Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Thoughts on #metoo

If all women who have been sexually harassed/assaulted wrote "Me too" we might get a sense of the magnitude of the problem.


I write that hashtag with very mixed feelings. Because I know acquaintances, friends, and family members who have been sexually assaulted, and I'm wary of diminishing their pain by lumping their trauma together with the far lesser one of being verbally harassed that I've experienced. And because, perhaps because I've worked most of my adult life in female-dominated professions (publishing; teaching; romance writing), I've not experienced the micro and macro aggressions of daily sexual harassment that many of the people using the #MeToo hashtag write about. I want to support other women in speaking out about their experiences with rape culture, but I don't want to co-opt their struggles or their pain, or claim that I've been its victim except on a small scale.

Yet, I do have memories of being sexually harassed. The one that resonates the most for me is from my early teen years, when I went over to the house of my friend and neighbor on Christmas to check out his holiday haul. Ralph was part of a large Italian family, and many of his relatives had gathered at his family's house for their traditional holiday dinner. As he and I headed upstairs, away from the holiday hubbub, I heard one of his older uncles call out, "Hey, way to go, Ralphie!" The implication being that Ralph was taking me upstairs to make out, or score with me sexually, reducing me to an object of his nephew's desire. This memory stands out for me because it was the first time that I was aware that what I was experiencing was the result of sexism, rather than some out of the blue aggression, someone talking about me as a sexual object, right in front of my face. The incident was upsetting and demeaning, but I felt like I gained some control over it by being able to name it, to label it, to understand that it was not (or not just) about me in particular, but about this larger malignant belief in our culture, this belief that male experiences were of more value than female ones.

So, I'm wondering—when do you first remember not just being the victim of sexual harassment or abuse, but when you were able to understand that you were on the receiving end of a specifically sexist act?

I've also been thinking about being sexually harassed indirectly, through the pages of romance novels. Twentieth-century romance novels have a long history of romanticizing rape, holding up as heroes men who commit violent acts, and women who equate so-called alpha male behavior with caring. Men who beat up the purely evil villains who rape their beloved heroines are the ones that really get on my nerves here; I'm sure you have your own pet peeves. Many proponents of the romance genre argue that it is inherently feminist, because it is a genre for women, by women, and about women, a genre that centers female experiences and concerns. But it is also a genre that has many, many examples, not only in the Old Skool past but also in the present, of idealizing behaviors for which many using the #MeToo hashtag are taking others to task.

In her piece on the #MeToo movement in The Guardian earlier today, Jessica Valenti argues that it's time for women to start making and sharing lists of the perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault, rather than speaking out yet again about their experiences of being on the receiving end of such harassment and assault.

I've always tried to emphasize the positive on this blog, but perhaps it's time to start making a list of romance novels that do the same.

What books would you put on such a list?

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Urge RWA to follow up on "The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing"

Last Thursday, The Ripped Bodice, the new romance-only bookstore in Culver City, California, published a fantastic (or, rather, fantastically dismaying)  4-panel infographic entitled "The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing 2016." The infographic opens by explaining "It has become abundantly clear that there are racial disparities in mainstream romance publishing. We have found it difficult to continue the conversation without hard data."

Hard data that neither publishers, nor professional organizations such as the Romance Writers of America, have heretofore made the effort to collect or to publicize. So Bea and Leah Koch, owners of The Ripped Bodice, decided to do the research themselves. Taking a page out of the Cooperative Children's Book Center folks, who have been collecting and publishing data on diversity in children's literature since 2002, the Kochs contacted and polled 20 commercial romance publishers, asking them to supply data on how many authors of color their houses published in 2016; collected data on books published from publishers who declined to participate; researched how individual romance authors self-identify, racially; and then compiled and analyzed the resulting figures to present a snapshot of the state of racial diversity in the romance publishing field.

And pretty sad figures they are. The low end of the scale dips distressingly low: 1.8% for Random House; 2.8% for Avon Romance; 3.9% for Berkley; and a dismal 0% for HQN & Tule. The high end is worth noting: 12.2% for Crimson Romance; 17.5% for Forever/Forever Yours; and 19.8% for Kensington. Yet those three presses account for only a small fraction of the larger market, and are the only houses out of the 20 featured whose 2016 titles included at least 10% by of authors of color. Half of the publishers surveyed had fewer than 5% of their books written by people of color.

One of the bigger surprises for me: the low figures from LGBTQ publishers Riptide (1.4%) and Dreamspinner Press (5.8%).

That two bookstore owners, rather than romance's own professional organization, felt the need to take on this work is more than a little sad. I hope members of RWA will urge the organization to work with The Ripped Bodice to build on this preliminary research, so that the group can be an informed, as well as a passionate, advocate for romance authors of color.

In addition to conducting a yearly survey of the state of diversity in commercial romance publishing, RWA seems in the ideal position to gather information on:

     # of POC on the lists of small press publishers
     # of POC as Independent/self published authors
     # of POC Membership in RWA

What other research do you hope RWA (or, in its absence, The Ripped Bodice or some scholarly researcher) will undertake to call attention to the immense racial disparities in the romance field?

