Category Archives: review

woman hero

My favourite piece of dialogue from Avatar: the Last Airbender goes like this:

Sokka: I’m sorry. I treated you like a girl, when I should have treated you like a warrior.

Suki: I am a warrior. But I’m a girl, too.

The only female Avenger in the Avengers movie is the Black Widow – a tough assassin who can more than take care of herself. She’s deadly and clever. Her emotions are the sharpest weapon in her arsenal. In the movie we see her, twice, use her “feminine” weakness as a weapon against men who underrate and discount her for it. It allows her past barriers the more physically powerful superheroes couldn’t have crossed.

There’s the suggestion in the movie (and, I think, overt confirmation in the comics) that she lets her enemies rape her, because it brings them close enough to be killed. She lets people trespass on her – lets them all the way past her defences – and they die for it. Her martial arts skills are extraordinary, but her greatest threat lies in being a weak, defenceless woman.

In the movie, Loki, the master of getting inside other people’s heads, attacks her with the truth about her blood-drenched past. She allows him to think he’s gotten to her, and as he pushes the point venomously home, he inadvertently gives part of his plan away. All emotion drops away from the Widow and she calls through to the team to let them know what she’s found out.

The scene is excellent, because we’re viewing her as Loki does, so the moment when she drops the pretence comes as a shock and makes her seem entirely kick-ass. What I love more, though, is that later we see how her emotions were disturbed by everything Loki said. Her emotions aren’t just an act. She lets her enemies in close enough to actually hurt her, to get what she wants from them.

I like it because it’s great characterisation – but also because it means her “feminine” emotions aren’t just a weapon in her arsenal, they’re still an integral part of who she is. She is a kick-ass heroine – and she’s a woman.

Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises is another mix of “feminine” and kick-ass. The first time we see her she’s playing a downtrodden waitress to get access to Wayne Manor – a guise she throws off when Bruce catches her. Like the Widow, something falls from her and her whole physicality shifts into that of a confident, competent woman. She plays the victim, the seductress, the confidante. Any female face that will get her what she wants.

In this version of the character, Catwoman’s “feminine” qualities felt less cultivated than the Widow’s. Who she is as a woman and who she is as a fighter feed organically into each other. Her emotional relationship to the world hasn’t quite been warped into a weapon yet.

The only problem is: it puts her at risk of becoming Batman’s girlfriend.

Part of the problem, actually, is that she wasn’t Catwoman. The movie played her as a clever, tough woman making her way in the world and taking what she wants. Who occasionally dons slinky clothes while she’s working. In her article applauding Anne Hathaway’s performance Kessock writes: “Where in most of the previous iterations of their relationship there was a definitive difference between how Selina and Bruce interacted versus how Catwoman and Batman interacted, in The Dark Knight Rises the two meet and remain on an almost constant level of transparency throughout the film.”

There is no level between them, though, because Batman gets the armor of an alter-ego and a costume – but Catwoman doesn’t. She remains Selena, the woman, and vulnerable to him. She wears her hair out, not hidden inside the black caul that makes her impenetrable.

Cat put it like this: “Masculine” is a clearly defined space. Everything outside of it is “feminine”, and undefined. Catwoman inhabits that space. Her strength comes from being undefined. Batman will never be able to grasp her.

I find these two instances so interesting, because romance is concerned with strong women. Women we can look up to. Women who fight for their right to love and be powerful at the same time.

I mostly find myself writing the woman I would be if I had the guts. The kind of woman who shows affection by being bossy and high-handed. Who becomes vicious when the people she loves are threatened and whose strength other people know they can rely on.

I tend to write women who have in some way already triumphed over the things that stop women from acting out power. Women like the Black Widow and Catwoman who create their own path. Women who represent a goal, not a daily experience.

Feminist readings of the movie Brave have made me rethink the kinds of women I want to write.

The main article these thought are in reference to is ‘Just another princess movie’ – which is pretty long, and makes an obtuse point or two, but is mostly interesting reading. Loofbourow writes of the central mother-daughter relationship:

I wonder…whether any of the foregoing critics who’ve tolerantly yawned at Pixar’s latest effort could name a Disney princess besides Mulan whose mother is alive, let alone named.

And yet, in Brave, there is a live mother, named and all. And then a remarkably boring thing happens: this interloping mother who has no place in this ordinary, predictable princess story suddenly becomes central to it. She gets turned into something that keeps on getting misread as a monster, something her loving and well-meaning husband has dedicated his life to tracking down and killing for the sake of his own story, which is built around victory and revenge.

