Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Romance with a Proxy Stepbrother

A few months ago, Smexy Books had a post about the recent popularity of step-sibling romances. The author found it somewhat perplexing, since she expected to find books breaking taboos and instead found a book where the adult protagonists were strangers when their respective parents married.

I've been thinking about the reasons for the appeal of such books. I don't think it is necessarily because readers are looking for quasi-incest fantasies. I think they are looking for close-knit family fantasies.

In modern society, we often live far away from our parents, who are often divorced. Holiday visits may require more diplomacy than restoring normal relations with Cuba. Wouldn't it be convenient if your significant other already had ties to your family? You wouldn't have to explain your father's weird quirks or worry that your husband will be offended by his jokes.

Historical romances are less likely to feature the step-sibling trope (possibly because marriages were less fluid in prior eras). However, the common tropes of Brother's Best Friend and Childhood Friend are functionally similar. Usually one protagonist (usually the hero) comes from a broken home and the other (usually the heroine) has a loving family. A marriage between them gives the de facto orphan an official place in the family he already admires/envies.

My favorite book of this type is Last Night's Scandal by Loretta Chase. We first met the protagonists as children in Chase's third Carsington Brothers book, Lord Perfect. Peregrine's irresponsible parents essentially abandoned him to the care of servants and distant relatives, and Benedict Carsington became the father figure he never had. Benedict's stepdaughter, Olivia, was Peregrine's childhood partner in crime. After several years apart, they meet again as adults, and sparks fly.

Tessa Dare's Goddess of the Hunt is a very charming example of the Brother's Best Friend trope. Lucy asks Jeremy to coach her in seductive wiles, so she may win her longtime crush. He is reluctant, but he fears she might ask someone less honorable for assistance (a common justification for overcoming such scruples in romance novels), so he agrees. He gradually sees her not as a little-sister type
but as a woman. Her newly-honed skills do not bring her the quarry she wanted, and she feels the sting of rejection, leading her to seek comfort in Jeremy's arms. In the end, they realize they are in love with each other, and Jeremy finally has the loving family he has always lacked.

Caroline Linden's Love and Other Scandals is a different type of Brother's Best Friend romance. In this case, Joan Bennett thoroughly disapproves of her brother's debauched friend Tristin Burke. The set-up has a little bit in common with Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels (which is really in a class all by itself). Linden's story is far less outrageous, but it is a satisfying enemies-to-lovers story with a family connection.

The most convoluted family relationship between protagonists I have found belongs to Katharine Ashe's I Loved a Rogue. As the conclusion to her Prince Catchers series, it solves the mystery of the Caulfield sisters' parentage. While it seems to be a Childhood Friend romance, from the very beginning I felt like the protagonists were de facto step-siblings. Taliesin was not related by blood nor adoption to Elinor's adoptive father, but he spent his boyhood summers as their live-in servant. He was basically a male Cinderella (cleaning the ashes from the hearth was specifically one of his chores). He and Elinor go on a quest to find her birth family, and he discovers secrets about his own background that he never suspected. In the end, the mentor who once sent him away (which was not intended as a rejection, although Taliesin always perceived it as such) becomes his father-in-law. I'm sure that won't make family Christmas gatherings at all awkward.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

R E S P E C T

I recently read a romance novel that was recommended by a friend. It was a well-written Regency-set historical, which kept me reading despite the presence of a trope I really hate, the Evil Mother.

All too often, the Evil Mother is used to explain (and excuse) an alpha hero's misogyny. This book took it up a notch. The mother was intentionally cruel to one of her children (the hero). He also had an unfaithful ex-fiancée who confirmed his worldview that women are not to be trusted and love will destroy a man.

Sometimes a misogynist alpha hero is so cartoonish that I can enjoy the book ironically and revel in his eventual grovel and redemption by the love of the heroine. This book's alpha hero was not at all cartoonish. He was entirely realistic in the way he acted on his attraction to the heroine, seduced her into not-quite-proper behavior, then treated her with contempt. He was also realistic in the way he sincerely apologized the next day with flowers and kind words, keeping her emotionally off-balance and reeling her in.

