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

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 Bussell (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?

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

GETTING INSIDE the controversies: An Interview with Serena Bell

Contemporary romance author Serena Bell is ringing in the new year by launching Getting Inside, the first book in her Seattle Grizzles series of football sports romances. The book features a heroine with the most stereotypically gendered male of jobs: she's a professional football coach (linebacker coach). RNFF talked with Bell about this untraditional choice of profession for her heroine, and other controversial aspects of her unusual sports romance.

SB: First of all I wanted to say, Jackie, thank you so much for doing this interview. I love this blog and the way you tackle identity issues head-on and fearlessly, and I'm really happy to have the chance to talk about Getting Inside's release here.

RNFF: Thanks to you, Serena, for agreeing to be interviewed, and for talking about the controversial aspects of this book. First, I'm curious to know, where did you get the idea to have a female professional football coach as a protagonist?

Dr. Jen Welter, coaching intern for the Arizona Cardinals
SB: When I first started working on this series, the NFL hadn't yet hired its first female coach, Kathryn Smith (hired by the Buffalo Bills in January 2016), but it had hired its first female coaching intern, Dr. Jen Welter. I found myself fascinated by her, and I wanted to bring some of both her triumphs and her struggles to life on the page.

RNFF: How did you balance the need to portray the difficulties faced by women entering a predominantly male profession with the need to write a hopeful story (a requirement of romance)?

SB: Writing romance is always a tricky balancing act in this regard. On one hand, readers pick up a romance for the fantasy—the pleasure of getting to spend time in a world that's simpler and less stressful than the one they live in. On the other, if you decide to write about a controversial topic (like women in men's sports), you have a responsibility not to gloss over the difficulties of the real people who are struggling to make their way in a far grittier and more nuanced world than romance. My goal was to split the difference as best I could.

RNFF: Early in the novel, your hero, Ty (a linebacker on the Grizzlies' team) uses the "women are a distraction" argument to justify (at least in his head) his opposition to heroine Iona's presence on the coaching staff:

As soon as I lay eyes on her, I get this fierce, almost painful rush. It's just the aftereffect of going toe-to-toe with her over O's job. That's what I tell myself. Not about going toe-to-toe with her in a completely different way. Actually, there's no toe-to-toe in the video siege firing through my brain. Every other conceivable position though. This is exactly why women don't belong in the PFL. Because all this shit in my head doesn't belong in the PFL. (341)

How have women in football and other male-dominated professions countered such arguments?

SB: They've countered the argument by being good at what they do, by showing over time that they're an asset, not a detriment, to any organization. And that's what Iona does for Ty. She's steady, she's present, she's effective, and in the end, that's what convinces him, far more than any verbal argument she could present. Which is why, of course, it's so critically important for us to get more women into more roles we don't expect to see them in; it's the best way to change the kind of outmoded thinking that Ty's early musings represent.

RNFF: The first turn in Iona and Ty's relationship comes after a joint radio interview, during which a broadcaster insults Iona and Ty defends her. Iona gets angry with him, telling him she doesn't need defending. But then Ty says he would have defended any coach, male or female, and Iona thinks, "I suddenly realize that I'm being a great big douchebag" (946). Can you take us through your thinking here, regarding what's sexist and what's not?

SB: In my mind, the show's host is absolutely sexist—his blindsiding Iona (which, by the way, wouldn't really happen in sports radio; I took artistic license) with an assault on the viability of female coaches is just plain wrong. Ty may be operating out of some assumptions that he needs to revisit—the idea that Iona needs his protecting—but I don't see his motives as suspect. Iona is encountering one of her own blind spots; she's so used to being armored against the men in her life that she responds defensively to Ty's desire to protect her. Knowing Ty and Iona, I suspect she will have to tell him to "back off" more than once more in their lives together, and he will get better over time at letting her fight her own battles. And vice versa. I can see her trying to fight his battles just as easily as the reverse.

