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Review: Isabel by Martha Keyes

Posted September 22, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I loved Wyndcross, the predecessor to this book, so I knew right from the start that I would love this, too, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a very different story, in many ways a more conventional Regency romance, complete with that time-honoured plot-device, the fake betrothal, and perhaps it doesn’t quite reach the sublime heights of Wyndcross, but that was a very high bar.

Isabel Cosgrove, our heroine, had a walk-on role in the previous book, but it’s not necessary to have read that one first. This book picks up Isabel’s story in London in the midst of the shared season for her and her sister, up from Dorset for the occasion, and Isabel is suffering in comparison with the beautiful Cecilia. Our hero, Charles Galbraith, is in thrall to one of the ton’s incomparables, Julia Darling, who is a flighty piece, seeming to have lost interest in him in favour of another eligible. So Charles does what any young man would do when spurned by the woman he loves – he goes off and gets blind drunk, so drunk that he ends up in a wager with Isabel’s father, and wins her hand in marriage.

Now, there’s a lot to take on board here. Superficially it makes both Charles and Mr Cosgrove look like idiots. Charles is not only throwing away any possibility of Julia changing her mind again and coming back to him, he’s also binding himself for life to a woman he barely knows. And as for Mr Cosgrove, he looks like the world’s worst father for agreeing to such a wager in the first place (although, to be fair, he does have a better reason for his actions than mere drunken caprice). But Charles doesn’t, and the author sets herself quite a challenge here – from such an unpromising beginning, to make Charles into a sympathetic and heroic character. It’s a testament to her skill that she achieves this splendidly.

Fortunately for the reader inclined to dislike drunken Charles (ie me), sober Charles turns out to be a charming and honourable man, who immediately makes Isabel an offer in form. Which she rejects, even though she’s had the hots for him for years, because she doesn’t want a resentful husband, constantly mooning over his lost love and trying not to show it. Which is terribly decent of her. I’m not sure I could ever be quite so noble and self-sacrificing as the typical Regency heroine.

But she has a cunning plan. If she and Charles pretend to be betrothed for a while, it will make Julia jealous enough to return to Charles, and by that time Isabel’s beautiful younger sister will have achieved the expected stellar match and their father will be too pleased to be angry with Isabel. Now, there are more holes in this scheme than a sieve. I don’t know why it is, but whenever Regency characters get into a pickle, one of them is sure to say: I know, let’s pretend to be engaged! That’ll totally work! Which makes me want to bang their heads together and say: Guys, this is a terrible idea, don’t do it, OK? But they never listen.

So off they go with their fake betrothal, and of course all sorts of complications ensue, as expected. There’s a fairly dodgy subplot with a cute ingenue, who’s both naive and worldly-wise all at the same time, and the usual dastardly villain, and everything builds to a grand climax, which is good, dramatic stuff. But it’s the romance that steals the show here, and it’s my favourite sort, the slow build of two sensible and intelligent people towards their inevitable destiny. The denouement is delicious.

Niggles? Not many. Apart from a few anachronisms (a Regency hero who feels the need to ‘get out of his own head’?) and a plot that occasionally felt as if it was held together with chewing gum and string, this book was a delight. There was humour, some fun side-characters (I particularly liked gossipy plotter Mary) and a swoon-worthy hero. Isabel was a great heroine, and if her plan went a little awry, her intentions were the best, and I liked her a lot. I had some reservations about the premise and how drunken Charles would redeem himself, but the author pulled it off magnificently, so I can’t give this less than five stars. Looking forward to the next book about Isabel’s beautiful younger sister.

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Review: Wyndcross by Martha Keyes

Posted July 7, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

It’s a rare day when I find a new author I can rave about, but here we are. Martha Keyes’ first full-length Regency romance manages to tick all the boxes – engaging characters, believable situations and a truly authentic setting. The dialogue is sparkling with wit in the best tradition of Georgette Heyer, and the characters all speak and behave in a credibly Regency manner. Awesome.

Here’s the premise: Kate Matcham is in a difficult situation. Her father died trying to stamp out smuggling in Dorsetshire, and her mother remarried a man in trade. Kate’s spending most of her time with her widowed aunt in London, but she’s aware that, with younger sisters growing up, she’s expected to marry well. Her options are limited, though – a marriage of convenience, an offer of a less savoury sort, or the slight possibility of a fortune from her less-than-respectable step-father. She doesn’t want any of them. But then she receives an unexpected invitation to stay with a childhood friend very near to her old home. The only problem? The charming young man she finds herself falling for is earmarked for her friend.

I adore a character who makes me laugh, and William, the aforementioned charming young man, has the most glorious sense of humour. He brings out the best in Kate, and their verbal sparring matches are a delight. There are some other fun characters, too, and (with a couple of minor exceptions) the bad guys are not so much wicked as flailing about trying to do their best, albeit in a fairly misguided way.

