Tuesday, March 20, 2018

What type of HEA do You Prefer: Accomodation or Collaboration?

At the March meeting of the New England Chapter of Romance Writers of America, attorney Alisha Bloom gave a presentation on different negotiating strategies, and how romance writers might draw on these strategies in construction their characters and conflicts. Drawing on the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, Bloom listed these five common negotiating styles:

• Avoiding
• Accomodating
• Compromising
• Competing
• Collaborating

These styles all sounded familiar to me, and I could easily assign each to different people in my life (and to different characters in romance novels). What was new was the underlying relationship Thomas and Kilmann posit between these five styles. They do not appear on a linear continuum, but rather along a dual axis, one the degree to which the outcome of a dispute matters, the other the degree to which the relationship matters. Or, in other words, how much do your wants and needs matter, and how much do you care about the wants and needs of the person or group with whom you are negotiating? (The Thomas-Killman instrument actually posits these axes as personality issues, with one axis = degree of assertiveness, the other = degree of cooperativeness).

People and characters who choose an Avoidance style of negotiating typically cluster close to the zero point on both of these axes: they don't care that much about the outcome, nor do they care that much about the relationship between themselves and the person or group with whom they are negotiating. Those who use a  Compete strategy cluster on the high end of the "care more about their own wants and needs" axis, but low on the "care about the wants and needs of the other" axis. And those who use an Accomodate strategy cluster around the point diagonally opposite that of the competitors: high on the "care for the needs of others" and low on the "care for own needs."

One might think that a "Compromise" strategy would be the goal in a successful negotiation. But in the examples Bloom provided from romance novels (all recently published), the protagonists moved not toward compromise (splitting things evenly, so each side wins a bit and loses a bit), a cluster at the midpoint of both axes, but towards the "Collaborate" strategy: a strategy that cares highly about both the needs of the self and the needs of the other.

Bloom asked us if we thought that this was a general goal of romance: to move characters through the arc of caring either too much or not enough for self, or too much or not enough for others, towards not compromise, which is a "split everything fifty fifty" type of negotiating, but towards collaboration: a strategy which seeks new ways to meet both sides' needs. "Expanding the pie" is one way to put it, but in terms of romance writing, Bloom described the character movement as one in which the romantic protagonists move towards valuing both their own and the other's goals and desires, and seek ways to have both sides' needs met.

A lively discussion followed Bloom's presentation.  I pointed out that unlike the 21st century romance novels that Bloom had used as examples in her presentation (Julie James' Practice Makes Perfect, one example), in which Collaboration proved to be the end goal, Old Skool romances generally held up the "accomodation" style as the heart of a true HEA. Older romances, which value the "taming" the the alpha hero, a taming that causes him to not only admit his feelings of love for the heroine, but also to recognize the value of emotional work typically carried out by the female half of the population, require their heroes not to compromise or to collaborate, but instead to "accomodate": to give up their own needs or desires (because they are misguided and harmful) and to replace those needs and desires with those of their heroines.

Some agreed that in more modern romances, "Collaboration" appeared far more often than "Accomodation." And some stated that they preferred this type of HEA to one that "tames" the hero, one that makes him fall at the feet of the heroine. "I want the protagonists to work together, to value each other and their goals equally," said one member.

But others expressed a continued preference for the "Accomodation" HEA over the "Collaboration" one.  "I will give up anything and everything for you, that's what I want to hear from the hero at the end of the romance" one person noted. "That's what makes me feel." Another noted, "This is a fantasy, not real life. In real life, you compromise. But the fantasy of romance is that your hero will do what you as a woman want. He'll come home and do the dishes."

The conversation made me wonder: how many romance readers prefer "collaborative" HEA's, and how many prefer "accomodation" HEA's? Is this a generational thing? Or does it depend more on one's own real-life expectations about and experiences of gendered behavior? My partner already does do the dishes (at least on weekdays; on the weekends he cooks, and I pick up the dishcloth), so my fantasy is not about finding a guy who will do that. If your partner doesn't, and neither of you expect that he will, are you more likely to wish for an accomodation HEA?

Would love to hear your own preferences, readers, as well as your thoughts on using a negotiating strategy model to think about romance novel endings.

Photo credits:
Negotiation styles chart: Negotiation Experts
Compromise: Redbubble
Win Win: Thought Exchange

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

When An Artist's Abusive Behavior Call Your Love of Their Art into Question

Composer Richard Wagner's magnificent operas, set against his deeply anti-semitic tract Jewishness in Music. The racism of the early cartoons of Dr. Seuss, or in the first-edition depictions of the Oompa-Loompas in Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The myriad works of literature by lauded male writers, and the misogyny that runs like a bloody thread through their personal lives.

