Review: Petteril’s Corpse by Mary Lancaster (2023)

Posted March 10, 2024 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is book 2 in the series, and although this could be read as a stand-alone, it will certainly be more meaningful if you read the first book beforehand. This is another short read, an intriguing murder to solve, some interesting locals in the frame, a mini-romance on the side and (the star attraction) the developing and most unusual relationship between the hero and heroine.

Here’s the premise: Piers, Viscount Petteril, is getting used to the title he’s unexpectedly inherited which has dragged him away from an academic life at Oxford. Having tidied up his London house, it’s time to turn his attention to his country seat. I couldn’t quite work out where this was (if a county was mentioned, I missed it) but since he drove there in his curricle without difficulty, it’s got to be close to London. Although I was a bit surprised to hear that the countryside was devoid of humans – only fields and woods, apparently. Whatever happened to all the villages strung along every road in England?

Piers chooses to take his reclaimed thief from book 1 with him, now reluctantly assuming her proper identity as a girl (April instead of Ape), complete with long skirts and a servant’s cap. She’s his ‘assistant’, apparently, despite having only just begun learning to read and write. Just as they come within the environs of Piers’ land, April smells smoke and not the healthy kind – someone’s burning clothes, and her gutter-bred soul is outraged by this waste. But when they investigate, they find it’s a lot worse than that – a man’s naked body, stabbed through the heart. Without his clothes, how can they possibly identify him?

Thus begins the murder investigation, which goes the way such tales usually go. There’s a range of possible suspects, all with motives to possibly want the man dead, but which of them did it? I have to say, I didn’t find this one difficult to work out, but then the fun of a book like this is not the identity of the murderer, but the hoops the protagonists have to go through to get there.

Along the way, Piers is tentatively getting to know the neighbours, who remember him as the runty youngest of the cousins, who was pushed around a lot and no one thought would ever amount to anything. April is finding her feet as an ‘assistant’, while also helping out in a multitude of different ways around the house. She it is who takes over the organisation of an afternoon party from the housekeepers, and this is one of the bones of contention I have with this book. April has (presumably) spent her whole life in the gutter, living from hand to mouth, and mingling with the worst sort of lowlifes in the slums of London. But give her a hand out of there, teach her a bit of reading and writing, and in no time she’s taking copious notes for Piers, and telling the housekeeper (a woman trained over many years in the ways of the aristocracy) how to organise a party. The words ‘Mary Sue’ hover in very close proximity to her head.

Piers isn’t much better. Runty academics tend not to know much about dead bodies, but Piers talks quite happily about rigor mortis to the magistrate, and arm-waves it away with a casual reference to knowing some medical students at Oxford. His other superpower is not recognising people’s faces unless he’s seen them a lot, but this is something that flickers on and off, as the plot requires it. He also appears to be an Oscar-worthy actor, again, when the plot requires it. So what with that and April’s astonishing learning ability, there’s quite a bit of suspension of disbelief required.

One other (minor) complaint. There’s quite a bit of sloppiness in the writing, as if the author forgot a final edit. There are words missing, incorrect punctuation, repetition (we’re told a character has no grey in her hair twice just a few paragraphs apart). It’s not a big deal, it just looks untidy.

But overall, this was a fun read, and for anyone who likes a blend of cosy mystery in a Regency background, I recommend the series. Only those over-powered main characters keep this to four stars.



Review: Petteril’s Thief by Mary Lancaster (2023)

Posted March 10, 2024 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

NOTE: not a Regency romance as such, more of a Regency cosy mystery.
This book had a difficult start – the hero is first encountered on a high balcony, contemplating suicide. Although he doesn’t jump (obviously!) and goes on to behave far more sensibly, I found it hard to get past that opening. Can a man who is suicidal really recover his spirits so quickly? Creative licence, perhaps, but to me it was a jarring note.

Here’s the premise: Piers Withan is an academic at Oxford, happily buried in his books and not interested in the world outside. But when a number of family deaths lead to him inheriting a viscountcy, he reluctantly leaves the world of academia and returns to London to take up his role as head of the family. This is where we first see him, so miserable that he contemplates ending it all. But he’s rescued from the brink by the unlikely person of Ape, a sneak thief, sent into the seemingly empty house to steal whatever could be found. There’s not much – the Withan family have already been through it helping themselves, including swiping a valuable ruby necklace.

