Friday, January 26, 2018

Liz Jacobs' ABROAD: Book 1

Any reader of contemporary American gay and male/male romance will soon understand that acceptance of queerness varies markedly across the United States. Some areas of the country, and some subcultures within other sections of the country, openly champion gay rights. Romances with settings in the first group may occasionally depict their characters on the receiving end of negative words or actions against their queer identities or actions, but such narratives more often suggest that such words or actions are aberrations from the norm, rather than the norm itself. Romances set in the second group, though, still feature characters who struggle with social, cultural, and/or religious beliefs that insist that their sexual identities exist only beyond the pale. But even characters in romances set in the second group eventually meet with one, or many, who espouse more positive views towards queer identity. If you are growing up in 21st century America, positive models of queer identity are no longer as difficult to find as they were fifty years ago.

But what if you are from a different country? A country in which queerness is not acceptable in any segment of its cultures? Can a man who grew up in a society in which his identity is accepted ever be able to understand one who was raised in a country where queerness is outside the realm of accepted reality?

The logo of RUSA LGBT, a "network
for Russian-speaking LGBTQ
individuals, their friends, supporters,
and loved ones" which was formed in
In Liz Jacobs' debut romance, Abroad (split into two separate books), readers meet twenty-year-old Nick (Nikolay) Melnikov on an airplane, en route from Michigan to London to study for a year abroad. Nick's family immigrated to the States from Russia when he was ten, and although he and his older sister have picked up American language and culture, their mother still holds tight to her Russian identity. Including a Russian antipathy to queerness. Nick had a girlfriend through late high school and early college, but he broke up with her before leaving for London, not liking the way being with Lena "had suffocated him, like a yoke pulled too tight" (Book 1, page 9). He'd loved her, but he'd never been sexually attracted to her, nor to any of the other girls in the States who had crushed on him.

At least, not like he is drawn to Dex, a fellow uni student he meets at a party for study abroad scholars soon after he arrives in London.  Dex may be a native Brit (born and raised in Birmingham, thank you very much, despite having a Nigerian mother and a English black father), not a fellow International student, but no matter; Nick is far too shy, far too anxious, and too far into denial about his own sexual desires to make any overtures to the grumpy but smart science nerd.

But Dex's best friend, Isabel, takes a shine to Nick, and gradually draws him into their mutual circle of friends, many of who embrace queer identities. Claiming such an identity is not easy for Nick, even as it becomes increasingly clear that Dex is as attracted to Nick as Nick is to him. As Nick explains during a conversation with Izzy, after she assumes (correctly, although deeply embarrassingly to Nick) that Nick is gay:

"I can't. Not with my family."
     "Would they be very angry?"
     "I don't know how to explain. It's never been an option. Not how I grew up."
     "It's how they grew up, too. Back there, it was not talked about. If it was, it wasn't good." How to truly describe the insular circle of friends his parents had surrounded themselves with? Jewish intelligentsia who feared much and talked largely of high art, or science, and only sometimes politics—in hushed voices and in vetted company. Their kitchen table was always crowded with makeshift dinners and discussions of how cultural standards had fallen along with the government and taken intellectual thought with them. Queerness would never even enter into such conversation. Once, Nick remembered someone mentioning a particularly flamboyant pop star. Mom had wrinkled her nose. Distasteful. In her reality, being gay was like being a wizard. Outside her realm. (262)

Being Black in a predominantly white country, Dex can understand what it feels like to experience oppression due to his identity. Yet he still has a hard time understand how anyone, even a shy guy like Nick, can keep something so central about himself hidden for so long.

Nick's anxiety about his sexual desires, already pretty high, ratchets up to an entirely appalling level after he and Dex share a kiss:  "Nick felt himself splintering in two, a painful tearing of past and future. Before he knew and after. The truth of it laid bare and nestled inside him. He knew, now. He knew" (285).

Both Dex and Nick need some time apart before they can have an honest, and painful, conversation about why it is so difficult for Nick to accept his own sexuality, or to tell his family about it:

Queer activists, St. Petersburg, Russia, 2008
     "You told me once that you felt like you passed. Being Jewish, that is, that you didn't look it. Has being gay been like that?"
     Nick genuinely flinched. "It's been worse."
     Dex felt a dark shiver down his spine. "Why?"
     Nick took a long pull of his beer, which drew shadows across his throat. "Because I'm not supposed to exist."
     "No, really." Nick pushed on, and Dex forced himself to shut up. Nick was talking. Nick was talking. "I've never known another Russian gay person. I'm sure they exist, I mean, duh, of course they do. I know that. Now. But when I was a kid, I had never met one. I didn't know anyone. I didn't know any gay people."
     Dex was frozen.
     "I don't—I was alone. My parents never talked about anything like that, not ever. At least, not when I was a kid. And they they talked about it like it was something Americans did. Some Western thing. Not necessarily awful, just not for us. Not ours. So I couldn't be... that. I couldn't. I could be Jewish, I could be an immigrant, but I couldn't be gay." (321)

I really admired the way Jacobs shows how oppression manifests differently in different settings and cultures, as well as how difficult it can be to truly get someone else's experience of oppression even when you've experienced oppression yourself firsthand. She's also fabulous at capturing the cadence of young adult speech—the stops and starts, the repetitions, the meandering diversions and the conversational dead-ends—patterns of communicating that make it so very difficult to articulate, never mind to share, your most painful experiences and fears, even with your closest friends and lovers. Bonus points for a secondary storyline about Dex and Nick's friend Izzy, who is thrown for a loop after she discovers she's not as straight as she once thought she was, a discovery that unexpectedly leads to an estrangement between Izzy and her former best friend, lesbian Natali.

