Friday, September 23, 2016

Romance Diversity Bingo

My thanks to Willaful, of the A Willaful Woman blog, whose recent post alerted me to the latest book reading challenge in Romancelandia: the #DiverseRomanceBingo Reading Challenge. I've never participated in a romance reading bingo challenge before, but the goals of this one are right up my alley. As stated on the challenge's Goodreads page:

The aim of this group  is a reading challenge designed to diversity the romance stories we're reading. A BINGO card with various identities & relationships has been created in order to inspire readers to seek out books they might not normally. Be proactive in looking for books that are representative of the diverse people and relationships in our world.

I'll be playing/reading, and invite RNFF readers to join in, too.

If you're interested in playing along, or in following other players' progress and comments, or even in just grabbing yourself some great recommendations for diverse romance reading, consider joining the Goodreads group, which can be found here. Or follow the challenge at #DiverseRomanceBingo.

And here is the bingo card:

Over the course of my romance reading career, I know I've read at least one book from each box (and have featured reviews of many of them here on RNFF). But it might be a little more difficult to complete the whole card in only four months (the challenge ends at the end of December). I'm also curious to see how difficult (or not) it will be to find books that both fill the squares and have feminist themes or underlying ideologies.

Will be reporting back here in future posts...

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Feminism in the Details: Lisa Henry's ADULTING 101

In need of a good chuckle, but tired of being expected to laugh at sexist jokes and male-centered humor? You might want to pick up Lisa Henry's latest male/male romance, Adulting 101. I was in real need of cheering up this past summer, and Henry's book made me laugh so hard my stomach ached for days after I finished it. Even better, it did so while drawing on a decidedly contemporary feminist set of underlying assumptions, far different than the typical two guys fighting over a girl love triangle found in much New Adult romance in the Twilight vein.

Adulting takes place during the summer between Nick Stahlnecker and Devon Staples' high school graduation and their taking off for two different colleges, where, for the first time since they were in elementary school, they will be living in different towns. Nick is gay, while Devon is straight, but the differences in their sexual orientations never get in the way of their best friendship. As the narrator, focalizing through Nick, explains:

Devon Staples and Nick Stahlnecker are now, and forever will be, best bros. Their bromance is epic. Devon even took Nick to prom, which was beyond incredible because he's not even a little bit bi—except for the thing that happened at baseball camp when they were fourteen that they don't talk about. He's just super cool, and gets a kick out of pissing off his stepdad, who is an evangelical Christian and can be kind of a dick. So prom was pretty funny. (117)

As the above quote, and almost every line in her story, demonstrates, Henry's strength as a writer is voice. Though the novel is written in the third person, the language Henry uses makes it clear that we are clearly in the mind of an 18-year-old guy. In particular, a guy who is not really sure he is ready, or even able, to make the jump to independence and this weird thing called "adulthood":

Nick had figured it [adulthood] was something that happened to everyone. That at some point you got tall and grew out of pimples and into the ability to understand what stock options are. So far, none of that has happened for Nick, and he's starting to worry it maybe never will (670).

Readers, then, can be excused for worrying, too. Especially when they read scenes like the one with which the novel opens: Nick's well-meaning dad has scored him an office job working for a construction company, where Nick spends most of his time playing with the stapler and ogling the hot construction workers. Especially a sexy guy named Jai, whose ass Nick commemorates in haiku in his notebook:

That ass is so hot.
 I would totally hit it.
Yes yes yes yes yes. (83)

After less than a week on the job, Nick finds himself asking if Jai owns any leather pants. And then asking if Jai would like Nick to suck his dick.

On the jobsite.

In a porta-potty.

Where of course they get discovered by the boss. . .

As Devon says to Nick after he hears about the porta-potty incident, "You're not a bad person. . . You just have terrible impulse control" (390). Or as later Nick reflects, "His mouth still works. It's never needed his brain to function. Ask anyone" (1547). Both understatements of the year.

