Tuesday, June 30, 2015

More Short Takes: Contemporary Romance

So many of RNFF's favorite authors have new books coming out this summer that another Short Takes blog is in order for June:

Victoria Dahl's latest contemporary, Taking the Heat, features a heroine rather different from the typical Dahl protagonist. Though she's funny as hell ("There are men out there who will put their penises in a tree. There are men out there who will put their penises in sheep. You do not need to feel flattered that a man wants to put his penis inside you"), Veronica Chandler is majorly lacking on the self-confidence front [Kindle Loc 259]. All her life, Veronica dreamed of escaping the confines of her Wyoming hometown and making a shiny new life for herself in New York City. But the reality of Big Apple living proved far less enticing than the dream, and at twenty-seven, Veronica finds herself back in Jackson Hole, licking her wounds, dependent again on her emotionally-distant father. Even her success in her new job as "Dear Veronica," a newspaper advice columnist, can't persuade her that she's anything more than a fraud. Only when she starts taking her own advice as seriously as her readers do does Veronica begin to understand the difference between faking it and being it. But when a new-to-town hot guy librarian begins to take an interest in the real Veronica, will his good guy persona turn out to be just as much a fraud as was Veronica's big-city-girl mask?

One of the first releases from start-up publisher Brain Mill Press is a novella by Mary Ann Rivers, set in the world of her Burnsides series. In My Only Sunshine, Rivers experiments with the dual narration typical of contemporary romance, not just for the sake of variety, but as the best way to capture the psychological nuances of her two protagonists. Chapters from the point of view of Mallory, written in the third person past tense, are purportedly from the memoir the adult Mallory has written about her adolescent crush on John, now a famous musician, while chapters from John's point of view, which tell the story of their meeting in the present after fifteen years apart, are told in the first person present tense. During their teen years, Mallory "was everything that was the opposite of John—short, fat, pale, poor, invisible, untalented" (71). But for one brief year, the two shared almost every evening together, "making a kingdom for ourselves under the stars": talking, sharing, feeling, and above all, longing (119). But neither had the confidence to talk about their relationship openly, barely acknowledging each other at school, and certainly never daring to try to transform their emotional connection into a sexual one. But after a violent altercation breaks up Mallory's family, John finds he's not only lost his chance to kiss the girl he loves, he's lost the girl as well. And he's left alone with his regrets, and his guilt for not intervening when he should have, too selfish to let anyone else share the secret magic that he found in Mallory.

As an adult, Mallory has used therapy and writing to help her come to terms with the traumas of her childhood. But John is still hauling around the albatross of his guilt, a guilt that has prevented him from reaching out to Mallory, even after the publication of her memoir about their teen year. Only after he forces himself to read a description of her memoir, The Encyclopedia of an Ohio Girl in Love, and finally realizes she loved him then as much as he loved her, does he find a courage to match Mallory's, and contact her. Such a reunion story could have felt schmaltzy, or unconvincing, in the hands of a less talented writer. But Rivers, who makes the unconventional choice to have the hero, rather than her "Venus-covered-in-sea-foam" bodied heroine, be the one still learning to cope with adult life, has the writing chops to make a more-than-persuasive case for the power of adolescent love, and its potential to last far into adulthood.

The immensely entertaining sidekicks in Amy Jo Cousins' Off Campus get their own story in The Girl Next Door, which moves from the first book's college setting to a first job in the big city milieu. Charles "Cash" Carmichael, a privileged legacy admit to an Ivy League college, had a major awakening when his best friend announced he was in a romantic relationship with another man. Now, having left a cushy job with his family's Boston lobbying firm and taken a low-paying gig teaching soccer to elementary-school kids in a working-class neighborhood in Chicago, Cash has become the point man for all things gay, though he strictly goes for the girls himself. So much so that his high-school-age cousin, Denny, runs to Cash when his parents refuse to believe him when he announces he prefers to sleep with boys. Not feeling all that confident in his ability to provide the proper guidance, Cash calls on his one-time college fuck-buddy, iconoclastic, feminist, bisexual Steph, who has recently moved to Chicago to be closer to her estranged father, for help.

Sparks have always flown between Cash and Steph, and even though Steph broke off their relationship in college to be with another woman, soon the two are back to their old college sexual hijinks. Each insists to the other, though, that it's nothing but casual fucking. But as they spend more time together, Cash is growing increasingly frustrated with the distance Steph insists on maintaining between them, and "how badly he'd fucked up back in school when he hadn't taken her, taken them, seriously" (1961).

You might think reading an entire romance novel from the point of view of a privileged, not entirely quick-on-the-draw heterosexual guy might not be so entertaining, but you'd be oh, so wrong. Cousins does amazing work conveying the character and voice of a young man who should embody everything conventional and oblivious, but who is open and kind enough to learn that there other equally valid ways of being, and to embrace the unconventional with honesty, vibrancy, and joy.

