paranoid about her health, too, feeding her up and insisting she drinks a ton of milk, so that she’s overweight. He also has never let her ride side-saddle, only astride, although that’s fairly illogical. When in history did women ever ride astride? But that’s perhaps beside the point. Anna agrees to the marriage, but she insists on some conditions. She wants a season in London to compensate for her less-than-successful previous season, she wants to lose weight first and she wants a fair degree of freedom, so the marriage won’t be consummated until after all this is accomplished.

Julian sees no reason not to agree to all this, but the reader can easily foresee the sort of problems which might (and do) arise. The plot ran on rails from this point onwards, and it could have been a much more exciting book with a bit of effort from the author. Or it could have been heart-rending, perhaps, as the two protagonists spiral into unhappiness. But no, because the book is written in such a flat narrative style that it lost a great deal of its drama and all of its emotional depth. It was frustrating that such good potential was largely wasted, and the ending was too abrupt for words. I’m not a huge fan of long, schmaltzy epilogues, but a cutoff the instant they kiss is too short. In other circumstances, I might have gone for three stars for this, but I still enjoyed it and was invested in the characters, and I’m a Mira Stables fan so she gets the benefit of the doubt, and four stars.

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Review: A Poor Relation by Carola Dunn (1990)

Posted August 13, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is one of those books that shouldn’t have worked at all, because it fell into such well-worn ruts that it was a wonder it was able to scramble its way out of them, but somehow it did, and I loved it.

Here’s the premise: Rowena Caxton receives some bad news from her lawyer – the estate her father left her, and which she has been quite happily managing to keep in good order, has been subsumed by debts, and must be sold. Rowena is penniless, and must throw herself on the mercy of her aunt and uncle. Her uncle is easy-going but distant, and her aunt is happy to take her on as companion and chaperon to the spoilt, wilful and beautiful Millicent, around whom the household revolves. Millicent delights in putting Rowena down at every opportunity, but Rowena makes a friend of Anne, the plain younger sister. Meanwhile, Major Christopher Scott, who has been escorting his injured friend, Captain Bernard Cartwright, back from the wars, is astonished to find that he has inherited an earldom, complete with run-down estate and no wherewithal to improve it. And right next door lives the incomparable Millie, with a sizable fortune…

Now, the cliches here just jump off the page. The poor relation heroine… check. The unexpected nobleman… check. The impoverished estate with the need to marry an heiress… check. The selfish and petulant ingenue… check. The charming (but interestingly injured) sidekick… check. The uncaring relations… check. And naturally the first few times the hero and heroine meet, it’s under difficult circumstances, when he treats her like a servant (because she looks like one) and she thinks he’s too rude for words (because he is). And naturally they are thrown together at every turn and slowly learn to appreciate each other.

So yes, the plot runs on well-worn rails, but the trick is in the execution, and it’s here that Dunn’s talent shines. Both hero and heroine (and the minor pairing) are lively characters, very likable. Rowena is a teeny bit subversive without veering into outright rebellion. The major is rather charming beneath the briskly military exterior. They bond over apples, which is seriously original (she tells him how to manage his orchards, which are his main crop). The minor characters, even those who are merely there as foils for the principals, are quirky rather than over-the-top pantomime characters. And needless to say, the writing is superb.

The romance develops nicely, and isn’t forgotten about until the last page, although I could have done without the final foolish obstacle and the (frankly silly) resolution of it, but I still enjoyed this enormously. Five stars.

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Review: Eugenia by Clare Darcy (1977) [Trad]

Posted August 13, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I’ve been hearing for so long that Clare Darcy was one of the best of the old-school Regency authors, but finally a bunch of her books are out on Kindle, and I can say it myself – yep, she’s definitely one of the best. This is very much in the Georgette Heyer style of a romp, the pages filled with wildly eccentric (but very funny) characters, an over-the-top (but very funny) plot and a great deal of stylish (but very funny) writing. Did I like it? I loved it!

