Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Politics and Intersectional Feminism: Alyssa Cole's LET US DREAM

On the eve of the American election this past November, I was planning to celebrate the country voting in its first women president by reading the recently published anthology Daughters of a Nation: A Black Suffragette Historical Romance Anthology. Four stories, each featuring African American women fighting for the vote on behalf of both their sex and their race at four different points in U. S. history, these stories promised to point out both how far our country has come in widening the franchise and how far it still has yet to go.

But after the shocking outcome of November's election, celebration was no longer on my mind. I set the anthology aside, and split my reading time between political reporting/calls for activism and old romance favorites, books that I could depend on to give me welcome comfort in these painful political times.

But as the Women's March on Washington approached, and I began to read media stories about tensions between white women and women of color involved in planning and participating (or not participating) in it, I found myself turning back to Daughters. And in many ways, I'm glad I waited, for reading its stories, in particular Alyssa Cole's Let Us Dream, helped me as a white feminist to understand those tensions in a way that more analytical, theoretical writing hadn't.

The 15th Amendment: the "right of citizens of the United States
to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States
or by any state on account of race, color,
or previous condition of servitude." 
The first three stories in the anthology (Lena Hart's In the Morning Sun, set in 1868; Piper Huguley's The Washerwomen's War and Kianna Alexander's A Radiant Sun, both set in 1881) give readers slices of history likely unfamiliar to many contemporary readers: efforts to educate free blacks in Nebraska in the wake of the Civil War; the tensions in the African American community over whether to campaign for female suffrage for all races, or to focus on ensuring black men's right to vote was not curtailed; the efforts of African American washerwomen to strike for a better wage; black women's suffrage in Wyoming, the first state in the union to give women the vote. All include sweet romances, too, some interracial, others between black men and women who do not always agree when it comes to women's rights.

But Let Us Dream was the story that really made me sit up and take notice. Not only because Cole interweaves the political themes of her story so tightly with the arc of her romance, but also because those political themes strike just as resonantly in 2017 as they do in 1917, the year in which Cole's story is set.

Bertha Hines has spent years dancing to the tunes of men: first her father, who pretended to be East Indian rather than African American after witnessing how differently men from India were treated, and who taught his daughter how to dance in a sari, as if she had been born in India, too. And then for her pimp, later her husband, Arthur, owner of Harlem's Cashmere club/whorehouse. But now that Arthur is gone, leaving the Cashmere to Bertha, Bertha has no desire to hitch her star to another man's wagon, thank you very much. She'd rather spend her time teaching the women who work for her all about government, so they'll be ready to vote when New York finally grants women suffrage.

From the Puget Sound American, 1909
But when a friend sends Amir Khan to work as a dishwasher in Bertha's club, he and Bertha immediately begin to set sparks off of each other. Amir, a Marx and Engels-reading socialist who left Bengal to see the world, is just as stubborn, and just as devoted to social justice, as is Bertha. But in the wake of the Immigration Act of 1917, which barred immigration from Asian Pacific countries, Amir is an "undocumented alien," with as few political rights as Bertha. A situation that has striking parallels to this past week's presidential executive order barring immigrants from seven primarily Muslim countries—particularly as Amir is not Hindu, but Muslim.

That is not the only echo, past to present. In the story's opening, Bertha attends a meeting of the Colored Women's Voting League, where the "good women. Upstanding, pillars of the community" assert that there is no friction between white and black women of the suffrage movement ("Bertha was tempted to ask why they needed a separate organization—and a separate building—for Negro women if there was so much unity, but that would have been low. Besides, she knew why. They all knew why") (Kindle Loc 4124). They also express their discomfort with the presence of Bertha, former sex worker and current owner of a house of ill repute, especially after she challenges them to include "the poor laundress, the illiterate maid, the downtrodden prostitute" in their outreach efforts (4125). The Voting League's leader tells Bertha "we have limited time and resources an where we direct them is of the essence" and that "Once we win the right to vote for all women, we'll be able to better use of power to uplift" (4138). Bertha leaves, but not without imparting one last shot of her own: "Uplift? You mean the same patronizing lies women have been fed by men for generations? That we've been fed by Whites since the end of the war?" The rifts that the media honed in on in regards to the Women's March on Washington—tensions between whites who want to focus on women, and POC who wanted to send a more intersectional message, and "good" women who are reluctant to inclue "bad" women (sex workers) in their ranks out of fear of weakening their position—are not new ones, Cole's story reminds us; they have existed for years, for more than a century.

