Category: Review

Review: A Country Wooing by Joan Smith

Posted February 25, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This was lovely. Having just struggled, with steam coming out of my ears, through a more difficult book, this one slipped down as easily as ice cream. Strawberry, maybe… or salted caramel… Sorry, got distracted there for a moment. There’s not a lot of drama here, so anyone looking for adventure or angst or passion might find it a tad tame, but for me it was a simple story, well-told, and just what I needed.

Here’s the premise: Alex, the Earl of Penholme, returns from the Peninsular war to take up his inheritance after his older brother Charles fell off his horse and broke his neck. Interestedly awaiting him is neighbour and friend Anne Wickfield, living in reduced circumstances with her widowed mother. She has no very fond memories of Alex, the least friendly of the family, and a poor contrast with dashing, handsome, charming Charles, who had long since won Anne’s heart. She’s surprised, therefore, when Alex is unusually attentive to his old friends, and to Anne in particular.

The hero and heroine here are my favourite kinds – not melodramatic, not high-flown society types, not over the top, just nice, normal people, the sort you might meet every day. They’re both just practical, get-on-with-it types. At first, Anne can’t make Alex out at all – why is he paying her so much attention? What does it mean that he’s brought a ring back from Spain for her? She decides it’s arrogance. Now that he’s come into a fine inheritance and is something of a catch, he’s showing off a bit. It takes her a while to come round to the idea that, actually, he wants to marry her.

And this makes Alex one of the best types of hero – the one who fell in love with the heroine years ago, remained agonised but silent watching her fall in love with his older brother, dreamt of her during his soldiering and when his brother died, came home with a glad heart to finally claim his bride. I love me a faithful man, who stays true to his lady through thick and thin. But his faithfulness is put to the test when he discovers, piece by horrifying piece, the true extent of the debts his brother has left him, and realises that he can’t possibly dig himself out of the hole. Or marry impoverished Anne, either. But there is a possibility of salvation if he marries one of the neighbouring daughters of a cit worth a million pounds. Fortunately, this is no Civil Contract, Heyer’s wonderful marriage of convenience tale, but the way the conundrum is resolved forms the latter part of the book, and very satisfying and logical it is too.

A couple of quibbles. One is a title error – the younger sons of an earl are not Lord anything, they’re Honourables. The heir has a courtesy title, but nothing for the other sons. The other is the names of the younger Penholme children. The eldest four are Charles, Alex, Rosalie and Robin – perfectly unexceptionable. The younger four are Willie, Bung, Loo and Babe. Whatever was the author thinking? I suppose it may be intended to show the closeness of the family by giving them pet names, but it just made me shudder.

But otherwise, the story is near perfect. The development of the romance and in particular Anne’s slowly growing realisation that she fell in love with a spectacularly selfish man, and his brother is worth ten of him, is lovely. The side characters are delightful, too, with a special mention for Mr Anglin, the cit, who has echoes of Jonathan Chawley from Heyer’s Civil Contract, but is also unequivocally himself. I also liked the very tiny vignette of his wife at the end, where we see the terror of a middle-class woman being pushed, against her will, into a much higher level of society. She has neither the self-confidence of her husband nor the education of her daughters, and hates it all, but of course is powerless to do anything about it. I’d like to have seen more of her.
A wonderful story, beautifully written. Highly recommended. Five stars.

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Review: These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer

Posted February 12, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 6 Comments

Well. What can I say? This book and these characters are greatly beloved by some Heyer aficianados, and I can somewhat see why. The hero, the Duke of Avon, is the sort of aristocratic, world-weary, domineering older man so common in Heyer, which is my least favourite kind. The heroine is another style typical of the author — young, innocent but sparky, ravishingly beautiful. Again, not my favourite. But the adventure is good, once it gets going, and there’s some of that trademark sparkling banter, and by the midpoint things were looking up. And then there was the dramatic finale. Oh dear.

