Author: Mary Kingswood

Review: The Diabolical Baron by Mary Jo Putney (1987)

Posted June 17, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is a very early Putney, possibly her first publication. My only previous contact with her work was The Rake, which I liked for the passion between the protagonists and disliked almost everything else about it. This I liked much, much more, although with a few little niggles, and one major problem.

Here’s the premise: Jason Kincaid, Lord Radford, is thirty-five years old, and is the usual sort of super-charged hero for the era – rich, handsome, a Corinthian, arrogant and completely selfish. But duty is catching up with him, and he knows it’s time he married and got himself an heir. He’s not interested in a love match, after a love affair went disastrously wrong some years ago. He’s never found anyone to compare with that first love, so he’s happy to settle for any respectable girl. He doesn’t know one from another, so he asks his friend George Fitzwilliam to draw up a shortlist and he picks a name from a hat. To spice things up, he makes a wager with Fitzwilliam on the outcome.

The name he picks out is Miss Caroline Hanscombe. He knows nothing about her, beyond her eligibility, but he sets out with single-minded determination to court and win her. Caroline is a quiet, self-effacing person, happy to lose herself in her music, which she not only plays but also composes. It’s her solace in a life that’s not particularly enjoyable. She’s going through the motions of a season, in support of her younger half-sister, Gina, but all she wants is to retire to live with her beloved aunt and write her music. Lord Radford’s pursuit confuses her, the baron himself frightens her, she doesn’t love him and she certainly doesn’t want to marry him. But her father and step-mother put her under intense pressure and she feels obliged to accept his proposal.

So far, we seem to be heading for a standard marriage of convenience story, but not so. There are two other people to play a role in this story. One is Captain Richard Davenport, returning from war to the neighbouring estate to Radford’s, who is just as musical as Caroline. The other is Caroline’s aunt, Jessica, a widow, who just happens to be Radford’s long-lost first love. And so we find ourselves in a different trope, the betrothed-to-the-wrong-person story, as Caroline gradually falls in love with Richard, and Jason finds himself just as drawn as before to Jessica, who is every bit as super-charged as he is.

In many ways, this reminds me of Heyer’s Bath Tangle, with the same two pairs, one vibrant and high-spirited, the other quiet and gentle, with a mismatched betrothal to be sorted out. Naturally, as in that book, so with this, the tangle is eventually unravelled and the characters end up in the right pairings. Even though it’s obvious that it will work out, somehow, it’s still pretty emotional for the participants as they wrestle with their consciences and try to do the right thing.

I think it could have been sorted a lot more easily if Caroline had had the gumption to go to Jason and ask him directly just why he wanted to marry her. She assumed that he must feel something for her, even though he didn’t show it, but that was pretty naive of her. Many Regency marriages were pragmatic affairs, and a man of that age and temperament might very well prefer that sort of arrangement. If she’d learnt that she was just a random choice, she could have jilted him a lot more easily. Mind you, that would have been a fairly tame ending. Putney’s actual solution was a lot more dramatic.

I mentioned some small niggles, and one major problem. Let me deal with the problem first. Richard is the heir to an earldom, but he arrives at the estate under a pseudonym while he decides whether he wants to take up the earldom or allow it to pass to the next in line. Erm… no. Big, big no-no. He’s the heir, and he doesn’t get to choose whether to take it or not. It’s his, and that’s the end of it. He can choose whether to claim the title officially or not, but he can’t pass it on or refuse it. He’s the earl, whether he likes it or not. The property is unentailed, so he can give that away if he chooses, but not the title. Unfortunately, the whole premise of the book is built around whether he becomes the earl or not.

The other niggles are trivial. There are a very few Americanisms, and also some surprising typos, which a halfway decent editor should have caught. I disliked that some of the background characters were pretty evil people, cartoonish villains without a redeeming feature amongst them, especially Caroline’s horrible father. In many ways, this would have been a more interesting and more powerful story if Caroline hadn’t been blackmailed into accepting Jason’s proposal, but had made the decision for herself, not enthusiastically, perhaps, but in a spirit of duty to help her family. I also wondered a little why Jason and Jessica gave up so easily on their early romance. He, at least, could have made some effort to find her. But that would have spoilt the whole story, so fair enough. And I suppose I could quibble about the length of time the four of them took to sort out their difficulties.

But very little of this mattered while I was reading. I was totally swept up in the story, feeling every nuance of their emotional highs and lows, quite unable to put the book down. I liked all the main characters, particularly the two ‘quiet’ ones, who were drawn with greater subtlety, I thought, and I loved all the musical detail. It made Caroline, in particular, feel very real. Putney is a powerful writer, and although this book wasn’t perfect, I can’t give it less than five stars.

