Heirs and Spares

Houghton ExteriorNicola here, talking slightly tongue-in-cheek about a certain trope in fiction, that of birth order. The concept of the “heir and the spare” is something that has been discussed quite a lot lately and it’s a theme that those of us who read historical romance are very familiar with. The noble family is desperate to have an heir (usually male, since women can’t inherit the majority of British titles) and that person will be expected to carry on the traditions of the family, inherit the title and any entailed fortune that goes with it. They will be in line to take the responsibility for the crumbling stately pile and if it really is crumbling, find an heiress whose inheritance fortunately comes from trade or some other source, to prop it up. It feels like a heavy weight for the heir to carry. The emphasis here is on responsibility and continuity. However, there’s a snag. What if something happens to the heir? Then you will need a spare – two boys at least – to ensure the continuation of the family line. So, to be on the safe side, most families try not to stop at one.

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Ask A Wench – One Special Book

Stencil.blog-post-image (1)Nicola here, introducing the July Ask A Wench. This month we’re talking about a book that is special to each of us, whether it’s something that was recommended to us, or a book that was given to us a child, or something we came across on our own that sparked a new reading interest. The results are fascinating and varied, funny and poignant, and we hope you will enjoy them and contribute a special book of your own to the discussion! As you might imagine, choosing just one book was a real challenge to such a bunch of avid readers and the horrified response was "One book only?" We hope you don't find the task as hard as we did but we think you just might…

Mary Jo writes:

Georgette Heyer, the gateway drug

When Regency addicts gather, the topic of "My First Heyer!" often comes up. I found my first Sylvester 1 Heyer when I was in college and browsing for cheap books in the bargain basement of the Economy Bookstore in downtown Syracuse, NY.  I didn't know it was illegal to sell stripped books, but as a poor student, five cent books were appealing and they had a lot by this Heyer person.

 After much perusing, I walked out with Sylvester, or The Wicked Uncle, which looked like an interesting parody of the Gothic romances. 

 And that day, I changed my future, because that led me to fall in love with Regency romances.  Heyer's voice and wit and characterizations and plotting appealed to me in a way that the historical romances of the day didn't. I read and reread my favorites, and in the process developed something of a Regency voice myself.

Which is why years later, when I got my first computer and learned how to use the word processing program and decided to find if I could write the stories that were always jumbling in my head, I started writing the book that became The Diabolical Baron

 By sheer chance, I'd found the genre niche where I fit during a time when the romance genre was expanding and editors were looking for new voices. And in the process, I found a career as a writer that had once been only the vaguest of dreams.

 I've written a whole lot of books since then, including fantasy, Georgian, Victorian, contemporaries, fantasy, and Regency fantasy YA.  But by and large, I've stayed true to Regencies because it's such a great period to work in.

 And it all started with a five cent stripped novel by Georgette Heyer…

Pride and prejudice Andrea:

I was a senior in high school, and I don’t remember how the topic came up, but my Mother and I began discussing books. Now, my mother was an avid reader, but her tastes ran to The New Yorker and non-fiction books. She didn’t read a lot of novels. However, she had once told me that she polished her English when she first came to this country (she was from Switzerland and came to NYC to attend Pratt Institute, an art college) by going to the public library and asking the librarian to give her some of the classic works in English literature. So, when I started talking about books we were reading in English class and what I was really enjoying, she asked in an offhand sort of way what I thought of Pride and Prejudice.

I paused for a moment and said, “Umm, I’ve never read that." Her eyebrows shot up in shock. “You’ve never read Austen?” (I was ashamed to say I hadn’t.) “You must!” she intoned, in a tone that was more of an order than a suggestion. “Get it tomorrow at the library. I think you’ll like it.”

Well, I did . . . and I did (like it, that is—or rather, loved it.)  Of course I immediately ran out and read all the others, and fell in love with the Regency romance. it took me a little longer to discover Heyer, and then the Signet Regencies, so it was P&P that ultimately changed my life.  That I was drawn into writing by the classc Regency romance tropes is all because of Austen. And as footnote, our local library has a well-known summer sale of used books (it’s huge, and people come from all around New England to browse through the huge tents set up on the lawns) and next time it came around, my Mother bought me a lovely multi- volume set from the 1920s of Austen’s novels. I still have it, and it's one of my special book treasures.


I get very fed up/bored/annoyed with people who denigrate romantic fiction, as if it’s some kind of lesser type of reading material, IMG_0906 so I retaliate by being biased against so called literary fiction. That means I don’t normally buy Booker Prize winners or anything recommended by the posh literary reviewers in papers like the Sunday Times. However, a friend once gave me Possession by A S Byatt (which had just won the Booker Prize) and told me I had to read it. I said thank you, of course, without actually having any intention to do so, but eventually I figured I’d better in case my friend asked me what I thought of it. And OMG, I was completely blown away! Yes, it was very literary, with incredible prose and long Victorian style poems, but the actual story (or stories plural as it’s a dual timeline novel) were fantastic. I was totally spellbound and later watched the film of the same name as well, which I thought was a wonderful adaptation of the book. So I guess this taught me to be less judgemental in my choice of reading material and that you never know where your next great read is going to come from. I would recommend Possession to anyone who wants a truly epic love story. Here is a photo of my copy – I bought myself the first edition as a treat.


