Tuesday, April 21, 2015
Friday, April 17, 2015
The first difference that I noticed between Burrowes' historical and Hernandez's contemporary was how each positions her heroine in terms of personal and job power. When we're first introduced to Burrowes' heroine, Jacaranda Wyeth, she has already spent five years in her post as housekeeper on the country estate of solicitor Worth Kettering. She is more than well-regarded there; the butler, cook, groundskeeper, and stablemaster all consult with her, and more often than not are directed by her ideas and wishes. Even though she is the housekeeper, Jacaranada has power at the Kettering estate, especially since its city-dwelling owner hasn't ever visited in all the time she's worked there.
Both Worth and Tracy are attracted to their employees, and push their housekeepers to engage in amorous relations with them, even after both women say no. Why, then, did one protagonist's actions seem more palatable than the other's? I think it has to do with the point of view through which each author chooses to tell her story. Hernandez uses the first person, with the entire story told from Reggie's POV, while Burrowes uses the third person, switching back and forth between Jacaranda and Worth, the book's male lead. In Worth, we are allowed inside Worth's head, and are reassured by his thoughts about Jacaranda. He's attracted to her, yes, even wants to make her his mistress. But he expresses no desire to harm her, to force her to succumb to his sexual advances. Nor does he ever consider threatening her job to persuade her to consent. The switching point of view acts as reassurance against the doubts Worth's actions in pursuing Jacaranda, in teasing and flirting even after Jacaranda tells him no, might have raised if we had only seen them through her eyes.
Reggie's first-person narration offers us no such reassurance. In a scene where Reggie returns from her high-school reunion with her escort, Tanner, older brother Tracy expresses his jealousy through actions, actions that we see only through Reggie's eyes: "He forced me into the casita and shut the door" (1059); "I tried to push him away, but he wouldn't budge"(1069); "he captured my head in his hands and pushed me up against the door" (1069); "he found it effortless to remove my clothes" (1069). Where is the line here between forceful seduction and assault? Ultimately, Reggie welcomes Tracy's advances in this scene, but in its opening moments, without knowing Tracy's thoughts or intentions, it was difficult for me to feel entirely comfortable that Tracy understands the line between sexy forcefulness and just plain force.
Consent is never a topic of discussion between Reggie and Tracy, only a demand. "I'm waiting, Reggie. Tell me what I need to hear," Tracy demands before the first time they have sex. But "I didn't have the strength to say no to the beautiful man. But I couldn't look at him, either" (1079). Tracy takes Reggie's sexual arousal as permission to forge further down the sexual path; only on the verge of penis entering vagina does Reggie finally grant overt consent: "I want to be inside you," says Tracy; "Yes, inside," Reggie answers (1088). Later, their sexual relationship edges in to BDSM territory, but without any talk of safe words or boundaries that we've grown accustomed to seeing in many erotic romances that include BDSM. Tracy spanks Reggie as punishment for being too bodily close to Tanner, not as part of a consensual game of pain. Reggie finds this a sexual turn-on, but it seems clear that Tracy was not doing it for that reason: "he groaned, surprised by my arousal," Reggie notes, after the slapping stops (1523).
Reggie and Tracy's contretemps also stems from a family difficulty. When he hired her, Tracy had asked Reggie to try and find out why his brother Tanner was acting out. Reggie discovers Tanner's secret, but at Tanner's request, promises to keep the truth from Tracy. Eventually, Tanner's secret is outed, leaving Tracy more than a little enraged at both his brother and his lover (you have to read the book to find out why). In some of the most vile, sexist breakup language it's ever been my displeasure to read, Tracy reams Reggie out and then dumps her. That Tracy eventually repents, grovels, sneaks behind her back to contact her family members, and ultimately convinces Reggie to get back together seems less cause for celebration than for dismay, at least to this reader.
A heroine's degree of power; a narrative that gives a hero's POV, not just a heroine's; discussions between protagonists about consent; and a relationship block that can be resolved through mutual understanding rather than through manipulation and melodramatic plotting—these are the elements that made the troubling aspects of domestic workplace romance palatable in Burrowes' book, but deeply problematic in Hernandez's.
