Friday, April 17, 2015

The Spies Whom I Loved

I don't read very many romance novels featuring spies. I usually get my spy fix from movies. This should be a particularly good year for that, with Kingsman: The Secret Service, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Spectre all being released in 2015.

I prefer my romances less heavy on the suspense elements, so I tend to avoid spy-themed books. However, I do occasionally read a historical romance by a favorite author that features a spy hero and/or heroine. Some of those books have really stayed with me. Here are some that continue to be among my favorites:

Captives of the Night by Loretta Chase - The extremely handsome and charming Comte d'Esmond is really a spy for the British. He developed an unrequited and inconvenient passion for married Leila Beaumont. When her husband is murdered, circumstances force them together, but his dark secrets threaten to tear them apart. He is exactly the kind of fictional spy who intrigues me most -- cosmopolitan, witty, and smoking hot.

Your Scandalous Ways by Loretta Chase - A cynical British spy named James is on a mission in Venice. His assignment leads him to fallen woman Francesca Bonnard. I loved the setting and the very subtle nods to various James Bond films. The whole book was a delightful good time.

Anything by Joanna Bourne. Since I normally avoid spy romances, I did not discover Joanna Bourne until this year. The reviews for her latest book, Rogue Spy, led me to try her back catalog. I am currently on Book 4, and I have loved every page so far. She skillfully inter-weaves the suspense plots (set during the Reign of Terror and the Napoleonic Wars) and the romance plots, creates compelling secondary characters and writes the best damaged-but-redeemable heroes since Laura Kinsale.

What Happens in London by Julia Quinn - This is a more light and humorous novel than the others. Sir Harry Valentine is not really a professional spy (he works as a translator for the War Office), but he is forced to behave like one. Olivia Bevelstoke plays amateur spy herself, as she suspects her neighbor is up to something dastardly and decides to find out for herself. There are some playful nods to Hitchcock films (I seem to remember that the author considered calling this book The Trouble With Harry).

Friday, April 10, 2015

Bluestockings and Rakes

I've just started reading The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan. The plot involves a female scientist who can only publish her theories by allowing a male friend to take the credit. The hero is a charming rake who wants to finally end the charade. It occurred to me that a good portion of my all-time favorite historical romances have a bluestocking + rake plot.

I can understand why that particular trope appeals to me. I am a nerdy introvert. In school, I was shy and awkward, with very few friends. As an adult, once I broadened by horizons and my social circle, I was drawn to extrovert friends of both sexes. Extroverts can compensate for my own social deficits. There are few awkward silences, and I do not have to worry about thinking of an interesting conversation-starter. At a party, if I have used up my social energy, I can retreat to the fringes of the group and allow my extrovert friends to hold court, with no one noticing my withdrawal.

I married another introvert. I do not know if I could live with an extrovert in real life. I fear that I would find it exhausting. However, in the pages of a romance novel, where a happily-ever-after is assured, I love the idea of a quiet bluestocking being swept off her feet by a charming rake.

Here are some of my very favorite bluestocking/rake romances:

Mr. Impossible by Loretta Chase - Daphne is a scholar who is trying to decipher the Rosetta Stone. She encounters Rupert in Cairo, where they form a reluctant alliance. The set-up bears a resemblance to the beginning of the Brendan Fraser movie The Mummy (which I also love). No one expects much of Rupert (including his own family). He is unapologetic about his appetites and surprised by Daphne's inhibitions, but he treats her with respect. He is my favorite type of rake. I have never cared for the misogynist rake that one often finds in romance novels. That type has a general contempt for women, because either an ex or his mother behaved contemptibly in the past. I prefer the cheerful sort of rake who truly enjoys the company of women. I think that sort is a much better candidate for reform.

Confessions from an Arranged Marriage by Miranda Neville - Minerva's great ambition is to be a political hostess. She has studied history, diplomacy and the events of the day with an aim toward becoming a politician's wife. Blake is the rebellious heir of a Duke who shuns serious discussions and has no interest in books. They are forced to marry when a drunken Blake accidentally compromises Minerva at a party (after mistaking her for another woman). As the title says, this is a marriage of convenience romance, where the couple must learn to live together and fall in love after they are already married. Minerva feels contempt for Blake, whom she believes to be shallow and immature. She also resents having her life plans changed. Of course, she eventually discovers that there is far more to her husband than she assumed, and his charming rake persona hides a deep secret.

Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale - I almost didn't include this one, because it does not fit the usual model. The rakish hero, Christian, is a brilliant mathematician. The heroine, Maddy (short for Archimedea), is the daughter of another mathematician but is not as educated as the hero. She is quiet and reserved, however, and she thoroughly disapproves of the hero's dissipated lifestyle (she is a devout Quaker). They are thrown together through unusual circumstances, and Christian must overcome Maddy's reluctance to trust him and her vehement dislike of his priorities. It can also be classified as a marriage of convenience romance. This is one of those books that people remember for years after reading it. It includes a cameo by George IV, who doesn't seem like such a bad guy in this book.

A Week to Be Wicked by Tessa Dare - Another heroine named Minerva has discovered a dinosaur fossil. She wants to present her findings at an academic conference in Edinburgh, but her mother would never allow it. She bribes cash-strapped rake Colin to fake an elopement and get her there in time. This is a road trip romance, another trope that I enjoy. Their humorous misadventures often approach farce, which may not be to everyone's taste, but A Week to Be Wicked is the quintessential bluestocking/rake story. Colin loves women and sex. Minerva is sheltered but curious. They are forced into close proximity. It doesn't take a brilliant bluestocking to do the math.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Timothy Dalton Through the Ages

This post about Penny Dreadful over at SBTB pointed out that Timothy Dalton is 70 years old. I guess that shouldn't have surprised me, since I remember his fantastic performance in The Lion in Winter (one of my all-time favorite movies). But somehow, I had failed to do the math.

I have long admired his work, in a wide variety of films (particularly historical and fantasy costume epics). In honor of his remarkable career, here are some of my favorites.

The Lion in Winter (1968) - A very young Timothy Dalton portrayed a very young King of France, political rival to England's King Henry II (memorably played by Peter O'Toole).

Seeing Philip in all his youthful power and sartorial splendor, it was easy to understand the homoerotic tension between him and Anthony Hopkins' Richard the Lionhearted.

Wuthering Heights (1970) - Dalton played Heathcliff. This black-and-white picture conveys the mood perfectly. The wardrobe is swoon-worthy. Those tight trousers are rather shocking. Hessian boots are always sexy, and the flapping cloak makes him look like a vampire.

Flash Gordon (1980) - This film is one of my favorite guilty pleasures. I absolutely loved Dalton as Prince Barin of Arboria. He acted rings around Sam Jones and Ornella Muti (but not Brian Blessed, who is also wonderful in this movie). I never understood how Princess Aura could have (even briefly) preferred that blond jock Gordon. Flash may know how to throw a football, but Barin knows his way around a bullwhip.

The Living Daylights (1987) - I know that I am in the minority, but Timothy Dalton is my second favorite James Bond (after Daniel Craig). I much preferred him to Pierce Brosnan. Unfortunately, his second Bond film, License to Kill, suffered from bad writing and lackluster boxoffice receipts. His first outing as Bond is far better, in my opinion. Dalton as Bond was convincingly brutal, but he also wore a tuxedo very well.

The Rocketeer (1991) - This was a fun movie that was ahead of its time in many ways. With the current fashion for comic book films and 1940s nostalgia (I'm looking at you, Captain America), I think I need to re-watch this and see how it holds up.

Dalton really reminds me of Errol Flynn in this scene. I'm a sucker for a man wearing a loose, translucent shirt and brandishing a sword.

Penny Dreadful (2014-present) - After seeing Dalton appear in supporting roles in Hot Fuzz (2007) and The Tourist (2010), I was very pleased to see him return to a starring role in Showtime's sexy gothic horror series. He plays a wealthy Victorian gentleman who was also an explorer/adventurer (rather like Sir Richard Francis Burton).

Although the show has disappointed me in some ways, it is visually stunning, and the costumes are fabulous.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Book Stores I Have Known, Loved and Mourned

A post today on the Word Wenches blog got me thinking about the various bricks-and-mortar bookstores I have patronized over the years.

Living in a book-loving university town, I was spoiled for choice back in the day. Before the big-box bookstores moved in, though, the only places I could buy romance novels seemed to be the grocery store and the chain stores at the mall (Waldenbooks or B. Dalton Bookseller). Madison's wonderful independent bookstores tended to snub romance, although they were filled with many other wonderful things.

Avol's was the largest of the used book stores near the UW campus. During my college days, it was located in a beautiful old mansion that was built in 1907 to house the Women's Club of Madison. When they lost their lease in 2003, Avol's eventually moved into the Canterbury space (see below). The Women's Club building now houses one of my favorite restaurants.

Booked for Murder specialized in mystery and suspense novels, as one might guess from the name. It was a wonderful place to browse -- they had a wonderful curated collection of new and classic mystery/suspense novels. They regularly hosted author book-signing events. I remember meeting Sharan Newman there more than 18 years ago (I would not have believed it was that long, but the inscription in my copy of Strong As Death is dated October 15, 1996). A few years ago, the store was sold, moved and renamed. Its successor, Mystery to Me, is still going strong, happily.

