Category: Review

Review: Remember Love by Mary Balogh (2022)

Posted July 25, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

A warning: this is going to be slightly spoilery, because it’s impossible to analyse the book properly without getting into the nitty-gritty, so if you really don’t want to know anything, don’t read on.

I really don’t know what to make of this. My first reaction is that it’s a shambles – too long spent on the preliminaries, then a huge explosion, an inexplicable flounce and then some over-angsty tidying up. It’s unbalanced, with too much time wasted on description and not enough on character development. But on the plus side – well, it’s Mary Balogh.

Here’s the premise: Devlin Ware, Viscount Mountford, is twenty-two, and the eldest son and heir to the Earl of Stratton. Their home, Ravenwood, is portrayed as some kind of paradise on earth, and the beautiful and loving Ware family as paragons of virtue and duty, bent on giving everyone, high or low, a rattling good time at fetes and balls and feasts throughout the year. Naturally they do all the work and organising themselves. Fully a third of the book, believe it or not, is devoted to painting a cloying, not to say nauseating, picture of the beautiful Ware family and their idyllic life with all the rosy-cheeked and loyal locals (who are all named, by the way, as if we need to know all this stuff). It is an info-dump of astronomic proportions.

The info-dump culminates in a grand fete and ball, at which Devlin and all his family run round selflessly ensuring the locals are all enjoying themselves, while the locals make appreciative noises and hold log-splitting contests and dance round the maypole (in July? Well, whatever). At the ball, Devlin dances with the eighteen year old daughter of neighbours, Gwyneth Rhys, and dances her right out into the garden where they discover that they have been in love with each other for years, he proposes, she accepts, they kiss, and isn’t all this just so sweet?

And then a thing occurs, and this is where it gets spoilery. Devlin and Gwyneth come across another couple hoping for a spot of privacy in the garden, and perhaps something more than a kiss. Unfortunately, it’s Devlin’s father and the mysterious widow who’s recently moved to the village, and they seem to know each other rather well. Oh noes! She must be his mistress, yet the earl has brought her here as a guest into his home, under the nose of his countess. Now, the Regency (in fact the whole Georgian era, and the Victorian too) was quite relaxed about a married man having a mistress, but the cardinal rule is you don’t bring her anywhere near your wife.

Devlin is incandescent with rage at this insult to his mother and his sisters, and creates a huge and very melodramatic scene. I imagine the author intended this sudden explosion as a contrast with the peaceful scenes that preceded it, and it actually does that very well, like a sudden thunderstorm at the end of a perfect summer day. But the effect is not what Devlin expected – his family turn on him, and he is banished.

Now this is the point where the book goes off the rails for me. His mother wants him gone, for whatever reason, so go he must, but there is a whole world out there he could have gone to. What he does is, frankly, inexplicable to me – he signs up to join the army and go off to fight Napoleon. I can only suppose that he had some kind of death wish, but it’s never really explained. When he goes to say farewell to Gwyneth, she rails at him that they could have gone to her relatives in Wales, they could still have married, so why does he have to join the army, and it’s a very good question. I suppose the main reason is: because the plot demanded it.

Devlin survives the war, albeit with an interesting scar. His half-brother, Ben, who had chosen to go with him, also survives. Another brother, Nicholas, who had planned to enter the army himself, also goes off to fight (why? Two brothers from one family in the war is just madness), but he also survives. And the Earl of Stratton dies and Devlin is forced to return home and pick up the threads of his old life as best he can. Except that everything has changed. He has changed, but everyone else in the family has changed too. There are no more fetes and open days. There is no happy family, selflessly arranging entertainments for the locals (they’re doing their own arranging). Everyone is miserable.

Gwyneth, meanwhile, is still unmarried (well, we never saw that coming, did we?). She tells herself she’s over Devlin and is ready to marry the nice Welshman who’s passionate about music and seems to be passionate about her, too. But then Devlin reappears and all bets are off. I’m going to be honest here, and say that the rest of the book runs on fairly predictable rails. Devlin takes up the reins of the estate, rebuilds bridges with his family, develops a new relationship with the locals and ends up marrying Gwyneth after all, and absolutely none of it is surprising, with one exception. Gwyneth turns out to be the saving grace of this book, because Devlin is a wet blanket almost to the end. And then we get the schmaltzy wedding day, which is twelve teaspoons of sugar sweet, so you have been warned. There is one fairly soft-focus sex scene, which made no sense to me at all, but I suppose a Balogh book without any sex would be too much of a novelty.

I love Mary Balogh to pieces, and even though I was saying ‘Wait, what?’ at frequent intervals and nothing happened for far too long and Devlin was a drip, she still hit me right in the feels time after time. But this just doesn’t feel like the Regency, to me. That whole first third of the book, with the frankly over the top generosity of the Wares, rang false with me. The very idea that they would open the park to anyone who wanted to enjoy it is (for me) incredible, and far too modern an idea. The whole point of large estates was to keep the riff-raff out so that the toffs never had to encounter them. They might conceivably hold an open day once a year, but even that feels more Victorian than Regency to me.