Both Bertha and Amir are angry about their political mistreatment, and the lack of social justice they and others like them experience daily. And both use words as weapons, defending themselves from any perceived attack on their pride and self-determination the other appears to threaten—even if said attacks are not intentional. It takes an equal exchange of knowledge—Amir will teach Bertha how to really do an Indian dance, and Bertha will teach Amir about American and New York government—before either can move beyond the strong fronts they've erected to protect themselves from prejudice and abuse to glimpse the truer, more vulnerable person standing behind them. And even once they have caught that glimpse, it's still all too easy to make assumptions, to respond with anger instead of patience when misunderstandings inevitably arise and feelings are hurt. Trust takes a long time to build, even between people who have the shared experience of being oppressed.

There are so many telling scenes, so many quotable lines in Cole's story, I can't begin to do justice to them here. So I'll just end with the one I really needed to hear after the end of the first two weeks of American's current appalling, disheartening presidential term. One of Bertha's girls asks:

"Why does voting matter? I'm just thinking about how Du Bois and everyone got all hopped up over getting Wilson into the White House. Wilson talked a lot of stuff about making things better for us, about justice and kindness, and look! Things are worse than ever with him in office. More segregation. More injustice. Hell, forget Wilson; the suffragettes didn't even want us at that parade of theirs." (5022)

In response, Bertha spins a story, one with a telling, and prescient, moral:

"One time, a long time ago, I met a john who talked so sweet. Looked rich. Smelled good. Came in here telling me I was the prettiest thing he'd ever seen, begging me to put it on him, all that nonsense. I thought he was swell. Classy. Let him convince me to go back to a room with him. . . . That man threw me on the bed and started trying to get crazy. Thought because he was paying for it, he could do whatever he wanted. but I screamed and the man running the hotel bust through the door and pulled him off me. . . .  What I'm saying is, I bet on that man. I thought he was the best choice of the pickings that night. I thought he was gonna do right by me. And I was wrong. That didn't mean I didn't go back to work the next night. That didn't mean I never got fooled again. When you're trying to survive, sometimes you're gonna encounter liars. Politicians are the worst of them. But there are good ones too. You take your chances there like anywhere else in life because the only other options is giving up." (5036)

One of the many great signs at
the Boston Women's March

Scream and holler, go out and protest, take your chances, and go back to work the next night (or day), no matter the result. And above all, don't give up. Messages that I took to heart as I went out and joined thousands in Boston's Women's March, and that I continue to hold close as ever more disturbing news oozes out from our nation's capital.

Illustration credits:
15th Amendment: New York Times
Puget Sound American: South Asian American Digital Archive
Rise Up: Photo taken at the Boston Women's March, January 21, 2017

Daughters of a Nation: A Black Suffragette Historical Romance Anthology
Maroon Ash Publishing, 2016

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Small-Town Polyamory: Heidi Cullinan's SANTA BABY

Threesomes are a common sight in erotic romance, and even now in some hot contemporary romance. But in the typically conservative subgenre of small town romance? Leave it to Heidi Cullinan to craft a story that combines old tropes and new identities, all with a hefty dose of (Christian) holiday cheer.

Cullinan's unusual holiday story is set in the small Minnesota town of Logan, whose citizens are trying to revive it by making it a tourist mecca for all things Christmas, with particular appeal to the LGBTQ crowd (the first three books in the "Minnesota Christmas" series featured the romances of thee gay male couples). To help with this project, the town has hired developer Dale Davidson, a friendly people pleaser who is developing a crush on town librarian Gabriel. Dale knows he is polyamorous, but Gabriel appears to be in a committed, and decidedly monogamous relationship with Arthur, the son of the town's biggest gossip. But when straight-shooter Arthur cuts to the chase—"You just flirting, or you interested?"—and invites Dale to come play, Dale can't help but wonder how good an idea it is to "start something in a small town"—especially the small town that has hired him. But Dale's emotional attraction to nerdy, neurotic Gabriel, as well as his kinky attraction to dominant Arthur, has him throwing his better judgment aside.

