Friday, January 31, 2014

Let Your Voice Be Heard

On this chilly winter Friday (at least here in the northern United States), a miscellany of links to other blog posts on the the topic of letting your voice be heard:

First, from the Wonk-o-Mance web site, a post from romance author Ruthie Knox about editorial policing and author self-policing in the romance field. And this follow-up post from reader/reviewer Willaful on the Dear Author site, approaching the issue from a reader's point of view. Not only the posts, but the many informed comments, are well-worth reading if you're interested in the topic of voice.

Unpublished romance authors often turned to local RWA chapter contests to get their voices heard. But this year has seen a marked decrease in contest submissions, chapter leaders around the country have reported on the RWA Chapter Leadership loop (of which I am a member, as Treasurer of the New England Chapter of RWA). In response, Tori McAllister, Secretary of the Pocono-Lehigh Romance Writers, blogged here about possible reasons for the decline, and ways local RWA chapters might respond. If you're a romance author, or an aspiring author, what kind of contests would you like to see RWA chapters run?

Winning a major award is a great way for authors to get their voices heard by a broader audience. Though RWA's RITA award winners won't be revealed until this summer, the American Library Association announced its annual awards this past Wednesday, including the Reference and User Services Association's Reading List, which "seeks to highlight outstanding genre fiction that merit special attention by general adult readers and the librarians who work with them." Tessa Dare's Any Duchess Will Do was given top honors in the romance category, with four additional books placed on the short list:

Autumn Bride by Anne Gracie
The Heiress Effect by Courtney Milan (about which I posted about here)
One Good Earl Deserves a Lover by Sarah MacLean
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Interesting that librarians seem to prefer historicals (four out of the five titles selected), at least for adult readers. How many of these have you read? How many of them would you regard as feminist?

Children's and YA librarians also announced their Youth Media Awards this week. The Michael L. Printz Award, for novels written for young adults, included two books with romance at their heart: Honor Book Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell, and Printz Award-winner Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick (loved the first, and am eagerly looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of the second). Still waiting for the Best of the Best YA list to be posted on the YALSA web site, to see if librarians favored any other YA romances...

Finally, a question: did you vote in the All About Romance's Annual Reader's poll this year? Do you think it's important for readers to make their voices heard via such polls? Or do think polls are irrelevant in a field where sales figures often dictate what gets published and what doesn't?

Photo credits:
Enter to Win: The Romantic Editor
Printz Award seal: American Library Association

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Move it or Lose it? Mary Ann Rivers' LIVE

I've not written an RNFF Pet Peeve post in some time. But reading Mary Ann Rivers' first contemporary romance, Live, made me remember one I mentioned in passing in a longer Pet Peeve post: heroines who declare to their newfound lovers, "I'll follow you wherever you go; wherever you are is my home," or other heartfelt words to that effect. Willingness to leave a career, relatives, and/or friends behind without a single look back has often been used as a measure of the depth of a romance heroine's love. In recent years, some authors have inverted the trope, making the hero, rather than the heroine, prove his love by his willingness to ditch his job on his beloved's behalf. While I appreciate the variety, I'm not convinced such inversions call into question the thinking underlying the trope itself: that one person can fulfill all your needs. While I can recognize the appeal of the fantasy of the inverted trope (wow, he loves me more than anyone, more than anything else!), I've never quite understood why women readers find the self-sacrifice of the original something to get dreamy over. And having spent some time in academia, where couples searching to put their newly minted PhDs to good use teaching are often faced with choosing to live in the same city with only one employed or choosing to teach at different universities and live apart, I've seen firsthand how excruciatingly difficult such decisions often are in real life.

Pet Peeving noise...
Rivers' novel brought this Pet Peeve to mind not because Live embodies it, or even inverts it, but rather because it takes it as its object of study. Typically, the "I'll move for you" declaration occurs at the end of a novel, during the HEA moment, when the couple declares their love for one another. In Live, however, one of our protagonists, Welshman Hefin* Thomas, has already so been there, done that. Having met and married an American after only a whirlwind week of courtship, he followed her to Ohio, the site of her successful law career. But his struggles with immigration, and his inability to find work in his chosen field and being unemployed for two years, turned their marriage sour:

     The night she came home and poured them wine and told him that he resented her, and she couldn't live with his resentment anymore, he started to say no, of course he didn't, his failure to find work in his new country was his own, his temper and his moods were his own, or were his shame that he hadn't provided for her, for them—and then he was choked by his own tears.
     He cried like a child, noisy and stormy and wet, and she held him against her.
     The grief was impossible. (Loc 945)

A hand-carved Welsh love spoon
At novel's start, Hefin's divorced and working as a woodcarver (a hobby turned into a job), restoring the carvings in the library of the Ohio town where he still lives. But he's decided that at job's end, he'll be returning to Wales, so he can reconnect to his family, and find a job where his love for engineering can flourish. Such plans make it unwise to respond to his attraction to the ginger-haired woman who comes into the library every day, diligently conducting her own job search on the library's computers. Even after their meet-cute (or meet-teary), Hefin makes certain that Destiny Burnside knows that he's going back to Wales in eight short weeks. And that he won't ever stay for someone else, live for someone else again. And he will never ask anyone to make such a sacrifice for him. Better not to get involved, he tells her.