Tuesday, April 14, 2015
Perhaps that's why my initial reaction to Emery Lord's new YA novel, The Start of Me and You, was tepid at best. Its first-person narrator, Paige Hancock, is in a similar position to that of my friend's brother's girlfriend: on the cusp of her junior year of high school, Paige is hoping to break free of her identity as the "Girl Whose Boyfriend Drowned." But this is an understated book, a book with an emotional impact that sneaks up on you gradually, catching you unaware, as it explores myriad types of grief. Grieving for a young man's life yes, but also grieving for what-ifs that can never be realized; for time lost to illness; for friendships that change and die; for parents who aren't a part of your life; for grandparents who lose the vitality they once had.
To push herself past "post-mourning purgatory," Paige decides to make a plan, a proactive plan to make the coming year better than the last one (5). Her best friend Tessa suggests that Paige is doing a kind of yoga thing, something she calls "beginner's mind": "trying to approach new experiences with no preexisting judgments.... That way, you're open to anything that happens" (11).
Paige's plan consists of five goals for the future. The first three—attending a few parties and/or social events, events which she actively avoided during sophomore year; joining an extracurricular school group, or rejoining one of the groups in which she had been involved during her first year of high school; and going on a date—are ones which she aims to accomplish this year. The fourth—to travel—is inspired by her grandmother, whose stories and photographs of her trip to Paris have filled Paige with a sense of anticipation. It's the last one, though, that may be the toughest—to swim. For ever since Aaron's death, Paige has had reoccurring nightmares of herself, not Aaron, drowning.
Paige's supportive group of girlfriends help her navigate her first social events, and Paige herself has honed in on a potential boy to date: Ryan Chase, the hunk upon whom she's been crushing since middle school. Ryan's suddenly at loose ends, now that his long-time girlfriend, as well as her popular crowd, as dumped him. Paige catalogues each small interaction with Ryan with minute attention: Ryan spoke to me today; Ryan bought me a hot dog at the football game; Ryan picked me up so we could hang out with our mutual friends. Paige knows Ryan's a good guy, from watching the way he interacted with his older sister when she had cancer. Why, then, can't the two of them ever seem to say more than a few stilted sentences to each other?
There are several subtle feminist messages scattered throughout the subplots of Lord's story: Paige's ardent feminist friend Morgan, who upbraids their history teacher for slut-shaming Anne Boleyn; Paige's friend Kayleigh, who learns to see beyond the stars and rainbows of first love to understand that it's how a guy treats you and your friends that really matters. And Paige's path, too, to moving beyond grief takes some clearly feminist turns, especially in how she works to achieve the final two goals on her bucket list. Lord does not suggest that falling in love is a cure-all for grief, but her story does set forth the hope that good friends, as well as caring romantic partners, can provide an extra paddle as one navigates its turbulent waters.
The Start of Me and You
Friday, April 10, 2015
PMS and PMDD aren't life-threatening, and are experienced only by women, so comparatively little medical research has been done in this area ("The causes of PMS are not clear, but several factors may be involved," the web site for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's Office of Women's Health helpfully notes). I've talked about my PMS problems with my primary care doctor, my psychiatrist, a specialist on women's mental health, a specialist in menopause; I've tried myriad remedies to alleviate symptoms Vitamin B? Vitamin D? Calcium with Vitamin D? SAM-E? DHEA? Birth control pills? Amphetamine Salts? I've tried them all, never mind my daily dose of antidepressant. Some alleviate some symptoms, while adding fun new side effects; some do little to nothing at all, at least that I can see.
Can you tell I'm feeling cranky right now?
When science lets you down, sometimes art is the only solace. I've been watching the clip from the film "No Strings Attached," the scene in which Adam (Ashton Kutcher) brings cupcakes and a mix CD to his friend-with-benefits Emma (Natalie Portman). Emma and two of her female roommates are all on the same cycle, suffering from PMS. I can't help but laugh when Portman and her friends start reading the song titles off the mix CD, made especially for a woman having her period: "Even Flow," "Red, Red Wine," "I've Got the World on a String." Here's the clip, for your viewing pleasure:
The only similar PMS scene that I can recall from romance novels is from Loretta Chase's effervescent historical Mr. Impossible. Its "great dumb ox" hero, Rupert Carsington, is in a panic when he hears that Daphne Pembroke, the whip-smart lady who is supplying the brains to his brawn on a Egyptian desert exploration, has fallen ill. Barging into her room, he insists that she tell him what is wrong, and how he can help. When she finally gives in and admits "All I need is time. It's my monthly courses," and tells him there's nothing he can do, he responds "For such a clever woman, you are woefully ignorant. There's a great deal one can do," even though he himself has no idea to do. And in he wades:
He didn't go away. He mixed the laudeanum with honey and water and watched her drink it. He wet the cloths and wrung them out and laid them on her forehead. He rubbed her back. He distracted her with humorous family anecdotes. He did not leave until she fell asleep. (233)
Ah, what I wouldn't give for an Adam or a Rupert right about now...
