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Review: Miss Hayes by Jenny Hambly

Posted June 17, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Jenny Hambly has become one of my automatic buys, and I loved the first book in her new series, Marianne, so I was thrilled to discover this follow on. It was a bit of a surprise, however. Marianne introduced three very different pupils at Miss Wolfraston’s Seminary for Young Ladies, and naturally I expected the second book to follow the pattern of the first, and feature another one of the three. And it does, in a way, for here is timid Miss Charlotte Fletcher, venturing outside the Seminary for the first time in years. But accompanying her on this momentous journey is teacher and friend Miss Sarah Hayes, the daughter of a baron who lost all his money, forcing her to leave behind the glamorous world of London society and hide herself away as a teacher. Charlotte would have been a difficult heroine to root for, but luckily it’s lively, somewhat tempestuous Sarah who’s the star of this tale.

Charlotte and Sarah set off from the Seminary to spend the summer with Charlotte’s Aunt Augusta, Lady Carstairs, recently returned from India. Also bound for the Carstairs’ house is Lord Seymore, Charlotte’s guardian and a former admirer of Sarah’s when she was briefly the star of the London season. So the stage is set for the two to rediscover each other, but there’s a whole heap of history to be sorted out first.

For the first few chapters, it seems as if the history is all being dumped on the hapless reader at once, and some of it feels a little disconnected. What was the point of the death of Lord Seymore’s aunt in London, for instance? Apart from delaying him, it seemed to serve no other purpose in the story. Fortunately, after several chapters laden with much backstory, we emerge into sunlight again and the story proper begins.

I was delighted to meet again one of the most charming characters from Marianne, Sir Horace Bamber, a man who might be seen as a brainless buffoon (even his own brother, the local vicar, makes gentle fun of him) but is actually a very kind, gentlemanly man, who emerges from the shadows of minor-character-dom as a rather splendid hero figure. In fact, all the minor characters are well rounded and interesting in their own right. I particularly enjoyed the gloriously eccentric Lady Carstairs and her doting husband.

Never mind that, what about the romance, I hear you say? Well, no worries there. Sarah’s a lovely, sparky heroine, and Lord Seymore’s a suitably heroic sort of hero, a thoroughly pleasant chap. Right from the start, it’s clear these two are made for each other, and our hero, at least, is in the mood for marriage. ‘When the apple is ripe, it will fall’, one of the characters says, and that is just the state Lord Seymore is in. Sarah should be ready to leave behind her dreary life at the Seminary and return to proper society. So what can possibly go wrong? Well, not much, frankly. She’s weighed down by her father’s death and her own reduction in circumstances, and prejudiced against him by his seeming neglect of Charlotte over the years. He’s hampered by the idea of her as a social butterfly, and thinks a quiet country mouse would suit him better. None of this really holds things up much.

In the background there’s an easily-solved mystery which Lord Carstairs, a former judge, sorts out with an aplomb worthy of Hercules Poirot. In addition, Sarah’s bothered by her unpleasant former fiance (who dumped her when her father lost his money, the cad) and there’s some business to do with salt smuggling, which was interesting but didn’t seem to have much to do with anything else.

The resolution of the romance, when it comes, is absolutely delicious, and there’s a sweet romance for shy little Charlotte, too, which was lovely, and a hint that the last of the three friends, Georgianna, will be the star of the next book.

As always, the author writes with assurance and a strong grasp of the Regency era. Fans of Georgette Heyer will find Jenny Hambly a worthy substitute, with sparkling wit, a full complement of strongly-drawn characters and even a sprinkling of Heyer’s traditional phrases. I loved it, and can’t wait for the next in the series. Five stars.

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Review: Marianne by Jenny Hambly

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

I love a book that ends with such a rousing happy ever after that it puts a silly grin on my face, and this was just such a book. A wonderfully Heyer-esque read with a multitude of entertaining minor characters, a charming romance and plenty of humour, too. What’s not to like?