Here’s the premise: the duke is out one night in Paris when he comes across an urchin running away from someone. The urchin looks oddly familiar, so the duke buys him from his pursuer and takes him home, making him his page. The page is prostrate with gratitude, and falls instantly into undying devotion for his saviour. He, of course, is completely unworthy of said devotion, having a reputation as one of the most debauched and cold-hearted characters in either Paris or London, who doesn’t have his new page’s welfare at heart at all. In fact he has a cunning and fairly horrible plan to use his new page to get his revenge on an old enemy. For the page is not a boy at all, but a girl, and the legitimate daughter of the enemy, set aside at birth to be replaced with the son of local peasants.

Now Leon/Leonie, the page who is also an aristocratic lady, is quite a sparky character, so it’s hard to dislike her, but this does throw into relief one of the problems of the book. She’s been raised as a peasant in fairly dire circumstances, and although she’s been given the basics of a good education, she’s still a peasant through and through. The peasant’s son, however, has been raised as an aristocrat, so he’s all manners and delicate good breeding, right? Well no. He’s still a peasant, who wants nothing more than to retire to the country and have a farm. Whereas Leonie has only to be put into long skirts and taught how to curtsy and wield a fan and she’s aristocratic to the core. I know this was written almost a hundred years ago, but is everything really to be set down to blood and nothing to upbringing? All nature, no nurture? It really grated on me.

As for the duke, I just don’t like that kind of hard-edged hero. If he softens the instant he meets the heroine, then maybe, but in this case he’s plotting his nefarious plots, which involve exploiting Leonie horribly, right to the end, so no. That’s a hard pass from me.

The book plot, such as it is, takes a sharp turn in both action and atmosphere about the middle to become a rollicking adventure, and once I’d got over the abrupt change, I found it good fun. It reminded me a little of The Talisman Ring with elements of Sprig Muslin thrown in for good measure. And then we get to the denouement, where the duke’s devious plans come to fruition, and I have to say it’s all pretty horrible. Maybe that was what passed for justice in 1926 but I didn’t like it at all.

And then the forty year old duke decides he will marry the nineteen year old heroine, with her puppy-dog devotion, after all. No. Just no.

On the plus side, it’s Heyer, so the writing is glorious, the banter in the adventure phase is sparkling and the settings, particularly Paris and Versailles, are magnificently evoked. I didn’t enjoy it, so that keeps it to three stars, but I realise I’m in a minority here, so don’t let my opinions put you off.

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Review: A Practical Arrangement by Jan Jones

Posted February 9, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

The dramatic finale to the series and we finally uncover the mysterious Flint! I’ve loved the whole series (or two series, since there’s an overarching 8-book Newmarket series, of which this is the last of the Furze House Irregulars series, which comprises books 5-8; got that? No? Just start with The Kydd Inheritance, OK?). This book runs largely concurrently with the previous book, so although it isn’t essential, for full enjoyment it’s better to have read that first.

When Benedict Fitzgilbert’s sister Lilith goes off to have adventures at Newmarket, it leaves him exposed to the worst of London’s matchmaking mamas, and he hasn’t time for all that nonsense. He’s too engrossed in tracking down the notorious Flint, whose criminal empire has long and vicious tentacles. Lilith proposes a solution: a pretend attachment with her friend Julia Congreve. This is a time-honoured Regency plot, but it never grows stale, especially when carried off as well as this.

Now, our two protagonists are seriously mismatched. Benedict is a serious and very focused man, and Julia is a social butterfly, and this is one of those glorious moments when the author properly shows us Julia in her milieu, rather than simply telling us about it and throwing in a couple of balls. Julia really does move through society like a warm knife through butter, putting people at ease, arranging dance partners, making timely introductions and all of it seemingly effortless and perfectly natural. I loved that she is simply aware of everyone in a room, even a ballroom, knowing exactly who is dancing with whom, who is sneaking off to the card room and who is quietly talking to someone behind a pillar. It’s wonderful, and even though we’re later given a reason that partly explains this, it’s still an astonishing talent and I loved it.

The plot? Well, anyone who’s worked their way through the whole series (or two series, depending on how you count) knows pretty much how it’s going to go. And yes, we finally get to find out who Flint is, and how he’s been carrying out his nefarious activities. His identity wasn’t a big surprise, mainly because there were few alternatives by that point, and the dramatic final confrontation was less nerve-wracking than usual because… well, despite the threat of violence, it was obvious it wasn’t going to happen and there would be a last-minute rescue.

