Posts Categorized: Review

Contemporary romance review: ‘Just This Once’ by Rosalind James

June 8, 2017 Review 0

I’m not much of a contemporary romance reader, in fact I don’t think I’ve ever read one before, but I’ve seen the author online and love her down-to-earth approach, so I thought I’d see what it is that makes her so successful. And yes, I enjoyed it very much – a nice, easy read that I finished in a couple of days.

The plot’s a simple one: responsible, work-a-holic American, Hannah, takes a holiday to New Zealand to get some much needed relaxation from work. While there, she goes for a dip in the sea and is caught by a rip-tide, only to be rescued by local rugby player, Drew. And not just any rugby player; Drew is captain of the famous All-Blacks, New Zealand’s national team. I wondered for a long time whether Drew was in fact Maori, as many of the All-Blacks are, and the book was maybe half gone before it emerged that he wasn’t. It surprised me that this wasn’t mentioned upfront, to avoid any confusion, but maybe we were just supposed to assume it.

After such a romantic hero-rescues-heroine beginning, it’s not surprising that our lead characters are drawn together by something perilously close to instalust. Drew’s thoughts are quite clear right from the start – he skips from admiring Hannah’s cute behind in shorts to wanting to rip those shorts right off her, and I was a little disappointed at the rapid transition from attraction to sex. I’d have liked at least some indication of deeper feelings, but it felt at first as if all he wanted from her was sex.

From there the romance develops in easy stages. It wouldn’t be quite true to say that nothing happens, because Hannah quits her job and moves to New Zealand, which is quite a big step for an independent lady, but really there are no bumps in the road for this couple. He develops an unswerving devotion to her, for no obvious reason (but then love can be irrational sometimes), and she agonises about every step but then does it anyway, while confidently predicting that it won’t last, he’ll get tired of her, she isn’t worthy, etc. But it does and he doesn’t and… well, that’s about it, really. I’ll leave the question of whether she’s worthy as an exercise for the reader.

I enjoyed this one more than I expected to, and my only real complaint is that Drew is just too perfect. A top sportsman with a perfect physique, a gentleman in bed and everywhere else, strong but caring and so on and so on. I’d have liked a flaw or two to make him more human. But otherwise, a pleasant easy read. Four stars.

Divider

Book review: ‘A Moment of Silence’ by Anna Dean

June 5, 2017 Review 0

I loved everything about this book. It combines two of my favourite genres, Jane Austen and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, in one glorious package, and how can anyone resist that? Dido Kent is a spinster, past the age of any likelihood of marriage, although not past the age of interest in gentlemen. But she’s no romantic heroine, that role being taken here by her niece. When the niece’s fiance disappears, she sends for her aunt to comfort her. But then there’s a murder…

Thereafter, this follows the usual pattern of all country house murder mysteries. Dido doesn’t so much interview suspects as engage in conversation with them. She also rather ingeniously befriends the servants and gains some valuable clues in that way. And she isn’t above a little bit of pretence to inveigle secrets from anyone she thinks may have information. However, even when she’s sleuthing away, she’s never less than a lady and never has to resort to the slightest impropriety of behaviour.

All this is quite delightful, and both the Regency and murder mystery elements work perfectly. The solution to the mystery is ingenious but convincing (the very best kind), and there’s even a perfectly judged happy ever after, although I did wonder just how the final arrangement was going to work out in the long term. But that’s a very minor quibble. An excellent five stars.

Divider

Film review: Mansfield Park (1999)

June 2, 2017 Review 0

Now, this is what happens when people allow modern sensibilities to infuse a story that worked perfectly well when set in its own time: you get a muddled arrangement that makes no sense whatsoever.

The story is an interesting one: of three well-brought-up sisters, one married a wealthy baronet, one married a clergyman and one married a poor man, for love. The eldest daughter of the married-for-love sister is taken to live with her cousins at the baronet’s house. The contrast between the impoverished Price family and the wealthy Bertram family at Mansfield Park is very striking. I wondered a little how Mrs Price ever managed to meet and fall in love with quite such a poor man, who would surely not have been within her orbit in the regular way, but maybe this is explained in the book (which I haven’t read in a long time). Suffice it to say that the Price family live in squalor.

