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Author Profile: Carla Kelly

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If you read my recent review of Marriage of Mercy, author Carla Kelly’s newest Regency historical romance, then you already know that I’m a mad fan of the super-talented Kelly’s work. And if you haven’t, here’s my shameless self-promotion/heartfelt shill for the day:

Kelly’s the rare romance novelist who transcends the limitations of the genre. She routinely turns the Regency setting that has become synonymous with silly, wallpaper historicals on its head. Her heroes and heroines are rarely wealthy or titled, and are never exceptionally beautiful or of the alpha male variety. Even minor characters are imbued with detail that makes them real… she employs spare, elegant prose and telling details, and truly creates a world within the covers of her books. Kelly’s the one writer I’ve encountered who can, in three or four sentences, sum up years of a character’s back story.

I somehow managed to turn a review of a superb novel by Kelly into a rave about a favorite author and, in doing so, it occurred to me that I’d like to know more about Kelly. So I did what any nosy girl would do, and asked her if I could profile her for ye olde blog.

As you can tell from my rave above, one of the most striking features of Kelly’s books is the fact that she avoids almost completely the conventions that dictate the traditional Regency romance, even when writing, well, traditional Regency romances. Almost none of her heroes or heroines are the titled lords and ladies that populate the majority of Regency romances, making her books more akin to Jane Austen than most of her contemporaries.

When you find out that Kelly’s career has included stints teaching history and historiography on the universal level, that decision makes more sense.

“The realist in me says there was no way there could ever have been that many dukes, earls, marquesses, etc., and the skeptical historian in me agrees,” says Kelly.  “I write what I want, and I know a whole lot more about ordinary people.”

To call the characters she creates “ordinary,” however, is both too much and too little; most of her characters are, indeed, ordinary people, but in extraordinary circumstances, such as those created by war, a sudden reversal of fortune, or a natural disaster.

When Kelly deviates from the Regency norm, she does so in a big way, as is the case with Marriage of Mercy. While most Regency era novels that deal with war are concerned with the Napoleonic Wars, Kelly’s latest novel features the other, forgotten war of the Regency Era: the War of 1812.

Having never seen the War of 1812 handled in any romance novel, I was anxious to find out what attracted Kelly to this setting.

“My grad school profs talk about the War of 1812 as the “forgotten war,” partly now because it was so long ago, and the Civil War seemed to trump every other 19th century war,” Kelly explains.  “I was in England and Scotland a few years ago [and] while in Edinburgh’s castle, the guide mentioned POWs there from the American revolution. That reminded me of Dartmoor, far to the southwest, and I remembered that American POWs had been kept there. A little research told me I had a good place to begin a novel.”

Kelly’s hunch paid off; the fact that the hero of her book is a paroled American prisoner of war from the Dartmoor prison makes for a unique, unforgettable novel that’s as much about the differences between England and the still-new U.S. as it is about the Regency period, or, for that matter, romance.

But Marriage of Mercy is hardly Kelly’s first foray into an historical period that’s a little off the beaten path as far as historical romance is concerned. Kelly’s first novel, Daughter of Fortune, is set in the American Southwest during the 17th century, and more recent novels have been set in Mormon communities in the American West. Her studies in and love for history continue to lead Kelly in directions most historical romances never go.

“I’m about halfway through a historical mystery/romance set in 1780s northern New Mexico, when the Spanish government was starting to pull back from its (minimal) protection of the frontier, and leaving the hardy rancheros to the mercies of the Comanche. I’m contracted to write four of those,” Kelly says. ”  have another novel to write about the 1912 Mormon “exodus” from Mexico, when Pancho Villa drove them out. And having said that, Harlequin let me write a western set at Fort Laramie in 1876 that should be out next year.”

That last statement is a telling one, both for Kelly’s career trajectory and the future of romance publishing. Like most other romance authors, Kelly has found that e-book publishing, both through smaller publishers and self-publishing, has allowed her to tell stories that traditional publishers could not find shelf space for in bookstores.

” This e-book revolution is a total boon to writers,” says Kelly. “If we have made a name for ourselves, we can bail out of conventional publishing houses and actually – gasp – write what we want. My historical mystery series will be through CamelPress in Seattle, a nimble little house which is bringing out Daughter of Fortune in July.”