How can we love an artist's work, when we discover that the creator of that art held political or social views that we find to be morally repugnant? Or acted in a morally reprehensible way? Many shrug and say "It was different back then." But this already questionable position is even more difficult to take when the morally reprehensible actions have been done by an artist of our own times, our contemporary, rather than someone from the distant past.

Such are the questions confronting the male/male romance corners of Romancelandia after last week's tumultuous cascade of accusations and revelations about widely-praised queer romance author Santino Hassell. Over the past year, the pseudonymous Hassell has accused others of harassing him by trying to discover and reveal his IRL (in real life) identity, an identity that he claimed he kept hidden to protect himself from homophobia in his native Texas. But as accusations of Hassell's self-misrepresentation on a GoodReads thread, screen-shotted Twitter evidence to support such claims, and heartbreaking #metoo stories about Hassell's abuse of members of the queer community proliferated, reaching a groundswell late last week, two of his publishers, Riptide and Dreamspinner Press, abruptly announced that they had dropped him from their lists. Because the "author known as Santino Hassell" misrepresented himself to the publisher, which is cause for cancellation in the majority of author contracts. [If you want a more detailed timeline of the events leading to this, see these three posts from The Salt Mines].

What do we do when we hear that an author whose books we love has treated others with far less humanity than the characters in those books do? Has lied about who he is? Has catfished queer fans to mine their personal lives for story ideas, then used said stories not just without attribution, but without permission, in his novels? Who manipulated others to attack those who tried to call him out for his despicable behavior?

Many are taking down their reviews of all of Hassell's books on Amazon, GoodReads, and other social media sharing sites. Many are returning his books for refunds, or spending the $5 credit offered by Riptide to any reader who has ever purchased one of his books from their house on a book by a queer author other than SH. And many who supported Hassell's Patreon account after hearing him movingly write about of his cancer, his struggles as a single father, his bullied children—all claims which have turned out to be false—have yanked their financial support.

As a blogger, I am struggling with how to respond to this horrible cascade of accusation and abuse. I have a family member who was a long-time victim of a narcissist, one who sounds painfully similar to the person described by many who describe SH and his abuse. Being manipulated by such a  person is painful, embarrassing, and deeply shaming. All those harmed by SH's more direct abuse, you never deserved to be treated that way.

I have no desire to help advance the career of, or indirectly provide financial support to, an aggressively narcissistic abuser.

RNFF has reviewed several of Hassell's previous books. Should those reviews be taken down? Or should each be prefaced by and/or replaced with by a link to this post and a brief explanation, so readers can explore the issues and decide for themselves whether they feel comfortable reading a book by an author they would in all likelihood in real life shun?

Many other blogs, including Scattered Thoughts and Rogue Words From Top to Bottom Reviews, Vir Reviews, and Just Love have done the first. My gut instinct, though, is leading me toward the second. Because erasing evidence of abusive behavior makes us forget, not remember. Because history matters. Because readers, including myself, need to be reminded that a detestable  person can write an aesthetically and politically good book.

I'd like to hear from RNFF's readers before I make the final call.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Equal Opportunity Violence: Sexual Assault and Lorelie Brown's HER HOMETOWN GIRL

When you hear the word "rape," what images of victims and perpetrators first jump into your mind? I've not been the victim of such a crime myself, and I don't involuntarily place myself in the first role. But I do tend to imagine a woman as the victim, and a man as the perpetrator.

Romance novels featuring characters who have experienced sexual assault tend to follow this same pattern: a woman as victim of a male perpetrator. I've seen the occasional romance with a man in the role as victim, but the perpetrator remains male.

Lorelie Brown's Her Hometown Girl is the first romance I've ever read in which the victim and the perpetrator have both been women.

Brown's novel opens with twenty five-year-old white schoolteacher Tansy Graves breaking down in the chair at Belladonna Ink, where she's in the midst of getting her first tattoo. Earlier that day, Tansy was supposed to have married her lesbian lover, Jody—a plan she ditched after she witnessed Jody "banging the [male] caterer's assistant right before the ceremony. And we're lesbians" (Kindle Loc 27). Thirty-nine-year-old Chinese-American tattoo artist Cai not only feels bad for wounded, insecure Tansy; she also finds her immensely attractive. Cai's instincts are to try and protect this wounded bird, especially when a not-so-contrite Jody comes searching for her fiancĂ©e. But Cai knows better than to interfere in a complete stranger's life. She may see signs that Jody is an unfeeling control-freak, but "then, I don't know their dynamic. Maybe this is the fifth time they've been through this dance. All things considered, I'm pretty helpless. This isn't my fight to pick" (page 11).

