Posts Categorized: Review

TV series reviews: Emma (1972) and Emma (2009)

May 3, 2018 Review 0

1972 version: RADA has a lot to answer for. They’re the ones who produced all those cut-glass accents so beloved of the BBC and its ‘received pronounciation’, who taught actors and actresses how to enunciate on stage to catch the audience in the upper balcony. Which is lovely for a stage production, but doesn’t work at all in a TV production. Doran Godwin’s Emma grated on my ears every time she opened her mouth. She looked the part, certainly, but her voice and the lack of expression sometimes in her face all came directly from live theatre.

This is, really, my main complaint about the whole show. It’s just too stilted and rigid to be believable. Most scenes are managed as if they were on stage, with the principals speaking and everyone else more or less immobile. Even the ballroom scene isn’t particularly animated. Compare this with the busy scenes in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, where the minor characters are conducting little vignettes in the background constantly.

Of the other characters, I liked John Carson as Mr Knightley, although he seemed a little too old for Emma, and for the first five and a half episodes, I thought he was too avuncular ever to make a credible lover. But when it came to the proposal scene, he pulled it off very well (or as well as this stilted version can manage). Miss Bates was excellent, too, with just the right level of constant chattering. Her performance when Emma comes to apologise after Box Hill, when Miss Bates is too distraught over Jane to care about any slight to herself, was probably the finest piece of acting in the whole series.

Debbie Bowen was excellent as the sweet but not terribly bright Harriet Smith, with just the right degree of naive adoration of the lover-of-the-moment. The Eltons were both good, but then that shouldn’t be hard; Mrs Elton, in particular, is a peach of a role. The Westons and Frank Churchill were adequate, and Jane Fairfax was suitably cold initially, and distraught later. I particularly liked her warmth at the end when all was revealed.

I have to mention the costumes. I have no complaint to make of the men, but the women all wore the same style of gown, regardless of rank. Once or twice I spotted Emma and Jane Fairfax wearing identical sleeve designs, and Harriet Smith’s bonnets were just as elaborate as Emma’s, although perhaps she didn’t have quite so many of them, and Emma did have plenty of fur trimmings to her coats and hoods for the cold weather.

All in all, a competent production, which relied rather more on the original words of the book than is common in later productions. These earlier versions are all words and little emotion, whereas the modern ones are largely about the emotions. The 1995 Pride and Prejudice is the one that, in my view, best marries respect for the author’s own words with some liveliness.

2009 version: Where to begin with this? It’s a real curate’s egg of a production, some dire stuff all muddled up with flashes of brilliance. Let’s start with the brilliance.

The opening scene shows (essentially) the whole life story of Emma, Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, showing how all three suffered an early tragedy, but Emma, being rich, got to stay in her luxurious home and grow up unruffled by life, while the other two had to move away and live with strangers. I really liked this view of the three of them, and their deep connection, which I’d never fully realised before.

More brilliance: Jonny Lee Miller is Mr Knightley. He’s old enough to be a convincing brother-figure, yet young and sexy enough to be a convincing love interest. As a character, I’ve always found him to be a grumpy old sod, and there’s something icky about a man who watches a girl grow from baby to adult, and then falls in love with her. Miller gives Mr Knightley enough personality to outweigh his innate grumpy old sodness, and somehow conveys his growing love for Emma without it being the least bit icky.

But the other characters – oh dear. I’m sorry, but I didn’t like Romola Garai’s Emma at all. She seemed too modern, too face-pulling and bouncy, too Essex-girl and not the perfect (if immature) lady she’s meant to be. She is, after all, the most important lady of the neighbourhood, but she acts like a wilful teenager. She was also far too informal – in fact, all the characters were too informal, their bows and curtsies mere gestures. I did like, however, the way Emma displays an obvious affection for Mr Knightley right from the start. She’s always pleased to see him and disappointed when he leaves, and that’s the first step on the road to love.

