Monday, September 18, 2017

Playing with the Crush-on-your-older-brother's-best-friend Trope: Karen Stivali's TONIGHT and Tamsen Parker's IN HER COURT

As a kid, I longed for an older brother, a kind but tough guy who could look out for a shy younger sister, magically convince the mean kids to stop teasing her standoff-ish, bookish self. As an adolescent, I continued to long for said brother, although for slightly different reasons—an older brother might tell me what boys said to each other behind closed doors, give me the inside scoop about which ones were as rude and obnoxious and girl-hating in private as so many of them seemed to be in public. Alas, my mom and dad, parents to three females, never saw the need to adopt a fourth, boy or girl.

Perhaps my old longing is why I'm often drawn to the romance trope of the younger woman who has a childhood crush on the unattainable best friend of her older brother. A "true" big brother is always looking out for his younger siblings' best interests, especially those of his younger sisters, right? And since big brother is a nice guy, you know that big brother's best friend must be equally worthy—otherwise they'd never be besties. Despite the Westermarck effect theory (that people who grow up together during the first few years of their lives aren't commonly sexually attracted to one another as teens or adults), teen girls longing for boys with whom their brothers have been long-time friends are a staple of YA, New Adult, and contemporary adult romances.

Yet in many such romances, the older brother can seem less like a friendly protector and more like a cockblocking tool of patriarchy. So many older brothers don't want to acknowledge younger sis's right to being a sexual being; they say they are only protecting sis from undesirable men, but their actions are all about keeping little sis pure (or at least being allowed to pretend that their sisters are not getting it on to the same degree that they are). So I've though I'm drawn to the trope, I often end up setting crush-on-older-brother's-best-friend books aside, dismayed by their implicit, or sometimes even overt, sexism.

That's why I was intrigued last week when I read two older-brother's-best-friend books back to back, romances that play with the trope by changing the gender and/or the sexuality in the younger sibling triad. The opening lines in Karen Stivali's short novella Tonight, the prequel to her Moments in Time series, tells us both that we're in trope-tastic land, but that here the trope is just a little different than the expected:

     "He's not gay, you know."
     If I had a dollar for every time my older brother Derek reminded me that his best friend, Wiley, wasn't gay, I'd be able to afford my own place instead of sharing an apartment with the two of them. (Kindle Loc 94).

David has been crushing on older brother Derek's best friend, James Wiley, since Derek first brought his rugby teammate home to hang out when David was sixteen. But Derek, well aware of his geeky arty younger brother's sexual preferences, doesn't want Davey to break his heart, and so breaks into his protective mantra whenever baby bro starts to get that certain look on his face. Once David left for college and started dating, Derek's warnings stopped. But now that Wiley's grad student roommate has kicked him out of his apartment for a reason Wiley is reluctant to explain, and the brothers/roommates have invited him to crash on their sofa until he can find another place, Derek's mantra is back in full force.

David doesn't have trouble getting a date, nor has his brother stood in his way of David's hooking up; he's not the cockblocking patriarchal big brother of more conventional, heterosexual older-best-friend crush romances. And though he's a jock, Derek has never disdained his "dorky, artsy little brother," a brother who had "never even been able to sustain the illusion of being straight." But Wiley's presence in their small apartment puts a definite damper on David's dating prospects, if not his libido, because though he's always wanted a boyfriend, he's still crushing pretty hard on Wiley.

But when the models for David's junior year portfolio keep not showing up, and Wiley offers his services in their stead, older brother's cautionary words go right out the window. Especially when David begins to suspect that said cautions may say more about the secrets Wiley has been hiding from Derek than about how well Derek knows his own best friend. A lovely wish-fulfillment fantasy romance from an author I'll definitely be looking to read more from.

Tamsen Parker's* latest, In Her Court, a novella in the group-authored Camp Firefly Falls series, features a most unusual best-friend pair: a heterosexual guy and a lesbian girl. Nate Carter and Evangeline "Van" Thompson have been friends since they were kids, both risk-takers with a flair for engineering. And since the third grade, Nate's younger sister Willa has been crushing onVan ("Maybe it was when Van had fixed the elevator in her Barbie Dream House or when she'd rescued Willa's favorite My Little Pony from being used as BB gun target practice" [91]). Nate and Van were supposed to be spending the summer working together at Camp Firefly Falls, a fun summer camp for adults, Nate as the resident tennis instructor, Van recuperating from her first year as a tenure track engineering professor serving as the camp's IT girl. But when Nate breaks his leg during a waterskiing accident mid-season, he calls on little sis Willa, who's been at loose ends since her own summertime grad student research project fell through at the last minute, to fill in for him.

Sharing a cabin with sexy, smart Van ("Van had a certain sense of style—half mad-scientist, half-Diane Keaton circa Annie Hall.... Add in her crazy-brilliant brain that worked in ways Willa would never understand and her quirky sense of humor, and Willa was a goner" [108]) will definitely not be a problem for Willa. But will it be for Van?

It certainly seems so, especially when a prickly Van spends their first week co-habitating avoiding Willa like the plague. Is it because Van thinks Willa is still just a kid, even though she's now twenty-three? Or that she's only a dumb jock? Doesn't she get that Willa's in grad school? That she's studying geology, and not just in a "rocks for jocks" kind of way, but because she's intellectually jazzed by it? Or is it because she's so caught up in her worries that the job she's worked for her entire life isn't making her as happy as she had imagined that she won't give Willa the time of day? Especially since Willa hopes to follow Van into academia, albeit in a different scientific field.

Van's heroine: Ghostbusters' Holtzmann
When the camp director asks the two young women to pair together to plan an '80's theme week at the camp, complete with Star Wars costume party, Dirty Dancing dances, and Ghostbusters laser tag (with laser tag packs engineered, of course, by intrepid Van), the two are forced into a proximity far closer than Van would like. She's not about to endanger her longest-lasting friendship by entertaining sexy thoughts about his little sister. Or is she?

Although Van knows that "Nate wasn't the kind of big brother who would lose his shit about his little sister being a sexual being," she isn't "sure if that would extend to his bestie being the person his sister was having the sexy times with." And she's more than a little worried about losing her best friend, one of the only friends she's managed to hold onto: "She'd always been Nate's friend, and she could see how her becoming. . . intimate with Willa would feel like she was betraying that" (1162). Maybe if this thing with Willa is just "going to be a casual sexing thing, Nate wouldn't even have to know. At all. Ever." (1162). I love that Parker addresses this underlying fear, one that often remains unspoken or unexplored in stories where the three points of the relationship triangle are older brother, older male best friend, and younger sister, perhaps in part because of fears of homosocial desire when male friendships are at risk.

