Review: ‘The Difficult Life of a Regency Spinster: Abigail’ by Susan Speers

February 2, 2018 Review 0

A delightful book that almost made it to five stars. This is the first of a series focusing on Regency spinsters, those not born to great beauty or wealth or connections, who must eke out an existence as best they can. Miss Abigail Grey is a little-regarded step-daughter of her mother’s second husband, and, with her mother long-dead, has a difficult future ahead of her. But when she accompanies her wilful half-sister to a house party for the Marquess of Southey to choose a bride, Abigail recognises him as the impoverished soldier she rejected seven years earlier. There’s never any doubt as to where this is going, but the journey is entrancing.

I liked the Marquess very much, a sensible, thoughtful man, doing his duty at his aunt’s behest. A lesser writer would have had him rushing into a betrothal with the half-sister before realising his mistake, but no, he courts Abigail very determinedly, if discreetly, and never allows himself to be drawn in by the young ladies vying for his hand, or their scheming mamas. And Abigail behaves with (mostly) propriety, and has good reason for continuing to resist the marquess. And thereby lies a minor grumble – it surely wouldn’t have been too difficult for her to explain to him the reason for her refusal. It would have saved a great deal of difficulty.

The other characters are lightly sketched in, but I’ve been pleased to learn that some of them turn up later in the series. I didn’t detect any historical inaccuracies, and the writing avoided the pitfall of anachronistic manners or dialogue. Some aspects felt very Heyer-like (the wilful young ingenue and the callow youth, for instance, and perhaps the marquess falls into the world-weary older man role so beloved of Heyer, although happily without rakish tendencies). In almost all respects the book was the greatest pleasure to read.

The exception, and the reason for the loss of a star, is the gratuitous sex scene in the conservatory. I have no problem with sex in a Regency romance, but this felt utterly out of character for both parties. I would have loved a detailed proposal scene at this point, with the marquess spelling out how his feelings have deepened over the years since their brief earlier meeting, and how well-suited they were. Passion can be expressed just as well in words as in horizontal action.

Apart from this blip, the book was well-nigh perfect for me, I inhaled it in a day, and am going straight on to Belinda. Four stars.


Review: ‘In Honour Bound’ by Elizabeth Bailey

January 28, 2018 Review 0

This was a very enjoyable read, marred only by some over-the-top melodrama. Isolde has grown up with her soldier father, following the drum on the continent, learning to shoot, ride and wield a sword like a man and not so much about ladylike behaviour. When her father dies, his will sends her to her father’s old friend for protection, rather than her mother’s relations. But the old friend has died, and his son now finds himself in charge of the girl.

Richard is just my sort of hero – sensible, intelligent, thoughtful and not at all ramshackle. Isolde is a delightful mix of naivety, feisty independence and the sheer misery of being alone and friendless in the world. Richard puts his sister Alicia in charge of teaching Isolde to be a lady, and this is where everything goes horribly wrong, both in the plot and for this reader. Naturally Isolde’s new life can’t be all sweetness and light, for that would make for a very dull story, but Alicia was so wildly aggressive and hostile towards Isolde that it was ridiculous.

Fortunately, Isolde is a very enterprising young lady, and, with the help of the sympathetic servants, heads off to determine her own destiny. Or so she thinks. Naturally, things get worse before they get better, but all ends happily. A well-written and entertaining tale. Four stars.


Review: ‘Guilty as Sin’ by Rosalind James

January 28, 2018 Review 0

My last book of the year, bringing my total to 60, and it was a good one. I’ve read a couple of other books by Rosalind James which were straightforward contemporary romances, but this was more of a thriller romance, and it had a bit more bite than the others. The premise is that identical twins… yes, yes, I know, straight from the bargain rack of Cliches R Us, but stay with me. Identical twins Lily and Paige Hollander decide to swap places for a while. Lily runs a small-holding and a sexy lingerie shop in rural Montana, and is being pressured to sell her land to make way for a ski resort. Paige is a cop from San Francisco who was shot in a messy incident which saw her partner and the victim of a domestic assault both shot dead. Cue suspension and enquiries and the usual palaver. Both sisters want an escape from their routine lives, so Lily disappears for a restful holiday and Paige takes over the goats, chickens and bras while she heals, both mentally and physically.

The early part of the book, which deals with the twins and their various backgrounds, was very confusing to me, but I trusted the author to get me through the sticky parts and she did. By the time Paige is settled in and trying to milk the goats, it’s all plain sailing. Or it may just be that this is where the hero makes his appearance. All James’ heroes (extrapolating wildly from the three books I’ve read!) tend to be big, muscular men, rather intimidating in some ways, but very gentle with the heroine. They tend to be a bit too perfect for my taste, but I guess a little wish fulfilment is allowed in a romance. There are quite a few graphic sex scenes, but nothing out of the ordinary.

