A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

TBR Challenge: With This Ring by Carla Kelly

The theme: an author with multiple books on your TBR

Why this one: Despite frequently reading Kelly for the challenge, I still have plenty left. And unlike many other authors on my TBR, I still like her. :-\

I read a few more recent Kelly titles last year and found them sadly meh.  I was intrigued by how similar this older book was to those, in terms of plotlines, yet how infinitely superior it was. (Now even more, I think Coming Home For Christmas would have more aptly been titled Phoning It In For Christmas.)

With This Ring is a little unusual for Kelly in being almost entirely from Lydia’s point of view. And it’s very much her emotional journey. When the book starts she’s Cinderella, basically a downtrodden servant to her self-centered mother and sister. She flabbergasted by her own life — often thinking thoughts like, “I do not understand these people I am related to” —  but has no concept of escaping it. But when she has to accompany her sister on a “fashionable” excursion to visit — ie, gawk at — wounded soldiers, she takes the first steps in fighting for what she knows is decent and humane behavior, by insisting on actually tending the wounded.

She also meets Sam, an Earl who’s far more concerned with taking care of his men than his title or his own severe wound. Though he does occasionally ponder on how to find the wife he’s already told his family he married (and had a child with!)

Lydia’s new independence leads to a serious rift with her family, and desperate straits that make her finally take Sam’s whimsical proposal seriously. This is where Lydia and “Cinderella” really part ways. Because rather than rescuing her from hardship, becoming Sam’s wife will force her to face incredible challenges, and show her how strong and capable she really is.

The romance-while-nursing theme works really well here. Much of the time Lydia’s taking care of Sam, which doesn’t make for much standard courtship. (Except when he gives her a hat.) But his down to earth conversation, which makes no concessions to her ladylike status, is rather adorable. We can feel them becoming a team, with similar goals because they’re both caring people. Sam lets us down a bit in the end though, putting other priorities ahead of Lydia; he’s punished for it, but doesn’t really repent or redeem himself, which is disappointing. He’s still sweet enough to be worthy of her, and and least can appreciate the amazing woman she becomes.

 

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TBR Challenge: the Lady’s Companion by Carla Kelly

The theme: A RITA nominee or winner. This won for Best Regency in 1997.

Why this one: It was between this and Stealing Heaven by Madeline Hunter, and I’d used a Hunter book for May. I managed to completely forget that I’d used a Kelly book for June. Oops.

The first chapters of this had tears pricking constantly in my eyes (though nothing compared to how much I’d be crying by the end.) It’s Susan’s 25th birthday, and her birthday wish is for “someone, anyone, to rely on.” Her father’s gambling has taken away everything Susan cares about, most especially her dream for a husband and children — she’s beautiful and bright, but what respectable gentleman would take on a penniless woman with her family baggage?

When things have hit almost rock bottom and Susan faces a life of unpaid drudgery, she decides to boldly seek a life of paid drudgery instead. This takes her to the employment office of Joel Steinman, and I can’t tell you how long it took me to get over the fact that this sweet, one-armed, Jewish tradesman was not going to be her hero. Damn, I love him. (As of a year ago, Kelly was speculating about writing a story for him… I’ll be first in line to buy it.)

Our actual hero is almost as appalling a Prince Charming for our Cinderella — an illegitimate Welsh bailiff, badly scarred from having been whipped for stealing in the army. (Even his last name, Wiggin, was stolen.) He is also steadfast, brave, and caring… a perfect match for our steadfast, brave, and caring heroine, if she can look past their class differences. As they join together in their attempts to help their elderly employer keep her independence, those differences begin to seem less and less important.

This is a more sensual story than any of the older Kellys I’ve read. Susan’s physical attraction to David Wiggin is extremely strong, and often keeps her up nights, pondering the mysteries of sex. There’s some pretty earthy humor, too. But love and devotion of all kinds are the heart of the book — it celebrates the bonds of a chosen family, which can be more meaningful than those of birth.

