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Review: Forlorn Hope by Judith Hale Everett (2022)

Posted May 6, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

One never knows what to expect from a Judith Everett book (which is very much a good thing, in my estimation). After two books set in the same immediate family, this one veers off at a tangent with a minor character from book 2, Geoffrey Mantell, a second son making a career in the army, and the strange, rather fey, girl next door, Emily Chandry. The two strike up a childhood friendship, and meet again as adults when Geoffrey is on leave. He spends his time searching in rather desultory style for a wife, but when he returns to the war, he decides that Emily is the one he wants. He returns in time from his soldiering only to find that he’s too late – she’s married and gone.

Now, this is the central premise of the book, the tipping point, and it’s revealed in the blurb, but we don’t reach it until well past the 25% point. I confess I read the many early chapters in some impatience to get to the meat of the story – and of course to the resolution, because how is there to be a happy ending out of all this? I was very, very curious to find out how the author resolves this conundrum. I had some ideas, but there were a number of ways this could go. It’s a very intriguing premise.

From this point on, the story revolves largely around Geoffrey’s efforts to put his love for Emily behind him, find himself a wife and move on with his life. All of which he fails to do in pretty spectacular fashion. Gradually he finds himself drawn into the oddity of Emily’s marriage, and the even greater oddity of her now deceased father’s machinations, since his determination to keep his presumed fortune out of the hands of his avaricious son-in-law creates problems for everybody.Geoffrey is a straight-down-the-line character, an honourable and dutiful man in a family of rather wilder types. His older brother Francis is a rake quite uninterested in settling down with a wife. His sister, Clara, is an unrepentant flirt who’s also in no hurry to marry. His mother only seems interested in getting the three of them suitably married. His father is distant, thinking his son a dull dog. Which he is, of course. I like an honourable hero as much as anyone, but I don’t like one who angsts at great length about his situation. There was, frankly, far too much time spent with Geoffrey agonising over Emily, and how he was to be the friend to her that was all he was allowed to be, while not showing his true feelings, and how he must find himself a wife to distract himself. I’d have liked him a lot better if he’d simply taken himself back into the army or found himself something else to do, preferably at the other end of the country. But of course, then there would have been no story.

Emily is (to my mind) a much more interesting character. As a child, she was unloved and neglected, spending her time in the woods, semi-feral, and building a fairy village in a clearing, complete with miniature houses, people and animals. Geoffrey is drawn to the endeavour as much as to the girl, and the two became friends in childhood while jointly working on the project. The whole concept is both magically creative but also unutterably sad, that she (or in fact both of them) were so little loved within their own families that they created a fantasy world to play out the happier lives of their pretend villagers. I liked that Emily grew up to be such a strong character, despite the neglect, taking charge of her own destiny as far as the law and circumstances allowed. She escaped her horrible father by marrying a man who wasn’t perfect, by any means, but with whom she could at least have a better life, and when the final crisis comes, she takes charge then, too. Good for her.

Even the side characters like Francis and Clara are livelier and more interesting than stolid Geoffrey. He’s such a goody-two-shoes that he spends time in London, while he’s supposedly looking for a wife, helping a random stranger with her affairs. Now, the random stranger happens to be the heroine of book 2, and so we see again some of the events of that book, but this time from Geoffrey’s perspective. This is not uninteresting to those who have read (and remember) book 2, but it adds nothing at all to this book except to illustrate that Geoffrey is a Good Person, which frankly we’ve already seen too much convincing evidence of. So that whole section of the book could easily have been dispensed with. It may well be that when the Branwell Chronicles is completed, these little cross-over vignettes will add depth and richness to the series-long story, but for me, impatient to find out just what was going on with Emily, this whole section was an irrelevance.

As the book progresses, it veers more into Gothic melodrama, with some dramatic happenings before our hero and heroine get their inevitable happy ending. I wasn’t entirely satisfied by the resolution to the problem of getting Emily out of her marriage, but it was perfectly in keeping with the Regency, and the nature of the characters themselves, so I won’t quibble over it. In fact, the author has such a sure hand in evoking the Regency that the odd Americanism that creeps in is quite startling (my favourite is the very non-British ‘grandbabies’). But really, there are vanishingly few of these, and in general the writing is quite brilliantly accurate to the period, without being heavy.

Overall, this didn’t resonate with me the way the first two books in the series did. There’s a greyness and lack of humour that probably exudes from Geoffrey (and is therefore totally in keeping), but I felt it weighed the book down somewhat. I would have liked more of a spark from Geoffrey, a little less of the remorseless agonising and sheer goodness, and a lot less of the repetitive pursuit of an eligible match when his heart wasn’t in it. I could have done without any of the overlap with book 2, and the sub-plot with Geoffrey’s mother added nothing very much to the story. Conversely, I would have liked a bit more of Emily, and that curious marriage. If this were the first Everett book I’d read, I’d probably have given it three stars and never read anything else by her (in which case I’d have been very much the loser). But it’s so beautifully written, and evokes such a believable Regency, that I’m going to give it four stars and hope for better fortune with the next book.

