Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Fairytale Appeal of Castles

The Tower of London
Since childhood, I have had a fascination with castles. I blame the Walt Disney Corporation and its diabolical talent for separating middle class families from their disposable income. When my family visited Disneyworld, I immediately wanted to visit Cinderella's Castle. We walked through the castle a couple of times during our touring day, passing between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, and I admired the sparkly mosaics depicting scenes from Cinderella's story. I desperately wanted to go inside the castle's rooms, but my mother refused. It was nothing but an expensive restaurant, she told me. Our family returned to the parking lot for lunch, eating sandwiches inside our RV. So close, and yet I was not worthy to explore the castle.

Castelvecchio, Verona, Italy
Living in the Midwest, castles were hard to come by. I was delighted when Medieval Times opened up in Schaumburg, IL. When I was in my early 20s, my boyfriend and I made a pilgrimage there. The experience was disappointing, and we never went back. When we married a couple years later, we honeymooned at Disneyworld and had lunch at King Stephen's Banquet Hall (the "expensive restaurant" inside the castle). I enjoyed the experience at the time, but only because it had been on my bucket list. The architecture, décor, and food were far superior to Medieval Times, but that's a pretty low bar.

Castillo de Santa Barbara, Alicante, Spain
Ten years later, we celebrated our anniversary in Las Vegas and briefly visited the Excalibur hotel. It was fun in a cheesy way, but we had no desire to eat at Sir Galahad's Steakhouse or attend their knightly combat show (which appeared to be patterned after the one at Medieval Times).



It was only as we entered middle age that we had the opportunity to travel across the pond and visit some real medieval castles. My first was the Tower of London. It's a hodgepodge of several different eras, with one part dating back to William the Conqueror. It's full of history (and tourists).

Windsor Castle
I have fond memories of the 14th-century red brick Castelvecchio ("old castle") in Verona, Italy. It now houses an art museum, and the crowds were modest in the shoulder season. Scrambling over the ruins of the Castillo de Santa Barbara in Alicante, Spain made for a wonderful birthday. Windsor Castle is everything one expects a castle to be (including an active royal residence).

No matter how many castles I manage to visit, I do not believe I will ever tire of them. They are timeless and romantic, whether ruined or sumptuously furnished. Cardiff Castle provides an 
excellent example of both, an old Norman shell keep and the surrounding castle, remodeled during the Victorian era into a gothic revival fantasy.

Tessa Dare's current early-19th-century series, Castles Ever After, seems to have been written with me in mind. The first book, Romancing the Duke, is my favorite so far. It involves a semi-ruined castle, a bookish heroine with a secret, and a grumpy-but-hot duke. It also lampoons re-enactors and fandom communities. I may have squirmed a little bit.

I enjoyed the second book, Say Yes to the Marquess (which lampoons the wedding industry), and I'm very much looking forward to the third, When a Scot Ties the Knot, which is coming out in just a couple weeks. I'm seriously jonesing for a castle fix.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Intentions Are Important

I'm currently reading Miranda Neville's second-chance-romance novella Duchess of Scandal in the anthology Dancing in the Duke's Arms. There's a bit of dialogue that really stayed with me. A married couple's discussion of current events morphs into a less hypothetical discussion of practical issues on the estate and an exploration of each other's priorities.
She wrinkled her forehead. "Do you mean you wish to help the poor to prevent unrest, not because you think it's right to relieve misery?"
The question made him uncomfortable because he wasn't sure of the answer. His wife was a lot subtler in her ideas than he had ever suspected. "Does it matter? Doesn't it come to the same thing?"
"In practical terms, yes. But intentions are important. I would prefer you to leave Mrs. Trumbull's laundry alone because you see the justice of her need to dry her children's clothes, not because you don't wish to quarrel with me and spoil your dinner."
That captures nearly perfectly my feelings about romance heroes. I would prefer them to care about other people and have a sense of justice. Whatever the conflict may be, I can more readily forgive alphole behavior if it is motivated by concern for others (like the welfare of the hero's family or other dependents) rather than a drive for power or prestige.

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.