Review: Carteret by Jenny Hambly (2021)

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

Another lovely read from Jenny Hambly, and for me this is the best of the series so far. Laurence is exactly my kind of hero – reserved, dignified and every inch the perfect gentleman. Heroine Cassandra is a feisty and determined lady, someone we can all root for. The plot unfolds smoothly, and is a joy to read.

Here’s the premise: Laurence, Viscount Carteret has his life in good order, keeping himself to himself and pursuing his duties with methodical conscientiousness. He’s on his way to his imposing country mansion when his quiet evening at an inn is disrupted by a very unlikely fugitive, in the shape of Miss Cassandra Fenton, who seeks refuge in his private parlour from a Bow Street runner. Surrendering to a whim for once, Laurence allows her to hide while he sees off the runner, then shares his meal with her before escorting her to temporary safety nearby, intending to return in the morning to see her to her destination. But Cassandra neither wants nor needs his help. She’s safer making her own way to her chosen refuge, the home of her former governess. Since they have been using only first names with each other, and neither knows where the other is bound, that would seem to be the end of that.

Well, there wouldn’t be much of a story if that were the case, so it isn’t very long before the two are thrown together again, and set about gradually uncovering the story behind Cassandra’s flight from her home, which resulted in the Bow Street runner being set on her, and also the mysteries surrounding the former governess and her home. And needless to say, they are also falling in love at the same time, and although things go along swimmingly for a while, it’s inevitable that someone as strait-laced as Laurence and someone as impetuous and daring as Cassandra would eventually fall out. When it happens, the quarrel is spectacular, and I felt all the gut-wrenching turmoil in both of them.

The ending has some lovely and (to me) quite unexpected twists which resolved everything beautifully. As always with Hambly, the characters, even the minor ones, are full of authentic life, and there’s also Laurence’s house, which has a starring role to play. It’s rare to see a backdrop used so aptly as this, but here everything about Westerby perfectly encapsulates the characters of Laurence’s father, and Laurence himself, and also illuminates the characters of Laurence’s two sisters. Brilliantly done.

A wonderfully written book, a perfect evocation of the Regency. Five stars.

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Review: A Secret Affair by Mary Balogh (2010)

Posted December 10, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Surprisingly, this book opens with almost the same plot as the previous book in the series, with a young widow deciding to take a lover. The reasons are different, and the characters are very different, but it’s still an odd choice and felt awkward to me.

Here’s the premise: Hannah, the Duchess of Dunbarton, is a widow at thirty, the elderly duke she married at nineteen dead. She’s determined to enjoy her freedom by taking a lover, and she knows just who she wants – the dangerous but seductive rake, Constantine Huxtable. Had Constantine been born two days later, he would have inherited his father’s earldom; instead he’s illegitimate, living a wild life and taking a new mistress every season. Hannah is determined to be his choice that year, and he’s content to go along with it. Their manoeuvring for advantage in the negotiating stage of their affair is perhaps the highlight of the book.

The other element I enjoyed was uncovering the truth about Hannah’s marriage. She’s widely believed to have married the duke for financial security and rank, and to have been repeatedly unfaithful to him. I found the real story much more interesting and a refreshing take on such April-to-December marriages. The reason for the marriage becomes clear only quite late in the book.
Constantine is a far less interesting character. The rake is such a staple of Regency romances, but almost invariably he turns out to be a pussy cat masquerading as a tiger. I would like it if, just once, these supposedly dangerous men would actually be dangerous, and not thoroughgoing heroes. It’s so boring.

My other complaint is a practical one. These two engage in a very active affair without either of them giving a single thought to the possibility of pregnancy. Any real arrangement between a man and his mistress would have to make some allowance for children. She’s a widowed duchess, after all, and a leading light of the social scene. An illegitimate child would cause no end of a scandal, and would be impossible to keep quiet. She would be ruined. Yet the only even sideways mention of the subject is when she expresses pleasure that her period arrived when she was away from her lover, so their bedroom sessions wouldn’t be disrupted!

Needless to say, the two lovers really do fall in love as the book progresses. She learns to shed the icy-cold and brittle exterior she generally shows the world and he, too, learns to reveal his true nature. The ending is, frankly, rather schmaltzy and saccharine, a little too sweet for my taste, but Balogh’s writing is, as always, superb. Four stars. As always with Balogh, there are sex scenes.

