Tag: keyes

Review: Battling The Bluestocking by Martha Keyes (2023)

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

I was a bit nervous about reading this because I’ve loved the previous books in the series, and yet this one has one feature that put me off — it’s built around a discussion of Jane Austen’s books. I can’t tell you how tired I am of authors who wheel out Austen’s books in Regencies in a sly (and frankly lazy) nudge to modern readers. However, I should have known that Martha Keyes is cleverer than that, because here Austen’s books are held up as exemplars of the despised novel, and contrasted with the more worthwhile intellectual endeavour of ancient Greek and other classic works. And even if both hero and heroine do come to see the value in Austen, there’s enough debate on other topics here that the book’s theme of reason versus emotion is beautifully illustrated. The hero and heroine play intellectual pingpong over classical works, but when they come to debate the Austen classics, they find themselves drawn into discussing their own feelings in a way that leaves them wide open to falling in love.

Here’s the premise: Phineas Donovan is the intellectual of the family, always with his nose in a book. He’s a bit nervous about taking up a position as tutor to an earl’s son, but how hard can it be? He soon finds he has to be a bit creative about lessons for young George (who sounds a bit dyslexic, perhaps?), but the biggest difficulty is the overt hostility of George’s older sister, Lady Sarah Danneville. But she’s a bluestocking, so she likes books just as much as Phineas does, and the two are soon sparring over works of ancient Greek, and then challenging each other to read samples of the despised romantic novel.

The plot unrolls fairly predictably from here on, as the two gradually learn to appreciate each other’s minds and bodies in equal measure. But Lady Sarah is the daughter of an earl and Phineas is the younger son of an admiral, with neither an independent fortune or a proper career. He’s a tutor with a curacy at the local church, so any match between them is unthinkable – isn’t it?

And here’s where Sarah does the stupid heroine thing, in deciding that she can’t possibly have Phineas so she’ll marry the exact opposite – an older man who already has an heir, so she’ll still have the freedom to be herself and not be tied to the domestic sphere. And her parents have found the very man, so how can she refuse? Oh dear.

Needless to say, things get sorted out in the end, although frankly the ending was a bit soggy, when everyone magically falls into line, and there’s one situation that I strongly disliked. I know it’s meant to be cute and all, but I positively hate it when deceit, even when it’s kindly meant, is practised on one of the main characters. Just be honest and reveal the good news straight away, instead of allowing that character to wallow in misery a moment longer than necessary. And the epilogue was just too sweet for my tastebuds. I know lots of readers love schmaltzy epilogues, but I’m not one of them.

Some other issues that got between me and wholehearted enjoyment of this particular book. I’m really not a fan of the duel viewpoint first person narration. When every paragraph is ‘I did this and that…’, it becomes hard to know which I is being spoken of, and yes, I know every chapter is headed with the appropriate character name, and it’s entirely my own fault for not reading the headings but I don’t, and so I regularly have to do a double-take to work out whose head we’re in. Mea culpa.

The other big issue with this book is the sheer volume of Americanisms peppering it. I’ve never noticed this in Martha’s books before, apart from the odd one or two, but here they’re everywhere, including pinkies, off of, write someone, go do something and absent used as a preposition. And shall absolutely everywhere. Does it matter? Of course not, and 99% of readers won’t even notice, but I do, and it makes it difficult to immerse myself fully in the story. It’s particularly disappointing when the author’s evocation of the Regency era is so magnificent in every other respect.

But in every other way, this book is well up to the author’s usual standards. Both Phineas and Sarah are well-drawn and fully-rounded characters, their relationship develops slowly and believably, and it’s easy to root for them. The dialogue is so satisfyingly sparky between them, and the author manages something that so few others achieve – her intellectual characters are genuinely knowledgeable and quick-witted. So many authors tell us their characters are clever, but very few manage to show it as well as is done here.

Martha Keyes is a brilliant writer and I highly recommend all her books, but for me those Americanisms and the slightly soggy ending keep it to four stars this time.


Review: A Confirmed Rake by Martha Keyes (2022)

Posted October 20, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I’m loving this new series of Martha Keyes’. I recommend starting with the free (at the time of writing) prequel, Unrequited, and paying attention to the whole family – they really are an interesting lot. This one focuses on the sister and brother of the previous hero and heroine, one an unreformed rake and the other a girl who’s been buried in the country for years finally making a belated appearance in society. It’s a fascinating pairing.

