Thursday, October 29, 2009

Delicacies to Delight: The Books of Eva Ibbotson

I have a deep affection for quiet books that are character-driven and invite me into a world where the extraordinariness of the ordinary is revealed, books that use language in such marvelous ways that I am forced to stop and read passages again and again to ponder the images and to delight in the rhythm. I have had such an experience this week. I have been rereading Eva Ibbotson.

Ibbotson said in a June 2009 interview with Anne Gracie at Word Wenches that she wanted to write “the kind of book I wanted to read myself when I had the flu.” I think she succeeds admirably. Reading one of her books for children, I become a child again and enter a world where magic is deliciously real and good can be depended upon to keep the darkness at bay. Reading one of her romances, I find magic of a different sort—a physical world rendered in such detail that I can hear the raindrops and see the faces of the flowers and an emotional world in which indifference and hatred loom large but never so large that love cannot insure a happy ending.

I discovered Ibbotson through her children’s books. I read Which Witch? to my nephews and enjoyed it even more than they did. We had such fun reading about Arriman the Awful whose boredom with all his evil doings prompt his search for a wife and Belladonna, the youngest witch whose best efforts to be a suitable bride and a dark witch only produce flowers. The boys grew up and started reading John Grisham and Stephen King, but I kept reading Ibbotson. I love them all: Dial-a-Ghost with its erroneously matched ghosts and loathsome villains, Fulton and Frieda Snodde-Brittle; Island of the Aunts with its eccentric, kidnapping aunts, its wondrous collection of creatures--real and mythical, and its environmental message clothed in fantasy; The Great Ghost Rescue with its homeless ghosts displaced by commercial development and its young hero who has a heart for all endangered species, ectoplasmic or otherwise.

But my favorite is The Secret of Platform 13. The kidnapping here is much less benign than in The Island of Aunts. Nine years before the story opens the baby prince of a magical island is kidnapped by wealthy, small-spirited Mrs. Trottle when his nurses take him to London through a portal called a “gump” located under platform 13 in a railway station. Nine sad years pass, and the gump, open for nine days every nine years, once again allows passage to London. The time has come to rescue the prince. The rescue team, a motley crew made up of an ancient wizard, a fey, a mostly invisible, yodeling ogre, and a young hag named Odge, rescue their prince and the kitchen boy Ben. Nine years of overindulgence have made the prince a selfish, spoiled brat. If only the endearing Ben were the prince, and therein lies the tale . . .

Part of the joy of reading Ibbotson is the details she includes. She describes Aunt Etta in Island of the Aunts as “a tall, bony woman who did fifty press-ups before breakfast and had a small but not at all unpleasant mustache on her upper lip." The evil Mrs. Trottle in The Secret of Platform 13 wears a perfume called “Maneater,” and the mists that protect the magical island emanate from the mouths of mystical sea creatures who respond to music by producing mists. This same richness characterizes Ibbotson’s romance novels as well. If the children’s books are fantasies rendered real by detail and dialogue, the romance novels are stories set in the real world of wars and want transformed into fairy tales by Ibbotson’s humor and happy endings.

A Countess Below Stairs (1981), renamed The Secret Countess when it was republished for the YA market in 2007, is the story of Anna Grazensky, a Russian aristocrat who loses her privileged life in the Revolution. With the help of her English governess, she, her mother, and younger brother escape to England. Anna accepts help with her brother’s schooling, but she is determined to make her own way. In post-World War I England, jobs are scarce, and the only one Anna can find is the position of maid at Mersham, the estate of Rupert, Earl of Westerholme. With the 2000+ pages of The Domestic Servants Compendium, a book she is convinced will tell her “everything,” in hand, Anna leaves for Mersham.