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Review: Seducing An Angel by Mary Balogh (2009)

Posted December 9, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Every Mary Balogh book is worth reading, but they do vary in likeability. The previous three books in this series I rated 5*, 3* and 4*. This one is back to 5* for me, mainly because I liked both the main characters, the romance was a pleasant slow burn, and there were no huge implausibilities in the plot. There was altogether too much angst, but that’s par for the course, and there was the bonus of the hero’s three sisters busily being older-sister-ish, plus several lovely minor characters.

Here’s the premise: Cassandra, Lady Paget, is widowed and in trouble. Her promised dower income, houses and jewellery are being withheld by her late husband’s eldest son, because she’s alleged to have murdered her husband with an axe. Without money, friends or relations willing to help her, she is practically destitute. In desperation, she sets out to find herself a rich, well-born lover to keep her as his mistress. Gate-crashing a society ball, she spots the angelic-looking Stephen, the Earl of Merton, and sets out to seduce him. And she succeeds – up to a point, for he ends up bedding her and accepts her arrangement. But then second thoughts set in when he hears her story, and he decides that what she needs most is a friend who will help her rehabilitate herself in society.

And that is precisely what he sets out to do, squiring her about town, ensuring she is invited to every ton event and enlisting his sisters’ help in the project. Stephen is the angel of the title, and yes, he’s terribly angelic because although he’s paying her as a mistress, he isn’t taking advantage of that at all. In fact, he’s a thoroughly nice guy, somewhat guilty because he was drawn into the original seduction, and determined to do the right thing by her. Although of course he’s hugely attracted to her, and so he ends up dancing her onto the balcony at a ball and kissing her… whereupon they are promptly spotted and bounced into a betrothal.

I’ve never understood why any well-brought-up gentleman would find himself in that position. I can see why a woman might try to get herself ‘compromised’ to get a husband, because women had so little control over the process, but a man knows the consequences if he steps out of line, so why let yourself get into that position? Unless you choose to, of course. And perhaps Stephen subconsciously wanted to make things right with Cassie, and make an honest woman of her. In any event, he at once announces their betrothal, and even though Cassie assures him she will break things off at a suitable moment, he is determined to make it happen. And his sisters are equally determined.

From then onwards, the story becomes a straightforward courtship, and despite the protestations of the lady, there’s never any real doubt of how it will end. As always with Balogh, the dialogue is superb, and this turned into a real page-turner for me. Five stars. As with all Balogh books, there’s some graphic sex.

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Review: The Last Waltz by Mary Balogh (2009)

Posted December 7, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Mary Balogh has an unerring instinct for creating gloriously convoluted situations for her characters to face up to, and here she does it again. Ten years ago, Christina and Gerard were seemingly deep in love and on the brink of a betrothal when she abruptly agreed to marry his cousin, Gilbert, the Earl of Wanstead. Now Gilbert and his younger brother have both died, Christina produced only daughters, and Gerard has inherited the title and Thornwood, where he proposes to hold a house party over Christmas to choose a bride. His hostess? That will have to be Christina, the widowed Lady Wanstead.

This is a delicious situation, of course. He thinks she’s a cold-hearted mercenary witch, who chose security and a title over love. She thinks he’s a rake and a wastrel. Neither view is accurate, but it takes the whole book for this to emerge, and the reasons for the misunderstanding. Like all misunderstandings, one has to question the intelligence of people who, whatever the circumstances, allow themselves to be herded in a different direction so passively. Given the supposed closeness of the relationship, why on earth didn’t they talk to each other?

What becomes obvious much sooner, however, is that Christina had a miserable marriage. Her husband was a deeply pious and controlling man, cut in the mould of the strictest of Puritans, so that there was no pleasure allowed in the house. If Christina wanted new clothes for herself or her daughters, she had to ask for and justify every penny, a humiliating experience. Rules were set and had to be adhered to or the transgressor would be punished. It takes her a while to realise that Gerard is not at all the same, and although he sets the rules in his own house too, they are generous and kindly ones. Gradually Christina and her daughters emerge from their shell a little bit.