This sets in train the mystery. Piers tracks down Ape and recruits the thief to help, with a job as a groom and as the tiger who rides on the back of his curricle. Piers has to try to decide which of his resentful and greedy relations actually stole the necklace, and he finds himself increasingly drawn into their convoluted affairs. They, in turn, realise that he might be small and bookish, but he’s cleverer than they are and won’t be pushed around.

This is a short book but it covers a lot of ground, setting up the two principal characters of Piers and Ape as well as the basic plot. Book two sees them off to the country to see what’s brewing at Viscount Petteril’s estate, which I have already bought and plan to read immediately. This would be five stars but for that dismal opening, so four stars it is.


Review: Holiday in Bath by Laura Matthews (1981)

Posted March 2, 2024 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Oh dear. Two fairly hard-to-like principals, a very uneven plot, some over-the-top silliness from the heroine, and a rabbit-from-the-hat romance (you know how this one goes: I don’t like you… I don’t like you… oh, I’m in love). I kept reading because… well, I’ll get to that, but boy, was it a slog, sometimes.

Here’s the premise: Trelenny Storwood is the only child of her parents. Cranford Ashwicke is the only son of the neighbours. So naturally they’re expected to marry. Cranford is dutifully courting Trelenny… no, wait a minute. What sort of name is Trelenny? If this was set in Cornwall, I could just about accept it, but in Westmorland? And Cranford isn’t much better. This at a time when half the baptisms in England were for Anne, Elizabeth, Mary or Charlotte (for girls) or John, Edward, William or George (for boys).

Anyway, Cranford is courting Trelenny, even though he thinks she’s a hoyden and every time he meets her, he ends up correcting her behaviour. As for Trelenny, she just thinks he’s dull, not to mention old (at twenty-eight!). They snipe at each other constantly, more like brother and sister than a courting couple, so although Cranford has officially asked permission to pay his addresses, he hasn’t officially asked her yet because he’s pretty sure she’ll refuse.

So the big question is – why on earth is he even bothering with this courtship, when neither of them is very keen on the other? I confess, that’s the question that pulled me along through the swamps of implausibility that bogged down much of this book. We don’t get an answer until almost the end, when there’s a rush of revelations, some of which actually made some sense. But by then it was a bit too late to redeem things.

Here’s one of the more problematic elements, for me. Quite early in the book, Cranford pays a visit to a very classy brothel, where he has dinner, plays some cards and then beds his favourite lady. He seems to have a very cosy relationship with her, is fond of her and regrets that he isn’t rich enough to keep her as his mistress. She tells him not to worry because she’d rather work at the (very classy) brothel and have friends around her. Which is all very cosy and all, but what is the hero of a Regency romance doing in a brothel anyway? Nor is this a final farewell before he settles down to marriage and faithfulness. So yuk to that.

Then there’s the uncle who turns up and immediately starts pawing Trelenny (and her mother!), and neither of them makes a fuss because the father has heart trouble and the stress might make him pop off. So instead, they take off for Bath with Cranford, something that Trelenny has been angling for for a while, having had a very curtailed rural life and quite understandably wanting to see a bit of life before she settles down to domestic bliss. Or marriage to dull Cranford.

But then on the journey there’s an outbreak of stupidity on Trelenny’s part that almost broke the silly-o-meter. It involves her dressing up in men’s clothes, roaming the streets at night and eventually getting roaring drunk, and all because she’s too silly to say no. There’s an eloping couple involved, and although they do have a small part to play later, I’m going to say that I think the whole point of this whole episode was so that Cranford had to undress the drunk-unconscious Trelenny and get her into her nightgown and into bed. Yuk to that, too.

Bath gets quite interesting, because Trelenny discovers to her dismay that it’s not at all like her dreams and really, it’s all a bit hit and miss, just like every other part of real life. This was really nicely done. Meanwhile Cranford is being pursued with vigour by a former squeeze, and he actually does the right thing here and rejects her, but for the wrong reason (because he’s got his little friend in the brothel if he wants that sort of thing). So yuk again. And he’s also hanging out with an old friend, Lady Jane, who seems to Trelenny’s eyes to be a much better match for him, so she’s convinced that she’s lost him for good.