 

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TBR Challenge: Libby’s London Merchant by Carla Kelly

The theme: Any kind of classic.

Why this one?: I’ve heard of it many times; in fact it was specifically recommended to me for a reason I’ll go into later. I put off reading it because I had accidentally read the last paragraph (my copy has a page torn out and I wanted to be sure I wasn’t missing anything) and it spoils the ending; I was trying to forget it.

Note: I don’t think I can write about this book without a major spoiler, though since it’s an old book, it’s likely a spoiler most people already know. But if you don’t want to be spoiled, leave now! Lady Wesley has an excellent spoiler-free review at GoodReads. The AAR review is also very good.

Libby’s London Merchant is a traditional Signet Regency from the days when sex scenes were quite rare. (Though I think Mary Balogh was writing them contemporaneously with this one.) One of the side benefits of this was the potential for stories in which there is genuine suspense about who the heroine will end up with. (I suppose it could also go the other way, but I haven’t encountered that plot.) These sorts of stories have almost disappeared.

Tangent — I used to be very annoyed by my old Heyer paperbacks, which had blurbs that were ludicrously inaccurate. However, when I later replaced them with modern editions with accurate blurbs… I hated those even more, because they gave all the surprises away! Signet’s blurb writers and book designers were very, very good at misdirection. My all-time favorite example is the inside quote of a Balogh novel which features a hot and heavy moment between the heroine and the book’s villain!

The cover blurb for Libby’s London Merchant manages to be fairly accurate while completely leading the reader down the garden path, and the inside quote continues that. Both focus on Nez, a tortured, injured, alcoholic duke in disguise, who is obviously the book’s hero.

Or is he? Libby, our heroine, isn’t quite sure. Because there’s also this doctor… a big, plump, glasses-wearing, laughably clumsy guy, who couldn’t possibly be a hero. Except that he’s also wise and caring and utterly dependable in an emergency… and unlike the duke, he’s happy to marry a penniless girl whose mother was a tobacconist’s daughter.

If you know me, you’ll know why this was recommended to me. Plump romance hero, the rarest of all unicorns! Dr. Cook does thin down a bit towards the end, but you just know that he’ll always be a big, cuddly marshmallow of a guy. (Fans self.) And he’s insightful, generous, and devoted and as Libby comes to realize, the kind of man who will wear well. (Nez is presumably not irredeemable though, because he does get his own story later.) Having such a character come out the winner against a romantic wounded duke just makes me happy.

I so, so wish this hadn’t been spoiled for me, because Kelly builds up the suspense and confusion beautifully. Even having a pretty strong notion how it would come out, I wasn’t quite certain for the longest time. The doctor was so laughable and Nez so romantic; to make it even trickier, we see Nez’s point of view, which naturally leads us to sympathize with him, and wonder who we should root for. (It’s sort of the inverse of The Duke’s Wager by Edith Layton, a fantastic book in which both potential heroes are dreadful.) Knowing what I do about Kelly’s background, I suspect there may have been a bit of an agenda here, but it doesn’t matter, because she completely pulls it off and makes me believe it. I am personally biased towards the good doctor, of course, but the raves at GoodReads and Desert Island Keeper rating at All About Romance show that the book works for a good many readers. I think it’s the first of my TBR challenge reads to wind up on my keeper shelf.

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TBR Challenge: The Lotus Palace by Jeannie Lin

The theme: Series catch-up. Well, I read this one because I need to read the sequel… close enough.

What tickled me: Scarlet Pimpernel hero!

What ticked me off: There were a few missing scenes I really wanted to see.

Who might like it: Anyone who loves romance novels. The trappings may be different, but it’s all there.

I requested The Jade Temptress from NetGalley and then realized it was a sequel, so I borrowed this one from the library. How lovely to read a book primarily because it leads to another book, and then be dying to get to that next one when you finish! (I immediately bought my own copy of The Lotus Palace. Didn’t hurt that the ebook is on sale — ending today, btw.)

