Books to the Sky

I discovered Chick Lit my last year in college, when I read a string of books in a row intended to distract me from my thesis. These were cutesy romances involving flawed heroines living in cities, and most of the ones I read were fluffy nonsense, but I could recognize something there. Before the books became cookie-cutter Bridget Jones clones, these were books about women, most of whom worked in media and lived in big cities like New York, and who were an interesting contrast to the typical superlatively beautiful and perfect romance heroine. And, hey, what did I do after college? I moved to New York and got a job in media.

I hate the label “chick lit” because I think it’s belittling. I went to an Erica Jong reading around the time her autobiography was published, and I chatted with her a little at the end about chick lit. She also hates the label because it necessarily segregates female authors in the book stores. Because, let’s face it, chick lit is looked down upon as being, well, fluffy nonsense.

But I like the idea of books about urban women with flaws. Maybe because I can see myself in a lot of these heroines, but I think there’s something really appealing in that. I’m also a sucker for a book that takes place somewhere I know well.

A new wave of chick lit is deemed more realistic. An example is Amy Sohn’s new novel about Park Slope (Brooklyn) moms. Themes in these novels include finding oneself after divorce and raising children in affluent communities.

I work in Park Slope and spend a fair amount of my play time there, too, so I know from Park Slope moms, trust me. The idea of a novel about 4 Park Slope couples is kind of appealing, and I’d read it jsut to find familiarity. But after reading the summaries of this novel, I came to realize that I do not know these women. Or if I do, but I don’t like them. What I like to call the Park Slope Mom Brigade is something of a joke around these parts because these moms are crazy and overprotective, and conjure images of helicopter parenting and food co-op memberships (see also Fucked in Park Slope). And I’m supposed to find them sympathetic? Novels featuring wealthy divorcees? Um, what? I have some respect for what these writers are doing, but I feel like it’s not that far removed from Candace Bushnell, and maybe it’s “realistic,” but it’s still kind of whiney and elitist.

Thoughts?

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Title: The Phoenix
Author(s): Ruth Sims
Publisher: Lethe Press, 2008
Genre: Victorian Epic
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Warning: There are some spoilers in this review, mostly because the part of the book I liked the least was the last quarter of it, and I don’t think this would be an adequate review without explaining what I didn’t like. I’ll try not to spoil it too badly, though.

So I picked up this book after reading this review. I thought, okay, midwestern grandma writes a Victorian epic at the center of which is a gay romance? Sign me up!

The Phoenix is a little first-novel-y, in that there are some structural problems, a little bit of head-hopping, and A LOT of plot (although that’s more a genre convention than a flaw). It’s surprisingly well put together, though. I think it falls short of other Victorian epics I’ve read in the same vain (examples: The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber, Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters) but it was still a fun read and full of every Victorian Novel Cliché you can think of.

Jack Rourke is our Oliver Twist, a boy born to poverty with a viciously abusive father and a weak twin brother named Michael. At fourteen, he befriends an actress named Lizbet who helps him get a job as a stagehand at a theater. Lizbet also teaches him to read and speak properly. Jack comes home one night to find that his father has killed Michael, so Jack in turn kills his father, then runs to Lizbet for help. She smuggles him out of London to St. Denys Hill, her family’s home. Jack is taken in by Xavier St. Denys, Lizbet’s brother, who is happy to take in the boy because he knows he will never marry or have a son of his own. You can guess why. Although the house parties he hosts that are attended only by well-dressed men might be a clue. In an effort to disguise his identity, Xavier renames Jack Christopher, then he later adopts him, so he becomes Christopher St. Denys, called Kit. Kit soon becomes the most famous and well-respected actor in London. Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted on: July 29, 2009

I’m playing with site themes. Do not fear change!

