Review: What’s In A Name? by Janny Hambly (2023)

Posted November 15, 2023 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

A new Jenny Hambly book is always a treat, and so it is here – a lovely gentle read, with nothing too melodramatic to disturb the slowly developing romance.

Here’s the premise: Emma Wynn has been living in a safe environment for a year, a place where women escaping from dangers in their life can hide away and recover their health and strength. There she befriended another girl with a traumatic past. But Nell is now happily married to the Marquess of Eagleton and living quietly in Cornwall as she awaits the birth of her first child. Emma is sent to keep her company, a way of giving her a change of scenery while still keeping her safe. There she meets the Eagletons’ reclusive neighbour, Oliver Carne, a man with his own difficult history. The two are drawn to each other from the first, by way of a series of rather too convenient ‘accidents’, but the secrets and scandals of their pasts make them wary of getting involved.

Emma and Oliver are both sensible and eminently likeable people. It’s obvious that they are well suited and everything moves along smoothly, except for the teeny tiny problem of their pasts. Emma must keep herself free from scandal so that she can assume control of her younger brother when she attains her majority, but Oliver has been embroiled in a particularly nasty scandal. It’s not of his making, but it seems impossible to prove his innocence – or is it? The last third of the book addresses this problem, and the weight of history for both the main characters rather overshadows the romance. It makes the book seem rather unbalanced, the gentle and slow-moving nature of the couple’s developing love giving way abruptly to a faster pace as both of them face up to their pasts. Then the difficulties are resolved almost too easily.

The author’s writing shines, as always, with a sure sense of the Regency and a particular talent for evoking a place. In Carteret, it was the house that was described in exquisite detail, but here it’s the outdoors – the river, with its shingle beach where Oliver pulled his boat from the water, or the woods with the ‘buttery yellow’ leaves and frost underfoot. Hambly brings these settings vividly to life, and the image of Emma as a wood nymph in her moss green cloak is one that lingers long in the mind.
I’ve said that our hero and heroine are sensible, but they’re almost too sensible sometimes. I would have liked the odd flaw in their personalities and a little more fire from them now and then. Regency restraint is a real thing and they certainly have good reasons for holding back, but it was a relief when Oliver finally decided he’s not going to wait and got things moving at last. If I have a grumble at all (and it’s a very trivial one), it’s that Emma’s sudden outbreak of accidents seemed very convenient to the plot. Her panic at almost meeting strangers seemed a little out of character, but her injuries forced her into contact with former doctor Oliver.

The other characters are nicely drawn, from the marquess, an endearing combination of haughty aristocrat and over-anxious husband, the very Italian Signora Mantovani and Maria, the down-to-earth locals and Oliver’s grumpy but not unreasonable relations. Be warned, though, that several of the characters have been seen before. Although this is the first of a new series, there’s some overlap with the previous series, as is now the norm with this author. It’s not essential to have read it, but a familiarity with ‘Eagleton’ will be very helpful. I’m spectacularly bad at remembering previous books, but there was enough detail given here to jog my memory, and I don’t think a newcomer to the author would have much trouble picking up the backstory.

As always, a lovely read from one of the best Regency authors around. A very good four stars.



Review: A Scholarly Pursuit by Christina Dudley (2023)

Posted November 15, 2023 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I’ve been looking forward to this for a while – I’ve loved Agatha (Aggie) Weeks from the very first book in the series, when she and her equally hoydenish friend Araminta (Minta) Ellsworth were shooting arrows at anything they could see, very often at each other.

Here’s the premise: In the last book, Aggie fell for highly unsuitable fortune hunter Francis Taplin, although happily Minta intervened to save her from him, and in the process found her own true love. But it’s now four years later, and Aggie still hasn’t found anyone to replace Taplin in her heart. She’s not still yearning for the unattainable and she’s quite contented with her spinsterish life, thank you very much, but when news arrives that Francis Taplin is returning to the neighbourhood, albeit briefly, Aggie becomes the unwanted focus of everyone’s concern, in case she falls for Taplin all over again.

Meanwhile, not only has Aggie done some growing up, so has Minta’s twin, Tyrone Ellsworth, who’s been testing his bookish nature at Oxford, and drumming up a nice little business writing love poems and marriage proposals for his love-lorn fellow scholars. I confess, this gave me a little bit of a wobble. What is a respectable lad like Tyrone doing encouraging his fellow scholars to write letters of any kind to ladies to whom they’re not betrothed? But the examples we come across in the book are, generally speaking, acceptable – apologies, proposals and the occasional sonnet are not quite the same as regular correspondence, so I can let it pass (although a stickler of a parent might not be so tolerant).

