TBR Challenge: The Duke’s Holiday by Maggie Fenton

dukeshol

The Duke of Montford, cold, precise, and more powerful than the Prince Regent himself, wants things the way he wants them: cross-referenced, indexed, and at his beck and call. And he always gets what he wants.

Until he meets Astrid Honeywell. And a giant pig. And a crooked castle in the middle of Yorkshire.

Astrid Honeywell, staunch bluestocking, has struggled for years to keep her family together by running the estate and family brewery after her father’s death. She is not about to let the tyrannical Duke of Montford steal away all she has worked for because of some antiquated contract between their families. So when the priggish Duke comes to call, she does everything in her power — including setting the family pig on him — to drive him away.

She didn’t expect him to be so … well, infuriatingly attractive. Every time he scowls at her, she has the most improper desire to kiss him — and a whole lot more.

Montford can’t decide whether to strangle Astrid or seduce her. The one thing he knows for a fact is that he must resist his powerful attraction for her at all costs. He has a very proper, very demure fiancée waiting for him back in London, after all. But when Astrid is kidnapped by a disgruntled suitor and whisked off to Gretna Green, Montford will do anything to get her back.

Will these two drive each other to Bedlam … or can they make it to the altar without killing each other?

Rating: C-

September’s prompt for the TBR Challenge was to read a book that had been recommended to me by someone. A good friend on Goodreads recommended this book to me a while back, and quite a few of my other GR friends enjoyed it very much, so I settled in to enjoy.

It’s a light-hearted “romp” (the cover even boasts that it’s part of the author’s Regency Romp series – just in case I hadn’t realised) in which a very handsome, very rich, very proper, very aloof and very lonely duke (although he doesn’t actually admit the lonely part, of course) has his comfortable and orderly existence completely overturned when he travels to Yorkshire in order to investigate the goings-on at one of his properties there.
Cyril, Duke of Montford (and yes, he’s been given a very un-romantic-hero-like name on purpose) likes everything to be Just So. His pens have to be lined up in a certain way, his boot tassels must face one way and not another, and at meals, no food on his plate can be allowed to touch another food. The book synopsis indicates he has OCD, and clearly this is what the author is getting at, but at the risk of being a party-pooper, I used to know someone with OCD and it wasn’t quite like that.

But anyway. Dramatic license.

The duke dislikes travelling immensely, but circumstances conspire to force him to travel to Rylestone in Yorkshire, an estate he owns, but which has been inhabited for the last two hundred years by the Honeywell family, whose principal occupation is the manufacture of the popular and rather splendid Honeywell Ale. There is some kind of family feud dating back a couple of centuries, too, which I imagine is supposed to prime the reader for the ensuing conflict.

The story is a simple one – Astrid wants to get rid of the duke as soon as possible. He is immediately aware that all is not as it should be and wants to know what’s going on. Astrid tries to pull the wool over his eyes several times and discovers he’s much more canny than she’d given him credit for. And all the while, the pair are fighting a reluctant attraction. The author manages that part of the story quite well – the sexual tension bubbles along nicely, although the sex scenes themselves are nothing special.

[Seriously – what is it with sex scenes on horseback? Or in this case, a not-quite sex scene on horseback? Okay, so let’s be blunt here – a scene involving mutual masturbation in which the hero comes in his trousers (the “moist warmth” seeps through his breeches!) – on horseback. I presume the entire point of that was because the author thought it would be funny to have him fall off the horse because, as in the way of all men, he falls asleep after having an orgasm.

Er – no, it isn’t.]

I confess that I didn’t enjoy the book as much as I’d hoped or expected to. The author certainly has potential, and I may be tempted to seek out the next book in the series, as I liked the way the two principal characters were being set up – but when it comes down to it, this book is a comedy and I didn’t find it all that funny. And in some places, what the author no doubt intended as humour was actually rather crass; for example, Montford finds the fact that Astrid has one blue eye and one brown one to be very unsettling, and in his extreme annoyance one evening, finds himself thinking that he’d like to gouge one of them out with a soup-spoon and replace it with another of the right colour. (Eeeew!) Although, of course, the problem is deciding which one to keep…

I’ve seen the book likened to a screwball comedy, which is a genre I adore. But I can’t see the similiarity, because The Duke’s Holiday completely lacks the sophistication one would find in the best screwball comedies. This is slapstick which is completely different. There are a couple of faintly amusing set-pieces in the book, such as the foot-and-ale race, and late on, an abduction and rescue, but nothing that really made me giggle.

