Review: A Detestable Name by Arabella Brown (2020)

Posted March 9, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is a most unusual book. Most modern Regencies run on rails, with well-worn tropes squeezed for the last drop of creative juice, and unless the writing is exceptional, that can be very boring. But here’s a story that doesn’t run on rails at all. For one thing, the heroine doesn’t even put in an appearance until almost half way through, and the romantic travails of the hero’s two sisters take centre stage. But I love a book that surprises me and this one does that in spades.

Here’s the premise: Lord Newsam returns from war to take up the title after his elder brother dies. So far, so commonplace. But Granville is not your average hero. Feeling himself unequal to the challenge of tackling his temperamental and entirely self-centred mother, he lives in the dower house while she still holds the main house. His two sisters, the timid doormat Amelia and bad-tempered Charlotte, aren’t exactly barrels of fun, but he’s equally non-confrontational with them, too, nor does he reprimand the insubordinate staff. For a soldier, he’s altogether surprisingly restrained.

He finds the family estate, Gomersall, a sad, neglected place. His mother’s insistence that she’s superior to everyone else means that no neighbours come to call. The land is in poor shape, the tenants downtrodden and neglected and the bailiff is set in his old-fashioned ways. Granville finds it all rather daunting, and unlike the army, where he was surrounded by his men, at home he’s alone and unsure of himself and a bit lonely.

Slowly, however, he gets to grip with things. He disposes of the bailiff (although I found it a bit unbelievable that no one knew about it until the wagon went past loaded up with all his furniture. In any small, rural community, word would have been out within five minutes. He would have told his friends, at least, made various arrangements for leaving and settled his accounts with tradespeople- at least, I hope he settled his accounts!). But no matter. Granville finds a replacement rather too easily (and this is a recurring theme in the book, that difficulties are overcome all too easily).

The two sisters form the ‘side’ romances, and again they fall into place somewhat easily, especially Amelia (but then again, I love characters who know their own minds, so I’m not going to quibble). Charlotte’s is a little more of a bumpy road, but her first suitor is rather an interesting character, of a type not often seen — neither villain nor hero, just an ordinary young man enjoying a romantic interlude. Once again, the book surprised me.

But what of the heroine, I hear you ask? Where is the main romance of the story? Good question. There’s a brief conversation early on when Amelia asks Granville whether he’s ever found a woman he could marry, and he tells her, yes, once, but she was married and he never saw her again until recently, finding her widowed and impoverished living nearby, her husband having killed himself when his debts overwhelmed him. She blamed the Newsam family, and wants nothing to do with him. Now, this meeting would have made a fine dramatic prologue. We hear the story second hand, as he describes it colourlessly to Amelia – how he was riding down the lane when the children ran out almost under his horse’s hooves, he just avoided them, discovered the woman he had admired now destitute. He offers her his help, she flings his card back in his face. We really should have *seen* this, and it would have underscored the importance of the widow to the story.

Still, she turns up at last half way through, when Amelia, newly emboldened by her engagement, engineers a meeting and work for her on the estate. And so Mary Thorpe moves into the dower house with her two children, and Granville moves into the main house (finally!), and the two inch towards the inevitable happy ending. There’s no angst in the romance, and we never really find out what’s going on in Granville’s head regarding Mary. He is clearly pursuing her, and they have some fine scenes together (including a delightful interlude with a kite), but there’s nothing particularly romantic in any of it until he proposes, she rejects him (because of the whole husband’s suicide thing and the scandal) and he then goes off to pursue another possible love interest.

Wait, what? Honestly, I wanted to box his ears at this point, because what sort of lover just shrugs and slopes off when the supposed love of his life turns him down? Silly man. I was afraid we were heading into the betrothed-to-the-wrong-girl trope at this point, but the author is more creative than that, happily. And eventually, without too much drama, matters resolve themselves, and there’s a neat twist at the end, just for laughs.

Some minor niggles. The writing style is no-holds-barred head hopping, the point of view leaping merrily from character to character with gay abandon. But at least I never once had to stop to wonder whose head we were in – it was always obvious, and actually it felt remarkably freeing to know everybody’s thoughts like that. Another problem was that I found it difficult to know what the time of year was. Once when something was mentioned as happening in September, I had no idea whether that was a few weeks away or many months. It was a bit disconcerting. Once or twice there was mention of it being cold or warm, and there was one time that was definitely May, but other than that I felt a bit lost, although it was probably just me not paying attention. Also, I didn’t notice any mention of what title Granville holds, so I’ve assumed he’s a baron (but I would have liked to know for sure).

