Posts Categorized: Review

Review: ‘The Mysterious Heir’ by Edith Layton

December 23, 2016 Birthday Regencies, Review 0

I got off on completely the wrong foot with this one, a 1984 book which is part of my birthday Regency list. The very first scene introduces the reader to a curmudgeonly gentleman, sitting huddled beside the fire with his very much needed walking stick, massaging his gammy leg (an old war wound) and railing at the rain. Naturally I assumed he was a very elderly gentleman, and took the young man, fair of form and face, who bounds in later, as the hero. Not so. The curmudgeon turns out to be thirty or so, an earl and indisputably the hero.

Then I was tripped up by the Earl having to meet three prospective heirs and choose one from amongst them. Excuse me? On what planet did any titled Regency gent get to choose his heir? He might leave his property where he liked (if it wasn’t entailed), but the title followed very strict rules. So I was struggling in the early chapters with both misdirection and historical blunders.

Neither of the main characters really grabbed me by the throat, so to speak. The Earl continues to act the curmudgeon for most of the book, and in his dealings with Elizabeth, the heroine, there’s an edge almost of violence sometimes, that really made me dislike him. He also treats her with unspeakable cruelty at the end, and no, not telling her what’s going on ‘for her own good’ is not an acceptable excuse. And she’s an idiot sometimes, but she probably had more of an excuse than he did.

However, there’s a lot to like about this book. There’s plenty of humour, there are some delightful minor characters, like Bev, the gay friend of the Earl, Anthony, one of the heirs, who is a huge fan of Napoleon, and another heir, Owen, a podgy foodaholic. The writing is excellent and the plot unfolded at a stately but enjoyable pace. The villains are idiotically obvious, but subtlety isn’t a prerequisite for this kind of book.

What saved everything for me was the development of the romance, which blossoms very, very slowly over the whole course of the book. I’m a sucker for a believable romance, and the author is skillful enough to infuse the whole thing with romantic fairydust which, in the end, outweighed the less likable aspects of their characters. And there was enough tension in some of the hero and heroine’s scenes to keep me avidly turning the pages. Four stars.

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Review: ‘The Nomad Harp’ by Laura Matthews

December 17, 2016 Review 0

This is the first of my birthday Regencies (a selection from 1980 to the present bought with my gift cards), the earliest, written in 1980. The author is new to me, and I found it an enjoyable read, with some humour and a nicely drawn romance.

The premise: a career naval officer finds himself unexpectedly inheriting a viscountcy. He feels obliged to retire from the navy to manage his estates, but there’s a wrinkle: he’s betrothed to a woman he scarcely knows, attracted by her virtuoso playing of the harp. When he goes to visit, he finds her unimpressed by his elevation in rank. She had accepted his offer only because he would be away at sea a great deal, which would allow her to maintain her independent lifestyle. She breaks off the engagement after discovering that he’s falling for a much more suitable young lady.

But naturally, that isn’t the end of things. The story devolves into the usual Regency mix-ups and misunderstandings, albeit more believable than is sometimes the case, with an array of minor characters to liven things up. But it’s the main characters which make or break a story like this, and here I had my doubts. Lord Pontley himself is a fairly straightlaced sort of chap, too dour to be obvious hero material, and I confess to not entirely understanding his motives for dealing with the suitable young lady he finds himself engaged to. Indeed, for a serious sort of chap, he gets engaged for the most frivolous of reasons. Still, I rather liked him.

The heroine, Glenna Forbes, I found less likable. For a supposedly forthright and independent-minded young lady, she was a terrible ditherer. It’s conventional in fiction that when a character proposes a plan that the reader can clearly see is going to happen, there’s still a certain amount of argument round and about before it’s agreed to. Here, Glenna protested against perfectly reasonable proposals for far, far too long. I really wanted to slap her upside the head. And some of the things she does are just plain silly (like the whole companion scheme, for instance). The only purpose that I could see was so that she would find out about Lord Pontley’s feelings for the suitable young lady.