Though Parker's novella is filled with nostalgia, it's nostalgia for a time period (the 80's) and its beloved popular narratives, rather than its more restrictive gender roles. Both Van and Willa's voices are engaging and laugh-out-loud funny ("And then their fling would end amicably and things could go back to the way they were, just with more orgasms than she'd previously had. She shook it off, because she was going to carpe the fuck out of this diem and out of Willa as well" [1544]). I only wish the book had been longer, so that Willa and Van's sexy times could have been balanced by more "growing closer emotionally" scenes. But it's so great to see a popular series finally welcome a lesbian story into its ranks that I can easily forgive this one small shortcoming.

What other romances have you read that rock the boat of the standard crushing-on-older-brother's-best-friend trope?

* Full disclosure: Parker is a fellow chapter-mate of mine in the New England Chapter of RWA, and we serve together on its board. She did offer me an ARC, but no favors or foodstuffs were exchanged during the writing of this review.

Photo credits:
Older brothers/baby sister: Pinterest
Holtzmann: Third-Bit

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Arguing about Diversity

Two groups with which I am affiliated—the community of children's literature scholars, and community of romance writers—experienced upsetting, divisive, but ultimately productive public discussions about issues of diversity and racism during the dog days of August. Though the latter may be of more interest to readers of this blog, I'd like to talk about each of them here, to show that these debates are not isolated occurences, the sign of problems or disputes limited to one backward or racist group, but are debates that are roiling groups and communities across the United States.

The children's literature discussion stemmed from the call for papers from the Children's Literature Association (ChLA), the primary scholarly association for professors and others who study children's literature in an academic manner, for its 2018 conference (Full disclosure: I am a past and current member of the ChLA Board of Directors). The conference committee for the 2018 conference, which will be held in San Antonio, Texas, issued a Call for Papers in July that many scholars in the organization found not just disrespectful of cultural diversity, but tainted by white bias, tokenism, and cultural erasure. Many scholars began to discuss this problem on social media, in particular on Twitter, expressing dismay, disgust, and anger. The ChLA had been working on issues of diversity for several years, but scholars of color were getting tired of waiting for that work to reap results, and of staying quiet, or having to defend themselves or educate others, when confronted with white scholars' prejudices and biases.

The romance writers' discussion stemmed from a post to RWA's PAN (Published Authors Network) listserv from a New York Times bestselling author, a post in response to earlier discussions about standards for entering and judging the organization's contest, the RITA Awards. This post both expressed dismay at the drop in membership numbers of RWA, and attributed said drop to the direction of the current RWA board, in particular the board's focus on "social issues" rather than "publishing ones." Members of RWA's board are all subscribed to the PAN listserv, and several of them responded to the original post to state that membership numbers had in fact not decreased, and the original poster was incorrect. Others, including both board and general members, were more concerned about the other piece of the original poster's statement, and asked the original poster to clarify what was meant by "social issues." Many assumed that it referred to board's focus on increasing diversity within the organization, and posted both their endorsement of the board's actions in this regard, as well as stories about how in years past, they had been openly or implicitly discriminated against by members of the organization. The original poster returned to the forum to clarify her position, but went on to fan the flames of the debate by stating that "diversity for the sake of diversity is discrimination. It just is." Members of the group mentioned this statement to friends outside the PAN community, and soon Twitter and Facebook were abuzz. Amid the following flood of posts to the PAN listserv decrying such a statement, the original poster choose not to continue participating in the conversation.

How did each organization respond to these explosive discussions? In the first, a member of the ChLA Board who is a frequent participant in discussions of issues of diversity in children's literature (not me) saw the social posts from frustrated members, and requested that these scholars reach out to the Board of ChLA with their concerns. The board subsequently received a letter with a "request for action," in particular, that the Call for Papers be revised, and that the problem be acknowledged on the ChLA's web site and in the next issue of the organization's journal. The Board read through the objections cited by the group, reworked the Call for Papers in conjunction with the San Antonio Conference Committee to address those objections, and distributed the new CfP to its members, along with a note explaining why such an unprecedented action as changing a previously posted CfP had been necessary, and extending an apology to all its members. You can see that note, and links to the original and the revised CfP, here. The most important lines, to my mind, are these: "ChLA works to foster an environment—at our conference, online, in our journals and newsletters—where all members feel welcomed, included, valued, and respected. Please share this notice with others in the ChLA community so that we can continue to have open, transparent dialogues with one another."

The CfP problems, however, led to collateral damage, spilling over as they did onto the Child_Lit listserv, a group unaffiliated with ChLA, moderated by a single senior scholar.  On Child_Lit, the initial problem grew into a broader philosophical discussion, with scholars advocating for freedom of speech clashing with those who argued that freedom of speech arguments had been, and continued to be, code words for suppressing the dissent of marginalized or oppressed groups. In the midst of these debates, the owner of the Child_Lit listserv abruptly announced that he would be shutting the list down as of September 1st, bringing to an end an  immensely influential, productive online community that had weathered other many another acrimonious discussions over its more than twenty-year existence.

Since the RWA debates stemmed from a single member's comments, rather than from a publication from the organization itself, RWA Nationals has not taken any public action in response to the racially insensitive comments on the PAN loop. But they did discover, as a result of subsequent posts taking some posters to task for revealing what they had assumed was confidential information from the loop to those outside the PAN community, that the organization had three different, and in some cases conflicting, regulations about what is and is not permissible to share with the public from an RWA-owned listserv. The organization is currently working to clarify and consolidate these conflicting rules so that all members can know and understand what is, and what is not, ok to share. Many on the loop are hoping that those rules will not be so restrictive as to stifle debate; in the past, many have felt policed by members who insist that everyone should be "nice," "kind," and "supportive," no matter how egregiously they have been discriminated against. I encourage the board to consider ways that RWA, like ChLA, can continue to foster "open, transparent dialogues with one another."

The PAN listserv, unlike the Child_Lit listserv, continues. The dozens, even hundreds, of comments posted by PAN members expressing outrage at the prejudice coded within the original poster's "diversity for diversity's sake is discrimination" statement have been amazing to read. White authors are expressing support for the organization's diversity efforts, and support of their colleagues of color, and pointing those who feel they do not know enough about the issue to outside resources to educate themselves about institutional and organizational racism. Many authors of color, and many who identify as LGBTQ+ or write queer romance, have written to say how surprised they are that so many members have written in support of diversity, and how much more positive they feel about the organization than they had before this issue exploded on the PAN loop. Board members have written to explain why making RWA more diverse is not just good politics, it's good business practice. Although a few posters have lamented that some members are feeling afraid to express their opinions, for fear of being perceived as not-PC or being attacked by "mean girls," the debate has been far freer of attacks and counterattacks than one might expect from such a sensitive, often deeply divisive, issue, and filled with the real desire to understand others' points of view.

