Emma Bull


Lauren Willig recently referenced a post I wrote for Valentine’s Day a few years ago, which prompted me to go back to the post, one of my favorites. In honor of last week’s holiday, this seemed a good time to re-post it.

I’ve wanted to do this blog for a while and Valentine’s Day seemed the perfect time to write it. Favorite romantic scenes–first declarations of love, resolutions of seemingly insurmountable conflicts, and other heart stopping moments. Here are a few of my favorites, scenes that bring an ache to my throat and put a smile on my face, many of them scenes I’ve reread so many times I know them by heart.

In no particular order:

1. “Oh, Damerel, must you be foxed just as this moment? How odious you are , my dear friend!”

The extended sequence at the end of Georgette Heyer’s Venetia in which Venetia and Damerel work out their differences has it all–conflict, humor, passion, and poignancy. Damerel is a world-weary rake and Venetia is a sheltered, unmarried woman, yet they’re so uniquely themselves that they pop off the page, and so obviously soul mates that you can’t but feel a catch in your throat as they battle through to their happy ending.

2. “I’ve just won a wager with myself.”

The scene in Freedom & Necessity by Steven Brust & Emma Bull in which Susan and James confess their feelings (and do rather more than confess them) may be my favorite literary love scene. It’s character-driven, emotionally fraught, erotically frank, and yet still filled with mystery. The final scene between the couple in the book is also lovely, and then there’s that fabulous last letter James writes to Susan, not to mention all the moments in between.

3. “Monseigneur, I would so much rather be the last woman than the first.”

These Old Shades is a comfort read for me, but it isn’t my favorite Georgette Heyer. It isn’t even in my top three. And yet I’ve reread the last scene between Avon and Léonie countless times. It’s beautifully written and structured, with a wonderful economy of gesture and emotion that speaks volumes. There’s very little inner monologue, and yet the emotional shifts are crystal clear.

4. “Now forget your responsibility to everyone else for once in your life and give me a straight answer. Do you want me to stay?”

The final scene in The Armies of Daylight, the third book in Barbara Hambly’s Darwath trilogy, may be the most satisfying lovers-getting-together-against-the-odds scene I’ve ever read, largely because the odds seem so very high and the happy ending so very much not guaranteed. There’s also something about this scene that to me is very much parallel to the Léonie/Avon scene, though the words are very different as are the characters. Yet both stories involve heroes who are considerably older than the heroines and who men capable of shaping the world round them (Ingold is a wizard, Avon a wealthy, powerful duke). Both men are convinced they’ll only bring unhappiness to the woman they love and are trying to do the noble thing and give her up (as is Damerel in scene 1. Doing the right thing can be very sexy). The heroines, Léonie and Gil, are very different women. Yet both are trying to convince the man they love that they know what they want and would much rather face the future with him, hand in hand. Like the scene from These Old Shades, this one has beautifully delineated emotional shifts and wonderful tension between desire and perceived duty and the competing objectives of the two characters.

5. “I do love nothing in the world so well as you: is not that strange?”

I got to do the church scene between Beatrice and Benedick from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in acting class in high school. My fellow sophomore Benedick and I barely scratched the surface of what the scene has to offer. But we had a lot of fun, and I still know most of the lines by heart. And every time I see the play, I find new things in this incredibly rich scene, which is funny, touching, romantic, and fraught with dark emotion. In the History Hoydens discussion, Pam Rosenthal said, It stops my heart now, as completely as it did when I first read it in my late teens. And Leslie Carroll, who is also an actress, said, That admission always takes my breath away. And it did when I played the role, every time we got to that moment. It’s a moment that is so well crafted; it manages to be totally earned and yet steals up on the lovers unawares.

6. “Placetne, magistra?”
“Placet.”

I think I studied Latin college partly so I could understand the dialogue between Peter and Harriet in the final scene of Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night (thanks to which I now know that Peter phrases the question in a neutral way, rather than a way that expects a yes or no answer). That this scene manages not to be trite or anticlimactic or trite after three books of angst and adventure, countless marriage proposals, and several brushes with death is no small feat. You can really believe in the balance these two characters have fought their way to, yet there’s still enough tension to keep the reading anxiously turning the pages. Harriet’s done a great deal of thinking in the pages before, but here, as in some of the other scenes I’ve mentioned, there’s very little inner monologue. And yet every word and detail is weighted with subtext, down to the traffic lights blinking Yes; No; Wait. And as Janet Mullany said in the History Hoydens discussion, it’s a book that has a breathtaking amount of sexual tension in it.

