Wednesday, February 25, 2015

I'm Ready for My Close-Up, Mr. Trebek

Several months ago, I joked on this blog: "If only Jeopardy! had a Classic Romance Novels category (I'm still waiting for my opportunity to tell Alex Trebek about the time I crashed an actual debutante ball)."

Monday's game this week included a new category, "Harlequin Romance Novel Titles 2014". Last week, there was a clue about Nora Roberts in the "Female Authors" category.

In the past year, there have been at least a few contestants who admitted to writing romance novels. One of them won $37,400 during his three-day run.

Now I regret not mentioning being an aspiring romance author when I auditioned for Jeopardy! last year, because there seems to be some pent-up demand. Oh well, I can always try again next year. After all, Arthur Chu didn't get a call after his first audition.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Progress Sometimes Isn't

This unlandscaped bit of green space is what now sits on the site of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. Who would ever guess that this under-resourced park in a nondescript South London neighborhood (near the Vauxhall train station) once attracted the highest in the land and was painted by great artists like Canaletto? Two hundred  years ago, it looked very different. The Gardens were at their best between 1785 (when admission was first charged) and 1840 (when its owners went bankrupt). New owners reopened the Gardens until 1859.
 

A musical pageant at Vauxhall Gardens;
c.1840 Watercolour, the British Museum
There were once structures for music, dancing and dining. Trees were hung with Japanese lanterns that were lit at night by means of fuses connecting them, making the lighting an amusing spectacle in its own right. Fireworks provided an exciting finale to the evening's entertainments. Many a historical romance heroine was ruined or nearly ruined along its darkened walks (Katherine Huxtable in Mary Balogh's Then Comes Seduction comes immediately to mind).
 
You can see some wonderful historical images of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens on this Two Nerdy History Girls' Pinterest board and this terrific blog devoted to Early British & American Public Gardens & Grounds.
 
Now, no trace remains of its former glory. Perhaps someday the London Borough of Lambeth will at least plant some trees and put up a modest gazebo. I hope the construction activity currently going on has something to do with improvements to the park.
 
 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Love and Grief

The Octagon Room, where Augusta and
Joss first have a private conversation.
Last week, I read Theresa Romain's Secrets of a Scandalous Heiress. The author has become an auto-buy for me. She has a very clever way of inverting the usual gender roles in historical romance. This was most obvious in To Charm a Naughty Countess, which featured a rakish heroine and a virgin hero. To a lesser extent, she did something similar in her latest book. I am accustomed to reading about a heroine who lacks confidence in herself and a hero who is emotionally unavailable and hostile to the idea of falling in love. In this book, it is Joss Everett who lacks confidence in both his personal appeal and his career prospects, and Augusta Meredith who wants a temporary, no-strings-attached affair.

I was attracted to the book largely for its Bath location. I am a Jane Austen fan, so I have long been fascinated by the city that she enjoyed as a visitor but came to dislike as a resident. I was lucky enough to visit a couple years ago, so I loved reading scenes that were set in locations that I knew personally.

The canal as seen from Sydney Gardens, where Joss and
Augusta watched a punt passing beneath a footbridge.
What really grabbed me on a visceral level, however, was Augusta's state of mind when she came to Bath. In the recent past, she lost both of her parents. With her inheritance strictly controlled by trustees, the man who had been courting her in secret (who had already seduced her) abandoned her for an heiress with a more accessible fortune. She was struggling to regain the person she used to be while trying to protect her heart from new pain. She decided to find a temporary lover in a city full of transients, hoping that by dictating the terms of the affair, she could regain her sense of control and self-worth while exorcising the memory of her faithless suitor. What she really craves, of course, is human connection and true love, but she is afraid to admit her need, even to herself.

This strongly resonated with me, because I experienced a similar emotional state some decades ago, during my first year after college. I was struggling to find a job so I could afford to move out of my parents' house. The grandmother who helped raise me succumbed to cancer, and a younger cousin who was also a close friend committed suicide. I was rather numb with grief, and I worried that leaning on my parents for emotional support would undermine my quest for independence.

My craving for human contact and distraction led me to a casual association that I would not have accepted otherwise. We didn't use the term friends-with-benefits in those days, but that is essentially how it began. Like Augusta, I fooled myself into believing that was all I needed, and I resisted admitting, even to myself, that I had become emotionally attached.