Tamsin Greig was a very disappointing Miss Bates. Not that there was any deficiency in her acting (she’s an incredibly talented lady) but she was asked to play Miss Bates with pathos rather than irritating stupidity and endless chattering, and while there was a certain underlying truth to that perception, it just makes Emma’s neglect and rudeness inexplicable. And Mrs Bates is rendered more or less catatonic in this production, instead of merely elderly and a bit deaf.

Michael Gambon was, I thought, a little too lively as Mr Woodhouse. Mr and Mrs Elton were fine, but they’re hard roles to get wrong. Harriet Smith was OK, and Frank Churchill I don’t remember at all, so… um, well, not a memorable performance, obviously. Mr and Mrs Weston I loved. Mrs Weston had a lot more screen time than I remember for the role, but it was immediately obvious how well she had filled the role of substitute sister for Emma. And Robert Bathurst can do no wrong (he was lovely in Downton Abbey, too), and made an admirable Mr Weston.

The costumes – I really disliked the costumes. All the women wore pretty much the same styles, with virtually nothing to distinguish Emma’s higher rank and expensive dressmaker from Harriet’s home-made efforts (which in her position they must have been).

There was an odd moment at the Westons’ Christmas party, when Emma ends up in the carriage alone with Mr Elton. In the book, it’s a mix-up, but here John Knightley deliberately gets into the other carriage, leaving Emma with Mr Elton, and I found that an inexplicable decision in a gentleman, to leave his unmarried sister-in-law alone with a man in a closed carriage, even if the man is in the clergy.

But the ball at the inn was delightful. Having recently watched the recreation of the Pride and Prejudice Netherfield Ball in a room not unlike the one used here, it all felt very familiar, and perfectly executed. I loved the energetic dancing, and I adored the romantic Emma-Knightley dance. And was that a waltz??

On the whole, enjoyable, with flashes of brilliance, but a lot of wasted opportunities, too.

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Review: ‘The Fortune Hunter’ by Diane Farr

April 12, 2018 Review 0

Oh boy (fans self). This was a sizzler and no mistake. And yet, pretty clean. There’s one actual sex scene, although very tastefully done and completely non-graphic, but the rest of it is all kisses and gentle touches. And yet… so hot.

The story picks up the most interesting character from the previous book, Falling For Chloe. Lord Rival is one of the ton’s most notorious rakes, who’s been living a precarious hand-to-mouth existence ever since he inherited his run-down estate some twelve years ago. He’s so impoverished that he lives in rooms with no servants, and does all the work of taking care of his clothes. He survives by playing piquet for money against rich, not terribly bright women who fall for his charms and see their losses as a fair price for an hour in the gaming room with his undivided attention. But he’s beginning to realise that he needs to do something more permanent to resolve his financial woes, and that means marrying an heiress.

Top of his list is the elusive Lady Olivia Fairfax, and he meets the lady in the most inauspicious circumstances. She is dressed in old clothes, engaged in cleaning up the stored treasures of a recently deceased gentleman for one of her charity projects. He, not unnaturally, mistakes her for a maid, and so they get off on quite the wrong foot. But some odd clauses in the deceased gentleman’s will throw them together anyway, and since he’s determined to win her and she is equally determined that he won’t, the sparks soon fly.

There’s an oddness about money in this book. George (Lord Rival) is supposedly dead broke, but in the previous book he managed to win several hundred pounds at a time from his besotted victims, and in this one he’s offered an annuity of eight hundred pounds a year. These are large sums, and with a combination of the annuity and some light card play, he could give himself a substantial income of several thousand a year, more than adequate to restore his estate. But, no matter.

This is one of those books that takes a completely unlikeable character and, by shining a light on his history and circumstances, makes him into something approaching a real hero. I liked George a lot, and was really rooting for him to work out what it was that he really wanted, which, rather foolishly, he seems to be in the dark about. Olivia I was less enamoured of. She has the hots for George right from the start (as all the women he meets seem to), and she allows him to take a great many liberties, yet she won’t agree to marry him. I thought he had the patience of a saint to put up with her yes-please-no-don’t-yes-please shenanigans. But the banter between them is glorious, and did I mention how hot this book is?