The Cinderella connections are strong: Anna is awesomely good, Rupert is staunchly honorable, and the evil stepsisters are replaced with an evil fiancĂ©e, wealthy and beautiful but with a repulsive world view. But this is more than a fairy tale. Although good, Anna is, as the butler Proom declares, never boring. The effects of war on Rupert’s world are not glossed over:

More than most great houses, Mersham had given its life’s blood to the Kaiser’s war. Upstairs it had taken Lord George, the heir, who fell at Ypres six months after his father, the sixth earl, succumbed to a second heart attack. Below stairs it had drained away almost every able-bodied man and few of those who left were destined to return. A groom had fallen on the Somme, an under-gardener at Jutland; the hall boy, who had lied about his age, was blown up at Verdun a week before his eighteenth birthday.

Magic Flutes (1982), renamed The Reluctant Heiress in the YA edition, is another tale of an unconventional aristocrat. The setting is 1920s Austria after the war, and Princess Theresa-Maria of Pfaffenstein, known as Tessa, has forsaken her lofty role to devote herself to a rag-tag opera company, even to the point of sacrificing her beautiful hair to make a wig for the diva. Guy Farne’s journey is a reversal of Tessa’s. From his beginnings as an abandoned, nameless baby, Guy has become an influential industrialist wealthy enough to buy Schloss Pfaffenstein, Tessa’s family castle. Could there be a more unlikely pair? Yet from their first meeting to their shared love of Vienna and the music that permeates the story, the reader falls in love with these two characters as they fall in love with one another. Tessa and Guy are admirably supported by an astonishing number of secondary characters, each one a multi-dimensional creation. This is my favorite of the romances. I was enchanted from the moment I read these words in the prologue:

Certainly it would seem to need the magic of star lore to link the life of the tiny,
dark-eyed Austrian princess--born in a famous castle and burdened, in the presence of the Emperor Franz Joseph, with a dozen sonorous Christian names--with that of the abandoned, gray-blanketed bundle found on the quayside of a grim, industrial English town: a bundle opened to reveal a day-old, naked, furiously screaming baby boy.

Ibbotson followed Magic Flutes with A Company of Swans (1985), an Edwardian romance that opens in Cambridge, England and follows its ballerina heroine to Brazil where she meets Rom Verney, a wealthy adventurer, and Madensky Square (1988), an atypical romance featuring a Viennese dress-shop owner, her customers, her neighbors and friends, and her lover, the married Field Marshal Gernot von Lindenberg. Although the ending of the latter is as unconventional as its heroine, Ibbotson’s gift for making a place and its people come to life is unfaltering.

The Morning Gift (1993), my most recent Ibbotson reread, is the most clearly autobiographical of the author’s novels. Born in Austria in 1925, Ibbotson lived in Vienna until she was eight. Her father, a scientist, who was “technically Jewish,” secured a job in Scotland before Hitler took power, and Eva ended up in London. She recalled those days in a newspaper article (one that includes a heartwarming, real life love story):

We came to London in 1934, a bedraggled party consisting of my fey, poetic mother, my irascible grandmother and confused aunt, and rented rooms in a dilapidated house in Belsize Park which, in those days, was a seedy, run-down part of the city. The house was full of suddenly impoverished refugees facing exile. On every floor were lonely and muddled professors, doctors and lawyers, mostly from German-speaking countries.

This world is the world of The Morning Gift. The well-to-do Berger family flees Vienna for London in the early days of Nazi power in Austria. They think their daughter Ruth is already in England, but she is caught in Austria, hiding in her father’s office. Quin Sommerville, a renowned British scientist and a one-time colleague of her father, finds her and persuades into a marriage of convenience that will give Ruth British citizenship and allow her to leave Austria. The plan is to keep the marriage secret and annul it once Ruth is safely in England. Of course, the plan goes agley due to complications--legal and emotional. The love story is predictable, but Ruth and Quin are distinctly drawn characters, much beloved within the novel and within the heart of the reader. The courage of the emigrants struggling to rebuild their lives and the shadow of World War II looming ground the novel in the real world.