Candy at Smart Bitches has a thought-provoking post up that gets into some interesting questions. I think a lot of romance readers probably have a love/hate relationship with some of the tropes of the genre, especially as pertains to gender roles. Candy certainly does, and she writes:

So, in romance novels, acceptable, masculine behavior for heroes that’s normally associated with the feminine include nursing a heroine through an illness, or confessing his emotional vulnerability, or being gentle and loving with animals and children. Other types of feminine behavior or traits outside the masculine, heteronormative norm are either seen as:

1. Transgressive and therefore villainized (homosexuality, bisexuality and general gender queerness used to be one of the most reliable earmarks, though that has changed somewhat in recent years. There are cross-dressing heroes and heroines, which is potentially queering, but they do it out of necessity and for purposes of disguise; there are not, to my knowledge, heroes or heroines who are true transvestites; anyone transgendered for a hero/heroine is still pretty much right out);

2. Signs of effeminacy, emasculation or mental illness and often portrayed comedically (slim physiques; preoccupation with fashion; dislike of violence or physical confrontation); or

3. Emasculating and therefore not portrayed very often at all (heroes who give up their successful careers to be with the heroine; stay-at-home dads). One big exception: if the hero’s job is one that substantially endangers his life, such as being an assassin, it’s perfectly acceptable for him to give up the job for love of the heroine, but then there’s usually the understanding that his super-secret Swiss bank account is every bit as turgid as his Staff of Pleasure and Wonderment. Or if the job is dangerous but either socially acceptable or not outside the law (he’s a Bow Street Runner, for example), he switches to a desk job, and it’s usually a sign of promotion.

I think my greatest beef with the genre is its strict adherence to traditional gender roles and to the characterization of things that fall out of these strict binaries as being bad or villainous. It’s why I hate virgin heroines; I want a woman who owns her sexuality, but many, many romances still seem to subscribe to the idea that it’s not okay for a woman to want to be sexual. Sexual women in romance novels tend to be evil ex-wives, you know?

Candy finds a silver lining:

One of the most powerful aspects of romance novels is the fact that they feature women who get to win. And it doesn’t matter if I agree with the terms of the heroine’s victory—I may think that her win was unrealistic, or unhealthy, or pyrrhic at best, or even a dead loss. What matters most is that the heroine triumphs, and that she ultimately gets what she wants. This doesn’t mean that I’ll stop critiquing the terms of that victory, and what those victories in aggregate say about readers and authors and society in general, but no other genre allows the women to win as consistently as romance novels do—and this is a valuable thing in and of itself.

I’ve been reading a lot of m/m romance lately, and had a discussion with a friend of mine about why we like it so much: it’s because there is no clearly defined gender category for the two protagonists to fall into. They start as equals. I, for one, would like to see (especially in contemporaries) a male and a female protagonist for whom there is a presupposition of equality. (Maybe this is why I like Suzanne Brockmann’s books so much. She knows how to write a strong woman, one who can triumph even playing with/against a big ol’ alpha male.)

Anyway, read the whole post. There’s some interesting discussion going on in the comments, too.

Sorta kinda tangentially related: Amanda at Pandagon has a post up entitled Why don’t men read more romance novels? The post is really about why women don’t watch porn (in reaction to an article by Violet Blue arguing that women say they don’t like porn because women aren’t supposed to like porn; see also some of what I said here about women and sexual agency). But Amanda says:

But even with the availability of stuff that you can kind of guess won’t be overtly misogynist, women still don’t consume as much. Why?

On one hand, that’s like asking why men don’t read more romance novels. You can usually tell when you’re in the intended audience, you know. Women aren’t stupid.

Which… hmm. I think she has a point about porn; so much of it is so obviously made with male (gay or straight or whatever) viewers in mind, misogynist or not. Same deal with romances (gay or straight or whatever, come to think of it). So many of them cater to (stereotypical) female fantasies: men as protectors, men who are strong but also sensitive, any of the things Candy listed that I quoted above, even, you know, two hot guys making out with each other. (Which is where I kind of differ from Amanda’s POV. She goes on to critique porn because female orgasms are so obviously fake and male orgasms are so obviously real, but I’ve read that a lot of male orgasms in porn are fake, too, created with prosthetics and, no joke, Ivory dishsoap. More to the point, Amanda dismisses Violet Blue’s point about women liking gay porn; at least the commenters are all, “Fanfic, hello?” And also, Exhibit B: the vast amounts of m/m romance and erotica written by women for other women. Just saying.)