We get both Cai's and Tansy's points of view in this dual first-person narrative. And so when Tansy returns to her apartment with Jody, only intending to spend the night before moving out, readers witness firsthand the sexual assault an under-the-influence-of Xanax Tansy experiences at Jody's hands. A scene that feels both horrific and necessary, to not just tell, but to show potentially disbelieving readers that yes, female-on-female sexual assault can and does happen. Far more often than most readers might imagine: according to the Human Rights Campaign, which cites a 2010 survey by the CDC on intimate partner sexual violence, 44 percent of lesbians experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner (compared to 35 percent of heterosexual women). Rape is not only about a penis forcibly entering a vagina without consent, something that Brown's story insists readers understand and begin to acknowledge.

A difficult thing, something that even Tansy has trouble doing. Though she follows through on her resolve to leave Jody, she cannot bring herself to talk to anyone about Jody's sexual abuse. Not even Cai, whom she befriends, and then begins to date, six weeks after her breakup. Tansy is just starting to understand that Jody's behavior was less about love, and more about her need to manipulative and control: "I'm from Idaho, and the adjustment to Cal State Fullerton was overwhelming. . .  [Jody] set herself up as my rescuer, told me no one would ever understand me the way she did, and they wouldn't want me anyway" (20). And she's only just beginning to rewrite the story that Jody instilled in her, a story in which she was the messed-up, but fortunate, recipient of cool and calm Jody's "care":

It's so weird. No one wants to hear about my random bits of school teacher knowledge. Jody helped me tone that part of myself down and be more interesting. Unless she didn't. Unless she was actually just ruining me. (32).

Brown's narrative shows just how difficult it can be for a person who has been the victim of a manipulative, abusive intimate partner to react "normally" with a non-abusive partner. Tansy keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop, for Cai to casually demean her, or undercut her choices, or to guilt her into acting the way Cai wants her to, rather than the way Tansy wishes to. Recovering from abuse is especially difficult for a person like Tansy, who craves being appreciated, who likes being chased, and who is just beginning to discover that she enjoys being sexually submissive (something Brown makes clear is far different than being sexually abused).

"After . . . after the way things used to be, shouldn't I want to be calling the shots and be the one who starts everything?" a confused Tansy asks Cai after they engage in some dominance/submission sexual play (129). Even though Tansy's words make Cai suspect what Tansy may have suffered, Cai doesn't push; instead, she simply "takes what she's offered me and no more. 'Whatever you're doing is the way it's supposed to be. No matter if that was standing on street corners wearing a clown costume and turning somersaults'" (129). Cai's experienced her own share of trauma, albeit of a far different kind, and understands that each person must come to terms with it in her own way, and in her own time.

But when Tansy and Cai begin to introduce more power play into their sexual relationship, something that turns Tansy on when she thinks about it sends her into a panic attack when played out in reality. Which is not something Cai, nor Tansy, can simply ignore. Not if their relationship is going to survive Tansy's moving back home to her native Idaho.

As Evan Urquhart notes in "Female-on-Female Sexual Violence is Real and Awful," "While there have been a respectable number of articles written about lesbian sexual violence, the reality of this problem doesn't seem to have fully penetrated into most people's awareness." He theorizes that this may be because the LGBTQ community has been so focused on marriage equality, advocacy for which might be undermined by addressing the problem of sexual abuse in queer relationships. I'd also hazard it has a lot to do with the dominant conception of rape in the heterosexual community, one that can see rape only if a male sex organ is involved.

Her Hometown Girl may go a little way towards address this lack of awareness in the romance-reading community, even as it tells an emotionally involving, and ultimately joyful story of two women falling in love.

Word quotes: Marie Claire

Her Hometown Girl
A Belladonna Ink novel
Riptide, 2017

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

RNFF Romance Reading Pet Peeves

During RNFF's first year, a regular feature on the blog was the "RNFF Pet Peeve" post. Each pet peeve post pointed to a particular common feature of traditional romance novels, and explored why the particular plot line, trope, character type, or stock phrase, struck me as problematic when viewed through a feminist lens.

I thought it might be interesting to go back, several years later, and revisit some of these pet peeves. Are they still commonly found in heterosexual romances? Have newer feminist issues emerged, issues that might lead to different pet peeves? How many of these older pet peeves would still rank on my top 10 pet peeves list today? If I took some off, what would I replace them with?

(NOTE: the pet peeves listed below come from reading heterosexual romances. Discussing pet peeves about queer romance is certainly worth its own post...)


1. The "I'll follow you wherever you go; wherever you are is my home" declaration, or, the heroine moves to be with her hero with no sense that the hero would do the same for her (discussed at greater length in this post).

I've not seen this one as much in my reading of late as I did when I first started writing the blog. Have I become better at screening my reading to avoid this trend, or is it really becoming far less common?

2. "But what choice did she have?", otherwise known as the story that backs the heroine into an anti-feminist corner for plot purposes (discussed in this post).

I still come across this one quite often, even in romances purporting to be about strong women. She has to accept his gift/money/help because she has no other choice... She had to give in to stupid, sexist demands because she has no other choice...  She has to act in a way that makes her TSTL, because she has no other choice...