7. Too late, too late, too late. It had happened.

My mom and I used to call this the “Gigi” moment–where the hero suddenly realizes, with the force of a thunderclap, that he’s madly in love with the heroine who’s been right there under his nose for years and years or pages and pages. The moment when Francis Crawford of Lymond comes to this realization, in The Ringed Castle, book five of the Lymond Chronicles is all the more powerful for the world “love” never being used.

8. “I prefer you as you are–tainted and tarnished.”

The scene where Mary casts caution and calculation aside and crawls into bed with the wounded Lord Vaughn in Lauren Willig’s The Seduction of the Crimson Rose is just lovely. A truly romantic confession of feeling on both sides, made all the stronger by the fact that you know just what it costs these two people to let their guard down and make themselves vulnerable. Both maintain their wonderfully acerbic sides, which makes their confession of their feelings (couched or allude to in character-appropriate terms) all the more powerful.

9. “A bath and some inoculations are called for, Holmes.”

I think the “dock scene” from Laurie King’s A Monstrous Regiment of Women may be my favorite proposal scene. Intensely romantic in large part because so much about it is is quite the opposite. Holmes and Russell are filthy and soaking wet and in the midst of an argument about his having gone after the villain without her. There’s a wonderful juxtaposition of acerbic dialogue and passionate breaking free of restraint. As with Gaudy Night and the Darwath Chronicles, and the Lymond Chronicles, it has extra power from being the culmination of
more than one book of longing. It sends chills up my spine every time I read it (play on words intended, to those familiar with the scene).

10. “Well,” he said, with a transitory gleam of himself, “you’re my corner and I’ve come to hide.”

Peter and Harriet are the only couple to appear twice on this list. Much as I love the last scene of Gaudy Night, I think I may be even more fond of the final scene between them in Busman’s Honeymoon. It grapples with a question I’m fond of addressing in my own writing, “what happens after happily ever after?” And it balances the scales by letting Peter need Harriet. As Lauren Willig said in the History Hoydens Discussion, I think it’s the first book I read that really took the time to deal with what happened after that initial, hard won resolution. She then made a nice comparison to Charles and Mélanie and watching the struggle of two people struggling to find a way to fit together on an ongoing basis, achieving small victories and dealing with the occasional reversal. Which prompted me to mention that The last scene in Busman’s Honeymoon was my inspiration for the last scene in Beneath a Silent Moon, which was my starting place for the book. I knew I wanted to get Charles and Mélanie to that scene, and I worked backwards :-) .

Ten very different scenes. And yet, as I revisited them to write this post, I realized that the very differences in scenes and characters are something the scenes have in common. Each is unique to the characters involved, in the setting and circumstances in which the scene occurs (a sitting room in the French countryside, a rocky hollow in an alternate universe the London docks, an Oxford street) to the circumstances to the words and gestures the characters find to express their feelings. There’s also a wonderful tension to all of them, a sense of the fragility of emotions and the bonds between two people and the risk of letting down one’s guard. None of them seem quite certain in advance and yet once the characters find their way to each other, you absolutely believe in the possibility of their happiness.

Have you read any of the books above? Did any of these scenes resonate with you? What are some favorite literary heart stopping moments of yours? What is it that makes them particularly effective?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is Raoul’s reply to Lady Elizabeth’s letter from last week.

The follow up discussion to my post last week on “Bad Boy” Heroes got me to thinking that in general I don’t like stories where bad boy heroes are reformed by heroines who (in Stephanie’s apt description) are “pure as the driven snow.” A fascinating post by Pam Rosenthal on her blog and and the follow-up discussion got me thinking more along the same lines. Pam was writing about children in romance representing innocence, but the discussion touched on the redemptive arc often found in romantic fiction. I like redemptive arcs, but I much prefer it if the character redeems him or herself, rather than being magically healed by innocence and true love.