The writing style is so Regency-authentic that it might almost be Georgette Heyer at work, and it’s witty, too, and that means not just funny, but also insightful. I learned some new vocabulary, too. I’m still not quite sure what a betsie is, or a tax-cart, but a sonsy woman is plump, buxom and comely. A lovely word. There’s a heap of northern dialect, which all seemed fine to me, although I’m no expert. I didn’t notice a single historical error or typo, which must be something of a record.

The author has written other books in different genres, but this seems to be her first Regency romance. I already have the second one lined up to read, and I hope she writes many more. This is a wonderfully written story, with a very realistic Regency populated by likeable and believable characters. It’s wildly original, downright quirky, in fact, which is awesome. I can’t tell you how tired I get of stories that cover the same tired old tropes in the predictable ways. This book is the antithesis of predictable. It won’t be for everyone (the head hopping drives some reviewers to distraction), but for anyone who appreciates that oh-so-rare beast, a truly authentic Regency grasp of language with a great deal of wit, this book will be a delight, as it was to me. Five stars.

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Review: A Susceptible Gentleman by Carola Dunn (1990)

Posted February 20, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Well, what can I say? This was meant to be humorous, and I gave it the benefit of the doubt for most of the way through (and it was funny, actually), but the hero just stepped beyond the pale, for me.

Here’s the premise: Sarah Meade is the vicar’s sister, living a quiet life in a country parish and at the age of twenty-four, almost at the point of giving up on the prospect of marriage. Besides, she’s been in love with neighbour Adam, Viscount Cheverell, for years, but he looks on her as a sort of honorary sister. He’s the only son, with four highly-strung sisters, which has made him ultra-sympathetic to female troubles. He’s set up homes for unmarried mothers and schools, and he’s also managed to acquire three mistresses – simultaneously!

Now, some readers will back away at this point, but I like to give a book the benefit of the doubt with its basic premise, however implausible or unheroic, and see how things develop from there. Adam finds himself in difficulties with all three mistresses, so when he’s summoned home to deal with one of his troublesome sisters, the three follow him there. To avoid inflicting them on his rather strait-laced mother, he sends them round to the vicarage, for Sarah and brother Jonathan to deal with. Meanwhile his sisters are determined to see him married off, and descend on him with three candidates. He agrees that he probably ought to get married, and so begins a delicate dance around the three women, while also dealing with his three mistresses.

There’s no doubt that all this is very funny, if the reader can set aside the pearl-clutching that the three mistresses evoke. It’s meant to be light-hearted fluff, and given the date it was written (more than thirty years ago), mores were quite different then and the heroes of Regency romances were expected to be men’s men. Mistresses were just a normal part of the genre, and I don’t mind that (much). What got seriously up my nose is the despicable way Adam treats Sarah. Time after time he says (or thinks), “Oh, Sarah’s a good sport, she won’t mind,” and Sarah herself says at one point, “If he says that one more time, I’m going to scream.” And you can see her point. He treats her *really* badly, he expects her to deal with his mistresses, and then, when he gets himself entangled with all three of his marriage candidates, he expects her to sort that out, too!

Needless to say, it all comes right in the end, but I have to wonder just how faithful a husband Adam would be. He’s just too susceptible to womankind and (frankly) too stupid to avoid future entanglements, and he’s just the sort of idiot to think, “Oh well, it’ll be fine because Sarah will never know about it.” Ugh. So for me this only rates three stars, but it’s very well written, and for anyone less twitchy about male misbehaviour, looking for a light-hearted traditional read, this will probably suit you very well.

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Review: The Frog Earl by Carola Dunn (2004)

Posted February 20, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This was a whole heap of fun. It’s rather light-heartedly based on the frog prince story, and since it doesn’t belabour the point, it has an unusual degree of charm, with appealing characters and no artificial veering off into melodrama.