When I first started Nick's story, I thought for sure that he and Devon would end up discovering love together, perhaps because of passages such as this one:

Devon is also oddly protective of Nick sometimes. He claims it's because he's three months older than Nick, and therefore the big brother in this bromance. Nick claims it's because he's secretly jealous of any guy who tries to get with Nick, because of complex abandonment issues and uncertainty about his own sexuality. It's probably some weird mix of both, but they've never bothered to analyze it except in a teasing way. (120)

And this one:

There was a time when Nick and Devon had to swear to his parents that they weren't sleeping together—well, they were sleeping, but that was all—because yeah, they are weirdly codependent and they are snuggle buddies. Nick's mom doesn't even blink these days when she finds Devon sleeping in Nick's bed. (723)

Only gradually did I realize that because Henry's writes in such deep point of view, we are getting Nick's take on his and Devon's relationship, rather than the neutrality the third person narration initially suggests. As, for example in this second, slightly different, take on the "the thing that happened at baseball camp when they were fourteen that they don't talk about":

Devon is the first person Nick came out to. Nick was sixteen. And Devon was totally not surprised. Which, after that thing at baseball camp, okay. Yeah, maybe Nick had totally initiated things and Devon had just gone along with it when Nick promised that straight bros jerked off together all the time. Really, he, isn't sure why it took him another two years to come out to Devon. And then, when he did, Devon had only nodded, hugged him, and asked him if he wanted backup when he told his parents. Devon is fucking incredible, and, if he weren't straight, Nick would be planning their wedding already. (378)

I also might have realized that Devon and Nick weren't destined for love because of the dual narrative of the novel From a formal narrative standpoint, if Devon had been Nick's intended love interest, I would expect that the book would give me his point of view, as well as Nick's. But it is not Devon, but twenty five-year-old Jai who serves as the story's second focalizer.

And it is Jai, who is as adrift in many ways as is Nick, who ends up becoming Nick's summer fuck buddy, not Devon.

For his part, Devon is nursing a crush of his own, on a girl who works with him at his summer job at the local pizza parlor. I absolutely loved how Henry depicts how a heterosexual male teen's awareness of women's issues plays out in his thinking about how to interact with a girl:

[Nick] attacks the rest of the pizza while he listens to Devon wax lyrical about how incredible Ebony is, and how she's funny and smart and also really pretty, except what if she still thinks he helped her make signs to protest the protesters at Planned Parenthood that time just because he was trying to get into her pants? Devon's a nice guy, but he's worried that she thinks he's one of those 'nice' guys who's only interested in being friends with her if it goes somewhere. And Devon wants it to go somewhere, even though of course Ebony doesn't owe him anything. It's complicated. Devon's too scared to make a move because he's been crippled by the weight of his male privilege. He only discovered it a few months ago, and it's shaken him up pretty badly. (400)

Or, as Devon explains it, "I don't want to turn into one of those assholes who gets all angry on Reddit about being friend-zoned and hates on every girl for being too good for him" (404). Hilarious and dead-on feminist, here and during a understatedly funny "shovel talk," the details of which I will let you discover yourself.

And I loved it that Henry makes space for a friendship between to men in which they could snuggle but have it not be sexual. And that a male friend can be protective of another male, rather than the usual female (see the aftermath of the aforementioned shovel talk).

And that traditional gender roles between gay male lovers are called into question, too:

     "You think because you fit the description of a twink that you can't top?"
     Nick narrows his eyes, like he suspects a trap. "Maybe?"
     "You need to find more porn," Jai tells him.
     "Lack of porn has never been a problem for me before. Trust me."
     "Better porn, then. Porn where bigger, older guys are getting absolutely plowed by twinks. See if you like it.
     Nick's eyes actually glaze over. "I," he begins, then stops. He draws a deep breath. "I will get right on that. Thanks, dude!" (1183)

Feminism in the details, as a taken-for-granted part of everyday life. And all in the midst of the funniest, sweetest romance I've read all year.

Sign me up for more Lisa Henry.

Photo credits:
male privilege sampler: Rebloggy

Adulting 101
Riptide, 2016

Friday, September 16, 2016

Early Edith Layton and Male-Inflected Romance

Last month, on the Heroes and Heartbreakers blog, Darlene Marshall wrote a column for lovers of Mary Balogh's historical romances, with recommendations of authors to read "after you've read every Mary Balogh." I'd already read all of Joanna Bourne's books, and most of Jo Beverly's, but I'd only read one by the third author Marshall recommended, Edith Layton. Marshall's description of Layton's The Duke's Wager ("a classic modern Regency which strays beyond the conventions, giving us a questionable hero whose true self is only revealed in small glimpses as the story unfolds")—intrigued me. And so began a month of Layton indulgence.

