Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Short Takes: Spring 2019 Historicals by RNFF favorites

Cover of Elizabeth Kingston's DESIRE LINES

After being in somewhat of a historical romance reading funk for the first few months of 2019, I was thrilled to see that several of my favorite historical romance writers had new books coming out in the spring. Here are my short recs for books by three RNFF favorites:

Courtney Milan's full-length historicals feature traditional male/female romance pairings. But her shorter works tends to star more unconventional couples. The duo in her latest, Mrs. Martin's Incomparable Adventure, might just win the award for most underrepresented characters in Victorian romance. Although they are both white, both of her lovers are female, as well as "seasoned"—one in her sixties, the other in her seventies. Though the eponymous Mrs. Martin suffers from a lack of spirits after the death of her best friend, she hasn't lost any of her outspoken manner ("My husband, God rot his soul, used to bring prostitutes home all the time. After he'd finished with them, I'd serve them tea and double whatever he was paying them.... It was hard work fucking my husband. Trust me, I should know. I certainly didn't want to do it" [Kindle Loc 225]). She's certainly not the meek, retiring gentlewoman recently sacked boarding house manager Miss Violetta Beauchamps was hoping for, a woman whom Violetta could somehow swindle into paying the far-overdue rent for her smarmy nephew. Violetta desperately needs that money in lieu of the pension her employer had promised her, but then chose not to pay her upon unfairly firing her after she'd worked for him for forty-seven years. In fact, Violetta is far closer to the meek mouse she had hoped Mrs. Martin would be than is the formidable Mrs. Martin herself.

But after Violetta shares the truth of her nephew's boorish behavior with his aunt, Bertrice Martin decides to set off on the adventure her doctor prescribed: not for a rest in Bath, but to London with Violetta, to help the unfortunate woman drive out the sponging "Terrible Nephew" from what she mistakenly assumes is Violetta's boarding house. Milan's trademark humor is in fine form here, as is her penchant for pushing her characters into a seemingly inescapable corners then inviting us to watch with unabashed glee as they use unconventional methods to escape the confines society wishes them to inhabit. Violetta's transformation, from traditionally "nice" woman who is happy to fade into the background to one who speaks out on her own behalf as well as Mrs. Martin's, is particularly delicious.

An Unconditional Freedom, the third entry in Alyssa Cole's American Civil War-set series The Loyal League, features a man as disillusioned as is Milan's Violetta, but far less happy to accept his fate with any meekness or humility. Before the war, Daniel Cumberland's greatest trauma was that the woman he loved (the heroine of book 1, An Extraordinary Union) did not love him back. But after the idealistic aspiring lawyer is kidnapped from his Massachusetts town and sold south into slavery, his happy, carefree nature is quickly beaten out of him. We meet Daniel after he is rescued from enslavement, unable to fit back into his old life, to "be strong and forget what happened," as his father recommends. Instead, he's working as a spy for the Loyal League, a spy who prefers to work alone. But when Janeta Sanchez, a new recruit, enters the league, the angry, disdainful Daniel is assigned to be her partner.

Janeta, the daughter of a Cuban planation owner and the black slave woman he later married, has grown up taking slavery for granted, even while recognizing that her golden brown skin makes others treat her not quite the same as they do her obviously Spanish half-sisters. Moving from Cuba to Florida changed little for her—until war broke out, and her father was arrested on suspicion of being a northern sympathizer. Her lover in the Rebel army promises that if she will spy on the Yanquis, he'll make certain her father is freed. And thus Janeta, the daughter of a slave owner, finds her way to the Loyal League, using her skill at hiding behind layers of pleasing behavior to ingratiate herself with all of its members. All, that is, but the wary Daniel.

