Friday, January 29, 2016

A Gender Tax on Books?

In all the distractions of the holidays, you may have missed news of the report issued last month by the New York Consumer Affairs Board detailing the "gender tax" women pay on typical consumer goods. Entitled From Cradle to Cane: The Cost of Being a Female Consumer, the study compared the prices of products in five categories—toys and accessories; children's clothing; adult clothing; personal care products; and senior/home health care products—and found that in New York City, girls and women were charged on average 7% more for similar products than were men. 42% of the time, women's products costs more than men's products; only 18% of the time did products for men cost more than those for women.

Seven percent might not sound like an awful lot, but small percentages add up over the course of a lifetime of purchasing. According to a 1994 study  cited in the New York one, a study that focused on gendered services rather than products, women "effectively paid an annual 'gender tax' of approximately $1,351 for the same services as men." Paying more for services, paying more for products, and earning less because of the gendered gap in wages, women are given the short end of the financial stick.

The report made me wonder whether there is, or ever has been, a "gender tax" on books. Mass market books aimed primarily at women (aka romances) don't cost more than those aimed primarily at men (spy, adventure, etc.), a cursory glance at pricing suggests. But might the gender tax come not at the back end (charging the consumer), but rather at the front end (lower advances and royalty rates for the producers)? The still unresolved class action lawsuit against Harlequin Enterprises, arguing that the company created Swiss subsidiaries so that it would not have to pay its authors the royalties they were contractually owed for ebooks suggests as much. It might also explain why the price of lesbian romance is generally higher than that of conventional romance: lesbian publishers, in a move counter to the sexist drive to charge women more, are not gouging their consumer, but rather more fairly compensating their (primarily female) creators.

The New York Consumer Affairs Board is promoting a social media campaign, asking people to report instances of gendered pricing differences on twitter, at #genderpricing. And I'd love to hear from you here, if you see now (or have seen in the past) gendered price differences in mass market fiction.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

What Do We Owe Our Exes? Elle Kennedy's THE SCORE

The latest addition to Elle Kennedy's New Adult Off-Campus series, The Score, focuses on the developing romance between college hockey player Dean Di Laurentis, the "king of one-night stands," and Allie Hayes, the girl who makes "little Dean" (i.e., his cock) pine for her and no other. Yet Kennedy's tale isn't the "teach/tame the philandering bastard the folly of his promiscuous ways by throwing a good-hearted virgin at him" storyline typical of old school romance (a large part of the appeal of the novel is that Allie, though she's had far fewer partners than has Dean, is in many ways more sexually adventurous than he is). Neither is the novel about being simultaneously resentful of and jealous of a man's right to be more sexually active than a woman is, as are so many other good-girl-heroine romances. In fact, the key to the fantasy of Kennedy's romance is that the villain of the piece is not sleep-around Dean, but Allie's nice-guy ex-boyfriend, Sean.

Reading The Score made me laugh at Dean's bawdy seduction attempts as he tries to win over the one girl who says "no" to any repeat performances after sleeping with him one time. But it really made me think why so many young women hold on to romantic partners long after everyone around them knows that the relationship has long run its course. And how many young women feel guilty if they are the ones to call a halt. What, if anything, do girls owe their exes?

The Score opens with Allie receiving increasingly desperate text messages from Sean, whom she's just broke up with—again. For the fourth time in three years. After being part of a couple since freshman year, Allie feels "like such a failure" for not making it work with Sean. "No, I feel like a quitter," she amends her thought; a quitter because "The last piece of advice my mom gave me before she died was to never give up on love" (Kindle Loc 62). Women teach other women that it is their role to nurture relationships, to pour their energies into emotional care-taking; when such care-taking fails to achieve the promised results, women are often made to feel, or make themselves feel, guilty about it.

Sean isn't evil; in fact, he's often rather sweet. But he can also be pretty un-sweet, especially when Allie's goals do not align with his. Their latest breakup came after Allie realized that while Sean had been fine with her plan to move to LA after college to pursue an acting career at the start of their relationship, of late he'd been arguing against her going into acting at all. His dream is for Allie to join him in Vermont, playing the role of happy housewife as he works at his father's insurance firm. And the arguments he'd been using to convince Allie of the rightness of his dream have involved far more verbal abuse of her acting talent than celebration of the bucolic Vermont lifestyle.

And so Allie breaks up with him. Again. For the last time, she swears. Afraid, though, because of her "terrible habit of wanting to make everyone happy, eve if it means sacrificing my own happiness" makes her scarily susceptible to Sean's sweet-talking ways (1046), Allie calls on her roommate, Hannah, for backup. But Hannah, out of town for the night with her boyfriend, can only offer her boyfriend's house as an escape. A house which said boyfriend just happens to share with the incorrigible, highly-sexed Dean. Allie, who's not a one-night-stand kind of girl, starts off the evening determined not to heed Dean's inevitable come-ons. Yet Dean's surprisingly easy to talk to, and, after a movie, a joint, and more than a little tequila, Allie wakes up the next morning hung over and naked—beside an equally naked Dean.

