Friday, November 6, 2015

When Nudity Was Heroic

In our modern (often puritanical) society, public nudity is considered lewd. To be photographed naked is risky; to have those photos published elicits criticism (if published with the subject's permission) or pity (if private photographs were leaked by a hacker or revenge-seeking ex). A common type of anxiety dream involves being unclothed in public. For modern westerners, nudity outside of one's private space is a sign of vulnerability and humiliation.

Altar of the Dioscuri
(Castor and Pollux)
The ancient Greeks and Romans, on the other hand, celebrated the human form. Although they usually dressed conservatively in public life, athletic nudity was celebrated. The word "gymnasium" is derived from the ancient Greek word for naked, because work-out clothes were not a thing in the ancient world.

Vase painters and sculptors delighted in portraying idealized human forms. Mythical gods and heroes were often shown naked, or nearly so. My recent trip to Rome revived my love of classical art and architecture. I toured renaissance palazzos filled with classical sculptures and rococo imitations.

Some of the subjects were visually familiar to me. Hercules, for instance, is usually recognizable by the club he carries and the lion skin he wears as a mantle. Others, like the Dioscuri, I knew by name but not iconography. Some were more obscure.

Funerary altar with winged figures
representing the four seasons
Time and again, however, I saw statues and carved altars showing male figures "in heroic nudity". I never took art history classes, so I was not familiar with the term. However, I noticed all of the figures so described were wearing some sort of cape or mantle--because we all know that heroes wear capes. My inner 12-year-old giggled at the thought of Superman wearing only his cape (and maybe his red boots).

Antoninus Pius
I was surprised to see two different Roman emperors (Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius) portrayed in heroic nudity as the god Mars. I suspect they both had body doubles. Marcus Aurelius was joined by Faustina Minor as Venus, making a charming domestic scene. She appears to be adjusting his mantle--perhaps so he does not catch a chill when he marches north to battle the Germanic hordes.

Seeing all of these sculptures in context, I understand what Antonio Canova was thinking when he created his infamous statue of Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker. I had a brief London layover on my way home, and I toured Apsley House, the home of the first Duke of Wellington, who eventually received the Canova statue as a gift.

Marcus Aurelius
Unfortunately, photography is not allowed at Apsley House, but you can see a picture of the Napoleon here. When I saw it in person shortly after my time in Rome, I hadn't the slightest urge to giggle.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Longer Than Expected Blogging Hiatus

In recent weeks, I've been focusing on my novel-in-progress and preparing for an upcoming trip. I kept putting off the blog post I meant to write because I didn't have time to focus on it.

Now it will have to wait a few more weeks.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Fairytale Appeal of Castles

The Tower of London
Since childhood, I have had a fascination with castles. I blame the Walt Disney Corporation and its diabolical talent for separating middle class families from their disposable income. When my family visited Disneyworld, I immediately wanted to visit Cinderella's Castle. We walked through the castle a couple of times during our touring day, passing between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, and I admired the sparkly mosaics depicting scenes from Cinderella's story. I desperately wanted to go inside the castle's rooms, but my mother refused. It was nothing but an expensive restaurant, she told me. Our family returned to the parking lot for lunch, eating sandwiches inside our RV. So close, and yet I was not worthy to explore the castle.

Castelvecchio, Verona, Italy
Living in the Midwest, castles were hard to come by. I was delighted when Medieval Times opened up in Schaumburg, IL. When I was in my early 20s, my boyfriend and I made a pilgrimage there. The experience was disappointing, and we never went back. When we married a couple years later, we honeymooned at Disneyworld and had lunch at King Stephen's Banquet Hall (the "expensive restaurant" inside the castle). I enjoyed the experience at the time, but only because it had been on my bucket list. The architecture, décor, and food were far superior to Medieval Times, but that's a pretty low bar.

Castillo de Santa Barbara, Alicante, Spain
Ten years later, we celebrated our anniversary in Las Vegas and briefly visited the Excalibur hotel. It was fun in a cheesy way, but we had no desire to eat at Sir Galahad's Steakhouse or attend their knightly combat show (which appeared to be patterned after the one at Medieval Times).

