Friday, January 30, 2015

Snowy Feminism

Too much snow to shovel, and a bit of family drama to wade through, means no post today. But enjoy this photo, taken by Womens' Studies students at UConn a few years back. Nice to see someone doing something productive with winter's bounty...

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

In Need of Help, Not Saving: Victoria Dahl's FLIRTING WITH DISASTER

A man with a compulsion to help others meets a woman who has been betrayed in the past: it's one of the most common romantic pairings in the contemporary romance genre. In the hands of a conventional writer, the plot in which two such lovers are placed usually goes something like this: Put that woman in a little danger. Have her insist to all and sundry, including the man, that she can take care of herself. Have that man prove himself worthy of her trust by protecting her from said danger anyways.

Give that same couple to a writer whose been steeped in feminism, though, and the story is likely to come out rather differently...

Painter Isabelle West, the protagonist of Victoria Dahl's contemporary Flirting with Disaster, loves the seclusion she's found living outside of Jackson, Wyoming. No nosy neighbors, no annoying door-to-door salespeople, and, best of all, no friendly neighborhood cops. Brought up by a cop turned cop-killer, dumped by fiancé son-of-a-cop fearful of her father's bad rep, and threatened by a series of officers she once thought of as friends when it turns out her father's crime might be just the tip of the iceberg in a much larger corruption scandal, Isabelle will be only too glad if she never comes face to face with an officer of the law again. Especially since she's still a "person of interest" in her father's case, and she's changed her name to hide from the FBI, the Chicago cops, and her prison-fleeing felon of a father.

So when U. S. Marshall Tom Duncan comes knocking on her door, trying to dish out a story about running a protection detail for the judge who owns the property behind hers, it's no surprise that Isabelle is more than a little suspicious. Even though "her attraction to men in that field [law enforcement] had been hard-wired into her from an early age," Isabelle is wary of allowing let her libido take charge. But at heart, Isabelle is a risk-taker, and when Tom's story checks out, and her small circle of female friends encourages her to take advantage of their obvious mutual attraction, Isabelle decides to go for it. (FYI, the book's cover suggests the two are white, although no mention of their race is made in the novel).

Tom initially finds his attention caught by Isabelle's suspicious behavior, and does some background checking on her just to be sure she's not a threat. But by the time he's discovered that Isabelle West did not exist before 2002, he's also been caught by the "prickly and proud and smart and self-contained" artist, a bold, outspoken, self-confident woman who isn't shy about expressing her interest in sex. And in Tom. And in sex and Tom in the same sentence, in the same bed. Even if she's a free spirit and he's a by-the-book lawman.

Tom's fellow Marshall, Mary, who suspects that Tom is getting overly involved with Isabelle, jokingly asks "How's your savior complex coming?... You do have a tendency to date women who are a... bit of a mess." Tom doesn't take it as a joke; instead, he argues "Isabelle isn't a mess. She needs help." Though Mary claims "Semantics," Tom, and the narrative, insist that it's not just semantics; there's an important difference. Tom doesn't need to be the strong, self-assured Isabelle's savior. But everyone, including independent Isabelle, can use a helping hand upon occasion. Understanding this is the difference between being an arrogant knight-in-shining-armor and being a man who can treat a woman as an equal.

I'll leave it to you to pick up a copy of Flirting with Disaster and find out how Isabelle and Tom's relationship plays out. But I did want to share a few choice quotes from the book, to show just how pleasant it is to read a romance whose heroine, and whose writer, takes feminist ideas for granted:

Isabelle thinking about aging:

But Isabelle had discovered that freedom was the best thing about getting older. She'd felt a touch of it when she's turned thirty. She'd suddenly felt less like a bit kid blindly feeling her way through the world and more like an adult. Then at thirty-five she'd realized she was at that age when so many women really started to worry. That they were too old now. That they hadn't married or had children. That this was their last chance to really live. Isabelle didn't feel as though this was her last chance. She felt as though she was finally free. Capable. Happy with herself. Comfortable with her own body. And allowed to say anything she wanted to out loud, even if it made a grown man blushed. Maybe specially if it did. She loved it. She couldn't wait to be forty. She was going to own that shit. And then at fifty, when strangers would stop hinting that it was time to settle down and have some babies, and just start looking at her with pity? That would be glorious. So she grinned at Tom Duncan and took an extra-large piece of pie and didn't bother stifling her moan of pleasure at the taste. (Loc 359)

When Tom asks whether her friend Jill, and then she herself, like living alone, Isabelle calls him on his unthinking sexism:

    "You're not wearing a wedding ring. Do you live alone?"
     "No wife or kids Are you depressed about it? Are you pining away?"
     His lips twitched at the idea of sitting in the window of his apartment, staring yearningly into the night, like a sappy scene from a bad movie. "No. But I travel quite a bit."
     "Well, I don't travel, but I'm not lonely. I have my work, my friends and my home. And internet porn. Life is good.
     Tom tripped over a snowdrift and nearly fell flat on his face. Isabelle laughed as he dusted snow off his knee. So much for her reserve. "If you said that to shock me, it worked," he said.
     "I said it because it's true." She grinned over her shoulder as he kept moving. "Try to keep up."(399)