And then the oddities, like face painting for the children – really?? And a baby carrier. These things are not impossible to imagine happening in the Regency, but to my mind, they sound too modern. Gwyneth rides astride sometimes, a huge no-no. Then there’s the baby fat that gives younger daughter Stephanie such grief. Look, fat was absolutely not a problem in the Regency. Right up to the 1920s, when the health craze kicked in, being plump or downright fat was a sign of wealth. Conspicuous consumption was a real thing, and only poor people were thin (or anyone with actual consumption – TB – so being thin was regarded as dangerously unhealthy for anyone who could afford to eat well). Then there are feeders for the wild birds. Well, that’s possible, I suppose, but Regency people kept exotic birds like parrots or songbirds in cages. Wild birds were either for eating or for scientific study (by stuffing or dissecting) or not interesting. Also, the author obviously doesn’t realise that a university education in the Regency was nothing like the modern version. Far from needing to work hard for exams, the sons of the nobility had no need to take any exams, or even to turn up to lectures. They paid, they got a degree.

On the whole, this book was a disappointment. It’s beautifully written, because of course it is, it’s Mary Balogh, for heaven’s sake. But the pacing was all wrong, and the central conceit felt contrived. If I were writing it, I’d have been tempted to start with the fatal fete, condensing all the dull info-dump into little vignettes. Or it could have started with Devlin returning home as earl, showing the earlier events in flashback. Either would, in my opinion, have worked better than the long, long opening chapters.

I also didn’t find any of the characters terribly interesting (apart from Ben, and maybe Stephanie), and it was just too darned sweet for my palate. I like a little tartness in my Regencies, and I also like to be surprised, and that just didn’t happen. And having grumbled at ridiculous length about this book, I confess I read it avidly the whole way through, if only to see the big explosion and find out how things worked out for Devlin’s family. This is the first of the series, so maybe the rest, unburdened by the scene-setting of the opener, will be more interesting. Three stars.

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Review: Intertwine by Nichole Van (2014)

Posted July 25, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is one of those books where it’s best to just go with the flow and not question the logistics too much. As such, it’s a pleasant and undemanding time-slip romance from modern to Regency. I would have liked a bit more rigour, but then I’m probably not the ideal audience for this book.

Here’s the premise: in 2012, Emme Wilde is in love with the man she knows only as an old-timey picture in a locket, and real life, melodramatic as it sometimes is, just can’t compare. Determined to find the truth behind the locket, she travels to England to stay in an old cottage near to where the man in the picture must have lived, traced through the painter of the picture. So there she is in a cottage in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, in the middle of a humungous storm, when the lights go out (because of course they do!). So does she go down to the basement? Of course she does, but she fortuitously happens to be wearing a full length nightgown and wrap, and just happens to be carrying her handbag (purse), because of course she is. She’s going to need that when — Crack! Oh, there she goes, back to 1812, where James Knight is (coincidentally) riding home in a (coincidentally) humungous storm when he catches a glimpse of white at the base of the old oak tree.

Now it took a while to get to this point, and I get that authors like to set the scene in both settings of a time-slip, but for me as a reader, when I know beyond all doubt that something major is going to happen, I appreciate it if the author gets on with it. A lot of the background to Emme’s life seemed (initially, anyway) not terribly relevant. Some of it (like why she’s carrying her handbag, and all the useful things in it) becomes pertinent later, but the whole disaster-prone build up seemed over the top, to me. And the funny part of it is that all the improbable events actually happened to the author’s parents, which only goes to show that truth is stranger than fiction (and that even true stories can be too unlikely to use in a work of fiction).

In order to delay the oh-no-I’ve-gone-back-in-time moment, Emme is rendered unconscious by the storm, and even when she wakes, she’s suffering from amnesia. This is a very popular trope, and I completely understand why, but I still heartily dislike it, mainly because it’s usually a magic MacGuffin, a device to sidestep an issue or create an artificial obstacle, and invariably the person recovers completely afterwards. It’s a plot device, basically.

In this case, the author cheats a bit, and this grated on me the whole time Emme was amnesiac. Firstly, even though Emme knows nothing about herself, not even her name, she’s referred to by name the whole time. It’s ‘Emme woke’ or ‘Emme said’, and the purist in me wondered why, when we’re in her point of view, she doesn’t think of herself as ‘the girl’ or something equally blank. This is a case where using first person (‘I woke’ and ‘I said’) would have worked much better.

And secondly, although her mind is supposedly blank, there’s an Alter-Emme voice in her head making snarky and very 21st century comments. Now, this is actually very funny, and the culture clash is one of the strengths of the book, but it does dilute the Regency elements somewhat to have this very modern chatter in the background. It makes it seem like a contemporary romance, actually, and as such it works pretty well.

The romance is rather good, with the two protagonists gradually sliding into it, but all the time aware that they have no idea who Emme (the girl!) is, or whether she’s even a respectable person, or married, or on the run after some heinous crime. It’s a very plausible obstacle. I did wonder how it was that Emme, with her American accent and modern speech, managed to convince these upper class people that she was as much gentry as them, but this is waved away with a quick line about her copying their accent. Probably with time travel stories, it doesn’t do to agonise too much over the logistics! My bad.

Eventually, Emme is reunited with her handbag (purse), and this is another quirk, in that James consistently calls it a purse, rather than simply a bag. Ladies didn’t have handbags (purses) in those days, they carried a small cloth bag called a reticule. But that’s just me over-thinking things again. The purse reunites Emme with her 21st century memories, and leads to the funniest section of the book, where she introduces James to modern tech (doesn’t that cause a tear in the space-time continuum or something?).

