Review: Bassington by Jenny Hambly (2021) [Trad]

Posted June 12, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I’ve loved everything Jenny Hambly has written and this is no exception, but I have to admit this one fell a little bit flat and meandered into the weeds at the end. Even so, with two likable protagonists, a fascinating array of side characters and a genuine dilemma for the heroine, this is still a cracking read.

Here’s the premise: Captain Charles Bassington survives the carnage of Waterloo, only to fall ill with an inflammation of the lungs. While he recuperates in rural France, with communications difficult, his neighbour and friend Lady Selena is so mad with worry for him that she sends his friend Lord Carteret to find him and bring him home.

At this point, Selena’s heart is painfully obvious to everyone. She’s been in love with Charles for years, and her worry for him is too great for her to dissemble. But there’s a wrinkle. Charles has been writing to her from France (a bit naughty when they’re not betrothed), and he’s suggested that Lord Carteret would make her a good husband. She’s had an unsuccessful season in London, partly through shyness and partly because she just doesn’t want anyone but Charles, but now she has to face up to reality. She’s twenty years old, Charles is not going to marry her and it’s time she left her childish dreams behind and started looking seriously for a husband.

Almost at once, two suitors pop up. One is the same Lord Carteret recommended by Charles. The other is an older man (all of 37! Mr Knightley territory), Lord Ormsley. Both of them are eligible, gentlemanly and attentive. And here is the dilemma of all sensible Regency women – should she settle for one or other of the two, or should she hold out for the man she really wants, with the risk that she might never marry? It was a serious problem at the time, and waiting for love to happen along wasn’t a good idea outside the pages of a novel.

While Selena is weighing up her suitors and Charles is recovering from his illness, there’s a bit of a mystery thrown into the mix, with the discovery of a body and a necklace in the local lough (lake). The necklace belonged to a local girl who disappeared a few years ago after suffering an unrequited love affair, so it seems an open and shut case, but is it?

In the background are a whole array of minor characters. I loved that both our main characters enjoyed warm, loving families. Not without the odd irritation, of course, but generally they’re normal folks, and not the evil, overbearing relations so often encountered in a Regency romance. In fact, Selena’s stepmother epitomises the deftness with which the characters are drawn. Lord Sheringham has only recently remarried, just nine months after the death of his wife (Selena’s mother). We first encounter the new Lady Sheringham in London with Selena as she tries her best to find her a husband, and there’s a certain tension between the two. It looks as if Lady S is going to fall neatly into the trope of wicked (or at least deeply unpleasant) stepmother, especially as she has a daughter of her own to marry off.

But back home in the north, she is gradually revealed as being rather an insecure person, unused to being part of a loyal and affectionate family and unsure of how far to unbend in her dealings with the tenants. She slowly relaxes her stance towards Selena and is revealed as a much more nuanced and frankly interesting character. I very much enjoyed this miniature character development going on alongside the main story.

Some grumbles (because what would a review be without a few grumbles?). Firstly, the characters. There are a huge array on display here, and I never got them straight in my mind. Selena’s family confused me. How old was Gregory, her brother? Or Eddy, another brother? He was never seen, owing to some illness from India (malaria, possibly?). I never even knew what the family name was. If any of these details were mentioned, I missed them. There were a bunch of local families that I never quite sorted out, including Cedric, who turned out to be quite important to Selena’s history. He was mentioned once or twice in passing, but I never got the impression that it was a big deal, and Selena always seemed so composed that it was hard to believe she’d had a traumatic experience. She was supposed to be shy in company, but that didn’t come across to me particularly well. And Lady Sheringham’s horrible parents appeared out of the blue, with no warning of anything untoward in her history. Maybe I read too quickly to spot the clues, or maybe they were just too subtle for my brain.

The mystery of the body in the lough was resolved in the most unexciting way imaginable. I liked the idea of it, and it felt very plausible, but it seemed like too much of a coincidence, the way it happened. It would have been more satisfying, I think, if the discovery of the body had triggered the resolution instead of it just happening (trying not to reveal anything here). But I was glad it wasn’t as black an event as it seemed at first.

Now, none of this would matter a bit, but I confess to being a bit disappointed at the way the romance ended. Here we have a dashing captain, a leader of men who knows very well how to be decisive, and we have a sensible, intelligent and spirited heroine who knows her own mind. She also has the shining example of two friends who seized control of their own destinies by setting out to snare their chosen husbands. Even if she decided not to use their precise methods, I would have liked to see Selena seize control of her destiny, too. Or that Charles would decide to be brave and snatch her from under the noses of her two suitors. But no. He has to be talked into it by half his relations and hers, and negotiate with his father first, which is very correct but (for me) infuriating. What I want is for one or other or (preferably) both the protagonists to be swept away by passion in the end, overcoming all obstacles, real or imagined. I was also hoping that Charles would turn out to be rich in his own right. His brother-in-law was managing his prize money for him, but although it was mentioned in passing, nothing further was said about that, and Charles had to beg his father for financial support.