Tyrone’s booted out of Oxford for various transgressions, including the writing of missives for others, but once free of constraint, the business continues, specifically for Mr Gareth Boulton, newly installed curate at St Swithun’s of Headbourne Worthy. And his target is none other than Aggie herself. And here’s another wobble. Unless Mr Boulton has some other source of income, his salary as a curate (maybe fifty pounds a year) is barely enough to feed and clothe himself, let alone take on a wife and the inevitable string of children that will follow, not to mention that a curate can be fired at any time. And although Aggie’s very rich, that just makes him the worst kind of fortune hunter. But it’s perhaps a minor point.

So Tyrone is busy encouraging Boulton’s romantic pursuit of Aggie, even though he thinks it unlikely to succeed, and Aggie is resolutely fending off the persistent Mr Taplin, who’s back and ready to reopen his flirtation with her. And into this setting comes Miss Clementine Caraway, a much hated former head girl of the school Tyrone’s sister Bea attended, now determinedly setting her cap at Tyrone. Throw in the various siblings (of both Tyrone and Aggie) meddling away, as siblings are wont to do, and things get complicated very quickly.

Inevitably Aggie finds out that she’s been deceived, and by her lifelong friend Tyrone, no less, and is furious not just with him, but with herself for being persuaded by a man’s insincere blandishments for a second time. Not that she fell in love with Boulton, but every letter Tyrone wrote for him made him seem like a thoughtful, gentle sort of man, and not the bumbling idiot he is in reality, and I did wonder at the morality of that (although Tyrone himself comes to realise that it’s not a good idea).
This discovery by Aggie comes just at the point where she is realising that it’s Tyrone she loves (and little though she knows it, he has fallen in love with her). The slowing growing feelings between them is one of the high points of the book. I love a slowly developing romance, and the transition from friends to lovers is surely one of the most difficult for an author to achieve, but here it’s beautifully done.

From this point the book rapidly descends into a swirl of misunderstandings and well-intentioned mismanagement, and an ending that felt out of kilter to me. Several reviewers thought it was rushed and out of character, but to me it didn’t have the emotional resonance I expect in a romance. I do think it’s exactly in line with the characters of the two principals – Aggie recklessly rushing into things and Tyrone in his relaxed way just going along with it, and worrying about the consequences later. There’s also a sense of history repeating itself after Aggie’s previous romantic entanglement. But it felt unfinished, and I never thought I’d say this, but I really would have liked an epilogue to show us that everything turned out well.

Some minor grumbles. I would have liked a family tree to work out who everyone was and who they were married to. The author is very correct with names, but I have trouble remembering characters from one book to the next and I’d have liked a bit of help. Historically it’s very sound, although I did wonder about there being packets of branded shortbread in the Regency. I’d have thought it was a Victorian thing, but I may well be wrong. A smattering of Americanisms (visit with, out the door, if it mends matters any and a few others) tripped me up, but it’s a trivial point.

The writing is superb, as ever, authentic and witty and downright clever (especially Tyrone, and how refreshing to meet a character intended to be clever who actually is, although he got into an inarticulate muddle with Aggie, which reminded me a little of Heyer’s Sylvester). There are so many funny moments in it – I laughed all the way through. However, the questionable ethics of writing letters for other people and that strange ending keep it to four stars for me.



Review: The Lady Next Door by Laura Matthews (1981)

Posted November 15, 2023 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

A glorious read, and the first book in a while that I couldn’t bear to put down. Sensible characters who know their own mind from the start, not one but three (and a bit) romances to enjoy, and a hero who (praise be!) isn’t browbeaten by his harridan of a mother, but deals with her absolutely firmly and immovably. I get so tired of noblemen who crumble at the first sign of disapproval from Mama, so bonus points for that. And not a misunderstanding or an elopement or a kidnapping in sight. Wonderful.

Here’s the premise: Marianne Findlay comes from a good family, but eight years ago her reputation was destroyed by the actions of the Countess of Latteridge. Now she’s struggling to make ends meet by taking in lodgers in the dilapidated York house she’s fortuitously inherited, with her grumpy spinster aunt for company. One of the lodgers has decided that he would like to marry her, owing to the rather fine house she now owns, and the other is busy trying not to blow up said house with his experiments, but Marianne can deal with them. Slowly, she’s finding her feet in society again, albeit at a much lower level than before, and Aunt Effie has hopes that a match can be made with nice Dr Thorne, who seems to enjoy Marianne’s company. But now there’s trouble brewing, for their York refuge happens to be next door to the Earl of Latteridge’s house, and the whole family, including his mother, is about to take up residence for the autumn and winter season.