From then onwards, it’s a gallop to the happy ending (at 88% on my Kindle; there’s a whole heap of stuff after the end), by way of a tornado (in England? But by this time I was in ‘whatever’ mode). You’ll have to read the book yourself to see how they reconcile the whole 2012/1812 problem, and how they deal with the rest of the family. It’s a lot of fun, if you can switch off the analytical part of your brain. Sadly, I couldn’t, and the book just wasn’t Regency enough for me, but for anyone less picky than me, this is a fun, lightweight read, and the start of a whole series. Three stars.

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Review: The Wicked Cousin by Stella Riley (2017)

Posted July 25, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

How can a Stella Riley book be so indigestible? I loved the previous three books in the series, and this has its moments, but it’s totally bogged down by the weight of characters from previous books, who are just not adequately explained. I don’t object to the reappearance of one or two, if they’re relevant to the plot, but please, please, please introduce them AS IF they’re new characters. And there are so many of them…

Here’s the premise: Sebastian Audley has spent the last few years lighting up the scandal-sheets with his outrageous exploits. We know right from the start why: his twin died in childhood and, as the sole remaining heir, Sebastian was wrapped in cotton wool and thoroughly coddled, to the point where he had no life at all. The result was that, as soon as he came of age, he slipped his shackles and took off to indulge in all the wild exploits he’d been forbidden before. But after a few years, and with his father in ill-health, Sebastian returns to England, minded to settle down. Trouble is, a reputation like his is hard to live down, and while the gentlemen try their very best to provoke him to into his old ways, the ladies set out single-mindedly to entrap him in other ways. It all gets rather tedious for him.

Cassandra Delahaye is far too sensible to be interested in a rake and ne’er-do-well like Sebastian. So obviously, they’re going to fall in love, right? Well, of course they are, and since he’s the heir to a title and a very pretty fortune, and she’s of impeccable lineage and reputation… wait a minute. What exactly is the obstacle to their courtship and marriage? There isn’t one, of course, but no self-respecting Regency romance can let that pass. There has to be an obstacle. Cue the thwarted and vindictive ex-mistress.

If you groaned at this point, believe me, so did I. Stella Riley is an awesome writer, and the first book in this series was breathtakingly original (a blind heroine! How wonderful is that?), so it’s incredibly disappointing to find this story propped up by such a tired old trope. And because it’s such an unworkable trope, the ex-mistress inevitably becomes more and more unhinged, leading to some ridiculous situations. Yes, it was very dramatic, but no, not in the least plausible.

The previous books in this series were terrific, so I’m going to set this down as a misstep that simply didn’t work for me. The writing is excellent, as ever, the romantic moments were lovely and if you have a better memory than me, or you read the books in rapid succession, then maybe the deluge of characters from previous books will enhance your enjoyment of this book. But for me, Riley’s brilliance notwithstanding, the over-the-top ex-mistress and the hard-to-follow ensemble cast keeps this to three stars for me.

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Review: Penelope and the Wicked Duke by Sofi Laporte (2021)

Posted July 25, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

A real curate’s egg of a book, that starts off brilliantly, sags into implausibility in the middle and then goes off the rails altogether at the end. There’s a charming and very enjoyable romance lurking tantalisingly just out of reach here, but despite the oddball stuff, there’s a lot to like about it.

Here’s the premise: Penelope Reid (or Pen) has been waiting for years for her guardian to arrive and reclaim her from Miss Hilversham’s Seminary for Young Ladies, where he dumped her some years ago and then vanished. Tired of waiting, she escapes into the night, dressed in men’s clothes, and makes her way to London to find him. He’s not at the address where she expected to find him, so she takes cheap lodgings nearby and sets out to dream up a plan B. By chance, she bumps into (very literally) a passing viscount, Lord Alworth, whose close encounter with Pen suggests to him that she’s only masquerading as a boy. He’s so intrigued, he sets out to follow her and find out what she’s up to. She gives him the brush-off, but then he meets her again trying to get into White’s, the famous gentlemen’s club, in the hope of tracking down her guardian. Still intrigued, he not only takes her inside, he arranges membership for her.

So far, so howlingly implausible, but then realism isn’t exactly what this series is about. The basic premise is that the four heroines all made a wish at a wishing well, and one of them made the wish that all four should marry dukes. Three of them have now done so, and Pen is the fourth. She was so uninterested in marrying a duke that she dived into the well to retrieve the coin. She’s been in love with her guardian, the elusive Marcus Smith, ever since he saved her life in India and brought her back to Britain. He’s the only one she wants to marry, and he’s not a duke. So there’s a magical/fairytale theme running through the whole series, which makes it hard to quibble over any lack of realism or astonishing turns of fortune. That’s just the framework the author has constructed.

This part of the book is terrific. Alworth is a lovely hero, the typical jaded man-about-town, a dandy and dilettante, whose interest is piqued by Pen and her story. He sets himself to help her find her guardian, and before too long he learns the truth – that the enigmatic Marcus Smith is actually the wicked Duke of Rochford. Pen isn’t deterred, so the hunt is on to track down the duke and confront him. The verbal sparring between Alworth and Pen is brilliant, and very funny. At one point I actually laughed till I cried.

Meanwhile, Pen is getting into trouble at every verse end, including insulting someone and being challenged to a duel (and rescued by Alworth), and then being challenged again (and rescued by an Indian friend). In fact, Pen gets into so much trouble, and refuses to confide in Alworth, or trust him, that frankly I wondered just why he stuck around. Pen deserved to be left to stew in her own stupidity.