Here’s the premise: Miss Eugenia Liddiard is leaving Miss Bascom’s Select Academy for Young Ladies in Bath to return to her guardian’s estate. The Earl of Chandross inherited her three years earlier when her father died, whereupon she became just another indigent relation dependent on his lordship, and living at Mere. But now Eugenia is old enough to be fired off into society, to marry and no longer be a charge on her guardian. She has a much more comfortable plan of her own, however. She will marry the neighbour from her old home in Kent, Tom Rowntree, since he’s a childhood playmate, they get on like a house on fire and he’s the brother of her best friend. But on the journey from Bath, she has an unexpected encounter with a previously unsuspected cousin, Richard Liddiard, who’s too ill to resist being scooped up in one of Eugenia’s daring schemes – he’s the spitting image of another cousin, Gerry, so she’ll take him to Mere to recuperate, where he’ll pretend to be Gerry. Which plan goes along swimmingly until Bow Street Runners arrive, looking for Gerry to arrest him for killing a man in a highway robbery gone wrong.

Eugenia is delightfully creative, however, so she devises one plan after another to keep Richard safe from the law, and Gerry, too, when he turns up, not hesitating to involve her friend (Tom’s sister, Muffet), her old nurse and coachman, Tom and his family, and the glorious Lady Brassborough, an actress and all-round strumpet gone more or less respectable, having married one of her many admirers. Here’s a glimpse of her style: ‘Upstairs in her bedchamber Lady Brassborough, […]was being assisted by Hortense, her ancient dresser, into a toilette that was warranted to astound all beholders, consisting of a crimson brocade gown, a turban of crimson satin shot with gold and embellished with a plume of curled ostrich feathers, a tinsel shawl, spangled Spanish slippers, and the Pontowski emeralds, which mounted her majestic bosom in heavy splendour to fall in an unbelievable cascade to her non-existent waist.’

The finale to these shenanigans is so wonderful, I’m not going to spoil it by revealing any of the details. Suffice it to say that Heyer herself could not have concocted anything more perfect. Or perfectly absurd, perhaps. Now, a great many reviews lament that Clare Darcy is not Georgette Heyer, despite some similarities, which is obviously true. Like Jane Austen, Heyer is incomparable and anyone who reads this book expecting to find a faithful imitation of Heyer will be disappointed. But Darcy has her own magnificent style, and although she was clearly influenced by Heyer (as many authors were), she very much puts her own stamp on her own creation.

The romance suffers, as many of the era do, from subservience to the needs of the over-active plot, and from the lack of the hero’s perspective. Nevertheless, the hero is not the overbearing, domineering sort (and all the better for it), and their final denouement is managed with determination, if not a great deal of finesse on his side. But thank heavens for a couple who know their own minds and don’t have to be cajoled into a betrothal, or, which is worse, have their own feelings pointed out to them.

I really enjoyed this, and will be looking out for more by Clare Darcy. Highly recommended for traditionalists. Five stars.

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Review: The Girl With Flaming Hair by Natalie Kleinman (2021) [Trad]

Posted August 13, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I quite enjoyed the first book by this author (The Reluctant Bride), although I found the characters a bit flat and the plot verging on dull. This one started out much, much better and for perhaps two thirds of its length, I thought it was headed for five stars. But then the plot disintegrated, and the last few chapters became a schmaltzy love-fest. The writing style is awesome, however (oh, the bliss of an author who can write ‘whomsoever’ without flinching!) and for traditionalists looking for a tale built around the season and Almack’s and rides in Hyde Park, and properly brought up Regency characters who are never consumed by passion, this is an author to watch.

Here’s the premise: Rufus, the Earl of Luxton, is driving his curricle one day when he comes upon the unconscious form of Sophie Clifford, a neighbour, who has fallen from her horse. He takes her to his mother, Lady Luxton, and sister Lydia, who nurse her back to health, realise that she’s the sequestered neighbour who never goes anywhere and invite her to London for Lydia’s come-out. And a lovely time is had by all, although there are disquieting rumours about Sophie, on account of her bright red hair. And one day, she meets a man in Hyde Park who seems to know her, and he, too, has bright red hair. I find it ironic that the hero of this story is called Rufus, a name associated with red hair, when it’s actually the heroine who is so endowed, but I digress.

