A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

TBR Challenge: Christmas Belles by Susan Carroll

The theme: festive!

Why this one: I confess, I just scanned my books for “Christmas” in the title. I think I’ve tried to read this one one or two times before, and since I’m enjoying quieter stories now, it seemed time. Also nothing says “festive” like a Christmas-set Traditional Regency.

The story opens with hints of Little Women and Pride and Prejudice : four sisters, an entailed estate, and a father who can’t provide for their futures. Eldest Emma is domestic, and quietly in love with the impoverished local vicar; Lucy loves society and fashion; Abigail is a bookworm. Our primary heroine is Chloe, who’s warm-hearted and imaginative. But as we will discover, she also has chin! (ping Miss Bates!)

When their father is killed trying to earn dowries for his daughters, his heir feels responsible for the girls and proposes to Emma via letter; she accepts. When he arrives, Captain Will Trent is relieved to find Emma is pretty and pleasant, but her sister Chloe is so stubborn and complicated, seeming to hate him on sight.

Will is no awful Mr. Collins — he’s closer to Mr. Darcy. Responsible, repressed, and absolutely in need of someone to show him how to enjoy himself.

This could be one of those irritating “why don’t you just SAY something!” stories, except that Will is quite believably clueless. Almost from first meeting her, his thoughts are on Chloe, but he’s completely out of touch with his own feelings. The first part of the book is charmingly silly, as they butt heads while constantly thinking about each other, and then become friends as Chloe coaxes Will into enjoying the season. Then the story falls into lot of drama all at once, but it mostly works, thematically.

I’m reading Christmas Promise by Mary Balogh for a book club this month, and it’s interesting to compare this with Balogh’s family-filled, spiritually uplifting Christmas. Carroll’s is almost pagan in contrast, with much more emphasis on legends and luck than “the meaning of Christmas.” If the usual sentimentality of Christmas stories is overdone for you, give this one a try.

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TBR Challenge: Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand by Carla Kelly

The theme: Old School (book ten+ years old. That no longer feels very old…)

Why this one: I usually prefer going really Old Skool for Old School month, but this book was being discussed on Twitter and I felt like reading it. It actually has quite an old skool blurb and starts off with a divorced hero who’s very cynical about women, but that doesn’t last past his first laying eyes on the heroine.

(Incidentally, there’s a nasty flu epidemic in this story, so it was not great timing.)

 

Six months after burying the husband she nursed for years, Roxanna Drew is starting to feel ready to live again. Unfortunately, her brother-in-law’s idea of taking care of her and her two young daughters is to insist that they live with him, where he can offer her “the comfort of a husband” she’s been missing. Desperate to escape a pressure she might be tempted to give in to, Roxanna impulsively rents the dilapidated dower house of a titled neighbor she’s never met.

Fletcher Rand, Lord Winn, wouldn’t seem to be a great knight errant for this damsel in distress. Not only did he shoot a friend he found in bed with his wife — apparently getting him in a very sensitive spot — and feel no remorse about it, but he also divorced his wife in extremely ungentlemanly fashion, calling on all her lovers to testify. I’m not sure how to feel about this, to be honest. On the one hand, it’s cruel; on the other hand, she was pretty terrible. By the lights of the book, we’re not supposed to think particularly badly of him.

In any event, this hardened cynical lord is soon turned into a bowl of mush by Roxanna’s adorable children and her adorable self. As usual with Kelly, the development of the relationship (relationships in this case) is sweet and disarming in its swift intimacy; her characters are always old friends who just met. In Roxanna’s case, missing “the comfort of a husband” is definitely a factor. Here she cleans up after the stranded Lord Winn has spent the night (alone) in her bed:

She made her bed, noting the indentation of Lord Winn’s head on the empty pillow next to hers. I wonder if men have an instinct about these things? she thought as she fluffed her pillow and straightened the blankets. After Helen was born, she had claimed the side of the bed closest to the door, so she could be up quickly in the night. She started to fluff his pillow but changed her mind. She traced her finger over the indentation, then pulled the bedspread over both pillows. I really should change the sheets, she thought, but knew she would not.

Kelly’s books are known for being “clean,” but there’s some powerful sexual tension in this story. It wasn’t that usual when this was published for a romance about a widow to be so honest about her needs; it’s one of the charms of the book, along with Fletcher’s unexpected vulnerability, and the beautifully drawn children — the younger lively and mischievous, the older sadly quiet and matured by her father’s death.