Allie feels anything but satisfied, even though the sex she and Dean shared was fabulous. "I'm such a slut. Okay, maybe I'm not. Maybe I'm just a twenty-two year old woman who had some no-strings fun for once in her life," Allie debates with herself after the fact. One-night stands make her feel "defiled," "ashamed," and now, having engaged in one only one day after breaking up with a long-standing boyfriend, more than a little guilty (721, 726). So guilty that Allie feels compelled to tell Sean what she's done when he calls with his heartfelt apologies and pleas for forgiveness and second (fifth?) chances). And later, when Sean tells her "I forgive you," Allie feels not just resentful ("because forgiveness implies that I'd done something wrong by sleeping with someone else, and that wasn't the case"), but also "relieved."

Intriguingly, it is the two men in her life who do the most to convince Allie that she does not owe Sean. Allie's tough father tells her he's glad she broke up with Sean:

    "Boy was too needy," Mr. Hayes continues. "I didn't like the way he looked at you."
     "How did he look at me?" Allie asks warily.
     "Like you were his entire world."
     She frowns. "And that's a bad thing?"
     "Damn right it is. Nobody should ever be someone else's entire world. That's not healthy, AJ. If your whole life is centered on one thing—one person—whatcha going to be left with if that person goes away? Absolutely nothing." He gruffly reiterates, "Not healthy." (3427)

And Dean urges her to drop the name/blame game:

    "But I wasn't kidding when I said I'm not into casual sex, okay? Every time I think about what we did this weekend, I feel—"
     "Horny?" he supplies.
     Yes. "Slutty."
     I don't expect the flare of irritation I glimpse in his eyes. "You want some advice, babe? Erase that word from your vocabulary."
     I suddenly feel guilty again, but I'm not sure why. Very reluctantly, I join him on the couch, making sure to keep some distance between us.
     "I mean it," he continues. "Stop slut-shaming yourself. And fuck the word slut. People should be able to have sex whenever they want, however many times they want, with however many partners they choose, and not get some shitty label slapped on them."
     He's right, but . . .  "The label is there whether we like it or not," I point out.
     "Yeah, and it was created by prudes and judgmental assholes and jealous pricks who wish they were getting laid on the regular but aren't." Dean shakes his head. "You need to stop thinking there's something wrong with what we did. We had fun. We were safe. We didn't hurt anybody. It's nobody's business what you or anyone else does in the privacy of their bedrooms, all right?"
     Oddly enough, his words succeed in easing some of the shame that's been trapped inside me since Friday night. (1315)

And this, perhaps, is where the fantasy of this romance lies: not in the fact that sex-loving Dean falls for sexually adventurous Allie, but that sex-loving Dean proves to be a sex-positive feminist, while nice-guy Sean proves to be a sexist asshat (examples of which come later in the story). Allie may need validation from men, as so many romance heroines do, but ultimately this validation is about affirming her rights—to her own plans, her own desires, and above all, her own sexual selfhood—not the rights of her male partner.

Or maybe there are just a lot more sex-loving sex-positive male feminists out there than when I was in college?

The Score
Off-Campus Book #3

Friday, January 22, 2016

Offstage Heroine-ism and Gendered Cornering

If you're not a fiction writer, you may not be familiar with this piece of advice: be cruel to your characters. But it's something that experienced authors often tell writer wanna-bes.

Why? Because conventional writing wisdom says that authors often feel protective of their creations, and so do not put them into difficult enough situations, either plot-wise or emotion-wise. Which leads to a story without conflict, without the tension that pushes readers to turn the page, and the next, and the next. As a writer, don't coddle your characters; corner them, then toss them, kicking and screaming, into the hottest water you can boil.

I was thinking about this bit of writing advice while I was reading Cate Cameron's forthcoming contemporary, Hometown Hero. Hero's hero is actually a heroine: Mixed Martial Arts fighter Zara Hale. Daughter of an absent mother and a perpetually drunk father, Zara grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, depending on her older brother Zane to keep her fed and safe. Zara did not so much escape her small Vermont hometown as get pushed out of it after Zane suffered a mental breakdown and went on a drug-induced crime spree, a spree that landed him in prison. Sent off to live with an aunt in New York, tough-girl Zara found solace, and then a career, in the local gym and in MMA.

small town Vermont:
all rainbows & kittens?
Now, ten years later, Zara's at the top of her game, the reigning female MMA champion. But author Cameron has clearly heeded the conventional writing wisdom, and is not afraid to heap the bad times on her protagonist. As the novel opens, two concussions in a row have temporarily sidelined Zara. And thus she has no excuse for not going back to her Vermont hometown to keep tabs on Zane, just released from prison. And to take a temporary job at a community center, helping disadvantaged kids. No matter how little love she has for quaint Lake Sullivan and its inhabitants. Why should she put herself out for them? What did anyone there do to help her or Zane when their family was falling apart? And why should she be grateful to Cal Montgomery, town rich boy and Zane's purported best friend, for offering both her and Zane jobs at the community center? Isn't he just trying to make up for the fact that it was he who called the cops on Zane?