You can find the full pdf file of the infographic at the Ripped Bodice store website, here.

Friday, October 6, 2017

The Gender Gap in Tech: CD Reiss's KING OF CODE


Whenever my significant other, a tech geek who does advanced computer development and research work, attends an academic or commercial conference, he likes to text me the number of people in the audience at each workshop or presentation he attends. That number is always preceded by a much smaller figure: the number of women in each room. Three out of forty. Two out of twenty-seven. Zero out of sixteen. Two out of 19 on stage during three general session meetings. The only room during the conference that had more women, he tells me, was the one in which the "Women in Tech" breakout session was held.

Such numbers are more than a little disheartening, especially for those who like to believe that gender discrimination is far less of a problem in the workplace than it was 50 years ago, or even 20. In some professional fields, such as law, medicine, and the physical sciences, the gender gap has decreased. But not in computer science. In fact, computer science's gender gap has actually increased since 1984:

Why has women's participation in computer science declined over the past thirty five years? Many different reasons have been proposed: the advent of home computers; computer games that focus on competition rather than collaboration; social discourses that code computers as masculine, just to name a few.

In her latest contemporary romance, King of Code, CD Reiss highlights yet another reason—sexism among male computer coders. Our introduction to the book's narrator, Taylor Harden, comes as he's engaged in sex with the sole female employee in his small computer start-up company, in the company supply closet. After he's finished, Taylor muses about the experience:

Raven looked great walking into the hall after she'd just demanded I rip her apart with my cock. I had no feelings about her whatsoever, and that lack was mutual. Working sixteen-hour days in the same office meant we fucked each other or didn't fuck at all. This was why I didn't hire women, besides the fact that they turned nerd IQ points into premature ejaculations. I usually wound up fucking them. But my lawyer had said to hire one, pay her well, and not fuck her. I'd taken two-thirds of the advice. Raven had needs, same as I did. She was so anti-drama, she practically had a dick. (Kindle Loc 173)

I'd like to believe that Reiss was exaggerating Taylor's sexism for dramatic effect. But my spouse was not at all surprised when I described this scene and others that highlighted Taylor's gender stereotyping throughout the opening pages of the novel. Such overt identification with male goals, male feelings, and the male gaze, and the consequent objectification and denigration of anything labeled female and feminine, are all too prevalent in large swaths of the high tech field, his anecdotal evidence suggests. Especially in smaller start-ups, where work environments can feel more like carry overs from a frat house than professional adult spaces, the idea that women are distracting, dangerous and even a potential legal liability is far too often the norm rather than the depressing exception. To be a King of Code, one must banish all potential queens and princesses from the room.

Taylor's start-up is on the verge of making a big public splash with a new, non-binary, and above all non-hackable computer system: " 'Quantum Intelligence Four is pure virgin code.' It bleeds when breached. We said that a lot around the conference table room, but not in front of Mona Rickard," Taylor notes while giving a tour of the up-until-now highly-secret company to Mona and several other reporters from Wired magazine (281). Computer guys may make sexist jokes, and reinforce gender stereotypes, among themselves, but most know better than to say what they really mean in public, especially where a woman such as Mona might hear:

"You're pretty sure of yourself."
     "I'm sure about these guys on the other side of the door."
     "I hear it's all men."
     "I hire the best regardless of gender."
     "And all the best had dicks?"
     Someone on her team snorted with laughter. The elevator doors opened, and I led the group to the cage doors.
     "Google hires all the girls," I said.
     "I'm sure." She folded her pad and pencil against her chest and smiled. We saw right through each other, but she couldn't print what I wouldn't say. (249)

Male techie contempt for "girls" is an open secret in the high tech community, one that many men have learned to talk around, in order to maintain plausible deniability—and to maintain their all-male privilege.

After such an introduction to the sexist Taylor, (female) readers are primed for him to be on the receiving end of some pretty major payback. And payback comes, early and hard, as Taylor's purportedly un-hackable system is hacked—right in front of the eyes of Wired's reporting team.

Luckily for an enraged, humiliated Taylor, his hacker seems just as cocky as he is, leaving a clue in the text of The Complete Sherlock Holmes posted in the comments section of the hacked code: Geohash coordinates. Taylor knows that wherever those coordinates are pointing, he has go to face his tormenter-hacker and force him to give back the keys to the code he's locked Taylor out of.

Taylor's hardly expecting the geohash coordinates to lead him in Nowheresville in the Great State of Nowhere, USA, i.e., Barrington, a down-on-its-heels town economically reeling after the recent closing of its one remaining major employer, a bottling plant. Barrington must be just a stop on the way to some bigger town, Taylor insists; no way could a person with an IQ high enough to hack Taylor's code live in such a dead-end town.