Here’s the premise: Valentine Donovan is that staple of Regency romances, an out-and-out rake, a gambler, womaniser and thoroughly unreliable sort. He’s butted heads with his Admiral father for years, dropping out of the naval career that was planned for him, and getting himself into all sorts of trouble ever since. Finding himself on his father’s wrong side once more, he escapes to the Brighton home of his newly married sister, Diana. Creeping into the house through the kitchen window after a drunken night out, he encounters a girl enjoying a midnight feast, a girl like no one else he’s ever met before.

Rebecca Russell’s brother has finally married, and at last she’s able to leave the seclusion of her reclusive grandfather’s home, where she mingled only with other elderly gentlemen, and make an appearance in Brighton society. She’s never had a chance to develop the finely-tuned social skills she’ll need in high society, and she has no idea how to behave. Her innocence gets her into all sorts of trouble, but she finds Valentine unexpectedly helpful. He knows he’s bad for her, though, so he does his best to avoid her. But when his father gives him an ultimatum – at least try to behave with restraint and start courting a respectable young woman — Diana coaxes him to squire Rebecca around. It will be good for her, she argues, to learn about society while protected by a gentleman, and it will be good for him to demonstrate his good intentions to his father.

Well, we can see where this is going, can’t we? And two more mismatched people would be hard to find. But if Valentine is a conventional Regency character, Rebecca is anything but. She has no idea about anything, and approaches everything with an infectious joie-de-vivre that’s an absolute delight. Her conversations with Valentine, where she asks in all innocence some very probing questions, are glorious. She learns a lot, and charmingly mangles all the terminology (she talks about ‘foxing’ and ‘raking’, instead of getting foxed or being a rake), making detailed and often wildly inappropriate lists of all sorts of things. And in explaining society ways in uncompromising detail, Valentine is forced to face up to his own misbehaviour. In gently steering Rebecca through the obstacle course of society life, he learns to take responsibility for himself, as well. And needless to say, the two are slowly falling in love.

But the course of true love can’t possibly be smooth (this is a Regency romance, after all), so both Valentine’s father and Rebecca’s brother have to be appeased, and Valentine’s precarious financial situation has to become a lot worse before all is resolved. I don’t recall any Americanisms or anything else to trip me up, although the monetary amounts stated seemed a bit on the low side to me. At one point, eight hundred pounds was quoted as allowing the purchase of a small estate, which seems a bit unlikely. A small house, maybe. But that’s not a big deal.

The only real problem I had was that the story was told from two points of view, but both were written in first person (‘I went…’ rather than ‘Valentine went…’). Even though the chapters were labelled with the character name, I still sometimes got confused with the switches, and ended up at one point wondering why Valentine was wearing a gauzy overdress. Silly me. That’s the author’s stylistic choice, of course, which I perfectly respect, and I understand why it was done, but it can be problematic. I suppose I should read more slowly!

Another lovely read in this series, which gave us some more wonderful characters, a deeper understanding of the family, and especially the Admiral, and a beautifully written evocation of the Regency. Five stars (again). And now on to book-loving brother Phineas…


Review: The Art of Victory by Martha Keyes (2022)

Posted September 14, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 1 Comment

I came to this book straight after the wonderful prequel to the series, Unrequited, which I loved. This doesn’t quite set me on fire the same way, but it has an absolutely wonderful hero, and some glorious battles of wits between the two main characters, as well as some entertaining side characters, and of course Keyes’ trademark lovely writing.

Here’s the premise: Diana Donovan is the daughter of an Admiral, practically weaned on battle strategy, especially the book The Art of War by Chines General Sun Tzu. The Donovan children all know it off by heart. Diana’s a battler by nature, so when her best friend Lucy falls in love with the seemingly inoffensive Mr Pike, yet her guardian refuses to countenance the match, Diana decides to go to war on behalf of timid Lucy. She’ll tackle the curmudgeonly Mr Marmaduke Russell head on, and by her superior battle skills, persuade him to see the benefits of the match.