After reading the first six Signet romances Layton published—The Duke's Wager (1983), The Disdainful Marquis (1983), The Mysterious Heir (1984), Red Jack's Daughter (1984), Lord of Dishonor (1984) and The Abandoned Bride (1985)—I've come to admire Layton's prose style, in particular her skillful use of point of view. Especially in openings of her novels, she often uses a distant narrative point of view to convey the sense of aristocrats being looked upon by the wider world, and being judged by that world:

But when the magnificent carriage bearing the insignia of St. John Basil St. Charles, Marquis of Bessacarr drew up to the curb and a large gentleman alighted, sweeping his impassive stare over them, even the hungriest among them did not press any further forward. Here was a knowing one, they thought, and a hard one, who would not need to dazzle his ladybird with careless largess to strangers. (Kindle Loc 64)

But once her story begins she pulls closer, allowing us inside the heads of her characters.

In spite of the fact that she uses multiple points of view, allowing us access to both her heroes and her heroines' minds, though, I must confess I found her heroes far more interesting, and far more psychologically complex, than the heroines with which they are paired. Layton's heroines may "stray beyond the conventions" of Regency society, but they always do so in plot, not in character. And when they stray, they do so by accident, not by design. For example, Regina of The Duke's Wager mistakenly attends the opera on a night meant only for the demimonde, thus drawing the attention of not just one, but two men who wish to "protect" her, while Catherine of The Disdainful Marquis takes a job as a lady's companion only to discover that her employer "expected her hired companions not to please her, but to please the gentlemen she adored having swarm around her." At heart, though, each young woman is conventional in the Signet Regency way: a virtuous, sexually innocent, good young lady.

Layton's men, though—well, to me at least, they were drawn with far more variety. The Duke's Wager features two rakes, rakes who actually are rakes, one quite openly, the other more in secret:

It was well known that St. John was in the petticoat line, that his doings among these graceless females exceeded that which could be called normal in a man of his position.... There were tales of mistresses, and wild parties and license. But his behavior in the drawing room was impeccable, even if his behavior in other rooms was wide open to speculation. (Kindle Loc 471)

But their reasons for their rakish behavior, as well as their methods for accomplishing their rakish goals, are dramatically different. And because Layton allows us inside both of their heads, as well as inside the head of the current object of their mutual pursuit, readers never know for sure which man will end up winning fair Regina's regard. And readers get to make their own judgments, along with Regina, about the behavior of both men. The best part was that readers get to see how and why one man reforms (at least in part), and why the other does not.

Lord of Dishonor's Christian, Viscount North is a also a rake, but for entirely different reasons than are the gentlemen in Wager. But he, as well as the heroes of the three other books I read, who are more in the upstanding rather than the rakish line, each come across as far more experienced, and thus far more skilled in navigating the social and romantic world, than do their female counterparts. Quite often while reading, I felt as if I were being invited to laugh at the heroines and the mistakes they make because of their inexperience, because I, like the heroes, knew far more about life and love than did the young ladies. And thus that I was being asked to identify more with the heroes than with the heroines.

I'm looking forward to reading further into Layton's Signet oeuvre, to see if her heroes continue to outshine her heroines, and in what ways. In the meantime, though, I'm wondering—are there any readers who prefer romances in which one side of the romantic partnership shines brighter than the other? Or is our current trend toward dual point of view romances make such preferences unlikely?

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Bad Boys Finish First? Cara McKenna's DOWNTOWN DEVIL

After a long and often difficult summer, I'm so happy to have the time and emotional oomph now to get back to writing about and reviewing romance. And it only seems fitting to restart the blog with thoughts on the latest from one of RNFF's favorite authors, Cara McKenna. In her edgy, intense romances, McKenna often interrogates the things we take for granted, not just about the romance genre, but about romantic relationships in general, something that I find deeply satisfying on both an intellectual and an emotional level. McKenna continues this trend in her latest erotic novel, Downtown Devil, the second book in her "Sins in the City" ménage series.