After Tom plays guard-duty for the judge's daughter during a girls-night-in at Isabelle's:

     "I have to admit, it was a lot more fun than any night out with the guys. I'm not sure my brain will recover from all the new things I learned, though. You girls are filthy. Like, really filthy."
     "I know. It's because we have to save it up. We can't be honest about stuff in front of men because so many of them are creeps. When it's just us and we don't have to be on guard against men bothering us... God. It's so much fun."
     "Should I be insulted that I don't count as a man?"
     "No." She dropped onto the couch and patted the seat beside her. "You should be flattered that all of us felt comfortable around you." (1307)

After Tom and Isabelle have had sex, and Tom is feeling guilty for sleeping with a woman whom he's investigating:

     "Please tell me you're not one of those guys who needs the girl to be in love or it's dirty. Because then I'll have to remind you that you throughly enjoyed it all."
     "That's definitely not it. And I hope you haven't met any  guys like that."
     "We've all met guys like that." (1452)

Isabelle telling Tom about her first boyfriend:

     "He was an incredible ass. He liked that I was a virgin. Liked that I waited for him. He talked shit about other girls who put out, and it made me feel special. So I suppose I was an ass, too." (1456)

And this, sharing confidences after sex:

     "You just seem really... comfortable. With sex. With yourself. It's attractive."
     "It's really hard for a woman to like sex."
     "Because guys are terrible at it?"
     "No," she laughed. "Even aside from that. We're taught from day one that we're supposed to resist it. That we'll eventually be talked into it. That we don't want it as much, and we definitely don't need it. Not like boys do. I believed that. So much so that I wasn't the least concerned that I'd never had an orgasm. Because lots of women don't.... Can you imagine that? I mean really. Think about that. What if you had sex your whole life and never came? .... But then when I figured out how much I liked sex and exactly how I liked it... Jesus, that's even more confusing. To be a woman and like sex. To want things just as much as the man does and still be treated as if you've given something away. It's no wonder women hit their sexual peak later in life. It takes decades to find the confidence to have good sex."
     Tom was frowning harder now. "How so?"
     She shook her head. "Some men can make it hard to feel good about it afterward, no matter how much you liked it. Men say things like 'I got some,' or 'She put out,' or whatever that dialogue is. Girls are stupid cows giving the milk away for free. And suddenly you feel like you were conquered."
     "Oh." Tom had never heard anything like that before.
     "It takes a lot of self-possession to know that a man's attitude doesn't change what you wanted. It doesn't change what you got out of it." (1818)

Re the above quote: is that how you were brought up to think about sex? Is it still as true today as it was for women of my generation (growing up in the 1970s and 80s)?

The first review I wrote for RNFF was of Victoria Dahl's Start Me Up. It's a true pleasure to watch as Dahl's writing continues to push the genre in new, decidedly feminist directions.

Photo/Illustration credits:
Wyoming cabin: Joanne Rossman
Semantics graphic: Never Not Thinking blog
Girls Night In: Dar Dar's Gifts
Have Sex, Hate Sexism card:

Flirting with Disaster
HQN, 2015

Friday, January 23, 2015

Romance is not a feminist genre?

Naming this blog "Romance Novels for Feminists," rather than "Feminist Romance Novels," was a very deliberate choice on my part. English majors, trained in close reading as we are, believe that every word, as well as the placement of every word, matters. I did not want readers to think I was setting myself up as supreme arbiter of any one romance novel's feminist credentials; instead, I wanted them to understand that the blog was intended to explore the ways that individual novels, as well as the genre as a whole (and its various subgenres) embrace, explore, reject, and/or convey conflicting messages about things that would likely be of interest to readers who claim a feminist identity.

Why, then, did the title of Robin Reader's recent Dear Author letter of opinion, "Romance is not a feminist genre‚ and that's okay," annoy me so much? It took me some time to figure out, hence this post here rather than in the comments section of the DA blog.

Perhaps I was annoyed, at least in part, because unlike Robin Reader once did, I've never bought into the argument that the genre of popular romance is, because it is primarily written by and read by women, inherently feminist. In fact, I'd argue that for much of its history, romance has leaned more toward enforcing than challenging patriarchal assumptions about women, about gender, and about the balance (or lack thereof) between the sexes. Defending the genre as a whole by pointing to its feminist underpinnings seems like setting yourself up for an all-too-painful, all-too-easily-justified intellectual smackdown.

Feminists analyzing their own differences
It also seemed odd to me to argue, as RR does, that because there are so many different kinds of feminism, from the social activist to the literary theoretical, and since many of these branches of feminism are at odds one with the other, it doesn't make sense to use the word "feminist. Yes, some feminists are anti-porn, some are pro-porn; some feminists eschew male involvement, while others encourage it. Yet these differences aren't, I would argue, so at odds that we can't see the more common, underlying similarities. For example, both women who are are against porn and those who celebrate it are vitally concerned with women's sexuality, and the ways patriarchy has worked to contain and repress it. And separatist feminism doesn't mean separatist feminists are uninterested in romance (even if they prefer it occur with another woman than with a member of the opposite sex).