Can Dex and Nick actually pull off a romantic relationship, with Nick still keeping his sexuality a secret from his mother? And with his VISA expiring in only a few months? Will Natali's crush on Izzy lead to a shift in their relationship? Or will Izzy explore her newly discovered bisexuality in another way? I'm off to read Abroad: Book 2, eager to spend more time with these nuanced, sympathetically drawn characters.

Photo credits:
Rainbow Russian doll: RUSA LGBT
Russian queer activists: ABC

Liz Jacobs
Abroad: Book One
Brain Mill Press, 2017

Friday, January 19, 2018

Navigating Niceness: Susannah Nix's INTERMEDIATE THERMODYNAMICS

The word "nice" is such a bland adjective. But it has a lot of power when it comes to gender.

When used to refer to a guy, "nice" is often taken as an insult, indicating some sort of lack: "he's nice, but. . ." Nice guys, after all, finish last.

But when the person in question is a woman, it's the lack of niceness that proves a problem. Women who aren't nice seen as rude, unkind, even overly aggressive. Flashing a smile, the classic indication of "niceness," signals one's awareness of one's lower place in the social hierarchy. A woman who refuses to smile, who refuses to enact niceness, is often seen by others, especially by men, as a threat.

Which was why I was so intrigued by this early self-description by the narrator of Susannah Nix's Intermediate Theromodyanmics. We first meet Esther Abbott in her apartment building's laundry room, steaming over an inconsiderate fellow renter who has failed to pick up his long-dry clothing:

One of the other, nicer, neighbors—like Mrs. Boorstein, the fifty-something accountant in twelve—might have folded Jonathan's clothes for him and left them in neat piles on the table. But Esther wasn't nice. Not to people who didn't deserve it. She had no patience for incompetence or selfishness. People who broke the laundry room social contract shouldn't get free laundry folding as a reward for their bad behavior. (p. 2)

While one might expect a character named Mrs. Boorstein to be hit with the "not nice" label, it is Esther, our romance heroine, who wields the label. And she aims it at herself. And as the book progresses, Nix demonstrates that the label is quite warranted. Esther is verbally blunt and brusque, even caustic at times; she's unsentimental, especially when it comes to romance ("Instead of keeping men around past their expiration date, she tossed them out as soon a the freshness had started to wear off" [92]); she's the one who supports her mother financially, while her older brother supports her emotionally. Refusing to take on the emotional labor of creating and maintaining positive feelings, and alleviating and rectifying negative ones in herself and especially in others, Esther actively refuses the "nice" label, and all the gendered baggage that accompanies it.

How does this refusal of niceness play out for Esther in terms of her love life? Given Esther's teeth-grinding reaction to annoying, laundry-abandoning Jonathan ("Pretentious, beanie-clad, farmer's-market-shopping hipsters weren't Esther's type" [12]), romance readers won't be surprised that it's Jonathan who will end up as her love interest. Not, though, before Esther wrangles nice guy Jonathan into asking her best friend Jinny on a date in exchange for her help with the science in his current science fiction screenplay project (Esther's an aerospace engineer). Esther wants to prevent "recidivist" Jinny from going back to her "Bad News" ex-boyfriend out of loneliness and low self-esteem, and thinks that lying to her friend about Jonathan's interest is a small price to pay for Jinny's safety. Which, of course, backfires spectacularly later on in the book.

Unlike Jinny, Esther isn't bothered by problems of self-esteem problems. In fact, the book's whole set-up seems primed for a misogynistic "teach the overly caustic heroine that she really needs to be a nicer person before she truly deserves love" storyline, especially after we see her bossy ways with Jinny, and her annoyance with rather sweet Johnathan. But Nix openly addresses the misogyny inherent in a character arc for a non-nice female character with a subplot about the way Esther is treated on the job.