As always, though, the book is beautifully written. Here’s a lovely quote: ‘There could be no comparison between Lord Carteret’s cool, grey gaze and Charles’ warm, laughing blue eyes, just as there was no comparison between a still, wintry morning and a glorious summer’s day.’ For almost the whole book, I was utterly enthralled, and couldn’t put it down. Only that somewhat unfocused ending keeps it to four stars for me. 

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Review: Aurora by Joan Smith (1980) [Trad]

Posted June 12, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is a whole heap of fun, with a mystery that kept me engrossed. It’s an old-fashioned Regency, which means the romance is rather perfunctory with the mystery taking centre stage, but it works pretty well. It helps that the hero is an absolute charmer.

Here’s the premise: the baron, Lord Raiker, has died, leaving his eldest son to inherit. Now he too has died without an heir, leaving two brothers to inherit. But Kenelm, the elder, vanished years ago, and the old baron’s young second wife sets about having her son Charles declared the new baron. But then a man appears claiming to be Kenelm. The race is on to prove or disprove his claim. Aurora, the unmarried sister of the widow of the eldest son, would very much like him to be Kenelm, because if he is an imposter, he might very well be a murderer, too. And it would never do to fall in love with such a man. But he is so very charming…

Now, it has to be said that the answer to the is-he-or-isn’t-he question is obvious almost from the start, but the twists and turns of the plot are very twisty and turny indeed, so there is constantly doubt being thrown up, not to mention a body exhumed and all sorts of plausible obstacles arising. Even though I was almost certain how it would go, there was always a little niggle of doubt in there. Meanwhile, the man claiming to be Kenelm appears to be enjoying himself hugely, as he gradually draws strait-laced Aurora into his schemes. And did I mention how charming he is? When he persuades her to creep around the manor house attics in the middle of the night, it’s not at all clear whether he really cares about finding whatever piece of evidence is the excuse, or whether he just wants the fun of it. It’s no wonder she falls hard for him.

What did puzzle me somewhat is what he saw in her. He makes his interest obvious almost from the start, but he is also flirting with pretty much anything in a skirt, so she’s not at all sure whether he really likes her, or is just reflexively flirting with her, or whether he’s just using her to help him gain the barony. Aurora never really shows much personality, so what was the great attraction? That was more of a mystery to me than whether the hero was really Lord Raiker or not.

Nevertheless, this is a light-hearted read, very entertaining if you’re not looking for a passionate romance. The flamboyant and rakish hero (did I mention how charming he is? I may have mentioned it once or twice) and his swashbuckling style more than compensate for the rather colourless heroine. Four stars.

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Review: Unequal Affections by Lara S Ormiston (2013) [Trad]

Posted June 8, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in P+P Variation, Review / 4 Comments

This is only the second P&P variation I’ve ever read [*], and possibly the most expensive ebook I’ve ever bought, but it’s hard to imagine there will ever be anything to top it. The author took two characters we feel we already know well and peeled back layer after layer to reveal every last fascinating nuance of their characters. It’s a virtuoso performance. Perfection.

Here’s the premise: apart from a brief prologue with Bingley, the story opens precisely in chapter 34. Darcy has just made his first, insulting proposal to Elizabeth at Hunsford Parsonage and is waiting complacently for her acceptance. We know how that went in the book! But instead of impetuously rejecting him out of hand, Elizabeth stops to think. He loves her! And loves her so well that he is prepared to make for himself the sacrifice that he deterred Bingley from, and marry into a family beneath his own, in wealth, social status, education and manners. He will put up with her hideous relations for her sake. She realises that she will never again have such a good offer, she can rescue all her family (including herself) from poverty and provide herself with a man who feels an overwhelming passion for her. So she asks for time to consider the offer.

Obviously (because the story would be no different from the book otherwise) she accepts him. They spend a little time in London, where he realises that she has relations of whom she need not be ashamed (the Gardiners), and she realises that amongst his social equals, he can be perfectly agreeable. It’s only when the main characters move back to Longbourn and Darcy bumps up against the disaster that is Elizabeth’s family that things begin to fray around the edges.