Although my story arc diverged quite a bit from Augusta's, and I rode an emotional roller coaster for about a year and a half, the ending was not dissimilar. I am still married to my former friend-with-benefits (and he is still my best friend).

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

My Love, My Enemy: The War of 1812 through the Lens of WWII

I recently finished Jan Cox Speas' classic novel My Love, My Enemy. Set during the War of 1812, it has several plot elements in common with The Windflower. Both novels feature a naïve 18-year-old American heroine who becomes entangled with an aristocratic British spy and becomes a pampered prisoner aboard a privateer's ship, where she befriends the captain and crew.

The two books are very different, however. The Windflower is a 1980s genre romance of the bodice-ripper era, filled with graphic (if occasionally unrealistic) sensuality. My Love, My Enemy is much more like a traditional regency romance, with only a few kisses and hints of thoroughly-repressed passion. It violates other romance genre expectations as well. The hero and heroine are apart for much of the time. The heroine receives her first kiss not from the hero, but from a rival for his affections. In fact, I found myself wondering which man she was really going to choose toward the end. I wonder if the author had a first draft somewhere with a different ending (like the original cut of the movie Pretty in Pink, where Darcy ended up with Ducky rather than Blaine).

Jan Cox Speas obviously did her research for My Love, My Enemy. The big events of the war are accurately portrayed. The antagonism between the Americans and British however, is continually undermined by the text. Although the story is mostly told through the point of view of American Page Bradley, Speas repeatedly tells us of the discipline and effectiveness of the British soldiers fighting in the peninsula under Wellington. American privateer Daniel Mason (who rather reminds me of Han Solo) takes Lord Hazard prisoner but comes to like and respect him very much, even though they are not only enemies in war but also rivals in love. The New Englanders dislike the British but distrust the French more, and many think the Madison administration chose the wrong side in the Napoleonic wars.

This grudging respect for the British and distrust of the French in an American novel about the War of 1812 makes a lot more sense when you realize it was written in 1961, by an author who came of age during World War II. Page Bradley's experiences and impressions during her globe-trotting misadventures would have held special resonance for readers who lived through another trans-Atlantic war.

The account of the privateer ship Caprice harassing a convoy and picking off merchantman one by one while their inadequate British navy escort looked on helplessly immediately reminded me of my grandfather's stories about a disastrous North Atlantic convoy that was destroyed by the Germans in July of 1942 after the British Admiralty ordered the military ships to scatter.

When Page and her chaperone are left at the house of an elderly Breton woman until the men's immediate wartime duties are discharged and safe passage can be arranged, the account of her wait is poignant and realistic. They are a house full of women awaiting the return of a British officer and an American sailor. Marie-Therese, the village girl who cooks for the household, laments that she will never marry, for Napoleon has conscripted all of the local men, and most of them will never come home. Fortunately for her, she ends up going to America as the bride of an American sailor, like a great many Frenchwomen did in the 1940s.

There is also a moving description of the English countryside, in which Page observes that the people there never experienced the harsh realities of the war. Their fields and hedgerows were undamaged, and they had plenty to eat. In this particular section, England stands in for America. While the Napoleonic wars were fought entirely outside of England, World War II was not. British cities were heavily damaged during the Blitz, and British civilians suffered hardships that Americans (outside of Hawaii) never knew.

Speas' characters discuss the relative strengths of the British and American navies in a way that foreshadows the eventual shift of superpower status from the former to the latter. That shift finally occurred during World War II. At the beginning of the war, Britannia still ruled the seas. By the end, American shipbuilding capacity (much of it located in the mid-Atlantic states where Speas lived and set her novel) allowed the USA to rule its own worldwide empire.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Two Moving Romances with Brain-Damaged Heroes

Many years ago, I read Laura Kinsale's Flowers from the Storm. I've read most of her books, and this one is my favorite. Kinsale was one of the first romance authors to write about deeply damaged heroes, and she remains the best, in my opinion.

The hero, Christian, is a rakish duke who is also a mathematical genius. Over the years he has formed a friendship with a fellow mathematician who is a devout Quaker. His friend's daughter, Maddie (short for Archimedea), is thoroughly disapproving of the promiscuous duke but shows him the respect due to her father's friend.

