Friday, August 18, 2017

The Ethics of Caretaking: Kate Hewitt's MARRY ME AT WILLOUGHBY CLOSE

I've always been intrigued by feminist debates about gender and caretaking, stemming most likely from my college psychology class readings of Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development and Carol Gilligan's feminist critique of the same. Do women make moral decisions based on their effects on others, while men make such decisions based on abstract principles? And if so, are women by nature better at caring for others than men are? If such gendered differences in fact exist are those differences the result of nature or nurture? What are the downsides, as well as the benefits, of emphasizing caretaking as a distinctly feminine trait? Do our beliefs about the gendered nature of caretaking limit men as well as women? What if I'm a woman and I hate taking care of others? Might personality, rather than gender, be a better determinant of who will be a good caretaker, and who will not? Kate Hewitt's latest contemporary,  Marry Me at Willoughby Close, had me thinking about all of these debates, in fictional terms.

I've never heard of the term "cozy romance," but if it doesn't exist, it should, and Hewitt's story would be a prime example of it. This gentle story is told from the point of view of twenty-two year-old Alice James, a quiet, diffident white English girl who has spent most of her growing up years in and out of foster care. Having just aged out of the shelter in which she was living, one specifically for ex-foster kids, Alice has been lucky to be taken under the wing of kindly Ava Mitchell, who buys her clothes, helps her with her CV, and even gets her the interview for the new job she starts at the opening of the book: taking care of eighty-six-year-old Lady Stokely, a terminal cancer patient who has chosen to forego any further treatment.

Though she's spent the last four years working in a nursing home, this is the first time Alice will be paid for being the sole person responsible for the last days of another. But she's not entirely without experience; at sixteen, Alice nursed her own grandmother through dementia until her death. But Lady Stokely's stuffy, superior, and quarrelsome nephew, thirty-seven year-old investment manager Henry Trent, isn't very impressed by Alice's credentials—"Tell me, Miss James, do you feel you're qualified to assist my aunt?" (Kindle Loc 253)—and tries to intimidate her into leaving. Yet despite Alice's worries that Lady Stokely has hired her "simply because she was young and biddable and easily intimidated. All the things she wanted to change about herself" (143), Alice finds herself sounding "almost bolshy" during Trent's interrogation, her annoyance at the pushy man pricking the bubble of her usual diffidence. And thus Alice ends up keeping her job, in spite of Henry Trent's obvious preference that she leave.

Lady Stokely wishes to keep as much independence during her illness as she possibly can. And so she asks Alice not to move into her home just yet. Instead, she offers Alice one of the small cottages on the nearby Willoughby Close. Alice has never had a place of her own before, and takes deep pleasure in making her temporary cottage feel like a home—taking care of herself by caring for her small set of rooms. Alice's friend Ava, as well as the other cottagers in the Close, offer Alice furniture, kitchenware, and lots of advice—especially about how she should not fall for the attractive if cranky Henry Trent. Surprisingly, Alice discovers that not all types of caretaking are welcome: "I feel like you—and everyone here, really—are coddling me, almost," she tells Ava. "And while it's been lovely, so very wonderful, to be taken care of for what feels like the first time in my life—I don't want to be . . . well, stifled. I've doubted myself for so long and I want a chance to be myself, whatever that means" (1699). Being cared for is lovely, but just as Lady Stokely already understands, Alice is beginning to recognize that too much care can be almost as much of a problem as too little. She's also beginning to realize she doesn't have to be quiet anymore in order to receive the care she does want:

And she'd actually spoken up to Ava, which was a small thing, but made her kind of happy all the same. Because she'd never been good at that. She'd been so quiet for most of her life, staying on the sidelines or in the shadows, never really a part of things, never brave enough to speak up or out. Maybe, like Ava had said, being at Willoughby Close would enable Alice to finally find her voice.  (1705)

Despite all of the difficulties she's experienced during her young life, Alice's personality is generally a happy one; "she was always hoping for the best with people. Expecting it, even, assuming that people were kind, that things would work out, that it would all be okay" (1142). The exact opposite temperament, in fact, to the one held by the easily irritated, lash-out-first Henry Trent. Henry, it turns out, has had almost as little caretaking as a child as Alice; sent away to boarding school at five, rarely visited by his self-involved parents, still grieving from the death of a younger brother. But he's chosen a very different way to deal with not being cared for than Alice's shrinking violet impulse; Henry protects himself from fear or uncertainty with the thrust of anger. "It wasn't pleasant, but it made him slightly easier to deal with . . . and to feel sympathy for," Alice thinks to herself after one particularly fraught encounter with her charge's nephew (1812).

And sympathy, unsurprisingly, leads to more tender feelings, in spite of all her friends' warnings. Because Alice can see hints of a more kind, caring Henry behind the snotty aristocratic front he uses to protect himself. Particularly in the way Henry cares for his ailing aunt. But when feelings lead to amorous actions, Henry immediately backs away. Not only does he apologize for his kiss, but, in a real Pride and Prejudice moment, he points to their class differences (Henry is heir to an earldom) to explain why they are "not compatible...for any kind of real relationship" (2310).

Henry's rejection becomes a defining moment for Alice, a moment when she realizes just how little her choosing to stay in the background and please others has gotten her:

The scales had fallen from her innocent eyes. She'd spent her whole life either trying to fit in or to be invisible, and definitely not to make any waves. She'd tried to please everyone, as if that would make a difference to how she was viewed and treated. She'd also tried to believe the best in people because to accept the worst felt like despair, and that could never lead anywhere good. But she'd been wrong all along. She'd been stupidly naïve, and she wasn't going to be anymore. . . . From this moment on she was going to stop looking for acceptance outside herself. . . . Henry Trent didn't think she was good enough for him? Well, he wasn't good enough for her.  (2404-13) 

This newly inspired Alice doesn't betray her personality, or her principles, in the wake of Henry's rejection; she is still, at heart, a caretaker, one who takes pleasure in seeing to the needs of others. But in standing up for her own self-worth, she models for us, and herself, a healthier, feminist ethics of care, one that balances the need for care with the equally important needs for independence and for respect. An ethics of care that can be practiced not only by women, but by men—even, perhaps, by the irascible, but vulnerable, Henry.

