manifesta: (Psych Major)

About two months ago I mentioned Sirens Conference and the proposal I was working on for it. Turns out my proposal was accepted! The project is titled Tough Chick: Portrayals of Women's Strength and Sexuality in Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance and if it sounds familiar, that's because it's the MUF/PR series I promised a while back and never finished writing. It will be a multi-angle examination of how women's strength is mediated by their sexuality, with a strong emphasis on applied social cognitive theory (or society-author-text and text-reader-society relationships and how unconscious beliefs based on pervasive societal norms can be transmitted/perceived implicitly).

I'm not 100% certain yet if I'll be able to attend the conference (I'm currently working on funding), but I wanted to share the good news. Holly Black, Terri Windling, and Marie Brennan (who I quote a lot here) are the Guests of Honor this year, and I know that Tamora Pierce will also be attending. If anyone else is attending, let's get in touch!

manifesta: (Default)
A quick recap: I'm giving away 2 books for [community profile] three_weeks_for_dw (aka 3W4D). 2 winning participants will get to choose from a selection of books that I'll be analyzing over the course of the 3 weeks (though really now it's closer to 2 weeks... oops). Chosen books will range from romance to fantasy to YA. Here is the introductory post and giveaway rules, and all giveaway-related posts will be filed under the book giveaway and three weeks for dreamwidth tags.

Just when you think I've fallen off the face of the 'verse, I come rolling on back with another one. This time it's Skin Game by Ava Gray.


Genre: Paranormal romance
Release: November 2009

If I were to list, off the top of my head, all the reasons I like this book, they would be (in no particular order): the hero is not a rapist, asshat, or domineering to the point of controlling the heroine; the heroine is highly independent, self-confident, and assertive; her magical powers (which are minimal, but impressive) do not define her; and Kyra and Reyes' sharp, fiery banter. The sex scenes are hot, too, although what Kyra thinks is kinky makes me laugh just a little on the inside.

Kyra's a badass conwoman/thief on the run after pulling off a major heist. Reyes is an assassin sent to kill her and bring back the loot. Too bad Kyra's skill is the ability to temporarily steal other people's best skills and use it against them. This paranormal is low on the paranormal (paranormal-lite?), and I wonder if that might be why I like it so much. Not necessarily because I prefer less emphasis on the paranormal--as a fantasy reader, that's simply not true--but perhaps because, by focusing less on Kyra's magical powers, Ava Gray was able to write her as fully fleshed-out character whose identity did not revolve around her power.

As I see it, the current structure for paranormal romance and modern urban fantasy allows the heroine to rely solely on her magical powers and/or her boyfriend(s) to get her out of a jam. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, because the paranormal/urban aspects are what define the subgenres, but when magic or guns or sexuality or boytoys replace any real characterization of the heroine--her personality, her intelligence--the book loses impact. It's easy for PR/MUF heroines to become cardboard copies of each other: the gun or the mysterious powers become all there is that you need to know. Kyra's strong in the sense that she's not easily manipulated, she's cunning, and she gives back what she gets. Her ability to steal others' skills doesn't overwhelm or define her. She is also Reyes' equal, and him hers (which I think speaks to his humanity and strength, too).

Another refreshing tidbit was Reyes' lack of magical powers. He still fits the physically-strong-hero mold, but Kyra has the advantage; she's something he's never seen, never dealt with before. And whatever strength he has is negated when she steals it.

Make no mistake, Reyes does use his strength, and has flash impulses that portray him as potentially controlling and even dangerous--but he never acts on those impulses without Kyra's consent. He's manipulative; he has to be. But the danger, the real danger, stays out of the bedroom. It's a fine line and I feel like Gray walked it well.

The cover baffles me. It's clearly supposed to depict Reyes in all his half-naked glory, even though the story revolves around Kyra. Her motivations, her plotline, her actions are what propel the story forward. But at the same time, I'm somewhat grateful that it's not yet another half-naked, leather-wearing woman on the cover. And I suppose it coincides the title.

Which, by the way, I had to look up: "A term coined by renowned investor Warren Buffett referring to a situation in which high-ranking insiders use their own money to buy stock in the company they are running." I had quite the "OH!" moment, although it doesn't make sense until the end.