The ending is perfect. I did wonder how the author was going to resolve the central issue of the situation, but she carried it off magnificently. That’s all I will say about it. Five stars.

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Review: ‘Falling For Chloe’ by Diane Farr

April 12, 2018 Review 0

I loved the two previous books I read by Diane Farr, but this one is a bit of a mish-mash. There are some delightful moments mixed in with some ho-hum parts that just don’t work for me.

The plot: Gil and Chloe have been the best of friends for years. He’s now a man-about-town and she’s a spirited and independent young lady who’s perfectly content to live a secluded country life. But when they inadvertently find themselves in a compromising situation, some kindly soul sends a notice of their engagement to the newspaper. Then Gil’s sister Tish takes the inexperienced Chloe under her wing and launches her into London society.

The writing is very much inspired by Georgette Heyer, and unfortunately many of the characters are drawn from her favourite stereotypes, too. Chloe is the innocent young girl getting into scrapes, Gil has the two regulation not-very-bright friends, there’s an overbearing mother and a devilish rake… all the usual suspects. And the plot is driven by misunderstandings and silliness which is all resolved with a wave of the hand in the last chapter.

There are two aspects that really grated on me. One is Gil’s sister, whose marriage of three years, although founded on love, is now falling apart, and all because the husband and wife don’t bother to talk to each other. This breaks one of the cardinal rules of any romance, for me, that a happy marriage should be happy for life, and the wife shouldn’t be off flirting with a notorious rake. And here’s the other point that bothered me. Chloe, our otherwise charming heroine, sees Tish’s rake and is promptly drawn to him herself, to the point of kisses and other bad behaviour in a betrothed lady, even if the betrothal is a bit of a sham. She might not realise that she’s in love with the hero, but she shouldn’t be getting hot and bothered over another man.

Despite these issues, I really enjoyed the read, and the romance came to a very satisfactory conclusion, even if they did have to be prodded into it rather. Four stars.

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Review: ‘The Governess Affair’ by Courtney Milan

April 12, 2018 Review 0

This is a curious one. Hugo Marshall is known as the Wolf of Clermont, as the man who does all the dirty work for the rather unpleasant Duke of Clermont. When governess Serena Barton turns up to demand compensation from the duke, and is prepared to sit on the bench outside his house until he gives in, the duke turns to Hugo to make the problem go away. And that’s exactly what he’s prepared to do, by fair means or foul. When Serena refuses an offer of money, Hugo turns to less pleasant means of persuasion.

Fair enough. But the really curious part of all this is that neither of them is honest with the other. Hugo allows her to go on thinking that he’s just a lowly secretary for far too long, and Serena simply refuses to tell him exactly what it is that the duke is supposed to have done. I could never quite see the point of this. How is anyone supposed to deal with a woman who complains of some unspecified bad behaviour?

Another oddity concerns money. Serena and her sister supposedly live on £15 a year (this at a time when a housemaid probably earned £20 a year, plus her board and lodging). They would only survive on so little if they kept chickens and grew some of their own vegetables. They certainly wouldn’t be able to afford the tea they drink! And Hugo is doing all his dirty work for a lump sum of a mere five hundred pounds, which would go nowhere, even invested. I assume the author has good reason for choosing these amounts but they seemed very low to me.

However, the romance, when it gets going, is lovely and there’s a glorious sex scene that I absolutely loved. So in the end I compromised, and gave it four stars, but it’s an oddity and no mistake.

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Review: ‘A Feather To Fly With’ by Joyce Harmon

March 31, 2018 Review 0

It’s always a good sign when a book keeps me up until 2am, and so it is with this captivating tale, which could almost be an undiscovered Georgette Heyer. There’s nothing terribly unexpected about the story, but it’s the characters who make it. The scholarly and unworldly Duke of Winton is adorable, and his efforts to move through the social whirl of the season and find himself a wife are gloriously funny. He approaches it, naturally, as a scientific problem to be solved, but misunderstandings abound, as when his friend suggests sending a book instead of flowers to a young lady after a ball, and the duke sends her ‘Principia Mathematica’, but only the English translation, in case her Latin isn’t up to the original! The friend, Justin Amesbury, is the exact opposite, socially astute, gently guiding the duke through the shoals of ambitious mamas and insipid debutantes, a thoroughly nice man.