But Mr Russell turns out to be unexpectedly young and attractive, not in the least curmudgeonly, and annoyingly cool under fire. He seems quite unbothered by her efforts, and surprisingly well able to return fire on his own account. In fact, he seems to positively enjoy their little spats – is he actually flirting with her? This makes her even more determined to win the war, because what could be more intensely annoying to a girl on a mission than a man whose only reaction is amusement? Well, one who has an answer to her every devious ploy, that’s what, and the dialogues between the two are gloriously funny, and made me laugh out loud.

It’s clear that Mr Russell is falling in love with Diana, and he’s pretty direct about it too. Diana, of course, is falling for him, too, but she’s so focused on her mission and so determined to hate her opponent that she barely notices the subtle way her heart is gradually captured. I’m going to be honest, and say that Diana is the weak point in the novel for me. I actually disliked her quite intensely, because it never occurs to her that Mr Russell might be better placed than she is to know whether Mr Pike would make a suitable husband or not, and some of her actions are pretty foolish. She’s completely oblivious to everything but winning the war, and frankly, her constant whining over it grew tedious. Happily, Diana is balanced by the truly wonderful character of Mr Russell, who is as subtle as she is obvious, and twice as clever, and I wasn’t at all sure what he saw in her. There’s also a cast of lovely side characters, like Mrs Westwood, with her inexhaustable supply of trite epithets, the young lovers, Lucy and Mr Pike, and Diana’s two brothers, book-reading Phineas and wild-boy Valentine.

I had a few minor quibbles. Firstly, Americanisms. Nothing outrageous, but there were many, many uses of ‘shall’ that struck me as wrong. And then I wondered about the inheritance of five thousand pounds that’s made out to be a big deal, and a target for fortune hunters. Five thousand really isn’t a large amount. It’s what Mrs Bennet had in P&P, after all; enough to attract a respectable husband who already has a good income, but not enough to bail out an estate that’s in deep trouble. After all, five thousand invested would only produce an income of (say) two hundred and fifty a year, which is barely above subsistence level for the gentry.

The ending is a little too contrived for my taste, but the romantic elements play out just fine, and despite all my little quibbles and even the (mostly) unlikeable Diana, I enjoyed it enormously. The glorious Mr Russell and the author’s brilliant writing earns the book five stars from me.


Review: Unrequited by Martha Keyes (2022)

Posted September 14, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I’d almost forgotten just how good Martha Keyes is. I’ve been a fan of hers since first stumbling across Wyndcross three years ago, and read all her early work avidly. She took an authorly excursion to Scotland, which didn’t interest me, but now she’s back in the English Regency and she’s only improved in the interim. This is the prequel to her new series, and it’s a wonderful, nuanced, layered work. I loved it.

Here’s the premise: Elena MacKinnon is an orphan, whose four brothers are all serving in the army. Elena can’t stay alone at their Scottish estate, so she’s been living with her godfather’s family for seven years, being educated in the ways of English ladylike behaviour. Her godfather, Admiral Donovan, has three sons, Theo, Phineas and Valentine. Theo has been at sea, following in his father’s footsteps, but it’s not clear to me quite what the other two have been doing. All we know is that Phineas is bookish, and Valentine is the cynical, wayward one. There is also a daughter, Diana, and since the death of Mrs Donovan, the girls have been largely left to their own devices. But now, with the end of the war, Admiral Donovan and Theo are coming home. Although Theo’s just been promoted to Captain, his future is uncertain, as there’s a lack of naval vessels to command.

That’s a fairly brief summary, for this is a family with a LOT of history. Some of it we read about here, like the lingering illness and death of Mrs Donovan, and some is obviously being saved for future books in the series (Phineas and Valentine, for instance). But the key piece of history is between Elena and Theo, and the letter she tucked in his luggage as he left for sea several years ago, when he was nineteen and she an impassioned and lovesick fourteen. He broke her heart by never writing back. Now he’s home again, they’ve both changed but is there the possibility of a grown-up love for them? Or should she marry Mr Bailey, the dull but worthy man Admiral Donovan is steering her towards?

The answer is obvious, of course, but how they reach their happy ever after is an absolute delight.
Keyes has the power to weave a multitude of strong story threads into beautiful cloth. Every one of these characters springs to life on the pages as a fully rounded person, with history and temperament and an agenda of their own, and their interactions feel like spontaneous reactions rather than plot devices. There are no villains here, just good people doing the best they can according to their lights, and making mistakes along the way, mistakes that ripple through the family.