The smuggling subplot is not an original one, and the resolution there was fairly melodramatic, but it never felt outrageously contrived and the characters behaved (on the whole) in keeping with their characters. I say ‘on the whole’, because I got a bit twitchy about William keeping Kate in the dark, especially when it’s clear at this point that he’s in love with her. Knowing her history and character, and knowing how dangerous the situation was, not telling her put her at great risk. I would have liked a bit more passion from him, too, especially at the end when they’ve been through some difficult times together. Sweeping her into his manly arms wouldn’t have gone amiss at that point. Sometimes Regency restraint can be carried a tad too far!

As for Kate, she did a great deal of agonising and it took her a long time to realise what was going on with William, both on the smuggling front and emotionally. There’s that Regency restraint again. I’m not a huge fan of hand-wringing heroines, but with Kate it was very understandable, given her background and her presumed unsuitability to marry William, who is the heir to an earldom. But when the two of them did finally manage to set aside that pesky Regency restraint for five minutes and sort themselves out, it was well worth the wait.

On the historical accuracy front, I have virtually nothing to grumble about. The only Americanisms I spotted were a couple of gottens and one or two times Kate gazed ‘out the window’. There were a couple of anachronisms. ‘Empathy’ was first recorded in 1895 and ‘surreal’ in 1936. Trivial stuff. In every other way – dialogue, manners, setting – the author’s grasp of the Regency is very assured, and the wit and sparkle that flies between Kate and William reminded me very much of Georgette Heyer. A wonderful read, highly recommended. Five stars.

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Review: Eleanor by Martha Keyes

Posted July 1, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is a novella-length story as an introduction to this debut author, and it’s a pretty accomplished work for a first timer. The premise is an unusual one. Lawrence Debenham has been browbeaten by his parents for his whole life. Now they’ve bought him a modest estate so that he can assume the responsibilities of a gentleman of property, and settle down with a suitably worthy wife. He is rebelling in the only way he can, by inviting a couple of pleasure-bent friends to join him in a life of idleness, doing anything rather than accede to his parents’ wishes and accept the mantle of duty.
But into this dissolute life appears Eleanor Renwick, her young brother John and a very large dog called Anne. Finding them stranded at the local inn by a broken-down carriage, Lawrence recklessly invites them to stay at his house until the repairs have been completed, and finds himself face to face with Eleanor’s deeply-felt but lightly-borne sense of duty. John (and the dog) help Lawrence to recapture his youth and Eleanor… well, it’s not difficult to see where things are heading with Eleanor, if only Lawrence can set aside his wish to thwart his parents.This is a straightforward little story. There are no dastardly villains, no kidnappings or shady goings-on, all the characters are pleasant, decent sorts and thank goodness for a plot which doesn’t depend on the two main characters misunderstanding each other or failing to communicate. It has to be said that very little happens rather slowly, but what does happen is enjoyable enough. There’s a tendency to describe every single piece of dialogue or gesture or smile, which slows things even more. When the author has got into her stride, I hope she’ll tighten her writing a bit and vary the pace.

On the historical accuracy front, I only have one quibble. A lady finding herself stranded at an inn with only a young brother and a dog as escort is in a bit of a bind, especially if there are no rooms to be had at said inn. What she would never, never do, however, is to go off with a single man to stay at his home. If he were married, or his mother were in residence, it would be acceptable, but a lady staying unchaperoned in a house with only young, single gentlemen and servants is a big no-no. However, it’s the whole premise of the story, so it has to be given a pass.

I liked all the characters. John and the dog are plot devices, but charming ones. Eleanor is a serious type who needed Lawrence’s childlike imagination to lighten her life, and Lawrence needed a dose of her graceful approach to duty to enable him to accept his responsibilities. Both their dilemmas felt real, and if they fell into the romance a little too easily, it was obvious that they were well suited and would be very contented together.

There were a fair few Americanisms (fall instead of autumn, passed instead of died, amongst others), and there were some expressions that felt too modern to me, but otherwise the writing was fine, and mercifully free of typos and wayward punctuation. In the end, Lawrence’s difficulties resolved themselves very easily. I would have liked to have met his parents, having heard them demonised for most of the book. It would have been fun to find out whether they really were as dreadful as Lawrence made out, although there’s a hint that it’s his own fears that made them seem so. It’s a small point, however. The focus of the story is the romance, which builds nicely to a delightful resolution. A pleasant and readable debut. I shall be looking forward to the author’s first full length book. Four stars.

PS I don’t usually comment on covers, since the inside of a book is generally more interesting, but a huge thumbs-up for a cover that features something close to historically accurate clothing rather than a glorified prom gown.

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