Best Laid Plaids
Best Laid Plaids is the first book in a new series of historical romances set in 1920s Scotland by début author Ella Stainton. The blurb promised a romance between an eccentric former academic who trashed his career when he announced he could talk to ghosts and a war veteran turned PhD student who is writing his thesis on the power of delusional thinking, and a road-trip around Scotland’s lovely—and definitely, definitely haunted—landscape. It sounded like a winning combination. But perhaps my expectations were too high; I was hoping for creepiness and chills akin to those in The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal or Spectred Isle – but it was all pretty insipid with nary a fright in sight, and the opposites-attract romance is basically a book-long case of insta-lust with no real relationship development to go with it.
Joachim Cockburn (pronounced Coe-burn) is a psychologist preparing to write his PhD thesis on the manifestation of delusions in those otherwise accounted as sane. His friend and mentor Dr. Stuart Graham arranges for him to stay at his family home in Fifeshire, in order to spend some time with his brother Ainsley, “a certified genius with no sense of self-preservation, whatsoever”, who committed career suicide a couple of years earlier when he admitted he spoke to ghosts on a daily basis. Joachim is prepared to meet an eccentric; he doesn’t expect to be greeted by the most gorgeous young man he’s ever seen – or to be propositioned by him.
Ainsley is immediately taken with the big, braw man from Durham – and immediately mistaken as to his identity, believing him to be the man with whom his best friend Barley is infatuated. Barley has asked Ainsley to ascertain if the object of his affections is attracted to men and Ainsley sets about his task with gusto, until the penny drops and he realises he’s made a horrendous mistake. Fortunately, his visitor doesn’t run away screaming, and, the misunderstanding cleared up, they talk about why Joachim is there, and Ainsley offers to drive him to a few places legend says are haunted. Perhaps, if he takes Cockburn to see spirits that even sceptics can see, he’ll have to admit that Ainsley isn’t mad. After all, if he’s there to use Ainsley for his research, it’s only fair that Ainsley gets to use him back.
That’s the set up, and most of the events of the story take place over the next few days as Ainsley and Joachim embark upon their ghostly tour. They start in a medieval road buried under the city of Edinburgh, then move to a remote field where there’s a Thing In A Hedge whose “presence makes you feel as though you’re slipped inside an icy cold nog and you’ll never get out.” But just telling me that doesn’t make it so; I was waiting for something truly spooky to happen… and it didn’t. In fact, the only thing that happens on that night is Ainsley and Joachim getting it on in a tent. Which they then proceed to do at pretty much every opportunity – although no more tents are involved!
The characters themselves are quite charming, but as I write this review, I’m having trouble recalling what actually happens in this story. Ainsley and Joachim look for ghosts and have a lot of sex is the best I can come up with. Ainsley is handsome and mercurial, witty and winsome, with a penchant for tartan and bawdy jokes; he’s highly intelligent, earned his doctorate at twenty-four, and is a leading expert on British folklore. Joachim is his opposite, both physically and temperamentally, taciturn where Ainsley is talkative, circumspect where Ainsley is impulsive. Both men are struggling – Ainsley with guilt over the death of his brother and because he’s itching to get back to his research and writing, Joachim because he’s still grieving the loss of his wartime lover and despairs of ever finding that sort of connection again – and Ainsley is obviously more than ‘eccentric’; he has what we’d today recognise as ADHD and often has difficulty remaining focused and in the now.
But even though Joachim works out ways to help Ainsley with his concentration quite quickly, there is no sense of a real emotional connection between the pair. Reading the teaser chapter for book two, I see Ainsley and Joachim are the leads once again, so why rush them into bed (and so often)? A series allows time for an author to develop an actual relationship and for lots of lovely sexual tension; instead, we get sex scene after sex scene, each one stretched over two chapters (the author seems to think we have to read each one from both PoVs). It’s true that they both tell themselves that this is only a week-long fling, so I suppose one could argue they’re getting it while they can (!) But it’s still too much too soon. They don’t really talk until fairly late in the book – about the effect that the publication of Joachim’s thesis could have on Ainsley’s life and mental state, or the fact that they’re developing feelings for one another and don’t want things to end between them (and can’t admit it) – and I couldn’t help wishing that they’d stopped fucking long enough to have an actual substantive conversation.
There was one thing about the writing that drove me completely nuts. Ainsley – who is auburn-haired – is constantly referred to as “the/his ginger”. I’m not sure when the word “ginger” started to be used as a noun rather than an adjective, but I suspect it’s more recently than 1928. But historically accurate or not, it’s overused to a ridiculous degree. I also had issues with some of the terminology – Joachim isn’t at “school”, he’s at university – and we don’t “shift” when driving, we change gear. Then there’s the name Cockburn, which I’m guessing the author chose for comedy value despite knowing its correct pronunciation – but as it’s written down any potential joke falls flat and isn’t remotely funny.
Best Laid Plaids had great potential, but falls down in the execution. If you take out all the sex scenes, there might be enough material left over to fill a novella; the plot is sketchy to say the least, there aren’t many ghosts (and they’re not all that scary) and I wasn’t convinced there was much more than physical attraction between the leads until really, really late on. On the plus side, the characters are engaging and they make a good couple, their differences complementing one another – and when the ghosts do actually show up, they provide some really poignant and emotional moments.
As I said at the beginning, perhaps part of my disappointment with the book can be accounted for by too-high expectations. But that doesn’t excuse the focus on sex at the expense of relationship and plot or the writing quirks that should have been ironed out during the editing process.
I can’t quite recommend Best Laid Plaids, but I might read the next book to see if the author is able to develop her ideas and characters more successfully next time.