Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Three Day Quote Challenge, Blogger Style: Day 3 Quotes from Romance Novels About Feminism

Thanks again to Willaful of "A Willful Woman" for tagging me in a 3 day quote challenge. I've been wanting to write this day 3 post for a while, now, and this challenge has pushed me to finally take it on.

Here are the rules of the challenge:
• Thank the blogger who nominated you.
• Publish a quote on 3 consecutive days on your blog. The quote can be one of your own, from a book, movie, or from anyone who inspires you.
• Nominate 3 more bloggers each day to carry on this endeavor.

Today, I'm sharing multiple quotes here, all taken from romance novels. During the past year and a half, I've been jotting down lines from romances I've read, lines which include the words "feminist" or "feminism." I've been interested (depressed) to see that even in the more liberally-inclined books, these words are often presented negatively, as something the protagonist has to struggle against, or as something the protagonist is uneasy/ashamed to identify with. Or, strangely enough, to make a male character appear more (or less) sympathetic. Or, less often, to introduce a note of humor.

Here is where I'm supposed to list 3 bloggers to take on the quote challenge. Instead, though, I'd like to challenge all romance writers, not to set down their own favorite quotes, but instead, to use the word "feminist" or "feminism" in a positive way in their current WIP.

Sarah Mayberry, Her Kind of Trouble

The heroine is talking to the hero about her former long-term boyfriend, who wanted her to give up her career after they married and had kids. She broke up with him over it, an action with which the hero sympathizes:

"You love what you do. What in their right mind would try to take that away from you?.... I suppose he gave you a vacuum cleaner for your birthday, too," Seth said, shaking his head. "Don't quote me on this, but sometimes I can fully sympathize with the feminist movement" (Kindle Loc 2229)

Cara McKenna, Hard Time

The hero's sister is talking with the heroine:

     "I know I hold on too tight to him, I do. It's hard not to, when he's the one reliable handhold I got, you know? Or maybe you don't know."
     I shook my head. "I don't know. But I can hear what you're saying."
     "I'm GLAD you don't know," she said, meeting my eyes for just a second. "I want my brother to be with someone who wants him, but doesn't NEED him. You know? Listen to me, sounding like a goddamn feminist. But yeah... someone who's not so dependent on him that they can't step back and see all the good in him, I guess." (Kindle Loc 4009)

Molly O'Keefe, His Wife for One Night
A conversation between the heroine, Mia, and her sister, Lucy. Mia has been in a marriage of convenience for the past five years, with a man whom she loves but who doesn't love her:

     "You deserve better."
     "Like what Mom and Dad had?"
     Lucy stopped and turned to face her. "What's wrong with being on your own?" Lucy asked. "There's strength in that."
     "And loneliness."
     "You think Mom wasn't lonely?" Lucy asked. "Dad worked long hours and Mom had nothing to do but wait for him. Raise his children and keep his meals warm."
     "This isn't going to turn into some feminist diatribe, is it?"
     "No. Well, maybe. I'm just saying, marriage can be lonely, too."
     "You don't have to tell me," Mia snapped.

Alice Clayton, Rusty Nailed

Although "we" bought it, use of the word we (ital) here is stretching it considerably. There was no way I could have afforded a house like this, run down or not. It was in a prime area with killer views and a huge footprint in an established neighborhood. I wasn't comfortable with Simon paying for everything, no matter how much money he had stashed away. So I'd insisted that thae house would be in his name only, and I'd contribute to monthly household expenses. He gave me an enormous budget to work with for the design, and while I still felt a bit guilty when I saw the invoices, I had to admit I liked having a rich boyfriend.
     There. I said it. Revoke my feminist card. Take away my--well, whatever you take away when a woman admits she likes nice things. I was getting the house of my dreams, with the man of my dreams. (232)

Delphine Dryden, The Seduction Hypothesis

     Not that she wanted an alpha all the time. But she couldn't deny she'd enjoyed Ben's attempt to play that part, even for a few seconds. Dangerously tempting, especially when she knew what he'd do if he found out just how far she'd once wanted him to take that role in the bedroom. Still wanted, frankly.
     But no, she'd shown the guy a simple amusing scene [in a graphic novel] about an over-the-knee paddling and he'd lectured about feminism for ten minutes solid. Lindsey had no desire to repeat that experience, either the lecture itself or the burning humiliation at Ben's response to her questionable choice in reading material. She hadn't even gotten to the part where she wanted him to do that stuff to her. Overwhelmed by his political correctness, she'd put the comic aside and never raised the subject again. (Loc 388)

And another from the same book, from the hero's POV this time: 

"Yeah. She showed me that [the spanking scene in the graphic novel]. And I kind of blew it off. And told her I'd never do that, because of feminism and exploiting women, and blah blah blah. Stuff I thought she'd want to hear." (Loc 551)