There are very few authors who have the courage to take an idea, a character, a situation and simply allow it to unwind at its own pace and in its own way, without ever trying to nudge it into the familiar plot-ruts. Writers like Mary Balogh, E A Dineley and Arabella Brown can do it, and Everett is of the same ilk. Such writing can be hit or miss, and this one isn’t a total success for me. Nevertheless, I respect and applaud the attempt, I have the utmost admiration for Everett’s talent and I will always prefer this kind of uncompromising originality to the majority of cookie-cutter Regencies.

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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: Two In The Bush by Judith Everett (2020) [Trad]

Posted August 25, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is apparently a debut novel, although a long time in the brewing, but it’s an astonishing performance. There are few authors who can write in a style that sounds authentically Regency, with the properly structured sentences and correct vocabulary, but here’s one who can. And best of all, that gorgeous prose also manages to create wonderfully real human beings (I can’t even bring myself to call them characters!) who live and breathe and yearn and dream within these pages.

Here’s the premise: Genevieve Breckinridge made a mistake when she married, discovering too late that her handsome husband was a feckless good-for-nothing, who gambled and caroused his way through his fortune and hers. Fortunately for her and her two children, Tom and Lenora, Mr Breckinridge managed to get himself killed before he could dispose of the last unentailed cottage on his estate. This cottage is now home to the three of them and their last loyal servants, while the manor house is rented out and son Tom strives to manage the estate back into profitability. With Lenora about to come out, Genevieve’s good friend Lady Cammersby invites them to London for the season, where Lenora’s friend Elvira Chuddsley will also be enjoying the season. Genevieve hopes that introducing the two girls to real live men will drag them away from the world of Gothic melodrama they find in novels.

But her friend has another motive for her invitation. Her brother Sir Joshua Stiles is a widower who’d love to remarry but is finding it difficult to fend off avaricious women only interested in his considerable fortune. Lady Cammersby sees an opportunity to bring happiness to two people who dearly deserve it, so she dispatches Sir Joshua into the country to deliver the letter of invitation personally. This sets off a catalogue of mishaps that put him into the worst possible mood to appreciate Genevieve’s good qualities, while her propensity to get into scrapes at every turn is just the sort of behaviour to put him off her permanently.

And so the principals find themselves in London in the thick of the season, and Genevieve finds herself falling for this rather serious but very gentlemanly man, who also has a well-hidden sense of the absurd. But there’s a hitch – Lenora also admires him, and it seems that Sir Joshua admires her too. This is the basic plot in a nutshell, and while the reader can see where things are going, it’s also easy to understand why Genevieve can’t. She’s constantly in trouble of one sort or another, for one thing, which causes Sir Joshua to tick her off in disapproving style, so she’s quite convinced he doesn’t even like her, and only tolerates her as the mother of Lenora, with whom his relationship is perfectly smooth.

There is a villain, of course, because what self-respecting Regency romance doesn’t have a villain? He’s rather a chilling one, too, all the more so because the unpleasantness is cloaked in perfect manners. I didn’t quite understand why Genevieve didn’t just give him the cut direct, but her actions made sense to her so I went along with it.

The most delightful sub-plot belongs to the two young friends, Lenora and Elvira, who bring all their experience of Gothic novels to bear on the people they meet, trying to fit them into the essential stereotypes. Their hero is not the charming, wealthy and titled man who falls deeply in love with Elvira, since he obtained his success in life with no effort, but his stammering and impoverished friend, who struggles to overcome his disadvantages. They fall out over which of them is actually the heroine in their story, and struggle to identify the evil duke, so necessary for the true Gothic novel. All of this is very funny, although they do eventually come to appreciate that real life is not a Gothic novel, and thank goodness for that!

There were a few Americanisms, like passed, theater, gotten, chaise lounge and (my personal favourite) sunup, which transported me instantly to a ranch somewhere in Texas, with Sir Joshua garbed in a stetson and chaps. Quite a turn it gave me, I can tell you. There were very few of these little glitches, and the only reason they jumped out at me quite so forcefully is that the rest of the prose is so effortlessly Regency.

I hope the author writes a great many more books, because I absolutely loved this. The first few chapters bogged down a little bit in heavy prose combined with an over-lengthy description of Sir Joshua’s travel difficulties, but once that was done and Genevieve came onstage, with her gloriously mellow and slightly scatterbrained personality, everything was wonderful. Highly recommended. Five stars.

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