Here’s the premise: Marianne Montagu and her two friends are leaving Miss Wolfraston’s Seminary for Young Ladies not quite as improved as might be desired. Marianne is a bit too lively for a girl of seventeen soon to make her come-out, Charlotte is a shy soul and Georgianna, an earl’s daughter, is being pushed into marriage with an unappealing man before she’s even enjoyed a season in London. But Marianne’s aunt, Lady Brancaster, wants to take her to the spa town of Cheltenham to take the waters, and as she may bring a friend, Georgianna goes too. Naturally enough, it’s no time at all before Marianne is getting into scrapes, and I loved this line: ‘When Marianne returned to the pump room with a ruined parasol, grass stains on her dress and a cat in her arms, Lady Brancaster began to realise that she might have taken on more than she had bargained for.’

Cheltenham is a refreshing change from Bath, although it has all the usual attractions in a pump room, noxious waters and an assembly room where young ladies might happen to bump into eligible gentlemen. And lo, here comes Lord Cranbourne, also escaping being pushed into marriage and, much to his annoyance, immediately finding himself drawn into one of Marianne’s scrapes. And so the romance begins, with neither of them looking for love, but finding it all the same.

I liked both the main characters. Heyer aficianados will recognise echoes of many of her heroes in Lord Cranbourne, who conforms very much to the jaded, world-weary and selfish man of experience, the dominant type who turns out to be just the right person to have around in a crisis. Marianne is the ingenue, sweet, innocent and very straightforward, who gets into unthinking trouble with the kindest of intentions and is thoroughly mortified afterwards – until the next time! So nothing unusual about them, but nicely drawn, and Marianne at least was never silly as so many very young heroines (especially in Heyer) often are.

There’s a huge cast of supporting characters and a myriad minor sub-plots, which I found rather a lot to keep track of, especially as so many of the characters were titled and I got them muddled up — Lady Brancaster and Lady Bamber, for instance, and Lady Strickland and Lady Silchester. So be prepared to take notes, or else (as I did) spend time paging back and forth to work out who was who. But the little side stories were delightful and added a great deal to the charm of the book, so it’s worth making the effort.

In the end, though, it’s the main romance that steals the show, and the proposal scene is totally awesome, and completely in character. I loved it. Highly recommended reading, and a treat for Heyer fans, who’ll love the writing style and language, the sparkling dialogue and the array of lively minor characters. Five stars.

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Review: Katherine by Jenny Hambly

Posted February 21, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 3 Comments

This is the third book by this author, and it’s another assured and enjoyable read. Heroine Katherine is a calm and sensible woman, and hero Harry is an irrepressible rogue, and if this is a little more conventional an outing than Rosalind and Sophie, that’s not a problem in the slightest.

Here’s the premise: Katherine’s brother, for whom she’s kept house for several years, has recently married and Katherine’s feeling a bit in the way of her rather crotchety and newly pregnant sister-in-law. She accepts her brother’s commission to travel to a neglected part of his estate to restore it to order. The house, Helagon in Cornwall, is not quite falling down, but needs more work than she’d foreseen. A tricky problem. Meanwhile, wild boy Harry, Viscount Treleven, has returned to his former home after five years in exile, determined to be a good landlord and settle down just a little. Needless to say, these two find themselves unwilling and somewhat antagonistic neighbours…

I liked Katherine very much. Her awkward position, having her role as mistress of the house usurped by the new wife, who naturally wants everything her own way, must have been a very common one in Regency times, and most women didn’t have the option of another estate to run away to. Most such women would have simply dwindled away to become the poor relation, or else hastily accepted the first suitable offer, so Katherine is lucky to avoid those fates, but her position is still a difficult one. Even when Helagon is fully restored, it would be considered quite odd for a single woman to live there, even with a companion for respectability. But Katherine doesn’t dwell on her future, throwing herself into the business of renovation with practical spirit, as with everything. Her first meeting with Harry is very much in that vein, after he has seemingly been shot by a poacher and she briskly deals with his injury.

