Amour et Florand: Guest Post from Maureen

So, so, so. Like Brandy from today’s earlier post, Maureen of By Singing Light is also one of my trusted bloggers. I think it’s awesome that while she’s not a big romance reader, she loves Laura’s books.

Welcome, Maureen, to Amour et Florand!

By Singing Light
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I’m not a huge romance reader, mostly because I tend to like my romance as the subplot of a story rather than the main event (think Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane). I do enjoy some romance novels on occasion, and yet I don’t normally absolutely love them. But there are a few exceptions to this: Georgette Heyer, Cecilia Grant, and Laura Florand.

Chachic was the one who first recommended Laura Florand’s books, but even knowing how much she loved them I hesitated a bit until The Chocolate Thief and The Chocolate Kiss were returned to the library where I work. I do love a good heist story, and the covers looked fun, and I did want something light to read… So I checked them out and read them. I liked The Chocolate Thief, although it wasn’t quite what I had expected, but I loved The Chocolate Kiss. I loved Magalie, and the aunts, and the Maison de Sorcieres, and the way it was almost a fairy tale retelling, but not quite.

Since then I believe I’ve read everything Laura has published, and loved them all. There are a few reasons for why I connect so well with her books, despite (again) not being a big romance reader. Some are more shallow, some are deeper. On the shallow end, I am a huge sucker for fairy tale retellings, and there’s a bit of a fairy tale woven into almost all of the stories. I won’t spoil them for you, because they’re quite subtle and part of the fun of reading a new one is keeping your eye out for clues.

I also love the way the settings are important. The way the characters interact with where they live makes the French-ness so much more than just a gimmick. And I always love when the place a story is set seems almost like another character. These stories are really good at that. For instance, here’s Magalie’s island in The Chocolate Kiss:

“On the island, all the freshly discovered hustle and bustle of Paris seemed to fade away. Stone buildings centuries old rose around her, never taller than eight stories, including the slanted one, under slate roofs. The rare car passed discreetly, inching its way through the people who walked easily in the middle of the street, looking up at old carvings on the walls, into storefronts filled with strange specialities. Time lay over the island like a cloak: the idea that you always had time, that it had been here for awhile and wasn’t going anywhere soon.”

As you might be able to tell from that, Laura Florand writes really, really good prose. I pulled a couple of examples from The Chocolate Kiss, because it was the one I remembered to bookmark. Here’s the very first line:

“It was a good day for princesses. The rain drove them indoors, an amused little rain with long, cool fingers that heralded the winter to come and made people fear the drafts in their castles.”

It’s a perfect beginning for this book, and a great example of the way this subtle imagery is woven through the prose, always tying back into the characters and often the fairy tale that’s being referenced.

Here’s another example, because I can’t resist:

“Aunt Aja took that tray out and, just as she left the kitchen, the silver bell over the front door rang with a chime so sharp and true that it pierced Magalie straight through the heart.”

Again, this is just perfect for this book – slightly heightened, slightly fairy-tale-esque. It sounds, perhaps, a little melodramatic out of context, and yet in context it fits perfectly into this almost magical world that Magalie inhabits. I love that I can trust these books to be not only competently but beautifully written.

One of the other things I love about these books is the way they’re open to all kinds of relationships, not just the romantic one that is of course at the heart of the story. But family and friends, coworkers – they’re all important too, as they are in real life. I often find that romance books tend to have a kind of tunnel vision when it comes to the main characters’ other relationships. They might exist, but they’re never as important, never as realized as the romance. But here, partly because Florand is really good at sketching characters in a few sentences, they seem just as real, just as important as the main characters.

For instance, here’s Magalie’s Aunt Aja:

“Aunt Aja was soft-voiced and supple as a slender shaft of tempered steel. Her dimpled fingers could press the nastiest kink out of a back. Wrong-mindedness had no quarter around her. Her gentle strength seemed to squeeze it out of existence, not by specifically seeking to crush it but by expanding until foolishness had no room left.”

(Relatedly: I WANT TO BE AUNT AJA.)

But perhaps most importantly, I love the characters. I love that they’re not perfect, even the ones who at first look like they are, and yet they try really hard to get things right, both personally and professionally. I really like the fact that they care about things beyond themselves, about tea shops and cookbooks and getting chocolate just exactly, perfectly right. And because I’m so invested in them as a reader, even situations that otherwise might seem melodramatic work for me. There’s a sense of careful craft about these books, in the way they use the conventions of the genre sometimes and other times fall away from them entirely.