As the final book of the series, the romance might be expected to play second fiddle, but it was rather nicely done, with the complication of the fake attachment at the beginning adding a certain does-he-mean-it? complexity to proceedings. But Benedict has nice manners and Julia has been in love with him for years so it all came together rather charmingly. Cue the happy ending, and there’s a multi-character series epilogue for those who like that sort of thing.

A great ending to a terrific series with fantastic characters, lots of mystery and adventure and a perfectly evoked Regency by a brilliant wordsmith. I highly recommend it. Five stars.

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Review: A Scholarly Application by Jan Jones

Posted January 29, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I’m a huge fan of Jan Jones, and I really wish she could find the wider audience she deserves for her literate and intelligent (and also emotionally very satisfying) stories. This is the seventh in her Newmarket series, and the third of the Furze House Irregulars, where the stars are the women from all walks of life who gather at a highly unusual establishment. The leading lights this time are bluestocking Lilith Fitzgilbert and antiquarian Edward (Ned) Makepeace.

The premise is a simple one: Ned is setting up a short course to help excavate an ancient ditch and wall on his estate near Newmarket, and Lilith inveigles her way into the gathering. It’s the perfect opportunity, for it also gets her out of town before a scandal breaks – she was caught out sneaking into a life drawing class (with a male model!) by dressing up as a man. Ned isn’t keen on the idea of a woman on the course, thinking she’ll be a hindrance, but is surprised by her at every turn. Not only is she genuinely interested in (and knowledgeable of) the subject, she’s a determinedly practical person who sets about reorganising his rather shambolic life in no time flat.

If there’s a complaint at all, it’s that Lilith is just a little too competent at everything. She’s a talented artist, she’s well educated and well read, she’s an efficient manager of a household and she’s also good in a crisis. Is there anything she isn’t good at? I can’t recall anything. Ned felt a little bit bland for a hero, which is to say I can’t remember anything outstanding about him. He somehow reverses into the romance by starting off thinking Lilith’s going to be a perfect nuisance and gradually coming to appreciate her. However, I far prefer this kind of slow-build romance.

As is usual with the author, the plot spirals into a complex web of shenanigans, all very dramatic, so that the romance is perforce pushed aside until the last moment, but it’s all very entertaining. Another delightful five star read.

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Review: Then Comes Seduction by Mary Balogh

Posted January 27, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 4 Comments

This may be a first – a Mary Balogh I didn’t enjoy. It is, of course, as well-written as all her work, but it lost me on the heroine’s character, the implausibility of the setup and the sheer torrent of angst that came close to making me lose the will to live. And the layer upon layer of subterfuge – why on earth can they not simply be straight with each other?

Here’s the premise: Jasper, Lord Montford, stakes his reputation as a seducer on virtuous country girl Katherine Huxtable. His challenge is to take her virtue within a fortnight, and by ‘take her virtue’, he means exactly what you’d expect. No fudging it with a mere kiss. And on the fourth day, he contrives a meeting with her at romantic Vauxhall, whisks her off into the undergrowth and… she puts up no resistance at all. Not in the slightest. He gazes at her through drooping lids and she melts into a puddle of panting lust. For a man she barely knows and against whom she’s been warned in the strongest possible terms. So she’s stupid, right?

This is the irreconcilable contradiction I have with the heroine. Because she’s not supposed to be stupid at all. Balogh paints her as a girl who’s actually quite thoughtful and considerate of the effects of her actions, not just on her own prospects, but on her family’s, too. So she *says* sensible things but she *does* stupid things. She sparks back at the hero sometimes when he’s trying to be a smartass. She can hold her own verbally. She just can’t control herself whenever the hero… well, does anything, really. He has only to get within twenty feet of her and she’s practically falling at his feet.

The hero’s contradictions can be explained more easily. He pretends to the world that he’s an unredeemable rake, and he is so convincing and has been portraying himself thus for so long that he actually believes it himself. So when he feels guilt or even – oh, the horror! – love, he doesn’t recognise it for what it is. And, believe it or not, he maintains this self-deception almost to the very end of the book.

