The Many Delights of What We’re Reading –June

Joanna here with our monthly round up. What have the Word Wenches been reading in June? What wonderful books have we discovered?

We have particularly exciting books this month.Wench glass

First up, Anne.
[Warning: cookbook ahead]

Anne here. As usual, I've read a lot of books in the last month. I've always been a prolific reader and it doesn't matter how busy my life gets, reading is a necessary part of my life. 
 
I caught up on my Louise Penny reading, with GLASS HOUSES, a book I bought a year ago and discovered I hadn't read. Absorbing and entertaining, as always, this is #13  in her Chief Inspector Gamache crime series. 
 
Sharon SWench shinnhinn — Mary Jo put me onto Sharon Shinn's fantasies first, and after her recent post I discovered that some more of Shinn's books were now available to me on kindle. I read and enjoyed the first two in the series — TROUBLED WATERS and ROYAL AIRS then discovered that book 3 and 4 are not available to me on kindle. Sigh. So frustrating to know that they are on kindle but not if you live where I do. I really HATE geographical restrictions.
rump grump grump.
 
Finally I read a biography, which I don't often do. It was Writing at the Kitchen Table: The Authorized Biography of Elizabeth David. She was a food writer,  famous before I was born, but who taught me a lot about cooking when I was a student living in a share house, and using an old penguin paperback of hers, FRENCH PROVINCIAL COOKING. I think it was as much the quality of her lyrical, evocative  prose and the little stories and anecdotes that prefaced some of the recipes that enticed me most. I bought all her books I could find, some from used book stores, and am happy to say they're all back in print.
 
I blogged about Elizabeth David some time back — you can read it here — and I found her biography fascinating, not least for the portrait of the difficult and unconventional woman behind the elegant and evocative writing, but also because of the difficulties she had with her various publishers. 
 

Pat brings us magic and what I'd call a "comfort read."
 
Pat here–I'm desperately seeking escape of any sort and a good getaway is hard to find. But here's a couple I've read in recent months that fit the bill.

Wench libraryTHE LIBRARY, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDER,  Mindy Klasky

Mindy writes fun paranormal chicklit, and one of her best characters is Jane Madison, a librarian who discovers she’s a witch. In Jane’s books, she has a magical warder assigned to keep her from creating magical disasters. David Montrose, that powerful DC warder, has his own series now, and we get to see all the problems he’s facing behind the scenes. Not only are his personal problems mounting, but magical DC is on the brink of warfare because of his best friend’s actions, while Jane’s talent is blossoming. He’s juggling more than fire balls to solve everything at once, without being demoted again. It’s a fun fantasy ride!

THE SEVEN YEAR SWITCH, Claire Cook

Lovely women’s fiction with a protagonist who was deserted by her adventure-seeking husband and left to survive on her own. She buried herself in raising their child, giving up the travel and hope of family she’d always wanted—until her husband comes home and wants back in her life again. She has to learn to live and trust and develop new relationships. There’s a lot of fun travel tidbits since she acts as a home-bound travel agent. I would have liked to see her learn enough to actually achieve some of her goals instead of just a potential new love, but it was a pleasant journey worth taking for the fun.

Mary Jo with what sounds like a fun read.

Mary Jo here. I had a delightful time reading the latest Trisha Ashley book, The House of Hopes and DreamsHer books Wenches house are usually about creative heroines in their thirties who are rebuilding their lives (probably in Lancashire), and in the process they find a great eccentric guy who is just right for them.  In HHD, the heroine, Angelique Arrowsmith, known as Angel, is a passionate and talented stained glass artist whose life has just fallen apart. 

Angel's lifelong best friend is Carey Revells, whose enthusiasm and skills as a home renovator have made him a reality TV star on a cottage makeover show, but he and Angel haven't met much in person since they left art school and she went north to work with her older lover, a famous stained glass artist.  The book begins with Carey recovering from an accident that left him bedridden for months and cost him his TV show and his girlfriend.  Then a solicitor informs him he has inherited a large, historic, and rundown house from an uncle he never knew he had. 

Wenches xmasThe house needs lots of work, and it happens to have a stained glass workshop created by Carey's great-grandmother, a noted glass artist.  So very shortly, Angel is living in the house, helping Carey, fixing up the glass shop, and coping with an alien looking black Chihuahua mix that likes biting male ankles.  Soon the house is flowing with friends, workmen, a film crew–and plenty of hopes and dreams fulfilled as well as an old mystery unraveled.  If you like friends-to-lovers stories, this is for you! 