Edging closer and closer to her thirtieth birthday has Clare feeling restless, especially after taking a hiatus from sex after breaking with her overly staid boyfriend of three years. Working in a customer service call center certainly doesn't help, especially since Clare would far rather put her degree in Fine Arts to more creative use. But a girl needs to pay the bills, so Clare pursues her photography after hours, no matter how antsy she's feeling.

Clare's latest artistic project is a collection of portraits based on the question "So, What Are You?", a question Clare herself is often asked due to her biracial heritage (father Scotch-Irish, mom African-American). The project takes her typical people-watching to new levels, especially when she catches sight of the new hip barista manning the espresso machine at her favorite coffee shop:

He was at least half-Asian, Clare imagined, judging by his eyes and cheekbones, though his skin was fairly dark and his hair was a bundle of fat brown dreadlocks corralled into a spiky bun high at the back of his head. Black and Asian, she guessed, or maybe Pacific Islander? (7)

After sharing a bit of banter about the offensiveness (or lack thereof) of the question behind Clare's project, hot younger Mica agrees to pose. Clare tells herself not to get excited:

There was something about this guy. Maybe it was just an LA thing, but she sensed a certain lazy quality in him, a hypercasualness. Somebody this hot probably strolled from bed to bed and job to job, the next opportunity rising up before him just in time for his foot to touch down on it. She bet by Thursday he'd have totally forgotten about this chance meeting and have plans, and no clue what she was talking about or who she was when she called to meet up.
     But no way in hell was she not going to try. (14)

Clare does more than try; later that week, she agrees to take her photos of Mica at a party to which he invites her. And, after a successful shoot, Clare's wishes come true as she winds up in Mica's bed. Clare can see from one glance at Mica's room that while "Clare was a nester. Mica was migratory" but since she is after "some fond X-rated memories, but nothing more" (38), Clare isn't worried. And the sex that ensues proves even better than Clare had dreamed: "This is how I want sex to be. A thrilling exchange of power, one lover ordering, yet the other in control" (45). "Life-altering sex" (126) with the sensual bad boy—that's what romance novels are all about, no?

Why, then, is the male point of view that McKenna balances against Clare's not Mica's, but that of Mica's childhood friend and current roommate, Vaughn? Mica, who loves to entice but who tends to slam the door shut whenever anyone starts to expect anything of him, has disappeared by morning, leaving Clare to do the morning-after breakfast and greet with Vaughn. The night before, Clare had immediately pegged Vaughn as the opposite of Mica as soon as she was introduced: "You could sense steadiness and reliability on a person the same way you could sense sheistiness," and Vaughn, an EMT, is as steady as a rock (29).

Though Vaughn is attracted to Clare, he knows that he's not likely to turn her attentions from the far more compelling Mica:

Vaughn had always gravitated toward those bohemian types. Artists and musicians—creative girls, to bring a little spontaneity into his life, since he was Mr. Predictable, Mr. Routine. Though for as long as Mica was staying with him, Vaughn doubted he'd be having much luck in that department. He wasn't blind. He knew his best friend was basically catnip to women. Good-looking, fearless, flirtatious. Vaughn didn't think he was too shabby himself, but his dad had taught him to be a gentleman, and nice guys did finish last, at least when the competition was as charismatic as Mica. (65)

And Vaughn is nothing if not the quintessentially conventional nice guy.

Except, of course, for that one time when he and Mica got drunk on a camping trip, and Mica— No. Vaughn, brought up with the strict code of his father's gentlemanly African-American masculinity, squelches that memory down as quickly as he can. He's straight, after all. And he made Mica promise that nothing like that would happen again before he would agree to let Mica share his apartment for the summer.

But what if intense, sexually compelling Mica can orchestrate a "life-altering" sexual encounter not just between himself and Vaughn, or between himself and Clare, but between the three of them?

Ménage romances often end with all three participants in a group HEA, all equally committed to the others and to their triangulated relationship. But what happens when one partners likes one point of the triangle better than the other? And when one partner doesn't want to get pulled into any type of committed relationship at all? Does it matter how hot the sex is, when you need someone to help you navigate the small indignities and disappointments of everyday life?