The ladies are just as well drawn. Cleo is the unconventional daughter of unconventional parents, newly arrived in England determined to restore the family fortunes to allow her younger brother to be a gentleman, and armed with a cunning plan to achieve her aim. Felicity is the dutiful daughter who knows she’s expected to marry well. And when these four get together, things go a little awry. But the ending is pure Heyer, a mad dash through the countryside with misunderstandings on all sides, followed by a slick and very fast wrap-up of the romance elements.

This one won’t work for you if you expect a romance to involve heavy interaction between the principals, with loads of sexual tension or actual sex. It also won’t suit those looking for lots of action or modern characters in period clothes. This is a classic traditional Regency romance, which is beautifully written and very, very funny, one of those books that makes you sad when you reach the end. I enjoyed every single moment of it. Five stars.

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Review: ‘The Town And Country Season’ by Joyce Harmon

March 30, 2018 Review 0

I love the idea of this: identical twin sisters, but with very different personalities, are making their come-out, but there’s only enough money for one of them to do the season in London. The other is to stay in a small country village, but they’ll meet up once a week… and naturally a certain amount of swapping places goes on. Well, the story practically writes itself, doesn’t it?

The biggest problem is that the reader is inevitably tossed from town to country and back again with dizzying frequency. There are different sets of characters in each to remember, and the two sisters swap names too, so the potential for confusion is enormous. And to make things worse, there are no scene breaks provided, so I regularly missed the signs of a new setting. It would have been so helpful to mark each change of location explicitly, whether London or Piddledean (glorious name!), to avoid confusion. However, by about the halfway point, everything began to fall into place, and there was no more than a momentary where-are-we? sort-out at each jump or new chapter.

The characters are lovely. There are no wicked villains, no real nastiness, apart from a couple of cutting remarks from a previously spurned girlfriend, and everybody means well and acts sensibly and thoughtfully. Nothing of a terribly untoward nature happens, and if the romances fall into place rather too easily, the story is so delicious that I can forgive it. I particularly liked Mama, who, unlike most such characters, isn’t merely a plot device, but has her own very interesting story running alongside her daughters’.

This is a Regency romance of the old school, where the backdrop is the season, the objective is marriage, everyone meets everyone in Hyde Park and there’s a major waltz scene at Almack’s (which is wonderful, by the way). Any reader looking for hot sex, a moustache-twirling villain, a heroine who strides about in trousers smoking cheroots or similar should move swiftly on. No Regency conventions are flouted here, and the language is mostly authentic. There are one or two turns of phrase (’visit with’ or ‘fall’, for instance) that sounded too American, but it wasn’t intrusive.

The book reads well enough as a standalone, but there are suggestions of previous books here and there, as various characters and events are alluded to. So if you’re a stickler for reading in order, you might want to check out the author’s other books first.

This is a delightful story that I thoroughly enjoyed from beginning to end. Five stars, and I’m going straight off to root out the author’s other Regencies.

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

March 17, 2018 Review 2

Finally! After five books in the series where the author’s talent almost shone through but was drowned out by misfiring plots, a scattergun approach to punctuation and (in one case) sheer dullness, here she gets everything right. Fascinating characters, an engrossing story, a villain unmasked and a heart-warming romance – this one works on all fronts, and the editing is excellent, too.

Here’s the premise: Felicity Debenham has been passed from one distant relation to another, and given the most desperate jobs, treated with contempt, cheated of her pay and accused of stealing. Cast out on the streets with no other recourse, she turns to an old friend who now runs an employment agency. But it isn’t the sort of agency that supplies respectable maids, companions and governesses, and Felicity is forced to consider learning a new, and less respectable, trade.