Early in the book, Christian suffers a cerebral hemorrhage. Like many stroke victims, he is partially paralyzed at first, and his speech is severely compromised. His family sends him to an asylum, where he is treated every bit as badly as one would expect in that time and place, despite his aristocratic title. As Christian slowly begins to recover, he realizes that his relatives want to keep him locked up, so they can control the ducal property.

He manages to escape and find refuge with Maddie and her father. The only way he can wrest legal control back from his grasping relatives is to make Maddie his next of kin by marrying her, then recover sufficiently to convince the authorities that he is of sound mind, so the marriage cannot be put aside. The story involves his efforts to convince her and the difficulties in bridging the gap between their worlds, made all the more difficult by his struggles to find and form words. Their differences were many, but Kinsale made me believe in their ability to love each other and find ways to compromise.

This book was ahead of its time in so many ways. In addition to the realistic portrayal of Christian's brain injury, Maddie's Quaker religion is not just an opposites-attract plot point. Her faith and moral beliefs are central to who she is as a person. When her husband seduces her, she realizes that she desperately wants him but also feels guilty for those desires, because she suspects her reasons for marrying him were not purely altruistic. She is angry when he hosts a lavish ball, spending freely on luxurious food and decorations, when so many Londoners are starving and homeless.

I periodically re-read this book, when the details have faded sufficiently from my memory that the scenes and dialogue once again feel fresh. I consider it one of the best romance novels ever written.

I recently read Mary Balogh's Only Enchanting, the latest in her Survivor's Club series, which are all about wounded veterans of the Peninsular War. The hero of the latest installment is Flavian, a viscount who suffered a traumatic brain injury in battle. Years later, he is mostly recovered, although he still speaks with a stammer and occasionally suffers from mild aphasia. He also has gaps in his memory that frustrate him. He briefly meets the heroine, Agnes, at a friend's party and finds her only mildly attractive but somehow memorable.

When it becomes clear that his family has plans to reunite him with his former fiancée, he finds the idea repugnant but cannot quite remember what it is about her that bothers him so much. He courts Agnes and convinces her to marry him because he feels like he will be safe with her (although he is not sure what need he has for safety).

The story is well-written, and I enjoyed it. I could not help comparing it to Flowers from the Storm, though, and that is a very high bar. Both books have a brain-damaged, rakish hero with aphasia who pressures a reluctant woman into marriage to shield him from the manipulations of his relatives. The stakes are far lower in Only Enchanting, since Flavian does not face being committed to an asylum.

Balogh has been writing about wounded veterans of the Napoleonic Wars for a number of years, even before her Survivor's Club series. The reading public's interest in such stories has undoubtedly been influenced by the large number of wounded veterans who have come home from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are some contemporary romances published in recent years with military veteran heroes who have suffered traumatic brain injuries, and it is unsurprising that Regency-set historicals are also focusing more on the fall-out from that era's lengthy and brutal overseas conflicts.

I can recommend both books as good reads. If you plan to read both of them, however, I recommend that you read Only Enchanting first, and let it serve as the opening act.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Enduring Allure of Exotic Locations

Though many thousands of generations have passed since stone tools and the wearing of animal skins allowed our ancestors to colonize the Earth's colder regions, where there was less human competition for scarce resources, their pale-skinned, northern-adapted descendants have not stopped craving more tropical climes.

This craving becomes particularly acute in the winter, but it never really leaves us. There may be many practical reasons why we do not actually live in the tropics, but it remains a persistent romantic dream. Destination weddings and honeymoons tend to be in places like Hawaii or the Caribbean rather than Aspen, Colorado. There is something about seeing lush vegetation and low-hanging fruit that brings out our primal urge to mate.

The Mediterranean has long held a fascination for me. As a child, I became interested in Greek mythology via Wonder Woman comic books. In college, I took elective courses in both the history and literature of ancient Greece. I also read a great many Harlequin (contemporary) romances that featured a Greek tycoon hero and lush island location. I combined my love of history with my love of a good romantic novel when I devoured Dorothy Dunnett's epic Lymond Chronicles and House of Niccolo series. Her books made me wish to visit Venice, Cyprus and Malta. I did finally make it to Venice and a couple of Greek islands. Cyprus and Malta are still on my bucket list.