This middle section is very strange, because Pen does eventually tell Alworth some of her story, and he does make it clear that he knows she’s female, but they go on pretending that she’s a bloke, and I wasn’t at all clear whether Pen had any grip on reality or was just so wrapped up in her own little world that nothing else mattered. Anyway, this is where I began to lose patience somewhat.

And then there were glimmerings of Alworth stepping in, not merely to help Pen along, but to address the tricky problem that he’s fallen in love with Pen, who is *still* pretending she’s a bloke. So when a mysterious sponsor sets Pen up with a chaperon and some posh frocks to do the season, I hoped that she was going to see the light and make the sensible decision. You know, the really, really tricky choice between the guardian who dumped her in school years ago and never went back, and is *still* ignoring her, or the nice, charming, handsome, rich, honourable man who’s been helping her every step of the way.

But, no. Everything comes to a head at a big society ball, and really, that should have been it, make your choice, happy ending ahoy, but I guess that wasn’t enough drama, because there’s a whole bunch more Pen stupidity before she finally sees the light. Argh!

I get what the author was trying to do here, and perhaps for some people Pen’s clinging desperately to the fiction of her caring guardian makes it easy to accept her difficulty in knowing what she wants, but for me it just didn’t work. Pen was not likeable enough for me to have much sympathy for her. She was just a destructive whirlwind, hurling herself into all sorts of situations without a thought, and dragging other people into her messes. And her guardian was just too horrible for words (even at the ball! What was he thinking??!!). So ultimately, although I loved Alworth and the early part of the book was sublimely funny and refreshingly different, in the end it veered too far from realism for my comfort. Three stars.

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Review: Ginnie Come Lately by Carola Dunn (1993)

Posted July 25, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Well. What to make of this? I’ve had good luck with Carola Dunn’s other books, and I’ve read quite a few, but this one just didn’t work for me, and it’s all the hero’s fault.

Here’s the premise: Justin, Lord Amis, heir to an earldom, has spent two years as a diplomat tootling round Europe in the train of various government officials in the aftermath of Waterloo and the outbreak of peace. He returns home, hoping to pick up the threads of his understanding with Lady Amabel Fellowes. Has she waited for him all this time? She has! But at their first meeting, she gives him some information that puts all thoughts of his own marriage out of his mind. His elderly father, who has been living as a recluse ever since his wife died, has remarried a widow with nine children. Justin must rush home to Wooburn Court to find out what is going on.

He’s only just reached the grounds of the ancestral home when he spies a woman with a group of children. Aha! His new stepmother and some of his step-siblings. He promptly falls off his horse (why? Is he such an incompetent rider?), and then proceeds to hurl abuse at the woman before riding off again. It’s worth quoting his exact words, and remembering that this is a viscount and a grown man, not a child, addressing the woman he believes is his new stepmother, whom he has never met before.

‘He looked her up and down in a shockingly insolent manner, from the shabby chip-straw bonnet hiding her golden ringlets to the half-boots of worn jean. Sneering, he said, “So you are the gull-catcher. Mutton dressed as lamb! You need not expect to profit by your chicanery, strumpet. By all the devils in hell, I’ll see you damned first!”’

This may work perfectly well for a villain, but a hero? No. There’s a very funny scene where the woman so addressed tries to account for the odd terminology used (“Why did he call you a trumpet, Ginnie?”). Of course, this is not stepmama at all, but the eldest of the children, who is 20, and definitely not a strumpet (and neither is her mother).

Then comes the scene which really set my teeth on edge. Justin comes down for dinner and finds Ginnie alone, and after a brief exchange of hostile fire, grabs her and kisses her. And she, stupid woman, instead of slapping his smug face, allows him to do it and then pretends nothing happened.

From here on, it’s outright war. Justin is determined to best the Webster children, and they set out with a will to make his life as miserable as possible. Hot water goes missing, starched cravats are discovered limp, there are nettles in the bed, burrs in his boots and a hedgehog amongst his clothes. Meanwhile, it gradually dawns on him that his father, who had been dwindling into a sad old age, is lively and besotted and terribly happy. And as he gets to know the Webster children better, he realises they’re actually fine people (apart from the mischievous twins). All his accusations against them, of spending his father’s money extravagantly, for instance, are completely untrue.

At this point, there might still have been a redemptive arc for him, if he’d simply admitted he was wrong and made his peace with them. But he never quite comes clean, he’s still behaving inappropriately with Ginnie, and he’s invited all his most toffee-nosed friends from London, including his intended, to a house party. The original idea was to put the Websters properly in their place, and if he’d simply confessed all to Ginnie (who runs the household single handed, because of course she does), I’d have liked him a lot better. But he lets things run, there’s confusion and some perfectly natural jealousy from Ginnie, and when his friends are rude about the Websters, just as he was initially, he says nothing, when really he should have said, “Yes, I thought that at first, too, but they’re really nice when you get to know them better”. Stupid Justin.

And then he makes his biggest and stupidest mistake. Having decided that he really doesn’t want to marry Lady Amabel, who is a cow of the first order, he gets hot and heavy with Ginnie but before breaking it off with Lady Amabel. Cue awkward scene.