A Song for Summer (1997) is the darkest of Ibbotson’s romances, but it begins with humor. Ellen Carr, brought up by a feminist mother and two aunts and the recipient of the best education available for a young woman of her time, wants to attend Domestic Science College. Ellen accepts a position at Hallendorf, an Austrian boarding school "specializing in Music, Drama, and the Dance." She arrives to find the progressive school filled with wild children, eccentric faculty, and a world clearly in need of her good sense and order. In one laugh-out-loud scene, Ellen meets the infant daughter of a “Ph.D. in Dramatic Movement”:

"That's her Natural Daughter. She's called Andromeda. Hermine got her at a conference but no one knows who the father is."

"I didn't see any nappies," said Ellen.

"She doesn't wear any," Sophie explained. "She's a self-regulating baby."

"What a good thing I like to be busy," said Ellen,“ for I can see that there's going to be a lot to do."

In contrast, there is the mysterious Marek, part-time groundskeeper and fencing teacher, who proves to be Marek Altenburg, musical genius and gifted composer-conductor, who is smuggling Jewish musicians out of Germany. The tale grows grimmer when Hitler invades, but the young lovers achieve their happy ending even in a world where war can shatter lives. A Song for Summer has often been compared to The Sound of Music.

One of my grandmother’s special dishes was a chocolate pie, rich and sweet and nourishing. Eating a piece of Mama’s pie was a totally satisfying experience, a feast for the senses and a gift to be remembered. Reading Ibbotson reminds me of Mama’s pie. I’m not the only reader who compares Ibbotson’s books to food. Janine of Dear Author says in a review of A Countess Below Stairs, that her “books are the meringue kisses of romance novels: simple and sophisticated at once; rich and sweet and awfully charming.” LFL, a reviewer for AAR, calls Madensky Square a “true confection” and terms Ibbotson’s writing “so rich that it melts in your mouth.” And Angie of Angieville declares, “Opening up an Eva Ibbotson book is like biting into a hot biscuit smothered with butter and jam--at once perfectly satisfying and extremely comforting.”

If your taste runs only to romances with sizzling love scenes and convoluted plots, Ibbotson is unlikely to appeal to you. But if you have a taste for stories that are sweet but never saccharine, worlds peopled by characters who move you to laughter and tears, and prose that delights the mind and the heart, you’ll be another Ibbotson convert. You’ll find your own food metaphors for the books of Eva Ibbotson.

Are you an Ibbotson fan? What's your favorite?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Rambling On . . .

I had planned to blog on Eva Ibbotson today, but the weather interfered. I know that claim sounds absurd, but it’s true, honest. You see, cold weather has come to Georgia. Usually in October average temperatures in my hometown fall in the mid-70s, with lows in the low 50s. But this year somebody has stolen our Indian summer. I thought I had until the end of the month to exchange short-sleeved tops and cotton skirts and dresses for long-sleeved shirts, sweaters, and wool. But we’ve already switched from air conditioning to heat and put blankets on the beds, and I’ve been freezing in thin tees and jeans. So yesterday and today I have made the great wardrobe switch. Summer clothes are packed away, and my closet and chest are filled with darker colors and heavier fabrics.

While I was in domestic mode, I decided to clean off my desk and reorganize my bookshelves, both monumental tasks that required wrenching decisions such as whether I had any use for a four-month collection of library lists and which books to prune to make room for the new keepers. All this activity left me little time to complete my Ibbotson blog. It will have to wait for next week or perhaps the one following. I felt like a failure when I thought I would go blogless this Thursday, but then I had an epiphany. I could blog about my nightstand.

Caught in the power of my semi-annual cleaning frenzy, I also cleaned off my nightstand, a chore almost as demanding as cleaning off my desk. The top of said nightstand stays relatively neat because it is mostly utilitarian. It reveals little. At all times it holds a lamp, a clock, a box of Kleenex, a bottle of water, a glass case, a small notebook, a couple of pens, and the current bedtime book—all items that could belong to a busy mother, a businesswoman, a waitress, or a dozen other women. The flowers on lamp, clock, glass case, and notebook do suggest they are the property of a woman.

