Monthly Archives: April 2013

A different stream of thoughts: Trauma, Damaged Heroes, and Coming to Terms

I told myself when I started this blog that I wouldn’t post ridiculously personal ruminations and would use this mainly as a place to work out my thoughts on the things that I’ve been reading and writing.  Well this last week, I have been contemplating the nature of many things: the past and a probable plan for the future–so many possibilities and too much as stake sometimes to really even make good decisions.  No matter that I’m generally a very positive person, some times life in my own brain is just too much.  The past is sometimes much too difficult and one cannot easily overcome it.  When I was a teenager, I wrote epically bad poetry to attempt to process life’s trials, tribulations, and traumas.  Now, I find myself as an adult drawn to damaged fictional characters.  Reading is not only escapism, though I adore that aspect of reading; reading, for me, is about pushing me to think creatively and critically about myself, my life, and the world around me.  It helps me to process through triggers, generally in productive and safe ways.

Just a few of my favorite damaged characters are Sherrilyn Kenyon‘s Zarek and Acheron, J.R. Ward‘s Zsadist, Patricia Briggs‘ Mercy Thompson.  All of these characters are compelling and intriguing in part because at some point and in some ways they overcome their traumas even in the midst of their defensive mechanisms that always seem insurmountable in themselves.  One of the most compelling plotlines for me are those featuring romantic leads that are both damaged in some way.  One example are Destiny and Nicholae in Christine Feehan‘s Dark Destiny, but my current favorite epitome of a damaged couple are Gideon and Eva from Sylvia Day’s Crossfire Series (the first book is Bared to You).  These are two absolutely compelling characters, who both must work to engage with and attempt to overcome their own traumas and the damage that they inflict upon themselves through trying to deal with that damage. For many readers, these characters are so compelling because it has been rare in my experience who, like many of us, actually find themselves attempting to address self-sabotage of the defensive mechanisms they have built to deal with the traumas and trials of their lives.  I absolutely cannot wait to see how their story plays out in the third in the series, Entwined with You–coming June 4.   I will also mention Jennifer Lyon‘s The Proposition (see last post for more here too). I loved if for the manner in which Kat and Sloan demonstrated a resistance to tearing down the defensive walls while at the same time starting to see small cracks in those defensive mechanisms.  I’m looking forward to their continuing story and to see how each of them deals with the past and works to create their own approach to those defensive mechanisms they have in place to deal with their emotional and physical (in Kat’s case) pain.

Overall, here are the questions: what makes some of us take our traumas and turn our lives around and do good in the world and what makes some of us take our traumas and find ourselves unable to see outside of them.  What makes so many of us take those damaging experiences and create detrimental defensive mechanisms, instead of positive coping mechanisms? One of the things I love about reading about these damaged characters is the knowledge that there are other people who are likely dealing with these issues, but more importantly authors are allowing their characters to work through their defenses and their damaged soul.  These are not tales of a happily-ever-after that says “everything gets better” or “don’t worry one day you’ll wake up healed”: these are stories that say “this is hard work, but damn it I’m worth the effort” and “trauma never goes away but it can be managed and maybe even healed.”

I’ll leave you not with my tragically bad poetry, but with a song that resonates with me from Skylar Grey–“Invisible.”  Her sentiments are so real for so many of us: “Here inside, my quiet hell / You cannot hear, my cries for help / I try everything, to make them see me / But every one, sees what I can’t be / Even when I’m walking on a wire / Even when I set myself on fire / Why do I always feel invisible, invisible / Everyday I try to look my best / Even though inside I’m such a mess / Why do I always feel invisible, invisible.”  The power of songs (and books) is that when you recognize yourself in it, it says that you are not alone.  That’s why we read or write, right? To process our own failings and successes, to contemplate about our triumphs and traumas, and to work through all the positive and negative thoughts that swirl through our brains.

Recent Book Recommendations April 2013

Here are some reading recommendations from the last month (well a bit more than that).  I will be updating on occasion about my recommendations.