We very quickly discover that the man with red hair is her biological father, a man who wanted to marry her mother but she was forced to marry Lord Clifford instead. Sophie was conceived after the marriage. Now here is where I began to have some qualms. Sophie sets about getting to know her real father, and even calls him ‘Papa’, and distances herself from Lord Clifford. This is very provocative behaviour. In law, and in every way that mattered, Lord Clifford was her father, and it would have been quite scandalous to treat him in this way, or to cosy up to the man who cuckolded him.

The way society reacts to the public revelation of Sophie’s Big Secret is pretty realistic. She isn’t cold-shouldered overnight. There are just gradually fewer invitations. She realises that she’s affecting Lydia’s prospects, so she moves out, first to a mutual acquaintance, and then by setting up her own household, with a female companion. And again, I’m wondering what sort of Regency is this where a young, unmarried woman could do such a thing. It would have been a huge scandal, absolutely huge. And another issue: when she goes north to find her mother’s family, Rufus accompanies her, with only a companion for propriety. Again, scandalous, when he’s not a relation of some sort.

The family up north turn out to be vastly wealthy from trade, but very welcoming once they were sure Sophie was truly their granddaughter. I was a bit bemused by this part, since Sophie’s blood father recognised her from a single glance in Hyde Park, because she looked so like her mother. Her mother’s parents, however, don’t recognise her at all, and have to be convinced by jewellery and a birthmark. A bit of a contradiction there.

I haven’t yet mentioned the romance, but that’s because for most of the book it takes a back seat to Sophie’s journey of discovery. Unlike in the previous book, the hero’s feelings are much more obvious, and he even makes a mismanaged proposal mid-book. But there was no real passion between the protagonists, and, worse, the romance was sewn up by the three quarters point, after which there was a mild bit of drama and then a great deal of hugging and tearful reunions, a wedding and other schmaltzy stuff that felt more like an extended epilogue than anything else. My main complaint with this author is that most of the characters are just too nice. Apart from one or two villains, and the vague ‘society’ which sways between approval and disapproval according to the whims of Lady Jersey (why do so many Regency authors fall back on her as the arbiter of approval?), everyone is kind and tolerant and understanding and too, too perfect. I prefer a little grit in my characters, frankly.

A historical error: Lydia is the daughter of an earl, so she should be Lady Lydia Solgrave, not Miss Solgrave. And an oddity: a cousin has a ‘minor title’, whatever that may be. It seemed to be a plot device to allow the cousin to have a coat of arms, but since any member of the gentry can have one, it hardly seems to be necessary.

I really liked the interesting plot line in this one, although I didn’t always approve of Sophie’s actions, or Rufus’s, for that matter. They both seemed to drift too close to the edge of impropriety for my liking. But the author’s writing is impeccable, the evocation of society flawless and the questionable antics of the principals never interrupted my enjoyment. I really would have liked more rounded or quirky characters to enjoy, though, so for me that keeps it to four stars.

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Review: The Reluctant Bride by Natalie Kleinman (2021) [Trad]

Posted July 21, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This appears to be the author’s first full length Regency, and as such it’s a literate, not to say elegant, piece of work. It’s not the most lively book I’ve ever read, however, and although it’s completely chaste and the characters are pleasantly likable, it never steps beyond the well-worn ruts of the genre and so fell a bit flat for me. The subtitle has it as a ‘captivating Regency romance with a feisty heroine’, a description I would quibble with. Publishers, can you please leave these judgements to readers?

Here’s the premise: Charlotte Willoughby has been forced into marriage with a much older man so that her father can be relieved of some financial difficulties. Being a dutiful daughter, Charlotte marries the Earl of Cranleigh, and finds, to her surprise, that he’s a gentlemanly sort of man, and marriage to him isn’t nearly so unpleasant as she’d feared. Unfortunately, after just six weeks of marriage, her husband has a riding accident and she finds herself a widow. The story picks up just as she emerges from her mourning period, as she and her younger, unmarried sister and a spinster cousin prepare to embark on the London season.

