Of course, we all have our preferences of genre in reading, but I firmly believe that excellence can be achieved in any genre, whether that’s literary, fantasy, romance, crime, women’s fiction, historical fiction, non-fiction, poetry or whatever. Some of these categories place more emphasis on certain aspects – plot perhaps, or a great twist, or historical accuracy or the beauty of the language. But one thing I’ve found that every great 5 star book has in common – whatever the genre – is the compelling need for the reader to care deeply about the characters, and this can be achieved no matter what you are writing or reading. The Charleston Scandal (Hachette 2020) by Pamela Hart is definitely a 5 star romance read, and even though I don’t read a lot of romance, this book kept me captivated throughout.
If you loved Mary-Rose MacColl’s The True Story of Maddie Bright, or anything by Natasha Lester, then this book will appeal. Set in London in the 1920’s, this novel is full of royal intrigue, lavish excess, the class divide, the Jazz Age, the secret life of drag performances, and everything else that made the Twenties Roaring. Kit Scott is a privileged young Australian performer who has danced, sang and acted her way into London society and a life on the stage. Canadian Zeke Gardiner comes from a very different and difficult background, but performing together they have a frisson and spark that no one can deny. But one night changes everything, when she is photographed dancing the Charleston with none other than the Prince of Wales, as she is asked to keep up a pretence for the sake of the Royal family. She is forced to spend time with the hedonistic Lord Henry Carleton and finds that despite her initial reluctance, she begins to enjoy his attention, his fortune and the life he could offer her.
This novel presents a well-researched and authentic portrait of the aristocratic lifestyle of the time, with actors and performers rubbing shoulders with the Royal set, and famous names like Noel Coward and Fred and Adele Astaire all running in the same crowd. But there is a large divide between this sumptuous lifestyle of week-long parties, tennis and picnics, and the lower classes who are forced to ‘mend and make do’ with their paltry wages and uncertainty about work and finances.
The strength of this book, besides the incredible historical detail, is in the characterisations. The major players – and even the minor ones – are well-rounded and fleshed out, with believable motivations and behaviour. The dialogue is spot-on and the gentle humour that suffuses the book – especially Kit’s internal monologue about her emotional dilemmas and the choices she must make – really make The Charleston Scandal an easy and satisfying read. And while there is no abject violence or gratuitous sexual action, the story is layered with a certain risqué and titillating subtext that strikes just the right chord of tension and humour.