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Review: Devil’s Cub by Georgette Heyer (1932)

Posted June 17, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Lord, that was tedious. I know a lot of Heyer fans love this book, but apart from a brief moment in the middle, I strongly disliked pretty much everything about it. An obnoxious hero, a wildly implausible plot, a stupid heroine and an array of boringly verbose side characters — yawn.

Here’s the premise: wild Dominic Alistair, the Marquis of Vidal, and heir to the Duke of Avon, has finally been forced to flee the country because of a duel. Deciding that he might as well have an amusing companion for the journey, he arranges to run off with Sophia Challoner, who’s been flirting outrageously with him and seems to be ripe for any mischief. She agrees to go to Paris with him as his mistress, although she hopes that the ensuing scandal will force him to marry her. But the arrangements are intercepted by Sophia’s older sister Mary, who decides to save her sister from such a terrible fate by running off with Vidal herself. Naturally, she expects him to send her promptly home when he discovers the deception, and is horrified when he shrugs, says in essence, ‘You’ll do just as well’, and forces her to go to France with him. It’s only when she shoots him in desperation that he realises she isn’t as morally dubious as her sister.

And this is where the book veers off the rails of credibility. Having confidently assured his parents that there’s no danger of him being forced to marry the so-bourgeois Sophia, he now decides that he absolutely must marry Mary, who may be more protective of her virtue but is still just as bourgeois as her sister. This made zero sense to me, frankly. She’s still a nobody who chose to run away with him, so there’s absolutely no need for any question of marriage, especially from a future duke. And frankly, nothing about Vidal suggests that he has the slightest interest in honourable behaviour, since he’s been an arrogant, violent, selfish and thoroughly horrible person from page 1. And since Mary declares that she doesn’t want to marry him anyway, you’d imagine that would let him off the hook.

However, the shooting ushers in the only part of the book that is remotely entertaining, in the manner of many later Heyers. Vidal is slightly injured by the shooting, and Mary takes charge of him, forcing him to see a doctor, to be bled and then to eat a bowl of gruel, and generally bossing him (and his servants) around and not taking no for an answer. The conversations between Vidal and Mary are priceless. I could have done with a lot more of that.

But then we get to Paris, where we encounter the sub-plot, Vidal’s cousin Juliana, who has fallen in love with another nobody, called Comyn, a painfully correct young man. Juliana is the sort of female who is all too frequent in Heyer’s works, being young and stupid and prone to fall into hysterics at the slightest provocation. I disliked her quite intensely. Comyn was rather funny, though. Add to this mix Vidal’s mother, the Duchess of Avon, or Leonie, the heroine of These Old Shades, who is happily not prone to hysterics, but instead spends most of the book repeatedly stating that Vidal must (or must not) marry one of other of the various women involved. There are a number of Vidal’s other relatives who put in an appearance, too, who also talk at great length about what Vidal and Leonie and Juliana (and who knows who else) should or should not do. I suspect that Heyer thought all this dialogue was very witty, but since it didn’t advance the plot one iota or illuminate the characters involved or (frankly) serve any purpose whatsoever, I beg to differ. And then there’s the Duke of Avon himself, of whom everyone is terrified, but here he’s no more than a fairly implausible plot device (he just happens to be at the right tiny little inn at the precise time he was needed? Really?).

As for Mary, what can I say about a woman who’s fallen in love yet refuses to marry the man because she’s not worthy of him? And keeps on refusing, even when he professes his love? Stupid girl. I’ve given this two stars because… well, it’s Georgette Heyer, so the writing is superb, as always. But the plot, the characters, the romance? Not so much. It just made me cross. But at least now I can tick it off my to-read list.

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Review: Matchless Margaret by Christina Dudley (2021)

Posted May 30, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is two parts Bath Tangle and two parts Cotillion, and a smidgeon of Northanger Abbey, but at the same time is entirely itself. Christina Dudley is surely one of the finest Regency authors around – original, clever, literate and very, very funny. Every book in this series is a delight, even though they are all completely different, and each one a unique masterpiece.

Here’s the premise: Margaret Hapgood is the third of the four daughters of Squire Hapgood of Bramleigh in Somersetshire. The two eldest are now married, the mother indulges in ill-health, so it falls to Margaret to manages the family’s affairs. This she does so thoroughly that when her uncle, Alwyn Arbuthnot, falls once more into financial difficulties, Margaret is deployed to take him to Bath, accompanied by her mother, to find him a wealthy bride so that he won’t be a drain on the squire’s purse any longer.

This he’s perfectly willing to do, so they find cheap lodgings – and almost the first person they meet is the wealthy widow he courted in London, whose son whisked her to safety out of the eager hands of Uncle Alwyn. The son, Dashiell Waite, is a soldier recovering from a leg injury received in the war with France, and he meets Margaret when she accidentally knocks his crutches from under him. He’s accompanied by his friend, Charles Haworth, another war-wounded ex-soldier, now the unexpected owner of a country estate. They are joined in Bath by Dashiell’s betrothed-from-the-cradle cousin, Charmaine Blakely, and her mother, and this little group form an uneasy friendship, fostered by Charmaine’s unexpected friendship for Margaret.