I have to confess that I got off on the wrong foot with this one. Since the earl had no son, his heir turns out to be a cousin of some sort – who happens to be a duke. My pedantic soul was immediately intrigued by this. How could an earldom be inherited by a duke? I promptly whiled away an inordinate amount of time trying to devise family trees where this could happen, although I’m still not convinced that it’s actually possible (unless the dukedom was a very recent creation, which seems implausible, somehow). But never mind.

Charlotte, her sister Harriet and cousin Esther begin to enjoy the delights of the season. Harriet is immediately drawn to a possible suitor, and Charlotte finds herself the focus of two different suitors. One is a kindly man she regards as a friend, and in fact they are soon on first name terms (surely a breach of protocol?). When he proposes, she is astonished, but makes him a gentle refusal.

The other is a man, Lord Roxborough, with whom she feels uneasy but without quite knowing why. We are several times told that he behaves impeccably but still, he feels slightly off to her. There are several meetings where he behaves with perfect correctness, as the author is at pains to point out, and Charlotte knows nothing to his detriment, yet when he proposes to her, she is downright rude to him.

In the middle of all this is the duke who inherited Charlotte’s husband’s estate, the Duke of Gresham. Charlotte finds him high-handed and aloof, and is often at odds with him, even though he takes the three women under his wing and is (to my mind) nothing but kind to them. Yet she is aware that they are, in may ways, on the same wavelength, and as time goes by, they get on better. It is obvious to the reader that Gresham is the hero, yet there is never any point where I felt he was seriously in love with her. Attracted, yes, and latterly it was clear that he was putting himself out for her, but there was no passion there at all.

And this is perhaps my biggest criticism of the book, that I never really felt the characters’ emotions. Everything was flat, somehow, and despite bouncing around in the heads of multiple characters, their feelings were told rather than shown. Not to mention that everyone was a paragon of virtue (except the one villain). The characters were likable, but a little bit saccharine for my taste. Since the plot ran on very familiar rails, it was all a little bit dull.

Despite all this, there was much that I liked. The author has a real feel for the Regency, and I only spotted one historical glitch – the mention of wedding rings (plural) during the ceremony (men wearing a wedding ring didn’t become commonplace in England until roughly the 1960s). As I mentioned at the start, the writing is beautifully literate, and I cannot tell you what a joy it is to see such an abundance of properly constructed sentences. The characters bounced around the country rather, but at least I always knew where they were, with the counties made explicit, in the Jane Austen tradition.

It was disappointing that the hero was a duke. Lord, I am so tired of dukes! It would have made far more sense to me if he had simply inherited the Earl of Cranleigh’s title and estates. I wasn’t quite sure why Charlotte got to keep the earl’s town house in London, but I presume it was part of her widow’s jointure. I would have liked some more explicit details of the time of year, because I got confused over it. Being told that the season was in full swing when it seemed to be autumn had me scratching my head (the Little Season, possibly?). Traditionally the season is in spring, Easter to June or July.

The blurb says that this book is ‘For fans of Georgette Heyer, Mary Balogh, Jane Aiken Hodge and Jane Austen.’ Sadly, it doesn’t have the sparkling dialogue and lively plot of Heyer, nor the incisive wit of Austen, nor the intensity of Balogh, but then few authors rise to those heights. It is, however, a very readable traditional Regency which I enjoyed despite some wobbles. I’m torn between three and four stars, but I always allow some leeway to debut books and the writing is so elegant that I’ll go with four stars.

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Review: A Question of Duty by Jayne Davis (2021)

Posted July 21, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Another lovely novella from one of the most reliable of recent Regency authors, and a prequel to the fascinating Marstone family saga.