She’s rescued by a most unlikely circumstance. Hervey Godbold is looking for female companionship to bring some cheer to the last Christmas of his dying friend, Laurence Dashiell. Unable to find any respectable woman willing to travel north with him, he’s forced to try less reputable sources. Felicity, of course, is happy to help, and so these two set off on their journey together.

Hervey is a most unusual hero for any romance, for he’s a big, blundering sort of guy, not terribly bright but good hearted, and very gentle with Felicity, treating her with the utmost respect, even though he’s effectively paid for her services as a whore. Laurence, Hervey’s soldier friend who’s dying from his wounds, is another gentle soul. He calls Felicity ‘Happiness’, and Hervey calls her ‘Fliss’, and I loved both names for her, which spoke volumes about the two men. Of course, there’s a villain, Laurence’s cousin Dart, who is only waiting for Laurence to die to take over his estate. And he’s been defrauding Laurence, somehow, but no one can quite work out how.

There’s never any doubt as to how things will turn out, and if I have a complaint at all about these books, it’s that the characters fall too rigidly into the good or bad side. There are no shades of grey here, only black and white. But the story is lovely, the romance is charming and the few sex scenes are appropriate and unusually realistic for the genre (by which I mean that the heroine doesn’t fall into instant ecstasy the moment she gets her kit off).

The whole series is interesting, but this one excels. Highly recommended for anyone looking for something different from the usual unfeasibly handsome dukes behaving badly and improbably beautiful but wilfully independent young ladies. Five stars. And now the wait begins for Miss G. Gladys? Gertrude? Gillian?

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

March 17, 2018 Review 0

The fifth of this series, and yet again a completely different story. Not for this author the constant reworking of one threadbare plot over and over. Not all the books are totally successful, but they’re all intriguing, and the hope of uncovering another gem keeps me reading on through the alphabet.

The spinster this time is Edwina Howlett, or Garrett as she calls herself for much of the book, for reasons that never made a great deal of sense to me. She’s been the governess/companion to spoilt, wilful Louisa Hart, who was one of the potential brides invited to the house party in Abigail. I really like that these books are loosely connected in this way, without the artificial constructs of an array of brothers or sisters. Now that Edwina’s charge is betrothed and shortly to marry, she’s no longer needed and takes up a position as a school teacher with a family friend, first in Bath and then in London. But it soon becomes clear that a great deal went on behind the scenes during Edwina’s time at Hartfield.

Edwina herself is a very likable character, very sensible and down to earth, yet holding steadily to her one true love. I never got much sense of her appearance, and I couldn’t tell you whether she was plain or pretty, tall or short, or whatever. Maybe it was all in there and I just missed it, I don’t know. Her love interest, however, I can see very clearly.

He doesn’t come out of this too well. Sir Geoffrey Hart is the father of the girl Edwina was governess to, and therefore an older man who ought to know better. He’s thrown Edwina out of his house, in harrowing circumstances, and immediately betrothed himself to an unpleasant woman of his own age, and although his reasons for this gradually become clear, it is still utterly reprehensible behaviour in a gentleman. Inevitably, despite the apparent permanent parting, he ends up bumping into Edwina at every verse end, whereupon he blows hot and cold and is generally thoroughly annoying. At odd moments he becomes seriously heroic, only to abandon Edwina without a word immediately afterwards. Honestly, I just wanted to slap him upside the head. The contrast with the steadfast and devoted Captain Palfrey in Daphne is striking. Not all heroes need to be the same, but they need to have some redeeming qualities besides the heroine being in love with them.

The author provides an attractive alternative suitor in Mr Richard Ravenscroft, who is a totally nice man, independently wealthy, handsome and pleasingly devoted to Edwina. But he never really develops beyond this sketchy outline, and it doesn’t matter anyway, because Edwina is besotted by her flaky older man. There are some subplots going on in the background, but essentially they are just feeding the romance plot.

In the end, Edwina begins to cast off her very convincing impression of a doormat and starts to stand up for herself, and her love interest finally comes good. And about time too.