Delphine Dryden, The Principle of Desire

"So my mom is a Southern Baptist. Deep-down, dyed-in-the-wool, revival-tent church lady. Doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, thinks feminism is a dirty word. Watches Billy Graham and votes ultraconservative. All the stereotypes, right? Except she's my mom, and I love her, and in a lot of ways she's an awesome parent.... I realized a long tim ago that my mother's beliefs weren't my beliefs weren't my beliefs, and that used to be a huge problem for me, especially when I was a kid. That's part of my baggage now, she's part of my baggage, in a way I don't think everybody's parents are. Way more than my dad's ever been. Because I had to get past the idea that only one of us could be right, and that I had to hate her if she was wrong or hate myself if she was right." (Loc 1176)

Jill Shalvis, Then Came You

She heard some rustling and knew he was getting out of bed. Normally she'd wonder if he was naked, and maybe even indulge in picturing it, but right now she just wanted him to hold her, as much as that set feminism back fifty years. (257)

Shelly Laurenston, Go Fetch

And what exactly was his deal with ordering her around when they were fucking? And what was her deal with not minding? And she didn't mind. Dammit, she was a feminist! Marched on Washington to protect a woman's right to choose, etc., etc. But damn if she didn't love to hear him growl out orders. Although it was never orders for orders' sake. He always made sure she got off. Always made sure he left her satisfied and smiling. The man was a fucking demon in bed. (Kindle Loc 2298)

Jesse Kornbluth, Married Sex

The (male) narrator describing his wife:

     Blair is also a lecturer in Women's Studies. I'm sure that the first time any number of new Barnard students knock on her door they're expecting a West Side feminist from a time capsule: frizzy-haired, cosmetics-challenged, badly dressed and proud of it. But Blair is more like Gloria Steinem than Betty Friedan. Her hair is professionally streaked, she gets treatments for her skin, and she dresses for her office as if she were going to a C-suite. "Role model" applies here. (Kindle Loc 55)

The narrator describing a male friend:

Jared doesn't work. He doesn't have to. In his twenties, he invented a kids' dessert called Frozen Fruit Guts—the flavors were Rotten Raspberry, Mushy Melon, and Grisly Grape—that he sold to one of the biggest food companies for a fortune. He went on to write short, funny books (Feminism in Sicily and Last Chiropractor Before Freeway) before hitting some kind of personal wall. (1126)

Tamsen Parker, Craving Flight

    I know what my students and the other faculty say about me and probably most of the strangers I see walking down the street. They think I'm foolish and old-fashioned and anti-feminist. I'm not. I understand that sometimes my secular and my religious beliefs come into conflict. I have no excuses to offer. It may seem hypocritical, and yet this is what feels right for me.
     but I think if they could hear Elan's voice at this moment, his hoarse words, they might understand. Covering my hair isn't about being oppressed. It's about honoring my faith, but also about giving a gift and in so giving, bringing a man easily twice my weight and a good foot taller than I am to his knees. Having him so consumed with thoughts of me that I occupy his dreams. (Kindle Loc 369)

Charlotte Stein, The Professor

It was only a couple of weeks ago that he filleted Thomas Brubaker's essay 'Why Feminism is Dumb' for the edification of the entire class. He read out excerpts and licked his finger with a flourish before turning pages, teeth almost snapping around the most deliriously poisonous comments.
     I even remember one of them now: "It seems Mr Brubaker labours under the misapprehension that women are put on this earth to wipe his arse for him. Would that he had done so himself with this essay, and spared us all the horror of having to hear a single ghastly word of it." (Kindle Loc 75)

TJ Clune, How to be a Normal Person

The protagonist, Gus, the owner of a video store, is watching his three older woman friends (who may or may not be lesbians) pick out their next movie:

    Bertha sighed from the shelf where the Cs began. "Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death. Seriously, Gus?"
      "It's a movie with a very strong feminist moralistic backbone," Gus said seriously. "And also, it has a battle between the Barracuda Women and the Piranha Women. Both are cannibal tribes. In the Avocado Jungle. Fun fact, it's based upon Heart of Darkness." (Kindle Loc 238)

Photo credits:
Feminist is not a dirty word: The Electric Typewriter

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Three Day Quote Challenge, Blogger Style: Day Two

Thanks again to Willaful of "A Willful Woman" for tagging me in a 3 day quote challenge. I'm enjoying reading what bloggers, rather than just authors, consider their favorites!

Here are the rules of the challenge:
• Thank the blogger who nominated you.
• Publish a quote on 3 consecutive days on your blog. The quote can be one of your own, from a book, movie, or from anyone who inspires you.
• Nominate 3 more bloggers each day to carry on this endeavor.

Quote for Day 2: Words from feminist theorist bell hooks, from her Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism

"The process begins with the individual woman's acceptance that American women, without exception, are socialized to be racist, classist and sexist, in varying degrees, and that labeling ourselves feminists does not change the fact that we must consciously work to rid ourselves of the legacy of negative socialization."

RNFF is my attempt to consciously rid myself of the legacy of negative socialization, and to open dialogue with others interested in doing the same, by reading and thinking about romance novels. Difficult, painful, and often humbling work. But invigorating, challenging, and joyful, as well.