RNFF: A couple of Iona's observations struck me: First, "Pro sports are this country's hardest meritocracy, with the possible exception of the armed forces. If you make it this far, you must be good enough—it's true of players, coaches, staff—male or female." Second, "the worst sexists are aging off, and the players are so young, so most of them are used to the idea of women in positions of power. And a huge number of them grew up in single-parent households run by mothers, so the notion of a woman who calls the shots doesn't faze them." I couldn't help thinking these observations were more wishful thinking than reality, especially in light of the recent ascendance of Donald Trump. Do you believe they're true? Who was your source?

SB: Both of these observations came via a journalist friend who spent a good portion of his career in locker rooms and on sports courts and fields. His point is that—exceptions aside—pro athletes are just that, pros, and their overriding goal is to win. Everything else is just a distraction, including gender (which may be the myopia of male privilege, but I still found it be an incredibly interesting observation). He said that for most pro players, if a coach can make them better, that's all they need to know.

Now, we all know that's not how it plays out systematically. There are still almost no female coaches in pro football (or in other male-only pro sports). There are still far too few black coaches and black quarterbacks in pro football. And for sure, there is still an enormous amount of intolerant language, behavior, and bullying in pro sports—on both the player side and the fan side. I chose to focus in this book on individual positive behavior, because my primary goal was to normalize the idea of women with key roles in men's pro sports. I want readers to end up cheering for Iona's strength rather than seeing her as a victim.

RNFF: Bringing up the issue of race in pro sports leads right in to another controversial aspect of your book: you are a white author, while both of your protagonists are African American. Talk about your thinking around that decision.

SB: Around seventy percent of NFL players are men of color, and from the beginning, I knew I didn't want to write a series that suggested otherwise. (As I side note, and to reiterate a point I made earlier, this doesn't mean that positions are fairly distributed by race, something that needs to change). I struggled with feeling like it wasn't my "place" to write this story, or that I'd be taking an #ownvoices opportunity away from a writer of color. But I am hopeful about the "abundance" behavior of the romance market: the more readers encounter books with thoughtful portrayals of characters of color, the more of those books the market will demand.

RNFF: Controversy #2: workplace relationships. Falling in love on the job is a common romance novel trope. But many readers have trouble if there are uneven power dynamics involved (if one party is the other's boss, for example). In your story, your heroine, Iona, is a coach, and your hero, Ty, is a linebacker who plays under her. When they first meet, Ty is instantly attracted to Iona. He knows, though, "if she's anyone who has anything remotely to do with the team, she's off limits" (137). But by novel's end, both still retain their jobs even after they have gone public with their romantic relationship. Take us through your thinking here, about why this is a HEA, rather than a potentially squicky ending.

SB: For me, it has everything to do with the real way power is distributed in a relationship. Power is complicated. It can come from physical size and strength, from someone's position in the career hierarchy, from someone's privilege within the larger society, and from a lot of other sources. The reason the ending isn't squicky for me (squickiness is, of course, 100% in the eye of the beholder) is because when I look at the way power balances out between Iona and Ty, neither of them holds an unfair amount of it.

RNFF: Controversy #3: the "balls" issue ;-)  In an RNFF post from 2014, titled "The Anatomy of Courage," I used your book Hold on Tight to discuss why using the word "balls" as an image of courage might be problematic. And early in 2017's Getting Inside, Ty observes this of a fellow player about whom he was worried: "I grin. He's got his balls reracked"(125). Tell us why you think it's important to use such language when portraying certain male protagonists.

SB: I don't think it's essential. I think another writer might make a different decision, to give Ty a totally genderless set of language around courage. That said, it seemed pretty clear to me, given the freedom—one might say abandon—with which Ty discusses his, erm, "equipment" in this book that he'd locate male courage in his balls. I wanted him to feel credible as a guy who spends his time in locker rooms, even if he's also a guy who wouldn't tolerate, in a million years, the notion of a locker room as a place where hate belongs.

RNFF: So, what's up next for this series? Will you be tackling any of the issues about race in pro football that you mention above?

SB: You'll be hearing more about the Grizzlies! Calder's book is up next, followed by two more books about some of your other favorite characters, too. And I'd love to tackle more of the issues around race—particularly equity in coaching and quarterback positions—in future books.