The plot… well, there really isn’t one. There’s a three year time lapse, hero and heroine meet up again, they fall into each other’s arms instantly, but since they clearly can’t admit what’s blindingly obvious to everyone else (including the reader), namely that they’re full on in love with each other, because if they did the book would be a short story, they set themselves another wager. And when that goes pear-shaped, they’re bundled off to the altar double-quick time. And they STILL can’t admit the truth to each other.

And so it goes. Frankly, the whole game-playing got old really fast, as far as I was concerned. The characters weren’t believable, the banter wasn’t particularly witty or clever or even interesting, most of the time, and I just wanted to slap the pair of them upside the head and tell them to sort themselves out, pronto. I’m not a fan of characters who hide their true feelings behind layers of deception, and when they both do it, it’s just too much. It makes for a much better contrast where one character is deceptive, but the other is open and straightforward, as in the first book of this series. At least then there’s some actual conflict and the possibility of real change, instead of this artificial state of perpetual angst. And although the final third of the book was a lot better, with our hero and heroine at last talking to each other and opening up a bit, twice – twice! – the author has the hero say the wrong thing, thus plunging them back into industrial-strength angsting again. I do NOT appreciate being manipulated like that.

As for the side characters… oh Lord, what a bunch of goody two-shoes, most of them, with a couple of cartoon villains to drive the plot into places that it really doesn’t want to go. Although I liked the lazy guardian (Seth?), who was the only one with a bit of entertaining quirkiness.

So much as it goes against the grain, because normally I love Mary Balogh to pieces, I’m giving this three stars. At least I finished it, and it was touch and go at times. And I have the rest of this series already bought, so I hope things improve.

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Review: Lord of Misrule by Gail Eastwood

Posted January 27, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is a difficult one for me to judge. On the one hand, it includes several elements on my list of great big no-nos. On the other hand, it has a really, really likable hero and is absolutely dripping in charm. Which makes it pretty well irresistible.

Here’s the premise: Adam Randall, Viscount Forthhurst, the heir to an earl, is heading home for Christmas in disgrace, after scandalously breaking off a carefully arranged betrothal to a suitable young lady. However, fate, in the shape of a broken curricle wheel and a snowstorm, contrive to stand him in the tiny village of Little Macclow, in Derbyshire. Heroically participating in the Christmas Eve partying with the yokels, he manages to make himself the Lord of Misrule for the festivities. But there’s a silver lining to this disaster, rather a beautiful one – a certain vicar’s daughter by the name of Miss Cassandra Tamworth.

From this point on, the plot runs on rails that any reader with a few Regencies under their belt could predict, so I won’t bore you with that. Let me get my list of no-nos out of the way first. The hero and heroine have the hots for each other instantly. Well, OK, that does happen, at least attraction happens, I’m not sure about all the warmth fizzing through Cassie’s body, although the image of a little candle popping alight inside her every time she looks at Our Hero is delightful (see what I mean about charm? This book positively oozes it).

Then there’s the fact that bad-boy Adam with his reputation as a Devil, as he warns Cassie himself, is actually a great big pussy cat, practically purring with bonhomie. Not only does he help Cassie hang the festive greenery, he turns out to be a dab hand with small children and elderly ladies, too, not to mention buddying up to the working men and… well, he just gets along with everyone in the village. So Cassie, who as the vicar’s daughter, is the mainstay of the village, running the schoolroom and organising village events more or less single handedly (or so it seems), sees Our Hero at his best. Or maybe she brings out the best in him.

But the return home to face the music for that broken engagement can’t be put off indefinitely, and inevitably there’s the culture clash between Cassie, whose father is resolutely opposed to all things aristocratic, and Adam, heir to a long line of aristocrats. I was rather hoping for fireworks here, because up to this point there was very little conflict, but everyone seems to be very friendly towards Cassie. So in order to put a hitch in the otherwise inevitable downhill run to the happy ending, we have the Great Misunderstanding. That’s a shame, because up to this point, Cassie has shown great resourcefulness and intelligence, so when she hears unpleasant rumours about Adam, does she ask him about it? Nope, she runs away, that’s what. Oh, Cassie! Have a little faith, dear.