The House of Hopes and Dreams is right up there with my very favorite Trisha Ashley, The Twelve Days of ChristmasWhich, by happy chance, is only $2.99 in the US Kindle store.  So if you haven't read it, here's your chance for a Christmas in July.  It will make you happy and hungry. <G>

 

Andrea brings us some frank words about a favorite author,
and dives into Sharpe's Rifles. Wench punish

Andrea says:  I’ve been a fan of Elizabeth George’s long-running Thomas Lynley detective series for ages. But after she shook up her readers by killing off a major character, I , like many, had a hard time getting back into it, feeling some of the books that followed lost the the sort of subtle psychological insights and interplay that made the books so interesting. I decided to give the last one a try and was heartened to feel George was getting back her mojo. I recently read her latest one, The Punishment She Deserves, and was happy to feel that George is back in top form. 

The plot begins with the apparent suicide of a well-respected churchman in a sleepy English college town. He ’s been picked on an anonymous tip accusing him of abusing children. Lynley’s sidekick, Barbara Havers is part of the two-person police team from Scotland Yard sent to do a routine investigation as the suspect supposedly hanged himself while in local police custody. Her superior is anxious to do a drive-by check up, but feisty Barbara can’t shake the feeling that something isn’t quite right . . .
 
And so begins a probing to college binge drinking, protective parents and an intricate weaving together of mother-daughter relationships from a variety of backgrounds, probing into parental expectations/yearning for their children’s future, and what a parent will do to protect a child. I found it a complex, nuanced and sensitive story that deal with many modern day issues. Watching Lynley and Havers work through some of Wench waterlootheir own personal issues was also interesting to, as I like them both very much. It’s good to see them back in fine fettle and moving on with their lives! 
 
This month I also re-read Bernard Cornwell’s Waterloo, one of the swashbuckling Richard Sharpe books set in the Napoleonic Wars. My current Lady Arianna WIP is set in Brussels and the battle, and I had read that the book is used in many military colleges because it’s such an accurate description of the battle. Cornell is a masterful storyteller, and the non-stop action is riveting—and heartbreaking because of the carnage. I’ve made some notes for my own story about battle locations and timing (don’t worry—there won’t be so much blood and gore!) and reminded me of how much I enjoyed the entire series. If you haven’t read it yet, get Sharpe’s Tiger, the first book, which is set in India . . . you’ll be in for a rollicking ride! Wench brass
 
As for me, I was reading S.A.Chakraborty's The City of Brass. This is the first in a fantasy trilogy based on a Middle Eastern mythos. It's a road trip through magical lands — unfriendly lands full of demons. Much adventure. If I say Djinns and flying carpets it doesn't come close to describing the intricate worldbuilding.
 
There's Revolution and palace intrigue among the magical. So satisfying.
 
City of Brass is Book One of Three so the ending is problematic It's not quite a cliffhanger, but close. And it's good enough to have me looking forward to Book Two.
 
So that June in the Wench Reading Year.  A good 30 days. How's it been with you?

Napoleon Loses a Hat . . and a Battle

Napoleon 4Andrea here, musing today on how I always enjoy it when a snippet of history unexpectedly comes to life when I least expect it. I was perusing the digital front page of the New York Times the other day (a rather depressing exercise of late, I must confess) when a small article caught me eye that actually make me smile. Now, I knew, of course, that this past Monday was the 203rd anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. But what I didn’t realize what that at some point in the raging conflict, Napoleon lost his hat . . .

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Soldiers

PoppyHi, Jo here composing this on Remembrance Day in the UK, which we mark by wearing poppies. That's not the sort of poppy that bloomed around the trenches in WWI, but it's a picture of my own. There's a famous poem that begins,

"In Flanders fields the poppies blow
 Between the crosses, row on row…"

If you don't know it, you can read the rest here. In the end it seems to be pro-war, so I have mixed feelings about it. You?