E-book publishing has also made it possible for new and old fans of Kelly’s Signet Traditional Regencies to read backlist titles of hers that have been out-of-print for years. While Marian’s Christmas Wish and Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand are both available now, Kelly says that most of her backlist titles will be available shortly, with Libby’s London Merchant and it’s companion/sequel, One Good Turn, as well as Summer Campaign coming up for e-book reissue later this year.

The freedom to publish her works with smaller publishers or on her own also allows Kelly to escape the encroaching trend of sexed-up romance. Longtime readers who loved Kelly’s Traditional Regencies published by Signet have probably noticed a slight difference between those books and the books published by Harlequin — the inclusion of racier love scenes. Kelly’s Harlequins are nowhere near 50 Shades of Gray territory, but for Traditional Regency fans who are used to chaste kisses and longing looks, they represent a significant change. It’s one that Kelly herself admits to having reservations about.

“I feel compelled [to write sex scenes]. Generally, I prefer to not be so graphic, even though I am told that my Harlequins are hardly graphic. Quite frankly, the body’s largest sex organ is the brain.  Done right, a so-called sexless Regency can be quite sexy. If I must get sexy, I prefer my characters to be married. Call me old-fashioned. I don’t care.”

Kelly fans who’ve already zipped through Marriage of Mercy can breathe easily — Kelly’s next release is coming up soon, and features two of her favorite characters.

“I really, really love Owen Davis and Della Anders in the forthcoming My Loving Vigil Keeping, coming out in August [published by Cedar Fort]. It’s a first-ever novel about the Winter Quarters (Scofield) Mine Disaster in 1900, which took place about 40 minutes from my front door.”

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Although the characters from My Loving Vigil Keeping are among Kelly’s favorites, it’s a book that perhaps few of her romance fans have read that Kelly counts as her favorite of her books.

“My favorite work is still Here’s to the Ladies: Stories of the Frontier Army,” Kelly confesses. Here’s to the Ladies is one of several non-fiction works that Kelly has written. However, it may have competition in Kelly’s affections.

My Loving Vigil Keeping is edging up, and my hero and heroine in The Spanish Brand series are getting so appealing. So it goes.”

As for me, my favorite Carla Kelly book is still the one pictured at the very beginning of the post, Summer Campaign. It was one of the first Traditional Regencies I ever picked up, and it set a standard that only a few romance authors have managed to meet. So thank you, Carla Kelly, for your wonderful books and for setting the bar so high!

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Book Review: Marriage of Mercy by Carla Kelly

Marriage of Mercy

Synopsis:

From riches to rags, Grace has had to swallow her pride and get a job as a baker. But everything changes when she’s the beneficiary of a surprise inheritance.

Her benefactor’s deal comes with a catch: give up her life of toil and live in luxury only if she marries his illegitimate son, a prisoner of war. It’s an offer she can’t afford to refuse. But her husband-to-be is dying, and he begs her to take one of his men instead—to marry purely out of mercy….

A marriage of convenience with a complete stranger… Could this arrangement ever work?

I am a faithless reader. The authors that I love are not necessarily auto-buys for me; no matter how much I appreciate an author’s talent, the subject really has to draw me in before I’ll read the book. Here’s the story of how I almost missed a great book by one of my favorite authors, simply because of a bad synopsis.

Although Carla Kelly has been writing category romance for several years now, it’s obvious that Harlequin, the publisher of Marriage of Mercy, has no interest in playing up the strengths of her writing, but is anxious to pigeonhole her books, perhaps to give them greater appeal. That’s the only explanation that makes sense of the fact that Harlequin gave Marriage of Mercy a title that has nothing to do with the story, then slapped a synopsis on the book that gets many of the major plot details wrong.

Since I couldn’t do it better myself, here’s a great synopsis, courtesy of Wendy Clyde’s review at All About Romance:

The daughter of a baronet, the heroine, Grace, has slipped. When her father died penniless, she was forced to become a baker and is now considered a member of the working class. Pragmatic Grace has never minded her new station in life, as she is doing work that she enjoys, and that allows her contact will people from all walks of life – from the candler’s young grandson to the Marquis of Quarle, Lord Thomson. She bonds with the elderly Marquis over her specialty biscuits, Quimby Cremes, taking them to him personally when he becomes too ill to purchase them at the shop himself, and then feeding them to him when he becomes too ill to even do that. When the Marquis passes away, Grace is told to come to the reading of his will. There she learns that she is to be given the dower house and thirty pounds per anum from the estate, and that an American POW, the Marquis’ bastard son, is to be paroled there under her care.

