Tag: riley

Review: Cadenza by Stella Riley (2018)

Posted January 24, 2024 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is an absolute trope-fest: an unexpected inheritance, an impoverished estate, two role-swapping impostors, a social outcast with a mysterious history, the whole trapped-in-an-inn scenario with compromising implications… and on and on. But somehow it still manages to be fresh and original, and the primary reason for that is the glorious character of Julian Langham, the virtuoso harpsichordist, who is like no Regency hero ever. He’s obsessive about his music, socially inept, completely outside all the norms of Regency heroes and yet he’s utterly compelling. I loved him.

Here’s the premise: Julian is on the brink of a brilliant career as a concert harpsichordist in Vienna when a lawyer arrives to tell him he’s a distant cousin and heir to a recently deceased earl. Julian doesn’t want to know, but the lawyer persuades him to go back to England, tidy things up at his unwanted estate and then return to Vienna. Julian agrees, only to discover that the estate is on the verge of bankruptcy, and there are three children, neglected by-blows of his predecessor, living wild. He finds that he can’t just abandon his responsibilities… which is precisely the point where the lawyers desert him. Julian is left with nothing, his only hope of salvation a long-neglected and mistreated harpsichord which he can restore, in time. At least then he’ll have music and life won’t be quite so unbearable.

But help is coming from an unexpected quarter. Two cousins, Arabella Brandon and Elizabeth Marsden, are faced with an impossible situation. Arabella, the sister of a baron with a good dowry, is invited to London by distant relations the Duke and Duchess of Rockliffe, but following a disastrous and humiliating failed betrothal, Arabella can’t bear the thought of it. Elizabeth is invited, too, and she’d love to go, but her impoverished clergyman father won’t hear of it. Instead, she arranges a post as housekeeper and governess. And so, inevitably, the two get their heads together and decide to swap places. Arabella will go into service for a few months, while Elizabeth will pretend to be her cousin and have a season in London. No one has ever seen them, so no one will know – what can possibly go wrong?

Experienced Regency readers will know the answer to that, of course. I found it interesting that one of the two heroines is called Arabella, in town pretending to be something she’s not. Familiar? Fans of Georgette Heyer will recognise the echoes of ‘Arabella’, who used her own name but was pretending to be a great heiress, but the similarities are enough to make me uneasy. If only the author had chosen a different name.

So Arabella, masquerading as Elizabeth, ends up in the home of Julian, the reluctant earl, and Elizabeth, masquerading as Arabella, is thrown by bad weather and an enforced stay at an inn (more tropes) into the path of Ralph, the Earl of Sherbourne, a world-weary and sophisticated man about town with a terrible reputation, not just as the all too common rake, but as a murderer (in a duel). As is the way with rakish heroes, Ralph turns out to be more sinned against than sinning, and something of a paragon with the heroine.

The plot proceeds pretty much as you’d expect, as the masquerade gradually unravels. The blurb talks about the Duke of Rockliffe’s ‘omniscience’, but here he works out the deception from some fairly clear clues, so no special skill is necessary. Then it’s merely a question of coasting downhill to the inevitable happy ending. One quirk of this author is that everything tends to work out for the best. Nothing horrendous goes wrong, and missteps by any character are quickly set right (usually by the duke being dukish and throwing his aristocratic weight around). But that’s fine.

I only noticed one historical error: legal adoption was not a thing until 1928. Before that, it was an ad hoc business, where children were informally taken into the household of a relation or friend and raised as if they were adopted, and they might even take the family name, but there was no legal process involved. There is one gratuitous sex scene, which is a pity. Otherwise, this is a beautifully written and compelling work, which I utterly loved (especially Julian). At the end, there’s more focus on Julian and Arabella, with Ralph and Elizabeth rather overshadowed, but ultimately this is Julian’s story, so perhaps that’s fitting. Five stars.



Review: The Shadow Earl by Stella Riley (2023)

Posted January 24, 2024 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 4 Comments

This isn’t a bad book. In fact, I read it swiftly, without the slightest urge to hurl my Kindle at the wall, and on the whole I enjoyed it. So why the 3* rating? I’ll come to that.

