Category: Review

Review: Gentleman Jack (TV series, 2019)

Posted May 14, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Well, that was awesome. I’ve had the DVD of this for a while, but put off watching it because I wasn’t quite sure what I would find. TV producers do like to spice things up. Happily, they resisted the temptation here, so although there’s a great deal of kissing between our two heroines, there’s nothing here to frighten the horses. But yes, two heroines, so if that’s not your thing, avoid.

The premise here is that Anne Lister, a forty-something and openly woman-loving lady, is the mistress of a run-down estate near Halifax in the north of England in 1832. Her father, aunt and sister all live there, but Anne herself loves to travel to London and the continent, living it up and generally having a wild old time. And affairs. Of the lesbian variety. When her latest squeeze decides to accept a proposal of marriage – to a man! The horror! – Anne returns to her estate, Shibden, to straighten it out while she recovers from her broken heart. And while there she decides to pass the time by making up to the very pretty heiress who lives nearby, Ann Walker.

The major part of the plot follows the burgeoning romance between Anne and Ann, but there are significant subplots involving a coal mining venture and some argy-bargy with villainous local businessmen, some tenants of Anne’s with a drunken father and a sad little romance for Anne’s sister, Marion, but mainly the story is about Anne. Everything revolves around Anne. And this is exactly as it should be, because Anne Lister is one of those towering characters who seems too melodramatic by half, and far too outrageous for the real world, but that’s the glory of this whole tale, because Anne Lister was a real person, and everything shown actually happened to her, as described in her very detailed diary, written in code and only recently decoded.

Suranne Jones is superb in the role of Anne, striding manfully about the place in her almost mannish costume, taking no nonsense from the local bigwigs and being adored by almost everyone else. Except her own sister, the very ordinary, very down-to-earth Marion, who’d really like to get married and have her own life except that she’s constantly overshadowed by big sister. Poor Marion starts off as a bit of a crosspatch, but after her failed attempt to marry the frankly appalling Mr Abbott, one can’t help but pity her. Sophie Rundle is brilliant, too, as the poor-little-rich-girl Ann Walker, hounded by her relations who all want her to get married and stop being a bother. She’s a terrible ditherer and borderline bonkers, but Anne is very good for her and it’s possible to see them having a happy, or at least not too tempestuous, relationship long term.

Pretty much everyone else is from British Central Casting, which means perfect character acting at every level of the cast. Although I confess it was a bit disconcerting to see Peter Davison (Doctor Who!) in a costume drama of this type.

A word of admiration for the set and costume designers, who got everything brilliantly right. Of course it helped that they could film at the actual Shibden Hall where Anne and her family lived, but the other houses were just as fitting and the costumes were terrific, especially Suranne Jones’ iconic man-dress with top hat. An honourable mention for the feather-trimmed hat of Anne’s French maid, which took a battering on its various journeys, becoming more and more bedraggled. A lovely touch!

This is a wonderful, vibrant production, with the over-the-top personality of Anne Lister dominating every single scene. A magnificent performance by Suranne Jones. Highly recommended.


Review: Cranford (TV series, 2008)

Posted May 14, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 2 Comments

This has possibly the most stellar cast ever assembled for a BBC costume drama. With Mrs Gaskell writing (most of) the words and the likes of Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, Francesca Annis, Barbara Flynn, Lesley Manville, Julia Sawalha, Philip Glenister… (the list goes on and on and on) speaking them, what could possibly go wrong? Happily, nothing at all. The only difficulty is stopping oneself being totally gobsmacked by the awesomeness of it all. And naturally, the sets and costumes are all wonderful, too.

The plot… well, it doesn’t really matter, does it? I’ve never read the book, but that doesn’t matter either, and even with a cast of thousands, all with their own little sub-plots, it was never hard to work out what was going on. Cranford is a small town on the cusp of being dragged into the forward-thinking Victorian era by the arrival of the railway, in the teeth of the residents’ opposition. The ladies of the town (and there seem to be surprisingly few gentlemen) are keeping up with their mannered round of small and inconsequential happenings as if they were still back in the Georgian era, but gradually life and death bring them a little nearer the future. It may have been just my imagination, but the costumes seemed to change from the somewhat high-waisted and narrower-skirted late Georgian styles straight into the natural waists and full skirts of the early Victorian, even though only a single year is supposed to have elapsed. If this is so, it was a clever and subtle allusion to the progress of industrialisation.