Let's talk about soldiers in historical fiction. I felt sure that I'd done this subject before, but I've done a skim through the archives and haven't found it, so here goes. Most of us never experience war, either as soldiers or civilians caught up in war, and I'm sure most people are as grateful as I am about that. And yet, war and warriors have strong appeal in fiction going back to Beowulf and beyond. Sharpe

I honestly don't know how I feel about this, for to me war seems all wrong. There has to be a better way. That's probably why I haven't used war as a setting for any of my Georgian or Regency stories, and mostly avoided it in my medievals. I've had some soldier heroes, but not many, and not on active duty. At the same time I have enjoyed some active soldier heroes. I regard Bernard Cornwell (Sharpe etc) as a guilty pleasure because his military heroes don't suffer doubts about right or wrong, and in some cases revel in battle. I suspect he captures warriors of the past more accurately than most modern writers and I enjoy his books. Comment?

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The Stiff Upper Lip

MedievalNicola here, reflecting on the qualities associated with the
“stiff upper lip” and whether they are the type of characteristics we like to
read about in our heroes – and heroines.

No Self-Control

A new series on TV in the UK is tracing the “emotional
history” of Britain and it is interesting to discover that the nation has not
always been associated with reserve, resilience, restraint and emotional
coolness. In the Middle Ages visitors including the Dutch scholar Erasmus
commented on the fact that the English were always kissing each other, weeping,
arguing and generally allowing their passions to get the better of them.
Italian visitors to the Elizabethan court also commented unfavourably on how the
British lacked self-control. It was a time when the Brits were renowned for
letting it all hang out emotionally and it was the French who invented the word
“sang-froid” to describe a quality that their neighbours across the Channel
singularly lacked.

During the English Civil Wars of the 17th century
the Parliamentarians, famous for frowning on
Cavalier celebrations of festivals such as
Christmas, represented the virtues of modesty and discipline whilst the
cavaliers revelled in pleasure and panache. This vogue for indulging the
emotions was popular during the Restoration and by the 18th century the
word “sentimental” was a term of praise. It referred to a person of taste and
refinement, someone who would openly show emotion. Both men and women wept over
books such as Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, and sentimental paintings were
Nelsonvery
much in fashion. The last great hero of this era was Horatio Nelson, flamboyant
and sentimental, a man who paraded his passions in public.  This was a man who had no hesitation in
asking one of his closest friends to kiss him goodbye on his deathbed. When
Nelson died the huge outpouring of grief at his funeral mirrored the emotional
nature of his life.

 

The Lip Stiffens 

But the Napoleonic Wars and the French Revolution were
changing British attitudes towards the
Darcy expression of passion. The French
Revolution was seen as a disastrous result of the outpouring of rampant
emotional expression. Passion was seen as dangerous to life and liberty.  At its most extreme, political passion
resulted in revolution. So it was time to stiffen the upper lip and reject the
display of emotion. Jane Austen’s heroes reflect this change. They have admirable self-control and seldom express their feelings. When they do, what
they say is concise, heartfelt but not flamboyant: Mr Darcy, for example, only expresses his admiration for Elizabeth Bennett when goaded into it by Miss Bingley. Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey is determinedly unsentimental, rejecting the heroine's wild flights of imagination. Even Frederick Wentworth, possibly the most open of Jane Austen's heroes is still a model of military restraint, resourcefulness and fortitude. As for the heroines, Elinor, representing sense, is favoured over Marianne, representing Sensibility.

WellingtonLord Byron was another man who simply could not resist
indulging his emotions. In contrast, the Duke of Wellington came to exemplify all
that was admired in stoicism and self-control. The “Iron Duke” was emotionally
restrained. One could not imagine him asking his best friend to kiss him under any circumstances. The
story of his exchange with Lord Uxbridge at the Battle of Waterloo demonstrates this. When Uxbridge had his leg shattered by a cannonball he declared: “By God,
Sir, I’ve lost my leg!” “By God, sir, so you have,” Wellington replied calmly.

The Doughty Victorians

The Victorian era enshrined
the stiff upper lip as a virtue throughout all classes of society. Britons’
Florentia Sale
inclination to express passion was suppressed, beaten out of young men at
public school and repressed by the Church. 
Explorers and soldiers were models of cool self-control and so were the
women who supported them. Florentia, Lady Sale, during the disastrous British
retreat from Kabul in the First Afghan War wrote in her diary: "Today we
fought our way through the Jugdulluk Pass. Fortunately, I was only wounded
once."