Charmaine is, in many ways, the driver of this plot, rather than Margaret. She’s the character who most reminds me of Northanger Abbey, for she’s the worldly-wise and flirtatious Isabella to Margaret’s innocent Catherine Morland, not exactly leading Margaret astray but using her as a go-between as Charmaine tries to provoke Dashiell into uncharacteristic jealousy, or at least some sign of passion, and manipulates everyone around her to do her bidding. Even though we can see that she doesn’t much care about Dashiell and is a thoroughly cold and selfish person, she still has flashes of humour and even friendliness. It would have been so easy to make her an out and out villain, but she’s far more layered than that. Her desire for Dashiell to court her properly is actually fairly understandable, although her assumption that he should simply ‘know’ what she wants is perhaps a little unrealistic.

I mentioned the echoes of Heyer’s Bath Tangle and Cotillion, which lies not so much in the characters involved but in the situation. The misaligned but betrothed couple, Charmaine and Dashiell, are reminiscent of Bath Tangle, while between Charmaine and Dashiell, his lovelorn friend Haworth and Margaret, Alwyn and Mrs Waite, we have three of the four couples for our cotillion. The fourth couple is Sir Dodkins Hargate, who takes a shine to Margaret because she reminds him of his dead daughter, and his old friend and neighbour, Mrs Turner. How these four align and realign themselves, and the right couples end up together is the subject of the second half of the book, and I won’t spoil it by elaborating on that. I did find it just a tad surprising, and I’d be interested to know just what Dashiell will do for money now, because it really wasn’t explained.

Nevertheless, this was another fine five star read for me, and even the Americanisms [*] didn’t bother me so much in this book (only the use of ‘passed’ instead of died or even passed on or passed away, but it’s a minor point in the overall scheme of things). The Regency Dudley evokes seems very authentic to me and I thoroughly enjoyed the Bath setting as a variation from the rural countryside (although I confess I wondered whether Sydney Gardens would really be holding outdoor breakfasts in the winter). This probably could be read as a standalone, but it would be far better after reading the series in sequence, to get the full picture of the Hapgood family background. And now on to Edith’s tale (and the faithful Lionel, I hope).

[*] The author tells me she’s fixed these.

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Review: School For Love by Christina Dudley (2020)

Posted May 30, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 2 Comments

Sometimes I wish Goodreads had more than five stars in its arsenal for books like this. I give a book five stars if it totally entertains me, even if it may have flaws, but there are books that rise above that level and this is definitely one of them.

Here’s the premise: the series is based around the Hapgood family of Bramleigh, the happy-go-lucky dog-mad squire, his permanently invalidish wife, and his four daughters. With one daughter safely (if eccentrically) married off in book 1 of the series, in book 2, the squire’s cousin, Hugh Hapgood, newly widowed and with three children to raise, arrived with the dutiful but sensible plan of marrying the oldest and rather beautiful daughter. She resolved that issue in spectacular style by eloping with a rakish but very charming young man, and with the two youngest daughters too young to marry, Hugh must think again. Without a wife, what is he to do with the children? He finds a place with a local clergyman for his son, Lionel, but the two girls, Hetty and Rosie, are sent away to school.

That lasts no more than a few weeks before scarlet fever and the girls’ homesickness force a rethink. They’ll do anything to avoid being sent back to school, Lionel’s very happy where he is, thank you very much, and Hugh isn’t keen to go back to his former home and the interference of his sister-in-law. The answer is to find himself another candidate for a wife, but there are different opinions on how to manage that, and the children are just as involved as anyone else.

There is one obvious candidate – thirty-one year old Rosemary deWitt, daughter of a man formerly in business but now knighted and living the life of a respected country gentleman. Rosemary isn’t a great beauty but she has a respectable portion and she’s had one or two offers. Not enticing enough to accept, however, and she doesn’t want to marry a man who’s only interested in her fortune. She contents herself with parish work and teaching a few local girls at a time the rudiments of reading and writing. It’s frustrating, though, when they learn a little and then drift away.

But children aren’t deterred by lack of beauty or interested in fortune, so Hugh Hapgood’s children take an immediate shine to her and decide that she’ll do very well as a new mama. And so they begin their plotting…

The children’s machinations are a big part of the plot, so if you don’t enjoy the scheming children trope, this is probably not the book for you. I suppose they’re a little mature for their years, but it wasn’t a problem for me and their devious little schemes were very funny (especially Lionel’s attempt to engineer a compromising situation so that his father would be obliged to marry Rosemary deWitt). But really, their schemes are hardly necessary, when the two principals are well on the way to matrimony already, without any help from anybody. Rosemary discovers the funny and charming man that thirteen years of unhappy marriage had all but suffocated, and Hugh has long since learnt to value qualities beyond appearance. They both discover that being in your thirties is no protection against the inner turmoil of falling in love.

