Category Archives: Books

Making Modification and Creating Coping Mechanisms

I finished reading Heidi Cullinan’s Carry the Ocean recently. As I am apt to do by the nature of the movements of fate I believe, I somehow found and read yet another novel that touched so many things that I have rattling around in my brain. First, I’ll start by saying that I recommend this book as Cullinan has created excellent characters and the lovely world of the Roosevelt that I’m looking forward to the other books. It was a lovely read.

Emmett, Jeremey, and all the folks of the Roosevelt encounter a world that has established roadblocks and obstacles to their success. The mantra of the novel is that there’s no such thing as “normal.” This has long been the central tenant of my philosophy of life. Many people truly believes there is something called “normal,” and the attempts to prove one’s normality comes at a very high price for the individual. Normal is an individual thing really—it’s more of an individual baseline—one’s own measure of what’s “normal” for them. There truly is no normal, only what we have built as the norm in our own brain. For some the scars and differences are worn upon the exterior of our bodies, and for others, the scars, traumas, and differences are invisible to the world. While Jeremey and Emmett reject the notion of being “broken,” I have always found the idea of being “beautifully broken” and the manner in which those cracks in ourselves are simply reminders of the lives that we live. Some of us ensure that our bodies visualize our difference through body modifications and other methods that we can control even when the disorder, the difference, the trauma feels uncontrollable. Tattoos can become that visible marker of the invisible difference, such as Caden in Laura Kaye’s Hearts in Darkness who marks his body in order to distance himself from others.

In Carry the Ocean, Cullinan introduces the reader to a spectrum of visible and invisible mental health issues, differing abilities, and disorders. I kept finding within the novel moments of identification not only with the characters but also with their emotional lives and their abilities to modify the world around them to be more conducive to difference. I’ve been thinking about coping and defensive mechanisms and modifications that help us live our lives. As we see with Emmett and Jeremey, modifications for interacting with the world become incredibly important. For many people, finding positive coping mechanisms feel completely impossible. I love that Emmett creates mechanisms that help him interact with the world and that he helps Jeremey determine modifications for his depression.

Sometimes the coping mechanism becomes a dangerous defensive mechanism. Edward “Easy” Cantrell in Laura Kaye’s Hard to Hold on To creates defensive mechanisms that damage his sense of self and ultimately his well-being. Suicidal ideations are a part of Jeremey and Easy’s mental illnesses—major depressive disorder and PTSD respectively. Their disorders—their differing abilities—hide in plain sight until Easy and Jeremey are willing to acknowledge the problem. In Felice Stevens’ A Walk through the Fire, Asher Davis’s self-harming behaviors serve dual purpose, as a release valve of the emotional trauma but also as a self-enacted punishment. Asher’s self-harm is more concrete than what many of us engage in. Recklessness often becomes the easiest defensive mechanisms. It is the moment of Vishous’s swandive from the balcony of his apartment in Lover Unbound. I’ve spoken in a previous post about my love for the damaged hero in romance novels, but I’m equally drawn to characters who are different—those who understand that there is no normal. Some of those embrace their difference as Emmett and eventually Jeremey do, while others struggle with their own worth. Trying to discover coping mechanisms that actually work and are not reckless or self-destructive can be very difficult for many struggling with invisible disabilities. It is for this reason that I appreciate all of the novels mentioned in this post, especially Cullinan’s Carry the Ocean, because it shows characters that are actively seeking to better understand their interactions with the work around them.

Fifty Shades and Conversations about Feminism, Sex, BDSM, and Beyond

Ok so lately my tweets and my Facebook shares have had a lot of shares of great news and opinion pieces about Fifty Shades of Grey (I’m so not linking it for lots and lots of reasons).  I’m collating links to those piece below. The other day I waded into a twitter debate (really argument . . . and some crankiness) about this series and its film (I’m hoping to all things good and holy in the universe that it epically bombs so I don’t have to have another bout of movie hype in about a year, but I’m guessing I’m on this losing end of history on this one). One of the arguments that a lot of folks are using is that it’s anti-feminist or essentially shaming anyone who identifies as a feminist for reading and liking Fifty Shades. Before I delve into any Fifty Shades talk, seriously people, reading is a good thing . . . please read . . . read whatever you are into that doesn’t make you a bad feminist, mother, social justice educator, student affairs professional, professor, student, or fill-in-the-blank identity . . . and we need to stop shaming each other about our reading pleasure.  The hard thing with Fifty Shades right now is that many feminist activists and very conservative sectors of America are currently agreeing and working to undermine the novel’s reach.  I admit that worries me quite a bit on many many levels as I’ve never been an advocate of the “an enemy of mine enemy” and all that.  While it’s a great plot device, it’s super bad politics usually, and we end up compromising too much of our selves for a politics of respectability, which as I type that is a whole other issue.