Photo credits:
Cozy English dining: Pinterest
I Care: Asmythoughtschange blog
Gilligan's Ethics of Care:

Marry Me at Willoughby Close
Tule Publishing, 2017

Friday, August 11, 2017

Kick-Ass Heroism and Female Self-Determination: Ilona Andrews' HIDDEN LEGACY series

I'm a longtime fan of Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels Atlanta-set urban fantasy books, but I'd been annoyed by book #6 in the series, 2013's Magic Rises. Rises relies on an old, often sexist romance novel trope—the big lie to one's partner, for that partner's own good, of course—a trope that almost always strikes me as contrived and anti-feminist. Had Kate and Curran's relationship run its course, I wondered?

So I was chuffed when Andrews (the husband and wife team of Ilona and Andrew Gordon) began a new urban fantasy series in 2014. Since Hidden Legacy would be set in a different fantasy world than Kate Daniels' part-magic, part-mechanical Atlanta, and would depict the beginning of a new romantic relationship, it would give the authors a chance to start afresh, rather than trying to spin new/old drama from Kate and Curran's already established relationship.

After I read Burn for Me, I found a lot to like about the world Andrews had created in Hidden Legacy. As the book's opening explains, "In 1863, in a world much like our own, European scientists discovered the Osiris serum, a concoction which brought out one's magic talents" (Kindle Loc 45). Those who took the serum manifested magic in quite different ways, but gaining any godlike power was worth it to the governments and the rich who vied to buy the serum. But, as is the way with many newly discovered medicines, the Osiris serum had some pretty nasty side-effects, and the serum was soon banned. But the magic awakened by the serum did not just effect the one who had taken it; it also affected their children, and their children's children. And soon magical families began to form into Houses, creating a society that runs parallel to unmagical human society, with its own laws, institutions, and power struggles.

Burn's narrator, twenty-five-year-old Texas native Nevada Baylor, isn't a part of an established magic House. But its clear that there's some Osiris-taking ancestors in her family tree. Nevada has some powers—she can tell when someone is telling the truth, and when someone is lying—but she's never studied magic, never been taught much about it, and doesn't know the full extent of her own magical skills. She's kept them hidden, not wanting to be forced into becoming a human lie detector for the government or for some powerful House or corporation. This makes Nevada an interesting contrast to Kate Daniels, who has been raised knowing her lineage and the awesome power that she has inherited because of it, and has been training her entire life to fulfill her destiny. Nevada is genetically poised to become a kick-ass magic heroine, but at the start of her series, she's not yet a superpower, not a dominant player in the larger magical world.

Also unlike Kate Daniels, who is a loner at start of her series, Burn's Nevada Baylor is deeply ensconced in family. She lives in a converted warehouse with her two sisters, her two male cousins, her mother, and her grandmother; the elder members of the family all work in some capacity for the detective agency founded by Nevada's father. But now that Mr. Baylor has died, it is Nevada, the oldest of the younger generation, who takes charge of the day-to-day running of the Baylor Investigative Agency. The agency isn't in the greatest financial position, though, and Nevada feels responsible for keeping her multigenerational family afloat. Again, in interesting contrast to Kate, Nevada isn't estranged from her family, but is driven largely by her need to protect and sustain it. Can one be a kick-ass feminist heroine and still be deeply committed to family? I was curious to see how Andrews addressed this often contentious issue.

By book's end, however, I wasn't convinced that I could write about Burn for Me on RNFF. Because the magic-user to whom Nevada is reluctantly attracted appears to be a more than questionable as a feminist romantic lead. The reputation of Connor Rogan, the head of House Rogan, decidedly precedes him. A few of his nicknames: "Mad Rogan," The Butcher of Merida," "Huracan." During a conflict in Mexico (fighting began after magically potent mineral deposits were discovered in Belize and Mexico invaded), Rogan, a Prime (the top level of magic-wielder) used his telekinetic powers on behalf of the U.S. government to destroy entire cities.

A recluse since leaving the army four years ago, Rogan and Nevada's paths cross when Nevada's agency is hired to track down a man linked to Rogan's cousin. And Nevada's interactions with the guy don't suggest that his values and hers will mesh very well. Meet cute as a kidnapping? Ah, not so much:

     "So instead of talking to me, asking for my credentials, or doing any of those things a normal person would do, you decided to assault me and chain me in your basement?"
     He shrugged, a slow, deliberate movement. "It seemed like the most expedient way to obtain the information. And let's be honest, you weren't exactly harmed. I even took you home.
     "You dumped me on my doorstep. According to my mother, I looked half dead."
     "Your mother exaggerates. A third dead at most."
     I stared at him. Wow. Just wow. (1954)

Even though Nevada finds Rogan crazy sexy, and wonders if there is anything left of the innocent boy he once was (caught on a video before his first foray into government-sanctioned city destruction), she's not convinced that the adult Rogan takes anybody's interests to heart except his own. She's definitely not in favor of working for him when he offers to hire her company:

     "You are incredibly powerful, and you have a blatant disregard for laws and moral constraints. I'm guessing that you don't think anything you ever do is wrong.That makes you very dangerous and a huge liability in mu line of work. You will break laws and kill to get what you want, and if I manage to survive, I'll be left with the fallout. So the answer is no." (2037)

She's also pretty unhappy about his lack of compunction against killing those who threaten him:

     "You killed Peaches."
     "Of course I killed him."
     I opened my mouth and closed it.
     "Okay," Mad Rogan said. "This is distracting you, and I need you to function, so let's fix this. Which part of what happened is upsetting?"
     I opened my mouth again and closed it again without saying anything. Peaches would've attacked us, possibly killed us, so what Mad Rogan did was justified. It was the sheer sudden brutality of it. It was thew way he did it, without any hesitation. One moment Peaches was there, and then he vanished. No trace of him remained. He was crushed out of existence. He was . . . dead.
     "Let me help," he said. "You've been taught all your life that killing another person is wrong, and that belief persists even in the face of facts. Not only would Peaches have killed us given the chance, but this way I only have to kill one person rather than kill half a dozen of his followers. I saved several lives, but your conditioning tells you that I've done the wrong thing. I didn't. He started it. I finished it."
     "It's not that. I was getting ready to shoot him in the head." But when you shot someone, there was a slight chance they might live. There would be a body. what he did was so complete and sudden that I needed a couple of moments to come to terms with it.
     "Then what is it?"
     "It's the. . ." I struggled for words. "Splat."
     Mad Rogan glanced at me, his eyes puzzled. "Splat."
     "I had briefly considered impaling him with one of those steel poles from the roof, but I decided it would be too graphic for you. Would that have been preferable?"
     My mind conjured up Peaches with a steel pole sticking out his stomach. "No."
     "I really would like to know," he said with genuine curiosity. "The next time I kill someone, I'd like to do it in a way that doesn't freak you out."
     "How about you don't kill a anybody for a little bit?"
     "I can't make that promise."
     Small talk with the dragon. How are you? Eaten any adventurers lately? Sure, I just had one this morning. Look, I still got his femur stuck in my teeth. Is that upsetting to you? (2544)

By the end of Burn for Me, Nevada, doesn't have to kill, but has to rescue Rogan from his own power, a princess kissing a mad sleeping beauty back from the edge of magical overkill. But when Rogan comes calling post-apocalypse aversion, Nevada simply can't reconcile herself to the ease with which Rogan can destroy others, his apparent lack of empathy for other human beings. And the way that he can put her own family members in the line of fire, if that will help him accomplish his goals. Even if it turns out said family members agreed to be used: "I can't be with you, no matter how crazy you make me, because you have no empathy, Rogan. I'm not talking about magic. I'm talking about the human ability to sympathize." (5481). Nevada fears Rogan might be a psychopath, or a sociopath, and given his actions in the book, readers can't help but worry she might be right. So when Nevada sends Rogan on his way at book's end, how can readers do anything but cheer?

Did Andrews get push-back against this depiction of the "heroic" Rogan? Or did they have his rehabilitation in mind from the start? Because book #2, White Hot, spends much of its time proving Nevada wrong, or at least complicating her (and our) interpretation of Rogan's psychology. Turns out he does have feelings, does experience empathy, as the murder of several of his employees at the start of White Hot demonstrates: "There was an awful finality in his voice. I hadn't thought he cared. I'd thought he viewed his people as tolls and took care of them because tools had to be kept in good repair, but this sounded like genuine grief" (White Kindle Loc 765). He evokes loyalty from his people, but is in turn loyal to them, rather than just using them. He does have family he cares for (offstage, but still); he does play by some rules, just rules that are different from the ones Nevada has been used to. And his wartime experiences (which Nevada hears about from one of Rogan's doctors, and which she experiences through some sharing of his dreams) transformed him from a young, cocky, idealistic man, one who was kept carefully protected in "bubble of patriotism" from seeing the destruction his powers had caused, into a man who sees the world in black and white, enemies and allies, and who will do almost anything to not feel helpless.

And, perhaps most importantly for romance readers, he's willing to break one very important rule: wanting Nevada, even though the rules of House society say he should only court and marry a woman whose genetic background will ensure his children will have Prime magic power like his own. Not a sociopath, or a psychopath, but a man messed up by his wartime experiences, a man whose empathy is there to be found, deep under the surface.

But I still couldn't find my way to writing about White Hot, either. Because Rogan has the über-protective instinct characteristic of "alpha" romance heroes, a protective instinct that doesn't sit well with Nevada, nor with a reader who values a female protagonist's ability to determine her own life choices. Rogan buys her mortgage without telling her, to keep her safe from a foe who has been searching for her family for years. He tries to keep her from engaging in job-related encounters that may endanger her life. He even puts his jacket on her when she shivers. "What will it cost me? You keep chipping away at my independence every time you try to 'take care' of me, so I'd rather know the price in advance," Nevada challenges Rogan as she brushes his jacket away (3471). It's not that Nevada doesn't appreciate his way of caring. It's that this way of caring endangers her own sense of self: "You do things for me, even when I specifically ask you not to, because you feel you know better. I'm desperately fighting for my independence and boundaries, because otherwise there will be no me left. There will be just you and I'll become an accessory" (3476). By book's end, Nevada takes a risk and starts a romantic relationship with Rogan, risking both that he will be able to move beyond black and white, and that he will allow her the autonomy she needs: "the only way I'll ever respect his wishes is if he respects mine," she tells Rogan's friend and doctor (5293).

It was only by the end of book three, Wildfire, that I felt able to embrace the series wholeheartedly. Because the relationship arc of book three shows Rogan's gradual acceptance of Nevada's need for self-determination. Aptly, two potential romantic rivals show up on the scene, largely to underscore the this message: Rogan's former fiancée, Rynda, who always turns to others more powerful to keep her safe; and a fellow truthseeker Prime, Garen Shaffer, who wants to marry Nevada so that their kids will inherit their truthseeker genes and power. Rogan and Nevada get into some arguments when Rogan's protective impulses lead him to help Rynda even when she doesn't really need it, a pretty obvious counterpoint to Nevada's self-sufficiency. In contrast, Garen tries to woo Nevada by recognizing how hard she's worked to keep her family safe, and warning her that her life with Rogan will threaten that safety:

He'll put you in danger assuming you can handle it, and he'll fail to notice the moment you can't. I would do everything in my power to keep you from being put into a dangerous situation in the first place, because that's what a husband is supposed to do. (Wildfire Kindle Loc 4250).

Given the conflicts in book #2, it's pretty safe to assume that Garen's courtship isn't likely to prosper. And that Rogan's encouraging Nevada to embrace her power, and take her rightful place in the Magical world by officially filing her family for House status and outing herself as a Prime, is.