Here’s the premise: Simon Hurst is that staple of the Regency romance, the disregarded second son who is unexpectedly thrust into the position of heir. He’s the Earl of Derwent, leaving behind his happy career in the navy, but his father, the Marquis of Stokesbury is far from happy. He asks cousin Gerald, Viscount Litton, to take Simon up to town to add some polish to the rough navy man. Simon hates the stiff formality and constraining clothes of the fashionable world, but there are compensations, like a certain beautiful young lady. It’s only when Simon accidentally overhears said young lady telling a friend that she only wants him for his fortune and rank, and would take him even if he were a frog, that he realises his error. He sets off, incognito, for the estate of an aunt in Cheshire to recover his spirits and learn something of estate management, and there he meets Mimi…

The blurb describes Mimi as ‘half English, half Indian and all mischief’, which hits the nail precisely on the head. She’s always up to some scheme or other, and Simon encounters her catching tadpoles to raise, for various complicated reasons. When she drops her bracelet into the water and Simon recovers it for her, he extracts from her three wishes – to dine with him, dance with him and to kiss him. She has no intention of complying, but he is intrigued and sets about ensuring that she fulfils her side of the bargain.

Mimi and Simon are both delightful characters. He is one of my favourite hero types, a sensible man very much at ease with himself who knows what he wants and sets about getting it with steady determination. And Mimi is such a rare thing in Regencies – a young and mischievous spirit who may get carried away sometimes but is entirely good-hearted and not in the least silly. Gerald, the urbane and dashing man-about-town is not so much a sidekick as another well-rounded hero, and Harriet the vicar’s daughter, who knows her place and isn’t unrealistic, but would so very much like to get married, is lovely too. There is a whole army of minor characters, and frankly I never got most of them straight in my head, but it didn’t matter. The whole book simply oozes charm, and made me smile all the way through.

There are difficulties, of course. For Mimi and Simon, there’s the problem that he is pretending to be a bailiff, and therefore would be viewed as a fortune-hunter if he openly courts Mimi. He wants her to fall in love with him for his own sake, and not just because he’s the heir to a marquisate. And for Gerald and Harriet, there’s the huge disparity of rank, although frankly this is a difficult obstacle to take seriously when half the Regency romances ever written have some form of it. It would be a different matter for a peer’s daughter to ‘marry down’ but men did it all the time (in real life as well as between the covers of books).

I do have one serious grumble, however. The romances chug along rather splendidly for most of the book, developing slowly and rather naturally. And then, bam, the most perfunctory wrapping up you can imagine. I’m not a fan of the elongated and mushy epilogue, but I do like a somewhat more romantic ending than this. Mimi switches without comment from trying to pair Simon off with Harriet (and feeling unaccountably dismal about the prospect) to talking about love, without any sign of a revelatory moment (unless somehow I missed it). And the proposal scenes are brief to the point of brusqueness. Not a happy camper about that. I can only assume the author was given a word limit by her publisher and had a bit of a scramble to fit everything in, but it was all very unsatisfactory.

But with that proviso, this is a lovely and very charming traditional read, amusing and light but with some serious themes of friendship and class beneath the froth. I thoroughly enjoyed it – right up until the final chapter or two, which knocks it down to four stars.

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Review: Angel by Carola Dunn (1984)

Posted February 20, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I was a bit uncertain of this one at first, since the heroine is a bit of a flighty, act-first-apologise-later sort of girl, but it grew on me, and the hero is lovely, so I totally got why the heroine fell for him. It’s beautifully written, very traditional and set rather splendidly in the Lake District, so bonus points for that (it’s always nice to get off the well-worn London-Brighton-Bath-country-house circuit).

Here’s the premise: Lady Evangelina (or Angel, for short) Brenthaven is the rather spoilt daughter of the Marquis of Tesborough. After eighteen proposals in two years, all of which she’s turned down, she’s tired of the Marriage Mart and being courted for her looks and fortune. When her friend, vicar’s daughter Catherine Sutton, invites her to join them in a stay in the Lakes, Angel decides to assume an alias and enjoy a quiet summer untrammelled by fortune-hunters. But Angel is the sort of person who just draws chaos around her, and so she accidentally (and occasionally deliberately) upends the rather dull lives of her neighbours, the grumpy Earl of Grisedale and his subdued daughter Beth, the earl’s nephew Sir Gregory Markham, Beth’s suitor Lord Welch, and of course the Sutton family. And then there’s the matter of Lord Grisedale’s estranged son, Lord Dominic Markham, who went off soldiering several years ago and hasn’t been heard from since…

There are a lot of characters in this, and I frequently got confused between the men. In addition to Sir Gregory and Lord Welch, there’s also Gerald Leigh, another vicar and suitor of Beth, and it won’t surprise anyone to discover that the missing Lord Dominic does eventually make an appearance. In fact, he is the cause of one of the funniest jokes of the book, for since his father has declared him persona non grata and told him never to darken the doors of the family home again, he returns under an alias, yet an astonishing number of the locals recognise him. Nobody seems to be fooled by his disguise in the slightest.