Here’s the premise: Captain Jack Stanlake is sent home from the Colonies as his father is ill, and he is asked to escort the Colonel’s wife and daughters who are also returning to England. Their purpose is to find husbands, and the girls’ mama is ambitious for them. She sees Jack, the younger son of an earl, as a potential target. He can’t afford a wife, though, and although he’s drawn to Clara, the elder daughter, he knows his father would never approve a marriage to a merchant’s niece. She’s drawn to him, too, but she’s not sure she wants to be tied down to a husband when there’s a whole world to explore.

When they arrive in London, they go their separate ways, she to the frivolity of the London season and he to his father’s deathbed and an unexpected and most unwelcome complication – an arranged marriage. Jack has to scramble to extricate himself from his brother’s machinations. The title of the book suggests that there’s a serious dilemma for Jack to solve, but it seemed to me that he made his decision rather easily. I think in reality he might have hesitated a little more. But there again, brother Charles is such a piece of work that maybe he forfeits any right to expect Jack to respect his duty to the family.

The romance ends in appropriate style, aided and abetted by various members of Clara’s family, and thank goodness for that. So many Regencies seem to be populated entirely by dysfunctional families that it makes a refreshing change to meet one that seems normal and perfectly benign. Davis’ writing is, as always, note perfect, and the crossing of the Atlantic was beautifully evoked. I could almost hear the creaking of the ship and the slap of the sails, and taste the salt in the air. Wonderful stuff. And there’s never any need to worry about historical correctness with Davis. I was pleased that when Jack writes to Clara, he does so through the medium of her uncle, as is proper.

A lovely tale, and as it’s a prequel to the whole Marstone saga, it makes me want to rush off and reread the rest of the series (which is now available in a handy boxed set, I discovered). Five stars.

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Review: The Unforgiving Eye by Beth Andrews (2021) [Trad]

Posted June 30, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

As with the first in this series, the subtitle of this book is a complete sham. It describes itself as ‘a sumptuous unputdownable Regency romance’, and the only part of that to be unequivocally true is ‘Regency’. It is certainly not sumptuous (whatever that means in the context of a book – a TV show may be sumptuous, or a meal or furnishings, but a book?). It may, possibly, be unputdownable (opinions may vary). What it most assuredly is NOT, however, is a romance. The first in series could, at a stretch, be described so, but not this one. It’s a cosy murder mystery set in the Regency era.

Having got that gripe out of the way, here’s the premise: our low-key couple from the first book, John and Lydia Savidge, are on their way home from their honeymoon when they are diverted to a house where there just happens to have been a murder. Can they solve it in three days? Well, what do you think? Our intrepid duo set about their task with vigour. Who had a motive for killing Sir Benedict Stanbury? Who even knew he would be at the place where he was murdered, and at midnight, too? Did he really intend to change his will? If the murderer wasn’t the stable hand, the lover of Sir B’s niece, could it be the solicitor? Or the niece herself? Or the timid governess? Everyone has secrets, yet no one seems to be a likely murderer.

I’m going to be honest here and say that I spotted the murderer at a very early stage, and everything that happened afterwards served to confirm it. Not the most difficult puzzle to solve. It was fun watching John and Lydia investigate, but it got a bit wearing at the end when they seemingly couldn’t see what was right in front of their noses. A whole chapter was devoted to them telling each other that no, they couldn’t crack it, it was just impossible to work out and they would have to admit defeat… They were practically out of the door before the vital hint appeared to nudge them in the right direction.

Despite all that, this was an enjoyable read, whimsical and charming, with as eccentric a bunch of characters as anyone could wish for. It’s technically clean (no onscreen sex), but everyone seems to be having affairs so there is a lot of discussion of the subject. Unlike the first book, the author has got the names right this time, and I only spotted one place where some dialogue was wrongly attributed to Lydia instead of the niece. This wasn’t quite as much fun as the first book, but it felt like a more assured work, the murder unravelling was given centre stage, without the distraction of a faux romance, and I might well read future books in the series. If only the publisher could refrain from hyperbole in the subtitle! Four stars.