Victoria Dahl, Taking the Heat. Harlequin, July 2015
Mary Ann Rivers, My Only Sunshine. Brain Mill Press, July 2015.
Amy Jo Cousins, The Girl Next Door. Samhain, June 2015.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Romance at the Children's Literature Association 2015 Conference

My apologies for not posting last Friday. I was attending the Children's Literature Association's annual conference, which was held in Richmond VA this year, and there were so many interesting panels to attend that I didn't have a moment to blog. If you're interested in hearing about some of the presentations which touched upon issues of feminism and/or romance, here's a quick peek at some of the talks I had the chance to attend:

On Thursday, I attended a panel on "Female Authorship" in children's and young adult fiction. Megan Isaac of Elon University talked about the difference problems faced by girl authors in earlier fiction, (Jo March in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and Cassandra Mortmain in Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle) and such authors in more recent books (Rainbow Rowell's Fan Girl and Scott Westerfield's Afterworlds). Material conditions were the biggest challenges to earlier girl writers, Isaac argued, while commercialism and celebrity prove the greatest threats to contemporary adolescent female authors. Jocelyn van Tuyl of the New College of Florida also spoke about Fan Girl and Little Women, suggesting that Rowell both replicates and reverses the themes around writing found in Alcott's classic work. Lots of interesting points in her talk, particularly about the ways that romances affect the writing lives of both characters.

Friday featured a cool panel on "Comics and Feminism." From Amanda Loeffert of the university of North Carolina at Charlotte, I learned about the latest incarnation of Ms. Marvel, a Pakistani-American teen named Kamala Kahn, who initially echoes stereotypes of sexualized female superheroes, but then subverts them when she realizes how they limit her abilities to fight the bad guys. Rachel Dean-Ruzicka from Georgia GWinnet College talked about a comic just started in 2014 called Lumberjanes, which features five friends attending Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet's Camp for Hardcore Lady Types (say that five times fast!) who band together to fight supernatural strangeness. An understated romance is developing between two of the girls, which makes me eager to check this one out.

In a panel later on Friday, amusingly titled "Show Us Your Ankles," Deidre McMahon of Drexel University spoke about "Girls Who Kill in Victorian Books and Magazines for Boys." Not the most romantic of talks, for sure, but intriguing for forcing us to question the assumption that all girls in 19th century adventure stories played only passive roles. McMahon described several examples from the colonial novels of G. A. Henty in which daughters of English colonists killed belligerent natives to protect their brothers, or themselves, highlighting both Henty's racism and also his suggestion that when displaced from their native England, young women were forced into more active roles.

I remember owning and reading
 Janet Lambert's junior novel
as a teen
The panel which I spoke on, "What is YA," featured another talk with relevance to the study of romance. Amanda Allen of Eastern Michigan University spoke about the similarities and disagreements between librarians and academics between the 1920s and 1940s about what should count as "good" literature for adolescents. Though today most scholars point to the 60's as the origins of young adult literature, books for teens were being published and promoted far earlier, in a genre typically labeled the "junior novel." Junior novels have been described as "the story that records truthfully the modern girl's dream of life and romance and her way of adjusting to her school and family experiences" (quoted in Michael Cart's Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism), which sounds to me remarkably like the New Adult fiction that has taken the romance community by storm in the past five years. Critics today tend to ignore the junior novel genre, and Allen's examination of the debates between librarians and academics in the period in which they were published can help us understand why.

On Saturday, I attended "Happily Never After," which featured an intriguing talk by Vikki Terrile of Queens Library entitled "What's Your Price for Flight? Escape from Arranged and Forced Marriage in Young Adult Literature." Many of the YA books listed under the heading "arranged marriage" actually feature "forced marriage," Terrile argued after reading 17 such titles. Conflating the two terms is damaging to young readers who come from cultures in which arranged marriages are still the norm, Terrile suggested. The recurring plot in these books, which presents flight from the unwanted marriage as the only possible solution is also problematic, because said flight typically involves not only leaving behind an unwanted suitor, but also leaving behind family and culture.  Interestingly, the majority of the books she examined were fantasy novels, set in societies in which allowing girls to choose their own partners presented a threat to their social codes. During the Q & A session, we had a lively discussion about issues of culture and race, as well as about why such books, whose primary readers were presumably American girls who were not being raised  in a society where arranged marriages were the norm, would have such a recurring pattern of force and flight. What kind of fantasies was such a plot pattern fulfilling for such readers? Terrile was kind enough to send me a list of the 17 books in which she found this pattern, many of which were unfamiliar to me.