Much of the literature of the
Victorian period reflected this cool stoicism. Invictus by WE Henley, Vitai
Lampada by Henry Newbolt and If by Rudyard Kipling all praise the quality of
the stiff upper lip in the face of adversity. However, the flip side to such fortutide could be a lack of imagination and empathy. There was a strong backlash against the stiff upper lip at the start of the 20th century from those who felt it ironed out all sensitivity.

Is there still a place for the stiff upper lip?

Andy Murray cryingThese days there is a general
consensus that the stiff upper lip is quivering too much with
sentimentality. We Brits cry regularly – even tennis player Andy Murray, the dour Scot, gets emotional. We get
passionate for the things we care about. And yet some of the British classic
understatement and stiff upper lip does survive. In my family the enquiry “How
are you?” is always greeted with the answer “fine, thank you” regardless of
circumstances. When my other half and I were driving through the African bush
and got stuck in deep sand we took turns in digging the Land Rover out whilst
the other one kept watch for a lion attack. We needed all our reserves of calmness and fortitude then. 

I’m not suggesting that the
qualities of coolness in the face of danger, resilience and restraint are
exclusive to the Brits. Far from it. I don’t see them as the preserve of one
particular nation over another. During the Victoran period there was in fact a fear that the Americans in particular were going to overtake the British in terms of their coollness under pressure and their positive attitude. Other races were also acknowledged to possess the stiff upper lip: The Germans were renowned for their discipline, the Australians for their resilience and resourcefulness and the Nordic races for their calm.

I have to confess that I do find many of the qualities associated with the stiff upper lip to be attractive, in real life as well as in my fiction. I suppose ideally I would like a
hero who possesses some restraint and a great line in understatement, but who is still
emotionally literate enough to declare his love to the heroine. I also love strong heroines who are clever and resourceful. 

What about you?
Do you prefer the strong silent type of hero who suppresses his passion or the sort of
man like Nelson or Byron who isn’t ashamed to show his emotions in public? Or a
hero somewhere between the two? Are there any particular examples of restraint
and self-control you admire in real life or in novels? And what about the heroines? After all, the stiff upper lip isn't the sole prerogative of the male of the species!

Ready, Aim, FIRE—a Few Basics on Regency Ballistics

RiflemenCara/Andrea here, It’s not that I’m feeling in a bellicose state of mind—my choice of topic today has been sparked my re-reading of Waterloo, one of the books in the wonderful Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell. The epic battle’s anniversary is later this month, and as we all know, that clash of grand armies with its flashing sabers, whizzing bullets, booming cannons and choking clouds of gunpowder, was a turning point in European history.

Sharpe-2Richard Sharpe, the hero of Cornwell’s novels, is a rifleman, which set him apart from the regular British foot soldier, who was equipped with a musket. And what, you might ask, is the bloody difference between the two weapons? Both shoot bullets with lethal effect, right? Well, not quite, as I learned when I decided to do a little research into what made the “Green Jackets” (the special rifle units wore green to distinguish them from the Red-coated regulars) of the Wellington’s army such a feared fighting force.

To begin with, we need to understand a few simple concepts about the inside of a gun barrel. So allow me to spin out a few facts.  A smooth bore weapon, like the famed Brown Bess Battle-2musket—which was standard British Army issue for over 120 years—is exactly what the name implies. The inside of the barrel is a smooth cylinder, which makes it relatively easy and quick to thrust a bullet and powder down its length with a ramrod. This smoothness also keeps powder residue from building up inside the weapon too quickly, allowing it to be fired repeatedly before it needs to be cleaned—a rather large plus in the heat of battle.

Baker-soldier Baker-cartridgeThere are, however, drawbacks. It’s been estimated that during the 1700s, few than one percent of all musket balls fired found their target. Or, in the words of a British colonel, “At two hundred yards with a common musket, one might as well be firing at the moon.” That’s because a musket ball (it is round, which we will see in a minute is important) has to fit rather loosely in order to be rammed down the barrel. This is called windage, and it  means that when the ball comes out, propelled by the tiny explosion of gunpowder, it knocks around a bit against the smooth steel, and thus its aim can be wildly inaccurate. That’s all very well when facing an opposing line of soldiers who are only ten or twenty yards away. However, at any greater distance, things become more dicey.