Cole choice to decenter the whiteness that typically looms so large in northerner vs. southerner Civil War stories is not only a boon for readers of color looking for greater representation of their experiences in historical romance; it also allows white readers to step away their fears of being associated with the villain in the more typical white/black binary portrayal of slavery. Which may allow them to read without debilitating defensiveness about the blind spots that many whose heritage does not include a history of enslavement and racism often have towards those whose does, as well as the ways that good people are indoctrinated into accepting what we today often self-righteously believe we would never accept ourselves. Take this exchange between after Daniel and Janeta, after Daniel reveals the scars on his back:

     Janeta thought of the time her family had gone into the city center in Santiago. Her mother had clapped her hand over Janeta's eyes when they'd walked by a man tied to a post with his bloody back exposed.
     You don't need to see such things. You are a Sanchez. You don't have to endure such ugliness.
     She couldn't look away now, though. Daniel has bared to her this proof of his ill treatment and all she could ask herself was, "Why?"
     "That man tried to start an insurrection. They had to make an example of him."
     That's what her father had told her later when she'd questioned him about what she had seen. He'd handed her a gift when she'd asked why insurrection was bad, a beautiful porcelain doll with creamy skin, rouged cheeks, and blue eyes, and she'd let the matter drop.
     "What did you do?" she asked Daniel, and saw the muscles beneath the scars tense.
     "You think I did something to bring this upon myself?" he asked, his voice taut, and Janeta's fear came to the surface then. Not that he would hurt her, but that she'd made yet another misstep.
     "No! I—I meant, why did they do this to you?"
     He shook his head and pulled his shirt back up over his shoulder, not turning to face her as he did up his buttons.
     "I was born a Negro in a country where that is a crime, and I was ignorant enough not to know that I had already been convicted."(Kindle Loc 556)

Both Daniel and Janeta discover their own blind spots as they work together to track Jefferson Davis—and struggle to reconcile the plans of the Loyal League with their own secret goals.

Cover of Elizabeth Kingston's DESIRE LINES
After Elizabeth Kingston's call for "Reclaiming Historical Romance" in the December 2018 issue of RWA's Romance Writers' Report, I was interested to see how she herself would address the problem of white supremacy in her own medieval historical romance writing (you can get a copy of her article free via her online store). The third book in her Welsh Blades series, Desire Lines, features two white protagonists, one an aristocratic the other a servant. But neither protagonist is typical of their class, a major theme of the story. The book also includes a secondary character who is dark-skinned, and a brief subplot depicts a Jewish family persecuted by the English. Such characters, while they do not play major roles, go a long way towards disrupting the "white mythos" of the more traditional medieval historical romance.

Gryff and Nan first meet on the road to Lincoln, when the bandits who have been holding Gryff captive attack the group of travelers of which Nan is a part. It is the servant, Nan, though, not the nobleman Gryff who does the rescuing, letting fly with her deadly knives until all of the robbers are dead. Gryff, fearful for his life from more than just the bandits, doesn't tell his rescuer or any of her fellow travelers his true identity, and neither does the narrative, although brief flashbacks hint at his less than lowly upbringing. Nan, though a servant, has benefitted from the favor of several noblewomen, favor that has not only taught her how to wield a knife, but also to speak Welsh as well as a noblewoman would. During their long journey across England—Nan looking for a long-lost sister, Gryff for his best friend, after which both then travel to Wales—the two exist in a liminal space, outside of traditional societal norms and expectations. Which allows each to see beyond the surface of the other, and of course to fall in love with that person. But when their journey comes to an abrupt end, that liminal space ends, too, and each must decide whether their feelings for one another can survive in a world that expects something far different of a nobleman than it does of a servant. An old-fashioned historical in the best sense—not because it has an all-white cast, but because it glories in real angst, high stakes, and a bucketload of both physical and emotional longing, with personal feelings set against seemingly insurmountable demands of honor and duty.

Not to mention the falcons and hawks...

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The Thinks and the Feels: Kennedy Ryan's LONG SHOT

(Content Warning: discussion of domestic violence and rape)

On the eve of the NCAA basketball National Championship, star college baller August West is sitting in a bar, reluctant to return to his hotel room. It's not only the eve of his biggest game ever; it's also the eve of the birth of his father, a former NBA player who died fifteen years earlier, and he's restless and jittery. But after his high school coach, whom he was supposed to be meeting, has an unexpected emergency, West reconciles himself to an early evening.

Until he hears the young woman cussing like a sailor at the basketball game on the television at the other end of the bar.