Despite all that, however, I found the book very enjoyable. I love a Regency where the romance builds slowly over the whole book, and this is particularly credible example. The minor characters are terrific, the historical accuracy is good and there’s enough humour to leaven the mixture. Four stars.

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Review: ‘Cotillion’ by Georgette Heyer

December 2, 2016 Review 0

The run of five star reviews is getting longer. Here’s another classic, #11 in my complete reread of the author’s Regency romances, and this is the fifth five star in succession. Yet I can’t give it less, not when I enjoyed it so much. This is absolutely vintage Heyer, with perhaps my favourite hero so far, a spirited and self-assured heroine, a wonderful sub-plot and a very credible romance, for once.

This book, first published in 1953, starts with an outrageous arrangement: wealthy Mr Penicuik decides to leave his considerable fortune to whichever of his nephews marries his adopted daughter Kitty. Two turn up – the rather pompous clergyman and the not-quite-all-there Earl. Kitty composedly turns them down. But when dandy-about-town Freddy Standen arrives, not quite understanding what is happening, and, when he does, immediately ready to turn tail and run away, Kitty persuades him into a fake betrothal so that she can get herself up to town. Because there’s yet another cousin, Jack, the handsome rake…

And so begins this wonderful tale. What I love most about it is that although in some respects it falls into the traditional Heyer mould of an older man-about-town and a young ingenue, Kitty isn’t at all a helpless young thing, and Freddy isn’t the usual world-weary rake. He’s just a very, very nice man who would never, ever do anything improper, and is clearly far better husband material than the arrogant Jack, so sure of Kitty that he makes no attempt to win her until it’s too late. Jack isn’t really a villain, and in a great many Regencies he would be the hero, but Freddy is truly the hero of this one, and every bit the perfect gentleman.

I mentioned the sub-plot, which involves Dolphinton, the dim-witted Earl, who is so terrified of his mother that he hides under the table! He’s meant as the comic relief, but it’s hard not to like him and his most implausible paramour. The real comedy came from Freddy, who gallantly squires Kitty all over town to the many sights she is determined to see. As an aside, quite my favourite character after Freddy himself was his father, Lord Legerton, who is as astute and sardonic as Freddy is slow-on-the-uptake and straightforward. Their conversations were delightful.

I have been grumbling all the way through my rereads about the romance element being forgotten about until the very last moment, but not so here. The relationship develops slowly but surely, and the ending brought everything to a head and resolved matters most satisfactorily. Five stars.

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Review: ‘The Earl And The Girl From The Abbey’ by Regina Darcy

November 25, 2016 Review 0

I keep seeing Regina Darcy’s books popping up in the bestseller lists, so eventually I had to try one of them. I found it a frustrating read. On the one hand, the story is an appealing one, the main characters are likable and there are fewer historical errors than usual in many modern Regencies. On the other hand, there were innumerable minor errors, mostly punctuation, which made me very twitchy, and the story was just too short for any real character development. Amazon judges it to be 61 pages long, but the book ends at 76% of that, the rest being taken up with chapters of other books. That’s barely more than short story length.

Let’s get the historical errors out of the way first. The younger son of an earl is not a lord, not even when he’s the heir presumptive. He’s the Honourable Mr Davenport (in this case). Then there’s the Earl managing to re-outfit himself by popping into a tailor and coming out fully supplied. Nope. The making of gentlemen’s clothing was a long-drawn-out business involving selecting materials, measuring and multiple fittings, which would have taken weeks to complete. But these are minor matters, which only pedants like me care about.

