Tag: holloway

Review: To Catch A Husband by Sophia Holloway (2024)

Posted May 20, 2024 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I loved everything about this book. It felt like a much older book, one written perhaps twenty or thirty years ago, and I mean that as a very sincere compliment. Lately, I’ve almost despaired of modern Regencies, where the characters behave in modern ways with very modern sensibilities and sometimes even modern language. Sophia Holloway is one of the very few who avoids all these pitfalls.

Here’s the premise: Miss Mary Lound is twenty-five, and a spinster, being happier outdoors than in drawing rooms or ballrooms. That’s never bothered her, but now she’s in a difficult position. Her father’s debts and her brother’s unwillingness to try to repay them means that her beloved home of Tapley End has been sold, and she and her scatterbrained mother are living in near destitution in the Dower House. But the new owner, Sir Rowland Kempsey, is a pleasant man of thirty or so, and if she could catch him, Mary would be free of the threat of starvation, and mistress of Tapley End. It was worth a try…

Trouble is, Mary’s never tried to attract a man before, and she has no idea how to do it. Her early attempts are not very successful, and only serve to deter her target. If only she knew that he was attracted to open, honest and straightforward Mary just as she was. Meanwhile, her neighbour and almost-like-a-brother Sir Harry Penwood is sighing over the beautiful Madeleine Banham, and finding his own courtship troubled by smooth-talking and rakish Lord Cradley. This is the heart of the book – how exactly does one catch a husband? The beautiful Madeleine would like a gentleman who sees more to her than the exquisite exterior, while Mary would just like a man who sees her, and doesn’t veer away the instant the lovely Miss Banham appears.

This is not a particularly complex book, either in romance terms or in the plot. After a series of missteps, Mary and Sir Rowland manage to reach an accommodation that allows them to drift towards love, and Lord Cradley is seen off by his own misdeeds. Not much happens, in other words, but that doesn’t matter a bit. These characters are so real and so likeable that I was rooting for them all the way. Even the side characters, like Sir Rowland’s younger brother, Madeleine’s parents and the butterfly-minded Lady Damerham, are delightful. There was a certain amount of coincidence in how things worked out towards the end, but not so much as to be implausible.

As far as the writing goes, absolutely nothing tripped me up, not a single anachronism or Americanism, although I would have liked it if the author had used the word ‘nice’ less often. Such a bland word, surely she could have found something more interesting? Otherwise, the whole book is perfection, and I highly recommend it. Five stars.


Review: The Chaperone by Sophia Holloway (2023)

Posted October 24, 2023 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 2 Comments

I will confess, I have a huge problem with the premise of this story, that a single woman of twenty-three could be an acceptable chaperone for two debutantes in the London season. In the country, yes, no problem at all. In a village or small(ish) town or somewhere like Bath, certainly. But London? Almack’s? The theatre? Balls and crowded evening entertainments? No, absolutely not. Only a married woman could fulfil the role, to my mind, and that made the whole book a bit problematic for me. But everything else was well-nigh perfect, so I can let it go.

Here’s the premise: Lady Sophronia Hadlow did her best to find a husband when she was brought out into society, but her unusual height meant that she was unsuccessful, just as her mother, Lady Chelmarsh, feared. Sophy retired from the fray thankfully to allow her younger sisters their turn, but now she’s called upon to return to London. Her mother is bringing out both Sophy’s younger sister Harriet and a cousin, Susan Tyneham, but she may be called away to the confinement of another daughter, Frances. If so, she’ll expect Sophy to take over as chaperone.

So, this is shaping up to be your run-of-the-mill ‘season’ book, with the usual backdrop of modistes, Hyde Park, Almack’s, eligible gentlemen and fortune hunters, etc, etc, and so it is, in some ways, but it has a lot more depth than the usual. The way Sophy is drawn in by Lord Rothley is perfectly believable, and the reader feels the same giddiness as Sophy – is she actually flirting? Is he flirting with her? Sophy has never had an admirer before, so she’s a bit out of her depth, yet never silly with it. She’s that perfect heroine, sensible, quick-witted, easy in society, whether male or female, and really, it’s hard to see why she wasn’t snapped up years ago. And no, her unusual height isn’t a valid excuse – plenty of men are tall, too, and some of them are capable of admiring a woman for more than just looks or dowry or breeding.