During her first performance review under a new, female manager, Esther hears this:

"You're technically brilliant, and your ability to quickly find innovative, efficient solutions to engineering problems is second to none." So far, it was all good. But something about the way she said it made Esther feel like there was a "but" hanging out there.
     And there it was.
     "At times you can come on a little too strong, or give the impression that you're impatient or disdainful of your peers and their abilities. . . . Some of them find you a little. . . aggressive" (104-105)

Needless to say, not-nice Esther recognizes the sexism inherent in her manager's assessment, even if she knows better than to protest during her actual review:

Aggressive. She'd actually had the nerve to call Esther aggressive. Would a man ever be called aggressive? No, because in men it was seen as a desirable trait. A man would be told he was assertive, that he'd displayed leadership skills. Only in a woman would it be considered a negative. Because women were expected to be meek and subservient. Passive. Agreeable.
     Fuck that. (106)

But she can't quite shake off her manager's comment, especially when, in her analytical fashion, she asks her friends for their opinions on the interaction, and all recognize a kernel of truth underlying the sexism of the language's assessment:

     "It's just. . . someone else recently told me I can be mean sometimes."
     "Well. . ." Jinny tilted her head to one side. "That's not entirely inaccurate."
     Esther stared at her. "Seriously?"
     "You're only mean to people who deserve it."
     "Great, thanks."
     "You have a low tolerance for incompetence. . . . But when it's someone you like, you're extremely patient and supportive. Like when you taught me how to knit." (113)

     "You can be a bit prickly.... Mean."
     "You said you wanted honest feedback."
     "I did, it's just—there's honest and then there's honest . . . . You were pretty blunt about it that first time," [Jonathan] said, "and I didn't exactly take it well . . . . I needed to hear it, and I'm grateful you said what you said. But it wasn't exactly pleasant. . . .  The second time, you were more diplomatic about it though. Kinder, I guess. You said nice stuff to cushion the blow before you delivered the bad news. In my writing group, we call it a feedback sandwich" (109)

Both Jinny and Esther's work friend Yemi offer her this advice:

Jinny: "Look... it was unfair and sexist of her to call you aggressive.... But I think I get what she was trying to say. Just because it's a double standard doesn't mean you don't still have to figure out how to navigate it. The world's un unfair place and sexism isn't going away anytime soon. She should have chosen a different word, but I think you should consider that she was trying to help you." (114)

Yemi: "Speaking for myself, I think it's possible for something to be two things at once. I think you can be angry that it's sexist, but also try to learn something from it that will help you advance in your career" (115)

Advice which helps Esther navigate other instances of sexism at the office, with an entitled male colleague whose mistakes Esther always has to fix, and male team leads who put aside her suggestions because she's not one of the "bros." Not by being "nice," by making these guys feel good about their sexist ways, but instead by continuing to do her job with competence, and putting the needs of the team and the project before her desire to gloat over the fact that she was right and the "bros" were wrong.

It's a little more difficult, though, for Esther to see beyond the binary and put Yemi and Jinny's advice to work in her romantic life. Especially when it comes to "nice guy" Jonathan. It's a joy to watch a not-nice girl come to appreciate not only a nice guy, but her own ability to love.

Photo credits
Dryer: Compact Appliances
Nice at work: Pinterest
Martini Fisher quote: Your Quote

Intermediate Thermodynamics
Chemistry Lessons #2
Haver Street Press, 2017

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Groveling and Grand Gestures: Kate Clayborn's BEGINNER'S LUCK

I picked up Kate Clayborn's debut romance, Beginner's Luck, after spotting it on the "best of 2017" list of Emma Barry, an author for whose writing and blogging I hold a deep respect. When I first began reading, though, I have to admit I was a bit underwhelmed by Clayborn's tale. The story, which opens with a prologue about three female friends who have recently won the lottery, is a bit of a slow starter, which seemed decidedly at odds with the first person present tense in which the author chose to relate it.  And even though the lottery win is the hook that ties the series, entitled Chance of a Lifetime, together, the big payout isn't really a driving force, at least in this first book. But given the recommender, I decided to keep reading, and I'm glad I did. Because Clayborn's debut is not only strong on the character-development front; it also made me think about the purposes (and the potential problems) of the "groveling" scene that so often appears towards the climax of traditional romances, as well as the genre's linkage of "grand gestures" to groveling scenes.

Beginner's Luck's female protagonist, Kit Averin, is decidedly anti-lottery, having suffered a few too many moves during her childhood due to the losses sustained by her gambling-addicted father. Out of her three friends, Kit is the only one to keep her job post-lottery, because she loves her work as a scientist so much. She's kept the news about her win not only from the public at large, but also from her colleagues at the material science department where she earned her Master's degree and where she now works as a lab technician. In fact, Kit has kept her secret so quiet that a recruiter from Beaumont Materials, a large commercial company, thinks he can wrest her from her job with the temptation of a high-paying salary and lots of new lab equipment.

But even if Kit weren't morally opposed to working for a corporate concern, she'd never consider the offer of Beamont Materials' recruiter, smooth-talker Ben Tucker. Not only is he too good-looking for his (or her) own good, he did so little research on her that he had no idea that she was a she and not a he. Besides, after her peripatetic childhood, the last thing Kit wants to do is move to a strange town in Texas and start anew. Kit loves her job, loves her friends, and loves the ties she is building in her (unnamed) college town, including the old Queen Anne house she's just purchased with her lottery winnings.