I always end up with long lists of books I want to read after attending ChLA conferences, as well as ones I want to scoop up to give to my daughter. So enough writing for today; I'm off to the bookstore in search of Ms. Marvel and some Lumberjanes...

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Surfacing Nice Guy Sexism: Alisha Rai's A GENTLEMAN IN THE STREET

Per Sylvia Day's useful definition of erotic romance, an erotic romance does not only feature hot sex scenes; it must also must use said scenes to depict and develop the character and romance arcs of its protagonists. And because erotic romance depicts sexual interactions in far more detail than mainstream romance, it often features empowered female characters, characters who break free from slut-shaming double standards to embrace their own sexuality, within said sex scenes. To discover an erotic romance that does all of the above, AND calls attention to the internalized sexism that can plague even the nicest of male characters, though—that's an erotic romance I'm immensely jazzed to write about for RNFF.

A little over a week ago, romance author Heidi Cullinan wrote a blog post in protest of the shallow article about the romance genre that recently appeared on the influential culture web site, TheMarySue. In addition to refuting many of the anti-feminist claims put forth about the genre by that article's author, Alex Townsend, Cullinan compiled several lists of romance novels that provided evidence to back up her refutations, including "Women in positions of power in romance."

Akira—soon to be #19 on the Fortune 500 list of female CEO's?
I discovered Alisha Rai's erotic romance, A Gentleman in the Street, on that list. But after reading Rai's romance, I'd argue that her accomplishment consists of far more than just giving her female lead a job as the CEO of her own company, A. M. Enterprises, which owns and operates "high-end bars and nightclubs in some of the most sophisticated places in the world: London, Dubai, New York, Miami" (Kindle Loc 477). For her novel actively explores the misogyny deployed to contain and restrain powerful women, including her protagonist, 34-year-old Japanese-American Akira Mori. What's more, it explores this not through some obviously evil, deluded, sexist villain, but instead through the story's main love interest, shy white nice guy Jacob Campbell.

Jacob's feckless doctor father and Akira's disapproving mother married after only a month's courtship, and divorced almost as quickly. Jacob and Akira were already old enough to be out on their own at the time of the marriage (good boy Jacob in college, bad girl Akira living off a trust fund from her hotelier grandfather), but even after only a few family get-togethers, each found him/herself unexpectedly, and unhappily, attracted to the other. Jacob, worried that the strength of his lust for Akira might lead him to act irresponsibly toward his family, as his father always has when he meets a new woman, treats Akira with all the distance and even contempt he can muster. And Akira, used to acting outrageously to try and attract the attention of her emotionally distant mother, dons the role of provocative temptress in response. Not that it's all an act; Akira's sexual tastes run to the free and kinky, even if with everyone besides her mother and Jacob she tends to keep that side of her life private.

Fast-forward fourteen years. Both Jacob's father and Akira's mother are dead, and Jacob and Akira have each crafted successful careers for themselves, Akira as the head of the above-mentioned conglomerate, Jacob as a writer of spy novels and surrogate parent for his younger sister. What still hasn't changed, though, is Jacob and Akira's apparent dislike of each other, a dislike that neither recognizes as a cover for their uncomfortable attraction to one another.

Early in the story, after an unexpectedly emotional encounter between Akira and Jacob turns sexual, Akira thinks to shock Jacob and drive him away once and for all by inviting him to watch another man have sex with her in a closet during a tony fundraising party. But Akiri is the one left reeling by Jacob's unexpected willingness to play voyeur. Turns out that Jacob is not as vanilla as he's always led others to believe.

When Akira challenges him to explain his shocking behavior, Jacob finally admits his long-time lust for his erstwhile stepsister: "I just can't look at you without... without wanting you" (971). But Jacob's admission of his passion doesn't lead to romance happily ever after; in fact, Jacob's confession makes Akira majorly pissed off:

It was nice when a man you desired reciprocated the attraction, but not when that man was otherwise repelled by you. Her voice was a hoarse whisper. "You made me think you despised me for fourteen years, and now I find out it was because I committed the cardinal sin of attracting your lust.... Guess what? I reserve the right to not be punished for your desires." (990)

A fascinating passage, particularly because earlier in the novel, Jacob had punished his younger sister for calling Akira "slutty": "Judging her isn't your place.... Plus, she could have been naked, and it wouldn't give you an excuse to call her slutty" (446). When sister Kati protests, saying "Even Mei [Akira's mother] used to call Akira a slut," Jacob has real trouble controlling his anger. "I don't care what Mei said. I have never... called any woman a slut, let alone Akira. And I didn't raise anyone in this family to do so either" (446).