Ah, no. You can always choose not to take that gift/money/help, not to give in to sexist demands, not to act stupidly. Authors are always advised to make things harder for their characters, but that doesn't mean they must back their characters into sexist corners to do so. Try thinking outside the patriarchal box, instead!

3. "Baby, you're all that I need," otherwise known as "your romantic partner must and will fulfill all your emotional, physical, and psychological needs"

I'd say that this one is still pretty common (shades of Jerry Maguire). Many romance readers like believing that a heroine who finds her one true love is guaranteed to live happily ever after, because finding her one and only makes her life complete, whole. How many readers actually believe this, and how many know it's an aspect of the fantasy that the romance genre holds out to its readers? Janice Radway, where are you when we need you for some timely reader response exploration?

4. The overabundance of dukes as heroes in historical romances (discussed here).

Since I write historical romance (under my pen name of Bliss Bennet), I personally get annoyed by the completely historically inaccurate bounty of dukes who roam the current grounds of English-set historical romances. A quick glance at Debretts Peerage shows that only 25 non-royal dukedoms existed in 1818. Out of a population of 14.4 million people living in England, only 0.0001735%, or one in every 576,000 English people, held the title. A popular historical romance author today will  likely create more than 25 dukes in just her books alone!

Given the way that amazon search engines reward authors who include certain tropes (or aristocratic titles) in their books, arguing against this plethora of dukes seems like a losing battle. So this perhaps wouldn't make a general top 10 list of anti-feminist peeves, but I reserve the right to keep it on my own personal one.

5. When "feisty" is mistaken for "feminist" (see this post)

Acting feisty (or bratty, or snarky) is not the same as acting with feminist principles in mind. Yelling at a stupid guy, snipping at a sexist alpha, ignoring the advice of a potential love interest because he's a man—none of that grants you a feminist card. Working on behalf of other women, on behalf of women's rights, calling attention to sexist behavior, laws, assumptions: those are feminist actions. Books that assume that a feisty, or strong female is also a feminist female still seem distressingly common.

6. Romances that diss feminism (see this post)

I recently read one of the four books that won the first RITA Award (then named the Golden Medallion Award) back in 1982. I'll be blogging about that experience in a future post, but suffice it to say, references to feminism (or "women's lib") in the book are hardly flattering. It's a bit disheartening, if not surprising, to discover such comments in a book published in 1981. But even today, when a romance novel includes the words "feminism" or "feminist," it rarely regards those words as positive. But so few romance novels even use the words that I'm not sure this one deserves a place on a top 10 list anymore.

7. Heroines in historical romances who spout gender critiques that sound more like Ms. Magazine than anything Mary Wollstonecraft or her radical contemporaries ever wrote (mentioned in passing here)

I could write a treatise on this one. But again, this may be my own particular pet peeve. The historical romance market right now does not seem to care much about historical accuracy, at least when it comes to social mores that would rankle contemporary readers' morals or standards.

8. "It's a Guy Thing" (or "Women all do this...) (see this post)

Part of the spice of many romances depends on playing up the differences between male and female characters. Far too often, though, for a feminist's taste, playing up differences between particular characters shades over into definitive statements about what all men do/are/say/act like, and what all women do (or don't do). I don't know about you, but the variation in behavior between individual women seems just as wide as the variation between any particular man and any particular woman. Whenever a writer (either through a character, or in the voice of the narrator) states that "guys are like that" or "women always/never say/do this," I can't help but cringe. This may be the most common pet peeve I have with a lot of contemporary romances.

I've not written previous blog posts about the following, but I'd definitely include them on a top 10 heterosexual romance Pet Peeve list today:

• Heroes who don't take "no" for an answer. Harassment is not sexy

Heroines who say "no" but really mean "yes." Heroes are NOT mind readers, ladies

• No discussion of birth control before or during sexy times

• No portrayal of consent before or during sexy times

• Evil other women as foils for a virtuous heroine

• Slut shaming

When you put on your feminist reading glasses, what pet peeves annoy the heck out of you?

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Loving Your Company, Not in Love with You: Kilby Blades' SNAPDRAGON

Apologies for the lack of posts of late. Rabid Olympics-watching combined with an over-long bout with perimenopausal PMDD brain fog led to an unintended reading and blogging hiatus. But RNFF is back today with a recommendation for an unusual erotic romance, which begins with a woman and a man meeting at the ultimate "meet-cute" site: a friend's wedding.