Unfortunately, though, Dale's not the only one with worries. Gabriel, who only recently became involved with Arthur, his first boyfriend, is feeling decidedly guilty about his own growing attraction to Dale, an attraction that seems to be something more than just physical. Especially because his love for Arthur is just as strong as ever. Admitting that he was gay and enjoyed submissive play was hard enough. Gabriel is just not willing to even think about the possibility that he might be polyamorous, too. Especially since he and Arthur are hoping to take in foster children soon after they marry, and if anyone found out he was in a relationship with two different men, the folks from Social Services would look decidedly askance.

And so the hot three-way turns into an embarrassing melt-down, and Dale returns home to the Twin Cities, disappointed. And Gabriel and Arthur try to return to their own lives, and preparing for the upcoming Christmas in July town celebration. But Gabriel is simply not his usual happy self, something that not only Arthur, but a lot of the other townspeople in Logan, can't help but see.

Arthur, who has a lot more experience in the kinky sides of life and love than Gabriel does, slowly begins to realize just what's going on inside Gabriel's head. And with some help from an old friend of his own, Arthur knows that he needs to help Gabriel acknowledge and accept all aspects of himself. Even the ones that Arthur himself doesn't share: "I'm telling you, if you're discovering your heart is complex enough it wants to fall in love with two people at once, I will not be the asshole who turns you away for wanting to be who you are." (929).

And so Gabriel and Arthur continue to plan their winter wedding, even while Gabriel and Dale begin to quietly date. And Dale, with his own submissive tendencies, enjoys power play with Arthur, even if he and Arthur do not share the same type of romantic feelings for one another that Dale shares with Gabriel. Might this "thruple" somehow find a way to make a life for themselves, even in the midst of a very small town? Even if Gabriel and Arthur have to give up their dreams of being parents someday?

I've read many erotic romances, and some contemporary romances, which featured threesomes. But typically, those books have been tightly focused on the three members involved in a relationship, which, even if the situation is not presented as a fantasy within the book, can give it the feeling of a fantasy to the reader outside the book. In contrast, Santa Baby is the first romance I've read that actually felt like its characters were struggling to figure out how to embrace a polyamorous identity but still be part of a larger, non-kink community. It may be wish-fulfillment on Cullinan's part to make Dale, Gabriel, and Arthur's complicated relationship ultimately acceptable to the residents of small-town Logan. But it's a wish-fulfillment that makes me think more about the feasibility of integrating polyamorous alternatives to monogamy into "normal" life than any erotic menage romance ever has.

Santa Baby
(Minnesota Christmas, Book #4)
indie-published, 2016

Friday, January 20, 2017

Reading Goals for 2017?

Having packed up my daughter back to college after her long winter break, held my first Board meeting as President of the New England Chapter of Romance Writers of America, gotten a handle on the revisions of my novel-in-progress, and ordered the new part that our HVAC folks finally figured out we needed to fix the heating pump that had been failing intermittently for the last month (so hard to write when you're sitting in a freezing cold house!), I'm finally ready to start blogging again. I have a few books that I'm eager to write about, but before I started reviewing again, I wanted to take a few minutes to think out loud about my goals for my reading this year.

First, I want to try and remember to list on my Goodreads account every book I read. I've tended to put off adding a book to my "read" list until I have the time to write a full review—and when I run into a busy period, I end up forgetting to post a bunch of books I've read but have already taken back to the library, or which have fallen too low on my Kindle listings, displaced by ever-new titles, for the mere sight of the covers to remind me I still owe that review. This year, then, I'm going to add books to my "read" list on Goodreads immediately after I finish reading them, even if I don't have the time then to write a review. Hopefully this will be a better jog to my memory, and I'll follow up with those reviews. If you're a Goodreads person, I'd love to hook up with you there (just search for me under my name, "Jackie Horne." There's 7 of us on Goodreads; I'm the one from Cambridge MA USA).