Her sister Harriet is a fairly typical debutante, rather timid and trying not to put a foot wrong, but the cousin, Susan, is a fascinating character. Although she’s an innocent in many ways, just like Harriet, she enjoys a power over men that has them almost instantly at her feet. And when I say she enjoys it, she really does, even though she doesn’t really understand the dangerous game she plays. She just can’t stop playing, though. She drops a package for a passing gentleman to pick up. She even flirts with the male servants. She pretends to let her horse run wild, so that she can be ‘rescued’ by some passing cavalrymen. And when a man admires the gentle Harriet, she sets out to steal him. Needless to say, this leads to all sorts of problems for Susan herself, and also for Sophy and family. And when Lady Chelmarsh is forced to decamp to her married daughter in a hurry, it’s left to Sophy to steer Harriet and Susan towards suitable matches and try to prevent Susan from destroying their chances entirely.

And into this oddly nerve-wracking scenario come the suitors. Lord Bollington, an early admirer of Susan’s, is put off when she tries to increase his ardour by making him jealous. Sir Esmond Fawley is a pleasant and respectable man who seems oddly drawn to the uncontrollable Susan. There’s Lord Tyneham, Susan’s boorish and stuffy brother, who has decided he’s going to marry Sophy, whether she likes it or not. And then there’s Lord Rothley, who seems to have something of a reputation and is definitely rakishly attractive, but when he starts dancing attendance on the three young women, Lady Chelmarsh warns Sophy against him in no uncertain terms. And yet… she finds him almost irresistible, and she feels instinctively that she can trust him.

The plot unfolds in ways that are anything but predictable. If Sophy and Harriet and several of the men are rather too ‘nice’ and would perhaps be bland in other contexts, the wildcard Susan always stirs things up in interesting and unexpected ways. And the writing is superb, in every way, with a perfect Regency tone, no typos and (apart from the 23-year-old unmarried chaperone) no major historical errors. More than that, there’s a complexity to the characters that’s rarely seen in this genre. So despite the chaperonage, I can’t give this less than five stars, and recommend it to anyone looking for a literate and beautifully realised portrait of the Regency.



Review: Isabelle by Sophia Holloway (2022)

Posted August 11, 2023 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is such a beautifully written book that was completely wonderful for the first 75%, then became a little melodramatic, but in a good way, until the hero fell at the final hurdle. This is going to be spoilerish, so don’t read it if you don’t want to know.

Here’s the premise: Isabelle Wareham is nineteen, and while her much older sister had a season in London and made a good match, she stayed at home nursing her father through his final illnesses. Now he’s died, and Isabelle is put in the guardianship of her brother-in-law, Lord Dunsfold. Her cousin Sir Charles Wareham, the head of the family, is given joint charge of the estate which Isabelle is to inherit, but it is Cornelia’s husband who has charge of her person. Isabelle doesn’t much like him, but she will be of age in not much more than a year, so it is only a temporary arrangement and he seems minded to leave her at peace in her home during her period of mourning.

But then fate intervenes. A friend of Sir Charles, Lord Idsworth, staying with him for a shooting party, is accidentally shot, and carried to Isabelle’s home. She nurses him back to health with the inevitable result, but however predictable this might be, the gentle and charming way they fall in love is utterly beautiful. It reminded me a little of Heyer’s Venetia, where it is obvious that the two principals are like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that fit together perfectly.

However, Idsworth is not deemed a suitable match by Isabelle’s avaricious sister and brother-in-law, so she is whisked off to Bath to be kept in relative seclusion until she agrees to marry the suitor of their choice, Mr Semington, whose principal attraction is that he will pay the Dunsfolds handsomely for the privilege of relieving them of the care of Isabelle. She is blissfully certain that she has only to wait until she comes of age and she can marry the man of her heart, but it gradually dawns on her that her letters are being intercepted and she has no way to communicate with the outside world.

Needless to say, our hero arrives on the scene to save the day despite the machinations of the not very appealing Mr Semington and the very unappealing sister and her husband. The heroine herself is also able to take steps to rescue herself from her predicament. Things do get quite complex for a while, but eventually we come to the point where I fell out rather with the hero. This is rather spoilerish, so if you don’t want to know anything about it, skip forward to the last paragraph.

To my mind, a hero is one who will do pretty much anything to rescue the heroine from whatever dire circumstances the villains inflict on her, and I have no problem with Lord Idsworth in that regard. His pursuit of the heroine and subsequent rescue are suitably heroic. But what he does after that falls very much short of heroic behaviour. No matter what the villain has done, his retribution should come either from the law or should be proportionate and rational. It’s not for the hero to mete out summary justice, yet that is pretty much what Idsworth was prepared to do. Only the words of the heroine drew him back from actually killing the villain, and to me that is unacceptable behaviour. I get that he was in an absolute rage about it, but it really wasn’t a sensible reaction. Even when he drew back from actually killing the guy, he did something pretty nasty to him, as well. If he’d merely humiliated him, that would have been enough (and very funny, as it happens). But there was nothing remotely funny about his violence.

