Release Day: Devices & Desires

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His True Love Has His Heart…But Can He Win Hers?

Happy New Year, everyone! And Happy Chinese New Year, which is just around the corner (2/8/16)!

What better time than to announce the arrival of a new book and the start of a new series? Devices & Desires, the first novel in my historical series The Lyons Pride, is out today, on the following digital platforms:

Kindle  Nook  iBooks  Kobo  GooglePlay

It’s also on sale for 3.99 until the end of January, after which it will be 4.99. A print edition is in the works and should be available soon.

The Story Behind the Story: The idea for The Lyons Pride has been percolating since December 2012, while I was promoting my first book, Waltz with a Stranger. Initially a throwaway line in one of the many blog posts I was writing at the time, the idea took root and germinated practically overnight, like Jack’s beanstalk! As I was committed to readying my second book, A Song at Twilight, for publication, it was some time before I could pursue this project, but once I had a hand free, it was full steam ahead!

The primary influence for the series and especially the first book, Devices & Desires, was the brilliant, biting historical drama, The Lion in Winter. It was originally a play by James Goldman, but people are probably most familiar with the 1968 film version, starring Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn as estranged royal spouses Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, who fight over everything from the succession–in question after the death of their eldest son, Henry the Young King–to the loyalty of their surviving sons: Richard (later the Lionheart), Geoffrey (Duke of Brittany), and John (known as Lackland).

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The Brothers Plantagenet: from left, John, Geoffrey, and Richard

I first saw the film when I was in high school, and the performances and razor-sharp dialogue blew me away. And I also read the play to see if I could pick up more nuances that the film might have omitted (there were a couple, but by and large, the film adheres closely to the play). It ended up being one of the films that’s stayed with me over the years, so perhaps it wasn’t surprising that it inspired my new series. Who might these people be in Victorian England, approximately 700 years after the setting of the film, and how would their drama play out in a different historical context? And was it even possible for this charming, ruthless, contentious, too-clever-for-its-own-good family to earn the happy ending that eluded its historical counterpart?

The enigmatic Geoffrey, of whose existence I’d been unaware before the film and who predeceased his parents (he died of injuries sustained in a tournament in 1186), became my entry point–as Lord Gervase Lyons. Since Devices & Desires is a homage rather than a slavish updating of The Lion in Winter, I had no qualms about taking Gervase’s life in a somewhat different direction–especially when it came to romance–while keeping the family dynamics and his role in them largely intact. Gervase also owes a debt to Lord Peter Wimsey and Francis Crawford of Lymond, two favorite heroes of mine who use their wit, along with wordplay, as a weapon and as armor. They also happen, like Gervase, to be younger sons trying to forge their own path in a world where eldest sons are usually handed everything on a plate.

To balance cool, cerebral Gervase, I created Lady Margaret Carlisle, herself loosely based on Princess Marguerite of France, who was married to Henry the Young King. Not much is known about the historical Marguerite, so I could develop Margaret as I desired–as a sane, sensible, warm-hearted heroine strong enough to stand up to the Lyons Pride and smart enough to be the hero’s perfect match. Though it takes her a while to see it!

Although Devices & Desires wasn’t an easy story to tell–I completed it during one of the most stressful years of my life–my affection for it and its characters never waned. I hope you enjoy reading it as much–or more–as I enjoyed writing it. Minus the stress, of course.

Happy reading!

Venture Once More–Commentary on Poldark, Eps. 4 and 5

Back from my travels with a double edition of Poldark meta! Having rewatched Episode 4 on a TV screen with less exaggerated proportions, I can honestly say that I like this episode best of the ones that have aired so far. Not that there weren’t several WTF? moments, but by and large, the positives outweighed the negatives.

The Poldark Women Trip the Light Fantastic
The Poldark Women Trip the Light Fantastic

 The Good

*The Honeymoon Period: What a difference regular conjugal relations makes, especially for Ross who seemed downright jovial at times! I thought he was all set to have his way with his new bride right there on the kitchen table when he came home (I was relieved for Demelza’s sake that he took her off to bed first). Aidan Turner does have an appealing smile, and it was nice to see it so often during the Happy!Ross scenes. Demelza glows, of course—canonically, she’s always the more sanguine of the two and contentment becomes her.