But the meeting between Darby Christensen 32, a high-powered psychiatrist and research psychopharmacologist, and thirty-one year-old Michael Blaine, an equally career-focused architect, doesn't resemble the usual rom-com meet cute. As the lone unmarried woman among her group of female friends, Darby may be used to the husband and baby talk, but it hardly makes her feel part of the crowd during the reception for the latest one in their group to marry. Especially when her friends' eyes start to glaze over when she tries to talk about what's most important to her: her job. Most of her friends have given up promising careers in favor of being wives and mothers, and spend more time talking about breastfeeding and diapers than they do about pay scales or awful bosses. Darby has no desire to be either a wife or a mother, and when the conversation turns to whether Daniel Tiger or Peppa Pig is better at teaching kids about sibling rivalry, she's so out of there.

On the beach near the hotel where the wedding reception is being held, she runs in to a blue-eyed, dark-skinned handsome stranger, a fellow wedding guest. Michael Blaine, it turns out, is the friend of today's groom, who also happens to be one of Darby's oldest friends. The two escape the "when are you going to find a girl/guy" pressure cooker of the reception by taking a walk together, a walk which includes neither the usual banal chitchat of the newly-met, nor a contrived rom-com excuse to fall into bed together, but instead some open, honest discussion about their friend, their own sexual pasts, and their mutual seventy-hour work weeks, which has made successful dating pretty much impossible. Neither has the time nor the energy to devote to romancing a potential romantic connection, although each is deeply lonely for companionship. As as Michael explains:

"The truth is, I like you. I think you're the kind of girl I'd like to have dinner with and take to social functions. I think we'd  have more good conversation, some fun times, and sizzling hot sex.... But I don't need to start something with you to know how it'll end. Experience has taught me that women are biologically incapable of having unattached relationships. Since I'm too busy for the kind of commitment they want, I go without. I'd rather do that than lead them on." (Kindle Loc 260)

Darby's response challenges both Michael's assumptions and the sexism that underlies them:

"But your broad categorization of women is short-sighted." And borderline sexist. She bit her tongue again. "If you think there aren't plenty of single women who want to stay that way, you are mistaken. My parents' marriage was a disaster, and the idea of emulating that repulses me. Despite all you've heard about biological clocks and maternal instincts, not all women have them. I have a career I love that has me working just as many hours as you do, probably more. The last thing I need is to come home after a hard day to somebody who is biologically incapable of not needing his ego stroked" (267)

Finding someone who is willing to be a companion, a friend, and a sex partner, but who won't be disappointed that he or she isn't the center of a partner's attention—that is the challenge for high-powered career-focused professionals such as Darby and Michael. Michael describes his ideal:

"I want a woman who doesn't confuse me loving her company with me being in love with her. She has to know that whatever we have today may not be there tomorrow, not because I'm heartless or distant or incapable of intimacy—but because right now, I choose my career, and my love isn't in play—only my companionship." (298)

Michael knows that he's going to be promoted to partner some day, a promotion that will likely lead to a transfer far away from the Chicago they both call home. And he has no desire to leave a broken-hearted girlfriend behind. His job must come first, before a girlfriend, before a relationship, before family. Before everything.

A sentiment with which Darby, estranged from her senator-father and equally committed to her patients and her research, entirely agrees. And thus the two find themselves spending the night in bed, not for a one-night-stand, but as an interview of sorts, an interview for the role of mutual part-time sexual partner, dinner companion, and person to hang with in the all-too-rare free hours between work commitments.

"You're hired" is all Darby writes on the note she leaves behind before she takes off the next morning for her scheduled flight back to Chicago. The only terms the two negotiate before they begin their unusual arrangment is that 1. their jobs come first, and 2. when their relationship ends, it will end without drama:

"We promise each other that when it ends, it ends in a single word—whether that be tonight or a year from now. No awkward confrontation. No messy breakup talk. That's the shitty part anyway, right? We agree to keep it fun and simple. And, when it stops being fun, or stops being simple, it's over." 

Rather than a safeword to interrupt unwanted BDSM sex, Darby and Michael agree on a safeword to signal the end of their relationship. That safeword: Snapdragon.

The relationship that develops between Michael and Darby in the months that follow their arrangement proves far from superficial. The two share dinners, attend charity events together, and spend hours and hours in bed having amazingly intense sex. And they also do a lot of talking. About their jobs, about their career goals, about their large and small triumphs. And when they have shitty days at the office, they begin to talk about those, too, which in turn leads to far more personal conversations—about their difficult childhoods, their current privileged lifestyles, the good they want to do in the world. And Michael gradually begins to treat Darby more as a beloved partner than as a casual friend.

But when a colleague's inadvertent comment shows Darby that there's a lot more to Michael than he ever lets her see, Darby's thrown for a major loop. Because "when it came to Darby, Michael knew everything" (3018), but "she only knew parts of Michael, the parts of him he wanted her to see. That the parts of him he wanted her to see were narrower than she'd believed. That there was too much she didn't know about the man who, for all intents and purposes, she was dating" (3013). Should Darby be the first to say "Snapdragon"? Or might Michael be preparing to say it himself?