Unlike Kit, Ben couldn't get away from home fast enough. In response to his mother's leaving him and his father for another man when he was a teen, Ben let his simmering rage boil over one time too many, leading to six months in juvenile detention and a guilt complex a mile wide. He's spent the years from 17 to 31 in Texas, trying to shake off his bad rep and his feelings of abandonment. But an accident suffered by his beloved father has brought him home again, where he plans to split his time between nursing Dad, overseeing Dad's building materials salvage yard, and wooing a potential candidate his boss insists must come and work for their company. In fact, wooing said candidate will free him and his friend Jasper from their anti-compete clause, allowing them to leave Beaumont and start their own recruitment company, something they've been itching to do for the past few years.

Needless to say, of Ben's three jobs, none goes as easily as he had hoped, especially the job of recruiting E. R. Averin—E for Ekaterina, as it turns out. As Ben's attraction to Kit crosses the line from admiration to actual kissing, Ben is wise enough to fire himself from the job of recruiting her. But not before he shares some insider information with Jasper, information that Jasper, eager to win his and Ben's freedom, uses in a way that has Kit steaming with betrayal.

The slow-build romance between Kit and Ben is appealing, but it was the aftermath of the betrayal where things got really interesting to me, on three fronts. First, on the front of Kit's job prospects. Kit's been so emotionally wounded by her upbringing that she's utterly determined to remain fixed fixed in place. As Kit herself describes early on in the story, being recruited by Ben gives her a "quick-shot feeling of fear that would go through me at the very idea of having to pick up and leave here, start all over again. I can't do that anymore. I've had my fill of it" (p. 15). She's even gone to therapy to help her deal with her childhood, and she recognizes that her fear of change is a real issue for her. I've seen such determined holding on to the present in other romance novel protagonists, and so I thought for sure this narrative, like so many others, was going to frame its heroine's emotional growth journey as one towards accepting greater risk  And it does—just not in regards to her job. As Kit tells herself after one too many a man tells her what she should want, the urge to always move faster, go higher, make more money, is only one way to live a life; there are other goals that are equally, or for Kit, perhaps more, important:

Who are these men to say that I have to live a life where work takes over, where I'm always worried about the next thing? Who are these men who think having vision means making money, making things? And who are these fucking men to tell me what's easy? What's easy about becoming a part of a community, about reading the local paper every week, making sure you try something new, even if it's scary and you have to go by yourself? What's easy about making best friends, about forming relationships that are going to last, when someone has your back and you have theirs? What's easy about trying to make a home for yourself, when you've never had one before? (131)

The second surprise had to do with the grand gesture Ben makes to show his regret for having messed up Kit's work life. Getting on a plane, flying halfway across the country to apologize—in a rom com, you'd expect such a gesture to lead immediately to forgiveness, to a teary but happy couple embrace. Yet Clayborn's story suggests that the big gesture may be less about the person wronged, and more about the person who's done the wronging:

     "Just let me be here with you. I'm so worried—"
     "You know what, Ben? I'm sorry about that. I'm sorry that you're worried. I know that's hard. But this isn't about you. This is something that's going on with me, and I get to pick who I want to have around. I get to choose. And it's not you. It's really, really not." (185)

The final surprise had to do with the groveling mentioned above. Or, rather, the lack thereof. Because Ben's been there and done that, and knows it's just not worth it. As Ben's father explains to Kit:

     "That night Laura [Ben's mother] calls, all upset, asks how he's doing. She told me he'd ridden his bike to where she'd worked, waited outside for her until she showed up. Begged her to come back, promised he'd be a better kid. He cried his heart out, I guess, and Ben wasn't much of a crier, ever" (211).

Ben's childhood groveling, even though he wasn't in the wrong, didn't change his mother's mind. And it won't change Kit's mind, or at least, it shouldn't. Because he shouldn't have to grovel, shouldn't have to beg, for her to be willing to forgive him, for her to want to be with him.

And Kit realizes she shouldn't be waiting for him, either, waiting for him to sell her on the idea that they belong together: "For all my talk to Ben about choosing for myself, I'm not choosing anything right now" (213).

Because a relationship isn't something you should be talked into, or groveled into, wanting. It's something you should choose because you want it for yourself.

Photo credits:
Salvage yard: California home design
Bike in grass: Alamy stock

Beginner's Luck
Chance of a Lifetime #1
Kensington 2017

Friday, January 5, 2018

RNFF Best of 2017

Contemporary Romance

Adriana Anders, Under Her Skin (Blank Canvas #1)

It was difficult to pick just one of Anders' outstanding titles in her Blank Canvas series. But I ended up choosing book #1, for its portrayal of an abuse survivor gradually reclaiming her life, and her ability to care for both herself and others. Bonus points for refusing the patriarchal "I help the woman I love by beating up the men who have hurt her" trope so common in the romance genre.

