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.