The thriller part of the book builds nicely from a ‘that’s odd’ low-key level before escalating nicely to the physical violence stage. Paige and her man (Jace) always respond sensibly and intelligently to these various threats, and nothing felt over the top. Well, except the dog. Tobias must be the world’s most intelligent animal, that’s all I have to say about that. The climax of the thriller part of the story is very slightly a damp squib, but maybe that’s just sour grapes on my part because I didn’t guess the identity of the baddie.

The romance… well, they lost a few brownie points for not just sitting down and talking things through, but it all came right in the end. There was a schmaltzy epilogue, which felt a bit gratuitous to me, but if you’re a fan of schmaltzy epilogues, this is a humdinger (translation: I cried). An enjoyable read, both as a romance and as a thriller. Four stars.


Review: ‘Reforming Lord Ragsdale’ by Carla Kelly

January 21, 2018 Review 0

There’s a lot to like about this, and also a lot of big irritations. There were moments when I couldn’t see how I would give it more than three stars, and there were brief moments of five star brilliance, so I’ve settled on four stars as a compromise. But it’s lumpy, very lumpy.

The premise is that dissolute Lord Ragsdale has his troublesome American cousins foisted on him, and if this were a Georgette Heyer book, the cousins would be up to all sorts of shenanigans, and world-weary and permanently drunk Lord Ragsdale would be cured of his ennui by sorting out their messes. But this is a very different story. The cousins are shunted offstage and the focal character is their indentured servant, Emma. She it is who forces the marquess to sign a contract: she will reform him from head to toe, and when he is respectably married, he will release he from her indenture. So far, so ludicrously implausible, but whatever.

For those who like their historical romance to have a little actual history (yes, radical, I know), this is your book. Emma is a victim of the Irish troubles of the turn of the century (eighteenth to nineteenth century, that is) who comes from a wealthy family which was captured, tortured, killed and otherwise split apart by the English, whom she hates with a passion. Lord Ragsdale lost an eye and his father in the same battle against Irish rebels, and he hates them with a passion. So of course these two are going to learn tolerance and understanding, and fall in love with each other. Of course.

So far so interesting, and I have no quarrel with the historical aspects. I liked the depth of characterisation which brought these two to life, and I loved their banter, which often made me laugh out loud. The other characters were mere ciphers, plot devices to throw our hero and heroine together, but that’s fine.

So what was so annoying? Firstly, the writing style. There’s some very irritating naming, which uses Lord Ragsdale, John Staples and Cousin John interchangeably, often in the same paragraph. There’s the fact that we’re shown the thoughts of both main characters, which (arguably) gives them greater depth but also is a lazy way of telling us what they’re feeling. Some reviewers really liked this aspect, but I didn’t. I found it jarring, and I would have preferred to be shown their feelings sometimes, for variety.

Another complaint is that Lord Ragsdale must be the easiest person ever to reform. Emma has the booze locked away and hey presto, he’s sober. He never slips, and even when he goes out for the evening and could drink as much as he wants, he comes home sober. All of which is pretty unbelievable. Then there’s the visit to his long-neglected estates in Norfolk, where we find a bunch of rosy-cheeked and friendly peasants, his lordship follows Emma’s instructions to the letter and hey presto, everyone is happy and nothing goes wrong. In fact, this is the recurring theme of the book, that nothing goes wrong, as Lord Ragsdale continues on his merrily reformed way.

And then there’s the romance itself. Oh dear oh dear. For two supposedly intelligent people, they are incredibly dense not to realise that they’re falling in love. When the peasants in Norfolk assume they’re married, that should have made them stop and think, but when they’re kissing and cuddling, with her sitting on his knee, and he then sets off to propose to some silly chit of a girl he doesn’t even like — words fail me.

And the ending… well, I suppose one could say it was a suitably sweeping romantic conclusion to the story, but I kept thinking — what about his mother and his abandoned fiancee and his rosy-cheeked peasants and all his obligations? Shouldn’t he feel some compunction about dropping everything and effectively running away? But somehow, every time the irritation grew to monstrous proportions, there would be an outbreak of Emma’s tart remarks and his lordship’s dry wit and all would be well. And sometimes, cheesy though parts of it were, it brought me to tears. So there’s that. Four stars.