I nominate:
KJ Charles
Ruthie Knox
Laura Florand

Monday, October 26, 2015

Three Day Quote Challenge, Blogger style: Day one

My thanks to one of my favorite romance novel bloggers, Willaful of "A Willful Woman," for tagging me in a 3 day quote challenge. Fun to have bloggers, rather than just authors, sharing their favorites!

Here are the rules of the challenge:
• Thank the blogger who nominated you.
• Publish a quote on 3 consecutive days on your blog. The quote can be one of your own, from a book, movie, or from anyone who inspires you.
• Nominate 3 more bloggers each day to carry on this endeavor.

Quote for Day 1: A blast from the past: my favorite lines from Jane Austen, from her novel Persuasion. Captain Harville and Anne Eliot are discussing whether men or women are the more inconstant in love.

"I could give you fifty quotations in a moment on my side of the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman's fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men."
     "Perhaps I shall. — Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands."

Is romance what happens when women have the pen (or the keyboard) in their hands?

I nominate:
• Madeline Iva of Lady Smut
• Laurel Cremant of Romance Novels In Color
• Ridley of Love in the Margins

Friday, October 23, 2015

What Makes for a Helpful Review?

As I've watched the reviews start to trickle in for my alter ego, Bliss Bennet's, first foray into fiction-writing, I've been thinking a lot about reviews, and their usefulness (or lack thereof). As a reviewer, I hope my reviews convey both a clear sense of the book under discussion—is it well-written? Are the protagonists place-holders for the reader or individualized, developed characters? Does the storyline conform to, or challenge, the tropes of its genre and sub-genre?— as well as my opinions of its strengths and weaknesses. And I try to always include passages from the book itself, which help show why I've come to opinions I have about it. I don't know that I'm always successful—not everything whirring around in my brain always makes it down to the page/screen—but those are the goals I work toward.

I thought that, as an author reading other people's reviews of my book, I might want something very different. But, to my surprise, I've discovered that I am looking for exactly the same thing in others' reviews that I try to put in my own: a clear sense of the book, a reviewer's opinion about it, and some reasons or textual evidence to support said opinion.

Surprisingly, these can come not only from "good" reviews, but also from "bad" ones.

Let me give you some examples. As a prize for winning the Georgian-Regency-Victorian category in the RWA Hearts Through History chapter, I was given the opportunity to list my book, A Rebel without a Rogue, on NetGalley for a month. Earlier this week, I received a report from the publicity agency through which my book was placed (Barclay Publicity), giving me not only the numerical details on its NetGalley performance, but also the actual words that NetGalley readers who had submitted reviews wrote about the book. Here are some excerpts from some of the 12 readers who submitted reviews.

An example of an unhelpful bad review:

1 star. Completely awful. I didn't like the characters or the plot.

This reviewer's judgment is completely based on his/her own "liking," with little to no thought of whether other people may share his/her tastes. No examples are provided from the book itself about why the characters were unlikable, or why the plot was, either. Unless you know and trust this reviewer already, neither a reader nor the author will find this review of any help.

Examples of unhelpful good reviews:

4 stars. Terrific! I highly recommend this book.
3.5 stars. (no commentary)

As a writer, I'm always happy to receive 4 star reviews, and words of praise too. But as a reader, I'd have to rely solely on the judgment of these reviewers, something I'm not likely to do unless I'm already familiar with him/her and know that I share his/her tastes.

An example of a slightly more helpful though slightly negative review:

4 stars. This was a good romance but I felt it was very predictable.

Here the reader gives the general overview "a good romance," but also adds a reason for why it wasn't a complete win for her/him. After reading this, though, as both a potential reader and as an author of the book, I want to know what exactly about the story felt predictable? Then I could guess whether or not I, or another reader, would also find it predictable. Helpful again for the reviewers' friends, but not so much for those unfamiliar with him/her.

An example of a somewhat negative, but very helpful, review:

5 stars. I was given this book in return for an honest review. Normally, I would put this sentence last, however this book gave me some trouble. It was a passionate, emotional, historical, heartrending story. It was beautifully written as well as attention holding. The characters and the depths of the story were magnificent. Okay, I would say because it was a little too much for me as a romance. I am certain that many would give this one a 5. However the depths were disturbing when I wanted a historical that would make me laugh instead of one that tore at my heart and my emotions. It has all the makings of an absolutely fantastic story. So being honest I give it 5 Stars for all of that and 4 stars from me personally.

This reviewer responds to the book based on her personal preferences ("I wanted a historical that would make me laugh"), but recognizes that her preference may not be shared by everyone else. She gives a strong sense of just what the book feels like, though, even if it is a feeling that made her personally uncomfortable. Now, people like the reviewer, who are looking for light, funny historicals will know not to pick up this book. But those who read for the emotions, who like a book with more depth, can also benefit from this review; even if they don't share the reviewer's taste, s/he has given them enough information to know whether the tone of the book is likely to be their cup of tea. And as a writer, I feel validated; I was trying to write a book that fell more towards the "heartrending" than towards the humorous end of the scale, and this reader felt I achieved it.