But Destiny challenges Hefin's right to make such a choice on her behalf, to protect her without her say. Des has weathered her own share of grief of late: the death of her father, the loss of her job, and the pain of a beloved sister not recovering the way she should after being hit by a car. Des wants to take the joy she can today, without worrying about the potential losses of tomorrow: "I can't stand the grief of losing something and the fear of losing something else at the same time. I can't. And since I already am living with the grief, I guess I choose not to bother with the fear" (Loc 1739). And so the two decide to spend what time they can together, to enjoy the brief weeks they have rather than worrying about what might follow.

Neither Des nor Hefin is prone to casual relationships, though, and their physical attraction soon interweaves with emotional intimacy, intimacy that convinces them this is no passing affair. Being with Des makes Hefin want "to know what it was to live beside another and still know who you were" (Loc 2268). But Des knows that Hefin needs to go back to Wales, to the sound of the sea and the love of his family and the work that fulfills a real gap in his life. And more than ever, Des needs to stay in Ohio: her siblings are on the verge of falling apart, her sister is back in the hospital, and her new career as a fledgling web designer is just starting to get off the ground. Rivers writes with poignancy of the double tug each lover feels (this example from Hefin's pov):

Was it that Destiny wasn't enough? If she wasn't, no one else would ever be. Yet his heart felt so full of her, like they were sideways, together, like the first time he was inside her, their limbs entwined, and just like that, the both of them had slipped into his heart, a physical weight, knotted and warm. How could that be and her happiness not be enough? How could he still have such a feeling of hope and lightness at the idea of his plane winging its way home? (Loc 3306).

Will Hefin ask Des to move for him? Will she ask him to stay? Is it only a question of either/or, Ohio or Wales? With an elegance of language and honesty of emotion not often found in romance, Rivers depicts the painstaking steps Des and Hefin take, the questions they ask themselves and each other, as they struggle to figure out how to meet not only their need for a lover, but also for rewarding work and for strong family ties, in order to feel whole.

* Prounounced HEV-in, according to the website Behind the Name

Photo credits:
Love spoon: Adam King

Loveswept, 2014

Friday, January 24, 2014

Gay for You or Out for You?

While perusing Heroes and Heartbreakers' Tori Benson's recommendations for outstanding erotic romance reads for the month of January, I came across a phrase I had never heard before. To categorize River Jaymes' new release The Boyfriend Book, Benson used the common romance descriptors "sexy," "m/m" and "contemporary." But she added the unfamiliar (at least to me) expression "gay for you" to the mix. Intrigued by the synopsis of Jaymes' book, and interested in finding out more about a subgenre/trope whose title seemed to simultaneously convey both positive and negative connotations about homosexuality, I both purchased a copy of The Backup Boyfriend and began to poke around a bit on the Web in search of others who had written about the "gay for you" trend.

"Gay for you," I discovered, is a trope primarily found in m/m romance (although present in the occasional lesbian romance, too). The trope describes a story about a previously heterosexual person who suddenly finds him/herself attracted to a member of the same sex. The person who goes "gay for you" has never experienced any degree of sexual attraction to anyone of the same sex in the past, and still is not attracted to other people of the same sex in the present—except for his or her one new love interest. In such romances, the two same-sex lovers act on their attraction, the formerly heterosexual person turns "gay for" his or her new same-sex partner, and the two have a traditional romance HEA.

The best discussion of the trope I found was in a July 2011 post by JesseWave (of the now regrettably defunct Reviews by Jessewave blog, devoted to m/m romance novels). JesseWave argued against both the use of the term "gay for you" and m/m books that depict insta-love (or insta-chemistry) changing someone's sexual orientation. "I'm sure this does not happen in RL [real life]," JesseWave argued, adding "Many of you [readers] have said that you're not into reality you just want the fantasy, but shouldn't the fantasy have some basis in something that makes sense, or is that too much of an oxymoron?" Following the lead of m/m writer Marie Sexton, JesseWave suggested that a better term for books of this type would be "Out for You," not "Gay for You": the sexual orientation-switching protagonist might not have realized that he was gay, but in fact he was, all along. Writers who acknowledged this were writing better books than those who depicted sexual orientation as something one could take off and put on at the drop a hat, JesseWave implied.

JesseWave noted the popularity of this trope amongst heterosexual women readers, but wondered what gay male readers thought of it, and asked Damon Suede, a popular gay male romance writer, to weigh in with his thoughts. Suede echoed JesseWave's ideas, noting:

When a man realizes that he has romantic and erotic feelings about another man and acknowledges those feelings as a part of his identity, he COMES OUT of the closet. He isn't Gay-For-Anyone-But-Himself! He is Out-For-You.... for the record that is the way 80-90% of GLBT people discover their sexuality. Duh! Actually that's how ALL people explore sexuality in their adolescence: they meet someone that makes them feel differently than they have before.