The arc of most romance novels centered around the "we're not really having a real relationship" trope usually focuses on one or both partners learning to overcome a fear of commitment. Unlike those novels, Blades' romance directly challenges the underlying assumption that not wanting a long-term partner or a child is a psychological problem you'll naturally overcoming when you meet the right person, but might instead be the valid choice of a mature adult.

But also that one's choices, one's priorities, have a funny way of shifting over time . . .

Photo credits:
Beach walk: Rick Tagaki, PopularPhotography
"You're Hired": YouthVillage
Snapdragons: Park Seed

Love Conquers None Book #1
Luxe Press, 2017

Friday, February 9, 2018

Romancing the Rings: Olympics Romances by Rachel Spangler and Tamsen Parker

With the opening ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics taking place today, a post on Olympic-set romances seems more than in order. Luckily, many romance authors have penned and published love stories set against the backdrop of fictionalized winter sports competitions in celebration, several with clearly feminist themes.

My favorites to date are by lesbian romance author Rachel Spangler, and erotic romance writer Tamsen Parker. Spangler's a new-to-me author, while Parker's an old book friend, and I've enjoyed reading their stories this week in preparation for the real-life athletic contests to come.

Spangler's Edge of Glory features two athletes who belong to the same athletic association—the USSA (United States Ski & Snowboard)—but who have very little else in common. After a long and successful career in the upcoming sport of snowboard cross, thirty-year-old Corey LaCroix is spending as much time fending off questions about retirement as she is training for the upcoming Olympics. The sport's become far more regimented, far less free-spirited than it was when she she was a carefree 18-year-old winning her first gold medal, and she's wondering whether her own freewheeling days of hearty partying and sleeping with any woman eager to fall into her bed are—or should be—behind her, too.

Like the sport she loves, Corey has a reputation for being laid back and rule wary. A happy likable jokester, Corey's always been able to charm anyone who crossed her path. But she has her work cut out for her when twenty-five year-old Elise Brandeis, Ice Princess of the ski slopes, arrives to train at the "Lake Henry" New York Olympic training center the summer before the next winter games. Spending a year off the slopes after a knee-tearing crash has Elise chomping at the bit, ready to begin serious training again. And she's determined nothing—especially not a cocky, undisciplined, court-jester of a woman like Corey LaCroix—will distract her from making the Olympic team.

Spangler crafts a slow-to-develop romance, as these two opposites gradually become friends before they test the waters of sexual compatibility. Although lines like these—"Elise's droll comments probably put a lot of people off, but [Corey] didn't mind having her chops busted by beautiful women. She preferred sass to sycophants any day" (Kindle Loc 1324)—made this reader more than willing to hang in there and watch the sparks fan into flame.

Spangler's true gift as a writer is her strong, nuanced character development, creating both primary and secondary characters that move far beyond the feel-good human interest bio stories we get during the typical television Olympic broadcasts. Though it's obvious from the story's start that wound-too-tight Elise could benefit from a bit of Corey's sheer joy in life, friendship, and competition, it never makes Corey the key to Elise's salvation; instead, Elise learns from her coach, from an upcoming snowboarder, and Corey's sister and trainer, as well as Elise, that being a world-class competitor does not mean you can't have any friends, and that joy, not anger, is what sustains a person through the long haul of a bid for the Olympics.

Corey's self-explorations are more bittersweet. Always one to live in the moment, she finds it nearly impossible to even consider what her life might be like if she's no longer is able to—or has the desire to—compete, never mind make plans for that inevitability. After a career built on risk-taking, can Corey really give it all up? And if she does, what will she have left?

Can two highly competitive women at two very different places in their athletic careers, forge a relationship that lasts beyond the highs (and lows) of the Winter Games?

In contrast to Spangler's long contemporary Olympic romance, Tamsen Parker has penned not two, not three, but five short Olympic-set romances. The length of these Snow & Ice Games books is far shorter than most of the romances Parker has written in the past, which makes for a sometimes frustrating experience for readers familiar with the fully-developed plots and characters of her earlier work. But publishing a series of books that feature not just heterosexual couples, or just gay couples, or just lesbian couples, as market forces typically demand, but one in which, as in real life, all three types of couples play leading roles, is well worth celebrating, even if one might wish to spend more time luxuriating in each couple's story.

For me, this week's installment of Parker's "Snow and Ice Games" was On the Edge of Scandal, the third book in the series. It's one of the three hetero romances of the group, featuring a woman hockey player who is growing increasingly frustrated with the obnoxious behavior of her long-time boyfriend. Brody's come to the Games to support college senior Bronwyn, even though he didn't make the men's hockey team as he had hoped to. Which Bron knows is "super sweet. It was. What's less sweet is that I feel like he wants me to hand him a goddamn cookie for it every time I see him" (Kindle Loc 45). Brody spends his time mouthing off in the stands ("She's not bad for a girl, right?"), calling Bron "Winnie" (a nickname she hates), and getting pissy and demanding when he's not allowed in the Olympic Village to sleep in Bron's bed.

