Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Protest Romance? The ROGUE DESIRE Anthology

If you're disheartened, disenchanted, or simply outraged by the current state of the U.S. national political situation, you can exercise your right to protest in myriad ways. Write to your elected officials to express your opinions. Attend rallies to support the causes you believe in, or protest against the policies you don't. Join a local or national political action group. Call your state senator or congressperson and register your concern.

Or, if you are a romance writer, you can pen a protest romance.

Several RNFF favorites, as well as a few unknown-to-the-blog other writers, have done just that, jointly publishing Rogue Desire. The anthology's tagline reads "When all else fails, find love," but the eight short stories in the collection are about more than finding a romantic partner; they are about how love and protest politics can and do intersect, and to what ends.

Potential leaker? Not looking too likely....
Several of the stories are pretty much wish-fulfillment, political protest-wise. Stacey Agdern's "Truth, Love, and Sushi" is one of them, setting forth the dream that that a child of an abusive authoritarian president will turn against him (calling Tiffany Trump, anyone?). Caroline Crosby's father has recently been elected president, and she has to decide whether to leak documents from a secret notebook detailing "Jason's [her father's] innermost thoughts, Sophia's [her mother's] infamous lists; and things that nobody would admit to in public, let alone write down in private" (Kindle Loc 3757). The leaking seems pretty much a foregone conclusion, even with the small threat that Caroline's youngest sister will be taken away from her if she spills. The romantic attraction between Caroline and her love object, a political blogger, is never to be, apparently, because he's the one through whom she's going to leak the documents. I didn't quite get that, to be honest; since they were already hanging out together in public, it seemed that Max would already be on suspicious folks' radar, even if Caroline stayed away from him post-leak. There's not much in the way of models of positive action that the average reader can take away from this story, either, but wish fulfillment does have its place as a coping strategy, no doubt.

Although at first glance, the story that opens the collection, "Grassroots" by Adriana Anders, appears to fall far less in the realm of fantasy, it still gave me pause. Veronica Cruz, a preschool schoolteacher, decides to take her protest local by running for city council. Odds seemed stacked against her—the local privileged white guy, Clint S. Rylie, may have cheated on high school tests to earn his "A's," but his attractive wife and kids and his financially well-endowed campaign attract far more attention to his campaign that Veronica's local canvassing does to hers. But after Veronica meets a hot blind blogger while on the rounds, she suddenly discovers people she's never met beating the campaign trail on her behalf. Apparently the hot blogger is a wildly popular Internet influencer with the online name of "Horde," and has asked his multitude of fans to get out for the cause. Despite being incensed by the guy's interference, Veronica ends up sleeping with him. But when it turns out that Horde has dug up dirt about Veronica's opponent and revealed it to the press, all without consulting her, she (rightly, in my opinion) blows a gasket. Winning an election due to another person's social media contacts, rather than to actions a candidate takes on her own, struck me as both a wish-fulfillment fantasy and pretty disempowering for Veronica....

I was surprisingly charmed by new-to-me author Jane Lee Blair's "My Delight Is In Her," which features a second chance romance between Kim, who turned down a chance to marry her boyfriend when he decided to become a Presbyterian pastor, and said pastor, Leonard, who is serving a flock in one of nation's capital's less privileged neighborhoods. Kim knows that congregants are always up in the business of their pastor's "First Lady," and wants no part of such a public life. She's chosen public service of a different sort: working in the Department of Labor: "I know they kept me because my skin color looks good on their graphics. I know it. But I'm gonna stay for as long as I can do the most good—or prevent the most harm" (4767). But when she spies Leonard at a protest march, then her date wants to take her to Leonard's church, and then she runs into Leonard again during an organizational meeting for a city-wide protest/prayer service—well, she can't help but revisit her original decision. While Blair states in her author's note that this story is not an inspirational romance, it has many of the trappings of one—protagonists who do not have sex before marriage; Bible verses providing inspiration; change in the direction of the romance that occurs via spiritual insight. But it also has a lot of swearing, some drinking, and an acknowledgement that sex and sexual drives are positive forces in life, not to mention an appealing sense of humor. This is Blair's first published work; I'm looking forward to seeing where her talents take her in future.