So in general I prefer “bad boys” or “bad girls” paired with a lover with some worldly wisdom. But execution can make me love all sorts of stories. Georgette Heyer’s Venetia is one my favorite love stories, despite the fact that it follows a trope I don’t generally care for–jaded, cynical rake tries to seduce and then falls in love with beautiful, sheltered, romantically untouched girl. Of course it helps that Venetia is five-and-twenty and hardly an innocent in her understanding of people whatever her life experience. I think the reason the story works so well for me is that one has a deep sense that Venetia and Dameral are “soul mates” despite their vastly differing life experiences. They share a sense of the absurd, as Stephanie pointed out. They share a love of literature, a disregard for society’s conventions, and a certain innate kindness. There’s a wonderful intimacy between them that’s only partly physical, though interestingly the intellectual intimacy makes the passion between them that much more palpable and intense. Their minds work in a similar way. Reading about them, you can sense that “click” that occurs between two people whose minds are in sync (which, to me, is as romantic as the rush of physical attraction).

That sort of connection combined with sexual attraction is a powerful combination. I like to think that Charles and Mélanie have that sort of mental click in the way their minds work, which is what gives me hope for them despite their differing backgrounds and to some extent differing goals. At least that’s how it is in my head–how well I’ve portrayed it is a different question :-).

A few other fictional couples who to me fit this definition of “soul mates” – Russell & Holmes, Mulder & Scully, Ingold and Gil in the Darwath books and Antryg and Joanna in the Windrose Chronicles (both by Barbara Hambly), Susan and James in Brust & Bull’s Freedom & Necessity, Beatrice & Benedick, Peter Wimsey & Harriet Vane.

How do you define “soul mates” in fiction? Do you like to read or write about characters with this sort of mental intimacy? Other favorite examples to suggest?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from Raoul to Mélanie. Speaking of two other people with a mental connection which I don’t think will ever completely go away…

With Valentine’s Day a week away, I thought I would rework the blog I wrote this week for History Hoydens, bringing in some of the comments in the discussion that followed (not to mention fixing a misquote on my part!). I’ve wanted to do this blog for a while and Valentine’s Day seemed the perfect time to write it. Favorite romantic scenes–first declarations of love, resolutions of seemingly insurmountable conflicts, and other heart stopping moments. Here are a few of my favorites, scenes that bring an ache to my throat and put a smile on my face, many of them scenes I’ve reread so many times I know them by heart.

In no particular order:

1. “Oh, Damerel, must you be foxed just as this moment? How odious you are , my dear friend!”

The extended sequence at the end of Georgette Heyer’s Venetia in which Venetia and Damerel work out their differences has it all–conflict, humor, passion, and poignancy. Damerel is a world-weary rake and Venetia is a sheltered, unmarried woman, yet they’re so uniquely themselves that they pop off the page, and so obviously soul mates that you can’t but feel a catch in your throat as they battle through to their happy ending.

2. “I’ve just won a wager with myself.”

The scene in Freedom & Necessity by Steven Brust & Emma Bull in which Susan and James confess their feelings (and do rather more than confess them) may be my favorite literary love scene. It’s character-driven, emotionally fraught, erotically frank, and yet still filled with mystery. The final scene between the couple in the book is also lovely, and then there’s that fabulous last letter James writes to Susan, not to mention all the moments in between.

3. “Monseigneur, I would so much rather be the last woman than the first.”

These Old Shades is a comfort read for me, but it isn’t my favorite Georgette Heyer. It isn’t even in my top three. And yet I’ve reread the last scene between Avon and Léonie countless times. It’s beautifully written and structured, with a wonderful economy of gesture and emotion that speaks volumes. There’s very little inner monologue, and yet the emotional shifts are crystal clear.

4. “Now forget your responsibility to everyone else for once in your life and give me a straight answer. Do you want me to stay?”

The final scene in The Armies of Daylight, the third book in Barbara Hambly’s Darwath trilogy, may be the most satisfying lovers-getting-together-against-the-odds scene I’ve ever read, largely because the odds seem so very high and the happy ending so very much not guaranteed. There’s also something about this scene that to me is very much parallel to the Léonie/Avon scene, though the words are very different as are the characters. Yet both stories involve heroes who are considerably older than the heroines and who men capable of shaping the world round them (Ingold is a wizard, Avon a wealthy, powerful duke). Both men are convinced they’ll only bring unhappiness to the woman they love and are trying to do the noble thing and give her up (as is Damerel in scene 1. Doing the right thing can be very sexy). The heroines, Léonie and Gil, are very different women. Yet both are trying to convince the man they love that they know what they want and would much rather face the future with him, hand in hand. Like the scene from These Old Shades, this one has beautifully delineated emotional shifts and wonderful tension between desire and perceived duty and the competing objectives of the two characters.