Said woman's knowledge of basketball is almost as impressive as her colorful language, and West feels an immediate connection. Not because she plays up to him—in fact, she's initially pretty dismissive—but because he discovers that she, like he, is biracial. When he asks her where's she's from, the woman explains about her New Orleans Creole stock on her mother's side, and her German and Irish on father's: "I'm a mix of everything the bayou could come up with... So my cousin says I had more ingredients than gumbo," (Kindle Loc 231). Though West's mother is the white parent, his father the black, West and "Gumbo" share the same experience of feeling like a racial outsider. "Did you ever feel like you didn't quite fit anywhere? I mean, like you were always kind of in between?" Gumbo asks him, which causes West to think "I may not look a lot like my African-American father, but I look nothing like anyone in the family I have left. Most kids were one thing or the other and clumped together based on that. It left me sometimes feeling adrift" (245).

West and Gumbo (her actual name is Iris) get so caught up in their conversation that they end up shutting down the bar. But when West goes in for a kiss at the end of the night, Iris call a halt. To West's everlasting regret, she's already got a boyfriend.

After this opening meet-bittersweet, a reader is expecting that the aforementioned boyfriend is not long for Iris's arms. And that the resultant romance will focus on two people connecting over their mutual biracial identities and experiences.

But said reader would be mistaken. For Ryan's story is less traditional romance and more women's fiction, a journey that the author hints at in the Author's Note that prefaces the novel:

I started writing this book two years ago out of righteous indignation on behalf of a young woman whose journey I didn't understand. I write when I have something to say, and I knew I couldn't say it from a place of judgment and hypotheticals. So I started talking with women who had walked that path.

Ryan writes in abstractions here, but one can't really write a review of her novel without being more specific. For the "path" that she refers to is the path into and out of an abusive romantic relationship. The "place of judgment" Ryan mentions is likely the judgment that many who have not experienced such a relationship first-hand tend to make about not the abuser, but the person being abused. Why didn't they leave? Why did they take it when the verbal abuse started pouring out of a love one's mouth? Why did they stay when the fists started flying? They just must be weak, or must want to be abused, right?

But the Iris we meet along with August is not weak in the least. As August observes, "A lot of girls just reflect. They figure out what you like so they can get in with a baller. This one has her own views, stands her own ground and doesn't five a damn if I like it. I like it" (224). And when we get inside Iris's head, we discover that her main goal in life is to not end up relying on a man, as her mother has for most of her life. She and her cousin have "always been afraid of ending up like our mothers—depending on a man for everything, taking his scraps" (908).

Iris DuPree's relationship with Caleb Bradley isn't about taking his scraps—at least at first. Despite being an economically privileged white college boy, Caleb spent time and effort to woo the reluctant Iris, and they've been dating for almost a year. But readers with any knowledge of how abusers operate is likely to pick up on the clues Ryan drops that Caleb is not as great a guy as he seems. He prefers Iris to wear her hair a certain way, gives her clothes that he wants her to wear, and is prone to angry outbursts on the basketball court when things don't go his way. And he's definitely not excited about Iris's post-college career plans, plans that will likely take her away from him.

Entitled Caleb proves to be a master manipulator, and Iris, despite her reservations, ends up living with her boyfriend soon after Caleb enters the NBA. And since West has also been drafted, Iris and West's paths end up crossing and recrossing, brief conversations with West serving as welcome respite for Iris from an increasingly tension-filled relationship with Caleb.

A relationship that, by the end of Caleb's first professional season, turns verbally and physically abusive. But a relationship that Iris can't find her way out of, at least at first. Ryan does not shy away from depicting the violence that Iris experiences at Caleb's hands; there are multiple scenes of both assault and rape on the page. Such depictions are likely to be deeply triggering for many readers. And for readers who are immersed in rape culture (as are we all), it can be difficult to read such scenes as solely violent when rape has so often been presented as an erotic experience in popular culture. Not at all what the author intended, I'd guess, but still, hard to escape.