Actress Anna May Wong, who was often restricted
to playing stereotypical femme fatale roles
in early American films
Jacob clearly recognizes the sexism behind calling a woman a "slut," but at the same time, he hasn't seen how his own disapproving reaction to Akira has been silently slut-shaming her for the past fourteen years. He even made the villainess in his first novel a rich, sexy, mouthy, beautiful, shallow, unlikeable heir to a fortune, and an Asian to boot. She may have been Korean-American rather than Japanese-American, as Akira is, but even Jacob's younger brothers realize that "Lidia was Akira." And guess what? Jacob killed off femme fatale Lidia in that first novel, symbolically if unconsciously punishing Akira for "making" him desire her. Just what she accused him of. Men, even nice men, Rai's novel suggests, may be as prone to internalizing sexism as women are.

Jacob is appalled by what his brothers and Akira have shown him about his own behavior:

He prided himself on being a good man, a progressive man.... He could posture about disapproving of Mei calling her daughter a slut. He could take away all of Kati's electronics. But at the end of the day, was he really much better? He may not have said the derogatory words, but his aloofness could easily have been taken as disapproval. It didn't matter he hadn't intended it. What mattered was how he had made her feel. (1157, 1175)

And, good guy that he is, Jacob knows he has to make it up to Akira. Even if he has to act out, rather than just dream about, "the Pandora's box of [sexual] fantasies he had kept contained in his brain for the majority of his adult life" (1158). And given his fourteen years of disdain, it will take a lot of proof before Akira will let Jacob into not just into her sexual life, but also into her emotional one.

Let the erotic games begin.

Photo credits:
Female CEO's: Huffington Post
Anna May Wong: noirwhale

A Gentleman in the Street
self-published, 2014

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Short Takes: Issues of Commitment

Short reviews of new releases by favorite RNFF authors, all focusing on issues of romantic commitment:

All For You
(Paris Hearts #1)
self-published, 2015

Florand revisits a theme she tackled in The Chocolate Kiss: how to have a heterosexual romantic relationship with a protective man without ending up feeling like the fairy tale princess in need of rescuing. Our protagonists here, though, far far different from the successful pâtissieres of Kiss. Célie and Joss grew up together in a housing projects of Tarterets, a Paris banlieue notorious for its crime and violence. As a teen, Célie long nursed a crush on her older brother's friend, a crush she always believed was unrequited. Then, she had to nurse a broken heart when Joss abruptly left to join the Foreign Legion without a word. Though Célie "always kind of wanted to be the small woman who got protected herself" (Kindle Loc 272), in the wake of Joss's abandonment she's picked herself up and made her own way in the world, apprenticing and earning a place as a gourmet chocolatier in one of Paris's most renowned laboratoires. So, when Joss suddenly reappears five years later, Célie is understandably not all that happy to see him.

To Joss, it all made sense: to be worthy of the energetic, optimistic, so-alive girl whom he loved, he had to make something better of himself. Otherwise, they'd end up together, but stuck in dead-end jobs, scraping out a threadbare existence in the projects. But somehow, he hadn't really thought about what would be happening to, and for, Célie while he was away: "He'd come back to get her out of there, now that he was big enough to carry them both to the top of the world's glass mountain but she'd already done it for herself. All by herself" (411). But Joss has learned a lot about persistence during his years in the Legion, and he's not about to give up on his dream of a life with Célie just because she's a little mad at him...

Readers might be inclined to sigh over Joss's obvious good intentions, the strength of his romantic devotion to Célie, and his self-doubt and overwhelming need for her, and thus to root for Célie to immediately forgive and forget ("I would wait more than five years for you," the rather inarticulate Joss pens to Célie in a note). But Florand, and Célie, know better: Joss's overprotective ways, and his fantasies about Célie, aren't simply sweet, they're blind, and limiting: "...in your fantasies I was only what you needed me to be. Not what I actually was" (2238). As Célie thinks to herself, "It was kind of infuriatingly unfeminist how tempting it was to just yield to [his] need, to say, Oh, if that's what you need so much then you can have it. To just give up her own body to his demands. She caught herself. This was for her, too." (2209)

"[Men] are kind of raised to want to go out on quests to earn the princess's hand by becoming a hero. It's, ah, hard for us to wrap our minds around a princess who wants to do all that dirty work with us. Makes us feel—insufficient. Not man enough. Not good enough," says Célie's boss, Dom (1275). But for Joss to deserve Célie, he'll have to overcome that social message, to "do something else for her besides strive to be your best.... You might have to adapt to what she needs from you. Which might be something different" (2937). For example, a partner who consults her before making major decisions that will impact her life as well as his.