5. “I do love nothing in the world so well as you: is not that strange?”

I got to do the church scene between Beatrice and Benedick from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in acting class in high school. My fellow sophomore Benedick and I barely scratched the surface of what the scene has to offer. But we had a lot of fun, and I still know most of the lines by heart. And every time I see the play, I find new things in this incredibly rich scene, which is funny, touching, romantic, and fraught with dark emotion. In the History Hoydens discussion, Pam Rosenthal said, It stops my heart now, as completely as it did when I first read it in my late teens. And Amanda Elyot, who is also an actress, said, That admission always takes my breath away. And it did when I played the role, every time we got to that moment. It’s a moment that is so well crafted; it manages to be totally earned and yet steals up on the lovers unawares.

6. “Placetne, magistra?”
“Placet.”

I think I studied Latin college partly so I could understand the dialogue between Peter and Harriet in the final scene of Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night (thanks to which I now know that Peter phrases the question in a neutral way, rather than a way that expects a yes or no answer). That this scene manages not to be trite or anticlimactic or trite after three books of angst and adventure, countless marriage proposals, and several brushes with death is no small feat. You can really believe in the balance these two characters have fought their way to, yet there’s still enough tension to keep the reading anxiously turning the pages. Harriet’s done a great deal of thinking in the pages before, but here, as in some of the other scenes I’ve mentioned, there’s very little inner monologue. And yet every word and detail is weighted with subtext, down to the traffic lights blinking Yes; No; Wait. And as Janet Mullany said in the History Hoydens discussion, it’s a book that has a breathtaking amount of sexual tension in it.

7. Too late, too late, too late. It had happened.

My mom and I used to call this the “Gigi” moment–where the hero suddenly realizes, with the force of a thunderclap, that he’s madly in love with the heroine who’s been right there under his nose for years and years or pages and pages. The moment when Francis Crawford of Lymond comes to this realization, in The Ringed Castle, book five of the Lymond Chronicles is all the more powerful for the world “love” never being used.

8. “I prefer you as you are–tainted and tarnished.”

The scene where Mary casts caution and calculation aside and crawls into bed with the wounded Lord Vaughn in Lauren Willig’s The Seduction of the Crimson Rose is just lovely. A truly romantic confession of feeling on both sides, made all the stronger by the fact that you know just what it costs these two people to let their guard down and make themselves vulnerable. Both maintain their wonderfully acerbic sides, which makes their confession of their feelings (couched or allude to in character-appropriate terms) all the more powerful.

9. “A bath and some inoculations are called for, Holmes.”

I think the “dock scene” from Laurie King’s A Monstrous Regiment of Women may be my favorite proposal scene. Intensely romantic in large part because so much about it is is quite the opposite. Holmes and Russell are filthy and soaking wet and in the midst of an argument about his having gone after the villain without her. There’s a wonderful juxtaposition of acerbic dialogue and passionate breaking free of restraint. As with Gaudy Night and the Darwath Chronicles, and the Lymond Chronicles, it has extra power from being the culmination of
more than one book of longing. It sends chills up my spine every time I read it (play on words intended, to those familiar with the scene).

10. “Well,” he said, with a transitory gleam of himself, “you’re my corner and I’ve come to hide.”

Peter and Harriet are the only couple to appear twice on this list. Much as I love the last scene of Gaudy Night, I think I may be even more fond of the final scene between them in Busman’s Honeymoon. It grapples with a question I’m fond of addressing in my own writing, “what happens after happily ever after?” And it balances the scales by letting Peter need Harriet. As Lauren Willig said in the History Hoydens Discussion, I think it’s the first book I read that really took the time to deal with what happened after that initial, hard won resolution. She then made a nice comparison to Charles and Mélanie and watching the struggle of two people struggling to find a way to fit together on an ongoing basis, achieving small victories and dealing with the occasional reversal. Which prompted me to mention that The last scene in Busman’s Honeymoon was my inspiration for the last scene in Beneath a Silent Moon, which was my starting place for the book. I knew I wanted to get Charles and Mélanie to that scene, and I worked backwards :-).