For many mainland Americans, Hawaii is synonymous with paradise. This is partly due to the rise of airline tourism after World War II. The new state was marketed as paradise on Earth. There is an undeniably Eden-like quality to the islands, perhaps because they are relatively young in geological terms. It is easy to imagine oneself shedding the trappings of civilization to live in a little grass shack. Seeing toned and bronzed young men with Polynesian tattoos on the beach is a definite bonus. I remember reading (back in the 1980s) an old-school historical romance set in Hawaii (the author and title both elude me, but the heroine's name or nickname was Jasmine/Pikake) that was obviously influenced by James Michener's Hawaii.

For the time being, I will have to comfort myself with vicarious travel and Hawaiian coffee. Only a couple more months until Spring. If I'm lucky, the snow will melt by then.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Comfort Reads for the Polar Vortex

After a cold and snowy November and a deceptively mild December, winter has reasserted itself here in the upper Midwest. Today's forecast high was -4 degrees F, and I am pathetically grateful that the actual temperature has climbed two degrees above that.

To add insult to injury, my Amazon pre-order of Miranda Neville's The Duke of Dark Desires and Tessa Dare's Say Yes to the Marquess (which shipped on December 30) has still not arrived -- I fear the delivery vehicle is frozen in a ditch somewhere.

Fortunately, I have stockpiled a sufficient supply of romance novels to help keep me warm this winter. I recently read Suzanne Enoch's Rogue with a Brogue. I bought it over the summer but didn't get to it until after Christmas. I am not generally a fan of Scottish romances, but I usually enjoy Enoch's Regency historicals. I stuck with her latest series because the first book, The Devil Wears Kilts, was about a Scottish laird who came to London for the Season. The Scottish elements were balanced with enough London ballroom catnip for me to enjoy it. The Scottish elements are a bigger part of the plot of the second book, which involves a hero and heroine from rival clans fleeing arranged marriages and falling in love on their way to Scotland. To my surprise, I found myself liking this book even more than the previous one.

That may be because road trip romances are also catnip to me. One of my favorite authors, Cecilia Grant, recently released an e-novella, A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong, which was free for a while in December as a gift to her readers. It is a tale of chance-met people traveling together on their way to separate family holiday gatherings who find themselves weathering a series of disasters. Imagine a Regency romance version of Planes, Trains and Automobiles. I found it perfectly delightful.

My all-time favorite road trip romance novel is A Week to Be Wicked by Tessa Dare. Its heroine is a shy bluestocking and its hero a charismatic and mischievous rake with hidden insecurities. Yum.

The Kindle app on my smartphone has been getting more of a workout lately. I prefer to read print books, but some excellent romances are occasionally available at deep discounts (or sometimes only) in digital versions. I discovered Courtney Milan last year. I have been trying to ration myself when it comes to buying her books, both because they tend to be expensive and because I have a long list of other authors I wish to try. When The Duchess War was available for free as an ebook last month, I jumped. The first full-length novel in the Brothers Sinister series did not disappoint. I enjoyed it as much as I did the prequel novella, The Governess Affair. I suspect I'll be purchasing the next few books in the series in the not-too-distant future. I really want to read The Countess Conspiracy, but I always try to read a series in order.

I recently started Sweet Disorder by Rose Lerner because the reviews intrigued me, and the e-book is on sale. I love the research she put into Regency-era Parliamentary elections and voting laws. Historical politicking fascinates me. The one aspect of the book that makes it hard for me to suspend my disbelief is the hero's admiration for Byron, not only his poetry but also his impassioned (but completely ineffective) speech in the House of Lords and his courage in going about with a club foot. In real life, Lord Byron swanned around the peninsula during the war with an officer's uniform that he would occasionally wear when it was to his social advantage to do so, despite having never served in the military. He was a vocal armchair general who delighted in snarky criticism of the British army. The hero of Sweet Disorder is a wounded veteran of the Peninsular War who found his army service to be the most satisfying period of his life. It seems odd to me that he would admire Byron. I am enjoying other aspects of the book, though.

Since I try to limit my screen time each day, I have also been reading Emma Holly's The Demon's Daughter in print. I wanted to explore steampunk paranormal romances, and this one came highly recommended. I am about halfway through it, and I am really enjoying it so far. The world-building is very engaging. The book is quite steamy -- it probably qualifies as erotic romance -- without the emphasis on BDSM (at least thus far) that seems so prevalent in the erotic romance genre. All in all, it is a good choice to raise one's temperature on a bitter cold winter day.