Review: The Mesalliance by Stella Riley

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

After the joyful surprise of The Parfit Knight, which I regarded as a rare perfect tale, this follow-on was, for me, a far more uneven effort. It’s still well-written, it’s still enjoyable, but it suffered from one major problem and a host of minor niggles.

Here’s the premise: the Duke of Rockliffe has reluctantly decided that he needs to marry to fulfil his dynastic obligations, and provide a chaperon for the debut in society of his high-spirited young sister, Nell. While accompanying her to a nightmarish house party and adroitly side-stepping the social climbing daughter of the house, he meets Adeline Kendrick. He already knows her, having met her some years ago at one of his far-flung estates, where he was drawn to her free-spirited semi-wild nature. Now she’s the little-regarded poor relation, hiding her resentment behind a barbed tongue and a somewhat passive-aggressive style of resistance. Rock is just as drawn to the adult Adeline, although not in a romantic way, more a kind of lustful fascination. So when the social-climbing daughter’s machinations go wrong and Adeline is seemingly compromised by the duke, he decides to marry her, because why not?

So here we have the classic marriage of convenience tale, with a lot of similarities to Georgette Heyer’s The Convenient Marriage, with shades of April Lady and a hint of Venetia, too. To start with, things go well, with Rock acting in a gentlemanly fashion to allow his bride to grow accustomed to her role as a duchess. But when they go to London and start to move in society and events from the past rise up to knock them sideways, everything gets more complicated and frankly, the book goes off the rails somewhat.

Let me deal with the major problem first, which is that time-honoured obstacle, the Great Misunderstanding. I have a rule that if a plot difficulty can be resolved if the characters just sat down and talked to each other, that’s an epic fail, and that’s pretty much what we have here. When Adeline encounters a difficulty, instead of just telling Rock all about it and letting him deal with it (as he should), she attempts to deal with it herself and then gradually involves all his friends in the deception. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Naturally the marriage goes from bad to worse as Rock realises she doesn’t trust him, which (given her history) wouldn’t be too bad, except that she seemingly trusts all his friends above her own husband. Foolish girl. And then he gets grumpy about it and flounces off. Naturally, they do eventually overcome the problem and open up to each other, but it all takes far too long.

Of the minor niggles, these are just me and probably wouldn’t bother most people. This being the second book of the series, a number of characters from the first book pop up, often with important minor roles but not much explanation of who they were, so I struggled to remember some of them. I could have done with less of them, to be honest. I found Adeline’s refusal to open up to Rock inexplicable. He’s a lovely character, who’s very gentle with her, woos her romantically and even explains what he’s doing, but even though she’s in love with him, she never gives an inch. I get that she’s built mental walls to shield herself from the world, but she really needed to meet him half way. The villain of the piece is way, way over the top with a hugely melodramatic outburst in the middle of a crowded ballroom, which I found impossible to believe. There were a couple of minor side romances which were quite nicely done, but I could have done with less of them, too. And a really trivial grumble, this, but I cannot take seriously a duke whose given name is Tracy. Even though it’s historically accurate. Just no.

Having said all this, Riley’s writing is so superb and Rock is such an awesome hero overall (apart from that flounce) that this still reaches four star heights for me. For those who prefer a completely clean story, there’s one bedroom scene, quite graphic although tastefully done. I already have the next book in the series (The Player), but I’ll take a break before trying that, I think.

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Review: The Parfit Knight by Stella Riley

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

There are not many books that I regard as absolutely perfect, but this is one of them. It hit the right notes for me from start to finish, like one of those wonderful tasting menu meals where each course is so exquisite that you’re mentally ready for the next one to be somehow less, but it never is. Not a disappointing moment to be found. As with many books from this era (1986), there are strong echoes of Georgette Heyer but that’s no bad thing.