Conversations about race and racism in the United States are hard. Damn fucking hard. Feelings run high, and people on all sides are both angry and afraid—angry at being discriminated against; afraid of being called out for offenses they never intended; angry at being labeled racist; afraid of being disappointed yet again when asked to have faith for the nth time in the good intentions of privileged others. But until we can face those feelings, confront those angers and fears, and begin talking with each other in the communities and organizations to which we each belong about the ways that race continues to impact people of all colors, privileging some, oppressing others, we won't be able to honestly say that we live in a country truly committed to "liberty and justice for all."

Illustration credits:
Children's Literature Association: ChLA Twitter
Romance Writers of America: RWA
Listserv: Slate

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

End of Summer Short Takes

Happy September! I know many folks bemoan the end of summer, but I always feel reenergized by the arrival of fall—here in the northern hemisphere, autumn signals new classes, new ideas, and a more focused, organized time in which to explore them. I have fingers crossed that now that cooler temperatures and more regular schedules have arrived, I'll do better with RNFF than the far too infrequent intermittent summer posts I managed this past summer.

I receive a lot of requests from authors, publishers, and publicity companies to review books. Many such requests seem to be bulk mailings, not taking the time to explain why their particular book is suitable to a blog about romance and feminism, as RNFF's guidelines request. Needless to say, I'm not too likely to take the time to read a memoir about dogs, or an epic fantasy novel with no adult romantic relationships, or a romance novel about an alpha special ops guy falling for a girl in desperate need of rescuing. But when I do get a message from an author who actually takes the time to talk about the feminist aspects of her or his book, I tend to ask for a copy.

Not all of them end up being worth the read. But some show real promise. Here are a few I read this summer that you may enjoy checking out.

Susannah Nix bills her debut novel, Remedial Rocket Science, a "geeky romance." While it wasn't quite as out and out geek-filled as some books I've read (Delphine Dryden's Theory of Attraction, or Penny Reid's Neanderthal Seeks Human, or Santino Hassell and Megan Erikson's Cyberlove series), Nix's heroine, Melody Gage, is an MIT undergrad in love with computer programming—both the losing herself in code aspects, as well as the field's well-paying jobs. After spending her growing-up years with a single mother on a shoestring budget, Melody's not going to waste her smarts waiting for her next big break—she's going to make her own breaks, thank you very much. Calling up a freshman year one-time hook-up was only supposed to provide her with a friendly face after she moves from east to west coast to take a job with an aerospace company. But aimless, privileged Jeremy turns out to be a not only a manager in training at her new company, but also, as the son of its owner, its heir apparent. And when Melody discovers that not only did her long-ago hook-up with Jeremy happen while he was dating someone else, but that Jeremy also cheated on former girlfriend with said girlfriend's sister (who is now his current arm candy), Melody knows that Jeremy is definitely a break of the wrong kind. Why, then, does she find Jeremy constantly visiting her office? And giving him advice and a shoulder to cry on when his personal life takes a few too many wrong turns? And pretending to be his girlfriend at important family functions? Nix does great work in showing the difficulties and the adjustments of those first months out of college, starting a new job, trying to find one's footing with new people and new responsibilities, as well as navigating the often scary shift from friendship to romantic attachment.

Best lines:
     "I never knew it was supposed to feel like this... Having a girlfriend. Being in love."
     "What did you think it was supposed to be like?"
     "I thought it was all about pretending—pretending to want things you didn't want and like thins you didn't like. Pretending to be someone you weren't. I thought that was what all relationships were like. But being with you isn't anything like that."
     "What's it like?" she asked quietly.
     "Like I found my best friend." (Kindle Loc 4049)

I really wished that Stephanie Burgis's Snowspelled, the first volume in her The Harwood Spellbook series, had been a novel rather than a novella. For there's a lot of backstory to unpack, a broken romance to it would have been great to witness in its first bloom, and a fascinating secondary world to explore in this alternate Regency-era (I think?) fantasy story. The story opens at a winter house party where high-ranking members of the ruling Boudiccate, the all-female governing body of "Angland" (yes, in this alternate England, Bouddica beat back the Romans and established female rule in the country—how cool!) are gathering to hold an alliance ceremony with the elves. But something's not quite right in the elven court, and there's something suspicious about the unusually harsh snowstorm falling about them, too. Cassandra Harwood, though, is too busy nursing her own wounds—a broken engagement, and an embarrassingly public fall from grace (the first woman to earn a place at the all-male Great Library school, Cassandra lost all magical ability after trying to perform an overly ambitious spell)—to pay much attention to the larger goings-on that are worrying the head of her family, sister-in-law Amy, and her fellow female politicians. That is, until Cassandra inadvertently makes a promise to a troll, and must bring the human magician behind the debilitating snowstorm to the elves. Cassandra's break with her erstwhile fiancé, fellow magician Rajaram Wrexham, "the intense scholarship student form a Maratha-Anglish sailor's family" (255), is nothing that a little better communication couldn't have fixed, and the villain behind the weather plot is all too obvious. But the set-up at novella's end for the book series to follow—Cassandra will open a school for women who wish to study magic, previously restricted to men only—sounds very promising. I'll definitely be taking a look...

Favorite line:
The gentlemen, of course, were expected to remain at the table until a maid was sent to notify them that it was safe for them to join us in the parlor, meaning that the political conversations were officially finished for the night. (974)

Beau North's Modern Love also features a pair of protagonists that would have benefitted from some straight talk to get beyond their misconceptions about and misunderstandings of one another. Yet both are so interesting in themselves that I found myself forgiving the author for making their disagreements more contrived than character-based. University of Minnesota MFA student bisexual Alice Aberdeen does not really hit it off with the guy her sister and sister's boyfriend have invited to meet them at the annual Humane Society's Bowie tribute show. Alice may be hard up, still reeling from being dumped by her girlfriend, but she certainly doesn't need a set-up with wealthy, entitled "Earth's Grumpiest Supermodel" (283). For his part, while Will Murphy finds Alice "as cute as hell, a firefly bobbing through a dim world, unaware of the dullness that surrounded her" (258), he also thinks she's "abrasive and odd, and she clearly doesn't think much of me" (273). Of course, romance cannot help but blossom after such an obvious not-meet-cute. Two such super-cynical protagonists of course have some hefty baggage to unpack (Will, growing up not fitting into either side of his Punjabi/Irish family; Alice dealing with guilt over her mother's death and a past history of substance abuse) as well as a lot of wit to launch at one another and the world at large.

Favorite line:
This was my third date in as many weeks and I was already exhausted. How did people do this dating thing, blinding giving total strangers the benefit of the doubt, trusting that they won't be boring or mean or secretly racist? (1537)

All you feminist-writing romance novelists out there, please keep the submissions coming!