And very gradually, inch by cautious inch, the two begin to rebuild the rapport they once shared into something they can live with. But first they have to bring closure to the past – don’t they? Since this is Balogh, it’s not really a spoiler to reveal that sex comes into it, and traditionalists should note that it’s fairly graphic. And here we have the biggest logic fail I’ve come across in many a year. Their idea of closure is such an epically stupid thing to do that in other hands it might be a book-meets-wall moment. Mary Balogh is such a brilliant writer that if she told me that black was white I’d be almost prepared to take her word for it, but even she can’t make this work. I do see what she was aiming for, and she writes it so well that after an exasperated sigh or two I read on, but nothing really justifies it.

After that, it’s onwards to the last waltz of the title, the resolution of the final remaining misunderstandings and the inevitable melodramatic happy ending. Fortunately, this and the earlier parts of the book are mostly enough to compensate for that logic fail. Four stars.

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Review: High Garth by Mira Stables (1977)

Posted December 7, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I’ve been meaning to read this for a while, because so many people whose opinions I respect love it and recommended it to me. Well, now I’ve read it and… meh. If you like lyrical descriptions of a rather idealised life on a remote Yorkshire farm, this is definitely the book for you. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a compelling romance with credible obstacles to overcome and actual tension between the couple, best look elsewhere.

Here’s the premise: Patrick Delvercourt is struggling to make a go of his small farm in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales, after he inherited a house but no money. With the house let to tenants, he has to make a go of the farm, with the help of a small number of loyal workers. But his housekeeper is becoming too frail for the work, and there’s his young brother to be watched over and given some education. His attempts to advertise for a housekeeper-cum-governess have fallen apart when the women discover just how isolated and primitive the farm is. But Patrick has the good fortune to stumble across Ann Beverley, clearly a lady, but reduced to governessing and newly dismissed from her post. Cautiously, the two agree to give it a try.

The early part of the book is a paean to the beauties of Yorkshire, and a detailed description of just how farming people lived in whatever year this is set (I’m not sure whether it’s Regency or Victorian, to be honest). It’s interesting, but frankly it doesn’t move the plot along very much. I’m all in favour of a bit of description, but I do like something to actually happen as well. But this part of the book is all about describing just how beautiful Yorkshire is (yes, we got that) and establishing the relationships. There’s nothing to dislike about it, but it didn’t set me on fire, either.

The middle part picks up a bit with the reveal that the tenant of the house he inherited is none other than Patrick’s lost love, the woman he nearly married before losing his house and fortune. She promptly married someone else, and rented Patrick’s house (which was why she wanted to marry him in the first place). So now she’s his nearest neighbour and a perpetual reminder of what he’s lost. She’s also a cow of the first degree, so he’s better off without her, frankly, which he’s surely smart enough to see. She’s typifies one of the major problems with the book, in fact, which is that all the characters are either too good to be true or out and out villains. It’s true that Patrick and Ann are not without flaws, but they are sneakily positive flaws like pride and being over-sensitive about matters of rank and fortune.

And here in a nutshell is the biggest problem I found – that there is no real obstacle to the romance at all, apart from the aforesaid pride and a perceived discrepancy of rank. There’s some slight tension between them at times, but it’s largely because of misunderstandings (yes, that old chestnut), and therefore not very convincing. And there’s a major fail in all this, in that both hero and heroine are keeping big secrets from each other, and one of them, at least, would remove every vestige of an obstacle at a stroke, if it were revealed. But that would spoil the story, so it isn’t revealed until the very end. I can’t tell you how annoyed I was by it.** (Spoiler below, if you want it.)

I have one other quibble. Ann left home to be a governess largely because her vastly rich stepfather was so horrible to her. But then at the end of the book he turns up, is as nice as pie to everyone, essentially engineers the marriage and gives Ann a tidy dowry as well! Believable? Not in the slightest.

Despite all this, I have to confess that there was a lot that I enjoyed about the book. Ann and Patrick were both lovely, sympathetic characters, pride and secrets notwithstanding, and little Philip was fun. There were even moments when the lyrical descriptions quite won me over. Still, the lack of much plot, the implausibility of the stepfather’s change of heart and that huge secret kept me from unreserved enjoyment. With any other writer, I might give this three stars, but I’m a huge fan of Mira Stables in general and the quality of the writing gets it four stars.