Here’s the premise: the Marquis of Amberley is en route to one of his estates when his coach is attacked by highwaymen. He sees off the villains, but his coachman is shot, and the marquis is forced to seek help at the nearest house, with snow beginning to fall. There he finds Rosalind Vernon, alone but for her servants and a badly-brought-up parrot, who take care of the coachman and entertain the marquis for a week until the snow has melted. Rosalind is living outside society for a reason – she has been blind since a childhood accident. She is, however, intelligent and self-assured, not repining over her disability in the least. Needless to say, the two hit it off straight away, and in this aspect, the story reminded me forcibly of Heyer’s Venetia, even to the scene of Rosalind waking on the first morning after Amberley’s arrival happy at the knowledge that she has met a true friend.

Amberley returns to London determined to see Rosalind enjoy society, and only partly so that he’ll be able to see her himself. He persuades her brother, Philip, to bring her to town, but determines that he won’t hover around her so much that he deters other suitors. For there will be other suitors, he’s sure, because Rosalind is exceptionally beautiful.
The Marquis of Amberley is one of those heroes so beloved of Heyer – intelligent, mature, floating effortlessly through the drawing rooms of Georgian high society, admired by men and women alike, a little sardonic, superficially ruthless but morally upright in his private dealings. We see him first at the card tables, apparently leading a green young man into deep waters, but later see him return the man’s vowels (IOUs) without payment, as a lesson to him. In his dealings with Rosalind, too, he’s unfailingly gentlemanly. I loved him, I have to confess – he’s absolutely my kind of hero.

And Rosalind is my kind of heroine, feisty and independent (but in a Georgian not modern way), not at all sorry for herself, living life as it’s offered to her and not as she wished it would be. Most of all, she’s never silly. She waits patiently for Amberley to come to the point, enjoying all the new experiences coming her way in the meantime, neither rushing him nor despairing, but confident that he feels the same way that she does.

But of course in every romance there must be an Obstacle that prevents the lovers coming together too soon, and in this case it’s a humdinger, and I totally understood why Amberley was floored by it. Usually the Obstacle is something trivial, like a previous romantic disappointment that has left hero or heroine disillusioned, or some imagined disparity of rank or wealth, but this is not at all like that. It’s such a disaster that poor Amberley dithers a little too long and then everything starts to unravel, and this is all utterly believable.

This is actually the great strength of the whole book, that everyone behaves entirely according to character, and no one becomes a caricature or acts moronically simply to shift the plot along. The crisis, when it comes, cycles through funny and horrifying and glorious and heart-breaking, with the bad-mannered parrot playing a starring role. And while the men are away attempting to resolve things in their masculine way, poor, poor Rosalind is left to wait alone and gradually shift from delirious anticipation to fear to that dreary despair of knowing that he’s not coming. But fortunately, she’s no passive victim and sets out to wrest control of her own future now, at once, without delay (more shades of Venetia). The ending is quite simply perfect.

Apart from the two wonderful main characters, there’s a host of splendid minor characters – the perpetually misunderstanding Philip, laconic but all-seeing Rock, sensible Isabel, and charming Eloise, and the writing is of a rare quality. A wonderful traditional Regency. Five stars.

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Review: Beth and the Mistaken Identity by Alicia Cameron

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

I find this a really difficult book to review. On the one hand, it’s well-written, with few errors and a pretty good portrayal of the Regency. On the other hand, it depends on a couple of huge misunderstandings at the very start (obviously; it’s in the title) which the heroine deliberately continues, a massive coincidence towards the end and a frankly unbelievable resolution. I also found the relationships between the characters wildly confusing. I felt as if I’d missed a chapter or two early on which explained everything, and I never really worked out who some of them were.

Here’s the premise: Beth Culpepper is a lady’s maid who’s been turned off without a character for helping her headstrong young mistress on her clandestine adventures. She hopes to find work at an inn, but soon realises that there are some pretty dodgy customers there. While she’s wondering what to do, she’s spotted by a kindly marquis, who assumes from her clothes (her mistress’s castoffs) that she’s gently born, and has run away from school. His sister (who’s a princess!) coincidentally recognises her from one of those clandestine outings to Vauxhall Gardens, and thinks she’s her mistress, Sophy Ludgate. Feeling sorry for Beth, they sweep her up and carry her off to London to stay at their house there, and await the return of… well, someone (some of those hazily-connected characters I mentioned). Beth feels unable to confess the truth and manages to play the part of a lady well enough to convince them.