And then disaster happens, which had me (literally) in tears. Even though I knew that of course these two were going to get their happy ending and I even suspected how it would happen, still the grief of the two lovers tore me apart. I punched the air with glee when Hugh had his mad moment and decided that… well, you’ll see. I won’t spoil the ending.

Here’s what I loved about this book: firstly, the characters. Not just the two leads, although Hugh, so serious and stern-faced initially and so passionate at the end, was especially delightful. Rosemary, the dutiful spinster who seems so past the age of matrimony but still has a wilful heart, was also easy to love. Then there were the children: Hugh’s three, Lionel, Hetty and Rosie, and also the Bramleigh girls, Margaret and Edith, who were all delightful.

But really, it’s all of them. This is an ensemble cast, set deep in the English countryside, far away from the usual Regency haunts of London, Hyde Park, Almack’s and so on. This is a setting and a group of people who might have existed any time from the middle ages onwards. The gentry, like the Hapgoods, the deWitts, the Porterworths and the Birdlows. The clergy, like Mr and Miss Benfield. And the shadowy, but still vibrant, characters of the servants. Every one of them feels alive and active and very, very real.

There are no actual villains in this all-too-believable world, but equally there are no saints either, just ordinary people doing what they can to get by and acting in whatever manner seems fit to them, pursuing their own ends without treading too much on other people’s toes. And sometimes that works and sometimes it just makes things worse, and they have to do whatever they can to fix things, or put up with the consequences. One review compared this with Middlemarch, both in the range of characters and the way that they are all likeable in their different ways, even when they’re self-absorbed or unobservant, and I can see that.

And, just as in real life, the characters ping off each other and cause actual changes. For instance, when Lionel first comes to the Benfields for tuition, he tells Rosemary that he doesn’t need to study or go to university because he’s going to be a country gentleman like the squire and spend his days doing sporty, outdoorsy things. But when he tells Rosemary that he plans to marry his cousin Edith, she asks him if he really thinks she would want to marry an uneducated man. And so gradually he changes his opinion. Such a small detail, but so true to life.

I’ve waxed lyrical about this book for a multitude of paragraphs, but was there anything I disliked about it? There was, but I have to say that it was not enough to knock a star off my rating. It was a repeated irritation, but everything else was so exceptional that I can let it go. I’m talking about the Americanisms[*]. I know there are a number of authors who deliberately choose to write with American style and spellings, and that’s fine. That’s a creative choice, and I would never quibble over an author’s right to do that. Besides, there are plenty of Regencies where there’s so much suspension of disbelief required that a few gottens and a chipmunk or two is neither here nor there. But when an author has created such a beautifully crafted Regency, where every element is utterly convincing, the use of gotten drops me instantly out of my immersion in the story. The two that tripped me up most were ‘write someone’ instead of ‘write to someone’, and the jarring overuse of ‘shall’. A phrase like ‘Lionel shall miss his sisters’ just sounds wrong to me, although I couldn’t even explain why. And these little tripwires, and a few others, are dotted throughout the book. [*] The author tells me these have been fixed.

But that is, for me, the only conceivable grumble about the book, and it’s a very minor one. Don’t let it put you off, because otherwise this book is as near to perfect as it’s possible to be. It could just about be read as a standalone, but why would you want to? Start with The Naturalist and then read the whole series. I’m going straight on to Margaret’s story, and then Edith’s. The chores can wait. Five hundred stars.

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Review: A Very Plain Young Man by Christina Dudley (2014)

Posted May 6, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This was a delight almost from start to finish… no, not even almost, it actually was delightful from start to finish, because although the story opens with the hero visiting his mistress, which would normally be a downer in an otherwise traditional Regency, the scene is so funny I forgive it. The lady is a bit of a drama queen, and since Our Hero is not best pleased by her histrionics, he finds himself scratching around for a delicate way to end their relationship. To his every excuse, she finds some counter-argument, and in the end he’s forced to tell her that he’s about to marry. Any self-respecting mistress understands that he can’t have any other relationships – at least, not for a while. He’s free! But in order to keep the lady from pestering him, he’ll really have to find himself a wife, or at least make the attempt.