The only problem with it, for me , anyway, was the high level of tragedy that seemingly hit this one small town. Every episode seemed to have at least one death, and sometimes more, and the poor Rector’s family were under constant assault from life-threatening illnesses. That gave it a very Dickensian air of doom and gloom, but there were also light-hearted moments, too, and the poor new doctor, a very naive young man, gets caught up in both, mostly inadvertently.

Of the actresses, Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench and Francesca Annis are incomparable, bringing out out all the pathos and underlying tragedies of their constrained lives. Honourable mentions, too, for two of my favourite actresses, who rarely get top billing but are always wonderful, Lesley Manville and Barbara Flynn. But really, there wasn’t a sub-par performance in the whole cast. Terrific stuff.


Review: Three Lords For Lady Anne by Charlotte Louise Dolan

Posted April 28, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

[First published 1991] My second Dolan on the trot, and another oddly original work that ought to have irritated me but actually surprised me at every turn, and very much in a good way. Every time I thought the story was descending into cliche, the author took a sharp turn into new territory.

Here’s the plot: Anne Hemsworth is a governess – yes, it’s that plot. She finds herself dispatched to Devon to take on twin boys who’ve driven away all previous governesses. Yep, still in the time-honoured plot. There’s a rakish ne’er-do-well, who instantly tries to get into Anne’s bed, and there’s the absentee guardian, tall, stern and brooding, who descends unexpectedly… I must have read a dozen or more variations on this one. And then there’s one misunderstanding after another between the two protagonists, so you begin to wonder if they will ever get themselves sorted out, although the instant sizzling attraction between them suggests they will.

Now, if all that sounds yawn-inducingly boring, it’s not at all. For one thing, the misunderstandings are actually very clever and our couple work out what’s actually going on very quickly, simply by logical deduction, so no coincidences or deus ex machina, just the little grey cells. For another thing, the twins are actually very, very ingenious (as they tell Anne themselves!). And for a third thing, she, too, is very clever and is the teacher we all wish we’d had. And for a fourth thing (last one, I promise!), that instant sizzling attraction leads to some deliciously romantic moments. And if I hadn’t promised to stop at four, I would also mention the author’s glorious sense of humour.

The villain of the piece is delightfully inept, even with the aid of his long-suffering valet, and the twins are more than a match for him. The book is light on backstory. We know Anne’s from the start, but hero Bronson’s is only slowly revealed. It makes him rather a sad and lonely figure, but the author handles it with a very light hand.

This reminds me of my major bugbear with the book – the names. I refuse to believe that any man, much less a baron, would be called Bronson, and then there’s Creighton, Gloriana, Collier, Demetrius… Poor Collier, named after a coal miner! I shuddered every time I encountered the poor fellow. But otherwise, the book is a delightful read, and maybe it’s the fact that it was published 30 years ago that makes it so refreshingly different now. Five stars.


Review: Fallen Angel by Charlotte Louise Dolan

Posted April 28, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 2 Comments

[Note: first published 1994] I should have hated this. The heroine is a downtrodden and meek young woman who is taken advantage of by all her selfish relations. She falls desperately in love with the hero right from the start and would do anything for him, even become his mistress. The hero is that staple of Regencies, the overbearing, domineering male who does precisely what he wants. The plot revolves around the fact that the two of them never talk openly to each other. So… a doormat, a tyrant and the Great Misunderstanding. And yet… it works. It really works. Amazing.

Here’s the premise: Gabriel, the Earl of Sherington, is the little-regarded younger son who was sent away to sea at the age of 10, and proceeded to make his own fortune. Now he’s unexpectedly inherited the title and is busy fending off his obnoxious relations who want him to do everything the way things have always been done. Even his servants gang up on him with a campaign of passive resistance when he fails to fall into line. To prove he’s his own man, and also to spite them all, he sets off for a far-flung estate for some peace and quiet.