…If fairytale princesses are motherless, warrior princesses are even more so. They’re motherless because it’s difficult—still, in 2012—to imagine a woman warrior who enjoys a relationship of mutual love and respect with her family generally and her mother specifically.

This idea struck me so hard because it pointed out a lack in my own expectations that I hadn’t even noticed. It is new and difficult to imagine a warrior woman within a loving family. The Widow’s family were slaughtered, and she had to be brainwashed and genetically altered, to become what she is. Catwoman, whatever version of her back story you take, has left a life so awful behind her that she wants to wipe her slate clean and start again, alone.

Women who can come through that much adversity are heroic, tough, strong. It makes sense. But is that kind of adversity necessary to a woman being kick-ass?

Loofbourow goes on to describe the moment in the film when the three hopeless suitors stand up to compete for Merida’s hand – and all our expectations tell us a fourth man will arrive, who is unsuitable yet perfect. She writes:

Then came the twist: Merida, bound (literally) by the accoutrements of official princesshood, broke out of her constraining dress and represented herself in the contest for her hand! On the grounds that she is a first-born, and therefore eligible to compete, she shames her suitors by beating them handily! The crowd goes wild.

That last part’s a lie — there is a crowd in that scene, all gasping ecstatically as each silly prince takes his shot, but that crowd does not go wild when Merida wins. This proves not to be the triumphant moment of female empowerment Hollywood likes to deliver when it remembers that women are watching.

The crowd instead does something much more likely: it goes weird.

Things get awkward.

love this reading. It’s a revelation. In the real world, which allows a certain space for women to inhabit, stepping outside that space is an uncomfortable act. It’s brave, it’s gutsy, it’s necessary. It’s rarely purely triumphant. As Marcotte writes:

In this grim world of male dominance, the fantasy of a single individual changing everything with a grand gesture of empowerment starts to look silly indeed. A lesser film would have made Merida’s plot to out-man the men at archery the end of the story, but this more realistic portrayal shows how individual action can make the situation worse. Only when the female characters start to work together—to take the collective action so beloved by progressive organizers—does actual change occur.

I’ve been thinking recently about those bluestocking heroines we love so much in historical romance – inquisitive, probably socially awkward, less consumed with what’s in fashion than what’s in the latest Edinburgh Review.

Our heroes come to love them for their minds, their independence and their courage of conviction. To the modern mind they stand out from the crowd as the girl to root for. But I’ve been thinking more about how difficult it would be to love someone who refuses to fit nicely into The Way Things Are. Even the most broadminded, smitten hero would be confronted when his beloved’s behaviour proved not to be an eccentricity but the truth of who she is, in all situations.

The series I have in mind to write next is going to take place some time in the second half of the nineteenth century. I’m still narrowing it down as I do my research – but one element I’m sure of is that I want my women to each have a relationship to the suffragette movement. And I want their greatest difficulty in coming to terms with their personal beliefs to be each other. As well as their greatest strength, eventually.

Describing just how subversive the central mother-daughter relationship in Brave is, Marcotte writes:

Even more interesting, the filmmakers take a critical look at the way women function under male dominance. Many patriarchal societies leave the stressful job of forcing girls to comply with degrading social norms to women, especially mothers. Unlike other movies such as Real Women Have Curves, where sexism-enforcing mothers are painted as villains, Merida’s mother, Elinor, pushes her daughter to perform femininity out of love. As with mothers throughout history who have done everything from put young girls on diets to hold them down to have their clitorises removed at puberty, they are acting not out of hatred but out of a love that leads them to protect their daughters from the price of rebellion.

how Skyrim stole your people

About six months ago, all I heard about was Skyrim. Everyone was playing it. People were being made widows by it. No one could adequately explain what was so cracktastic about it – or even what it was.

About two months ago I bought it for special k. He started playing, full of high expectation – but two hours later his reaction was, “Meh.” Three hours later his reaction was, “I could play this game forever.”

For those of you who haven’t heard of it – or haven’t had the pleasure of trying to speak to your husband while he’s playing it – it’s a computer game set in a fantasy landscape. Think Lord of the Rings, with some other races thrown in, and a Hogwarts-type school for adults.

There are lots of reasons to enjoy playing it. The landscape is vast and spectacular and you can interact with every part of it. Seasons change. Days pass. Every village has its drama and you can follow characters about and get involved in their story lines. There is a surfeit of story lines. One day special k’s moving up the ranks of the thieves guild, the next he’s walking around inside a mad god’s head, trying to wake him up. It leaves you to make morally ambiguous choices without one outcome ever being prized over the other.