That is precisely the way that abusers keep their victims in the relationship. As a child, I had a female relative who was occasionally beaten by her husband. At least twice that I know of, she decided to leave him, only to come back after he presented her with a lavish gift and promised to never do it again. She finally had enough and divorced him, but it took several years.

I find myself unable to believe in a hero who treats most women with contempt but magically recognizes that the heroine is different. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. For me, the best predictor of a Happily Ever After is the way the hero treats the other women in his life. He may be opposed to marriage or commitment, he may dislike and avoid a particular type of woman, but that does not require him to despise women in general.

The only romance with a misogynist hero that worked for me was The Dangerous Viscount by Miranda Neville. In that case, Sebastian was still a work in progress. He had very limited experience with women, and he was mainly parroting the opinions of the uncle who raised him. It wasn't so much a magical transformation as a gradual education that brought him around. He was also a victim of bullying and felt the need to act out a sort of revenge fantasy. I could deeply sympathize with that.

I greatly prefer heroes who like and respect women in general, even if they need to adjust their attitudes about a woman's proper place (after all, if there were no initial conflict, the book would be no fun).

Friday, June 19, 2015

Napoleon, Snuff Salesman

In the wake of this week's bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo, I've been thinking a lot about Napoleon's long-term impact on the world -- Napoleonic code (still the basis for the legal system in France), the Sphinx's missing nose (shot off by Napoleon's invading soldiers), the westward expansion of the United States (thanks to the 1803 Louisiana Purchase), and the end of the Republic of Venice, just off the top of my head.

Knowing all these things, I was surprised to learn that, during his lifetime, wooden statues of Napoleon were used to sell snuff. The Emperor was known to be an aficionado, and so tobacconist shops would display these statues to advertise their wares, much like American tobacconists displayed wooden statues of Native Americans (commonly called "cigar store Indians").

This particular specimen is the last survivor of three brought to England from France in 1820. It was carved from a single piece of oak and spent more than a century standing outside various shops in York. The statue's 20th-century adventures put me in mind of the Stanley Cup. During WWII, some soldiers having a bit of fun took Napoleon to the River Ouse (he was rescued at Naburn Lock). He also spent a night in jail when the shopkeeper forgot to bring him in for the night.

He is now on loan to the Merchant Adventurer's Company, safe and dry inside their Hall, looking remarkably well-preserved for his age.

Friday, June 12, 2015

My Top Five

NPR is celebrating romance with the NPR Books Summer of Love. Click on the link to nominate up to five of your favorite romance novels (or series; a short series can be nominated as a unit).

It was very hard to pick five. There are so many excellent romances out there. All of my nominees are historicals (since that is my preferred subgenre). All are by authors with several other excellent books waiting to be discovered by new readers.

They are also books that I have discussed before on my blog, because they have particular qualities or themes that resonate with me, or particularly memorable characters.

So here are the five that I nominated to NPR:

1. The Forbidden Rose by Joanna Bourne - I could have nominated her entire Spymaster series (and I suspect some other readers did exactly that). I selected this single book instead, because I think it is an excellent introduction to her work. It is a fantastic tale of suspense, intrigue and romance during the Reign of Terror. The plot contains some nods to The Scarlet Pimpernel and Les Miserables. The heroine is an aristocrat with a fugitive mad scholar father and a scheming cousin. The hero is a British spy with his own family issues. The marvelous secondary characters nearly steal the book. The final scene is beautiful and poignant (and appears again from a different point of view in a later book in the series).

2. Mr. Impossible by Loretta Chase - This is a rollicking Egyptian adventure featuring an independent widow trying to decipher the Rosetta Stone and a ne'er-do-well who is entirely honest about his nature: “I may be stupid,” Rupert said, “but I’m irresistibly attractive.”...“And being a great, dumb ox,” he went on, “I’m wonderfully easy to manage.” He is unapologetic about his appetites and surprised by the heroine's inhibitions, but he treats her with respect. He is my favorite type of rake. As a fan of both Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series and the Brendan Fraser movie The Mummy, I really enjoyed the plot, and the characters are wonderful. This is Book 2 in her Carsington Brothers series, and definitely my favorite.