I can’t deny that the fantasy is part of the appeal. The first time I picked up a Nora Roberts novel, I thought, “Oh, I get it.” Roberts tends to write men who strike me as realistically drawn and also immensely appealing. The heroes seem to be pushed out there with a sign saying, “This is your fantasy!” She sells all those books for a reason, you know?

I’ve run into plenty of men who read romance, though, even on the DL. There’s also this guy, who argues that, “I had always thought that the idea of coercing the fairer sex into abandonment stemmed more from the male than the female gray matter.” Which is kind of interesting: are we so steeped in old patriarchal assumptions that romance novels are really female fantasies based on male fantasies? Wacky, yeah? Is that why gender roles are so confining in romances?

Still, I think there are some authors out there who do really interesting things, who turn gender roles on their heads, or who are just really good writers. For me, the appeal lies mostly in the way the genre tackles human relationships, which is on-face what any romance is about. Throw in some fantasy about falling in love in a week and happily ever after, and it’s fun and escapist but can also make you think. Or this is what a good romance does.

Jane at Dear Author has a post up about first lines that pulled her into good romance novels. She lists a bunch. I bet you can think up some classics on your own, everything from “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” to “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” to “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

What are some great first lines that pulled you into a book?

I’ve been thinking for a while that I wanted to do more reviewing on this here blog, but haven’t really followed through with that. So, here’s my attempt to establish some kind of book review format. Let’s do the basics up top:

Title: Cut and Run
Author(s): Madeleine Urban and Abigail Roux
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press, 2008
Genre: m/m romantic suspense/cop drama
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I chose this book to review because I had a lot to say about it. This can be good and bad; I tend to get most passionate about the books that almost get it, but fall short. This is one of those books. The characters are interesting and likable and the bare bones of a good story are here, but the narrative style drove me bonkers.

So, the gist: Zane Garrett is a stuffed shirt FBI agent who’s been on the straight and narrow in “cyber crimes.” He gets paired with a loose cannon by the name of Ty Grady, and together they’re supposed to find a serial killer in New York City who committed a string of murders so bizarre and random that the only way we know they’re connected is that the people running the investigation keep telling us they are. Then, twist! As the investigation proceeds (with basically no developments, just a lot of random violence), it’s revealed that Zane is actually a recovering alcoholic, more comfortable wearing a leather jacket than a suit. Zane is really the loose cannon, and Ty, especially after he winds up in the hospital with a serious concussion, is pretty sedate. Anyway, our heroes gallivant around New York, eventually cracking the case by finding the unlikely but sort of obvious pattern (and I am frankly ashamed that I didn’t figure it out sooner).

I mean, there’s a lot to like here. Two rogue FBI agents who are hot for each other; a serial killer who, it soon becomes clear, is gunning for the FBI agents; New York City; and lots of gunfire and explosions.

And still it kind of falls flat. I was warned in advance both by a review and by another book I read by this author team that there would be some head hopping. This is a narrative peeve of mine, but one I can forgive for some books. Here, not so much. This narrative head hops all over the place, sometimes switching POV within the same paragraph, and it’s chaotic and confusing.

The novel is also a lot longer than it needs to be, with the last chapter being largely unnecessary, IMHO, prolonging the suffering of the characters without a good enough pay off.

The biggest problem, though, is that the whodunnit is really obvious, like the murderer might as well be wearing a tee-shirt that says, “I am the killer.” He drops hints for Ty and Zane all over the darn book, and they never pick up on them. It got to the point where I was kind of hoping I was wrong about who the killer was (I wasn’t) because that, at least, would have been an interesting twist. This author team needs to learn the importance of a good red herring, because the person I suspected was the only logical suspect given the parameters of the genre.