I can imagine that this sounded really good in the synopsis the author presented to her publisher. Arrogant hero is a bumptious fool, but is taught a valuable lesson by the virtuous Ginnie and her charming (if amusingly mischievous) siblings. The trouble is, to justify the necessary hostility between the factions, Justin has to step way, way beyond the bounds even of common decency, let alone the standards of honour expected of a Regency gentleman. What kind of a man calls his father’s new wife a strumpet to her face? What kind of man forces a kiss on a girl under the protection of his father? What kind of man allows his friends to insult his family? What kind of a man tells a woman who’s waited years for him that he’s not going to marry her after all (even if she is a cow)? It’s appalling behaviour, and I just can’t forgive him.

Obviously, not everyone will see it that way, and if you can manage to read it without any pearl-clutching, you must have a stronger constitution than I do, certainly, but there’s a pleasant and even, dare I say it, a charming little story hidden away behind all the snarling. It’s short, anyway, and even if I dislike the hero intensely, I have no fault to find with the writing. Two stars.

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Review: The Season by Sophia Holloway (2022)

Posted July 25, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I’ve read a couple of previous books by the author, and enjoyed them, so this was an automatic buy. Mind you, I nearly gave up on it early on, because it was as slow as treacle (molasses), and without a drop of humour. But somewhere in the middle, when both the protagonists have settled into life in London and the surrounding side characters have stepped into the limelight a little, the whole thing takes off to a new level, and it was both very funny and deeply absorbing.

Here’s the premise: Henrietta Gaydon is a country girl, happy living with her widower father, and with neighbour Charles, Lord Henfield, as a friend since childhood. She is offered the chance of a London season, and so off she goes to her aunt to be dressed and otherwise prepared for her campaign to find a husband. That is, after all, the purpose of the season, and while Henrietta loves the social whirl, she’s not at all sure she wants to marry and leave her papa behind and perhaps live far from her childhood home.

So far, this reminds me of Heyer’s Arabella, also a tale of a simple country girl summoned to London to make a splendid match. And in both cases, they find themselves feted and admired. Henrietta has a useful inheritance as well as beauty, but growing up in an all-male environment, and particularly sparring often with Charles, she’s not overwhelmed by the attentions of flirtatious men, and gains a reputation as something of an original, not the usual simpering debutante.

This part of the story was rather too long for my taste. Nowadays, the season is rather a tired trope of Regencies, and it takes some unusual angle to make it about more than gowns and walks in Hyde Park and vouchers for Almack’s, which have been done to death. Fortunately, Charles the friend and neighbour follows Henrietta to town. He’s noticed for some time now that Henrietta has grown up and is just the woman he’d love to marry, and he’s determined to try his luck and see if he can’t win her for himself. But the Henrietta he meets in London is nothing like the easy-going companion from home. She’s become a sophisticated woman, able to fence verbally with her many admirers, and the easy camaraderie they shared is hard to rediscover.

I did feel for Charles, and of course Henrietta starts to have feelings for him, but is at a loss to know whether he sees her the same way. Regency manners are sometimes so restrained that a couple can end up completely at cross purposes. I’m a great believer in openness in such cases, and I think Charles should have made his intentions clear right from the start, rather than trusting to his own charm to bring Henrietta round. His reticence left Henrietta in a difficult position, not knowing whether to accept a good offer now, or to reject it and hope for the one she really wants later (the perennial problem of Regency heroines).

Beautifully written, and for once the comparison with Heyer is very apt. There was a strange subplot that veered off in an odd direction at the end, which seemed to be set up solely to place the hero in a situation of maximum confusion for the heroine, but everything comes right eventually, and I loved some of the side characters, particularly the two redoubtable matrons, whose decades long feud almost trips up the minor romance. A good four stars, recommended for those who don’t mind a slow, gently weaving story.

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Review: The Wild Child by Mary Jo Putney (1999)

Posted July 25, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

A curious book, with elements of False Colours, by Heyer, but very much in its own style. A little too emotional for my taste, and only lightly rooted in the Regency, but Putney can really write, so I enjoyed it overall.

Here’s the premise: Dominic Renbourne is the second son of the Earl of Wrexham, the spare by just ten minutes. His twin Kyle got the courtesy title and the expectations, while Dominic joined the army and survived (just) the horrors of Waterloo. The two drifted apart when they were sent to different schools, and then fell out spectacularly when Kyle went to Oxford and Dominic refused to join him there and train for the church, preferring a more active career in the army. But now Kyle needs a favour from his identical twin – to take his place on a visit to court the Lady Meriel Grahame, whom Kyle plans to marry for her vast fortune. It should be easy because the lady is disconnected from reality, so neither she nor the elderly ladies looking after her will know the difference.

Despite his reluctance, Dominic is induced to agree to it, but he arrives at Warfield Manor to discover, not the madwoman he’d feared, but a beautiful creature entirely at one with nature and the stunning garden she’s created. This part of the book is glorious, as Dominic delicately gets to know his brother’s intended bride and learns to respect and admire her, while she responds unexpectedly to his overtures. It’s hard to convey just how magical an atmosphere Putney creates, with the garden itself a glorious part of the other-worldliness.

It’s unfortunate that the lady’s response is the one so beloved of many Regency authors, in that she gets the hots for him. This is a perfectly innocent and other-worldly girl, who has observed the wild creatures mating, takes one look at Dominic’s manly body, and decides she’d like some of that, thank you very much. And he, being the hero of a Regency novel, naturally had trouble keeping himself from jumping her at once. There’s no intellectual rapport built up between them, nor could there be since she doesn’t talk at all to anyone. Instead it’s all about sex.