Neither is Taylor expecting to find a woman like Harper in Barrington, a beautiful, sexy girl ready to help him discover the identity of his hacker. Or is she? Things get a little confusing when Taylor gradually gets beyond his own sexist assumptions to see the truth: Harper is not just physically hot, but smart as hell. In fact, it's she, not some faceless geek guy, who is actually his hacker. And Harper has some prior history with Taylor, history that Taylor, in his blinkered, sexist bubble, has found it far more easy to overlook than Harper has.

Just who is Harper? How does she know Taylor? And what does she want from him and from QI4? Quite a few very important things, it turns out, including economic opportunity, lots of hot sex, and a recognition of the needs of small towns like Barrington, towns often overlooked in our shift from an industrial to a communications/service economy. Not to mention a little bit of self-reflection on Taylor's part about how his bro-dude attitudes towards girls and women are less about a common-sense approach to ridiculously restricting political correctness and more about maintaining a space where men are not forced to confront the discrimination against women both past and present upon which their gender privilege rests:

    "Honestly? Can I say something honestly without you destroying my life?" [says Taylor to Harper]
     "Sure. Why not."
     "If I'd noticed you, I would have fucked the shit out of you."
     "Thanks. I think."
     "And if you were in SanJo when I staffed. . . I might have hired you. But the 'wanting to fuck you' thing would have been a problem."
     Her jaw tightened, and her face hardened as if she didn't believe me.
     "That's not comforting," she said.
     "I didn't say it to comfort you."
     "You need to fix that, Taylor. You need to grow up and stop letting your dick run the show. It's pathetic."
     I'd been told that before, but her disgust sent the message right into me. I was ashamed. Deeply ashamed. I carried my cock as if it was the president of the company, and I didn't make any excuses for it, but now I wanted to curl into a ball and think about all the decisions I'd made because of where I wanted to stick it.
     I'd thought I was making sure the workplace was appropriate, but what I'd done was make it safe for the impulses of the least appropriate person: Me.
     And. . . Raven. Of course I'd made sure there was one consenting partner in the office just for me.
     Nice leadership. Real nice. I didn't blame Harper for being disgusted.
     "Yeah. Well. I guess, when you put it that way, you're right." (2559)

Why does it matter whether women go into computer science or not? Because, as Forbes magazine notes in response to the study put out by Girls who Code that first called attention to the gap in high tech, "that gender gap not only impacts women's career prospects and financial lives, but the U.S. economy as a whole. Keeping women on the sidelines means more computer jobs will go unfilled, reducing innovation and global competitiveness. It is already happening: in 2015, there were 500,000 new computing jobs to be filled but fewer than 40,000 new computer science graduates."

Perhaps after reading King of Code, a few more women might be inclined to pursue such jobs.

And perhaps a few more men might stop standing in their way.

Illustration credits:
Women Computer Scientists: Girls Who Code

Without Women, Computer Coding: Women Who Rock Science Tumblr

Why is Silicon Valley So Awful to Women?: The Atlantic

The Case for Computer Science in the Classroom: Robomatter.com

King of Code
Flip City Media, 2017

Friday, September 29, 2017

New York Times disses romance authors

Hey, all, many of you have probably heard about the so-called "book review" of the fall's upcoming romance books, penned by famed literary editor Robert Gottleib, that appeared in Wednesday's issue of the New York Times. If you haven't read the piece, you should check it out, here.

Why the paper thought a man known for editing literary fiction was the best choice for such a piece is more than a bit puzzling. What isn't puzzling is the frustration, disappointment, and outrage felt by romance authors and readers alike by the patriarchal, condescending tone of Gottlieb's piece. Several of those people have written strong blog pieces in reaction: check out Ron Hogan's piece at Medium, "All the Dumb Things You Can Say About Romance Novels, All in One Convenient Place," and Olivia Waite's "Robert Gottlieb is Obviously Smitten" from the Seattle Book Review. And the many, many smart, informed comments people have posted online in the comments section of the article, as well as on the Book Review's Facebook page, are heartening. I hope RWA will send the Times a letter protesting this latest example of shaming the industry, its writers, and its readers.

If you're frustrated, disappointed, and/or outraged by the Times' piece, please let the Times' book review editor know, either by posting a comment in response to the Gottlieb piece online, adding a comment to the Times' Facebook page, or sending an old fashioned snail mail letter to the editor:

Via email: books@nytimes
Via snail mail: The Editor, The New York Times Book Review, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10018.

This is the comment I posted on the Book Review's Facebook page:

Wow, sexism, classism, racism, urban bias, ignorance, and misinformation, and even more sexism, all in one book review/roundup. Way to insult so many people at once, NYT.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Getting the Sex You Deserve: Tanya Chris's MY GUYS

Conventional wisdom says that relationships most often founder over disagreements about either money or sex.  In Tanya' Chris's MY GUYS, the latter reason appears to be the cause of the implosion of narrator Melissa's fifteen year marriage to Alex. Catholic, white Melissa certainly wasn't going to forgive Alex for sleeping with other women, especially when he and Melissa were in the midst of trying to conceive a baby. But Melissa's at loose ends after Alex's departure: "There was so little left when Alex was gone that I thought, at first, that I was gone too, like he'd taken me with him when he moved out the way he'd taken the Keurig" (Kindle Loc507). At thirty seven, her divorce from the man she thought was her soulmate on the cusp of being finalized, Melissa knows that she has do something different with her life if she wants to get out from under the ruins of her failed marital dreams.