I didn’t love everything: Fletcher’s past is unpleasant, and the plot meanders its way to a truly ridiculous Big Misunderstanding. There’s certainly adventure and drama enough without throwing that in. And then there’s Fletcher pushing Roxanna to forgive her brother-in-law, whose redemption could have used more work. But I was very drawn into this story about a woman trying to “play her hand,” no matter what terrible cards life dealt her, and glad that she finally got to put down… let’s call it a full house.

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TBR Challenge: The Sugar Rose by Susan Carroll

CW: weight shaming and diet talk in book, a little repellant villain POV

The theme: Sugar or Spice (either very hot or closed door)

Why This One: Double-dipping, as usual these days of oh-so-many reading challenges, this time with the Pop Sugar Challenge.

Book Description:

“THIS IS THE OUTSIDE OF ENOUGH TO BE MAKING MISS SINCLAIR AN OFFER WITH ME SITTING HERE!”

Even Everard Ramsey’s outrage could not dampen the delight that Aurelia Sinclair felt at the prearranged proposal of her childhood sweetheart, Justin, Lord Spencer. If Justin was less than ardent, well…what could such a dowdy, plump girl as herself expect from one of the handsomest bucks in the ton?

His sympathy thoroughly engaged, the fastidious Mr. Ramsey was already forming a most famous plan. If he could but help Aurelia with her wardrobe and sweet tooth, surely his friend Justin would sit up and take notice.

But when a breathtaking Aurelia emerged from her cocoon, slender and radiant, Everard began to wish Justin far away–the better to have his creation all to himself!

I included the blurb because it’s so gaggy that it was a relief to find the book isn’t as bad as it’s painted. Admittedly, if you’re very sensitive about food and weight issues, you should stay away, but the romance is not Pygmalion-esque at all and properly satisfying.

The book does start with Justin offhandedly “proposing” to Aurelia right in front of of his friend Everard. Aurelia regards Everard as an affected dandy — he uses a quizzing glass! — but he’s disgusted by his friend’s disrespectful behavior, and more than a bit taken with Aurelia himself.  Although she has very low self-esteem, she’s witty, frank, and has more physical charms than she believes. Nor are his efforts to help her initially focused on her weight:

“I don’t mean to offer advice where it may not be wanted, but you intrigue me, Miss Sinclair. You have from the first. If you could get past the point of letting Justin treat you with less consideration than he shows his horse, I believe you are exactly the sort of woman he needs.”

“I can’t begin to tell you how much your opinion means to me, sir.” Aurelia glowered, spanning her fingers along her waistline. “Such a nice, sensible, solid sort of woman, is that your estimation?”

“No,” he retorted. “Such a lovely, intelligent woman who, for some strange reason, is at pains to hide her beauty behind a silken monstrosity that resembles a rose garden run amok.”

When Aurelia accepts Everard’s offer, of course they wind up spending a lot of time together. She discovers she’s not actually clumsy while dancing with him, and that he is a far pleasanter person than she’d thought.

When he laughed, it suddenly occurred to her how very much she liked Everard Ramsey this way, the cynical lines of his face relaxing, gentles by his smile. No bored mask of indifference, no elegant dandy hiding behind his quizzing glass. Simply a man who looked at her as if–

Aurelia’s breath caught in her throat. As if it didn’t matter whether she was beautiful. Because it was enough that he made her feel as if she were.

There’s unfortunately some terrible diet crap in this section, but there’s never a sense that Everard is unhappy with Aurelia as she is or that he only falls for her when she loses weight. And there’s psychological symmetry between them: both of them had unloving families but she eats her feelings and he gambles to ignore his.

In the manner of traditional Regencies, there’s some villainous meddling and rather ridiculous high jinks at the end, which I liked more than I expected, because they give both Aurelia and Everard a chance to symbolically move on from their coping mechanisms. It’s definitely a sweet book in more than the euphemistic way, and made me smile.

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TBR Challenge: The Trysting Place by Mary Balogh

Note: The surprises in this story are so obvious and mild, I’m not bothering with spoilers. 

 

The Theme: An author with more than one book in your TBR.

Why This One: In today’s world, might as well eat dessert first. Though all my saved Baloghs seem to be lesser ones.