On the way to said far-flung estate, he encounters Verity Jolliffe, the doormat, stranded a few miles from home on a journey from one set of obnoxious relations to another (there is an overabundance of obnoxious relations in this book). In possibly the only moment of spirit she shows in the entire story, Verity cadges a lift from the glowering earl. He introduces himself as Sherington, so when he meets her relations, she calls him Mr Sherington, and they’re a bit sniffy about him, not realising he’s an earl. This is an old trick, and it falls a bit flat here because when she later discovers he’s Lord Sherington, she knows all about him and his bad reputation, so why would she not suspect that Mr Sherington might be connected?

Gabriel offers to return Verity to the stage coach stop when she leaves her family to return to London, and somewhere on these two brief encounters he decides that she’s not like the flirtatious and avaricious young women he’s met before, and is docile enough to make an undemanding wife who won’t kick up a fuss over his mistresses and absences from home, or try to change him. But in order to ensure that she stays in line, he decides to make her fall in love with him.

And so the central conceit of the story is born: he devotes almost the entire book to making her fall for him, when in fact she’s been in love with him right from the start. Things are complicated by Verity’s sister and family, with whom she lives in London, who appropriate the earl for themselves and never at any time consider that he might be dropping by so frequently to see Verity. This makes them pretty stupid, of course, but then Gabriel is pretty stupid not to realise that Verity’s panting for him, and she’s pretty stupid not to make it clear. She doesn’t know what he wants from her, but she’s absolutely certain that, whatever it is, she’ll give it to him.

The whole thing is pretty implausible, and yet it’s so beautifully written and so funny that it just rolls along. Naturally, while Gabriel is busy trying to make Verity love him, and getting totally mad when he thinks he’s failing, he’s actually falling in love himself. He’s exactly the sort of arrogant, self-centred character I’d normally hate, yet somehow his fits of rage at his own failures are rather endearing. And the ending, when he finally gets Verity to the church, is a total shock. I should have been outraged, yet somehow the author makes it a triumphant punch-the-air moment.

Apart from the excessive quantity of obnoxious relations, the book captures the Regency feel perfectly, and even my over-sensitive pedant-o-meter only registered a tiny sprinkle of Americanisms. I did laugh at the earl’s stately home being called Sherington Close, though – in Britain a close is a short dead-end street or a narrow back alley, not a suitable name for some vast ancestral home.

An unusual but very effective play on the domineering male meets meek female theme, with some very funny moments and a totally satisfying ending. There’s a bit of lusting, but nothing at all graphic. Five stars.


Review: The Wicked Rebel by Mary Lancaster

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

Mary Lancaster has rapidly become one of my favourite authors, with her witty and jolly romps in the emerging spa town of Blackhaven. This is the third in the series, and continues the trend of likable heroines, sexy and slightly bad-boy heroes, and a nicely crafted plot.

Here’s the premise: Lady Arabella Niven is the last remaining unmarried daughter of a duke, a gentle soul who would love to retreat to an isolated cottage somewhere and write books, but is being pushed into marriage to a portly old gentleman very much against her will. Her health is uncertain so she’s been sent to Blackhaven to take the waters, along with two aunts who fuss and fret her half to death. In a bid to find just an hour or two’s freedom from harassment, she takes a small rowing boat out into the bay where she spots a man apparently drowning. Rowing fearlessly to the rescue, the man emerges, totally naked, from the water and climbs into her boat. And so begins a most unlikely romance between a duke’s daughter and a smuggler. Or free trader, as Alban likes to call himself.

The author is not one to leave a romance to build slowly, so there’s an instant attraction between the two, and a dilemma for both of them. Can she walk away from the pressure of her family’s expectations? Can he, as an outlaw, risk an entanglement with such a high-ranking lady? And there’s a certain amount of family history lurking in the background. It’s problematic. And as they gradually try to determine what they want from the future, the past catches up with them and puts various people in jeopardy.