More concerning is the implausibility of the romance. He needs to marry an heiress, she wants to meet a man she can fall in love with. They meet once at a dinner, have one conversation and that’s it. They’re in love and he immediately sets off to meet Aunty (or possibly Auntie, depending on which page you’re on), the Abbess of the local abbey, to ask permission to marry her niece. Not that she needs permission, being of age and all, but still. And then we’re into a whole implausible scandal, with a villain so obvious it’s impossible to miss. A dramatic finale and {drumroll} that’s it. All done and dusted.

Now, it would be possible to build this into a full-length novel, with some deeper character development. I would have liked to see more of our abbey-raised heroine encountering the peculiarities of Regency society. I’d have liked to see some serious rivals for her hand (since she’s an heiress) so that our hero has to work to win her over. I’d have liked, at the least, a nod towards a slower courtship. A paragraph or two describing how he visits more and more often, so that their love develops more naturally, would have been enough.

So for me, this wasn’t a wholly satisfactory story but then I’m a self-confessed pedant. It’s clear from some passages that the author has a flair for writing Regency. With a little more time taken to develop the characters and their relationships, and a thorough editing pass, this would be a good, if short, read. Three stars.

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Review: ‘The Quiet Gentleman’ by Georgette Heyer

November 20, 2016 Review 0

This is a curious one, #10 in my reread of all Heyer’s Regency romances, written in 1951. After the delights of Arabella, and a charmingly developed romance, this is a return to the perfunctory love affair, quite overshadowed by the needs of the plot. And instead of the usual near-farcical Regency romp, implausible but always entertaining, Heyer veers into murder mystery territory.

The story revolves around Gervase Frant, the Earl of St Erth, who returns after many years to claim his family seat at Stanyon. He finds his step-mother and half-brother, Martin, less than welcoming. His long absence and a spell in the army at Waterloo have encouraged them to believe that Martin will ultimately inherit, and Gervase’s return is an unpleasant surprise. Only cousin Theo, who manages the estate, is friendly. So when it appears that someone is trying to kill Gervase, suspicion naturally falls on spoilt, impulsive Martin.

The hero and heroine in this one, Gervase and the delightfully down-to-earth Miss Morville, never really get much opportunity to develop their relationship until the very last moment. In fact, for the first half of the book, Gervase is cheerfully paying court to the beautiful and lively young daughter of the rich but not terribly well-bred neighbours. I rather disapproved of his behaviour, actually. A man of his position and age, presumed to be in the market for a wife, might well have aroused expectations in the young lady. Common sense might have suggested keeping more of a distance. But that would have spoiled the story rather.

The mystery part of the plot failed to create much tension, since the identity of the perpetrator was blindingly obvious almost from the start. Again, I disapproved of Gervase’s behaviour in the way he resolved the issue, but I can see the reasoning behind it. A fairly melodramatic ending finally brings our two lovers together and all is well. Despite the weaknesses in the plot and my usual grumble about the overshadowed romance, this was another highly enjoyable read. Five stars.

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Review: ‘The Grand Sophy’ by Georgette Heyer

November 6, 2016 Review 0

The Grand Sophy, published in 1950, features a heroine that every modern reader can surely enjoy. Sophy Stanton-Lacey is a glorious character, feisty without being unfeasibly modern, spirited and determined without being aggressive, a catalyst for change without being ruthless. Yes, she’s meddlesome and manipulative, but she genuinely wants the best possible outcome for everyone. From the moment she arrives at her aunt’s house in London, armed with her own Spanish horse, a parrot and a monkey, she dominates the page, charming and infuriating her relations in equal measure.

Her stuffy cousin Charles and his priggish fiancee, Miss Eugenia Wraxton, bear the brunt of Sophy’s good-humoured efforts to sort out their lives. Eugenia, in particular, is beautifully drawn, very much the other side of the coin from Sophy herself. Eugenia is constantly trying to ‘give her a hint’ about how to behave in London society, none of which advice Sophy needs, ensconced as she already is in diplomatic and political circles through her father’s career. And where Sophy wants to rearrange the romantic pairings of her cousins, which she can see will only bring them grief, Eugenia’s meddling takes the form of interference in the running of the household and suppressing the natural liveliness of the children.