Only when responding to the comments to the post, though, did Suede explicitly name the problem with the phrase "Gay for You":  "GfY is a weird hybrid, enshrining the logic of homophobia in a gay-positive genre." The logic of homophobia inherent in the trope being the idea that you can turn your sexual orientation on or off with the same ease you do a light switch (and if homosexuality is a choice, why shouldn't you just choice to be heterosexual?)

So: Gay for You, ideologically problematic; Out for You, OK. Now, time to actually read one...

Jaymes' The Backup Boyfriend is better written than your typical e-book romance novel. Her two main protagonists are well-realized and appealing, and their relationship both sweet and pleasure-inducingly hot. But I was disappointed, because the more I read, the more I feared the book going to turn out to be more "Gay for You" than "Out for You." The story's heterosexual half of the couple, working-class motorcycle repair shop owner Dylan, tells Alec, the sweet, slightly inept doctor whom he finds himself attracted to, that he's an "only-one-woman-a-night" kind of guy. Their mutual friend Noah asserts that "Dylan's as straight as they come." Dylan's only ever had sex with women, and his strong bond with his one true friend, Rick, who died five years earlier, did not include any erotic feelings, he assures both himself and Alec. When the two are at a football game, Dylan takes pleasure in ogling the cheerleaders. And twice during the story, Dylan deliberately looks at other men in bars, only to find that every other man besides Alec leaves him sexually cold.

But Jaymes showed herself conversant with the issues behind the "gay for you"/"out for you" debate, or at least sensitive to the potential homophobia in the overtly "gay for you" storyline. Dylan eventually realizes, and tells Alec, that his feelings for his dead friend Rick might have included sexual ones. His difficult past—he and Rick met as homeless teenagers, lived on the streets, and sold themselves sexually in order to survive—gave him no real chance to think about his sexuality, never mind begin to explore it. And Rick's romantic relationship with another man soon after he and Dylan managed to scrape enough money together to rent their first apartment meant that any such exploration was put on hold.

Interestingly, part of Jaymes' plotline revolves around Dylan's refusal to be labeled. Is his refusal to be called Alec's "boyfriend" a negative rejection of his own identity as gay or bisexual? A residue of the homophobia inherent in the "Gay for You" trope? Or is it a positive refusal to allow labels to define him? I'll leave you to read the novel and decide for yourself.

In her post, JesseWave wondered what it was about the "Gay for You" trope that so appealed to female heterosexual readers, a question that got a bit lost in the following slew of comments about GfY vs. OfY. It's a question worth exploring, though, one I'll be thinking about and hopefully will write about in the near future.

Have you read other GfY or OfY books? Do you, like JesseWave, think OfY books are better than GfY? Or less homophobic? What fantasies do GfY books fulfill that OfY books don't?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Questioning the Segregation of Romance: Ruth Wind's IN THE MIDNIGHT RAIN

The United States Supreme Court's landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case, declaring separate public schools for black and white students unconstitutional, was decided in 1954, more than fifty years ago. Racial integration in America's schools reached an all-time high in 1990, giving proponents of integration much to cheer about. But according to Dr. Adriana Villavicencio, senior research associate at the Research Alliance, New York University, segregation, not integration, has been the trend in American public schools since 1990:

In 1988, less than a third of Black and Latino students attended what Gary Orfield, Co-Director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, calls intensely segregated schools: schools with 90-100% minority students. Today, 40% of Blacks and Latinos—and less than 1% of white students—attend these schools. The percentage of white students nationally is only 56%, but on average they attend schools where more than 75% of students are white. At the same time, the percentage of Black and Latino students attending majority white schools has dropped by more than 10 percent.

As in our schools, so in our romance novels: romance publishing is still largely segregated by race. With a few notable exceptions, characters in the mainstream romance lines are largely white; black characters are largely segregated into their own separate (but equal?) lines, such as Harlequin's Kimani and Kensington's Dafina. We could talk ad infinitum about the whys and wherefores of such segregation. Instead, I thought I would honor the day set aside in the United States to celebrate the birth of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King by writing about one of the few romance novels I've read that features an integrated community: Ruth Wind's RITA finalist In the Midnight Rain.

White thirty-something Ellie Connor arrives in Pine Bend, Mississippi on two fact-finding missions. One is public: to research the early years of the subject of her latest biography, Mabel Beauvais, an African-American blues singer who disappeared in 1953, just on the cusp of achieving nationwide fame. One is private: to try and discover the identity of her father, a man whom her wild hippie mother, who died when Ellie was two, never named. When she arrives at the place she's arranged to stay, she finds two men sitting on the porch, one white, one black. By the end of the novel, the two men, and the two searches, will become entangled in ways Ellie, and perhaps the reader, never could have imagined.