Most confusing to me was the turn RR's essay took when she asks readers to "entertain for a moment the idea that Romance is not a feminist genre. What is it, then, beyond a genre that celebrates love and is largely written by, for, and/or about women?" She gives two main answers, both of which, at least to me, seem decidedly feminist:

First, she argues that Romance "does something very similar to its literary forebear, sentimental fiction, namely, providing a shared space for women to contemplate and discuss the important issues that affect our lives, both on a general, societal level, in terms of day-to-day reality." And why is this not feminist? The phrase "the personal is political," after all, was originally coined by the editors of Notes from the Second Year: Women's Liberation (1970) for a reprinted speech given in 1969 by feminist Carol Hanisch, which argued that feminist consciousness-raising groups weren't apolitical, but were a way for women to recognize how "personal problems are political problems."

Second, she suggests that Romance "elevates the domestic, both in terms of 'taming' the rake/rogue hero and in terms of valuing marriage and family," a more plausible argument, at least upon first glance. As RR points out, "Because domesticity has also been a source of social and personal oppression for women... readers who are interested in a more progressive agenda can look at this element with suspicion." But feminists, in particular historians and literary critics, have long been interested in domesticity (as the long passage RR herself quotes from scholar Cathy Davidson illustrates). Domesticity, like feminism, like romance, is not monolithic; depending on how domesticity is depicted, its "elevation" can have patriarchal or feminist aspects (or, most commonly, intriguing combinations of the two).

Robin Reader reaches a far more nuanced conclusion than the declarative statement of her letter's title suggests (did she title it? Or did a DA editor? I wonder...) She writes: "So does that mean the genre is either wholly feminist or wholly oppressed in the vice of patriarchy? I would argue it's neither." I completely agree that romance as a genre is either wholly feminist or wholly tied to patriarchal oppression, and it's well beyond time for proponents of the genre, as well as scholars who study it, to move beyond that limiting either/or paradigm.

I'm not sure I quite understand what RR is suggesting in the final line of her letter, though: "it's still okay, because in the end it's the quality of our experience and engagement with the genre that matters, even more than the books themselves."  How does the "quality of our experience and engagement with the genre" relate to whether the genre as a whole, or individual titles within the genre, are feminist or not? Why should that engagement matter more than the books themselves?

Instead of "Romance is not a feminist genre," how about we agree that "Romance has the potential to be a feminist genre," and get on with the reading, writing, and analysis that proves it?

Photo/illustration credits:
Domestic ≠ Submissive: Phoebe Wahl, via Pinterest

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Hiding In/From the Man Cave: Amy Jo Cousins' OFF CAMPUS

As a freshman at Carlisle College, an elite private institution in western Massachusetts, Tom Middleton took his place among the privileged as a given. A white male with a wealthy investment banker for a father, a Beacon Hill home, a prep school education, and a coveted place on the track team, Tom never questioned "his towering feeling of waling the world as if a golden light shone down on him and there was nothing he couldn't do" (Kindle Loc 1603). That is, until the Feds came to arrest his father for "the largest price-fixing takedown in the history of white-collar-crime" (492). A father in jail, your college "requesting" that you take a leave of absence because of the disrupting caused by swarming reporters, your every possession taken to repay the people your father has scammed—yeah, that will make a guy stop and think.

When Tom returns to Carlisle after a fifteen-month leave, then, he's only too happy to be placed in off-campus housing, far away from the curious and prying eyes of his fellow undergraduates. Having to drive a cab every weekend to meet his tuition payments, Tom has no time for sports, or for hanging out with the guys, even if any of his former buddies cared enough to invite him back. No, Tom's ready to crash and hide, keeping the lowest of low profiles, far from the eyes of the curious and prying.

Too bad his new room in Perkins House comes complete with a roommate, an openly gay roommate who is even more upset that his promised single has turned into a double than Tom is. Reese Anders, who "looked like some kind of skinny British rock star, tight black jeans strung low and held up with a studded metal belt," seems equal parts outraged and terrified by the sight of Tom crashing in the midst of his carefully decorated dorm room. Determined to regain his single by driving Tom out, Reese starts to bring home a different guy every night, making sure that Tom, sitting outside in the hallway, can hear every single dirty move he makes with his hookups.

But Reese's actions aren't only about Tom, Tom quickly realizes; his roommate's casual hookups are just as much about Reese's ability to control others' as they are about grossing out Tom. And besides, Tom's not exactly grossed out by the noises coming from inside his room: "if he were honest, it wasn't exactly the first time he'd had a dream about another guy. He'd known for a while now that his dick was an equal opportunity pervhouse, something years at prep school had made clear" (429). A New Adult novel with a bisexual protagonist is pretty uncommon, and very welcome, especially when portrayed with the depth and nuance Cousins brings to her story.