The List
(Irresistible #3)
Berkley Heat, 2015

Blind devotion isn't the problem for the couple in Calhoun's latest erotic romance, despite the book's suggestive cover. Instead, it is fear of commitment, specifically on the part of the woman. The List opens with a high-stakes bang: Tilda and Daniel, who have been married for only a few months, in the office of a marriage counselor, Tilda wanting a divorce, Daniel mystified as to why. The story then backtracks a year, depicting the first unusual meeting between the FBI agent who dresses more like a college professor and the high-end stationary shop owner who moonlights as a matchmaker, then proceeds through their erotically-charged but emotionally casual hook-ups, a relationship scare, and an unlikely, impetuous marriage.

Tilda keeps not a list, but notecards on people she's met, especially those who've confided their deepest secrets and needs, and takes deep pleasure in bringing people together: "Every time she matched someone on her list, or simply introduced two people who might enjoy knowing each other, she'd proved that she understood that most basic of human needs: to see someone and be seen by them in turn" (778). But Tilda's never been on the lookout for a match for herself, not wanting to be seen by anyone else, for reasons that Calhoun only gradually reveals over the course of the novel. In fact, a major part of Tilda's charm for Daniel is this sense of mystery about her, the knowledge of hidden depths that remain elusively just out of his reach. But if Daniel is to have a chance of convincing his wife not to abandon their marriage, he'll have to move beyond the allure of secrecy, and plumb the shame and pain that lie beneath.

And how can you not love a book whose protagonist declares "Virginity is a cultural construct.... Given the many,many ways two people can have sex, limiting the question to the penetration of penis into vagina is a rather narrow approach. Anyway, why is it a loss? I gained knowledge, experience" (1000)?

Suddenly One Summer
Jove, 2015

As in many a Julie James novel, Suddenly features both a man and a a woman who are not at all interested in romantic commitment. At least not initially...

Neither divorce lawyer Victoria nor investigative reporter Ford are looking for a long-term romantic partner, and not just for the reasons espoused by James' usual thirty-something highly-educated successful professional types—too much work, too little time. Victoria has moved on from her difficult childhood, dealing with a father who abandoned her and her mother, and a mother who attempted suicide in response, and now runs her own successful family law firm in Chicago. But her personal experiences, coupled with a job focusing on the dissolution of romantic relationships, makes her "self-select out of the happily-ever-after rat race." As she explains to new neighbor Ford, "I like keeping things simple and fun. No obligations, no expectations, no endgame of a marriage, two-point-five kids, and a minivan in the suburbs" (page 133). A position that the equally commitment-avoiding Ford, who grew up with an alcoholic father with on-again, off-again emotional tendencies, is happy to applaud. Victoria's more than happy to hook-up with the hot guy in the apartment next door (so convenient, getting a sex fix in less time than it takes to get a mani-pedi, and home again faster, too). And Ford isn't complaining, either.

After a break-in to her townhouse leaves Victoria subject to unexpected panic attacks, the über-confident lawyer does what any professional would do—she consults a behavioral therapist, determined to conquer her annoying weakness. But when said therapist wants not only to teach her new breathing techniques, but to delve into her emotional past and present, Victoria is hardly thrilled. Especially when she begins to realize that her casual hookups with new neighbor Ford are starting to feel far too serious for comfort.

A subplot about Ford's sister and the search for the father of her new baby takes the place of the usual FBI/mystery plot of James' earlier books, reinforcing the issue of how to balance independence and self-sufficiency with the equally strong need for emotional connection.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Mid-Year Thoughts: Your Favorites of 2015?

My daughter just finished a very difficult junior year of high school, and has been enjoying her freedom the past week by luxuriating in a pile of compelling books. She's on a Tamora Pierce re-reading kick at the moment (the Beka Cooper stories, as well as the 2 Tricksters books), although I did manage to slip in a Juliet Marillier book or to into her pile. Every morning, she's asked me to check my email to see if the books we ordered through our library's extensive interlibrary loan system have arrived at our local branch. I usually drop in there once a week, but we've been to the library three or four times already to pick up her ILL requests as they slowly trickle in. "I love books," she declared as we made our way down to the library parking garage, her latest check-outs tucked tight to her chest. "I really missed having the time to get sucked into a good story."

She needs some new shorts, and a bathing suit for the summer, shopping we didn't have time to do during the far-too-busy school year. But I'm having some difficulty prying her away from her goodies. "All I want to do is sit on the couch and read," she told me.

What romances have kept you glued to the couch so far this year? Did any of them have feminist leanings? All recommendations welcome (especially if they include fantasies with intriguing female protagonists....)

And it looks like I'm not the only one taking stock. Head over to the NPR web site, where they are conducting a poll about favorite romance novels.

And, just for fun, this link to feminist messages in Jane Austen's books.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Complicating Dominance and Submission: Alexis Hall's FOR REAL

When some people who know I write this blog hear that I'm also writing historical romance fiction, they fear that my novels will end up reading like message-heavy political screeds. Writing fiction is difficult enough; writing fiction with a larger social message can too often fall on the wrong side of the entertainment/didacticism divide, such people worry. Even when I tell them that no, my novels aren't specifically about issues of feminism or gender, the worry often still lingers.