**

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Review: The Obedient Bride by Mary Balogh (1989)

Posted October 6, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 1 Comment

Mary Balogh is a brilliant writer and one of her greatest talents is to create a unique situation for her characters and then let that work itself out in the most logical and not always the easiest way. This is a marriage of convenience story, but it looks with uncompromising honesty at what a great many Regency marriages must have been like. It’s about expectations of marriage, and yes, it’s about how sex plays into that, so it’s not a traditional read, nor is it a comfortable tale, so anyone looking for light-hearted fluff should move on. It is, however, both powerful and fascinating.

Here’s the premise: Lord Astor has recently come into his title and estates, and knows he has an obligation to marry to secure the succession. He also owes an obligation to the widow and daughters of his predecessor, who have been left unprovided for. He can fulfil both requirements at once by marrying one of the daughters. He’s never met them, for the relationship is a distant one, but he’s unbothered by which one it should be. After all, what does it matter? His wife won’t be a big part of his life, will she? Apart from producing a few children, she’ll have her own life and he’ll keep his mistress and his masculine friends and pursuits. So he leaves it up to their mother to decide which one is most appropriate. Since the eldest daughter and beauty of the family, Frances, is likely to marry a neighbour, she puts forward her second daughter, Arabella, to marry the viscount. And after a brief period of misunderstanding, and thinking he’s going to get the beauty, he swallows his disappointment and proposes to Arabella, the small, plump one.

The ladies had a misunderstanding, too, for they thought the viscount was an older man. Arabella, thinking herself plain and uninteresting, is quite happy to marry such a man and have a placid marriage, leaving her sister free to marry the man she’s in love with. But the older man was Lord Astor’s father, now dead, and the son is something of a paragon – handsome, fashionable, with perfect manners, and everything that Arabella would never dare to dream of and doesn’t feel worthy of. She’s reduced to stumbling inarticulacy in his presence. She tells him, however, that she’ll be a dutiful and obedient wife and he’s satisfied. That’s what he wants, after all, someone he can basically ignore while he lives his own life, just as he did before.

So the marriage takes place, and yes, it’s consummated, and no, Balogh doesn’t shy away from the details. It’s not outrageously graphic, but it’s clear that Lord Astor has very fixed ideas about sex. What he enjoys with his mistress is purely for pleasure, and he wouldn’t expect anything as uninhibited as that with his respectable and chaste wife. Instead, she gets sex for procreation, perfunctory and by the sound of it deeply unpleasant. She meekly puts up with it, because she’s an obedient wife and it’s her duty.

The interesting element of this is that Lord Astor is doing his duty, too. He’s not an unkind man, in fact he’s rather gentlemanly and considerate. He willingly takes Arabella to town with her beautiful sister for company, he escorts them everywhere, rigs them out in fashionable clothes and supervises Arabella’s transformation to stylish woman-about-town. And he genuinely thinks he’s being considerate by keeping the procreation efforts to brief sessions in the dark, without any embarrassing foreplay. But all the time, he keeps his mistress and is rather surprised to find himself losing interest in her, and actually enjoying his wife’s company instead. He even finds himself distracted during sessions with his mistress by thoughts of his wife.

And so the stage is set for the transformation that will upset the applecart. Arabella gradually gains confidence in company – not with her husband, but with other, safer, men, who are less distractingly handsome and charming. She becomes a success. And Lord Astor gradually realises that a wife can’t simply be ignored. She’s a real person with real feelings, and he begins to care about those feelings, just a little. The way they both change, little by little over many chapters, is one of the joys of the book, beautifully evoked by Balogh. We see it happen because we’re privy to both characters’ thoughts all the way through. And when the crisis comes and Arabella finds out about the mistress, we know their thoughts on that, too, and follow every step of their journey to understanding each other.

Some reviewers have compared this book to some of Georgette Heyer’s works, in particular A Civil Contract or The Convenient Marriage, and although there are similarities, the book that I’m most reminded of is another Balogh one, Dancing With Clara. In that, the marriage is just as cold-blooded an arrangement, between a dissolute rake and gambler who’s wasted his fortune, and a wealthy heiress who is wheelchair bound. It suits them both – he gets her money, and she gets a virile young man as her husband. But that story had a realistic resolution which was (for me, anyway) deeply unsatisfying. The Obedient Bride has a much more positive ending, perhaps less realistic, but much more in keeping with the expectations of romance readers. This isn’t an easy read, but it is a deeply rewarding one, and I commend it to anyone looking for a clear-eyed deconstruction of a marriage of convenience. Five stars.