Dom is, of course, the hero and his scenes with heroine Angel are the best in the book. They have an instant rapport, and they develop a charming but very chaste friendship. He teaches her about wild flowers and she teaches him not to skulk out of sight. The romance develops beautifully and it’s just a pity that Dom has an outbreak of I’m-not-worthy-itis towards the end, but then there really is no other serious obstacle to the match, so the author had trouble slowing down the gallop to the altar.

There are not one but two side-romances along the way, plus a somewhat implausible but nicely developed mystery, which throws up two of the men as possible villains. The author has some trouble maintaining the pretence that both are equally plausible candidates, and she has to make Angel fairly blind to the good/bad qualities of the two to sustain the pretence. Catherine, on the other hand, is much more sensible and a far better judge of character. She and her paramour also have some delightful banter, and their romance progresses far more smoothly than Angel’s.

There’s one moment in the book, though, when both women are desperately in love with their respective men, and yet very much uncertain as to whether their feelings are returned. This must have been such a common problem with real-life Regency women, who lived their lives in a world of decorous and completely meaningless interactions with men who may or may not have any serious intentions towards them. Angel comments that, “It is perfectly horrid to be in love and not to know,” and Catherine replies, “Isn’t it?” I can only sympathise, and be glad to live in a more open age.

I only spotted one error. The Earl of Grisedale’s eldest son (Dom) should have a courtesy title, typically a viscountcy. He would absolutely not be Lord Dominic, which was a title reserved for the younger sons of Dukes and Marquises. I also wondered why the next male heir to the earldom (after Dom) is a baronet (Sir Gregory), another title passed in the male line. That would only be possible if his father had been awarded the baronetcy, which is not impossible but unusual.

On the whole, I really enjoyed this. Some reviewers hated Angel, and I can understand why. She seems very immature, and rushes into things without thinking, but her actions are never malicious, and are often not even selfish, but designed to make things better for other people – which she does, in spades. Even the grumpy Earl miraculously comes round in the end. So although there were wobbly moments when Angel seemed just a little too wild, she was also good-hearted and kind, and in the end she grew on me rather. And Dom – well, he’s a real charmer. This is one of those books that could fall either way, but for me it mostly worked pretty well. Four stars.

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Review: Runaway Bride by Jane Aitken Hodge (1978)

Posted January 24, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

An odd one. This was almost a greatest hits compilation of all my least favourite tropes, it’s oddly written with some pseudo-Regency era language and the romance is very much an afterthought, as was common when it was first published, and yet I still read it avidly, despite all that. Maybe even a sub-par 70’s Regency makes for better reading than much of the modern stuff? Who knows.

Here’s the premise: Jennifer Purchas is a seventeen-year-old heiress whose father’s death leaves her in the hands of her uncle, who seems to be more interested in her fortune than in her welfare. When he informs her that she is to marry a stranger, a friend of her dead brothers who asked him to look after her, she runs away to her friend, who finds her a position as a governess. This goes on swimmingly until the children’s bad-tempered guardian appears, but just when Jenny has persuaded him that a beautiful and hoydenish girl of seventeen is, in fact, a perfectly sensible choice of governess (only in a Regency romance, methinks), her wicked uncle kidnaps her. She runs away again, this time to London, where she finds herself caught up in a riot and fortuitously rescued by the very same bad-tempered guardian, who deposits her with his eccentric grandmother (a duchess!). So Jenny, under a false name, is thrust into the whirlwind of the season, where her beauty and liveliness soon attract swarms of suitors. Of course they do. Sigh.

I almost bailed at this point, but somehow I kept going, wading through the positive swamp of tropes. Let me list some of the principal ones. The beautiful runaway heiress, check. The grumpy hero, check. The great misunderstanding, check (also known as not seeing what was blindingly obvious). The wicked guardian. The wicked rake. The manipulative aunt with a rival daughter. The mass of coincidences. The heroine who doesn’t spot danger (until it’s too late, naturally). The hero who doesn’t bother to tell the heroine that he loves her until the very last chapter. The secret note that draws the heroine to a secluded spot (yawn). And so on and so on.