For me, that’s a disappointment, and gradually, as she begins to trust him and allows herself to be drawn out from her self-imposed seclusion, I found it increasingly difficult to believe any of it. It’s all beautifully done, because Putney is a virtuoso, but to me after a unique and enchanting start, it became a conventional love-overcomes-all tale. There’s a lot of angst along the way, but since Dominic never overcomes his lust enough to do the decent thing and leave Meriel alone, he lost a lot of his heroic gloss, for me. Then he has to confess that he’s been living a lie, and also confess to his brother that he’s been bedding the woman Kyle was supposed to marry. Then at the end there’s some melodramatic business with Meriel’s rival guardians, which had some wobbly logic in it, but never mind.

To be honest, the most moving part of the whole book for me was not Meriel and Dominic at all, but Kyle’s love for his mistress of many years, and what he was prepared to do for her. That was a great love story, whereas Dominic and Meriel were all about lust.

Still, Putney’s writing is awesome, and if the book was only lightly connected to the Regency (apart from Dominic’s history at Waterloo, it could have been set at any time over a two hundred year long period), at least there were no historical errors that I noticed. An absorbing read, even if not totally convincing to me. Four stars.

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Review: A Match For Elizabeth by Mira Stables (1972)

Posted July 25, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

A pleasantly undemanding book that runs on predictable rails from the outset, marred only by some minor plot contrivances and one eye-rollingly bad decision by the heroine. Fortunately, the hero is my favourite kind, the sensible and honourable sort, who more or less redeems everything single handedly.

Here’s the premise: Richard, the Earl of Anderley, is called to the deathbed of an old friend, to discover that he’s been named as guardian to the friend’s daughter. Not that she needs a guardian, since she’s twenty-three, but let that pass. Elizabeth has been under the impression that she was illegitimate. Now she’s to be told that she is actually legitimate, although in a secret and underage ceremony of dubious legality, but let that pass, too. Richard is charged with bringing the girl to her rightful place in society and finding her a husband, and quite why her father neglected to do that himself is beyond me.

Richard accepts the guardianship and sets about his appointed tasks. His sister Mary is called upon to rig Elizabeth out in suitable style, but refuses to introduce her to society. Maybe next year, she says. So Richard whisks Elizabeth off to the country, but he’s not prepared to wait a year, since she’s 23 already. Happily, he has a nephew, Timothy, (Mary’s son) who is the right sort of age, and a pleasant, agreeable sort of man. He’s a bit rakish, but no doubt he’ll settle in time. He’s also Richard’s heir, so it all seems very providential. Elizabeth is very antagonistic towards Richard, resenting being torn away from her simple farming roots and his control over her, but she seems to take a shine to Timothy. So, marriage problem solved. Or is it?

Two problems emerge to mar this seemingly perfect arrangement. Firstly, when Timothy is invited to get to know Elizabeth better at a house party Richard has helpfully organised, he falls madly in love with the brainless but very pretty daughter of a neighbour. So… back to the drawing board on the marriage front, but there’s a young marquis who might do…

The second problem is that Richard finds himself falling for Elizabeth himself. Now, this seems a bit skeevy in a man with a nephew of 25 or so, whom everyone (including himself) talks about as if he were practically in his dotage. He tells himself he’s far too old for Elizabeth and resolutely suppresses his feeling, soldiering on with his project to find her a husband her own age. Whereupon we discover that he’s a full twenty years younger than his sisters, and is actually only 35. Since when is 35 too old and decrepit to think of marriage, especially to a 23-year-old?

Eventually, like the reader, he comes to realise that he’s not too old for her at all, she seems to have dropped her initial antagonism towards him and so he decides to try his luck. And she promptly refuses him, because reasons. What possible reason can there be? The usual one – the author wanted to spin out the plot and introduce some melodrama, so the heroine gets to have her outbreak of stupid, while I restrained the impulse to hurl my Kindle at the wall. Sigh.

Needless to say, everything comes right in the end, although not before another deluge of highly implausible melodrama, but the final scenes are beautifully romantic, so the story ends on a fine high note that had me grinning in delight. As with all Stables’ work, this is beautifully written and despite the overwrought plot contrivances, worthy of four stars.

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Review: A Garden Folly by Candice Hern (1997)

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

This book made me very angry. Ranty review ahoy. And also kind of spoilery, so don’t read it if you don’t want to know anything. It should be said right at the outset that this is no reflection on the author’s writing ability. I’ve read other books of hers and enjoyed them thoroughly, so this is one of those occasional hiccups, where this particular book is an epic fail for me personally, but it’s just a weird clash of my expectations with the particular characters in this particular story.

Here’s the premise: Catherine Forsythe and her beautiful (if slightly dim) elder sister Susannah have been left destitute by their father’s death. They’ve been taken in by their Aunt Hetty, a widow with a small jointure, and for two years the three of them have been living an increasingly hand to mouth existence in a tiny house in Chelsea, such that even the furniture is being slowly sold off and they’re living on onion broth.

Now stop right there for a minute. Selling furniture? And why is it that these two healthy, able-bodied girls are reducing their impoverished aunt to even greater impoverishment, which seems likely to put all of them in the workhouse? Susannah is adept with a needle, so why isn’t she making some money from her stitchery? Catherine is the clever one (supposedly) so why isn’t she a governess or paid companion or a teacher somewhere? Why are they dragging their aunt into the mire, too?