The Bertram family at Mansfield Park live a very different life, the usual idleness of the wealthy in those days, with every need met. Fanny, however, as the poor relation, is treated at an unpaid servant. Her two aunts have no affection for her. Lady Bertram is indolent, and Mrs Norris, the clergyman’s wife, lives off the largesse of her richer neighbours, and is concerned only to keep Fanny in her place and make sure she doesn’t get ideas above her station. Sir Thomas barely notices her, and of the four cousins, only Edmund is kind to Fanny. This part of the story is heart-wrenching but it must have been commonplace in that era.

The adult Fanny is the target of the worldly Henry Crawford, who sets out to flirt with her but ends up falling thoroughly in love with her. But Fanny is armoured against his advances by her love for Edmund – unrequited, since he is in love with Henry’s equally worldly sister, Mary. And here is where the original wobbles slightly. Having set up, right from the start, the ghastly consequences of marrying for love without consideration of wealth in Fanny’s own dire family circumstances, yet the moral of the story seems to be – screw that, hold out for a love match anyway. For Fanny rejects the eligible Henry, a marriage which would undoubtedly have lifted her own family out of poverty, and is so determined not to marry without love that she goes back to live with her own family again, sharing their insect-riddled home and actually adding to their burdens. It doesn’t seem to fit with her unselfish nature (but maybe the book explains it better). So, mixed messages, there.

Now, I don’t remember the book well, but I know that Fanny’s sweetness, innocence and good-nature are contrasted strongly with the dissolute and selfish natures of the rest of the family, Edmund excepted. She is shy and retiring in company, never putting herself forward. This is not the sort of heroine to appeal to modern audiences, however, so the scriptwriter has turned her into a feisty, spirited 21st century lass, boisterous and hoydenish, writing quirky novels in private, with Edmund as her audience. She manages (somehow) to also be retiring in company, but even this is jettisoned later in the film when she starts getting snippy with people. It’s very difficult to make a coherent story when you throw out the central tenet, and the entire character of the lead, and this, for me, is why the film fails.

The secondary change from the book is perhaps less problematic. Sir Thomas Bertram’s wealth derives from his plantation in Antigua, worked by slaves, and Fanny is imbued with all the modern antipathy towards the slave trade. This isn’t quite so out of line with the era, for there was a well-established and increasingly vocal anti-slavery movement dating from well before Jane Austen’s time, but whether a quietly-brought-up girl like Fanny would have known anything about it or taken much interest in the subject is moot. More likely she would simply have accepted it as a background part of the world she lived in, and had nothing to do with the politics of the day. Still, it was (probably) a topic for discussion in many households, and Edmund’s comment that they all lived on the wealth of the slave-managed plantation is a good summary of the situation. The book of drawings that Fanny later finds is a completely unnecessary addition to this aspect of the film.

Of the film itself, it’s hard to fault the settings, costumes or casting. The acting was as you’d expect. Perhaps only Harold Pinter, as Sir Thomas Bertram, rose above the general level of competence to put in an outstanding performance.

Overall, it’s possibly a worthy attempt to re-imagine a classic work in a way that appeals to modern audiences, but I can’t say I enjoyed it very much. I feel that more subtlety makes a far stronger point; it’s often only when one sees the accepted attitudes of earlier eras portrayed with unflinching accuracy that one appreciates just how far we’ve come. There’s a lot to be said for playing it straight, when portraying the classics on film or for TV. After all, there’s a good reason why they’re classics, so maybe it’s better not to try to ‘improve’ upon them.

Divider

Review: ‘The Unflappable Miss Fairchild’ by Regina Scott

May 25, 2017 Review 0

When I first finished this, I marked it as a 5* read, but when I came to write this review I couldn’t for the life of me remember why. A book that slips out of my mind so quickly when I read so little these days is not really worthy of 5* for me.