This tips the story straight into a maelstrom of discordant emotions. Where Austen is relatively dispassionate, Ormiston brings the muddled feelings of the protagonists to centre stage. Darcy is overwhelmed with love for Elizabeth, but still the proud, supercilious man he is in the early part of the book. He knows intellectually that he has to make sacrifices for Elizabeth, but he thinks it will be a short-lived difficulty, and that as soon as he can whisk her off to Pemberley and away from her awful relations, everything will be wonderful. And Elizabeth is torn between gratitude – he loves her! – and the cold fear that she’s only marrying him for material advantage, and what sort of foundation is that for marriage anyway?

So yes, this is all about the angst, the swirl of awkwardness that is bound to surround two such different people, from very different worlds, marrying for very different reasons. But Ormiston gets wonderfully under the skin of both of them. Elizabeth’s perky self-confidence is gradually stripped away as she begins to realise the enormity of what she’s taken on, and the challenge of keeping Darcy happy, not just through the honeymoon period but for a lifetime. And yet she feels the full force of the power she has over him, of knowing that she has only to smile or lift one eyebrow to bring him to her side.

As for Darcy, we see a side of him that, frankly, never emerges in the book. We see his weaknesses and yes, his vulnerability, on full display. He is tender, gentle and determinedly passionate, and honestly, I’d have married him in a minute, I can tell you. The book softens Darcy and erodes his pride, but it never reduces him to this desperate shell of himself. And yet Ormiston never once made me feel that this was anything other than the Darcy of the books. We just see him exposed in all his complex layers. It’s an awesome performance.

The way they tiptoe around each other is brilliantly drawn. They really know very little of each other’s characters and beliefs (and that was absolutely how it was in the Regency – society combined to keep men and women apart until they decided to marry, so this delicate little dance is spot on). There are two steps forward and one back, meetings when everything goes smoothly and other times when one or the other is cast into despair, wondering what on earth they’ve got themselves into. There are kisses, quite a lot of kisses, actually, but every one is different and the circumstances that lead to them and the consequences of each one are fascinating. But Darcy is utterly steadfast in his love for Elizabeth, and that love (combined with Elizabeth’s outspokenness and willingness to meet him halfway) eventually rips away every last shred of pride. He begins to understand what he has to do to be worthy of her, and she begins to appreciate just what a wonderful man she’s found.

The title of the book tells the story – these two start out with unequal affections, Darcy so overwhelmed with love that he would do anything, absolutely anything, to win Elizabeth. He just doesn’t quite realise what it will take. And he’s utterly confident that he can make her love him in the end. How he comes to realise that, perhaps, that might never be possible and face up to the prospect, and how Elizabeth’s own feelings come to change forms the bulk of the book. The plot actually follows the book rather well, although with some obvious differences, since Darcy and Elizabeth are now engaged. But there are certain scenes and even phrases that come straight from the book, and the divergences are all perfectly logical.

There are plenty of Pride and Prejudice variations that are only tenuously rooted in the book. This is not one of them. This feels like the real Darcy and Elizabeth, but seen from a completely different angle. Much of what they experience here they would have gone through anyway after the wedding – that awkward getting-to-know-you phase of marriage. Here it all happens beforehand in brilliantly realised detail. Austen purists could safely read this and feel they were only adding to their understanding of the couple. And it’s not just the main characters that are perfectly drawn – I heard all of them speaking in the voices of the actors in the 1995 version, that’s how real it felt. It’s a crying shame that Ormiston seems not to have written anything else, but one perfect book is a fine legacy. Five stars.

[*] The other was Thaw by Anniina Sjöblom, which was also wonderful, in a different way.

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Review: A Good Match for the Major by Josie Bonham (2020)

Posted June 8, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is a new-to-me author with an excellent realisation of the Regency, a nice mix of characters and a story that, while not venturing into terribly original territory, is a very pleasant and slightly steamy read.

Here’s the premise: Lady Eliza Wyndham is the daughter of a marquess, whose first, brief marriage was miserable. He was a fortune hunter whose seemingly amiable nature vanished as soon as they left the church. Now she’s back home with her younger brother Max, the current marquess, and quite happy to stay unmarried for the rest of her days, helping out around the parish, acting as patron to the village school and supporting her brother. Major Nathaniel Overton (Nat) has moved to the estate next door where he is heir to his elderly uncle. The two meet in spectacular fashion, when Nat sets his horse to jump a hedge and finds himself directly in front of Eliza’s gig. The gig is overturned and Eliza ends up in a muddy ditch. Immediately the two are sparring with surprising hostility.

Needless to say, there are reasons for their aggression. Nat watched his parents killed in a carriage accident, and shock makes him abrupt with her. This forcefulness reminds Eliza of her husband, so they are very much on the back foot from the start. Naturally, despite their initial dislike of each other, they are then thrown together at every turn, both by accident and by gently conniving friends and relatives, who see the suitability of the match between neighbours.