But let that pass. I’ll allow a book its basic premise, however implausible. Anyway, Aunt Hetty happens to bump into an old school friend one day, who happens to be a dowager duchess, who happens to be planning a house party, and who happens to be a charitable soul. She invites Hetty and the two girls to spend a month at the ducal estate, a month of mingling with eligible and rich young gentlemen. Catherine sees the possibilities at once. Susannah, with her looks, will attract a rich suitor and they’ll all be saved. The duke himself won’t be there, as he’s famously reclusive, but there will be fifty or so other guests.

They manage to scrape together enough dresses to pass muster as well as a carriage (more on this later), and off they go, and within no time flat there’s a misunderstanding and the shortsighted Susannah has taken a shine to the wildly ineligible steward of the estate, an ex-soldier with only one arm, instead of all the rich and titled guests. So it’s all down to Catherine to rescue them from starvation.

Meanwhile, Catherine has gone wandering off into the gardens to admire the flowers and trips over a gardener, or rather he trips over her, sending her flying. They have a brief spat, until he discovers she’s knowledgeable about plants and decides he quite likes her after all. And so they fall into a very pleasant guest/gardener relationship. What she doesn’t know (but we do, because it’s never a secret) is that he’s not Stephen Archibald, head gardener, but Stephen, the Duke of Carlisle, skulking about the gardens he loves, because he can’t bear being the focus of attention as the duke. And although he’s thirty-two, and very marriageable, he’s determined never to marry, unless he can find someone to love him for himself, and not be interested in his title and wealth.

Well, we can see where this is going, can’t we? This part of the book is charming, as the two bond over interesting plants. He sends her posies of violets and painting equipment. She paints, and artlessly tells him her plans to marry a rich man so that she’ll never have to live on onion broth again. And her target just happens to be the duke’s best buddy, Miles, the Earl of Strickland. Miles is a widower with two small daughters, and although he doesn’t expect to find love again, he’d like to find someone to mother his girls. It all sounds perfect, and everything is going along swimmingly until Stephen starts to get jealous of his own friend, and ends up kissing Catherine. This is actually a wonderfully romantic scene, perfectly judged, where he basically says: look at him and look at me, and tell me if you don’t, deep down, truly prefer me?

Now, that’s fine, but then Stephen goes completely off the rails and starts (in essence) stalking Catherine, lurking in the shrubbery to entice her away from the other guests she’s supposed to be with, especially from the tempting Miles, and kissing her passionately. Because he just can’t help himself, apparently. She tries to explain her situation, and how horrible it is to be wondering whether you can actually afford food, but he takes no notice. He has to make her love him for himself. He just can’t help himself, you see.

Now I totally get that he wants to be loved for himself, I really do. It’s very understandable, but it kind of goes with the territory of being a duke, and hugely wealthy, that everyone you meet is aware of that, and behaves differently around you. Because, actually, you are different. There’s no way that being raised at that level of society makes a man no different from, say, a plain old gardener. Which is why dukes tend to marry the daughters of other dukes, who just aren’t that dazzled by the vast estates and armies of retainers and whatnot.

But the one thing Regency gentlemen are brought up to have is restraint. Stephen certainly CAN help himself, because losing control is such a breach of etiquette. And then there’s the question of morals and ethics and honour, for heaven’s sake. Catherine has made it very plain that she’s determined to ensure a secure financial future for herself and her family, she only has a month in which to do it and Stephen leaping out of bushes with his smoking hot kisses is an unwelcome distraction, to put it mildly. The problem might be resolved if she could manage to resist him for five seconds, but she can’t help herself either. {Rolls eyes}

There are about a dozen ways Stephen could have addressed the problem honourably, even without telling Catherine the whole truth. He could have told Miles about the situation (and absolutely should have told him that they were both courting the same girl, see point about honour, above). He could have got his mother involved. He could have got Aunt Hetty involved. He could have pointed out that a head gardener on a ducal estate is not exactly penniless, living in a hovel. Or he could have done the decent thing and left Catherine alone (as she repeatedly asked) to follow her own best interests.
Or he could have told her the truth, and let her decide for herself what she wanted to do. You know, treating her with respect as a rational human being. That would have been nice. Not to mention a better foundation for marriage than continuing to trick her, winding her up into such a state of confusion that she spends the last few chapters crying.

But no, what he actually does, after forcing her to decide that she’d rather live in poverty with him than in luxury with Miles (silly girl), he does something unspeakably cruel. What he should do, of course, is to confess that he’s the duke so she won’t have to live in a hovel after all, and after thumping him for putting her through all that agonising for no good reason, she’d laugh and forgive him. But he doesn’t do that. He decides for some unfathomable reason to reveal his identity to her in public, at a ball, with an announcement of their betrothal.

This right here is what makes me so angry. The rest of it I could just about stomach, if he had only come clean straight away. But no, he had to humiliate her in front of a houseful of snooty guests, whereupon she faints, and when she comes round, instead of slapping his insufferable face and walking out on him, she forgives him. Silly girl. Ugh.

Now, Catherine doesn’t exactly cover herself with glory, either, since she allowed herself to be pulled into the bushes for those passionate kisses every single time. And she never works out that a head gardener (as she supposes him to be) is multiple rungs higher up the ladder than a farm labourer and she wouldn’t exactly be living in abject poverty if she married him. A head gardener would be paid a decent salary and provided with a cottage and as much food as he and his wife and ten children can eat. Ducal estates are virtually self-sufficient, producing enough food to feed hundreds of retainers, and support any number of tenant farmers, craftsmen, etc. Nobody starves, or lives on onion broth. If Susannah can marry the steward without anyone turning a hair, the supposed gardener can marry, too. Most of her disdain seems to be simple class prejudice – he’s an unworthy husband for the granddaughter of a viscount.