Marianne can’t avoid the family entirely, and she soon finds that the earl’s younger brother, Harry, is an enthusiastic charming young man, enthralled by the creations of her inventor lodger. Even the earl, when he arrives, is a pleasant and sensible man, not at all the disapproving and haughty peer she’d expected. His sister, too, is lovely and quite unbothered by Marianne’s supposedly disreputable past. So things are humming along nicely, until the Countess of Latteridge discovers Marianne’s presence next door and sets about making her displeasure widely known.

There’s nothing terribly surprising about how the plot unravels, but the Earl of Latteridge is very much the perfect hero, who sees Marianne as his future wife almost from the start and sets about making it happen with single-minded determination, and won’t allow anything or anyone to get in his way, least of all his mother. The two have a couple of glorious scenes where he simply exerts his authority firmly and she has no choice but to surrender. Highly enjoyable! I love me a hero who does the right thing at once with no dithering. The rest of the assemblage of characters are perhaps a little too good-natured to be realistic, but it makes a change from the usual black-hearted villainy that seems to be a staple of Regencies. Marianne was perhaps a little bland for my taste, but it’s a small quibble. The romance is entertaining, especially as the earl finally wins his lady by overcoming her objections one by one – very cleverly done.

An unusual premise but a highly entertaining read, set in York for a change and actually set at some unspecified Georgian period, so not a Regency at all, but apart from a few details of dress and the lodger’s inventions, there’s not a great deal of difference. I’ve only read one other book by this author, The Nomad Harp, and I enjoyed that, too. I’ll have to look for more of the author’s books. Five stars.



Review: Writing Regency England [Non-fiction] by Jayne Davis and Gail Eastwood

Posted November 15, 2023 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is the book I wish I’d had when I first started writing Regencies seven years ago. In fact, I did no research at all for my first attempt, apart from steeping myself in Georgette Heyer’s entire catalogue and absorbing a great deal of information by osmosis. So, I just sat down to write. But there came a moment in the second book when my heroine was writing a letter. She finished it, set down her pen and reached for an envelope… Wait a minute. Envelopes? In the Regency? Vague memories surfaced of simply unfolding a letter (thank you, all those BBC costume dramas, but are they accurate?). So it’s off to the internet to look it up. The trouble with the internet is that it’s not Regency-focused, so you have to jump past paragraphs about aerograms and the US Civil War and Japanese envelope sizes before you get to the history of envelopes, and even then it has to be teased out of a deluge of irrelevant information. But by contrast, Writing Regency England says succinctly: ‘ Pre-made envelopes did not exist until after 1830, so letters were usually folded and secured by the use of sealing wax or a paste wafer.’ Perfect!

The book contains 16 chapters on topics roughly grouped into three categories: language, setting and society. As a native Brit myself, I probably won’t make use of the lists of American expressions or non-British flora and fauna, and I’ve been writing Regencies long enough to know the difference between barons and baronets, and heirs apparent and heirs presumptive, but there are still fascinating sections that I shall be using all the time. It’s 31st October – what can my hero shoot/stalk/hunt? [Answer: pheasant and wild ducks; red stags, fallow bucks and roe bucks in England; red hinds and roe does in Scotland]. What’s in flower in the garden? [Answer: asters, bizzie lizzies, dahlias, zinnias (amongst others), but not roses].

Among the most interesting chapters for me are the ones dealing with regional variations over England. There are also snippets about Britain’s other constituent parts like Wales and Scotland (Ireland isn’t covered, apart from the language). I’ve travelled about the country quite a bit, but without acquiring much idea of the different geographical features or how the houses differ from one region to another. All that is here, including place names, dialect, and the different terminology for things like rivers, hills and lakes, with pictures and maps, so you can see exactly what they’re talking about. And the authors never forget that the book is aimed at authors, so there are some wonderful suggestions for Regency-accurate ways to injure or even kill your characters!

But this book isn’t only useful to authors. I know there are many readers out there who care deeply about historical accuracy in the Regency romances you read, and even if you don’t, there must have been times when you looked up from a book thinking, “Wait a minute – was that really a thing then?” It can be frustrating not to know. And then one book shows a situation that another book depicts as being impossible, historically – so which is right? If you’ve ever wondered whether what you were reading was accurate or not, then this is the book to tell you.

So whether you’re an author or a reader, this book is highly recommended. I was given an advance copy to read, but I’ve bought it too – it will sit right beside my laptop as I write from now on. An excellent five stars.