Why then did Ryan choose to include such scenes? What purpose do they serve? Is is possible to tell the story of domestic abuse without showing on the page the violence that lies at its heart? Is it empowering or disempowering for those who have been abused to see similar abuse depicted directly, rawly, without a veil? What about for those who have not experienced such abuse themselves? Does seeing such violence depicted on the page make those who haven't been victims more sympathetic toward those who have? I don't think there are any easy "yes" or "no" answers to such questions; each reader will have to decide for themselves whether to pick up Ryan's book knowing that such scenes are included.

What I can say is that I wholeheartedly applaud Ryan's inversion of the racist image of the white woman endangered by overly sexualized black man, an image that has played out over and over in American popular culture since the end of the Civil War (see D. W. Griffiths' 1917 film Birth of a Nation for just one example; see Martha Hodes' White Women, Black Men for a historical corrective). While the majority of sexual assaults in the United States today are intra-racial (victim and perpetrator are of the same race), we cannot say the same about the past; Americans tend to repress and erase the long history of white male rape of enslaved black women during our country's long embrace of slavery. Ryan's choice to make her domestic abuser a white man serves as a pointed reminder of this often forgotten history.


Through Iris, Ryan also makes pointed comments about the way our current society continues to look away from the violence perpetrated by men against women, especially when those men are in positions of power (professional athletes, rather than plantation owners) and the women they abuse are women of color. Once Iris figures out a way to free herself and her daughter from Caleb, she doesn't choose to press charges against him:

"Other athletes outed as abusers are fined and miss a few games, only to be back on the court, back on the field in a few weeks. I'm not trusting my life, my daughter's life, to a system that favors men just like Caleb. I've seen the so-called consequences we have for domestic abuse, and I need more than that."

What she needs is a guy like West, who throughout the story serves as a vision of hope for what a future with a kind, caring man might be like. But Iris never asks West to rescue her; in fact, she turns to her cousin, and to her great grandmother, not to her potential good guy lover, to help her recover emotionally in the wake of her trauma. West may be the idealized prize at the end of the struggle, but the hard work of recovery is one best undertaken with sympathetic female supporters, Ryan suggests.

Ryan is adept at giving readers the "big feels," a vital skill for any romance writer (see West's swoon-worthy declaration to Iris: "If you were mine, Iris, there would be no doubt what position you'd hold in my life. You'd be center. I'd play you at the five."). But she's also just as good at getting readers to think hard about the big issues, issues that American culture would often prefer we ignore: domestic violence; racial identity; the gendered aspects of privileged and power. It's this combination—big emotions and big ideas—that make Ryan one of the most provocative authors writing romance today.

Photo credits:
Basketball bar: DHGate
Pro sports arrest rates: Vocativ

Long Shot
A Hoops Novel (#1)
indie-published, 2018

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Romancing the Balikbayan: Mina V. Esguerra's KISS AND CRY

Due to my travel schedule, I completely missed watching this year's World Figure Skating championships, one of the few sporting events I usually carve out time to take in. I made up for it by moving Mina V. Esguerra's Philippines-set skating romance Kiss and Cry to the top of my reading pile. It's an unusual skating story, and not only because it's a winter sports story set in a country without a winter. Instead of focusing on the tension of competition, Esguerra's story is about adjusting to life after the days of competition are over.

Thirty year old Calinda Valerio, the most lauded figure skater in the Philippines, has won her share of gold-medals: in the All-Asia Games, at the Winter Southeast Asian Games, and in her home country's national competition, Skate PH. Some people wonder if it was worth it, all the hard work and self-denial, given that she never made it to the Olympics. But for Cal, that doesn't matter:

Samantha Cabilles, Filipino figure skater
Sometimes a thing wasn't meant for you but damn you wanted it anyway, didn't mean you'd stop trying. Never mind if you had to knock on more doors and need to work so much harder. Sometimes even years at it wouldn't be enough and the next thing to do was to help make it easier for those coming in after you. (Chapter 2)

Now that her own amateur career is over, Cal is "making it easier for those coming in after her" by working as a choreographer, both for individual skaters and as creative director for Manila's Six 32 Central ice rink. For her past and current work, Cal is being honored by being included in a Manila society magazine's video feature, "30 Most Accomplished in their Thirties."