Happily married sister Morgan tells her, "Get some hobbies.... Improve yourself. Meet people. Stop looking for some guy to fill the hole in your heart. Be your own hero" (45). Before now, Melissa's life has revolved solely around her job and Alex: "I was going to be a wife, then a homeowner, and eventually a mother. By day, I would file taxes and he could file briefs. By night, we'd cherish each other and those eventual children" (45). If she is going to find out who she is, and what she wants, separate from Alex, Melissa needs to do something different. Something out of her comfort zone.

Melissa isn't expecting much from a local "Let's Meet" event at a local community theater, doing volunteer work to help build the set for the group's upcoming production. Nor from an invitation from a co-worker to try her hand at rock climbing at a local gym. But to her surprise, Melissa not only gets pulled into both of these communities, but also into a relationship with a different twenty-something guy from each of them.

Nate, a charming, charismatic actor in the community theater, loves women, especially older women. But he is definitely not interested in any sort of monogamy: "Exclusivity. Commitment. Relationship with a capital R. I don't see the point. . . . I can't do it" (832). Nate will never cheat on Melissa (who he renames Lissie) because he will never promise to be sexually or emotionally faithful to her alone.

Lissie, who has always though of herself as somewhat of a prude, is reluctant to become sexually involved with Casanova Nate. But when it seems Nate is about to take her refusal to heart and move on to other opportunities, she can't bring herself to give up the chance to have sex with someone other than her husband. Not when she's so physically attracted to Nate, an attraction she hasn't felt in many years, even for Alex.

But their first time in bed together doesn't quite go the way Lissie had planned. Knowing how difficult (nay, impossible) it is for her to come during penetrative sex, Melissa does what she's always done: fakes her orgasm. Nate, though, unlike Alex, is very aware of his partner's body, and can tell Lissie's not really there with him: "I know that most women need something more than a dick moving in and out of them. It was highly unlikely you were coming that easily, that quickly. I hadn't earned it." (1608)

Talk about embarrassing! But rather than reject her, or yell at her, Nate surprises her by gently asking her about her past sex life, and about her reasons for faking. And then works with her to discover what does turn her on, and what doesn't. Honesty, no lying, that's Nate's mantra, both in and out of bed. And Lissie finds that it's one that works for her, too. And that she's content with their intensely intimate times together, as well as with the reality that when they are apart, they are apart: "our lives didn't spill over into each other's" (1956).

Lissie expects that her blossoming sexual relationship with Nate will make her feel less attracted to the other younger man she's been drawn to, shy, sexy part-Asian Derek, a fellow climber at her rock gym. But in fact, it's the exact opposite: energized by her sexual discoveries, and by the physical high of climbing (and given a bit of a nudge from Nate), Lissie extends an invitation to Derek to share a sexy shower after a shared climbing trip. And suddenly, abandoned wife Lissie is dating not just one but two men, hardly able to believe she's the same "uninteresting, uninterested" woman her husband cheated on.

Derek, more of the steady monogamous type than is Nate, isn't happy to learn of Nate's existence. But Lissie isn't ready to settle down with either guy, or give either one up. Nate, the performer, isn't jealous of Lissie's relationship with Derek; in fact, he ends up giving her some great advice about how to help Derek become a better lover (his oral sex skills leave something to be desired):

     "You could give him some guidance, you know, with his technique. You don't have to accept it as bad."
     "I wouldn't know how. I don't know what you're doing down there. I'm not that conscious."
     "You know what feels good and what doesn't. Tell him."
     I didn't answer, trying to imagine a conversation along those lines.
     "Lissie." Nate brought a hand up to my breast. He rubbed the nipple idly with his thumb, silent for a moment. "Never mind," he said at last. "It's none of my business. Just remember, you get the sex you deserve." (2721)

You get the sex you deserve. An idea that allows Lissie to think again about the explanations Alex offered her when he confessed his sexual betrayals. Explanations that she refused to consider out of hand at the time, but which she can't help but understand better after her own path to sexual awareness:

     "But we do have sex."
     "Rushed, routine sex. And not because you want to.... I can't go the rest of my life with a partner who's uninterested in sex, who's uninterested in me. I can't do it."
     "You could have talked to me first," I choked out between sobs. "If things were that bad, I didn't know."
     "If it makes you feel better to tell yourself that."
     I tried to pretend I didn't know what he meant, but one scene after another was surfacing from the depths of my memory—my hands stopping his as they moved down my body; the resistance in my shoulders when he tried to push me down his; my harried look when he kissed me during the day, flinching away from him because I knew where it would lead; the heavy sigh when his hands reached out to me under the covers.
     "It's been that way for years. Beyond years. This baby thing was the first time you approached me for sex since Costa Rica" (1221)