I’ll spare you the details of the rest of it. Naturally it all comes right in the end, and reasons are given for the various misunderstandings and motivations, but I was really past caring at that point. There were some nice lines – Bath is described as a ‘mushroomy watering hole’, for instance, but there are a number of Americanisms, like stoop, visit with and ‘on High Street’ (Brits would say ‘on the High Street’). I never warmed to Cranford and his dodgy moral compass, but I quite grew to like Trelenny in the end, even if she was made to veer between utter stupidity and common sense to suit the purposes of the plot. Ultimately there were too many yuks and the plot was too uneven for me to give this more than three stars.



Review: The Earl’s Promised Bride by Mary Lancaster (2024)

Posted March 2, 2024 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is a bit of a curate’s egg of a book for me — some parts that were meltingly romantic, some parts that were ho hum, some parts that were out-of-the-blue shocking (OK, to me, anyway) and some parts that were boringly predictable. And a couple of parts where I just wanted to bang heads together and say: just talk to each other, for heaven’s sake. But you know what? After a slow start, I just tore through it, so the author has me right where she wants me, I guess.

Here’s the premise: Lucy Vale was betrothed at birth to an earl she’s never met, purely because their mothers were best friends and thought it would be a good idea. Well, okay, I suppose. By the Regency, we’re well into an age when betrothals of that nature aren’t even legal, let alone binding on either party, so why they don’t just laugh at the quaintness of it is beyond me. But that’s the premise of the book, so whatever. The mysterious Earl of Eddleston has requested a meeting with his ‘betrothed’, but he hasn’t yet appeared. Lucy isn’t minded to give him the time of day, but if he comes, she’ll have to be civil to him, she supposes. Then she can reject him and her life will be her own again.

While she’s waiting for her supposed betrothed to appear, she attends the Blackhaven ball with the rest of her family, where she meets a mysterious stranger. This is one of the good parts of the book for me — the description of Tyler, and his interactions with Lucy, were breathtakingly fabulous. He’s not even the sort of character I usually like (that whole almost magically clever and perceptive and creative and acrobat-level agile is all too much; I prefer my heroes a bit more down to earth). But the author was going for just that out-of-the-ordinary vibe, and she succeeded in spades. In fact, all the scenes with just Lucy and Tyler were wonderful. I wasn’t so keen on Tyler the guy who’s planning to change the world for the better, but that’s just me.

But of course we have to have a subplot, so step forward Miss Hester Poole, heiress, and her fortune-hunting suitor, Mr Harold Irving. It isn’t long before Lucy is getting herself into the middle of a situation that’s really nothing to do with her, because she doesn’t like Mr Irving and wants to protect Hester from him. And Tyler seems to have the same idea (as well as a myriad other projects — he’s a busy boy).

One of the ho hum parts arises purely from the premise of the series. Everything is constructed around a single night, when all the various Vale children meets their matches, so as Lucy’s story is unfolding, we’re also getting snippets of the other stories, where they cross and recross Lucy’s. We see little bits of Julius’s story, which was book 1, and there are glimpses of the other Vales, like Cornelius and Delilah, who are also busy about their own lives. And because there was a whole huge series set in Blackhaven previously, there are swathes of characters from those books with walk-on parts. It would be really helpful if readers could have a) a full list of the Vale children, their ages and parentage (because some of them are illegitimate); and b) a list of characters from earlier books still lurking in odd corners of Blackhaven, because I don’t remember them, and frankly I don’t see that they add anything to the story. But maybe I’m being churlish just because I have trouble with this.

I’m not going to talk about the out-of-the-blue shocking thing, because that’s just me. I should have guessed it, but I had such a mental disparity between… let’s say, two things, that I never would have guessed the truth.[1] There was another revelation that was blindingly obvious to me regarding Hester Poole, so I’m not totally oblivious to clues. Only some of them.

But this is the point where the book went slightly off the rails for me, because when the revelations happened, both Lucy and Hester made totally stupid decisions, and that was the point where I wanted both of them to just sit down and talk things through, instead of jumping off cliffs (metaphorically speaking). And as if that wasn’t enough, we have to have that hoary old chestnut, the Elopement. Because it’s a Regency romance so there has to be an Elopement or a Kidnapping or a Highwayman, or possibly all three.