First up is Jennifer Apodaca‘s The Baby Bargain (Contemporary Romance).  I adored this book. The Baby Bargain features a hidden baby (well actually toddler) plot, a damaged hero (Adam), a strong woman (Megan), and a mystery of a kidnapped show dog. First, I will admit that I have a love/hate relationship with hidden baby plots.  I find them intriguing, as I am never certain how people “get away” with this type of deception.  They are excellent for throwing our strong heroes into unknown and challenging circumstances and ruffling their alpha feathers.  We also get to see fierce strong women, who challenge our commonly held stereotypes about single mothers. I do find the inherent deceit troubling though and generally find this a shaky and not terribly believe ground on which to build a relationship.  Adam and Megan find their way through a morass of difficult emotions and rebuild, albeit on tenuous ground, their friendship and love from their younger days.  Apodaca’s writing of this alpha male and this determined woman is keen and also engages the reader in Adam and Megan’s strained relationship as “real” people not merely cardboard fictional stand-ins.  The Baby Bargain is a funny and intriguing exploration of how a couple can not only overcome their own emotional baggage but also how they can build on that baggage as a solid foundation for the future.  Adam’s struggle to deal with his losses and his fears were heart wrenching, difficult, and totally engrossing.  I found myself wanting to give him a hug throughout (not that he’d accept that by-the-way).  Frequently as a reader, I found myself being frustrated with Adam and Megan in the best ways because we could see these individuals more clearly than they were able to see themselves or each other, making this a story to grip your heart and make you feel for them.   If you are looking for a couple to touch you with their ability to eventually get it together and to do the right thing for the people they love, this will be a great read for you.

I will also say that if you haven’t checked out Jennifer Apodaca writing as Jennifer Lyon, then you absolutely should.  I absolutely love the Wing Slayer Hunter series (a paranormal romance series), start with Blood Magic.  Her recent The Proposition (contemporary romance and self-published) is fabulous.   Sloane and Kat are two wounded souls who are not looking for anything particularly deep and romantic in their lives, but they are the products of that old saying life gives you what you need and not always what you want.  It is a compelling story, and I can’t wait for the chapter in their story, Possession (coming May 28, 2013).  These characters all demonstrate Jennifer Lyon/Apodaca’s stellar ability to write compelling characters who draw you into their emotional triumphs and tribulations but also write a story that keeps you turning pages and unprepared to leave because you just want more, which to me is the hallmark of a wonderful story and great writing.

My next recommendation for the month is Shiloh Walker‘s Wrecked, which in many ways feels like a departure for this long-time reader of Walker’s work.  This is a straight-up contemporary romance, not a paranormal or romantic suspense.  The story is just adorable.  Zach and Abigale are life-long friends, who have a beautiful friendship on which they can base their romantic relationship.  I would bet that most of us readers felt Zach’s pain of loving Abby from the role of friend while she never sees his love, as many of us can likely relate to this type of unrequited love.  Walker navigates the plot with an easy and compassionate hand.  As easy as it would be to dislike Abby for not seeing Zach’s love of her as more than friendship, Walker’s writing allows the reader to like her and understand why she might not see herself or Zach as they really are.  I would recommend Walker’s Stolenher If You . . . series, and her paranormal FBI series (starting with The Missing).  In so many ways, Zach and Abby are Walker’s most well adjusted characters.  As someone who is drawn to damaged characters, I found myself a bit surprised as to how connected I felt to Zach and Abby.  I wanted to see them figure out how to be together and build a stunningly beautiful relationship based on a strong and caring friendship.

In long-term series, don’t miss Lara Adrian‘s Edge of Dawn, which is a novel to kick off the next generation in her Breed series featuring fan-favorites Mira and Kellan.  Also I would recommend Nalini Singh‘s Wild Invitation, an anthology of short stories in the Psy-Changeling series that includes entries Tamsyn and Nate (previously released) and Lara and Walker (previously unpublished) as well as two others.

In other genres, I would highly recommend Patricia Briggs‘s Frost Burned, the seventh installment of her Mercy Thompson series.  Mercy is one of the greatest protagonists currently in the sci-fi/fantasy/urban fantasy worlds. (Mercy and Anita Blake are two of my absolute favorites, just FYI.)  The series is going strong, and the intrigue surrounding Mercy is ever complicated and changing.