*Demelza and Verity: The development of their friendship is true to the source material and well-portrayed by both actresses. I like the way they unbend in each other’s company, Demelza becoming more confident in her role as hostess, while Verity takes on the task of teaching her cousin’s wife the finer points of etiquette and deportment. I attribute Demelza’s improved posture by the episode’s end to Verity!

*The pilchard harvest/copper strike: Two feel-good moments, effectively presented in parallel. In both cases, Ross and his associates are Waiting For Something To Happen. I was a little sorry that that the pilchard harvest didn’t take place by moonlight, as it does in the books, but it was still attractively filmed, with women waiting patiently on the cliffs for sight of the fishing boats’ return, then the almost giddy excitement and relief over the catch coming in as the whole community rushes in to claim their share. The copper strike had “Christmas Miracle” stamped all over it, but one would have to be a total Scrooge to begrudge the miners’ good fortune.

*Christmas at Trenwith: One of my favorite sequences in the first novel, and almost everything I liked was retained. The oppressiveness of the Poldark family history that has Demelza overawed on her arrival is straight out of the book—unlike the unpleasant exchange between Francis and Elizabeth before dinner, although it’s plausible, given their deteriorating relationship at this point. The Trenegloses aren’t quite as uncouth as to crash Christmas dinner as they do here, but they do pay a call afterwards, with George Warleggan in tow. And Demelza being sick after dinner, owing to nerves and her pregnancy, then rallying to win over the whole company with her singing, was lovely—as was the rendition of the song itself. And the way Ross’s expression softens as he listens, and he finally begins to realize and appreciate what he’s found in Demelza (in spite of his lingering glance at Elizabeth’s nape earlier in the sequence). I did miss Demelza’s discovery of port, which also gives her the Dutch courage to face her social “betters” and which becomes an endearing quirk of her character.

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A fancy, a feeling, or a Ferrars? Certainly not a Warleggan!

The Bad

*I will never get used to Ross’s tenants calling him by his first name.

*Charles and Ross: While familial affection does exist between them, they aren’t close, and Charles never entrusts Ross with the well-being of Francis or the rest of the Poldark family. Nor does he compare Francis unfavorably to Ross. Charles may have reservations about his son but he would never have voiced them to Ross, who is too much the son of Joshua, the reckless, rakish younger brother with whom the more conventional Charles never got along. (I very much regret that neither Poldark 75 nor Poldark 15 dramatized the Charles/Joshua scene at the start of Book One, because Joshua turns out to cast a very long shadow.) In fact, the whole Ross >>>>>>Francis angle feels very overplayed.

*For some inexplicable reason, the screenwriters passed up a golden opportunity to mount a very important gun on the wall—namely, George Warleggan’s attraction to Elizabeth. When he accompanies the Trenegloses on their Christmas visit to Trenwith, he has eyes only for her, especially during her musical performance. He very much covets his neighbor’s refined, gracious, blue-blooded wife, and that becomes a major complication in the ongoing saga. It was one of the best reasons I could imagine for introducing George early in the series, and they completely dropped the ball on it—much as they have on most of George’s other defining characteristics: his ambition, his ruthlessness, his barely concealed resentment of and burning desire for acceptance by the landed gentry. This George comes across as a sneering aristocrat (the resemblance to Hugh Grant in his “posh frock” days doesn’t help), not a driven but tightly controlled up-and-comer determined to buy and maneuver his way into power and social prestige.

 

Demelza's Approach to Theft (Not Ladylike But It Gets The Job Done)
Demelza’s Approach to Theft (Not Ladylike But It Gets The Job Done)

The WTF?

*Ross’s imprudent marriage causes gossip, but not social ostracism. And he doesn’t lose any backers for Wheal Leisure over it—not even Dr. Choake.