Borders was the first big-box bookstore in town. I loved it. In the days before author websites and Amazon algorithms, I used to browse their "new releases" shelves for favorite authors' names. They had terrific genre fiction sections, and their membership card was free. RIP, Borders.

Canterbury Booksellers also hosted a small café in a corner of the store and a themed B&B above the shop, the rooms decorated with murals illustrating Chaucer's tales. The store sold new titles, both nonfiction and literary fiction (but not much genre fiction). It also hosted regular author readings. When it first opened, you could save your bookstore receipts and eventually cash them in for an overnight stay in the B&B. Sadly, I did not accumulate enough receipts before the original business failed. Avol's moved their used bookstore into the downstairs space, and the charming B&B rooms were converted to apartments. In 2012, Avol's merged with feminist bookstore A Room of One's Own (which could no longer afford its own storefront), bringing new books back under the Canterbury roof.

Frugal Muse used books once had multiple locations. One of them was about a half mile from my house, which made for some delightful (and expensive) walks. Unlike the used bookstores near campus, Frugal Muse carried a lot of genre fiction, nicely organized into sections and alphabetical by author. I was able to find some out-of-print books by favorite authors and try some new-to-me authors. It's also a great place for cookbooks. My local location closed. There is still one way across town, but I usually settle for Half Price Books (which is much closer).

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Top Five Reasons I'm Glad Spring Is Finally Here

Although tomorrow is officially the first day of Spring, for all practical purposes (weather, basketball, television programming), it is already here. In no particular order, here are some of the reasons why this makes me very happy:

1. Warmer weather (duh). Here in the Upper Midwest, we've endured another year of polar vortex temperatures. On Monday, the outside temperature actually made it above 70 degrees F. I found a deserted corner of a nearby conservation park, sat down on a wooden deck and took off my shoes and socks. I happily read a book on my smartphone while letting my bare feet soak up some sunlight for the first time since October. For fifteen minutes, anyway (didn't want to risk sunburned toes).

2. Writing contests. For the second year in a row, I am entering some RWA chapters' writing contests. They are an excellent source of feedback for newer writers. I'll find out around Memorial Day weekend if I've made the finals rounds.

3. The Write Touch Conference. This year, the Wisconsin RWA chapter's conference is in late April, co-locating with Barbara Vey's Reader Appreciation Luncheon. I'm glad I purchased my luncheon ticket right away -- it sold out fast. Conference registration (without the luncheon) is still available.

4. New releases. Some of my auto-buy authors (Suzanne Enoch, Caroline Linden and Julie Anne Long) have new books coming out in March or May.

5. Outlander returns. I've been waiting for months to see more of Jamie in his kilt (or, better yet, out of his kilt).

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Afternoon Tea Around the World

As an anglophile and a history nerd, I love a traditional afternoon tea. Cream teas (which include scones and/or sweet pastries) are all well and good, but I will go out of my way for a proper afternoon tea, with savory sandwiches as well as the scones and sweet pastries and a pot of tea (not just a cup of hot water with a teabag in it). I have had some delightful and decadent DIY tea parties with friends, but my husband and I also enjoy splurging on a special afternoon tea when we travel. These are my Top 5 Afternoon Tea Experiences from the past decade:

5. The Mandarin Oriental, City Center, Las Vegas - We did not have a European trip on the horizon, so we decided to satisfy our afternoon tea cravings by seeking out one of the two fancy hotels on the Strip (the other one is the Four Seasons at Mandalay Bay) that offer afternoon tea. This was a modern foodie take on the ritual. The sandwiches were spicier than usual, but delicious. The food was served on a floor-standing slanted chrome three-tiered rack. The teapots were glass, allowing us to watch the color change as it steeped. If you have ever used the term molecular gastronomy, this is the afternoon tea for you.

4. The Orangery, Kensington Palace - On our first trip to London, we chose this venue out of several afternoon tea suggestions in our guide book. It was one of the less expensive options, and one that did not require a reservation (at the time, they did not accept reservations, although I believe they do nowadays). I am so glad we did, even if the food and service were not as fancy as the other venues on my list. We each had a choice of several varieties of tea and a choice of dessert pastry. Rather than bringing out a three-tiered server, they served the refreshments in three courses. The tasty sandwiches were followed by fresh scones, still hot from the oven, served with pots of jam and clotted cream. They may still be the best scones I have ever had.