But this is why I think it’s so successful:

Special k was making his way down a huge river, in the middle of nowhere, trying to find his way out of a valley. He came to the river’s end, beneath outcrops of stone so huge you couldn’t even see the sky any more.

There were only rocks – and the huge, hairy corpse of a troll hitting against the rocks with the river’s movement. Beside it was a chest, still full.

There was no explanation attached – it had nothing to do with his mission, and didn’t send him on a new mission. It was just three small details that between them evoke a whole drama that had already played out, and was done.

It’s tip-of-the-iceberg storytelling at its best. It makes you feel like you’re in a complete world that doesn’t need you inside it to function. Other things are happening and have happened.

So next time your protagonist finds themselves in a river – remember to add a dead troll who hasn’t been robbed.

be bold, be uncompromising

I’ve just finished the second book in Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series, which means – and I should be getting used to this by now – my heart is broken. Actually, the sensation’s a little bit more like having someone slam the heel of their hand into your sternum hard enough to shatter it.

This quality of Dunnett that is heartbreak but feels less of the heart and more like shock comes from the fact that she’s 100% uncompromising. She’s such a hardass she doesn’t even give the pain anywhere to land.

Last weekend the Melbourne Romance Writers Guild was lucky enough to have Anne Gracie give us a workshop on how to get your book noticed in the slush pile. She talked about really books. You know, really funny, really dark, really passionate. It’s the only way to describe what makes an editor read a well-written manuscript with a plot and competent characterisation and go, “Meh.” Probably wasn’t really anything.

This is something Cat and I talk about a lot. Going fully into an idea and pushing it to its furthest, deepest end. Not being scared of the places your id wants to go. Actually, we’ve refined that one to the point where if one of us is blushing and reluctant and freaked out in response to an idea, we know we have to go there.

As Anne Gracie put it: Don’t flinch away. Be bold.

Then there’s Dunnett.

We’re told to put our characters in a tree then throw rocks at them, but while Dunnett’s characters are busy fending off the rocks she’s razing the land underneath them, so that they have no home to come back to when they find their way down.

She simply does not flinch away. And she pulls it off by having these uncompromising moments happen within a gripping, breathless, joyful, gambolling narrative. It’s not all bleak doom. But when those moments come – she gives no quarter.

I can’t give any specific examples, because they’d all be massive spoilers, but try on something like this:

Think of the one person who gives meaning to why your character does what they do. Who is the sun in your character’s universe? Now kill that person. Now take away every outlet for grief your character might have. Now surround them with people who will take them apart if they are vulnerable for a second. Now make your character clearly, deeply aware of the impact of this death. Now make every one of their best qualities useless in the face of it.

The woman has nerves of steel. There’s no way I can do, yet, what she does.

some history lessons from the masters

Last year I read Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, and it changed my life. Or my brain. Or something. It challenged me to think while I read. It screwed my emotions tight and then didn’t let me go and then screwed them tighter again.

Those six books, the most incredible series I’ve ever read, were Dunnett’s learning-to-write books. I’ve just started her eight-book series House of Niccolo, which are her I-am-a-master-craftswoman books.

Special k always knows when I’m reading from the gasps and laughter and “Oh my God, Oh my God!” that emanates from the couch.

But really, I want to talk about writing history.

In my last post on writing within a genre, I raised the question of how detailed a description I should give of the famous London gentleman’s club White’s. This sparked a fascinating conversation on twitter about how much detail is expected in romance, and whether this should be redressed.

And here’s one of the reasons I love twitter: Jo Bourne, who I cited in that post as the master of detail, was right there in the fray giving her thoughts on the subject. She made one statement that started fireworks in my brain:

You want to describe something at Almacks, you describe a moth on the window.

Just pause and soak in the brilliance of that statement. Instead of the particular wallpaper Almacks had that year – which would take hours of research, and come across as a researched detail, a historical detail – we have a moth on the window: a right-now, visceral detail that connects me as a modern reader directly to the historical character. It’s a common experience between us.

It achieves what I ultimately strive for in writing in a historical setting, which is to evoke characters who live in the modern world, staring down change and industry and the sense that global disaster waits just around the corner. It’s difficult to do, because when we write history it’s through a lens, looking backwards.

This is where Dunnett’s genius comes back into play. More than any other historical writer, she places her characters right at the front of the charge into the future. Her lawyers know their law and are still part-student, her doctors are clever with their potions and her city council parades are tacky affairs.