So already there’s plenty of plot-fudging going on, and it continues for most of the book, with Beth’s reasons for not revealing herself and the marquis’s for keeping her under their roof falling into the plot-convenience category. I never believed for one minute that a maid, no matter how good an actress, could pretend to be a lady for a whole week without arousing suspicions. I was also somewhat suspicious of Beth’s predilection for books. That she could read, I accept, but to spend her days curled up in the library reading up on Greek mythology seemed a stretch too far, although to be fair, the author shows her struggling with the pronunciation.

Having said all that, the slowly developing romance is delightful. The marquis is an unusual character for a Regency hero, being a thoroughly nice chap, who just needs to lighten up a little. The teasing banter between the three principals is charming, and often very funny. He’s so used to being the target of ambitious young ladies with a yen to become a marchioness that he falls instantly under the spell of Beth, who has no expectations at all in that direction and so treats him a bit like an older brother.

Beth is an even more unusual heroine, and I liked that the author addressed the issue of Beth’s lowly status head on. Having been a servant herself, she ‘sees’ the servants in the marquis’s house in ways that the marquis and his sister never do. They don’t even know the names of half of them. The sister seems uninterested, but the marquis, to his credit, is very willing to have his eyes opened, and Beth’s gentle but sure-handed reorganisation of the whole household is one of the delights of the book.

There’s one other unusual feature of this book. Most Regencies focus fairly closely on the hero and heroine, and everything is seen through their eyes. Here, though, we get to see the cause of Beth’s difficulties, in the shape of Miss Sophy Ludgate. Sophy’s a fascinating character, who continually gets herself into trouble in the most exuberant way, and somehow always manages to make it seem like the most reasonable thing in the world. She’s not wicked, just rather thoughtless and self-absorbed (but she’s not alone in that), but she is very, very plausible and it’s easy to see how Beth was drawn in to helping her. There’s a neat resolution to her problems that I very much liked.

Unfortunately, the resolution of the romance wasn’t quite so successful, to my mind. There was always going to be a clash of epic proportions when the marquis discovered that the love of his life is a humble maid, and although it’s obvious that there will be a happy ending, I didn’t find it particularly plausible. Some rank disparities are just too great to be bridged, no matter how ingeniously they’re covered up.

However, that’s just me, and for those who can suspend disbelief a bit more than I can, this is a well-written and charming story. I can’t give this one more than three stars, but I’m impressed enough with the author to want to try another of her books.

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Review: First Comes Marriage by Mary Balogh

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

Mary Balogh is capable of spinning a brilliant tale out of almost nothing, and so it is here. It’s a basic marriage of convenience plot, with very few stumbling blocks on the way to the happy ever after, but it’s beautifully done.

Here’s the premise: Elliott Wallace, Viscount Lyngate, arrives in the tiny village of Throckbridge to upend the lives of one of its residents, seventeen-year-old Stephen Huxtable, by telling him he is the new Earl of Merton. Elliott thinks he’ll just whisk the boy off to be trained up to his new position, but Stephen has three older sisters who are not about to be left behind.

Now Elliott has the problem of introducing all four of them into society, and how is he to manage the sisters? He has no females in his own family in a position to do it. But he’s been thinking he ought to marry soon anyway. Maybe he should marry one of the Huxtable girls, and solve two problems at once? He sets his sights on Margaret, the eldest, but middle sister Vanessa, a widow, intervenes to save her sister from a loveless marriage.