Ten very different scenes. And yet, as I revisited them to write this post, I realized that the very differences in scenes and characters are something the scenes have in common. Each is unique to the characters involved, in the setting and circumstances in which the scene occurs (a sitting room in the French countryside, a rocky hollow in an alternate universe the London docks, an Oxford street) to the circumstances to the words and gestures the characters find to express their feelings. There’s also a wonderful tension to all of them, a sense of the fragility of emotions and the bonds between two people and the risk of letting down one’s guard. None of them seem quite certain in advance and yet once the characters find their way to each other, you absolutely believe in the possibility of their happiness.

Have you read any of the books above? Did any of these scenes resonate with you? What are some favorite literary heart stopping moments of yours? What is it that makes them particularly effective?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is Isobel Lydgate’s reply to Mélanie’s desperate plea last week for help with a seating arrangement for one of her first political dinner parties in Berkeley Square.

As I went about a long list of Saturday errands, I found myself thinking “what am I going to blog about this week?” As I often do, I returned to the thoughtful comments readers made on prior blog posts. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to everyone who reads my posts and comments and gets such wonderful discussions going. It keeps the blog dynamic, which I think is so important with any web-based material. And it provides much needed inspiration to me as I do my weekly updates :-).

This week’s inspiration comes from another comment Taryn made, in responses to the discussion about my What makes you want to buy a book? post a couple of weeks ago. Taryn brought up a question I’d love to hear answers on from more readers of this blog:

I have a question for this crowd: Who, among your favorite authors, would you put Tracy’s books? For me, I pick Elizabeth George, Anne Perry, Pam Rosenthal, Judith Ivory, but even Harlan Coben (for the horrible things that happen to ordinary people) and whose novels are relentless. Vince Flynn has the relentless part down and while his circle of people is very small he is completely committed to them, so if feels like there is room on this bookshelf. The are others – what are yours? My criteria is spectacular writing about compelling people who can’t help but hurt the one they love because of things in their past, they don’t need to be a love story but a history/mystery is probably a better fit.

In any case what I want to know is who’d be on your bookcase?

Authors are often asked what other authors’ books are like theirs. It’s a tantalizing and often frustrating question. It’s hard to step back and see one’s own work from enough distance to come up with an answer. But I know as a reader I find such comparisons a very helpful way to discover new authors. I discovered Freedom & Necessity by Steven Brust & Emma Bull, when people discussed it on a Dorothy Dunnett list I’m on. It was described as having Dunnettish qualities and someone referred to the “Harriet Vane-esque” heroine. With a recommendation that referenced two of my favorite authors (and one of my favorite literary heroines) how could I resist? I ordered Freedom & Necessity from Amazon and devoured it in about twenty-four hours of almost non-stop reading. It remains one of my all time favorite books. And I totally agree with the Dunnett and Harriet Vane comparisons.

I started watching The X-Files when readers on a Laurie King list I’m on compared the relationship between Russell & Holmes to the relationship between Scully & Mulder. As anyone who reads my blog will know, I became totally hooked on The X-Files. And I definitely see the comparison to Holmes & Russell. Very different characters, but the intellectual partnership is there, the strong emotions simmering under the surface and expressed in a sort of code, the interplay between the mystery solving and the relationship, the understated words that speak volumes because so much is unsaid (Mulder’s “I don’t want to risk losing you” in “Requiem”; Holmes comment that the sun setting in the east wouldn’t cause his heart to stop but the sight of his wife going over the rail of a ship might do so in Locked Rooms).

I’d love to hear more on this topic from readers of this blog. What books would you compare the Charles & Mélanie books to? Did any of you find the Charles & Mélanie books because they were recommended by someone who said “this book is sort of like…”? Have you discovered other authors (or television shows or movies) because someone recommended them as similar to a book you loved? Do you find yourself comparing authors to other authors when you make recommendations to friends? Do you group books on a mental bookshelf with books you find similar?

I posted a new addition to the Fraser Correspondence last night–a letter from Gisèle, on the one month anniversary of her marriage, to Lady Frances.

Taryn had some wonderful comments on the Mask of Night page recently–wonderful both in the sense of making me as an author, very happy, but also very-thought provoking in terms of what draws us as readers to a novel. As Taryn pointed out, the Charles & Mélanie books are hard to categorize which can be “a bit hard a bit of a positioning problem – is it a murder mystery, a spy novel, a romance? Not that it can’t be and isn’t all of that, but although I’m not in publishing, just a passionate end-reader, often I think the marketing is an afterthought and they don’t always trust their audience, so they want to “dumb it down” to make it “one thought.” Your work is so textured that it isn’t easy to distill – for me this is what has me staying up way too late trying to find out what happens!”