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Ethics of Caretaking: Kate Hewitt's MARRY ME AT WILLOUGHBY CLOSE

I've always been intrigued by feminist debates about gender and caretaking, stemming most likely from my college psychology class readings of Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development and Carol Gilligan's feminist critique of the same. Do women make moral decisions based on their effects on others, while men make such decisions based on abstract principles? And if so, are women by nature better at caring for others than men are? If such gendered differences in fact exist are those differences the result of nature or nurture? What are the downsides, as well as the benefits, of emphasizing caretaking as a distinctly feminine trait? Do our beliefs about the gendered nature of caretaking limit men as well as women? What if I'm a woman and I hate taking care of others? Might personality, rather than gender, be a better determinant of who will be a good caretaker, and who will not? Kate Hewitt's latest contemporary,  Marry Me at Willoughby Close, had me thinking about all of these debates, in fictional terms.

I've never heard of the term "cozy romance," but if it doesn't exist, it should, and Hewitt's story would be a prime example of it. This gentle story is told from the point of view of twenty-two year-old Alice James, a quiet, diffident white English girl who has spent most of her growing up years in and out of foster care. Having just aged out of the shelter in which she was living, one specifically for ex-foster kids, Alice has been lucky to be taken under the wing of kindly Ava Mitchell, who buys her clothes, helps her with her CV, and even gets her the interview for the new job she starts at the opening of the book: taking care of eighty-six-year-old Lady Stokely, a terminal cancer patient who has chosen to forego any further treatment.

Though she's spent the last four years working in a nursing home, this is the first time Alice will be paid for being the sole person responsible for the last days of another. But she's not entirely without experience; at sixteen, Alice nursed her own grandmother through dementia until her death. But Lady Stokely's stuffy, superior, and quarrelsome nephew, thirty-seven year-old investment manager Henry Trent, isn't very impressed by Alice's credentials—"Tell me, Miss James, do you feel you're qualified to assist my aunt?" (Kindle Loc 253)—and tries to intimidate her into leaving. Yet despite Alice's worries that Lady Stokely has hired her "simply because she was young and biddable and easily intimidated. All the things she wanted to change about herself" (143), Alice finds herself sounding "almost bolshy" during Trent's interrogation, her annoyance at the pushy man pricking the bubble of her usual diffidence. And thus Alice ends up keeping her job, in spite of Henry Trent's obvious preference that she leave.

Lady Stokely wishes to keep as much independence during her illness as she possibly can. And so she asks Alice not to move into her home just yet. Instead, she offers Alice one of the small cottages on the nearby Willoughby Close. Alice has never had a place of her own before, and takes deep pleasure in making her temporary cottage feel like a home—taking care of herself by caring for her small set of rooms. Alice's friend Ava, as well as the other cottagers in the Close, offer Alice furniture, kitchenware, and lots of advice—especially about how she should not fall for the attractive if cranky Henry Trent. Surprisingly, Alice discovers that not all types of caretaking are welcome: "I feel like you—and everyone here, really—are coddling me, almost," she tells Ava. "And while it's been lovely, so very wonderful, to be taken care of for what feels like the first time in my life—I don't want to be . . . well, stifled. I've doubted myself for so long and I want a chance to be myself, whatever that means" (1699). Being cared for is lovely, but just as Lady Stokely already understands, Alice is beginning to recognize that too much care can be almost as much of a problem as too little. She's also beginning to realize she doesn't have to be quiet anymore in order to receive the care she does want:

And she'd actually spoken up to Ava, which was a small thing, but made her kind of happy all the same. Because she'd never been good at that. She'd been so quiet for most of her life, staying on the sidelines or in the shadows, never really a part of things, never brave enough to speak up or out. Maybe, like Ava had said, being at Willoughby Close would enable Alice to finally find her voice.  (1705)

Despite all of the difficulties she's experienced during her young life, Alice's personality is generally a happy one; "she was always hoping for the best with people. Expecting it, even, assuming that people were kind, that things would work out, that it would all be okay" (1142). The exact opposite temperament, in fact, to the one held by the easily irritated, lash-out-first Henry Trent. Henry, it turns out, has had almost as little caretaking as a child as Alice; sent away to boarding school at five, rarely visited by his self-involved parents, still grieving from the death of a younger brother. But he's chosen a very different way to deal with not being cared for than Alice's shrinking violet impulse; Henry protects himself from fear or uncertainty with the thrust of anger. "It wasn't pleasant, but it made him slightly easier to deal with . . . and to feel sympathy for," Alice thinks to herself after one particularly fraught encounter with her charge's nephew (1812).

And sympathy, unsurprisingly, leads to more tender feelings, in spite of all her friends' warnings. Because Alice can see hints of a more kind, caring Henry behind the snotty aristocratic front he uses to protect himself. Particularly in the way Henry cares for his ailing aunt. But when feelings lead to amorous actions, Henry immediately backs away. Not only does he apologize for his kiss, but, in a real Pride and Prejudice moment, he points to their class differences (Henry is heir to an earldom) to explain why they are "not compatible...for any kind of real relationship" (2310).

Henry's rejection becomes a defining moment for Alice, a moment when she realizes just how little her choosing to stay in the background and please others has gotten her:

The scales had fallen from her innocent eyes. She'd spent her whole life either trying to fit in or to be invisible, and definitely not to make any waves. She'd tried to please everyone, as if that would make a difference to how she was viewed and treated. She'd also tried to believe the best in people because to accept the worst felt like despair, and that could never lead anywhere good. But she'd been wrong all along. She'd been stupidly naïve, and she wasn't going to be anymore. . . . From this moment on she was going to stop looking for acceptance outside herself. . . . Henry Trent didn't think she was good enough for him? Well, he wasn't good enough for her.  (2404-13) 

This newly inspired Alice doesn't betray her personality, or her principles, in the wake of Henry's rejection; she is still, at heart, a caretaker, one who takes pleasure in seeing to the needs of others. But in standing up for her own self-worth, she models for us, and herself, a healthier, feminist ethics of care, one that balances the need for care with the equally important needs for independence and for respect. An ethics of care that can be practiced not only by women, but by men—even, perhaps, by the irascible, but vulnerable, Henry.

Photo credits:
Cozy English dining: Pinterest
I Care: Asmythoughtschange blog
Gilligan's Ethics of Care:

Marry Me at Willoughby Close
Tule Publishing, 2017

Friday, August 11, 2017

Kick-Ass Heroism and Female Self-Determination: Ilona Andrews' HIDDEN LEGACY series

I'm a longtime fan of Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels Atlanta-set urban fantasy books, but I'd been annoyed by book #6 in the series, 2013's Magic Rises. Rises relies on an old, often sexist romance novel trope—the big lie to one's partner, for that partner's own good, of course—a trope that almost always strikes me as contrived and anti-feminist. Had Kate and Curran's relationship run its course, I wondered?