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Review: Sanditon (TV, seasons 2 and 3)

Posted October 27, 2023 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I wrote a very disgruntled and ranty review of the first season of Sandition some while back (read it here). I disliked the sheer nastiness of it – a pretty obnoxious hero, a stupid heroine, a bunch of people obsessed with money and sex (or both!) and very little to praise beyond the inevitable lush costumes. And then the ending was an abomination, a negation of everything that a Jane Austen-inspired tale ought to be. Great was the disgruntlement in JA-fanland. And the fact that the intended second series was cancelled only rubbed salt in the wound.

But lo, wiser heads eventually prevailed, the series was given two more seasons and permission to round everything off in truly romantic style at the end of season 3. Gone is the sex and avarice and edginess, and in its place, a kind of fluffy soapiness that wouldn’t frighten the horses (or even keep them awake, possibly). There’s a cliched blandness to the series now that makes it more restful watching, but it never rises above the mediocre.

Season 2 focuses on a regiment of soldiers stationed at Sanditon for the summer. Charlotte’s sister Alison gets involved with two of the soldiers there, while Charlotte herself becomes governess to the two bolshie children of reclusive widower Mr Colbourne. Meanwhile, Georgiana Lambe has disposed of her unpleasant chaperon, and is fending off fortune-hunters and falling for the Byronic charm of painter Charles Lockhart, while Esther Denham (now Lady Babbington), Clara Brereton, Sir Edward Denham and Lady Denham have a convoluted subplot of their own, which proves ultimately the writer’s ignorance of Regency law concerning illegitimacy. And the Parkers are back, being very Parkerish – Tom enthusiastic, Arthur delightfully gentlemanly and Mary – well, Mary is the beating heart of Sandition, far more than the supposed heroine, Charlotte Heywood.

It’s obvious that Colbourne is Charlotte’s love interest almost from the start. Can I say at once how miscast I thought he was? I’m sure he would be great in other roles, and he can certainly act, but as a brooding Regency hero, he just didn’t cut the mustard, for me. I’d like him as a friend, but I’d never get the hots for him as presented here. Getting rid of the trendy stubble would help (Regency men were almost universally clean-shaven, folks, and those loose cravats are hideous), but I still don’t find him sexy. But then Charlotte isn’t exactly a hot heroine, either. She all too often looks like a bewildered rabbit caught in the headlights. Again, the loose hair doesn’t help – it makes her look fourteen instead of a grown woman.

The ending of Season 2 throws up the sort of pseudo-cliffhanger that TV types love, when Charlotte betroths herself to a farmer in Willingden, but since we know perfectly well that there’s a third and final series coming up (and the two were filmed back to back), no one was very worried about that, I imagine.

Season 3 moves on to make Sanditon the bustling resort Tom Parker always dreamt of, and I have to say that the set, although it feels smaller than in previous series, since the characters rarely leave the beachfront, is actually rather prettily done. And it really is thronged with people now. Of course, Tom Parker isn’t satisfied, and now wants to build a grand hotel, largely by knocking down the old village around the harbour where the poor people live. Well, we know how that’s going to work out, don’t we? In fact, this series has absolutely no surprises whatsoever, and very little conflict. Lockhart turns up to try to wrest Georgiana’s fortune from her, but he’s seen off by five minutes in court. A famous singer is engaged to entertain the king, but when he fails to turn up, she just shrugs and carries on. An old flame of Lady Denham’s turns up, fireworks are predicted and then… they get along famously. The whole series is a collection of nothingburgers that fizzle out at the first challenge. But it’s all very pretty, so there’s that.

The writers are still flummoxed by Regency protocol. A major new character in this series is variously referred to as Lord Henry Montrose, Lord Montrose and the Duke of Buckingham. These are THREE DIFFERENT PEOPLE! Lord Henry Montrose would be the younger son of a duke or marquess. He’s addressed as Lord Henry or my lord. Lord Montrose would be EITHER a marquess, earl, viscount or baron in his own right, OR the eldest son and heir to a duke, marquess or earl. He’s addressed as Lord Montrose or my lord. And the Duke of Buckingham is a duke, not Lord anything, and is addressed as Duke, or Your Grace. And it should be added that both the Duke of Buckingham and Lord Montrose are real titles (although Montrose is now a dukedom, but there was also a marquessate and an earldom of that name). It takes precisely five minutes to find this stuff out.