Since this is my first post of this type I would be remiss if I didn’t offer a shout out to Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s The Strain Trilogy, which has been an excellent addition to the recent spate of vampire fictions.  The course of this vampire apocalypse narrative is full of social commentary and contemporary global political issues.  I appreciate the turns of the final novel of the trilogy, The Night Eternal.  If you are looking for an apocalyptic vision of vampires and what happens when the world goes mad, then check out this series.

Thoughts on JR Ward’s Lover at Last

Spoiler Alert* and Content Alert (Not for readers under 18)

Having recently finished JR Ward’s much-anticipated 11th installment of the Black Dagger Brotherhood series (BDB), Lover at Last (2013), I have been wrapped up in thoughts of this book.  If you haven’t read the series, I highly recommend it, especially if you enjoy vampires, romance novels, or urban fantasy.  The series beginning with Dark Lover (2005) is incredibly compelling, fast-paced, and overall a fascinating take on the vampire.  It is absolutely one of my favorite vampire series of all time.

Lover at Last centers on male/male couple Quinn and Blay, whom the readers have watched transition to adulthood, become warriors, and generally just be awesome people.  The tension has been building for years between the pair but also for the readers. Many fans worried that Ward may not give Quinn and Blay their HEA (happily-ever-after) moment.  When Ward announced Quay (fan lingo for Quinn and Blay) would have a book, the concern for some of us became: will she maintain her graphic descriptions of sex with a male/male couple?

I will begin my thoughts by saying that I adored the book.  It was wonderful for Quay to have their book that was thoughtful and intriguing.  Ward has a knack for putting entirely more obstacles than the couple can feasibly overcome in one book and yet somehow they do; this trend holds true in Lover at Last.  The periphery stories lines also pushed us to see where the series can go even now that all the original Brothers and many of the key figures introduced within the first few novels have had their stories.  Most importantly, the novel solidified my adoration of Quinn, who has always been a character with depth, kindness, compassion, and loyalty hiding under the guise of his hard-ass attitude.  Quinn completely shines in this novel.   We were able to see the Brotherhood and their allies pull together yet again to support each other through challenges.

And yet . . . and I may be about to lose my Cellie (term for Black Dagger Brotherhood fans) street credit here, but I have two critiques of the novel that I just can’t get out of my brain since reading the novel.  If you haven’t read this novel yet, I’m about to reveal some SPOILERS, so stop reading now if you don’t want to be spoiled.

First, Quinn and Blay’s sex life completely described in the vein of male/female sexual relationships to the point where it feels dismissive of male/male sexuality.  More importantly, it demonstrates a lack of understanding of the physical difference in sex.  As a slightly more than occasional reader of male/male romance novels, the glaring and obvious lack of the use of lube ever in the novel is quite jarring.  During every sexual encounter, I found myself kicked out of the scene to think about the fact that there was no lube. Now, just a sex educator note here: the type of sex this male/male couple engages in with no lube is a very bad idea.  In a positive example of male/male romance novels that describe sex, author Cameron Dane‘s character seem to have lube stored just about everywhere from travel packs in pockets to between couch cushions to every drawer in the house to multiple locations in the car.  Additionally, Quinn and Blay, like all male vampires in the BDB world, are absolutely gigantic in all ways.  During Quinn’s first experience as a bottom, there is no lube, no preparation, and the sex is quite rough.  Here’s the thing: I absolutely believe that Ward’s treating of their sexual relationship as if it were a straight relationship makes the relationship and the male/male sex in this untraditional installment of a mainstream romance series more palatable to the general reader.  I don’t want to condemn the description of their sexual encounters in the novel, but I would have loved there to have been a more realistic portrayal of sexuality, which leads me to my other concern.

So here are my questions to ponder: Were you put off by the lack of realistic portrayal of male/male sex? Would it have been distracting for you if Ward had mentioned the use of lube?