So I was chuffed when Andrews (the husband and wife team of Ilona and Andrew Gordon) began a new urban fantasy series in 2014. Since Hidden Legacy would be set in a different fantasy world than Kate Daniels' part-magic, part-mechanical Atlanta, and would depict the beginning of a new romantic relationship, it would give the authors a chance to start afresh, rather than trying to spin new/old drama from Kate and Curran's already established relationship.

After I read Burn for Me, I found a lot to like about the world Andrews had created in Hidden Legacy. As the book's opening explains, "In 1863, in a world much like our own, European scientists discovered the Osiris serum, a concoction which brought out one's magic talents" (Kindle Loc 45). Those who took the serum manifested magic in quite different ways, but gaining any godlike power was worth it to the governments and the rich who vied to buy the serum. But, as is the way with many newly discovered medicines, the Osiris serum had some pretty nasty side-effects, and the serum was soon banned. But the magic awakened by the serum did not just effect the one who had taken it; it also affected their children, and their children's children. And soon magical families began to form into Houses, creating a society that runs parallel to unmagical human society, with its own laws, institutions, and power struggles.

Burn's narrator, twenty-five-year-old Texas native Nevada Baylor, isn't a part of an established magic House. But its clear that there's some Osiris-taking ancestors in her family tree. Nevada has some powers—she can tell when someone is telling the truth, and when someone is lying—but she's never studied magic, never been taught much about it, and doesn't know the full extent of her own magical skills. She's kept them hidden, not wanting to be forced into becoming a human lie detector for the government or for some powerful House or corporation. This makes Nevada an interesting contrast to Kate Daniels, who has been raised knowing her lineage and the awesome power that she has inherited because of it, and has been training her entire life to fulfill her destiny. Nevada is genetically poised to become a kick-ass magic heroine, but at the start of her series, she's not yet a superpower, not a dominant player in the larger magical world.

Also unlike Kate Daniels, who is a loner at start of her series, Burn's Nevada Baylor is deeply ensconced in family. She lives in a converted warehouse with her two sisters, her two male cousins, her mother, and her grandmother; the elder members of the family all work in some capacity for the detective agency founded by Nevada's father. But now that Mr. Baylor has died, it is Nevada, the oldest of the younger generation, who takes charge of the day-to-day running of the Baylor Investigative Agency. The agency isn't in the greatest financial position, though, and Nevada feels responsible for keeping her multigenerational family afloat. Again, in interesting contrast to Kate, Nevada isn't estranged from her family, but is driven largely by her need to protect and sustain it. Can one be a kick-ass feminist heroine and still be deeply committed to family? I was curious to see how Andrews addressed this often contentious issue.

By book's end, however, I wasn't convinced that I could write about Burn for Me on RNFF. Because the magic-user to whom Nevada is reluctantly attracted appears to be a more than questionable as a feminist romantic lead. The reputation of Connor Rogan, the head of House Rogan, decidedly precedes him. A few of his nicknames: "Mad Rogan," The Butcher of Merida," "Huracan." During a conflict in Mexico (fighting began after magically potent mineral deposits were discovered in Belize and Mexico invaded), Rogan, a Prime (the top level of magic-wielder) used his telekinetic powers on behalf of the U.S. government to destroy entire cities.

A recluse since leaving the army four years ago, Rogan and Nevada's paths cross when Nevada's agency is hired to track down a man linked to Rogan's cousin. And Nevada's interactions with the guy don't suggest that his values and hers will mesh very well. Meet cute as a kidnapping? Ah, not so much:

     "So instead of talking to me, asking for my credentials, or doing any of those things a normal person would do, you decided to assault me and chain me in your basement?"
     He shrugged, a slow, deliberate movement. "It seemed like the most expedient way to obtain the information. And let's be honest, you weren't exactly harmed. I even took you home.
     "You dumped me on my doorstep. According to my mother, I looked half dead."
     "Your mother exaggerates. A third dead at most."
     I stared at him. Wow. Just wow. (1954)

Even though Nevada finds Rogan crazy sexy, and wonders if there is anything left of the innocent boy he once was (caught on a video before his first foray into government-sanctioned city destruction), she's not convinced that the adult Rogan takes anybody's interests to heart except his own. She's definitely not in favor of working for him when he offers to hire her company:

     "You are incredibly powerful, and you have a blatant disregard for laws and moral constraints. I'm guessing that you don't think anything you ever do is wrong.That makes you very dangerous and a huge liability in mu line of work. You will break laws and kill to get what you want, and if I manage to survive, I'll be left with the fallout. So the answer is no." (2037)

She's also pretty unhappy about his lack of compunction against killing those who threaten him:

     "You killed Peaches."
     "Of course I killed him."
     I opened my mouth and closed it.
     "Okay," Mad Rogan said. "This is distracting you, and I need you to function, so let's fix this. Which part of what happened is upsetting?"
     I opened my mouth again and closed it again without saying anything. Peaches would've attacked us, possibly killed us, so what Mad Rogan did was justified. It was the sheer sudden brutality of it. It was thew way he did it, without any hesitation. One moment Peaches was there, and then he vanished. No trace of him remained. He was crushed out of existence. He was . . . dead.
     "Let me help," he said. "You've been taught all your life that killing another person is wrong, and that belief persists even in the face of facts. Not only would Peaches have killed us given the chance, but this way I only have to kill one person rather than kill half a dozen of his followers. I saved several lives, but your conditioning tells you that I've done the wrong thing. I didn't. He started it. I finished it."
     "It's not that. I was getting ready to shoot him in the head." But when you shot someone, there was a slight chance they might live. There would be a body. what he did was so complete and sudden that I needed a couple of moments to come to terms with it.
     "Then what is it?"
     "It's the. . ." I struggled for words. "Splat."
     Mad Rogan glanced at me, his eyes puzzled. "Splat."
     "I had briefly considered impaling him with one of those steel poles from the roof, but I decided it would be too graphic for you. Would that have been preferable?"
     My mind conjured up Peaches with a steel pole sticking out his stomach. "No."
     "I really would like to know," he said with genuine curiosity. "The next time I kill someone, I'd like to do it in a way that doesn't freak you out."
     "How about you don't kill a anybody for a little bit?"
     "I can't make that promise."
     Small talk with the dragon. How are you? Eaten any adventurers lately? Sure, I just had one this morning. Look, I still got his femur stuck in my teeth. Is that upsetting to you? (2544)

By the end of Burn for Me, Nevada, doesn't have to kill, but has to rescue Rogan from his own power, a princess kissing a mad sleeping beauty back from the edge of magical overkill. But when Rogan comes calling post-apocalypse aversion, Nevada simply can't reconcile herself to the ease with which Rogan can destroy others, his apparent lack of empathy for other human beings. And the way that he can put her own family members in the line of fire, if that will help him accomplish his goals. Even if it turns out said family members agreed to be used: "I can't be with you, no matter how crazy you make me, because you have no empathy, Rogan. I'm not talking about magic. I'm talking about the human ability to sympathize." (5481). Nevada fears Rogan might be a psychopath, or a sociopath, and given his actions in the book, readers can't help but worry she might be right. So when Nevada sends Rogan on his way at book's end, how can readers do anything but cheer?