And so begins the story. Our Hero is Frederick Tierney, the wild older brother of Joseph, the gentle hero of the previous book, The Naturalist, and since said brother has just married the impoverished but equally beetle-mad Alice Hapgood, Frederick decides to descend on the Hapgoods. Having spied the serenely beautiful older sister, Elfrida Hapgood at a ball, he decides that she would make him a suitable wife. Since he’s handsome, charming and wealthy, not to mention the heir to a baronetcy, he can’t imagine that he’ll have any trouble wooing her. But Elfrida is a down-to-earth young lady, not at all romantic, and she knows Frederick’s quite above her touch, not to mention having a terrible reputation. To his surprise, she’s not even interested in him.

And that, in a nutshell, is the whole story. It doesn’t sound like much, does it? It’s hardly an original plot. But the skill is all in the execution, or in this case the characters of the two principals. Frederick is sunnily undeterred by Elfrida’s indifference, and determines to ruffle her composure however he can. This manifests itself in the most glorious teasing banter, which manages to be witty and brain-addling and gloriously funny all at the same time. Many authors are claimed to be masters (or mistresses) of the art of writing witty banter, but nothing I have read before even comes close to this. It’s quite brilliant.

Elfrida’s composure stems at least in part from short-sightedness, so she sees the world in unrelieved fuzziness and doesn’t fuss over the details. And Frederick, lovely Frederick, discovers her secret and realises that she’s never seen just how handsome he is, so he takes care to position himself close enough for her to appreciate him in all his golden-haired glory. And the beauty of this is that it doesn’t come across as arrogance, but as a simple acceptance of himself. He truly thinks that when she sees him properly, she’ll fall for him. And who would not? I defy anyone not to love Frederick.

Of course, there are bound to be obstacles to the path of true love. Frederick’s past comes back to haunt him, and Elfrida is faced with a potential husband of a very different kind, soberly honourable and a very sensible choice. Needless to say, things come right in the end, thanks to Frederick’s irrepressible conviction that Elfrida will marry him eventually. There is only one wobbly moment where Elfrida makes a really stupid decision, but the rest of the book is so brilliant, and Frederick’s solution to the difficulty is so adept that I won’t hold it against her.

An honourable mention for some of the minor characters. I loved Elfrida’s younger sisters, chatterbox Margaret and artistic Edith, and her parents too, the father only interested in his dogs, and the mother dozing by the fire, when she can work up the energy to get out of bed. I’ve mentioned the melodramatic mistress, and then there’s the ‘maid’, Mrs Todd, who is in a league of her own. I love a book that’s funny, and this one actually had me laughing till I cried.

The writing is a treat for anyone looking for truly Austenesque prose, although there are a fair few Americanisms [*]. Nothing drastic, though, and certainly not enough to disrupt my enjoyment. A wonderful read that I raced through almost in one sitting. Five stars.

[*] The author tells me that these have been fixed.

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Review: Ormsley by Jenny Hambly (2022)

Posted May 6, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Another stellar read from Jenny Hambly, which I read more or less in one sitting. Lovely characters who feel like the sort of people you could actually meet in real life (and enjoy spending time with), beautiful writing and a perfectly evoked Regency with no anachronisms that I detected.

Here’s the premise: Hugh Brandforth, the Earl of Ormsley, returns unannounced to his estate after a futile pursuit of a wife. He’s thirty-seven, and was enjoying his discreet dalliances with married women too much to bother marrying himself, but being the only son, his ageing father had decided to secure the succession more firmly by taking a second wife, younger than Hugh. She produced a son, Henry, but Hugh has no love for his stepmother and her mother, and has belatedly decided to do his duty and find himself a sensible wife who won’t be difficult and will definitely not expect him to love her. He doesn’t believe in love. But it’s proving to be trickier than he’d supposed, so he’s not in the best of moods when he arrives home.

It’s not the homecoming he might have wished for. The gates are locked, for one thing, and then he finds himself berated by his old nurse for neglecting his little brother, accosted by an aggrieved woman, who is a complete stranger, when he mistook her for the boy’s nursemaid, and even the woman’s coachman is disrespectful. It’s a bit much for an earl to put up with.

But who’s this aggrieved woman, I hear you ask? Why, that’s the heroine, Miss Cressida Harrington, who has leased the dower house from the Countess of Ormsley, in order to escape from Bath rather precipitately. She was about to receive an unwelcome proposal from a notorious rake, and feared he was about to resort to heavy tactics to ensure her acceptance. But that’s not the sort of marriage she wants. She was once betrothed to a man who then died, and she’s not about to settle for something less than the perfect love she shared with Robin.

This is quite a lot of groundwork to get past before the story properly gets underway, and quite a bit of it is upfront in the first chapter, which describes Hugh’s childhood and upbringing in some detail. It’s very much the way Georgette Heyer would have done it, too, but for my taste I think I prefer to uncover the characters’ histories in dribs and drabs over many chapters.