All of which drives Bronwyn's Olympic coach, twenty seven-year-old Asher Levenson, to teeth-gnashing. Especially because he's been fighting off a stupid crush on Bron for the past two years. During the regular season Bron may play for BC, not for the BU team he coaches, but even crushing on a competitor is a no-no. Never mind on a player he's in the middle of coaching.

Ash, unlike privileged, attention-hound Brody, understand that Bron has to make her own decisions, even if one of those decisions is putting up with a romantic partner who doesn't grant her half the respect he knows she deserves. And so he doesn't interfere, even when Brody pulls him into a pissing match over Bron.

But when Brody's small slights and minor betrayals transform into one major, and very public, mistake, Ash is hardly crying in his coffee when Bron finally gives Brody the heave-ho he deserves.

But dumping a guy you've been with for eight years leaves a big hole a person's life, a hole that only grows larger as the tension of the SIG games increases. Ash promises to give Bron whatever she needs in order to get through this difficult time, and keep her, and the team, on track for the gold. How can Bron confide that her go-to form of stress relief has always been human contact?

Parker does fabulous work in the first third of the novel showing how a smart, competitive young woman can convince herself (or be trained by gender expectations to accept) that a boyfriend's sexist treatment is just par for the course: "If I were the bitchy and vindictive type, I could point out that while they may not be bruisers like he is, the people on those buses actually made their SIG teams, so maybe he should shut up. But I'll be good, be nice" (323). I especially cheered after reading this line, one of the few times in a romance novel where the word "feminism" isn't used as a straw-man whip to chastise the behavior of a romantically-inclined woman: "His sexist ranting pisses me off, but I don't have time to lecture him on feminism. Again" (140).

Olympic Village sex is safe sex: 37 condoms per athlete handed out
to the 2018 Winter Olympians, according to South China Morning Post
The latter parts of the story are more complicated, featuring as it does a growing romantic and sexual attachment between a player and a coach. Many a reader (and many a feminist) might find such a relationship problematic. Parker, however, takes the stance that while such rules may be be designed to protect girls, they can also function to infantilize adult women, policing their sexual choices in a way that is equally beholden to patriarchal norms. As Bronwyn tells Ash after he apologizes for "taking advantage of her" during a mutually-instigated kiss:

"You know, I'm really fucking tired of dudes telling me what I should do. I don't mind it on the ice, because you know what you're talking about and I trust you out there, but in here? Do you really think I'd be here if I didn't want to be? Do you think I would be lying in a bed with you if I felt like you were manipulating me? I don't. If anything, I feel bad because you're probably feeling guilty for betraying your professional moral code." (1367)

I'm really interested to hear other readers' thoughts on the way Bronwyn and Ash's romance plays out, in public and in private. And responses to the other books in Parker's series, which may not be as overtly feminist as On the Edge of Scandal, but which are just as deliciously readable.

What are your favorite Olympic-set romances?

Photo credits:
Snowboarder: Ski-BUMS
Skier Julia Mancuso training: Wall Street Journal
BU vs. BC women's hockey: SBNATION
Olympic condoms: Cosmopolitan

Edge of Glory: A Romance
Bywater Books, 2017

On the Edge of Scandal
Snow & Ice Games book #3
SMP Swerve/St. Martin's, 2018

Friday, January 26, 2018

Liz Jacobs' ABROAD: Book 1

Any reader of contemporary American gay and male/male romance will soon understand that acceptance of queerness varies markedly across the United States. Some areas of the country, and some subcultures within other sections of the country, openly champion gay rights. Romances with settings in the first group may occasionally depict their characters on the receiving end of negative words or actions against their queer identities or actions, but such narratives more often suggest that such words or actions are aberrations from the norm, rather than the norm itself. Romances set in the second group, though, still feature characters who struggle with social, cultural, and/or religious beliefs that insist that their sexual identities exist only beyond the pale. But even characters in romances set in the second group eventually meet with one, or many, who espouse more positive views towards queer identity. If you are growing up in 21st century America, positive models of queer identity are no longer as difficult to find as they were fifty years ago.

But what if you are from a different country? A country in which queerness is not acceptable in any segment of its cultures? Can a man who grew up in a society in which his identity is accepted ever be able to understand one who was raised in a country where queerness is outside the realm of accepted reality?