The trouble they have is that they are unquestionably drawn to each other. This is largely physical, with both of them getting hot and bothered by… well, almost everything. There are a great many brushes of hands or thighs (Eliza seems to have quite a thing about Nat’s manly thighs), and meaningful gazes. I was a little surprised that Eliza is so readily aroused considering that her marriage was a disaster sexually (no details are given, only hints, so it’s hard to know exactly what happened, but it’s clear that she didn’t enjoy that aspect of marriage).

Nat’s progress along the road from dislike to attraction to thoughts of marriage is relatively smooth, disrupted only by mixed signals from Eliza. And boy, are those signals mixed! Eliza is the ultimate ditherer, veering sharply between desire and a determination to avoid men for the rest of her life. So one minute she’s encouraging him to kiss her, and the next she’s freezing him out. No wonder the poor man didn’t know how he stood — she didn’t know herself. I have to say, I strongly disapproved of all that kissing and cuddling, when she had no intention of taking things further. I understood what was driving her, but it was horribly unkind to the poor man.

Into all this dithering and angsting comes the dastardly villain, whose efforts to marry Eliza for her fortune (surprisingly large, despite the efforts of her fortune-hunter husband) become increasingly aggressive. Nat and all Eliza’s male relatives have to join forces to protect her. The plot veers somewhat into melodrama at this point, with a misunderstanding or two thrown in for good measure to slow our progress towards the inevitable happy ending.

A few minor grumbles. The book felt overlong, but that was largely because we got every last detail of every banal conversation (or so it seemed), so the dialogue could have done with tightening up. A few extra commas would have made some sentences easier to read, too. I only spotted a couple of historical errors. Dance cards really weren’t a thing this early (more of a Victorian tradition in England). The only bothersome error to me is that Lady Eliza Wyndham is sometimes called Lady Wyndham. I winced at that every time (but most people probably wouldn’t even notice).

I think this is the first publication by Josie Bonham. If so, it’s a very competent effort which I enjoyed very much, marred for me only by Eliza’s excessive mixed signals. The deeper theme, however, of how she could learn to trust a man again, was well drawn, and I completely got her reluctance to commit, despite all the helpful relations pushing her towards Nat. I just wish she could have been open with him, explained what the problem was and asked him to give her some time to grow used to him before she made an irrevocable decision. I could have used a little more humour, too. But this is a solid Regency with a slow-build romance, some drama and a heart-warming ending. There’s just one sex scene, and a whole heap of lusting. Four stars.

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Review: Choice Deceptions by Emma Jensen (1996) [Trad]

Posted June 7, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This was a solid read, neither wildly original nor particularly deep, but enjoyable, although spoilt for me by a somewhat soggy ending. I liked the heroine very much, but the hero was a little too typical of the era for my taste – forceful and domineering, with a mushy centre that he refuses to put on display (except with the children, of course). I would have liked him to have melted into a puddle of despairing love at the heroine’s feet, but I daresay that’s my modern sensibilities showing through.

Here’s the premise: in Somerset, Aurelie Carollan needs to get through another three months before she comes into her inheritance and is free of her scheming guardian, whose efforts to sell her in marriage (literally!) before her majority are becoming ever more flagrant. Desperate to escape, she advertises for a post as a governess. Meanwhile in London, Jason, Viscount Tarrant, is increasingly irked by his family’s attempts to get him to fall in with an arranged marriage. The girl is beautiful and amiable, but Jason won’t be forced, so when he sees a well-written advertisement for a governess, he decides that she will be just the ticket – to play his betrothed and head off the arranged match at the pass.

So far, so very predictable, and frankly the plot runs on rails from this point. The deliberately dowdy heroine (to deter the unwanted suitors) is miraculously transformed by some nice gowns, a decent hairdo and leaving off the spectacles, into a beauty. She effortlessly wins over the curmudgeonly relations and is a success in London (even charming – quite inadvertently — one of the patronesses of Almacks). Under her influence, the grouchy hero starts to soften as he falls in love.

There’s nothing actually wrong with predictability in a plot, but where this one goes off the rails into stupid territory is via the Great Misunderstanding. Yes, that old chestnut. I don’t mind a little familiarity here and there, but that’s a step too far. Aurelie huffs off into the sunset, leaving Jason in the lurch and he, idiot that he is, doesn’t go after her. Because of pride or something (hard to tell, because I was pretty irate by this time). And so there’s a long interlude where they’re both pretty miserable, the reader is pretty miserable too because the HEA is right there on the horizon, but we’re still mired in the Slough of Despond and frankly I just wanted to bang their heads together.