Andrews' web site says that Wildfire is "the thrilling conclusion" to the Hidden Legacy series. But the book's epilogue suggests that the real baddies are still lurking, biding their time until they can take Nevada and Connor, and the rest of civilized magical society, down. I for one am looking forward to seeing how Nevada and her family navigate House life and mores, and have my fingers crossed that other romantic pairings (for Nevada's siblings and cousins) might be in the offing in future books. Pairings that will also grapple with the negative implications of the all-too-common overprotective male hero in contemporary urban fantasy romances.


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Protest Romance? The ROGUE DESIRE Anthology

If you're disheartened, disenchanted, or simply outraged by the current state of the U.S. national political situation, you can exercise your right to protest in myriad ways. Write to your elected officials to express your opinions. Attend rallies to support the causes you believe in, or protest against the policies you don't. Join a local or national political action group. Call your state senator or congressperson and register your concern.

Or, if you are a romance writer, you can pen a protest romance.

Several RNFF favorites, as well as a few unknown-to-the-blog other writers, have done just that, jointly publishing Rogue Desire. The anthology's tagline reads "When all else fails, find love," but the eight short stories in the collection are about more than finding a romantic partner; they are about how love and protest politics can and do intersect, and to what ends.

Potential leaker? Not looking too likely....
Several of the stories are pretty much wish-fulfillment, political protest-wise. Stacey Agdern's "Truth, Love, and Sushi" is one of them, setting forth the dream that that a child of an abusive authoritarian president will turn against him (calling Tiffany Trump, anyone?). Caroline Crosby's father has recently been elected president, and she has to decide whether to leak documents from a secret notebook detailing "Jason's [her father's] innermost thoughts, Sophia's [her mother's] infamous lists; and things that nobody would admit to in public, let alone write down in private" (Kindle Loc 3757). The leaking seems pretty much a foregone conclusion, even with the small threat that Caroline's youngest sister will be taken away from her if she spills. The romantic attraction between Caroline and her love object, a political blogger, is never to be, apparently, because he's the one through whom she's going to leak the documents. I didn't quite get that, to be honest; since they were already hanging out together in public, it seemed that Max would already be on suspicious folks' radar, even if Caroline stayed away from him post-leak. There's not much in the way of models of positive action that the average reader can take away from this story, either, but wish fulfillment does have its place as a coping strategy, no doubt.

Although at first glance, the story that opens the collection, "Grassroots" by Adriana Anders, appears to fall far less in the realm of fantasy, it still gave me pause. Veronica Cruz, a preschool schoolteacher, decides to take her protest local by running for city council. Odds seemed stacked against her—the local privileged white guy, Clint S. Rylie, may have cheated on high school tests to earn his "A's," but his attractive wife and kids and his financially well-endowed campaign attract far more attention to his campaign that Veronica's local canvassing does to hers. But after Veronica meets a hot blind blogger while on the rounds, she suddenly discovers people she's never met beating the campaign trail on her behalf. Apparently the hot blogger is a wildly popular Internet influencer with the online name of "Horde," and has asked his multitude of fans to get out for the cause. Despite being incensed by the guy's interference, Veronica ends up sleeping with him. But when it turns out that Horde has dug up dirt about Veronica's opponent and revealed it to the press, all without consulting her, she (rightly, in my opinion) blows a gasket. Winning an election due to another person's social media contacts, rather than to actions a candidate takes on her own, struck me as both a wish-fulfillment fantasy and pretty disempowering for Veronica....

I was surprisingly charmed by new-to-me author Jane Lee Blair's "My Delight Is In Her," which features a second chance romance between Kim, who turned down a chance to marry her boyfriend when he decided to become a Presbyterian pastor, and said pastor, Leonard, who is serving a flock in one of nation's capital's less privileged neighborhoods. Kim knows that congregants are always up in the business of their pastor's "First Lady," and wants no part of such a public life. She's chosen public service of a different sort: working in the Department of Labor: "I know they kept me because my skin color looks good on their graphics. I know it. But I'm gonna stay for as long as I can do the most good—or prevent the most harm" (4767). But when she spies Leonard at a protest march, then her date wants to take her to Leonard's church, and then she runs into Leonard again during an organizational meeting for a city-wide protest/prayer service—well, she can't help but revisit her original decision. While Blair states in her author's note that this story is not an inspirational romance, it has many of the trappings of one—protagonists who do not have sex before marriage; Bible verses providing inspiration; change in the direction of the romance that occurs via spiritual insight. But it also has a lot of swearing, some drinking, and an acknowledgement that sex and sexual drives are positive forces in life, not to mention an appealing sense of humor. This is Blair's first published work; I'm looking forward to seeing where her talents take her in future.

Political possibilities, not just romantic ones, are clearly present in the best three stories in the collection, by RNFF standbys Amy Jo Cousins, Emma Barry, and Tamsen Parker.* Paige Robinson, one of the protagonists in Parker's "Life, Liberty, and Worship," has chosen to stay on in her post at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, despite her major disagreements with the policies being implemented by the new administration. Spin class is supposed to be the one place where she can chill from the stresses of her job and politics. But the nerdy guy who takes the bike in front of her, the one who wears t-shirts that are "walking billboards" for his fiscally conservative politics: "Stop the War on Small Business," "Keep Calm and Fight Socialism," and "What Would Milton Friedman Do?" is driving her up the wall (6255). Loathing him even while fantasizing about fucking him, Paige channels her rage into hellacious workouts. But when Paige discovers that the guy she's been calling "Dick" is Carter Cox, the conservative penning smart position papers for the Republican Study Committee, papers that she can't just dump into the shredder without another thought, she can't keep her mouth shut any longer, and her femdom tendencies come to the fore. Can a hate-fuck turn into a real romance? Only if one partner is willing to prove himself by taking political action...