I found the heroine of The Trysting Place challenging. She’s not obviously dislikeable in the antagonistic and self-sabotaging way of some Balogh heroines, but she really got up my nose somehow.

As the story opens, Felicity is just out of mourning for the elderly husband she had married out of duty, despite having been passionately in love with her childhood friend Tom. And a marriage of convenience — her family’s convenience, largely — has not taught her to value love and passion more. Rather, she’s eager to now enjoy herself as a wealthy widow in the ton, and grateful that she didn’t have those six children she and Tom had once planned together.

I really shouldn’t hate Felicity for this and yet I kinda do. Perhaps especially because she’s completely oblivious to the fact that her good friend Tom is still deeply in love with her, and she uses him for her own selfish ends. Which are to make a rakish lord so jealous he’ll give up his arranged engagement and marry her instead.

I’m making Felicity sound worse than she is, which might be because there really doesn’t seem to be that much to her. She’s beautiful, cultured but naive, loves her family, and does her best for them. But girls just wanna have (respectable, married) fun. The stakes just aren’t very high, or very interesting, at least for much of the book.

Tom’s point of view makes the story more compelling, because although he’ll do just about anything for Felicity, he recognizes some of the childish flaws in her way of thinking. And Felicity’s growing awareness of her own foolishness, largely through seeing the far more mature romantic choices of her much younger twin sisters, makes a nice enough redemption — except she then goes on to behave so much more foolishly, I didn’t know whether she needed a smack or an “oh, honey.”

I happened across a quote from Balogh that said writing this book was like wading through molasses. It shows.

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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: Folly’s Reward by Jean R. Ewing (Julia Ross)

The theme: A favorite trope. Say it with me: Amnesia!

Why this one: I wanted to finish the series.

In the fifth of Ewing’s traditional Regencies, a young man is washed up on the Scottish shore where governess Prudence is watching over her young charge Bobby. He has no memory of who he is, other than the sense that he’s named Hal short for Henry, and no idea where he should be. But when Prudence is forced to flee to save Bobby from his evil guardian, he appoints himself their protector. Bobby, who believes Hal to be “a Selkie man,” is only too happy to have him with them, but Prudence fears the impact of his beauty and seductive nature on her peace of mind.

For the first half, this was pretty same old/same old. Despite his amnesia, Hal is a very typical Ewing/Ross hero: goodnaturedly cynical, reckless, and always ready with a suitable (or unsuitable) literary quote or bawdy rhyme. Prudence is decidedly bland, so his instant besottedness seems based only on her being the first face he sees, regaining consciousness. But when he recovers his memory in the second half, the story becomes far more intense and interesting; Hal’s memories are… very bad. There are strange but compelling subplots, and the Selkie metaphor is rather sweetly wrapped up, with Prudence showing some fire and backbone. I wound up enjoying it much more than I expected to.

Note: Most of the series is only loosely linked, but this is a direct sequel to Virtue’s Reward.

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TBR Challenge: Miss Grimsley’s Oxford Career by Carla Kelly

The theme: A comfort read.

Why this one: This theme is a bit of a conundrum, because for me a true comfort read is always a reread. But Kelly’s wholesomeness is usually comforting — though I have been burned before — and many of my most loved books are set in schools and colleges.

I’m not sure this traditional Regency will join that list, but it was great fun to read, though with a serious underpinning. Unlike some of Kelly’s darker books, the stakes are small and personal… yet at the same time, universal. Ellen, the daughter of a wealthy squire, would seem to have very little to distress or vex her other than her ridiculous family. But Ellen was unfortunately born with a thirst for scholarship, and all she has to look forward to is the complete waste of her brains and talents. Enter, pursued by creditors, her rascal brother Gordon, who no longer has the money to pay someone to write his Oxford literature essays…

As Ellen begins disguised scholarly research into A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Measure for Measure, she has the pleasure of learning from talented educators and reading in the sacred Bodleian library. Her masquerade is assisted by two people: the charming young scholar Jim Gatewood (sadly far too poor to be eligible) and the mysterious Lord Chesney, who for some completely unknown reason is greasing wheels for her socially.

It seems perfect that a book so concerned with Shakespeare should have its share of women passing as men (despite a lingering lavender scent,) men with secrets, ridiculous parents, and unwise pranks. But when all the mysteries have been cleared away, Ellen is still left to wrestle with unanswered questions, and yearnings she can’t satisfy.