One of the ways I’ve noticed she manages this (and trying to figure out how Dunnett does anything is not simple) is that her details are completely unconscious of the modern reader. For example: There’s a short description of a woman sitting by a window, with a rug thrown over the sill. I suspect other writers would be tempted to explain the rug, because it’s a detail that’s alien and interesting to a modern reader. It would look something like, “As the windows had no glass pane, the window sill had a rug thrown over it to reduce the chill and as decoration.” In Dunnett’s world the rug is simply there, because that’s the way things are done. It is a complete world that doesn’t question or explain itself, just as I wouldn’t think, “I am sitting on the couch with my laptop because it is wireless and doesn’t require to be on a desk.” It just is.

I’ve been thinking lately about leeching – that old medical practice that seems barbarous, almost farcical to a modern mind. Of course you don’t take pints of blood from someone already weakened by illness.

In romance novels, I’ve noticed, you can tell whether a character’s supposed to be good or evil by their stance on leeching. No hero or heroine worth their salt would believe it to be a good idea.

I want to read a physician-hero who believes whole-heartedly it is the right thing to do. The mad-inventor heroine I’ll be writing a few books down the line is going to think the battery heralds a whole new world, with an unlimited power-source that will close the class divide.

I want people who are passionately, integrally of their time – visionaries who see not the future we know followed, but the future their world suggests to their imagination.

was that army there a second ago?

We watched Super 8 last night – the JJ Abrams alien movie that’s a 2-hour ode to the adventure movies of the 80s. Rag-tag band of boy-misfits? Check. One fat kid? Check. Mile-a-minute articulate banter from the mouths of babes? Check. One enormous personal problem mirrored by the world at large? Check.

For the most part, I really enjoyed this movie. It was set right at the beginning of the 80s (if I’ve put all the pop-culture references together right), and that in itself is interesting to unpack – why that era lends itself more to the boys-adventure movie than this one. But I’m not gonna go there, or we’ll be here all day.

There was a specific aspect of the storytelling I really loved, that I can’t wait to apply to my sci-fi adventure novel. You know, if I ever have time to write it.

Five boys and the town drunk’s daughter are making a zombie movie together on super 8 film. Their passion is taken very seriously – and their grown-up/childish conversation is wonderful. One boy’s mother was recently killed in a factory accident, and his grief weaves through the narrative, shaping his relationships and the choices his friends make.

And in the background, there’s an alien invasion.

The narrative is so firmly focussed on the kids and their movie that we only really see the alien story as it intersects with them. The first intersection is a massive, spectacular train crash in the middle of a scene they’re filming. So it’s not a small, background kind of thing. But it’s entirely filtered through the main event narrative, which is “Can we use any of that in the movie? Production value!” and “Is my camera completely wrecked now?”

The best part of this technique was that all that laborious army-invades-town-goes-to-war-with-alien stuff was done in a series of escalating background vignettes. First there are army trucks driving through town. Later, the army’s blocking off roads and searching houses – which is great production value, so the kids shoot a scene in front of it. Then the army are lighting fires and evacuating the town. Then they’re at full-out war.

Because the point of view of the narrative was so firmly with the kids this never felt farcical. It felt more like a true experience of war, than the absolute focus of a war movie. My German teacher in Berlin grew up in East Berlin. He would just shrug when we asked him about it, and say, “We were just living. That’s how our world was.”

It also means the characters are pulled naturally into the action as it pushes harder on their world. They’re each pulled in according to character, and by the time the kids are involved in full-out war tactics, the two narratives have pulled seamlessly together.

It was essentially an action movie, so the action plot was obviously important. However, doing it this way around meant it could also be a wonderful character movie, with a powerful, interesting narrative arc.

By the end of my sci-fi novel my protagonist has to find herself embroiled in civil war, whose implications are going to be felt throughout the universe. But I’ve never wanted the civil war itself to take up the bulk of the narrative, or to overshadow her personal quest to find out why her mother won’t wake up.

I had a sense that the civil war needed to boil in the background – that the reader needed enough markers that by the time it exploded it was surprising, shocking, exciting – but entirely believable. Even expected, in a sense.

Until watching this movie I hadn’t really seen an example of how I could do that. Now I think: Right. Make this a story about a girl trying to heal her mother, and let everything else happen in the background until it pushes so hard at her world she had to push back.