Political possibilities, not just romantic ones, are clearly present in the best three stories in the collection, by RNFF standbys Amy Jo Cousins, Emma Barry, and Tamsen Parker.* Paige Robinson, one of the protagonists in Parker's "Life, Liberty, and Worship," has chosen to stay on in her post at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, despite her major disagreements with the policies being implemented by the new administration. Spin class is supposed to be the one place where she can chill from the stresses of her job and politics. But the nerdy guy who takes the bike in front of her, the one who wears t-shirts that are "walking billboards" for his fiscally conservative politics: "Stop the War on Small Business," "Keep Calm and Fight Socialism," and "What Would Milton Friedman Do?" is driving her up the wall (6255). Loathing him even while fantasizing about fucking him, Paige channels her rage into hellacious workouts. But when Paige discovers that the guy she's been calling "Dick" is Carter Cox, the conservative penning smart position papers for the Republican Study Committee, papers that she can't just dump into the shredder without another thought, she can't keep her mouth shut any longer, and her femdom tendencies come to the fore. Can a hate-fuck turn into a real romance? Only if one partner is willing to prove himself by taking political action...

Amy Jo Cousins' protagonists are also on different sides of the political spectrum, although their divide is not one of party, but of technique. Polite, well-behaved diplomat's son and future law school student Kaz Shamsi "had no patience for the anti-fascist protestors who had sprung up since the election and seemed to like fighting as much as the fascists did, no matter what they said about denying Nazis platforms. When shit got violent, brown and black bodies were the ones who ended up suffering most, from the violence or the inevitable police action in response to it" (2191). So when a masked antifa protester fleeing an angry mob during a DC immigrants rights rally that Kaz has brought a group of undergrads to attend jumps on his borrowed motorcycle, Kaz is tempted to tell him to get lost. No Pakistani immigrant needs to get mixed up in some white boy's rebellion. But when Kaz spies the protester's rainbow duct tape armband, he knows he can't leave him behind. High-speed chases get the adrenalin pumping, though, and some seriously close contact leads to an unexpectedly hot make-out session with the still-masked antifa. Who, it turns out to Kaz's enormous embarrassment, is none other than the annoyingly outspoken undergrad in one of the sections he's TA'ing. I really loved the way Cousins showed how people with different opinions can argue forcefully, but respectfully And how even people committed to political protest can make major mistakes. But also how they can learn from them, as seen in this hilarious, but educational, exchange:

     "Man, fascists really don't like it when you make fun of their dick size." 
     "Neither do I, because that's body-shaming, transphobic bullshit and we're supposed to be the good guys."  Shit. His teacher voice shot out of him involuntarily at the most inappropriate times. Or hell, maybe this was the appropriate time. Having saved this kid's ass—he ripped his eyes away from the sweet curve in those black cargo pants—the kid deserved to sit and listen to a lecture. "Do better."
     "Yikes. I will. Sorry. I'm new to the revolution," the guy said as he swung a leg over the rear fender and hopped off the bike. "I can make fun of them for misspelling their signs, right?"
     Kaz tried not to roll his eyes. Newbies. "Is making fun of someone's lack of education or potential learning disability really the hill you want to stake your flag on?"
     "Fuck." The guy reached for his hood as if to shove it down, then froze and dropped his hands with an abortive gesture. "This shit is complicated." 
     "Yeah, it is if you're doing it right . . . . Repeat after me: my revolution will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit." (2318)

In Emma Barry's "Kissing and Other Forms of Sedition," reckless presidential tweeting leads Graham to fear that nuclear armageddon might be all too nigh. Will he die before declaring his long-time love for fellow state legislative assistant Cadence? Damn no, he won't. But Graham and Cadence's night of passion fires Cadence to political, not just personal, heights, and she drags cautious Graham on a road trip to the capital, where she hopes to crash the house of the Secretary of Labor and try to convince her to "get the ball rolling on the Twenty-fifth Amendment process and remove the president from office" (3247). Unlike several of the other stories in the collection, this one doesn't have a too-easy ending, but it does push both its protagonists and its readers to think about just what love means—not just romantic love, but patriotism, love of one's country.