Zara's not into publicity, but her agent, Andre, insists that going home is perfect move, one that will both improve her own image as well as that of the MMA: "But seriously, making you into some sort of Ripley character, like from Aliens? You're a fierce warrior woman with a soft spot for kids. It's brilliant." Zara tries to argue with him—"I'm so tired of that crap. The men are allowed to just fight. They don't have to look pretty and flirt with reporters and work with damn kids!" But her sexist agent immediately shoots her feminist argument down:

Fighter or sex object?
"Simple question, Zara. Because, I don't know, maybe I missed something. So let me just check . . . Are you a man?" Andre paused, just long enough to pretend he was waiting for an answer. "Oh, no, you're not? Okay, next question. Do you live in a fantasy world of total equality, or do you live in this world?" Another pause for effect. "Oh, you live in this world? Then stop wasting my time with your whining and help me manage your career as a female fighter in the current universe. Okay?" (Kindle Loc 141)

With such a set-up, was it any wonder that I feared the take-home message of the story would be something along the lines of: 1, Zara needs to learn to like kids (because all good women like kids!); 2, Zara needs to learn to like small-town Vermont (because yeah, small-town America!); and, of course, 3, Zara needs to fall for the right guy (yeah, romance!). All of which, of course, will lead to 4, Zara needs to give up her MMA career for 1, 2, & 3.

Unsurprisingly, numbers 1, 2, and 3 all happen. But, (minor spoiler alert, here) to my utter pleasure, number 4 did not.

I began to wonder, then, why I had anticipated, no, actually predicted, that the book would end with Zara giving up her career. Was it because the older conventions of the genre so often demanded such a message? Because I tend toward glass-half-empty rather than glass-half-full kind of thinking? Or did it have something to do with this particular novel,  and the gendered ways in which Cameron "cornered" Zara?

I think it the answer is "yes, yes, and yes, but..." One and two are self-explanatory, but I wanted to think a bit more about #3. Because I don't think gendered cornering is something that happens just in Cameron's novel. It happens in many other romance novels, too.

Some examples to show what I mean by the phrase "gendered cornering":

• While Zara is a kick-ass heroine, we as readers never get to witness her in MMA action. How many romances have you read where the heroine is heroic offstage? Where you have to take her gutsiness for granted, at secondhand, at someone else's word? Does this diminish/undercut her impact, her power?

• The tension that exists between Zara and her love interest, Cal, lies primarily in Zara's refusal to not fight. Both Zara and Cal know that Zara is still having symptoms that might be due to her injury, symptoms that she hasn't reported to the doctors who have cleared her to fight. And with a challenger to her title already lined up, Zara isn't willing to come clean. Is it more common in romances for female characters to be told not to do something, to be put in a position where their professional goals are set up in opposition to their safety and/or health, than it is for male characters?

Might want to reconsider this one, ladies...
• I loved that Cameron, unlike many writers, calls attention to the gender constrictions that lie behind the masculine urge to protect we so often meet in romance novels:

"She won't let me take care of her, of course. But that just makes me want it even more. Because she's so strong, but she shouldn't have to be." [says Cal]
     Zane seemed amused. "There's nothing wrong with being strong. It's not what you have to be, it's what you get to be." (3010)


"If she was for sure going to die, you'd be right.... But this? She's taking more of a risk than you want. That's all. It's not as black and white as you're making it out to be. So you have to ask yourself: How much of this is about loving her, and how much is about controlling her?... It's not about it being the right decision or the wrong decision. It's about it being her decision." (3413)

Unlike Zara's male agent, who did not listen to her gender critique, Cal listens to fellow guy Zane. Cal's mother second's Zane's insights, but is it significant that it is Zane, not Zara, who calls Cal on the underlying motivations behind his "protective instincts"?  How often does a woman say something and is not listened to, but when a man says something similar, he is?

• Finally, despite Zane's criticism of Cal's refusing to accept Zara's decision, and Cal's acknowledgement of its accuracy, Zara does not get to make the decision whether or not to fight herself. A handy villain shows up to derail Zara's title bid, conveniently taking Zara's choice away from her. How often do romances purport to be about women's choices, but then pull the female protagonist's ability to chose out from underneath her?

Cameron's novel ends with both Zara and Cal compromising, each giving up something for the other. But I wonder, which is more powerful? The end message of equity and equality? Or the ambivalently mixed messages that lie behind the conflicts with which many romance novelists choose to corner their female protagonists?

Photo credits:
Small town VT: Strolling of the Heifers
Ronda Rousee ESPN cover: Breitbart
Under my protection: Slayashell Tumblr

Friday, January 15, 2016

Lesbian Romance By the Numbers?

In the comments to last week's post, "Do You Read Lesbian Romance?" a reader (thanks, Jill!) questioned the numbers I posted that the number of m/m romances published over the past five years to the number of lesbian romances published over the same period, numbers which I came by after doing a very quick search (via the "keyword" and "date" categories) on I've since gone back and done some additional searching, and refining of search terms.

Turns out, you get quite different results, depending on the search terms you use. Or whether you use quotation marks around your terms or not. Or whether, after your initial search, you refine your results (say, if you're looking for SF f/f romance, or Teen & Young Adult f/f romance).

Here are the figures for lesbian romance, using four different keywords to search.The second line shows the numbers if each category is then refined for "romance" or "lesbian romance." Not quite sure why "lesbian romance" is a subcategory of "lesbian romance," but it is...

          "f/f romance"  f/f romance  "lesbian romance"  lesbian romance 

2015:        23                  3,334              3,986                       13,901
                 17                  2,835              2,552                         2,527

2014:        29                  2,175              2,128                         9,069
                 27                  1,850              1,141                         1,117

2013:         3                   1,493              1,308                         4,817
                  1                   1,177                 698                            677

2012:         5                    1,436                833                         3,547          
                  5                    1,133                383                            369

2011:         0                      610                 418                        1,508
                                          406                 213                           207

Looking at the actual titles that turn up in each search, it's clear that if you search without using quotations marks around your search terms, you get a lot of heterosexual romances, not just lesbian romances. Not to mention a lot of other, completely-unrelated-to-romance things (Tchaikowsky's Romance in F Minor Op. 5, anyone?) But using quotation marks isn't all that better, especially if you use the relatively new term "f/f"; hetero romances come up in those searches, too.