Review: ‘Dancing With Clara’ by Mary Balogh

January 21, 2018 Review 0

This is the third Mary Balogh I’ve read, and it has exactly the qualities I enjoyed in the others – two fascinating characters thrown together in an intriguing way and having to sink or swim. Naturally, there’s a lot of sinking before our hero and heroine learn to swim together, but it all feels horribly realistic and totally understandable.

Here’s the premise: Clara is twenty-six, not particularly beautiful and unable to walk after a childhood illness. She is, however, very rich and when deeply-in-debt rake Freddie makes approaches, she decides that, yes please, she’d very much like to be married to such a handsome, charming and virile man, even if he is a total wastrel. So here’s an interesting situation right from the start. Both parties are marrying not for love but for selfish reasons. Both are, in a way, deceiving the other. And it’s easy to see how everything could come crashing down.

Things start well. His family take to her, they have a lovely wedding and spend an idyllic week at her country estate, where Freddie devotes himself to making her happy. He really is a total charmer at this point, right up until the moment when Clara blurts out that she knows he’s not in love with her and he can stop all the ‘my love’ nonsense. And so he stomps off back to London in a huff, and picks up the threads of his old life – the drinking, the gambling, the womanising.

And here we come face to face with the big problem of this book – everyone loves a rake who reforms, but Freddie never really does. Every time things go wrong, he sinks deeper into his dissolute lifestyle. He hates himself for it, but he’s unable to stop. I so badly wanted him, just once, to haul himself back from the brink. But he never does. Judging by the reviews, for a lot of readers this was just too much to stomach, and I completely understand that reaction. The ending, also came in for much criticism, which again I understand.

In the end, though, I took into account the fact that the book was published in 1993, and has to be viewed through the telescope of twenty five years. Attitudes were different then, and it seems churlish to judge a book from that era by 2017 sensibilities. So although I don’t excuse Freddie’s weakness, it never spoiled my enjoyment of the story overall. I loved the characters, the way they worked through their difficulties as best they could, and the realistic way the romance progressed. I’m not totally convinced that they will manage to be happy for ever, but they have a solid foundation for the foreseeable future, at any rate. And, as always, Mary Balogh’s writing is superb. Five stars.


Review: ‘Miss Lacey’s Last Fling’ by Candice Hern

January 19, 2018 Review 0

A wonderful read, which starts with a most unusual premise: a girl who has been the downtrodden and unregarded homebody running her widowed father’s country house discovers that she has inherited her mother’s fatal illness and only has months to live. Determined to experience everything she can before she dies, she takes herself to London to stay with her disreputable aunt, where she conducts herself outrageously and becomes notorious.

Given this premise, the remaining twists of the plot are so blindingly obvious that there are truly no surprises. But it doesn’t matter. Rosalind’s vitality and the delightful way she hurls herself into every new experience are glorious. Her hero, Max, a notorious rake and son of her aunt’s great love, is determined to resist her charms but is slowly drawn to her despite himself. The growing love between these two is beautifully brought out.

Now, this is not to say that the book is perfect, because no book ever is. Rosalind’s machinations to keep her illness secret defy credibility, and the ending sagged pretty badly. There was so much stupidity and misunderstanding and angsting and back-and-forth between our hero and heroine that I wanted to box their ears. Both of them. One thing I do dislike is an artificial obstacle before the HEA. Once they both come to realise that this is True Love, then I expect them to behave like sensible, rational human beings and get things sorted out pronto.

But in the end, it didn’t spoil my enjoyment too much. I loved both these characters and their realistic and slow-growing love, and (unlike many Regencies) I can actually imagine them being contented for the rest of their lives. Five stars.


Review: ‘Return to the Regency’ by Audrey Harrison

January 19, 2018 Review 0

This is such a lovely idea! Who wouldn’t want to be picked up after a difficult year and offered the chance to go back to the Regency era for a couple of weeks? With money, servants, accommodation – everything provided. Even a fairy godmother. Who could fail to be healed and comforted by the gentle manners of two hundred years ago? But for Catherine, it doesn’t quite work out as expected.

And that pretty much summarises this book, too. What should be a delightful escapist read turns out to be… well, rather dull. The modern-day part of the story just didn’t capture my interest and the Regency part was not much more than a run-down of Regency life in Bath. Now, the details were fascinating, and a salutary reminder that, however romantic the Regency seems when it’s got Colin Firth in it, in reality that part of history was really pretty unpleasant. The clothes were uncomfortable, the food was barely edible and the perfect manners concealed a great deal of misbehaviour. And then there’s the healthcare…

But while the author’s research has obviously been pretty thorough, the rest of the book is less up to snuff. The characters are either very good or totally villainous, and it’s not difficult to spot which is which. I’d have liked either heroine Catherine or hero Chris to display something less than goody-two-shoes virtue, which gets a bit tedious after a while. And the inevitable misunderstanding between them is horribly cliched. Then there’s a plot twist at the end which felt utterly contrived.