I know all these grumbles sound as if I didn’t enjoy the book at all, but that’s not true. I took a while to get into it, but after that I read it avidly, and yes, I thoroughly enjoyed it. My grumbles are just me saying ‘It would have been perfect if only…’. Mary Lancaster’s writing is as polished as ever, she does the swoony kisses brilliantly, and if the sex scene felt a bit gratuitous, it was tastefully done. The only historical glitch I noticed concerned the postilions and hired horses, which don’t work quite the way the author thinks they do.[2] But who cares? It all made for a good story. A good four stars.



Review: Miranda At Heart by Christina Dudley (2024)

Posted March 2, 2024 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This started unpromisingly, with the death of a favourite character, and then a big dump of backstory, but once it got into its stride it became a pure delight, with the sort of tangled emotional situations that Dudley does so well, with her trademark humour. I loved it!

Here’s the premise: patriarch Mr William Ellsworth, husband to four wives and father of the Ellsworth Assortment, is dead, and while I’m very sad about that, I’m also very pleased that his fourth wife, the meek and very wise Miranda, will find love now. She was the downtrodden sister of the local vicar, and accepted a companionable marriage to the much older Mr Ellsworth in a spirit of pragmatism. There’s nothing romantic about it, and one of the most moving moments in an earlier book is where she reads a love letter to one of her stepdaughters, and she’s a little envious because no one has ever written anything like that to her (and this despite the fact that she’s contentedly married).

Miranda is now a widow, with a good portion and a life interest in Hollowgate, the family home, which was left to the eldest daughter. This was a puzzle to me, because why does the estate not go to the eldest son, as is normal in the Regency? I seem to recall in Tyrone’s own book he was greatly in demand as a man who would one day be rich. I can only assume it’s because the house came from Mr Ellsworth’s first wife, and so was left to one of her children, and Tyrone was (presumably) the son of one of the other wives. But it seems odd.

So Miranda is now a rich woman, and as soon as she is out of mourning, she inevitably becomes a target for fortune hunters. Meanwhile, Colin Wolfe moves with his son into the neighbourhood, and his is the backstory that took up so much of the early chapters. But it is necessary, both to understand Colin himself and his desire to enjoy himself, and also to make sense of his quiet son. Colin made a loveless marriage in his youth to benefit his family. Now that he’s free again, he wants to leave all trace of his first marriage behind and create a new life for his son and himself. But his lonely son, Edmund, is drawn to the large and loving Ellsworth family, and Colin himself is inevitably drawn in as well, especially by the placid widow.

The romance burbles along to the expected ending, but the burbling is delightfully convoluted, with many a twist along the way. Dudley’s plots are anything but predictable, and the way Colin resolves the final dilemma to win his lady is breathtaking in its audacity. There are side plots a-plenty, too, with Miranda’s other suitors providing most of the comic relief, although the highlight for me was the ball at Colin’s house and his masterful manipulation of the musicians to ensure that he spent the maximum time with the lady of his choice and as little as possible with anyone else. It’s very ingenious and (for me, anyway) completely original, and had me in stitches.

The writing is, as always, brilliant, with every word perfectly chosen – erudite, but not so erudite that the reader is constantly reaching for the dictionary. Bonus points for using delightful words like ‘thitherward’ and ‘hermitical’. There were a very few American grammatical constructions, and Edmund mysteriously became Edmond a few times, but nothing that affected my enjoyment in the slightest. Now that so many of the children are married, with children of their own, I would have appreciated a comprehensive family tree.

This book is a paean to large, boisterous, happy families. The Ellsworths may be an assorted family, but the children have grown up happily, to make happy marriages of their own. It doesn’t surprise me in the least the Edmund was drawn to them, and emerged from his shell while basking in their all-encompassing acceptance. And a pleasant surprise that Colin, too, recognised the importance of family to his future wife and made her happiness more important than his own. A wonderful read, and lovely to read about an older couple. Five stars, and highly recommended, and now to wait for Beatrice’s story.