Sharpe-3In contrast, the inside of a rifle barrel has . . .well, rifling. This term refers to a series of grooves cut into the inside of the barrel, which twist in a continuous direction. These grooves impart a spin to a projectile fired out of the weapon. Spin helps counteract the tendency to wobble and bob as an object flies through the air (imagine a gyroscope and how its spinning force makes it more stable) thus making it more likely to maintain an stable path. In a nutshell, (or cartridge wrapping) a rifle is a far more accurate weapon than a musket.

Baker-Rifle-LockRifling was known as far back as the 1400’s, and was used in hunting guns. (In his highly entertaining book, Gunpowder, Jack Kelley tells an amusing story on the early explanation for why these early rifles were more lethal than smoothbore guns. A Bavarian necromancer named Moretius theorized that the flight of bullets was controlled by spirits, or imps, who took delight in frustrating shooters. A rifled bullet went straight because no demon could ride astride a spinning projectile. This theory was backed up, claimed Moretius, by the fact that the spinning heavens were free of demons, while the stationery Earth was crowded with them.

Battle497An interesting theory. However, a Quaker Englishman named Benjamin Robins came up with far more scientific observations on ballistics in the mid-1700s. He determined that a round ball is subject to far more “drag” as it flies through the air, and thus loses speed and accuracy very quickly. (The loss of velocity also makes it less likely to kill an opponent, a fact which interested the Army.) A pointed projectile is far more aerodynamic. But as that wasn’t technically practical at the time (modern bullets are all cone-shaped for this reason) he pointed out that rifling at least improved the effectiveness of a gun, and predicted that any nation who fought with rifled weapons would have a huge advantage.

Rifleman Baker-bayonetIt certainly made technical sense. And yet, there were also significant drawbacks. As I mentioned, a smoothbore musket was easily and quickly loaded—a skilled soldier could fire a shot every 12 seconds. Loading a rifle took more time and effort because to tale on the spin from the grooves, the bullet had to be a touch larger that the gun barrel, so the compression of the lead would take on the minute grooves. This meant a rifleman had to laboriously hammer a bullet down the length of his weapon (small wooden hammers were part of his standard arsenal) and thus even a well-trained one could only fire 2 shots a minute as opposed to 5. The grooves of a rifle also collected residue far faster than a smooth barrel so had to be cleaned more frequently.

Sharpe-4So despite Robins’s data, the rifle was deemed inefficient for army use. The British, however, experienced just how lethal its fire could be during the American Revolution. Many of the colonists hunted with rifled weapons—the accuracy of the Kentucky long rifle was legendary—and they turned their marksmanship on British troops with devastating effect. (The British complained vociferously that this sniping was unsporting, for the American didn’t stand in sitting duck battle lines, but fired from long range while hiding behind stone walls or trees, which allowed them to reload at the slower rate without suffering the consequences.)

The British surrendered the Colonies, but the lesson of rifle power was not lost on them. During the Napoleonic Wars, they began to develop special rifle companies (most notably the 95th Rifles and the 5th Battalion, 60th Regiment of Foot) which were deployed to great effect, especially in the Peninsular campaign. Riflemen were usually sent out as advance skirmishers, and their long range accuracy was used to disrupt the waiting enemy lines. A top priority was to pick off the opposing officers—it is said that Thomas Plunkett of the 95th Rifles killed French General Colbert from a distance of nearly 600 yards during the retreat to La Corunna.

Baker-1After testing several models, the Baker rifle, designed in 1800 by a Whitechapel gunsmith named Ezekiel Baker, was the first standard issue British military rifle. For those of you who read the Sharpe novels, the Baker rifle will be a BakerRifle-storagefamiliar name. It had a shorter barrel than a Brown Bess, making it a distinctive weapon. The stock had a small storage box built in it for the special cartridges, and it was equipped with a sword bayonet rather than the thin needle-shaped bayonet used on the Brown Bess musket.

Sharpe-1Bonaparte dismissed the idea of rifles for his own armies, but in fact as well as fiction it proved an unwise decision. Richard Sharpe and his fellow riflemen wreak havoc on the French in Cornwell’s novels, and so did the real-life marksmen of the rifle regiments. The 95th Regiment served with distinction at the battle of Waterloo, and well, as they say., the rest is history.

So, are any of you fans of the Richard Sharpe novels? Which is your favorite book in the series. And have you watched the television version featuring Sean Bean? (fluttery sigh) I think he’s marvelous in the role, but let’s have a little fun—who else do you think would be a good Sharpe? I vote for Matthew MacFadyen.