So why have I given this four stars instead of simply throwing it against the wall? Because apart from the Great Misunderstanding and the Slough of Despond this was actually a perfectly good read. It also gets bonus points for using actual Latin and Gaelic, and for wrapping the story round a very cute Irish folk story, which lifts the whole thing well above the predictable. A well-written and enjoyable story, very rooted in its era but none the worse for that.

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Review: Lady Elizabeth’s Comet by Sheila Simonson (1986) [Trad]

Posted May 31, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

There are books I enjoy, books I REALLY enjoy, and books where everything else grinds to a halt so that I can read on, breathless, until the end is reached. This book is definitely in the third category. I cannot recall a book where the characters are so deep, so subtly nuanced, so downright intriguing before. A fascinating read.

Here’s the premise: Lady Elizabeth Conway, the eldest of eight daughters of an earl, awaits with trepidation the arrival of the new Lord Clanross, a distant cousin who was never expected to inherit, was shipped off to join the army in his youth and has been employed as an estate manager since he was invalided out. Definitely not earl material. His arrival is inauspicious. He looks pale and ill, and is boring as ditch-water, when he’s not being rude. But when his war injuries flare up in life-threatening manner, Elizabeth begins to see a different side to him.

Elizabeth is a fascinating character. Her great obsession is her telescope, through which she hopes to detect a new comet. As she’s viewed as irredeemably eccentric and a blue-stocking to boot, she’s still unmarried at the age of twenty-eight, and her scientific bent makes her largely oblivious to what’s going on around her, particularly the welfare of her two younger sisters, fourteen-year-old twins Jean and Margaret, who have bested a succession of governesses and are well on the way to running wild. Lord Clanross, on the other hand, is very much interested in the sisters and presses Elizabeth to get on and organise a governess. The two spar frequently over this and… well, pretty much everything.

Into this somewhat hostile environment comes Lord Bevis, heir to an earldom, a handsome, witty and charming man who has been pursuing Elizabeth for years, followed in time by Willoughby Conway-Gore, Clanross’s current heir, a somewhat snivelling man who has run through his own fortune and is put out that Clanross has survived to cut him out of the inheritance. He brings with him his beautiful peahen of a sister, with the object of marrying her off advantageously to Clanross or Bevis – either will do. And in the background is Elizabeth’s conventional companion, the new and very unconventional governess and an assortment of relations.

The beauty of this book, however, is that it is entirely written in the first person from Elizabeth’s point of view. This means that we see absolutely everything through her eyes, infused with all her own prejudices and foibles. There are times when the twins aren’t even mentioned, for instance, because Elizabeth has basically forgotten their existence. The dull companion barely registers but the governess, with her scientific bent (she’s a botanist) registers far more. And of course we see the two important men in her life just as Elizabeth herself sees them, and watch how her opinions gradually blur and shift as she begins to view them differently.

Clanross is the interloper, an unworthy commoner with the soul of an accountant, elevated beyond his desserts by a quirk of the laws of primogeniture. He’s rude, plain and downright awkward, and makes Elizabeth bristle with righteous indignation (and outright prejudice) every time she encounters him. Bevis, on the other hand, is the golden aristocrat, the smooth talker, flirtatious, mannered and so, so charming, with the familiarity that comes from long friendship. It’s no wonder that she begins to think perhaps it’s time to say yes to him, and settle down to married life. But the difficult question of her telescope won’t go away. Bevis is horrified by the thought of her pursuing so eccentric a study after they’re married. Clanross, on the other hand, respects and admires her scientific work.

And so, inch by inch, Elizabeth comes to understand Clanross better and begins to appreciate his true worth. And all this is done with scintillating dialogue which is genuinely clever and witty, and very, very funny, as well as Elizabeth’s inner thoughts, and her guilty realisation that she really has neglected her sisters, and hasn’t done justice to Clanross himself. It’s all brilliantly done. I can’t remember when I last read a book that I enjoyed so much, and on a number of different levels. Even the minor characters are perfectly realised and fully rounded human beings, in all their quirky mixture of good and bad and outright weird. And the romance? Perfectly judged and eminently satisfying. An excellent five stars.

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Review: Leticia by Devi King (2021)

Posted May 28, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is an oddball find, something I hit on accidentally when I was bouncing around Amazon looking for something a little bit different. And this is definitely different.