Snow White and the…no wait, never mind, just Snow White

I went to see Snow White and the Huntsman last night. I go to the movies a lot, and I always love it – but last night I felt like a kid again. Actually, I don’t remember how I felt going to the movies as a kid, so let me rephrase. I felt ambushed by the kind of childish delight that you forget you’re allowed to feel as an adult.

I can’t say what made me so particularly excited for this movie. I haven’t been looking forward to it for ages, or watching trailers and interviews. I had no great expectations. The only half-reason I can come up with is that I’ve been reading a lot of Loki fan fiction lately, and more than anything I want big, magical characters in big, magical landscapes.

The movie was…almost an amazing thing.

It felt like one of those camp adventure movies from the 80s, but with better effects. It’s like the anti-ironic, anti-hipster movie, without being unintelligent or more naive than it had to be. It took itself seriously – in the best possible way. Not seriously like, “see what we did there, audience, see how awesome we are?” – seriously like, “it is the most important thing of all time ever that she get her throne back.”

I like that kind of serious. We haven’t seen it in movies in such a long time. It’s the kind of serious that opens itself to ridicule. There’s something about earnest emotion that’s silly unless it’s pushed to its most extreme expression, and then it gets you despite yourself and becomes great.

I liked that, above all else, this was a story about a woman becoming queen. Snow White lets people and beasts sacrifice themselves on her behalf, because she’s a true queen at heart – she loves all her subjects and understands at the same time that it’s more important that she survives than they.

Which gave us a kick-ass heroine who yells back at trolls with her puny human lungs.

It also made the male characters…confusing.

Given that they stuck the huntsman’s name right there in the title, I think I can be forgiven for assuming he was going to be the romantic lead. And they set him up beautifully for it. He’s drunk and a widower, and thanks to Chris Hemsworth’s face we get the depth of his grief for the wife he’s lost. He dismisses Snow White as nothing more than a girl – and entirely misunderstands all her inner pain and her importance.

When he asks Snow White why she didn’t tell him who she was Snow White, in my favourite kind of heroine move, tells him to his face that she doesn’t trust him. She trusts in her own judgement and keeps her own counsel.

I enjoyed this romantic set-up a lot. You can see how she prods the tender wound of his dead wife, and how she challenges him to risk caring again.

But then her childhood friend William turns up.

At first I thought this was brilliance. Every narrative impulse says she should end up with the boy who was forced to leave her behind when they were children. I loved the idea that she’s grown up in the meantime, and the huntsman is the man for the woman she’s become, through adversity.

Give the huntsman’s fear that everything he cares about will leave him eventually, I could already taste the moment when William comes for Snow White and the huntsman is forced to watch her “leave” him.

Instead, William turns up and they all kinda become travelling buddies. It’s probably not coincidental that the traction all dropped out of the movie for me at this point.

I respect the fact that even these men who love her ultimately become pawns in her quest for the throne – while never belittling her true human feeling and loyalty for them. But the title of the film and the great romantic set-up demanded something else, which the narrative didn’t fulfil.

If anything, it should have been Snow White and the Queen. Those two have the most to gain and lose from each other, and the most complex relationship. The men felt secondary, and I wonder whether it was just too radical to have them well and truly shunted to the side, or whether the writer wasn’t entirely conscious of the narrative promise he made and broke.

evil is geographical

I recently rewatched Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece Spirited Away. It’s been about ten years since I first sat in a dark lounge room in Marrickville and was thoroughly perplexed by the film. The story is set within a strong Japanese context – it takes place in a bath house for the spirits after all, spirits that don’t exist in Western mythology – so that in itself is disorienting. The first time I watched it I didn’t understand the context of it at all, so the narrative started to fall apart.

But there’s a subtler reason as well. The storytelling is pervaded by what I can only assume is a Japanese sensibility – or else it’s the unique genius of Miyazaki. His baddies are particular for being undone – made harmless and absorbed into the greater family. He doesn’t tell stories about destroying evil. He tells stories about a person overcoming adversity and discovering their own strength.

The way he undoes evil – so that it’s a generous, gentle thing – is quite simple. None of his characters are evil at all. They are simply in entirely the wrong setting.

Take No Face, the unnameable spirit that Chihiro accidentally lets into the bathhouse. He  offers people (okay, so most of them aren’t people, but let’s try and keep this simple) exactly what they most desire in return for assuaging some hunger even he can’t name. Before long he starts stuffing bathhouse patrons into his mouth, and he grows larger, more deformed, more disgusting, more HUNGRY with each bite.