Now some of this is great fun. I loved the moments where the heroine got herself out of trouble, although I have to confess that her propensity for running away got very tedious. I counted four separate occasions, which is at least two too many. I disliked it when she had to depend on the hero turning up at a vital moment to rescue her (which I think happened twice), but mostly Jenny looked after herself, and managed a certain amount of looking after other people, too. A resourceful lass.

I also liked the period in London, which slips straight into a very traditional form of Regency romance, with balls and masquerades and duels and the whole panoply that Georgette Heyer drew on. The author effortlessly weaves real people and events into the story (again, a Heyer trait), which adds a certain authenticity to proceedings. But the hero is also Heyer-esque, the grumpy, sneering, macho type that is really not my favourite type. I’m more of a Freddy Standen fangirl, myself – give me a gentle, understated hero every day of the week. And the hero’s bad temper gets him into trouble time after time (and gets the heroine into trouble, too).

There weren’t too many historical missteps, although (as so often in Regencies) the author takes liberties with the marriage laws. No, you can’t actually force anyone to marry against their will, not if you want the marriage to be legal, no, a guardian can’t marry off his ward to his own financial advantage, and no, you definitely can’t have anyone marry under a false name – that’s fraud and the marriage would be illegal to boot. But since none of these proposed irregularities actually came to pass, I can let them go.

One that I can’t let go is the question of Jenny’s guardian. It seems her father neglected to name a guardian in his will (or the named guardian had died, not sure about that). That does NOT mean that her uncle would automatically take over the role, and if he did, he wouldn’t have control of her finances as well as her person. There would have been trustees for the fortune and the Court of Chancery would appoint a guardian for Jenny herself. Since she was over 14, Jenny would legally be able to nominate her own choice of guardian. So she would never have been quite so helplessly under the control of her uncle (although of course that would have spoilt the story!).

This was a mixed bag for me. I liked the well-evoked Regency, the deft use of real history and the feisty and resourceful heroine, even if she made some stupid mistakes sometimes. I disliked the grumpily bad-tempered hero who is the very antithesis of Regency restraint. But even though it didn’t entirely work for me, it’s still a well-realised traditional-style Regency that I know many readers will absolutely love. I’d like to give it three and a half stars, but given the sheer weight of unlikable tropes, I’ll settle for three stars. But I’d like to try another of the author’s works that might suit me better.

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Review: The Duke’s Secret Heir by Sarah Mallory (2017)

Posted January 24, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 2 Comments

I’ve read a couple of the author’s works under the pen name Melinda Hammond (Autumn Bride and Dream Chasers) and loved both of them. This didn’t resonate with me in quite the same way, but it’s still an absorbing, powerful read that I tore through in a day.

Here’s the premise: wealthy cit’s daughter Ellen Tatham and duke’s son Max Colnebrooke met, fell in love and married in a whirlwind romance in Egypt. But the fortunes of war meant that Max had to send his bride away to safety, and in the confused circumstances they both came to believe that the other has betrayed them. She ran away to Harrogate, pretending to be a widow to account for the birth of her son, James, while Max hurled himself into ever riskier enterprises, only returning when the unexpected death of his elder brother makes him the Duke of Rossenhall. Now he finds himself in Harrogate visiting old friends and meets up with Ellen again.

Now this is a delicious situation, because the two are thrown into any number of public meetings (what a lot of balls they had in Harrogate!), yet no one knows they are married, and there are reasons (of course there are!) why the secret can’t be revealed immediately. And there’s a big surprise for Max – he has a son and heir. So there’s a huge amount of tension between the two protagonists right from the start, both bitter about the apparent betrayal of the other, and yet still very much drawn to each other.

And this is, fundamentally, the whole plot. The two circle with stiff Regency politeness around each other, accepting that they have to live superficially as husband and wife because of their son, but trying very hard not to give way to the desire that lurks just below the surface. They don’t always manage it, so there’s the occasional passionate kiss and even a whole night of passion before they revert to that oh-so-restrained politeness. When they arrive at the ducal estate, there’s a malicious sister-in-law to contend with (widow of the older brother), and Ellen sets about making herself charming and duchess-like to servants, the steward, the tenants and the local residents.

And that is one of the problems with this book – Ellen is just a little too perfect. She’s beautiful, clever, a great manager, a wonderful mother and everyone loves her. I like a little more grit in the oyster, frankly. Max is pretty damn perfect, too, except for the whole guilt trip, which he places entirely on his wife’s shoulders. I suppose to be honest, the one problem they both have is pride – too much pride to confess what they really feel, or even to sit down and have a proper conversation. After all, there’s surely one subject they ought to be discussing openly, and that’s whether they intend to have more children. That’s what marriage is for, after all, if you’re a duke with a title and vast wealth to pass on. One heir really isn’t enough. But they never address the issue at all.