Does this sound familiar? It will if you’ve ever read Georgette Heyer’s The Convenient Marriage, where the youngest sister jumps in to protect her older sisters from a similarly loveless match. In that book, the prospective bridegroom, Lord Rule, is intrigued enough by the girl’s audacity to do it, but Elliott has (supposedly) disliked Vanessa from the start, so I was very intrigued to see how she would persuade him. It’s a note-perfect scene, beautifully written.

From then on, the story proceeds on the traditional rails, and in fact, almost nothing happens at all. The four Huxtables adapt beautifully to their new life, are accepted without a qualm into the high society world of the London season, and make no social faux pas. This is a story with absolutely no surprises. It’s the way the main characters deal with the non-surprises that makes this book such a joy. Not so much Elliott, who is a fairly typical example of a buttoned-up, arrogant bloke, who’s not willing to sit down and talk things through. He’s a real grumpy-drawers, who’d far rather sulk than find a way to solve a problem. But Vanessa – oh, Vanessa is a glorious character. She’s a totally straightforward and outspoken person, and she’s not about to let her chance of happiness trickle away by letting a problem fester. No, she sets out to confront Elliott and draw him out of the shell he’s been building around himself.

The side characters fade into the background as the story progresses, no doubt ready to spring up, fully formed, for their role in a future book of the series. Sisters Margaret and Katherine, brother Stephen and cousin Con will all get their turn in the spotlight. But this book is thoroughly about Vanessa and Elliott, and their marriage (and yes, there’s a fair amount of sex in it). A wonderful read. Five stars.

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Emma: movie (2020)

Posted October 16, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Just what the world needs, another adaptation of Emma. I have four already, and I’m sure there are others.

What I liked:

  • Johnny Flynn naked and not just for the obvious reason! It was lovely to see a Regency gentleman getting dressed with his valet’s assistance.
  • Seeing Mrs Goddard’s schoolgirls out in their red cloaks, two by two.
  • Miranda Hart as Miss Bates. I didn’t think anyone could improve on the many previous incarnations of Miss Bates but her Box Hill moment was superb.
  • Bill Nighy as Mr Woodhouse. I didn’t expect to like him at all, but he actually worked very well as an old fusspot with his fear of draughts everywhere, even though he wasn’t actually ill.
  • The music. Aptly frivolous.
  • Emma and Mr Knightley’s dance at the ball, where he, in particular, very visibly and believably falls in love. I’ve complained in reviews of other versions about the age disparity and the creepiness of him falling in love with a girl he’s known since she was a baby, but Johnny Flynn is hot enough to overcome the creepiness factor, and having him suddenly notice her as a woman and realise that she’s all grown up now is brilliant. Much, much better than the worrying suspicion that he’s actually been in love with her since she was twelve. Ick! I didn’t like him running after Emma’s carriage, though. Silly.

What I disliked:

  • The nosebleed! Ugh. I see what they were aiming for, but still… ugh.
  • The costumes. Emma’s were too stylised and stiff, I hated the corkscrew curls and Johnny Flynn’s shirt points were way too high. I wanted to see his face! Mrs Elton’s hair was anachronistic but it worked well for her. What was the matter with Mr Elton’s vestments? He looked as if he was about to take off. I did like the way Harriet’s hair gradually copied Emma’s, though.
  • Isabella and John. Two whiny by half.
  • The conflation of the ball and Harriet’s attack by the gypsies. I get the point of it, to interrupt a potential declaration from Mr Knightley, but it was so far out of line with the book that it threw me completely.
  • Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax got rather short shrift in this production, sacrificed to too much time spent on poor Miss Taylor’s wedding, and too much froth generally. The Bates ladies, too, weren’t as much in the forefront as usual.

Overall:

I’ve heard very mixed reviews of this but although I don’t think it’s the definitive version (which in my view has yet to be made), I liked the freshness of the approach and the light-hearted tone.

