Tag: holloway

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.

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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.

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