Did Andrews get push-back against this depiction of the "heroic" Rogan? Or did they have his rehabilitation in mind from the start? Because book #2, White Hot, spends much of its time proving Nevada wrong, or at least complicating her (and our) interpretation of Rogan's psychology. Turns out he does have feelings, does experience empathy, as the murder of several of his employees at the start of White Hot demonstrates: "There was an awful finality in his voice. I hadn't thought he cared. I'd thought he viewed his people as tolls and took care of them because tools had to be kept in good repair, but this sounded like genuine grief" (White Kindle Loc 765). He evokes loyalty from his people, but is in turn loyal to them, rather than just using them. He does have family he cares for (offstage, but still); he does play by some rules, just rules that are different from the ones Nevada has been used to. And his wartime experiences (which Nevada hears about from one of Rogan's doctors, and which she experiences through some sharing of his dreams) transformed him from a young, cocky, idealistic man, one who was kept carefully protected in "bubble of patriotism" from seeing the destruction his powers had caused, into a man who sees the world in black and white, enemies and allies, and who will do almost anything to not feel helpless.

And, perhaps most importantly for romance readers, he's willing to break one very important rule: wanting Nevada, even though the rules of House society say he should only court and marry a woman whose genetic background will ensure his children will have Prime magic power like his own. Not a sociopath, or a psychopath, but a man messed up by his wartime experiences, a man whose empathy is there to be found, deep under the surface.

But I still couldn't find my way to writing about White Hot, either. Because Rogan has the über-protective instinct characteristic of "alpha" romance heroes, a protective instinct that doesn't sit well with Nevada, nor with a reader who values a female protagonist's ability to determine her own life choices. Rogan buys her mortgage without telling her, to keep her safe from a foe who has been searching for her family for years. He tries to keep her from engaging in job-related encounters that may endanger her life. He even puts his jacket on her when she shivers. "What will it cost me? You keep chipping away at my independence every time you try to 'take care' of me, so I'd rather know the price in advance," Nevada challenges Rogan as she brushes his jacket away (3471). It's not that Nevada doesn't appreciate his way of caring. It's that this way of caring endangers her own sense of self: "You do things for me, even when I specifically ask you not to, because you feel you know better. I'm desperately fighting for my independence and boundaries, because otherwise there will be no me left. There will be just you and I'll become an accessory" (3476). By book's end, Nevada takes a risk and starts a romantic relationship with Rogan, risking both that he will be able to move beyond black and white, and that he will allow her the autonomy she needs: "the only way I'll ever respect his wishes is if he respects mine," she tells Rogan's friend and doctor (5293).

It was only by the end of book three, Wildfire, that I felt able to embrace the series wholeheartedly. Because the relationship arc of book three shows Rogan's gradual acceptance of Nevada's need for self-determination. Aptly, two potential romantic rivals show up on the scene, largely to underscore the this message: Rogan's former fiancée, Rynda, who always turns to others more powerful to keep her safe; and a fellow truthseeker Prime, Garen Shaffer, who wants to marry Nevada so that their kids will inherit their truthseeker genes and power. Rogan and Nevada get into some arguments when Rogan's protective impulses lead him to help Rynda even when she doesn't really need it, a pretty obvious counterpoint to Nevada's self-sufficiency. In contrast, Garen tries to woo Nevada by recognizing how hard she's worked to keep her family safe, and warning her that her life with Rogan will threaten that safety:

He'll put you in danger assuming you can handle it, and he'll fail to notice the moment you can't. I would do everything in my power to keep you from being put into a dangerous situation in the first place, because that's what a husband is supposed to do. (Wildfire Kindle Loc 4250).

Given the conflicts in book #2, it's pretty safe to assume that Garen's courtship isn't likely to prosper. And that Rogan's encouraging Nevada to embrace her power, and take her rightful place in the Magical world by officially filing her family for House status and outing herself as a Prime, is.

Andrews' web site says that Wildfire is "the thrilling conclusion" to the Hidden Legacy series. But the book's epilogue suggests that the real baddies are still lurking, biding their time until they can take Nevada and Connor, and the rest of civilized magical society, down. I for one am looking forward to seeing how Nevada and her family navigate House life and mores, and have my fingers crossed that other romantic pairings (for Nevada's siblings and cousins) might be in the offing in future books. Pairings that will also grapple with the negative implications of the all-too-common overprotective male hero in contemporary urban fantasy romances.


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Protest Romance? The ROGUE DESIRE Anthology

If you're disheartened, disenchanted, or simply outraged by the current state of the U.S. national political situation, you can exercise your right to protest in myriad ways. Write to your elected officials to express your opinions. Attend rallies to support the causes you believe in, or protest against the policies you don't. Join a local or national political action group. Call your state senator or congressperson and register your concern.

Or, if you are a romance writer, you can pen a protest romance.

Several RNFF favorites, as well as a few unknown-to-the-blog other writers, have done just that, jointly publishing Rogue Desire. The anthology's tagline reads "When all else fails, find love," but the eight short stories in the collection are about more than finding a romantic partner; they are about how love and protest politics can and do intersect, and to what ends.

Potential leaker? Not looking too likely....
Several of the stories are pretty much wish-fulfillment, political protest-wise. Stacey Agdern's "Truth, Love, and Sushi" is one of them, setting forth the dream that that a child of an abusive authoritarian president will turn against him (calling Tiffany Trump, anyone?). Caroline Crosby's father has recently been elected president, and she has to decide whether to leak documents from a secret notebook detailing "Jason's [her father's] innermost thoughts, Sophia's [her mother's] infamous lists; and things that nobody would admit to in public, let alone write down in private" (Kindle Loc 3757). The leaking seems pretty much a foregone conclusion, even with the small threat that Caroline's youngest sister will be taken away from her if she spills. The romantic attraction between Caroline and her love object, a political blogger, is never to be, apparently, because he's the one through whom she's going to leak the documents. I didn't quite get that, to be honest; since they were already hanging out together in public, it seemed that Max would already be on suspicious folks' radar, even if Caroline stayed away from him post-leak. There's not much in the way of models of positive action that the average reader can take away from this story, either, but wish fulfillment does have its place as a coping strategy, no doubt.