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Review: Arabella and the Reluctant Duke by Sofi Laporte (2021) [Trad]

Posted October 3, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Sofi Laporte is an interesting addition to the company of Regency authors. Her work is refreshingly different and very funny. It’s not a wildly authentic evocation of the Regency, but so well written that I forgive it.

Here’s the premise: Lady Arabella Astley, the sister of the Duke of Ashmore, has run away from her home, all the way to Cornwall in answer to an advertisement for a governess, calling herself Miss Weston. It’s not immediately clear why she felt the need to do this, since there’s no lead in and the first chapter opens with Arabella being interviewed, after a fashion, by the fourteen year old daughter of the house. But it doesn’t really matter, since the three children are delightfully eccentric (and very funny), and then Arabella meets their father… Philip Merivale is a blacksmith and inventor, prone to working shirtless, and devilishly handsome. The family lives in ramshackle style in a cottage, and Arabella finds herself forced to help with the household chores – even cooking! When she’s never even been in a kitchen before! It’s all very educational for a duke’s sister, and Arabella shows her independence and determination in spades when it’s her day to cook. Philip immediately works out that she’s of noble blood, but his secret takes longer to reveal itself.

Given the title, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that Philip is the very unwilling heir to a dukedom. He is the Earl of Threthewick (which is a horrible name, by the way, and impossible to pronounce). I’m not sure why he’s an earl, since a duke’s heir apparent has the rank of a marquess, but let that pass. His son should have a title too (he has the rank of an earl), but let that pass, too. Anyway, Philip has fallen out with his grandfather, the duke, for understandable reasons, and likes to pretend that he’s just a humble blacksmith and the dukedom is nothing to do with him. Which just makes him daft, frankly. He’s going to be the duke one day, whether he likes it or not, and his son after him, and the fact that his son has to point that out to him shows which of the two is the most sensible.

But then, Arabella’s not exactly the most sensible person ever, either. Running away to Cornwall without even so much as a change of clothes and not thinking that her very loving brother might be frantic with worry is also pretty daft. I can admire her pluck, and her brother is definitely over-protective, but still, a little more planning wouldn’t have gone amiss. And then, when she discovers exactly who Philip is, and realises that he’s been berating her for keeping the secret of her noble origins from him, when he’s been doing exactly the same, she doesn’t storm back to the cottage and yell at him, as any normal person would do. She doesn’t tackle him about it at all, she just carries on as if nothing very much had happened. Which doesn’t make much sense to me. I was looking forward to the explosion and it just didn’t happen.

But the romance… ah, the romance! I can forgive all sorts of questionable plot deviousness for a romance like this. Arabella’s journey from oh-my-goodness-a-man-without-a-shirt to despairing love is beautifully drawn, and there were some wonderful moments along the way. Philip’s journey is a little more uneven, and I wanted to slap him upside the head sometimes for not acknowledging what he was feeling, but then a ducal heir who can convince himself that he’s nothing but a humble blacksmith is not a man of great self-knowledge or introspection. At least he got there in the end, if a little bit late and overly melodramatic.

I mentioned above that this is not a particularly convincing version of the Regency. Every author creates his or her own evocation of the era, of course, and since none of us lived through it, they’re all equally valid. But this one feels a little bit off, to me. Arabella teaches Philip how to behave amongst his peers and at formal dinners, and while this is all very funny, it’s more Victorian than Regency. The serving of each separate dish as a course (soup, fish, meat, etc) by footmen, the array of cutlery (oyster forks! When oysters were so abundant and cheap that they were exclusively a dish of the poor until late in the Victorian era; the upper classes only cooked with them), the raised pinkie when drinking tea – please, no! There are also a lot of Americanisms in the writing, so if this bothers you, Laporte is best avoided. But this is one of those cases where I was enjoying the story so much that I merely smiled at these little bumps in the smooth path of my reading.

If you’re not too bothered about these minor details, this is a fun read, with two lovely characters falling very believably in love, a fine array of entertaining minor characters and a nice glimpse at the married life of the couple from the previous book. Four stars.