*Still no explanation as to why Nicholas Warleggan is absent, but the less important Cary Warleggan is retained.

*Ross has an annoying habit of making unilateral decisions without taking Demelza’s feelings or opinions into account—inviting Verity to stay, accepting the Christmas invitation to Trenwith. Or making much of an effort to talk her around to his POV. He also seems to expect her to adapt immediately to her changed status and criticizes her when she doesn’t, which seems neither fair nor kind. I know this version of Demelza is softer, more outwardly vulnerable, and more easily squashed than either the books’ or ’75 series incarnation. But I hope she does gain enough confidence to stand up to Ross eventually or he’ll steamroll right over her. One thing I loved about Rees’s Demelza is that she was never shy about giving Ross what-for when she disagreed with him.

*From Ross galloping along the Cliffs of Alienation, we now transition to Francis staring out over the Sea of Inadequacy. Brooding appears to run in the Poldark genes.

Episode 5

Sad to say, I found this installment anticlimactic, after the emotional payoffs of the previous episode. I suspect that is largely attributable to the transition from Ross Poldark to Demelza, which is a much darker novel. I hope there will be an improvement as the events of Book Two unfold. Still, there were some things to enjoy, even if there were more things to shake one’s head over, especially if—like me—you’re coming to the series primarily as a book reader.

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Proud Parents

The Good

*Ross and Demelza’s happiness about becoming parents. I always liked Ross being perfectly happy with having a daughter as his firstborn instead of a son. It’s kind of a pity, though, that the comic elements of Demelza’s delivery weren’t dramatized: Ross dragging Choake away from his breakfast to minister to his laboring wife, Choake’s wig flying off in a gale, Ross bewildered by all the younger Martin children waiting in his kitchen while Jinny and Mrs. Zacky attend to Demelza—and safely deliver Julia before Choake even arrives.

*Verity’s expression when Ross agrees that maybe he does want to have Demelza and Elizabeth: a cross between “TMI, Cousin!” and “Men are pigs!” I’m not surprised she walked away from him after that. Of course, in this day and age, Ross probably could have both women…

*Demelza becoming subtler and learning how to keep secrets from Ross in what she sees as a good cause. It’s an occasional bone of contention between them later, but it’s true to her development as a character. Plus, it shows a growing autonomy.

*While I’m not a fan of the new series’ effort to soften Elizabeth, they are doing a good job in showing her all-consuming preoccupation with Geoffrey Charles. I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that motherhood becomes her consolation for a less than satisfactory love life.

 

The Bell Tolls For Grambler
The Bell Tolls For Grambler

The Bad

*Is it really necessary to make Francis even more of a failure than he is in the novels? Having him lose Grambler in a card game is overkill—not to mention something of a cliché that I’ve repeatedly encountered in Regency romances. Grambler does close, but it’s mainly because it’s no longer yielding enough copper and the cost of unwatering the mine to seek out new lodes is prohibitive. In the ’75 series, Grambler’s closing is portrayed as a haunting flashback from Francis’s POV, as he stares into space, drink in hand and the clock ticking loudly in the background, reliving the moment when he had to shut down the family inheritance and put all his miners out of work. The only thing I liked about this version’s portrayal of the same event was Francis writing “Resurgam” on the wall. (In the book, he writes it on the side of the boiler.)

Richard Morant as Dwight Enys in Poldark (1975)
Richard Morant as Dwight Enys in Poldark (1975)

*Changing Dwight’s backstory wasn’t necessary, either. I suppose the screenwriters thought it would simplify things to have him and Ross already know each other from the war, but that seems to age Dwight and make some of his impending errors of judgment less youthful and more stupid. Dwight originally enters as a guest at Julia’s christening: a newcomer to the community, very recently qualified as a physician, earnest, idealistic, hard-working (this Dwight hasn’t even been shown practicing medicine yet—I thought they might have him deliver Demelza’s baby, but no), and full of zeal to try new medical ideas and approaches. Dwight is also the first friend Ross and Demelza make after their marriage, which may not seem significant but is, because he accepts Demelza straight off, without holding her origins against her. Finally, the actor playing Dwight in the new series is sadly bland, without a fraction of the charisma or screen presence of Richard Morant, who played the role in the ’75 version. That was one hot young doctor!