Thank you again, so much, for the great questions and the space to think and talk about these issues!

RNFF: Thanks, Serena, for stopping by. I'm looking forward to seeing what develops next in this series. Given the stats in the "Gender Equality in Radio" graphic above, might I say that I hope a female sports talk radio personality might feature in a future Grizzlies romance?

RNFF readers: What are your thoughts about any/all of the above controversies? Do they make you more or less likely to search out Bell's book?

Photo credits
Jen Welter: Washington Times
Gender Equality in Radio:
Workplace relationships: via Brandon Gaille

Getting Inside
Loveswept, 2017

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

In-Body Experiences: Alex Beecroft's LIONESS OF CYGNUS FIVE

When I taught a class on Science Fiction and Fantasy for children and young adults (during my days as a professor at Simmons College), I spent a lot more time reading SF than I do today. In part because my interests now have shifted to romance, but also because so often hard SF does not focus on interpersonal relationships, while most SF romance does not satisfy my desire, grounded in years of fantasy and SF reading, to dwell in a thoughtfully created secondary world where ideas, not just personal relationships, matter. Which explains my delight when I heard that Alex Beecroft, one of my favorite contemporary and historical romance writers, had jumped on the SF ship.

The versatile Beecroft's latest, Lioness of Cygnus Five, is set in a space-faring future, after humans on Earth have spread far and wide throughout the galaxies. Spreading along with them is the human penchant for fighting between different cultural groups, groups that base their identities on opposite sets of beliefs. One of Lioness's protagonists is a member of the "The Kingdom," a low tech-Luddite religious force determined to colonize all other human planets for their own good. Aurora Campos was once the most gifted and revered "holy warrior" among The Kingdom's soldiers, touted by many as a new Joan of Arc, but a very public moral mistake has left her dishonored and disgraced. Shunted off to the hinterlands, she now only rates command of a lowly transport ship, staffed by other Kingdom "freaks and rejects," with a cargo of convicts bound for the prison planet Cygnus Five.

The da Vinci surgical system: a precursor to
Bryant Jones' technology?
One of those prisoners is wily Bryant Jones, who has suffered his own fall from grace. After his planet, part of the "Source," a godless, secular, and technologically advanced culture, is conquered by The Kingdom, his work as a highly reputable persona surgeon (a kind of super high tech plastic surgeon) is regarded as criminal. When one of his underground surgeries is interrupted and his patient dies because of it, Bryant is convicted of murder, and bound over to be exiled to the prison colony of Cygnus Five. But Bryant is determined to use his superior technological knowledge to take control over Captain Campos's ship before they reach the planet.

At the start of the novel, neither Jones nor Campos has much respect for the other. Jones thinks of Campos, "She was an odd-looking woman, somewhere between olive-skinned beauty and prize-fighting troll"; "it was kind of pathetic seeing a woman so butch make any gestures at all in the direction of femininity" (114, 223). For her part, while Campos finds Jones a bit more physically appealing, she still regards him as a distasteful threat:

A beanpole of a man. Black, like Mboge [her 2nd in command] but a paler shade, his oval face freckled all over like a plover's egg and his shaggy hair, which curled naturally into tight spiraled ringlets, worn like a bouncy cloud.... Yet when she looked at him, fragility was the last thing she saw. No that was a snake. A little brown vine snake of the kind that had been harmless when it left Earth, but had developed potent venom in its new home. (409)

Nor does either have much respect for the other's culture or beliefs, assuming that their own is of course far superior:

Jones on Campos:

Her planet must have been under Kingdom rule so long they'd forgotten they weren't free. She must have been born under it and raised by parents, grandparents who were born under it. It must feel like nature to her, thinking the way that she thought. He'd often said before that he felt sorry for the dupes who actually believed it all, but this was the first time he'd actually meant it" (797).

Campos to Jones, when Jones exclaims his disgusted that the escape launch has to be flown manually:

"What planet are you from that doesn't appreciate human skill, Jones?.... God gave some of us speed and reflexes because he meant us to use them, and didn't give them to others because they were meant to do something else. That's basic orthodoxy" (577).