Second, I want to read more lesbian romance. When I first reconnected to romance a little less than a decade ago, I hadn't read any romances with queer characters. But now, queer romance takes up a significant chunk of my TBR pile, thanks to recommendations from online friends, reviewers, and writers. But such recommendations often tend to feature protagonists who identify as male, or as non-binary, far more often than they do as protagonists who identify as lesbian. I need to make more of an effort to connect with lesbian publishers, readers, reviewers, and writers, because otherwise it is too easy to fall into the totally unsubstantiated assumption that gay and queer writers are turning out far more interesting romances than lesbian writers, just because those are the books that I and my friends and acquaintances are reading. So, at least once every month, I'm going to spend time reading through the upcoming publication lists at Bella Books, Bold Strokes Books, Riptide Publishing, and any other lesbian romance presses you all might recommend, and pick a handful of books to try.

One of the many book challenges you can join online
Link to POC Reading Challenge
Third, I want to expand the Diversity Romance Bingo Challenge that Barb Funes promoted on Twitter and Goodreads (which ended at the end of 2016) into this year. My goal: to get a bingo every month, which would mean reading at least five romances with characters or authors who are from groups or identities underrepresented in the romance genre, with a different underrepresented group or identity in each of the five.

Finally, I want to keep making an effort to read books by authors I don't yet know. Since starting this blog in 2012, I've been introduced to so many terrific feminist romance authors, and I could spend every blog post writing only about my favs. But I don't want to overlook new authors, or to miss the chance to discover older books that I didn't catch when they were first published. If I don't write about every book by your favorite feminist author, it's not because I'm not reading and enjoying them; it's because I want to keep my ears open for new voices, not only the well-established ones.

I hope you won't mind if I use the blog to help keep me focused on goals (especially goals 2 & 3): I plan to report once a month here about my progress, unexpected finds and annoying frustrations.

What are your romance reading goals for 2017? And do you have any recommendations for goals RNFF should consider?

Friday, January 6, 2017

RNFF Best of 2016


K. J. Charles, A Gentleman's Position

A Regency romance between an aristocrat and a servant, but one that moves beyond fluffy fairy tale to explore the real differences in power and privilege in England's class system of the early 1800s. Whenever one of his friends finds himself in trouble, Lord Richard Vane turns to his valet, David Cyprian, to find an ingenious way out. But when Richard and David inch toward acknowledging their attraction to each other, Richard's scruples about their different positions in society, and his own prejudices about what makes a man worthy, create barriers too strong to break. But if wily Cyprian can't tear them down, perhaps he can find away around them...

Emma Barry & Genevieve Turner,
Earth Bound
Penny Bright Publishing

This third volume in Barry & Turner's 1960s space race series draws on the often forgotten history of women in the early days of computer science in its story of a secret romance between the two smartest engineers at the ASD (American Space Department). Both caustic Eugene and sexy-smart Charlie are introverted thinkers who excel at keeping their feelings private. But when Charlie realizes that two "freaks" might just be able to find some solace together, the sexual sparks begin to fly.

Courtney Milan, Her Every Wish

This novella in Milan's second Victorian romance series steps back from the wealthy family featured in the full-length novels to explore the lives of their less privileged friends. Working class Daisy Whitlow dares to enter a church-sponsored contest to win the funds to start her own business, even though the unspoken rules say the contest is only for men. Crash, Daisy's one-time lover, is equally determined to introduce the new French craze for velocepides to the English. Both learn to demand what they deserve, from society and from each other, even while continually being told that women, that men of color, that the working classes have no right to want anything at all.

Molly O'Keefe, Tempted

When her employer, Dr. Madison, proposes to Annie Denoe to save her reputation, his nurse finds his kiss far more interesting than his offer. But Annie would far prefer to explore her newfound interest in the carnal side of life with her friend, Steven Baywood, than with the drug-addicted doctor. Unfortunately, Steven's incarceration during the Civil War in the notorious Andersonville prison has made him unable to stand another's touch—not just emotionally, but physically. A nuanced exploration of the traumas of war on both men and women, one that offers the hope that healing is never completely beyond reach.