Hearing that readers have stayed up too late reading one’s book is one of the nicest compliments a writer can receive. But Taryn’s comment also sums up why the Charles & Mel books can be tricky to market. I’ve always loved books that cross genres. Mysteries (Dorothy Sayers, Laurie King, Elizabeth George, C.S. Harris) and fantasy novels (Barbara Hambly, Steven Brust & Emma Bull) with strong romantic threads, romances with lots of plot and history and adventure (Penelope Williamson, Laura Kinsale), historical fiction with intrigue and adventure and romance (Dorothy Dunnett, Bernard Cornwell, Patrick O’Brien, Robert Goddard, Lauren Willig). But it can be hard for publishers and booksellers to figure out how to market these books. I don’t think it’s so much that readers don’t like books that cross genres as that marketing strategies are book store shelving tend to be based on slotting books into genres.

Which makes the cover copy for the books that much more important. I asked Taryn about this in the course of the discussion on the Mask page. What would make her pick up the books? (She bought Secrets of Lady based on recommendations not the copy.) Taryn said, “I’d like to think about the back-of-the-book question a bit more but my first thought (for Secrets of a Lady) is yes, you convey time (Regency) and place (seamy London), and secrets, which are always tempting. For Beneath a Silent Moon, it’s closer to making me want to buy, but…seems to focus on Charles and less about Melanie, who is one of the most interesting heroines since Scarlett O’Hara or even about them together and how complex they are. And also the theme of forgiveness – but not heavy-handed, maybe in the form of a question – could you find a way to forgive the love of your life after you’ve learned they have betrayed you? This seems like it might be a direction to consider…don’t know, maybe have a small focus group from visitors to your blog!”

Which gave me the idea of turning the discussion into this week’s blog. What themes or plot elements or phrases on a book cover grab your interest? Did you pick up Daughter/Secrets or Beneath based on the cover copy? If so, what was it in the copy that caught your attention? Are there other ways you think the books could be described that you’d find more compelling? In general, what makes you want to buy a book?

Taryn said, “What makes me buy – spies, tortured war veterans (male and female) as i am intrigued by the parallels to the 21st century version. Relationship is a big part of what makes me buy (cover art attracts (although I hate those men with no shirts, *where* did those shirts go, anyway??)). I picked Secrets up through romance so I was expecting relationship stuff – wow, those revelation scenes early on *blew my mind* – and that kind of inter-personal drama really delivered! Even if it was not a typical romance book, it delivered the best of romance – a strong set of characters with real problems that they need to solve together. Unusual that these are married, that also added to the “I’m intrigued – I think I’ll buy” moment.”

As I’ve mentioned before, anything to do with “spies” or “espionage” on a book cover grabs my interest. Doubly so if it’s historical. The same with politics, particularly historical politics. So do words or phrases implying there’s a complex plot–”twists and turns,” “plots and counterplots,” “maze of intrigue,” “secrets”, “unraveling,” etc… And anything that indicates lovers with a history–married couples, ex-lovers, enemies who’ve betrayed each other. And thematically, anything to do with ambiguity, the elusive nature of truth, loyalty and betrayal is pretty much guaranteed to draw me in.

I’d love to hear other readers’ thoughts on these questions. What makes you want to buy a book?

On another note, I’m now on Facebook. I’m still getting the knack of how it works, but if you’re on Facebook do friend me, and I’d love suggestions for reading and writing-related groups to join.

And be sure to check on this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition–it’s a letter from Mélanie to Isobel Lydgate about Twelfth Night at Dunmykel.

Update 14 January: I’m blogging on History Hoydens today on bringing an historical world to life, inspired by the movie Milk.

There’s something about summer that seems to call out for lazy afternoons burrowing into books by the pool, on the beach, or simply in a favorite armchair. My summer is anything but lazy, thanks to my involvement with the Merola Opera Program (a summer training program for opera singers, pianists/coaches, and stage directors), but I have been finding some reading time. I thought this would be a fun week to post some reading recommendations.