Campos is a naïve but ruthless do-gooder, bent on self-sacrifice, or so Jones believes, while Campos is certain that Jones is a sneaky weasel, always looking out for number one. But after the prison transport is attacked, and the two crash-land together on the detention planet, they are forced to interact in order to survive. And their opinions of each other, and of each other's values, slowly begin to change:

Enhancements, he'd said. He had enhancements to tell when food was poisoned, and presumably enhancements to heal himself fast. How many of my people over the years would have lived if they'd had the same? It was an unsettling thought. Why would God disapprove of healing anyway? (1061)

"Mind rape" she'd called it [his culture's use of nanites to influence others' feelings], which was disturbing because he hadn't thought of it that way before, and having thought of it made all the times he'd done it sound kind of sordid. You certainly didn't defend people from one sort of rape by carrying out another. (1567)

Jones and Campos begin to discover the value in difference, and the value of working with someone who appears to be your total opposite.

Medical nanites
Before Jones has fully embraced this new insight, however, he transfers medical nanites to Campos (after promising her not to), as a defensive move. But when Campos decides to singlehandedly try and rescue her crew, captured by rebellious prisoners, he decides to use the nanites for her protection—by changing her body into a man's.

Without, of course, asking her first.

Beecroft has penned an adventure-filled utopian science fiction romance, an opposites-attract love story that also interrogates issues of gender and bodies, all with intelligence and a healthy dollop of humor. While Lioness of Cygnus Five will never be mistaken for hard SF, it does gift its readers with an engaging balance of extrapolative thought-experiment and unexpected romance.

What have been your favorite feminist SF romances of 2016?

Photo credits:
da Vinci Surgical System: Londonist
Medical nanites: Softpedia

Lioness of Cygnus Five
indie published, 2016

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

More Scientists in Love: Emily Foster's HOW NOT TO FALL

This must be my month for female scientist protagonists in romance. Last week I wrote about Kaya, a Filipino molecular biologist in Six de los Reyes's Beginner's Guide: Love and Other Chemical Reactions; today's science nerd heroine is New York City transplant white girl Annabelle, just finishing up her B.S. in a psychophysiology lab at Indiana University. But even though both Kaya and Annie are scientists (or scientists-in-the-making), two such different protagonists are hard to imagine. Just as there are many ways of being a woman, so, too, are there many different ways of being a woman scientist.

When Annie was younger, she thought that dance, not science, would be her future career. In fact, during her early teen years, she was dancing five days a week in preprofessional training at the Joffrey Ballet. But when she was fifteen, "dancing eight hours a day and doing my academics as a hobby," she had a sudden realization—she loved dancing, but it was doing science, studying the biology of the brain, that "made me feel like me" (Kindle Loc 1238). Art and science are often constructed as binary opposites—you're a math/science person, or you're an artsy person. But Annie appreciates the science behind what she can do on a dance floor, and the artistry of what she can do in the lab.

Annie still keeps a foot in the dance camp, teaching classes at a local studio several times a week, but the majority of her hours are spent in the lab, working on her senior thesis about peoples' responses to anger. And lusting after the department's post-doc, twenty six-year-old rockclimbing dreamboat Charles. But Annie's personality won't allow her to sit and lust in silence any longer; no, she's all about the going-for-what-you-want method of barreling through life. And so, after quietly lusting for a year and a half, Annie has invited Charles to meet under the pretext of needing help with some data for her thesis. But in reality, she's planning to tell him this (which of course she has rehearsed, since she is one well-prepared scientist): "Charles: you know this is my last semester in college, and then I'm leaving for grad school. I think you and I have A Thing and so I would like to engage in a physical relationship with you before I leave Indiana. What do you say?" (45).