Review: My Lord Winter by Carola Dunn (1992)

Posted February 13, 2024 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Some books of this age feel surprisingly modern, but this one is so old-fashioned it’s positively quaint. A buttoned-up hero, a spirited heroine who nevertheless gets into a Heyeresque tangle, and a traditional season stuffed to the gunnels with court presentations, balls, Almack’s patronesses, Gunters, and a society dripping with titles. But there are also glimpses of servants and the middle classes who have lives and personalities of their own, and some delightful side romances.

Here’s the premise: Lady Jane Brooke is the much neglected daughter of a marquis and marchioness who are far too wrapped up in their own affairs to think about her needs. When she reaches an age when she absolutely must be launched into society, they neglect to send a serviceable carriage for her, and she has to take a dilapidated vehicle which eventually expires in Oxford. The resourceful Jane, accompanied by her governess, Miss Gracechurch (Gracie) and her maid Ellie, haven’t enough money to hire a post chaise, so it will have to be the mail coach. When it falls into a ditch right outside the Earl of Wintringham’s gates in thick fog, Jane is determined to seek shelter within. The curmudgeonly earl (my lord Winter from the title) is all for throwing them all out into the fog, but when the Dowager Countess, his aunt, says the same thing, he prefers to thwart her by inviting them all to stay.

To say they’re a motley bunch doesn’t do them justice. Apart from Jane and Gracie, there are a lawyer, a loudmouthed northern industrialist and two undergraduates who’ve been rusticated. All of which enlivens the earl’s dinner table no end. This part of the book is very funny, and Jane’s attempts to wrest something resembling conversation from the earl start to bear fruit when he’s revealed to be an interesting companion behind the steely exterior. They spend enough time together before the fog lifts to begin to have some feelings for each other.

If this were all, it wouldn’t be much to write home about, but the central conceit of the plot is that Jane has been travelling on the mail coach as plain Miss Jane Brooke, so as not to attract unwanted attention to herself. She’s relieved to find that the earl and his aunt rarely come to town and never attend grand social events, so Jane’s unlikely to meet them there. She decides, therefore, not to explain who she really is. Who would believe her anyway? A girl in unfashionable clothes travelling on the mail coach is hardly likely to be the daughter of a marquis.

The rest of the book involves Jane making her come-out in London, while going to increasingly implausible lengths to avoid meeting the marquis publicly, when her deception will be revealed. Instead, he seeks her out through the lawyer from the coach, and she meets him many times in her guise as Miss Jane Brooke, and they visit the many attractions of the city, like Astley’s Amphitheatre and the Tower of London. Some reviews find the continued deception too difficult to believe in, but to my mind it’s very much in tune with the spirit of Georgette Heyer, who wrote many heroines who became increasing illogical in their attempts to cling to the original lie and avoid owning up. There are shades of Arabella here, partly with the breakdown outside the gates of an unfriendly man, but mainly because the last quarter of that book involves Arabella’s increasingly convoluted machinations, where all that was needed was for her to tell the hero the truth. So I forgive this book for following the same pattern, and the eventual resolution is very sweet and quite moving.

A lovely traditional Regency, very much in the Heyer style, beautifully written, and if you find the main couple not to your taste, there are two other charming romances to enjoy. Five stars.



Review: In My Lady’s Chamber by Laura Matthews (Elizabeth Neff Walker) (1981)

Posted February 13, 2024 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I’ve read several Laura Matthews books, and I’ve enjoyed them all, something that’s not usual in authors of this era, where the catalogue tends to be spotty. But this was a perfectly judged blend of a second-chance romance with a happy family setting and a treasure hunt thrown in for good measure. There’s a half-hearted villain but his villainy never really amounts to much. This is just good old-fashioned fun, with some unusually good writing underneath.

Here’s the premise: Theodosia Tremere is the daughter of a clergyman, who almost married Viscount Steyne some years previously. Her father having died, she’s now taken up a position as governess to the charming Heythrop family, headed by Lady Eastwick. Her husband is abroad, so the family is headed by her eldest son, twenty-year-old Edward, who is finding his new responsibilities difficult. There are two younger brothers and three daughters, and all of them are delightful. It’s unusual and very refreshing to encounter a completely happy family in a Regency, and also one where the governess is not only treated with respect by the family, but has pupils who are lively but not mischievous. For the summer, Theodosia has a plan to get all the children out and about by instituting a search for the long-lost family treasure.