Austin Chant, Coffee Boy

This is a 2016 title, but I read it in 2017, so it still counts in my book. A short but very entertaining novella featuring just-graduated-from-college Kieran, who takes on an internship in a San Antonio senator's campaign office which is not quite as trans-friendly as his mentor had promised him. I loved Kieran's cranky humor; it was refreshing to see a trans character portrayed not as sad or afraid, but as really annoyed by others' confusion about his gender, and the micro-aggression of their responses to same. And I also appreciated his gradual realization that his lack of professional drive might be due not only to his crush on fellow office mate Seth, but also to his frustration with "everyone staring at him and wondering what he is" (Kindle Loc 714).

Aya de León, The Boss (Justice Hustlers #2)

Intersectional feminism meets romance meets heist tale in this unusual story set against the background of New York's sex worker community. Tyesha Couvillier, former sex worker and current director of a woman's clinic serving the city's sex workers, is attracted to bad boy rapper Thug Woofer, thinking his misogynistic lyrics wouldn't influence how he treated her. But when misogyny his proves more than song-deep, Tyesha kicks him to the curb. She's too busy planning heists from the male exploiters in the city with her female co-workers to have time for that sexist shit. But Woof proves surprisingly persistent, especially after some anger management counseling courtesy of his record label gives him the language to explain his own oppression and his less-than-productive reactions to it. Can Woof bring himself to really respect Tyesha? Can they keep open their clinic in the face of opposition from both the criminals and the "respectable" of the city? Will Tyesha and her gang pull off the biggest heist of their careers? Feminist readers will want to know!

Alexis Hall, How to Bang a Billionaire

Hall's male/male take on 50 Shades of Gray not only critiques its predecessor's kink-shaming message, but does it with spot-on characterization, a witty narrative voice in slacker Oxford student Arden St. Ives, and the kind of humor that makes you want to turn to the beginning all over again as soon as you've come to the last page, for just one more joyful jolt of laugh-out-loud goodness. Book #2, How to Blow it with a Billionaire, which was published in December, is just as fabulous.

Tasha L. Harrison, The Truth of Things

Heterosexual romance is filled with heroes whose professions are all about public service. But what happens when the society in which you live considers those public servants part of the problem rather than part of the solution? When dating a cop is tantamount to dating the enemy? Grounded in the anger and the hope of "Black Lives Matter" movement, The Truth of Things proves that great romance can be about confronting real life, rather than simply escaping from it.

Julie James, The Thing About Love

James continues to write strong, ambitious women in male-dominated professions who can go toe to toe with their male colleagues as well as with their male lovers, especially when it comes to verbal sparring. Her romantic pair in this book are two FBI agents with a past (super-competitive during their days together in FBI training school) who meet again when one is transferred to the Chicago office and is assigned to work a bribery investigation with the other. Neither Jessica nor John is ready for a new relationship, both just coming off of bad breakups, but the old animosity from their training days re-emerges, manifesting itself as sexual tension rather than plain old competitiveness. James gives us flashbacks of the duo's time at Quantico, in "She Said," "He Said" chapters that show how easily misunderstandings blossom in environments where women are forced to guard against both harassment and disparagement of their talents, and men take their gender privilege for granted.

Ruthie Knox, Completely (New York #3)

Thirty-nine year old Rosemary Chamberlain (ex-wife of Winston, the hero of Knox's Madly), is tired of being the expensive decorative paper on someone else's wall. To regain her sense of self post-divorce, she's decided to live out her pre-marriage dreams by joining an all-women expedition to scale the world's largest seven mountains and writing a book about the experience. But shock, not empowerment, sets in after an avalanche buries the base camp on her current climb, killing several of Rosemary's fellow climbers. Uber-confident Rosemary has a post-accident melt-down (of the sexual variety) with younger Kalden Beckett, one of the "ice doctors" guiding her climbing party. But the two opposites find their trauma experiences keep driving them together, leading both to reassess their life goals. Knox's romances are always ideologically rich, and I loved the environmentalism and social justice aspects of this one as well as signs of Knox's more characteristic feminist concerns. And Rosemary—brusque, witty, self-contained, very aware of her race and class privilege but not afraid about using them, either—is an unusual, but compelling, heroine for a feminist romance novel.

Ruby Lang, Clean Breaks (Practice Perfect #3)

Dr. Sarah Soon, "maker of lists, taker of names, kicker of asses," has just finished being treated for Stage 2 melanoma. But she's been strangely unmotivated and lethargic, unable to bring herself to return to the OB part of her OB/GYN practice, or to interfere in the lives of her friends and fellow practice partners. Enter Jake Li, a friend of Sarah's older brother, a guy who had been a constant in Sarah's life growing-up. Jake, recently amicably divorced, is eager to strike up a new kind of relationship with fierce Sarah, whom he's always found appealing but feared he was too geeky to attract. To her surprise, Sarah is interested (Jake's grown up to be a hot, as well as a kind, man), but she's also fearful, fear which expresses itself via crankiness, snark, and unexpected bursts of anger.  I love angry romance heroines; not only are they far too rare in the genre, they also validate my own moments of frustration and striking out because of it. The story doesn't belabor the fact that Sarah is acting out of her fear of dying, but it is central to understanding her usually totally-in-control character now gone awry. Lang also challenges stereotypes about the lack of sex appeal of Asian men, even while she has Jake protesting what his friends, and American culture at large, tries to push on him as the right, masculine way to be a recently-divorced male. Lang interrogates these and other gender issues with humor, wit, and verve.