What kind of sex does Lissie deserve? And what kind of relationship? Can giving voice to your needs in bed help you give voice to those outside of it? And which—or how many—man/men will she choose to voice her needs to? Lissie's story may be less of a romance and more a coming-of-age story (if one can rightly label a thirty-seven-year-old as "coming to age"), but it has a lot to offer readers who have been raised in families or cultures (or by conventional romance novels) to believe that sex is something that happens magically, without any discussion, without any learning, without any sharing of likes and dislikes with one's partner. And if it doesn't feel right, then there must be something wrong inside of you, rather than something wrong with what you and your partner are trying to doing together.

Because although it may seem that many relationships fail because of sex, it may be more accurate to say that relationships often fail because of lack of kind, open, and honest communication about sex.

Photo credits:
Let's meet: Niceynotes
Fake Orgasms: The News Independent
Sex Talk: TataWars

My Guys
TC Publishing, 2017

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 fiancé, 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!

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Ethics of Caretaking: Kate Hewitt's MARRY ME AT WILLOUGHBY CLOSE

I've always been intrigued by feminist debates about gender and caretaking, stemming most likely from my college psychology class readings of Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development and Carol Gilligan's feminist critique of the same. Do women make moral decisions based on their effects on others, while men make such decisions based on abstract principles? And if so, are women by nature better at caring for others than men are? If such gendered differences in fact exist are those differences the result of nature or nurture? What are the downsides, as well as the benefits, of emphasizing caretaking as a distinctly feminine trait? Do our beliefs about the gendered nature of caretaking limit men as well as women? What if I'm a woman and I hate taking care of others? Might personality, rather than gender, be a better determinant of who will be a good caretaker, and who will not? Kate Hewitt's latest contemporary,  Marry Me at Willoughby Close, had me thinking about all of these debates, in fictional terms.

I've never heard of the term "cozy romance," but if it doesn't exist, it should, and Hewitt's story would be a prime example of it. This gentle story is told from the point of view of twenty-two year-old Alice James, a quiet, diffident white English girl who has spent most of her growing up years in and out of foster care. Having just aged out of the shelter in which she was living, one specifically for ex-foster kids, Alice has been lucky to be taken under the wing of kindly Ava Mitchell, who buys her clothes, helps her with her CV, and even gets her the interview for the new job she starts at the opening of the book: taking care of eighty-six-year-old Lady Stokely, a terminal cancer patient who has chosen to forego any further treatment.

Though she's spent the last four years working in a nursing home, this is the first time Alice will be paid for being the sole person responsible for the last days of another. But she's not entirely without experience; at sixteen, Alice nursed her own grandmother through dementia until her death. But Lady Stokely's stuffy, superior, and quarrelsome nephew, thirty-seven year-old investment manager Henry Trent, isn't very impressed by Alice's credentials—"Tell me, Miss James, do you feel you're qualified to assist my aunt?" (Kindle Loc 253)—and tries to intimidate her into leaving. Yet despite Alice's worries that Lady Stokely has hired her "simply because she was young and biddable and easily intimidated. All the things she wanted to change about herself" (143), Alice finds herself sounding "almost bolshy" during Trent's interrogation, her annoyance at the pushy man pricking the bubble of her usual diffidence. And thus Alice ends up keeping her job, in spite of Henry Trent's obvious preference that she leave.

Lady Stokely wishes to keep as much independence during her illness as she possibly can. And so she asks Alice not to move into her home just yet. Instead, she offers Alice one of the small cottages on the nearby Willoughby Close. Alice has never had a place of her own before, and takes deep pleasure in making her temporary cottage feel like a home—taking care of herself by caring for her small set of rooms. Alice's friend Ava, as well as the other cottagers in the Close, offer Alice furniture, kitchenware, and lots of advice—especially about how she should not fall for the attractive if cranky Henry Trent. Surprisingly, Alice discovers that not all types of caretaking are welcome: "I feel like you—and everyone here, really—are coddling me, almost," she tells Ava. "And while it's been lovely, so very wonderful, to be taken care of for what feels like the first time in my life—I don't want to be . . . well, stifled. I've doubted myself for so long and I want a chance to be myself, whatever that means" (1699). Being cared for is lovely, but just as Lady Stokely already understands, Alice is beginning to recognize that too much care can be almost as much of a problem as too little. She's also beginning to realize she doesn't have to be quiet anymore in order to receive the care she does want:

And she'd actually spoken up to Ava, which was a small thing, but made her kind of happy all the same. Because she'd never been good at that. She'd been so quiet for most of her life, staying on the sidelines or in the shadows, never really a part of things, never brave enough to speak up or out. Maybe, like Ava had said, being at Willoughby Close would enable Alice to finally find her voice.  (1705)