There’s so much depth here. For example, Elena is Scottish, and her normal accent is a strong brogue, but she’s learnt to moderate her voice into a more ladylike English accent. But is she throwing away her heritage with the accent? Can she be true to herself with a false voice? If she is to consider marrying Mr Bailey, she has to talk like a lady but can she maintain that indefinitely? Or should he accept her as she really is? The attitude of the English characters to Scotland both intrigued and amused me, particularly the Baileys, since they see the Scots as barbaric heathens (unless they present themselves in a flawlessly English way, of course). But Elena has the best line: “The English took a strange view of [Scotland]— simultaneously romanticizing it and looking down upon it— but I felt uncomfortable with both approaches. For me, it was simply home and all that such a word encapsulated.” And that’s just one of many threads running through the book.

But what of the romance? There isn’t the joy of watching the two fall in love, for Elena did that long ago. For her, there’s the agony of seeing Theo again, not knowing whether they can even rekindle the close friendship of their childhood years, and she doesn’t dare to hope beyond that. For him… well, we don’t know what he feels, because the story is all written from Elena’s point of view, so the reader has to glean hints of his state of mind from his words and actions, and try to interpret the subtlest gesture, just as she does. I normally prefer to see both points of view, but here it works perfectly.

Theo’s feelings are gradually revealed, but of course there’s more to a Regency romance than just feelings. What about Theo’s career in the navy? And perhaps more important, what about his father’s wishes for him and the obligations of family duty? This is why I say this book is nuanced, because all of this comes into play, and much more, before the situation is resolved. And along the way there are some memorable interactions between the two, particularly those walks on the beach.

The writing is excellent on every level, and very little tripped me up. Admiral John Bailey is a baronet, so he should be Admiral Sir John Bailey, surely? And I wondered about the use of ‘trek’, which sounds too modern to me, but the Oxford English Dictionary puts it at 1824, which is close enough. One or two Americanisms, but trivial stuff.

This is a book about being true to yourself, and not having your life dictated by other people’s expectations of you, and it’s also about family and home and freedom and a lot more besides. It’s a short book but with tons of depth, and it was free when I got it. A great read – highly recommended. Five stars.


Review: The Road Through Rushbury by Martha Keyes (2020) [Trad]

Posted July 24, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

A new Martha Keyes book is always a thrill, and this one was another excellent read, a gentle, straightforward romance set away from the usual Regency settings of London, Bath and great country houses in a very small village in Yorkshire. It has one of the best opening lines I’ve come across in the genre: ‘Ten thousand. That was the number of pins Georgiana Paige estimated she’d had stuck in her hair since her coming out eight years ago.’ And there in a nutshell is the premise for the story. After eight seasons in the marriage mart of London, Georgiana is firmly on the shelf. When an opportunity arises, she accepts her spinsterhood, abandons the London season to her younger sister and decamps to become a companion to her aunt in Yorkshire.

The setting is very different from anything she’s experienced before, and initially she encounters suspicion and outright hostility from the villagers, but she rises to the challenge and, having criticised the state of the roads in the neighbourhood, volunteers to become the local Surveyor of Roads, and see about putting them right. Her guide in this endeavour is the local vicar, Samuel Derrick, who is one of the most overtly hostile of the villagers, having developed a great dislike of selfish gentry after a bad experience, but he is gradually won over by her determination and complete lack of the arrogance he’d expected.

The romance between them is (in my view) the best kind, where they slowly get to know each other and learn to appreciate the other’s good qualities, and this element of the book is stellar. The road-building and the interactions with the mostly wholesome and apple-cheeked villagers, particularly the hard-pressed weaver family, the Reeds, I found slow going.

I also wondered a little about the seeming glamorisation of hand-crafting, when the Reeds didn’t seem to be doing too well on it, and the demonising of the industrialisation of the industry, a process which was certainly disadvantageous to many workers, but also reduced the price of cottons and woollen fabrics, and benefited many. I would have liked to see a little more discussion of the two sides of the story (and there are always two sides; industrialisation wasn’t just about profit). But instead Georgiana instantly accepts that change is a bad thing, and the local land-owners are turned into villains for wanting to develop the village a bit.