But my biggest problem with the book is this – I just couldn’t warm to or like the heroine. She’s a woman in a man’s world, trying to run a business, a home, bring up a family and support the local community, which are all laudable things. But I couldn’t reconcile that woman with the one whose behaviour is so frequently infantile, childish and downright stupid that she quickly becomes intensely annoying rather than charmingly eccentric. For a woman whose intelligence is mentioned frequently (clearly a case of TELLING rather than SHOWING), she is disturbingly oblivious to the fact that the duke has the law completely on his side and no matter of moral right or obligation gives her the right to behave in the way she does.

If she’d been as intelligent as the author claims, Astrid would have tried to charm Montford and work out a compromise – which is when she would have discovered that he actually had no intention of throwing her and her family out of their home. After all, he’s got 27 (or is it 37?) houses in England alone, so he is perfectly able to continue to let this one out; but he quite naturally wants to make sure that it’s being properly run and cared for. And clearly, it isn’t.

But no – intelligent Astrid decides to behave outrageously and repeatedly tries to throw him off his OWN PROPERTY. And then she refuses to show him the ledgers and account books – which, again, as the owner, he is perfectly entitled to see – which leads to an overly long scene in the library during which the pair engages in a heated tussle which Astrid seeks to end by putting the ledger in her drawers (yeah, must’ve been large drawers or a small book!) – which is very mature.

When everyone around her is pointing out the folly of her actions – they’re all wrong and Astrid is the only one with the strength of purpose to do what must be done. Even when her sister Alice points out how Astrid’s unconventional attitude and behaviour has affected her and everyone else, Astrid STILL can’t be brought to see another point of view.

“I had no idea the opinions of small-minded gentry were so important to you,” she huffed.

Alice groaned in frustration. “You just don’t understand, Astrid. You never think beyond this pile of stones. Whether you like it or not, the opinions of other people matter. You’ll discover this soon enough when we’re tossed out of here.”

“Don’t talk like that.”

“What? It’s true. The duke has the right. And the way you’ve treated him thus far does nothing to help our case. We’ll be lucky if he doesn’t put us all in the workhouse.”

[…]

“I don’t need saving. I am the one trying to save the lot of you!” Astrid cried.

“How can you do it when you won’t accept the truth? Rylestone doesn’t belong to us anymore.”

In this, (which is the next part of the scene I’ve quoted at length below), Astrid sounds and acts like a petulant child stamping her foot and sulking because they know they’re in the wrong but can’t admit it.

Astrid is difficult to like and is just TOO whacky. It feels like the author is trying too hard to make her funny and loveable, but for most of the time, I couldn’t help sympathising with the duke, who thinks she’s completely bonkers and out of control and, when he doesn’t want to shag her, wants to throttle her. I get that the idea was to take the most proper and aloof aristocrat in the history of historical romance and take swipes at him so that bit by bit, he becomes human like the rest of us, but the method of doing so just didn’t work for me. Astrid treats him as a pariah from the get-go, and while he certainly is a bit of a stuffed shirt who needs to loosen up a bit, being unreasonably hostile and downright unpleasant isn’t the way to go about it. And if Montford really does have a form of OCD, flinging him into constant contact with someone as chaotic as Astrid doesn’t seem to me to be the way to devise useful coping mechanisms!

Montford is rather more engaging, although he doesn’t really rise above the two-dimensional, and I actually found myself a little confused by the author’s description of him. To start with, he’s described as incredibly fastidious in everything he does, including his appearance, so he’s well-dressed and never has a hair out of place. This fastidiousness, combined with his tendency to swoon at the sight of blood and his distaste for travel because it makes him throw up, gave me the picture of him as a bit of a fop. But then Ms Fenton turns him into your standard tall, dark, handsome, well-muscled, well-endowed historical hero, and as a result, I found it very difficult to get a handle on him. He’s given a backstory of sorts that is never really fleshed out, which is a missed opportunity. We’re told that Montford lost his parents in a carriage accident when he was four years old, and this is clearly meant to account for his dislike of travel and the sight of blood. I confess, I immediately thought of Colin Sandhurst in Tessa Dare’s A Week to be Wicked – who had to fend off wild dogs aged 8 when his parents were killed in a similar manner. But the big difference (besides AWtbW being a MUCH better book!) is that we are SHOWN how this event affected and continues to affect Colin throughout that story – here, Montford faints at the sight of blood and throws up in carriages. And that’s about all we get.