It was only as we entered middle age that we had the opportunity to travel across the pond and visit some real medieval castles. My first was the Tower of London. It's a hodgepodge of several different eras, with one part dating back to William the Conqueror. It's full of history (and tourists).

Windsor Castle
I have fond memories of the 14th-century red brick Castelvecchio ("old castle") in Verona, Italy. It now houses an art museum, and the crowds were modest in the shoulder season. Scrambling over the ruins of the Castillo de Santa Barbara in Alicante, Spain made for a wonderful birthday. Windsor Castle is everything one expects a castle to be (including an active royal residence).

No matter how many castles I manage to visit, I do not believe I will ever tire of them. They are timeless and romantic, whether ruined or sumptuously furnished. Cardiff Castle provides an 
excellent example of both, an old Norman shell keep and the surrounding castle, remodeled during the Victorian era into a gothic revival fantasy.

Tessa Dare's current early-19th-century series, Castles Ever After, seems to have been written with me in mind. The first book, Romancing the Duke, is my favorite so far. It involves a semi-ruined castle, a bookish heroine with a secret, and a grumpy-but-hot duke. It also lampoons re-enactors and fandom communities. I may have squirmed a little bit.

I enjoyed the second book, Say Yes to the Marquess (which lampoons the wedding industry), and I'm very much looking forward to the third, When a Scot Ties the Knot, which is coming out in just a couple weeks. I'm seriously jonesing for a castle fix.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Intentions Are Important

I'm currently reading Miranda Neville's second-chance-romance novella Duchess of Scandal in the anthology Dancing in the Duke's Arms. There's a bit of dialogue that really stayed with me. A married couple's discussion of current events morphs into a less hypothetical discussion of practical issues on the estate and an exploration of each other's priorities.
She wrinkled her forehead. "Do you mean you wish to help the poor to prevent unrest, not because you think it's right to relieve misery?"
The question made him uncomfortable because he wasn't sure of the answer. His wife was a lot subtler in her ideas than he had ever suspected. "Does it matter? Doesn't it come to the same thing?"
"In practical terms, yes. But intentions are important. I would prefer you to leave Mrs. Trumbull's laundry alone because you see the justice of her need to dry her children's clothes, not because you don't wish to quarrel with me and spoil your dinner."
That captures nearly perfectly my feelings about romance heroes. I would prefer them to care about other people and have a sense of justice. Whatever the conflict may be, I can more readily forgive alphole behavior if it is motivated by concern for others (like the welfare of the hero's family or other dependents) rather than a drive for power or prestige.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Romance with a Proxy Stepbrother

A few months ago, Smexy Books had a post about the recent popularity of step-sibling romances. The author found it somewhat perplexing, since she expected to find books breaking taboos and instead found a book where the adult protagonists were strangers when their respective parents married.

I've been thinking about the reasons for the appeal of such books. I don't think it is necessarily because readers are looking for quasi-incest fantasies. I think they are looking for close-knit family fantasies.

In modern society, we often live far away from our parents, who are often divorced. Holiday visits may require more diplomacy than restoring normal relations with Cuba. Wouldn't it be convenient if your significant other already had ties to your family? You wouldn't have to explain your father's weird quirks or worry that your husband will be offended by his jokes.

Historical romances are less likely to feature the step-sibling trope (possibly because marriages were less fluid in prior eras). However, the common tropes of Brother's Best Friend and Childhood Friend are functionally similar. Usually one protagonist (usually the hero) comes from a broken home and the other (usually the heroine) has a loving family. A marriage between them gives the de facto orphan an official place in the family he already admires/envies.

My favorite book of this type is Last Night's Scandal by Loretta Chase. We first met the protagonists as children in Chase's third Carsington Brothers book, Lord Perfect. Peregrine's irresponsible parents essentially abandoned him to the care of servants and distant relatives, and Benedict Carsington became the father figure he never had. Benedict's stepdaughter, Olivia, was Peregrine's childhood partner in crime. After several years apart, they meet again as adults, and sparks fly.