The ending... I don't know how I felt about the ending. It seemed rushed, and both characteristic and uncharacteristic of Kyra. Also, I'm annoyed that character ____ is going to be the hero of the next book, because he came off as such a creeper in Skin Game. It would take a lot of convincing to redeem him as a hero.

Overall, a good read. I love the concept of paranormal romance in theory, but it can be difficult to love in practice. PR books tend to follow the same pattern, a pattern I tend to take personal issue with. Skin Game shakes things up and even does a little dance in all its rebellious glory.


Want to win Skin Game? Hang around until May 13th, when I open a post for entries (and don't forget to read the rules!).

Sorry for the delay on responding/commenting. I hope everyone is having a good Three Weeks!
manifesta: (Dangerous)

It is an unfortunate truth that I live in a wind tunnel. For some reason, Bellingham likes to show its worst side in the morning hours when I need to walk to class. The wind tunnel is a direct line from my apartment to campus. With little to no cover. My jeans are still hanging out to dry from the crazy wind and rain.

However, an hour after my last class, it became perfectly sunny out. I live in a city with a cheeky sense of humor.

*****

Dry, warm, and armed with a caramel macchiato, I offer forth my analysis of The Raven Prince (with an introductory divergence into my reading habits).

I feel like I frequently purchase or choose to read books from specific subgenres (urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and historical romance in particular) in hopes of finding one that redeems the rest of the genre. Being a fantasy reader first and a romance reader second, urban fantasy and paranormal romance should be right up my alley. And in many ways, they are. Setting aside my dislike of repetitive tropes, I enjoy the fantasy aspects of most UF and PR. My main complaint tends to be the author's portrayal of women, using multiple boytoys or leather or guns to create the illusion of strength while still keeping them firmly tied down in the realm of acceptable femininity.  The most disturbing aspect of this is that the majority of these books are written by women for women.*

Historical romance is not only rife with strict gender roles and reduce women's worth to their sexuality, often times domestic violence is disguised as ecstacy, the laws of consent are bent until they're broken, and sexual assault is sugar-coated and justified. Given the fact that historically women are and have been oppressed by men and a system of male domination, I argue that it is inherent within any historical romance set prior to the 1970s that there will be rampant sexism.**

Which brings me back to every once in a while picking up another one of these types of books in hopes of finding something that isn't utterly appalling. I love history. To my chagrin, this is the first quarter that I've been able to take a history course since high school. And so it is a particularly awful quandry I've found myself in, wanting to immerse myself in a romance that takes place in a non-contemporary setting while also wanting the female characters to be written with respect.

There have been many women from history who we now describe as strong and empowered despite the times they lived in. These women persevered despite the oppression that surrounded them. Most didn't outright ignore their society's social norms but instead learned to adapt them. If they couldn't vote, they influenced their husbands'. If they could only wear skirts, they would wear trousers when in secret.  If they weren't allowed to fight in a war, hell, they disguised themselves as men and fought anyway.

It is because of this that I am convinced that historical romances can do better. I understand and respect the need for accuracy in historical romances, but accuracy is more than just correct fashions or dialogue--it is the little things, the details that differentiate a novel that depicts women in history as unknowing victims from a novel that illustrates women's strengths in the face of adversity.

Now. The Raven Prince

I picked it up on a whim over Christmas break and recently sat down to read it. It's a compelling, spicy tale of an impoverished widow who actively seeks a job (!!!) and becomes the resident Earl's secretary. Anna is snarky, inquisitive, and uncowed, even when dealing with Edward's temper. At one point, she questions the social construction of propriety:

"Had she ever met a prostitute? She thought not. such persons lived in a different world from poor country widows. A world that her community explicitly forbade from ever intersecting hers. She should do as John suggested and leave the poor woman. It was, after all, what everyone expected of her.

"John Coachman was offering his hand to help her up. Anna stared at the appendage. Had her life always been this constrained, her boundaries so narrow that at times it was like walking a tightrope? Was she nothing more than her position in society?

