Wednesday, August 21, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Miss Grimsley's Oxford Career by Carla Kelly


Beautiful and brilliant, Miss Ellen Grimsley considers it a scandal that she cannot attend Oxford simply because she's female, while a dashing dunderhead like her older brother, Gordon, is perfectly free to pursue the education of her dreams.  That's why Miss Grimsley sees nothing wrong with donning her brother's robes to do his work for him--even though she knows that society would reel in shock at the merest hint of such a notion.

But an even great scandal looms for this unconventional heroine when a charming Shakespearean scholar learns her secret.  Now she's in for some lessons in an entirely different subject--love.


Although Carla Kelly is well known among her readers as a writer of Regency romance, her main interest (and first writing success) is Western American fiction—more specifically, writing about America's Indian Wars. Although she had sold some of her work before, it was not until Carla began work in the National Park Service as a ranger/historian at Fort Laramie National Historic Site did she get serious about her writing career. (Or as she would be the first to admit, as serious as it gets.)

Carla wrote a series of what she now refers to as the "Fort Laramie stories," which are tales of the men, women and children of the Indian Wars era in Western history. Two of her stories, A Season for Heroes and Kathleen Flaherty's Long Winter, earned her Spur Awards from the Western Writers of America. She was the second woman to earn two Spurs from WWA (which, as everyone knows, is all you need to ride a horse). Her entire Indian Wars collection was published in 2003 as Here's to the Ladies: Stories of the Frontier Army. It remains her favorite work.

The mother of five children, Carla has always allowed her kids to earn their keep by appearing in her Regencies, most notably Marian's Christmas Wish, which is peopled by all kinds of relatives. Grown now, the Kelly kids are scattered here and there across the U.S. They continue to provide feedback, furnish fodder for stories and make frantic phone calls home during the holidays for recipes. (Carla Kelly is some cook.)

Carla's husband, Martin, is Director of Theatre at Valley City State University, in Valley City, North Dakota. Carla is currently overworked as a staff writer at the local daily newspaper. She also writes a weekly, award-winning column, "Prairie Lite."

Carla only started writing Regencies because of her interest in the Napoleonic Wars, which figures in many of her Regency novels and short stories. She specializes in writing about warfare at sea, and about the ordinary people of the British Isles who were, let's face it, far more numerous than lords and ladies.

Hobbies? She likes to crochet afghans, and read British crime fiction and history, principally military history. She's never happier than talking about the fur trade or Indian Wars with Park Service cronies. Her most recent gig with the National Park Service was at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site on the Montana/North Dakota border.

Here's another side to this somewhat prosaic woman: She recently edited the fur trade journal of Swiss artist Rudolf F. Kurz (the 1851-1852 portion), and is gratified now and then to be asked to speak on scholarly subjects. She has also worked for the State Historical Society of North Dakota as a contract researcher. This has taken her to glamorous drudgery in several national archives and military history repositories. Gray archives boxes and old documents make her salivate.

Her mantra for writing comes from the subject of her thesis, Robert Utley, that dean of Indian Wars history. He told her the secret to writing is "to put your ass in the chair and keep it there until you're done." He's right, of course.

Her three favorite fictional works have remained constant through the years, although their rankings tend to shift: War and Peace, The Lawrenceville Stories, and A Town Like Alice. Favorite historical works are One Vast Winter Count, On the Border with Mackenzie and Crossing the Line. Favorite crime fiction authors are Michael Connelly, John Harvey and Peter Robinson.

And that's all she can think of that would interest anyone. Carla Kelly is quite ordinary, except when she is sometimes prevailed upon to sing a scurrilous song about lumberjacks, or warble "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" in Latin.


Loved it! Ellen Grimsley wants more than anything to attend Oxford University.  She longs to be able to explore and map the world. There is only one problem, she lives in a time and place where such things aren't considered appropriate for females.  But with the aid of her aunt she leaves home to attend Miss Dignam's Select Female Academy hoping to find at least an academic challenge. What she is not looking for is love or scandal, but that is exactly what she finds.  She returns home embarrassed and determined to avoid marriage despite the charms of James Gatewood, a Shakespearean scholar. With relations that exasperate her, a suitor who won't give up, and her own dreams at stake can Ellen find a place to belong?

I thoroughly enjoyed this story, the characters, the plot, and the themes.  Jim and Ellen were my favorite parts, their interactions were quite entertaining.  Both of them have dreams that are beyond what their families and society plan for them.  I sympathized with them, especially Ellen.  Ellen is feisty and intelligent and very determined while Jim is untidy, studious, and surprisingly hard to discourage.  Ellen's family provides some interesting twists to the story, especially when Ellen's brother, Gordon, who is attending Oxford, asks Ellen to help him with his Shakespeare papers. There is also Ellen's dressing as a man, duels, weddings, and lots of sucking up. With plenty of humor and period details, I can highly recommend this one to readers who enjoy clean regency romance.  One of my all time favorites.

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