3. Confessions from an Arranged Marriage by Miranda Neville - This is one of my favorite bluestocking/rake romances. It also features a rare example of a romance heroine with living, supportive parents. Although the hero has a troubled relationship with his father, his mother is also decent and loving. This is extremely refreshing after reading so many historical romances where the hero is a misogynist thanks to a toxic mother. The book is also a marriage of convenience romance, and Neville skillfully shows love and trust developing between two people who didn't even like each other before they were forced to marry. They become true partners, helping each other achieve long-held ambitions, overcome old fears, and fulfill their new responsibilities.

4. A Week to Be Wicked by Tessa Dare - Another delightful bluestocking/rake romance. This one is also a road trip romance, another trope that I enjoy. The hero has hidden pain, and the heroine has scholarly ambitions. They bond during a trip to Edinburgh that is filled with misadventures. They also get up to quite a bit of naughtiness on the road. This is part of the author's Spindle Cove series, which was hit-and-miss for me. I have enjoyed most of Tessa Dare's books, but this one is my favorite by far.

5. Flowers From the Storm by Laura Kinsale - This is the oldest book I nominated, originally published in 1992. It has a very unusual plot and wonderful writing. Kinsale was among the first romance authors to create deeply damaged but redeemable heroes, and no one does it better. The hero is a duke and also a genius mathematician. He is every bit as arrogant and selfish as his rank and privilege can make him. Then he suffers a cerebral hemorrhage that damages his brain and leaves him at the mercy of unscrupulous relatives, who have him committed to an asylum. He learns who his true friends are, including a Quaker mathematical colleague and his daughter Maddie (the heroine).

I wish I could have nominated more than five.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Joys of Finding One's Tribe

There have been a great many recent blog posts in the wake of last month's RT Booklovers Convention celebrating the warmth and acceptance within the romance community. Since a great many romance readers and writers are shy introverts by nature, it can be a surprise to not feel like an odd duck in social situations. It can also be a tremendous relief to be surrounded by others who share your interests. So many of us self-censor our opinions and preferences in order to fit in.

It is often the case that the heroine of a romance novel is a social misfit in some way. This is a useful plot device, since it serves to emotionally isolate her and thus boost the impact of her growing romance with the hero. It also creates reader sympathy for the heroine, since so many of us had unpleasant experiences in high school. We can easily imagine the pain of ostracized by the ton because we were once ostracized by the popular kids.

As happy as it makes me to read about the heroine falling in mutual love with a hero who accepts her for her true self, there is an added pleasure to reading a story where the awkward heroine finds a group of friends who also accept her. Often, it is the support of such friends who enable the heroine to shine and attract the hero (since self-confidence is very attractive).

Tessa Dare wrote an entire series around the premise of a quiet resort town where socially awkward ladies could find acceptance. Spindle Cove is introduced in A Night to Surrender and revisited in three more full-length novels and two novellas. Dare's misfit heroines who find acceptance included bluestockings, an asthma sufferer, a young woman with a port-wine stain covering much of her face, and a working-class tavern wench who becomes a duchess.

Miranda Neville's Wild Quartet series revolved around a group of bohemian friends known as the Townsend Set (after a couple who hosted informal salons in their home and regularly fed starving artists). In Lady Windermere's Lover, Cynthia first finds love and acceptance not from her husband (who treated her quite shamefully during the early days of their marriage) but from his old friends, Caro Townsend and Julian Denford. Coming from a middle-class background, Cynthia was completely isolated after her marriage. Having Caro to take her under her wing and Julian to escort her around town allowed her to blossom and find a place in her husband's world. It also allowed her to stand up for herself when he returned from a diplomatic posting abroad.

Courtney Milan's The Heiress Effect features a heroine whose social isolation is largely by choice (she has reasons for wishing to avoid marriage without having to actually turn down a decent proposal). In a delightful twist, the two frenemies who pretended to befriend her in order to make her look ridiculous turned into genuine friends who stood by her when it really counted.

As much as I enjoy reading a novel that includes already-established, strong female friendships, there is a special joy in a story where the heroine finds genuine friendship and acceptance for the first time, apart from the romance.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Lingering in Old School Venice

Reading The Courtesan Duchess put me in the mood for more historical romances set in Venice. I pulled out a book that has been in my TBR pile for several months -- the recent reprint of Anne Stuart's Demon Count Novels (available in print as well as the ebook collection mentioned on the website).