If you read Alexis Hall's comments about his upcoming BDSM novel, For Real, on a recent Wonk-o-Mance post, you might have had a similar reaction. But if you did, and avoided the novel because of it, you'd be missing out on one of the best kinky romances published this year. No, one of the best romances, period.

Hall's post outlines a specific political agenda behind the writing of For Real: to "de-exclusify the role of the dominant." Hall notes the "the strong tendency for romdoms to replicate their sexual proclivities in all areas of their life," something with which he has no problem per se; such books present successful, dynamic, reserved, and above all in-control men as fantasy objects, as "catalysts for the viewpoint character." But if a reader wants to identify with, rather than simply idealize, such a character, then the über-dom characterization doesn't work all that well. The prevalence of all-alpha all-the-time romdoms also "tacitly denies that dominance and submission can exist within a dynamic between two perfectly ordinary people, simply because that's what they're into," Hall argues.

In For Real, then, Hall presents us with two men who seem not only an unlikely romantic pair, but also the embodiment of the opposite role each truly prefers to play during kinky sex. Cool, quiet, and reserved thirty-seven-year-old Laurence Dalziel is a trauma doctor, the one who gets sent in to triage when major accidents, natural disasters, and terrorist attacks hit London. Most people know him as "D," a sharp-tongued introvert; only his closest friends call him "Laurie," and know his sexual preferences lean toward the homosexual and the submissive. Six years after breaking up with his first real boyfriend, with whom he first discovered love in college and only later discovered kink, Laurie is world-weary, cynical, and above all, grumpy: "Look, I've come straight from work, and I've had a really long day, and I simply haven't had time to slip into a spiky collar or a mesh shirt or whatever else you deem necessary to get into your haven of safe, sane, and consensual depravity," are the novel's first words, spoken by Laurie as he attempts to gain entrance to at Pervocracy, the latest kink club in town (Kindle Loc 53). Tired of the games, tired of the hypocrisy, all Laurie wants is to have his sexual urges satisfied for one night, even with someone he doesn't really like. He knows his emotional needs won't be, after all.

Despite his distaste for the "scene," Laurie's prepared to engage in yet another one-night BDSM stand, if only to reassure his worried friends and to relieve the sexual cravings for submission that no one he's dated since his breakup has been able to satisfy. He's hardly expecting that one-night stand to take the form of a "thin and wary and absurdly young" man whom his friends immediately nickname "the foetus," and assume is a "bijou sub-ette" (125, 133). Laurie, initially worried on the young man's behalf, goes over to warn him off: "You shouldn't be here. This isn't Junior Kink-Off" (142). Yet the shorter, slighter, nineteen-year-old "foetus" has a quick come-back to Laurie's insult, and Laurie ends up first apologizing, then being shocked when the young man announces precisely what he's searching for:

     "It's like," he went on tormentedly, "you're not allowed to be a dom until you're forty and six feet tall and own your bespoke bondage dungeon. But I'm probably not going to get any taller, and forty is forever away, so what the hell am I supposed to do now?"
     "I have absolutely no idea." I'd been with Robert, and we'd somehow figured it out together.
     "I just want to know what it feels like, y'know?"
     "Anything. Any of it. Something really basic. Like—" he drew in a deep, surprisingly steady breath "—I want to know how it feels to have some guy on his knees for me. And not a kid. I want a man, a strong, hot powerful man, doing it because he wants to and because I want him to."
     He twisted both hands into his hair until he was all edges and angles, fingers and wrists and elbows. "I think about it all the fucking time. When I jerk off at night. But I'm so bored of the fantasy. I want something real. I fucking need it. I need to know how it really feels." (195)

Caught by his fervency and need, Laurie ends up giving the young man, Toby Finch, a taste of what he's looking for at the club. And then he invites Toby back to his house, to give him even more.

Laurie's expecting his night with Toby to be just that—one mind-blowing, body-rocking encounter, never again to be repeated. But forthright, outspoken Toby comes back, and comes back again, until he worms his way behind Laurie's wary guard, enough to persuade the older man to a weekly sex date. Even though Toby really wants so much more: "And I suddenly realise there's other fantasies  to go alongside the filthy, kinky ones. I want to cook for him. Make him smile more. Do something about the dark circles under his eyes. I want to fucking take care of him" (1110).