Instead of killing him, Chihiro leads him away from the bathhouse, into the quiet countryside. She understands that it’s the bathhouse that is bad for him; it makes him mad. He’s harmless, when he’s not overstimulated.

The genius of this is twofold.

1) The baddie is a fully realised character that remains consistent throughout the story. Because it’s not the character that changes to suit circumstance but the circumstance that affects the character, we can understand and believe in their turnabout. What a great way to create sympathy for an antagonist.

2) Chihiro shows a unique brand of courage and insight when she takes No Face away from the bathhouse. He’s an awful beast who will most likely eat her – but she shows compassion instead of fear. This is the turning point for her character – the moment she choses to be strong, and to have faith in herself – and I’d say it has just as much impact as if she’d killed the spirit. Actually, why am I being so careful? I’d say it makes her admirable and surprising, and has much more impact.

Miyazaki does this over and over again: The evil witch in Howl’s Moving Castle who becomes the Grannie to their rag-tag family; Nausicaa who makes the great, open-hearted sacrifice to stop the enraged Ohmu.

I’ve been reading some Loki fic, and rewatched Thor tonight. I wonder if context is part of what makes Loki such a great villain; he will never be in the right context. He doesn’t belong in Asgard, because he is their enemy-king’s son – and he doesn’t belong on Jotunheim, because he’s been raised to hate their kind, and hates their blood in his own veins.

It’s a good recipe for inner pain, I think, pulling a character out of context. And perhaps a great one to deny them any context where they can be at peace.

The Siren

I mentioned Tiffany Reisz’s The Siren a couple of weeks ago, as a book with a reputation for being electric. I’ve just finished reading it, and can’t quite make up my mind.

The premise: Nora Sutherlin is an erotica author and the New York underground’s most infamous Dominatrix. She wants to become a full-time, serious writer, and the only obstacle is her uptight English editor, Zach Easton. He won’t sign her contract until he sees the last word, and approves. But before you assume this is a romance – Zach’s mourning his broken marriage, and Nora’s torn between a sweet, innocent boy who represents all things wholesome, and the sadist who owned her for ten years.

It’s the first in a trilogy, so there are some endings, lots of heartbreak, and many threads left undone.

Nora is a powerhouse. She’s sweet, funny, kickass (heh), awful, sad, vivid, brutal, exciting. She’s a wonderful female character who is so drenched in experience she almost always has the upper hand. She holds her own. This, needless to say, is fairly rare and a joy to read.

The thing I liked least about the novel was her profession. I know writers are just one more subject for writers to write about – but an erotic novel about a writer of erotic novels? That was too meta for my tastes. (At least Reisz didn’t give Nora her own name as a pseudonym.)

Nora contemplates writing the climactic emotional scene just before the climactic emotional scene of the novel. She discusses, outright, the difference between sexual violence and emotional violence while she’s editing – giving us the framework for our reading of the novel. We read snippets of her novel and are invited to draw conclusions about Nora’s own life – because writers are known to write themselves into their books, and because she’s outright exploring one of her relationships by writing. That creates a mirror mirroring a mirror kind of effect. We are invited to take that reading of Nora’s book – so I couldn’t help wondering: What does this book say about Tiffany Reisz?

Like I said – too meta for my tastes.

Reisz wrote a guest post recently, titled ‘Seven reasons why you shouldn’t read The Siren’. It sounds like one of those humblebrag PR stunts, right? Like, “If you don’t like sexy, smart heroes, this isn’t the book for you!” I was impressed that she actually gave serious consideration to who her audience is, and isn’t. She says of BDSM:

The main character in The Original Sinners series is a woman named Nora Sutherlin—Mistress Nora if you’re one of us. That’s right, my female lead character is a Dominatrix. She’s also a Switch which means she not only tops (for money), she submits (for love and pleasure). If the thought of a woman with a riding crop or a man slapping his love during sex freaks you out, then move along. Nothing to see here.

I’m kinky and have done BDSM for years. There’s almost nothing that happens in THE SIREN that I haven’t done or seen or had done to me. BDSM is a game, a sexy game where everybody wins. But it’s a rough game and people do get hurt playing it. If that’s not your thing, then this is not the book for you.

I didn’t find a lot of the BDSM stuff hot, so I guess I fall into the category, “Not for you”.

Cat and I were talking recently about what works for us in a written sex scene. We figure – the more you can hone in on what works for you, the better you can write it. We both agreed that we like personal boundaries to be crossed – so that the demands of one lover require something deeply vulnerable, personal, impossible from the other.