Here’s the premise: Christopher (Kit),the Earl of Hazelmere, has fallen in love with Sophia Kelsall, but they’re deemed too young to marry. He’s told to go off and take his Grand Tour. A couple of years abroad will broaden his mind, and if they’re both of the same mind when he returns, they can marry then. So Kit takes off with his cousin Basil, but after two years they part company, Basil back to England and Kit, still wanting to explore, to Constantinople. And then… nothing. For three years, nothing is heard of Kit. Basil and his father take over Kit’s London house, and help themselves to his fortune. Sophia is left in limbo, not properly betrothed, but not fully free, either. Her father is very ill and likely to die soon, her mother is pressing her to marry at once, and Basil is very keen to lead her up the aisle. What’s a girl to do? But then, just when she’s given up all hope, Kit returns. But he’s changed, not at all the man she fell in love with.

The two themes of the book are now clear. On the one hand, there’s Kit and Sophia and the question of whether they’ll get back together, or rather (since it’s blindingly obvious that they will) how that will be accomplished and whether the author can spin things out for the full length of the book (happily, the answer is no).

The other matter is what happened to Kit, where he’s been, why he neither returned nor wrote, and how it all came about. This isn’t quite as blindingly obvious, but we find out pretty quickly how it happened and who the villain is, even if we only gradually learn all that happened during those three years. And so the only real question is how Kit will arrange things so that the villain can’t threaten him ever again.

This all sounds like fairly normal fare for a book set in the pre-Regency Georgian era, and so it is. And Stella Riley is a terrific writer. I regard The Parfit Knight, the first book of the Rockliffe series, as one of very few perfect books. So what went wrong here?

Problem number one is something I’ve grumbled about in previous Riley books, and abandoned the Rockliffe series because of it, and that’s the sheer weight of characters from earlier books. I don’t mind one or two of these, or any number, actually, if they’re treated as new characters so that I can keep up, but hurling names around as if I’m supposed to remember them from however many years ago, when I first read about them, is insane. And in fact, there are several earlier books I haven’t read, including a whole series. Since this book is supposed to be the first of a new series, would it be asking too much to make it readable for those of us who are not intimately familiar with the whole crew from the past?

There’s an exchange between two characters that goes something like this (paraphrasing):
A: We’ll have to bring X in on this.
B: Why? How can he help us?
A: You don’t want to know.

No, actually, I DO want to know, because it might help me remember who the hell X is.

Problem number two is that all these people, the ones from this book, and the vast numbers from previous books, are all uniformly good-looking, intelligent, talented, loyal to a fault and filled with steely determination to right wrongs and generally be heroes. Well, apart from the various villains, small and large, who have no redeeming features whatsoever. Perfection and cartoon wickedness don’t make absorbing reading. I like my heroes (and heroines) to be real people with faults and quirks and… oh, I don’t know, personalities, maybe? And I’d like the villains to be less unrelievedly awful.

The third problem is that nothing very terrible happens during the whole course of the book. Kit and Sophia have problems, they work them out. Sophia’s sister is deaf, Kit has a plan to help her, it works perfectly. The army of Kit’s loyal friends devise a plan to trap the big villain and it all works exactly as planned. There are no misunderstandings, no unexpected twists, no last-minute threat from the villain. Sorry but that’s just not interesting. There’s no tension in it. The book can be beautifully written (and it is) but without some unexpected happenings, it’s just dull.

I’m sorry to be so negative, but it’s just because I’m so disappointed. The Parfit Knight was so wonderful, and the next two in the series were great, too, so it makes me very sad to write a review like this. I found very little to quibble over, historically, only the big wedding thing. What is this fetish with big weddings? No one cared about big weddings then! Or choosing a picturesque church. Or having a ‘wedding dress’. Or betrothal rings. Or a bachelor party. Or kissing in the street! Or speeches and toasts at the wedding breakfast. The marriage service just wasn’t a big deal. Otherwise, nothing tripped me up. There is some sex in the book, but it’s the usual stuff (he’s brilliant at it, she’s instantly orgasmic, you know how it goes). But that’s OK. I’m not keen on too much realism in the bedroom scenes. And the funny thing is, even with all my grumbles, I read the thing over two days, and enjoyed it, on the whole. But still… three stars.



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.


Review: The Player by Stella Riley (2015) [Trad]

Posted November 13, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

An awesome read. The author has a genius for putting her characters into an almost impossible-to-resolve situation and then leaving them to wriggle out of it as best they can. This worked perfectly in The Parfit Knight, but it’s just a shade less successful here.