The other thing that put me off this book a little is that the romance between Ty and Zane is a little too Gay for You, a convention I strongly dislike in m/m romance. (For those unfamiliar, Gay for You is a convention wherein one or more straight characters fall for someone of their own gender because the attraction to this one person is so overwhelming. I understand the need for its existence in fanfic, but in romance with original characters, I find it bothersome and unrealistic.) It’s implied that both Ty and Zane have had affairs with men before, but that both also primarily prefer women, so it’s just… what are the odds that two bisexual FBI agents would get paired together and also be attracted to each other? I was skeptical enough that it kept me from really enjoying the romance. There’s a throwaway line at one point implying that Ty mostly sleeps with women because he’s ashamed of the part of himself that lusts after men, but that’s never explored. More to the point, for the first quarter of the book, these characters read straight to me, and I almost wondered if there was going to be any romance at all.

Finally, if I can have a moment as a New Yorker, the stuff that takes place in New York City reads very “tourist” and not at all authentic. For example, at one point, Ty and Zane rent an apartment in “Greenwich,” and I’m guessing by all the references to the hippy dippy bohemians in the neighborhood that the authors mean Greenwich Village and not Greenwich, CT, and I feel like that’s something the editors really should have caught. (Not to mention that the Village is not so much populated by hippy dippy bohemians anymore.) Ty and Zane spend most of their time at hotels in TriBeCa, but then talk about Chinatown like it’s so far away and it’s… right there, dudes. Walk a couple of blocks. So that annoyed me, too. (Note to writers: if you want to set something in New York, at least do your research!)

I read the whole book anyway. It’s not completely irredeemable, but I don’t think I’ll be reading the sequel the authors are rumored to be working on.

Hey, wanna hear something crazy? You know how I don’t like rapey romance heroes? It’s because I am a Young Person!.

Amanda Hess picks apart a blog post by an old-skool romance writer defending rapey heroes. The writer says:

Mind, this definition of “rape” is not a legal one; it’s a highly stylized one in which it allows the female to retain her Good Girl status while still A) having sex and B) enjoying it because the hero is a different kind of rapist: One who is attractive, who is uncontrollably attracted to the heroine, and who gets her off after he’s made it possible for her to have an out, i.e., “I was raped.”

The problem for me is that this whole “women are not supposed to like sex outside of the confines of marriage, and even then, they aren’t supposed to like it much” notion is not really as outdated as we might think. I suppose, if you squint and turn the book sideways and shake it a little, that there’s something a little subversive about the sexual aggression in old-skool romance. The hero, after all, initiates her into enjoyable sex. But he also does this by taking away the heroine’s agency over her own body and sexuality.

My disdain for virgin heroines is well-documented, and I think what bothers me the most about them is that usually, they require some kind of sexual awakening, meaning they aren’t fully-realized people when they meet the hero. I read a lot of romance novels, so I obviously don’t have a problem with people falling in love and finding companionship and whatever else comes with the HEA, but I do have a problem with a woman needing a man to function.

Plus, there’s that whole sexual violence thing. Excuse me for not getting excited about a swarthy hero violating a woman, no matter how handsome or good in bed he is.

Our author goes on:

I’m not sure why there’s this unwillingness to go along with the zeitgeist of the time in which the book was written, but instead to apply today’s standards of fashion or technology or pop culture as markers of timelessness. We don’t expect that of our historical novels, so why do we expect it of “contemporary” romances that cease to be “contemporary” the moment the galleys are finalized?

Amanda Hess answers this pretty well: “Young readers don’t just find the fashions and soundtracks of 70’s romance novels ridiculous—they find the very romantic ideals they’re based on offensive.”

I mean, we make fun because the trope is ridiculous, although it’s not even making fun so much as being actively offended by these old notions of female sexuality. We may not be that far removed from those old notions of what women are supposed to want, but I think a lot of women today, young women in particular, have more agency. We have relationships and jobs and friends and lives, and we don’t sit around in the window waiting for our knights to come rape us.

Books to the ceiling,
Books to the sky,
My pile of books is a mile high.
How I love them! How I need them!
I'll have a long beard by the time I read them.
--Arnold Lobel

From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it.
--Groucho Marx

Interested in writing for us?

We're looking for a few more people as devoted to guilty-pleasure reading as we are! Email bookssky (at) fshk (dot) net!