But the under shelf—ah, the tales it tells. Even after the cleaning, it holds twelve books, two of them hardbacks, a stack of CDs, and a white wicker basket with a blue and yellow lining. The basket is overflowing with stuff-an angel wing shell, a tube of lip gloss, a small orange bunny named Flannery, a paperback dictionary, a gift book of angel quotations, a book journal, a half dozen bookmarks, a handmade birthday card signed in large letters by my favorite pair of brothers (ages 5 and almost 8), a notebook with my latest efforts at rewriting a key section of my first ms, and another notebook filled with preliminary info about the novel I’m hoping to draft next month for NaNoWriMo. The books include The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke, a battered copy of Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction, John Stott’s The Beatitudes, Stephanie Barron’s The White Garden, Eva Ibbotson’s Island of the Aunts, and seven recently-read or about-to-be-read romance paperbacks—a mix of historical and categories—with Jo Beverley’s reissued Lord Wraybourne’s Betrothed on top. The CDs are a mix of country, classical, Southern gospel, and just-for-me collections created by four of my fellow Bon Bons. Each item tells something about the person I am—the reader, the writer, the music lover, the Christian, the sentimentalist, the packrat.

What’s on your nightstand? Is it strictly utilitarian? Or does it hold clues to the person you are?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Hurray! An Award!

Renee Lynn Scott at Unlocking History Through Romance was kind enough to give Just Janga a Neno Award last week. Since this blog is not quite three months old, I’m especially delighted to receive the award. Thank you, Renee!

Neno’s Award—-Rules and Regulations

1. A dedication for those who love blogging and love to encourage friendships through blogging.

2. Purpose: To seek the reasons why we all love blogging.

3. Put the award in one post as soon as you receive it.

4. Don’t forget to mention the person who gives you the award.

5. Answer the award’s question by writing the reason why you love blogging.

6. Tag and distribute the award to as many people as you like.

7. Don’t forget to notify the award receivers and put their links in your post.

Why I Love Blogging:

I love talking about books I love. I love sharing my struggles as a yet-to-be-published romance writer. I love the connections I make with interesting, intelligent people who share my interest in romance fiction. I love the opportunity to subvert my introverted self in an extroverted (semi, at least) persona. For all these reasons, I love blogging.

I’m tagging three of those interesting, intelligent people I mentioned to receive the Neno Award: MsHellion at Cheeky Wench’s Tavern, Maggie at Maggie Robinson Reads Romance, and Sabrina at Cheeky Reads.

Thanks again, Renee!

I'll be back tomorrow with my regular Thursday blog.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Anthology Appreciation Week

I’m writing this on Monday, not my favorite day of the week. I always think there should be a day between the end of the weekend and the start of the new week, a low-key day that makes little demands. Maybe then I would like Mondays better. It’s also raining today, and the song running through my head is an old one—“Rainy Days and Mondays” by the Carpenters.

Talkin' to myself and feelin' old,
Sometimes I'd like to quit.
Nothing ever seems to fit,
Hangin' around,
Nothing to do but frown.
Rainy days and Mondays always get me down.

One thing that can raise my spirit on a Monday and a rainy day is a good book. Today I’m rereading the repackaged edition of Scottish Brides, a 1999 anthology featuring novellas by Christina Dodd, Stephanie Laurens, Karen Ranney, and Julia Quinn. My rereading has reminded me of how much I love anthologies. I hate piecemeal reading, but usually I’m forced into it. I don’t often have the luxury of the free hours it would take to read a book at one sitting. But I can read a novella in an hour or less and enjoy that satisfying feeling of having finished a good read. An added benefit is the occasional delight of discovering a new-to-me author whose voice I love.