Amy Jo Cousins' protagonists are also on different sides of the political spectrum, although their divide is not one of party, but of technique. Polite, well-behaved diplomat's son and future law school student Kaz Shamsi "had no patience for the anti-fascist protestors who had sprung up since the election and seemed to like fighting as much as the fascists did, no matter what they said about denying Nazis platforms. When shit got violent, brown and black bodies were the ones who ended up suffering most, from the violence or the inevitable police action in response to it" (2191). So when a masked antifa protester fleeing an angry mob during a DC immigrants rights rally that Kaz has brought a group of undergrads to attend jumps on his borrowed motorcycle, Kaz is tempted to tell him to get lost. No Pakistani immigrant needs to get mixed up in some white boy's rebellion. But when Kaz spies the protester's rainbow duct tape armband, he knows he can't leave him behind. High-speed chases get the adrenalin pumping, though, and some seriously close contact leads to an unexpectedly hot make-out session with the still-masked antifa. Who, it turns out to Kaz's enormous embarrassment, is none other than the annoyingly outspoken undergrad in one of the sections he's TA'ing. I really loved the way Cousins showed how people with different opinions can argue forcefully, but respectfully And how even people committed to political protest can make major mistakes. But also how they can learn from them, as seen in this hilarious, but educational, exchange:

     "Man, fascists really don't like it when you make fun of their dick size." 
     "Neither do I, because that's body-shaming, transphobic bullshit and we're supposed to be the good guys."  Shit. His teacher voice shot out of him involuntarily at the most inappropriate times. Or hell, maybe this was the appropriate time. Having saved this kid's ass—he ripped his eyes away from the sweet curve in those black cargo pants—the kid deserved to sit and listen to a lecture. "Do better."
     "Yikes. I will. Sorry. I'm new to the revolution," the guy said as he swung a leg over the rear fender and hopped off the bike. "I can make fun of them for misspelling their signs, right?"
     Kaz tried not to roll his eyes. Newbies. "Is making fun of someone's lack of education or potential learning disability really the hill you want to stake your flag on?"
     "Fuck." The guy reached for his hood as if to shove it down, then froze and dropped his hands with an abortive gesture. "This shit is complicated." 
     "Yeah, it is if you're doing it right . . . . Repeat after me: my revolution will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit." (2318)

In Emma Barry's "Kissing and Other Forms of Sedition," reckless presidential tweeting leads Graham to fear that nuclear armageddon might be all too nigh. Will he die before declaring his long-time love for fellow state legislative assistant Cadence? Damn no, he won't. But Graham and Cadence's night of passion fires Cadence to political, not just personal, heights, and she drags cautious Graham on a road trip to the capital, where she hopes to crash the house of the Secretary of Labor and try to convince her to "get the ball rolling on the Twenty-fifth Amendment process and remove the president from office" (3247). Unlike several of the other stories in the collection, this one doesn't have a too-easy ending, but it does push both its protagonists and its readers to think about just what love means—not just romantic love, but patriotism, love of one's country.

Like democracy, Rogue Desire is messy and imperfect. But it will definitely give you a few moments of entertaining respite from a politically infuriating world. And it might just give you a few ideas about how to begin to make that world a bit less infuriating.

* Tamsen is an NECRWA chaptermate and fellow board member of mine, who was kind enough to send me an ARC of this anthology. No board votes or chocolate chip cookies were exchanged during the writing of this review.

Photo credits:
Tiffany Trump and her father:
"First Lady": Michelle Lesley Books
Immigrant rally: Huffington Post

Rogue Desire
A Romance Anthology
Indie published, 2017

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Not your Typical Small-Town Romances: JL Merrow's SHAMWELL TALES

After logging a few too many hours in doctors offices and hospital waiting rooms (on behalf of a relative), and then coming down with a summertime cold in the aftermath, I was in dire need of a lighthearted, funny, but not mindless romance read. Lucky for me, I happened upon the small town romance books of new-to-me author J. L. Merrow at just the right moment. Merrow's Shamwell isn't the typical close-knit but decidedly middle-class small town most commonly found in romance. Shamwell is in England, not the States, and includes inhabitants whose jobs (from  teacher to ratcatcher, tax accountant to postman) and ways of speaking reflect their quite different class positions. Oh, and Shamwell has its share of gender queer inhabitants, too—non-binary, homosexual, bisexual, and presumably straight but surprisingly open to unexpected attraction to a member of the same sex inhabitants, rather than the predominantly heteronormative characters who typically populate small town romances. "Award-winning gay romance with a dash of humor—and no tea" is the logline adorning the home page of Merrow's web site, but these books had more than a dash of humor; they made me laugh out loud, not a feat easy to accomplish with this not-easy-to-amuse reader.

None of the four books features tormented protagonists, or deeply troubling problems that stand in the way of the romances that develop within each. Instead, Merrow gives us humorous, loving portraits of men across the class spectrum, men whose expectations about romance are challenged in funny but telling ways in their small town.

The first Shamwell book, Caught!, features bow-tie-sporting Robert, who has taken a job as a primary school teacher in Shamwell after a hinted-at but not explained dust-up at his previous post. Robert thinks there's little chance for romance in Shamwell, especially given his job: "I gazed out on the sea of female and/or wrinkly faces in the pews and wondered idly if there was any job in the world, anywhere, that was worse for meeting men than the average primary-school teaching post" (81). Yet the uncle of his most troublesome pupils (twin boys whose mother is undergoing cancer treatment) proves to be surprisingly open to chatting with him. Their initial encounter seems to get off to a bit of a bumpy start:

     "Guess it's not easy being gay and teaching in a place like that."
     I blinked at him. He knew I was gay? Who'd told him? No, I must have misheard him. He hadn't said that. Had he?
     Sean took a step back. "Uh, sorry mate. No offense. It's just that you look . . .  Sorry."
     Oh. "That's quite all right," I muttered to my brogues. My face was hot. I suppose it was only fitting that it should turn a fetching shade of pink, seeing that the rest of me apparently proclaimed my sexual preferences to the world at large. (256)

But it's not Robert's queerness, but rather his far different education and background, that bisexual Sean is commenting on:

     "We're not really used to someone like you here," [Sean] said, which made me feel even worse.
     "Shamwell has hitherto be a queer-free zone, has it?" I snapped.
     "What? No, you got me wrong. I just meant, you're a bit of a cut above, you know?"
     "A cut above what?" I asked, suspicious. If there was a circumcision joke in the offing, I was . . . I was getting paranoid, I decided. 
     "Well, the way you talk—the way you dress, come to that—I'd have thought you'd be teaching royalty at Eton, not slumming it here with us." (261)

Since Sean grew up in council (public) housing, never went to college, and works as a pest control technician, his class position is decidedly different from Robert's. Yet in Shamwell, crossing class lines presents almost as few problems for potential romantic partners as does being queer. In fact, it's the romance trope-y "secret from the past," not queer-bashing or differing expectations stemming from economic or educational backgrounds, that threaten to keep Rob and Sean apart.

Despite their largely angst-free storylines, each of Merrow's Shamwell books asks important questions underneath their lighthearted comedy. When in a relationship does keeping quiet about some of the seamier details of one's past cross from an acceptable respect for privacy into a distrustful hiding of an important truth? When should a formerly closeted parent come out to his child? Where do you draw the line between appealingly "waspish camp and intellectual snobbery" and rude, insensitive disregard for the feelings of others? (Played! 940) Which should matter more—a long-time friendship, or protesting against thoughtless homophobia? Should you tell your fellow small-towners who assume you're sleeping with your new lodger that you're not, even if you're suddenly wishing you were?

I especially enjoyed book #3 of the Shamwell Tales, Out!, which features a thirty-nine-year-old father and a twenty-five-year-old bachelor who have radically different ideas about just how far "out" one should be. Despite finally accepting his queerness after years of living a straight life, recently-divorced tax accountant Mark chooses to move himself and his teen daughter to Shamwell determined "to put his daughter first and avoid looking for hookups while she was living with him" (371). Convinced that the divorce has already put enough stress on Florence (no longer willing to be called Florrie, but instead insisting on being called Fen), Mark is determined to keep his sexual orientation a secret from her. For Mark, "It'd been a revelation . . . seeing young men in their teens and early twenties casually kiss one another on the street after a night out. Had things really changed so much in the last twenty years? Mark couldn't imagine daring to kiss a boy on the street at a similar age" (Out! 361). And he certainly can't imagine explaining to Florrie—ah, Fen—just what another man might be doing in his bedroom . . .

Needless to say, such an attitude seems more than antiquated to the hot guy who catches Mark's eye at the Shamwell Spartans Fun and Funds Foundation, a local charity/drinking club which Mark joins at the urging of his daughter ("For God's sake, Dad, get some bloody hobbies. You're driving me mental hanging round the house all the time" [85]). At first, quick-tempered bisexual Patrick thinks Mark's reluctance to out himself to Fen is just an excuse to avoid Patrick—"It couldn't have been that different when he was growing up. Could it?" And, even worse, Patrick reads Mark's explanation as a form of internalized homophobia: "Didn't he realise how it sounded, him lumping in nonstraight people with all the bad crap he wanted to keep away from his daughter until she was thirty or something?" (1833). Yet after Patrick talks to his mom (who is only five years older that his would-be lover) about what it was like for gay kids when she was a teen, he gets a bit more perspective, and becomes more willing to listen to (if not accept) Mark's reservations about openly dating.

Generation gap, sure, but the idea that an age difference of only fourteen years could make such a big difference in two people's experiences of their society's attitudes toward sexual identity? That made think harder about how not just class and race can affect one's ideas about sexual identity, but how age (even small differences in age) can, as well.

Gobbling up all four of Merrow's Shamwell books over the course of my three-day cold recovery made those hours go by far more quickly than my typical bout with the tissues and decongestants usually does. I'm almost looking forward to my next germ infestation—Merrow has quite a few other series available, ready for my (and your) sick-day reading pleasure.

Shamwell Tales
new editions from Riptide, 2017

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Rocking the Church: Amber Belldene's NOT ANOTHER ROCK STAR

I've been seriously fan-girling over Amber Belldene's Hot Under Her Collar series; it is one of the few contemporary romance series that manages to combine religious belief, feminist principles, and an acknowledgement that folks with spiritual conviction can also be deeply invested in the pleasures of the flesh. Belldene's series features female Episcopal ministers as protagonists, four women friends who went through divinity school together and who are now working to find their footing in their first jobs after graduation. The latest entry in the series, Not Another Rock Star, features a former opera singer turned priest who finds herself falling for a rocker who is subbing for an injured organist at her San Francisco church. Susannah ("Damn right, she was rector—the twenty-eight-year-old #girlboss" [Kindle Loc 42]) is an appealing combination of strong, sexy woman and empathetic but self-doubting parish priest who, like previous heroines in the series, struggles with a bad case of perfectionism. For Suze, said perfectionism stems from several sources: her failure to make it in the competitive opera world and her determination to do better by her spiritual calling; her feminist education, which tells her that while revealing her messy failures may help her appear more human to her congregants, since she is a woman it is also likely to lead many of those same congregants judging her as "weaker, and less capable" (908); and her highly accomplished realtor mother, who continually coaches her on how to avoid sexism by presenting a "never let 'em see you sweat" facade to the world.

The unlikely hero to Suze's "good-girl" priest is "bad-boy" Rush Perez, keyboard player of the rock band Stentorian Hush. Usually based in LA, Rush has encouraged rumors that he's checked himself into a detox center to keep the real reason for his erratic on and off-stage behavior under wraps: he's been diagnosed with Meniere's disease, a condition which causes episodes of dizziness, vertigo, and ringing in the ears, and which can lead to deafness. He's in SF to work with a doctor who specializes in the condition, hoping a new trial drug will help him enough so he can go on the road with the band for their upcoming tour, only a few months away. In the meantime, he doesn't want anyone to know about his physical problems: not his mother, not his manager, and especially not his bandmates, who he fears will toss him aside, just as his mother has.