Although at first glance, the story that opens the collection, "Grassroots" by Adriana Anders, appears to fall far less in the realm of fantasy, it still gave me pause. Veronica Cruz, a preschool schoolteacher, decides to take her protest local by running for city council. Odds seemed stacked against her—the local privileged white guy, Clint S. Rylie, may have cheated on high school tests to earn his "A's," but his attractive wife and kids and his financially well-endowed campaign attract far more attention to his campaign that Veronica's local canvassing does to hers. But after Veronica meets a hot blind blogger while on the rounds, she suddenly discovers people she's never met beating the campaign trail on her behalf. Apparently the hot blogger is a wildly popular Internet influencer with the online name of "Horde," and has asked his multitude of fans to get out for the cause. Despite being incensed by the guy's interference, Veronica ends up sleeping with him. But when it turns out that Horde has dug up dirt about Veronica's opponent and revealed it to the press, all without consulting her, she (rightly, in my opinion) blows a gasket. Winning an election due to another person's social media contacts, rather than to actions a candidate takes on her own, struck me as both a wish-fulfillment fantasy and pretty disempowering for Veronica....

I was surprisingly charmed by new-to-me author Jane Lee Blair's "My Delight Is In Her," which features a second chance romance between Kim, who turned down a chance to marry her boyfriend when he decided to become a Presbyterian pastor, and said pastor, Leonard, who is serving a flock in one of nation's capital's less privileged neighborhoods. Kim knows that congregants are always up in the business of their pastor's "First Lady," and wants no part of such a public life. She's chosen public service of a different sort: working in the Department of Labor: "I know they kept me because my skin color looks good on their graphics. I know it. But I'm gonna stay for as long as I can do the most good—or prevent the most harm" (4767). But when she spies Leonard at a protest march, then her date wants to take her to Leonard's church, and then she runs into Leonard again during an organizational meeting for a city-wide protest/prayer service—well, she can't help but revisit her original decision. While Blair states in her author's note that this story is not an inspirational romance, it has many of the trappings of one—protagonists who do not have sex before marriage; Bible verses providing inspiration; change in the direction of the romance that occurs via spiritual insight. But it also has a lot of swearing, some drinking, and an acknowledgement that sex and sexual drives are positive forces in life, not to mention an appealing sense of humor. This is Blair's first published work; I'm looking forward to seeing where her talents take her in future.

Political possibilities, not just romantic ones, are clearly present in the best three stories in the collection, by RNFF standbys Amy Jo Cousins, Emma Barry, and Tamsen Parker.* Paige Robinson, one of the protagonists in Parker's "Life, Liberty, and Worship," has chosen to stay on in her post at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, despite her major disagreements with the policies being implemented by the new administration. Spin class is supposed to be the one place where she can chill from the stresses of her job and politics. But the nerdy guy who takes the bike in front of her, the one who wears t-shirts that are "walking billboards" for his fiscally conservative politics: "Stop the War on Small Business," "Keep Calm and Fight Socialism," and "What Would Milton Friedman Do?" is driving her up the wall (6255). Loathing him even while fantasizing about fucking him, Paige channels her rage into hellacious workouts. But when Paige discovers that the guy she's been calling "Dick" is Carter Cox, the conservative penning smart position papers for the Republican Study Committee, papers that she can't just dump into the shredder without another thought, she can't keep her mouth shut any longer, and her femdom tendencies come to the fore. Can a hate-fuck turn into a real romance? Only if one partner is willing to prove himself by taking political action...

Amy Jo Cousins' protagonists are also on different sides of the political spectrum, although their divide is not one of party, but of technique. Polite, well-behaved diplomat's son and future law school student Kaz Shamsi "had no patience for the anti-fascist protestors who had sprung up since the election and seemed to like fighting as much as the fascists did, no matter what they said about denying Nazis platforms. When shit got violent, brown and black bodies were the ones who ended up suffering most, from the violence or the inevitable police action in response to it" (2191). So when a masked antifa protester fleeing an angry mob during a DC immigrants rights rally that Kaz has brought a group of undergrads to attend jumps on his borrowed motorcycle, Kaz is tempted to tell him to get lost. No Pakistani immigrant needs to get mixed up in some white boy's rebellion. But when Kaz spies the protester's rainbow duct tape armband, he knows he can't leave him behind. High-speed chases get the adrenalin pumping, though, and some seriously close contact leads to an unexpectedly hot make-out session with the still-masked antifa. Who, it turns out to Kaz's enormous embarrassment, is none other than the annoyingly outspoken undergrad in one of the sections he's TA'ing. I really loved the way Cousins showed how people with different opinions can argue forcefully, but respectfully And how even people committed to political protest can make major mistakes. But also how they can learn from them, as seen in this hilarious, but educational, exchange:

     "Man, fascists really don't like it when you make fun of their dick size." 
     "Neither do I, because that's body-shaming, transphobic bullshit and we're supposed to be the good guys."  Shit. His teacher voice shot out of him involuntarily at the most inappropriate times. Or hell, maybe this was the appropriate time. Having saved this kid's ass—he ripped his eyes away from the sweet curve in those black cargo pants—the kid deserved to sit and listen to a lecture. "Do better."
     "Yikes. I will. Sorry. I'm new to the revolution," the guy said as he swung a leg over the rear fender and hopped off the bike. "I can make fun of them for misspelling their signs, right?"
     Kaz tried not to roll his eyes. Newbies. "Is making fun of someone's lack of education or potential learning disability really the hill you want to stake your flag on?"
     "Fuck." The guy reached for his hood as if to shove it down, then froze and dropped his hands with an abortive gesture. "This shit is complicated." 
     "Yeah, it is if you're doing it right . . . . Repeat after me: my revolution will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit." (2318)

In Emma Barry's "Kissing and Other Forms of Sedition," reckless presidential tweeting leads Graham to fear that nuclear armageddon might be all too nigh. Will he die before declaring his long-time love for fellow state legislative assistant Cadence? Damn no, he won't. But Graham and Cadence's night of passion fires Cadence to political, not just personal, heights, and she drags cautious Graham on a road trip to the capital, where she hopes to crash the house of the Secretary of Labor and try to convince her to "get the ball rolling on the Twenty-fifth Amendment process and remove the president from office" (3247). Unlike several of the other stories in the collection, this one doesn't have a too-easy ending, but it does push both its protagonists and its readers to think about just what love means—not just romantic love, but patriotism, love of one's country.

Like democracy, Rogue Desire is messy and imperfect. But it will definitely give you a few moments of entertaining respite from a politically infuriating world. And it might just give you a few ideas about how to begin to make that world a bit less infuriating.

* Tamsen is an NECRWA chaptermate and fellow board member of mine, who was kind enough to send me an ARC of this anthology. No board votes or chocolate chip cookies were exchanged during the writing of this review.