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Review: Aunt Sophie’s Diamonds by Joan Smith (1979) [Trad]

Posted June 30, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 1 Comment

Well, this is a complete riot. It’s old-school, more of a Regency romp than a romance, although the romance side isn’t as neglected as it often is in books of this era (Georgette Heyer has a lot to answer for). This is light-hearted fun with a hero who’s sensible and only a teeny bit arrogant, and a heroine who seems demure and spiritless but absolutely isn’t, together with an array of charmingly wacky side characters.

Here’s the premise: Sophie Tewksbury is finally about to turn up her toes, and her relations gather at her deathbed to speculate about who will get the famous Beresford Diamonds and the rest of her fortune. But the will contains a surprise – the diamonds are to be buried with her, some lesser pieces are to be distributed, and the family are to gather again in a year’s time to hear the rest of her dispositions, which depend on what has happened in the interim. No one knows what that means, but in the meantime, the diamonds are buried in the graveyard, awaiting anyone brave enough to turn up with a spade and tools to break into the steel lining of the coffin.

Our heroine, Claudia, is a bit part player in this drama, for although she’s a niece of Sophie’s, she’s never met her and has no expectations. She’s surprised to inherit an emerald ring. Her cousin Luane, however, is miffed that she wasn’t given the diamond necklace, as she was promised, and determines to dig it up. She enlists Claudia to help her, and also a cousin, Gabriel, whom Luane hopes to marry one day. Another cousin, Jonathon, has inherited the ramshackle house but no money, so he’s also keen to find the diamonds. Claudia’s mother, Marcia, summons her beau, a former ironmonger, who she thinks will have the knowledge to break open the coffin. Ranged against these schemes is a more distant cousin, Sir Hillary Thoreau, a wealthy neighbour and nonesuch (a male incomparable), who watches over them all with amused detachment.

And so the stage is set for a great many graveside encounters at midnight, as one party or another tries to retrieve the diamonds, not to mention a certain amount of courting from the ever-optimistic Jonathon of either Luane or Claudia, as circumstances change. One or other of the cousins, he’s sure, will inherit the rest of the fortune, and he wants to be married to whoever it is, so he can afford to restore the house to its former glory. But it isn’t until the ironmonger beau turns up and looks set to marry Claudia’s mother that he settles on one of them. The ironmonger, now a moneylender, is fabulously rich and he’s bound to leave all that wealth to Claudia, isn’t he? There follows possibly the funniest proposal scene I’ve ever read. The book is worth the read for that alone.

Meanwhile, the urbane and unflappable Sir Hillary is also paying court to Claudia, and thank goodness for a hero who makes his intentions clear from the start, and doesn’t make an out-of-the-blue declaration in the final chapter. Claudia, of course, is oblivious to it all, and even when she does begin to have an inkling, she daren’t allow herself to believe it. She’s lived her whole life in the sort of dull situation where nothing really good ever happens to her, and here’s this dashing, rich, charming and worldly man with his wonderful houses and luxurious life – he can’t really want her, can he? And so there are some minor misunderstandings, but not such as to cause any real difficulties, and the romance ends in fine style.

There are some historical wobbles – my eyebrows rose at the mention of a welding torch (an expression not used before about 1900), but the book dates from the pre-internet era when research involved a trudge to the library, so it’s forgivable. The author seems to be entertainingly unfamiliar with chess. No, each player does not have some white pieces and some black, and I was entirely unconvinced that Claudia would be able to play such an intellectual game without paying much attention to it. You might play backgammon that way, perhaps, but chess involves a lot of deep thought from both players. On the other hand, hurrah for unmarried characters who find themselves potentially having to overnight at an inn, who sensibly ask at the parsonage for beds for the night (I wish more stranded Regency characters would do that instead of being caught out and having to marry in haste). My grumbles are very minor issues, and overall this is a fine read, well-written and with characters who are both charmingly eccentric and perfectly believable. I enjoyed every minute of it. Five stars.