Scottish Brides is such a delight that it set me to thinking about my favorite anthologies. Could I choose seven favorites, one for each day of a private observance of Anthology Appreciation Week? After checking my catalog of keepers, I decided that I could do so only if I imposed some limits.

No Christmas anthologies allowed on the list. I have so many Christmas favorites that they belong in a separate category.

No single-author anthologies allowed. Their keeper status was determined by a different criterion than multiple-author collections. This decision eliminates Here’s to the Ladies, a Carla Kelly collection of American frontier army stories that is a jewel.

No anthologies that are on the keeper shelf on the basis of a single story. These may merit the designation “favorite novella,” but they do not qualify as a favorite anthology. I strike Talk of the Ton and The One That Got Away with beloved stories by Eloisa James, Secrets of a Perfect Night with Rachel Gibson’s “Now and Forever,” which may be my favorite contemporary novella ever, and In Praise of Younger Men with Jo Beverley’s dark and steamy “The Demon’s Mistress.”

No short story collections permitted, only novellas. Now I cut collections by Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, Bobbie Ann Mason, and the Mossy Creek stories.

I’m left with a more manageable list that, with difficulty, I cut to my top seven anthologies plus one honorable mention. These are the anthologies I reread most often, the ones that mix authors I love with new discoveries, the ones that include multiple novellas that entertain, delight, and move me. These are the anthologies that I find most deserving of celebration during this self-proclaimed Anthology Appreciation Week.

1. Irresistible Forces
Irresistible Forces is an anthology of SF/Fantasy romances that I bought solely for the stories by Putney and Beverley, both long-time autobuy authors for me. It is my #1 favorite anthology because I enjoyed every story in it, and it made me a fan of such blended genre tales. I expected to love the stories by Beverley and Putney, and I did. MJP’s contribution, “The Alchemical Marriage,” is an Elizabethan-set story with a Spanish Armada connection. It also serves as a sort of prequel for her Guardian books. Jo Bev’s “The Trouble with Heroes” is a layered piece filled with humor, pathos, philosophy, and politics. The themes of sacrifice and honor will be familiar ones to readers of her romance novels. My only quibble is that I wanted it to be longer.

I had heard friends rave about Bujold’s Vorkosigan tales, but since I almost never read science fiction, I doubt that I would ever have read them had I not read “Winterfair Gifts” and realized that Bujold was writing about relationships. And Catherine Asaro’s “Stained Glass Heart,” one of my favorite novellas ever, includes such beloved romance tropes as arranged marriage and lovers who were childhood friends. It has an innocence and joy that fills me with delight just remembering it. Deb Stover’s “Skin Deep” is an angel story that is great fun to read and left me thinking someone should turn it into a movie; Jennifer Roberson’s “Shadows in the Wood,” the shortest in the anthology, is a Robin Hood tale in which Merlin and Arthur’s sword Excalibur figure.

2. The Further Observations of Lady Whistledown
Like most Julia Quinn fans, I love Lady Whistledown, and I think the LW anthologies were a brilliant idea. This collection is my favorite. I love following the thread that links the stories. Suzanne Enoch’s “One True Love” is a lovely arranged marriage tale with lively exchanges between an H/H at odds and great sexual tension. Karen Hawkins’s contribution, “Two Hearts,” is a friends-to-lovers romance that tickles the funny bone and warms the heart. Hawkins’s gift for creating strong, endearing characters holds true here. Royce and Liza are my favorites in the anthology. Mia Ryan’s “A Dozen Kisses” features a wonderfully interesting hero, one with a brain injury that makes him appear slow-witted. I enjoyed the story, but I was frustrated because I felt it deserved to be more fully developed than the format allowed. “Thirty-six Valentines” is a typical Julia Quinn offering. The characters delight, the dialogue sparkles, the conflict amuses, and the story is an A all the way.