Naturally, all comes out well in the end, although it takes heroic efforts by Adam to achieve it. There are no real villains in this book, and no, I don’t count Mr Pratt the curate, who isn’t a particularly likable man but doesn’t do anything terribly villainous. Nor does the expected family opposition to Adam amount to much. This is simply a gentle, amusing and very seasonal love story between two people who might never have met, but for mere chance. Or was it? The author leaves it to the reader to determine. A charming story with a wonderfully heroic hero, which only that annoying misunderstanding keeps to four stars.

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Review: Bridgerton (Netflix; 2020)

Posted January 27, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

There’s been a lot of excitement in the generally restrained world of Regency romance at the prospect of Julia Quinn’s popular Bridgerton series being turned into a Netflix series, and I was sufficiently tempted to sign up for Netflix just to watch it. Reviews have been mixed, with purists shocked by the gleeful disregard for historical accuracy, while modernists applauded the brave new world of the diverse Regency. Because yes, in this re-imagined Regency, the nobility encompasses people of all colours.

I knew going in that it wasn’t going to adhere to the rather twee standards set by the BBC adaptations of Jane Austen. This was more along the lines of the 2020 movie version of Emma – stylised, colourful, even brash in places. Bridgerton wasn’t a Regency I recognised, but it was a lot of fun, for all that. I’ve never read Julia Quinn’s books [Update: actually, I have, the very book this series was based on! Must have made a big impression.], so I can’t comment on how closely this version hewed to the original material, but I’ve read the (often outraged) reviews. My favourite said that reading the reviews was more fun than reading the books.

The basic premise is Regency 101: the eldest Bridgerton daughter, Daphne, is about to make her debut in society, so we have a presentation at Queen Charlotte’s drawing room and a succession of balls in the hunt for A Suitable Husband, with all the social pitfalls of Making a Mistake and possibly even Being Ruined. There are rival debutantes and an array of potential husbands, but the principal other family we see is the Featheringtons. I loved, loved, loved the contrast between the uniformly charmed Bridgertons, all of them handsome and elegantly dressed as well as rich, and the less fortunate Featheringtons, with their garish taste in dresses. If the Featherington ladies were to stand in front of the curtains they would be invisible.

However, Penelope Featherington, plump, red-haired and dressed in eye-watering shades of pink or yellow, is one of the most interesting characters of the series, along with blue-stocking Eloise Bridgerton. Both of them were far more fun than righteous Daphne and her tortured duke.

I suppose I ought to mention the hero and heroine, but that involves the plot which is pretty much a regency trope-fest. There’s the fake courtship and the dramatic parting, followed by the reputation-ruining kiss in the garden, the duel at dawn (eye roll), the dramatic ride to intervene by the heroine (even more violent eye roll), the marriage of convenience and the inevitable Big Misunderstanding. Eventually, things get sorted out but it was all pretty tedious, frankly, and makes the usual mistake of mixing up love and lust.

And boy, is there a whole heap of lust. Some of it was even in bed. Although not much of it, it has to be said. Yes, let’s talk about sex. I understand this is straight from the book, and it’s tastefully done. In fact, I don’t recall seeing a single breast exposed, but if you’re a connoisseur of male bottoms, this is definitely the show for you.

Historical accuracy? Variable. We had tightly-laced corsets, dance cards and a variety of dances that were never, ever seen at Almack’s. Queen Charlotte, whose favour or otherwise plays a big part in society in this imagining of the Regency, wears some truly awe-inspiring wigs and the old-fashioned hooped gowns of her youth, but (unlike the real Regency) debutantes were not required to wear hoops themselves. But then when half the ton is black, even the nobility, historical accuracy isn’t really an object.

On the other hand, the gowns (apart from the Queen and the neon-bright affairs of the Featherington ladies) looked pretty accurate to me, ditto the carriages and the houses—! Oh, the houses! Some utterly spectacular interiors and exteriors, sigh. Although I was slightly flummoxed to spot Bath’s Royal Crescent masquerading as London, but then the whole centre of Bath is practically a Regency set, so I don’t blame them for using it.