Is this because Amazon allows authors to tag their books with their own keywords? And authors are putting in keywords that aren't really relevant to their titles?

It would be nice if Amazon allowed searchers to refine their search to exclude certain things (so you could differentiate romance from erotica, say, or from Tchaikovsky sheet music). But given the way search parameters are currently set up, this doesn't seem possible.

So, after compiling all these numbers, I'm feeling that they are ultimately not all that helpful in thinking about lesbian romance publication numbers, or LGBTQ numbers in general. In fact, they're pretty useless. So I'm not even going to bother to do a similar search on m/m or gay romance (with or without quotes).

Perhaps this kind of research is something that a larger organization has, or should, take on? I've sent an email to the Lambda Literary folks to check if they have done any investigating. If not, I think I'll be emailing RWA Board members to ask if their "Romance Industry Statistics" page might be updated with some additional research, so LGBTQIA books don't have to be the rainbow sheep of the romance family when it comes to statistics.

Unless any readers out there have other ideas about how to find accurate publication information on the number of lesbian, f/f, gay, m/m and other LGBTQIA romances are being published today?

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Wit and Froth Feminism: Loretta Chase's DUKES PREFER BLONDES

The last few months have been rather disappointing for me on the historical romance-reading front, with lots of heroines talking and acting in decidedly anachronistic, if not entirely unbelievable, ways. And while I enjoyed the previous three books in Loretta Chase's Dressmakers series, I did not find them nearly as witty, or enchanting, as my favorite Chase titles of the past. Given the cutesy/trendy feel of the title of her latest installment of the Dressmakers, as well as its use of the word "duke" in its title (a pet peeve I've written about before here), my expectations upon picking up my library copy of Dukes Prefer Blondes were anything but great.

What a delight it was, then, to find within the pages of this ridiculously-titled historical a heroine who, though she struggles with the restrictions placed upon society women in her time, does not become a detective, an assassin, or a spy, all with little to no social repercussion for her actions. Instead, Lady Clara Fairfax goes about her proper daily concerns, always with maid and footboy in tow—dressing to demonstrate her status; visiting the Milliners' Society for the Education of Indigent Females (of which she is a patron); and, on practically a bi-weekly schedule, saying "no" to yet another suitor's proposal. It may be quixotic of her, Clara knows, to wish for a potential husband who knows who she is, or at least shows some interest in finding out. Yet somehow she cannot bring herself to accept the long line of men who only look at her and see her beauty, merely smile instead of hearing her when she speaks. "After all, everybody knows that women did not really have brains," Clara thinks ironically to herself after turning down her latest swain (12).

Temple Bar 1830
One would hardly think that a man who assumes everyone, male or female, is less intelligent than himself would be likely to suit a woman tired of being underestimated by family and society alike. Yet from the instant Clara meets barrister Oliver "Raven" Radford, when she daringly visits his office in Temple Bar to request his help in tracking down the missing brother of one of the Milliners' Society's students, she cannot help but be energized by her conversations with a man reputed to be "sharp-witted, learned, and tactless to a spectacular degree" (29). Rather than the pointless (or painfully stupid) bickerfests that often pass for witty repartee in so many Regency-set romances, the arguments between "obnoxious" Radford and polite but pointed Lady Clara truly demonstrate two intelligent minds at play:

     "It seems I was misinformed," she said. "I was told you were the cleverest man in London."
     Westcott [Radford's law colleague] made a choked sound.
     "To my knowledge, you were not misinformed," Radford said.
     "How odd," she said. "Because I should have supposed that even a man with a very small brain and only the dimmest awareness of Society's million unwritten rules would realize that I'm not in a position to engage detectives. Ladies, you see, Mr. Radford, are not permitted to hire professionals, except in a domestic capacity."
     "Right," he said. "I wonder how that slipped my mind. Perhaps it was your appearing here in cunning disguise. Most intrepid of you."
     "I'm in disguise because ladies are not allowed to haunt the Temple in search of lawyers."
     "But you do see how I might have thought otherwise," he said. "Looking at you, I might suppose an upheaval in social mores had occurred while I was busy elsewhere, getting criminals hanged—or not, as the case may be." (36-37)

Radford may be obnoxious, and insulting, but he's very much listening to what Clara has to say—and, with his biting responses, challenging her mind in a way that neither her family, nor any of her suitors, have never come close to doing.

Another favorite bantering couple:
The Thin Man's Nick and Nora Charles
For his part, Radford is a man of two selves: the intelligent, rational, bitingly witty self that most people are allowed to see, and the feeling, desiring, needing self, the self that Radford has long repressed so as not to give his detractors (from his bullying duke-heir-apparent cousin to his foes in court) any sign that he may be vulnerable. When he encounters Lady Clara as an adult (the two met memorably several times as children), though, that long-repressed feeling self militates to take control. Especially after one particular encounter with the lady, during which her feelings about her circumscribed role in life come tumbling forth in a surge of pent-up grief. The intelligent, courageous Clara, Radford realizes, is being stifled by her luxuriously proper life.