But for me, that dynamic is immediately less interesting as soon as whips and bars and ropes are involved. That expression of submission and dominance has no emotional resonance for me – or maybe I don’t understand it emotionally. Given that the meta-narrative is exploring the transcendence of emotional pain over physical pain, the overt representation of physical pain broke the tension for me.

Probably I’m just not that into pain. It doesn’t equal anything emotionally for me, except for “ouch”.

The book discusses female desires – it puts forward the idea that it’s brave and wonderful for women to be able to submit to domination, and indulge the part of their sexuality that wants to be used and taken advantage of. This is a disturbing, complex idea, but one I was happy to engage with. Desire is no simple thing! What we should and what we want are often unhinged from each other.

However there was only one sex scene where I actually felt this dynamic – and it was the scene without any toys, just two people struggling for power and pleasure and breaking their pain apart.

In the ‘Seven reasons’ post, Reisz also acknowledges that there’s very little sex in the book, for an erotic novel. I suspect the sex is in the power plays between the characters.

Her characters have this larger-than-book feeling attached to them – like they’re very nearly iconic. That, I think, is an extraordinary feat. Even though they didn’t quite reach iconic for me, the fact that I can feel how close they are – that I would even judge them against that standard – is amazing.

Her characters reference that classic writing advice – show don’t tell – often and to good comic effect. But I felt that I didn’t see in the book just why Nora’s two men meant so much to her quite as often as I was told it. I didn’t feel the love and longing that would have pulled the narrative taught against the physical pain of the relationships. Her sadist, Soren, is the most dominant character in the book. He’s unrelenting, compassionate, vicious. But though I could see just what he was meant to be, though I understood his place in the narrative, I never felt as a reader that I’d been shown why she loved him so completely – or that his power was made absolute.

And here’s the counterpoint to the amazing female lead that is Nora: Soren can still dominate her. In the universe of this book, its god is still a man. And when Reisz lists the six reasons to read The Siren – every one of them is a man’s name.

This is turning into a long, long review/ramble, but I have one final point I want to touch on. In the ‘Seven reasons’ post, Reisz says she writes “literary erotica”. I found her book complex, compelling, tough and well-written. I don’t know if I would call it literary. It’s a tricky conversation to have, because it verges on the literary/genre divide, and that’s volatile ground! I certainly don’t think literary is better, but I think it’s a genre with its own set of identifiers. Reisz may not have “bulging trousers” in her book, but she does use some romance classics like “steely grey eyes” and quirking lips. (And that’s also not an indictment – my hero has midnight eyes, and he often quirks his lips!) An increasing number of romance novels are edging onto the literary/genre divide, so it’s worth getting critical, and watching that space, I think. It makes me happy that Reisz is placing herself there – but I suspect she’s still closer to genre than these erotica recommendations by Meanjin.

So after that whole ramble, and after ruminating on this book all night and morning, I still can’t really say what my reaction to it was. It didn’t shock me the way it did some readers (an excellent critique of the book – but be good to yourself and don’t read the spoilers!!), and I didn’t feel the full emotional impact that it offered. But it’s a complete world – and one that I want to spend more time in. I’ll be buying the next two books, without hesitation.

the shameless orgasm

This has been my year for scrutinising the way gender plays out in romance. Mostly that process consists of discovering how very little I know – which makes me think I’m somewhat on the right track; hopefully an always interesting track that might never lead to any kind of truth, but will lead me to new and exciting and challenging places my whole life long.

After reading good reviews for months of Ruthie Knox’s Ride With Me I finally bought it the other day and had read it by dinner. It’s a truly gorgeous read, about a man and woman who undertake the trans America cycle tour together. Her hero Tom is delicious (she made licking an inner tube to test for punctures a ridiculously hot thing to do) and her heroine Lexie was a breath of fresh air: uncynical and optimistic without those traits turning her into a bimbo any more than they would in a real person.

I questioned some of the sex in the book – for example when Lexie’s expression of her desire and acquiescence is, “I want for you to have me.”

The observation that, above all others, awoke my curiosity about gender: Women are taught that their pleasure comes from being the object that is desired, not the person who desires. Lexie’s expression of her desire in that line smacks of this is sexy because you want me. Her own desire felt curiously erased. And later when Tom puts himself at her mercy – tells her she can do anything she likes with him – she chooses to pleasure him. In a way, I get it – she’s indulging her own desire, and I certainly wouldn’t want to say that pleasuring a guy isn’t sexy! That would be dumb. But though Lexie realised the power she had, she didn’t feel powerful to me in that scene.