Though the novel's action takes place in the present, Ellie's two research projects give readers a sense of race relations in Pine Bend during three different periods in American history: the years immediately before, and immediately after, World War II, when segregation was a given; the late 1960s, when the country struggled against the backdrop of the Vietnam War to figure out how the legal victories of the Civil Rights movement would play out on the ground, in their communities; and 1990, when many overt racial barriers had been taken down, but many racial assumptions and beliefs still attained. Deep into her research, Ellie notices that most of the people she's interviewed are black, and makes a note to herself to talk to white people who were around during Mabel Beauvais' early days, realizing that things then weren't the same for blacks as they were for whites, something she'll need to understand not just on an intellectual, but on a personal level if she is to convey the truth of Mabel's life.

Wind's novel is hardly a didactic tract about race relations; it's a heartfelt, beautifully-written, and in many ways a quite traditional love story. With her penchant for falling for wounded men, Ellie's been down the bad relationship path more than a few times, and spends much of the novel warning herself against succumbing to her attraction to the emotionally-damaged man whom she met via an online blues newsgroup and who, in his hospitably southern way, offered Ellie a place to stay while doing her research in his hometown. And she's not the only one issuing warnings; almost everyone in town, whether black or white, counsels Ellie to stay away from Blue Reynard, since the privileged white boy is known about town as a "dog," a charming love-'em and leave-'em guy who'll only break her heart. But Blue, who sometimes thinks of himself as Job because of all the personal losses he's experienced, can't help falling for his intellectual equal, just as Ellie can't keep her heart free from bad-boy/smart-boy Blue. In traditional romance-novel fashion, each must both struggle to cope with and accept their fears of abandonment before they can find their HEA together.

Yet race serves as the compelling backdrop to this love story, quietly asking readers to consider what race meant in America's past, and what it still means in our present. What makes one person black, another person white? What secrets should one keep to protect a fellow member of an oppressed group? What does an integrated community look like? When is integration a problem? What does friendship across racial lines look like? What does love?

It struck me as significant that In the Midnight Rain was published in 1990, at the height of American public school integration. Can you think of any other romance novels that have been published since then that depict not an interracial romance, but an integrated community against which a romance unfolds?

Photo credits:
Diverse hands: Unity in Christ Magazine

In the Midnight Rain
HarperTorch, 2000

Friday, January 17, 2014

Definitions of Love

Yesterday, while killing time at the vet's, waiting with my cats until it was time for them to submit to the indignities of their annual check-ups, my eyes wandered the room, looking for something, anything to read. (Lugging around two large cats, even in carriers, leaves no hands free to hold an iPad or a book). Expecting to find handouts about pet foot, or perhaps, if I was lucky, a glossy copy of Cat Fancier, I instead came across a newsprint magazine with very brief self-help and spirituality articles sandwiched between lots of advertisements. Not my usual reading material, but hey, I needed something to distract me from the plaintive kitty chorus my two furry companions were singing, attempting to make me cringe with guilt for bringing them to a place with strange people, sharp needles, and big, smelly DOGS .

I quickly skimmed through inspirational words about renewing yourself during mid-life, and a profile of a doctor working to help war veterans through acupuncture, before coming across something a bit more relevant: an essay that encouraged readers to think about romantic love not as a state of being, but instead as an emotion. Try thinking of love as a feeling, like anger, sadness, or happiness, the author wrote, instead of a constant, something that's always there. Imagine love as a feeling, as a moment of pleasure, something that comes and goes rather than something that's with you all the time.

Why embrace such a definition of love? If you regard love as a feeling rather than a state of being, the author suggested, then your goal becomes not to find someone to love, or someone who loves you, but instead to create more moments during your day, during your life, where you have the opportunity to feel the emotion of love. Recall moments when you've felt love, and think about what you did that allowed you to experience that feeling. And then think about what you can do in the future to bring about other, similar moments, moments that foster the emotion of love. And then act to create the circumstances most likely to welcome and nurture that feeling.

Touchy-feely, yeah. But food for thought, nonetheless. Such a conception of romantic love struck me as quite at odds with the way love is presented in much romance fiction: "You're my other half"; "I'll love you forever"; "I'll never feel this way about anyone but you." In Romancelandia, you find the person you love, and who loves you back, and you've reached your goal; the story ends. The difference between this self-help article's view of love and the one more commonly embraced by the romance genre made me wonder: why is romance fiction so invested in this one narrative of love? What do we gain by focusing so tightly on it? What do we lose by not considering other definitions of love?

What other conceptions of romantic love are out there in the world? Some links to kickstart thinking:

The 5 Ways We Define Love (And Why They're Wrong)
What is Love? Famous Definitions from 400 Years of Literary History
7 Other Definitions of Real Love Worth Considering

What would a romance novel look like that embraced a different definition of love? Would we even consider it a romance novel anymore?

My two kitty choristers. Because you can never have enough
cute cat pictures on the web...

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Office Romance, Feminist-style: Regina Hart's FAST BREAK

The boss/secretary romance has long been a staple of the category romance. In such books, a plot event leads the rich and powerful alpha male boss, formerly oblivious to the longstanding crush harbored by his hardworking female underling, to suddenly see the beauty behind the brains that have kept his office running at optimum speed. Inevitably, true love follows.  U.S. Department of Labor statistics report nearly 4 million Americans are employed as Secretaries or Administrative Assistants in the United States; I'm guessing that a large majority of them are women. So it's hardly surprising to discover that the boss/secretary romance continues to flourish, even in our post-feminist age. A woman dating her boss recasts the prince-marrying-the-commoner Cinderella fairy tale in modern dress, the tale of marrying up clothed not in ball gown and glass slippers, but in power suit and pumps.