As you can expect from Kelly, the main characters of this story are goodhearted, witty, and very pleasant to spend time with — and you have to love how much physicality she can get into a completely “clean” book. (It’s not so much sexual tension as just feeling like these characters crave closeness and don’t much care who knows it.) The plot falters towards the end and the resolution is perhaps a little too realistic to be completely satisfying. But all in all, it’s a delightful romp.

 

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TBR Challenge: Miss Chartley’s Guided Tour by Carla Kelly

The theme: A holiday romance. I… don’t have any, at least not in the print TBR. Just not much of a fan. (That thud you heard was Wendy fainting.) A Signet Regency is sort of Christmassy just by juxtaposition, right? Coincidentally, Miss Bates reviewed this one last year.

Why this one: I was feeling depressed over the news and thought a Kelly book would be heartwarming and comforting. I did not pick the right one.

I believe this is the third Kelly I’ve chosen for the TBR challenge, and it’s the first of them I’ve found disappointing. The plot is certainly compelling: Eight years previously, Omega Chartley was left at the altar by the man she loved. (You know this is old because there’s no separate book for her brother, Alpha.) She never knew why; we know only that it had something to do with him covered with blood and horror. When Omega finds her vacation from teaching taking a very odd, adventurous turn, their paths cross again.

There were a number of problems with this one. Although there are certainly instances of Kelly’s way with a carelessly wonderful phrase — “it’s amazing how rapidly one well-brought-up person can go to the dogs,” thinks Omega about herself — much of the prose is kind of spare and awkward, especially in the action scenes. It was also a weird blend of farcical and deadly serious, and it’s hard to say whether there are more implausibilities or plot holes.

And the hero is…  very challenging. Matthew did any number of awful things — as he tells Omega he has two things to confess, “One is terrible and the other no better,” and frankly, I think he was underestimating. It was through weakness and drink rather than overt cruelty, and he is genuinely remorseful, though not so much he doesn’t keep making nasty, unwarranted snipes against Omega when they’re reunited. And I do think he gets a decent, if somewhat understated redemption.

But he only appears halfway through the story, and the second half of the book focuses more on a suspense plot than on cementing the relationship between him and Omega, so it was hard for me to feel the happy ending was truly established. There are some very sweet scenes showing how much he missed her while they were apart, but I would have liked to see more of them learning each other’s new selves.

Although the story has very upsetting elements, it includes many goodhearted characters, including a brave and delightful little girl named Angela. If you’re a fan of precocious children in stories, you’ll adore this.

Addendum: A while after this, I read Kelly’s Season’s Regency Greetings, and that was just the sort of wholesome, cozy read the doctor ordered. (Dr. Cook, of course!) It’s two short Christmas stories about two misfit Regency heroines: one is a proper British governess who is also half Egyptian; the other is a titled heiress who’s just learned she’s actually the adopted illegitimate daughter of a seamstress. Her story is quite heartbreaking, since she’s not only lost her place in life but also the people she considered her parents. Both find amiable misfit men and fall swiftly and charmingly in love. There are sad and even awful elements of the stories, but the overall mood is uplifting.

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Moonlight Mist by Laura London

What tickled my fancy: Evocative, funny, sensual writing.

What ticked me off: Too much Heyer influence, and pain in the butt heroine.

Who might like it: Fans of young, stubborn heroines who are always getting into scrapes. Surely there must be a few.

Most early London books have a dash of Heyer in them — probably very few traditional Regencies don’t — but this was a little more obvious than I care for, with many echoes of The Convenient Marriage. (I don’t know why that particular book has inspired so many imitations; I know of at least two others.) There’s plenty of lively, original plot and characters as well — I can’t imagine Heyer ever making her hero a reknowned poet — so it’s certainly not a total rip-off.

But its flaws are also similar: the stubborn, childish heroine is even more annoying than Heyer’s Horry and the romance is similarly on the light/off-page side. Though I’d say it’s more successful, even as I wonder how anyone could have fallen in love with the obnoxious 17-year-old Lynden, because it oozes that wonderful tension you only find in really well-written traditional Regencies from the no-sex days. Not a great story, certainly not up there with The Bad Baron’s Daughter, but entertaining enough.

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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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