3. Where's My Hero?
Please don’t throw things at me if I admit I’ve only read two of the three stories in this anthology. I have the greatest admiration for Kinley McGregor/Sherrilyn Kenyon’s achievements. I have friends who are huge fans of her work, but it’s just not for me. This anthology ranks high on my list because I adored the other two stories by authors I consider brilliant in knowing what they do best and doing it better than anyone else.

I’m one of those readers who has a long list of secondary characters whose stories I long for. This anthology is perfect for readers like me in this respect. The heroine of Lisa Kleypas’s “Against the Odds” is the mathematician daughter of Sara and Derek Craven (Dreaming of You); the hero is Jake Linley, the interesting doctor who appears in four Kleypas novels (Someone to Watch Over Me, Where Dreams Begin, Lady Sophia’s Lover, and Worth Any Price). About time he got his own story. I enjoy watching the relationship between these atypical characters develop, but the parts of the story I like best are the scenes where Sara and Derek, one of the best H/H pairings ever, appear.

I read Splendid when it was first published and have been a Julia Quinn fan ever since. I was delighted to learn that “A Tale of Two Sisters” was the story of Ned Blyden, a secondary character in Quinn’s first three novels. I loved the character, and his story is a perfect fit for him. He and Charlotte are wonderful together, and Ned’s “poetic” composition makes me literally howl with laughter. “Charming” is a word that’s overused, but it is the best description I know for this story that truly is “highly pleasing, delightful to the mind and senses.”

4. Faery Magic
In this anthology, four writers, including three of my long-time autobuy authors, combine the magic of myth and legend with the enchantment of Georgian and Regency settings to tell stories of the intersection of the human world and the world of faery. The stories are connected by the world they share, but each offers unique delights. Jo Beverley’s “The Lord of Elphindale” is about a half-faery, half-human heroine who defies the very purpose for which she was created in an act of love. Karen Harbaugh’s “The Faery Braid,” a new take on the old tale Rapunzel, shows the hard choices life requires. “The Love Talker,” Barbara Samuel’s tale of a faery lord, cursed for his heartless seductions, who learns love and compassion from a simple country maid, is a lovely story made even more extraordinary by Samuel’s gorgeous prose. The heroine of Mary Jo Putney’s “Dangerous Gifts” learns that coveted gifts may come with too high a price.

5. Scottish Brides
The novellas in this anthology are all rooted in Scottish history and folklore, but they may be most notable for exemplifying so well the qualities readers look for in each of these authors. Christina Dodd’s “Under the Kilt” is a sexy tale featuring Hadden Fairchild, the brother of the heroine in A Well Pleasured Lady, a stubborn alpha who is all a Scots hero should be. “Rose in Bloom” by Stephanie Laurens is the tale of a rake reunited with the verbal sparring partner of his childhood, the Rose of the title. Julia Quinn’s “Gretna Green” has all the charm and fun I expect from a Quinn story and two likeable characters who share terrific chemistry and engaging banter. “The Glenlyon Bride” by Karen Ranney uses standard plots (arranged marriage and mistaken identity) to tell a sweet love story that is anything but standard in its development of a relationship that encompasses body, mind, and spirit.

6. Bride by Arrangement
I love Mary Jo Putney’s marriage of convenience tale, “Wedding of the Century,” in which an American heiress and a duke in need of a fortune discover how perfect they are for one another. Merline Lovelace’s “Mismatched Hearts” is a competent story of an H/H, engaged to the wrong people, whose honor is tested before their HEA is assured. “My Darling Echo” by Gayle Wilson is an unexpected treasure, the heart-warming tale of a blind earl and a struggling widow who marry first and fall in love afterwards.