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Review: War and Peace (BBC TV series, 1972, 2016)

Posted October 12, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

A tale of two TV adaptations, both by the BBC but more than forty years apart, both excellent in their way, but different, very different. War and Peace is not an easy book to bring to the screen – it’s so big, for starters, with a huge cast and an odd combination of soapy romantic difficulties and the backdrop of massive battles. There’s a philosophical undertone, too, that’s difficult to portray. The 1972 version makes a fair effort to capture everything, while the 2016 version cherry picks and goes for the emotional jugular.

BBC TV series 1972

This is, in many ways, the definitive adaptation of War And Peace, with twenty episodes, a cast of thousands, amazingly well-realised set-pieces like the Battle of Borodino and the burning of Moscow, and a stellar cast, including a young but already brilliant Anthony Hopkins. I dread to think what it must have cost. It covers the years 1805 up to the 1812 retreat from Moscow, with an 1820 epilogue to show who married whom.

I’ve never been a huge fan of war stories of any sort, and the fact that all of this is true makes it far, far worse. The sheer numbers involved (50,000 at least dead at Borodino, for instance) is horrifying. Historian Gwynne Dyer compared the carnage at Borodino to “a fully-loaded 747 crashing, with no survivors, every 5 minutes for eight hours.” To say that the program portrays this devastation well is, I suppose, a compliment. Certainly the scale of the thing was portrayed brilliantly, with no expense spared. The soldiers’ camps were fully constructed, not just the usual group of men huddled round a campfire, and the battle lines sprawled across the open plains (it was filmed in Serbia, apparently). When the armies marched, we saw long snaking lines of men and wagons.

The peace parts were far more to my taste, and here again no expense was spared. The ballroom scenes were crowded and filled with life and colour, the costumes were gorgeous and the houses of the Russian aristocracy were suitably grand. The two families of the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys are the contrasting backdrops. The Rostovs are the over-spending and easy-going provincials, a charmingly happy bunch, opening their house to any passing friends of friends and going smilingly broke. The Bolkonskys are old aristocracy, rich, eccentric and reclusive. In the middle of these two is Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate-turned-legal son of a vastly wealthy man, a drifting and aimless young man looking for some meaning to his life. Andrei Bolkonsky is the weary-of-the-world cynic looking for a higher purpose. Natasha Rostova is the full-of-life girl they both fall in love with.

Anthony Hopkins as Pierre is utterly brilliant, a faultless performance that captures his youthful hi-jinks, disillusioned marriage, search for a purpose to his life and final achievement of peace perfectly. Alan Dobie as Andrei comes across as rather snobbish and coldly efficient, clever but without much humanity. Not sure if that was intentional or not. Morag Hood as Natasha had the most difficult role for she was required to cover the ages from around thirteen or so up to twenty, her natural liveliness muted by age and experience. I would say that she suited the older parts much, much better. My memory of watching this when it was first shown was that I thought her sadly miscast for the part, but now I think she did rather a good job under difficult conditions.

All the other characters were excellent too. I particularly liked Angela Down as Maria Bolkonskya, Frank Middlemass as Kutuzov and David Swift as a very convincing Napoleon Bonaparte. Donald Douglas, who played Tsar Alexander, looked exactly like the famous portrait of the Tsar. I felt sorry for Fiona Gaunt, who played Helene, Pierre’s wife, whose acting talents were rendered irrelevant by costumes that displayed her other assets in full measure. No wonder Pierre was so distracted that he was mesmerised into marriage. Any man would have been.

The 20-episode format allowed the script to do full justice to the length of the books, and if the war episodes felt a little too long and the peace ones too short, that was probably just me. This was an excellent attempt to make the definitive TV version of the film and I think it succeeds pretty well.

BBC TV series 2016

Alas and alack, the remake of the definitive version is always going to be… difficult, shall we say. The 1972 version had 20 45-minute episodes, a cast of literally thousands, a budget I don’t even want to think about and (the clincher) Anthony Hopkins as Pierre. This one is 6 1-hour episodes and no amount of creative juggling is going to make it feel anything other than rushed. Add to that the need to show every death in extended glory, and the result feels like War and Peace: the Cliff Notes edition. Moments like the Rostovs departure from Moscow, which took an entire episode in the original, was just a few minutes here. People met, fell in love and were married almost instantly. There was very little time to do more than touch base with the main events of the book, and none at all for the deeper philosophical musings. Significant characters like the Tsar, Napoleon and Kutuzov were reduced to walk-on roles.