Laurie keeps himself emotionally unavailable, though, and for months, Toby makes only slight inroads into his lover's reserve. Because in everyday life, it is Laurie who is older, Laurie who has his life under control, Laurie who seems the powerful one, despite preferring the submissive role during their sexual trysts. But it's Toby—intense, funny, needy, unsure, wanting to be dominant in the bedroom but not always sure how to accomplish that goal—who keeps pushing at Laurie's boundaries, hoping to someday become more than just a fuck-buddy to the "wild stallion of a man who tames himself for me" (2116).

Arguments, losses, fears of abandonment and fears of self-worth (and how to combine kink and cooking in a hygienic manner)—Toby and Laurie have a boatload of issues to work through. Never mind the difference in their ages, which, Laurie discovers, does matter, just not in the way he had initially thought: "Not... because of how other people would judge, but because while some of the bridges between us were instinctive and effortless, love and sex and faith, others had to be carefully built" (5473). Learning how to build such bridges won't make either of the lovers "complete, or some shit like that," but it will help the "bunch of pieces of [each]... fit together in a way they didn't before" (5965). The pieces that want dominance and of pain, humiliation and submission, as well as the pieces that want hand-holding and snuggling and sharing breakfast in bed. The pieces "beyond shame, fear, and vulnerability": the "true things: sex, and love, and us" (5996).

Photo credits:
London Air Ambulance: Telegraph
Lemon Meringue Pie: Cooking up Romance

For Real
Riptide, 2015

Friday, June 5, 2015

Teaching Feminism to the Younger Generation

Despite being a scholar of not only romance but also of children's literature, I'm not really all that keen on romance novels that feature kids as secondary characters. Romance novels are already inclined toward the emotional, and when kids appear on the scene, too often their emotion can slide into sentimentality (in the sense of emotion of the shallow, uncomplicated type). Kids put in danger in romantic suspense; kids used as comic relief in contemporary romance; sticky-sweet kids that urge us go "oooh" in all different subgenres—often the portrayal of children feels more like treating kids as objects, rather than as individual, unique characters. Thanks, but no thanks.

I was surprised, then, to find myself enjoying the interactions between the teen girl rugby players and the two adult romantic protagonists featured in Kat Latham's latest sports romance, Taming the Legend. In large part, I think, because both Camila Morales, the director of Camp Lake Sunshine, and Ash Trenton, retired rugby star turned temporary camp rugby coach, model feminist ideas and behaviors to their younger charges.

Such modeling isn't the point of the story, of course. Taming the Legend is a past-lovers torn apart only to reunite later tale, a staple romance novel trope, and the primary focus of the novel is on Ash and Camila's (re-)developing relationship. The fact that their modeling just happens, almost as if teaching kids about feminism is something both adults naturally take for granted, though, only makes it all the more appreciated.

Some examples of what I'm talking about:

During the first day of workouts, when Ash is introducing rugby to his rather reluctant female campers:

     Hannah raised her hand.
     "Running hurts my boobs."
     A couple girls snickered.
     "Yeah? I can't say it's all that comfortable for my bollocks either. I guess you'll have to get over it."
     "Let's get something straight." Ash said. "Being a girl is not a disability. Boobs, periods, cramps... I know you've got them, but I don't give a monkey's toss about them.... Look, I've spent my career training with men, but I don't care that your bits are different than theirs. They worked hard, and they've achieved great things. I expect the same from you, so I'm going to treat you the same." (Kindle Loc 1928)

And during the big rugby tournament, when one of the players spots Ash's former (hunky) teammate, whom she's been crushing on, with his girlfriend, Camila doesn't hesitate to call Tori on her sexism:

[Tori] glared at the petite woman Liam Callaghan had his arm around. "That bitch better get her hands off my man."
     "Tori. Language. And about a dozen other things, like he's clearly too old for you and already taken. And don't call other women bitches just because they have what you want. And did I mention too old?" [Camila said] (4370)

Small, brief moments in a much larger story, yes. But important, and exciting, nonetheless, such casual, taken-for-granted examples of everyday feminism being taught to the next generation. Something certainly worth noting, and even celebrating.

Can you recall any other romance novels that include such scenes of adults teaching, modeling, or enacting feminist ideals with or for child or teen characters?

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Adventures in Equality: Jenn Bennett's GRIM SHADOWS

In both adventure fiction and in romance, pacing plays a key role. Adventure is all about the quick—one breathtaking danger immediately followed by another, and another, and another, no time to think or feel, only to react. Romance, in contrast, seems more about the slow—a gradual building of feeling for the other, with sexual tension all the more delicious the more it is delayed. It takes a deft authorial hand to combine such diametrically opposed genres. Add in the requirement that an action-oriented romance to also be invested in portraying a relationship of equals, and it's probably not that surprising that reviews of adventure romances have been few and far between on RNFF.