The Duke’s Holiday isn’t a terrible book by any means, but it would have benefited from some judicious editing and proof-reading. There is a lot of repetition within scenes which disrupts the pacing and delays the story progression, so there is a lot of pruning and tightening up needed. There are a number of typos and errors, the most obvious of which was the mention of a character wearing a crinoline in the Regency period. Also, Ms Fenton’s grasp of the conventions of the period is a little tenuous and the language and overall style is rather too modern.

I don’t have too much of a problem with that in certain circumstances. I enjoy books by Tessa Dare and Maya Rodale, for example, both of whom write romantic comedies which require one to check one’s “historical accuracy hat” at the door. But Ms Fenton isn’t in that league in terms of either her characterisation or writing to bring out the humour.

I thought the best parts of the book were actually the more introspective and character-based ones. One scene which has stuck in my mind is the one in which Alice (younger than Astrid by three years) finally tells her some home truths:

“No, Astrid,” Alice cried… “I’m twenty-three years old and had no offers, and do you want to know why? Because of you. No respectable man dare approach me because they think my sister is a … a hoyden. A shocking, forward, proselytizing hoyden.”

[…]

“You show no one the slightest deference, attend church infrequently, argue with the vicar. You curse in company, converse with the farmhands and wear trousers.”

“I never wear trousers in public!” she interjected. “Only around the castle. And in the garden.”

Alice gave her a doubtful look. “You ride about the country astride.”

“Sidesaddle is dangerous.”

“It is when you tear off hell-for-leather like you’re riding into battle. Which you do all the time.”

“I wear a perfectly respectable habit.”

Alice snorted. “Which comes up past your ankles.”

“What is so shocking about ankles? I’ll never understand it.”

“Nor I, but that is just the way things are. …”

“What would you have had me do? Let our family starve?” Astrid burst out. “Someone had to run the estate when father cracked. Someone had to take care of you and the girls. Who else was going to do it? Aunt Anabel?”

Alice blanched at Astrid’s harsh tone. “You make me sound like an ungrateful wretch.”

“Perhaps that is because you are! I have done everything for this family, and you chastise me for it.”

“No! I am merely pointing out that your manner of doing things for this family is so very … blatant. Do you really need to wear trousers to save the estate? Really, Astrid?”

“I wear trousers because they are comfortable and practical, and I ride astride because it is also eminently practical. All of these petty rules and codes restricting the behaviour for ladies are destined solely to subjugate our sex.”

Alice rolled her eyes. “Of course they are, but flaunting [I think the author means “flouting”] those rules is not going to earn you any friends. Or a husband.”

“I don’t want a husband.”

“But I do! And what of Antonia and Ardyce [younger sisters]? What’s to become of them when they’re grown? Your conduct reflects on all of us. It’s a wonder we’re still received as it is.”

In fact, re-reading that passage makes me think Alice would have made a far better heroine –one who also chafes against the restrictions imposed upon her as a woman yet who is clear sighted enough to see that she needs to work within them in order to get what she wants.

Anyway, this review is already very long, so I’ll finish by saying that although I like the “opposites attract” trope as a rule, Montford and Astrid are two are polar opposites in so many ways that it’s hard to see how a relationship between them is going to work long-term. It’s certainly true that Montford needs loosening up, but I like to believe that a couple in a romance has potential beyond the HEA at the end of the book; and if he really does have some form of OCD, Astrid is going to drive him up the wall.

Seriously, Felix and Oscar look like soul-mates compared to this odd couple!

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2 thoughts on “TBR Challenge: The Duke’s Holiday by Maggie Fenton

    • Hah! I always feel sorry for the horse 😛 Laura Kinsale almost manages to make it believable in Prince of Midnight, but the other couple of times I’ve read it have just made me “eeeeww!”

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