Here’s the thing about Fifty Shades: it is bad erotica, and it’s really bad BDSM. There’s much better romance, erotica, and BDSM romance/erotica out there. If you want recommendations let me know.   It’s bad BDSM because it doesn’t embrace the tenets of safe, sane, and consensual. It’s bad BDSM because it’s based on emotional blackmail.  I find Fifty Shades’ relationships just as problematic and abusive as its source material (Twilight for those who don’t know), but that doesn’t make it anti-feminist or the women who read it anti-feminist. I can’t say that Fifty Shades is anti-feminist because that isn’t for me or anyone else to decide. My feminism doesn’t exclude romance novels, erotica, or BDSM. Also trust me when I say I read far naughtier books than Fifty Shades could even begin to imagine.

My bottom line about Fifty Shades is that I found it annoying, boring, and just BAD: bad writing, bad romance, bad erotica, and bad BDSM. But I read all three books and don’t begrudge E.L. James her success.  I do begrudge her lack of research and her blatant disregard for even the most basic tenets of BDSM.  (I mean I begrudge Stephenie Meyer her obvious disdain for a long history of vampire literature and culture, so James is upholding her idol’s methodology there.) I swear at some point I’ll stop posting and talking about this damn series and its movies, but it’s too popular not to talk about.

Here’s the other thing, though, I am thankful that it is allowing people to have good conversations about sex, erotica, romance, BDSM, women’s sexual agency, and so much more. So alas, I can’t stop sharing these awesome articles yet and thinking about it.

And thus begins some links for some great reads about Fifty Shades, BDSM, and Feminism (some will be familiar if you follow me on social media or read my Marked, Mated, Owned Blog).

Fifty Shades of Meh by Mistress Trinity (I agree with Mistress Trinity about a lot of what she says and she’s really funny.  I don’t agree with her diminishment of romance novels whether Harlequin or otherwise).

Fucking with Feministing: BDSM Subbing and Feminism by Sesali B. This one is great.  Read it.  (Also I shared this one in another blog, but I’m collecting articles here)

“I like submissive sex but Fifty Shades is not about fun” by Sophie Morgan

Jenny [Trout] Reads 50 Shades This highlights what a fiction writer sees as issues with 50 Shades while essentially writing 50 Shades fan-fiction (for a contest). And here’s my favorite post by Jenny Trout about 50 Shades and BDSM: “Dear 50 Shades fan: BDSM doesn’t need or want your defense”

Fifty Shades of Feminism by Carey Purcell (This is more an analysis of the feminist issues arising in Fifty Shades)

If you have an article you found interesting about Fifty Shades or any of the other topics (BDSM and Feminism, etc.), feel free to post in the comments as I will probably add links too.  I can only image we will see more both about the books and about the film when it finally comes out. Here endeth the rant . . . for now.

Marked, Mated, Owned

First, I’m going to state that this isn’t a fully formed thought yet, but it’s been rattling around in my brain for a while.

I’ve been spending sometime thinking about the concept of being owned, marked, and mated that is prominent within romance plots.  This runs the gamut from “you’re mine” possessiveness to being “owned” in a 24/7 Master/Mistress and slave dynamic.  In paranormal romances, it generally manifest as being mated for life in a way that means one dies without the other or can never have sexual pleasure again without their mate.  In many, physical marking of one body by the other partner carries meaning for all who see it and is a necessary part of the ownership.

I have to acknowledge all of the problematic historical contexts and issues of racism and sexism bound within this idea of being “owned.”  We cannot get away from the ways in which women and people of color have been treated as property in the eyes of the law throughout time and across many cultures.  All of these cultural institutions from coverature to slavery have economic bases.

Even with that problematic historical context, the concept of being owned is popular–not simply in BDSM erotica as many might argue–but throughout many romance plots.  The popularity of BDSM erotic romances indicate a desire to at least on a fantasy level to engage in the dynamic of gifting one’s submission to another. I want to be clear I’m not talking about the false choices to enact BDSM relationship that are sometimes present in romance novels…yes, I’m looking at you, Fifty Shades of Grey. Why is this idea so compelling?  Why do these narratives thrive and entice?  I ask myself these questions frequently as I read and enjoy a lot of these novels.

I can’t help but wonder if the appeal is the intensity of attention and emotionality that goes with being marked, mated, or owned within the universes of the stories but also traditionally in committed and/or collared relationships within BDSM in real life. It evokes an incredibly strong sense of belonging. In these relationships real and fictional it is also a two-way street. The people involved are both owned by the other person–they are bonded together though this approach. They are bound up in each other.

And yet as a feminist scholar, I’m constantly asked: shouldn’t we reject wholesale the notion of submission and therefore BDSM? The answer to that is absolutely not, remembering that the motto here is safe, sane, and consensual. But also that for many in the lifestyle Dominance and submission are not choices but an aspect that is ingrained in the person. I would recommend the great column Fucking with Feministing and also work by Clarisse Thorn. If you are looking for a great introduction to BDSM, I’d recommend Jay Wiseman’s SM 101: A Realistic Introduction.

Ok back to my original question though: why are stories that centralize the “you’re mine” moment and the “I own you” moment so terribly and wonderfully compelling? And more compelling not just to those predisposed to BDSM but to a widespread audience?

Stories, theories, etc. on this theme are welcome here.

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.