Erin Satie, The Young Blood
Little Phrase

A womanizer who is truly debauched, and the morally upright woman who is not afraid to call him on his thoughtless, cruel behavior, make for an unlikely but compelling duo in the final book in Satie's No Better Angels series. Gorgeous prose and deft character construction combine to redeem the perhaps most overused trope of historical romance: the redeemed rake.


Amber Belldene, Not a Mistake

Rather than link finding a mate with finding God, as is the case in the majority of Inspirational romances, Belldene explores how two people's deeply-held religious beliefs affect the course of their romance. Only two weeks into her first job as a newly-minted Episcopal priest, Jordan Sykes discovers that her post-graduation one-night stand with her favorite professor has led to unexpected consequences. Reverend Doctor Dominic Lawrence, a professor of religious ethics, has long been the ministry's go-to guy on issues of clergy sexual abuse, a reputation that his tryst with Jordan is likely to put in danger. Should the two try to make a romantic go of it for the sake of the impending baby? To protect Dominic's career? An unusual story that celebrates the passion that lies at the heart of both religion and romance.

Sarina Bowen, Rookie Move

When the issue of rape first emerged in heterosexual romance, it often served a very sexist purpose: a hero would capture/beat up/kill his beloved's rapist, and thereby prove his love for her. Bowen eschews such sexist treatment by focusing instead on the effects a rape can have on an existing romance. High school lovers Gigi and Leo could not find their way back to each other in the wake of Gigi's assault, and Gigi broke off their relationship. Now, six years later, both are working hard to establish themselves in their respective careers—Leo as a pro hockey player, Gigi as a publicist for the team. But when Leo's feelings for his first love reemerge, and in a very public, embarrassing way, Gigi has to decide whether she and Leo have changed enough to overcome the debilitating patterns of their past to create a relationship than can endure.

Emily Foster, How Not to Fall

An outstanding debut by an author who was "totally sure it was possible to write a romance about a college student who experiences her sexual awakening with an older, more powerful man, in a way that was sex positive, feminist, and medically accurate, as well as sexy as heck." Foster is completely successful in accomplishing her anti-50 Shades of Grey mission—and in writing a humorous, joy-filled romance to boot.

Alexis Hall, Pansies

Ah, Alfie Bell. A working class bully who grew up taking for granted all the heteronormative assumptions of his culture—until he realized as an adult in London he was far more turned on by men than by women. Going back home for a wedding leads to awkward conversations—and a hot encounter with the queer boy who was once the victim of his bullying. Only Alfie doesn't realize just who it was that he'd picked up in that bar... Hall takes the trope of enemies (bully vs. victim version) to lovers in surprisingly fresh directions, creating real empathy not only for once-abused Fen, but for fumbling, not very introspective, but ultimately deeply kind former aggressor Alfie.

Santino Hassell, First and First
Dreamspinner Press

*Added 3/18: The author known as Santino Hassell has been accused of multiple acts of abusive behavior (see "The Santino Hassell Debacle" for specific details). Readers who do not wish to support an author who behaves in such a manner may wish to avoid this and other books by Hassell.

Another impressive m/m romance from Hassell, even more remarkable for demonstrating that he can portray the denizens of wealthy Manhattan with as much skill as he can the blue and white collar workers that featured in the previous two books in the Five Boroughs series. Uptight Caleb, still reeling from a bad breakup, finds in outspoken, independent Oli someone who can appreciate him not just for his wealth or his sexy body, but for his uptight but deeply loyal self. Thumbs up for the plotline about their creation of an app "that aggregates data from the dozens of queer dating web sites and presents a diverse seletion of candidates from those different places after a user inputs specific tags. No categories or narrow limitations.... The point is that whoever you are, and however you identify, you're not forced into a box" (1794).

Courtney Milan, Hold Me

A romance in which being trans is not a spectacle, and in which the conflict between the lovers is not about the "big reveal," but instead about the ways that problematic responses by her family to protagonist Maria's trans identity have shaped her, and her ability to trust in love. Add in a Shop Around the Corner pen-pal romance between real-life enemies, thought-provoking rebuttals against "women don't belong in science" claims, and a hero with his own history of familial emotional baggage, and you have the makings of a cutting-edge contemporary romance.