What happens, though, when the gender roles are inverted, the boss cast as a woman, the underling as a man? Rather than satisfying fantasies of upward mobility, stories such as Regina Hart's Fast Break, the first title in her Brooklyn Monarchs basketball series, instead explore the line between professional and personal identities, the power associated with gender roles, and the ability of couples to forge new ground rules when the old givens about work and and home are no longer in play.

Jaclyn Jones, famed as the WNBA's "Lady Assassin," has just returned from grieving the death of her grandfather to take a full-time role as General Manager of the Brooklyn Monarchs, the New York City pro basketball team she's inherited from him. She's not happy with the decisions the teams' two other co-owners have been making her in absence, particularly their decision to hire an inexperienced new coach. DeMarcus Guinn may have won NBA championships as a player, but nothing about him suggests that he knows how to transform a losing team into a winning one. In the opening scene of the novel, Jaclyn blazes into the former NBA star like a house afire, dissing his coaching ability and demanding his resignation. But even while he keeps his temper, DeMarcus refuses to give this cantankerous woman what she wants.

It's not Jaclyn's attraction to DeMarcus that leads her to change her mind about him. It's hearing that he's tendered his resignation to her partner, Gerald Bimm, after Gerald informed him he hired him to lose. A losing season will guarantee that the owners of the arena where the team plays will opt out of their contract with the Monarchs, freeing the team to move to another city. Realizing that DeMarcus wasn't in on Gerald's plan, Jaclyn urges him to come back, drawing on their shared love of their home city, Brooklyn, and the team's longstanding links to the community. He agrees, but that doesn't end the conflicts between them.

The two have very different ideas about how to run a team. Jaclyn believes a coach needs to get to know his players personally, so he can "make the best match of their personal ticks against [their] opponents" (112). DeMarcus has no intention of playing shrink to any of his players—"I'm a coach, not a priest" (113)—and suggests it's discipline, not touchy-feely stuff, that will bring the team out of its losing slump. Since DeMarcus is the coach, Jaclyn cedes his right to run the team his way, although over the course of the season, she challenges DeMarcus several times to reconsider his previous assumptions.

DeMarcus has a more difficult time allowing Jaclyn to make her own big decisions, particularly after the two add a romantic relationship to the professional one they already have. The arena's owners put up the arena for sale, and as no new owner is likely to want to keep the Monarchs as a tenant, Jackie knows she has to put up the money to purchase the arena herself. DeMarcus wants to offer his financial help, even knowing that the league would likely not approve a coach holding even partial ownership of a team's playing field. He also doesn't want to tell her about players disrespecting her or him because of their personal relationship. But she finds out anyway, and tells him never to keep information relevant to her job from her: "I need to know everything that involves this team, whether it's the condition of the training facilities or tension between players and coaches. As head coach, I expect you to tell me. Immediately. I don't want to hear about it from the media" (192). DeMarcus's reading of her words shows that he recognizes that, as her boss, she has every right to make such a demand: "She wasn't flexing her authority or exuding her charm. It was a matter-of-fact statement that nevertheless didn't leave room for negotiation. 'You're right. I'm sorry.'" (192).

But DeMarcus's protective instincts are hard to rein in, particularly when Gerald Bimm, the other team owner, threatens him: unless DeMarcus starts losing, Gerald will leak rumors to the press that DeMarcus is a secret drug user. Jaclyn has too much on her plate, Marc reasons; she doesn't need to cope with this mess on top of everything else. He can protect her from Gerald by handling it on his own.

Of course, Marc's decision blows up in his face, and he and Jackie are left struggling to deal with the aftermath of not living up to his promise to Jackie. What finally brings them back together is more symbolic than a model of an egalitarian relationship worked out in specific detail, but their agreement to merge the personal and the professional depends upon their recognition that love will not magically make their disagreements in their roles as owner and coach disappear. It will take continued work, and respect for each other's areas of expertise, to forge a relationship that allows each both the authority and the autonomy both need in order to find fulfillment, not only in their careers, but also in their personal lives.

What other romances have you read that invert the typically-gendered boss/employee dynamic? Do they do so to explore gender roles and the gendered dynamics of power? Or do they end up re-inscribing traditional gender patterns?

Photo credits:
I love my secretary/boss mugs: Dreamstime

Fast Break
Book #1 in
The Brooklyn Monarchs series
Dafina, 2011

Friday, January 10, 2014

Sick Day

When I was still in school (not so long ago, given my many years of graduate work), my body would often wait until vacation hit to fall sick. This year, though, it waited until the very last day of my family's winter break to fall victim to the latest winter virus making the rounds. So RNFF takes a sick day, talk amongst yourselves about your favorite romance heroines who struggle with illness or its aftermath....