So, what are your thoughts about what makes for a good review? If you're a reviewer (Goodreads, amazon, LibraryThing, your own blog, etc.), what do you try to accomplish in your reviews? When you're a reader, what do you look for in a review? And finally, if you're an author, does what you're looking for in a review change from when you're reading a review as a potential reader?

Photo credits:
The worst: Above the Law
5 stars: 5 Star Auto Care

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Pot of Gold at the Beginning of the Rainbow? Rebecca Rogers Maher's ROLLING IN THE DEEP

A romance novel, much like a fairy tale, typically ends with a reward: a new job, perhaps; a stronger relationship with friends and family, quite often; and, of course, a committed romantic partner. The reward, otherwise known as HEA, or happily ever after, is such an integral part of the genre that it is one of the two elements in RWA's definition of romance.

What happens, though, when the reward comes at the start, rather than the end, of the romance? What comes after the reward? After what many would consider a "Happily Ever After"?

In the case of Rebecca Rogers Maher's latest contemporary, Rolling in the Deep, the reward in question is one millions and millions of Americans attempt to win every week: the lottery. More specifically, in the case of Holly Ward and Ray Lopez, co-workers at a Cogmans store (think Wal-Mart or whatever big box chain department store owns the working class market in your area), the four hundred and twenty-five million dollar jackpot in the New York state's latest Powerball lottery. Holly doesn't ever invest her hard-earned Cogmans pay buying the most infinitesimal chance at a wildly improbably dream: "Yeah. Let's definitely play the lottery. Because that's not rigged at all. We'll totally win" (Kindle Loc 120). But new coworker Ray, whom she'd find sexy and appealing if only she weren't as tired "as a hamster in a wheel" from working a demoralizing, dead-end job in order to care for her son, attempts to cheer her up when he catches her in a down moment by proposing they go in together on ticket, and Holly ends up handing over a dollar. A dollar really isn't too much to spend "for the sake of a little dreaming," is it?

Dream turns into reality, though, when number after number read out by the eager young woman in a red pantsuit on the television screen matches the the numbers on the ticket Ray purchased. Suddenly, less than a quarter of the way through their story, Ray and Holly find themselves in the middle of something that's supposed to be a fairy tale.

But for Ray and Holly, winning the jackpot often feels more like a nightmare. Because neither Holly nor Ray can set aside the existential question that comes not only to those who experience tragedy, but also to those who are the beneficiaries of a completely unmerited windfall: "Why me?"

Up until now, Holly's life has been a battle. She'd been a good student, but growing up white and poor in Poughkeepsie, Holly's schooling hadn't been strong enough to get her in anywhere but the local community college. She'd attended there for two years, waitressing to pay her way through, and planned to transfer to a more competitive, higher-ranking college, one whose diploma would allow her access to a decent-paying job. But then her mother, who worked cleaning bathrooms at Vassar, died from a heart attack, and a handsome but manipulative man conned his way into her life. Only after several years of suffering his criticisms and verbal abuse did Holly find the courage to divorce him, gaining partial custody of her son, a pittance of a child support payment, and a job at Cogmans. "What kind of loser works at Cogmans? What kind of mother would let her child see her like that?" her still abusive ex taunts whenever she drops her son off at his fancy new house (he's remarried, a wealthy woman this time around). Often, Holly can't help but wonder herself.

Mexican-Italian Ray had a far stronger family life, growing up surrounded by the Queens community that frequented the diner where his mother waitressed. Ray dreamed of working in a diner of his own, but his mother, who could have returned to Mexico after her husband died, remained in New York, determined that her two boys would have a better life than she had. Before her recent death, she made Ray promise to pursue something better for himself: to attend the Culinary Institute and earn a job in "quality" restaurant. But cooking in a diner hasn't given him the experience he needs to even apply to the elite school. Moving closer to the Institute, he's working one job at a restaurant, gaining the requisite experience at a "real" restaurant, and working a second job at Cogmans to make ends meet. But "up here in the country," Ray feels isolated, unmoored. Holly is the only one who offered a friendly "hello," who asked him if he needed help, who captures his attention with her sadness, and her dignity, and her calm. No wonder he's been nursing a giant crush on her for weeks. And that he's thrilled that she agreed to go in with him on the lottery ticket.