And thus Radford finds himself inviting Lady Clara along to places where a lady decidedly would not be allowed to go—to criminal court; to interview potential witnesses; and, most shockingly, to a police stake-out. And even, to their surprise, to church to be wed. But will Raven be able to keep his promise to Clara—that she "may make as many spectacles of yourself as you like. I'm bound to encourage you, because making spectacles is what I do"—once she is not just an unattainable wit, but his actual flesh-and-blood wife?

Clara is not a proto-suffragette, not a rabble-rouser, not a twentieth-century kick-ass heroine in Regency-era clothing. Her feminist message is more of the "personal is political" type: she, and Chase, remind us that while the marriage ceremony once included the dictate that a wife should obey her husband, it also asserted that one of the "causes for which Matrimony was ordained" was "the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and in adversity" (my emphasis added). And that the only way one can achieve a marriage with a "we" rather than only a "you and I" in it, one must be wiling to fight—or banter wittily—for it.

Photo/illustration credits:
Temple Bar: Two Nerdy History Girls
The Thin Man: Pinterest

Dukes Prefer Blondes
Avon, 2015

Friday, January 8, 2016

Do You Read Lesbian Romance?

In putting together the RNFF Best of 2015 list, I was more than a little aware of the imbalance in my LGBTQ selections: 6 books with two male protagonists, but only one with two female lovers. This is due in large part to my own reading choices; I read far more gay male romances this past year than I did lesbian romances. Why, though, was that, precisely? I began to think about some of the reasons why this might be:

• Because there are more m/m romances being published than lesbian romances?

Nope. Turns out that a search of m/m romance published in 2015 (via amazon) turns up 12,112 titles, while a search for lesbian romance for the same period returns 14,002 titles.

• Because fewer lesbian romances are available as e-books, and thus tend to cost more?

Apparently not. Another amazon search for the period 2015, limiting the format to "Kindle edition" returns 10,180 m/m ebook romances, and 13,097 e-book lesbian romances.

• Because m/m romance is newer, the hot new thing, while lesbian romance has been around for the past 50 years?

Amazon hits for m/m romance published in the past five years, by year:
2015: 12,112
2014:   7,482
2013:   4,646
2012:   3,559
2011:   1,641

Amazon hits for lesbian romance published in the past five years, by year:
2015: 14,002
2014:   9,082
2013:   4,821
2012:   3,545
2011:   1,508

Pretty similar growth trajectories, no?

• Because, as lesbian romance author and publisher Radclyffe suggests in her essay during 2014's Queer Romance month, lesbian romance is a niche market, and hence far less visible to those outside its niche than are other types of romances?

A general Google search turns up 128 million entries for "m/m romance" but only 26 million for "lesbian romance." Yes, visibility is definitely an issue.

• Because lesbian romances are marketed primarily to lesbian audiences, while m/m romance has its eyes on female, as well as male, readers?

Don't know if there is a way to test this one out—perhaps by conducting a survey of publishers? Or of self-publishing authors? A project for the future, perhaps...

• Because lesbian romance as a genre dates back to the 1970s, and often follows the format of heterosexual romance from that period (i.e., short category romance a la Harlequin and Mills & Boon), while m/m romance, which emerged far later (around 2000?), was born in a time when the romance format was less restricted? And thus m/m romance often feels richer, character-wise, than lesbian romance?

My own far from thoroughly-tested theory, based on the (admittedly) few lesbian romances I've read in the past few years. One I'd be interested to hear from lesbian romance writers about.

• Because lesbian romances have fewer, or less hot, sex scenes?

Again, far from any sort of expert on this topic myself; would love to hear from lesbian romance readers about their perception of how the portrayal of sex in their romances has changed (or not) over the years...

• Because I'm uncomfortable, if not outright homophobic, when it comes to lesbian sex? Or, to put it more kindly, I'm more turned on/interested by sex scenes where at least one male (my primary object of sexual interest) appears?

Could well be.

My goal for 2016 is to more actively seek and out and read lesbian romance. Would love to hear your recommendations...

And a question for of you: heterosexual readers who enjoy reading m/m romance, do you read lesbian romance, too? If you don't, do any of the possibilities I've mentioned above sound like the reason why? What other reasons might you not seek or enjoy out lesbian romances?

LGBTQ readers, do you read lesbian romance? Why or why not?

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Romance Novels for Feminists' Best of 2015


Emma Barry, Party Lines
A cynical white Democratic operative finds himself drawn to the Economist-reading Latina he meets on a plane—and who turns out not to be as politically liberal as he assumed. In fact, she turns out to be his Republican opposite, campaign manager to the Republican candidate for President. Filled wth fascinating details about life on the presidential campaign trail, the frustrations of both racial stereotypes and racial tokenism, and the precarious position one is put in not knowing whether the lack of appreciation one feels is due to sexism, racism, personality conflicts, or a combination of all of the above, Party Lines makes for a fittingly feminist conclusion to Barry's outstanding DC insider trilogy, The Easy Part.