Annie considers including "a list of attributes I think make me a highly promising sex partner, a list that is bold, funny, and indicative of her lack of sexual experience:

(1) My brain. An asset for every other complex task I've undertaken, and I see no reason why it won't come in handy for this one.
(2) My athleticism. I don't know exactly how this will help me either, but I'm sure I've heard the phrase "athletic sex," and I'm sure I would like to try some.
(3) My enthusiasm. I feel confident it's better to have sex with someone who's really, really glad to be there with you than with someone who isn't.
And possibly also (4), my unblinking willingness to look like an idiot in public. (59)

Not unsurprisingly, when Annie springs her proposal on an unsuspecting Charles, she has to draw on all that willingness to look like an idiot in public. For not only does Charles take the out an embarrassed Annie offers when faced with the flabbergasted post-doc ("Feel free to say no! Honestly! I won't take it personally—I mean, even if you mean it personally, I'll just chalk it up to a boss-student thing" [179]), he also points out a serious oversight in the data she sent him, a unaccounted-for pattern that will mean hours and hours more time in the lab for disappointed, sexually frustrated Annie.

Charles, though, sees a lot of himself in Annie, and despite her rather ill-conceived proposition, decides to help her through her last weeks of research and writing. He brings her food when she spends too long in the lab; he takes her rock-climbing to help her relieve stress; and he generally acts as his usual all-around-good-guy, just with an extra helping of nice for Annie.

But Annie can't help but still think "The Thing" is real, especially after she gives in to the sexual tension and kisses him. Turns out that Annie wasn't quite wrong when she sensed that she and Charles had "A Thing." But since fraternizing with those over whom you have power is both a legal and ethical no-no, Charles refuses to do anything about it.

At least until his attempts to stave her off lead whip-smart Annie to back him into a logical corner:

     "We have A Thing!" I say. "We've had A Thing for ages! I thought I was wrong, but I'm not wrong."
     "I give up," he groans. "Look, why don't we talk about it after you graduate."
     "You agree with have A Thing?"
     "Yes. We have A Thing. Christ on a bike." With his elbows on his desk, he rakes his hands into his hair and stares at his blotter.
     "And you'll talk about it after commencement, on the tenth?" As far as I'm concerned, he has opened a negotiation.
     "Sure. Yes," he tells his blotter.
     "Classes end May second and I've got no finals, so really I won't be a student after that. We could talk about it then, on the last day of classes, instead of waiting until after commencement."
     He looks up at me and throws himself back in his chair. "Annie—"
     "Why not?"
     "Saints defend me. Christ and all the apostles fucked up the arse by Moses, fine. All right. We'll talk about it on the second. Now for the love of god, please get out of my office, you harpy." He shoos him with one hand, from his trench behind the desk.
     I rise, but I don't leave. "What time on the second?" (784)

A detail-oriented brain may be a necessary requirement for success as a scientist, but persistence is equally important. And Annie is nothing if not persistent.

And thus, on May 2nd, Annie and Charles become friends with benefits, both agreeing to engage in a short-term fling. A fling that gets off to a bit of a rocky start when, during their pre-sex exchange sexual histories thing (and in what might just be my favorite passage in this amazingly hilarious book), Annie informs Charles that she's never really engaged in intercourse before:

     "I guess I'm what would be called a 'virgin.'" I put it in quotes with my fingers and make a face.
     "I beg your pardon?" he says.
     "A virgin?" I say, like it's a question. "It's a medically meaningless idea, it's all just patriarchy and—"
     "Yes"—he holds up a hand an closes his eyes—"I'm a feminist too, we needn't rehearse the arguments about purity as a virtue meaningly only int he context of male ownership of women."
     (You see why I like this guy? He says it like it's just understood that any reasonable person would identify as a feminist. I didn't identify that way until, like, two years ago, but with him, feminism is taken as read. Ah-mazing.)
     And then he says, "Oh god," and he leans back in his chair and looks at the ceiling. "I had no idea I was so medieval." He's laughing now, a silent chuckle, both hands over his face.
     "Apparently, I'm a terrible human being," he says through his palms. Then he takes a great big sigh and straightens a little in his chair, gripping his hands together in his lap. "The idea of deflowering you has given me a raging hard-on and filled my brain with the most shamefully barbaric thoughts. There's a bit of self-knowledge I wouldn't have bet on." He's looking out the window, where the sun has just begun to set.
     "Really?" I'm grinning, terribly pleased for no reason. It's not like I earned that hard-on, I mean, I all I did was not have any sex yet, but still!" (979)

Clearly, despite his "medieval" tendencies, Charles is the more experienced, and the more emotionally mature, partner in this duo. But he never uses either advantage to make Annie feel lesser. And Annie, with her courage, her enthusiasm, and her determination to not let embarrassment interfere with what she wants, or with understanding what Charles wants, has just as much to offer the post-doc as he has to offer her, both in and out of bed.