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Review: The Gilded Shroud by Elizabeth Bailey (1992)

Posted October 3, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is a difficult one for me to rate. I like an amateur sleuth murder mystery, and I like a Regency (or in this case, Georgian) story, so it ought to have been right up my alley, but somehow the combination didn’t quite work for me. Still, the mystery is neatly worked out, there’s a nice array of eccentric characters and red herrings, and the romance builds slowly to a satisfactory conclusion, so it will suit a lot of readers.

Here’s the premise: Emily, the Marchioness of Polbrook, is found strangled in her bed after husband Randal, the Marquis, fled the house in the middle of the night. They were far from a happily married couple, so things look bad for him. It falls to younger brother, Lord Francis Fanshawe, to prove his brother’s innocence. Luckily for Francis, his mother’s companion has just taken on a new companion, Mrs Ottilia Draycott, who is not only an outsider, able to observe events dispassionately, but also has an unusual interest in mysteries, not to mention a surprisingly modern awareness of psychology and investigative methods. And so the sleuthing begins.

Now, frankly, it takes a deal of suspension of disbelief to accept that the whole household would defer to this stranger, and put her in charge of the investigation. This is, after all, the eighteenth century, when women just weren’t believed to have brains at all, or the capability for rational thought, and if they weren’t squeamish about gruesome strangulations, would be expected to pretend to be. They were thought to be too delicate in mind and body for the rigours of the unpleasantnesses of life, and would have been bundled out of the way at the first sign of blood. No way would a female have been buzzing about the house interviewing suspects and creeping about at night. There are books which pull this off without compromising the historical elements (such as Anna Dean), but this isn’t one of them.

Having said all that, as a murder mystery it actually works very well. There are plenty of suspects and red herrings, the mystery is slowly unravelled and the murderer is both logical and not too obvious. There is a romance of sorts, but it’s not the main focus of the story, and since this is the first of a series featuring the intrepid Ottilia, it’s to be supposed that the others will be straightforward murder mysteries.

This wasn’t a total success for me, since I like a lot more romance and a bit less gruesomeness in my reading, but it’s well written and cleverly plotted, and I read it avidly to find out whodunnit, so I’ve rated it on that basis. As a murder mystery, I’d give it five stars, but as a Regency (ok, Georgian!) it’s closer to three for me, so I’ll take the average. Four stars. Recommended for cosy fans who like a bit of history with their murder.

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Review: Romance of the Ruin by Judith Everett (2021) [Trad]

Posted September 26, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Judith Everett is one of the most original authors I’ve come across in the Regency genre. This one lacks some of the freshness of the first book in the series, Two in the Bush, which is inevitable in a second book, but it’s still a terrific read, beautifully written and awash with interesting characters – and a romantically abandoned house.

Here’s the premise: Miss Lenora Breckenridge is now living with her mother Genevieve and new stepfather, Sir Joshua Stiles (the heroine and hero of the first book) in Sir Joshua’s country estate, Wrenthorpe. Her mother is thrilled to have escaped poverty at last and have a well-ordered house with an army of efficient servants. Lenora is less than thrilled, because what could be duller and less romantic than a house with no ghosts or secret passages or the slightest hint of disorder? She’s learnt her lesson about allowing her love of Gothic novels to infuse her real life, but, frankly, real life leaves her bored to flinders.

Only the gloomy Home Wood inspires her, and there she spends many a happy hour, allowing her imagination full rein. But one day, while enacting an encounter with a suitably romantic prince, she comes across the decidedly unromantic, and thoroughly drunk, James Ingles. Now, I’m going to be perfectly honest, drunken characters just don’t inspire much affection in me, especially when they’re as outwardly unappealing as this one. There was a long spell where Lenora, with her mother’s help, nurse him back to health and sobriety, and even though it’s obvious that this is going to be our hero (after a thorough wash and brush up, and a good shave), I took a long time to warm up to him.

But James has one incomparable attraction to Lenora – he’s the caretaker of a romantically abandoned mansion, Heldon Hall, stripped of all its valuables by its previous owner in a fit of vengeful pique, and still empty, now that he’s dead, while the heir is found. James lives a hand-to-mouth existence in the lodge, but he eventually agrees to show her round the manor house, which she thinks is wonderful, despite the dilapidations. And so, although she likes James well enough, it’s the house that Lenora actually falls in love with, and imagines herself as mistress of. Which means, of course, that she will just have to marry the new Lord Heldon, whoever he is.