This is another fun read, with no real surprises along the way, and a certain amount of stupidity on the part of both hero and heroine (him in leaving two defenceless children in the care of people who have already proved they can’t be trusted, and her in allowing herself to be manipulated, even when she knows very clearly what she wants). But (surprise!) it all works out happily in the end, the bad guys get their comeuppance, our romantic pair get together and everybody else gets put in their place.

Terrific fun, lots of humour, a great romance. Lady Arabella in particular is beautifully drawn, a woman who is too timid to stand up to her domineering family openly, but smart enough to thwart their will in a thousand quietly subversive ways. She knows very well what she doesn’t want (an enforced marriage to an uncongenial man) but it isn’t until she meets Alban that she discovers what she actually wants, and the backbone to reach out and take it. I liked her very much. She totally deserves a hot bloke like Alban. There’s a fair amount of lusting and passionate kissing, and one sex scene. Five stars.


Review: The Wicked Lady by Mary Lancaster

Posted April 16, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 1 Comment

This was such a lot of fun. There’s nothing more entertaining than watching the most unlikely couple imaginable fight against their inevitable destiny, and these two are incredibly unlikely. She’s a widow with a scandalous reputation and he’s a curate – how can it possibly work? Yet as is the way of these things, naturally they’re instantly drawn to each other.

Here’s the premise: Kate Crowmore has just escaped from a horrible marriage, which sounds like good news, right? But the scandal surrounding the circumstances of her husband’s death has destroyed her reputation. Head high, she’s decamped from gossipy London to quieter Blackhaven, where she hopes she won’t be quite so ostracised. A small town in the north is also a good place to evade whoever’s trying to kill her. The last thing she needs is a romantic interest, but Tristram Grant is charming and irresistible. There’s only one problem – he’s a clergyman, and a curate at that – the lowest of the low.

So the stage is set for the Odd Couple, and their early interchanges are delicious, the spark between them obvious, and the banter scintillating. But this is not just a romance, because of the aforementioned person trying to kill Kate, and while Tristram’s more than willing to do what he can to help out, things are complicated by the arrival of assorted relations, some friendly, some not so much. So, as in the previous book in the series, there’s a lot of running, hiding, fighting off villains and trying to work out who’s on who’s side. And all the time, Kate and Tristram are lusting after each other, and Kate’s refusing to consider the possibility of a second marriage.

The way the romance unfolds isn’t in the least original, but it’s beautifully done, a mixture of funny and dramatic and sad, with two well-drawn characters that the reader is rooting for right from the start. The author has a very solid grip on Regency mores, so even my over-sensitive pedant-o-meter was only triggered once, by a rather cavalier treatment of a special licence (I’m quite sure that’s not legal!), but it didn’t matter a bit. It would be helpful to have read the first book, since a number of characters pop up here, but it’s not essential. For those looking for a sex-free read, this is one to avoid, since there’s lots of lusting and some graphic details towards the end. But for anyone who doesn’t mind that, this is great fun and highly recommended. Five stars.


Review: Hazelhurst by Martha Keyes

Posted April 10, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I read this straight after book 3 of the series, Cecilia, and here we have another book with a fascinating premise: three months after marrying for love, Lady Anne Vincent discovers that her supposed husband was a bigamist. She isn’t married at all, and her future options are limited. She daren’t risk her heart in another love match, so when her father proposes a marriage of convenience for her, she accepts without demur. Tobias Cosgrove (brother of Cecilia and her sisters) knows he must marry, as the son and heir, but a marriage of convenience may be just the ticket, allowing him to continue his free-wheeling ways without interference.

Naturally, what starts out as a marriage of cool self-sufficiency, both leading their own independent lives and hardly meeting except by accident, gradually becomes something more. I liked the way they inched oh-so-gradually towards a deeper relationship, as she begins to feel the loneliness of her life, and he begins to appreciate the value of a friend at home. Along the way, there are outbreaks of slightly over-the-top high spirits, which serve to break down the reserve between them, and times when they talked as adults. I particularly enjoyed the scene where they sat together in the bedroom – very powerful and memorable. It helps that they’re both sensible, likable characters that the reader can totally root for.

