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 fiancĂ©, 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!