Into this pleasant setting comes the sort-of villain, Uncle James, who, having run through his own money and finding his debts rather pressing, is planning to marry a rich widow. As a way of convincing her that he’s serious, he invites the widow’s brother to view his estate, to prove that he’s not just a fortune hunter. As his estate adjoins the Heythrop family’s estate, and his own is run down, he and his guest stay with the Heythrops. And by happy coincidence, the guest happens to be Theodosia’s former suitor, Viscount Steyne.

Seasoned Regency readers will know the way the romance will go — a certain amount of initial hostility, followed by a gradual thawing and realisation that yes, they really can start again and make it stick this time. There were some wonderful conversations between the two, with real emotion roiling through them, especially in Steyne (I love it when the hero is the one doing the bulk of the agonising). In books of this age, the romance is often a bit staid, not to say downright perfunctory, but not so here. There’s enough angst here that it could have been dropped straight into a modern novel (and although I’m not in general a fan of too much angst, here I mean it as a compliment).

The treasure hunt (and the villainy) is just a lot of fun, and if the solution to the mystery was too easily found in the end, I can’t quite see how else it could have been done, so I won’t quibble. There are not so many Americanisms as in some of the author’s work (the inevitable gotten, and fall instead of autumn, but I didn’t notice anything else). My only big question-mark is over the amount of time the hero spent in the heroine’s bedroom, in some cases uninvited, and in one case refusing to leave. It was treated as a comedy interlude, so she nipped into the dressing room to put her nightie on and then climbed into bed, then punctured his vanity totally by falling asleep! Even so, it raised my eyebrows somewhat. I wondered whether this was the meaning of the title (which is singularly inappropriate otherwise).

But these minor grumbles aside, I really loved this book, loved both Steyne and Theodosia (whom he rather charmingly calls Doe) and can’t give it less than five stars.



Review: A Fine Gentleman by Laura Matthews (1999)

Posted February 13, 2024 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Oh, I loved this book so much. A heroine with gumption and a sparky (ie not bland) character. The fairly conventional grumpy hero who melts relatively quickly. And things that go bump in the night. What’s not to like?

Here’s the premise: Impoverished distant relation Caroline Carruthers is invited to be a temporary companion to the widowed Lady Hartville. Her son, Lord Hartville, the grumpy hero, is very well aware that his mother wants him to marry Caroline, but he finds her too meek and insipid. Besides, he’s quite happy to be a bachelor. But then a child of about five years of age appears at the estate and calls him ‘papa’. He’s quite sure the child isn’t his, but Caroline seems determined to hold him to his supposed obligations. And then Caroline’s frivolous younger brother appears, together with his worldly and very attractive friend Markingham, and strange things start to happen.

Let’s deal with the ‘mystery’ first. The parentage of the child is the big mystery of the book, but the resolution really isn’t that difficult to guess. The problem with a book of this era is that the cast of characters is very limited, so there aren’t very many possible villains to choose from. I spotted the culprit within seconds, so it isn’t difficult. Nevertheless, the author milks the suspense for all it’s worth.

The romance is also never in doubt. There’s some lovely back-and-forth dialogue between hero and heroine, which isn’t frivolous enough to be called banter, but also isn’t intense enough to be unsettling. They are drawn to each other, not quite from the start, but certainly from around the midpoint of the book when the open hostility morphs into something else altogether. There are some lovely set-piece scenes (like the storm, for instance) which develop the relationship nicely. I was less enamoured of the line that she has a voluptuous body and a certain innate awareness of sexuality that serves to move things along. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the scenes where she is less than properly attired, and exposed to his appreciative eye. Yes, he’s a gentleman and the hero, but still, I would have preferred it if he’d shown more restraint at those times.

The resolution is both predictable and very satisfactory, and (unlike many books of this era) there’s a proper ending to the romance, too. There are a number of Americanisms which distressed me (gotten; wooden walkways outside village shop; ready-made dresses in village shop; straightaway (straight bit of road); cream in the tea; allergic (not used before 1908)). I also wondered greatly at the number of indigent relations that Lord Hartville is supporting (I think the number thirty-two was mentioned at one point). If he was giving each of them the five hundred pounds mentioned for one pair, he’d be flat broke in five minutes. It’s far more usual to hand out fifty quid a time, and even that would mount up. Despite all that, I enjoyed the book enough to give it five stars.