From then onwards, the story unrolls without too many surprises. Hugh learns how to love, and Cressy learns that her first love was very different from the grown-up passionate feelings she develops for Hugh. In between, Henry learns to become less wild, Hugh’s youthful stepmother and her mother throw spanners in the works, Hugh’s loose-lipped friend does his unwitting bit to muck things up and Cressy’s erstwhile suitor turns up to drum up a little macho maleness in Hugh’s breast. And there are some family secrets to emerge, none of them terribly surprising, but nicely done.

There’s a lot to be said for a pleasant and undemanding read like this. There weren’t any great obstacles to the main characters’ romance, apart from their own reluctance, that is, and after the initial hostilities their sparky exchanges are perhaps a little flat. But they’re both sensible, their moments of high drama are understandable, and thank heavens for people who talk openly to each other, and have wise friends to steer their budding romance away from the shoals of the Great Misunderstanding and into open waters. And at the end, most of the antagonists have repented somewhat and are Doing the Decent Thing. And if that makes it seem slightly dull, overall, that’s partly a reaction to the sheer brilliance of Carteret, which was so epic that almost anything would be a bit of a come-down afterwards. So it doesn’t quite reach the heights of five stars for me, but it’s a very, very good four stars, and highly recommended.

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Review: Forlorn Hope by Judith Hale Everett (2022)

Posted May 6, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

One never knows what to expect from a Judith Everett book (which is very much a good thing, in my estimation). After two books set in the same immediate family, this one veers off at a tangent with a minor character from book 2, Geoffrey Mantell, a second son making a career in the army, and the strange, rather fey, girl next door, Emily Chandry. The two strike up a childhood friendship, and meet again as adults when Geoffrey is on leave. He spends his time searching in rather desultory style for a wife, but when he returns to the war, he decides that Emily is the one he wants. He returns in time from his soldiering only to find that he’s too late – she’s married and gone.

Now, this is the central premise of the book, the tipping point, and it’s revealed in the blurb, but we don’t reach it until well past the 25% point. I confess I read the many early chapters in some impatience to get to the meat of the story – and of course to the resolution, because how is there to be a happy ending out of all this? I was very, very curious to find out how the author resolves this conundrum. I had some ideas, but there were a number of ways this could go. It’s a very intriguing premise.

From this point on, the story revolves largely around Geoffrey’s efforts to put his love for Emily behind him, find himself a wife and move on with his life. All of which he fails to do in pretty spectacular fashion. Gradually he finds himself drawn into the oddity of Emily’s marriage, and the even greater oddity of her now deceased father’s machinations, since his determination to keep his presumed fortune out of the hands of his avaricious son-in-law creates problems for everybody.Geoffrey is a straight-down-the-line character, an honourable and dutiful man in a family of rather wilder types. His older brother Francis is a rake quite uninterested in settling down with a wife. His sister, Clara, is an unrepentant flirt who’s also in no hurry to marry. His mother only seems interested in getting the three of them suitably married. His father is distant, thinking his son a dull dog. Which he is, of course. I like an honourable hero as much as anyone, but I don’t like one who angsts at great length about his situation. There was, frankly, far too much time spent with Geoffrey agonising over Emily, and how he was to be the friend to her that was all he was allowed to be, while not showing his true feelings, and how he must find himself a wife to distract himself. I’d have liked him a lot better if he’d simply taken himself back into the army or found himself something else to do, preferably at the other end of the country. But of course, then there would have been no story.

Emily is (to my mind) a much more interesting character. As a child, she was unloved and neglected, spending her time in the woods, semi-feral, and building a fairy village in a clearing, complete with miniature houses, people and animals. Geoffrey is drawn to the endeavour as much as to the girl, and the two became friends in childhood while jointly working on the project. The whole concept is both magically creative but also unutterably sad, that she (or in fact both of them) were so little loved within their own families that they created a fantasy world to play out the happier lives of their pretend villagers. I liked that Emily grew up to be such a strong character, despite the neglect, taking charge of her own destiny as far as the law and circumstances allowed. She escaped her horrible father by marrying a man who wasn’t perfect, by any means, but with whom she could at least have a better life, and when the final crisis comes, she takes charge then, too. Good for her.

Even the side characters like Francis and Clara are livelier and more interesting than stolid Geoffrey. He’s such a goody-two-shoes that he spends time in London, while he’s supposedly looking for a wife, helping a random stranger with her affairs. Now, the random stranger happens to be the heroine of book 2, and so we see again some of the events of that book, but this time from Geoffrey’s perspective. This is not uninteresting to those who have read (and remember) book 2, but it adds nothing at all to this book except to illustrate that Geoffrey is a Good Person, which frankly we’ve already seen too much convincing evidence of. So that whole section of the book could easily have been dispensed with. It may well be that when the Branwell Chronicles is completed, these little cross-over vignettes will add depth and richness to the series-long story, but for me, impatient to find out just what was going on with Emily, this whole section was an irrelevance.

