Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Who's YOUR Hero?

(And is he anything like the man (men?) in your life?)

I participated in Jessica's envigorating discussion about Anne Stuart's Black Ice.  Most commenters like or love the book, and many specifically like Bastien, the rather morally dubious hero.  (He's a Jason Bourne type, trained to go undercover, killing as necessary.  He's also got extraordinary control over his physical reactions -- all his physical reactions...!)  There were a few dissenters, and as one of their number, I'd like to think we joined in the exchange with the right spirit of respect and debate.

Something the wonderful Sherry Thomas wrote got me thinking.  She praised the hero in E.M. Hull's classic, The Sheik and said that she (Sherry, this is) would love to shag the Sheik.  Interesting.  I love that book, which I've owned for decades.  I haven't re-read it for a long time, but I know what I loved about it 20 years ago was the despair the heroine experiences when she thinks she will have to spend the rest of her life away from this compelling but difficult man she's fallen in love with.  (According to Wikipedia, Hull may have written the book while her husband was serving in WWI.  I wonder if her fears fueled the feelings in the book.)  Of course, there's an HEA.  That's what makes the despair emotional porn, and not just excruciating.

But would I want to shag the Sheik?  Um, nope.  I pretty sure I wouldn't.  (I'm suspending completely the question of whether the Sheik would want to shag me.  It's safe to say the answer to that question is No.)

So who would I want to shag?  Which is to say, which fictional hero would I want to fall in love with, have a lasting relationship with and, okay, shag -- ?

The Beast.  From almost any of the Beauty and the Beast versions.  (Except for Judith Ivory's version, where it was more a case of disguise than actual disfigurement.)  And most specifically, the Beast of Belleterre, Mary Jo Putney's titular hero from her novella, which I have in A Victorian Christmas. (I think it's been published elsewhere as well.)

The Beast, as a hero, is someone hiding from life, strong and vital but convinced that he's right to keep out of society.  The heroine is thrust into his well-ordered and limited life and changes everything.  The experience is catalytic for both of them: she falls in love at the same time she's struggling with the isolation surrounding her beloved, and he's given his first glimpse of a life with another human being in it -- a vision that is as seductive as it seems impossible.

In the fairy tale, the beast is hideous because of a spell cast by a wicked something or other.  But if you like the Disney animated version, chances are you've thought as I have that the Beast is so much more interesting than the rather bland, generic prince he's restored to at the end.  Okay, so that Beast is perhaps more bestial than one could comfortably accommodate (and it only now occurs to me that Bastian is more than a bit bestial in some portions of Black Ice), but he's charming in his diffidence in ways you just know that Prince Charming isn't.  And he needs Belle -- and isn't that a wonderful feeling, to be needed?

In The Beast of Belleterre, the hero is scarred from a childhood fire.  He's made a life for himself (and some equally scarred animals) but he never expects to marry, have children, or enjoy any companionship beyond that which he's paid for in the past.  He does marry as an act of mercy, but he's convinced himself that he must not let his bride see him as he really is.  (He hides in a voluminous cloak.)  But his bride, while grateful and biddable, isn't as scared of him as he imagines.  Their conflict grows in perhaps too extreme a manner, but it's a fairy tale -- and for emotional porn, I couldn't ask for a better HEA.  I cry every time!

Back to Sherry and her Sheik.  I was thinking about this issue of what sort of hero we're attracted to -- the dark & twisty undercover operative, the dashing & dangerous pirate, the saintly/good/smart guy who turns out to be surprisingly uninhibited in bed, the millionaire needing only the love he can't buy, etc., etc. -- when I realized that there was something significant in my pick as the ONE I would want to love.

Because that's who I married.  Twice!

