Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Queer Community: Cass Lennox's TORONTO CONNECTIONS series

My thanks to SB Sarah at Smart Bitches Trashy Books for turning me on to Cass Lennox's Canadian-set romance series, Toronto Connections. With three books now published, and a fourth on the way, Lennox has penned an interrelated series of love stories about different twenty-somethings' relationships to their own genders and sexualities that in some way fall under the label "queer": characters who feel no desire for sex, but do desire a romantic attachment; characters who feel they were assigned the wrong gender at birth, and take steps to change that mistake; characters who are struggling to put behind them their teenage shame of their queer sexuality; characters who are bi-romantic; characters who like sex, but only "under the right circumstances, with the right person" (Finding Your Feet Kindle Location 2594). As Lennox notes in a blog post about writing asexual characters, "discovering that you run against the grain of culture in a very particular, deep way that seems to really piss (some) people off" is deeply unsettling. Crafting a fictional world in which her characters are in the process of coming to understand that the cultural expectations they've grown up with about sex and romance are not necessarily true, and finding community with a group of friends and with romantic partners who are also working to "unpick the toxic crap" of those cultural expectations alongside them, makes for liberating, and validating, reading.

Blank Spaces, the first book in Lennox's series, centers plot-wise on a Toronto art gallery experiencing a string of thefts. The mystery serves primarily to bring together two young men who otherwise might not have had much reason to connect: Vaughn, who works in the gallery, is romantically attracted to men but has gone on a dating hiatus because he's just not that interested in sex; and Jonah, who works for the company that insures the gallery, and who is known through Toronto's gay bars as a "total slut" because he likes to have sex openly and often, with as many different men as he can. So often in romance novels, a character who has lots of hook-ups and one-night-stands is assumed to be psychologically damaged, only having sex as a way to escape or avoid his/her problems. And a character who doesn't want sex at all is often viewed through the opposite end of the same judgmental lens. Lennox disrupts both of these assumptions by having "a guy who wants nothing but romance, and a guy who wants nothing but sex" fall for each other—and by showing how they craft a workable relationship that does not require either of them to change their sexual practices for the other.

Fav lines:
     "You would seriously rather be single and without sex than in a relationship where you had to have sex?" he asked.
     Vaughn gave him an odd look. "Which would you rather be: celibate or married to a woman and expected to have sex with her? And to enjoy it?"

At first glance, book two in the series, Finding Your Feet, might appear to be a straightforward heterosexual romance. But readers early on learn that heroine Evie, a white English girl on holiday in Toronto, is, like Vaughn, on the asexual spectrum. Unlike Vaughn, though, Evie has already realized that while she is romantically attracted to people of both genders, her sexual behavioral preferences lean towards not having sex with anyone whom she is not seriously intimate with. In fact, she's looking forward to finally meeting other asexuals with whom she's been chatting online in person. What she doesn't expect is to become involved in a dance competition as a representative of Toronto's newest queer dance studio. Or to be falling for her teacher, biracial cute guy Tyler.

For his part, Tyler isn't eager to jump into a relationship, especially after just breaking free of his previous, often abusive girlfriend. Not only insanely jealous, said girlfriend continually policed his masculinity because he's a trans man. But working with Evie, listening to her own difficulties coming to terms with her bi-romanticism and her asexuality, Tyler gradually begins to understand the difference between insta-physical attraction and deeper, more honest love.

Fav lines:
    "I don't think there's another ace participating in this. You're a rare bunch."
     Evie shrugged. "Not really. One in one hundred. It's the same ratio as redheads in the general population" (953)

     There had definitely been bad times for him too, not least heightened by the fact that he couldn't seem to do the girl thing in any way. Hindsight explained all, but at the time he'd felt like someone had given him a stick shift to drive and he only had the instruction manual for an automatic. He could still sort of drive it, but he knew he wasn't doing it right and it felt wrong and made everything just that much harder. (1218)

The third book in the series, Growing Pains, may be the hardest for traditional romance readers to appreciate, in large part because its part-time drag queen protagonist has definitely not internalized the message given to many girls and young women learning to perform femininity: that emotions are embarrassing, and are better when kept under tight control. Gigi and Brock, both white, played secondary roles in Finding Your Feet: Gigi as the out and proud fellow teacher at the dance studio where Tyler works, and Brock as Gigi's teenage crush who broke his heart when the two were caught necking and Brock pretended it had all been Gigi's idea, not his. While working as a cameraman for a filmmaker making a documentary about the dance competition, Brock is stunned by the gorgeousness that is now the chubby boy he once knew as Toby, and wants to do anything he can to rekindle their teenage romance. Gigi, drama queen to the max, makes Brock grovel, and perform the big public apology gesture, before he forgives him for his past transgressions and agrees to start dating him.

