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.