Despite all of the difficulties she's experienced during her young life, Alice's personality is generally a happy one; "she was always hoping for the best with people. Expecting it, even, assuming that people were kind, that things would work out, that it would all be okay" (1142). The exact opposite temperament, in fact, to the one held by the easily irritated, lash-out-first Henry Trent. Henry, it turns out, has had almost as little caretaking as a child as Alice; sent away to boarding school at five, rarely visited by his self-involved parents, still grieving from the death of a younger brother. But he's chosen a very different way to deal with not being cared for than Alice's shrinking violet impulse; Henry protects himself from fear or uncertainty with the thrust of anger. "It wasn't pleasant, but it made him slightly easier to deal with . . . and to feel sympathy for," Alice thinks to herself after one particularly fraught encounter with her charge's nephew (1812).

And sympathy, unsurprisingly, leads to more tender feelings, in spite of all her friends' warnings. Because Alice can see hints of a more kind, caring Henry behind the snotty aristocratic front he uses to protect himself. Particularly in the way Henry cares for his ailing aunt. But when feelings lead to amorous actions, Henry immediately backs away. Not only does he apologize for his kiss, but, in a real Pride and Prejudice moment, he points to their class differences (Henry is heir to an earldom) to explain why they are "not compatible...for any kind of real relationship" (2310).

Henry's rejection becomes a defining moment for Alice, a moment when she realizes just how little her choosing to stay in the background and please others has gotten her:

The scales had fallen from her innocent eyes. She'd spent her whole life either trying to fit in or to be invisible, and definitely not to make any waves. She'd tried to please everyone, as if that would make a difference to how she was viewed and treated. She'd also tried to believe the best in people because to accept the worst felt like despair, and that could never lead anywhere good. But she'd been wrong all along. She'd been stupidly naïve, and she wasn't going to be anymore. . . . From this moment on she was going to stop looking for acceptance outside herself. . . . Henry Trent didn't think she was good enough for him? Well, he wasn't good enough for her.  (2404-13) 

This newly inspired Alice doesn't betray her personality, or her principles, in the wake of Henry's rejection; she is still, at heart, a caretaker, one who takes pleasure in seeing to the needs of others. But in standing up for her own self-worth, she models for us, and herself, a healthier, feminist ethics of care, one that balances the need for care with the equally important needs for independence and for respect. An ethics of care that can be practiced not only by women, but by men—even, perhaps, by the irascible, but vulnerable, Henry.

Photo credits:
Cozy English dining: Pinterest
I Care: Asmythoughtschange blog
Gilligan's Ethics of Care: Study.com

Marry Me at Willoughby Close
Tule Publishing, 2017

Friday, August 11, 2017

Kick-Ass Heroism and Female Self-Determination: Ilona Andrews' HIDDEN LEGACY series

I'm a longtime fan of Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels Atlanta-set urban fantasy books, but I'd been annoyed by book #6 in the series, 2013's Magic Rises. Rises relies on an old, often sexist romance novel trope—the big lie to one's partner, for that partner's own good, of course—a trope that almost always strikes me as contrived and anti-feminist. Had Kate and Curran's relationship run its course, I wondered?

So I was chuffed when Andrews (the husband and wife team of Ilona and Andrew Gordon) began a new urban fantasy series in 2014. Since Hidden Legacy would be set in a different fantasy world than Kate Daniels' part-magic, part-mechanical Atlanta, and would depict the beginning of a new romantic relationship, it would give the authors a chance to start afresh, rather than trying to spin new/old drama from Kate and Curran's already established relationship.

After I read Burn for Me, I found a lot to like about the world Andrews had created in Hidden Legacy. As the book's opening explains, "In 1863, in a world much like our own, European scientists discovered the Osiris serum, a concoction which brought out one's magic talents" (Kindle Loc 45). Those who took the serum manifested magic in quite different ways, but gaining any godlike power was worth it to the governments and the rich who vied to buy the serum. But, as is the way with many newly discovered medicines, the Osiris serum had some pretty nasty side-effects, and the serum was soon banned. But the magic awakened by the serum did not just effect the one who had taken it; it also affected their children, and their children's children. And soon magical families began to form into Houses, creating a society that runs parallel to unmagical human society, with its own laws, institutions, and power struggles.

Burn's narrator, twenty-five-year-old Texas native Nevada Baylor, isn't a part of an established magic House. But its clear that there's some Osiris-taking ancestors in her family tree. Nevada has some powers—she can tell when someone is telling the truth, and when someone is lying—but she's never studied magic, never been taught much about it, and doesn't know the full extent of her own magical skills. She's kept them hidden, not wanting to be forced into becoming a human lie detector for the government or for some powerful House or corporation. This makes Nevada an interesting contrast to Kate Daniels, who has been raised knowing her lineage and the awesome power that she has inherited because of it, and has been training her entire life to fulfill her destiny. Nevada is genetically poised to become a kick-ass magic heroine, but at the start of her series, she's not yet a superpower, not a dominant player in the larger magical world.