Rush has a chip on his shoulder about church and preachers, as, on the basis of advice from her Catholic priest, his mother cut him out of her life after he turned to rock music. He's only doing a favor for a favorite teacher by filling in at Suze's church, and immediately gets off on the wrong foot with the priest by criticizing her perfectionist performance of the liturgy during church services: "I know something's off with your diva priest. She's trying too hard." [I remember having a similar feeling toward an ex-boyfriend, an actor who I felt was showing off rather than actual expressing religious feeling during services we attended together...].

But as Suze fights with some of the church's more well-heeled parishioners (including the former director of the SF Symphony, who feels that overlooking art's role in nourishing the congregation is a mistake, and who is also a former mentor of Rush's) over the establishment of an on-site food pantry, Suze and Rush have to spend more time together than just during services. And as Rush becomes involved in the food-pantry project, the two decide to act on their strong physical attraction to one another, both knowing that the relationship has a clear end-date: when the band goes on tour.

I loved how open Suze is about her sexual desires, and how willing she is to engage in a romance in which she knew the end goal was not marriage or even a long-term relationship. I also loved that despite that sex-positive attitude, her own past experiences with sex weren't always perfect. Orgasms during sex don't come easily to her, and in her perfectionism and her desire to please others (a key positive characteristic in her professional calling, but a problematic one when it comes to meeting one's own needs) she's faked orgasms in the past. After she does the same with Rush during their first time, Rush calls her on it, just the same as he called her on her "performance" during the liturgy. He's disappointed and angry, not because she lied, but because he doesn't like what such faking suggests about him: "Look, I'm not just in this to get off. I want to make you feel good" (1525). "You should have said, 'I'm not ready, slow down.' Or 'finish me off'," Rush insists. Suze acknowledges in her own head that he's right—"Perfectly reasonable words other women probably said all the time. But, it had been their first time, and she didn't want her lovers to feel like a failure for it. It was her fault, after all" (1525). Only after some honest talking, some physical experimenting, and some joking around do they reach a place where both Rush's need to please his partner and Suze's perfectionist ways can coexist in bed. And some recognizing how people sometimes get stuck in a limiting role, even (or perhaps especially when) they are engaged in something that's typically coded as "natural" behavior, like sex. Favorite line: "Did she think she was supposed to have a magic orgasm button, and come on demand when a man said so?" (1582).

As typically happens in the "just for now" type of romance, one partner in this unusual relationship starts to want more. But in this case, that partner is the male rocker, not the female priest. Suze is reluctant, having dated a would-be rocker in high school who dumped her after hitting it big. And also because Rush doesn't open up to her emotionally the way she has for him.

It takes some more honest talk, a controversial betrayal, some rallying of the friends and family Rush has kept determinedly away, and a big rejection before Suze begins to realize just how much Rush has come to matter in her life. It also takes some negotiating over how best to fulfill our many different human hungers—for food, for art, for spiritual enlightenment, for tight-knit community—before Rush and Suze can imagine a life in which a devoted priest and a disabled rock musician can both be life partners and be true to their own selves.

Illustration credits:
Meniere's Disease cartoon: via Christopher Garbrecht 
1934 Aeolian-Skinner organ at Grace Episcopal Cathedral, San Francisco, CA: Pipe Dreams

ARC via Netgalley

Not Another Rock Star
Hot Under Her Collar #3
Indie published, 2017

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Sexism and Gendered Workplace Competition: Christina Lauren's DATING YOU / HATING YOU

I've written about several different battle of the sexes romance novels here in RNFF, particularly BotSs that take place in male-privileged work spaces (Julie James, anyone?), and even proposed possible guidelines for crafting feminist BofSs storylines. So I thought I knew what would be in store when I picked up Christina Lauren's latest contemporary comic romance, Dating You / Hating You. Two Hollywood agents "meet awkward" at a party, then go on a first date. But when their competing agencies merge, the two wind up pitted against each other for the same spot in the "Features" department that will remain after the post-merger reorganization. The book's sell copy makes the BofS's theme perfectly clear: "What could have been a beautiful, blossoming romance turns into an all out war of sabotage. Carter and Evie are both thirtysometing professionals—so why can't they act like it?"

What I wasn't expecting was to discover that Carter (who is actually twenty-eight to Evie's thirty-three) wasn't the embodiment of unthinking sexism that the male half of most BofS's romances typically feature. No, Carter espouses none of the privileged male beliefs that undergird most sexist workplaces: no assumption that men are more, women are less; no belief that his way is the best way and her way is the wrong way; no taking-it-for-granted that equal opportunity for women really means that men are getting the short end of the workplace stick. Carter's approach to agenting is far different from Evie's, yes, but he views their strengths as complimentary, rather than at odds, and has a deep respect for her talents and accomplishments.

But even without overt sexism, the authors suggest, competition, even between friends and prospective lovers, can lead colleagues to anger and frustration. For a people-pleaser like Carter, such feelings are difficult to openly acknowledge. Especially when both Evie and Carter are still smoldering from the sparks of frustrated sexual desire. And so, despite their continual assurances that they can and will work together to undermine the winner-take-all situation in which their boss has placed them, both Carter and Evie find themselves pulling back, and even slipping into more defensive, aggressive postures, at the least sign of unfair or privileged behavior in the other. Because underneath their agreeableness, each one believes the other has the advantage: Carter, because his company was the one that got bought out, and he's now working for Evie's boss; Evie, because she sees how her sexist boss keeps favoring his fellow male colleague and undercutting her work.

Both Evie and Carter are über competent, über in-love with their jobs, and über competitive, qualities which lead not to a "war of sabotage," but rather to a series of amusing pranks—Evie substituting decaf cups in Carter's Keurig; Carter replacing Evie's go-to hand cream with bronzer; Evie taping over the speaker in Carter's phone; Carter loading the air system in Evie's car with glitter. But as the work tension escalates, will the pranks edge over into more damaging work-related sabotage?