Having said all that, I enjoyed it pretty well anyway. There seemed to be more emphasis on the peace parts of the story, which suited me a lot better than the endless shots of men dying in a variety of unpleasant ways. The balls and other social events were lovely, and the homes of the aristocrats were absolutely spectacular. The Russian winter felt very authentic. The acting was uniformly excellent, although I didn’t feel that anyone particularly stood out. Greta Scacchi, maybe. My only (mild) grumble was Paul Dano as Pierre Bezukhov, whose quirky features took me a while to get used to. He just didn’t feel like Pierre to me, but I realise that’s a highly personal reaction. His acting, particularly in the later episodes, was perfect, however.

Ultimately, there was nothing at all wrong with this. It’s a perfectly workable update on the original, condensed and brought into line with modern sensibilities, with more gore, more of the ‘feels’, and less actual plot. The original is much better, though, in almost every way.

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Review: A Respectable House by Jan Jones

Posted October 1, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

A fantastic story! Two damaged people brought together by circumstances and learning to trust again, a wonderful, if unconventional, romance and a whole heap of danger threatening, all set during race week at Newmarket. This is book 6 of the Newmarket series and book 2 of the Furze House Irregulars series, and although it helps to have read the earlier books, it isn’t necessary.

Here’s the premise: seven years earlier, Catherine (Kitty) Bowman eloped to marry Simon Eastwick, and quickly discovered she’d made a hideous mistake. Simon is a crook through and through, and caught up with the evil underworld boss known as Flint. Now Simon’s dead, but Kitty’s nightmare isn’t over, because Flint is after her. With the aid of her sister and friends, she escapes London to hide away in Newmarket.

Helping her is cynical rake Nicholas Dacre, living a privileged life as a gentleman but also taking risks uncovering crime. Helping Kitty opens his eyes to a different, much less privileged, world without a multitude of servants at one’s beck and call. And of course Kitty opens his heart, too.

I liked both hero and heroine. Kitty’s resourceful and down-to-earth. Despite her upper-class upbringing, she’s spent years struggling to manage with little money and a cruel, negligent husband and she’s lost any pretensions to gentility. Her story is utterly heart-breaking, but her spirit isn’t broken in the least. Nick’s the dependable man she’s never known, but he has his own tragic history. The way these two circle round to an accommodation is brilliant. It’s unorthodox, but it’s perfect for their characters and histories.

Along the way, there are some lovely minor characters to spice things up. I particularly loved Molly (a respectable house, indeed!) and Kitty’s young daughter. The villain was pretty obvious from an early stage, but the denouement was still deliciously dramatic. My only complaint, and it’s a very minor one, is that there are a huge number of characters from previous books in the series popping up throughout. I couldn’t remember much about them, and would have liked perhaps a sentence or two more about some of them to remind me. However, there’s a full list at the front of the book and my leaky memory didn’t make any difference to my enjoyment of the story.

One word of warning: there’s nothing terribly graphic here but there’s quite a lot of off-screen sex going on outside of marriage, prostitution and some discussion of sexual and physical abuse. This is entirely in keeping with the characters’ connections with London crime rings, but this is not a fluffy traditional Regency of ball gowns and marriage prospects. It is, however, a very realistic look at the darker side of Regency life, a story that’s less often in the spotlight and although parts of it are very moving, it’s not at all a grim, depressing read. I loved every minute of it, the romance is wonderful and Jan Jones’ writing is, as always, word perfect. Five stars.

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Review: The Truth About Miss Ashbourne by Joanna Barker

Posted September 4, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This was the author’s first publication, and as such it has some quirks, but it’s a very enjoyable read, with a hero who’s just lovely. The heroine was less likable at first, but she grew on me.