The story is a fairly simple one. There are no great mysteries or backstory revelations to unfurl, the minor characters are either out and out villains like the sister-in-law, or they’re saccharine sweet. Only Ellen’s old friend, the globe-trotting Miss Ackroyd, shows some spark of an interesting character (interesting to me, anyway; these things are deeply personal). And I have to say, I was a little unsettled to see the fresh widow jump immediately into a new romance. It seemed a little tasteless to me.

But none of these minor grumbles interfered very much with my enjoyment, and as I say, I romped through the book in no time, neglecting a lot of essential tasks to keep reading, which is always the sign of a good book. This one is deeply satisfying at the emotional level as the two main characters work through their bitterness to reach a rapport, although it took them perhaps a few chapters too many to get there. There’s some sex, but it’s tastefully done, and the writing is superb. Happily, not a single historical inaccuracy dinged my over-sensitive pedantometer. A good four stars.

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Review: Miss Percy’s Pocket Guide by Quenby Olsen (2021)

Posted January 12, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This book was an absolute delight. I love a book that takes me by surprise, and this book is surprising in spades. It features a downtrodden spinster, aged forty, a diffident vicar, aged more than forty, a motherly cook/housekeeper, and an impoverished but charming villain. Oh, and a dragon, but that part isn’t so much of a surprise, given the title.

Here’s the premise: Miss Mildred Percy lives in a tiny attic room in her younger sister’s house, the archetypal poor relation, treated as an unpaid servant looking after the children, excluded from social events and thoroughly badly treated. And she’s been in that position for so long she barely even thinks about it any more. But then one day a distant relation leaves her an inheritance, which turns out to be a motley collection of… well, all sorts of odd things, including journals and other notes. Since this intriguing collection conveniently arrives when her sister is out, and Mildred knows it will be commandeered or, worse, thrown away, if her sister finds out about it, she hastily hides everything in her room, and drags the empty box outside to hide it in an outhouse. Whereupon she is spotted and then assisted by the local vicar.

This scene is so delicious, I just can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it. Here’s the downtrodden and mousy spinster caught in a rebellious act, while the mild-mannered and fairly reclusive vicar, who has never dared to step beyond the formalities with her before, enters into the spirit of the thing with the utmost aplomb. In no time, he has volunteered to help her investigate the collection by storing some of it at the vicarage for safekeeping from the acquisitive sister. And amongst the items of interest is an odd sort of stone. A rather egg-shaped stone…

The hatching of the dragon is beautifully done, along with the realisation that small, winged, fire-breathing reptiles are not well-suited to life in small English villages. The race is on to find a secure home in which to raise the baby dragon, keeping him safe from would-be thieves and disbelieving neighbours, and perhaps find an expert who might be able to advise them. From there the story unfolds pretty much as you would expect. But it’s not really the story that’s the most interesting element of this book, because the style is one I’ve never encountered before – quirky, chatty, half rambling and repeatedly breaking the fourth wall to address the reader, directly or indirectly. I loved it, and found it laugh out loud funny, but I can imagine that not everyone would like it, so read the sample before buying.

Anyone expecting a romance might be in for a let-down, because, as romances go, this is the most low-key one imaginable. Also, since this is the first of a series which seemingly features the same characters, there doesn’t seem likely to be any increase in the romantic element going forward. If that’s a big thing for you, then this is probably not the book for you. But I loved, loved, loved the two principal characters, I loved the writing style, and I adored the baby dragon. If you’re looking for something a bit different and you like dragons, then you should drop everything and read this at once. Five stars.

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Review: Wilde in Love by Eloisa James (2017)

Posted January 12, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 2 Comments

I almost gave up on this book at about the 20% mark. Neither of the main characters struck me as being particularly interesting, and the plot was so obvious it was probably visible from space. Basically, I was bored. But I decided to read a couple more pages, just to remind myself why I was abandoning it, and somehow I got sucked in. And then there were Issues at the end so it fell apart rather, but it had its moments in the middle.