"No, she was not." (page 69)
Hoyt takes risks in writing The Raven Prince; Anna pushes more boundaries than I've ever seen in a historical. She toes the line between what is acceptable and what is not while still remaining, if somewhat precariously, on the side of societal respectability. She does not break so many rules that she becomes discredited as fringe or Other, but instead bends enough of them that she shines as a strong individual capable of asserting her opinion and taking care of herself.

This is what I mean when I say women in historical settings can and did adapt to their circumstances instead of merely conforming. This is what I mean when I say historical romances can do better.

There are flaws, of course. The constant reminder of how Anna is "feminine" and Edward "masculine" was overkill and unnecessary, explicit gender stereotyping. Edward himself was as decent a hero as I've seen, which the exception of an episode later in the book where he pinned her against a wall with his weight in a fit of rage. Believe it or not, this falls under the banner of domestic violence, and it is a prime example of how violence against women is frequently glorified as acceptable "because she deserved it" or passed off as sexual aggression in romance novels and our society at large. He didn't hurt her, but he damn well made sure she knew he could if he wanted to.

Additionally minor spoiler warning )

I also have a niggling feeling that Anna is only allowed to bend so many rules because she is a widow. I'd like to see a romance of a single, nonvirginal  single woman in a historical period that questions the structure of her society and then defies it. In many ways a single woman would have more to lose, and so I believe the risks taken would be greater and thus more compelling.

Overall The Raven Prince is my favorite historical romance that I've read by far, and I'm looking forward to the second book, The Leopard Prince.*** Hoyt did justice to Anna and wrote her as a strong, salient female character despite and within the confines of the era's social norms. 



*If history is any indication, romance novels tend to quite accurately reflect the reality of middle-class, heterosexual White women. Romances of the 50s-70s featured rape as the main form of initial intercourse between the hero and heroine; rape was used as a justification for the female character's sexual pleasure in a social climate where women were not supposed to want to have sex, let alone enjoy it. I would theorize that the sexualization of women in modern UF & PR is a reflection of an evolved but decidely insidious form of the same gender stereotypes from the 50s. Women are allowed to have sex and be sexual, but only if it takes place in the form of what men want; women are allowed to be strong, but only in ways men find acceptable. A woman is not allowed to stand strong on her own merit. This isn't to say, of course, that women shouldn't wear leather or pursue multiple sexual liasions--certainly. I am more concerned about the overall trend, and, no, I'm not convinced that the what-sells-is-replicated model is a good enough answer. I question why it sells.

**Not that there isn't sexism in contemporary romance, or any other genre for that matter. Our society was built on and perpetuates sexism, and until that system is revolutionized, even the most egalitarian novel will reflect that.

***The interspersion of the fairytale "The Raven Prince" was a charming detail, one I hope is repeated. 

manifesta: (Dangerous)


Catherynne M. Valente on the intersection of politics and books:

"My story is political.

"I can write from the heart--and seriously, where else would I be writing from? I'm such a commercial sellout with my popcorn novels and my stacks of cash that I have to dig down to my Grinchy literary heart with both hands and even then I might not find anything but hot sparkly vampires? I'm all heart, baby. But I can write from my ventricles and still be political, because I am a woman and a feminist and queer and there is no telling my story, no matter how cloaked in fiction, without bringing all my uncomfortable politics in. That is telling my story. It means I worry about colonial issues, it means I worry about portrayals of gay sex, it means I consider the race and gender balance of a cast of characters, it means I think long and hard before committing narrative. Because my politics are the politics of thinking long and hard about things."
This is the reason why I dedicate a large part of this journal to the intersectionality of books, publishing, and social justice. When I criticize specific romance novels for ignoring the laws of consent or modern urban fantasy for only portraying women as strong when they're overly sexualized or the lack of strong female characters and woman writers in epic fantasy or the recent trend in YA promoting domestic violence as socially-acceptable and makes caricatures out of young women in comparison to their male paranormal counterparts-- THIS is why. Because books are the dark mirror to our reality and they reflect the subtle truths of our thoughts and beliefs and attitudes that the privilege inherent to belonging in an advantaged group disguises.