Like democracy, Rogue Desire is messy and imperfect. But it will definitely give you a few moments of entertaining respite from a politically infuriating world. And it might just give you a few ideas about how to begin to make that world a bit less infuriating.

* Tamsen is an NECRWA chaptermate and fellow board member of mine, who was kind enough to send me an ARC of this anthology. No board votes or chocolate chip cookies were exchanged during the writing of this review.

Photo credits:
Tiffany Trump and her father: Metro.us
"First Lady": Michelle Lesley Books
Immigrant rally: Huffington Post

Rogue Desire
A Romance Anthology
Indie published, 2017

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Not your Typical Small-Town Romances: JL Merrow's SHAMWELL TALES

After logging a few too many hours in doctors offices and hospital waiting rooms (on behalf of a relative), and then coming down with a summertime cold in the aftermath, I was in dire need of a lighthearted, funny, but not mindless romance read. Lucky for me, I happened upon the small town romance books of new-to-me author J. L. Merrow at just the right moment. Merrow's Shamwell isn't the typical close-knit but decidedly middle-class small town most commonly found in romance. Shamwell is in England, not the States, and includes inhabitants whose jobs (from  teacher to ratcatcher, tax accountant to postman) and ways of speaking reflect their quite different class positions. Oh, and Shamwell has its share of gender queer inhabitants, too—non-binary, homosexual, bisexual, and presumably straight but surprisingly open to unexpected attraction to a member of the same sex inhabitants, rather than the predominantly heteronormative characters who typically populate small town romances. "Award-winning gay romance with a dash of humor—and no tea" is the logline adorning the home page of Merrow's web site, but these books had more than a dash of humor; they made me laugh out loud, not a feat easy to accomplish with this not-easy-to-amuse reader.

None of the four books features tormented protagonists, or deeply troubling problems that stand in the way of the romances that develop within each. Instead, Merrow gives us humorous, loving portraits of men across the class spectrum, men whose expectations about romance are challenged in funny but telling ways in their small town.

The first Shamwell book, Caught!, features bow-tie-sporting Robert, who has taken a job as a primary school teacher in Shamwell after a hinted-at but not explained dust-up at his previous post. Robert thinks there's little chance for romance in Shamwell, especially given his job: "I gazed out on the sea of female and/or wrinkly faces in the pews and wondered idly if there was any job in the world, anywhere, that was worse for meeting men than the average primary-school teaching post" (81). Yet the uncle of his most troublesome pupils (twin boys whose mother is undergoing cancer treatment) proves to be surprisingly open to chatting with him. Their initial encounter seems to get off to a bit of a bumpy start:

     "Guess it's not easy being gay and teaching in a place like that."
     I blinked at him. He knew I was gay? Who'd told him? No, I must have misheard him. He hadn't said that. Had he?
     Sean took a step back. "Uh, sorry mate. No offense. It's just that you look . . .  Sorry."
     Oh. "That's quite all right," I muttered to my brogues. My face was hot. I suppose it was only fitting that it should turn a fetching shade of pink, seeing that the rest of me apparently proclaimed my sexual preferences to the world at large. (256)

But it's not Robert's queerness, but rather his far different education and background, that bisexual Sean is commenting on:

     "We're not really used to someone like you here," [Sean] said, which made me feel even worse.
     "Shamwell has hitherto be a queer-free zone, has it?" I snapped.
     "What? No, you got me wrong. I just meant, you're a bit of a cut above, you know?"
     "A cut above what?" I asked, suspicious. If there was a circumcision joke in the offing, I was . . . I was getting paranoid, I decided. 
     "Well, the way you talk—the way you dress, come to that—I'd have thought you'd be teaching royalty at Eton, not slumming it here with us." (261)

Since Sean grew up in council (public) housing, never went to college, and works as a pest control technician, his class position is decidedly different from Robert's. Yet in Shamwell, crossing class lines presents almost as few problems for potential romantic partners as does being queer. In fact, it's the romance trope-y "secret from the past," not queer-bashing or differing expectations stemming from economic or educational backgrounds, that threaten to keep Rob and Sean apart.

Despite their largely angst-free storylines, each of Merrow's Shamwell books asks important questions underneath their lighthearted comedy. When in a relationship does keeping quiet about some of the seamier details of one's past cross from an acceptable respect for privacy into a distrustful hiding of an important truth? When should a formerly closeted parent come out to his child? Where do you draw the line between appealingly "waspish camp and intellectual snobbery" and rude, insensitive disregard for the feelings of others? (Played! 940) Which should matter more—a long-time friendship, or protesting against thoughtless homophobia? Should you tell your fellow small-towners who assume you're sleeping with your new lodger that you're not, even if you're suddenly wishing you were?

I especially enjoyed book #3 of the Shamwell Tales, Out!, which features a thirty-nine-year-old father and a twenty-five-year-old bachelor who have radically different ideas about just how far "out" one should be. Despite finally accepting his queerness after years of living a straight life, recently-divorced tax accountant Mark chooses to move himself and his teen daughter to Shamwell determined "to put his daughter first and avoid looking for hookups while she was living with him" (371). Convinced that the divorce has already put enough stress on Florence (no longer willing to be called Florrie, but instead insisting on being called Fen), Mark is determined to keep his sexual orientation a secret from her. For Mark, "It'd been a revelation . . . seeing young men in their teens and early twenties casually kiss one another on the street after a night out. Had things really changed so much in the last twenty years? Mark couldn't imagine daring to kiss a boy on the street at a similar age" (Out! 361). And he certainly can't imagine explaining to Florrie—ah, Fen—just what another man might be doing in his bedroom . . .

Needless to say, such an attitude seems more than antiquated to the hot guy who catches Mark's eye at the Shamwell Spartans Fun and Funds Foundation, a local charity/drinking club which Mark joins at the urging of his daughter ("For God's sake, Dad, get some bloody hobbies. You're driving me mental hanging round the house all the time" [85]). At first, quick-tempered bisexual Patrick thinks Mark's reluctance to out himself to Fen is just an excuse to avoid Patrick—"It couldn't have been that different when he was growing up. Could it?" And, even worse, Patrick reads Mark's explanation as a form of internalized homophobia: "Didn't he realise how it sounded, him lumping in nonstraight people with all the bad crap he wanted to keep away from his daughter until she was thirty or something?" (1833). Yet after Patrick talks to his mom (who is only five years older that his would-be lover) about what it was like for gay kids when she was a teen, he gets a bit more perspective, and becomes more willing to listen to (if not accept) Mark's reservations about openly dating.

Generation gap, sure, but the idea that an age difference of only fourteen years could make such a big difference in two people's experiences of their society's attitudes toward sexual identity? That made think harder about how not just class and race can affect one's ideas about sexual identity, but how age (even small differences in age) can, as well.

Gobbling up all four of Merrow's Shamwell books over the course of my three-day cold recovery made those hours go by far more quickly than my typical bout with the tissues and decongestants usually does. I'm almost looking forward to my next germ infestation—Merrow has quite a few other series available, ready for my (and your) sick-day reading pleasure.

Shamwell Tales
new editions from Riptide, 2017