But of course it can’t all be plain sailing, as Anne’s past returns to haunt her and the fragile rapport between Anne and Tobias is in danger of splintering. I wasn’t entirely convinced by these later episodes, with all the melodramas and misunderstandings, but by that time I was too invested to worry about it, and the ending was just perfect.

A lovely traditional Regency with two very sympathetic characters, and the author’s assured grasp of the Regency era. Highly recommended. Five stars.


Review: Cecilia by Martha Keyes

Posted April 10, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This was always going to be that tricky third book of the series, the one where the heroine had been thoroughly unlikable throughout the first two. Is it possible to redeem her? This is one of an author’s greatest challenges, but Keyes is an accomplished storyteller and weaves Cecelia’s redemption effortlessly. She also has a great talent for an unusual premise. Our hero, Jacques Levesque, assumed the role of a French nobleman as a young boy after chance gave him and his father the opportunity. Now grown up, he struggles to live with the deception, as society accepts him without question. This is an intriguing starting point, and although the reader can guess that Jacques will be unmasked at some point, the how and why and what happens then are all to be revealed.

Cecilia is a difficult character to root for. She has been so thoroughly self-centred and unpleasant in the previous books, one almost wants to see her get her comeuppance. But because we are (at last) seeing Cecilia’s selfish behaviour from within her own head, we can begin to understand the pressure she is under to please her parents and make a stunning marriage. She is, after all, the beauty of the family, who draws men to her without even trying, so she’s been able to play games with them, imagining that she has only to smile to have them running back. But the loss of a suitor she believed constant in the previous book has dented her confidence, and when she meets Jacques and he tells her she is affected and superficial, she starts to rethink her attitudes. As for Jacques, he thinks her nothing but a shallow socialite until he overhears her in a completely different mood, and realises there is a completely different girl beneath the artificial exterior. Both of them begin to see behind the masks they’ve chosen to hide behind in society.

But it isn’t entirely Jacques who is the catalyst for Cecilia to change. Here the author takes a huge risk by introducing a real Regency character, Lady Caroline Lamb, who takes Cecilia under her wing and encourages her to break out of her docile little life. I must admit that my heart sank when she first appeared, because usually these real-world characters are introduced as cameos, scoring points for the author: hey, look at all the research I’ve done! Not so here. Lady Caroline is not only an integral part of the plot, she also feels totally believable, outrageous actions and all. Yes, she seems bonkers, but then she really was!

There was only one point where I felt a plot contrivance was stretched a bit thin, in that the one person who is in a position to reveal Jacques’ deception as a boy is coincidentally someone who is closely connected with him as an adult. I won’t say more than that to avoid spoilers, but it did seem a bit implausible. On the other hand, the twist that brought about the happy ending might seem a bit deus ex machina, but the groundwork was laid right through the book. Besides, at that point, I was so invested in our hero and heroine that I’d have accepted a far less likely scenario.

I was nervous about starting this book because I didn’t expect to like Cecilia very much, but I quickly got swept up in it, and deeply invested in and terrified for both hero and heroine: Jacques because he would inevitably be unmasked at some stage, and Cecilia because she would have to discover that the man she loved was an imposter. As always with Martha Keyes, the writing and historical accuracy are impeccable. Highly recommended. Five stars.


Review: Mary Bennet and the Shades of Pemberley by Joyce Harmon

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

I’m ashamed to admit that I was slightly disappointed by this. Not by the plot or the characters or the writing, which were well up to scratch. No, I’d got myself invested in the possibility of a romance for Mary with a certain handsome young lord, and he wasn’t even in this book. Instead, we got a dashing military man as potential love interest. Which of course may be shaping up to be a love triangle, but…

Well, never mind about the romantic angle, or lack of it. That’s just me. Here’s the premise: Mary Bennet, the over-educated but under-talented middle sister from Pride And Prejudice has here been re-imagined as a young lady with a very special talent indeed: Mary, it transpires, is a magician. This she discovered in book 1 of the series, and in books 2 and 3, as her ability is undergoing training by the secret Order of St George, she tripped over various dastardly plots which her skills, with a bit of help from other magicians and a few familiar faces from P&P, were able to resolve. Now she’s heading off to see Darcy and Lizzie at Pemberley and blow me down if there isn’t something odd going on there, too. As one character put it, why can’t you just go on holiday like everyone else?