Also unlike Kate Daniels, who is a loner at start of her series, Burn's Nevada Baylor is deeply ensconced in family. She lives in a converted warehouse with her two sisters, her two male cousins, her mother, and her grandmother; the elder members of the family all work in some capacity for the detective agency founded by Nevada's father. But now that Mr. Baylor has died, it is Nevada, the oldest of the younger generation, who takes charge of the day-to-day running of the Baylor Investigative Agency. The agency isn't in the greatest financial position, though, and Nevada feels responsible for keeping her multigenerational family afloat. Again, in interesting contrast to Kate, Nevada isn't estranged from her family, but is driven largely by her need to protect and sustain it. Can one be a kick-ass feminist heroine and still be deeply committed to family? I was curious to see how Andrews addressed this often contentious issue.

By book's end, however, I wasn't convinced that I could write about Burn for Me on RNFF. Because the magic-user to whom Nevada is reluctantly attracted appears to be a more than questionable as a feminist romantic lead. The reputation of Connor Rogan, the head of House Rogan, decidedly precedes him. A few of his nicknames: "Mad Rogan," The Butcher of Merida," "Huracan." During a conflict in Mexico (fighting began after magically potent mineral deposits were discovered in Belize and Mexico invaded), Rogan, a Prime (the top level of magic-wielder) used his telekinetic powers on behalf of the U.S. government to destroy entire cities.

A recluse since leaving the army four years ago, Rogan and Nevada's paths cross when Nevada's agency is hired to track down a man linked to Rogan's cousin. And Nevada's interactions with the guy don't suggest that his values and hers will mesh very well. Meet cute as a kidnapping? Ah, not so much:

     "So instead of talking to me, asking for my credentials, or doing any of those things a normal person would do, you decided to assault me and chain me in your basement?"
     He shrugged, a slow, deliberate movement. "It seemed like the most expedient way to obtain the information. And let's be honest, you weren't exactly harmed. I even took you home.
     "You dumped me on my doorstep. According to my mother, I looked half dead."
     "Your mother exaggerates. A third dead at most."
     I stared at him. Wow. Just wow. (1954)

Even though Nevada finds Rogan crazy sexy, and wonders if there is anything left of the innocent boy he once was (caught on a video before his first foray into government-sanctioned city destruction), she's not convinced that the adult Rogan takes anybody's interests to heart except his own. She's definitely not in favor of working for him when he offers to hire her company:

     "You are incredibly powerful, and you have a blatant disregard for laws and moral constraints. I'm guessing that you don't think anything you ever do is wrong.That makes you very dangerous and a huge liability in mu line of work. You will break laws and kill to get what you want, and if I manage to survive, I'll be left with the fallout. So the answer is no." (2037)

She's also pretty unhappy about his lack of compunction against killing those who threaten him:

     "You killed Peaches."
     "Of course I killed him."
     I opened my mouth and closed it.
     "Okay," Mad Rogan said. "This is distracting you, and I need you to function, so let's fix this. Which part of what happened is upsetting?"
     I opened my mouth again and closed it again without saying anything. Peaches would've attacked us, possibly killed us, so what Mad Rogan did was justified. It was the sheer sudden brutality of it. It was thew way he did it, without any hesitation. One moment Peaches was there, and then he vanished. No trace of him remained. He was crushed out of existence. He was . . . dead.
     "Let me help," he said. "You've been taught all your life that killing another person is wrong, and that belief persists even in the face of facts. Not only would Peaches have killed us given the chance, but this way I only have to kill one person rather than kill half a dozen of his followers. I saved several lives, but your conditioning tells you that I've done the wrong thing. I didn't. He started it. I finished it."
     "It's not that. I was getting ready to shoot him in the head." But when you shot someone, there was a slight chance they might live. There would be a body. what he did was so complete and sudden that I needed a couple of moments to come to terms with it.
     "Then what is it?"
     "It's the. . ." I struggled for words. "Splat."
     Mad Rogan glanced at me, his eyes puzzled. "Splat."
     "I had briefly considered impaling him with one of those steel poles from the roof, but I decided it would be too graphic for you. Would that have been preferable?"
     My mind conjured up Peaches with a steel pole sticking out his stomach. "No."
     "I really would like to know," he said with genuine curiosity. "The next time I kill someone, I'd like to do it in a way that doesn't freak you out."
     "How about you don't kill a anybody for a little bit?"
     "I can't make that promise."
     Small talk with the dragon. How are you? Eaten any adventurers lately? Sure, I just had one this morning. Look, I still got his femur stuck in my teeth. Is that upsetting to you? (2544)

By the end of Burn for Me, Nevada, doesn't have to kill, but has to rescue Rogan from his own power, a princess kissing a mad sleeping beauty back from the edge of magical overkill. But when Rogan comes calling post-apocalypse aversion, Nevada simply can't reconcile herself to the ease with which Rogan can destroy others, his apparent lack of empathy for other human beings. And the way that he can put her own family members in the line of fire, if that will help him accomplish his goals. Even if it turns out said family members agreed to be used: "I can't be with you, no matter how crazy you make me, because you have no empathy, Rogan. I'm not talking about magic. I'm talking about the human ability to sympathize." (5481). Nevada fears Rogan might be a psychopath, or a sociopath, and given his actions in the book, readers can't help but worry she might be right. So when Nevada sends Rogan on his way at book's end, how can readers do anything but cheer?