Clare grows increasingly aware of, and upset by, Mica's thoughtlessness, even while she finds herself still wildly attracted to the guy. When she talks to Vaughn about her disappointment, Vaughn can certainly sympathize. Mica's thoughtlessness, his best friend well knows, is a big part of the guy's appeal:

Is the graph different, though, for a long-term partner?
"You watch him climb, and it's like his body knows the rock, knows exactly where every hold is, like he's been there a hundred times, even though you know it's the opposite. Everything he does—the way he moves and the way he talks, it's totally thoughtless. It's like. . . It's kind of amazing... But it can also be incredibly irritating.... If you're trying to coordinate flights with Mica, or any other sort of plans, or getting a rent check out of him...  Yeah, I love the guy, but I want to wring his neck on a daily basis" (131).

What Vaughn wants from a friend, though, is far different than what he wants from a girlfriend: "When I get married, I want my wife to be my partner. The one who picks up the slack and covers for me when I mess up, or when things don't go the way I plan them to. I can deal with a flaky best friend, but a flaky partner? Nobody's perfect, but I plan to find myself a grown-ass woman" (132).

What, though, does Clare want? And how will she go about getting it?

The answer proves both surprising, and surprisingly satisfying, acknowledging as it does the need for both stability and spark in any successful committed romantic relationship—whether it features two, or three, partners.

Photo credits:
"Who Are You?": Skidmore Unofficial
EMT logo: Sukirgent
Flaky chart: Buzzfeed

Downtown Devil
Intermix, 2016

Friday, September 9, 2016


In an earlier review post about Love Between the Covers, a documentary about the romance writing community, I don't believe I mentioned that I had been interviewed for the film, although my interview did not end up being featured :-(. But to celebrate the nationwide release of the film, director Laurie Kahn has released a bunch of clips from interviews that were not included in the final cut—including two by yours truly.

The first is a very general discussion of how heroes in heterosexual romance have changed from the 1970's to the present:

LBTC Bonus Clip - Jackie Horne - The construction of masculinity from Laurie Kahn on Vimeo.

The second talks about the pleasures and potential problems in hetersexual women reading male/male romance:

LBTC Bonus Clip - Jackie Horne - Male/male romance written by women from Laurie Kahn on Vimeo.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on either!

And, case you haven't seen it yet, here's a trailer for the film:

Love Between the Covers - Official Trailer from Laurie Kahn on Vimeo.

Love Between the Covers may not have been featured at your local cinema, but that is no longer an impediment to your viewing pleasure. Because the documentary is now available for rental and/or purchase, at Amazon and iTunes. And it's also available on a lot of other platforms, too (Google Play, xbox, satellite TV, Comcast On Demand, and many others). For more information on said other platforms, and for other bonus material not included in the film, check out filmmaker Laurie Kahn's web site.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Intermittent Summer Blogging

I've slipped from my twice-weekly blogging schedule of late, due to family commitments, some expected, others unplanned. And I foresee more slippage during the coming months, alas...

So I wanted to let readers know that RNFF is going to be on an intermittent schedule for the next three months, the summer months here in the States. I'll be posting whenever I have the time, brainspace, and emotional energy to do so. And, of course, when I have a great romance to recommend!

What feminist-friendly romances are you hoping to read this summer?

Friday, May 27, 2016

Goodbye Jo Beverley

I was so saddened to learn this week of the death of historical romance great Jo Beverley from cancer. Beverly was one of the first authors I glommed on to after returning to romance reading as an adult, and I learned a bucketful from the one RWA workshop she taught that I was able to attend (on things American writers get wrong when penning British-set historical romance). She was also one of the first people to comment on the RNFF blog—a pragmatic comment, about her difficulty in reading the comments section due to design issues.  She never commented again (because my fan-girling scared her off?), but hearing from a historical romance author I respected as much I did Beverley so early in my blogging career gave me a real boost of confidence that the subject of the blog—analyzing the intersections of feminism and genre romance—might just find it a receptive audience.

In celebration of Beverley's life and career, I'll be spending part of my Memorial Day weekend re-reading my Beverley favorites, both RITA award winners: the Regency-set An Unwilling Bride, with its unusual combination of forced marriage plot and Mary Wollstonecraft-reading heroine, and the 18th century-set Devilish, with its countess-in-her-own right heroine who clashes with the steely-resolved head of the Malloren clan.

Hope you will join me in raising a book in tribute to this amusing, intelligent writer. The romance community has lost a vital member, one who will be more than sorely missed.