My first husband, pictured below on the left, had been living a relatively quiet life in Hampstead Heath, part of North London, when I swept back into his life.  We'd known each other for over 25 years (we met as teenagers when I was sent at age 15 to care for an epileptic great aunt in nearby St. John's Wood) and neither of us had married.  I'd fallen in love with him when we were 24 but there was no way either of us could have sustained a relationship back then.  (We both come from a long line of late-bloomers.)  Hub 1.0 was then, and still is, the family of my heart; I love him today precisely the way I loved him on the day we go married, and I probably always will. 

So why two husbands?  Well, that is part of the magic of my first marriage -- it made each of us stronger, better, healthier people.  And Hub 1.0 was ready to lead his own life, make his own choices, etc.  (I like to think I'm not too oppressively dominating a personality, but I'll admit that it was frequently easier for both of us to let me take the lead in life.  Understandable, but not optimal.)  Coincidentally, I was getting friendly with Starman, pictured on the right.

(For newbies to this blog, my husband is easily identified elsewhere, particularly as "Crosswordman," but I started calling him Starman because his pseudonyms for the cryptic crosswords he created were the names of stars, e.g., Arcturus and Mira, and since marriage we've set puzzles together as a twin star, Aldebaran.  Also, we love the Karen Allen/Jeff Bridges movie.  At least one of my friends was convinced she'd have trouble thinking of him as anything but Starman...)

Starman is truly a Beast-style hero.  He lived alone, didn't get out much, and had even retired from the computer consulting work he'd done in London so that he didn't have to mingle with people.  All of a sudden, this American woman was telephoning him, chatting about Woody Allen movies and music.  (I was looking for a best friend -- but that's a very long story for another blog post.)  I suspect some part of me recognized some part of him, and once he'd satisfied himself that I wasn't going to be a stalker/serial killer, he was eager to have someone to talk to.

Of course he doesn't look like a Beast.  Neither of them do.  But the Beast conflict is all in the head, anyway -- that belief that he's better off keeping himself to himself.  And both my English husbands had that going on.  What I brought to them, other than sufficient smarts to do learn how to do British-style cryptic crosswords, was a loving heart and the ability to show them another way of living.  It doesn't seem to be enough to make either one of them love me, but it clearly worked.  And in the case of Starman, I clearly have the magic woo-woo he was looking for.  Go figure.

So, here are the questions:  If you had to pick a single hero or hero type, who or what would it be?  And is that type anything like the man (men) in your life?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

My Winsor List

Jessica at Racy Romance Reviews invited us all to post our top 16 romance novels in honor of Kathleen Winsor, author of Forever Amber. Here are mine, in no particular order. I've provided a little commentary on each one, partly because I love them all so much, and also because not everyone likes the same things, but it's always fun to learn about new books. And because I'm old, so some of my choices are way before everyone's time! Oh, and one more thing. Sarah at MonkeyBearReviews had a quiz asking which was better, the 90s or the 2000s for romances. Well, I don't "do" paranormals, so you'll see a distinct bias for books published in the 70s, 80s and 90s. No werewolves or vamps here!

1. The Beast of Belleterre (short story by Mary Jo Putney)

I know MJP isn't everyone's favorite author, but I really think this might be *the* book I'd clutch to my bosom as the fire department made me leave the house. It's a novella based on Beauty & the Beast (my favorite fairy tale) in which the hero is so disfigured he hides from everyone. He reluctantly marries the delicate and talented heroine to save her from her brutish father but then can't bring himself even to let her see him. It's not flawless; it's basically backstory, interior monologues and damned little actual interaction between the characters before the end, but it is emotional porn at its finest. Neither of these people thinks that life should be very good to them, and so their expectations are so low that it's hard to see how they'll work their way out of the sadness. But they do.

2. To Love and to Cherish (the first of the Wyckerly trilogy by Patricia Gaffney)

More emotional porn (a theme with me, I'll admit) but done so well and so beautifully written that I actually lent it to my non-romance reading mother. I re-read it recently, and was impressed all over again. It comes the closest, I think, of conveying to the reader that effervescence of falling in love -- passing messages, seeing the beloved unexpectantly and feeling your breath catch, etc. Then it's sad, then scary, then difficult, and by the time they end up together, they -- and we -- are exhausted.