It’s a nice story of two people who are very, very different, and, although attracted to each other, move in very different circles and have to overcome their differences to achieve their HEA. He’s a rake (yes, another one; anyone reading modern Regency romances would get the impression that London is entirely populated by rakes, rogues and scoundrels, and every last one of them an earl or a duke). And, as with all these rakes, he turns out to be a real softy at heart, nothing like as bad as he’s painted. She, meanwhile, is a very respectable, not to say dull, person, not his usual type at all. And unflappable, with a calm and practical demeanour.

As with all such stories, the immediate attraction the hero and heroine feel for each other has to be tempered with numerous obstacles, because heaven forfend that two young, unattached people should simply fall in love and marry. Sadly, the obstacles turn out to be that out standby, the misunderstanding, and the singularly stupid attitude of: oh, he can’t possibly love me so I must Wed Another. Sigh. Combined with a number of extreme coincidences, this seems like a regular trope-a-thon, doesn’t it? Nevertheless, I enjoyed it hugely and found it page-turningly readable. A good four stars.

Divider

Review: ‘Sense And Sensibility’ (1995, 2008)

May 5, 2017 Review 0

The intention here was to write a review of the 2008 TV version of Sense and Sensibility. The problem with that is that it inevitably begs comparison with the 1995 Emma Thompson film version, which just happens to be one of my favourite films of all time, and by far my most-loved Jane Austen adaptation. So, for simplicity, I’ll combine reviews here to contrast the good and bad points of each.

One thing both got right was the casting of the main roles. The 1995 film had Kate Winslet as Marianne, Emma Thompson as Elinor, Hugh Grant as Edward Ferrars, Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon and Greg Wise as Willoughby. The 2008 version had Charity Wakefield as Marianne, Hattie Morahan as Elinor, Dan Stevens as Edward Ferrars, David Morrissey as Colonel Brandon and Dominic Cooper as Willoughby. They all looked and (mostly) sounded the part, in fact there were times when, if I closed my eyes, I couldn’t distinguish one actor from the other. David Morrissey’s flat northern vowels were inescapable, and Willoughby broke into Essex-speak in moments of high emotion, but since neither could be faulted for their acting otherwise, I forgive them. I have a slight personal preference for Hugh Grant’s bumbling Edward, and Charity Wakefield captured Marianne’s open-hearted affection and innocence to perfection, but really, there was very little to choose between them.

On the minor characters, the 1995 film won hands down. No one could better Robert Hardy’s Sir John Middleton, or Imelda Staunton and Hugh Laurie as the Palmers. It also made the excellent decision to prune away some of the less significant characters. Lady Middleton and her many children, Miss Steele and the Dashwoods’ young son all got the chop, and the story was the better for it.

The settings were both pretty good. Both had wonderful Norlands, and a suitably small, isolated and windswept Barton Cottage. If anything, the 2008 version made the cottage more rustic and therefore more of a contrast with Norland, with the peeling paintwork and low doorframes. It almost seemed a little too rustic, but let that pass. My only grumble was Mrs Jennings’ house in London which seemed somewhat too grand for a widow. Even in the early nineteenth century, housing in London was very expensive.

Where the two versions differ most is in the scripts. Emma Thompson’s captures all the wit and charm of the original. The scenes with Edward’s visit to Norland are delightful, with the discussion about the source of the Nile, and swabbing decks. It’s also particularly good with the subtext of Elinor’s desperate unhappiness, which the reader/viewer understands perfectly well, even when nothing explicit is said. My favourite part of the film is when Colonel Brandon offers a living to Edward and asks Elinor to tell him of it. The viewer feels for her as she tries to refuse, and then suffers the awkwardness of the meeting with Edward. Beautifully written, beautifully acted. The 2008 film skates over the words to show only the emotion bubbling below the surface, which works but loses all the subtlety of the original.

But then the whole angle of the 2008 version is towards ramping up the emotion. The camera frequently lingers on Marianne’s expressive face, and even gives Elinor moments of obvious distress (against her personality, but perhaps more in keeping with the visual age we live in). The scene where Willoughby takes Marianne to the house he hopes to inherit sums up in glorious style her love and trusting innocence as she lifts her face for that delicate kiss. And then a very telling moment, as Willoughby visibly draws back from thoughts of seduction and clearly decides that she’s too good for that and he must marry her instead. That was very nicely done.