PigletThis is such a hard question — I have so many special books that I simply can't make up my mind. But if I narrowed it down to childhood beloved books, I'd have to say The House at Pooh Corner and Winnie the Pooh, by AA Milne, which I knew chunks of by heart, well before I could even read. My parents and older siblings used to read the stories aloud, and it taught me that books could make me laugh. Those books are full of wonderful humor and gentle wisdom. I've never grown out of reading them — they speak to adults as well as children.

Many years later, when I was teaching adults how to read, I remembered the lesson of those AA Milne books — that reading could be fun. So much of the curriculum was about serious practical reading and writing, and it never occurred to my adult students that books and reading could be anything other than work. So I did my best to find things to make them laugh, or take their breath away, so that reading was not just something hard and boring they had to do, but was something that could also be a pleasure. Thank you AA Milne, and Pooh and Piglet and Eeyore and Wol and all the rest of the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood. And thank you to my family who read those stories aloud, over and over.

Pat here:

Since I’m normally surrounded by less experienced readers, I spend more time recommending books than having people mentioning Flame and flower them to me. Although, I once had an elderly neighbor recommend the Pollyanna books. She brought me a stack of them when I was twelve. By that time, I was reading the likes of ATLAS SHRUGGED, and Pollyanna was more than a wee bit twee for cynical me. But I was desperate for reading material back then and would read cereal boxes if handed one.

 My one great story recommendation—which was great at the time and wouldn’t be so great now—was way back in the late 70s. I was a young mother, a fan of literary and historical fiction, with a limited book budget. The library generally provided what I needed, but I liked having a paperback when we traveled. So as I stared at the array of colorful covers at our local Kmart, a little blue-haired old lady pointed at one historical, but slightly spicy cover, and whispered, “Get this one. It’s really good.” So I bought it. That book was the FLAME AND THE FLOWER.

 I had never read anything other than classic literary romance before, so I was captivated—and a bit wide-eyed at the graphic scenes. I went on from there to grab every historical romance I could find, learned which ones I liked, and when I couldn’t find them—started writing them for myself. There was no turning back after that. So there was one recommendation that made a difference!

(and the image is of that original copy that set my career in motion!)

Susan writes:

51qcMMmazlLI'll pick just one among the many books that I have found unforgettable, books that have had a profound impact on me as a person and as a writer — I could go way back to Pippi Longstocking (hey, I was six, that book turned my life around!) or Jane Eyre (in high school, I read it over and over, literally would close it and start it again). Those and more are on a special keeper shelf that I'll tote around with me until I'm, well, not around anymore. Today I'll choose a more recent read from that shelf: Alice Hoffman's The Dovekeepers was a profound reading experience for me. It is the story of four women among the 900 Jews on Masada just before the Romans arrived to place them under siege. The power of the story, the characters, the writing, spoke deeply to me–I've rarely been so completely immersed in a novel. The story is vibrant, gritty, whole cloth, the characters walking that landscape so strong and real that the book displaced the world around me. Part of its impact for me is that it not only pulled me in, but demanded something of me, the little reader in her safe little world — I came to love these characters, cared about them, felt dread and hope for them. Hoffman weaves such a tight net of reality with language, image, and historical authenticity that I was in awe–and more than that, I realized the story was asking courage of me. The Dovekeepers is a powerful reading experience and I found it unforgettable. I will one day draw up my courage again and give it another read. It will be worth it. 


Nicola: I've mentioned before that my grandmother had a big collection of romance books hidden away at the back of the wardrobe IMG_2700 in her spare room which I discovered at about the age of eleven. One of the books on the shelf was Madam, Will You Talk, by Mary Stewart. I'd already discovered the Regency genre via Nanna's collection of Georgette Heyer books and now it was the turn of Romantic suspense. As you might imagine, this opened up a whole new world for me. Glamorous and exciting stories with danger and adventure, set in places like the South of France, Corfu and Greece that were impossibly exotic to me! It was amazing! I was transported all over the world through my reading, and the books were so romantic too!

I was lucky enough to find almost all Mary Stewart's books in my local library and grabbed them one after another, detouring from romantic suspense into the Arthurian world of The Crystal Cave and its sequels, which also enchanted me. Eventually I tracked down every one of Mary Stewart's books and created my own collection, but one evaded me – the novella The Wind off the Small Isles which had been published in the UK only in 1968 and never re-published. I looked for that book in every secondhand shop I came across which in the days before the internet and online shopping was a life's work! Eventually I tracked it down to the famous Barter Books in Alnwick, Northumberland, and couldn't believe it! I snapped it up and here it is. Inside it's inscribed "To Pat, with love and best wishes, Feb 1969, from Eve and James." I hope Pat enjoyed as much as I still do!