3. Pretty much anything by Jane Feather

I know, this is a cop out -- pick a book, already! But she's so consistently good that no one of her books rises inexorably to the surface. I like Vixen (from her V series) because of a particularly exquisite sex scene (go read it yourself; your results might differ), but is it her best romance? On the other hand, I like the Bride trilogy, set in Edwardian England. She does a great job of conveying that interplay of stuffy Victorian restrictions and taboos with the nascent feminist movement. So those books make you think: how can women consciously trying to make lives for themselves fall in love and still maintain the ideals they set out with? Chances are, if I reread all of JF's books from the beginning, I'd find one that excels, but that's not happening tonight.

4. Any of Julia Spencer-Fleming – or better yet, the single romance you’d get by cutting & splicing all the scenes of Russ and Clare together and their relationship's evolution.

No, not a cop out this time. I like the mysteries just fine, but what I had to re-read immediately was the romance that develops over time in the so-far-seven books in the series. If you don't know these books, start with In the Bleak Midwinter and work through all seven. They are that good, both technically (I think she does the best job with point-of-view) and emotionally. There's not much romance in each book, but what's there, to quote Spencer Tracy, is cherce.

5. Cassandra by Chance Betty Neels

A Mills & Boon/Harlequin series romance from the early 70s, and my favorite of all the Betty Neels books. Hers was a very limited format: Dutch doctor hero (much later in her career, some English heros were permitted), virginal English nurse/dogsbody heroine. Heroine was more likely than not plain ("mousy") but always a lovely spirit. Look, I can't defend these to anyone; you either like them or you don't. But if you like one, you'll like them all, and there are LOTS of them! Runner-up from her backlist is Fate is Remarkable, which has a very satisfying denouement. (Warning: really hackney plot devices at work here: The Other Woman, Misunderstandings, Lack of Communication. You wouldn't want to BE these characters, but *sigh* I love visiting them.)

6. Imprudent Lady Joan Smith

I haven't re-read this one in a long time, but I remember it as being LOL funny. (See, also, Talk of the Town) Regencies, no sex (now, isn't it extraordinary that we have to specify that for a historical period where chastity was so important even the appearance of impropriety was fatal?), but wonderful characters and stories. And seriously funny bits.

7. High Garth – Mira Stables

Vaguely Early Victorian; there's a minor bit about the railroads being built, but it's mostly a domestic romance about a man struggling to make a small holding in Yorkshire (or thereabouts) profitable. After the hothouse bouquets that are today's historical romances, this is like a buttercup: simple and simply perfect. Honorable mention: Miss Mouse (or maybe Lissa, or Honey Pot -- ?). Oh, I don't think she wrote a bad book.

8. Her Man of Affairs -- Elizabeth Mansfield

There's a real class issue here, and for once the hero isn't magically discovered to be the long-lost Duke of Whatevershire. The titular hero is the Scottish clerk who's charged with straightening out the heroine's finances. Lots of lovely Scottish words -- it's hard not to want to use a couple when you've finished the book -- and a genuine conflict that isn't very easily resolved.

9. His Lordship’s Mistress – Joan Wolf

More Emo-Porn. I'll acknowledge that the world is rather sanitized and perfect in Wolf's universe: the heroine is the most courageous person ever, the hero is beautiful, yadda yadda. But oh, my word, when the problems arise, they feel very real. Which of course makes the resolution all the more satisfying.

10. These Old Shades – Georgette Heyer

Probably the grandmother of romances that ask the question, "What happens when the most exalted and self-composed, not to mention powerful, hero meets his match?!" Here it's the Duke of Avon and a French waif/gamine named Leonie. There's a lot of complicated stuff in 18th Century England and France and some rather over-the-top secondary characters but a charming HEA, and yes, some emo-porn. Don't miss the sequel, Devil's Cub, where the heir to Avon meets his match! A very different dynamic; you can't say Heyer was pulling a Betty Neels with the same characters in mildly different books...

