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.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Colin Firth Through the Ages

To celebrate the new year, I decided to do a retrospective of my favorite historical film roles played by Colin Firth. Few actors can wear such flamboyant costumes with such casual panache. I think that is the secret to his appeal -- even when he is wearing doublet and hose, he carries himself like he is at the Academy Awards in a tuxedo, or taking a walk in the park in T-shirt and jeans. He is always comfortable in his own skin, no matter what is covering it.

15th Century - The Advocate
One of my favorite Firth films is this obscure 1993 movie, also called The Hour of the Pig. I love the dark humor and the attention to detail. Anyone who has dealt with building contractors or received a credit in settlement of the e-book price-fixing lawsuit will be amused at how little business practices have changed in 550 years.

16th Century - Shakespeare in Love
Firth portrayed the villainous Lord Wessex, romantic rival to young Will Shakespeare. This movie was said to have inspired HRH Prince Edward, who once had a backstage theater career, to request the title of Earl of Wessex upon his marriage. Good choice. In a bit of stunt casting, Colin Firth also briefly portrayed William Shakespeare in the Black Adder Back & Forth television special.

17th Century - Girl with the Pearl Earring
Firth portrayed the great artist Johannes Vermeer. I love the practical, slightly disheveled period clothing in this picture. He has his usual brooding facial expression in this picture. He is capable of a great range of emotions, but audiences love to see him brood.

18th Century - Valmont
A very young Colin Firth plays a wicked rake. 'Nuff said. I love the costumes, particularly when they start to come off. Notice that he is smiling (or at least smirking) in this picture. This could almost be the cover of a historical romance novel.

Early 19th Century - Pride and Prejudice
Firth's most famous role, leading to artistic likenesses on display at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath and (temporarily) Hyde Park in London. I adore men's fashions from that era. The brood is back. Playing billiards gives him an excuse to remove his coat. I approve.

Late 19th Century - The Importance of Being Earnest
Men's fashions changed a bit, but Colin Firth still looks just as good several years older and several decades later. What a lovely day for a stroll with an amiable escort.

20th Century - The King's Speech
I do love a man in uniform. Look at all those medals! Do you suppose he is compensating for something? Surely not.

21st Century - Kingsman: The Secret Service
This film will be out in February (just in time for Valentine's Day). There is nothing like a well-tailored suit to get my heart beating faster. Few men age as gracefully as Mr. Firth.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Christmas in Georgian England Included Christmas Trees and Turgoosen Pies

I am equally amused and frustrated by the annual kerfuffle over American holiday traditions. Amused because I can see humor in the absurd, and frustrated because I hear so many people defending the sanctity of particular Christmas traditions with no idea of their actual provenance.

So I am always fascinated to learn more about Christmas traditions in previous centuries. I had read many years ago that the Christmas tree was introduced into England by the German-born Prince Albert. While I had known that, by Albert's time, England had already been importing its royalty from various German states for a century, I assumed that the popularity of the young royal couple allowed the Prince Consort to introduce innovations in a way that his predecessors had not.

As it turns out, Prince Albert did not introduce the Christmas tree to England. Mass media coverage of the royal Christmas decorations in Victorian times (thanks to the proliferation of literacy and inexpensive magazines) made the Christmas tree popular among the common people for the first time, but the upper classes had been putting up and lighting Christmas trees in their houses since the first decade of the 19th century. The first documented English Christmas tree was set up by Queen Charlotte in Windsor in 1800. So if you read a Regency romance with a Christmas theme, and there is a Christmas tree, it is not an anachronism (assuming it is at an aristocratic gathering).

I was highly amused by this reference to a traditional Yorkshire Christmas pie from 1788. While it is not quite a turducken (because it features a goose rather than a duck nested between the turkey and chicken), it is superior to that modern symbol of excess, because inside the chicken is a pigeon inside a partridge. The pie also includes rabbit and miscellaneous game birds, but they are left outside the matryoshka fowl.

Here is another bit of 18th-century trivia related to German Christmas celebrations. Most Americans of a certain age remember (thanks to Schoolhouse Rock) that the continental army "surprised the Hessians in their lair" after crossing the Delaware "one night" but few realize that night was Christmas. The date chosen was likely deliberate, as one of General Washington's officers wrote "They make a great deal of Christmas in Germany, and no doubt the Hessians will drink a great deal of beer and have a dance to-night. They will be sleepy to-morrow morning."

The assumption about beer-drinking was likely incorrect, as another witness wrote afterward:  "I am certain not a drop of liquor was drunk during the whole night, nor, as I could see, even a piece of bread eaten." The element of surprise was sufficient to carry the day.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The 18th Century Fashion Revolution

The high-waisted, neoclassical women's gowns that we now associate with the Regency actually came into fashion during the last decade of the 18th century, following the French Revolution.