*Eliminating Julia’s double christening: In the book, Ross humors Demelza’s desire to keep the classes separate by holding two christening parties, making Tom Carne’s deliberate attendance on the wrong day all the more dramatic and potentially catastrophic. It also underscores Demelza’s ongoing insecurities about having married into the landed gentry and her fear about never finding acceptance among them. The new series’ choice to simplify that subplot made for rather tepid viewing instead of fireworks.

*Speaking of tepid viewing, the formation of the secret Carnmore Copper Company—which should have been more exciting and dramatic—seemed muted and furtive. And while Ross canonically plays his cards close to the vest with this scheme, Aidan Turner’s portrayal was almost too low-key and subdued. You had to wonder why his Ross was chosen to be the leader, when he appeared so hesitant about claiming any responsibility for the scheme in the first place.

*Keren and Mark Daniel: This isn’t one of my favorite storylines by a long shot, but at least in the book, the characters’ motivations are more fleshed-out. Keren is on the make, but she’s also a very young girl trying to escape the hardships of life as a traveling player, as well as the unwelcome advances of several men in the troupe. Mark is socially awkward, inexperienced with women, and dazzled by this girl who’s completely out of his sphere. At bottom, neither really knows or understands the other, and neither knows what he or she is getting into when they marry, which sows the seeds for future tragedy. None of that comes across in the new series so far—both characters appear one-dimensional (simple miner and calculating hussy) and likely to remain so, unfortunately.

A Bad Time For Courtship, Captain!
An Awkward Time For Courtship, Captain!

The WTF?

*Making Keren’s traveling theatre troupe more “high-brow” by having them perform a Shakespeare play (All’s Well That Ends Well, one of his more obscure works into the bargain) instead of a popular melodrama of the day. Also, did it really take Ross five acts to notice that his pregnant wife hadn’t returned from stretching her legs? Talk about oblivious…

* Francis’s snide comment about finding “a price for Mama” was slapworthy. Lady or not, Elizabeth should have thrown the teapot at his head for that remark. That said, there is a little too much emphasis on Saintly Elizabeth: the failure of that marriage is attributable to both parties, and I’ll be annoyed if the new series glosses that over.

*Still no indication that George secretly hankers after Elizabeth. I’m starting to suspect this drawling, foppish incarnation secretly hankers after Francis–or Ross!

*Blamey’s sense of timing—pouring out his heart to Verity while a riot rages around them—leaves a lot to be desired.

*The riot itself is set up much more clearly in the book. It begins as a protest against exorbitant corn prices being charged by a local merchant (the Warleggan cousin, Sanson, is also involved) and escalates when the hungry miners storm the warehouse to take the grain instead. Couldn’t we have had some of those details instead of repeated shots of various Poldarks standing on cliffs and staring at the sea?

*Ross has his Cliffs of Alienation, Francis has his Sea of Inadequacy, now Verity has her Storm Clouds of Heartache, and Demelza her Breaking Waves of Childbirth. This family’s relationship with Nature is nothing if not fraught—and picturesque!

Until next time!

 

 

 

Venture Once More–Commentary on Poldark, Ep. 2

images-7Getting my thoughts down on the new episode while they’re still fresh.

The story as a whole is gaining some decent momentum, with Ross taking a more active interest in reviving the family mine–a welcome change from last week’s incessant moping over Elizabeth. While there’s still a fair amount of that, Ross throwing himself wholeheartedly into a new project is as welcome as a breath of Cornish sea air.

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Ross and Demelza make an excursion into town

Aidan Turner continues to grow into the part. He’s a younger, more soft-spoken Ross, more inclined to wear his heart on his sleeve, and lacking some of Robin Ellis’s crispness and authority. Nonetheless, he has a good rapport with the miners, and he’s a bit gentler with Demelza than he is in either the books or Poldark 1975. No harm there, as this slightly more cowed, feral, fragile Demelza responds well to gentleness.