However.

There was one scene in the book that instantly makes this my number one feminist romance read. Lexie is all hot and bothered in her tent one afternoon, and she starts masturbating while thinking about Tom.

For those of you who don’t read romance: masturbation isn’t mentioned that often, and the masturbation scene is much rarer still. Off the top of my head I can think of The Leopard Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt and Delicious by Sherry Thomas.

And if you do get one, there is always – ALWAYS – some sense of shame involved. Whether it’s the fear of being found out, the fear that it’s somehow wrong despite the pleasure of it, or the belief (ah, romance heroes) that it’s “making do”, something to resort to if one’s heroine isn’t available. Some heroes don’t even allow themselves that much – I was so confused when I started reading romance that heroes were constantly off taking cold showers and baths. Surely they had a better, more effective option?

I understand with historical romance that it’s period appropriate to have shame attached to masturbation. But I don’t think that’s why it’s written that way. Give the amount of shameless sex historical heroines are having.

Lexie doesn’t feel one second of shame. She lets herself imagine Tom, she lets herself go to it, she revels in the delicious feeling of her body afterwards. She’s actively enjoying herself. She feels embarrassed when she thinks Tom might know what she was doing, but as a reader that came across as very different to shame.

And that’s why this book rates as a feminist read for me – because it engaged me in a discussion about my own sexuality in a way that surprised and delighted me. It challenged a shame that is so ingrained it’s invisible – and it gave me permission in a way that few face-to-face conversations ever could.

heartbreak remakes the heart into a different organ

I just finished reading Meredith Duran’s At Your Pleasure – and though the cover was as gorgeous as ever, it was the first book of hers I didn’t love.

The prologue and first chapter made me feel fizzy and dark with, well, pleasure. It was brimful of the kind of romantic angst that’s been missing in all these lovely, nuanced, thoughtful romances people have been writing. It begins:

Faster.

Adrian had abandoned the lathered horse a mile behind. He ran now, his feet no sooner striking the ground than lifting again, all his instincts and memories combining to aid him, directing him sure-footedly and safely over the darkened field where he had played as a boy and later loved her as a man.

Faster.

This woman can write. Which is why my overwhelming feeling is “puzzled”; I can’t entirely figure out why this book did the opposite of wowing me.

The most convincing reason I’ve been able to come up with is that the “childhood lovers reunite” trope is incredibly difficult to do – and Duran didn’t quite manage to pull it off.

The premise: Adrian and Nora were neighbours and lovers in their youth, but as one was Catholic and the other Protestant there was no way they could marry. Their families intervened and helped cause one hell of a misunderstanding between them – major heartbreak included. They spend six years at court pretending not to notice the other exists – until Nora’s husband dies, and Adrian turns up at her country estate to arrest her treasonous brother.

The problem was, the heartbreak had changed them both irrevocably, but I never felt they got to know each other now well enough for their love to be convincing. It seemed to all stem from that earlier love that was clearly juvenile and careless, if also true.

I wanted them to just be in a room together and talk. Then talk some more. In fact, the most riveting scene in the whole book is when Adrian practices sleep-depravation torture on Nora, trying to get answers from her. They’re both worn down by it until they can’t help but be honest – and it’s not the treason that comes out, but the truth about their past.

The thing about first love is this: To get over it – to truly accept that you’re not magically going to be allowed to have that person because you really really want them – you have to change. It’s the only option. You have to become a person who doesn’t need them.

You have to outgrow them.

So it’s a lovely daydream that you might one day be thrown into a situation with that person where you can’t avoid each other or help but sort your history out – but that’s all it is: a daydream. It feels wrong to me to see it happen, because all my own experience disproves it.

When you’ve had to go through that moving-on – if you’ve ever attempted to go back to a lover and discovered the heartbreak of no longer fitting – you don’t forget it.

I needed conversation. And more conversation. I needed them to experience how ill they fit, compared to the dream of how well they fit. I needed to watch them surprise each other – and when the past turned up at unexpected moments to hurt/delight them, I needed it to be a complex thing that didn’t fit easily into the present.

The fit was so wrong, for me, that I ended up shipping Nora and the young spoilt nobleman in Adrian’s company who was obviously going to end up doing something villainous. He at least, I thought, would be something new for her. Something she didn’t know she wanted for herself. And she would have shown him the gulf between who he was and the man he might be.

Plus, I find it hard to go past a sulky man in ostentatious clothing.