When Grace and the Marquis’ lawyer reach Dartmoor to release the prisoner they find him dying. Before he passes away, the Marquis’ son begs Grace to take another prisoner in his place, and while the lawyer is obtaining medical help the switch is made and Grace releases a different prisoner, Rob Inman. What follows is typical Carla Kelly. Rob quickly endears himself to Grace’s friends and neighbors, and becomes Grace’s friend and confidant. But a villain has plans for Rob, other than his release when the war is over, and it soon becomes difficult for Rob and Grace to decide friend from foe. Mysterious letters appear in the dower house, with instructions such as “Trust No One”, and Rob is followed everywhere he goes by a man that will kill him if he’s ever out of Grace’s sight. In this atmosphere of confusion and danger, Rob and Grace fall in love.

I would have read the book that Wendy Clyde describes in a heartbeat — not so the book Harlequin is touting.

There’s nothing in the Harlequin synopsis that even hints at Marriage of Mercy’s unusual hero, an American prisoner of war, or of the book’s unusual setting, the War of 1812. It’s as though Harlequin hoped you’d buy the book because you love Regency settings and the umpteenth hero who was Wellington’s secret right-hand man.

Whether Harlequin just doesn’t know how to market books like Marriage of Mercy, or is hoping to bait-and-switch readers into buying a book that’s unlike most other Regency-set books, I don’t know. I just hope they appreciate what a rare talent they have in Carla Kelly.

Not to make this review more about the author than the book, but I can’t say enough good things about Kelly. She’s the rare romance novelist who transcends the limitations of the genre. She routinely turns the Regency setting that has become synonymous with silly, wallpaper historicals on its head. Her heroes and heroines are rarely wealthy or titled, and are never exceptionally beautiful or of the alpha male variety. Even minor characters are imbued with detail that makes them real.

While many of her books have the wartime settings that are so popular in Regency romances, glittering balls are few and far between, as are drawing rooms, for that matter. Rather, her talent is for the collateral damage of war that is often glossed over in romance novels; few characters escape unscathed.  But there’s no purple prose in a Carla Kelly book; she employs a spare, elegant prose style, full of small, telling details, and truly creates a world within the covers of her books. Kelly’s the one writer I’ve encountered who can, in three or four sentences, sum up years of a character’s back story.

Marriage of Mercy, I’m happy to say, displays all of Kelly’s remarkable talents. As usual with her books, the characters are unforgettable. In a less-skilled writer’s hands, both Grace and Rob would have been bitter about their lot in life, but Kelly never takes the easy way out, and instead gives us a heroine who has accepted her lost social position with all that her name implies, and a hero who, rather than hold a grudge against the English who’ve attacked his country and imprisoned him in deplorable conditions, brings joy to all he meets.

I can’t say enough about the deft way Kelly handles the War of 1812 in this novel. Kelly truly captures the essence of life during wartime, from the belligerent treatment of prisoners of war to the uncertainty faced by citizens in both countries in an era when news from the war front was weeks or months out of date.

My only minor quibble with Marriage of Mercy revolves around the subplot that Wendy Clyde mentions, the mysterious letters and even more mysterious villain. Grace and Rob’s story simply didn’t need this, and wonder if that may not have been an editorial decision on the part of Harlequin.

I give Marriage of Mercy 4 out of 5 Quimby Cremes. Grace and Rob, however, get 5 each! 

No matter what its title, Marriage of Mercy is well worth reading. I just wish Harlequin would have a bit more faith in an author who has done much to prove her worth.

Marriage of Mercy

Carla Kelly

Mass Market Paperback: 288 pages

Publisher: Harlequin

Release Date: May 22, 2012

Did you like this book, dumpling? Here are a couple more books similar to Marriage of Mercy:

Charity Begins at Home by Alicia Rasley (look over that awful cover – it’s a good one, I promise)

One Perfect Rose by Mary Jo Putney