Christina Lauren, Dating You/Hating You

Two Hollywood agents meet awkward at a party, and go on a first date, but when their competing agencies merge, the two wind up pitted against each other for the one spot in the department that will remain post-merger. The book's sell copy suggests this will be a classic Battle of the Sexes story: "What could have been a beautiful, blossoming romance turns into an all out war of sabotage. Carter and Evie are both thirtysomething professionals—so why can't they act like it?" But Carter (who is actually twenty-eight to Evie's thirty-three) wasn't the embodiment of the unthinking sexism that the male half of most BofS's romances typically feature. But even though Carter espouses none of the privileged male beliefs that undergird most sexist workplaces, Lauren shows how even feminist men can still be the unwitting beneficiaries of male privilege, especially in a sexist workplace. It takes some major back and forthing, some managing of competitive flare-ups, and some honest discussions of privilege and feelings before Evie and Carter can begin to come close to figuring out how to work as true colleagues rather than as cutthroat competitors. And some seriously hot trysts before they can come together not just as friends but as lovers, rather than sublimating their desires into secret, silly sabotage.

Tamsen Parker, In Her Court (Camp Firefly Falls #18)

Parker gives the "crush on your older brother's best friend" trope a queer turn when older brother's friend turns out to be a geeky lesbian. Many romances that rely on this trope feature an oder brother who seems less like a friendly protector and more like a cock-blocking tool of patriarchy, unable to acknowledge younger sis's right to a sex life. But in Parker's story, the focus is on the romance between Willa, a graduate student filling in as a tennis instructor for her injured older brother, and Van, said older brother's tech-inclined best friend. Parker writes with humor and insight about nostalgia, nerdiness, and the academic rat race (Van's a burned-out professor; Willa's hoping to jump on the tenure track after earning her degree) as she once again turns traditional romance tropes on their heads.

Roan Parrish, Small Change

Ginger Holtzman dropped out of high school at sixteen to work as an apprentice in a Philadelphia tattoo shop. Eighteen years later, she's now the proprietor of said shop, the only female-owned tattoo business in the city.  In contrast to the dominant mode of the tattoo industry, which has a long history and reputation of being male-dominated, Ginger has actively tried to create a more accepting vibe in her own shop, a place where both men and women, no matter their race, sexuality, or gender identification, feel safe and welcomed. Ginger controls her tattoos ("Tattoos are the scars you choose), but has plenty scars of the "unchosen" type, too, some from her family, who have never understood why she could not mold herself something closer to the feminine norm tha ther mother and sister so easily inhabit, and some from the negative reaction of others to her gender queerness, both when she was a child and even now, as an adult. Given her prickly background, Ginger has a hard time opening herself up to relationships, but thirty-year-old sandwich shop owner Christopher Lucen has a temperament as sunny as Ginger's is prickly. Does Ginger have to make a choice between being with Christopher and maintaining her hard-won independence? Or is there room in her life for both? There are so many terrific feminist moments in Parrish's book, my favorites the ones that focus on refusing the dominant romance trope of competing with other women by denigrating them. Small Change is still my favorite feminist romance of 2017.

CD Reiss, King of Code

Reiss tackles the sexism in the tech industry in this mystery/romance, pointing out just how overt, and how damaging, are the industry's identification with male goals, male feelings, and the male gaze are, as well as the field's consequent objectification and denigration of anything labeled female or feminine. Especially in smaller start ups like the one headed by Taylor Harden, the hero of Reiss's romance, work environments can feel more like carry-overs from a frat house than professional adult spaces, and the idea that women are distracting, dangerous, and even potential legal liabilities is far too often the norm than the depressing exception. To be a King of Code, one has to banish all the princesses and queens. So when a hacker disrupts the unhackable code Taylor's company has built its reputation on, Taylor can't believe said hacker could be a woman. A belief that gives Harper Barrington a leg up in her cat-and-mouse game with Taylor, a game that has implications not only for women in tech, but for all the inhabitants of the small town her family once employed in their now defunct bottling plant. Watching Taylor gradually realize the consequences of his unthinking sexism, and begin to take responsibility for it, is even better than the steamy trysts he engages in with the elusive Harper.

YA/New Adult:

Becky Albertalli, The Upside of Unrequited

Seventeen-year-old Molly Peskin-Suso has a penchant for unrequited crushes. She's had twenty-six of them, in fact, and is ripe to start working on number 27. Crushes are so much safer than actually revealing one's feelings to a potential romantic partner, especially for an overweight girl like Molly. Even the urging of her love-em-and-leave-em queer twin sister Cassie can't get her to leave the safe space of crushing for the more tempestuous waters of an actual date or boyfriend. But when Cassie herself falls hard for another girl, and for the first time doesn't want to talk it all over with Molly, Molly finds herself out in the cold. Should she start in on another crush? Perhaps on the wonderfully convenient best friend of Cassie's new love, hipster boy Will? Or should she trust that her budding friendship with geeky Tolkein-lover Reid might bloom into something more? A spot-on look at early dating and romance, set in a community where diversity of all types (racial, economic, gender, sexuality) is taken as a matter of fact rather than as something unusual or special.