One aspect the 2008 version got spectacularly right was in bringing to the fore Willoughby’s previous seduction of Colonel Brandon’s ward. In the book, this is kept as a background mystery until close to the end, by which time it has lost some of its impact. Here, the seduction is the first thing we see, and it makes Colonel Brandon’s later behaviour far more understandable and more poignant. I liked the duel, too, over-dramatic as it was.

Overall, I still prefer the 1995 Emma Thompson version, but the 2008 version, with its Andrew Davies script, is also very enjoyable to watch. And that stirring music is still running round in my head.

Divider

Review: ‘An Inheritance for the Birds’ by Linda Banche

April 28, 2017 Review 0

This is a sweet little story, with loads of quirky charm. When an elderly lady dies, her will sets up a contest for her estate between her two likely inheritors: her great-nephew, Kit Winnington, and her companion, Angela Stratton. All they have to do is to keep the old lady’s pet ducks happy, with the winner being determined by the solicitor administering the will. Since both are poor enough for the inheritance to be an attractive proposition, the battle is underway.

This is a delightful premise, and the contest, as it unfolds, doesn’t disappoint. The protagonists are suitably hostile towards each other, while (naturally) each finding the other remarkably desirable, the ducks have plenty of character of their own while providing much of the comic relief, and there’s an array of eccentric friends and neighbours on hand to provide plenty of complications.

It’s quite short, so the conclusion is reached all too soon. My only objection is that the friends and neighbours are a little too silly for words, so the story loses the opportunity for any subtlety. And as for the prospect of any man of the era removing his shirt to work when ladies might happen upon him, and said ladies falling upon him with glee, and even touching him, while he’s in such a state of undress – no, just no. But the tale is so charming in every other way, that it would be churlish to complain too much. An enjoyable four stars.

Divider

Film review: Northanger Abbey (TV, 2007)

April 20, 2017 Review 0

It’s years since I’ve read the book, so I watched this with more or less fresh eyes, as a casual viewer, and I have no idea at all how closely it adheres to the book. Not very, probably, given the sexytimes between Isabella Thorpe and the dashing if callous Captain Tilney, and the somewhat raunchy dreams of Catherine Morland. I found them pretty implausible but whatever.

I’m going to be honest and say that this film left me unmoved. It wasn’t bad, exactly, but it just wasn’t convincing, somehow. None of the characters felt quite right for their roles and even the costumes grated on me, for some unfathomable reason (usually these days the accuracy is spot-on and there’s a proper adjustment for rank and character, but these just didn’t do it for me). Even the romance fell flat, which was really disappointing.

Now it’s not that there was anything wrong with it at all, and there were elements that I loved – Catherine’s dreams, for instance, full of dashing heroes and wildly romantic moments. But somehow, overall it was just ho-hum. If I have to account for it, I’d say that it failed to provide me with the full immersion-in-the-Regency experience – in other words, although it was well done, I could never forget I was watching actors in costumes on film sets. Very sad.

Divider

Review: ‘Mistaken Kiss’ by Kathleen Baldwin

April 5, 2017 Review 0

A Bookbub free download.

This is an oddball one. The start is delicious. Willa is the sister of a clergyman, steeped in the logical and philosophical debates of her brother and his friend, Sir Daniel Braeburn. When her brother realises that she is growing up (and Willa’s breasts have a great deal to do with this observation, to very amusing effect), he decides that she should marry his fusty friend, so that the three of them can go on exactly as before. Willa isn’t completely unwilling, but she feels that they only way to determine whether she and Sir Daniel would suit is to kiss him.

This she sets out to do, but being very short-sighted, and having to remove her spectacles before undertaking the deed, she ends up kissing the wrong man, Alexander Braeburn, the brother of Sir Daniel. Naturally, the passionate kiss she shares with him turns everything upside down. And from there on, the game is to get the two together. To spin things out (because obviously two young people instantly attracted to each other and with no obstacles to marriage cannot be tolerated in a Regency romance), Willa is whisked off to London by batty Aunt Honore, who puts her in all sorts of near-compromising situations in order to raise the protective instincts of her reluctant swain.