These books are so frustrating. On the one hand, the stories are fresh and different and very well grounded in the Regency era. On the other hand, the editing is pretty dire, with commas, quote marks and capital letters randomly added or missing, and far too many choppy sentences and clunky dialogue. The plotting is clunky, too. To give but one example, Edwina meets Richard Ravenscroft accidentally at an inn while they are travelling in different directions. They’ve barely got past the awkward introductions (he’s bathing in the river at the time) before he’s spilling his life history and asking her advice, at great length. To describe this as implausible doesn’t begin to do justice to the random let’s-just-throw-them-together nature of it.

And yet, despite all my grumbles, here I am reading steadily through the series. I already have Felicity and I’m pretty sure I’ll go on to G (Geraldine? Georgiana? Grace?) and H (my money’s on Harriet) and right through to Z (Zinnia? Zoe?). I would love to see the author slow down her production schedule and put a bit of polish on these, with decent covers and some solid developmental editing and proofreading. Then they could be something really special. This one is closer to a three star for me, but it tackles some serious issues and is so original in other ways that I’ll round it up to four stars.

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

March 17, 2018 Review 0

This series is a real mixed bag. Abigail was delightful, Belinda a little less successful, Cecily a powerful and absorbing read. But this one is just dull. The focus is a children’s Nativity play, there are a couple of nasty characters with no redeeming qualities, and a hero who’s just a very nice man. The heroine doesn’t show much character, either, and absolutely nothing of interest happens. The slowness isn’t helped by dialogue that covers every word spoken between the characters.

Here’s the plot, such as it is: Daphne (who’s supposed to be a chatterbox but we never really hear this) lives in genteel poverty with her elderly aunts. She’s courted by retired sea-dog Captain Palfrey and a cousin, clergyman Gideon Spicer. The clergyman is resolutely dogmatic in insisting that she marry him, and I longed to box his ears every time he refused to take no for an answer. Daphne was far more restrained in her refusals than I would have been. There are some struggles with money issues and a problem for Captain Palfrey which Daphne gets involved with and that’s about it, really.

There are fewer editing issues in this book than in books 2 and 3 in the series, but there are still far too many punctuation errors and one or two sentences that just made no sense. There are some implausibilities in the plot, too. Even so, I still enjoyed the romance, and especially the ending which was very satisfactory. Three stars. I’ve already downloaded Edwina and Felicity, so I’ll probably read on and hope for better fortune.

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Review: ‘A Marchioness Below Stairs’ by Alissa Baxter

March 5, 2018 Review 0

This book picks up the story of a couple of minor characters in the previous book, Lord Fenmore’s Wager. Isabel was once betrothed to a man she loved passionately, but instead she married a waelthy, elderly man to restore her family’s fortunes. Now widowed, she discovers that her former love is about to marry another, and fate conspires to trap them all together in a country house beset by snow and influenza. Isabel is not too proud to help out in the kitchens, along with another guest, the disreputable Marcus Bateman.

The author writes her romances skillfully, and there’s never any question about who Isabel will end up with. The difficulty is his reputation, and her desire not to surrender her new-found independence and wealth to a man. I liked her spirit, but she does take some foolish risks in pursuit of her objectives, and needs to be rescued rather frequently. As for Marcus, I liked him very much, but I found him to be oddly volatile. He seems to veer from determinedly pursuing Isabel to staying coolly aloof, and I couldn’t always understand his motives.

The biggest issue with the book for me is the amount of background detail taking up page space that could be used to advance the romance. I realise this is personal preference, so if you’ve always wanted to know more about the workings of a Regency kitchen, the slave trade or how to make an authentic curry in the Regency era, this is absolutely the book for you. Sadly, I am not such a person.

However, Baxter’s writing is excellent, as always, and her dialogue, manners and settings are true to the era. There’s also no sex, for those who enjoy a traditional Regency. The romance is sparkling, and only the excess of culinary and political detail keeps it to four stars.

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