Ex-Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice, fired for abusive actions and
language, including homophobic slurs
While the narrative is told entirely from Tom's point of view, Cousins gives us detailed portraits of both young men, each recovering from very different traumas, both gradually revealing their secrets and developing a sense of trust in the other. Cousins doesn't shy away from portraying the casual homophobia Tom's former "bros" (and once, Tom himself) deploy to cement their own relationships and to construct a vision of their own masculinity that insists they are precisely the opposite of gay. Cash, the one casual jock friend who sticks with Tom after Tom's father's disgrace, demonstrates this when he first meets Reese: "Don't get any ideas, dude. I don't take it up the ass," he declares, then asks "So, Reese. You're, like, a total fag, huh?.... Like, have you ever fucked a chick? Ever? Because maybe you'd like it." (880). Reese is shocked when Tom bawls Cash out: "You're... not like them. Are you? Jocks." (918). Tom, though, isn't so sure: "I don't know. There's a lot of different kinds of jocks," he tells Reese, but doesn't "mention that for most of his life he'd been pretty much the kind of guy Reese was describing with that word. A walking stereotype" (918). Tom and, at least in part, Cash, come to recognize how limiting the stereotype they inhabit/inhabited truly is, and how demeaning it is towards men who do not embody the masculinity it insists is the only true way to be male.

As Tom and Reese gradually begin to open up to one another, each begins to realize that he may have a friend with whom to hide from the rest of the world. And as friendship turns to sex, and perhaps even to love, hiding out in their own fortress of isolation becomes less and less appealing, especially for the naturally social Reese.

But there is no "love conquers all" message in Cousins's story; friendship, love, and even mind-blowing sex is not enough to heal all wounds. (One of my favorite passages: "He wondered if Reese was disappointed there hadn't been some kind of magical transformation of their relationship after he'd fucked Tom. As if anal were some kind of Holy Grail of gay relationships that would wipe out all of their other problems, not a goddamn one of which had been magically erased by Tom taking it up the ass, he was sorry to say" [4076]). Sometimes, you have to learn how to step out of the cave all on your own before you're ready to step out holding hands with the one you love.

Photo credits:
Rutgers coach homophobia: NY Daily News
Men holding hands: Jaefiction

Off Campus (Bend or Break #1)
Samhain, 2014

Friday, January 16, 2015

Female-Bashing as Male Bonding

    "Hey, be nice. Understand?" Tom didn't need to move a muscle to make it clear to Cash how serious he was.
     Buried beneath the look they shared was a history of letting bros know when the chick you were banging became something more and no further wisecracks were allowed.

There I was, happily turning the pages of Amy Jo Cousins's excellent New Adult gay romance Bend or Break (about which more next week) when the above-quoted passage stopped me in my tracks. I grew up the eldest of two sisters, and while I had a few male cousins, they were all far younger than me. I did have a few individual boys with whom I was friends in high school, but as a shy, decidedly non-athletic girl, I didn't tend to hang out much with boys en masse. So I've always been strangely fascinated by stray hints in the books I read of what adolescent boys are actually like when they get together without girls in the mix.

But the above passage didn't just catch my interest; it both intrigued and appalled me. Days after reading the book, my brain still kept circling around this one passage, poking at it like a tongue at a loose tooth. Perhaps if I write about it, I can get it out of my head...

[FYI, it's significant to know that while Tom at the time of the novel is a guy who is reeling after being knocked down from his pedestal of male and class privilege, he used to be a member of the wealthy, entitled, unthinking jock crowd: the "bros" to whom he refers are his fellow male athletes.]

The first thing I notice here is the line that Tom and his fellow male jock friends draw between "the chick you were banging" and the girl who becomes "something more." For Tom and his friends, having sex is something you do on a regular basis for pleasure, to relieve your sexual and/or other tensions through a physical-only connection. The male is placed in the position of actor here, the girl in the position of object being acted upon: "the chick you were banging." That chicks are there to be objects for boys' lust is taken for granted by Tom and his male friends. Tom's easy assumptions made me wonder, though—do the "chicks they are banging" know that to the boys with whom they are having sex, they are physical objects and no more?

The second thing that I'm noticing is the way that a male friend's banging-mate is one of the many, many subjects which can serve as the grounds for teasing and insult. Such teasing and insulting serves not to drive a wedge between male friends, but instead to cement those friendships more tightly together. Having read Eve Kosovsky Sedgewick's Between Men (1985), I was quite familiar with the concept of sexual triangulation, that in love triangles with two men both fighting for the love of the same women, male rivalry often serves to cement bonds between the two men as much as, or often more than, it does to forge bonds between one (male) lover and the (female) beloved. In other words, as one of my grad school professors explained it, "You know, when two guys are fighting over a girl, and it seems like it's more about their relationship to each other than it is about the girl?"

The girl may be object in Sedgewick's sexual triangulation model, but at least she's a purportedly valued one. Tom's comment, however, shows that sexual triangulation can work just as well when the female point of the triangle is denigrated rather than valued. Dissing another guy's "chick" can serve the same purpose as setting yourself up as a rival for his chick's attentions.

The passage makes me wonder: how difficult is it for young men who grow up being taught to regard girls as objects, as "chicks," as something to "bang," to make the transition to thinking about one particular woman as "something more"? Does changing their thinking about one woman allow them to change their thinking about all women? Or do all girls and women besides those given "something more" status remain objects?

Can you think of any love triangles in romance novels where the tension between the two rivals seems far more important than that between either of the rivals and the object of their mutual affection? Or is this something that would be anathema to the romance form?