But now that they've actually hit the jackpot, neither Holly nor Ray is really feeling like the hero of the fairy tale everyone tells them they're in. The attention, the decisions, the invasion of privacy, and above all, winner's (rather than survivor's) guilt, all weigh them down. As Holly tells her friend Beth:

"I keep waiting for it to start to feel good. To be, you know, exciting, like you said. I keep thinking tomorrow I'll wake up and it'll sink in, and I'll celebrate . . . . It's just that you know . . . think of all the millions of people who paid for a Powerball ticket . . . And they lost, and I won. Why? It's  not . . . it's not fair. I feel like I don't deserve it, no more than anyone else did. So why me?" (852-62)

And as Ray thinks as he's walking into a party for himself and Holly given by his ex-Cogmans co-workers:

     I can leave.
     But the woman with the cart next to me can't. She can't afford to shop anywhere else. All my coworkers, waiting for me in the break room with a cake to celebrate my lottery win—they can't leave. They need this job, just like I did a few days ago.
     I don't know what I'm supposed to do with that. (968)

In their desperation to flee, if only for a a few stolen moments, from the overwhelming changes about to crash atop them like a tsunami, Ray and Holly make their escape—via sex. With one another. And soon the newspaper headlines aren't only about striking it rich: "Local Powerball Winners Hit It Big in More Ways Than One" (1911). Will Ray and Holly's romance wither under the pressure, before it even has a chance to bloom?

Maher's story isn't interested in allowing readers to vicariously live out their dreams of untold riches by watching empty placeholder characters spend and spree on their behalves. But nor is it a cautionary tale, warning readers not to wish for the sun for they'll only get burned. Instead, it is a thoughtful attempt to understand what it means to be happy, and to what extent wealth can contribute to the pursuit of same. For make no mistake, having money means having power, and being poor often equates to being powerless, as Maher's class-conscious romance makes all-too-painfully clear.

But it also suggests that other things—love for family; respect for self; a desire for community; the need to give back—can remain constants, even in the face of tragedy.

And even in the face of the proverbial pot of gold.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Rolling in the Deep
Loveswept, 2015

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Protective Hero, or What Are Romance Readers So Afraid Of?

I've heard a lot of romance writers and critics account for the trend in romance for BDSM heroines, and romance heroines in general, taking sexual pleasure by giving up control by pointing to the burdens of the second shift. Having won a certain degree of equality in the workplace (we'll put aside the issue of the gendered wage gap for now), the majority of Western women now put in a full day of work outside the home. But since men have not rallied for equality on the home front, at least not to the same degree that women have on the work front, women end up pulling a second shift, still doing nearly the same amount of childcare and housework that they did when they worked only at home: cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, scheduling children's medical appointments, sending birthday cards to relatives, etc. etc. The apparently sexist romance trope of giving over power/control, then, is really a metaphoric cry of feminist frustration/outrage at continued gender inequalities in a purportedly post-feminist society.

I can buy this explanation to a certain extent (although the snarky, outspoken side of me just wants to stop and shout, "don't just wallow in a book that tries to distract you from the inequality in your life; demand that your boyfriend/spouse take on an equitable share of the home chores!"). What I'm thinking about today, though, is the fact that I haven't yet heard a comparable socio-historic explanation for the prevalence of another, perhaps even more common trope in romance: the trope of the protective hero. Mr. Protector is the star of the majority of today's paranormal books, especially those with shapeshifters. But he also appears almost as often in erotica, in romantic suspenses, in historicals, and even in contemporaries. In fact, I came across him twice just in the past three days, and not just in books from the same publisher, or by the same author, or even in the same genre: in Virna DePaul's rather un-feminist* erotic suspense romance Filthy Rich, as well as in Meredith Duran's far more progressive Victorian historical, Luck Be a Lady. To wit:

"Despite the fact that she was obviously capable of taking care of herself, she brought out his protective instincts" (Filthy Rich, Kindle Loc 525)

"I'm going to protect you on this, Cara. Trust me, okay?" (FR 1821)

"He'd fucking promised to protect Cara, and instead he'd allowed someone to get close while they'd ben dancing and endanger her again" (FR 3895)

"I told you once: violence is clumsy. But sometimes it's called for. And when me and mind are at stake, I'll do what I must. Show no weakness, accept no insult, allow no advantage: that's the law of the street. (Luck p. 216)

     "Your wife, whom you will overrule whenever you deem it fit. Your wife, whom you will lock away when her desires strike you as inconvenient."
     "To hell with that," he snarled. "If I think you in danger, yes. That's what a man does—for his wife, for his friends, for anyone he loves. You think I give a damn if you're angry now, so long as you're safe tonight?" (Luck 327)

The word "protect," or some form of it, appears forty times in the NetGalley ARC of Filthy Rich, most often in reference to the feelings that its rich businessman hero, Branden Duke, experiences towards the heroine Cara. In contrast, the word appears hardly at all in the novel by the more literarily-inclined Duran. Yet Duran's hero, a London crime boss, is just as invested in a conception of masculinity defined by its ability to protect a heterosexual beloved as is DePaul's Manhattanite financier.

Why, at this particular point in history, do so many romance readers find the fantasy of being loved by a protective man so appealing? Or, to ask the question another way, what are romance readers today so afraid of? In real life, few of us are in danger of having someone ruin our reputations with a false sex tape, or being abducted by a mad Russian general, or being attacked by a crazed colleague, or being incarcerated in a Victorian madhouse. What is is that many romance readers feel in danger of, then, that draws them/us like bees to pollen to heroes who promise to save us, even at the expense of our independence?