Your Scandalous Ways
by Loretta Chase

I finally had a chance to read this, and I loved it. It combines so many of my favorite elements in a book–intrigue, espionage, a heroine with a past, a hero with his own emotional baggage, witty repartee, fascinating secondary characters, a beautifully realized setting (Venice, 1820). I loved the fact that the heroine is not only a courtesan, she’s unapologetic about it. I loved that the spy hero really feels the soul-destroying strain of the business. I loved that Francesca and James seemed so well-matched.

Careless in Red
by Elizabeth George

I’ve been fascinated to see where Elizabeth George would take her series after the recent, audacious plot twist (two books ago, but the last book was in a sense a prequel). I’m currently in the midst of Careless in Red, and completely hooked. It’s equally intriguing to watch Thomas Lynley grapple with recent events and to meet a compelling new set of characters. I find myself staying up far later than I intended, driven by the desire to learn more about these people, what secrets they’re hiding, what drives them, what will happen next.

The Painted Veil
by W. Somerset Maugham
I love stories about married couples, both as a writer and as a reader. There’s so much rich and complex history to explore. The Painted Veil explores the theme in exquisite, heartbreaking detail. Their marriage beset by lies and shattered illusions, Kitty and Walter Fane leave 1920s Hong Kong and journey into the heart of a cholera epidemic.

Possession
by A. S. Byatt
Two modern-day academics investigate a literary mystery involving a secret love affair between two Victorian-era poets. Byatt not only creates vivid, compelling characters in both settings, she wrote the poetry for both her fictional poets. The poetry (each poet has a very different style) is interspersed throughout the book and often contains clues to the mystery. I read this book on a long plane flight, and I was so engrossed in it I wanted the trip to last longer!

Atonement
by Ian McEwan
A haunting, multi-layered book that begins on an English country estate in the 1930s. A thirteen-year-old girl (and aspiring writer) misinterprets her sister’s romance with the the son of one of the family’s servants, with tragic consequences that shatter lives and ripple through World War II and beyond for those involved. It’s a book I thought about for a long time after I read it, because I loved the characters so much and because the book questions the nature and power of what a novel is in a way that fascinated me as a writer. I recently saw the movie and also loved it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that was so close to the images in th my head as I read the book.

The Lymond Chronicles
by Dorothy Dunnett
This is actually a six-book series, but the books are so intertwined its impossible to pick just one. It was also nearly impossible for me to put them down once I started reading. I devoured the books the summer between high school and college, and have reread them many times since. The story begins in 16th-century Scotland and ranges all over the Continent. The fictional characters are so intertwined with real people and events you’d swear it must have happened this way. There’s wild adventure, court intrigue, romance, and at the heart of the series is the mystery of who Francis Crawford of Lymond really is—both the literal mystery of his birth and the tantalizing question of the real man behind the many masks he wears.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice
by Laurie R. King
I was drawn into the world of the Mary Russell series with the first paragraph of this book. Mary Russell literally stumbles across the retired Sherlock Holmes on the Sussex Downs and eventually becomes his apprentice. The mysteries are intriguing, but it’s the complex, evolving relationship between Holmes and Russell that makes me return to this book for frequent rereads and eagerly await each new book in the series.

Gaudy Night
by Dorothy L. Sayers
Gaudy Night is one of my favorite love stories. I love the whole Peter Wimsey series, particularly the books that involve Peter’s relationship with Harriet Vane. That relationship comes to a crisis point in this book. Peter and Harriet investigate a crime during a reunion at Harriet’s college at Oxford, while Harriet struggles with the risks of love and the dangers of passion and Peter realizes there will be no going back from whatever choice she makes about the course of their relationship.

Mortal Sins
by Penelope Williamson
A violent crime brings Lieutenant Daman Rourke face to face with his lost love, Remy Lelourie, now a silent film star and possibly a murderess. The story twists and turns through a dark, vivid, wonderfully realized 1920s New Orleans. The characters are compelling, the writing lush and lyrical, and the plot full of page-turning surprises.

Freedom and Necessity
by Steven Brust and Emma Bull
I keep talking about this book. Breakneck adventure, intrigue worthy of a chess match, page-turning mystery, and heart-stopping romance. There’s a brilliant hero on the run, an intrepid heroine, and a tangle of conspiracies, both personal and political. Set in England in 1849 and told in letters, this is one of my favorite books ever.

What’s on your summer reading list? Any recommendations to share? Any thoughts on the books I’ve mentioned?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is again from Raoul in the aftermath of Kenneth Fraser’s death. One letter to Charles, another to Mélanie.

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