Thursday, May 14, 2015

Decameron Nights

Many years ago, I came across a Hollywood B-movie from 1953 called Decameron Nights. It was an adaptation of Giovanni Boccaccio's story collection starring Louis Jourdan and Joan Fontaine (a young Joan Collins also appears in the film). Although Boccaccio wrote in the 14th century, the movie's costumes were a Hollywood version of 15th century clothing. I rather enjoy cheesy historical films of that era, so I watched it more than once.

My favorite of the film's tales was that of a female physician who was rewarded with her choice of husband. Her new spouse had no say in the matter, however, and he refused to consummate the marriage or live with his wife until she had born his son and worn his ring. Through a clever ruse, she manages to do both, and rather than be furious at her subterfuge, he happily keeps his promise. In Boccaccio's version, the clever wife is named Gillette; the film changed it to Isabella (perhaps because the original name was most familiar in the U.S. as a brand of razor blades and was no longer given to girls). Fans of Shakespeare may recognize the plot of All's Well That Ends Well, which was based on Boccaccio's tale.

For years, I've wanted to write a historical romance that is loosely based on this story. It is problematic, however. One needs to make the hero enough of an asshat to justify the heroine essentially recreating the most problematic scene from Revenge of the Nerds. It is very difficult to handle that without making either the hero or the heroine completely unsympathetic.

I was intrigued when I read the blurb for Joanna Shupe's The Courtesan Duchess, because I realized she had attempted that very thing. I was dying to know how she handled it. It seems that she made a conscious decision to draw upon the mores of an earlier era. The book feels like a deliberate homage to old school historical romances. It includes some elements -- like an adversarial relationship between hero & heroine and infidelity by the hero on the page -- that have definitely gone out of fashion but were once common in the genre.

Florian's, which looks much as it might
have in Nick's day.
Shupe made Venice come alive for me with her descriptions; I suspect she has actually been there in the Autumn, when the acqua alta floods wax and wane during the week. I'm enjoying the book in a nostalgic way. It brings back fond memories of Venice and also fond memories of romances I read in my younger days. It is not a clone of those books, however. There is an awareness that reader attitudes and cultural values have changed. I'm looking forward to learning how Nick and Julia overcome their past mistakes and make amends.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Mothers and Daughters

It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that the heroine of a romance novel must be in want of a mother. She may be an orphan, or she may be the abused/neglected child of a toxic mother, but the vast majority of romance heroines are somehow separated from a mother's love.

There are compelling reasons for this. Isolating the heroine from unconditional love makes her eventual connection with the hero that much more important. We feel sympathy for her, which makes us more inclined to read her story and cheer for her eventual Happily Ever After. It is slightly less common for the hero to suffer a lack of mothering. He is a bit more likely than the heroine to have a toxic mother (it is often the reason for an alpha hero's general mistrust of women, bordering on misogyny).

I find myself much more willing to read a story about an orphan heroine (or hero) than one with a toxic mother. That might be due to the little bit I've read about human psychology. An individual who has been completely robbed of a mother's love is not well-equipped to accept love from others.

I remember reading about the heartbreaking experiments that Harry Harlow did with rhesus monkeys at my alma mater (I took a psychology course from one of his former teaching assistants). Baby monkeys were separated from their mothers. Some were given occasional physical contact with their mothers, and some were given no contact at all (a control group remained with their mothers all of the time). The ones who received limited contact were very clingy and anxious. In a group, they all huddled together. The ones who received no contact were hostile and aggressive. They did not like to be touched and would respond to overtures with violence.

Our parents are the only people from whom we can reasonably expect unconditional love. When their love is deliberately withheld, it damages our ability to trust and connect with others. I find it difficult to suspend my disbelief when a heroine raised by a truly toxic mother is transformed almost overnight by the love of a good man. It mirrors the notion that a hardened criminal can be reformed by the love of a good woman. That may be a popular trope in motorcycle club romances, but in real life the best that such a woman can look forward to is occasional conjugal visits for good behavior.

Looking through the historical romances I have enjoyed enough to re-read, most of them feature heroines who were orphaned but knew the love of parents or guardians for at least part of their formative years. Some are those rare romance novels with heroines whose mothers are still living and not toxic (although they may be somewhat challenging).

Julia Quinn's Bridgerton series - Although my favorite Bridgerton novel is actually about one of the sons, there are four books featuring heroines raised by loving family matriarch Violet Bridgerton. Of those, my favorite is To Sir Philip, With Love. (Perhaps not) ironically, Hyacinth becomes a loving stepmother to children whose own mother neglected them.

Confessions from an Arranged Marriage by Miranda Neville - Minerva Montrose's parents are both living. They are eccentric but loving, and their children are all well-adjusted. Minerva's sister Diana is the heroine of The Dangerous Viscount, so that is another book I could name with a living, loving mother.

The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan - I have to give a special Mothers Day shout-out to this book. Violet Waterfield has a formidable mother. She has imposed rigid rules on her daughters to help the family weather the old scandal of their father's suicide. Violet has always feared her mother will reject her if Violet reveals her shocking scientific studies. In the end, her mother's love is truly unconditional and unlimited. Violet must learn that before she can accept Sebastian's love as well.