Given that menstruation, and the trials that often accompany it, is a monthly occurrence in the lives of most adult women, I wonder at the lack of mention of the subject in romance. Can you think of other romance novels in which the crimson tide is used to help develop the romantic relationship between the protagonists?
Tuesday, April 7, 2015
Everyone tells high school junior Leila Azadi that she should feel flattered by, and pretty because of, the crush her best friend Greg harbors for her. But Leila only feels "not yet assembled" (12). Last summer, at a Global Young Leaders of the Futures camp, Leila met Anastasia, who both lectured here about class privilege and kissed her silly. Though Anastasia quickly moved on, crushing on a fellow camper named Nick, Leila's experience has her realizing that she's different, and not just because her parents emigrated from Iran. Leila not only doesn't want to make out with Greg; she doesn't want to make out with any guy.
Two things in particular stuck out for me when reading Tell Me Again. First, while Leila's ethnicity is not the focus of the story, Farizan does not simply stick a Persian face on an otherwise white character. Leila is a second-generation immigrant, surrounded by parents and adult family friends who are invested in the culture and values of their homeland, a connection to which Leila often has difficulty relating. Whether making fun of her dad's singing of Persian songs from the 80's, wryly observing how the tradition of tarof (offering something to someone even if you don't mean it) can backfire when used with American kids, or expressing frustration with her surgeon father's high expectations and narrow views ("I mean, do you want to be an actor? That's not a real job. Only drug addicts and gays are actors. you don't want to hang out with those people, do you?" ), Leila is embedded within a specific culture, a culture which both constructs and influences the choices she can envision making.
Leila is particularly worried about her sexual identity, given the conservative views of her Iranian father, and the way another boy in their ex-pat community was banished, both from his home and from the community itself, after he announced his attraction to boys. But Papa Azadi's views are not the only ones to which Leila is exposed. Nor is Leila the only gay character in Farizan's story, the second thing which I appreciated while reading. We have out-of-the-closet schoolmate Tomas, who conforms in many ways to gay male stereotypes while simultaneously pointing to the limits of such stereotypes:
You girls have it way easier.... Two hot girls in high school? No problem, definitely encouraged by my straight male counterparts. However a gay guy—even one as handsome as myself? Not as cool. Double standards. High school breeds them. God, I can't wait until college. (148-49)
Despite being a lesbian, Leila doesn't feel much of a connection to the tech girls (perhaps, because the three turn out to be not so attracted to other women as rumor, or stereotype, would have it?). She's far more drawn to the gorgeous but cagey Saskia, who kisses Leila one day, but then starts dating Greg the next.
Is Saskia gay? Bi? Just a tease? Greg can't help her figure it out, nor can Tess, who, despite sharing Leila's disinterest in the things teenaged girls are supposed to be interested in," is woefully lacking when it comes to gaydar (21). Leila discovers that help can come from surprising, expected directions, and that she's not the only one with multiple, sometimes conflicting, identities.
Tell Me Again How a
Crush Should Feel
Friday, April 3, 2015
I've mentioned a few times on previous blogs that in addition to reading and reviewing romance novels on RNFF, and writing scholarship on children's literature, both of which I do under my legal name, I've also been experimenting with writing historical romance fiction. As of this writing, none of that fiction has been published. But I've been thinking hard about the benefits and the pitfalls of self-publishing for a while now, and, since last fall, I've been putting together business plans and budgets and marketing ideas with an eye towards releasing my own novels, without the help of a traditional print publisher.
I am planning to publish my fiction using a pseudonym.