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Review: Lucy and the Duke of Secrets by Sofi Laporte (2021) [Trad]

Posted June 21, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I tripped over this while bouncing around Amazon, looking for a modern Regency that isn’t predictable and/or boring. And oh boy, is this ever NOT predictable or boring! What it is, though, is funny – and not just witty or chuckle-worthy, but laugh till you cry funny. I’d like twenty more just like this, please.

Here’s the premise: penniless Lucy Bell is on her way to visit a schoolfriend, who happens to be the sister to a duke. A duke, moreover, whom Lucy hates with a passion because he got her thrown out of her school where she was entirely happy, and was then left to fend for herself. Which didn’t work out too well, because Lucy is a one-woman tornado, who sows chaos and confusion and catastrophe all around her. Even a simple journey falls apart, for she finds herself stranded some miles from Ashmore Hall, where her friend lives, with night falling and no money for an inn.

But happily, there’s a man loading up a wagon with plants who seems to be going the right way. Surely he’ll give her a lift? At first, he refuses in the most abrupt way, but eventually he relents, and Lucy chatters away to him happily, while he grumps away beside her. She discovers that he’s a gardener at Ashmore Hall, and his name is Henry. He’s handsome, too, which can’t hurt, and she finds she rather likes him, despite the grumping (the blurb describes him as charming, but he really isn’t; tolerant of her mishaps, perhaps, but grumbling constantly). For various wacky reasons (see previous remarks about Lucy the one-woman tornado), they end up spending the night together in a farmer’s barn, and telling stories and (eventually) kissing.

The next morning, she arrives at Ashmore Hall, and after only the minor mishap of being mistaken for a servant and spending the morning cleaning fireplaces and dusting, she is reunited with her friend, Lady Arabella. Henry, meanwhile, disappears about his gardener’s tasks, she supposes. Lucy has arrived just as a house party is getting under way, to finagle the betrothals of the duke to a cold fish aristocrat, and Arabella to a beautiful but soulless lord. Reluctantly, Lucy is drawn into the house party, where she is shocked to discover that Henry, the grumpily charming and very kissable gardener, is actually the icily cold and rigidly polite Duke of Ashmore, who fails even to acknowledge their previous acquaintance. The reader is slightly less shocked by this discovery, since it is given away in the book’s blurb, so I’m not revealing spoilers here.

From then onwards, Lucy unleashes her disruptive force all over the duke’s household, but particularly at the duke himself. I won’t spoil the surprise by revealing everything she does, but it’s gloriously funny, and culminates in a humdinger of a row between the two of them, at midnight, and in full view of half the household. It’s absolutely wonderful, and when the dowager duchess describes it as a lover’s quarrel, she’s absolutely right, because it crackles with that kind of tension. Lucy’s problem is that she’s in love with Henry the gardener, with whom she feels she could actually aspire to marriage, but still hates the duke, who is obnoxious towards her at every verse end. And Henry’s problem is that old chestnut, a hero who doesn’t realise he’s in love at all. Silly man.

And then everything turns soggy. A certain amount of misunderstanding or keeping of secrets I can accept, but there comes a point in any book where the protagonists, if they are sensible, sit down and talk things through. They don’t continue to not tell each other vital pieces of information, and they don’t, under any circumstances, do noble, self-sacrificing things for the other’s good. Nor do they withhold exciting news when they have it, or leave the object of their affection stewing in misery. So although it comes right in the end, I wasn’t happy about it at all.

Sofi Laporte seems to be a new author, and I for one will certainly be reading more of her work. If this is a debut, it’s a brilliantly accomplished one. I’d have given it five stars, despite the implausibility of some of it, but that soggy ending and a high level of editing errors keeps it to four.

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Review: The Substitute Bridegroom by Charlotte Louise Dolan (1991) [Trad]

Posted June 21, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This was a hard one to rate. There was a lot about it I disliked quite intensely, and there were moments that had me rolling my eyes pretty hard. But on the other hand, I read it avidly despite the eye-rolling and that has to count for something.