As always with Heyer, the tangles reach a very entertaining climax where everything teeters on the brink of disaster before abruptly resolving itself into a happy ending mode. And, as always, the romance is almost forgotten about until the very last chapter. I confess, this weakness of the author’s is a constant irritant to me, as I far prefer a romance that builds steadily over the course of the book. However, everything else about this was a delight, even including the Lady-Catherine-like aunt and the array of caricature supporting roles. Five stars.

PS I’ve chosen to illustrate this with the classic paperback cover I remember from years gone by. I may even still have a copy in the attic. Sadly, my modern Kindle version has a far less interesting external cover, and none at all within the body of the book.

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Review: ‘Arabella’ by Georgette Heyer

November 2, 2016 Review 0

The eighth in my reread of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances in chronological order, and I’m up to 1949. This is the first one that I recall a great deal about from my previous reads, enough to place it as one of my favourites, and I have to say, it hasn’t lost its charm.

Arabella Tallent, an impoverished vicar’s daughter from Heythram, Yorkshire, is invited by her wealthy godmother to enjoy a season in London. As the eldest daughter of eight children, and the beauty of the family, she fully understands that her duty is to marry well, and help bring out her younger sisters. But things go wrong before she even reaches London. A carriage malfunction causes her to seek help from the shooting lodge of Mr Robert Beaumaris, enormously wealthy, a nonpareil and arbiter of fashion. Overhearing him grumbling about predatory females pursuing him even into the country, Arabella is stung to pretend that she’s vastly wealthy herself. And from this small lie hangs the tale.

This is the first Heyer to feature a heroine that the reader can genuinely root for. Unimpressed by the frivolous London society she finds herself in, she remains true to her Yorkshire roots and her father’s moral code of Christian charity, and there are moments when I positively cheered for her. I also liked the emphasis in this book on the developing romance, which was never overshadowed by high jinks going on elsewhere. Despite this, however, the romance is still unbalanced. Beaumaris is intelligent, mature, sensible and astute. Arabella has a great deal of commonsense, but is not his intellectual equal and still does stupid things, so that he calls her a goose and acts in an almost avuncular manner towards her. And there was a moment where I wanted to shake Arabella. When a man you’re attracted to proposes believing you to be wealthy, the correct answer is, “I’d love to, but I have to tell you something first…” The book would have been a lot shorter, of course, but I’d have respected Arabella a lot more.

Even so, a hugely enjoyable read, which had me smiling all the way through. Five stars.

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Review: ‘The Foundling’ by Georgette Heyer

October 18, 2016 Review 0

The seventh book in my attempt to reread all Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances in chronological sequence. This one was published in 1948, and it’s a cracker. The Duke of Sale, a posthumous son and heir, has been cosseted from birth, every aspect of his life dictated by his guardian and uncle, and an array of loyal and devoted retainers. When he was a sickly child, this was appropriate, but now, at twenty-four, he’s chafing at the bit. He dutifully proposes to Lady Harriet Presteigne, his uncle’s choice of bride, and even though he likes her well enough, he longs for a little freedom from the demands of being a duke. So when his young cousin finds himself in a spot of bother, the Duke decides to go incognito to get him out of the scrape.

His adventures as Mr Dash of Nowhere in Particular are hugely entertaining, involving a runaway boy, a beautiful foundling girl, a kidnapping and much more besides. Meanwhile, his various relations and retainers are traipsing round the countryside trying to find him and rescue him. In the process, the Duke learns to appreciate his entourage and they, in their turn, learn that he’s a resourceful and competent young man who doesn’t need rescuing after all.

The Duke is the star turn here, being both gently self-effacing and also innately aristocratic, a tough act to pull off. The supporting cast are also likable, although (as is common with Heyer) tending to caricature at times, as the story veers towards farce. The love interest, Lady Harriet, is pleasant enough and an excellent match for the Duke, but she suffered greatly from playing no part in events for most of the book.