Courtesy of xkcd

Tuesday, January 7, 2014


Last week, an hours-long drive in the pouring rain after a welcome but tiring round of family holiday visiting had me longing for the comforts of a cozy sofa, a warm blanket, and an well-thumbed romance novel. As soon as we arrived home, I shed my wet clothing and headed straight for my romance bookshelf, knowing just what book I needed. Honing in on the "B"s, then on the "Balogh"s, then, there: the third book of Mary Balogh's Web trilogy, The Devil's Web.

A strange choice for a feminist reader, part of my brain thought. The protagonists of Balogh's novel are both pretty horrid to each other throughout much of the novel. Through the first two books in the series, and through half of this one, Madeline Raine and James Purnell repeat to themselves, and insist to each other, that they have nothing in common, that they despise one another, that there's no way that the mere physical attraction that keeps drawing them together is sufficient grounds upon which to build any kind of relationship, especially a marriage. Yet by the middle of The Devil's Web, Madeline's wish to comfort a grieving James pushes them beyond the bounds of physical restraint; as a result, James insists that honor demands their marriage. Despite James' overbearing behavior, Madeline does nothing to resist. Only after the wedding does she vow to not sit back and allow him to steamroller her, and their resultant marriage is anything but peaceful.

After James wonders out loud during one of their many bitter arguments why Madeline ever agreed to marry him, Madeline taunts him by saying that perhaps she agreed to wed him because she secretly enjoys being punished. Their verbal fights are not merely playful sniping, or intellectual exercises in matching wits; they are mean, cruel, intended to keep the other from coming too close. Toward the end of the novel, in the midst of a particularly vicious fight, Madeline tells James that if he coerces her into have sex with him, then it will be no better than raping her. But he throws up her obvious physical response to him in her face, and proceeds to fan the flames of her desire, seducing her in spite of herself. All more the stuff of feminist nightmares than idylls of equality, no?

Though it seems from the above description that The Devil's Web is just an example of Old Skool romance, with its dark, brooding hero who acts with cruelty toward the heroine until the final love admission wipes away all his sins, something about this particular Balogh book keeps me coming back to it again and again. Why? I think it's because when I read this particular story, I end up identifying not with its heroine Madeline, but with its hero, James. Though my upbringing was nothing like his—raised at the hands of a sternly religious man, one who never showed physical affection and spent most of his time warning his children against sin rather than encouraging their talents—I find his personality quite familiar. Quiet, even taciturn, not comfortable making small talk, James is thought a "strange fellow" even by those who find much about him to admire. For the shy, introverted, often social awkward among us, there's much about James that strikes a painfully familiar chord.

I also find myself relating to the disconnect between James' internal thoughts and way he finds himself acting. Reading the sections of the novel from his point of view, Balogh shows us how often his external actions do not match his real thoughts and feelings:

    And instead of taking her hands in his and smiling at her and telling her that he wanted his bride to be like the sunshine, as she usually was, he had looked at her without any expression at all.
     "You will not wear mourning on account of my father," he had said. "Try wearing a black dress, Madeline, tomorrow or any other day in the next year, and I shall tear it off you and rip it to shreds before your eyes."
     Because he loved her and wanted her to brighten his life, not add to its gloom, he might have added. Because he did not want her tainted by the gloom that had always hung like a pall over his own family. He did not want to look at her and see mourning. He wanted to see the hope, the light of his life, in her.
     But he said none of those things. He had stood, his hands clasped behind his back, watching her flush, waiting for her to turn away and seek out other company. (234)

James has become so estranged from his own feelings that he cannot bring himself to show them to anyone, especially not to the woman he has come to love. Even his wish to act kindly cannot overcome the barriers of his own natural reticence and an upbringing that urged him not to show any deep emotion. And above all, he cannot get past his own guilt: because of a wrong he did in his adolescent years, a wrong that he was not prevented from fixing or openly atoning for, he fears that he can only bring pain and destruction to those whom he loves. His abusive actions hurt Madeline, yes, but in the process they also punish him, too. A punishment that his unconscious insists that he deserves.

Every time I reread Balogh's novel, I feel sympathy for Madeline, ensnared by her attraction to a man who doesn't seem to value her. But still my empathy ends up with James, every time. In part because I can relate all too closely to a person whose words don't come close to reflecting the emotional truths bound up inside him. But mostly, I think, because Balogh does such a good job showing us James' point of view, allowing us to realize his self-punishing motivations even though he himself doesn't understand them. Many of James' actions, action that I would have found appalling if told only through Madeline's eyes, gain depth, meaning, and poignancy when they are shown through James'. Through the character of James, Balogh holds out the promise that even people who do really cruel, hurtful things are worthy of forgiveness, and can win such forgiveness from those they love. 

I'm willing, it seems, to forgive, even to empathize with, characters who do quite nasty things, if an author is skillful enough to present their inner lives in a way that allows me to understand why they act the way they do. Does this make me more of a humanist reader than a feminist one, when the character I'm forgiving is a man, and has perpetrated his cruelty on a woman?