Sonya Clark, Good Time Bad Boy
A quiet but immensely appealing December-May romance featuring a down-on-his-luck country music star and a pulling-herself-up-by-her-bootstraps waitress who meet when the singer returns to his hometown after one too many drunken onstage turns. Especially appealing here is that Clark doesn't play the "bad boy who is really good underneath it all" card; our hero, 41-year-old Wade, is pretty much a jerk at novel's start, not anyone whom a woman with any sense of self-respect would want to get involved with. Yet as Wade gradually starts to get his own act together, remembering that he he used to be something more than the Good Time Bad Boy heroine Daisy believes him to be, and starts writing songs about past and present, image and reality, he becomes far more appealing as a romantic interest for smart, determined Daisy.

Victoria Dahl, Taking the Heat 
It would hardly feel like a best of RNFF list without a book by Victoria Dahl. This year's entry features a unconventional (at least for Dahl) heroine, one distinctly lacking in self-confidence, in spite of her new job as a tell-it-like-it-is sex columnist. How can you not love a novel with a heroine who declares at an open mike night: "There is nothing flattering about someone wanting to bone you.... I hear some disagreement, but let me be clear. 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." And with a too-nice-to-be-true bearded librarian hero? Especially one that interrogates the problematic aspects of male niceness?

Sonali Dev, The Bollywood Bride
In rich, lyrical prose, Dev tells the story of a Bollywood star who, as a young girl, broke with her first love out of fear of the illness she might one day inherit via her unstable mother, and who now find herself once again in his orbit years later during the marriage festivities of their mutual friend. Rather than glorify female self-sacrifice, as so many romances do, Dev's tale insists that self-sacrifice is in many ways the coward's way out, a running away not only from one's problems, but from one's true self.

Rebecca Rogers Maher, Rolling in the Deep
A novel that opens, rather than ends, with a fairy tale ending: single mom Holly Ward and fellow big box chain store worker Ray Lopez go in together on a ticket and strike it rich in the Powerball lottery. 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, and romance, can contribute to the pursuit of same.

Cara McKenna, Give It All
On the outside, lawyer and PR manager Dunch Welch appears to be cool, controlled, and utterly contemptuous of anyone who lacks his looks, class, and intelligence. But when he's accuse of taking bribes during a casino development project, Duncan's highly-polished surface develops a few telling cracks. Cracks that never-get-attached bar owner Raina Harper is all too interested in breaking wide open. Especially love Raina's gender-bending admission that "I don't feel like being taken care of by anybody... I'd must racher be needed than do the needing." Care to guess who ends up rescuing who at the novel's climax?

Mary Ann Rivers, My Only Sunshine
An unusual alternating dual pov novella, with one strand written from the third person past tense point of view of Mallory, purportedly from the memoir adult Mallory wrote about her crush on John, now a famous musician, and the other from John's first person present tense point of view, describing their reunion as adults. Such a reunion 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.

Sherry Thomas, The One in My Heart
Thomas proves herself as adept at penning contemporary romance as she is at crafting historical in her contemporary debut in this subtle first-person portrait of a New Yorker whose one-night stand with a compelling stranger turns into something far more complicated than she could ever have expected. Emotionally-distant heroes are a dime a dozen in romance; creating a convincing, yet still appealing heroine who is closed off from her feelings is a far more uncommon achievement.


Sarina Bowen, The Shameless Hour
You might not think that a romance that explores the connections between frankness about sexually-transmitted diseases, slut-shaming, and the policing of young women's sexuality would be anything more than a preachy, plodding tract. Yet such is Bowen's skill that social critique merges seamlessly with compelling romance in this story of sexually free Bella, student-manager of Harkness College's male hockey team, and her romance with a younger student who is in many ways her exact opposite: Dominican to her white; working class to her ownership class; family-loving to her family-rejecting; and above all, serious to her casual, especially when it comes to sex. A trenchant dissection of the way that privileged men often use shame to control female sexuality, and the corroding effects of such sexual shame on young woman, as well as a touching romance about how to reach a place of both shamelessness and caring when embracing your own sexual desires.

A J Cousins, The Girl Next Door
The immensely entertaining sidekicks in 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. When Cash Carmichael's cousin, Denny, flees to Cash after his announcement that he was gay goes over like a lead balloon with his privileged family, Cash knows he needs to bring in big-time help. One-time college fuck-buddy, iconoclastic, feminist, bisexual Steph provides it, and more, and soon Cash is realizing how badly he fucked up by not taking her, not taking them, more seriously back in college. Especially when Steph insists on keeping Cash in the fuck-buddy zone. You might think reading an entire novel from the point of view of a privileged, not entire quick-on-the-draw heterosexual "bro" might not be all that comfortable, but 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 are other, equally valid ways of being in the world, and to embrace the unconventional in his friends, his family, and even, occasionally, himself.

Emery Lord, The Start of Me and You
On the cusp of her junior year of high school, Paige Hancock is hoping to break free of her identity as the "Girl Whose Boyfriend Drowned." But Lord's story is not just an exploration of teen romantic grief; it also touches upon what-ifs that can never be realized; gift for time lost to illness; for friendships that change and die; for parents who aren't a part of your life; for grandparents who lose the vitality they once had. Lord never suggests that falling in love is a cure-all for any of these griefs. But her novel does set forth the hope that good friends, as well as caring romantic partners, can provide an extra paddle as one navigates its turbulent waters.