In Grim Shadows, author Jenn Bennett performs an impressive juggling act, successfully combining not only adventure and romance, but fantasy and historical fiction as well. The second book in her Roaring Twenties series, Grim Shadows gives us an Indiana Jones-type hero with a romantic partner far more memorable than any of the heroines with whom Indy was ever paired.

San Francisco's de Young Museum
Bennett's story opens with with our protagonist, archeologist Lowe Magnusson, in immediate danger. On his way back home to San Francisco from a successful dig, Lowe realizes that two men are far more interested in him, and the priceless artifact he smuggled out of Egypt, than they should be. So distracted by their pursuit is Lowe that he temporarily forgets that he's supposed to be meeting the daughter of a curator at the de Young Museum to whom he's hoping to sell his contraband artifact. Hadley Bacall, as cool and logical as Lowe is spontaneous and imaginative, interrupts Lowe's attempts to sweet-talk himself onto a different train to remind him of his promise. And before you can say "boo," the two seemingly opposites are bantering, bickering, and then fleeing together from two thugs with revolvers.

Between Lowe's inventive lies and Hadley's helpful Mori (spirits who react to Hadley's anger and fear by attacking whatever is causing them), the two manage to evade their pursuers and hop a train to SF. Irreverent Lowe and intelligent Hadley immediately start debating decisions and qualifications, a debate that inevitable leads to gender:
     "Is this what you do? Lie your way out of every situation you encounter?"
     "I prefer to think of it as inventing a character. Acting."
     "Acting.... Why wasn't the truth good enough?"
     "You mean, I should have told him that I'm an archeologist who found a piece of a mythical artifact purported to open a door to the land of the dead—and two hired thugs were shooting at us to get it, so we jumped the train like hobos?"
    "You, sir, aren't an archeologist. You're an entrepreneur."
     "I have a degree."
     "And I have two."
     He casually kicked up his feet on the seat next to her, one ankle crossing its mate. "But no fieldwork."
     "Not for lack of wanting, but kudos for making me feel small."
     His face pinched as if she'd slapped him. But only for a moment before blankness settled over his features. He stretched his neck, loosening muscles. "You said you wanted honesty." With his head lolling on the seat back, he rested his hands on his chest and closed his eyes. "If you'd like me to tiptoe around your feminine feelings, I'm happy to do so."
     "I want to be treated like a man."
     He glanced at her from under squinting eyelids, one brow cocked.
     "I mean to say, I want to be given the same directness you'd offer a trusted colleague. I am your equal. Speak frankly to me, or not at all." (20-21)

To Hadley's surprise, Lowe gives her demand due consideration, and acknowledges her right to be treated as an equal. But in his own insouciant way, first by inviting her to call him by his first name, then by taunting her, a taunt that takes a surprising turn:

     "You know, now that I'm thinking about it," he said with his eyes still closed, "if we were trusted male colleagues on a first-name basis with each other, I'd probably be bragging about how I just got a peek at a bea-u-ti-ful ass and nice pair of legs, and what a shame it was that the strange woman who curates mummified corpses in the antiquities wing of the de Young Museum dresses like an old maid."
     The nerve.
     "And I'd tell you that she dresses that way so that the men she works with treat her with respect, not as the privileged daughter of Archibald Bacall."
     His voice softened. "Then I'd tell her that she shouldn't change herself to please anyone, and her coworkers are probably overeducated Stanford graduates with no real-world field experience, so who the hell cares what they think, anyway?"
     "I'm a Stanford graduate." (21-22)

Djed pillar, often referred to as the
backbone of Osiris: the model for
Lowe's amulet
Are Lowe's hints about being open to treating Hadley as an equal just another of his lies? Or does Lowe really admire Hadley for more than her bea-u-ti-ful ass and her father's money? Given that RNFF is featuring Grim Shadows, the answer is probably not surprising. But as this is as much an adventure novel as a romance, the pleasure is in the process as much as it is in the answer.

When Hadley's father reveals to Lowe that there are four other parts to the amulet he found, parts which Dr. Bacall once had but which his now-dead wife hid from him, Lowe agrees to undertake another search. A search in which he cannot make much headway without Hadley's help. Help that becomes more and more important as Lowe and Hadley begin to fall for one another between bouts of searching and fighting off mystical creatures who are also pursuing the amulet. And as they begin to realize that Hadley's father is searching for the amulet not out of academic interest, but out of fears for both himself and his Mori-cursed daughter.

The Art of Manliness blog claims that "Nothing speaks to the heart of man like a good tale of adventure." With Grim Shadows, Jenn Bennet proves that adventure speaks to the heart of woman, too, especially a woman who can find a romantic partner who admires her for her brains and bravery as well as for her beauty.

Photo credits:
de Young Museum 1920s: de Young Museum
Djed pillar: British Museum

Grim Shadows: A Roaring Twenties Novel
Berkley, 2014