7. Three Weddings and a Kiss
“The Kiss,” more short story than novella, is notable because it is the work of Kathleen Woodiwiss and features as hero Jeff Birmingham, brother of Brandon, the hero of Woodiwiss’s famous The Flame and the Flower. “Fancy Free” by Catherine Anderson is an American frontier tale of revenge and misunderstandings with some nice touches of humor, although I found it much less satisfying than Anderson’s best work like Annie’s Song and Phantom Waltz. Loretta Chase’s “The Mad Earl’s Bride” is among my top five novellas. There is nothing ordinary about this tale of a dying earl and the bluestocking heroine whose knowledge and stubbornness create a happy ending against all odds. The novella connects to Lord of Scoundrels, and Gwendolyn deserves a place beside Jessica Trent in the pantheon of romance heroines. “Promises” by Lisa Kleypas features a hero who is a shadow of Derek Craven and a heroine who persists in an inexplicable attachment to another man. Still, it’s Kleypas, and even a less than stellar Kleypas has much to recommend it.

Honorable Mention: It Happened One Night
All four novellas in this anthology tell the story of a man and a woman who meet serendipitously at an inn after years apart. Stephanie Laurens’s “The Fall of Rogue Gerrard,” which won a Rita for best novella, is vintage Laurens. A reformed rake meets a sensible woman from his past, is caught up in her most insensible scheme, and loses his heart. “Spellbound,” a tale of an estranged husband and wife who uncover the lies that separated them and rediscover their love, has the well-developed relationship, the emotional punch, and the memorable characters that have made Mary Balogh a legend in romance fiction. Jacquie D'Allesandro's “Only You,” a Rita finalist, is an interesting take on youthful lovers separated by class who are given a second chance. “From This Moment On” by Candice Hern ends her Merry Widows series. It’s my favorite among these stories. I love Wilhelmina, former courtesan and current widowed duchess. I love that she and Sam are mature characters. And I love that he was her first love. This one is a winner from an author who is underappreciated.

Do you appreciate anthologies? What are your favorites?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

From the Pen of a Beta Reader

Jayne Ann Krentz is wrong. I say this with trembling and trepidation but with unwavering conviction. After all, JAK is a goddess, a legendary defender of romance fiction, an author I’ve been reading for decades. And I’m just one among countless wannabes. Nevertheless, Ms. Krentz was wrong when she said, "No one wants to read about a beta hero." I am one, and I love reading about beta heroes. Furthermore, I know I’m not alone.

When I look back at the beta heroes I have known and loved, I realize that they are more than personal favorites. They are the heroes in some of the classic texts of our genre. Take Mr. Knightly in Jane Austen’s Emma—definitely a beta. Austen calls him a “sensible man,” sensibility being a quality she herself valued highly. Knightly is kind and compassionate and capable of great romantic love. He sees Emma’s faults clearly and loves her anyway.

Many of Georgette Heyer’s heroes are true alphas. Some would argue that heroes like the Duke of Avon (These Old Shades), the Marquis of Alverstoke (Frederica), and Lord Damorel (Venetia) define the generic conventions of the alpha hero. But Heyer herself divided her heroes into two types: Mark I (the alphas) and Mark II (the betas). Some of my favorite Heyer heroes--Hugo Darracott (The Unknown Ajax), Freddy Standen (Cotillion), and Gervase Frant, Earl of St. Erth (The Quiet Gentleman)—are betas all, practical, honorable, and capable of abiding friendship with a woman.

Connie Brockway’s As You Desire and Julia Quinn’s Romancing Mr. Bridgerton rank high on many lists of all-time favorite romances; both feature beta heroes. Brockway’s Harry Braxton, best friend and protector of his long-time love, was an RT KISS-award winner, and affable charmer Colin Bridgerton and his beloved Penelope are on All About Romance’s most recent Top Ten Couples list. Clearly many readers appreciate the hotness factor possessed by a good beta. Even JAK herself must love a least one beta hero: Harry Stratton Trevelyan, scientist/philosopher hero of her popular Absolutely, Positively.