As the book progresses, it veers more into Gothic melodrama, with some dramatic happenings before our hero and heroine get their inevitable happy ending. I wasn’t entirely satisfied by the resolution to the problem of getting Emily out of her marriage, but it was perfectly in keeping with the Regency, and the nature of the characters themselves, so I won’t quibble over it. In fact, the author has such a sure hand in evoking the Regency that the odd Americanism that creeps in is quite startling (my favourite is the very non-British ‘grandbabies’). But really, there are vanishingly few of these, and in general the writing is quite brilliantly accurate to the period, without being heavy.

Overall, this didn’t resonate with me the way the first two books in the series did. There’s a greyness and lack of humour that probably exudes from Geoffrey (and is therefore totally in keeping), but I felt it weighed the book down somewhat. I would have liked more of a spark from Geoffrey, a little less of the remorseless agonising and sheer goodness, and a lot less of the repetitive pursuit of an eligible match when his heart wasn’t in it. I could have done without any of the overlap with book 2, and the sub-plot with Geoffrey’s mother added nothing very much to the story. Conversely, I would have liked a bit more of Emily, and that curious marriage. If this were the first Everett book I’d read, I’d probably have given it three stars and never read anything else by her (in which case I’d have been very much the loser). But it’s so beautifully written, and evokes such a believable Regency, that I’m going to give it four stars and hope for better fortune with the next book.

There are very few authors who have the courage to take an idea, a character, a situation and simply allow it to unwind at its own pace and in its own way, without ever trying to nudge it into the familiar plot-ruts. Writers like Mary Balogh, E A Dineley and Arabella Brown can do it, and Everett is of the same ilk. Such writing can be hit or miss, and this one isn’t a total success for me. Nevertheless, I respect and applaud the attempt, I have the utmost admiration for Everett’s talent and I will always prefer this kind of uncompromising originality to the majority of cookie-cutter Regencies.

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Review: Kingscastle by Sophia Holloway (2021)

Posted April 8, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I’ve read one previous book by this author, The Devil You Know, which I loved apart from one major flaw late on, but the writing was absolutely superb. So it is here, too, and although I had some niggles, they didn’t stop me thoroughly enjoying the book, to the extent that I read it in one sitting.

Here’s the premise: Captain William Hawksmoor is obliged to leave his beloved Royal Navy when both his cousin (of the same name) and his uncle die, leaving him the new Marquis of Athelney. The cousin who had been expected to inherit having been a useless good-for-nothing, the will specified certain conditions, namely, that he should marry and produce an heir within two years. The new Marquis has the same name, so the provisions apply equally to him, and he’s not unwilling. The title, the estate and his obligations he sees as just his duty, and he’s very good at doing his duty. But where will he find a bride? However, when he arrives at his new home, Kingscastle, he meets his aunt, Lady Willoughby Hawksmoor, who is determined that he should marry his cousin, timid and hectored Charlotte, but he finds the much mistreated companion, Eleanor Burgess far more to his liking.

It has to be said that Lady Willoughby Hawksmoor is a real piece of work – think Lady Catherine de Burgh on steroids. She’s so over the top as to be a caricature, but since she is almost the only obstacle to the plain sailing of the romance, I suppose we must give her some latitude. And, to be honest, in an era when women of rank were often both badly educated and accorded great deference, it was inevitable that some would conceive a completely misguided sense of their own importance in the world, and look down on anyone they deemed inferior, their position allowing them to be as rude as they like and get away with it. Neither the daughter, Charlotte, nor the companion, Eleanor, is in any position to gainsay her ladyship in the slightest.

Lord Athelney is a straightforward and pragmatic soul, and so it isn’t very long before he’s proposing to Eleanor, not any romantic sense, but as a way for him to fulfil the terms of the will and for her to escape her difficult circumstances. But he makes it clear that he likes and admires her, and that he thinks they can make a good marriage out of it that will content them both. And she turns him down. Of course she does. Why would she do that? Because she wants him to love her, naturally. It’s not enough for him to like her, she’s holding out for something more. At this point, I want to sit her down and berate her for her utter stupidity. She has nothing at all in her life except a miserable existence as a punching ball for Lady Willoughby, which is likely to see her dismissed without a reference very soon. And then she will have no future at all except that of increasing poverty and a desperate old age. Turning down a marquis is utter madness.

I had the same issue with Georgette Heyer’s Sprig Muslin, where Lady Hester has been in love with the hero for years, and rejects his pragmatic proposal for the same reason – because she’s holding out for love. At least in that case, although she was very much unappreciated by her family, she didn’t have the dire spectre of poverty looming over her. Eleanor has no such excuse.