Like any self-respecting ancestral pile, Pemberley has a couple of resident ghosts, but the problem here is that there seem to be random extra ghosts popping up all over the place. A couple of cavaliers are duking it out on the lawn, there’s a well-bred Norman lady spinning in the drawing room, and (rather delightfully) an opera dancer is in the ballroom. Elizabeth can see these ‘shades’ (hence the book’s title; geddit?), even though no one else can, and it’s driving her almost to the point of a nervous breakdown.

Happily, our newly-fledged magician can see them too, and sets about, in her sensible, systematic way, to find out more about them, discover how they got there, and maybe even get them back to where they came from. This is a lot of fun, and the very different characters of the ghosts definitely add to it. It has to be said that the challenges are not very great and Mary seems to succeed with some of her self-appointed tasks almost too easily. There is a villain, but this too is easily spotted. So this is perhaps the gentlest story yet of this series.

But drama and out-of-nowhere plot twists aren’t at all what this series is about, since it’s three parts P&P, two parts cozy mystery and one part Harry Potter. Neither the language nor the characters are strictly true to the books, but they’re terrific fun and I recommend them to anyone who would like a little added magic in their Jane Austen. A good four stars, and here’s hoping that a certain handsome lord turns up in a future book.


Review: Mary Bennet and the Beast of Rosings Park by Joyce Harmon

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

I love this series so, so much! After the Bingley Codex and the Wickham Artifact, now we have the Beast of Rosings Park, and although it doesn’t quite have the punch-the-air awesomeness of the previous book, it’s still a terrific outing for our Pride and Prejudice bluestocking with surprising hidden talents. The premise is that bookish Mary Bennet has discovered that she has magical abilities, and has been whisked off to London and the basement of the British Museum to be trained to use her new abilities. Anyone who always suspected there was more to Mary than met the eye or who likes a little magic in their Regency, this is the series you’ve been waiting for.

After her efforts at the end of book 2 (Jupiter Bennet!!! That made me laugh so hard), Mary is recovering at home from her overdose-of-magic induced infirmity, because magic always has a cost. The story is that she caught Amazonian Fever from an artifact at the British Museum, and there’s a delightful moment when the local doctor is fascinated by her previously unknown illness and wants to research her and write the details up for his fellow medics. It’s a challenge for Mary and her magician minder, Mrs Courtland, to put him off. I love these little touches of realism.

After a stay with the Bingleys in book 1, and then with the Gardiners and Wickhams in book 2, here we are at Hunsford parsonage with Mr and Mrs Collins, and the irrepressible Lady Catherine de Burgh. The author keeps these characters fairly close to their P&P characters, but, as with Mary herself, there are some characters that are not quite as per the book, including Anne de Burgh and her governess/chaperon, Mrs Jenkins. I loved the way they were developed, but I won’t spoil the surprise by giving anything away. There’s an array of minor characters, too, and now that Mary has a sizable dowry (courtesy of the Prince Regent after the book 2 incident), she’s surprisingly popular. Her illness prevents her from dancing, but luckily her health improves enough to see her scampering about the countryside well before the end of the book, so that she can participate in monster-hunting expeditions. I’m also not going to say anything about the monster. This unravels in a slightly more predictable way than in previous books, but it was still fun, and gave Mary the opportunity for some creative magic.

In the last book, there were teeny tiny hints of a romantic future for Mary with a certain handsome young lord, and I was thrilled to see him turn up again here, even though the romance really isn’t progressing very fast. No, let’s be honest, it’s not progressing at all. Sigh. Still, I’m optimistic. Book 4, the Shades of Pemberley, may possibly be the final book of the series, so fingers crossed for a happy ending for Mary. I can’t wait.

For anyone expecting Austen-esque writing or a strict adherence to canon, this book probably isn’t for you, but for anyone else, it’s delightful and I highly recommend the whole series (which should probably be read in order). Five stars.