Now, if this sounds very critical, I did actually enjoy the story quite a bit. It’s a gentle, easy read with two pleasant main characters and a resounding HEA. My only problem with it is that it’s not a Regency romance, it’s really a contemporary romance with a portal element, and if that’s your thing, you might well enjoy it more than I did. But it wasn’t really my cup of tea, so that keeps it to three stars.


Movie review: Lost in Austen (2008)

January 12, 2018 Review 0

Well, this is a riot and no mistake. A modern woman obsessed with Pride and Prejudice finds a portal to the book world in her bathroom when Elizabeth Bennet materialises there. While Elizabeth stays in modern Hammersmith, Amanda Price goes to Longbourn and tries to steer the characters to their true destinies, and fails in spectacular fashion. Jane marries Mr Collins, Charlotte Lucas goes off to be a missionary in Africa, Lydia runs away with Mr Bingley, Mr Bennet duels him, Wickham is a Puck-like mischievous spirit who’s not wicked at all, and Darcy falls in love with Amanda herself.

There was a huge amount to enjoy in this. I wasn’t much fussed about Amanda or Darcy, not least because he was a foot taller than her, which I found horribly distracting (yes, I know, how shallow of me). I wasn’t convinced by Elizabeth, either. But Hugh Bonneville and Alex Kingston as Mr and Mrs Bennet were an absolute joy, both like and unlike their book versions. Mrs Bennet in particular is far less silly and more… not intelligent, exactly, but certainly streetwise. She knows what she wants for her daughters and nothing will stand in her way.

The other Bennet sisters were terrific, too, and so visually perfect that I was right there with Amanda when she correctly identified each one. I liked Mr Wickham, who had a great deal of charm, but I couldn’t for the life of me see why he would be so helpful to Amanda. Plot reasons, I suppose.

Now, a lot of the logic of the book fell apart because of the oddball things that were happening, and everyone seemed to bounce around the countryside between Longbourn, Kent, Pemberley and Hammersmith as if the distances were nothing at all, and everyone turned up everywhere, often with no explanation, but it never mattered. Historical accuracy went out of the window, too. The writers obviously had no clue about Georgian meals, or correct manners, or legal matters (no, you can’t just get married in two weeks flat, you need a licence, and you can’t annul a marriage for non-consummation). None of it mattered. The whole thing was so gloriously funny that it just rolled along in its own little bubble of craziness.

Great fun. Absolute purists might cringe, but I loved it.


Movie review: Miss Austen Regrets (2008)

January 12, 2018 Review 0

A bit of a weepy, this one, but a splendid attempt to examine why it is that some of history’s finest love stories were written by a woman who never married. The cast list is stellar, and every single one of them pulls their weight, not a dud amongst them.

The premise is that Jane is called upon to advise her niece Fanny as to whether her suitor Mr Plumtree is a suitable match for her. This causes Jane to reflect on her own missed opportunity, a proposal from a man of wealth and property, accepted initially and then rejected the following morning, which would have secured not only her own future, but also that of her mother and unmarried sister. Because of this refusal, the three ladies slide into genteel poverty, like Mrs and Miss Bates in Emma. There is also an uncle of Fanny’s, who proposed at one time and clearly still regrets losing Jane.

The Jane depicted here is a glorious character, clever and witty, if a little cynical, every line filled with subtle humour. I understand that much of the script is derived from her letters and I can well believe it. Her talent shines in every utterance. And Jane is a flirt! And a romp, running around the garden drinking champagne with Fanny and peering in at the men playing cards, commenting on their attractiveness, both physical and financial. Has he a castle, she enquires at one point.

This is all delightful, but the theme of money runs through the film like a misplaced thread on stitchery. The novels all say to marry for love, but in real life Regency women rarely had the option. One waited patiently, being ladylike, until a man offered for one. Then there were but two choices: accept, and live out your days mired in permanent pregnancy, with all its attendant risks; or refuse, and hope for a better offer, with the risk of a decline into impoverished spinsterhood. In real life, two of Jane’s sisters-in-law died in childbirth (both during their eleventh confinements!), and two others had wives who died for other reasons. It was an uncertain time to be a woman. And yet the genteel but grinding poverty of spinsterhood was hardly much better.