A Gentleman Undone by Cecilia Grant - Lydia Slaughter's parents stood by her when she fell pregnant out of wedlock. They uprooted the family and moved to a village where no one knew her, to help shield her from the consequences. After their tragic death (I don't recall the circumstances, but I think it was a carriage accident), she blamed herself and embarked on a self-destructive path. Will Blackshear eventually convinced her that she is worthy of love, but that would not have been possible if she had not already known the love of her parents.

Secrets of a Scandalous Heiress by Theresa Romain - Augusta Meredith is mourning the recent death of her parents (in a boating accident rather than a carriage accident) and the defection of her lover. She longs for human connection to comfort her in her grief.

The Spymaster's Lady by Joanna Bourne - Annique Villiers is mourning the recent loss of her mother (whose carriage went over a cliff). Madame Lucille raised her daughter to be an elite spy for the French Secret Police, and Annique has been an exemplary pupil. Over the course of the book, she learns secrets about her beloved mother that force her to question everything she believes. In the end, though, she forgives her mother for the choices she made and accepts that she truly loved her.

A Week to Be Wicked by Tessa Dare - Minerva Highwood's mother is clueless and social-climbing, but she does love her daughters. She reminds me very much of Mrs. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. Minerva is shy and socially awkward, but she is not emotionally damaged. She is well able to fall in love and be loved in return. Minerva's sister (another Diana) got her own novella, Beauty and the Blacksmith.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

My Favorite Rakes

I've been thinking about some of my favorite rakes from 30+ years of reading romances. Some of them were heroes, and some were secondary characters, but they were all men who enjoyed the company of women for friendship as well as for sex. They were all sex-positive, not slut-shaming (philogynist, not misogynist). They were not bitter and mistrustful due to a toxic mother or ex. It seems to me that a rake of this sort is a much better candidate for a committed, long-term relationship than one who needs to learn that women are human beings who are worth talking to.

Here are the fictional rakes whom I remember most fondly even many years later, in chronological (for me) order. I've listed the year in which I read the relevant book(s). For some reason, the books I read in the 1990s didn't have memorable rakes of this type, so there is a lengthy gap.

Spider Elliott from Scruples by Judith Krantz (ca. 1980) - My first example of the species, encountered when I was very young and impressionable. Despite having his heart broken by a beautiful actress, Spider did not resent women in general. He was a considerate (and enthusiastic) lover who also developed a strong platonic friendship with a female colleague. It didn't hurt that in the 1980s TV movie, he was played by my crush at the time, Dirk Benedict from Battlestar Galactica.

Raven from The Windflower by Tom and Sharon Curtis (1984) - Like Spider, Raven was a secondary character. He was also far too young and clueless to be a good relationship prospect. However, I have no doubt that the teenaged Caribbean pirate grew up and settled down with some lucky woman 20-some years later. Unlike Cat, who had serious emotional baggage, and Devon, who had some unpleasant attitudes towards women, Raven was the kind of guy you could comfortably hang out with all night at a party. He would undoubtedly proposition you, but he would cheerfully accept "no" for an answer and still enjoy the conversation.

Sir Gawain (late 1980s) - In college, I took as many medieval literature courses as my schedule could accommodate. I developed a strong love for Arthurian romances. For hundreds of years, before Sir Thomas Malory's works were written, Sir Gawain was the most popular hero of English-language Arthurian tales. He was known for his courtesy and charm, as well as his numerous romantic conquests. Malory, drawing on the French Vulgate cycle, made Sir Lancelot the pre-eminent hero, and Gawain's character was somewhat blackened in contrast. Some modern authors have given Gawain his due, notably Thomas Berger in Arthur Rex and Sharan Newman in her Guinevere Trilogy.

Colin Bridgerton from Romancing Mr. Bridgerton by Julia Quinn (2002) - This is my favorite book in the Bridgerton series. Colin is not only handsome and charming, he is kind to wallflowers. He treats socially awkward Penelope with respect and forges a friendship with her long before he feels a spark of physical attraction. As a former chubby wallflower myself, I found him irresistible.

Rupert Carsington from Mr. Impossible by Loretta Chase (2006) - When he meets Daphne Pembroke, Rupert is entirely honest about his character traits:
“I may be stupid,” Rupert said, “but I’m irresistibly attractive.”...“And being a great, dumb ox,” he went on, “I’m wonderfully easy to manage.”

Colin Sandhurst from A Week to Be Wicked by Tessa Dare (2012) -  Colin never sleeps alone. Literally -- he suffers from severe nightmares, due to a childhood trauma, when he falls asleep without the comfort of a woman beside him. He does not demand sex from his bed partners, but he won't turn it down if it's offered. When bluestocking Minerva Highwood bribes him to take her to Edinburgh, his personal sleep disorder forces them into close proximity during the journey, and Minerva finds the whole experience very educational.

Adrian Hawkhurst from Joanna Bourne's Spymaster series (2015) - When I read The Spymaster's Lady, I found young Hawker more compelling than the book's hero. Despite his brutal Artful Dodger upbringing in London's rookeries, he managed to develop a tender appreciation for females: "He never understood the way some men treated women. Himself, he never got tired of the marvel of them. The sounds they made when they felt good. When you made them feel good. There was nothing in the world like it." No wonder those widows in Milan remembered Hawker so fondly.

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).