Photo credits:
Tiffany Trump and her father:
"First Lady": Michelle Lesley Books
Immigrant rally: Huffington Post

Rogue Desire
A Romance Anthology
Indie published, 2017

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Not your Typical Small-Town Romances: JL Merrow's SHAMWELL TALES

After logging a few too many hours in doctors offices and hospital waiting rooms (on behalf of a relative), and then coming down with a summertime cold in the aftermath, I was in dire need of a lighthearted, funny, but not mindless romance read. Lucky for me, I happened upon the small town romance books of new-to-me author J. L. Merrow at just the right moment. Merrow's Shamwell isn't the typical close-knit but decidedly middle-class small town most commonly found in romance. Shamwell is in England, not the States, and includes inhabitants whose jobs (from  teacher to ratcatcher, tax accountant to postman) and ways of speaking reflect their quite different class positions. Oh, and Shamwell has its share of gender queer inhabitants, too—non-binary, homosexual, bisexual, and presumably straight but surprisingly open to unexpected attraction to a member of the same sex inhabitants, rather than the predominantly heteronormative characters who typically populate small town romances. "Award-winning gay romance with a dash of humor—and no tea" is the logline adorning the home page of Merrow's web site, but these books had more than a dash of humor; they made me laugh out loud, not a feat easy to accomplish with this not-easy-to-amuse reader.

None of the four books features tormented protagonists, or deeply troubling problems that stand in the way of the romances that develop within each. Instead, Merrow gives us humorous, loving portraits of men across the class spectrum, men whose expectations about romance are challenged in funny but telling ways in their small town.

The first Shamwell book, Caught!, features bow-tie-sporting Robert, who has taken a job as a primary school teacher in Shamwell after a hinted-at but not explained dust-up at his previous post. Robert thinks there's little chance for romance in Shamwell, especially given his job: "I gazed out on the sea of female and/or wrinkly faces in the pews and wondered idly if there was any job in the world, anywhere, that was worse for meeting men than the average primary-school teaching post" (81). Yet the uncle of his most troublesome pupils (twin boys whose mother is undergoing cancer treatment) proves to be surprisingly open to chatting with him. Their initial encounter seems to get off to a bit of a bumpy start:

     "Guess it's not easy being gay and teaching in a place like that."
     I blinked at him. He knew I was gay? Who'd told him? No, I must have misheard him. He hadn't said that. Had he?
     Sean took a step back. "Uh, sorry mate. No offense. It's just that you look . . .  Sorry."
     Oh. "That's quite all right," I muttered to my brogues. My face was hot. I suppose it was only fitting that it should turn a fetching shade of pink, seeing that the rest of me apparently proclaimed my sexual preferences to the world at large. (256)

But it's not Robert's queerness, but rather his far different education and background, that bisexual Sean is commenting on:

     "We're not really used to someone like you here," [Sean] said, which made me feel even worse.
     "Shamwell has hitherto be a queer-free zone, has it?" I snapped.
     "What? No, you got me wrong. I just meant, you're a bit of a cut above, you know?"
     "A cut above what?" I asked, suspicious. If there was a circumcision joke in the offing, I was . . . I was getting paranoid, I decided. 
     "Well, the way you talk—the way you dress, come to that—I'd have thought you'd be teaching royalty at Eton, not slumming it here with us." (261)

Since Sean grew up in council (public) housing, never went to college, and works as a pest control technician, his class position is decidedly different from Robert's. Yet in Shamwell, crossing class lines presents almost as few problems for potential romantic partners as does being queer. In fact, it's the romance trope-y "secret from the past," not queer-bashing or differing expectations stemming from economic or educational backgrounds, that threaten to keep Rob and Sean apart.

Despite their largely angst-free storylines, each of Merrow's Shamwell books asks important questions underneath their lighthearted comedy. When in a relationship does keeping quiet about some of the seamier details of one's past cross from an acceptable respect for privacy into a distrustful hiding of an important truth? When should a formerly closeted parent come out to his child? Where do you draw the line between appealingly "waspish camp and intellectual snobbery" and rude, insensitive disregard for the feelings of others? (Played! 940) Which should matter more—a long-time friendship, or protesting against thoughtless homophobia? Should you tell your fellow small-towners who assume you're sleeping with your new lodger that you're not, even if you're suddenly wishing you were?

I especially enjoyed book #3 of the Shamwell Tales, Out!, which features a thirty-nine-year-old father and a twenty-five-year-old bachelor who have radically different ideas about just how far "out" one should be. Despite finally accepting his queerness after years of living a straight life, recently-divorced tax accountant Mark chooses to move himself and his teen daughter to Shamwell determined "to put his daughter first and avoid looking for hookups while she was living with him" (371). Convinced that the divorce has already put enough stress on Florence (no longer willing to be called Florrie, but instead insisting on being called Fen), Mark is determined to keep his sexual orientation a secret from her. For Mark, "It'd been a revelation . . . seeing young men in their teens and early twenties casually kiss one another on the street after a night out. Had things really changed so much in the last twenty years? Mark couldn't imagine daring to kiss a boy on the street at a similar age" (Out! 361). And he certainly can't imagine explaining to Florrie—ah, Fen—just what another man might be doing in his bedroom . . .

Needless to say, such an attitude seems more than antiquated to the hot guy who catches Mark's eye at the Shamwell Spartans Fun and Funds Foundation, a local charity/drinking club which Mark joins at the urging of his daughter ("For God's sake, Dad, get some bloody hobbies. You're driving me mental hanging round the house all the time" [85]). At first, quick-tempered bisexual Patrick thinks Mark's reluctance to out himself to Fen is just an excuse to avoid Patrick—"It couldn't have been that different when he was growing up. Could it?" And, even worse, Patrick reads Mark's explanation as a form of internalized homophobia: "Didn't he realise how it sounded, him lumping in nonstraight people with all the bad crap he wanted to keep away from his daughter until she was thirty or something?" (1833). Yet after Patrick talks to his mom (who is only five years older that his would-be lover) about what it was like for gay kids when she was a teen, he gets a bit more perspective, and becomes more willing to listen to (if not accept) Mark's reservations about openly dating.

Generation gap, sure, but the idea that an age difference of only fourteen years could make such a big difference in two people's experiences of their society's attitudes toward sexual identity? That made think harder about how not just class and race can affect one's ideas about sexual identity, but how age (even small differences in age) can, as well.

Gobbling up all four of Merrow's Shamwell books over the course of my three-day cold recovery made those hours go by far more quickly than my typical bout with the tissues and decongestants usually does. I'm almost looking forward to my next germ infestation—Merrow has quite a few other series available, ready for my (and your) sick-day reading pleasure.

Shamwell Tales
new editions from Riptide, 2017