Yue-ying’s soul-destroying life in a brothel ended when her freedom was purchased by the famously lovely and witty courtesan Mingyu. Few notice that she is just as beautiful as her mistress, because they don’t see past the large red birthmark on her face. But the supoosedly foppish fool Lord Bai Huang notices. Yue-ying hasn’t been trained to be witty and captivating like Mingyu — she’s honest and straightforward. To Huang, she’s “clever, engaging, imperfect and intriguing,” the most real person in a life that is “no more than a layer of lacquer and paint.”

When another noted courtesan is murdered, Huang has his own reasons for becoming involved, but he also uses the situation as an excuse to get close to Yue-ying. The story is partially about the murder, a mystery very entrenched in the setting and time period, and partially about the difficulties of love between a lord and a former prostitute in that time and place.

Their first hurdle — one of many — is the fact that Yue-ying has never had sex of her own choosing, never even had a kiss she wanted. This leads to one of the most achingly painful and realistic sex scenes I’ve ever read. Yue-ying doesn’t react with overt terror, as some abused heroines do, but despite all Huang’s gentleness and care, she can’t be present.

“Her flesh pulled tight beneath his touch, her nipple peaking. Though her blood warmed, her mind remained cold. The two halves of her couldn’t find one another.”

I love that we see Huang’s point-of-view when things start going right for them — because he could tell that something was wrong — but I missed seeing Yue-ying’s as well.

Something about The Lotus Palace reminded me of favorite books I read as a teen, like those by Elizabeth Peters and Agatha Christie. I’m not sure if that’s the setting, the mystery element, or if it’s just that reading it took me back to when I was a different kind of reader, more apt to read widely and immersively. I enjoyed that nostalgia, and the skillfully crafted setting, but it was the beauty and depth of the characters and their feeling for each other that really got me. I had some trouble following the mystery — likely my own fault, because I wasn’t that interested — and the ending is perhaps happier than is really believable, but who cares when you’re swooning?

Possibly I enjoyed this all the more because I had started it like someone taking a medication — well, this probably won’t be what I like, but it’s good for me! — and found that in fact, it’s exactly what I like. A –

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TBR Challenge: All Things Beautiful by Cathy Maxwell

The theme: Any holiday.

Why this one: I don’t have any holiday books! Not in print, anyway. Even my emergency unread Mary Baloghs failed me. I skimmed through some oldies and this one ends at Christmas, albeit rather grimly.

It’s a convenient marriage Regency, in which the socially ruined Julia is forced to marry Brader Wolf, a wealthy “cit” who only wants her estate. Julia, who comes from an unspeakably awful family, hopes to have a child to love, but Brader initially despises her and is very resistant to having any kind of real marriage. Meanwhile, Julia’s dastardly brothers are scheming about how to separate Julia from Brader, and Brader from his money.

I enjoyed this more than I expected to. Spoiled, tempestuous society beauty, that’s pretty much an instant ugh. But although Julia may have been all of those things in the past, as this story opens she’s a more mature and thoughtful person who’s learned from her bad experiences. (Though not always enough.) She tries to make the best of her situation and move forward.

I was iffier about Brader. As the story continues it becomes clear (to the reader) that he’s developed feelings for Julia, and I’m a sucker for that in a heroine-pov-only romance. But he’s often quite nasty to her, and given what we know about her past — she wasn’t even taught to read — it was hard to take. Even towards the end, he’s suspicious and accusatory. Julia also takes the occasional turn for the stupid and snobbish, which I never quite believed; it seemed out of character. And there’s a strong element of melodrama, though that’s a little bit like complaining that there’s a murder in a mystery — it’s just that kind of story. Truthfully, the main problem I had with it was that Julia seemed to do most of the pursuing, and there was no kind of payback or redemption for Brader’s bad behavior — though there is a lovely scene in which he confesses his true feelings.

This was Maxwell’s first book and it’s a smoothly written debut. It fits neatly into the angsty Regency genre while having some distinctive qualities — Julia’s character, and an epilogue that includes sorrow for the couple as well as joy.

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