Harry isn’t quite the lighthearted flirt he appeared to be in the previous book, where his humour lightened the tone considerably. That’s inevitable, perhaps, in the book where he meets his match and the roguishness has to give way to more serious considerations. There’s also his duties as landlord, especially one who’s been absent for some years, to weigh him down, and a neighbour who isn’t as friendly as he might be. However, I did miss the lightness just a little.

Of the side characters, I particularly liked Harry’s younger sister Henrietta, painfully shy and recovering from a not very enjoyable London season. Katherine’s advice on the proper management of flirtatious comments was one of the highlights of the book. Lord and Lady Hayward were fun characters, too. The villain is dealt with with suitable panache.

There’s nothing terribly unexpected in the way the story unravelled, but it was a fine read nevertheless, and I liked Harry’s scruples at the end – realising that his history as a flirt meant that he had to be absolutely sure of his own mind before speaking. A good four stars.

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Review: Sophie by Jenny Hambly

Posted June 8, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I thoroughly enjoyed the author’s previous book, her debut publication, so I looked forward to this with some enthusiasm and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a very different story, but that’s all to the good, and it features another spirited and independent heroine.

Sophie, the widowed Lady Lewisham, has just emerged from her year of mourning for her much older husband. It wasn’t a love match. He was in desperate need of an heir, and she was young, beautiful and available, with parents willing to accept a generous settlement to agree to the marriage. But this is not the conventional story of an unwilling bride and an unpleasant husband. Sophie was perfectly willing to do her duty to the benefit of her family, and Edward turned out to be a kind and considerate husband, who encouraged Sophie to read and expand her mind under his aegis. Even though the heir didn’t happen, he ensured that she became independently wealthy after his death.

So Sophie decides that she will continue to expand her mind by travelling to Italy with her companion, Miss Trew, and that was a pretty intrepid thing to do in those days, without a male or three to oversee everything. Naturally things go wrong as they travel, but luckily they encounter an acquaintance from London, Sir Philip Bray, who helps them out. And since he’s as handsome as she is beautiful… romance ahoy.

Needless to say, it’s not quite as simple as all that. Sophie is enjoying her independence (and her fortune!) and has no desire at all to surrender either to a man. And Philip is a confirmed bachelor and something of a rake. He’s happy with his succession of mistresses and has no intention at all of trading them in for a wife. And so the whole plot is the two of them inching towards their HEA, sometimes taking one step forward and two back, and sometimes veering off at a tangent, but always totally, utterly convinced that they aren’t heading for the altar. No way. Absolutely not.

In lesser hands this might have been rather dull. The interchanges between the two principals tended towards the grumpy, with only occasional bursts of romantic tension to counterpoint their wrangling. There are some minor side plots with an Italian family, resolved rather too easily, and a gentle little romance for Miss Trew, but none of that added much to the main story. Only Philip’s friend, Harry, added some much needed animation and humour to spice things up. But when our hero and heroine do break out of the grumpiness and allow the attraction between them to shine through, the result is breathtaking. There are some sublime moments of high emotion to more than compensate for all that crossness.

The author’s other great talent is in descriptive prose, and this book is superb in that respect, with its lush evocations of both the Italian countryside and the English. Her grasp of the Regency is sound enough to make the description of travelling through Italy perfectly believable. And for people, too, the author is able to create an image of a character in just a few well-chosen words. Wonderful stuff.

If I have a complaint, it’s that the romance is too straightforward. Or perhaps it’s the characters themselves who are too straightforward. They are both intelligent, sensible people without any real flaws (apart from grumpiness and an unwillingness to do their duty as hero/heroine of a romance). There are no real obstacles, except for their own personal resistance to the idea of matrimony, and after fighting against it for the whole length of the book, in the end they cave in rather easily when pushed and everything in the garden is rosy. I think I would have preferred them to take things more slowly and cautiously at this point rather than tipping straight into planning the honeymoon. Sophie needed to be absolutely sure that Philip would allow her to continue to grow as a person, and Philip needed to be certain he’d overcome his personal baggage. But I did like that they both seriously considered the idea of not getting married at all, but simply having an affair. A great instance of the author respecting the customs of the Regency, while also respecting the intelligence of her characters.