Here’s the premise: Elizabeth Goldsborough is the Incomparable beauty of the season, a resounding success, capped with an engagement to the most handsome and eligible gentleman of the day, Simon Bellgrave. But an accident leaves her with a disfiguring scar on one cheek, her betrothed has trouble even looking at the injury and so she releases him from their engagement. And he, the cad, takes off without the slightest protest. Elizabeth’s brother isn’t having her spending her days as an old maid, so he informs the man responsible for her accident, Captain Darius St John, that he’d better marry her to make reparation. And he, the cad, refuses. Until his snake of a sister tells him he mustn’t do it, whereupon he promptly offers for Elizabeth, and she accepts him.

And at this point, I’m probably at peak eye-rolling, because what kind of hero only does the honourable thing because his sister tells him not to? And what kind of daft heroine accepts a man like that? I can see that she might if she already knows and likes him, or if he at least presents himself in a gentlemanly manner, and puts a good face on the inevitable, but Darius is so rude and surly and totally bad-mannered that it’s hard to imagine any rational woman wanting him. And it’s not as if she would be entirely destitute if she doesn’t marry him, either. She has a brother to look after her, she has her own fortune, for heaven’s sake, she’s independent. She can wait it out for a man to come along who doesn’t care about her scar. The author makes a valiant effort to convince the reader that Elizabeth is completely unmarriageable now, because only a perfectly flawless face can possibly succeed in attracting a man, and the ton will ostracise her and bla bla bla… no, not convincing for a moment (as later events prove).

So she’s stupid, and he’s boorish and self-centred and rag-mannered and… yes, I disliked him pretty thoroughly at this point. He’s completely focused on his army career, and thinks all women are fickle, duplicitous witches, and with his own family as evidence, I can see where he’s got that idea from. Anyway, they marry and after a quick romp with her, he disappears back to the war, because heaven forfend that he should change anything in his life just because he has a wife (and possibly a child, given the romping interlude). And here’s where we’re back into eye-rolling territory, because at this point, for no reason whatsoever that I can ascertain, she decides she’s in love with him. Good grief.

There’s a strange scenario where she writes to him regularly, nice, chatty letters about what’s going on back home, which he reads out for the entertainment of his men, but it never once occurs to him to write back to her. She’s hanging about waiting for the letters to arrive every day and always being disappointed, so when he appears unexpectedly (because no, he couldn’t possibly have written to tell his wife he’s coming home, could he?), he finds himself cold-shouldered by all the locals who’ve gathered protectively around his neglected wife. And naturally he blames her for it. Because of course he does.

And so it goes on. Whenever there’s the least possibility of him behaving badly and misunderstanding everything and blaming his poor wife for everything he perceives is wrong (because women are wicked, duplicitous witches, so of course he does), he storms out in a huff, and it takes the whole book for him to dimly perceive, through the fog of his own prejudice and (frankly) stupidity that she’s actually quite nice really, despite being a woman. Honestly, his batman is streets brighter than Darius is.

The ending gets pretty silly, with his sisters having a starring role. I think it was meant to be funny, but I didn’t find it particularly amusing. But at least Darius realises what a treasure he has in Elizabeth, and they get their happy ending eventually, even though, as it turns out, scars fade with time and become fashion accessories, so Elizabeth’s prospects weren’t as ruined as we were all led to believe. Especially when she might become a duchess. There was one major historical error – a duke can’t ever resign his title or his entailed estates, whether or not there’s an heir. It was also mentioned at one point that if Elizabeth were a duchess and Darius died, she would lose her title, but that’s wrong, and since there’s a dowager duchess in this very book, I can’t imagine why the idea was even mentioned.

I’ve been pretty critical of this on a number of levels, but the fact remains that I galloped through it almost without taking a breath, and despite all the eye-rolling, I never once considered abandoning the book. So I concluded that it worked for me at some deeper level, despite the problems. It’s probably somewhere between a three and a four star read, but the writing was generally good, so I’m going with four.

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