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Ross, Elizabeth, and their apocryphal dance

I could wish this Ross was less of a susceptible sap where Elizabeth is concerned. Some of this is unavoidable: Elizabeth is always a bit of an Achilles heel for Ross, but nowhere in the books is there a scene where they trade longing or flirtatious looks while dancing, or where he believes that Elizabeth is all set to leave Francis for him and is mortified to discover he’s misread the whole situation (the 1970s series is a different kettle of fish, and I’m no more fond of that plot twist than Graham himself was). I did appreciate Turner’s Ross having a mini-epiphany about his futile Elizabeth fantasies and asking Demelza if he had the words “Half Wit” branded on his forehead. Being less deferential than she, I was tempted to respond, “No, only STAMPED!”

Rolled my eyes a little over the skinny-dipping scene, which has become almost a screen cliche since the 1995 miniseries of Pride & Prejudice. But only a little–because Ross does go swimming in the sea after his one-night stand with Margaret the prostitute. Demelza getting an eyeful, though, is pure series invention.

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Demelza, poised on the brink

Like Turner, Eleanor Tomlinson is growing on me as Demelza, despite being much taller and gawkier than Angharad Rees. The Cinderella parallels with her grubbing about in the ashes and sweeping the floor while Jud and Prudie (not as funny or as strangely likable as in the books) lord it over her were a touch obvious. But the scene in which she enters the library and Nampara and sees books, maps, curios, and the spinet was a nice little bit of character development that shows her discovering things she never dreamed she could aspire to. (Demelza eventually teaches herself to play the spinet and becomes an accomplished young woman.)

I was less impressed by the way the show is handling the supporting characters, which I am going to rant about at some length, so be warned. Since one major selling point of the new series has been that it adheres more closely to the books, I was taken aback by them having Basset commit suicide over his bankruptcy–which never happens. In fact, Basset–an occasional ally of Ross–has a significant role in later books, plus he remains financially solvent throughout. So, unless they’re going to bring on a younger Basset (the son and heir), this twist makes little sense beyond providing a moment of shock value and showing how bad the Warleggans are.

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Ralph Bates as George Warleggan (Don’t mess with him!)

Apropos of which, George Warleggan is overdoing the Iago shtick of dripping malice and poison in everyone’s ears. While I like the idea of George being present early on–he doesn’t make his onscreen appearance until Episode 6 of the 1975 miniseries–he’s way too obvious in his villainy at this point. You half-expect him to leave a trail of slime wherever he goes. The antipathy between Ross and George has a slower build and burn in the books, plus George doesn’t overplay his hand regarding the Trenwith Poldarks. His open admiration for Elizabeth (contrary to the last episode’s insinuation, George actually wasn’t much of a rake) and his largesse towards Francis have both of them thinking George is their BFF, at least for a while. I also find this George too smooth, foppish, and physically slight–he’s supposed to have a more impressive, muscular physique that recalls his grandfather’s blacksmith origins. This fellow looks as though Turner’s Ross could snap him in half like a twig. So could Ralph Bates, who played George in Poldark 1975.

Verity, on the shelf
Verity, on the shelf

Finally, there was Verity’s doomed romance, which was at once too truncated and too heavy-handed. In the books, Verity and Blamey’s story plays out over several months as she gets to know him and come to terms with his ugly past before deciding to take a chance on a life with him. (There was no whitewashing of his history by claiming his wife struck him first and that she hit her head by accident: a drunken Blamey kicked her while she was pregnant, and she died of her injuries.) Having Verity meet, fall in love with, and be ready to elope with Blamey in one episode makes her look desperate and rather pathetic, instead of strong and mostly sensible.