Here’s the premise: Lord Alaric Wilde is the third son of a duke, after Horatius and Roland (improbably called North by the family). As a third son, he’s off the hook for family continuation purposes, so he’s spent a number of years tootling round the world meeting strange tribes and writing about them. But now Horatius has drowned in a bog, and Alaric has returned home to support the family, only to find himself the most famous man in England, with every female swooning over him, exaggerated prints of his exploits everywhere and even a play about his adventures, which is about as accurate as such adaptations usually are. What’s worse, his family don’t need him. Roland, the new heir, is dizzily in love and engaged, so the succession is secured, and he doesn’t need any help with his duties as one-day-duke. So Alaric finds himself at a loose end, with no escape from his fanatical admirers and no occupation.

But there’s a bright spot. The house party at Lindow Castle, the ducal residence, includes the very unadmiring Miss Willa Ffynche. Alaric is intrigued and sets out to woo her into submission, and very single-minded he is about it too. Needless to say, Willa eventually succumbs, and this being that sort of book, they end up in bed together for some pretty graphic hanky-panky. And that’s OK, I suppose, but then we have to have the Suitably Melodramatic Incident so that the heroine can demonstrate her pluck and the hero can bravely rescue her, and I really wish authors wouldn’t do this. Does anyone really believe that the heroine is going to die three chapters from the end? Well, in certain kinds of fiction, yes, but not in a Regency romance. So by all means put her through some drama, if you must, but don’t spin it out for page after page. And there wasn’t even a compelling reason for the villain to do this. Sigh.

There were a few moments that made me sit up rather suddenly. For instance, cowslips, poppies and elderberries all at once? What interesting weather they must be having there. Willa doesn’t wear fur – how terribly modern. The gentlemen all swear like troopers in front of the ladies, who are frightfully ladylike. Seemed a bit incongruous to me. And I had to look up what a roly-poly was (I think it’s what we Brits call a woodlouse). I gave the skunk a pass, because it’s meant to be a foreign creature, and although I fretted all the way through as to why the ducal heir is Lord Roland instead of having a courtesy title (he’d most likely be a marquess), the author does give an excuse of sorts for it. And bonus points for pointing out that Lord Wilde is an incorrect form of Lord Alaric Wilde.

So on the whole, the negative points outweighed the positive, but it’s very well written, and far more erudite than the average Regency, so three stars overall.

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Review: Dame Durden’s Daughter by Joan Smith (1978)

Posted January 12, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 2 Comments

I’ve had this sitting on my Kindle for a while, but I was reluctant to start it, for some reason. My experiences with Joan Smith have been variable, to put it mildly, ranging from five stars to bailing out after a couple of chapters. This one seemed like it might fall into the oddball category, and so it does, but it’s also wildly funny, with some glorious exchanges between the two principals.

Here’s the premise: Edith Durden has been raised by a mother who lives largely in the past, feeling that their Saxon roots are far superior to the upstart ducal family living nearby. Dame Durden is convinced that a local clergyman, Dr Thorne, whose blood is as pure as her own, is the only proper husband for Edith. Meanwhile, the old duke has died, and the new duke, his rakehell only son, Helver, returns from a long sojourn abroad to take up the reins of his estate. He’s at first disgruntled to find that he must actually apply himself to the work, and then surprised to find that he enjoys it. The other surprise is that his childhood playmate, Eddie Durden, is now a rather attractive young woman, but it isn’t until she becomes engaged to Dr Thorne that Helver begins to take her seriously.

So here we have the classic betrothed-to-the-wrong-man scenario, the heroine knowing perfectly well that she loves Helver, but since he only seems to see her as a friend, and she has to marry someone, she settles for the rather dreary clergyman, convincing herself that at least she will be part of the village, instead of sequestered away with her mother, and therefore she’ll be able to do some good for the parishioners.

I liked Edith very much, and unlike in many such tales, she isn’t forced to marry by the machinations of her evil mother. Her mother, in fact, while being wildly eccentric and having one foot very firmly planted in the Tudor era, is nevertheless a perfectly kind and loving mother, who wants the best for her daughter. Given the lack of likely marriage prospects, she weighs up the two possibilities and discounts Helver at once because despite the good looks and charm, he’s far too wild to be marriage material. Besides, he shows not the slightest romantic interest in Edith. So Dame Durden pushes her daughter very gently towards the terribly respectable and upright Dr Thorne. It’s only after the betrothal, when she’s thrown into his company a lot more, that she realises what a dreadful loveless marriage it would be.