Here’s the premise: Alistair, the Marquis of Yarrowton and Miss Letitia Gough-Dane have been destined for each other for years, since she was a baby, in fact, introduced to the Eton schoolboy as his prospective bride. He has fond memories of the wild child Letty growing up, so when he meets her again for the first time in years and finds he still likes her, he offers and she accepts. At which point she turns into an ice maiden – very correct, very civil but distinctly chilly. Mystified, he determines to find out the reason for her behaviour – has she taken him in dislike? Is she being pushed into marriage? But he gets nowhere, until a chance curricle accident leaves them stranded at a country inn overnight.

At this point, the story veers sharply into Georgette Heyer territory, with the appearance of a charmingly pretty ingenue, an irate lover and a bottle of brandy. It’s all very funny, but resolves rather neatly, the characters are both believable and likable (the marquis is a bit of a charmer) and really my only complaint is that it’s far too short (I read it in not much above an hour). But it’s beautifully written, with an elegant use of language and a very convincing grasp of the Regency. I would very much like to see a full length work by this author.

So what’s so different about it? Only that the author published four other books at the same time as this one. This is a more or less traditional Regency, with no more than a bit of mild kissing and some lusting, with a fade to black on the only sex scene. There’s even a classically traditional cover, very tasteful. The other books are billed as erotic tales of the Ottoman Empire, a genre that could hardly be more different. I commend the author’s versatility, but it’s an uneasy mixture. I don’t know what the erotica is like, but if she chooses to focus on the Regencies, she definitely has a future there. Four stars.

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Review: A Gift of Daisies by Mary Balogh (1989)

Posted May 28, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 1 Comment

This was a difficult book for me to judge. Were it by an author unknown to me, I’d probably have gone with 2*, but with Balogh I’m prepared to see it as an aberration, a brave stab at something that ultimately failed. It ranks, however, as by far the most boring Balogh book I’ve ever read.
Here’s the premise: Lady Rachel Palmer is a social butterfly, the beautiful and vivacious star of the London season, charming even the most unlikely confirmed bachelors to her side. David Gower is the precise opposite, a serious, pious clergyman who may be the younger son of an earl, but isn’t going to let that stand in the way of him devoting his life to his parishioners and good works, living a life of relative poverty. Two people less likely to hit it off could hardly be imagined, yet they have the misfortune to fall in love with each other at first sight. It’s impossible, of course. Except that Rachel doesn’t accept that it’s impossible…

And that, in a nutshell, is the entire book. They spend endless chapters agonising over a dilemma that wouldn’t even exist if either of them had two brain cells to rub together. Here’s the thing: there actually is no obstacle whatsoever to them marrying. He’s of suitable rank, she has a dowry sufficient to support them in reasonable comfort even if he gives away every penny of his income, there’s no reason why she can’t satisfy whatever social cravings she suffers from by visiting her relations, or beetling up to London now and then. A little compromising would have done the job nicely. But no, he has to be noble and self-sacrificing because he’s convinced that she can’t hack it as a clergyman’s wife, and it takes him the entire book to realise that actually, she can make that decision for herself, thank you very much.

She, meanwhile, is proving that she’s too flighty for words by dithering about between David, an old friend and a marquess before finally going off the rails completely and walking out in the middle of a ball with a thunderstorm going on. I get that the author wanted to show her finally breaking free of the stifling constraints of society (aka politeness), but that’s just stupid. And what happens afterwards is even more stupid and melodramatic, and seemed to my mind completely out of alignment with the introspective nature of most of the book.

That, I think, was what made it so unspeakably boring, for me. The two principals go round and round the same things (in their heads) with occasional forays into Serious Conversations, liberally larded with religious stuff. Yes, folks, this a deeply Christian book. I’m not qualified to judge that element of the story, and it wasn’t what made it boring (in my opinion, Regency authors should introduce far more religion into the genre, given that it was an integral part of normal life for virtually the entire population). But if you DO introduce it, and portray one of the characters, at least, as a man of deeply felt faith, then you should really not have him inflicting passionate kissing and much pawing on the heroine. Mixed signals there.

No, what really drove me nuts was the constant and repetitive angsting, and the hero disrespecting the heroine by repeatedly stating that she doesn’t know her own mind and he can’t marry her for her own good. Ugh. And I really don’t get why Christian service can only be demonstrated in abject poverty. It’s all very well to give away virtually all your money, but what happens when your eight or ten children all need to be fed and shod and educated in a manner befitting the grandchildren of noblemen, and you’ve given away every last penny of your wealth? You’ll be going to your more sensible relations for handouts, that’s what. I would have loved to see some mite of commonsense penetrate the skulls of these two dipwits, but no, they were determined to be self-sacrificing.