What makes you ready to forgive a romance novel character for his or her sins? What romance characters could you simply not find worthy of redemption, in spite of their authors' attempts to make you care for them? Does your reaction have more to do with whether a character goes against your own personal value system, or with an author's ability to portray the motivations behind a character's actions? Are you more likely to forgive a hero his sins than a heroine hers?

Illustration credits:
Callie Khoura quote: Lushquotes

Friday, January 3, 2014

Romance Novels for Feminists' BEST OF 2013


After posting a rant earlier this year about how publishers and authors are increasingly using the novella as a medium for marketing rather than a format with its own specific aesthetic conventions, I found myself eating my words after reading not just one, but three compelling short romances in 2013:

Laura Florand, Snow-Kissed
Florand has a true gift for penning romances with all the characteristics of gourmet chocolate: rich (emotionally), sweet but subtle, all often underlaid with a surprisingly strong bite of the unexpected. I thoroughly enjoyed all three of the full-length Paris-set romances she published this past year. But my top pick would have to be her novella, Snow-Kissed, which tells of an estranged wife and husband who struggle through their anger, passion, and grief in the wake of a series of devastating miscarriages to somehow find the courage to risk themselves one more time for love.

Ruthie Knox Making It Last
Like Snow-Kissed, Making It Last features a married couple whose relationship is foundering. Not on the shoals of tragedy, but rather on the far more common rocks of everyday life's demands—children, work, lack of time for each other, lack of time for themselves. Tony hopes that gifting his wife with a solo vacation will bring back the Amber with whom he fell in love, but soon recognizes that it's only together, not apart, that the two can confront the frustrations and guilt that have led them to drift apart.

Mary Ann Rivers, Snowfall
Rivers' debut novella, The Story Guy, was the recipient of much attention early this year. But I enjoyed her Christmas story, Snowfall, the middle offering in the Heating up the Holidays collection, even more. The story of a scientist struggling to adjust to a life-changing medical diagnosis while simultaneously trying to choose between the steamy phone-sex guy who allows her to forget about her physical problems or the quirky physical therapist who urges her to confront them head-on features the same luscious prose and emotionally-charged romance of The Story Guy. Disability here is not portrayed at one remove, but as front and center as a complex woman works to negotiate her own changing identity and its implications for her romantic life.


Alexis Hall, Glitterland
Another auspicious debut characterized by razor-sharp language and deeply-imagined characterization, Glitterland relates the story of Ash Winters, former Wunderkind whose potential flamed out in college due to the onset of bipolar disorder. Ash's sexual encounter with working-class Darian sends him fleeing into the night, but Darian's persistence, hope, and good heart gradually inspire Ash to move beyond the confines of his own apartment and the limits he's allowed his illness to place upon his life. A gritty portrayal of mental illness, leavened by a sweet m/m romance.

Tamara Morgan, Confidence Tricks
Romance and robbery combine to humorous and adventurous effect in this tale of a con-woman set on revenge, and the rather inept wealthy family involved in their own series of stings with which she becomes involved. Witty banter, clever heists, hot sex scenes, and two protagonists who grow into their better selves through interacting with each other make for a far deeper read than your typical heist romance.

Molly O'Keefe, Wild Child
The first entry in O'Keefe's new Boys of Bishop initially seems to give us the typical bad girl/good guy romance. But O'Keefe's complex characterization shows how the "bad" and "nice" labels are not only limits that others place upon us, but facades behind which we can hide our more vulnerable selves. How town mayor/nice boy Jackson Davies and former child reality-TV-star Monica Appleby use their own self-images to protect themselves, and how each forces the other to stop hiding, makes for yet another satisfying read by one of today's best contemporary romance authors.


Anne Calhoun, Uncommon Passion
I had a hard time choosing between Calhoun's Unforgiven and Uncommon Passion, but ultimately the latter won out for its far from conventional take on the virgin heroine story. Having recently renounced her fundamentalist religious upbringing, twenty-five-year-old Rachel is eager to explore her own sexuality, and takes the first step by bidding on, and winning, the hottest guy in a bachelor auction. The sexism of the tropes of the typical virgin heroine romance gets blown sky-high in this story of a woman both not afraid to explore her sexuality but also not willing to ignore the emotions that so often form part and parcel of the sex package.

Cara McKenna, Unbound
In a romance field dominated by alpha male protagonists, McKenna proves herself once again one of the best in the field by crafting a sexually-submissive male as romantic lead, and making him far more interesting and appealing than the majority of more "masculine" romance heroes. Scotsman Rob Rush, living the life of a hermit to avoid both the temptation of alcohol and the shame of his rope fetish, meets his match in American Merry Murray, celebrating her hard-earned slimmed-down body with a solo hiking trip in the Highlands. Can a hot vacation tryst turn into something more lasting?