Here’s the premise: Juliana Ashbourne is the daughter of a sailor and a woman who ran away from her wealthy family to marry him. With her mother dead and her father not home from sea, Juliana is forced to earn her living as a governess in London, but with hopes of one day saving enough money to open a school (on a governess’s salary? Hmm). But one day she is summoned to a solicitor’s office, to discover that her estranged grandfather has recently died and left her a fortune. All she has to do is to spend a month at the family estate, Havenfield.

So immediately Juliana abandons her post as governess and rushes off to Havenfield to claim her inheritance and start her school, right? Well, no. She storms out in a huff and immediately has an argument with a random passing stranger, then goes back to her governessing. It is only when the lecherous husband makes a move on her and the lady of the house shouts at her for trying to emancipate her little girl with feminist ideals, that Juliana is fired and forced to pack up and head for Havenfield.

The mail coach drops her off at the front door of Havenfield (because it’s an unusually obliging mail coach) and there’s no one about. When it starts to rain, she drags her box to the shelter of the stable where she immediately has an argument with the groom she finds there. And here’s one of those quirks I mentioned. Why is she so argumentative, in fact downright rude? Considering that she’s been brought up in a middle class family and earned her living as a governess, civility and outright deference would have been baked into her very bones from birth. At this stage, I found it quite hard to like her, and I was really trying to. I like a spirited heroine as much as the next reader, but Juliana veers beyond mere spiritedness.

Fortunately the groom is none other than our hero, Mr William Rowley, coincidentally also the man she argued with in London, who responds to her rudeness with gently teasing banter, and not only doesn’t take offence at it but is seemingly rather drawn to her right from the start. I liked William very much, he was even-tempered and good humoured, and never showed any impatience with her. A perfect gentleman. I couldn’t quite understand why Juliana found him so irritating, because to my mind he was sweet and very funny. I wished she had seen the gentle side of him much earlier, because it made her seem curiously humourless.

The rest of the family, grandmother, aunt and cousin, are (mostly) kind to Juliana, although I wondered why on earth they didn’t do something about providing decent clothes for her, instead of leaving her to scrabble round for something to wear for the ball. Because of course there was a ball and an unwanted suitor and a rival for William’s affection and all the usual.

For a while, nothing very much happens rather slowly, but in the last third or so of the book the romance kicks into a higher gear. There are some wonderful moments between our two not very star-crossed lovers, but I particularly loved the first kiss – totally swoon-worthy, after she finally, finally says what she feels. Lovely scene.

There are a few Americanisms and anachronisms, but nothing too drastic, although I hope this gets made into a movie some day so that I can watch the heroine jump aboard a horse and ride off astride while wearing evening dress. Seriously, I want to know just how she does that. More noticeable for me as a Brit was the lack of any sense of place. Havenfield itself felt generically British (with echoes of Julianne Donaldson’s Edenbrooke), but I had no idea where in Britain it was except that it was a day’s coach drive from London. It made it feel rather unrooted. That didn’t spoil my enjoyment, however.

An excellent well-written debut Regency, with a charming hero, a realistic family and a perfect kiss. Only the argumentative heroine keeps it to four stars.

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Review: The World’s A Stage by Joyce Harmon

Posted August 22, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 1 Comment

I’ve never read a Joyce Harmon book yet that I didn’t love, and here’s another one. Beautifully written, clever and, best of all, funny, this was just a pleasure to read from start to finish.

Here’s the premise: Peter Barton is a humble actor who found himself playing the role of a gentleman. I think this happened in a previous book in the series, although I don’t remember it. Anyway, he discovered he was rather convincing at it, and able to make a living by winning regularly at cards. His memory has been sharpened by learning lines, so he finds it easy to remember cards, too (I’m not totally convinced that skill transfers readily, but never mind). So for several years he’s been living a low-key existence on the fringes of London society, but now he’s being pursued by a marriage-minded young lady, and the smallest investigation into his circumstances will reveal what a fraud he is.