So now it's over to you – please share with us the one special book that means a lot to you and tell us how it came into your life!

What We’re Reading: February Edition!

Susan here, with "What We're Reading" for February: a variety of romances, traditional and non-traditional; mysteries, contemporary and historical; classics; post-apocalyptic; paranormal; and a dash of nonfiction. Scroll on down, friends — your wish lists and TBR stacks are about to grow exponentially!

Mary Jo here:

HeadlinersNew Zealand contemporary romance writer Lucy Parker is a great hit with the Word Wenches.  I believe it was Anne Gracie who introduced us to her with Parker's first London Celebrities book, Act Like It.  The wit, banter, and intelligence of this romance between two theater actors in London's West End made the story an instant favorite of mine. 

The stories work fine as standalones, but they all take place in the same general West End milieu so characters wander through each others' stories.  The heroine of book #4, The Austen Playbook, was actor Freddy Carlton.  Her sister, Sabrina Carlton, is the heroine of recently released book #5, Headliners, London Celebrities #5, a sparkling enemies-to-lovers story.  Sabrina appeared in The Jane Austen Playbook, and she's the very successful and popular anchor of a TV evening show.  Nick Davenport is host of a show on a rival network, and he brashly broadcast a Carlton family scandal, earning Sabina's red headed rage. 

Then one of their networks buys the other, there isn't room for two evening shows, and Sabrina and Nick are made co-hosts of the live morning show which has terrible ratings.  If they fail, they'll both be in the market for new jobs or even new careers.

Sparks and much humor ensue!  Highly recommended if you like wit and banter entwined with your romance.  The broadcasting world is convincing, too. 

The Lady's Guide to Celestial MechanicsMy other suggestion is something very different. There is a sizable subgenre of male/male romances, usually abbreviated as m/m and written by women. The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite is the first female/female romance I've ever read. A Regency historical, it features Lucy Muchelney, a brilliant young mathematician and astronomer who had worked closely with her father.  After his death, she realizes how trapped she is by a male society that has no use for female scientists and largely refuses to admit they exist. 

Lucy's clueless brother is threatening to sell her telescope when Lucy goes to the widowed Lady Moth, a countess who had supported her husband's scientific endeavors.  Lucy wants to translate an important French astronomical work into English, and she persuades Catherine St. Day, the countess, to become her patron.  Though Lucy has always been aware of her sexual orientation, Catherine has never considered such a thing.  But as they live in the same house and work together, they are drawn together in a deeply romantic way. 

The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics is not only an unusual and powerful romance, but also exploration of the obstacles and politics facing women of science.  And it has a very satisfying ending! Recommended if you'd like to try something different.


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Too Fond of Books

Perugini woman reading
She is too fond of books and it has turned her brain. –Louisa May Alcott

Susan here, thinking there are So. Many. Books. in the world right now, including in my house—I’ll never find the time to read them all. And yet I keep acquiring them. They look so good and enticing on the shelves, and stacked in toppling piles here and there . . . they even look great in rows and rows in my Kindle . . . There’s a comfort in being surrounded by books, by that wealth of knowledge and thought and imagination, by the color and texture and scent of the pages and covers, by the promise they hold, and the memories that others keep for us. Regardless of whether or not we’ve read the books that surround us, as many of us know–there can never be too many books.

19155104.thbA room without books is like a body without a soul. –Cicero

Yes. What Cicero said. 
(The historian in me wants to add that he wasn't talking about books per se, but scrolls or early codices, so his quote might be closer to "A room without scrolls is like a body without a soul," which has a nice little ring to it.)

Some of the zillions of books I’ve read and reshelved could eventually be redirected to other hands and other homes, but mostly I'm not that efficient, and most I will keep. If I haven’t read them yet, and there are plenty of those, I maintain all good intentions to do that. And I’m visual enough that I need to see the Unread where they cluster on shelves or in baskets. A great many have been read or at least browsed and skimmed, so I know what’s there if I need it, particularly so for the research books, which I try to group in ways that I can find them again as needed–Scottish and British history, medieval, costumes, legends, that sort of thing. 


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What We’re Reading – April

As usual, the wenches have an eclectic and exciting selection of reading favorites from this past month. I think we've covered all the genres from wedding fantasies to biographies, with lots of romance in between!



Aunt Dimity's Death, Nancy Atherton

This book is labeled a mystery, but it’s not a traditional one, which is probably why I adore it. There is no suspense other than determining the reason the mysterious Aunt Dimity was left alone and unhappy all her life. It’s more a fairy tale Auntdimityghost story, since Aunt Dimity haunts the protagonists’ life in more ways than one, always in a cheerful, amiable manner. The heroine is the next best thing to the Poor Little Match Girl. She gets to visit what is, to all intents and purposes, an enchanted castle in a modern metropolis, meets a prince who isn’t really handsome but a lawyer, and is given a list of odd tasks she must accomplish to earn a princely sum. It’s all low key, pleasant, and charming, and we all get to live the fairy tale with her. In this day and age, I’m good with that.


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