My constant complaint with these stories is that romance is generally forgotten until the last chapter, when the hero sweeps the heroine into his arms with a quite unexpected declaration of love. This book falls into the same trap, but at least enough has been shown to demonstrate that these two are truly made for each other. Other than that, an enjoyable romp. Five stars.

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Review: ‘In Want Of A Wife’ by Odelia Floris

October 12, 2016 Review 0

This book took me completely by surprise. Having loaded up my Kindle ready for a long-haul flight, I started with the big-name books and discarded them one-by-one — too many typos, too implausible, too historically inaccurate. By the time I got to this one, I had no expectations. And then it completely blew me away. Within five minutes of meeting Miss Rosa Lane — shy, stammering, socially inept Rosa — I desperately wanted her to have her happy ever after.

The plot is a time-honoured one: two sisters go to London for the season to find husbands for themselves. The older sister, Arielle, is excited at the prospect and declares she’s going to fall in love with the handsomest man she can find. Poor Rosa is terrified, of course. How will she ever manage at balls and large social gatherings, amongst so many strangers? She’s bound to be inept and say and do the wrong things. And both sisters are correct. Arielle instantly falls for the dashing and handsome Captain Steele, while Rosa can barely speak a word, even to the gentlemanly and unthreatening Mr d’Arcy, a widower in his thirties who is, as Jane Austen and the title of the book have it, ‘in want of a wife’, and who is unexpectedly friendly towards Rosa. But there’s another man whose attention she attracts, Steele’s friend, the strangely sardonic Captain Spencer.

And so the story unfolds with the choice Rosa has to make — the odd Captain, for whom she begins to have feelings, although he shows no sign of affection towards her, or the safe option, the wealthy widower with a comfortable situation, a marriage of convenience and perhaps a lifetime with respectability but no love. It’s a dilemma that so many Regency ladies must have faced — take the dull but safe offer now, or hold out for something better. Tricky. But when d’Arcy makes the offer, Rosa is too grateful and, frankly, too timid to turn him down and so, rather nervously, she marries him.

The rest of the book is an excellent description of how so many marriages of convenience must have gone — the polite formalities, the stilted conversations over dinner (Mr d’Arcy talks of very little beyond the weather!), the sheer loneliness of a life lived with someone who is virtually a stranger, played out in front of the servants. There are some very funny moments though, when the two are trying to conduct a conversation from opposite ends of a very long dining table, and misunderstanding each other, and having to repeat everything and shout. I wondered if they were going to resort to passing notes by way of the butler! The ending is pretty near perfect, and I actually cried when these two lovely people finally got all the obstacles out of the way and were set fair for happiness.

Is the book perfect? No, of course not. There were a few clunky moments, there were one or two places where I questioned the historical accuracy, the villains were a little too extreme and there were some parts of the story that could have been fleshed out a little more to give it some needed depth — I would have liked to see more of d’Arcy’s daughter, for instance, and one or two scenes showing Rosa with her after the marriage would have been welcome. One other (trivial) comment. It takes a certain amount of confidence to write a Regency romance with a hero called d’Arcy. There’s just too much baggage associated with the name. Captain Steele, too, reminded me of Lucy Steele in Sense and Sensibility.

I only have one serious grumble and that is the lack of chaperonage. I’ll forgive the two sisters travelling on the stagecoach because I assume there was an (unmentioned) matron accompanying them. But in London the aunt is simply never around, apart from formal functions like balls. During the day, she seems to be conveniently out visiting all the time, leaving the two sisters alone as prey for anyone who happens to turn up, or to walk about the streets and parks on their own. She must be the world’s worst chaperon! I’d expect her to take the girls with her when she goes visiting or shopping, to ensure they are introduced to all of her acquaintance, and once any gentlemen start to pay them attention she should be checking their backgrounds and ensuring that they’re respectable, and steering her nieces away from any bad apples. Instead she seems to take no interest at all until things reach crisis point.