Review: Cadenza by Stella Riley (2018)

Posted January 24, 2024 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is an absolute trope-fest: an unexpected inheritance, an impoverished estate, two role-swapping impostors, a social outcast with a mysterious history, the whole trapped-in-an-inn scenario with compromising implications… and on and on. But somehow it still manages to be fresh and original, and the primary reason for that is the glorious character of Julian Langham, the virtuoso harpsichordist, who is like no Regency hero ever. He’s obsessive about his music, socially inept, completely outside all the norms of Regency heroes and yet he’s utterly compelling. I loved him.

Here’s the premise: Julian is on the brink of a brilliant career as a concert harpsichordist in Vienna when a lawyer arrives to tell him he’s a distant cousin and heir to a recently deceased earl. Julian doesn’t want to know, but the lawyer persuades him to go back to England, tidy things up at his unwanted estate and then return to Vienna. Julian agrees, only to discover that the estate is on the verge of bankruptcy, and there are three children, neglected by-blows of his predecessor, living wild. He finds that he can’t just abandon his responsibilities… which is precisely the point where the lawyers desert him. Julian is left with nothing, his only hope of salvation a long-neglected and mistreated harpsichord which he can restore, in time. At least then he’ll have music and life won’t be quite so unbearable.

But help is coming from an unexpected quarter. Two cousins, Arabella Brandon and Elizabeth Marsden, are faced with an impossible situation. Arabella, the sister of a baron with a good dowry, is invited to London by distant relations the Duke and Duchess of Rockliffe, but following a disastrous and humiliating failed betrothal, Arabella can’t bear the thought of it. Elizabeth is invited, too, and she’d love to go, but her impoverished clergyman father won’t hear of it. Instead, she arranges a post as housekeeper and governess. And so, inevitably, the two get their heads together and decide to swap places. Arabella will go into service for a few months, while Elizabeth will pretend to be her cousin and have a season in London. No one has ever seen them, so no one will know – what can possibly go wrong?

Experienced Regency readers will know the answer to that, of course. I found it interesting that one of the two heroines is called Arabella, in town pretending to be something she’s not. Familiar? Fans of Georgette Heyer will recognise the echoes of ‘Arabella’, who used her own name but was pretending to be a great heiress, but the similarities are enough to make me uneasy. If only the author had chosen a different name.

So Arabella, masquerading as Elizabeth, ends up in the home of Julian, the reluctant earl, and Elizabeth, masquerading as Arabella, is thrown by bad weather and an enforced stay at an inn (more tropes) into the path of Ralph, the Earl of Sherbourne, a world-weary and sophisticated man about town with a terrible reputation, not just as the all too common rake, but as a murderer (in a duel). As is the way with rakish heroes, Ralph turns out to be more sinned against than sinning, and something of a paragon with the heroine.

The plot proceeds pretty much as you’d expect, as the masquerade gradually unravels. The blurb talks about the Duke of Rockliffe’s ‘omniscience’, but here he works out the deception from some fairly clear clues, so no special skill is necessary. Then it’s merely a question of coasting downhill to the inevitable happy ending. One quirk of this author is that everything tends to work out for the best. Nothing horrendous goes wrong, and missteps by any character are quickly set right (usually by the duke being dukish and throwing his aristocratic weight around). But that’s fine.

I only noticed one historical error: legal adoption was not a thing until 1928. Before that, it was an ad hoc business, where children were informally taken into the household of a relation or friend and raised as if they were adopted, and they might even take the family name, but there was no legal process involved. There is one gratuitous sex scene, which is a pity. Otherwise, this is a beautifully written and compelling work, which I utterly loved (especially Julian). At the end, there’s more focus on Julian and Arabella, with Ralph and Elizabeth rather overshadowed, but ultimately this is Julian’s story, so perhaps that’s fitting. Five stars.



Review: The Shadow Earl by Stella Riley (2023)

Posted January 24, 2024 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 4 Comments

This isn’t a bad book. In fact, I read it swiftly, without the slightest urge to hurl my Kindle at the wall, and on the whole I enjoyed it. So why the 3* rating? I’ll come to that.