Examine almost any successful series, and you will find a beta in the mix. Murphy Muldoon, hero of the concluding book on Nora Roberts’s popular Born in trilogy, is an Irish farmer with a poet’s soul. Lord Robert Andreville, hero of Mary Jo Putney’s Angel Rogue (Fallen Angels), is a spy with a truly tortured past, but the charming Robin is also a beta, who uses humor and friendship to win his love. Another of my favorite betas is Ewan Poley, Earl of Ardmore, the hero of Eloisa James’s Kiss Me, Annabel (Essex Sister #2). This handsome Scot heats up the pages of a courtship journey book, but his kindness, sense of humor, and religious convictions mark him as beta hero.

The most recent beta hero to claim my heart is Sir Tobias Aldridge, hero of A Lady of Persuasion, the third book in Tessa Dare’s debut trilogy. Toby serves to demonstrate what a beta hero is, what he is not, and what endears beta heroes to many readers.

Betas are kind and decent.

We meet Toby in Goddess of the Hunt and watch the heroine of that book realize that her feelings for Toby were merely infatuation. In Surrender of a Siren, we learn that Sophia has jilted Toby. Early in A Lady of Persuasion, we discover that Toby, at some cost to his own reputation, has protected the jilt Sophia from becoming fodder for gossip. His doing so allows Sophia and Gray to return triumphantly to London. When Lucy is in labor and Jeremy is near mad with fear, it is Toby who talks until he’s hoarse to distract Jeremy; it is Toby who reminds him that Lucy knows her husband and loves him anyway.

Betas have a sense of honor.

Alphas do not have a monopoly on honor. Toby’s honor is the foundation of his devotion to family and friends. Even his mistakes are linked to his sense of honor. He is wrong to lie to Bel about his campaign, but he instinctively understands that he must find his own purpose in life, not have it handed to him by his wife.

Betas often have a highly developed sense of humor and often use a light touch to diffuse a tense moment.

Toby understands Gray’s concern for Bel and deals with big-brother-in-protective-mode with grace and humor. His offer of a brotherly hug left me laughing out loud. His playful teasing of Bel helps her to learn the need for balancing solemnity with a glad heart.

Betas are problem-solvers.

They lack the alphas’ need to control the lives of their pack, but when presented with a problem, they can come up with a solution, often an ingenious one. When Gray, a classic alpha, is confronted with Jeremy’s fears for Lucy, he is helpless. Joss, caught in memories of his own loss, only increases the fear. It is Toby who spends hours talking of “mundane, everyday concerns that he hoped would serve as a reminder that beyond this day, beyond Lucy’s labor, mundane, everyday life would continue.”

Betas are not wimps.

Toby has ample physical courage. He is not intimidated by Gray. When Bel is in danger from runaway horses, Toby risks his own life to save her. He faces a man with a loaded gun with fortitude and finesse.

Betas are not inferior lovers.

Scene after scene in A Lady of Persuasion reveals Toby as a tender, passionate lover who satisfies his beloved in every way. He also expresses his love in words and in meaningful ways such as the honey-sweetened ice cream.

Finally, betas are not out to save the world; their focus is on home and heart.

Toward the end of ALOP, when Toby announces that he will become an MP, a position in which he will serve “with honor,” just as he will manage his estate responsibly, he says to Bel, “But my highest goal, my true reason for living, is right here in my arms. It’s you, darling. It’s us.” A few paragraphs later he adds, “I intend to be, above everything, a devoted husband. . . . And a doting father.” Bel knows she’s the “luckiest woman alive.” So does the beta-loving reader.

What about you? Are you a beta lover? If not, why not? If so, who are your favorite betas?

Monday, October 5, 2009

Time for a Schedule Change

With the Romance Vagabonds packing up the caravan and moving on this week, I will be posting new blogs every Thursday here at Just Janga. Please join me for my first regular Thursday blog on October 8 when I'll be waxing forth on one of my favorite subjects--beta heroes.