Jenn Bennet, Alex, Approximately

Seventeen-year-old self-proclaimed "Artful Doger" Bailey Rydell is moving to California to live with her dad after her mother's new marriage starts to falter. Trauma during her early years has made her an "evader," a master of avoidance: "The key to avoiding uncomfortable situations is a preemptive strike: make sure you see them first" (47). But working in a funky local museum alongside extroverted security guard Porter, who is part Jewish, part Polynesian, part Chinese, and all California surfer cool, makes Bailey's dodging ways hard to maintain. This frenemies to romance ("This is going to sound weird. . . but I think we're compatible arguers" [2781]) is chock-full of both appealing primary and secondary characters and both humorous and touchingly vulnerable moments. Bailey's journey from Artful Dodger to not-yet-outspoken but willing to take a few risks to get what she wants (including a romance) is a compelling one, especially for shy or introverted readers.

Heidi Cullinan, Shelter the Sea (The Roosevelt #2)

Cullinan follows up on the romance between two unusual lovers—Emmett, super smart and neuro-diverse (on the autism spectrum), and Jeremey, who suffers from debilitating anxiety and depression—which began in Carry the Ocean, the first book in this series set in an independent living facility for adults with special emotional and physical needs. When the state of Iowa restructures its mental health system (and benefits), The Roosevelt, where Emmett and Jeremey live, is put in danger, and Emmett finds himself becoming the spokesperson for the campaign against the state-wide changes. Cullinan is known for writing Hallmark-type happy ending stories for queer characters, but she doesn't pull any punches here, showing just how difficult it can be for those who are labeled "not normal" to advocate for the resources, and the respect, they need and deserve to live fulfilling lives.

Megan Erickson & Santino Hassell, Mature Content (Cyberlove #4)

*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 strong entry in Erickson and Hassell's male male romance series, set within the cutting edge of the gaming/social media communities. Two gay vlogggers who have diametrically opposing online personas (TrashyZane, who glories in his open and kinky sexuality, and Beau Starr, who always focuses on the positive in his straight-laced gay celebrating videocasts) clash in public. But Beau's "clean" online presence hides a secret: in bed, he's far less vanilla than any of his readers might imagine. An opposites-who-aren't-actually-all-that-different story, which emphasizes the need for sex positivity for queer young men as well as for women, and which includes fascinating discussions about personal identity in the age of social media.

Cass Lennox, Toronto Connection series

I loved every book in this series, one of the first I've read that doesn't slot queer characters of different types off into their own separate subgenres, but instead features queer characters of all types as friends and lovers: a gay male paired with an asexual guy; a trans man and bi-romantic woman; a drag queen and his boyfriend, who isn't quite as out of the closet as he's led his partner to believe; and two lesbians in a fake-girlfriends story. Crafting a fictional world in which her characters are in the process of coming to understand that the cultural expectations they've grown up with about sex and romance are not necessarily true, and finding community with a group of friends and with romantic partners who are also working to "unpick the toxic crap" of those cultural expectations alongside them, makes for liberating, and validating, reading.

Sara Taylor Woods, Hold Me Down (Carolina Girls #1)

Daddy fetish and feminism? If someone had told me five years ago that I'd be putting those two ideas in the same sentence, I'd have laughed them out of the room. But Sarah Taylor Woods has convinced me it's possible. Woods' debut romance is told in the first person by college junior Talia, who, ever since she can remember, has been fascinated by bondage and pain. But her fantasies and desires bother her, especially given her progressive values: "Never mind that I'd identified as a feminist since I learned the definition of it. I was so invested in determining my own future and making my own decisions and being as good as any man walking down the street—but as soon as I got my clothes off, boss me around, hurt me, threaten me, humiliate me. How on earth was I supposed to reconcile that?" (2068). But when she meets and starts dating grad student Sean Poole, whose sexual proclivities might just be a match for hers, Talia may be ready to understand the difference between abusive sex and consensual BDSM. "Where was the line between getting off on someone else's pain and being a fucking monster? Was I rationalizing? Was that something abuse victims did? Justify it with but we're both getting off? Could one-sided violence really be consensual?" (2677). That Woods offers no easy answers to these questions, but ultimately grants her protagonist the freedom to decide for herself what will be her own "normal," what best constitutes her own happiness, makes for an unusual, and decidedly feminist, new adult romance.