Even for me as something of a purist, this was a great deal of fun. There were some glimpses of non-ton lifestyles, like the prize boxer and the opera singer, both of whom had to face up to difficult life choices. I loved the story of the cousin fresh from the country, who turns out to be pregnant, and has a whole series of difficult choices of her own. The series doesn’t shy away from the horrible difficulties of life for those who stepped off the conventional path, especially in the sensitively drawn picture of homosexuality, too, a highly dangerous undertaking in those days.

Overall, the side stories were (to me) much more interesting than the main pairing, although the actors were excellent. In fact, the acting was uniformly terrific, and the whole series was very well done. I totally enjoyed it.

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Review: Imprudent Lady by Joan Smith

Posted January 5, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

A curious one. On the one hand, this has the liveliest banter between hero and heroine I’ve ever come across – they really are a good match for each other! On the other hand, our hero and heroine are both complete idiots in some ways, he because he fails to recognise that he’s falling in love, and she because she’s constantly overstepping the bounds of propriety, even when she should know better.

Here’s the premise: Prudence Mallow is the impoverished daughter of a deceased clergyman, living a quiet life in London with her widowed mother and her eccentric Uncle Clarence. A chance opportunity to earn a little money copying the work of authors gives her the idea of writing her own novels, which slowly begin to find success and she starts to mingle with other writers. One of them is the handsome rake, Lord Dammler, whose improbably adventurous poems of his world travels have made him the toast of London.

Having a common publisher, naturally the two are thrown together and… well, that’s it, really. Lord Dammler decides he likes Prudence’s books and the lady herself, and starts squiring her about town in his carriage and taking her to balls and the like. And this is where I take issue with both of them, because this is highly improper behaviour. She has a mother who should be chaperoning her at all times, unless she’s in an open carriage, and she absolutely shouldn’t ever be attending a ball with only an unrelated male as her escort. No way. Not even as a twenty-four year old spinster who wears a cap.

Now, to some extent this is all part of the plot. Dammler thinks she’s older and more worldly-wise than she is, and Prue’s throwaway lines, entirely in innocence, are misinterpreted as either great wit or double entendres or both, so she gets something of a reputation as a bit of an original. However, Dammler is better versed in the beau monde than she is, and should be protecting her from these traps. Instead, he treats her very much as he would a male friend, talking about subjects that no single lady should ever be exposed to, and although he sometimes recognises this, it never stops him. And Prue’s mother and uncle seem to unwittingly conspire to push her out into this racy literary and social whirl.

I’m going to be honest, I never really liked Dammler very much. I have no idea how old he’s supposed to be, although I got the impression that he’s still quite young, not far off Prue’s age, but he seems very immature for a man who’s been right round the world, and is a marquis, to boot. He seems to think it’s fine to drive around with Prue during the day, and then spend the evening with his multitude of paramours. Not only is he unbothered by Prue seeing him with his lightskirts, he even tells her about them. Not really hero behaviour. There’s a very silly (and predictable) incident at an inn, where he behaves badly and storms off in a huff like a rebellious teenager. And then at the end, when he’s finally seen the light, having told all and sundry that he’s going to marry Prue, the one person he neglects to tell is Prue herself. So there are several perfectly stupid chapters when he’s swanning around Bath trying to demonstrate that he’s a reformed character while she’s mystified as to why he’s behaving quite out of character.

I think this is meant to be a kind of Georgette Heyer-lite, but it never quite worked that way for me, despite the sly little references (restorative pork jelly, anyone?). Given that Prue is clearly based on Jane Austen and Dammler is a sort of Byron-alike, there are references a-plenty for aficianados, but combined with the references to Almack’s and the various patronesses, a bit-part for the Duke of Clarence, drives in the park and so on, it all felt a bit tired and old-fashioned.

What saves it is two things. Firstly, the banter is superb, both very clever and genuinely funny. And secondly, there’s good old Uncle Clarence. For a side character, he has the sort of towering comic role played by Jonathan Chawleigh in A Civil Contract, in other words, a character who dominates every scene he’s in. And of course this is Joan Smith, so it’s all beautifully written and creates a very believable Regency setting. Since, despite all my grumbles, I read it avidly, I’m going to be generous and round up to four stars.