*See my Goodreads review of Filthy Rich if you want the particulars of why I consider this one unfeminist

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Teens and Bisexuality: Dahlia Adler's UNDER THE LIGHTS and Hannah Moskowitz's NOT OTHERWISE SPECIFIED

I know it's going to make me sound like an old fogie, but since I turned 50 earlier this year, I've had a lot of moments of "wow, things are sure different now than when I was (insert much younger age)." I've been feeling that feeling a lot this week, after jotting down book recommendations for YA books with LGBTQIA main characters from posters over at the Queerromance site. Back in 1965, the year of my birth, no books for teenagers had been published that featured gay or lesbian characters. Not until 1969 did children's publishing foray into queer territory, with John Donovan's heartfelt but rather depressing I'll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip. It would take thirteen more years before teen lesbians were featured in a book with a (sort-of) happy ending, with Nancy Garden's 1982 novel Annie on My Mind. As late as the mid-1990s, when I worked as an editor in the Children's Book department of a major trade publisher, I think I can count on one hand the number of manuscripts we received that contained any queer content, with the notable exception of stories with teens dealing with gay friends or relatives stricken by AIDS.

But today, in 2015, I can search Goodreads for "YA Books with LGBT Themes" and find 166 titles published this year alone. A far cry from the measly 200 titles that could be placed on such a list in the entire 35 years between 1969 and 2004.

My, how times have changed.

YA novels with bisexual protagonists have been slower to appear, no doubt due to controversies within academia, and within the queer community itself, over whether bisexuality does/should exist as a separate identity. It was a real pleasure, then, to spend several days last week reading two such books (even if one didn't in the end turn out to be a romance).

Dahlia Adler's Under the Lights is the second book in a series about the stars of a hit teen television show. At first, since the story is told in dual narratives—one by 17-year-old Korean-American good girl Vanessa Park, one of the stars of Daylight Falls, the other by 20 year-old (presumably white) bad boy Josh Chester, best friend of Vanessa's DF love interest—readers might suspect that Van and Josh are destined to make a love connection. Josh does, in fact, find himself coming to care for Van as a person, far different from the myriad hookups and easy lays his success as a model and occasional actor have tossed in his lap. But Van, dating a clean-cut boy band member, finds herself not falling for Josh (no Taylor Swift she!), but instead falling into friendship with red-headed Brianna, the intern/daughter of her agent.

Brianna's open about her own sexuality—"I'm an equal-opportunity-leave-relationship-destruction-in-my-wake kind of girl," she tells Van when Van is confused at her mentioning both an ex-boyfriend and an ex-girlfriend (66). Though she's a virgin (waiting to have sex until she falls in love), she's always assumed she was straight. But when Brianna calls her for flirting when she doesn't really mean anything by it, Van is more than a little confused. Was she really flirting with a girl? Is she only trying to fill the void in her life left by her best friend Ally's move to New York? Or could she truly be attracted to Brianna? And if she is, what would that do to her career? Hard enough being an Asian-American "America's Sweetheart"; is America really ready for an Asian American lesbian teen idol?

Adler's book does commit one of the no-nos listed in Bisexual Books' "The 6 Things That Need to Change About Bisexual Characters in YA": not allowing the bisexual character to narrate, especially when it comes to pivotal events in her/his life. We only see Brianna through Vanessa's (and Josh's) eyes. And Van's angst-ing about the impossibility of coming out gets resolved all too neatly ("I got my Hollywood ending," Van notes at book's end). But even if this isn't the deepest YA ever written, it has a breezy, raunchy appeal. And after reading so many YA romances with adolescent boys who declare their (seemingly) unrequited love to teen girls only to discover they are loved after all, it's hard not to smile at the way Adler flips expectations here to ensure gay/bisexual romance triumphs.

And I just couldn't end this post without giving a shout out to Hannah Moskowitz's Not Otherwise Specified, even though it is more a "learning to love oneself" kind of book than a learning to love someone else romance. The voice Moskowitz has created for her first-person protagonist, an outspoken African-American bisexual ballerina growing up in, of all places, Nebraska, is one that's going to stay with me for a very long time. Outspoken, ebullient, and outcast among outcasts (not gay enough for the lesbian clique; not skinny or white enough for the Nebraska ballet; not ill-looking enough for anyone to acknowledge the eating disorder she's vowed to herself she'll kick), Etta herself is unique in a way that none of these descriptors can even come close to capturing. It's pretty rare for me to want to jump up and cheer a YA protagonist's revelation, but when Etta finally realizes that fulfilling the dreams of others, rather than embracing her own, is not nearly good enough for such an amazing person as she is, I had a hard time wiping the smile off my face. I'm guess you might just, too.

Under the Lights
A Daylight Falls novel
Spencer Hill Press, 2015

Not Otherwise Specified
Simon Pulse, 2015

Friday, October 9, 2015

Celebrating Queer Romance Month

A quick post today, to give a big shout out to Queer Romance Month celebrations. Check out the posts at for intelligent, funny, heartwarming and heartbreaking posts about the current state of queer romance, and for recommendations for future reading.