K. J. Charles, An Unnatural Vice (Sins of the Cities #2)

Each of the books in Charles' latest male/male series, books set in the milieu of the Victorian sensation novel, are worthy of a place on RNFF's list. But my favorite of the three is the middle book, which pairs thirty-seven-year-old crusading journalist Nathaniel Roy, still grieving the death of his (male) partner after five years, and Justin Lazarus, the "Seer of London," a fraud of a spiritualist who preys on the recently bereaved and credulous. But even if Justin is a fraud, he has a dangerous way of seeing into a person's vulnerabilities—especially Nathaniel's. When the two have to flee the city to escape men intent on killing Justin, the two gradually begin to understand the strong-willed human beings behind the privileged, righteous prig and the selfish gutter fraud spiritualist. Hot hate-sex that gradually develops into cross-class understanding and respect—now that's a romance writing achievement that you don't see very day. But Charles pulls it off with her trademark strong characterization, accurate historical grounding, and suspenseful storyline, making readers not just relate to, but care for, her prickly, unlikeable-at-first lovers.

Alyssa Cole, A Hope Divided (The Loyal League #2)

Almost all of my favorite "best of 2017" romance lists includes An Extraordinary Union, the first book in Cole's "Loyal League" Civil War series. But to my mind, the second book, A Hope Divided, is far more successful as a romance, albeit a slow-build one. Heroine Marlie Lynch is in a fascinating position to comment both on privilege and oppression: the daughter of a former enslaved woman, she currently lives with her white father's family (although neither her white sister or brother openly talk about her parentage or their relationship to her). She and her white sister, Sarah, have been actively involved in white resistance efforts in Carolina for the three years the Civil War has raged, but even Sarah doesn't know that Marlie has agreed to house escaped, injured prisoner of war Ewan McCall in the hideyhole in her own bedroom, a decision that grows ever-more dangerous after Marlie's brother and his southern wife come to live at the family plantation. Marlie and Ewan are both curious intellectuals, Marlie with both her folk and her Western science knowledge of medicine, and Ewan with his investment in Greek Stoicism and the logic that calms his often tumultuous mind (another hero on the autism spectrum). Their respect for one another's brains, which plays out in conversations about philosophy and social justice, as well as their attraction to each other's bodies, makes for a gradually-building but deeply felt romance.

Victoria Dahl, Angel (Bartered Hearts #1)

Despite being a major Dahl fan, I somehow missed this 2015 erotic historical romance and its sequel/ precursor, Harlot. But I'd put Dahl's unusual Christmas novella about an African-American woman forced into prostitution and the white man who first buys her wares, then comes to love her, retroactively on RNFF's "Best of 2015" list. Melisande must come to terms not only with her own attraction to her unlikely suitor, but with the choices her mother made on her behalf, choices that led her to sex work in the first place. Did her mother betray her? Or give her the strength to make her own choices, choices that might be far different from her mother's?

Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, and Alyssa Cole, Hamilton's Battalion: A Trio of Romances

Cole, along with Milan and Lerner, write some of the best historical romance fiction out there, and this collection of three novellas, set during the American Revolution and its aftermath, showcases their skills. I like to believe that the authors were inspired by Aaron Burr's advice to brash, outspoken Alexander Hamilton in the musical Hamilton: "Talk less, smile more." For those who have seen the play, or are familiar with its lyrics, know that Miranda's Hamilton could never have followed Burr's well-intentioned advice. Speaking, and speaking out—loudly, abrasively, and often—is the way that Miranda's Hamilton "gets the job done." As do one of the partners of each romantic pairing in Hamilton's Battalion. The collection's premise is that Hamilton's wife, Eliza, is collecting stories from all who knew him in preparation for writing his biography. The book's first two stories purport to be letters written by soldiers who served in Hamilton's military battalion at Yorktown, while the third features the woman currently employed by Eliza Hamilton to take notes during her interviews. That Eliza Hamilton would be so charmed by the love stories of Jewish soldiers, of gay male soldiers, or by an interracial romance seems far more fantasy than reality. Yet that such soldiers did serve in the Revolutionary army—Jewish ones, queer ones, even female ones—is the stuff of history, not make-believe, as each writer's Authors Note makes abundantly clear.

Elizabeth Kingston, Fair, Bright, and Terrible (Welsh Blades #2)

The second book in Kingston's medieval Welsh series tells the story (and backstory) of Gwenllion's hard-driving mother, Eluned. The book opens with Eluned defeated, all her plots to win freedom for Wales form King Edward I in ruins. Subject to the will of men once again, Eluned is told by the King and by her son to remarry—none other than Robert de Lascaux, the man with whom she had a passionate affair as a young married woman. But all Eluned's passions have been ground into the dust by a mad husband, the betrayal of her daughter, and the execution of the last Welsh princes. The only thing left in her heart is a desire for revenge. Unlike Eluned, Robert has been nursing his passion for Eluned ever since she sent him away. He's thrilled to have the chance to wed his true love, even if the marriage pleases the father he's always set himself against. But when Robert finds himself tied to a woman who seems as far from his beloved as is a stone from silk, he begins to see the immaturity of his passions. Kingston works unexpected wonders with the old lovers reunited trope, showing both how life experiences can change a lover almost beyond recognition and that some pieces of a person's character still remain, even in the wake of the worst tragedy and trauma.

What were your favorite feminist romance reads of 2017?