The "Thing," then, runs quite smoothly (quite hotly!) for a few short weeks. Until Annie, in her boundless enthusiasm, falls crashingly hard into love with Charles... and Charles doesn't with her.

Or so he (and his background of family trauma) say...

On her web site, Foster explains that she wrote How Not to Fall "because she 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." After reading How Not to Fall, I'm happy to report that Foster exceeded all four of her goals. And topped it all off with the tastiest of cherries: laugh-out-loud humor.

Good thing the sequel to this cliffhanger, How Not to Let Go, will be coming out right after Christmas....

Photo credits:
Rock climber: Vertical Hold Rock Climbing Gym
Dept. of Brain Sciences: Indiana University
I Am a Feminist, Too: Thinker's Notepad

How Not To Fall
Kensington, 2016

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Love as a Scientific Experiment: Six de los Reyes, BEGINNER'S GUIDE: LOVE AND OTHER CHEMICAL REACTIONS

If you're part of a large extended family, and you regularly attend family get-togethers, you're probably used to the well-meant yet intrusive personal questions that aunts, grandparents, and second cousins once removed frequently lob in your direction. When are you going to get a boyfriend? When are you and your girl going to make it legal? When are you and that spouse of yours going to start popping out grandbabies so we have someone to kiss and coo over?

Kaya would much rather be in the lab...
Such conversations are especially difficult for Kaya, the heroine of Six de los Reyes' contemporary romance Beginner's Guide: Love and Other Chemical Reactions, who is studying at a university in Manila for her MS in Molecular Biology. Kaya's always been different from the others in her close-knit extended Filipino family; introverted, a science nerd, and far more of a thinker than a feeler, Kaya would far rather be working in her lab than attending yet another of her family's "ostentations affairs." As Kaya explains, "In the interest of optimizing my life experience, I had abandoned casual and recreational socialization on the basis that the probability of success did not justify the effort and repeated reinforcement that I am undesirable" (90).

But no one in the family is allowed to avoid attending a family get-together. Get-togethers where "appropriately themed music would be set just a decibel below the legal limit, and the mandatory coordinating outfits would put the rainbow to shame. Anything less than crazy and outright embarrassing in decent company did not deserve to be called a party. It didn't even matter if it was a real cause for celebration. If the day warranted capitalization, it deserved a bash" (185).  Which is why, in the second scene of Beginner's Guide, Kaya finds herself at the home of her maternal grandparents for her cousin Czarina's Engagement Party (theme: "Czarina's Crazy Carnival").

...than partying with her family
Having to dress as a mime is only the first of a series of indignities Kaya has to endure during the latest family bash. Being teased by her older brother, misunderstood by her cousins' dates when she tries to talk about her work, and interrogated about her dating life by her Titas ("What are you looking for, anyway? Maybe your standards are too high! Don't be so picky!") is bad enough. But when cousin Daphne suggests "Maybe, you know, you're not single because you work all the time. Maybe you work all the time because you're single" (304), Kaya can't help but start questioning whether there is something inherently wrong with her.

Knowing his daughter well, Kaya's father challenges her on her own terms: "Do you have any evidence supporting this claim?" he asks when she wonders if she is just not suited to a romantic relationship. And when she says no, he challenges her to do something about it: "At least try, that's what you do, right? You try things and see what happens" (340). The "repeated phenomenon" of having her singleness called out during the party "created a disturbance in my brain" (340). And while Kaya knows that "my family is hardly a representative sample of the overall population," she also wonders if "the generalized view they presented on the benefits of being in a relationship indicated that it was directly related to happiness."