11. Sweet Everlasting – Patricia Gaffney

I had to look this one up on Amazon to be sure I knew the title, and I noticed someone commenting that the heroine's extreme other-worldliness and innocence made parts of this romance seem a tad pedophilic. Odd, I'd not thought of that (I'd have indicted These Old Shades or Jane Feather's Vixen before this book), but seeing it written out gave me a moment's pause. At some point, I have to admit that my personal backstory does affect how I feel about it, so sure -- the extraordinarily young-in-spirit heroine is perhaps not wise enough to the world to fall for the hero, but she does and that's really the basis of the challenge they need to meet. Can I say every one should love it? No. Do I love it? Yes.

12. Kiss an Angel – Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Here's another one I'm not sure I can defend. Spoiled heroine gets her comeuppence at the hands of a seemingly cruel "husband." In the wrong hands, that set up never gets out of the "get a protective order" range, but Phillips presents the heroine as needing some tough love. I love a lot of SEP's books, but this one vibrates in a way that others don't.

13. Dream a Little Dream – SEP

My favorite of her Chicago Stars (a fictional football team) books; this one has the heroine really, really down on her luck but refusing to accept charity. Again, in real life her son should be in foster care and the county agencies should be getting her some housing and a job just until she can get it together to get her son back, but in Rom County, all is well -- the hero is emotionally wounded and so they can just about tolerate being in each other's company. I do like it when people rescue themselves by loving others. (One of my favorite movies: Pretty Woman. Say no more.)

14 Daddy Long-Legs -- Jean Webster

This was written almost 100 years ago, but it's a wonderful book. It would be labeled YA now; it's about an orphan with red hair (no, not Anne of Green Gables, but close) who gets to go to college because a trustee provides her with an anonymous scholarship. It's an epistolary novel but I like reading people's letters, and the device pretty much works until the very end, when -- face it, we shouldn't have to read about a kissy-kissy love scene in a letter. It's also a fascinating portrait of an American girls' college like Smith or Vassar back when educating women was not considered entirely respectable.

15a. Maddie’s Justice – Leslie LaFoy

Someone recently asked for suggestions for Western romances. Here's my pick (if anyone's still interested), and I don't think anyone else suggested LaFoy. Her novels run the gamut from hockey-themed contemporary to a range of historicals. This one is particularly good with a beleagured heroine (convicted of murder, wrongly of course) and hero (charged with transporting her until he discovers someone's trying to kill them both) and the slow way they learn to trust each other.

15b. Lynn Kerstan

This isn't meant to be a cheat, although it will look that way. I can't pick any specific one of Kerstan's early Regencies, but they're all good. And I think of her and LaFoy as being in the same boat. Sure, I have favorite LaVyrle Spencer romances, and Linda Howard, and so forth, but those are the big names. I want to recommend authors like Kerstan and LaFoy -- both names that I still instinctively look for in the big box bookstore even if their very best work is already been published.

16. The Rainbow Season – Candace Camp aka Lisa Gregory

I have a soft spot for Camp; she's a lawyer too (or, if she's let her license lapse, then technically she's "trained as a lawyer") and I've enjoyed her contemporaries (as Kristin James), her historicals (as Lisa Gregory) and her more recent books as herself. But this one stands alone -- a book I've reread so many times I could almost quote entire passages. Hero and Heroine get married (forget why, but it hardly matters) and he's on hard times. But he works really hard to be a good farmer and husband; these people enjoy what seems to be a relatively happy married life. Which means the conflict is a bit strained, but who cares -- they triumph over the harsh weather conditions, the drought, and what little misunderstanding there was between them. And live happily ever after. You just know it!