After the halfway point, things speed up considerably, and after taking several days over the early chapters, the latter ones kept me up until the small hours, just to see how the ingenious Georgiana would resolve the difficulty and get her man, because it all seemed to be impossible for a while. The ending is a bit ‘with one bound they were free’, but it didn’t matter by that point, and the romantic denouement was delightful, with a nice twist to it.

If I have a complaint at all, it’s that the two main characters were a bit too perfect. Samuel had his prejudices, but otherwise he seemed to spend his life helping the poor and preaching well-received sermons, while Georgiana seemed to have no visible flaws at all, winning over all the villagers (with the possible exception of Lady Whatsit at the big house!). She was just a thoroughly nice person, and I would have liked to see a bit more fire from her. It would have been nice to see more of the aunt, too, who seemed to be merely a convenient plot device to draw Georgiana to Rushbury and then be more or less ignored. I do think she could have done more to intervene when the crisis hit and Georgiana was obviously very unhappy.

As always with Martha Keyes, this is a beautifully written tale. My favourite line was this, of clouds: ‘inching along at the leisurely pace of clouds that had nowhere to go.’ The research was excellent (I never knew there was such a post as Surveyor of Roads), and the romance is lovely. Not the most dramatic read ever, but very enjoyable nevertheless (it reminds me a bit of Lark Rise to Candleford, where nothing much happens very slowly, but in the most pleasant way). Four stars.


Review: Hazelhurst by Martha Keyes [Trad]

Posted April 10, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I read this straight after book 3 of the series, Cecilia, and here we have another book with a fascinating premise: three months after marrying for love, Lady Anne Vincent discovers that her supposed husband was a bigamist. She isn’t married at all, and her future options are limited. She daren’t risk her heart in another love match, so when her father proposes a marriage of convenience for her, she accepts without demur. Tobias Cosgrove (brother of Cecilia and her sisters) knows he must marry, as the son and heir, but a marriage of convenience may be just the ticket, allowing him to continue his free-wheeling ways without interference.

Naturally, what starts out as a marriage of cool self-sufficiency, both leading their own independent lives and hardly meeting except by accident, gradually becomes something more. I liked the way they inched oh-so-gradually towards a deeper relationship, as she begins to feel the loneliness of her life, and he begins to appreciate the value of a friend at home. Along the way, there are outbreaks of slightly over-the-top high spirits, which serve to break down the reserve between them, and times when they talked as adults. I particularly enjoyed the scene where they sat together in the bedroom – very powerful and memorable. It helps that they’re both sensible, likable characters that the reader can totally root for.

But of course it can’t all be plain sailing, as Anne’s past returns to haunt her and the fragile rapport between Anne and Tobias is in danger of splintering. I wasn’t entirely convinced by these later episodes, with all the melodramas and misunderstandings, but by that time I was too invested to worry about it, and the ending was just perfect.

A lovely traditional Regency with two very sympathetic characters, and the author’s assured grasp of the Regency era. Highly recommended. Five stars.


Review: Cecilia by Martha Keyes [Trad]

Posted April 10, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This was always going to be that tricky third book of the series, the one where the heroine had been thoroughly unlikable throughout the first two. Is it possible to redeem her? This is one of an author’s greatest challenges, but Keyes is an accomplished storyteller and weaves Cecelia’s redemption effortlessly. She also has a great talent for an unusual premise. Our hero, Jacques Levesque, assumed the role of a French nobleman as a young boy after chance gave him and his father the opportunity. Now grown up, he struggles to live with the deception, as society accepts him without question. This is an intriguing starting point, and although the reader can guess that Jacques will be unmasked at some point, the how and why and what happens then are all to be revealed.

Cecilia is a difficult character to root for. She has been so thoroughly self-centred and unpleasant in the previous books, one almost wants to see her get her comeuppance. But because we are (at last) seeing Cecilia’s selfish behaviour from within her own head, we can begin to understand the pressure she is under to please her parents and make a stunning marriage. She is, after all, the beauty of the family, who draws men to her without even trying, so she’s been able to play games with them, imagining that she has only to smile to have them running back. But the loss of a suitor she believed constant in the previous book has dented her confidence, and when she meets Jacques and he tells her she is affected and superficial, she starts to rethink her attitudes. As for Jacques, he thinks her nothing but a shallow socialite until he overhears her in a completely different mood, and realises there is a completely different girl beneath the artificial exterior. Both of them begin to see behind the masks they’ve chosen to hide behind in society.