At the start of Growing Pains, Brock and Gigi have been happily dating for months, although Brock has been acting rather strange of late. Gigi's sister is about to marry her boyfriend back in their hometown of Maney, and while Brock has told Gigi he most definitely does not want to go back home again, Gigi insists that a real boyfriend would put his own feelings aside and be there for him when he has to face hometown homophobia. Brock, not one for talking about his own feelings, hasn't been able to tell Gigi that he lied when he said he was out of the closet to everyone back in Maney; he also hasn't been able to tell Gigi about the far less public but just as scarring traumas he experienced as a child and teen before leaving his family behind. Desperate to keep Gigi happy, Brock reluctantly finds himself on a road trip back to his own personal hell.

Gigi's hilarious, but he's also a self-absorbed pain in the ass. Which makes it easy to blame him for the way their relationship implodes during the wedding weekend. But Brock, a shy type whose family taught him it is better to keep quiet than to make waves, is also responsible for the disconnect in their relationship. And for the subsequent blowup when he finally finds his voice.

Happily for them both, Gigi's parents are much more supportive than Brock's ever were. I especially liked this passage, where Gigi's mother helps Brock make sense of the "reactive, loud, and seriously self-involved" creature that is Gigi :

     "I love my son deeply, but he can be a total pain in the ass."
     Brock paused, jeans in hand. He looked at her again. She gazed back, totally serious. Okay. Wow.
     "I guess you heard us," he said.
     "A lot of us did. Are you packing?"
     He nodded.
     "I'm not going to stop you, Brock, but please don't think you're unwelcome just because my son can be immensely selfish and shortsighted."
     He let out a bark of laughter. "Should you be saying that?"
     "I raised him, so I'm allowed to say it. I got all of it. Years of singing and dancing and tantrums about stuff I barely understood." She shook her head. "Sometimes the way he swung between loving something and hating it drove me nuts. The way he's so open, so completely free with his emotions, it's an incredibly wonderful and beautiful thing, but it is tiring to the rest of us who maybe don't need to share everything all the time." (2577)

When Gigi finally does get it, when Brock finally explains why he's been shutting him out and keeping secrets, Gigi doesn't apologize, doesn't back down, doesn't grovel. Instead, he explains just what it means to be in a relationship: that he's got Brock's back, just as Brock has always had his.

Other fav lines:

All that, the feminine mannerisms and the occasional male edge freaking got to Brock. He loved how the whole gender thing played... Knowing that under the padding and cloth and mascara and lingerie there was a very toned and hard male body was such a goddamned turn on (1187-1204)

Dudes can be dudes together, even if they're different kinds of dudes (1356) [Gigi at the bachelor party!]

The final book in the series, The Wrong Woman, which features two lesbians in a "lets pretend we're dating" storyline, is due out at the end of May, and will be on the top of my TBR pile as soon as it is released.

I wanted to write about this whole series in one blog post, because it seems to me that Lennox is doing something pretty unusual here: crafting a series that features both homo and heterosexual couples, as well as queer characters all along the different spectrums of sexual behavior, sexual desire, and gender. Am I wrong in thinking that the world of queer romance has been a largely segregated one, publishing-wise, before this? With authors typically writing only lesbian romance, or m/m romance, or gay romance, rather than depicting truly queer communities? If you know of other series that feature romances between character of the same and opposite sexes, AND characters at multiple points along the spectrums of romance, sexuality, and gender, I'd love to hear about them...


  1. Yes, the Rear Entrance series by Heidi Belleau. Also set in Toronto.

    I've been looking for similar books so am very excited to look into Toronto Connections! And then I've bought but haven't yet read A Boy Called Cin (recommended by Alexis Hall on his blog), and Alex Beecroft's Trouchester Blues series features at least one asexual hero - again, this is on my to-read list but I haven't yet.

    1. Thanks, Annie, for the rec. I enjoyed the Belleau books, and Alex Beecroft's TROWCHESTER BLUES, series, too, but haven't read A BOY CALLED CIN...

  2. Thanks for the recommendation. I grabbed Blank Spaces on your say so and it's one of the best books of the year for me. Loved.

    1. So glad you enjoyed it, Rhode Red! Hope you like the others, too!