Here’s the premise: the Earl of Sarre is forced to return from a ten-year exile in France to take up his role as head of the family after both his father and his brother have died. He doesn’t want to, and his mother certainly doesn’t want him home, but duty calls. There’s only one problem: the reason for his exile, a huge personal tragedy and accompanying scandal, mean that society may not accept him, and that makes it tricky to fulfil at least one of his obligations, that of marrying. He still has friends, however, as well as one huge advantage – he’s an actor of incomparable talent, a skill he can use to guide him through society and provide a mask he can hide behind.

Caroline Maitland is a wool merchant’s heiress, in London to make an advantageous match but she’s not finding it easy. Her fortune makes her a target for plausible rogues, and when one of her suitors is Sarre’s mortal enemy, she falls under his vengeful gaze. And Sarre finds himself drawn into a spider’s web of deceit that leads them both into a terrible dilemma.

My main problem with this is a suspension of disbelief issue. For the plot to work at all, it’s necessary for Caroline to not realise something highly significant, and frankly, I never quite bought into that. It just seemed to be a stretch too far. I also disliked the lengths to which Sarre went before telling her exactly what was going on. There were several points at which he should have come clean, but I suppose that was part of his character – hiding behind one or other of his acting personas and never actually being the real man behind the disguises. He’d been acting a part for so long that he no longer knew who or what he was, and that at least was believable.

I have a quibble about the Duke of Rockliffe, too. I know the series is named for him, so he’s in every book, but he’s too much of a magical McGuffin for my taste. He sees all, knows all, understands all and miraculously appears just when he’s wanted to save the day. It’s all just a bit too convenient. However, it’s his series and he’s a cool character so I can live with it.

Ultimately, however implausible it might have been underneath, the way the characters deal with the circumstances in which they find themselves is twelve shades of awesome, and utterly satisfying. I love this author’s creativity, and boy, can she write. A very enjoyable five stars.


Review: The Mesalliance by Stella Riley (1990) [Trad]

Posted November 13, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

After the joyful surprise of The Parfit Knight, which I regarded as a rare perfect tale, this follow-on was, for me, a far more uneven effort. It’s still well-written, it’s still enjoyable, but it suffered from one major problem and a host of minor niggles.

Here’s the premise: the Duke of Rockliffe has reluctantly decided that he needs to marry to fulfil his dynastic obligations, and provide a chaperon for the debut in society of his high-spirited young sister, Nell. While accompanying her to a nightmarish house party and adroitly side-stepping the social climbing daughter of the house, he meets Adeline Kendrick. He already knows her, having met her some years ago at one of his far-flung estates, where he was drawn to her free-spirited semi-wild nature. Now she’s the little-regarded poor relation, hiding her resentment behind a barbed tongue and a somewhat passive-aggressive style of resistance. Rock is just as drawn to the adult Adeline, although not in a romantic way, more a kind of lustful fascination. So when the social-climbing daughter’s machinations go wrong and Adeline is seemingly compromised by the duke, he decides to marry her, because why not?

So here we have the classic marriage of convenience tale, with a lot of similarities to Georgette Heyer’s The Convenient Marriage, with shades of April Lady and a hint of Venetia, too. To start with, things go well, with Rock acting in a gentlemanly fashion to allow his bride to grow accustomed to her role as a duchess. But when they go to London and start to move in society and events from the past rise up to knock them sideways, everything gets more complicated and frankly, the book goes off the rails somewhat.

Let me deal with the major problem first, which is that time-honoured obstacle, the Great Misunderstanding. I have a rule that if a plot difficulty can be resolved if the characters just sat down and talked to each other, that’s an epic fail, and that’s pretty much what we have here. When Adeline encounters a difficulty, instead of just telling Rock all about it and letting him deal with it (as he should), she attempts to deal with it herself and then gradually involves all his friends in the deception. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Naturally the marriage goes from bad to worse as Rock realises she doesn’t trust him, which (given her history) wouldn’t be too bad, except that she seemingly trusts all his friends above her own husband. Foolish girl. And then he gets grumpy about it and flounces off. Naturally, they do eventually overcome the problem and open up to each other, but it all takes far too long.