In the end, though, I think the real reason I love these books so much is that they’re about more than just a romantic relationship. I mean, don’t get me wrong! That’s definitely there! At the heart of the story, though, the journey of the main characters is not only towards each other but toward a greater understanding of themselves. It’s the way this interacts with the romance that makes me care so much about these characters as they find the courage to walk together through the dark forest.

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Merci, Maureen! I love how strongly you feel about Aunt Aja. LOL.

Amour et Florand

EWein Special Ops: Being Brave

Maureen is a library assistant who blogs at By Singing Light. Elizabeth Wein is one of her favorite authors and today, she talks about the theme of courage present in all of EWein’s novels.

Please join me in welcoming Maureen to EWein Special Ops!

By Singing Light

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“I AM A COWARD,” Verity says right at the beginning of her story. “I wanted to be heroic and I pretended I was… But now I know that I am a coward.”

Of course, the truth is more complicated. In fact, one of the brilliant things about Code Name Verity is the way it shows you a character who claims to be one thing, a coward, while disproving that again and again. To be frank, thinking about her bravery, the sheer audacity of it, takes my breath away and moves me to tears at the same time.

But it’s not just Verity herself. There’s Marie, the French Resistance lassie, and Mitraillette and the rest of the Thibauts. There’s Anna Engel, risking her life every time she does not translate exactly what is written, giving Maddie a scarf. And Georgia Penn, speaking of audacity. Read her scene again and think about the courage it would take for both her and Verity to enact that careful dance of words and movements. There’s Maddie, finding the strength to do the hardest thing, and then to keep living afterwards. And there’s Queenie’s mother, leaving the window open.

(Pause to mop up.)

But bravery is a strand that runs through all of Elizabeth Wein’s books. In Rose Under Fire, there are not heroics in the usual sense, in the Verity sense. The bravery there is required to keep living, to stay human under circumstances that are designed to keep you from doing either. It’s perhaps quieter than Code Name Verity, but it is just as present and just as intense. Starving women standing for hours in the snow rather than giving each other up.

It’s in The Winter Prince, in Lleu struggling against sleep and Medraut struggling against the darkness in himself. It’s in A Coalition of Lions, in Goewin leaving Britain behind, setting out alone into the unknown. Certainly it’s in The Sunbird — like Verity, Telemakos leaves me breathless. And in The Lion Hunter and The Empty Kingdom, he must find a different kind of courage to win through a situation that looks impossible.

It seems to me that in all of the books, courage is one of the markers that point us toward the moral characters. When so many of them occupy a morally grey area, it is a signpost that tells us who deserves our care. Von Linden and Anako fail their tests; they do not even have the bravery to do their own dirty work. (Von Linden is a much more complex character than Anako, but in a way that makes his failure greater.) Even Nick, in Rose Under Fire, doesn’t have the courage to wait for Rose. On the other hand, Anna Engel acts with courage, as does Medraut. It’s this quality that sets them on the other side of that line.

It’s worth noting that the kind of courage I’m talking about, the kind that these books value, is not the same as honor. It’s not even necessarily physical courage, although it can be (in The Sunbird, for example). It’s not limited by age — see Telemakos and Amelie Thibaut — or by gender — see EVERYONE. Not the courage to fight the war or fire the gun, but the courage to do what is right, to face darkness internal or external and not give in. It’s the strength to keep going, to fly the plane.

This courage is not found in isolation. The friendship at the heart of Code Name Verity is not an accident. Verity retells the story of Queenie-and-Maddie, the sensational team, precisely because it gives her strength. Outside of that bond, Mitraillette is the one who keeps Maddie together in those frightful first days after the bridge. For Rose, in Ravensbruck, it’s Irina and Roza especially, but the whole of Block 32, which “was really, really good at propping people up.” Even Telemakos in Abreha’s palace is driven by Athena, proves himself with the other palace children.

And it’s Goewin and Telemakos under the city, drawing pictures on each others’ hands to chase away the darkness. It’s not an accident that the image of hands keeps showing up, from Arthur’s hands on Medraut’s shoulders in The Winter Prince, to A Coalition of Lions. And again in Code Name Verity with Marie and Verity (“the backs of our hands were touching”); on the cover of the US edition; with a hand on Maddie’s shoulder while she flies. And yet again when Rose and Irina share that secret symbol of who they are: taran. Wein’s books consistently undermine the narrative of lone heroes: again and again, we see that we are saved in the company of others, that in the dark places the important thing is who stands beside you.

After all, that’s what stories — the best stories — are. A light to see by, a hand holding yours in the dark.

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Thank you, Maureen! I love that last line.

EWein Special Ops