So although this was a beautifully written book in almost every way, that one moment reduces the rating to four stars for me. But I still recommend the read, and I fully intend to read everything that Sophia Holloway writes going forward.


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.


Review: Kingscastle by Sophia Holloway (2021)

Posted April 8, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I’ve read one previous book by this author, The Devil You Know, which I loved apart from one major flaw late on, but the writing was absolutely superb. So it is here, too, and although I had some niggles, they didn’t stop me thoroughly enjoying the book, to the extent that I read it in one sitting.

Here’s the premise: Captain William Hawksmoor is obliged to leave his beloved Royal Navy when both his cousin (of the same name) and his uncle die, leaving him the new Marquis of Athelney. The cousin who had been expected to inherit having been a useless good-for-nothing, the will specified certain conditions, namely, that he should marry and produce an heir within two years. The new Marquis has the same name, so the provisions apply equally to him, and he’s not unwilling. The title, the estate and his obligations he sees as just his duty, and he’s very good at doing his duty. But where will he find a bride? However, when he arrives at his new home, Kingscastle, he meets his aunt, Lady Willoughby Hawksmoor, who is determined that he should marry his cousin, timid and hectored Charlotte, but he finds the much mistreated companion, Eleanor Burgess far more to his liking.

It has to be said that Lady Willoughby Hawksmoor is a real piece of work – think Lady Catherine de Burgh on steroids. She’s so over the top as to be a caricature, but since she is almost the only obstacle to the plain sailing of the romance, I suppose we must give her some latitude. And, to be honest, in an era when women of rank were often both badly educated and accorded great deference, it was inevitable that some would conceive a completely misguided sense of their own importance in the world, and look down on anyone they deemed inferior, their position allowing them to be as rude as they like and get away with it. Neither the daughter, Charlotte, nor the companion, Eleanor, is in any position to gainsay her ladyship in the slightest.

Lord Athelney is a straightforward and pragmatic soul, and so it isn’t very long before he’s proposing to Eleanor, not any romantic sense, but as a way for him to fulfil the terms of the will and for her to escape her difficult circumstances. But he makes it clear that he likes and admires her, and that he thinks they can make a good marriage out of it that will content them both. And she turns him down. Of course she does. Why would she do that? Because she wants him to love her, naturally. It’s not enough for him to like her, she’s holding out for something more. At this point, I want to sit her down and berate her for her utter stupidity. She has nothing at all in her life except a miserable existence as a punching ball for Lady Willoughby, which is likely to see her dismissed without a reference very soon. And then she will have no future at all except that of increasing poverty and a desperate old age. Turning down a marquis is utter madness.

I had the same issue with Georgette Heyer’s Sprig Muslin, where Lady Hester has been in love with the hero for years, and rejects his pragmatic proposal for the same reason – because she’s holding out for love. At least in that case, although she was very much unappreciated by her family, she didn’t have the dire spectre of poverty looming over her. Eleanor has no such excuse.

However, thank heavens for a hero who knows what he wants and is prepared to wait for the heroine to decide what she wants, too. Of course, there are obstacles a-plenty, mainly the ever odious Lady Willoughby, but also a major misunderstanding between hero and heroine. The author has to jump through hoops a little to make this work, but she succeeds pretty well. I’m not at all a fan of the Great Misunderstanding but at least this one felt credible. There are also some melodramatic moments where the hero gets to shine and be… well, heroic. Which is fine. I’m all for heroic heroes, and Lord Athelney is a fine example of the species.

Despite the niggle about Eleanor’s stupid refusal of the first offer, I’m happy to let it go, partly because the book would be a novella if she did the sensible thing, but mainly because there’s so much else to love about this book. The writing is awesome, authentically Austen-esque without ever descending into the impenetrable, there’s some splendid banter between the protagonists, there’s a charming little side romance as a bonus, and the book is funny. I can forgive a book almost any sin if it makes me laugh, and this one did. The scene where Lord Athelney disposes of the two less-than-respectable ladies is utterly brilliant, and I particularly enjoyed the little nautical phrases that kept cropping up with the two naval men. Describing the approach to a proposal as a ‘coming alongside manoeuvre’ is delicious. I’ve only encountered one other book which got this right, although less subtly than Holloway (None So Blind by Sarah Waldock, where one character described a ball as ‘fleet manoeuvres under full sail’).

Altogether, I found this to be a fine read, and I can’t give it less than five stars. Highly recommended for anyone yearning for the authentic Regency experience.


Review: The Devil You Know by Sophia Holloway (2017)

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

Such a frustrating book – beautifully written in every way, and near perfect up to roughly the 75% mark, and then things went a bit pear-shaped. It didn’t ruin the book for me, and I’ll certainly look out for more by this author, but it was disappointing.