I had to laugh, though, at the heroine going about the parish distributing cakes to the poor, or reading to them, which is very nice and all, but I’m sure they would rather have had a leg of mutton! I was amused, too, at the lord of the manor grumbling about David doing his good works about the parish and distributing largesse everywhere. “That’s my job,” the lord says. Which is absolutely true. The church was there for spiritual welfare, and the aristocracy were supposed to take care of the more material needs of the poor.

I think this was a brave attempt to write a properly Christian book, and although it failed on pretty much every level for me, it’s still a beautifully written failure. There were a few historical errors, but the only one that really grated was that the clergyman was addressed as Reverend Gower, or even Vicar Gower, which was not common practice then. He would have been plain Mr Gower. And his income comes not from his patron paying him a salary, but from the tithes of the parishioners. A clergyman couldn’t just decide to retire, either. He held the living for life, although he could put a curate in if he wanted to retire from active work in the parish.

To be honest, I don’t recommend this except to Balogh completists. It’s an interesting attempt at portraying two people with deep philosophical differences, who prove ultimately to be more complex than originally suspected. I like what she tried to do in theory, I just didn’t enjoy the result very much. Three stars.

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Review: Hidden in the Heart by Beth Andrews (2021) [Trad]

Posted May 26, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Well, that was unexpected. The title says it’s a sumptuous unputdownable Regency romance, all of which I would question, and none of which should be in the title, for heaven’s sake, the cover suggests it’s a fairly generic type of story, and actually it’s a funny, not to say frivolous, piece of whimsy which I enjoyed hugely, with a couple of reservations.

Here’s the premise: Lydia is the younger of two daughters in the impoverished Bramwell family. When Louisa, the air-headed beauty of the family, goes off to London to make her debut and snag a husband, preferably rich and titled, Lydia is sent to Aunt Camilla, who lives in the Sussex village of Diddlington, to rusticate for the duration. But her stay turns out to be anything but the peaceful and rather boring time she envisages, when a charred and battered corpse is found in the woods. Luckily, intrepid Lydia enlists the aid of innkeeper’s son John Savidge to track down the murderer, which leads to all sorts of unexpected complications…

So let me deal with the title first. The word ‘sumptuous’ implies to me something very rich and upper class and extravagant, and the characters in this story are all well below that sort of level of society. Most of them are not even gentry (Mr Bramwell is a solicitor, so what his daughter is doing being presented at court is a mystery). Unputdownable is fairly subjective, and as for Regency romance – well, it’s set in the Regency and there is a romance or two, but if anyone is looking for passion or even much emotion, better look elsewhere.

But once preconceived ideas are set aside (and the hype in the title is ignored) this is a really cute and funny story. Lydia is both intrepid and very practical, her new friend John Savidge is similar, Aunt Camilla and her French admirer are deliciously overwrought and melodramatic, and there are some fun side characters in the domineering Mrs Wardle-Penfield and the socially ambitious innkeeper, Mr Savidge. The murder plot rumbles along nicely, with some diversions and then an escalation, all of which our two main characters handle with aplomb.

The mystery is, frankly, blindingly obvious from a very early stage, even to me, and I’m usually the one astonished by the last-chapter revelations. But this one was too simple for words. The romance… well, it really wasn’t. Our couple kiss, more or less accidentally, and almost immediately start thinking about marriage, but in the most prosaic way possible. They are a nice couple, but the romance was very much a side issue in the story.

And that leads me directly to the reservations, the first of which is that this book is misbilled. It’s a Regency murder mystery, at the cozy end of the scale, and it’s misleading to pretend otherwise. A lot of Regencies have a mystery in them, but the romance is still centre stage, but not so here, and book 2 of the series features Lydia and John again, solving another murder. Anyone picking this up expecting a standard romance is going to be disappointed.

The second reservation is the names. The Bramwells randomly become Barnwells, and the Savidge family are also Savage and even Savings! And this happens multiple times throughout the book, once even using Savage and Savidge in the same paragraph. Maybe a lot of readers won’t notice, but I did and it drove me insane. Other than that, the editing was excellent, the writing was beautifully done, both very much in keeping with the era and also very funny – as in laugh out loud funny. There are some minor historical glitches (a baronet is not a peer, since he has no seat in the House of Lords), but nothing that bothered me as much as the names.

Overall, I loved this and it has a charm which is sadly lacking in most modern Regencies. The characters felt believably real, while also being entertainingly quirky, the hero and heroine were delightfully down-to-earth, and the murder mystery was interesting, if not the most difficult to solve. This would have been a clear five star read for me but for those pesky name errors, but I still recommend it wholeheartedly.