Then there are the relations who realise what’s going on and never think to intervene, apart from cryptically telling Catherine to follow her heart, and laughing at her.

And then there’s MacDougal. This strange character is a servant of Catherine and her sister, who seems to have a magical ability to make things happen. He finds the odd leg of mutton for them when times are hard, and when the invitation arrives, manages to track down all sorts of discarded things (gowns, jewels, a carriage) to rig them out for the occasion. He mills about the garden, too, and his is one of the voices telling Catherine to follow her heart. Who is he? It’s never explained. On the author’s website, she says he can be whoever the reader wants him to be, which is not exactly helpful.

I seem to have written an essay here, because this book really did get me riled up, but I have to say I quite enjoyed it, too. The writing is beautiful, it’s just that the characters behaved in ways that seemed beyond the pale to me. Now it might be that the author intended this as some sort of whimsical rags-to-riches fairytale, and I’m completely missing the point. That’s perfectly possible. But frankly, the overriding theme seems to be – love is all that matters and never mind about boring practicalities like having enough money to live on, and that’s not a philosophy I can ever subscribe to.

As I said upfront, I’ve read other Candice Hern books and thoroughly enjoyed them, but this one is lucky to scrape two stars from me.

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Review: Emma Disposes by Mira Stables (1972)

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

An odd little book, rather uneven, with a straightforward romance, some very convenient coincidences and a whole heap of melodrama. It’s safe to say a lot of buckles were swashed (or swashes were buckled, not sure which). But a very enjoyable read, for all that, and a real page turner.

Here’s the premise: Captain Charles Trevannion is a career soldier committed to seeing off Bonaparte in Spain, but he’s recalled, under protest, to England to investigate some traitorous goings on near his old home in Sussex. Someone is getting secret information to the Frenchies, and it Must Be Stopped. His grandfather recently died, so that will do as an excuse for him coming home. He and his trusty batman, Giles, decide to stop for the night at an inn run by Giles’s brother, Jasie, but when they find the place all closed up and Charles sneaks in through a window, he finds himself bopped on the head. And so, rather inauspiciously, the hero and heroine meet.

This book was written in 1972, so it conforms to many Regencies of the era in that the heroine is a fairly naive seventeen-year-old, and the hero is a worldly-wise thirty-two. The heroine is Nell Easton, an orphan, her only relative in the world a generic wicked uncle, who wants to get his hands on her fortune. But Nell is being cared for by Jasie and his wife, Emma (the Emma of the title), and it’s Emma who comes up with the Cunning Ploy to protect Nell and allow Charles to snoop around on his own quest – she and Charles must pretend to be betrothed.

This has the usual effect in Regencies, that the two are thrown together a great deal, and begin to fall in love. So far, so predictable. But when Nell’s wicked uncle arrives on the scene, things get messy very quickly, and only a great deal of derring-do by our swashbuckling hero resolves things satisfactorily, with happy endings for almost all the good guys, and the usual comeuppance for the villain.

Some quibbles. About halfway through the book, everyone starts calling Charles ‘Sir Charles’. I suppose, since the grandfather was Sir Nicholas, Charles has inherited a baronetcy as well as the estate, but it’s never mentioned explicitly. In the Regency, it was vitally important to know everyone’s rank (so you know precisely how low to bow or curtsy, and whether you can call on someone or should wait for them to condescend to call on you), and so too for readers of Regency romances. If he was a baronet, then he was Captain Sir Charles Trevannion, and that should have been made clear from the start.

As for Nell, she’s made out to be a good little soldier’s daughter, practical and not at all stupid, and then she has to go and fall for the oldest trick in the book, and put herself into the power of the wicked uncle, needing a number of people to risk their lives to rescue her. Silly girl. But this book was written fifty years ago, so silly heroines were very much a thing, then. And it allowed the hero to be manly and clever and suitably heroic, so I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much. Although I did wonder how it was, when there was only one way in and out of the old house where she was held, Charles managed to go back in and rescue a fallen comrade via a different route. Strange.

There isn’t much to nail the story to the Regency era, apart from the status of the war with Napoleon, and since the story was set deep in the Sussex countryside, nothing felt off to me. There were a lot of minor editing issues, but more careless punctuation or missing words rather than actual typos. It just felt sloppy, as if it had missed a final proofread. But nothing that bothered me overmuch. The romance was very much of the restrained type common to the era. If you’re looking for an emotional roller-coaster, best look elsewhere. In this book, the drama is all in the plot, not the characters angsting. There’s a lot of head-hopping, so we always know what the villain is thinking and plotting, which ramps up the tension somewhat artificially. One thing that is striking about books of this era is their lack of squeamishness, so death is not necessarily restricted to the villains. There were a couple of deaths in this book that raised my eyebrows, one human (before the start of the book but described in gruesome detail) and one canine (and distressingly onscreen). I know it’s necessary to establish the depths of the villains’ depravity, but I felt that could have been done more subtly. If this would distress you, be warned.

Overall, an enjoyable if old fashioned read, heavy on action and light on character depth, and pretty good considering it was Mira Stables’ first book. Four stars.

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