An excellent book, highly recommended, and I look forward to reading the irrepressible Harry’s story which I feel sure is bound to follow. Five stars.

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Review: Rosalind by Jenny Hambly

Posted December 27, 2018 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 3 Comments

It’s always a delight to find a new author who respects the traditions of the incomparable Georgette Heyer, and so it is with Jenny Hambly. Heyer afficianados will find echoes of the great lady in the characters, the situations and some of the expressions and cant terms used, and if Hambly doesn’t quite capture Heyer’s sublime touch with sparkling dialogue – well, who does?

The premise is that Lady Rosalind Marlowe is the daughter of an earl who died in impoverished circumstances after gambling away his wealth. She sets out to get her revenge on the men who won large sums from him by breaking into their homes and stealing valuable items from them, not for the money but simply to shame them. But on her last venture, she is caught – not by the elderly Earl of Atherton who had been her father’s gambling crony, but by his handsome son George who has recently inherited. Well, we can see where this is going, can’t we?

He is surprisingly lenient, not only shielding her from the Bow Street Runner who is hot on her trail, but offering her a post as companion to his newly widowed mother. His motives are not entirely altruistic – he finds her very attractive, and really, the gentlemanly thing to do would be to offer help, but keep himself out of it. But the romance has to get going somehow, so I’m not going to complain at a little implausibility at the start.

The Dowager Lady Atherton turns out not to be the traditional dragon, but a charming and very friendly woman, who delights in fostering the budding romance between the two. George has two sisters, both married, and the whole family is a great deal of fun and not at all starchy. I really liked George’s two friends, too, because yes, as in all the best Heyer stories, the hero has a couple of friends to help him into and out of scrapes. It wasn’t clear how they all met (if it was mentioned, I’ve forgotten it), but they seemed an odd bunch. Sir Philip Bray is an ex-soldier, and Lord Preeve is the stammering, gentlemanly, but not terribly bright, comedy turn.

What about the plot? Well, after the excitement of Rosalind breaking and entering, being caught, evading the Bow Street Runner and facing up to her captor, the book becomes a less dramatic drawing room affair. Rosalind sets aside her breeches and mask, and becomes a well-behaved lady again. Well, perhaps not totally well-behaved, for she’s not a woman to swoon at a challenge or leave things to the men, and she’s as often doing the rescuing as being rescued. Still, for a while there’s a little less drama and the problems are of a more domestic nature.

But of course there’s a villain lurking about the place and getting up to his villainous tricks. This was all suitably thrilling and built to a very satisfactory climax and conclusion. I confess to being a little disappointed that the villain’s motivation was George and not Rosalind. It would have been perfect if Mr Villain had discovered Rosalind’s thievery, and she had learnt that her actions could have serious consequences. Instead, George has to appear to be heartless about Mr V to set things off, which seems out of character in such an otherwise thoroughly nice bloke, and all Rosalind learns from her stealing is that if you get caught, you get whisked off to a country estate and have a very pleasant time.

Everything comes right in the end, naturally, and the slightly neglected romance reemerges and reaches its triumphant conclusion, with a delicious proposal and a rather splendid wedding scene. An honourable mention here for a creative use of Pride and Prejudice. So many Regency authors think it’s cute to have the heroine reading Austen, but here the book has an actual role to play in the development of the story, which I thought was very ingenious. Kudos to the author.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this. The author’s liking for comma splices took some getting used to, but there were so few other issues that I set it down as authorial style and therefore intentional. Otherwise, the writing is spot on, with lots of great period detail, Heyer-esque dialogue and an elegant way with description that the author in me greatly admired. A terrific debut, although a few plot issues keep it to four stars. Highly recommended for anyone looking for a clean traditional Regency. I’m now waiting for the next book, which will feature the charming and wise Sir Philip.

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