Illustration credits:
Lopsided love triangle: Swoon Reads

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Romancing Jewishness: Rose Lerner's TRUE PRETENTIONS

It's pretty rare to find depictions of Jewishness in romance fiction. It's even more rare to find them in English-set historical romance. If an author wants to write a Jewish character, s/he has to content with the weighty history of past depictions of Jewishness in English literature, a history which features two quite different stereotypes. The first, epitomized by the famous figures of Shylock, Fagin, and Svengali, is of the evil Jew, the demon Other—the moneylender, the thief, the stealer and manipulator of (good Christian) children. Not quite as damaging, but equally limiting, are portraits of the Jew as cardboard saint, sometimes created by Jewish writers themselves, sometimes by Christian writers such as Maria Edgeworth and Charles Dickens who had been upbraided by Jews for anti-semitic portrayals in their previous work. Neither stereotype is likely to have much appeal to the modern romance reader. Far easier to not mention a character's cultural or religious background at all than to have to fight to overcome such a heavy burden of negative stereotypes.

The Artful Dodger introduces Oliver to Fagin
To open a Regency romance, then, and discover that your book's protagonist is named Ash Cohen, is more than a bit of a surprise. To find yourself introduced to Ash while he is in the midst of fleeing from the latest flat he and his younger brother have just swindled is nearly a shock. But Rose Lerner, the author of True Pretensions, is not simply falling into lazy stereotypes in her creation of Asher and his brother Rafe (Raphael); instead, she is confronting such stereotypes head-on.

Ash is hardly the Jew with a halo of gold. Ash uses his very friendliness to persuade others to trust him, trust him enough to hand over their money for plans he has no intention of fulfilling. While he never swindles more from a flat than the flat can afford to lose, he hardly loses much sleep over the money he takes; having grown up in London's slums scraping out a living to support himself and his brother by thieving, bodysnatching, and occasionally selling his own body, Ash figures the comfortably well-off still have more than enough to get by on, even after an encounter with the Cohens. "What's so bad about being selfish, anyway? Everybody's selfish.... Selfishness is as natural as breathing. Unlike you, I don't blame people for how they're made. Next you'll be talking about original sin like a goy," he tells his brother when Rafe protests (Kindle Loc 1180). Behind every romance bad boy is a past that made him the way he is; behind the Jewish stereotype, Lerner suggests, is a history of abuse and oppression the stereotype is meant to hide.

Molly Picon as Fiddler on the Roof's matchmaker, Yente
But if Ash is selfish, he's practically selfless when it comes to his younger brother. So when, at novel's start, Rafe decides that he's tired of the swindling life, Ash comes up with a plan for one final con, a swindle that will ensure his brother the life he never had: he will find a wealthy woman and play matchmaker (shades of Fiddler on the Roof), using his charm and skill to convince her to fall for his handsome, kindly brother.

That Ash's mark is the epitome of upright, conservative Englishness makes the irony all the sweeter when Ash finds himself falling for Tory political patroness Lydia Reeve himself. Lydia, whose father has recently died, has been unable to persuade her younger brother to support the political causes which she and her father held so dear to her heart. Such support takes not only a willing heart and hands, but substantial amounts of money: money to purchase new coats for the children in the workhouse; money to pay for an apprenticeship for the child of an ally; money to support schools, and hospitals, and the pet projects of all those who supported the Tories in the last election. Lydia has an inheritance, yes, but she can only get access to it if she marries. Rafe would seem like the perfect solution—if only Lydia didn't find herself drawn to his less handsome, but far more compelling, older brother...

Ash believes it better to keep his cultural heritage a secret: "When I have a drink with a man in a pub, and he doesn't know I'm Jewish... what's the difference between a Jew and a Gentile, really? It makes no difference, but I believe it would to him, so I don't mention it, and we can go on drinking together," he tells Lydia after Rafe lets their secret out of the bag. But deep inside, Ash knows keeping the secret isn't just a question of "practicality. But somehow he was ashamed to explain how it would hurt, to see himself turn from a fellow soul to a dirty Jew" (Loc 3935). Keeping a pane of glass between himself and those hurtful emotions allows him to go through life liking everyone he meets. But does it also stand in the way of forming deeper connections than just liking?

How does cultural identity, and our relation to it, influence our relationships? How do larger cultural stereotypes? Does it matter it we pretend to be one thing to the world, while truly we are another? If we pretend even with our most intimate relations? When does pretense become the truth? Weighty questions for a historical romance, no doubt. But when asked by a writer as skilled as Rose Lerner, their consideration proves just as much of a pleasure as the slow-build romance between two people who have far more in common than their cultural identities would ever suggest.

Illustration/Photo credits:
Fagin: Wikimedia Commons
Molly Picon as Yente: Molly Picon gallery

Rose Lerner, True Pretenses
Samhain, 2015

Friday, January 9, 2015

What I Learned from Romance Novels: Is the Sex Always Better When You're in Love?