I have to say though that books of this age (it’s more than forty years old) are a bit of a gamble, and this is not just Joan Smith, it’s true of the entire genre in that era. Sometimes, even when they’re stars of their time, they feel slightly out of kilter to my modern ears. But interesting reads, nonetheless.

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Review: A Faithful Proposal by Jennie Goutet

Posted December 23, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 1 Comment

This is one of those books where it would be very easy to dislike either the hero or the heroine – or both! The hero is a bit of a goody two-shoes, a pious clergyman with egalitarian ideals and a burning desire to improve the lot of his parishioners, who hates the frivolity of the beau monde. The heroine is a society butterfly, only happy in the swirl of entertainments and gossipy chatter that is London, and very disparaging of country life (and country parsons). But fortunately, the parson has an Achilles heel in the shape of his meddlesome brother, and the socialite is discovered to have a more compassionate side. They are both more human and more redeemable than they appear at first.

Here’s the premise: Anna Tunstall is to join her friend, Emily Leatham, at the village of Avebury, in Wiltshire. On the way, she is attacked by highwaymen and knocked out. Harry Aston, the pious clergyman, happens upon her prostrate form and naturally sets out to rescue her. And when her eyes flutter open, he’s smitten (with this lovely line): ‘When she raised her clear eyes to his and he saw the answering gleam of fun, Harry knew the end to his bachelor days had come. He was done for.’ But of course she’s an earl’s sister and destined, she’s sure, for a life as a political wife, and he’s a lowly rector of a country parish. Or is he?

At first, things chug along rather nicely, with Harry pursuing his suit steadily, and Anna succumbing to his charm and finding out that he’s not as bad as she’s thought, for a parson. There’s still a huge difference in personalities, she wavers back and forth and they seem to be drawn to each other by physical attraction more than anything else, but it seems to be working out. And then comes the huge spanner in the works – Harry’s big brother arrives, complete with fancy title, and the secret of Harry’s identity is out (this is not a spoiler; his family is mentioned in the blurb). And naturally Anna’s far from pleased that he didn’t tell her.

The rest of the book is a succession of misunderstandings, more wavering from Anna and mischief-making from big brother, together with a number of dramatic upheavals to do with friend Emily and Harry’s cook, with everything resolved in an improbable sequence at the end, including the highwaymen. I feel there was rather too much drama thrown in, but never mind.

I was a bit surprised by the church scene, where the parishioners were locked out of the church, there appeared to be stables for the gentry’s carriages, and the rector arrives by curricle. Even when I was a child, church doors were never, ever locked, and the rectory would normally have been right next door to the church, a very short walk away. I’ve never heard of a church with its own stables. There were a few other oddities like this that had me puzzled, but nothing that spoiled the story for me.

It was a little disappointing that, after choosing such an unusual setting for this book, so little was made of it. Avebury is a unique place, sitting pretty much in the middle of a huge and spectacular stone circle, but the stones were barely mentioned and Avebury felt like just another generic English village. At least the author resisted the temptation to have the main characters go haring off to London for part of the time, which I half expected as a way of pointing up the different natures of hero and heroine. It would have been interesting to see Anna back in her more usual environment, and see her growing disenchantment with the shallowness of society life.

The romance ends in fine style, although I confess I’m not too sure that this is a match made in heaven. How will Anna cope as a country parson’s wife? I don’t really see it, somehow, and she’s sharp-tongued enough to make his life miserable if she’s discontented with her lot. But I’m an optimist, so let’s go with the happy ever after.

There’s nothing terribly unexpected here, but it’s very readable, and kept me turning the pages voraciously. Both hero and heroine grew on me over the course of the book, despite their flaws, and I enjoyed the unusual setting, a parson hero who’s genuinely devout, and a heroine who was forced to face up to her true nature. Four stars.