But it isn’t entirely Jacques who is the catalyst for Cecilia to change. Here the author takes a huge risk by introducing a real Regency character, Lady Caroline Lamb, who takes Cecilia under her wing and encourages her to break out of her docile little life. I must admit that my heart sank when she first appeared, because usually these real-world characters are introduced as cameos, scoring points for the author: hey, look at all the research I’ve done! Not so here. Lady Caroline is not only an integral part of the plot, she also feels totally believable, outrageous actions and all. Yes, she seems bonkers, but then she really was!

There was only one point where I felt a plot contrivance was stretched a bit thin, in that the one person who is in a position to reveal Jacques’ deception as a boy is coincidentally someone who is closely connected with him as an adult. I won’t say more than that to avoid spoilers, but it did seem a bit implausible. On the other hand, the twist that brought about the happy ending might seem a bit deus ex machina, but the groundwork was laid right through the book. Besides, at that point, I was so invested in our hero and heroine that I’d have accepted a far less likely scenario.

I was nervous about starting this book because I didn’t expect to like Cecilia very much, but I quickly got swept up in it, and deeply invested in and terrified for both hero and heroine: Jacques because he would inevitably be unmasked at some stage, and Cecilia because she would have to discover that the man she loved was an imposter. As always with Martha Keyes, the writing and historical accuracy are impeccable. Highly recommended. Five stars.


Review: Goodwill for the Gentleman by Martha Keyes [Trad]

Posted February 16, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

A lovely second-chance romance by one of my new favourite authors. I’ve never quite understood the appeal of Christmas romances, especially in the Regency which really didn’t make a big deal of the holiday season (it became huge in the Victorian era) but the author makes a convincing case for it here, since the heroine has German ancestry and therefore has the whole Christmas tree tradition. With or without the Christmas tree (with naked candles! Yikes! Mr Health and Mr Safety would NOT approve!), the whole snowed-up setting works perfectly for this particular story.

The premise is that eldest son and heir Hugh Warrilow was expected to marry the neighbours’ eldest daughter, Lucy Caldwell, but he disgraced himself by jilting her and running off to join the army. Now, three years later, he’s returned home, determined to set matters right and try to forget the reason for the jilting – that he was in love with Lucy’s sister Emma. For her part, Emma will never forgive Hugh for what he did, and now they’re snowed up together at his home…

There’s nothing unexpected about this story which unfolds delightfully. Both Hugh and Emma were perfectly believable and sympathetic characters, and their gradual rapprochement was a joy to watch. I loved the sledges in the snow, and also the parlour game snapdragon (a new one to me). I felt there was rather too much angsty backstory squeezed in, what with the war widow, the survivor and the brother’s betrothal issues, but that’s not really a complaint because they all serve to increase Hugh’s guilt. I would have liked, too, for Hugh himself to have confessed all to Emma, instead of leaving it to others to enlighten her, but again, not a complaint.

A couple of very trivial niggles. When Hugh comes home unannounced, there are no servants to greet him and he carries his own luggage into the house and simply walks into the dining room. I found that a real stretch. There would at the very least have been grooms or kitchen staff around, and where was his valet or batman? And then he sits down to join the others for dinner, a place already set (they were psychic!) and without changing out of his travel-stained clothes into evening dress. Um, no. Also, one character is described as a ‘country barrister’. Barristers are the top-ranked lawyers, who put the case in the highest courts, so they’re based in the cities. A country lawyer would be an attorney, whose work is the boring transfer of bits of land or flocks of sheep. Totally trivial niggles, which didn’t spoil my enjoyment at all.

A great read. Five stars.


Review: Phoebe by Martha Keyes [Trad]

Posted January 10, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

A short and sweet free story from one of my new favourite authors. Phoebe is awaiting the return of the man she loves from his tour of the continent. Without a formal betrothal, she wasn’t able to write to him, but every day she wrote a line or two in a year-long letter. Now she awaits his arrival at a ball, with the letter heavy in her reticule. But before he appears, she overhears dreadful news – he’s enamoured of a woman he met he France. So when she finally meets him again, to save her pride she makes up an attachment to another man.