The question for this month's "what I learned from romance novels: fact or fiction?" has to do with the relationship between sex and love. Almost without fail, when protagonists of romance novels engage in sexual acts with the people to whom they will declare their love at novel's end, they find that the experience is far better than any other sexual encounter they've ever had. Conversations with two of my best friends in recent months suggest that for them, at least, in real life this is not the case. One friend remembers having great sex with a guy she ultimately decided not to stay with, while her current sex life with the man she loves was not nearly as satisfying. Another remembers a woman he dated for only a short time, a woman with whom he had nothing in common intellectually or emotionally, but one who certainly floated his boat when it came to fooling around. He eventually broke up with her ("all we ever had in common was the sex"), and married another, but still recalls those sexual experiences with her as some of the best of his life.

So, what are your thoughts? Is genre romance's promise that sex with someone you love is always better realistic, or simply a part of the fantasy of the genre?

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Romance Novels for Feminists BEST OF 2014


Emma Barry, Private Politics

Barry gives us an inside look at the world of political blogging, and its role in exposing government corruption, in this smart, lively romance about a nice Jewish guy who's not quite willing to act on his unrequited crush on the socialite friend of his bestie's fiancee. Thumbs up for Barry's thoughtful exploration of the uses and limitations of stereotypes in constructing identity.

Ruthie Knox, Truly

Quintessential Midwestern good girl May finds herself at sea in unfamiliar New York City after very publicly, and very embarrassingly, dumping her famous football player fiancé. Surly urban beekeeper Ben is reluctant to take on the role of knight in shining armor until he realizes that May might be in far less need of rescuing than he is. One of the few romance novels I've read to tackle the issue of internalized sexism with both sympathy and intelligence.

Sarah Mayberry, Her Kind of Trouble

Free spirit Viv is incensed when Seth, the brother of her sister's husband, questions Viv's fitness to be chosen as a potential guardian for their niece and nephew. Viv may have engaged in a hot one-night stand with Seth during her sister's wedding reception, but that was years ago. And besides, she's not the thirty-four-year-old who just got his twenty-four-year-old ex-girlfriend pregnant, now is she? Explores the broader implications of the sexual double standard as well as the relationship between unconventionality and responsibility.

Mary Ann Rivers, Laugh

A subtle interracial romance, a disabled hero who is neither shining example to the non-disabled nor prop to prove a non-disabled character's worth, and an unusual treatment of grief and abortion would be more than enough to place the second book in Rivers' Burnside series on the RNFF Best list. Add Rivers' lyrical writing, and you've got a rare treat: a romance that pleases both in story and in style.


Grace Burrowes, The Captive

When a romance author uses the word "captive," its typically in a romantic sense. But captivity is anything but romantic for Gillian, Lady Greendale, and her dead cousin's husband, Christian, Duke of Severn. Gilly insists on paying a call on the reclusive duke to upbraid him for abandoning his young daughter. But when Gilly sees the devastation that life as a prisoner of war has inflicted on Christian, recognizes that chastisement is the last thing that can help this traumatized man. Burrowes draws telling parallels between men being tortured as prisoners of war with women being the victims of domestic abuse as Gilly and Christian help one another struggle to find the will to live, and to love, after the pain has finally ceased.

K J Charles, Think of England

Manly Edwardian Archie Curtis accepts a country house party invitation hoping to uncover evidence that his host intentionally supplied faulty weapons to the military. But he discovers more than he bargained for when he is forced into a compromising position with fellow guest Daniel Da Silva, a man who, at least on the surface, is everything upstanding Archie is not. A joy not just for fans of Victorian and Edwardian literature (Archie is the nephew of one of H. Rider Haggard's male heroes), but for those who enjoy books that push us to question the boundaries of the labels we so often like to place upon each other, and on ourselves.

Meredith Duran, Fool Me Twice

A historical romance that makes a real effort to explain why its heroine is acting in ways far from gender-typical for her times, rather than just plopping a 21st century woman in the midst of a Victorian romance. Olivia Mather's upbringing as the child of a kept woman and a man married to another has made her determined not to allow others to judge her. Even others as lofty as the Duke of Malvern, who may hold the key to keeping Olivia safe from the person who brutally attacked her when she came to London. For his part, Alistair, Duke of Malvern, is a man disillusioned, one whose orderly life has been blown apart by his realization that most of the rules he's been living for are really just social lies—including his belief in the natural superiority of the male sex.

Rose Lerner, Sweet Disorder

Unusual for a historical, our heroine, Phoebe Sparks, is not an aristocrat, but the widow of a printer. England's unrepresentative election laws mean that there are only a few qualified voters in Phoebe's small town, and Phoebe, the widow of one of them, can bestow her former husband's freeman status, and thus an all-important vote, on whomever she decides to marry next. As the fledging politician standing for the Lively St. Lemenster seat needs each and every vote if he's to defeat the Tory candidate, his family calls on his older brother Nick Dymond, to come to town and coax (persuade? bribe?) the widow Sparks into marrying a qualified townsman. The last thing anyone intended was for Nick and Phoebe to fall for one another...  A deliciously-written, historically informed, and unconventional historical, with important things to say about the workings of desire.

Courtney Milan, The Suffragette Scandal

If I had gotten my hands on a copy of Milan's The Countess Conspiracy before January of this year, it certainly would have appeared on the RNFF Best of 2013 list. Lucky for me, Milan's latest was published in July, not December...