Carter may not be openly sexist, but the novel shows that he's definitely the beneficiary of male privilege, privilege that he is not that aware of, and is not all that willing to acknowledge. He'd rather believe that he and Evie are on even footing. But Carter isn't blind, and he gradually begins to realize that even if he isn't behaving in a sexist manner, his competitive instincts have led him to overlook, or even contribute to, the sexist environment at the office: "I guess we could go with when our boss knocked Evie's breakfast [a doughnut] into the trash because he's a sexist dick, and I just sat there and watched. Or when I let her sit through a meeting with two of her shirt buttons undone. Two very important buttons," as he admits to his best friend (199). It takes his own growing self-awareness, as well as a good talking-to by another agent, the wife of said best friend, to accept that the "normal" he's taken for granted isn't the same normal Evie lives with:

"Playing into Brad's sexism? That makes me angry at you, Carter. Its hard enough for a woman to be taken seriously in this business and seen as a person with a brain and not an object. Men get passes for acting like it's 1960 and every woman in the office is their secretary. Evie will have to be smarter, faster, and better at her job than you are, for possibly less money and a whole lot less recognition, all while appearing totally grateful for it" (200)

Which (along with some prank-ful starch in his suit), leads Carter to a moment of clear self-awareness, a moment he shares with Evie:

     "So here's the thing, Evie: if we put our heads down, and do our jobs, and stay out of each other's way, then we can just be colleagues."
     She gives me an aggressive shrug. "Okay? Sounds good to me."
     "Colleagues. That's it," I say, and her shoulders fall a little as she gets where I'm going with this. My heart is pounding so hard, I have to pull off my suit jacket so I don't feel like I'm going to hyperventilate. Evie watches me take it off and drop it next to us, eyes rapt as she looks back to my face.
     "Passing in the hallway, small talk, work emails. Whatever this is," I say, waving between us, "would go away. You may not like the glitter explosion in your car, but at least you know I was thinking about you when I did it." I pause, swallowing. "At least now you know I can't stop thinking about you." (220)

It takes some more back and forthing, some managing of competitive flare-ups and honest discussions of privilege and feelings, before Evie and Carter can begin to come close to figuring out how to work as true colleagues, rather than as cutthroat competitors. And some seriously hot trysts before they can come together not just as friends but as lovers, rather than sublimating their desires for one another into secret, silly sabotage.

Stop here if you don't want the ending of the book to be spoiled for you...

My one disappointment with the book was in the way it ended up dealing with its sexist villain, Evie and Carter's boss, Brad. He's never done anything that would break any of the equal opportunity rules at their company, but his behavior towards Evie is overtly sexist throughout the story. But it turns out that said sexism is not the reason for his ultimate downfall; instead, it turns out that he was trying to get Evie fired because he worried that she was on to his embezzlement scheme. Brad doesn't get fired for being sexist, but gets arrested for being a criminal. In one way, you can read this as a wish-fulfillment fantasy: that the condescending sexist pig you work with would be sent to jail for his piggish behavior. But on the other, it suggests the difficulties in taking a sexist pig to task for his sexist behavior, even in today's purportedly equal opportunity workplace. Brad can only be punished because he's an embezzler, not because he's unfair to his female employees.

Illustration credits:
When you Disagree: Hello Giggles

Dating You / Hating You
Gallery Books, 2017

Friday, June 16, 2017

Pubic Grooming: Witnessing a Cultural Shift in Process

"What?" he asked, distracted by the flex of the muscles in her legs, the neatly trimmed curls disappearing behind cotton bikinis" (Anne Calhoun, Turn Me Loose)

And when you press your face there, you'll find I have no hair between my legs, either. I keep myself smooth as silk down there (Cara McKenna and Charlotte Stein, Way Down Deep)

First things first, Alex manscapes: there's no 70s style dick fro going on down there. He's not quite like my beaver—she sports only a short Mohawk—but he's neat and tightly trimmed. I know some guys do this to make it appear bigger. In this instance, I'm positive I'm not gawking at an optical illusion. It's huge. (Helena Hunting, Pucked)

When I first started this blog back in 2012, references to pubic hair in romance novels outside of sexual encounters were few and far between. So I was really struck when not just one, but three of the six romance novels I read this past week included some mention of grooming of a character's nether regions. From bikini waxes to Brazilians, from landing strips to Mohawks, even now crossing the gender line to "neat and tightly trimmed" manscaping, mentions of pubic grooming has become increasingly more common in romances published in the United States—at least in the romance worlds of white, college-educated protagonists.

Recent advertisement for Schick's new Hydrosilk Trim style razor: guess which woman used it?

Doctors and researchers have noticed this new trend in personal grooming, and have begun to study it. Since 2010, in journals such as The Journal of Sexual Medicine, the Journal of Pediatric Adolescent Gynecology, and JAMA Dermatology, such researchers have published their investigations into both the practices of pubic grooming (its prevalence, methods, characteristics) and its cultural components (why people do it, and what are their attitudes towards it).

I find the whole thing pretty strange, which is not surprising, given that I'm not among the demographic researchers have pointed to as being the most likely to groom down below. As the October 2016 JAMA Dermatology study reports, women who engage in pubic grooming are typically younger (18-24 rather than 40-55), white, and have attended some college when compared with woman who do not groom. They "also groom if their partner prefers them to do so," rather than because of the specific sexual practices in which they commonly engage.

What's a feminist to do? Simply chalk up the difference to generational preferences and move on? Or worry over the potential for injury that comes along with pubic shaving? Or about recent studies that have shown a correlation between frequent pubic grooming and STD's? Or about the implications of pubic grooming on body issues, not just for women, but also for men, if Helena Hunting's Pucked narrator is correct in suggesting that such grooming work is becoming de rigeur not only to maintain proper femininity, but also to be considered properly manly?

Are romance novels passively mirroring a larger culture trend? Or are they actively constructing a vision of acceptable (and unacceptable) pubic hair care? A vision that feminist-minded authors and readers should take steps to question?