However, thank heavens for a hero who knows what he wants and is prepared to wait for the heroine to decide what she wants, too. Of course, there are obstacles a-plenty, mainly the ever odious Lady Willoughby, but also a major misunderstanding between hero and heroine. The author has to jump through hoops a little to make this work, but she succeeds pretty well. I’m not at all a fan of the Great Misunderstanding but at least this one felt credible. There are also some melodramatic moments where the hero gets to shine and be… well, heroic. Which is fine. I’m all for heroic heroes, and Lord Athelney is a fine example of the species.

Despite the niggle about Eleanor’s stupid refusal of the first offer, I’m happy to let it go, partly because the book would be a novella if she did the sensible thing, but mainly because there’s so much else to love about this book. The writing is awesome, authentically Austen-esque without ever descending into the impenetrable, there’s some splendid banter between the protagonists, there’s a charming little side romance as a bonus, and the book is funny. I can forgive a book almost any sin if it makes me laugh, and this one did. The scene where Lord Athelney disposes of the two less-than-respectable ladies is utterly brilliant, and I particularly enjoyed the little nautical phrases that kept cropping up with the two naval men. Describing the approach to a proposal as a ‘coming alongside manoeuvre’ is delicious. I’ve only encountered one other book which got this right, although less subtly than Holloway (None So Blind by Sarah Waldock, where one character described a ball as ‘fleet manoeuvres under full sail’).

Altogether, I found this to be a fine read, and I can’t give it less than five stars. Highly recommended for anyone yearning for the authentic Regency experience.

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Review: An Eligible Gentleman by Alice Chetwynd Ley (1983)

Posted April 7, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is a meringue book – light, very digestible and sweet enough, but ultimately not meaty enough to be filling. I’m writing this a few days after finishing it and already I’m struggling to remember what I liked about it.

Here’s the premise: Frederick is that staple of Regency romances, the eligible but confirmed bachelor who has no wish at all to marry and settle down. His mother [*], however, has other ideas. She and her sister Ianthe, Lady Chalgrove, plan to marry Frederick to Ianthe’s daughter Phoebe (yes, a cousin marriage, so if this bothers you, best avoid this book). Lady Eversley is to bring Phoebe to London for the season, where she hopes cousinly feelings will blossom into something warmer. She persuades Frederick to accompany her to collect Phoebe. But Phoebe is in love with someone else and has no desire at all to marry Frederick, so her friend and local hoyden Eleanor Denham (Nell) sets about a cunning plan to make Frederick look like a bad match. Not understanding her motives, but knowing that her story is nonsense, Frederick takes Nell in great dislike. And when she, too, goes to London, the stage is set for a great deal of misunderstanding.

To be honest, this book made very little impression on me. Neither the events in London nor any romantic moments stayed with me, and I don’t feel inclined to reread to remind myself. However, it was very digestible, and I certainly enjoyed reading it, although I got a bit muddled with who was supposed to pair off with whom. A pleasant four star read.

[*] The lady actually died earlier in the series! This didn’t bother me in the slightest because I didn’t notice, but I saw it pointed out in a review and went off to check.

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Review: A Season At Brighton by Alice Chetwynd Ley (1971)

Posted April 7, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

The third book in this series picks up another few years further on, and follows the rejected suitor from the previous book, Lord Pamyngton, and a new family, the Denhams, who have an abundance of daughters to be married off. Heroine Catherine (Katie) first meets Lord Pamyngton when she is in dire straits, having run away from home and fallen into the clutches of a none too respectable man. Lord Pamyngton rescues her, and discovers to his surprise that he himself is blamed for her predicament. Keeping his identity a secret to learn more of this situation, she confides in him and is later mortified to realise who he is, and that he practised such subterfuge on her.

So begins, rather awkwardly, their acquaintanceship, although I have to confess that it seems odd they never met before when they are close neighbours and the viscount even bears a family resemblance to his parents. But I’m always prepared to allow a book its initial premise, however unlikely, so let it pass.

The story then shifts to Brighton, where the married sister lives and where Lord Pamyngton has also gone, and once again Katie gets herself into scrapes of one sort or another, whether more from innocence or foolishness, it’s hard to say. I’m not a great fan of heroines who do incredibly stupid things (like running away and forgetting to take any money, for instance), and Katie is particularly stupid in that way. However, given the era in which it was written and the influence of Georgette Heyer, who loved to have her very young heroines scampering about the countryside, I suppose it works.

It’s fortunate that our hero, Lord Pamyngton, is sensible enough both to know his own mind and also to know Katie’s proclivity for getting into scrapes, so he helpfully keeps watch over her, enabling him to be on hand to rescue her with rather more plausibility than is usual in this kind of tale. The plot unravels in a fairly predictable and melodramatic way, but the writing is as amusing as ever and I enjoyed it all enough to give it four stars.

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