And check out these past posts for queer romance reads from RNFF:

Complicated Identities: Sara Farizan's Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel

Complicating Dominance and Submission: Alexis Hall's For Real

Countering Orientalism: Sara Farizan's If You Could Be Mine

Feminist Guidelines for Reading M/M Romance?

Gay for You or Out for You?

Gay Romance and Professional Sports: Sean Kennedy's Tigers and Devils

Hiding In/From the Man Cave: Amy Jo Cousins' Off Campus

Late Bloomers? K. J. Charles' Think of England and Sarina Bowen's The Understatement of the Year

Lesbian Allies, Heterosexual Romance: Meljean Brook's Riveted

Lesbian Romantic Suspense: Mason Dixon's Date with Destiny and Andrea Bramhall's Clean Slate

Love in the Limelight: Nell Stark's The Princess Affair and Lynn Ames' All That Lies Within

Nancy Garden on my Mind

Negotiating the Gender Politics of Military Life: Lauren Gallagher's Razor Wire

Paying it Forward: Heidi Cullinan's Love Lessons series

Phyllis M. Betz's Lesbian Romance Novels and the state of romance scholarship

The Politics of M/M romance and Alex Beecroft's Blessed Isle

The Power and Limits of Labels: Bill Konigsberg's Openly Straight

Romance at the Roosevelt: Heidi Cullinan's Carry the Ocean

Spotlight on the Lambda Nominees: Karin Kallmaker's Love by the Numbers

Spotlight on the Lambdas, Part 2: Ann McMan and Salem West's Hoosier Daddy

Ways of Being Gay... Ann Herendeen's Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander

You Don't Complete Me: Solace Ames' The Submission Gift

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Not Your Everyday Erotic Romance: M. O'Keefe's EVERYTHING I LEFT UNSAID

Last week, on the Everafter Romance blog, Guest blogger Sara Horney noted her discontent with the current state of the erotic romance market. "Has Erotica Become the Beige Granny Pants of Romance?" Horney asked, suggesting that in their rush to bank in on the 50 Shades of Grey trend, publishers and authors are simply churning out cardboard cutouts of the same story, time and time again:

No longer was erotica the sexy, bright, red thong of my reading wardrobe, it became the beige granny panties. Just a boring same old-same old in which an Alpha billionaire/MC president/rockstar/DEA Agent/MMA fighter/sex club owner/shifter of some kind meets a naive ingenue/single mom/investigative journalist/uptight sex therapist/curvy entrepreneur and teaches her about the darker side/emotional healing power/feminist truth of pleasure. Over and over and over again. For me, erotica became the Groundhog Day of reading.

I both agree and disagree with Horney. I agree that what the mainstream publishers (and many indie writers, as well) keep putting out there are simply worn out retreads of an already painfully tedious storyline. But I disagree that this beaten-to-death storyline is not the only one you can find in the current realm of erotic romance (for example, give Ruthie Knox and Mary Ann Rivers' enchanted realism/erotic new adult novella The Dark Space a try if you're looking for something really different).

And even if an author does use the 50 Shades model as a starting point, it doesn't have to end up as pointless as a rerun of Groundhog Day. It just might turn into something as thought-provoking as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Take Molly O'Keefe, whose contemporary romances I've often praised on this blog. Her latest offering, though, looks and feels far different than her previously published novels. Its cover is dark, rather than colorful; its cover models are shot in broody black and white. O'Keefe has even gone so far as to do that strange erotica writer thing, abbreviating her first name, so that the cheerful, sweet, down-home "Molly" becomes the more enigmatic "M."

Unsurprisingly, Everything I Left Unsaid reads far differently than O'Keefe's previous books, at least as far as content goes. Hot phone sex with a stranger; a woman discovering the pleasure of her own sexuality; a wealthy alpha male who tells the heroine what to do; deep, dark secrets haunting each character's past—in this book, you can find all tropes of the repetitively boring erotic romance that Horney decries, in abundance.

What's different about O'Keefe's book, though, is that it doesn't dance blindly on the thin line between domineering hero and abusive hero, as so many erotic romances do. Horney describes her frustration thus: "Too many times have I given up on a novel because authors have written a male character that has crossed the line from Alpha male to plain old asshole male." Such books never acknowledge, never mind even recognize, that they've crossed this line, that their storylines, as Horney describes them, "read as more abusive than sexy."

In contrast, Everything I Left Unsaid puts the issue of abuse front and center. The novel opens with protagonist Annie arriving not at a swanky office building of her future boss/romantic interest, but at a North Carolina trailer park, where "escape smelled like a thick layer of Febreze over stale cigarette smoke." We gradually learn that Annie has taken the courageous step of fleeing from her physically abusive husband, dying her hair, driving hundreds of miles, and laying a trail of diversions to keep herself safe.