And… that’s about it, really. There are some side plots involving her friend and his, which are pretty silly, but no worse than most Regencies, the writing is good, the two main characters are lovely, and there’s some nice business with the horse breeding which the hero is involved with. Oh yes, and it’s laugh-out-loud funny. My main concern is that the frivolous side plots so quickly twist from amusing to serious. The boating incident, for instance, which was very funny initially, and I loved that the heroine deduced what was going on and got herself out of the boat, but then the whole escapade veered off into near-tragedy, a startling change of tone. And the batty aunt was quite dangerous, I thought, in getting Willa into some quite dodgy situations. I didn’t find her funny at all.

But overall, an entertaining and enjoyable read with a nice romance, a little spoiled by the abrupt changes of tone. Four stars.

Divider

Review: ‘Cousin Cecilia’ by Joan Smith

March 15, 2017 Review 0

This is a lovely traditional Regency, focused on social niceties and marriage prospects and not much else. Anyone looking for high action or sex scenes or intrigue should look elsewhere. But for anyone who’s a fan of Georgette Heyer, this is a good substitute.

The premise is that the heroine, the eponymous Cecilia, is unmarried herself but an expert matchmaker, brought in to ensure that her cousins’ suitors get to the point of a declaration. She finds they’ve been led astray by recently returned widower Lord Wickham, so she sets out to charm him in order to arrange matters to her satisfaction. So far so good, and of course it’s no surprise that the initial flirtation between the two turns to something else.

With all Regencies of this type, there are two aspects that both have to work well for the book to be an overall success. One is the romp element, the side plots and minor characters and mishaps that drive the story forward, provide the amusement and throw the main characters into increasingly difficult encounters. This side of the story is fairly lightweight, but the characters are well-sketched and the mishaps are suitably entertaining. Cecilia’s efforts to bring her three provincial charges to a proper degree of self-esteem are nicely done, and I liked that the girls tended to lapse as soon as her back was turned. I liked, too, the very confined setting. Although the book ends up in London at the height of the season, most of it is set in one small town, and this aspect reminded me of Pride and Prejudice.

The romance is quite nicely developed, a slow-burn rather than insta-love or (worse) nothing at all until the last chapter. But here we see how a society flirtation gradually deepens and turns to serious love. However, I had a real problem with the character of Lord Wickham. He’s framed at the start as the villain of the piece, a worldly and dissolute man who leads the young suitors of the cousins by taking them to gambling dens and entertaining them to drunken parties at his home. He’s a very aloof, unfriendly man, we’re told, who never socialises and is rarely seen.

And naturally, the first time our heroine ventures out of the house, who should she bump into but this reclusive man, walking about town like anyone else, and perfectly willing to be sociable and charming, and even requesting permission to call upon her the next day. Just like any regular fellow. This pattern is repeated endlessly. Far from being a dissolute man leading the youngsters astray, he turns out to be a quiet and well educated, not to say learned, man, and it’s not really clear to me why he ever had a bad reputation. This is a theme of quite a few Regencies, in fact, that the supposed rake or black sheep turns out to be perfectly respectable after all.

And so the romance gets under way, and, given that both parties are intelligent, articulate people of independent means and both free to marry, it becomes increasingly difficult to contrive reasons why they shouldn’t progress smoothly to the altar. So the author falls back on the time-honoured strategy – the misunderstanding. He thinks she’s looking only for a practical marriage of convenience. She’s insulted by his unromantic proposal. And then they go to London and things get very silly indeed. I know Regencies are required to have a degree of silliness, with the two lovers at cross-purposes, but this was far too long-drawn-out for my taste.

However, overall the story was an enjoyable traditional Regency, historically sound and with characters who were believably of the era. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and only the above-mentioned flakiness in the plot keeps it to fours stars.

Divider

Review: ‘You’re The Rogue That I Want’ by Samantha Holt

March 4, 2017 Birthday Regencies, Review 0

When I had some Amazon tokens for my last birthday, I decided to buy some recommended traditional Regency romances, partly as research for my own Regencies, but also because I just like to read that style. But for comparison I also bought the top three bestsellers on Amazon on the day. This is one of those top three, so we can safely say this is the type of book that a great many people enjoy reading.