Here’s the premise: Christopher (Kit),the Earl of Hazelmere, has fallen in love with Sophia Kelsall, but they’re deemed too young to marry. He’s told to go off and take his Grand Tour. A couple of years abroad will broaden his mind, and if they’re both of the same mind when he returns, they can marry then. So Kit takes off with his cousin Basil, but after two years they part company, Basil back to England and Kit, still wanting to explore, to Constantinople. And then… nothing. For three years, nothing is heard of Kit. Basil and his father take over Kit’s London house, and help themselves to his fortune. Sophia is left in limbo, not properly betrothed, but not fully free, either. Her father is very ill and likely to die soon, her mother is pressing her to marry at once, and Basil is very keen to lead her up the aisle. What’s a girl to do? But then, just when she’s given up all hope, Kit returns. But he’s changed, not at all the man she fell in love with.

The two themes of the book are now clear. On the one hand, there’s Kit and Sophia and the question of whether they’ll get back together, or rather (since it’s blindingly obvious that they will) how that will be accomplished and whether the author can spin things out for the full length of the book (happily, the answer is no).

The other matter is what happened to Kit, where he’s been, why he neither returned nor wrote, and how it all came about. This isn’t quite as blindingly obvious, but we find out pretty quickly how it happened and who the villain is, even if we only gradually learn all that happened during those three years. And so the only real question is how Kit will arrange things so that the villain can’t threaten him ever again.

This all sounds like fairly normal fare for a book set in the pre-Regency Georgian era, and so it is. And Stella Riley is a terrific writer. I regard The Parfit Knight, the first book of the Rockliffe series, as one of very few perfect books. So what went wrong here?

Problem number one is something I’ve grumbled about in previous Riley books, and abandoned the Rockliffe series because of it, and that’s the sheer weight of characters from earlier books. I don’t mind one or two of these, or any number, actually, if they’re treated as new characters so that I can keep up, but hurling names around as if I’m supposed to remember them from however many years ago, when I first read about them, is insane. And in fact, there are several earlier books I haven’t read, including a whole series. Since this book is supposed to be the first of a new series, would it be asking too much to make it readable for those of us who are not intimately familiar with the whole crew from the past?

There’s an exchange between two characters that goes something like this (paraphrasing):
A: We’ll have to bring X in on this.
B: Why? How can he help us?
A: You don’t want to know.

No, actually, I DO want to know, because it might help me remember who the hell X is.

Problem number two is that all these people, the ones from this book, and the vast numbers from previous books, are all uniformly good-looking, intelligent, talented, loyal to a fault and filled with steely determination to right wrongs and generally be heroes. Well, apart from the various villains, small and large, who have no redeeming features whatsoever. Perfection and cartoon wickedness don’t make absorbing reading. I like my heroes (and heroines) to be real people with faults and quirks and… oh, I don’t know, personalities, maybe? And I’d like the villains to be less unrelievedly awful.

The third problem is that nothing very terrible happens during the whole course of the book. Kit and Sophia have problems, they work them out. Sophia’s sister is deaf, Kit has a plan to help her, it works perfectly. The army of Kit’s loyal friends devise a plan to trap the big villain and it all works exactly as planned. There are no misunderstandings, no unexpected twists, no last-minute threat from the villain. Sorry but that’s just not interesting. There’s no tension in it. The book can be beautifully written (and it is) but without some unexpected happenings, it’s just dull.

I’m sorry to be so negative, but it’s just because I’m so disappointed. The Parfit Knight was so wonderful, and the next two in the series were great, too, so it makes me very sad to write a review like this. I found very little to quibble over, historically, only the big wedding thing. What is this fetish with big weddings? No one cared about big weddings then! Or choosing a picturesque church. Or having a ‘wedding dress’. Or betrothal rings. Or a bachelor party. Or kissing in the street! Or speeches and toasts at the wedding breakfast. The marriage service just wasn’t a big deal. Otherwise, nothing tripped me up. There is some sex in the book, but it’s the usual stuff (he’s brilliant at it, she’s instantly orgasmic, you know how it goes). But that’s OK. I’m not keen on too much realism in the bedroom scenes. And the funny thing is, even with all my grumbles, I read the thing over two days, and enjoyed it, on the whole. But still… three stars.