As is 32-year-old Ramirez Diaz-Tan, a leading member of the Filipino national hockey team. Despite sharing the same main rink in Manila for training and games, Cal and Ram haven't spent much time together in the past ten years. Not since her parents and coach insisted that the budding friendship between their twenty-something selves would take Cal's focus away from her skating, and forbid her to date him—or anyone else. As Ram describes it, "It was over before it started; Cal rightly chose skating over him, and managed to live an accomplished life, congratulations." He got the privilege of being her first: the "First Guy Calinda Valerio Was Not Allowed to Date" (Chapter 1).

The 2017 Philippines national hockey team after
winning the SEA Games gold medal
Ram emigrated to the US with his family when he was ten, and now holds dual citizenship. He didn't make the adjustment to living in the States easily, though; at 13, his family sent him back to spend the summer in Manila with his uncle for being, as he describes it, a "bad Filipino son" (Chapter 8). But while back in the Philippines, Ram took up hockey, and has kept coming back every summer since to play. He's grown so skilled that he's spent twelve years playing for the Philippines' new national team.

But traveling back to his country of origin each summer to play hockey is becoming increasingly hard to do, given the need to hold a steady job back in the States. Taking eight weeks off every year to skate competitively in another country—it's not something most employers are ready to accept. And so Ram has made the tough decision to hang up his hockey skates; this will be his final competitive season.

After meeting Ram again at the "30 Most Accomplished in their Thirties" photo shoot, Cal is eager to try out the things she was never allowed to do when she was younger and focused on her sport—and to do them with Ram. Shocking her parents and former coach by introducing him as her boyfriend is just one of the things on the to-do list she proposes to her surprised but willing former almost-boyfriend. Even the news that he's headed back to the States in only three weeks, with no plan of returning anytime soon, doesn't discompose Cal. Catharsis and closure are what she wants, not a happily-ever-after. Her parents and coach were wrong to take her choice away from her, as they didn't from her brother; she knows she wouldn't have moved to the States and abandoned her skating just to be with Ram, even if they don't. And she can prove it—by not doing it now.

Ram and Cal's second-chance romance is light and playful, not overwhelmed by the bittersweet. One of my favorite moments, during a discussion of whether Cal would have derailed her skating career if she and Ram had ignored her parents and tried to make a go of it all those years earlier:

"Because they made it seem like the worst thing for me to do, at the time. That if we got together and this happened, I'd suddenly want to quit. When I decided to retire, I tried it out—I dated, I had sex, and sort of... checked if dicks demotivated me."
     He hadn't laughed so much while in bed with someone and he wasn't stopping yet. "And what was the verdict on dicks?"
     She shrugged. "Um, they're just dicks?"
     "I'm sure they'll be sad about that."
     "Oh, come on. They performed well, okay."
     This woman. Only she could say that and make it sound like a disappointment. (Chapter 10)

But even in three short weeks, a sort-of-pretend-boyfriend situation can turn into something surprisingly important. And Ram and Cal find themselves facing some tough choices, choices that, unlike the one that was forced upon them as teenagers, they'll have to make for themselves.

Esguerra writes with a Filipino audience, or at least, with those familiar with Filipino culture, in mind; the book contains quite a few cultural references that as an outsider I had to look up to catch the full meaning (EDSA; Ibong Adarna; longganisas and kesong puti and other Pinoy food). But the book's storyline and romance arc are as accessible to other English-speaking readers as any penned by an American writer. And Esguerra's story has the added benefit of reminding American readers, especially those whose fears of outsiders have been exacerbated by current anti-immigrant rhetoric, that the United States isn't everyone's holy grail. As Ram himself reminds Cal:

     "You said that whether we had something or not shouldn't change what my plans are."
     "Yes, it shouldn't."
     "But it can. Maybe it should. Why aren't you asking me to stay?"
     "No one asks someone to stay here. Especially when they've got a way out already. You know that don't you? It's just not done."
     "You don't think we can question that too?" (Chapter 21)

Photo credits:
Samantha Cabilles: Flickr
Philippines Hockey: ABC-CBN Sports

Kiss and Cry
Six 32 Central #2
Bright Girl Books, 2019