And while we’re on the subject of titles, how come Charlotte’s plot-device friend, Lady Susan (the daughter of a duke, marquess or earl) in this series becomes Lady de Clermont (the widow of a marquess, earl, viscount or baron)? She can’t be both simultaneously, or at least, she can, but she can’t be called both names interchangeably. But whatever she’s called, she’s by far the most interesting character in this series, a mature woman of common sense, who knows her own worth and her place in the world. And if she wobbled a little over her future at the end, that was just the scriptwriters ramping up the tension. She was far too astute a person to throw away her own happiness.

As for the rest of them – all the various storylines got tied up with neat little bows. Most of the romances ended the predictable way, and even Arthur got the prospect of a little future happiness, rather unexpectedly. And who foresaw the touching little romance for the vicar’s middle-aged sister? I did like that Charlotte reached her happy ever after at the exact same place high above the town where Sydney Parker so infamously jilted her at the end of series 1. That was a perfect resolution (even if I never warmed to Mr Colbourne as a passionate hero). Lady Denham made the correct decision for her – where most couples fell into the ‘love above all’ category, she decided that what she loved above all was her money, her house and her title. And her independence, of course. As for Georgiana, after dabbling with the idea of a loveless marriage to a duke, who could at least protect her from harassment, she fell back into the clutches of the undeniably handsome but unreliable Otis. So no independence there. And Sir Edward, the bad guy from the first moments of season 1, redeemed? Well… you can believe that if you want.

With the three series cycle now complete, I can say that there was more enjoyment than annoyance, overall. The costumes and sets were pretty, and if there was very little bite to any of it, if you can get past the unpleasantness of the first series, it’s lightweight and undemanding viewing. I might even watch it again in the future, who knows?


Review: The Chaperone by Sophia Holloway (2023)

Posted October 24, 2023 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 2 Comments

I will confess, I have a huge problem with the premise of this story, that a single woman of twenty-three could be an acceptable chaperone for two debutantes in the London season. In the country, yes, no problem at all. In a village or small(ish) town or somewhere like Bath, certainly. But London? Almack’s? The theatre? Balls and crowded evening entertainments? No, absolutely not. Only a married woman could fulfil the role, to my mind, and that made the whole book a bit problematic for me. But everything else was well-nigh perfect, so I can let it go.

Here’s the premise: Lady Sophronia Hadlow did her best to find a husband when she was brought out into society, but her unusual height meant that she was unsuccessful, just as her mother, Lady Chelmarsh, feared. Sophy retired from the fray thankfully to allow her younger sisters their turn, but now she’s called upon to return to London. Her mother is bringing out both Sophy’s younger sister Harriet and a cousin, Susan Tyneham, but she may be called away to the confinement of another daughter, Frances. If so, she’ll expect Sophy to take over as chaperone.

So, this is shaping up to be your run-of-the-mill ‘season’ book, with the usual backdrop of modistes, Hyde Park, Almack’s, eligible gentlemen and fortune hunters, etc, etc, and so it is, in some ways, but it has a lot more depth than the usual. The way Sophy is drawn in by Lord Rothley is perfectly believable, and the reader feels the same giddiness as Sophy – is she actually flirting? Is he flirting with her? Sophy has never had an admirer before, so she’s a bit out of her depth, yet never silly with it. She’s that perfect heroine, sensible, quick-witted, easy in society, whether male or female, and really, it’s hard to see why she wasn’t snapped up years ago. And no, her unusual height isn’t a valid excuse – plenty of men are tall, too, and some of them are capable of admiring a woman for more than just looks or dowry or breeding.

Her sister Harriet is a fairly typical debutante, rather timid and trying not to put a foot wrong, but the cousin, Susan, is a fascinating character. Although she’s an innocent in many ways, just like Harriet, she enjoys a power over men that has them almost instantly at her feet. And when I say she enjoys it, she really does, even though she doesn’t really understand the dangerous game she plays. She just can’t stop playing, though. She drops a package for a passing gentleman to pick up. She even flirts with the male servants. She pretends to let her horse run wild, so that she can be ‘rescued’ by some passing cavalrymen. And when a man admires the gentle Harriet, she sets out to steal him. Needless to say, this leads to all sorts of problems for Susan herself, and also for Sophy and family. And when Lady Chelmarsh is forced to decamp to her married daughter in a hurry, it’s left to Sophy to steer Harriet and Susan towards suitable matches and try to prevent Susan from destroying their chances entirely.