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Review: Much Ado About You by Eloisa James

Posted December 23, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 1 Comment

Well. My first Eloisa James and I’m not at all sure what to make of it. It’s a bit of a muddle, the main characters are swamped by side stories, there’s not a drop of common sense in any of them, it veers from farce to tragedy and back again and then ties up the ending so swiftly I almost blinked and missed it. And despite all that, I read it avidly, and found it (mostly) great fun, if I didn’t think too deeply about any of it.

Here’s the premise: an impoverished horse-mad Scot has died and left his four unmarried daughters (Tess, Annabel, Imogen and Josie) to the guardianship of an equally horse-mad casual acquaintance, who happens to be the Duke of Holbrook. He good-naturedly takes them on, a little surprised to find they’re grown up and not the nursery babes he was expecting, and sets about finding them husbands. He has two of his equally horse-mad friends staying with him, the Earl of Mayne and Lord Maitland, both of them dissolute and as horse-mad as he is, and a fourth turns up, fabulously wealthy Lucius Felton. So now we have four men and four women…

It isn’t quite as simple as that, naturally, and there’s quite a lot of manoeuvring before the pairs start to settle down. In fact, it’s quite a long time before it becomes clear just who the principal pair is, since all the characters get their full share of screen time, and this does tend to make the main romance feel rather more perfunctory than it should be.

The four sisters are a mixed bunch. Tess, the eldest (and our heroine) is the pragmatic mother figure to her wayward siblings. Annabel is the coldly mercenary one, determined to marry a title, or at least someone very, very rich, having grown up with a father who reduced them to abject poverty. Imogen is the passionate one who’s already in love with Maitland and won’t be deterred from marrying him even though he shows little interest in her and is already betrothed. And fifteen-year-old Josie is the quirky, outspoken one (and by far the most interesting, to my mind).

Of the men, only Rafe, the duke, shows any individuality. He’s in his mid-thirties, still grieving for his older brother, not remotely interested in marriage and spending his idle life, brandy glass in hand, perpetually slightly tipsy. But he’s so good-humoured and genial, and his conversations with Tess were so full of charm, that I half hoped that he was the one she would end up with.

But no. When Mayne randomly decides to marry her (why, why, why? This never made sense), she tamely decides she’ll go along with it, even though it comes out of nowhere. When he begins flirting at the breakfast table ‘Tess put down her crumpet and prepared to be courted.’ Well, OK. I can see that she feels an obligation to her sisters to marry well, but why rush into it after no more than a couple of days’ acquaintance? Especially when she’s already been kissed by the darkly alluring Lucius and feels… well, something for him. But he doesn’t speak up, she accepts Mayne and in no time flat the bishop in the family has arrived, special licence in pocket, and Tess still doesn’t say, hang on a minute… And then things happen, and it’s Lucius she ends up marrying, and Tess tamely goes along with that, too, but at least this time she actually wants to. And all the time, passionate Isobel is off causing mayhem.

When I write it all out like this, it makes even less sense than it did when I was reading it. And you know what? It doesn’t matter a bit, because it’s lively and funny and I never knew quite what was coming next and I just rolled along with it. I didn’t particularly like any of the characters very much, except for Rafe the tipsy duke and Josie the sharp-tongued one, although Lucius grew on me somewhat. Tess I never really got, though, because she was just too doormat-ish to start with and then once she was married she turned into a voracious sex kitten (because yes, there’s a fair amount of sex in this).

Historical stuff? This is not the book to go to for a deeply immersive and period-accurate recreation of the Regency. The characters have supper instead of dinner, lace cuffs which went out of fashion at least twenty years earlier, dine a la russe (individual dishes) rather than a la francais (everything out on the table), and there’s the usual haziness about titles and special licences. Lucius makes his money from ‘playing the market’, which I’m not convinced was a thing in those days (people tended to invest in companies on a long-term basis), but the London stock exchange was in existence, so perhaps.

But again, none of these grumbles really mattered. I enjoyed the read right from the first chapter (where kindly Rafe is stocking the nursery with four of everything so that his four wards never have to wait for their turn, and is amusingly discombobulated to discover they’re all grown up) to the romantic and familial resolution. A fun book, although I’m not sure I care enough about the rest of the ensemble to read more of the series. Four stars.

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