3. Mr. Fogg's, Mayfair - This London nightclub is themed as Phileas Fogg's Mayfair residence. About a year ago, they began offering "tipsy tea" on Saturday afternoons. Tea-infused cocktails are served in teapots. There is a choice of several varieties. Some of them are meant to be mixed with champagne, which is served in the milk pitcher. The three-tiered rack contains savory sandwiches and a great many macarons and other sweet pastries, but no scones (the small nightclub tables do not have sufficient space for pots of jam and clotted cream). The tipsy tea has proven so popular that there are now two Saturday afternoon seatings and one on Friday afternoon as well. It is rather expensive, but the ambience cannot be beat -- you are surrounded by Mr. Fogg's collection of exotic souvenirs and gadgets.

2. Caffe Florian, Venice - This was a spontaneous discovery. After touring St. Mark's Basilica and the Correr Museum, we were starving by mid-afternoon. We saw a sign outside this fancy café advertising afternoon tea (there are many British tourists in Venice) and decided to treat ourselves. There are sidewalk tables, next to a musical ensemble playing 1920s-style jazz, but we opted to sit inside. The place is decorated with paintings and lots of red velvet upholstery. It looks rather like a rococo brothel, but I love that sort of kitschy decadence. This is the oldest coffee shop in Venice (dating to 1720), and its patrons over the years include Casanova and Lord Byron. The refreshments were served on a three-tiered rack, and the food was excellent. I still remember the tea sandwiches with prosciutto ham.

1. The Wolseley, London - This beautiful art deco venue is crowded and noisy, but there is something magical about the sound of crowd noise echoing off marble floors and high ceilings. The tea is served in lovely silver pots, and the three-tiered server has a silver lid on the top (to keep the scones warm). Overall, this was the best food I have ever enjoyed with my afternoon tea. We skipped lunch so that we were able to eat every bite.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Are You Kidding, Moviefone?

So, yesterday I saw this Moviefone slideshow of the James Bond films rated, from worst to best. I found myself talking back to my computer screen with nearly every click.

First of all, the 1967 Casino Royale farce should not even be counted as a James Bond movie. It has no business being included in the list.

How in the world can they rank License to Kill higher than The Living Daylights?  I know that Timothy Dalton gets no love from a lot of critics and fans, but of his two movies, the first is clearly superior, unless you also like Roger Moore's campy movies more than Sean Connery's serious ones.

There are several more Bond films that are worse than Quantum of Solace. Granted, it was a weak outing for Daniel Craig, but it's not nearly as bad as several others that Moviefone ranks higher.

Octopussy is a terrible movie. There are no metrics by which it is better than For Your Eyes Only. Live and Let Die is also a terrible movie. I loved it as a child, but as an adult, I find it cringeworthy. The only good thing about it is Paul McCartney's title track.

OK, so how would I rank the James Bond movies?  Here is my list, from best to worst.

1. Casino Royale (the real one, with Daniel Craig)
2. From Russia with Love (exotic locales and Rosa Klebb)
3. Skyfall (a beautiful homage to 50 years of Bond films)
4. Goldfinger ("No, Mr. Bond; I expect you to die.")
5. Dr. No (the movie that started it all)
6. The Living Daylights (Bond helps the Mujahedeen - what could possibly go wrong?)
7. GoldenEye (Pierce Brosnan always seemed too delicate to be Bond, but this is his best)
8. You Only Live Twice (two words: volcano lair)
9. The Spy Who Loved Me (a Bond girl with agency, and Jaws)
10. The World Is Not Enough (Sophie Marceau is terrific as the femme fatale)
11. Thunderball (two words: jet pack)
12. Quantum of Solace (not terribly memorable, but relatively inoffensive)
13. For Your Eyes Only (Roger Moore is looking old, but this one is less campy than others)
14. The Man with the Golden Gun (campy but fun)
15. Tomorrow Never Dies (a tame outing with a dull villain)
16. On Her Majesty's Secret Service (terribly silly in so many ways)
17. Never Say Never Again (I think Connery did this as an apology for Diamonds Are Forever)
18. License to Kill (Wayne Newton is over the top as a secondary villain)
19. Die Another Day (tries to be an homage to 40 years of Bond films; comes off as a satire)
20. Diamonds Are Forever (Bond helps South Africa's apartheid regime and the De Beers monopoly)
21. Octopussy (props to Maud Adams for playing a second Bond girl later in her career)
22. Live and Let Die (white Brits should not try to make Blaxploitation films)
23. Moonraker (so ridiculous, not even Jaws could save it)
24. A View to a Kill (I prefer the Duran Duran video to the movie -- "Bon. Simon Le Bon.")