And into this oddly nerve-wracking scenario come the suitors. Lord Bollington, an early admirer of Susan’s, is put off when she tries to increase his ardour by making him jealous. Sir Esmond Fawley is a pleasant and respectable man who seems oddly drawn to the uncontrollable Susan. There’s Lord Tyneham, Susan’s boorish and stuffy brother, who has decided he’s going to marry Sophy, whether she likes it or not. And then there’s Lord Rothley, who seems to have something of a reputation and is definitely rakishly attractive, but when he starts dancing attendance on the three young women, Lady Chelmarsh warns Sophy against him in no uncertain terms. And yet… she finds him almost irresistible, and she feels instinctively that she can trust him.

The plot unfolds in ways that are anything but predictable. If Sophy and Harriet and several of the men are rather too ‘nice’ and would perhaps be bland in other contexts, the wildcard Susan always stirs things up in interesting and unexpected ways. And the writing is superb, in every way, with a perfect Regency tone, no typos and (apart from the 23-year-old unmarried chaperone) no major historical errors. More than that, there’s a complexity to the characters that’s rarely seen in this genre. So despite the chaperonage, I can’t give this less than five stars, and recommend it to anyone looking for a literate and beautifully realised portrait of the Regency.



Review: Beloved by Mary Lancaster (2023)

Posted October 24, 2023 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

One of very few books whose release date I marked in the calendar! Couldn’t wait to read Victor’s story (the most interesting character of the series), plus the explanation for how the duke died in the duel. Was it worth the wait? Absolutely! I loved Victor, as I suspected I would, and although the revelation of what happened at the duel wasn’t particularly surprising, there was enough real tension to drive the plot along very nicely. One word of warning: because of the nature of the plot, which culminates in all the principal characters in Brussels at the time of the Battle of Waterloo, it makes far more sense to have read the preceding books first.

Here’s the premise: Victor, the new Duke of Cuttyngham, has been left behind at Cuttyngs, alone but for the servants. He sent away everyone but his stepmother and sister, but even they have jumped ship and gone off to Brussels. But into his quiet, studious life comes Olivia, the natural daughter of Victor’s cousin and heir, to warn him that his life may be in danger. Which is lovely and all, but she’s the daughter of Victor’s cousin and heir presumptive, Anthony Severne, who is no friend to Victor, so how can he possibly trust her? And she, of course, has her own concerns about putting herself forward. But she knows something about the duel and so she feels she has to speak out.

I’m not going to say much about the duel, except that the secrets behind it come nicely to the boil in Brussels. Let’s talk about the romance, instead. As with the entire series, everything happens fairly quickly – far too quickly for credibility, perhaps. But it’s all very nicely done, and it was lovely seeing the curmudgeonly and reclusive Victor, thoroughly abused by his father because of a malformed leg, but with a very good brain and far more heart than his father, stepping forward and becoming a true hero. And he likes being the duke at last, and making things happen, instead of being nothing but an irritant to his father. I liked how decisive he was when he set out for Brussels, making careful plans and protecting Olivia and the servants, as well as himself.

Olivia was not quite such a striking character for me, not because there was anything lacking but purely because she was overshadowed by the towering personality of Victor. If you’re the sort of reader who loves to meet up with characters from earlier books, then you’ll adore the second half of this one, where everyone from the entire series is gathered in Brussels. I got muddled over who was whom, but that’s just me. The villain was suitably villainous, and if the identity was obvious from the start, that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the ending one iota.

The author does a terrific job of showing the atmosphere in the build-up to the Battle of Waterloo — the British insouciance and determination to carry on as normal and not be frightened by the French, and yet the growing tension. We see some of the aftereffects of the battle, and the scale of the carnage is not hidden, but it’s not graphic (I’m allergic to war stories, so I’d have bailed if there had been anything gruesome).

This was a wonderful conclusion to the series. No, it’s not particularly plausible, but it’s a hugely entertaining romp from dramatic start to equally dramatic finish. I loved it. There is some mildly graphic sexual content, for those who like to know about such things, but for me this was a wonderful five stars.



Review: A Song Of Secrets by Robyn Chalmers (2020)

Posted October 24, 2023 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This was an interesting and unusual diversion from the well-worn tracks of Regency romances. The hero is a vicar, for one thing, which is rare enough, but the heroine is an opera singer, of all things, and that really is different! The plot isn’t wildly original (house party… family tensions… snowed up…), but any author who has the chutzpah to wheel out the Archbishop of Canterbury, no less, to play a role in the book has my admiration.