Courtney Milan, Trade Me
The titular "trade" results from immigrant Tina Chen losing her cool when, during a discussion of food stamps in class, fellow college classmate (and billionaire tech genius) Blake Reynolds makes a thoughtless comment, one that demonstrates how little he knows what it is like to live outside the bounds of middle class comfort. "Try trading lives with me. You couldn't manage it, not for two weeks," Tina challenges. To her utter shock, Blake takes her up on it. What makes the story intriguing is that Blake's acceptance stems not from a manly desire to prove himself, but from his desire to run away from his own fears, fears that are gradually revealed over the course of the novel. Thumbs up to Milan for presenting each protagonist's parent, a parent who in another author's hands would have clearly been labeled "villain," as rounded, intelligible, and above all sympathetic, complementing the book's larger themes of looking beyond the surfaces and understanding and confronting one's own fears.

Penny Reid, Elements of Chemistry 
Hot billionaires falling obsessively in love with sweet, innocent college girls are not RNFF's usual cup of tea. Nor are NA angst-fests. But when the heroine of the billionaire romance is an awkward, self-effacing, but dead-honest dork, and the angst is the result not of outside evil elements, but of genuine misunderstandings between our protagonists, well, then, that's entirely different type of tea altogether. That Reid writes with quirky humor only adds to the pleasure of this sendup/embrace of contemporary romance stereotypes. "I'm not willing to settle for being with someone who sometimes treats me well. I'd rather be alone."


Deanna Raybourne, A Curious Beginning
An auspicious beginning to Raybourn's latest Victorian mystery series, with a heroine who definitely puts the "un" in "unconventional." Young lepidopterist Veronica Speedwell returns from overseas travels to England to bury her last relative, only to discover that her ancestry may be a bit more complicated than she originally thought. And that several dangerous men seem to want to kill her because of it. Whether fleeing with a mysterious German baron, on the run with a traveling circus, or cataloging the holdings of an aristocratic natural historian, Veronica's rational yet intuitive first-person narration provides amusing commentary on her suddenly eventful life, as well as her budding relationship with a fellow naturalist who is as impulsive and emotional as Veronica is strategic and logical.

K J Charles, A Seditious Affair
Most reviewers would likely place Charles' novel in the "erotic romance" category. Yet her skill in making history central to her characters' identities, as well as their romantic conflict, puts her book clearly in the genre of the "historical" for me. Silas Mason and Dominic Frey would seem to have nothing in common—except for their sexual proclivities. Yet as the trysts between two men, one a radical bookseller and rabble-rousing pamphleteer, the other a conservative government official, continue over the course of months, and their sexual play leads to actual sharing of thoughts and ideas, they find to their shock that their differences spark a closeness neither of them could ever have imagined. If only Dom were not in charge of ferreting out sedition. And Silas were not still halfheartedly supporting his radical friends, even while he grows more and more disenchanted by their ridiculous hopes that they might have actually have a chance to overthrow the government....

Alyssa Cole, "Let it Shine" in The Brightest Day anthology
Cross-race romance has become common in contemporary romances, but its far more rare in historicals. Cole's 1950's set-novella showcases the courage it takes to engage in the struggle for African American civil rights, both for a daughter raised to be a "respectable" black woman and for a son raised to be a scholarly, obedient Jewish boy. Especially when their commitment to social justice becomes entangled with their growing feelings for one another.

Alyssa Everett, The Marriage Act
Wed in haste, repent at leisure. That's been the theme of John Welford's life for the past five years, after marrying the gorgeous daughter of his mentor, only to discover in the most embarrassing way that she preferred another. Leaving Caroline in England while he pursued his diplomatic career, John had little idea that his wife had never told her father of the estrangement, and is more than a little shocked when, upon his arrival home, she insists that he travel with her to visit said father, who is desperately ill. As the two travel together, we see that their estrangement is not due to a simple misunderstanding, but to real differences in personality and beliefs. Yet those very differences may just be why they are actually quite suited to one another, something they gradually begin to understand as they come to know one another as individuals, rather than as terrifying older husband and scheming immature wife.

Rose Lerner, True Pretenses
A Jewish con man thinks to swindle a nice English wife for his younger brother but ends up wanting her for himself. A fascinating exploration of cultural identity and cultural stereotypes, and the ways in which both influence our relationships with family and with lovers. Not to mention the appealing slow-build romance between two people who have always had to wear masks as they confront the world.


Molly O'Keefe, Everything I Left Unsaid
Instead of dancing blinding on the line between domineering hero and abusive hero, as so many other popular hetero erotic romances do, Everything I Left Unsaid puts the issue of abuse front and center, even while giving readers crazy-hot sex scenes, too. Where do you draw the lines between appealing and abusive? Is niceness always a positive trait, or one that only leaves a woman 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? Just a few of the unexpected questions O'Keefe's unusual erotic romance asks readers to consider.

Lilah Pace, Asking For It
One of the most talked-about romances of the year, and deservedly so, for its blunt explorations of intersections between rape culture and rape fantasy. One part of Vivienne, a white privileged New Orleans girl who moved to Texas to earn a Ph.D. in art, is sickened by her obsession with her own fantasies of being raped. Especially since she was raped in fact as a teen. But another takes deep pleasure in indulging those fantasies. When she discovers a man as equally invested in role-playing rape fantasies as she is, is her participation the height of psychological illness? Or a healthy way to work on her own sexual fixations? No easy answers, but Pace's willingness to ask the questions is a truly feminist move.