And so the stage is set for a story that’s based entirely on that time-honoured plot, the Great Misunderstanding. We know this because we can see inside the head of lover George, and know that he’s stayed faithful to Phoebe and he’s bewildered and hurt by her seeming defection. Fortunately, Phoebe’s sensible enough not to let George leave again without at least showing him her letter, and the story is short enough that matters get resolved speedily.

I have some very minor quibbles. I’d have preferred the letter to play a bigger role in the resolution than it did, purely for the symmetry, and I felt there was too much explanation at the end of things which the reader already knows and don’t need to be spelt out. There would have been more tension, too, if we hadn’t known exactly what George was feeling. But the romance ended beautifully, and the writing is excellent, as always. Four stars.


Review: Isabel by Martha Keyes [Trad]

Posted September 22, 2019 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I loved Wyndcross, the predecessor to this book, so I knew right from the start that I would love this, too, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a very different story, in many ways a more conventional Regency romance, complete with that time-honoured plot-device, the fake betrothal, and perhaps it doesn’t quite reach the sublime heights of Wyndcross, but that was a very high bar.

Isabel Cosgrove, our heroine, had a walk-on role in the previous book, but it’s not necessary to have read that one first. This book picks up Isabel’s story in London in the midst of the shared season for her and her sister, up from Dorset for the occasion, and Isabel is suffering in comparison with the beautiful Cecilia. Our hero, Charles Galbraith, is in thrall to one of the ton’s incomparables, Julia Darling, who is a flighty piece, seeming to have lost interest in him in favour of another eligible. So Charles does what any young man would do when spurned by the woman he loves – he goes off and gets blind drunk, so drunk that he ends up in a wager with Isabel’s father, and wins her hand in marriage.

Now, there’s a lot to take on board here. Superficially it makes both Charles and Mr Cosgrove look like idiots. Charles is not only throwing away any possibility of Julia changing her mind again and coming back to him, he’s also binding himself for life to a woman he barely knows. And as for Mr Cosgrove, he looks like the world’s worst father for agreeing to such a wager in the first place (although, to be fair, he does have a better reason for his actions than mere drunken caprice). But Charles doesn’t, and the author sets herself quite a challenge here – from such an unpromising beginning, to make Charles into a sympathetic and heroic character. It’s a testament to her skill that she achieves this splendidly.

Fortunately for the reader inclined to dislike drunken Charles (ie me), sober Charles turns out to be a charming and honourable man, who immediately makes Isabel an offer in form. Which she rejects, even though she’s had the hots for him for years, because she doesn’t want a resentful husband, constantly mooning over his lost love and trying not to show it. Which is terribly decent of her. I’m not sure I could ever be quite so noble and self-sacrificing as the typical Regency heroine.

But she has a cunning plan. If she and Charles pretend to be betrothed for a while, it will make Julia jealous enough to return to Charles, and by that time Isabel’s beautiful younger sister will have achieved the expected stellar match and their father will be too pleased to be angry with Isabel. Now, there are more holes in this scheme than a sieve. I don’t know why it is, but whenever Regency characters get into a pickle, one of them is sure to say: I know, let’s pretend to be engaged! That’ll totally work! Which makes me want to bang their heads together and say: Guys, this is a terrible idea, don’t do it, OK? But they never listen.

So off they go with their fake betrothal, and of course all sorts of complications ensue, as expected. There’s a fairly dodgy subplot with a cute ingenue, who’s both naive and worldly-wise all at the same time, and the usual dastardly villain, and everything builds to a grand climax, which is good, dramatic stuff. But it’s the romance that steals the show here, and it’s my favourite sort, the slow build of two sensible and intelligent people towards their inevitable destiny. The denouement is delicious.

Niggles? Not many. Apart from a few anachronisms (a Regency hero who feels the need to ‘get out of his own head’?) and a plot that occasionally felt as if it was held together with chewing gum and string, this book was a delight. There was humour, some fun side-characters (I particularly liked gossipy plotter Mary) and a swoon-worthy hero. Isabel was a great heroine, and if her plan went a little awry, her intentions were the best, and I liked her a lot. I had some reservations about the premise and how drunken Charles would redeem himself, but the author pulled it off magnificently, so I can’t give this less than five stars. Looking forward to the next book about Isabel’s beautiful younger sister.