Here’s the premise: Sarah Haygarth is perhaps the most famous opera singer in London. However, she’s facing a bleak future, because within a few years she’ll be past her best and what will she do then? All her spare money has been sent home to her family, who have disowned her, so she has no comfortable bank balance to cushion her old age and nowhere to turn. Her only options are to become someone’s mistress, which she’s strenuously resisted so far, or to marry well, and how likely is that? But then a lifeline is thrown to her – the kindly old Earl of Wrotham invites her to participate in a musicale at his estate, where she will be treated as an honoured guest.

Sarah sees the opportunity. The earl’s heir is unmarried, she knows she’s a desirable woman who can twist susceptible men around her little finger, so why shouldn’t she have a stab at nabbing him? The only snag in this cunning scheme is the earl’s younger son, the annoying Evander Ambrose, who’s a clergyman and therefore likely to be highly censorious. He’s the one who’s sent to escort her to the earl’s house (oddly called Six Oaks Manor), and it seems he’s already on to her little scheme, and is determined to put a spoke in her wheel. The only snag is, he’s attracted to her himself, and him a vicar too, and a widower whose wife is still mourned. So there’s a lot of interesting banter between the two, with a certain edge on his part.

Sarah gives as good as she gets, but she’s an oddly unsettling character (for me as a reader, and not just for Evander and other susceptible males). On the one hand, she’s an opera singer so she’s not exactly welcomed into polite society. She’s regarded in the same light as mistresses (which she’s widely assumed to be), that is, someone who should never be allowed to mingle with respectable women. Yet she’s given this opening by the kindly earl, and she wants to use it to marry herself to the earl’s heir. So you’d think, then, she’d be on her very best behaviour at all times, wouldn’t you? She knows what’s expected of her. But no, she seems to relish stirring things up and throwing out wiles at every verse end.

Inevitably, she steps out of line and is exiled, but Evander just happens to have an empty cottage on his estate… (yes, the vicar doesn’t live in the vicarage, he has an estate of his own because reasons, although with no live-in servants, again because reasons). So off she goes, and everything is going along swimmingly until there’s a fire at Evander’s house and he and his sons are forced to bunk down with Sarah at the cottage. Cue massive scandal where the Archbishop of Canterbury in person tells them they have to marry. Which neither of them particularly mind.

After this the plot runs on the familiar rails, and wraps up nicely. For those who care about such things, there’s a steady trickle of minor historical inaccuracies (example: Evander wears a wedding ring, but men just didn’t then; that came in more than a century later). I didn’t mind. The book is well written, I loved the originality of pairing a vicar with an opera singer, and the banter was clever. There’s at least one passionate kiss, but nothing at all graphic. Four stars, and recommended.



Review: Country Cousins by Dinah Dean (1986)

Posted October 24, 2023 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is the second book in the series, following after The Country Gentleman, and this is but a pale imitation of that one. It’s set in the same village, features several of the same characters and even the plot has many points of similarity, but it lacks the rural charm of the previous book, and the heroine is, frankly, irritatingly stupid. And despite all that, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Here’s the premise: Miss Caroline Barnes lives on the fringes of London. Her mother has moved down in the world by marrying Mr Barnes, who’s in trade, although clearly prosperous and well-respected. Caroline is perfectly content, but one day Mr Robert Hartwell arrives on the doorstep and reveals the existence of a family Caroline never knew. Caroline’s mother has a sister who married a widowed baron. Mr Hartwell is the son of the first marriage, but there were two daughters from the second marriage. Lord and Lady Hartwell and the younger daughter are currently in France, being held prisoner by the French, but the elder daughter, Julia, is staying at Mr Hartwell’s house, Canons Grange. She’s lonely, bored and a bit wilful – could Caroline, as her cousin, come to stay, and be company for Julia?

Of course she could, and there’s some fairly dull, oh-my-goodness-why-do-the-sheep-have-horns business from Caroline, who is painted as the ignorant city girl who’s not sure how to cope with the real world. Julia is exactly the spoilt, wilful girl her brother described, but her wilfulness mostly manifests itself in refusing to do anything or to go anywhere, exclaiming how bored she is, and quarrelling with her brother. Caroline slowly and rather cleverly, it has to be said, gets her out of doors and occupied again.

So far, so slightly predictable. But Mr Hartwell is the star of the show, for me. I never got a good sense of what he looked like as a person (maybe he was described, but I don’t remember it), and I don’t even know how old he is, but his personality is intriguing. It’s really hard to tell whether he’s being nasty to Julia, or whether it’s just a quirky manner, or maybe just sarcasm. Whatever it is, they snipe at each constantly, in a low-key sort of way. Maybe he just doesn’t know how to deal with her, or maybe he feels that being ascerbic will drag some sort of reaction from her. Or is he just exasperated with her? I can’t tell at all, which makes him very intriguing. He’s a little snippy with Caroline sometimes, too. Later, when he gets round to proposing to her, he’s shockingly abrupt, but she decides he’s just not had much practise in the romantic arts, and I think I can go along with that. I have to say, it’s one of the most charming proposal scenes I’ve encountered.