Amy Greenlow, on the other hand, is a lady who’s been forced by dire circumstances to become an actress on the stage, taking the name of Amadora. She’s become a great success but she has many men pursuing her in the hopes of making her their mistress, and one of them, the creepy Marquis of Grissam, is very, very determined. It doesn’t take long for Peter to see a solution to both their difficulties if he pretends to be Amy’s protector, thus deterring both their ardent pursuers.

This is a delicious twist on the fake betrothal trope, and of course it isn’t long before the two are falling into scrapes with the deception, and in between times falling in love. I loved both hero and heroine here. They’re both intelligent, resourceful people who find creative ways out of their difficulties, and even at the end, there’s a neat and unexpected twist, which I didn’t see coming even though it was completely in character. And did I mention that it’s laugh-out-loud funny? Here’s just one exchange that I loved:

“Ma’am!” he breathed, “your most humble… devoted… loyal… ardent…”
“A noun, Chilly,” Peter advised lazily. “We could really use a noun right about now.”

A delightful tale, a lovely slow-build romance and an excellent five stars.

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Review: His Grace Endures by Emma Jensen

Posted August 2, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This was a very strange read for me. The plot had so much potential, and yet somehow the author never quite seemed to make things flow smoothly. Or maybe it’s just the odd way the characters behaved, with endless talking but no action, that felt out of kilter. I don’t know.

Here’s the premise: seven years earlier, Deirdre had walked out on her betrothed literally at the altar, and run off to Scotland with his charming friend. Now her soldier husband is dead, and Deirdre has to re-enter society to bring out her husband’s sister. Inevitably she’s going to meet the man she jilted, who is now the powerful Duke of Conovar. Oh yes, and she blames him for her husband’s death. Now, this is all promising stuff, and the early meetings between the two are very tense. He’s surprisingly gracious. She’s surprisingly calm. They try to keep apart and it seems as if that will prevent any explosions of anger or resentment.

But gradually the swirl of rumour and curiosity surrounding them grows, aided by a painting of Deirdre executed by Raeburn (a famous Scottish portraitist), portraying her as the tragic heroine Deirdre of the Sorrows, an Irish tale. Suddenly, Deirdre shifts from being a disgraced jilt to a victim evoking society’s sympathy and Lucas the stiff-necked duke is no longer the dupe but the wicked villain. Things come to a head when they both get drunk and meet at a ball, resulting in a massive outbreak of hostilities. I have to say, this scene is probably the most over-the-top argument I’ve ever read, conducted in full view of half the guests and involving a great many family secrets, holding nothing back.

Naturally for a book of this era (first published 1998), the romantic difficulties are smoothed away only in the last few pages, but before that we get an inordinate amount of back and forth, as Deirdre veers about between overt hostility and something approaching sympathy. I had quite a lot of sympathy for the duke myself, because whenever he manages to inch himself closer to Deirdre she cold-shoulders him again, and starts pouring out her resentment once more. And the poor chap has been in love with her all the time!

But then he’s partly to blame for his own troubles, for no matter how honestly she expresses her dislike to him, he never quite manages to put his own feelings into words, or actions. He simply takes everything she and society throw at him. His Grace endures, indeed. At one point (that monstrous ball scene) she screams at him to show a bit of emotion for once, and I almost punched the air in glee. Yes! Maybe he’ll simply sweep her into his manly arms and kiss her. But no, we weren’t even two thirds of the way through the book so there was no chance.

This is not to suggest that I didn’t enjoy the book. I did, quite a lot, and the little side romance for the sister-in-law, who was unpromisingly immature at the start, was actually rather splendid. The Regency atmosphere was well drawn and there were very few Americanisms, the story intrigued me greatly and I read it pretty much straight through. There’s some lusting and discussion of sex, but nothing on-screen more graphic than a passionate kiss or two. A very readable story, only marred for me by too little actual emotion and too much conversational angsting. Four stars.

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