Heloise Belleau and Solace Ames, The Dom Project
A good dom can be so hard to find... University archivist Robin Lessing is known to her readers as "The Picky Submissive," penning humorous blog posts about her up until now disappointing quest to find a partner who will actually listen to her submissive preferences, rather than simply tell her how good submitting to him will be. After discovering long-time best friend John Sun is into the kink, too, Robin enters into a one-month contract, during which John will help her explore her own submissive likes and dislikes—all without sex, of course, so their friendship won't be ruined. This BDSM take on the marriage of convenience plot has the added appeal of an Asian hero, well-aware of how stereotypes about male Asian sexuality play into his own stereotype-busting preferences.


Gayle Forman, Just One Day and Just One Year
It's not just that my daughter is going to be in her school's production of As You Like It this spring that I'm so taken with Forman's paired stories of two young people whose lives resonate with connections to Shakespeare's liminal play. American Allyson and Dutch Willem meet cute in London, then spend one life-changing day together in Paris, neither quite ready for the intensity of the feelings that the other evokes. In classic An Affair to Remember-fashion, a tragic accident separates the two. Each novel recounts the year which follows the separation, one from Allyson's POV, one from Willem's, during which both struggle to craft an adult identity while wondering about, and searching for, the other.

Tom Leveen, Manicpixiedreamgirl
Leveen's narrative, flashing between one day in the current life of junior Tyler Darcy, and the past three years of his romantic life, deftly portrays the gap between public performances of masculinity and privately held beliefs of teen boys, and the implications such a gap has for real-life adolescent girls. What's at stake when a boy turns a girl into his "manicpixiedreamgirl," the girl who embodies all his liberatory dreams and desires? Can a boy move beyond the objectification that the manicpixiedreamgirl entails, to see the actual girl behind the image he's constructed? Especially if that actual girl is far more troubled than the male dreamer has ever imagined?

Bill Koenigsberg, Openly Straight
After years of being out and proud of it, west coast highschooler Rafe transfers to an elite private school in the Northeast, where he decides not to tell anyone about his sexual preferences. Experiencing life as a straight guy has its benefits, no doubt. But how can Rafe tell his best friend that he's really in love with him and still maintain his cover? This wry, humorous, and thoughtful look at homophobia and identity politics in contemporary American culture has much to offer both teens struggling to come to terms with non-traditional aspects of their own identities, as well as the adults around them who take acceptance of such identities for granted.

Katie McGarry, Crash Into You
Young adult melodrama at its drama-i-est, with car crashes, paroled parents, gambling-addicted siblings, and debilitating mental illnesses galore. Yet at its heart lies the story of a couple coming to terms with their needs to control their own lives, and the equally important necessity of allowing those they love to make their own choices. The male desire to protect the woman one loves, so often constructed as a positive force in romance, is here shown to be really more about keeping control for oneself. Learning to accept a loved one's right to control her own life serves as a strong underlying feminist theme.


Cecilia Grant, A Woman Entangled
Two years in a row for Grant on RNFF's "Best of" list, this time for the third book in her Blackshear series. Once again calling into question traditional romance tropes, Grant portrays a woman bent on marrying for money and status, one who does not have to give up her material dreams in order to realize her romantic ones, or to be punished for having such desires in the first place.

Courtney Milan, The Heiress Effect
Another 2-time RNFF "Best of" author, with another historical romance that turns traditional romance tropes on their heads. The ridiculous dress and thoughtlessly insulting comments of "Feather Heiress" Jane Fairfield are driving political mover and shaker Lord Bradenton to distraction, so much so that he promises rising political star Oliver Marshall his support on a key vote if Oliver will help flush Jane Fairfield from polite society. Yet there's more to Jane, and to Oliver, than either Bradenton, or readers, suspect...

Sherry Thomas, The Luckiest Lady in London
A smart homage to Loretta' Chase's classic Lord of Scoundrels, with a hero who responds to the travesty of his parents' disastrous marriage not by turning into a rake, but instead by performing the role of the "perfect gentleman," a role that hides the far more complicated man that lies beneath. But when Felix Rivendell, Marquess of Wrenworth, encounters the one woman who seems to see his darker side, he cannot help but be transfixed, despite his promise to himself never to be a victim of love as was his father before him. How far should we tolerate the current bad behavior of those who experienced difficult childhoods? And how does gender play into the answer of such a question? These are only a few of the feminist questions Thomas asks readers to consider.

Anna Cowan, Untamed
A special RNFF shout-out to the flawed but innovative and ambitious gender-bending historical Untamed. It may not be the most accomplished book of 2013, but it did contain some of the strongest challenges to conventional gender roles of the year.

I find myself at a distressing loss when asked to name the best of 2013 for any of these categories. In part because so many Fantasy and Sci Fi books are published as parts of series, and I'm unwilling to read book #22 before having read #1-21. In part because my years of teaching F & SF make me a particularly tough critic, especially when it comes to the world-building that plays such a vital role in the appeal of these genres. In part because I still find it rare for a romantic suspense novel to successfully reconcile generic conventions that rely on objectifying the female protagonist as object of danger with this blog's desires for female agency and autonomy. Have I overlooked any 2013 feminist gems in these categories?

Which 2013 romances struck you as both outstanding romances, and as worthy exemplars of feminist values? And what would you like to see more of, feminist-romance-wise, in 2014?