Alex Beecroft, Blue-Eyed Stranger
Beecroft tackles big issues—how to cope with depression; the way history is taught to schoolchildren; which aspects of one's identity to hide and which to reveal—in this m/m romance set in the context of British historical reenactment groups. The son of African immigrants, schoolteacher Martin Deng insists on showing his kids that the was was not an all-white affair. But being in the closet about his sexuality creates major problems in his growing romance with Billy Wright, a white man dealing with mental health challenges. Social justice themes are not simply tacked on here, but are integral parts of both of Beecroft's complex characters.

Heidi Cullinan, Love Lessons series
One of my real pleasures this reading year was discovering the work of Heidi Cullinan. Unlike many m/m romance writers, Cullinan does not simply write two romance heroes who could both easily pass as straight; her male protagonists span the spectrum from buff athletes to effeminate twinks. And her stories insist that all have the right to the identity "masculine." Her 3 (and counting) Love Lessons books (Love Lessons, Fever Pitch, and Lonely Hearts), all centered on the members of a midwestern Lutheran college singing group, also insist on the importance of gay men "paying it forward," helping those who come after them find their footing in a supportive, welcoming LGBTQ community.

Alexis Hall, For Real
Cynical, world-weary older trauma doctor Laurie, who prefers the submissive role in the bedroom, finds his surprising match in inexperienced but persistent Toby Finch, who gradually wears down Laurie's doubts about taking advantage of his far younger dom. Hall's overt political agenda—to write a romance that doesn't deny that "dominance and submission can exist within a dynamic between two perfectly ordinary people, simply because that's what they're in to"—never interferes with his crafting of intriguing, complex, and likable characters, characters whose sexual preferences seem strikingly at odds with their everyday identities. Not just one of the best kinky romances of the year, but one of the best romances of the year, full stop.

* Added 3/18:
Author Santino Hassell has been accused of widespread abusive behavior (see "The Santino Hassell debacle" for specific details). Readers may wish to consider these accusations before deciding whether or not to read Hassell's books. (JCH)

Santino Hassell, Sutphin Boulevard
Another welcome discovery for me (thanks, Queer Romance Month!) was the work of Santino Hassell, who brings a welcome working class perspective to a genre that is all too often filled with unattainable fantasies of ownership-class privilege. In the first of his Five Boroughs series, Hassell presents two longtime friends, Michael Rodriguez and Nunzio Medici, who have helped each other navigate the challenges of dysfunctional families, the red tape of teaching in NYC's public schools, and the gay city scene for more than two decades. An unexpected threesome gives Michael a taste of Nunzio as lover, as well as a hint of Nunzio's true feelings for his longtime friend. But as Michael's family and work lives begin to implode, can Michael risk losing Nunzio's friendship in the hopes for that elusive something more?

P. D. Singer, A New Man
Offering both the emotional pleasures of romance and the intellectual pleasures of social and medical science, Singer's m/m romance asks readers to consider what it means to identify as straight or gay, masculine or effeminate, asexual or sexually desiring, and how biology may influence each of these identities. Particularly when one's physical body undergoes unexpected changes, as does college student Chad after a medical crisis leaves him in need of hormone therapy.

Nell Stark, The Princess and the Prix
A romance about an aggressive, hard-partying, womanizing race car driver with a troubled backstory who reforms after falling for a shy, brainy philanthropist/princess? And it's feminist? Yes, when that race car driver happens to be a woman. Stark's Grand Prix romance asks both us and its protagonist to think about just what gender equality might mean for a woman working in a primarily male realm, all within an appealing opposites-attract love story. A fairy-tale romance with a surprisingly feminist punch.


Ilona Andrews Magic Shifts
I wasn't very fond of the previous two books in Andrews' long-running Kate Daniels series, but this latest installment gets the series back on gender-equal grounds. After a devil's bargain with her evil father leaves Kate and the Beast Lord exiled from Curran's pack of shapeshifters, the two begin to carve out an life for themselves and their foster daughter, Julie, in a post-magic shifted Atlanta. But when a pack member goes missing, and the new Beast Lord refuses to get involved due to intra-pack politics, Kate and Curran once again find themselves in the midst of another battle for the city—and this one not driven by Kate's father. Or is it? "I will kill anything that tries to hurt you," he said, his voice quiet. "I know. I will kill anything that tries to hurt you," I told him. Perhaps not the most romantic of declarations, but one eminently suitable for this true kick-ass couple.

Bec McMaster, Of Silk and Steam
     "What could any man ever give me? I'm the head of my House, a woman on the Council. What man wouldn't try to take that from me?"
     "Not all men are created equally. Maybe you should find one who isn't threatened by your achievements. Someone who finds such accomplishments to be part of the fascination."

The 5th installment of McMaster's London Steampunk series finally allows us inside the head of charming Leo Barrons, brother to the heroines of the first two books, as he becomes entangled with powerful Aramina (Mina) Duvall, the only female vampire in the London aristocracy. Entwining discourses of gender equality, such as the one quoted above, with those of mutual submission to the beloved ("He owned her. The most terrifying thing in the world once. But he could only own her if she allowed it, and she held that power in her hands"), McMaster insists that the two are not opposed, but mutually supportive. Not sure I always buy the message, but its far more appealing that the plethora of paranormal romances that ignore the opposition altogether, crafting purportedly kick-ass heroines who never seem to realize how much power they're ceding to their male lovers.

What books would you nominate as the best romances of 2015 for feminist-inclined readers?