In many ways this is a gloomy film. Jane and her mother and sister spend their lives moving from place to place, struggling to keep their heads above water financially, totally dependent on men for such security and help that they have, and harbouring simmering resentments for years over Jane’s rejected proposal. It’s easy to see that some of her acute observations in the books arise from a degree of world-weary cynicism. And yet when Jane is in party mood, she’s so witty and lively, it’s hard to reconcile the two sides of her character. Purists will probably hate the film, but I loved party animal Jane and the acting is so sublime from all involved that I found the film a joy to watch.


TV review: Mansfield Park (1983)

January 12, 2018 Review 0

Mansfield Park is the book I know least about, and the one I’ve seen least performed, so I’m not even terribly clear about the plot details, never mind nuances of dialogue use and so on. This is a 6-part series, and after the first episode I really thought I wasn’t going to enjoy it much at all. But it grew on me, and by about part 4 I was really into it. With so much time, the story really was able to take its time and expand enough for me to understand the story and the characters better.

Let me talk first about Fanny and Edmund. I know it’s shallow of me, but I felt both of them were miscast on appearance alone. Nicholas Farrell (Edmund) has a wonderfully strong face, but it’s better suited to character roles than that of young hero. Sylvestra Le Touzel (Fanny) just didn’t fit my mental image of the character. With all the talk of her health, and not being strong, I always envisaged her as a dainty, delicate little thing, and Le Touzel is too robustly healthy, to my mind. See, I told you it was shallow. I have no criticism of their acting skills, although perhaps neither had quite the emotional range that was required at times of high drama. Fanny in particular was too often immobile (although that is no doubt how she was directed to act).

Of the other characters, Anna Massey stole the show as Mrs Norris, a wonderful performance, although it’s so well-written by the author that it would be a plum role for any actress. I also liked Lady Bertram (a minority view, I think). I wondered if her extreme indolence was either an illness, or perhaps a dependence on laudanum (opium). But I loved her fluttering hands and the tremor in her voice and her complete inability to do anything for herself. The contrast with Mrs Norris was delightful. I also liked Mrs Price in Portsmouth, although her husband was a dreadful caricature, and overacted to boot.

Another character who shone was Jackie Smith-Wood as Mary Crawford. I’ve never taken much notice of her in previous versions, or in the book, but here I felt her intelligence and underlying good nature shone through. I liked, too, that Edmund is finally turned against her by a want of principle on her part. It isn’t necessary for her to demonstrate it, but simply the opinions she expresses are enough to sink his esteem. Whereas Henry Crawford has to prove how shallow and stupid he is by running away with Maria Rushworth. To be honest, I always felt this was a flaw in the book, for surely Henry would never do anything to sink his chances of making a respectable marriage. I couldn’t quite work out whether he truly loved Fanny and might have been redeemed if he had married her, or if he just thought he was in love or was merely piqued because she wouldn’t have him. He turned back to his flirtatious ways soon enough when he was away from her. In this version, Fanny’s trip home is not so much a punishment for her ingratitude in refusing Henry, but an opportunity to see what she has left behind, and to reflect on her options.

Honourable mentions go to Bernard Hepton as a very gentlemanly Sir Thomas Bertram, and poor Mr Rushworth, a stupid but perfectly respectable young man, whose bewildered pursuit of Maria and Henry in the grounds of his house made me very sympathetic towards him. He really didn’t deserve what happened to him.

One surprising aspect that was done spectacularly well – the costumes. The men’s costumes in particular were glorious, perfectly fitted to their characters. I wasn’t too sure that Mrs Norris would wear quite such an old-fashioned style of gown, for it was a point of honour amongst the gentry to have the most fashionable attire that you could afford, but it rather suited her bustling nature to wear something so full-skirted and swishy, rather than the tight empire-line dresses, so unflattering to the older lady. Mary Crawford wore an array of wonderful clothes, sharply stylish, direct from the most fashionable modistes of London, which were a nice contrast with Fanny’s much plainer and more feminine gowns.

And a very small detail that absolutely delighted me – this version shows a proper, Regency waltz. We are so familiar with the modern ballroom waltz and the face-to-face positioning of the couple that we’ve come to expect it, but that’s not how it was when it first appeared. The couple stood initially side by side, or (more accurately) hip to hip, gazing into each other’s eyes, holding hands but with one arm raised, with a variety of changes of position during the dance, which might increase in tempo so the couples are moving faster and faster towards the end. A very different style of dance! It was lovely to see it done properly.

An excellent version, the only weakness for me being the miscasting of the lead characters.