And so to London, where Lenora tries impatiently to find out something – anything – about Lord Heldon. I confess to a degree of impatience myself at this point, as the story seemed to be treading water for a while, but once Lord Heldon makes his appearance things move along more swiftly. I don’t entirely approve of the secrecy surrounding his identity, but since the secret is revealed fairly swiftly, and his reasons are sound, I can let that pass.

The story is beautifully written, but there are a couple of things that I think would have made it even better. One is to have more interaction between the two principals. There were long spells without any meetings at all, and those sections of the book were of lesser interest to me. It’s not that there was anything wrong with the peripheral stuff, but I really wanted our hero and heroine onstage together.

The other point is a technical one. Given the precise circumstances of James’s background, it might have given the story more depth not to have the hero’s point of view at all (apart from the opening chapter, perhaps), but to see everything from Lenora’s perspective. It would have added a layer of mystery which is entirely absent when we know pretty much everything that’s going on in the hero’s thoughts. But neither of these is particularly critical, they’re just things that I personally would have preferred.

This doesn’t (for me) quite rise to the heights of the first book in the series, but that was a very high bar, and it’s partly because this book features several of the same characters, so the novelty is somewhat lost. Many readers will doubtless be pleased to see familiar faces again, so for them, this will be a plus. In some ways it’s rather a shame that the stars of the first book, Genevieve and Sir Joshua, have so much screen time in this book, since I found them more interesting characters than Lenora and her hero. This story was somewhat uneven in tone, too, with long spells that felt quite slow. Again, a personal opinion only, not a criticism. However, the author evokes the Regency beautifully, and the language feels authentic without being stilted. I noticed a very few Americanisms (a sprinkling of gottens, which didn’t detract from my enjoyment at all). Four stars.

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Review: An Infamous Proposal by Joan Smith (1996) [Trad]

Posted September 26, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This was an absolute riot. Not a perfect read, on account of a bunch of wildly anachronistic word choices, but the characters were hugely entertaining, the plot was delightfully wacky and the slow adjustment of ideas by the protagonists was well done.

Here’s the premise: Emma is just twenty-two, but having married at seventeen and being now widowed and emerging from mourning, she feels she’s not really of an age to be thoroughly independent. Her papa thinks so too, and is threatening to impose dragonish Aunt Hildegarde on her as a much stricter chaperon than laid-back, novel-reading Miss Foxworth. This is an emergency – what she needs, and at once, is another husband, or at least a quick betrothal to a compliant man, to deter the dreaded aunt. And who could be more perfect than her husband’s old friend and neighbour, Nick, Lord Hansard, who has always flirted with her and has been so attentive while she was in mourning? He’s perfectly biddable, so he can be brought up to scratch, can’t he? But when he doesn’t take the hint and propose, Emma rushes into a proposal herself, only to be shocked and mortified when he refuses her.

Nick is a kindly soul, however, and although he rather disapproves of Emma, thinking she’s far too flighty, he does agree with her that she needs a husband. Therefore he decides to help her on her way to a second marriage by introducing her to suitable gentlemen. Just how suitable (or otherwise!) they turn out to be forms the bulk of the plot, and all the while, Nick is gradually realising that Emma is not as air-headed as she appears, and Emma is realising that Nick is even more perfect for her than she’d thought.

This is one of those books where the romance builds gradually. There’s no great revelation, just two people growing increasingly convinced that the possible suitors aren’t suitable at all, when compared with the more obvious match right under their noses. Since we get the point of view of both Nick and Emma, we see in fascinating details how they each begin with a rather disparaging opinion of the other, and slowly come to appreciate each other. And all the while, the suitors are providing the comedy. Cousin James, in particular, is a hoot, swearing that he’ll be a reliable and faithful husband… but not quite yet, please.

The whole book is a delight, beautifully written and neither too implausible nor too silly (although it wouldn’t be so funny if it wasn’t a little bit silly). I loved every minute of it (yes, even the outrageously anachronistic words – sicced, anyone? In a Regency?). Five stars.

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