But none of this detracted from the book for me in the slightest. From the very first page, its charm swept me along, and I was rooting for the hero and heroine all the way. A delightful read. Five stars.

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Regency romance review: ‘To Kiss A Rake’ by Barbara Monajem

September 9, 2016 Review 0

Sometimes when I’m looking for a book to read, I feel the need to do some research for my own Regency romances. So it is with this one. I picked it from the top of Amazon’s popularity lists, and since it’s more than a year old, it must be a good example of a well-targeted book that’s selling well because it gives readers exactly what they want.

First appearances are so-so. The title is exactly like a million other Regencies (To Kiss/Marry/Desire/Love a Rake/Duke/Scoundrel/Lord). Nothing terribly original there. And the cover is also like a million others — a modern couple in vaguely old-fashioned clothes, the man half-naked, the woman in full make-up, in a clinch. So far, so meh.

But the opening chapters are good. Our feisty heroine, Melinda, is helping out a friend who’s cried off from an elopement. She agrees to leave a ball to inform the man that it’s all off, the friend being too cowardly. But instead she meets our sturdy hero, Miles, who is helping his friend manage the elopement. Owing to a misunderstanding followed by a bump on the head, Melinda is abducted instead of the friend and finds herself stranded at an inn far from home with a strange man. He tries to get her home, but (naturally) they’re spotted and recognised. Now, it takes some industrial strength suspension of disbelief to accept all the missteps that have to happen to get to this point. In particular, it’s necessary for Melinda to be believably misidentified as the eloping girl, and I confess to rolling my eyes once or twice. Still, I can forgive a little contrivance to get the ball rolling.

It’s after this point that things begin to go off the rails somewhat. The plot requires a lot of characters to behave in, frankly, incredible ways. I found it impossible to believe in the evil grandmother, and the author has painted a harsh picture of Regency society, entirely filled, it seems, with shallow, immoral and selfish people without an ounce of humanity. I know times were very different then, but people were still people, with just the same range of weaknesses and strengths as modern people, not almost uniformly horrible, as here. Nor did I find Miles’s loss of reputation very believable. Then there’s the ongoing elopement plot, which centred on possibly the stupidest girl in Christendom. This sort of thing is fairly common for the genre, though, it has to be said.

Of the main characters, I liked Miles very much. Melinda, not so much. The romance side of things is good, although there’s a bit too much insta-lurve, and the whole virgin-to-sex-fiend-after-one-kiss trope has been done endlessly, and should die a fiery death. But the build-up was good and the sex scenes were good, so there’s that. But I wanted to bang their heads together to knock some sense into them. I know they both had the obligatory tortured backgrounds and all those emotional scars, yada yada yada, but they were also intelligent and rational people who whined and angsted and got annoyed with each other far too much. They made far too many decisions based on assumptions about what the other would feel, which were inevitably wrong. Ultimately, this book failed one of my acid tests for plot credibility, in that there would have been no plot at all worth the name if the characters had just sat down and talked to each other.

There isn’t anything wrong with this book. It’s well-written and easy to read, although the constant head-hopping from Miles to Melinda and back made me dizzy. There were a few word choices that surprised me (bum, for instance) but I assume the author’s done her research on that. The Regency setting isn’t very pronounced, and apart from the odd reference to Almack’s and the like, the book could have been set anytime up to the late Victorian era without major changes (it’s actually set in 1804). I didn’t notice any glaring errors, which was pleasant.

For anyone who’s looking for a typical modern Regency romance, with plenty of sex and agonising, and isn’t bothered by a certain amount of starkly black and white characterisation, I can recommend this. It wasn’t much to my personal taste, and I did quite a bit of skimming to get to the end, so it’s just three stars.

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