Here’s the premise: Kitty Elford’s half-brother is about to marry, and his bride wants Kitty out of the family home at once if not sooner. Kitty is given an ultimatum – leave penniless to make her own way in the world, or marry the notorious rake the Earl of Ledbury. Kitty’s not unwilling – the earl is handsome, after all, and she sighed over him as a debutante, but she knows his reputation all too well having seen him about his seductive business one evening. But it’s better than being penniless, and the earl is happy to have Kitty’s generous dowry to fund his race horses (the sister-in-law really, really wants her out of the way), so married they are.

The wedding night is a disaster, but we see nothing of it because this is a traditional Regency. Despite the fact that a large part of the book is about sex, whether the hero’s pre-marital shenanigans, the wedding night fiasco or the long wait for hero and heroine to reach an accommodation in that direction, there’s nothing graphic about it at all. There’s no reason why this should feel odd, and I’ve written marriage of convenience stories myself that keep all the sex offstage, but the abrupt transition felt uncomfortable. One minute, the hero is fortifying himself to do his duty by his bride with brandy, and the next she’s waking alone in bed, and for a moment I wondered if perhaps he hadn’t come to her room at all. I don’t know how else it could have been done but somehow it all seemed understated. The jump deserved something more – a new chapter, perhaps?

The interesting question is why a rake, who presumably knows everything there is to know about pleasuring women, should make such a hash of things with his own wife, but perhaps the proffered explanation – that’s he’s never bedded a virgin before – will suffice. Anyway, he decides that he doesn’t like being married, and would rather pretend it’s never happened, especially as his bride sets to with workmen and wallpaper samples to set right the neglected house, and upend his whole existence. So he invites a group of his friends to stay to distract himself with jocular masculine company, which works about as well as you would expect.

Fortunately, one of the friends is Lord Inglesham, a widower and by far the more promising character to play the role of hero. He’s quite wasted as a sidekick, frankly. He offers Lord Ledbury some sound advice, which would have been blindingly obvious to any half-sensible man, and some of it does sink in, for Ledbury and Kitty do start to get onto better terms. He discovers that she’s an accomplished rider, for one thing, which is the one thing guaranteed to soften him towards her, and she’s starting to soften towards him, too.

Now, you’d expect that this would result in a return to the heir-producing efforts so unceremoniously abandoned after that disastrous, but unseen, wedding night, but no. One thing after another conspires to prevent it, and the author has to stretch credulity to snapping point to keep them apart. I confess to getting impatient with the artificiality of it all, and wondering why on earth they didn’t just sit down and discuss it openly, like sensible adults. But no, they have to wait and wait and wait some more, because reasons.

At this point, I was very much comparing the book with Mary Balogh’s The Obedient Bride, a book which takes the same basic premise of a marriage of convenience to a man of casual morals, and follows it with uncompromising honesty. Balogh doesn’t shy away from the sex, but she also creates a very believable transformation in both main characters. Holloway, by contrast, has to resort to some fairly tired old tropes to create the drama at the end which will finally bring the principals together.

And this is where the book veered off the rails for me. It wasn’t the melodrama that sank the final section of the book, but the hero’s response to it. He starts the book as a deeply selfish individual who’s gradually come to see his wife as not merely the funder of his racehorses, or a housewifely nuisance, but someone he values and appreciates in her own right. He even begins to realise that he loves her. But when the crisis comes, he simply runs away – there’s no other way to describe it. And I wanted to slap him upside the head, and tell him not to be so stupid, to go to Kitty and TALK to her, for heaven’s sake. You know, like a grown up. But no, he has to be rescued by his long-suffering friend, the heroic Lord Inglesham, once more. I can’t tell you how deeply disappointing I found this, but on the other side of the coin, if I’d cared less about Ledbury, I’d have been less disappointed. I suppose it’s a testament to the author’s skill that I so badly wanted him to come good at the end.

There’s some more fairly over-the-top melodrama before matters are resolved, but I can’t honestly say I was convinced by Ledbury’s transformation from perpetual rake to faithful husband. Reforming a rake believably is arguably the most difficult challenge a Regency author can undertake, and to be fair, few are truly convincing. The reader wants to believe, though, and maybe that’s enough.

I don’t want this to sound too negative, because for the first three quarters of the book I was breathless with admiration. The language is perfectly of the Regency, I didn’t detect a single anachronism or infelicitous phrase, the main characters have believable depth, and the dialogue is electrifying. The back and forth between Kitty and Ledbury, and particularly Ledbury’s volatile moods are brilliantly realised. I loved every moment of it. It was only that saggy ending that spoilt things for me and kept it to four stars, but I thoroughly recommend it all the same.