Tessa Dare's Goddess of the Hunt is a very charming example of the Brother's Best Friend trope. Lucy asks Jeremy to coach her in seductive wiles, so she may win her longtime crush. He is reluctant, but he fears she might ask someone less honorable for assistance (a common justification for overcoming such scruples in romance novels), so he agrees. He gradually sees her not as a little-sister type
but as a woman. Her newly-honed skills do not bring her the quarry she wanted, and she feels the sting of rejection, leading her to seek comfort in Jeremy's arms. In the end, they realize they are in love with each other, and Jeremy finally has the loving family he has always lacked.

Caroline Linden's Love and Other Scandals is a different type of Brother's Best Friend romance. In this case, Joan Bennett thoroughly disapproves of her brother's debauched friend Tristin Burke. The set-up has a little bit in common with Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels (which is really in a class all by itself). Linden's story is far less outrageous, but it is a satisfying enemies-to-lovers story with a family connection.

The most convoluted family relationship between protagonists I have found belongs to Katharine Ashe's I Loved a Rogue. As the conclusion to her Prince Catchers series, it solves the mystery of the Caulfield sisters' parentage. While it seems to be a Childhood Friend romance, from the very beginning I felt like the protagonists were de facto step-siblings. Taliesin was not related by blood nor adoption to Elinor's adoptive father, but he spent his boyhood summers as their live-in servant. He was basically a male Cinderella (cleaning the ashes from the hearth was specifically one of his chores). He and Elinor go on a quest to find her birth family, and he discovers secrets about his own background that he never suspected. In the end, the mentor who once sent him away (which was not intended as a rejection, although Taliesin always perceived it as such) becomes his father-in-law. I'm sure that won't make family Christmas gatherings at all awkward.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


I recently read a romance novel that was recommended by a friend. It was a well-written Regency-set historical, which kept me reading despite the presence of a trope I really hate, the Evil Mother.

All too often, the Evil Mother is used to explain (and excuse) an alpha hero's misogyny. This book took it up a notch. The mother was intentionally cruel to one of her children (the hero). He also had an unfaithful ex-fiancée who confirmed his worldview that women are not to be trusted and love will destroy a man.

Sometimes a misogynist alpha hero is so cartoonish that I can enjoy the book ironically and revel in his eventual grovel and redemption by the love of the heroine. This book's alpha hero was not at all cartoonish. He was entirely realistic in the way he acted on his attraction to the heroine, seduced her into not-quite-proper behavior, then treated her with contempt. He was also realistic in the way he sincerely apologized the next day with flowers and kind words, keeping her emotionally off-balance and reeling her in.

That is precisely the way that abusers keep their victims in the relationship. As a child, I had a female relative who was occasionally beaten by her husband. At least twice that I know of, she decided to leave him, only to come back after he presented her with a lavish gift and promised to never do it again. She finally had enough and divorced him, but it took several years.

I find myself unable to believe in a hero who treats most women with contempt but magically recognizes that the heroine is different. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. For me, the best predictor of a Happily Ever After is the way the hero treats the other women in his life. He may be opposed to marriage or commitment, he may dislike and avoid a particular type of woman, but that does not require him to despise women in general.

The only romance with a misogynist hero that worked for me was The Dangerous Viscount by Miranda Neville. In that case, Sebastian was still a work in progress. He had very limited experience with women, and he was mainly parroting the opinions of the uncle who raised him. It wasn't so much a magical transformation as a gradual education that brought him around. He was also a victim of bullying and felt the need to act out a sort of revenge fantasy. I could deeply sympathize with that.

I greatly prefer heroes who like and respect women in general, even if they need to adjust their attitudes about a woman's proper place (after all, if there were no initial conflict, the book would be no fun).

Friday, June 19, 2015

Napoleon, Snuff Salesman

In the wake of this week's bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo, I've been thinking a lot about Napoleon's long-term impact on the world -- Napoleonic code (still the basis for the legal system in France), the Sphinx's missing nose (shot off by Napoleon's invading soldiers), the westward expansion of the United States (thanks to the 1803 Louisiana Purchase), and the end of the Republic of Venice, just off the top of my head.

Knowing all these things, I was surprised to learn that, during his lifetime, wooden statues of Napoleon were used to sell snuff. The Emperor was known to be an aficionado, and so tobacconist shops would display these statues to advertise their wares, much like American tobacconists displayed wooden statues of Native Americans (commonly called "cigar store Indians").