Did Andrews get push-back against this depiction of the "heroic" Rogan? Or did they have his rehabilitation in mind from the start? Because book #2, White Hot, spends much of its time proving Nevada wrong, or at least complicating her (and our) interpretation of Rogan's psychology. Turns out he does have feelings, does experience empathy, as the murder of several of his employees at the start of White Hot demonstrates: "There was an awful finality in his voice. I hadn't thought he cared. I'd thought he viewed his people as tolls and took care of them because tools had to be kept in good repair, but this sounded like genuine grief" (White Kindle Loc 765). He evokes loyalty from his people, but is in turn loyal to them, rather than just using them. He does have family he cares for (offstage, but still); he does play by some rules, just rules that are different from the ones Nevada has been used to. And his wartime experiences (which Nevada hears about from one of Rogan's doctors, and which she experiences through some sharing of his dreams) transformed him from a young, cocky, idealistic man, one who was kept carefully protected in "bubble of patriotism" from seeing the destruction his powers had caused, into a man who sees the world in black and white, enemies and allies, and who will do almost anything to not feel helpless.

And, perhaps most importantly for romance readers, he's willing to break one very important rule: wanting Nevada, even though the rules of House society say he should only court and marry a woman whose genetic background will ensure his children will have Prime magic power like his own. Not a sociopath, or a psychopath, but a man messed up by his wartime experiences, a man whose empathy is there to be found, deep under the surface.

But I still couldn't find my way to writing about White Hot, either. Because Rogan has the über-protective instinct characteristic of "alpha" romance heroes, a protective instinct that doesn't sit well with Nevada, nor with a reader who values a female protagonist's ability to determine her own life choices. Rogan buys her mortgage without telling her, to keep her safe from a foe who has been searching for her family for years. He tries to keep her from engaging in job-related encounters that may endanger her life. He even puts his jacket on her when she shivers. "What will it cost me? You keep chipping away at my independence every time you try to 'take care' of me, so I'd rather know the price in advance," Nevada challenges Rogan as she brushes his jacket away (3471). It's not that Nevada doesn't appreciate his way of caring. It's that this way of caring endangers her own sense of self: "You do things for me, even when I specifically ask you not to, because you feel you know better. I'm desperately fighting for my independence and boundaries, because otherwise there will be no me left. There will be just you and I'll become an accessory" (3476). By book's end, Nevada takes a risk and starts a romantic relationship with Rogan, risking both that he will be able to move beyond black and white, and that he will allow her the autonomy she needs: "the only way I'll ever respect his wishes is if he respects mine," she tells Rogan's friend and doctor (5293).

It was only by the end of book three, Wildfire, that I felt able to embrace the series wholeheartedly. Because the relationship arc of book three shows Rogan's gradual acceptance of Nevada's need for self-determination. Aptly, two potential romantic rivals show up on the scene, largely to underscore the this message: Rogan's former fiancée, Rynda, who always turns to others more powerful to keep her safe; and a fellow truthseeker Prime, Garen Shaffer, who wants to marry Nevada so that their kids will inherit their truthseeker genes and power. Rogan and Nevada get into some arguments when Rogan's protective impulses lead him to help Rynda even when she doesn't really need it, a pretty obvious counterpoint to Nevada's self-sufficiency. In contrast, Garen tries to woo Nevada by recognizing how hard she's worked to keep her family safe, and warning her that her life with Rogan will threaten that safety:

He'll put you in danger assuming you can handle it, and he'll fail to notice the moment you can't. I would do everything in my power to keep you from being put into a dangerous situation in the first place, because that's what a husband is supposed to do. (Wildfire Kindle Loc 4250).

Given the conflicts in book #2, it's pretty safe to assume that Garen's courtship isn't likely to prosper. And that Rogan's encouraging Nevada to embrace her power, and take her rightful place in the Magical world by officially filing her family for House status and outing herself as a Prime, is.

Andrews' web site says that Wildfire is "the thrilling conclusion" to the Hidden Legacy series. But the book's epilogue suggests that the real baddies are still lurking, biding their time until they can take Nevada and Connor, and the rest of civilized magical society, down. I for one am looking forward to seeing how Nevada and her family navigate House life and mores, and have my fingers crossed that other romantic pairings (for Nevada's siblings and cousins) might be in the offing in future books. Pairings that will also grapple with the negative implications of the all-too-common overprotective male hero in contemporary urban fantasy romances.