For that matter, it wasn’t necessary to make all the men in Verity’s family ogres just to show us the oppression of women in 18th century England. Far from being an unpaid, unappreciated drudge ordered around by her selfish father, Verity is a much-loved daughter of the house, on whom everyone depends, because fair, fragile Elizabeth may not be capable of shouldering all the responsibilities of being mistress of Trenwith. Charles isn’t even opposed to Verity getting married, because he knows she hasn’t had many admirers, and he is sorry to deny her when her suitor’s ugly secret becomes known. And really, who wouldn’t have serious reservations about one’s daughter marrying a domestic abuser and ex-con? And for Verity, love and duty have as much to do with her ultimate decision to break with Blamey as opposition from her father and brother.

Clive Francis as Francis Poldark (1975)
Clive Francis as Francis Poldark (1975)

Regarding the latter: Francis is coming off even worse than Charles, condemning Blamey even as he himself knocks Verity to the floor when she tries to stop the duel. But then, pretty much everything is “off” about Francis’s characterization in this new series: he’s been given all the flaws and weaknesses, but none of the book version’s redeeming qualities. While Francis isn’t as dashing or as tough as Ross, neither is he a complete drip and weakling. He can be wry, witty, and even funny in a snarky way (snarkier than Ross, actually). He is also capable of regretting his misdeeds and working to atone for them (this is further down the road in the story, but worth mentioning all the same). None of those qualities are in evidence in Poldark 2015, sad to say. Clive Francis, who played the part in Poldark 1975, was far superior to Kyle Soller in conveying different aspects of the character, even in the first few episodes.

As for technical matters, I’m already over the stock footage of Ross galloping his horse in silhouette along the Cliffs of Alienation. Can’t he just be shown departing one place and arriving at his destination? And the recurring Celtic Theme of Romantic Frustration has gone past plaintive and all the way into whiny (and I say this as someone who likes Celtic music). By its third or fourth iteration in the episode, I was ready to strangle the violin player with his (or her) own strings. I don’t object to a soundtrack or incidental music, but for heaven’s sake, mix it up a bit!

Until next time!

“P” is for “Poldark”: The Pleasures of Summer TV

BeachSummerCan you believe we’re more than halfway through June? And the summer solstice is upon us.

I love spring with its soft colors and mild weather, but summer was probably my favorite season when I was a kid–not least because of the 10 or 11 weeks of vacation after a long school year. While spring makes me think of pastels, summer is all about bright and bold colors and experiences. The aquamarine and turquoise of swimming pools, the emerald and sapphire of the ocean, the scarlet of ripe strawberries, the orange-gold of juicy peaches, the deep coral color inside a conch shell…passers-by may even have noticed that Blue Stockings & Crossed Genres has a new look for the season that contains several of the aforementioned colors.

Summer entertainment tends to be of the bright, colorful, noisy variety too. Beach parties, picnics, barbecues, even the average summer blockbuster (usually laden with spandex-clad heroes and things going “BOOM!”) And summer television, which can range from sports spectaculars (especially in Olympics years) to star-studded and/or lushly romantic miniseries.

The new Poldark, which starts airing this weekend in my neck of the woods, may not qualify as star-studded (yet), but, based on the source material alone, I’d say it definitely meets the criteria for “lushly romantic”: a sweeping costume drama about an 18th century Cornish mining family, boasting high adventure, derring-do, class warfare, a simmering romantic triangle, and wildly beautiful scenery–cliffs, coves, and thundering surf.  I am unabashedly excited about this series, not least because I loved the original novels by Winston Graham and the first miniseries based on them, which was made back in the 1970s. I’ve heard the new version may even adhere more closely to the books–the first series took some dramatic liberties that annoyed the author–but as you can see below, it also shares some eerie similarities when it comes to the lead couple…

Ross and Demelza, Original Version
Ross and Demelza, Original Version
NewRoss&Demelza
Ross and Demelza, New Version

Graham’s Poldark Saga was a big influence on me as a historical novelist, which I will be blogging about here and elsewhere in coming weeks. I plan to follow the new series closely and post commentary about the episodes after they air. Other Poldark fans, past and/or present, are welcome to stop by and add their tuppence, anytime!