So let’s get one thing clear right from the start – this is not a Regency romance. Sure, there are references to pelisses and bonnets, breeches and mail coaches, and so on, but with only minor tweaks the whole story could be lifted and replanted in almost any era from late Victorian onwards. I can see it as a very successful contemporary romance. But not Regency. There is nothing at all in the characters’ behaviour or attitudes that speaks of that era.

So here’s the premise. The hero, Red, is the wealthy Earl of Redmere, whose hobby is smuggling. The heroine, Hannah, is a twenty-year-old who’s travelled alone from Hampshire to meet Red to persuade him to cross to France to collect a priceless historical artifact. And ‘travelled alone’ is not here a euphemism for ‘accompanied only by a lady’s maid, coachman, postilion and two footmen’ – she supposedly took the public coach. Alone, and no, she’s not a housemaid or governess, she’s supposed to be well-to-do. So my eyes are already rolling pretty hard at this point.

Our hero refuses, naturally, but changes his mind because reasons. At this point, I expected an adventure, with a trip to France and all that, but no, Red sends his crew off to France, and the next thing the boat is returning with the artifact. Then the heroine wants him to take her to London. He refuses, then changes his mind, because reasons. And off they go to London, abandoning the coach and accompanying servants pretty quickly because reasons.

And it becomes obvious from this point on that the reasons are actually to ensure that the hero and heroine are thrown together in a series of carefully staged vignettes of gradually rising sexual tension, strung into something vaguely resembling a narrative. Our heroic pair enjoy a night at a deserted inn, share a room at various inns and at one point are almost drowned crossing a river, which lucky escape causes them to kiss passionately on reaching dry land. Of course it does. And eventually all this increasing steaminess leads to the natural conclusion, whereupon our virgin heroine unleashes her capacity for multiple orgasms. Of course she does.

Now, there’s nothing at all wrong with any of this. In a contemporary romance it would be unexceptional, and even in a Regency it’s fine if the plot scaffolding is a little less flimsy than it is here. You can see how little the author is concerned with the background by her treatment of the priceless artifact. It’s described mostly just as a stone, and we learn later that it’s a mini-Rosetta stone, showing the same text in two previously undeciphered scripts. At first it takes two men to lift it off the boat. Later, the hero manages to cart it about while also carrying other luggage. Later still, he drops it rather painfully onto his foot. But the author never bothers to describe it. I imagined it as being stone-like, that is round, until it was described as being propped up against a wall. Only then did I realise that it was a slab or tablet shape. But we’re never given any indication of the dimensions, because at bottom it’s just a plot device.

Some other minor grumbles. Whisky. Repeat after me: whisky has no ‘e’ in it, not in Regency-era England. Lots of modern language (’the boss of me’? Really?). A hefty dose of typos, especially towards the end, as if the proofreader just gave up at some point. But the author’s done some research, especially into travel times, and I was delighted that, when new clothes were needed, they didn’t just pop into a shop and emerge fully kitted out again. But so much was out of kilter for a Regency novel that these details couldn’t redeem it for me. And then the ending – oh dear. After building up so nicely to the climax (so to speak), the author spoiled it all by tossing in one of those stupid moments where everything could have been resolved by a two minute chat, but no, the hero has to be all noble, for the heroine’s own good. Bleagh.

At this stage, I should point out once again that this was one of the three bestselling Regency romances on Amazon when I bought it. It’s still highly ranked, and has a 4.5 review average (which is stunningly good). Which means my poor opinion of it is shared by – well, probably nobody. If you don’t mind a fairly non-authentic Regency, with a strong focus on the main characters having the hots for each other, and not a lot else, then I commend this book to you. In fact, anyone who’s not me would probably enjoy this book enormously, and I’m just an eccentric pedant to grumble about it. On the plus side, I read it to the end, didn’t skip much and (looking on the bright side) all that eye-rolling is probably good for my facial muscles. Or something. Three stars.

Divider