An actual suffragette as main character? A heroine whose political commitments we are asked to sympathize with, rather than laugh at? And a hero who isn't a sexist pig who needs to be disabused of his sexism, but who instead appreciates the intelligence and unconventionality of his potential beloved? A story that shows the costs, as well as the rewards, of espousing an unpopular cause? How could it not make the list? Throughout her career, Milan has demonstrated her unwavering commitment to feminist principles while never ignoring the historically specific gender roles by which societies attempt to police all women, and The Suffragette Scandal serves as a fitting capstone to her current body of work.

YA/New Adult

Sarina Bowen, The Understatement of the Year

After being publicly outed by his former college hockey coach, Rikker has no choice about being open about his sexuality. His former friend, and now current hockey teammate, Graham, though, clings tightly to his place in the closet, even when his first crush Rikker shows up as as an unexpected transfer student. When the two drift into hook-up territory, though, can Graham continue to keep his secret, and keep Rikker?

I've enjoyed the previous entries in Bowen's new adult The Ivy Years series, and not just because they are set at my (thinly disguised) alma mater. But I took special pleasure from book #3, in part because while the first two books in the series featured heterosexual couples, this one stars two young men. There's clearly a need for gay romance as a subcategory of romance in general, but I'm hoping to see more and more authors (and perhaps someday, even traditional publishers??) do what Bowen has: publish romance series that feature couples all along the sexuality spectrum.

Huntley Fitzpatrick, What I Thought Was True

A YA summer romance with real poignancy and depth. The lines between the townies and the summer people have always been clear to Gwen Castle and the other working-class kids of Connecticut's Seashore Island. Until the summer rich-kid Cassidy is forced by his father to take a job on the island. Something happened between Gwen and Cass last year, after he got kicked out of his prep school and transferred to her public one, something that the narrative takes a long time to reveal. Just like Gwen, who is close-mouthed even on a good day, never mind when faced with the prospect of running into Cass every day this summer. A compelling depiction of first love and its vulnerabilities, as well as a thoughtful exploration of the power dynamics of both class and gender.

Jandy Nelson,  I'll Give You the Sun

Subject mirrors form in this YA romance, with its dual narrators, adolescent twins Jude and Noah, recounting both their own and their sibling's first loves. It's not only the narrators who switch from chapter to chapter, but also the book's chronology, the stories of the sibling's thirteenth year (told by Noah) interspersed with those of their sixteenth (told by Jude). Each story contains the missing puzzle pieces needed to unravel the mysteries of the other, to be untangled and replaced back into a semblance of order by the reader. Sibling rivalry, grief, rebellion and conformity, and the importance of art form the underpinnings of Noah and Jude's love stories, both their romantic ones as well as their sibling one.

Robin York, Deeper

After her former boyfriend posts sexually explicit pictures of her on a porn web site, good-girl college student Caroline fears her dreams for the future have been irrevocably damaged. Getting involved with the school's hot, pot-dealing bad boy West Leavitt is not going to help Caroline fix her reputation, or hide from her shame, especially after she discovers him defending her honor by engaging in fisticuffs with her jerky ex. But when the bakery where West works ends up feeling like the only safe place on campus, Caroline and West gradually develop a friendship far deeper than anything she's experienced before. A smart, fierce rejection of "blame the victim" mentality when it comes to revenge porn.

Erotic Romance

Solace Ames, The Submission Gift

The first book in Ames' La Doms series (written with Heloise Belleau), made RNFF's 2013 best list; this second book more than lives up to its predecessor. A car accident left newlywed Jay incapacitated for more than a year; as a thank-you to his supportive wife, Adrianna, Jay decides to use some of the insurance money to hire a high-end rent boy, one who will take pleasure in the sex dominance play Adrianna loves but Jay doesn't. I've not read too many threesome romances where the characters are as interesting as the sex scenes, but Ames' gift for creating complex, compelling character makes this unusual romance one for the keeper shelf.

Christina Lauren, Sweet Filthy Boy

I never hopped on the Beautiful Bastard bandwagon, but found the first book in Christina Lauren's new Wild Seasons series a real charmer. The series is high-concept: three young women just graduated from college spend a wild weekend celebrating in Las Vegas, only to find themselves married by trip's end. Lola and Harlow quickly get their marriages annulled, but when Mia's French husband Ansel, as impulsive as she is serious, asks her to spend the summer with him in Paris before untying the knot for good, Mia finds herself unexpectedly on an airplane to Europe. Running away from her future has never been so much fun, or so confusing. Could it be that lighthearted charmer Ansel might just be running away, too? A fun read, with an ending that moves Mia far beyond damsel-in-distress rescued by a sexy Frenchman to young woman taking charge of her own life.

Cara McKenna, Hard Time

Is the local penitentiary the best place for a librarian trying to kick an addiction to bad boys to work? Even if Annie only spends one day a week there? Annie wonders, especially when she begins a steamy clandestine letter writing exchange with one of the inmates she's there to help teach. Nothing bad can happen with a guy in jail, can it? Neither Annie or Eric is ready when Eric is unexpectedly paroled...  Particularly intriguing not only for its exploration of a woman dealing with the aftermath of a relationship turned abusive, as well as its exploration of lovers' assumptions about what their partners should and do want, sexually, and how couples can communicate in order to move past said assumptions to discover the truths of their own, and each others', erotic desires.