Of the minor niggles, these are just me and probably wouldn’t bother most people. This being the second book of the series, a number of characters from the first book pop up, often with important minor roles but not much explanation of who they were, so I struggled to remember some of them. I could have done with less of them, to be honest. I found Adeline’s refusal to open up to Rock inexplicable. He’s a lovely character, who’s very gentle with her, woos her romantically and even explains what he’s doing, but even though she’s in love with him, she never gives an inch. I get that she’s built mental walls to shield herself from the world, but she really needed to meet him half way. The villain of the piece is way, way over the top with a hugely melodramatic outburst in the middle of a crowded ballroom, which I found impossible to believe. There were a couple of minor side romances which were quite nicely done, but I could have done with less of them, too. And a really trivial grumble, this, but I cannot take seriously a duke whose given name is Tracy. Even though it’s historically accurate. Just no.

Having said all this, Riley’s writing is so superb and Rock is such an awesome hero overall (apart from that flounce) that this still reaches four star heights for me. For those who prefer a completely clean story, there’s one bedroom scene, quite graphic although tastefully done. I already have the next book in the series (The Player), but I’ll take a break before trying that, I think.


Review: The Parfit Knight by Stella Riley (1986) [Trad]

Posted November 13, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

There are not many books that I regard as absolutely perfect, but this is one of them. It hit the right notes for me from start to finish, like one of those wonderful tasting menu meals where each course is so exquisite that you’re mentally ready for the next one to be somehow less, but it never is. Not a disappointing moment to be found. As with many books from this era (1986), there are strong echoes of Georgette Heyer but that’s no bad thing.

Here’s the premise: the Marquis of Amberley is en route to one of his estates when his coach is attacked by highwaymen. He sees off the villains, but his coachman is shot, and the marquis is forced to seek help at the nearest house, with snow beginning to fall. There he finds Rosalind Vernon, alone but for her servants and a badly-brought-up parrot, who take care of the coachman and entertain the marquis for a week until the snow has melted. Rosalind is living outside society for a reason – she has been blind since a childhood accident. She is, however, intelligent and self-assured, not repining over her disability in the least. Needless to say, the two hit it off straight away, and in this aspect, the story reminded me forcibly of Heyer’s Venetia, even to the scene of Rosalind waking on the first morning after Amberley’s arrival happy at the knowledge that she has met a true friend.

Amberley returns to London determined to see Rosalind enjoy society, and only partly so that he’ll be able to see her himself. He persuades her brother, Philip, to bring her to town, but determines that he won’t hover around her so much that he deters other suitors. For there will be other suitors, he’s sure, because Rosalind is exceptionally beautiful.
The Marquis of Amberley is one of those heroes so beloved of Heyer – intelligent, mature, floating effortlessly through the drawing rooms of Georgian high society, admired by men and women alike, a little sardonic, superficially ruthless but morally upright in his private dealings. We see him first at the card tables, apparently leading a green young man into deep waters, but later see him return the man’s vowels (IOUs) without payment, as a lesson to him. In his dealings with Rosalind, too, he’s unfailingly gentlemanly. I loved him, I have to confess – he’s absolutely my kind of hero.

And Rosalind is my kind of heroine, feisty and independent (but in a Georgian not modern way), not at all sorry for herself, living life as it’s offered to her and not as she wished it would be. Most of all, she’s never silly. She waits patiently for Amberley to come to the point, enjoying all the new experiences coming her way in the meantime, neither rushing him nor despairing, but confident that he feels the same way that she does.

But of course in every romance there must be an Obstacle that prevents the lovers coming together too soon, and in this case it’s a humdinger, and I totally understood why Amberley was floored by it. Usually the Obstacle is something trivial, like a previous romantic disappointment that has left hero or heroine disillusioned, or some imagined disparity of rank or wealth, but this is not at all like that. It’s such a disaster that poor Amberley dithers a little too long and then everything starts to unravel, and this is all utterly believable.

This is actually the great strength of the whole book, that everyone behaves entirely according to character, and no one becomes a caricature or acts moronically simply to shift the plot along. The crisis, when it comes, cycles through funny and horrifying and glorious and heart-breaking, with the bad-mannered parrot playing a starring role. And while the men are away attempting to resolve things in their masculine way, poor, poor Rosalind is left to wait alone and gradually shift from delirious anticipation to fear to that dreary despair of knowing that he’s not coming. But fortunately, she’s no passive victim and sets out to wrest control of her own future now, at once, without delay (more shades of Venetia). The ending is quite simply perfect.

Apart from the two wonderful main characters, there’s a host of splendid minor characters – the perpetually misunderstanding Philip, laconic but all-seeing Rock, sensible Isabel, and charming Eloise, and the writing is of a rare quality. A wonderful traditional Regency. Five stars.