[One more warning for a SPOILER here because I’m going to specifically speak about the ending of the novel]

In the long run, this lack of realistic portrayal of male/male sexual encounters is somewhat petty compared to what I felt was Blay’s utter bigotry.  In chapter seventy-four, Blay and Quinn argue about their relationship.  Blay completely dismisses Quinn’s desire for a relationship because Blay argues that Quinn is hiding who he is.  In Blay’s mind, Quinn is lying about his sexuality.  Throughout the series, Quinn has engaged with both men and women in sexual encounters, though he never bottomed until he does with Blay.  Blay absolutely believes that Quinn is really gay and just hiding it because he can’t fathom being gay because of the other rejections he has faced in his life.  Blay pretty much says that Quinn can’t be bisexual or have a sexual orientation that is something other than gay.  This attitude reeks of “how do you know you’re gay if you haven’t tried to be straight?” It is a black and white, reductive vision of sexual orientation in which only gay and straight exist and that those things are in fact static categories.  Blay’s outlook felt incredibly demeaning.  The most disturbing part, though, is that Quinn acquiesces and does actually tell Blay that he is gay.  Ok, so do people realize that they are gay after denying it? Yes, all the time. But in my reading of Quinn throughout the series, he had always seemed to embody that grey area in which sexual orientation is not a dichotomous construction of gay versus straight but is a spectrum of physical and relational behaviors and attractions. Blay’s reaction felt dismissive of anyone whose identity does not fall into the neat categories of gay or straight; it reinforced the belief that sexual orientation and gender are stable unchangeable and definable labels that others can place on you simply by deciding they know better. Did others read Quinn as lying to himself throughout the series in the way Ward seems to be suggesting?

This fan of the BDB series has decided to continue to contemplate these issues even while loving the novel and being ecstatic that Quay had their HEA.  I hope that folks begin to engage in conversations about sexual orientation and gender that are not reductive and dismissive of the spectrum of possibilities.  As a sucker for an HEA, I hope that we can allow people to be who they are without these stifling barriers of labels. Once again, I’ll site the example of Cameron Dane, whose character Rhone (Quinn Security Series starting with Finding Home) had always dated women until his best friend Adam discloses his gayness and his love for Rhone. Rhone realizes his feelings and attractions for Adam are far more complicated; Rhone’s sexual orientation falls in the grey area in which he does not have to define himself in order to find the love-of-his-life.

Overall, I am pleased that Ward chose to create these amazing characters–these strong, beautiful, loyal men–who discover that their love for each other is not only accepted by their friends and family but makes them stronger as individuals.  Quinn and Blay break boundaries of stereotypes of gay men and remind us all that masculinity is not a static category that depends upon heteronormativity.

My project here

Just a quick thoughts for now about my project.

Having just returned from the Popular Culture Association and American Cultural Association (PCA/ACA) annual national conference in Washington D.C. this year, I have been inspired to do more writing about my engagement with paranormal literature, television, film, and culture.  I am often seeking recommendations about what to look at next and use blogs and the like to do that.  More importantly though, I have been feeling a need to share my thoughts on these things.

As a feminist academic who is deeply embedded in examining popular culture, I find myself frequently at odds with my own tastes and intellectual life.  The thing I frequently find strange in is the need to label or define self, reading habit, intellectual prowess, titles held, etc.  I mean I did it just a sentence ago.  The difficult piece of this tendency arises from the fact that those labels divide, usually arbitrarily.  If I consider myself a feminist or an academic or an administrator, or . . ., do those things exclude each other?  While all the diverging pieces make up who I am, I cannot every fully be all those things at once.  Working on a college campus, being in graduate programs over the years, even going to that bastion of theoretical openness of PCA has taught me that often we must chose which self to prioritize in the situation.

Yes, this was a moment of rambling, and yet I am building up to the following: in examining the concept of the paranormal in literature, television, film, and culture, I hope to be all over the proverbial place.  Even something as seemingly general as “paranormal” means diving into a multiplicity of genres and formats that will sometimes compliment and sometimes conflict.  As someone who reads for pleasure, I love romance, science-fiction, fantasy, mystery, and horror; well, honestly, I just lover to immerse myself into other worlds–real, imagined, largely impossible, or just around the corner.  As an academic with degrees (or near-degrees–yes sadly even those) in English, political science, education, history, women’s and gender studies, and interdisciplinary arts (which is in and of itself a complicated issue), I also cannot avoid theory and postulation.

My goal is to create and engage in an already existing conversation about reading, watching, listening, participating in the world of paranormal literature and culture.  I will write my thoughts about the things I’m reading and writing and hope that others will engage me in a conversation.  For we most learn through challenge and support (that’s the student affairs professional in me)!