Romantic Suspense

Suzanne Brockmann, Do or Die

Military derring-do is usually not my cup of tea, but Brockmann complicates the adventure action formula with this exploration of how former Navy SEAL alpha male learns to overcome his overprotective instincts, both toward the woman for whom he is falling, and for the younger gay brother whom he's always kept safe.

M. L. Buchman, Full Blaze

Buchman moves from the military setting of his Night Stalkers series to one equally as dangerous: wildfire fighting in his new Fire Hawks series. I missed the first two books, but book #3 contains all of same features that made the Night Stalkers so successful: tense action, informed technical detail, and just enough character development and romance arc to keep the romantically-inclined flipping pages. Aussie helicopter pilot Jeannie finds herself immediately attracted to photographer Cal when he joins Mount Hood Aviation for a week's shooting. But though Cal travels light, he's weighted down by more than a little emotional baggage, baggage that makes him an unlikely candidate for more than a one-night-stand. When Jeannie's bosses offer Cal a more permanent job, though, will Cal duck and run, or face the flames? Buchman's heroines are consistently as competent as his heroes, and his heroes (and his readers) love them for it.

Nicki Salcedo, All Beautiful Things

Attacked by a white man seven years ago, wealthy socialite Ava cannot please her family by returning to her pre-trauma self. Feeling "unborn," Ava wanders the night, photographing other victims of crimes, all the while assuring everyone that she's "fine.
Ava's repressed emotions come painfully to the surface, though, when Graham Sapphire, the brother of the man convicted of assaulting her, asks for her help in exonerating him. Not just a compelling romance, but a complex portrait of a victim of trauma coming to terms with her own emotions, and with the gendered and racial biases behind her victimization.

Jill Sorenson, Backwoods

Terror displaces pleasure on a camping trip when Abby's daughter, Brooke, is kidnapped by two distinctly sketchy male hunters. Abby, Nathan, and Nathan's son, Leo work together to pursue the kidnappers and rescue Brooke. A romance that refuses to engage with many of the disempowering tropes of the romantic suspense subgenre, exploring instead parent-child relationships and how gender norms affect them.

Short Stories/Novellas

Laura Florand, Shadowed Heart

I'm a huge sucker for Laura Florand's character-based storytelling, so what could be more of a pleasure than revisiting a couple who already featured in their own full-length romance? Luc and Summer of The Chocolate Heart have married and moved to the south of France, their new restaurant recently opened. Perfectionist Luc is spending all of his time at the restaurant, leaving Summer alone, insecure, and friendless. And when Luc, who talked so dreamily about having children, seems to pull away even more after Summer reveals that she's pregnant, the negative behavior patterns both Summer and Luc learned from their messed-up childhoods come back to threaten their happily-ever-after. That we need our friends as well as our lovers in order to keep our romances healthy, and that the climatic "I love you" doesn't guarantee everlasting happiness, are both messages not often conveyed by traditional romances, messages well-worth repeating.

Cecilia Grant, A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong

Grant is a writer unafraid of featuring characters that readers would likely find unappealing without the sympathy, insight, and humanity with which she paints them. Andrew Blackshear, the eldest and stuffiest of the Blacksheer siblings, attempts to purchase a falcon as a Christmas present for his soon-to-be-wed sister, and instead finds himself snowbound with the eccentric falcon-breeder's irrepressible daughter. I just loved responsible, priggish Andrew, especially as he gradually came to realize that following convention, especially when it comes to one's emotions, may not be the most prudent path to take. But what put the story on this list was the fact that both its hero and its heroine were equally sexually inexperienced, something I'm guessing was far more common in the 19th century than our current historical romances would have us believe.

Sarah Frantz (editor), Summer Rain

It's rare to find a romance story collection that both supports a feminist cause (RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) and tells stories that help readers imagine what a feminist heterosexual relationship might look like. But Summer Rain managed to do both, with emotion and skill. Am looking forward to digging into the second book in the Love in the Rain series, Winter Rain, just published this past November...

What's Missing?

• Fantasy and Science Fiction romance

Am I just too picky a fantasy & sci fi reader? Or is my refusal to read later books in a series before I've read earlier ones making it next to impossible to discover the latest feminist fantasy & sci fi romances out there? I'm sad that a genre I spent nearly a decade of my life teaching never manages to make it onto my "best of" list when it comes to romance...

• Lesbian romance

This one's been a real frustration for me this year. My library rarely stocks lesbian romance, even in their e-catalog. And I've discovered that most publishers tend to price lesbian romance, even e-books, as they would conventional literary romance, in the $10 and up range, rather than in the more affordable $2-5 range of most other genre romance. Any suggestions for ways to get access to more f/f romances without breaking my bank would be appreciated!

• More romances with people of color

Any reviewers out there who have interest/expertise in any of the above categories, and would be interesting in penning a guest review or two for RNFF? Let me know...

What were your favorite feminist romances of 2014? I'm eager to catch up on what I missed from 2014 before the deluge of 2015 releases begins to flood my e-reader and my office.