This particular specimen is the last survivor of three brought to England from France in 1820. It was carved from a single piece of oak and spent more than a century standing outside various shops in York. The statue's 20th-century adventures put me in mind of the Stanley Cup. During WWII, some soldiers having a bit of fun took Napoleon to the River Ouse (he was rescued at Naburn Lock). He also spent a night in jail when the shopkeeper forgot to bring him in for the night.

He is now on loan to the Merchant Adventurer's Company, safe and dry inside their Hall, looking remarkably well-preserved for his age.

Friday, June 12, 2015

My Top Five

NPR is celebrating romance with the NPR Books Summer of Love. Click on the link to nominate up to five of your favorite romance novels (or series; a short series can be nominated as a unit).

It was very hard to pick five. There are so many excellent romances out there. All of my nominees are historicals (since that is my preferred subgenre). All are by authors with several other excellent books waiting to be discovered by new readers.

They are also books that I have discussed before on my blog, because they have particular qualities or themes that resonate with me, or particularly memorable characters.

So here are the five that I nominated to NPR:

1. The Forbidden Rose by Joanna Bourne - I could have nominated her entire Spymaster series (and I suspect some other readers did exactly that). I selected this single book instead, because I think it is an excellent introduction to her work. It is a fantastic tale of suspense, intrigue and romance during the Reign of Terror. The plot contains some nods to The Scarlet Pimpernel and Les Miserables. The heroine is an aristocrat with a fugitive mad scholar father and a scheming cousin. The hero is a British spy with his own family issues. The marvelous secondary characters nearly steal the book. The final scene is beautiful and poignant (and appears again from a different point of view in a later book in the series).

2. Mr. Impossible by Loretta Chase - This is a rollicking Egyptian adventure featuring an independent widow trying to decipher the Rosetta Stone and a ne'er-do-well who is entirely honest about his nature: “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.” He is unapologetic about his appetites and surprised by the heroine's inhibitions, but he treats her with respect. He is my favorite type of rake. As a fan of both Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series and the Brendan Fraser movie The Mummy, I really enjoyed the plot, and the characters are wonderful. This is Book 2 in her Carsington Brothers series, and definitely my favorite.

3. Confessions from an Arranged Marriage by Miranda Neville - This is one of my favorite bluestocking/rake romances. It also features a rare example of a romance heroine with living, supportive parents. Although the hero has a troubled relationship with his father, his mother is also decent and loving. This is extremely refreshing after reading so many historical romances where the hero is a misogynist thanks to a toxic mother. The book is also a marriage of convenience romance, and Neville skillfully shows love and trust developing between two people who didn't even like each other before they were forced to marry. They become true partners, helping each other achieve long-held ambitions, overcome old fears, and fulfill their new responsibilities.

4. A Week to Be Wicked by Tessa Dare - Another delightful bluestocking/rake romance. This one is also a road trip romance, another trope that I enjoy. The hero has hidden pain, and the heroine has scholarly ambitions. They bond during a trip to Edinburgh that is filled with misadventures. They also get up to quite a bit of naughtiness on the road. This is part of the author's Spindle Cove series, which was hit-and-miss for me. I have enjoyed most of Tessa Dare's books, but this one is my favorite by far.

5. Flowers From the Storm by Laura Kinsale - This is the oldest book I nominated, originally published in 1992. It has a very unusual plot and wonderful writing. Kinsale was among the first romance authors to create deeply damaged but redeemable heroes, and no one does it better. The hero is a duke and also a genius mathematician. He is every bit as arrogant and selfish as his rank and privilege can make him. Then he suffers a cerebral hemorrhage that damages his brain and leaves him at the mercy of unscrupulous relatives, who have him committed to an asylum. He learns who his true friends are, including a Quaker mathematical colleague and his daughter Maddie (the heroine).

I wish I could have nominated more than five.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Joys of Finding One's Tribe

There have been a great many recent blog posts in the wake of last month's RT Booklovers Convention celebrating the warmth and acceptance within the romance community. Since a great many romance readers and writers are shy introverts by nature, it can be a surprise to not feel like an odd duck in social situations. It can also be a tremendous relief to be surrounded by others who share your interests. So many of us self-censor our opinions and preferences in order to fit in.