I am not planning to keep it a secret, though, that Jackie Horne and Bliss Bennet, the pen name I've chosen for my historical writer persona, are the same person. On my new author web site, I've included my photograph, along with a mention of my alter blogger ego. And I'm announcing it here, too, so that authors and readers of this blog will know that I wear multiple hats.
For the record, I do not think it was ethical of Jane Litte of Dear Author to not reveal her dual identities from online author communities who knew her only as Jen Frederick, romance author. And while keeping her author persona secret from Dear Author's readers does not seem quite as ethically fraught, I do think it betrayed the trust of her colleagues and coworkers on the blog to keep them in the dark.
But I do think it is possible for an author to also be a book reviewer, and do it in an ethical manner.
And I'm going to try to do so.
I hope you'll tell me if you think I'm doing it wrong, and/or offer suggestions about how to do it right.
Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Checking that "Catholic" box, though, meant more than just a reduction in tuition. It also meant that I had to take Religion class. Most of my schoolmates, having attended Catholic school since kindergarten, tended to either nod in agreement or nod off in boredom while the nun or priest or occasionally the lay person heading Religion class taught his or her lesson. But I often found myself challenging the teacher, pushing at things that my classmates took for granted, or had long ago learned it wasn't worth the questioning. Asking the "why" questions that often excited, and often annoyed, the person at the front of the room led other students to look at me as if I were crazy for bothering, but I took pride in being a questioner, of not accepting the easy answer.
I've often wondered what I would have been like if, like my Catholic school classmates, I had been brought up differently? If I had been taught from my earliest days that the tenets of Catholicism, and only Catholicism, were of course the right way to live my life and to judge the moral choices of myself and of others? Would I still have questioned those premises? What leads someone to question something that everyone around them takes for granted?
For sixteen-year-old Jonathan Cooper, it's not being thrust into an unfamiliar setting. In fact, he's been attending Spirit Lake Bible Camp for seven years now, drawn by its strong Protestant ethos and the caring of its leaders and counselors. They know how hard it is having a father in the military, away for years at a time, how hard it is being the man of the house. They listen, rather than just preach. And they know asking WWJD? (What would Jesus Do?) is a way to get him thinking about his moral and ethical choice, rather than just shoving them down his throat. Jonathan feels so at peace at Spirit Lake that he's even imagined himself becoming a junior counselor next year.
No, it's not the unfamiliar setting, but Jonathan's own unfamiliar feelings, that set him to questioning. When a new boy with bright red hair and a rainbow-colored wristband challenges the camp blowhard for saying "That's so gay!" to Jonathan's plans to go out for acting rather than for the more obviously masculine Outdoor Rec program, and Jonathan finds himself not just breaking up the fight, but befriending the newcomer. And then finding himself attracted to Ian McGuire. Not just as a friend, but emotionally, and physically, attracted. How can a pious, God-loving boy be experiencing such things?
None of the adults at Spirit Lake condone overt gay-bashing. They preach the gospel of love, not hate. As Jonathan's cabin counselor tells his campers during a discussion of temptation:
That's why we need to love people who are in bondage to sin and especially to this lifestyle. We are not to bully then or h ate them. Rather, we are to shine God's love into their lives and pray for them. You've heard the phrase Hate the sin and love the sinner, right? That goes double for homosexuals.
But most are equally certain that homosexuality is wrong, a sin, an abomination. When the camp leader, Paul, begins to suspect Jonathan and Ian's feelings for one another, he tells him he fears Jonathan is "under some kind of satanic attack right now, and you are being tempted by the flesh to deviate from your true identity in Christ" (Loc 1768).
Not all the adults think this way, though. Two of the camp's adults—significantly, both outsiders in different ways—offer Jonathan other ways of thinking about his identity, about his attractions and his feelings. And about what his religion has to say about same-sex desire.
Is it possible for an Evangelical Christian to also be gay? In literature and in popular culture, Evangelical Christianity is often painted as monolithic, black and white, intolerant of difference. Juliann Rich, a woman who grew up in an Evangelical household, both acknowledges and refutes this characterization, offering hope through her characterization of Jonathan, Ian, and Jonathan's more unconventional Christian adult mentors to devout young men who find themselves not fitting the heterosexual mold yet not wanting to sacrifice their religion for the sake of their sexuality.
Rainbow wristband: Rainbow Depot
Bold Strokes Books, 2014