A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

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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