When a cell phone starts ringing from behind the cushions of the trailer she's rented, though, the appeasing ways her husband inculcated in her over five years of marriage, as well as her own friendly nature, lead Annie to answer it. And when she hears the caller's "angry sigh. The this is your fault sigh," she struggles with how to answer. But her actions on her own behalf give her the anger, and the drive, to fight the urge to appease:

And I had this visceral reaction, screwed into the marrow of my bones over the last five years, to do everything in my power and some things incredibly outside my power to appease the anger behind that sigh. To make it all okay.
     But those days were officially over.
     Sorry, Dylan. No one sighs like that at me. Not anymore. Not ever. (Kindle Loc 141).

Though Annie isn't wise about the ways of the big bad world (she lived isolated on a rural Oklahoma farm for all her life), she knows enough to give the caller a false name. Her choice—that of her "bold... confident. Embarrassingly sexy" cousin Layla, rather than her "utterly staid and uptight" self—suggests the person she's hoping to become. A self that she begins to explore with the caller, a man named Dylan.

Because unlike her husband, Dylan asks if she's okay, asks "Are you safe?", and refuses her offer to return his phone to him. As a result, Annie is more than tempted to trust Dylan with her secrets. But asking someone else to help her, to solve her problems for her, is not why she left her husband, a man whose offer to do the same she had accepted without thinking, to her lasting regret.

The previous renter of the trailer had used the phone to report in to Dylan about the doings of her neighbor, a surly older man named Ben. Annie offers to do the same, even without knowing why Dylan needs to know about the old man. And suddenly, abruptly, their conversation turns charged:

     "Are you offering to look in on him for me?"
     "That easy?"
     "That easy.
     "When's the last time you said no to someone?" he asked.
     "Why does it matter?"
     "I have a sense, Layla, that you give away your yeses without thinking."
     Oh, he was right. So damn right.
     "And you want my no's?"
     "I want something you don't give away."
     My knees buckled and I leaned back against the wood-paneled wall, feeling light-headed. How... how did we get here? What has happened to me? (215).

Annie tells Dylan not to call her again, fearful of the strong feelings his words, and his voice, evoke. But when Dylan sends her a phone recharger, and tells her he'll keep paying for the plan, she can't help but call him back with her thanks. And again, simple conversation turns immediately erotic.

A series of hot bouts of phone sex between inexperienced Annie and directing Dylan ensue. But this isn't just a story about a dominant guy teaching an innocent ingenue how to embrace her sexuality. It's also about how to figure out when, and where, to draw the lines. Is neighbor Ben simply a grouchy old man? Or a stone-cold killer? Is niceness a positive trait, or one that only leaves you open to exploitation and harm? Can a man be simultaneously controlling and kind? How little control does a victim have over her own life, and how much of her own behavior is self-deception, an act of complicity with her own abuse? And where is the line between brave and just plain crazy?

Since the book leaves us on a cliffhanger, none of these questions gets definitively answered. But by simply being willing to ask them, M. O'Keefe proves herself far more interested in women's empowerment than many a fellow rider on the 50 Shades erotic romance train.

Everything I Left Unsaid
Bantam, 2015

Friday, October 2, 2015

Second Chance Romance, One Night Stand Style

I'm a big fan of second chance romance, especially those books in which the protagonists were just not ready/mature enough to make a relationship work during their initial time together. For me, what's appealing about the second-chance romance trope is the idea that mistakes aren't forever. You can and will screw up, in life and in love, but that doesn't mean you're a bad person, or that you're doomed only to regrets until the day you die. Familiarity, too, is part of the appeal—returning to someone whom you once knew really well, and rediscovering those things about that person that made you light up with smiles. And then finding out the things about that person that are different, some of which may even make that person more appealing. Familiarity and forgiveness—a formula almost as good as salted caramel gelato, at least to this romance reader.

I've come across several second-chance romances of late, though, in which the "first chance" is barely more than a one-night or one-weekend stand. J. Kenner's Say My Name (an RWA conference give-away), Laura Florand's A Wish Upon Jasmine, and Johanna Lemon's That Girl all feature heterosexual couples who meet and experience an intense, immediate sexual and emotional connection, but then who for various reasons end up parting. And then who end up back together again, trying to understand what drew them apart, and why it might be better for them, and for each other, if they try and stay together.

This variation on the second-chance romance obviously appeals for one of the same reasons that its more common cousin does: the idea that mistakes aren't forever, that forgiveness is not just a possibility, but a realizable promise. But it seems to be totally lacking when it comes to the second piece: familiarity. These pairs of lovers did not stay together long enough to really know much about the other, not in the same way that, say, Jane Austen's Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth (Persuasion)  or Lisa Kleypas's Win and Kev (Seduce Me at Sunrise), Kristan Higgins' Harper and Nick (My One and Only) or even Sherry Thomas's Briony and Leo (Not Quite a Husband) do.

What different desires, then, do you think the one-night stand second-chance romance appeals to? What fantasies does it satisfy, that romances with longer-term first-chance stages don't?