Helver is a fascinating character. Being the only child of his elderly parents, and discovering that every minor infraction convinces them that he’s akin to the devil himself, he not unnaturally decided he might as well not bother even trying to be good. It soon becomes clear that although he has been pretty wild, much of his reputation has been exaggerated and his devilry consists mainly of wandering around Europe wherever the whim takes him, and bedding willing women. All of which he cheerfully describes to Edith, regarding her as an honorary bloke, perhaps. But despite a certain selfish streak born of idleness, when he’s forced to accept his ducal responsibilities, he proves to have a good heart, more willing to see to the modest needs of his tenants than his own family.

There are no surprises in the way the story ends, but the question of how that point will be reached is very much up in the air. Helver is late to the realisation that he loves Edith, but since he is sure she also loves him, he’s determined to see off the obnoxious Dr Thorne and win his bride. But the wild streak in him means that the reader can’t be quite sure just how he’ll do it. It’s mentioned more than once that he’s capable of kidnapping her and whisking her away to Gretna, and so a thread of uncertainty runs through the final chapters. Will he just get impatient, or has he finally grown up enough to tackle the problem with intelligence? I won’t spoil the surprise by answering the question, but I highly recommend reading the book to find out, and, perhaps an even bigger inducement, to enjoy the wonderful banter between the two principals. Brilliantly written, refreshingly different and only a very small scattering of Americanisms to jolt the unwary reader back to the 21st century. Five stars.

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Review: Birdie and the Beastly Duke by Sofi Laporte (2021)

Posted December 21, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Well, here’s a thing – a Sofi Laporte book that didn’t have me squealing with delight. I’ve enjoyed both the previous books, so what went wrong with this one? Nothing in the writing, that’s for sure. Again the author creates an original and entertaining story out of seemingly tired old tropes. But for me it veered too far off the track of a conventional Regency and into the realm of straight-up slapstick Gothic. Not my favourite thing. But if you’re in the market for Laporte’s unique take on beauty (sort of) and the beast, this may very well hit the spot.

Here’s the premise: Birdie, or more formally the Honourable Roberta Talbot, is fed up with taking care of her feckless family. She’s on her way to a position as a governess in order to support them, but when she bumps into a girl travelling to an unwanted marriage, she can’t help but envy her. Marriage! That would suit Birdie down to the ground, even an unknown elderly gentleman living in the wilds of Scotland. Whereas the girl would just love to be a governess and escape her fate. And so they switch places…

Off Birdie goes, and from here on, everything is over the top Gothic. The mysterious coachman, the desolate castle perched on a cliff, the elderly (and very deaf) retainer who is the only servant, and the mysterious Captain Gabriel Eversleigh himself, who turns out to be not so elderly, but with his face disfigured by war wounds. Oh yes, and he’s now a duke, but you probably guessed that from the title. The marriage takes place, whereupon the bridegroom immediately gives Birdie a purse full of money and tells her to take herself off back to civilisation. He’s done his duty by her, as was promised to her father (or rather the father of the girl Birdie has swapped places with), and now he just wants to be left alone.

Birdie doesn’t want to go back to civilisation, however. She wants a marriage, even one as peculiar as this, and so she sets about getting servants, cleaning up the castle, starting a school for the village children and, all the while, getting under Gabriel’s skin and drawing him back into the real world. All of this is par for the course with this kind of story, but naturally Laporte puts her own delightful spin on it, and it’s all very funny.

I liked Birdie very much. She’s resourceful and practical and not in the least the delicate flower that well-brought-up Regency ladies are supposed to be. I liked Gabriel, too, when he finally emerged from his shell, but I’m not a big fan of a man (a duke!) who thinks he’ll just hide away in his tower and the world can go hang. He sounds like a good leader of his troops in the army and felt a great responsibility for them, so why could he not apply the same sense of duty to the villagers who depended on him? The ending tied up a lot of loose ends rather cleverly, and Gabriel finally does the right thing without prompting. And kudos to the author for getting the legalities of their marriage absolutely right.

Anyone reading this just for the romance would probably love it. I have a requirement that the author’s evocation of the Regency has to convince me, even if it’s not totally accurate. None of us lived in those times, after all, so who can say what is historically accurate? Every author creates a slightly different version of the era, and that’s all to the good. This was too unreal for me to believe in, however, which keeps it to three stars for me. Anyone less picky than me would probably love it, and it is certainly great fun. I already have the next (and possibly final) book in the series, so I’ll read that and hope it works better for me.

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