And so to Caroline. She starts off well, a smart, sensible lady who stands up for herself, argues her points with spirit and is well on the way to being a thoroughly admirable heroine. And then things start going bump in the night and she starts creeping about the house in her nightgown and tripping over things and getting caught, and in a different sort of book she’d be dead by the halfway point. I know authors are very fond of the whole gothic vibe, but really, it’s hard to do gothic without making the heroine totally someone you just want to slap some common sense into, frankly. As it is here. I counted at least three times that she set off into the darkness, barefoot and inadequately dressed, and that’s not intrepid, that’s stupid. Foolish, foolish Caroline.

However, despite all that and some repetition in the plot (French spies again? Really?) this was an enjoyable read, very well written and with a totally believable Regency. I found it a little slow to get going, but once underway, it rattled along. The similarity with the previous book and the so-irritating heroine keep this to four stars for me.


Review: The Guinea Stamp by Alice Chetwynd Ley (1961)

Posted September 16, 2023 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I’ve enjoyed a number of Alice Chetwynd Ley’s other books, but this one just didn’t work for me. Too many concealed identities, too rushed a romance and a frankly unbelievable ending. Actually, the whole book is just one implausibility after another.

Here’s the premise: Joanna Feniton’s parents are dead, so she lives with her grandparents, and at the story’s opening, they are visiting Joanna’s friend Kitty. Joanna is writing a letter one evening alone in a room, when she hears a suspicious noise outside. Instead of doing the sensible thing and ringing for a couple of hefty footmen to deal with the problem, she throws open the french doors and goes outside, where she meets a very suspicious man indeed. Again, instead of summoning help, she invites him into the house to hear his story. Then, when she discovers he is injured, and he tells her that he can’t actually explain what he’s doing, she calmly binds his injured arm, hides him when someone comes looking for her and then doesn’t mention his presence after he’s gone. She even gets up early to wash away the blood from the carpet. And all she knows of him is his (probably fake) name, Captain Jackson.

Now, I’m usually quite prepared to give any book its basic premise, however unlikely, but this one pushed me a little too far. I get that Joanna is intrepid and courageous, and all the rest of it, but there’s a difference between intrepid and foolhardy, and she’s frankly a little too much on the foolhardy side. There are several other occasions when she decides to do something herself instead of sensibly leaving it to those better able to tackle it, and gets herself into all sorts of hot water because of it. Combine that with her propensity to trust anyone with a glib story, or even no story at all, and she’s getting perilously close to too stupid to live territory.

Another big problem with this book is that there are far too many characters who have important roles but aren’t given names, only numbers or the shadowy title ‘my lord’. Again, I get what the author is trying to do, and I suppose if I’d been paying more attention (or had been taking notes, perhaps) I’d have worked out everyone’s identities eventually. As it was, I was left completely confused, and the last few chapters threw me completely. At one point, Captain Jackson is bopped on the head by the bad guys and held captive. Then he seems to have been arrested and imprisoned by the good guys. And then he’s on a ship helping the good guys defeat the bad guys. Was this all the same Captain Jackson? Maybe I missed the connecting story that explained all these disparate sightings.

And then there’s the big reveal of who Captain Jackson really is. All I can say about that is — no. Just no. I don’t believe for one single minute that she could not know that, and no, telling us that she always met Jackson in poor light and therefore didn’t recognise him elsewhere just doesn’t cut it. So that’s a huge fail.

On the plus side, the writing is beautiful, as always with this author, and nothing struck me as inauthentic. There were some nice side characters. I especially liked Joanna’s grandfather, who would have lived in his library if he could and was only half attending to anything else outside his books (a position with which I have total sympathy). The side romance between Kitty and her betrothed was well drawn, too, and the main romance had its share of good moments, although I’m not keen on heroes who seize a kiss that wasn’t actually on offer. The whole smuggling/spying/adventure plot left me cold but that’s just me. I’m not a fan of that, especially when it takes up so much space that the romance is effectively squeezed out. I did guess the identity of the villain, so there’s that.

Other books by this author worked really well for me, but this one was a pretty spectacular fail in the credibility department, and I didn’t particularly take to either of the main characters. For anyone who enjoys this kind of spy story, however, it might work better. As it is, I can only give it two stars.