 The novels were originally published in 1980, and it shows (in a good way). So far, I have only read the first one (The Demon Count). It is an obvious homage to gothic novels. Like Jane Eyre, it is told in first person. Unlike many recent first person new adult romances, there is only one narrator, so we only get the heroine's point of view. The eponymous count remains a figure of mystery for most of the novel. Is he an evil murderer? A spy? A vampire, as the superstitious locals believe?


Like many old school historical romances, it contains an emotionally-distant older hero who is frequently patronizing and occasionally abusive toward the heroine. There is much melodrama, described with many adjectives. The setting is exotic. The heroine had a toxic mother, and the hero had a toxic wife (now deceased). Unlike most old school romances, however, the heroine is rather savvy and cynical (except when she is occasionally naïve and trusting).

Anne Stuart has fun with genre tropes. There are surly servants and rival suitors. The palazzo is crumbling and filthy, like every good haunted house should be. There is a secret room. The heroine survives multiple attempts on her life (one of which is averted by a heroic 20-pound cat). At one point, the demon count responds to the heroine's suspicions by telling her she should re-read Northanger Abbey (itself a parody of gothic novels, in which the heroine suspects her host is a vampire who murdered his late wife).

I did not get the impression that Anne Stuart actually visited Venice before writing the book. There is an obligatory visit to Florian's, and a reference to some other characters going to Torcello for a picnic, but there is a dearth of detail about those places. Joanna Shupe used both of those settings in The Courtesan Duchess and made me feel like she had been there. The descriptions of Venice in The Demon Count could have come from any guidebook (or a great many movies).

Still, I loved the general atmosphere, and I have sufficient memories (and vacation photos) of my own to imagine in vivid detail the canals, campos and crumbling palazzos that Charlotte Morrow encountered in Venice.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Decameron Nights

Many years ago, I came across a Hollywood B-movie from 1953 called Decameron Nights. It was an adaptation of Giovanni Boccaccio's story collection starring Louis Jourdan and Joan Fontaine (a young Joan Collins also appears in the film). Although Boccaccio wrote in the 14th century, the movie's costumes were a Hollywood version of 15th century clothing. I rather enjoy cheesy historical films of that era, so I watched it more than once.

My favorite of the film's tales was that of a female physician who was rewarded with her choice of husband. Her new spouse had no say in the matter, however, and he refused to consummate the marriage or live with his wife until she had born his son and worn his ring. Through a clever ruse, she manages to do both, and rather than be furious at her subterfuge, he happily keeps his promise. In Boccaccio's version, the clever wife is named Gillette; the film changed it to Isabella (perhaps because the original name was most familiar in the U.S. as a brand of razor blades and was no longer given to girls). Fans of Shakespeare may recognize the plot of All's Well That Ends Well, which was based on Boccaccio's tale.

For years, I've wanted to write a historical romance that is loosely based on this story. It is problematic, however. One needs to make the hero enough of an asshat to justify the heroine essentially recreating the most problematic scene from Revenge of the Nerds. It is very difficult to handle that without making either the hero or the heroine completely unsympathetic.

I was intrigued when I read the blurb for Joanna Shupe's The Courtesan Duchess, because I realized she had attempted that very thing. I was dying to know how she handled it. It seems that she made a conscious decision to draw upon the mores of an earlier era. The book feels like a deliberate homage to old school historical romances. It includes some elements -- like an adversarial relationship between hero & heroine and infidelity by the hero on the page -- that have definitely gone out of fashion but were once common in the genre.

Florian's, which looks much as it might
have in Nick's day.
Shupe made Venice come alive for me with her descriptions; I suspect she has actually been there in the Autumn, when the acqua alta floods wax and wane during the week. I'm enjoying the book in a nostalgic way. It brings back fond memories of Venice and also fond memories of romances I read in my younger days. It is not a clone of those books, however. There is an awareness that reader attitudes and cultural values have changed. I'm looking forward to learning how Nick and Julia overcome their past mistakes and make amends.