Ainslie Paton, Sold Short
Supervised by Cats

Ignore the false-advertising cover. Our heroine is not a pole dancer (as in an earlier book in Paton's Sidelined series), but rather the co-owner of a successful Silicon Valley tech company. After working her tail off for years, and watching two her male co-owners find romantic partners (see books #1 & 2), Sarina is starting to think about starting a family of her own. Without, however, going through all the hassle of finding a man first. Two of her partners are totally behind her. But best friend Dev, the caretaker who holds the company together, unexpectedly blows a gasket. A thoroughly modern friends to lovers story, with a decidedly feminist take on the traditionally conservative "woman longing for a child" storyline.

Fantasy/Science Fiction

Alex Beecroft, Lioness of Cygnus Five

Beecroft is proving to be the most versatile of feminist authors, as adept at writing historicals and contemporaries as she is at writing science fiction romances—all which inquire deeply into issues of gender. In Lioness, two opposites—a formerly lauded but now disgraced "holy warrior," Aurora Campos, and Bryant Jones, a scientist imprisoned for his embrace of advanced but banned technology—crash land on a hostile planet after the prison starship Campos is captaining is attacked by rebels. Neither regards the other (or the other's culture) with much respect, until their struggles force them to rethink some of their simplistic stereotypes. But their relationship becomes strained after Jones, hoping to protect Campos, uses his banned scientific knowledge to transform her into a man...

Faith Hunter, Blood of the Earth

I've long been a fan of Hunter's Jane Yellowrock books, so was super excited to hear that 2016 would see the start of a new series, one set in the Yellowrock world but with a new set of characters. This first installment of the Soulwood series features Nell Ingram, a former member of a religious cult who has a strange connection to the land on which she lives. Future romances are hinted at for Nell and for the other members of the band of young Psy-LED agents whom Nell is asked to join to investigate the disappearance of several local girls, one of whom is connected to the area's most powerful vampire clan. Readers looking for competent, independent, and powerful female leads in their paranormal romance need look no further.

Kai Ashante Wilson, A Taste of Honey

An immersive fantasy about two cultures conducting diplomatic negotiations, in which two men fall in love despite their cultural differences. Aqib, fourth-cousin to the Royal Family of Olorum, an son of the Master of the Beasts, has always been regarded with scorn by his more powerful, athletic warrior brothers. But Lucrio, a light-skinned warrior with the visiting delegation from Daluça, seems to have nothing but admiration for the dark-skinned young man. Before Aqib even knows it, the two are caught up in whirlwind romance—a romance for which Aqib would be condemned by his family and country if it was ever discovered, for the Olorums do not condone (or even acknowledge) same-sex relationships. With the Daluçan mission soon to end, Aqib faces an difficult choice: should he leave his culture behind to forge a life in far-away Daluça with Lucrio? Or should he give in to the royals' insistence that he wed the female heir to the Olorum throne? Glorious writing, an unconventional plot structure, and an ending that I for one did not see coming combine to create a provocative imaginative read.

And finally, I couldn't resist this brief call out to two not-quite-romances that I think will be of interest to feminist readers:

Gabby Rivera, Juliet Takes a Breath
Riverdale Avenue Books

A YA/NA coming of age story told in the first person by Juliet Millagros Palante, a Puerto Rican Bronx lesbian college student who has her mind blow open (in ways both empowering and disturbing) during a summer internship with Harlowe Brisbane, a west coast hippie white feminist, and author of Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind. Combining equal parts humor, anger, education, and understanding, Rivera delves deep into the connections that draw all women together, and the barriers (privilege, prejudice, racism) that continue, even in spite of the best intentions, to keep white feminists and feminists of color apart. A vital read for those wishing to think about what intersectional feminism means in the lives of actual people, rather than just in the feminist theory books.

Rachel Kramer Bussel (editor)
Best Women's Erotica of the Year
volume 1
Cleis Press

A collection of stories that not only seeks to turn you on, but also strives to make you think: about gender, about power, about age and sexuality, and about all the different ways that a diverse collection of women can and do get their sexy on. A definite bedside keeper!

What were your favorite feminist romance reads of 2016?