Kaya knows of only one way to test this hypothesis: to conduct a scientific experiment. Kaya's lab benchmate, postdoc Eugene, helps her design her "proof of concept experiment" in the local cafe/library, In Lab. One of the key issues in the experiment is how to filter out unwanted individuals, the discussion of which catches the attention of In Lab's owner, Nero Sison. Nero and Kaya are like oil and water: Nero, an artist, is ironic, tattooed, and a member of "a world that rarely collided with mine. A world that valued aesthetics and feelings more than they did fact and evidence" (535). While Kaya's list of "unsuitable individuals" includes more than twenty different disqualifications ("one afflicted with dangerous psychological disorders, sociopaths and psychopaths, or someone with sexually transmitted diseases," etc. etc. [550]), Nero's standards are much looser: "Not Evil. And I'm telling you, I have a very loose personal definition of Not Evil" (584).

Savvy romance readers are likely to see where this is all heading. But the fun of the very funny but never condescending towards its socially awkward heroine Beginner's Guide is in the trip, not just the destination. I especially appreciated that the solution to Kaya's search for a romantic partner didn't require Kaya to throw out her preference for thinking over feeling. Instead, at novel's end, her wise father once again challenges Kaya on her own scientific terms:

     "If the evidence points towards you liking him, then shouldn't that be the recorded result of your experiment? Declaring it null and voice just because you don't like the data seems irresponsible. If your evidence points to wanting to be with him, then choosing to push him away because of an unoptimized methodology sounds to be the illogical choice here.
     "No one's perfect. Not even perfect for you. People just are, and you accept that about them, flaws and all. And love, it never happens the way you plan for it to happen. And if love is just a chemical reaction, then maybe it doesn't always happen within laboratory conditions" (2772-81)

A conclusion with which Kaya, and her readers, are ultimately happy to agree.

Photo credits:
Manila University Science Lab: Newsbytes Philippines 
Family party: A Pinoy in Korea blog
Love Chemistry: Meducator

Beginner's Guide: Love and Other Chemical Reactions
(Talking Nerdy #1)

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Grieving and Loving: Sarina Bowen's KEEPSAKE and Alexis Hall's PANSIES

Mourning and falling in love would appear to be at the opposite ends of the emotional spectrum: the blissful highs of connecting intimately with another, the tearful, angry lows of an intimacy no longer possible. Yet both grief and love break down emotional defenses, leaving you achingly open and vulnerable. When grief comes first, several recent romance novels suggest, it can plough the untilled field, readying one for the planting of the seeds of romantic love.

In my book, the best grief/love stories are not the ones in which a new love magically heals the hurt the death of a loved one has inflicted. They are the ones in which the possibility of romantic connection with another helps one, or often two, grieving people find a path through the pain of loss.

In Sarina Bowen's Keepsake, the third book of her Truth North series, the grieving protagonist is Lark, a once fearless risktaker who is spending time on a Vermont farm recovering from being kidnapped while on a twelve-month assignment for her job with a NGO in Guatemala. Lark grieves not only for her lost sense of invincibility ("Back then I'd thought that bad experiences only made for good stories" [Kindle Loc 848]), but for one of her kidnappers, a young boy who was killed during her rescue. Lark smiles and acts "normal," determined to defeat her jumpiness, her illogical fear. But while her conscious brain knows she's safe on her best friend's rural family farm, at night, the "dragons in my heart," shake their chains and roar—in the form of scream-inducing nightmares, nightmares that jerk the male farmhands from their own dreams in the bunkhouse they all share.

It is Zach, the most cautious of the farmworkers, who takes it upon himself to help Lark through her night terrors, shaking her awake, or soothing her with his voice and with his touch when the nightmares return. Zach, too, has shouldered his share of grief, losing his family and his community after being kicked out of the polygamous religious group in which he was born and raised when he was just a teen. Diligent, quiet, feeling not quite part of the tight-knit family community at the Shipley farm, Zach knows what it is like to feel apart, to live "in the bunkhouse of life": "annexed to the farm. It was a part of it, but only in a casual way. Off to the side. Not quite independent" (452). As Lark and Zach begin to share small details of their losses, their shame, their guilt, feelings they have never shared with anyone else, emotional intimacy cannot help but follow.