The logo of RUSA LGBT, a "network
for Russian-speaking LGBTQ
individuals, their friends, supporters,
and loved ones" which was formed in
In Liz Jacobs' debut romance, Abroad (split into two separate books), readers meet twenty-year-old Nick (Nikolay) Melnikov on an airplane, en route from Michigan to London to study for a year abroad. Nick's family immigrated to the States from Russia when he was ten, and although he and his older sister have picked up American language and culture, their mother still holds tight to her Russian identity. Including a Russian antipathy to queerness. Nick had a girlfriend through late high school and early college, but he broke up with her before leaving for London, not liking the way being with Lena "had suffocated him, like a yoke pulled too tight" (Book 1, page 9). He'd loved her, but he'd never been sexually attracted to her, nor to any of the other girls in the States who had crushed on him.

At least, not like he is drawn to Dex, a fellow uni student he meets at a party for study abroad scholars soon after he arrives in London.  Dex may be a native Brit (born and raised in Birmingham, thank you very much, despite having a Nigerian mother and a English black father), not a fellow International student, but no matter; Nick is far too shy, far too anxious, and too far into denial about his own sexual desires to make any overtures to the grumpy but smart science nerd.

But Dex's best friend, Isabel, takes a shine to Nick, and gradually draws him into their mutual circle of friends, many of who embrace queer identities. Claiming such an identity is not easy for Nick, even as it becomes increasingly clear that Dex is as attracted to Nick as Nick is to him. As Nick explains during a conversation with Izzy, after she assumes (correctly, although deeply embarrassingly to Nick) that Nick is gay:

"I can't. Not with my family."
     "Would they be very angry?"
     "I don't know how to explain. It's never been an option. Not how I grew up."
     "It's how they grew up, too. Back there, it was not talked about. If it was, it wasn't good." How to truly describe the insular circle of friends his parents had surrounded themselves with? Jewish intelligentsia who feared much and talked largely of high art, or science, and only sometimes politics—in hushed voices and in vetted company. Their kitchen table was always crowded with makeshift dinners and discussions of how cultural standards had fallen along with the government and taken intellectual thought with them. Queerness would never even enter into such conversation. Once, Nick remembered someone mentioning a particularly flamboyant pop star. Mom had wrinkled her nose. Distasteful. In her reality, being gay was like being a wizard. Outside her realm. (262)

Being Black in a predominantly white country, Dex can understand what it feels like to experience oppression due to his identity. Yet he still has a hard time understand how anyone, even a shy guy like Nick, can keep something so central about himself hidden for so long.

Nick's anxiety about his sexual desires, already pretty high, ratchets up to an entirely appalling level after he and Dex share a kiss:  "Nick felt himself splintering in two, a painful tearing of past and future. Before he knew and after. The truth of it laid bare and nestled inside him. He knew, now. He knew" (285).

Both Dex and Nick need some time apart before they can have an honest, and painful, conversation about why it is so difficult for Nick to accept his own sexuality, or to tell his family about it:

Queer activists, St. Petersburg, Russia, 2008
     "You told me once that you felt like you passed. Being Jewish, that is, that you didn't look it. Has being gay been like that?"
     Nick genuinely flinched. "It's been worse."
     Dex felt a dark shiver down his spine. "Why?"
     Nick took a long pull of his beer, which drew shadows across his throat. "Because I'm not supposed to exist."
     "No, really." Nick pushed on, and Dex forced himself to shut up. Nick was talking. Nick was talking. "I've never known another Russian gay person. I'm sure they exist, I mean, duh, of course they do. I know that. Now. But when I was a kid, I had never met one. I didn't know anyone. I didn't know any gay people."
     Dex was frozen.
     "I don't—I was alone. My parents never talked about anything like that, not ever. At least, not when I was a kid. And they they talked about it like it was something Americans did. Some Western thing. Not necessarily awful, just not for us. Not ours. So I couldn't be... that. I couldn't. I could be Jewish, I could be an immigrant, but I couldn't be gay." (321)

I really admired the way Jacobs shows how oppression manifests differently in different settings and cultures, as well as how difficult it can be to truly get someone else's experience of oppression even when you've experienced oppression yourself firsthand. She's also fabulous at capturing the cadence of young adult speech—the stops and starts, the repetitions, the meandering diversions and the conversational dead-ends—patterns of communicating that make it so very difficult to articulate, never mind to share, your most painful experiences and fears, even with your closest friends and lovers. Bonus points for a secondary storyline about Dex and Nick's friend Izzy, who is thrown for a loop after she discovers she's not as straight as she once thought she was, a discovery that unexpectedly leads to an estrangement between Izzy and her former best friend, lesbian Natali.

Can Dex and Nick actually pull off a romantic relationship, with Nick still keeping his sexuality a secret from his mother? And with his VISA expiring in only a few months? Will Natali's crush on Izzy lead to a shift in their relationship? Or will Izzy explore her newly discovered bisexuality in another way? I'm off to read Abroad: Book 2, eager to spend more time with these nuanced, sympathetically drawn characters.

Photo credits:
Rainbow Russian doll: RUSA LGBT
Russian queer activists: ABC

Liz Jacobs
Abroad: Book One
Brain Mill Press, 2017