It is often the case that the heroine of a romance novel is a social misfit in some way. This is a useful plot device, since it serves to emotionally isolate her and thus boost the impact of her growing romance with the hero. It also creates reader sympathy for the heroine, since so many of us had unpleasant experiences in high school. We can easily imagine the pain of ostracized by the ton because we were once ostracized by the popular kids.

As happy as it makes me to read about the heroine falling in mutual love with a hero who accepts her for her true self, there is an added pleasure to reading a story where the awkward heroine finds a group of friends who also accept her. Often, it is the support of such friends who enable the heroine to shine and attract the hero (since self-confidence is very attractive).

Tessa Dare wrote an entire series around the premise of a quiet resort town where socially awkward ladies could find acceptance. Spindle Cove is introduced in A Night to Surrender and revisited in three more full-length novels and two novellas. Dare's misfit heroines who find acceptance included bluestockings, an asthma sufferer, a young woman with a port-wine stain covering much of her face, and a working-class tavern wench who becomes a duchess.

Miranda Neville's Wild Quartet series revolved around a group of bohemian friends known as the Townsend Set (after a couple who hosted informal salons in their home and regularly fed starving artists). In Lady Windermere's Lover, Cynthia first finds love and acceptance not from her husband (who treated her quite shamefully during the early days of their marriage) but from his old friends, Caro Townsend and Julian Denford. Coming from a middle-class background, Cynthia was completely isolated after her marriage. Having Caro to take her under her wing and Julian to escort her around town allowed her to blossom and find a place in her husband's world. It also allowed her to stand up for herself when he returned from a diplomatic posting abroad.

Courtney Milan's The Heiress Effect features a heroine whose social isolation is largely by choice (she has reasons for wishing to avoid marriage without having to actually turn down a decent proposal). In a delightful twist, the two frenemies who pretended to befriend her in order to make her look ridiculous turned into genuine friends who stood by her when it really counted.

As much as I enjoy reading a novel that includes already-established, strong female friendships, there is a special joy in a story where the heroine finds genuine friendship and acceptance for the first time, apart from the romance.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Lingering in Old School Venice

Reading The Courtesan Duchess put me in the mood for more historical romances set in Venice. I pulled out a book that has been in my TBR pile for several months -- the recent reprint of Anne Stuart's Demon Count Novels (available in print as well as the ebook collection mentioned on the website).

 The novels were originally published in 1980, and it shows (in a good way). So far, I have only read the first one (The Demon Count). It is an obvious homage to gothic novels. Like Jane Eyre, it is told in first person. Unlike many recent first person new adult romances, there is only one narrator, so we only get the heroine's point of view. The eponymous count remains a figure of mystery for most of the novel. Is he an evil murderer? A spy? A vampire, as the superstitious locals believe?

Like many old school historical romances, it contains an emotionally-distant older hero who is frequently patronizing and occasionally abusive toward the heroine. There is much melodrama, described with many adjectives. The setting is exotic. The heroine had a toxic mother, and the hero had a toxic wife (now deceased). Unlike most old school romances, however, the heroine is rather savvy and cynical (except when she is occasionally naïve and trusting).

Anne Stuart has fun with genre tropes. There are surly servants and rival suitors. The palazzo is crumbling and filthy, like every good haunted house should be. There is a secret room. The heroine survives multiple attempts on her life (one of which is averted by a heroic 20-pound cat). At one point, the demon count responds to the heroine's suspicions by telling her she should re-read Northanger Abbey (itself a parody of gothic novels, in which the heroine suspects her host is a vampire who murdered his late wife).

I did not get the impression that Anne Stuart actually visited Venice before writing the book. There is an obligatory visit to Florian's, and a reference to some other characters going to Torcello for a picnic, but there is a dearth of detail about those places. Joanna Shupe used both of those settings in The Courtesan Duchess and made me feel like she had been there. The descriptions of Venice in The Demon Count could have come from any guidebook (or a great many movies).

Still, I loved the general atmosphere, and I have sufficient memories (and vacation photos) of my own to imagine in vivid detail the canals, campos and crumbling palazzos that Charlotte Morrow encountered in Venice.

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).

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.")