But Zach has had a lot more time to deal with his grief than Lark has, and even his burgeoning love for her cannot "fix" her PTSD, no matter how hard he wishes it could. Each has to learn that "everyone has a time when they need a lot more than they can give" (3805) and that that need cannot always be filled by one person, no matter how much love that person holds.

Like Lark, Alexis Hall's Alfie Bell, the narrator of Pansies (book #4 in his Spires series), is also mourning a lost sense of self. But that self was not wrenched away by another, but by his own sexual desires. Born and raised in working class northern England, Alfie grew up believing that men want women, and that "There's not, like, space for that stuff [being gay] up there" (909). Moving to London, working as an investment banker, and discovering that he's attracted to men after twenty-eight years of assuming he was straight is wrenching, particularly since casual homophobia had been such a large part of what it meant to be a man back home ("Alfie tried to ignore the flicker of discomfort that he noticed these things. That he was a man who found bits of other men provocative" [274]). Going back home to South Shields and accidentally outing himself at a friend's wedding (the book's opening scene) is deeply upsetting: "But now he was back up north, it was starting to feel like he'd become, somehow, less than himself. Sort of a sketch. Just blunt lines and the basics. What a fucking joke. Not north, not south. A straight gay man" (386).

Alfie, who is not the most introspective of fellows, flees the wedding to drown his sorrows at a local bar. Where, to his surprise, he ends up hooking up with a small, prickly, unbelievably pretty man. A man who, it turns out, is the same boy Alfie bullied unmercifully during their school days, teasing and tormenting him for his obvious homosexuality:

     Faggot. Puff. Sissy. Pansy. Fairy. Fudgepacker. Cocksucker.
     His hands tingled suddenly. Remembering Fen across the years. Holding him down. It had all been petty. Small hurts. Humiliations. But relentless. And heedless. A habit. (6256)

Though Alfie, in his inept way, tries to apologize for his past behavior, he keeps stumbling over his own internalized homophobia to be convincing:

     "Okay, forget that. I'm sorry. Just sorry. But it was a long time ago. I'm not the same person."
     "Oh, right, yes. Because you're gay now and you feel all sad about it."
     Alfie's mouth dropped open. He knew his sense of betrayal was probably out of proportion. But it was like he'd shown his belly in a moment of weakness and Fen had responded by ripping his guts out.
     Before he could muster any sort of answer, Fen had torn right on. "You think you have it rough? Try growing up queer in a place like this."
     "I did grow up gay. I just didn't know it like."
     "Well, it didn't stop you making my life miserable."
     Alfie was still feeling too unexpectedly wounded to be capable of controlling what came out of his mouth. "Yeah, but you didn't exactly help yourself either."
     Silence. Again.
     "What," asked Fen very quietly, "the fuck is that supposed to mean?"
     "I mean, you could have kept your head down. You didn't have to make a big deal about it." (6256)

Needless to say, Fen and Alfie do not part on good terms. But back in London, Alfie can't keep the memories of his time with Fen, or the guilt Fen's revelations have forced on him, out of his mind. And so Alfie sets off to try and make things better, to try and recapture some of the loveliness of being with Fen before Fen told him who he was, who they were, back when they were kids.

But Fen, too, is grieving, not a loss of identity but a loss of family. And just like Zach with Lark, Alfie wants to fix Fen, wants to take on the burden of Fen's losses for him. But "wanting to help isn't the same as wanting to fix" (3122), a lesson Alfie consciously understands, but one which takes a long time to really know, down deep where it matters. Alfie and Fen can mourn together, but ultimately each has to come to terms with his own griefs, his own losses, before either can begin to imagine a life that includes the possibility of happiness, and love, together.

Photo credits:
Vermont Farm: Farm to Fork Fondo
Pansy Party by Wendy Westlake: Fine Art America