The radicals who toppled the ancien regime in 1789 deliberately rejected the aristocratic fashions of the day. Citoyens wore long cotton pantaloons rather than velvet knee breeches and silk stockings. Citoyennes turned away from stiff corsets and elaborate silk skirts supported by panniers and toward simple cotton gowns with neoclassical lines.

The new gowns were meant to evoke the days of the Roman republic. Ironically, the fashion developed at least in part out of a style that was favored by Marie Antoinette (and called the chemise a la reine in her honor).

Nicholas Heideloff's Gallery of Fashion, 1795
(Museum of London)
French fashions, then as now, were soon adopted in other parts of Europe. The round gown, a garment made from a column of fabric gathered at the neckline and just below the bust, was the height of fashion in 1795. By the end of the decade, it was old-fashioned, replaced by the chemise dress (a more tailored version of the neoclassical gown). You can see several examples of round gowns on my Pinterest board for 1790s fashion.

The evolving political situation in Paris during the 1790s continued to impact fashion. An anti-Jacobin petit-bourgeois militia known as the Muscadins (for the musk cologne they supposedly favored) came to prominence in 1794-5. They wore bright, contrasting colors and coats with large lapels. Their fashion choices were taken up and exaggerated during the Directoire period (1795-1799) by the aristocratic subculture known as the Incroyables (for men) and Merveilleuses (for women).

Diaphanous gowns with scanty or no undergarments were worn in public (and were lampooned by British cartoonists at the time). Men's frock coats and waistcoats were shortened, and lapels became more popular. With the rise of Napoleon at the end of the decade, women's fashions became less risqué. New styles of corset, without boning, were introduced in the early years of the 19th century, after several years of less supportive fashion.

This is not to say that the older fashions disappeared completely. The two very different modes coexisted, with the younger generation preferring the radical new fashions and their conservative parents often clinging to the old. Knee breeches continued to be worn for formal occasions. The specialized costumes for court presentations preserved the longer waistcoats for gentlemen and skirts with hoops for ladies through the Regency (although these garments were only worn for court events).

So, while we are tempted to think of knee breeches and hooped skirts as Georgian and trousers and column dresses as Regency, the reality is that the two eras and two styles overlapped.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

'Tis the Season

...for Christmas anthologies. The holidays are a busy time of year, and I have less time to read. For that reason, I really enjoy romance anthologies in December. The short story format allows me to get through the whole emotional arc and reach the happily-ever-after before I forget the backstory and plot set-up.

I am not the only romance reader who feels that way. Publishers always release Christmas-themed romance anthologies, because they sell like Christmas cookies. Regency Historicals are my go-to comfort reads, so those are the type of anthologies I gobble up.

I am currently reading (and enjoying) Christmas in the Duke's Arms, a brand-new anthology with stories by best-selling authors Grace Burrowes, Shana Galen, Carolyn Jewel and Miranda Neville. All three stories take place in the same Nottinghamshire village, home to an inn called The Duke's Arms. They are tied together by having a common setting and some overlapping scenes and secondary characters. In that way, they are reminiscent of the non-Christmas, wedding-themed anthologies that Miranda Neville has done with Katharine Ashe, Caroline Linden and Maya Rodale.

I am beginning to do more reading on my smartphone (although I still prefer paper most of the time). I was delighted to discover today that A Grosvenor Square Christmas is currently free in digital formats. On our first trip to London, my husband and I visited Grosvenor Square, mainly to see the FDR memorial and the mid-20th-century U.S. Embassy building. Other sides of the square are still occupied by the Georgian townhouses that have provided a steady income for the Grosvenor family (the Dukes of Westminster) for more than two centuries. While we were sitting on a park bench enjoying the pleasant surroundings, a gentleman dressed like an Elizabethan town crier came through the square, inviting all and sundry to a free Shakespeare play later that week, courtesy of His Grace, the Duke of Westminster. Alas, our itinerary would not allow us to accept the Duke's kind invitation.

Several years ago, I read Snowy Night with a Stranger, with stories by Jane Feather, Sabrina Jeffries and Julia London. The title says it all -- each story involves strangers who meet due to winter travel disruptions. The stories are not interconnected, but they are delightful. The anthology's theme means that each story contains the meet-cute as well as the falling-in-love part of the romance. There is something especially exciting about a new attraction (and in the pages of a romance novel, we needn't worry that the guy will turn out to be a bad credit risk). While travel is no longer as difficult or hazardous as it was two hundred years ago, most of us can relate to the notion of being stranded over the holidays due to bad weather.

Mary Balogh has written a number of Christmas-themed novels and novellas over the course of her long career. I have enjoyed many of her novels, but of the Christmas-themed stories, I prefer the novellas. They often appear in anthologies with other authors, but I recommend the all-Balogh collection Under the Mistletoe. No one writes about lonely introverts who have difficulty communicating their true feelings like Balogh. This collection includes two stories about married couples who finally learn to communicate and trust.

Happy reading, and Happy Holidays.