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Review: More Than A Mistress by Mary Balogh (2006)

Posted May 26, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 1 Comment

I honestly don’t know what to make of this. It’s Mary Balogh, so it’s beautifully written, that goes without saying. In fact, I would describe it as compelling. Yet I had problems with it right from the off, and not just minor grumbles, but great big NO-NO-NO problems. So it was a weird read for me. I’m still conflicted.

Here’s the premise: Jocelyn Dudley, the Duke of Tresham is engaged in a duel. The opponents are lined up, pistols poised, when out of nowhere a servant races towards them, shrieking at them to stop. Tresham, astonished, does so. His less honourable opponent carries right on and shoots him in the leg. Delayed by the consequences, Jane Inglesby, the servant, loses her menial job unless she can prove that she really was helping the Duke of Tresham. So she boldly marches up to his house and asks him to write in confirmation. Instead, he takes her on to nurse him while he’s recovering from being shot. Which suits her because she’s in hiding and she might as well hide in the comfort of the duke’s town house. For three weeks, they bicker and banter and squabble (and begin to fall in love) and at the end of it, he offers to set her up as his mistress. And she agrees.

Now, there are a million problems with this. First and foremost, what on earth is she doing intervening in a duel anyway? She might stop to gawk, but trying to stop it? WHY? She doesn’t know any of them, has no stake in the outcome and her life depends on her keeping a low profile. It makes not a scrap of sense. Usually I can go with the flow of the opening premise, but this one is just too out there.

Secondly, even when Jocelyn begins to realise that she’s not the orphanage girl she pretends to be, he never questions her about all the secrecy or tries to find out who she really is, or why she hates to be seen by any of his friends.

Thirdly, why why why when she’s hiding from any number of grim possible outcomes, up to and including death, does she agree to sing for fifty guests? And no, the payment of fifty pounds doesn’t convince me.

Fourthly, given that she’s led a perfectly respectable and sheltered life before this, why on earth does she agree to become the duke’s mistress, and no, because she’s got the hots for him isn’t an answer.

And fifthly (and finally, let’s hope), why is she doing nothing at all to rescue herself from her predicament? She isn’t friendless, as we discover later in the book, far too late, really. There were people she could have called upon to help her, even before she left home, when she was being pressurised to marry against her will. And even when things got really sticky and she panicked and ran away, she had a ton of time to think up better options, and (again) people who would have helped her, if only they’d known of her predicament. And once she was ensconced in the duke’s house, she must surely have realised that he would have helped her, if only she’d asked, and he was powerful enough to protect her. As he proved, later in the book (which is the funniest part of it, actually, since he has only to crook his little finger and everyone is your-grace-ing and running around to do his bidding and the whole situation is resolved in three minutes flat and Jane is so irritated that, after all that she’s been through, it’s just so easy for him, being a man and a duke and rich and all that; and I totally got why she was so annoyed).

And that scene kind of summarises one of the big problems I had with the book. Jane is intelligent and feisty and resourceful (and pretty stupid at times, too, but let’s gloss over that for the moment), but she was also pretty helpless. She could do nothing to defend herself, she needed other, more powerful, friends. Whereas Jocelyn has all the power, in spades, but he rarely uses it for any sensible purpose. Instead, he’s the typical Regency alpha-male hero – arrogant, rude, selfish, temperamental, reckless and all kinds of other unpleasantnesses. And he’s also manly and courageous and honourable and loyal and superbly good at everything he does. Because of course he is. Oh yes, and he has a sensitive side, too, so he’s a brilliant (self-taught) pianist and a brilliant (self-taught) painter. Because of course he is. I cannot tell you how much I disliked him.

With a hero like that, there is really only one way for him to redeem himself, to my mind – he has to crawl. He has to be so deep in love with the heroine that he falls at her feet and abandons all dignity to humble himself before her and beg her to marry him. Nothing else will do. But Jocelyn didn’t. Instead he decides (decides!) that she’s going to marry him and even when she steadily and determinedly refuses him, he is still absolutely sure that she’ll agree in the end. Not a single momentary doubt enters his arrogant aristocratic head. Ugh.

So what’s the good stuff? Well, it’s Mary Balogh, so it’s brilliantly written. The dialogue between our two main characters is scintillating, and the heroine usually has the last word, which is refreshing (and probably why he fell in love with her). Every scene between them shone. The hero does have shreds of redeemability in his character, he has a group of entertaining and totally loyal friends (and hooray for likable characters!) and his sister is delightfully silly. The villains are pretty silly, too, but that’s par for the course with Regencies. Mainly, though, I have to confess that despite the deficiencies of the plot, I couldn’t put the book down. So after some agonising, I’m going to set this one down as a four star, and point out (as always) that although I sound pretty negative about this, it’s only my excessively quirky opinion and I actually enjoyed the book quite a lot.

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